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: 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: 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: 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

Reviews: Emotional time travel in Synchronic

Synchronic,
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead,
Starring Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides, Katie Aselton

The clock just keeps ticking down, and the lower that number gets, you realise how fucking amazing now is. The present is a miracle, bro.”

Steve Denube (Mackie) and Dennis Dannelly (Dornan) are best friends, who also work together as paramedics on the night shift in New Orleans. As with ambulance crews in any city, they’ve seen pretty much everything in their time, but Steve starts to become intrigued by a number of very unusual injuries and deaths they are called to, in which the only link he can see is that a new synthetic street drug called Synchronic was taken by those involved. The NOPD don’t appear to be following this as a lead however, as the drug itself is not the cause of injury or death. At least not directly – we soon learn that Synchronic has an unplanned for side-effect, regarding a person’s place in the space-time continuum…

The two men, despite being lifelong friends, are, in the best traditions of cinematic buddy bromances, quite different in many ways. Dennis has long since settled down, has a wife, a now almost adult daughter and a newly arrived baby. Steve, in contrast, is still single, living the bachelor life with a different woman on different nights but no actual lasting relationships (save with his dog). We see flashbacks to a traumatic scene in his life, terrible rains and flooding, causing the coffins to break loose from the above-ground cemeteries New Orleans is so famous for – it doesn’t take much to guess this is the aftermath of the terrible damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina on the Big Easy, a wound on both the city and on Steve’s emotional state.

(Minor potential spoiler warnings ahead). Steve starts to re-evaluate his freewheeling lifestyle, not just because he is now approaching forty, but because two major events happen: first Dennis’s daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) goes missing (in fact she had been at a party their ambulance was called out to in order to deal with drug overdoses), then shortly after his headaches are diagnosed not as regular hangovers from his lifestyle, but a tumour in his pineal gland. Inoperable. He may have years but more likely only months.

He also discovers that his pineal gland is still in the same state of flux of a teenager, not an adult, and a chance encounter with the chemist who designed Synchronic lets him know that the drug’s time-shifting ability only works on younger brains. Convinced that the missing Brianna took Synchronic and that the reason they cannot find her is because it has taken her into the past, where she has become trapped, Steve decides, without telling anyone, to experiment with the drug. He tries taking it but documents his experiences with a video camera; he does seem to be transported for a few moments to an earlier time in the same location. Is this real or only in his perception as the drug influences him? If it is real, how can he fine-tune it to find where the drug could have transported Brianna? Even if he can do this, can he bring her back?

There is something endlessly fascinating about time-travel stories; our experience of the passing of the years is both objective (we know it is passing, we can measure it, document it) but also simultaneously subjective (was that really ten years ago? How could it be?), and although we can remember the past and imagine the future, we’re forever trapped within the flow of the river of time, unable to change courses. Synchronic offers up something a little different on the time-travel sub-genre, and it is an intriguing notion, that a drug could break us even momentarily from the normal flow.

The film is beautifully shot – many of the scenes are night shots of Steve and Dennis on their paramedic duties through the street of New Orleans, and these look superb on the screen. The film makes good use of flashbacks, which dovetail nicely into the fractured chronology as the Synchronic starts to affect Steve’s perception of time’s flow. The fact it moves him only in time but not place is also interesting, and the movie nods to the fact that some periods in the Deep South are not ones in which it is a nice place to be an African-American, a nice nod to America’s long-running race problems without being too heavy handed.

The relationships between Steve and Dennis are well-handled too – Mackie and Dornan produce terrific performances, these feel like two old buddies who have grown up together through all the years have laid upon them, and yet they stick together, trying to look out for one another. Steve doesn’t want to tell his best friend about his illness while he is searching for his missing daughter, his friend of course is angry because he wants to support him. And Steve’s quest to try to help find Brianna in the only way he can, to do something with the time he has left, something important, feels natural, in that way that life-changing moments such as serious illness or the loss of someone can be, to make you re-evaluate what is important in life (hence his quote at the start of this review).

The time-travel aspect is fascinating, especially the way it meshes with Steve’s personal flashbacks, and some aspects of time travel are well-handled (a wordless encounter with an Ice Age human ancestor showing a human link across millennia, an observation that nostalgia is nonsense and the past was often a cruel place for people to live). Ultimately, however, Synchronic is more about the importance of the people in our lives, about emotions, family and love, the vital beauty of the moments of the here and now we are given. A fascinating, emotionally rewarding slice of Indy Science Fiction film.

Synchronic is released by Signature Entertainment on digital platforms from March 29th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from April 5th.

This review was originally penned for the Live For Films site.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kqh4GSFRZU&ab_channel=SignatureEntertainment

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

Reviews: A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians,

H.G. Parry,

Orbit,

Paperback, 534 pages

Kiwi author H.G Parry was new to me when I read her utterly delightful The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep at the start of this year, in which a young literary academic prodigy has the unusual gift of bringing characters forth from what he is reading, if he gets too lost in the book (seriously, it was a book-lover’s delight, chock full of references to other works and with a wonderful sense of fun, it went down well with my SF Book Group). Orbit planned to release a second book by Parry within just a few months, so I was now primed and looking forward to this one, and while I loved her first novel, I was also pleased to see this next one was taking a very different subject matter and approach, being ostensibly Alternative History.

I must confess I have a real soft-spot for alt-history tales, doubtless driven by my interest in history; anyone who has read a lot of history books is almost certainly aware how many world-changing events could easily have happened differently, and this offers fertile ground for storytellers, from Ward Moore’s classic Bring the Jubilee to the massive and engrossing works of Neal Stephenson. In this instance Parry is focused on the Age of Enlightenment, with the main action taking place in three locations: France as the Revolution approaches and then happens, the Haitian slave rebellion in the Caribbean, and in Britain, the work of Wilberforce and Pitt to create an Abolition bill to outlaw the slave trade.

The book is littered with many actual historical events and figures, from the aforementioned Pitt and Wilberforce to Robespierre in France and Toussaint Louverture in what would become Haiti, but while it follows much of our world’s established history, this is a version of our world in which magic is real. Real, but restrained, however, especially for the Commoners, who are forbidden to use any inherited powers, while the aristocracy has much more leeway in using their gifts to enhance their already privileged lifestyle and opportunities. The threat and promise of power through magical ability – or the restraint of that power – links the events in all three settings, as does the issue of immorality of slavery.

As the monarchy of France falls to Revolution – with a call for “free magic and liberty” replacing the more familiar “liberty, fraternity and equality” – and the Haitian slave rebellion blooms, the Revolutionaries are torn, as the slaves are demanding the same rights and freedoms as they do – but the French coffers need the money coming from that lucrative sugar trade which relied on back-breaking slave labour (the clash between morality and money, a sadly eternal quandary throughout our history, imagined or actual). Magic is also used to bind the slaves in this world – while the brutal treatment of our own shameful slave-owning history is present here, a magical elixir is also used, which effectively imprisons slaves with their own body and will compliant to their masters, while leaving their mind perfectly aware of what is being done to them but unable to react, to even cry out if they want to, another horror on top of horror.

Morality and the struggle to maintain one’s principles is very much at the core of this story – as well as struggling with the notions of equal freedom for the Caribbean slave, the French Revolutionaries, notably Robespierre (whose magical power is Mesmerism, very useful in the debating chamber) who has strong principles, which he increasingly bends then breaks, in the name of securing Liberty (the ends justify the means, even if it means The Terror). In Britain too the fight to end the slave trade is riven by those who insist it is fine in principle but in practice will bankrupt the nation, just as it needs every resource to combat the French in warfare, while in Haiti the slave rebellion leaders debate the merits of trying to be merciful if they do secure a free society on the island, rather than giving in to the (no doubt justified) revenge on those who inflicted years of cruelty upon them.

Into this already engrossing stew of events and philosophical musings there are hints of a wider magical history underpinning this era, including a centuries-ago war against vampire lords, which lead to a bloody campaign to free Europe of dark magics, a pact still enforced by the Knights Templar, even in Protestant countries like Britain. And behind all these world-wide events is a shadow-figure, glimpsed mostly in dreams by Robespierre, Toussaint Louverture and Pitt, who seems to often be offering help and advice, but you just know that any bargain made with this mysterious figure will be a Faustian pact.

This is a richly-detailed alt-history, and arriving with wonderful coincidence as the Black Lives Matter movement has triggered far more serious reconsideration of the slave-owning era in the history of many countries, and its legacy (indeed one of Pitt’s fellow politicians here is Dundas, who delays the attempts to end the slave trade – as I was reading this we are debating in my home-town of Edinburgh how to mark his statue, atop a huge column, to address his shameful legacy, just as memorials to others from that era are also being re-evaluated). You can imagine how this coincidental timing of events and publication added to reading of this book, and acted as a reminder, if any were needed, that history is never just the study of the past (even in imaginary, alt-history), because the present is shaped by that history; it isn’t really past, it’s still with us, affecting all aspects of our civilisation in ways we need to study and comprehend if we are to learn from those events and grow beyond them to a better future.

A beautifully-written tale, which takes in the personal – the close friendship of Pitt and Wilberforce for instance – as much as it does the large-scale, global picture of events, with a strong examination of morality and how power corrupts it, be it money, legislative power or magical abilities, with some lovely turns of phrase (Parry’s descriptions of the walls of the House of Commons reacting musically to a well-written speech is quite wonderful and evocative of the power of well-chosen words, delivered with conviction). I look forward to the next volume.

On a side note: if you enjoy history and are interested in this period, Mike Duncan’s excellent Revolutions podcast series has covered both the French and the Haitian revolutions used in this book in great (but very accessible) details

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

Cymera Talks

The first weekend in June should have seen the second Cymera festival of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature taking place in the Pleasance in Edinburgh. We had the first one last year and as well as attending many events all weekend (and taking lots of photos, as usual), I also participated, chairing a multi-author discussion on stage.

Of course, like pretty much all festivals we had to cancel due to the pandemic. A little while into the Lockdown I was asked by organiser Ann if I would still be up for chairing if some online events could be organised, and of course I said yes. And so did pretty much all the authors, so the virtual version of Cymera that took place over the weekend just gone wasn’t just a few online chats, it was an entire programme running the three days of the original festival plan with author events (live and some pre-recorded), writing workshops and more, quite an amazing feat to pull off, effectively an entire festival online and at such short notice.

Cymera has been busy adding some of the live and pre-recorded events onto its YouTube channel now, which you can enjoy for free (although if you enjoy them and you can afford it, even a small donation would be helpful, the festival, despite not having the physical ticket sales, is still paying authors a fee for their time, so help is appreciated – you can donate here).

The two events I had the pleasure of chairing are online now: my talk with Arthur C Clarke Award winners Anne Charnock about Bridge 108 and Adrian Tchaikovsky about Firewalkers, both books doing what the best SF always does, using the future as a filter to examine the concerns of our own troubled times, such as environmental issues, global inequality and more. You can see it here:

And on the Sunday I was delighted to talk on a 2000 AD panel with Maura McHugh, Michael Carroll and Joseph Elliott-Coleman, discussing their novellas in the Judges series for 2000 AD (reviewed here), dealing with the pre-history of the iconic Judge Dredd series in the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. Set decades before Dredd, much closer to our own time, it effectively brings the world of the Judges – special lawkeepers with the power of instant justice on the streets, trained to be incorruptible, impartial – almost into our own world.

This isn’t the great Mega City of the far future but still America, an America crumbling socially, politically and economically, hence the Judges experiment. The three stories have a fascinating mix of murky morality, with those on each side all having both merits and flaws, and the tales, especially Elliott-Coleman’s “Patriots” had some terrifying resonances to recent events in the US, which we also discussed in relation to the books:

Reviews: Judges Omnibus Volume 2

Judges Omnibus Volume 2,
Michael Carroll, Maura McHugh, Joseph Elliott-Coleman
Rebellion/2000 AD

This second volume collects three novellas by 2000 AD regular Mike Carroll, joined by Maura McHugh and Joseph Elliot-Coleman. Mike, I am sure, most readers on DTT will be more than familiar with, Maura – among her many other writings from short stories to collections to scripts for stage, screen and even computer gaming – will be known to DTT readers for some of her very fine Irish comics work such as Jennifer Wilde (illustrated by Stephen Downey), while Joseph’s writing came to the attention of Mike (series editor) via his contribution to Not So Stories, which featured writers of colour from round the globe keeping the wonder of Kipling’s tales but re-imagining them without the period imperialist, colonialist, racist elements.

I must confess, I am not normally that keen on prose tales based on comics. I don’t know why, perhaps my prose and my comics reading sections of my brain like them in their own compartments, but whatever the reason, it isn’t my normal choice, so imagine my delight in finding that these weren’t just interesting tales, but extremely compelling stories, offering glimpses into some of the blank spaces in the history of Judge Dredd, and, like many a Dredd tale, also commenting on current social and political problems.

In fact, as I was reading the three novellas in this collection in preparation for chairing and event with the authors at the Edinburgh-based Cymera festival of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature (like many such events the festival was cancelled, but the amazing team then re-created it online; it has been recorded so hopefully the 2000 AD panel will be on YouTube in the near future), I found that in a disturbing coincidence of timing that some of the elements from all three stories, not least Elliot-Coleman’s “Patriots” tale, were terrifyingly close to the dreadful events we have seen unfolding in the US. So much so that several times as I sat reading them, I had to pause. I’ve been reading Dredd since the beginning, I’ve seen some excellent socio-political commentary woven into the series (not to mention its rich seam of dark satire), but this was something else…

For those not familiar with the series, Judges is inspired by the now-classic thirtieth anniversary Dredd: Origins by the Dreddfather, John Wagner and the much-missed Carlos Ezquerra, which saw flashbacks to the early days of the Judge system. With a number of decades to explore and huge blank spaces to fill in (while keeping true to over forty years of established Dredd history), the Judges series is going decade by decade, with a few tales from each, not exhaustively covering the pre-history year by year, more like spotlights on certain moments, and will continue on taking us closer to the time we know from the original years of Dredd.

Opening the collection is Mike Carroll’s “Golgotha”. This is long before Dredd and the Mega Cities, this is still America, albeit an America that is crumbling and failing socially, economically and politically, it’s only a short few years from our own time, making it very familiar to us, and it is fascinating to see Judges not in Mega City One, but patrolling Main Street in small US towns. Under Fargo the Judge system is expanding, slowly replacing the traditional police force and legal system, but with both having to work in parallel for some time. For those who remember the earliest Dredds this will bring back memories – those stories showed police working under the Judges in the Big Meg, something that slowly faded away from the comics.

Here we see Quon, the very last officer to graduate from an American police academy. Quon has always wanted to be a police officer, and is a straight arrow, very by the books, disgusted at laziness and corruption in the Force, but also filled with loathing for the the incoming Judge system – she believes in due process, civilian policing, a court of peers at trial, not in giving any one person the powers of instant justice and sentencing. Ironically her attitude and unbending adherence to the law make her prime material to train as a Judge, but she isn’t interested, while those same qualities mean her fellow officers, also bitter at the new Judges, despise her too, but she’s going to have to find a way to work with them for an investigation.

In Psyche, McHugh expands on her previous Judge Anderson work for the Dredd Megazine, taking us back to the very first use of Psi-Judges – here called “Psykes”, a covert team of Judges who have been studied and trained with civilian scientists who have long believed there were those with psionic abilities and that if there were, some would be dangerous and therefore the new Judge system would need its own equivalent to protect citizens from harmful Psis. Fargo agrees and sanctions more training and the formation of a black-ops unit, off the books, something nobody will know about if it doesn’t work.

It’s a cleverly-structured two-timeline narrative: in what would be present-day Mega City One (i.e. the same era we see in the weekly comics) Psi-Judge Pam Reed, a pre-cog, literally unearths part of history, exploring old buildings below a collapsed City-block, which happens to contain the original offices of the Psyke research team. Reed’s abilities in this location somehow allow her mind to astrally travel to that era and communicate with Judge Wise, one of the first Psis. As well as being a gripping story (with inferences that if Reed in the future cannot help the nascent Psis in her past, her future may never happen), McHugh also deftly explores the outsider nature of the Psis. Even in Dredd’s time most other Judges aren’t keen on Psi-Division, seeing them as odd, peculiar – Judges are trained to stand apart, but Psis can’t help but feel what citizens feel and this makes them more empathic and human. This outsider status goes doubly here in the early days when most don’t even believe such powers are real, and there is an interesting question mark over freedom of choice: as with the Psi Corps in Babylon 5, there’s little freedom for a Psi, if they are detected they are expected to serve and that’s it.

In “Patriots”, Elliot-Coleman has Judges on the mean streets of New York. This is a New York that has more in common with the dirty, crime-ridden NYC of the 1970s than today, and draws on many influences from that era, from films like The French Connection, Taxi Driver et al, while also rather satisfyingly mixing in elements of The Manchurian Candidate and Carpenter’s classic cops-under-siege Assault on Precinct 13. Right-wing patriots, who see themselves as heirs to the original American Revolution are trying to defy the advance of the Judges system, seeing it as a surrender of liberty and democracy. And they may well be right, but the problem is like many fanatics they are willing to kill many innocents – for their own good, of course – for their cause, and while they call out the banner of liberty and freedom they also won’t accept anyone differing from their opinion.

Judges, even early era Judges like these, are just as stubborn and determined in the application of the Law, of course, so we have two unyielding paradigms clashing violently for the soul of the nation. And in “Patriots”, and indeed in “Psyche” and “Golgotha” too, we see both sides of the pro and anti-Judge argument and resistance, and the thing is, both sides have some moral validity, this is a moral quagmire, not a straight black and white morality, and that makes it far more thought-provoking for the reader (and also more dramatically satisfying too). For all their violent methods and their disregard for the safety of their fellow citizens (the ones they proclaim they are protecting), they do have some grounds, the Judges do mark a huge erosion of traditional liberty and freedom. But the Judges have been created because the existing system has failed – they have been trained to be impartial upholders of law to all, unlike courts and politicians, they will not discriminate on grounds of the colour of someone’s skin, their social class, wealth. The crumbling system badly needs them to try and stabilise it. But at what cost?

Each of these stories has been published as a novella on its own, but I read it in the Judges Volume 2 Omnibus, which collects all three, and I’d recommend tackling them that way if you can. While all three shine a light on a different aspect of pre-Dredd history and are their own beasts, they also, like the various comics series over the years, work very well together, feeling separate but also connected, part of a greater whole. For the long-term Dreddheads this is a compelling must-read, a very welcome exploration of how the Judge system first began in America and how it starts, decade by decade to show how it leads up to the post Atomic War world of the Mega Cities we know in 2000 AD, all layered with some complex morality, multiple mirrors to our own very troubled times and a nicely diverse cast of characters. I look forward to more in the series.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

Reviews: The Man With X-Ray Eyes

The Man With X-Ray Eyes,
Directed by Roger Corman,
Starring Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J Stone, John Hoyt, Don Rickles

Here’s an under-rated gem from the stable of the legendary Roger Corman, 1963’s The Man With X-Ray Eyes (aka X: the Man With X-Ray Eyes). I remember reading about this in some movie monster books when I was a kid, and seeing it late night on TV in my teens, but it rarely aired as often as the old Hammer or Universal movies did, and I haven’t seen it in decades. So I am delighted that Second Sight have brought it back, and indeed given it the deluxe treatment: a limited edition Blu-Ray set with a newly restored print, plenty of extras (including interviews with Roger Corman and Joe Dante), poster, a book by Jon Towlson and Allan Bryce, and boasting excellent new cover artwork by the always-brilliant Graham Humphreys.

For those who haven’t seen this very unusual slice of 60s Sci-fi/horror, made between shooting some of those iconic Edgar Allan Poe films Corman is still, rightly, highly regarded for, it follows Doctor James Xavier (Ray Milland), a physician who is working on an experimental mixture which he administers as eye droplets, with the goal of allowing human sight to be expanded. As he explains to his ophthalmologist friend Doctor Sam Bran (Harold J. Stone), in the last few decades humans have discovered a wide electro-magnetic spectrum – ultraviolet, X-rays and more – that their natural senses cannot see. What if they could, with their own eyes, not with imprecise instruments? Imagine how this would help a medical doctor – no fuzzy X-Ray plates, they can literally see through flesh and bone to diagnose an illness, formulate the correct treatment.

While his friends caution him for pushing too far, too quickly, Xavier is eager to test his work, despite the death of a test animal. His reasoning is that the animal couldn’t comprehend what its new visual senses showed it, but he, as a rational, intelligent being, can learn to do so. He is, well, partially correct – at least at first. He finds his new vision increasing, going from being able to read a letter through another sheet of paper covering it, to being able to see into a patient being readied for surgery, a young woman, and he can see what is wrong – a different diagnosis from the attending surgeon, leading to a showdown between the pair as Xavier uses his new powers to save her life.

It’s at this point that things start to spiral out of control – the medical authorities will not accept his abilities, and therefore not believe them as his excuse for his behaviour in the operating theatre (despite saving the patient). His career hanging in the balance, his research funding cut, struggling to control his new abilities, a terrible accident leads to him having to flee to avoid arrest. Desperate for somewhere to hide and continue his research (and a way to reverse the new visual abilities too), Xavier takes refuge, of all places, in a carnival sideshow, posing as a stage magician who can read minds and tell secrets (it’s here he comes into contact with the nasty, selfish carnival barker Crane, played by Don Rickles, in a rare straight, dramatic role), before also trying to use his new abilities to win in Vegas, to get sufficient funds to get his research going once more.

It remains one of the more unusual horror classics of that era – amazingly shot in something like three weeks for a budget of only $300, 000 (tiny, but huge by the normal American International Pictures’ budget standards!). Naturally, given the era it was made in, the special effects are not exactly dazzling – to be fair, this isn’t just because of budget restrictions, the technology to show what they really wanted was simply not there at the time. Despite this the effects team and art director still, in my opinion, managed to give the viewer the feeling of Xavier’s increasing dislocation, as his powers grow, as he can see more and further.

The visual processing in the human brain is enormously complex (as AI programmers have found in trying to replicate it with technology), and also relies on years of us learning to interpret the visuals coming into our brain into something coherent. While Xavier can cope with the titular X-Ray vision, as he begins to see more, things he didn’t even know existed, seeing into matter and the universe itself, he’s slowly losing his mind, and those visual effects, for all their early crudeness, do a good job of conveying this, in conjunction with the excellent Milland’s acting. (it isn’t all drama and doom though, there is some fun to be had, such as Xavier realising he can see through everyone’s clothes at a party, a nod to the old X-Ray specs gimmicks sold in the back pages of comics).

Adding much to this story is the fact that this isn’t the formulaic Mad Scientist story. Yes, Xavier may have a little arrogance of the highly skilled doctor who believes he knows better than others, but he’s not a bad man, and risking his career to save the young woman using his powers shows that he is a decent man. He genuinely wants to use these new abilities to advance medicine, to save more lives, to expand scientific knowledge, and that’s a large part of what really makes this such a compelling film, because he’s not a madman trying to take over the world, he’s a pioneer, with his heart in the right place, who succumbs eventually to the new, uncharted discoveries he has made, like the Curies and other scientists before him.

“What did he see?” asks his love interest, Doctor Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis) of the unfortunate test monkey who proves the formula works, but dies afterwards. Those words haunt the film, as the abilities Xavier has gained become cumulative, taking him far beyond even the broadest speculations in science, into new realities he simply cannot cope with. He can’t even escape by closing his eyes now, because he can see right through the lids. This well-intentioned work leading to disaster lends the story a deeper, emotional, tragic aspect that compels as strongly as the idea of the new discovery does. An absolute classic of Sci-fi and Horror.

The many extras in this special edition are also great, not least the iconic Corman talking about the making of the film, how he came up with the rough idea, originally thinking he knew some of his musician friends on the jazz scene dallied in drugs, and perhaps he should make the central character a musician who overdoses, before realising he hated that idea, and going back to the notion of having a scientist, someone who was pushing into new frontiers without realising what the consequences would be. Corman also talks about his desire to remake the film, with modern effects able to realise the remarkable new visual abilities of Xavier in any way they want. Personally while the story is strong enough to stand a remake, and the modern visuals would indeed be better, as I said, it isn’t the visuals which really make this film so powerful, it’s the central idea and especially Milland’s performance that do so.

The Man With X-Ray Eyes will be available from Second Sight on limited edition Blu-Ray from May 4th.