The title track from Bruce’s tenth album.
The title track from Bruce’s tenth album.
My reviewing career, if you can call it that (and I’d rather not), began in November 1990 with three pieces in Dream Magazine #26.
This is one of them, warts and all.
NAYLOR, GRANT – RED DWARF (Penguin pb, 298pp, £3.99)
Red Dwarf is an adaptation of the cult TV series of the same name which, due to an aversion to Craig Charles, I gave up on after the first episode. As with any science fiction comedy, especially one initially presented in another media, comparisons with The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy are inevitable and I must admit that, although it never scaled the heights of comic absurdity that the latter reached, Red Dwarf is perhaps the more accessible work.
Dave Lister is an easy going Liverpudlian with an acerbic wit and a fondness for strong drink. The latter, by a roundabout and never satisfactorily explained route, gets him stranded on Mimas, one of Saturn’s moons. Lister seeks to work his passage back to Earth aboard Red Dwarf, a spaceship the size of several small cities. Unfortunately there is a freak accident and the entire crew is reduced to radioactive ash, with the exception of Lister who is safely stowed away in a stasis booth. He is revived by Holly, the ship’s computer, three million years later and about as far from Earth as you can go. For companions he has the omniscient but definitely wacky Holly; a hologram of Rimmer, his former commanding officer, an obnoxious bore and one of life’s born failures; the hip and so cool Cat, evolved from a household pet smuggled aboard by Lister some three million years previously; an android called Kryten, who reminded me of Marvin, though his own particular bag is obsessive cleaning rather than misery. This merry band under Lister’s command set out for Earth and have many adventures en route before eventually reaching their destination, or at least a plausible substitute which is the best they can reasonably hope for given that the human race is probably long since extinct.
Grant Naylor is the pseudonym for Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, both of whom have impressive media credits. As the name is a fixup the book too is something of an amalgam, grabbing ideas from all over the place and presenting them thinly disguised for our entertainment. Science fiction aficionados will have fun picking up the references. The opening chapter reminded me of Beetlejuice with its self-help manual for the newly dead. Holly is clearly a second cousin twice removed of HAL. The mechanical pets and drug induced reality are straight out of Philip K. Dick. And so it goes. Past, present and future also blend seamlessly. The Coke-Pepsi advertising wars continue to rage, albeit on a far more impressive scale. Exotic place names such as Wolverhampton abound. Holly is studying the romantic fiction of Netta Muskett (ask your mother).
Red Dwarf is eminently readable, with the plot racing along at a frantic pace and the inventiveness seeming never to flag except at the anti-climactic ending (probably left hanging in limbo owing to uncertainty over the fate of the television series). The authors have a lot of fun with such science fiction standards as relativity and evolution. There were one or two set pieces that really made me laugh, most notably Rimmer’s visit to a fully automated brothel. This isn’t a book that you will find stimulating or challenging. It doesn’t seek to ‘boldly go’ in any sense at all of that daunting catchphrase. But for a lively and undemanding read on a long train journey you could do far worse.
Never read the book, but this looks interesting.
Justice Society of America – Axis of Evil
Written by Bill Willingham, illustrated by Travis Moore & Dan Green, Jesus Merino, & Jesse Delperdang
Back in the day when I first started reading comics, one of the highlights of the year was the annual JLA/JSA crossover. While the JLA were undoubtedly the go to guys for DC super team stuff, the JSA always seemed a more varied and interesting bunch, with characters like the Spectre, Wildcat, and Dr. Fate – there was, to my mind anyway, something slightly more sinister about their powers and the costumes they wore, the trappings of the horror genre in superhero wrap. Two lengthy stories are collected together in this book, and both of them are excellent. The first concerns an attempt to defeat the JSA by an evil entity that pitches individual members into fights throughout the multiverse. The second and longer piece is set in a future time where the Nazis rule the world and former super powered are kept in a special prison; it’s up to the surviving JSAers to find a way to put history back on the correct path. I loved both these works. The artwork is sumptuous, full of colour and spectacle, with larger than life characters seeming to burst out of the confines of the page. And each story is gripping, particularly the second with its depiction of broken men and women who nonetheless continue to fight against impossible odds, willing to make any sacrifice for the sake of freedom, even their own lives. With this story we get an insight into what it truly means to be a hero. And, while evil acts out on the world stage, the story shows us that good can triumph on an individual level, with one character totally transformed and set on a new path simply by virtue of living in a different world. In the nature/nurture debate, the JSA come down firmly on the side of the latter. Super heroics at their finest.
X-Men First Class – The Wonder Years
Written and illustrated by Diverse Hands
This book returns to the early years of the X-Men, when there were only five of them and they wore black and yellow costumes, with several adventures, some more serious than others. The opening story sets the scene, a tale with a metafictional bent in which comic books effect reality. In a second tale Warren Worthington (aka The Angel) discovers a lost world, while lava men and out of control androids feature in a third. Next up everybody’s favourite mutants have a run in with Medusa and the Wizard. Disaffected teens Iceman and the Human Torch join forces against a couple of Spider-Man’s villains, while the Beast is set up for a mad scientist gig with a tip of the hat in the direction of Hawks’ SF classic The Thing from Another World. In between strips we have some ostensibly comedic offerings, regarding which the best that can be said is that they’re filler. Overall this is a mixed blessing of a book, with more that’s fun than not, but nothing that stands out or bears comparisons with my memories of those early X-Men books (the debuts of Magneto, the Sentinels, the Juggernaut, etc.).
X-Men – To Serve and Protect
Written and illustrated by Diverse Hands
We get the ‘classic’ X-Men this time around, mostly, but still with the multiple short stories format, and most of the tales taking in super team ups. In the lead story a couple of heroes I’ve never heard of take on Mr Negative and his super powered goons. An acerbic Emma Frost deals with Mandrill when he interrupts her spa session, while Cypher foils a Hydra bomb plot. Fantomex battles Batroc the Leaper and the Stepford Cuckoos help Spider-Man prevent a bank robbery. Colossus joins forces with Iron Man to tackle a meteorite menace, and so on and so forth, with Ghost Rider, Thor, Dr. Strange, the FF, and assorted others putting in guest appearances. There’s a lot here, but mostly it’s superficial rather than substantial, filler content as the paradigm. The artwork throughout is easy on the eye, with the exception of a horrendous Dazzler strip, which was all awkward angles and muted colours. My personal favourite was the meeting between Psylocke and Hercules, who do not chew over old times. It’s ironically titled ‘Unforgettable’, and I guess for me this book, fun as some of it might have been, is eminently forgettable.
House of M – Masters of Evil
Written by Christos N. Gage, illustrated by Manuel Garcia
Back in the day Marvel published a comic called What If in which various alternate reality scenarios were tried out for size. Nowadays, near as I can tell, alternate realities are super hero comic bread and butter, hence this series in which the world is ruled by Magneto, with mutants as the elite and normal human beings, even those with super powers, a downtrodden underclass. Within the pages of this book, The Hood undergoes a transformation from criminal mastermind to leader of the resistance, organising other super powered villains to fight for liberty. They even go so far as to set up their own island nation. And of course Magneto and his mutants can’t allow such defiance, and the so called Masters of Evil are crushed, but not before their actions have set an example for the vast majority of humans, one that will possibly have repercussions for mutant rule in the future. This is a neat example of values reversed, with mutants as the persecutors and villains cast in the role of heroes, and it made an entertaining read, along the way giving us a little bit to think about on the nature of intolerance and tyranny. Like the JSA book above, perhaps even more so, it argues that ‘evil’ is a situational thing. Interwoven with the super powered fights are personal issues, with various romances coming to their conclusion, sacrifices made, and the Hood’s former partner learning that he wasn’t such a waste of space after all, might even have made a great dad to their child if given the chance. Yeah, I liked this a lot. With the possible exception of the JSA book it’s the best of this bunch of four, the one that attempts to do something different and doesn’t fall flat on its face in doing so.
Title song from Bruce’s ninth album.
Reviews of two collections by Joyce Carol Oates that originally appeared in Black Static #59:-
JOYCE CAROL OATES: 13 STORIES IN 2 BOOKS
Joyce Carol Oates’ career has a breadth and depth that I would expect most authors to be envious of. She has produced more than seventy books in over fifty years, ranging far and wide across the literary and genre landscape, and along the way Oates has been nominated for numerous awards. Among those she has won are the National Book Award, and a Bram Stoker Award for her 1995 novel Zombie.
The title story of THE DOLL-MASTER AND OTHER TALES OF TERROR (Head of Zeus hc, 317pp, £18.99) is the tale of a young boy who prefers toy dolls to action figures, but as he grows into adulthood his obsession seems to take a truly dark turn. The story is an accomplished feat of suspension of disbelief, with the reader lulled throughout so that we can never be sure what is taking place, fearing the worst but hoping that Oates is only teasing us with the possibility of terror. And finally we have the great reveal, with revelations that shock in all their ghastliness and bring to mind the closing scenes of Hitchcock’s Psycho’, while underlying all of that is a suggestion that maybe parental breakdown provided the catalyst for what has taken place. It’s an assured and convincingly detailed description of warped psychology, with an understated ending that leaves the reader unsure of what will happen next but filled with dread by the possibilities.
There’s an unfortunate topicality to ‘Soldier’, depicting the aftermath of a shooting in which a white man killed a young black man. The divisions in society are clearly drawn, with some regarding Brandon as a hero who acted in self-defence and others seeing him as a murderer, pure and simple. The first person account gives us a view of the mind-set of a casual racist, the motives and chain of circumstances that led Brandon to this moment, and the way in which his uncertainty about what happened is transformed into the image of himself as a soldier in an undeclared war. And finally there is the ending, a masterstroke on Oates’ part, one that leaves both character and reader hanging on a knife’s edge. In ‘Gun Accident: An Investigation’ there is a similar blurring of the lines between memory and what actually happened, as a young pupil entrusted with looking after a teacher’s house is confronted by a home invasion. The characters are perfectly drawn, so called white trash trying to rise above their roots in various ways, and underlying the narrative is a powerful subtext on the theme of misogyny, the ways in which women are treated by men and demeaned simply because of their gender.
In ‘Equatorial’ a wealthy couple are on a luxury cruise to the Galapagos Islands, but along the way wife Audrey feels increasingly distanced from husband Henry, with events in their shared past taking on a new and ominous significance, until she is convinced that he plans to kill her. It’s a plot standard, but done with admirable skill and attention to detail, with environmental concerns woven into the text and given an unexpected pertinence. And once again Oates gives us an ending that leaves everything up in the air, so that the reader has to decide how justified Audrey’s concerns really are. Teenager Violet is continually at odds with her mother in ‘Big Momma’, their relationship fracturing against a backdrop of child abductions, and when she falls in with kindly Mr Clovis and his brood Violet learns more than she is ready to handle regarding these disappearances. The story excels as a picture of teenage angst, with Violet’s troubled life leaving her at the mercy of the first people to show her kindness, even when she is almost certain it will lead to harm. Strip aside the horror genre props including the story’s titular monster, and what we have is a tale of vulnerability and weakness, concluding in a terrible denouement, possibly.
And finally there is ‘Mystery, Inc.’ in which a man who is looking to expand his chain of crime fiction bookstores through murder finds that he has met his match in the owner of the eponymous store. It is a delicious story, with the feel about it of a cosy crime, but a hard edge that is all its own. Our main protagonist is a thoroughly disagreeable if outwardly charming rogue, and we wait to see if he’ll get his just desserts. Even more appositely, the story contains a wealth of details about books in general and the mystery genre in particular, making the tale a bibliophile’s delight. Like everything else here it demonstrates admirably Oates’ versatility and ability to tell a story through suggestion. I loved it, and the collection as a whole.
And I have similar feelings about her latest collection (that’s latest at time of writing – as noted above, Oates is outrageously productive, for which we can all be thankful), DIS MEM BER AND OTHER STORIES OF MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE (Head of Zeus hc, 239pp, £18.99). Title story ‘DIS MEM BER’ is an account given by the youngster Jill of her relationship with distant relation Rowan Billiet, who has been implicated in some serious crimes. There’s an air of southern gothic hanging over the tale with Oates capturing perfectly the voice of her young and not especially bright protagonist, with the sense of something old and rotten festering in the warp and weft of the narrative. Much of the piece’s power comes from what is not said, presenting to the reader a disturbing character study of obsession, one that raises questions about the nature of innocence and culpability, evil bubbling away beneath the surface of a true crime episode with an ambiguous ending. It is a strong opener for this collection.
For widowed Brianna a discovery in ‘The Crawl Space’ of the house in which she once lived brings home all the sacrifices made in her marriage. Beautifully written and keenly felt, it is in a way a tale of closure, of drawing a line under the past, but that line is sketched in blood and tears, with trauma and madness scratching at the boundary. ‘Heartbreak’ is a tale of sibling rivalry that ends in tragedy, the matter of fact tone of the telling underlining how little difference there is between teenage delinquency and a lack of being loved, and the horror of feeling that you are always the one who is unwanted, pushed onto the side lines.
I suspect ‘The Drowned Girl’ was inspired by the true story of Elisa Lam, who went missing only to turn up dead in a water tank. In the story her name is given as Miri Krim, and the student protagonist who relates the series of events is morbidly fascinated by Krim’s death, the idea that her body was dissolved into the water and drunken by residents of the building. With echoes of Dark Water it’s a powerful and compelling tale of a young woman whose personality is broken down, the lines blurred so that we can never be sure if Miss Lucash’s problems are psychological in nature or symptoms of a genuine haunting, though I suspect the former. ‘The Situations’ consists of three brief vignettes that seem to hint at the power of fate and the ways in which hope and cruelty are inextricably mixed. It’s an intriguing piece, well written and holding the attention with its oblique slant, though ultimately not one I felt I truly understood.
Next up we have what is to all intents and purposes a were-creature tale, with a put upon widow turned into a ‘Great Blue Heron’ to wreak vengeance on all those who have offended her. Strongly characterised, especially in the case of the calculating brother-in-law, and with an eye for the beauty of the natural landscape, this is a tale that offers us the vicarious pleasure of seeing assorted bad lots get what is coming to them, written with relish and leaving the reader just enough elbow room to believe in a more prosaic or metaphorical resolution. Finally there is the biting satire of ‘Welcome to Friendly Skies!’, a tongue in cheek set of instruction given to a group of bird watchers aboard a plane bound for parts unknown. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think of recent customer service problems experienced by a certain US airline and wondering if this might better serve as their staff training manual, but all laughter aside there is something truly sinister lurking at the back of the comedy, making this the perfect end to a collection in which the macabre and the obsessive link hands and skip off into the smoke filled horizon with horror in their hearts and murder on their minds.
More monster mayhem.