A review of Frank Tayell’s “Surviving the Evacuation: Book One; London.”

Bill Wright is the journal keeping narrator of this, the first book in a continuing series (currently reaching Book Seven).

He is trapped in his London apartment with a broken leg.  Why trapped?  Outside a zombie apocalypse rages, having originated in New York, before inevitably reaching UK shores.  Bill worked for the government and had a hand in designing an evacuation plan, which does seem to have gone catastrophically off the rails.  Eventually escaping his apartment he begins a nightmare journey of survival, and he uncovers some frightening truths about his government and it’s agendas.

The book has a strong opening using a reliable convention of an injured and confined narrator coming to terms with a terrible new world (think Day of the Triffids, 28 days Later and The Walking Dead with their originally injured and confined protagonists), and strong scenes of the originating outbreak in New York.  But there’s a lot of thuddingly generic survival horror as Bill moves from one siege situation to another, dispatching zombies (yes, with a blow to the head) and navigating a ruined urban and rural landscape.  There’s a good set piece in central London where zombies breach street barricades en masse, but a lot of it Bill on his own foraging, fighting off zombie attacks and reminiscing.  There is very little interaction with other characters.  The book needs more narrative variation.

But Bill is a strongly likeable lead, believable and solid, and Tim Bruce’s good audio book narration suits him perfectly.  The ending is also strong and satisfyingly bleak, as Bill uncovers the source of the outbreak and his government’s own agenda in the evacuation.  There are the hints through the book as to where it is going, but nothing that makes the shocking denouement predictable.

At times I thought I would not read any more of the series due to the above described flaws, but onm teh final analysis this is a series I will be returning to.

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A review of C.S.Lewis’s “Perelandra.”

“Perelandra” is the second novel in C.S>Lewis’s science fiction trilogy.  In the first, “Out of the Silent Planet, ” Dr Ransom, a Cambridge philologist, travelled to Mars kidnapped by a Dr Weston for his own nefarious and mistaken purposes, to colonise Mars and use Dr Ransom as a propitiatory sacrifice.  Weston is humbled and defeated and Ransom returns to Earth literally on the side of the angels, an important part in Maledil’s (God’s) cosmic project.

In this second book, the narrator, called “Lewis” in a pleasing conceit, travels to his friend Ransom’s house as summoned, encounters an angelic “Eldil,”, and on Ransom’s further instruction seals Ransom up in a coffin like object which whisks its’ occupant to the titular planet (which is in fact Venus).

So straight-away you have to forget what we now know about Venus as super-hot uninhabitable Hell, and enter Lewis’s imaginative conception of an unspoilt sea-world paradise, with floating islands and one forbidden ‘fixed’ land.  It’s not hard to do as this book is so good, the writing so rich and involving, and it’s all held together by the integrity of Lewis’s world-view.

Ransom arrives on Perelandra adrift on its’ sea, under a golden sky, and grabs hold of a floating island, an organic entity that sustain a diverse and bountiful eco-system, full of lush plant, animal and bird life.  Because, in Lewis’s story, it is un-fallen, untainted by evil, it is not characterised by a red in tooth and claw predatory fight for survival, but mutual, peaceful, dependence and co-operation.  On one of these islands Ransom meets “the Lady,” a figure of love, intelligence and enquiry, who is bewildered by Ransom’s thought processes and eager to know more about him.  The Lady is obviously very close to Maledil.  She has been looking for her companion, a man, from whom she has been separated.  But then something falls from the sky, and it’s Weston’s spaceship.  Weston himself is not sure why he is there, but is propounding a new philosophy, a vague belief tin some kind of God, a vacuous belief in which anything can fit.  And  unfortunately for Weston it does.  Weston is possessed by a demonic entity, here called the “Un-man, ” and from that point forward is damned and no more.  The Un-man strives to seduce the Lady away from the ways of Maledil through arguments that seek to put her above God, through the choice of going to the fixed land, forbidden to her and the man.  It’s an attempt at another Fall of mankind on another world, again using arguments of pride and the need to separate from God to grow.  Ransom must stop this attempt through any means necessary, be it argument or physical force.  The conflict is the central drama of the book.  Will the world fall to darkness, or will, with Ransom’s help, Maledil’s work drive forwards on its best path to fulfilment without a catastrophe of death and ruin?

The book succeeds on different levels, as a science fiction thriller and a work of propitious imagination, of world-building, of an epic fantasy clash between good and evil, and of theological and philosophical argument, on such huge topics as the conflict between good and evil, spiritual warfare, separation from God, the nature of evil, how other intelligent life on alien worlds does not negate the Christian world-view of the centrality of humanity on this one, and a lot more.  It is intensely readable and enriching.  Some may be frustrated by character’s breaking off from what they are doing to engage in deep philosophical debate, but what they discuss is so wrapped up in what is going on, it wasn’t a problem for this reader.

In tone this is a darker work than the previous one, as it confronts more head on the reality of evil.  And in its depiction of demonic possession, it can be frightening and horrifying.  The Un-man is a creature as frightening as anything contemporary horror has given us.  It has the almost casual obscenity of Pazuzu from the film “The Exorcist,” more sadistic playground bully than Milton’s tragic-heroic figure from “Paradise Lost.”  It can seem frightening plausible and seductive in its arguments, before wandering off to torture small animals!   The book’s depiction of damnation of Weston also raises a shiver of horror, as the ghost of Weston, a pitiable scrap occasionally allowed to re-occupy his shell of a body, describes the torments of being disembodied and melted down into the infernal presence.

Ransom must fight the Un-Man physically, and Ransom’s dread before the combat, the spiritual resources he finds to bear it after a torturous internal dialogue with his own doubt and fear, is also compelling reading.  The fight itself is a prolonged violent struggle that is also stronger stuff than anything in the previous book (and in any other of Lewis’s fiction that I can remember) and is a page turning tour-de-force.

Ransom and his foe are literally cast into the depths before the denouement, which I will not spoil here.  Suffice it to say it is an intense read, conjuring up massive imaginative conceits and visions with epic cosmological, philosophical and theological argument.

An amazing read, one I won’t forget, with much that I found helpful.

A review of G.K.Chesterton’s “The Man who was Thursday: A Nightmare”

This work, sometimes called “a metaphysical thriller,” is a rich delight.

It tells the story of one Gabriel Syme, who challenges anarchist Lucien Gregory on his views at an evening gathering in a bohemian side street in Edwardian era London.  Gabriel asserts those who bring order, even those who reliably steer trains to reliable destinations, are heroic linchpins that keep chaos at bay.  Lucien argues that chaos will liberate and create.  Gregory argues that only with order framing the chaos can any creating or anything else be done. It sets the tone for the central conflicts and arguments of the book.

Irritated, Lucien invites Gabriel to an anarchist meet, where he is horrified to discover that Gabriel is a Police detective(part of a special branch hunting anarchists).  Through a series of bluffs and counter-bluffs, Gabriel assumes the guise of a henchman of the notorious “Sunday” who rules over anarchist councils such as this everywhere, and is held in awe and fear among the anarchists.  Pushing his double agent work further, he then gets himself on Sunday’s elect Council as “Thursday,” where his comrades are also named after the different days of the week.  At his first supreme council meet, his spiritual intelligence detects an air of something truly diabolical about Sunday and his comrades.  He finds himself embroiled in a fight where the stakes could not be bigger..

To reveal more would be to plunge too far into spoilers.  For this is a wonderfully intricate piece of story-telling, its parts and components slotted together with a watch-makers skill.  If you do guess a twist, you won’t foresee how it will play out.  And if you do guess or work out from previous hints the identity of Sunday, you won’t foresee exactly how that plays out, and what the arguments behind the big reveal are.

Suffice it to say that G.K.Chesterton tells a cracking story first and foremost, and through that delves into some of the mysteries of the Christian Faith. This fits so well with the story, indeed it is the story, that it does not reduce the story to allegory or trick the reader.  Far from it.  This is a book to enrich, enlighten and entertain.  And it is often very, very funny as well, balancing humour at times with Hitchcockian suspense.  More than one scene has a thrilling race against time.

I also need to give a shout out to Simon Vance, who read the audio-book I listened to.  He strikes just the right balance between the different tones of seriousness and lightness, and his characterisation s brilliant.

Read and embrace this gem, you will be richer for it.

A review of Disney Pixar’s “Inside Out.”

This latest of Pixar’s has been received with happy reviews that reflect the film’s central character of ‘Joy.’ Critics and cinema goers alike have praised its depth and layers of meaning, its sense of fun, and its effect of making you want to hug your family.  Others have expressed disappointment, saying it left their kids sad and baffled when they should have been entertained.

I saw this with my wife, 9 year old son and 5 year old daughter.  The son is a harsh critic and was left utterly cold by the acclaimed “Paddington” for example.  But through this film he was engaged, smiling and responsive to the humour.  Unprompted at the end he declared it ‘good.’  My younger daughter was more baffled and bemused, burrowing into her Mum’s shoulder at the moments of threat.  From this I would say that the film would be most enjoyed by children 10-12 and any age upwards.  The age of the central protagonist, Riley, is 12, so children around that age will find the most to relate to.

The story is, Riley and her family are moving home, due to Dad’s work, moving to the more urban environment of San Francisco.  This throws Riley’s emotional life into turmoil, and as you will have gathered from the film’s marketing, reviews, word of mouth etc. her emotional life is personified by a range of brightly coloured cartoon characters; Joy (US sitcom ‘Park and Recreation’s’ Amy Poehler), Sadness (another US sitcom ‘The Office’ actress Phyllis Lapin-Vance), and the rest of the emotion cast have also a strong comedic background, with Bill Nader playing Fear, Lewis Black voicing Anger (good casting, because as well as his comedy he is also a strong social critic) and Disgust by Mindy Kaling.  The emotions sit in Riley’s skull, as with the old Beano strip ‘The Numskulls.’   They control from a Starship Enterprise like Bridge and console.  They process her memories and core memories, which are brightly colour coded spheres (gold for joy, blue for sadness etc.), monitoring her dreams (produced by her own in-skull film studio, and the main structures of her personality here represented as islands based around such themes as ‘family,’ ‘honesty,’ ‘hockey,’ ‘friendship,’ and ‘goofy.’   They work as a team with Joy in the ascendant, constantly side-lining sadness as a risk, or irrelevant.  Their stability is shattered as it is with Riley with the move house.  This participates huge change, and in a panicky attempt to preserve the status-quo, Joy inadvertently sets off a series of events that sees her and sadness ejected from the bridge and lost in Riley’s long term memories.  Their they meet Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong.  Meanwhile, Anger, Disgust and Fear are left in control, as Riley’s island’s of personality start to disintegrate under the strain of the change of new home, new school etc.  And Anger has a bright idea based on, well, anger.  That of running away.  Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong must get back to the bridge to regain control, but in the process, Joy may have to learn that sometimes, Sadness just has to be part of the team.

The film is an emotional roller-coaster, from the lump in the throat moment at the beginning of Riley forming her first memory as a newborn, to a montage of happy childhood memories, very funny moments (chiefly involving anger), to the drama of the crisis and a resolution that certainly had us parents welling up.  This is down to the story telling, animation, voice acting and themes that are already freighted with emotion in a film about emotion, such as childhood, families under crisis etc.  It is laugh out loud funny, with the interactions of the emotions not only in Riley but in her parents and sometimes those around her.  Anger (for me) raised the most laughs, especially in a scene where the father’s anger emotion raises the Defcon stakes before ‘putting his foot down’ and sending Riley to her room.  There are a lot of sight gags and a great visual, imaginative and inventive wit.

The conceit of the emotions and how they work in the machinery of Riley’s head is of course well developed from its Numskulls roots.  But whereas there has to be a limit on what a family animated feature can cover on the subject of a child’s mental health, there are some limitations that worried me.  The emotional spectrum is vast, and so having 5 core emotions characters must needs be very reductive.  ‘Love’ is never mentioned explicitly, for example, although it is represented through the characters actions, and what of all the other kinds of intelligence such as spiritual intelligence, intellectual ability etc?  Emotions are not everything and nor should they be completely in control, and yet here they are.

The other problem the film raised for me is that, it carries it’s meaning, it’s more weighty messages and lessons, a lot less loosely than did the Toy Story trilogy.  The Toy Story films had a lot to say about growing up and childhood, and yet the vehicles of story and entertainment came first and the deeper stuff came back to you on reflection, or on repeated viewings.  Here the life lessons etc. run alongside the entertainment and are much more obvious, and less effortlessly carried by the story.  As a result the sadness in the film will, for a lot of children, not be sufficiently carried by all the fun stuff.

I also need to warn you about a short film preceding the main one as in the great Pixar tradition.  It’s called ‘Lava’ and is about singing volcanoes falling in love.  It is charming enough, and a treat to look at, but it has one of biggest ‘ear-worm’ songs I’ve heard in a long time.  Pleasant enough, but extremely difficult to get out of your head!

To sum up ‘Inside Out’ is a justly praised, intelligent and funny family film, well worth a holiday trip to the cinema.

A review of Nnedi Okorafor’s novel: “Lagoon”

“Horatio:  O day and night but this is wondrous strange!

Hamlet:  Then as a Stranger give it welcome.  There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

These lines of Shakespeare’s from Act 1 scene 5 of ‘Hamlet,’ came to mind on finishing the extremely strange science fiction/fantasy novel that is ‘Lagoon.’

The story tells of an invasion of shape shifting aliens on Lagos, Nigeria, and of the change they bring.  Off the coast of Bar Beach an alien ship plunges into the sea, changing the sea life around it, making this life truly itself and more, awakening it to its full potentiality.  This involves some of it growing to monstrous proportions, so we get giant Swordfish and Squids. 3 disparate people are also drawn to the beach at the time of impact.  A soldier (Agu) who has rescued a woman from rape from colleagues, a woman,  a marine biologist, Adora, fleeing domestic violence, and a hugely successful rap artist, Anthony ‘Dey Craze.’  They are pulled into the sea by the alien life for a first contact experience that will change them forever.  Meanwhile an alien ambassador in the form of a tall Nigerian woman arises from the sea as an ambassador.  Taking the name Ayodele she comes in peace but inadvertently starts a riot, as tensions already evident reach boiling point.  Lagos descends into anarchy and more aliens arise from the sea.  Agu, Adora and Anthony were, it seems, chosen by the aliens because they all already have latent super powers like the ability to manipulate sound (Anthony), super strength (Agu) and teh ability to bind to use force fields (Adora).  And various creatures from Nigerian folklore become real and come to the surface, drawn it would seem by this accelerating change, including a huge story weaving spider.  Levels of meta meaning build a collide as we realise the spider is spinning the story we are reading.  The aliens want to live in some kind of symbiotic relationship.  But will humanity destroy them first?

I told you it was strange.  It also reminded me strongly of Shakespeare’s ‘the Tempest,’ that same mix of the sea, magic and strong human realities.  The language and writing is rich and sensuous, whether it is describing the verdant sea life, human violence or love, creatures from folklore or science fiction tropes such as shape shifting aliens.  On that note, another influence was possibly James Cameron’s ‘The Abyss,’ with it’s sub aquatic shape shifting alien invaders.  The writer also adds to her heady brew Nigerian colloquial language which gives the novel a really distinctive flavour.  The pacing is another strength, the novel is a real page turner, and the action barrels along as it communicates some pretty weighty themes.  Short chapters and events drawing to multiple crisis points help with this.  And that strangeness keeps thins unpredictable and suspenseful.

Problems for me included a caricature of Christianity that made me fear that the novel was going to go down a ‘science good, religion (specifically Christianity) baaaad’ road.  Some would welcome that, but to me its unhelpful and untrue.  However there are deepening ambiguities as the story goes on, which means things are not as simplistic as this.  The books strangeness was also to me a problem as well as a strength.  When characters from folklore start appearing and the lead characters reveal their super powers they have had since childhood, the story seemed to slip its moorings a bit.  In other words, it was in danger at times of making so little sense as to leave the reader estranged.  Nnedi Okorafor does manage to keep her riotous world bound by narrative integrity, but only just.

This is a novel about story telling as it is about all of the above, and I finished this feeling that I had been in thrall to a really good story that spoke truths about change and the human condition as much as it entertained.  I do recommend it.

A review of the Big Finish series “I Davros.” A four part series of audio-plays starring Terry Molloy

I came to this ‘origins’ adventure with expectations that this would be a pathos filled tale of a scientist whose perhaps good principles are corrupted and through a series of terrible accidents becomes a monster.  Superhero and sci-fi and other genre tales are full of such tragic falls from grace.  They are what makes the resulting uber-villain or monster so compelling.  From Batman’s Two-Face to Dr Jekyll, such stories abound.  In recognising the humanity in the monster, we recognise a little of the monstrous in ourselves.

With the Davros in this series, however, there is no such light and shade.  None to speak of anyway.  Davros starts in Part 1, “Innocence,” as a cynical and sadistic and sociopathic child, and really just degenerates further from that.   It’s just a descent from one kind of moral darkness to another.  As such, although there is much to thrill and entertain in this series, it did not quite have the impact I hoped for.

The whole thing is explicitly and knowingly framed in an “I Claudius ” world of a dysfunctional, powerful family, ruled over by a scheming matriarch, Lady Calcula, Carolyn Jones here channelling SIan Phillip’s Livia.  As in Robert Graves tale and the BBC drama, the good characters are culled ruthlessly by a cynical elite.  It’s framed in such a world but this is very much the Skaro heading towards the blasted Hell of ‘Genesis of the Daleks.’  A delight is how especially the later episodes reference the music and sound-scape of Genesis.  In part one Rory Jennings plays Davros in short trousers.  The kind of boy who will pull the legs of a spider not out of enjoyment but out of a detached scientific “fascination.”  Warped by his world and his family, we her see him already locking teachers in radiation chambers and other such hi-jinks.

In Part 2 Terry Molloy takes over the reins (he played Davros in a number of the tv show adventures) as Davros, here a soldier desparate to join the scientific elite.  He is sent on a seeming suicide mission with a team, and displays real courage, and shows the most human range of characteristics in the series yet.  He does get to rant, though, in true Davrios fashion, over a crippled comrade, shouting at him for his weakness.

Part 3 picks up the ‘Shan’ plot-line first sketched in the Colin Baker adventure ‘Davros.’  What begins as a very human attraction and flirtation develops, in true Davros fashion, into denial, murderous betrayal, and bitter contempt (on the part of our titular scientist).  He also has his body changing accident.

Part 4 brings us nicely to about the year before the events of Genesis.  Davros has near perfected his experiments on people with radiation, creating genetically evolved mutants.  Here he meets Nyder, a classic character from Genesis, and it’s a treat to hear Peter Miles reprise his role, and the two get on like a city on fire.  Davros demonstrates his love for children by turning them into radiation soaked monsters, the first Dalek creatures that will go on to pilot the ‘travelling machines.’  The story ends with the demonstration of the Mark 1 travelling machine (Genesis has him just finishing Mark 2 when Tom Baker arrives).

And during all this his family, friends and country men die and are massacred around him.  It is an entertaining, well produced and clever tale, and it’s a powerful and logical extension of the world of ‘Genesis.’ But it is also a bit depressing in its catalogue of atrocities, and eh Davros origin tale, as I have mentioned, is I think harmed by the lack of subtlety or human change.  He just goes from monstrous to more monstrous to experimenting on children scale monstrous.  You miss the light touch of the Doctor, any Doctor, and the sparring that would bring, which is what Genesis captured so well.

There’s also a disc of ‘extras,’ interviews with cast and crew which are good and illuminating, but I did wonder at the discussion on whether Davros was at all misunderstood.  Er…no?