Review: The Dragons of Babel

Posted: August 22, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Dragons of Babel
The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I absolutely loved The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, picking it up after I read the first part of this follow-up as a short story. The sheer inventiveness of that segment had me hooked, wherein a wounded mechanical dragon – an aircraft of a machine-age fairyland – crawls into a village and promptly sets itself up as king. I don’t buy a lot of books, despite reading plenty. Yeah, that sounds immensely hypocritical for an author. But most of my reading time is taken up reviewing (copies provided) or researching for my own novels, to which end I have Black Library novels spilling out of my iPad. If I buy something and – more tellingly – make time to read it, then there’s usually a really good reason. The Dragons of Babel was bad for me, in that it I got so much into it that it, ahem, delayed some of my work slightly.

The Dragons of Babel is not so iconoclastic as The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (John Clute, the world’s most erudite and learned reviewer of speculative fiction, described the first novel as ‘anti-fantasy’. That’s a label that fits well). Babel is, however, as crazily imaginative, and treats the tropes of fairytale and modern fantasy both with equal subversiveness as the book’s predecessor. While not as furious, The Dragons of Babel instead displays a great deal of humour, undermining the well-worn ‘potboy to king’ story to often hilarious effect.

Originally composed as a series of short stories, The Dragons of Babel lacks a certain cohesiveness. Although the parts are peerlessly good, they don’t add up to much more than their own individual merits. But these semi-discrete sections are so meritorious that it is easy to overlook the book’s slightly slip-shod, fix-up nature. A definite keeper. Check out the first too, that’s a five star book if ever I read one.

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I’ve moved. I’m back in Yorkshire, and after a week of waiting I finally have the internet.

I’ll write something about the great relocation soon, but for now here’s notice of a bunch of Black Library stories I have out this week!

First up, Evil Sun Rising, a Red Suns Meks novella (those cheeky green tinkerers from Engine of Mork). Is this the longest ever Ork POV story? I think it just might be…

But wait! Uggrim and Snikgob’s adventures continue in ‘The Klaw of Mork’, the world’s only Ork audio drama (so far).

And we also have ‘Season of Shadows’, the first in a series of Black Templars stories I have been writing. Expect much more of these.

It’s raining Haley! Er, forget that. It sounds weird.

Review: Origin

Posted: June 17, 2014 in Archive posts, Journalism, Reviews

Origin
Origin by J.T. Brannan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

From SFX #229.

The Da Vinci Spaceship

The Bilderberg Group, Area 51, the Nazca Lines, Greys, world government, alternative archeology – name an element of alien-connected conspiracy silliness, and it’s in SF thriller Origin.

Evelyn Edwards is a scientist in Antarctica who discovers a human body frozen into 40,000 year-old ice. Not only should this corpse not be there, but he’s also possessed of advanced tech. After reporting the find, Evelyn’s team are wiped out by members of the US Army. She goes on the run, hooking up with her ex-husband – ace Native American tracker Matt – and discovers a conspiracy that threatens the human race.

Origin is the kind of book that spoon feeds its readers. Everything, from its characters’ motivations to geographical locations, is not so much artfully described as ladled into one’s mind. We suppose that’s fair enough; this is a simple thriller, not the ambiguous latest from Christopher Priest, but the common audience denominator being aimed at here is pretty darn low.

Matt’s Indian background and an okay-ish final twist aside, there’s not a great deal to recommend Origin. The main characters are uninspired ciphers designed to absorb exposition, and there are some jaw-dropping bits of narrative fudgery that derail what is otherwise a pleasantly brainless ride. If this were a film, it would be directed by Paul Anderson. No doubt it has the potential to sell very well, but there are a lot of better books around – even in the unambitious technothriller subgenre of which Origin is firmly a part.

Did you know?

J.T. Brannan trained as an army officer at Sandhurst before deciding to be a writer. This is his first book. He’s also a karate expert. Ulp.

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I really didn’t rate this much, although I’ve read more positive reviews elsewhere. From SFX #233.

2009/15 /38 mins

Director: Fred Gerber, Sturla Gunnarsson, Peter Howitt, David Straiton

Writers: James D. Parriott, Sheri Elwood, Meredith Lavender, Marcie Ulin

Cast: Ron Livingston, Malik Yoba, Andrew Airlie, Paula Garces, Florentine Lahme. Karen LeBlanc, Eyal Podell, Laura Harris, Dylan Taylor, Christina Cox, Ty Olson, Zahf Paroo

THREE STARS EXTRAS: TWO STARS

Defies enjoyment.

This TV show deserves to be liked. It’s so earnest. But it’s like an introvert at a party – a little distant, and well, boring. SF TV demands extroversion.

Charting a near-future voyage to the nine planets (it was made before Pluto was demoted), Defying Gravity takes a Grey’s Anatomy approach to astronauts, with the SF-y twist of a telepathic something in a pod secretly running the mission.

Defying Gravity was cancelled after 13 episodes. Neither factual enough to be enlightening, nor SFnal enough to be entertaining, Defying Gravity goes to lengths to establish some scientific truths, yet the astronauts are all head cases, and messages zip over 30 million miles of space in an instant, allowing endless heart-to-hearts between parted lovers.

Is it a romance show? SF? Realism? All and none of the above. The characters mesh well, even if they are unsuitable as astronauts, but the series makes the fatal error of playing the long game with them. Nothing happens. We get to one planet, Venus, right at the end. Many SF series save money with tense “bottle episodes”, but this is one long bottle series, barely enlivened by its accidents of the week.

Real astronauts are rock-solid, thoughtful people. Introverts, actually; competent, capable, modest and highly intelligent. This show is not enough of those things.

DVD Extras: Picture gallery, deleted scenes, documentary. The doc’s a preview where the actors are all excited, and tells us nothing of how the story would have progressed.

Did you know?

Peter Howitt, that’s Joey from classic 80s sitcom Bread, features as a prying Brit journalist in the show, and directed three episodes.


These reviews of the continuation of George Pal’s brilliant movie were originally published in SFX #222 and #226. Hailing from a time when modern TV SF was struggling to be born, it is one of those series that encapsulates the battle between syndicated and serialised telly. In the War of the World‘s case, serialisation lost out.

Season One
Two stars
Extras: One Star
1988 1080 minutes
Director: Various (Created by Greg Strangis)
Cast: Jared Martin, Lynda Mason Green, Philip Akin, Richard Chaves

 80s continuation of George Pal’s 50s flick

Hailing from the time when syndicated telly took the risks which led to today’s US goggle-box excellence, War of the Worlds was groundbreaking in its way, but has dated badly.

A continuation of the 1953 George Pal flick, the show posits that the alien invaders were not killed by earthly bacteria, but put into suspended animation. When a terrorist attack on a nuclear dump revives them, a small team of heroes is recruited to stymie the ET threat.

The series’ links with the film are so strong it includes Sylvia Van Buren, played again by Ann Robinson, as a recurring character. Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast is also referenced. But the show’s faithfulness to WOTW mythology is undone by the clumsy employment of UFO lore; its aliens are either secret or widely known of as the story demands, and it never strikes a plausible balance. The government take the threat very lightly. Rather than the full weight of the FBI, we have a maverick, proto-Mulder scientist backed up by an eclectic crew of ethnically balanced SF staples as Earth’s only hope. If you remember the series as dull, your memory does not deceive you, pointless disagreement and tired dialogue such as “Let me do my job!” pad episodes up to the requisite three-quarters of an hour. There are some surprising gore effects, and the characters are well played, but they’re not enough to keep one’s interest engaged.

Season Two
Two stars
Extras: One Star
1989 * 15 * 913 minutes
Director: Various
Cast: Jared Martin, Lynda Mason Green, Adrian Paul

War of the Storylines, more like

The second year of this TV sequel to George Pal’s War of The Worlds saw radical changes. Out went creator Greg Strangis, in came in exec producer Frank Mancuzo Jr. Fan faves Norton and Colonel Ironhorse are offed in the first episode and replaced by Kincaid, a US soldier with a heart and an inexplicable British accent (it’s Adrian Paul, of Highlander fame). We’re even introduced to a new bunch of aliens, who execute the earlier lot en masse.

It’s standard SF, semi-episodic stuff – stories cover time travel, aliens with divided loyalties, cyborgs, adventures for the resident moppet… Lead Blackwood (Jared Martin), even gets his own alien romance. All far from original, and the baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach of the new creative team wrecks what charm the show did have. None of the more interesting subplots are continued, the through-storyline contradicts season one, and in the hurriedly filmed finale also much of what happens in season two, while quirky, wry, gun-hating Blackwood has a massive personality change to become a miserable, bearded revolutionary type.

Most perplexing is the inexplicable decision to make the world into a shadowy dystopia, without ever telling us why, and pitching a lot of the action in that tedious stand-by of SF shows: the “exotic” street market.

Add this frustrating, careless confusion and a decline in brains and gosh-wow-yuk moments to the series’ already somewhat underwhelming pacing, direction and acting, and this is a show on the skids.

Did you know?

Not many people remember the 1953 invasion in the series, a mystery that was being addressed in season one, but dropped in season two.

Review: Wards of Faerie

Posted: June 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

Wards of Faerie
Wards of Faerie by Terry Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The twenty-fourth book in the Shannara saga rejoins the Ohmsford clan for a new three-part adventure. Skipping down the generations of his hero-family has always been Brooks’ way, and this time the gifted twins Redden and Railing get their turn on the world’s stage in a hunt for the Elfstones. In a thinning world reclaiming the science of old Earth (Brooks’ Four Lands is Earth long after a sorcerous apocalypse), the return of the magic Elfstones represents a great hope.
The multi-character story resembles many of Brooks’ other books, with this first part of The Dark Legacy of Shannara predictably setting up the quest. There’s a lot of history mentioned throughout, and although Brooks generously fills in the back plot, a familiarity with earlier trilogies makes this more rewarding.
A bigger question is whether Brooks can cut it in this day of super-violent, gritty fantasy. He was never the greatest writer, and although in later years he’s attained a superior craftsman’s level of skill, his writing is hardly gripping. On the other hand, there is a certain avuncular comfort to his storytelling, and action does build toward the end. It’s the book equivalent of a two-beer Dungeons & Dragons session with good friends, with all the warmth that implies. If you’re sick of fantasy mutilations and mud, and the real world is biting, brew some cocoa, put your slippers on and let Wards of Faerie whisk you off for a few pleasant hours.

Fact: Originally, The Word and The Void trilogy was supposed to be a new start for Brooks, only later did he decide to make it about Earth becoming Shannara’s fantasy land, linking his new and old work into one.

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