Absolute Nightmare

Reign of the Nightmare Prince cover

There’s a long tradition among Western writers of lionising ancient ways of life, as if there’s something better about giving up all the trappings of modernity and wallowing about in the pain and dirt. The myth of the noble savage is responsible for such idiotic beliefs as the power of alternative medicine and the idea that anything that refutes the scientific process is necessarily true. Worst of all, it gave us Avatar – a movie that makes Smurfs 3D look like Citizen Kane.

Reign of the Nightmare Prince is just like Avatar – noble savages in tune with nature are attacked by evil technologists who want to take their resources – but differs in one respect; you care what happens. The story’s told from the point of view of one of the alien natives who’s returning from their version of Walkabout to find out monsters are killing off the rest of his people, and follows his attempts to muster a defence in the face of impossible odds.

Although it’s an entertaining and fun read, it’s not explained why the aboriginal population of an alien planet feels so human and a lot of the non-native attackers are almost as one-dimensional as Jake “I see you” Sully. Also, the end was so abrupt it felt like a sixth grader who’s suddenly reached the word limit on an English essay but don’t let that put you off.

If you’ve got some downtime while you’re committing genocide on an alien planet you could do worse than Mike Phillips’ début.

Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat

I don’t like procedurals. Put CSI Whatever on the TV, I’ll yawn. The Mentalist or Lie to Me, I’ll yell at the screen like a programmer watching The Net. Even Agatha Christie winds me up – I’m sure Miss Marple was responsible for a swathe of death in 1920s England. It takes a lot to make me want to pay any attention to something that even smells of murder mystery.

Pet Noir is a collection of short stories by Pati Nagle, all based around the adventures of a genetically modified tabby cat working as a detective on a space station, and it sounded like it could be different. Unfortunately not. Sure, the trappings of science fiction are there – animal uplift, a space station, cloning – but if you scratch the surface all that’s left is a set of fairly standard cop stories.

The cat in question feels no more than a human pretending to be a cat and the other animals turn out to be mere ciphers, the universe is barely sketched out and the much more interesting story of how human (and animal) society has coped with the massive changes brought about by space travel, new sentient species, and future technologies has been completely ignored.

This time, the future’s so bright, it feels like 1980.

Cargo Cult Crackberry

Cargo Cults emerged on New Guinea during World War II after the indigenous populations saw planes landing to deliver food and other materials. Later, to bring back the aeroplanes and hence their cargo, the islanders built runways on the beaches, a hut to serve as a traffic control, and even lit small fires for landing lights. Obviously, this didn’t work.

Unfortunately, for Samsung, their new business style phone seems to suffer from Cargo Cult Blackberry disease. On the outside, it looks like a RIM device – it’s got a tiny screen, a keyboard, and can fit in the palm – and gives off the appearance of that holy talisman of the pin-striped priesthood. On the inside, however, it runs the Android smartphone operating system leaving a hybrid that has none of the good points of either.

What sets Blackberry apart, in spite of their aging devices, is their efficiency; Blackberry server and devices are perfect at email they use very little data and are designed only for this purpose. Android can handle email either through the build in Google Mail application or over SMTP, but it’s not as quick and easy. As with the New Guinean cargo cults, Samsung have built a Blackberry body, added a keyboard, and even stuck in a few software tweaks to make Android a little more businesslike, but I don’t think the planes will come.

Which is a shame, since their actual smart phones are pretty good.

One Long Sentence about Handjobs

James Joyce
Cover of James Joyce

In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom asks if it “would be to cross Dublin without passing a pub”.  Exactly one hundred and-seven years later, thanks to open source maps, computers, and the Internet (and helped along by the worst recession a generation has seen) it’s been proved possible.

The city’s drinkers will have to find something else to argue about.

The Smell of Reeves and Worcester

One of the more fun stories from The Shadow Conspiracy II was Chris Dolley‘s Wodehousian pastiche, What Ho! Automaton – which detailed the rescue of steam-powered valet Reeves by the hapless buffoon Reginald Worcester and their bonding while foiling the plans of evil aunts. Collected here, along with a new novel length story (Something Rummy this way Comes), the parody is accurate and entertaining.  And while the story is never going to change worlds, it’s still a jolly good romp.

Reeves and Worcester share the same universe as the rest of the Shadow Conspiracy collections, but abandon any of the more ominous aspects in favour of a lighter style that is more like Wodehouse fan fiction than scifi. The original short (for which the book is named) deals with our heroes’ meeting and adventures while trying to figure out what’s amiss with his cousin’s new fiancée.

The meat of the book, Something Rummy this way Comes, is a romp through the balls, debutantes, and vaguries of late-Victorian British Society.  Reggie’s aunts (who are more viscious than veloceraptors) have had enough of his caddish ways and demand he tours the ball circuit to find a wife.  Unfortunately all the available debutantes are disappearing and it’s up to Reggie (aided by the super steam brain of Reeves) to find out where to. On the way he meets spirited Emeline who, like her namesake, will chain herself to a railing in a heartbeat and tries to find the ape or eunuch he is sure is to blame.

This is such a fun book that it’s impossible to find anything wrong with it.  Yes, it is a little rough around the edges, but the voicing is pitched perfectly – to the point where I can only imagine Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry as the main characters (take note movie adaptors – start saving now).  Some nice comic touches reflect the differences between this and the world of Jeeves and Wooster (Queen Victoria’s been saved by replacing her legs with steam-driven ones) and the whole tale hangs together nicely.

Even better, it costs less than £2.  Perfect for reading at your gentlemans’ club.

Eat Your Heart Out De Selby

Could I have approached a book with more trepidation? From a publishing house that seems to specialise in Buddhist philosophy, I expected to be lectured at for the three hundred odd pages, but this autobiographical account of the eponymous odd boy turned out to be more charming than banal.

Set in the south of England in the late fifties and early sixties, an odd boy describes the journey from childhood to adolescence of a boy that’s different from all of his peers and will strike a chord with anyone who has felt like they didn’t belong. The narrative is told through his twin obsessions of blues music and art, it describes a cold upbringing tempered by the friends and delta blues musicians who became his real family.

It’s far from perfect, however, the author seems to obsess about explaining every minute detail through a use of footnotes that the late Flann O’Brien savaged in The Third Policeman. Nothing is left to the reader, with the narrative rudely interrupted to explain such esoterica as the BBC or skiffle. We have Wikipedia, we don’t need to understand every detail.

But apart from that, the first volume in what I suspect will be a long series is an interesting, if light, diversion. Perfect for lying on a rock beach during the Easter heatwave.

Kapow ComicCon, Day 1: A Wil Wheaton of Nerds

For years comic book fans in the UK have looked across the sea at San Diego and New York and wondered why the land of Wells and Clarke had nothing to offer.  While the US had their huge events, premieres and panels, all we could do was wait for grainy videos and vicarious emails.

No longer!  Kapow was the first attempt at a big British comic convention and proved that it’s not the size that matters, but what you do with it.

Queuing started at 8am with many already in full costume, and didn’t stop until the day was over. The first panel we attended was a Fans vs. Pros quiz, hosted by Jonathan Ross which pitted John Romita, Jr., Mark Millar, and the immortal Dave Gibbons against Stewart Lee and a couple of fans out of the audience.  Obviously no real substance, but a lot of fun and a nice way of letting the coffee injections take effect.  The fans won, of course.

Mark Gatiss was our next victim. One of the League of Gentlemen, Professor Lazarus, one of the Mycrofts Holmes and a thoroughly nice chap, he waxed lyrical on all things horror (Halloween ruined American movies), televisual (“[Stephen] Fry. Bastard Fry”), and supernatural  (“Crystals. Fucking Crystals”). He could have done an entire weekend and I’d have been happy. Just as well, since he made us miss the Green Lantern Panel (Gatiss. Bastard Gatiss).

With a bit of time in hand to look around the stalls, picking up some nice stuff from Genki Gear and Insert Coin T-Shirts, it became increasingly difficult to navigate the Supermen, Batmen, Penguins and Steampunks so I dragged Ang away from the yaoi and started queuing again.  How many Supermen does one city need before it starts to feel like a Monty Python sketch!  Next year I’m going as Bicycle Repair man.

We got really lucky with the last panel of the day; the one every geek, nerd, and fan wanted to see, the Thunder God himself, Thor. After a lot of herding and surrendering of technology (the comic book fan equivalent of Gitmo) five hundred of us got to see twenty-five minutes of footage from Branagh’s movie (with script co-written by the Great Maker) and if the whole movie is as good as those few minutes then it’s going to be a real Easter treat.

Hemsworth is perfect as the hammer thrower, Sir Anthony Hopkins eats the scenery as the Allfather,  Tom Hiddleston gave a good turn as Loki and we even got a brief, tantalising glimpse of Stringer Heimdall. Talk about your 60 degree day.

It’s a shame the movie is in 3D, but at least JMS’s script (and a fantastic cameo that must have left him wet) is full of the humour and excitement fans of Babylon 5 know to expect.

Coming soon: Kapow 2: They Queue in Blood.

Fresh Steamed Soul

Steampunk. Ooo-kay.

An anthology. Riiiight.

A self publishing co-operative. Hmmm

Soul-transfer. Oh God no.

This could have been so bad.

This could have been worse than the worst kind of Mary-Sue fan-fiction.

Actually, Book View Café’s shared universe collection The Shadow Conspiracy II was pretty decent, if rough in places.  The usual steampunk tropes are there: Babbage’s invention of the computer two hundred years early, Lady Ada doing the science bit, zeppelins, romantic science, and lashings of adventure, and running through all the stories is the conspiracy for which the books are named. The ability to transfer the consciousness from human to steam-driven automata has been discovered and is being used by various dasterdlies for NO GOOD.

Anthologies are, by their nature, hit-and-miss affairs, but even the worst of the stories here are pretty decent, if forgettable, yarns. Standing out are Kimbriel’s Abide with Me – a tale of parental loss and hope – and Nagle’s Claire de Lune, which pits Vodon against a moustache-twirling villain.

While soul-transfer provides a pretty decent MacGuffin, there’s very little sign of any conspiracy (shadowy or otherwise) and any real future plot advancement will likely never happen.  Not to worry, it took six seasons of Lost before the audience realised it, so they should be able to push out another four volumes.

These types of work have a habit of trying to be too clever and, without a ruthless editor, usually end up being awful but Radford and Bohnhoff did a good job of keeping any amateurish edges hidden.  It’s not much more than the price of a pint, so you can do worse than picking up a copy.

No Drinking, No Smoking, No Cursing, and Always Wash Behind your Ears

Don't be naughty

I loved the original short movies. I got very excited when the trailer came out. I even braved the Christmas shoppers on a lunchtime hike from Waterloo to Carnaby Street to see their attempt at viral marketing. I’m happy to say that the movie itself didn’t disappoint.

On paper, it sounds like a complete farce.  A Finnish comedy-horror about miners unearthing the real Father Christmas, who isn’t as jolly as the Coca-Cola corporation would have us believe.  Instead of sneaking into people’s homes and exchange presents for gingerbread, Santa delivers spanked bottoms and boiled children.  It’s then up to a bunch of reindeer herders and the only nice (if rather odd-looking) child to save the day and rescue the naughty kids.

It might just be the foreign language making it feel less of a spoof, but the movie itself has turned out to be one of the best Christmas films in years.  A great mixture of creeping suspense, some genuinely scary moments, and a great heart that Disney hasn’t had since the Fifties.

I’d be interested to hear what a Finnish person thought of it; the audience at the Cambridge Picturehouse seemed to be in tears of laughter at random scenes, so much so that I was seconds away from standing up and brandishing my laminated copy of Wittertainment’s Code of Conduct. Either they were high or Finnish, in which case I’m missing out on some subtleties of their culture.

Don’t let the threat of sniggering Scandewigians put you off, however.  Go and see this movie before Santa puts you on the naughty list.

You definitely don’t want to be on the naughty list.

Douchebags vs. Aliens

skyline movie promo
Image by Sappymoosetree via Flickr

I should have known better. I didn’t listen to Dr. Kermode. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a rating of 10%. But I knew better.

Skyline is the worst movie to come out this year. It’s a confused mess of a movie that makes Sharktopus look like Citizen Kane and manages to make root canal surgery feel like a viable alternative to a night out in the cinema.

Just like 2008’s big monster movie, Cloverfield, it starts off with a party designed to help the audience get to knows and care for the main characters, but all that seemed to do was make sure we wanted the aliens to get the job over with sooner. Really, we’re supposed to care that a motley collection of self-obsessed hipsters are about to have their brains sucked out by a betentacled vagina?

The acting was more wooden than the Billy aisle of an Ikea store, the sound effects so loud and overwrought that even Michael Bay would think twice, and it was a relief to see the credits. How something so bad ever got a cinema release is a mystery fit for Mulder and Scully.

It’s Douchebags vs. Aliens and I’m on the side of the betentacled vaginas.

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