Archive for the ‘Features and opinion’ Category

I don’t usually talk about contentious issues here. My one attempt left me quivering with anxiety. In general, I dislike arguing over complicated issues on the internet. The medium encourages foolish hyperbole. It is too swift to force proper reflection, too slow to allow timely reaction, too distancing to facilitate rapport. It makes it too easy to see those who disagree with you as enemies. Misunderstanding, tangential ranting, rage escalation, lack of complexity and outright twattery are the sorry results. And that’s just on my side. I avoid it. If you’re brave enough for it, more power to you.

Actually, the above is fairly contentious. I’ll take my initial statement back.

Never mind all that. Today Scotland is voting on independence and I want to say something, hence the exception.

I hope the Scots don’t go. If the UK breaks up, what does that say? The world’s full of states teetering on the brink of fragmentation, and fragmentation increases the scope for conflict. Britain’s time as a world power will be well and truly over. The split will be acrimonious and cripple both nations for years to come. I like Scotland. I like Scots. I never thought I’d see a time when the island of Great Britain played host to two separate states. It makes me genuinely sad. (more…)

A fantastic book by one of my favourite writers, from Death Ray #19. Read my interview with Le Guin here.

158 x 240

Author: Ursula Le Guin

Publisher: Gollancz


One of the best writers of the age gives us, perhaps, her best book.

It’s not often that you will hear a journalist to admit this but Lavinia is a book I really do not feel appropriately qualified to review. It’s not just that it takes inspiration from one of the great texts of European literature – the Aeneid, by Vergil (or Virgil, if you prefer), which I fear my minor critical skills provide too small a set of cutlery to properly digest, but that it is such a perfectly balanced blend of feeling, metre and storytelling it is hard to describe. (more…)

The best of the supernatural comedy shows popular a few years ago, in my opinion. I really enjoyed Reaper. A review of season 2, from Death Ray #19.

Directors: Stephen Cragg, Ron Underwood, Tom Cherones, Kevin Dowling

Writers: Michele Fazekas, Tara Butters, Craig DiGregorio, Kevin Etten, Chris Dingess

Starring: Bret Harrison, Tyler Labine, Rick Gonzalez, Ray Wise, Missy Peregrym


Being a young man with a crummy job is not much fun, and it’s not made any better by being the son of Satan.

If there ever was a series designed to bait American fundamentalist Christians, it is Reaper, where hero Sam enters a second year of service to the devil, his friend Ben embarks on a romantic affair with a demon, and his other pal Sock continues his quest to live up to every one of the the Seven Deadly Sins.

On the other hand, it could well be employed in some religious school somewhere as a teaching aid. The show’s heavy on the redemption, features a Satan who acknowledges God loves everyone and will ultimately triumph, and its storylines frequently frown at the pleasures of the flesh. Sam is almost saintly. Despite discovering that he is actually the son of Old Nick himself, he seems immune to temptation, and strives to do the right thing while performing his role as bounty hunter for Hell, hunting down the escapee damned. This is almost an advert for American non-conformist church fun.

Reaper is a series about friends and family, it’s kind of cuddly and wholesome underneath the horns and Kevin Smith style slacker attitude. And it’s funny, though of course the Devil gets all the best lines “Satan is attracted to radishes?” he incredulously states at one point, leafing through Sam’s book on demonology, “do they mean sexually? That’s disgusting! Where do they get this stuff?” And Satan also has the best actor, the amazingly smooth Ray Wise. He’s got the devil’s own role, and seems to be enjoying himself immensely.

If anything funnier and slicker than its initial run, Reaper is damnably good telly.

This is a piece on Richard Adam’s Watership Down, first published in Death Ray #19 in 2009.

This tale of fluffy bunnies owes far more to Virgil’s Aeneid than to Beatrix Potter, and is a cornerstone of animal fantasy, argues Guy Haley.

Animal fantasy is a tricky beast. The anthropomorphised animal inhabits a funny little world at the end of the genre branchline, its stations lie on a different route entirely to SF, and at least three stops past fantasy. From a certain point of view, a speaking rat might appear to be firmly in Death Ray‘s stadium of odd little dreams, from the other, maybe not. It’s not the medium in this case, but the message – the stories told by the chatty animals are often a slight things, moralising in the ‘be good to your chums’ mode, aimed at children.

Perhaps that it’s to cover in depth every talking animal, we would fill up the magazine with Mr Toads. It seems safer to exclude them all. So, nearly all of it is fits into our loose genre definition, but we don’t cover it because it is too numerous and ephemeral to said genre. Sounds about right.

But that would be very foolish, and tantamount to the anti-SF snobbery you still see occasionally from mainstream critics. One must never let expediency get in the way of art, let alone preconceptions.

Because a lot of ‘animal fantasy’ is obviously of significant artistic importance. The political allegory of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for example; we’d be stupid to ignore that. Or for different reasons, the heavily SF tinged Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien.

Perhaps the greatest animal fantasy is Watership Down, published in 1972 by the author Richard Adams. It’s a story of rabbits, but a far cry from the world of Beatrix Potter; an epic quest where a bunch of rabbits flee their warren after the dire visions of a sickly runt named Fiver predict that their home is doomed to be destroyed. After a terrible journey, the rabbits discover a new place for themselves, only to realise they have no females. A request for does from the nearby warren of Efrafa then leads to a bitter war for survival. (more…)

I loved these little featurettes in Death Ray. This one, from #18 published in 2009 just before the Star Trek reboot movie came out, was one of my favourites.

The Enterprise

It’s dinner-plate-and-three-Smartie-tubes shape is the most recognised spaceship silhouette on the small screen. It might have been treated like personal property by its frequently disobedient crew, but boy, what a ship: the USS NCC-1701Enterprise.

Ever since the Royal Navy captured the French sloop L’Enterprise and renamed her HMS Enterprise back in 1705, there’s been a tradition of naming ships so in both the US and British navies (15 to date in Britain, plus four without the ‘HMS’ prefix, and eight in the US). The test shuttle was named Enterprise, Richard Branson is going to call his rich-boy rocket ship Enterprise, and it’s a practise that will be carried far into the future, or so it seems, for Enterprise is the name borne by some of the most famous ships in science fiction. None is more well-known than the NCC-1701 Enterprise, captained by Captain James T. Kirk. For five years this two-fisted Iowan romped about the galaxy, seducing alien princesses, blowing up Klingons and visiting different worlds with his friend, Mr. Polystyrene Rock. Such a good time did Kirk and co have, in fact, that in the Trek universe all the ships subsequently called Enterprise bear the code ‘NCC-1701’ in honour of Kirk’s stalwart vessel. With a new film looming, we too have decided it is about time to provide similar respect. Behold! The original USS Enterprise’s secrets revealed. (more…)

This piece ran in Death Ray #18, back in 2009, in the “Time Trap” slot. Campbell was one of the most influential men on SF as a whole, a fascinating character.

1937, and John W Campbell is hired to edit Astounding Stories. 1938, and he is given sole charge. Science fiction will never be the same again.

If any one man could be credited with establishing modern science fiction, then that man was John Wood Campbell Junior. His run on Astounding Science Fiction, previously Astounding Stories, now, several name changes later, Analog Magazine, ushered in a new kind of scientific and narrative stringency to the genre, banishing the stock characters and shonky science of earlier years to the rejection pile. Within months of his assumption of the editorship of Astounding in 1937, Campbell had published stories from fresh young writers, authors who were to go on to become the titans of 20th Century science fiction literature: A. E. Van Vogt, Lester Del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Heinlein. Arthur C. Clarke and many others were to follow. The wartime period of Astounding has come to be known as the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” a time when the genre was dominated by Campbell and his cadre of writers. After the war, other pulp magazines following Astounding’s lead were launched, offering other avenues of advancement to new writers. This broke Astounding’s hold over the market, but perhaps that which diminished Campbell’s influence most radically was his own editorial style. A physically intimidating, garrulous man who dominated conversation, trademark cigarette holder clamped in his teeth, he was not a good listener. As time went on his views became increasingly outspoken, his manner bombastic, and he alienated many of his earlier discoveries. Campbell was to remain in the editor’s chair at Astounding, until his sudden and unexpected death from heart failure in 1971. Ironically, for heart disease can be caused by smoking, and Campbell had written in typical forthright style dismissing the health risks of tobacco only a few years before. (more…)