Sunday, 14 February 2010

Cz- Cz- Cz- Cz- Cz- Cz- Czech It Out - Short Trips: Destination Prague edited by Steven Savile

There was a small tragedy in Doctor Who fandom towards the end of last year. Big Finish lost its licence for Doctor Who short story collections early in the year, meaning there was no longer any printed Who fiction based on the old series in regular production. And at the end of December they sold off all remaning stock, meaning there was officially no 'old series' Doctor Who fiction in print. It was a low key fizzling out to nineteen years of existence in the written word that, for a while, was the only thing that kept Doctor Who going; an official ongoing narrative that seemed impossibly exciting to those of us who'd grown up on the Target books.

It hadn't been that for a long time of course, firstly the BBC took the licence back from Virgin without entirely seeming to understand what had made the books so exciting (and understaffing the range massively), then Big Finish happened along to steal some thunder and cause fandom to schism over why their respective media were better. Then the BBC Books range quietly ended in the wake of the success of the Russell T Davies driven revival; Telos lost their novella licence and suddenly the Short Trips range, almost unnoticed, became the last classic series books. By their nature they were never the ongoing narrative that the New Adventures and Eighth Doctor Adventures had been, they were in essence the eventual triumph of the Missing Adventures. They started off with stories familiar to fans, but as they went on began to introduce other voices into the mix, ones new to Doctor Who. That culminated in the likes of the How The Doctor Changed My Life collection, consisting entirely of first time authors.

Destination Prague falls squarely into the camp of introducing new and different voices. Of the authors here I only recognised three from their previous Doctor Who work, one from a then twelve year old short story, one from a short story in the same range two books prior to this and one from a new series novel that came out after this was published. So those voices certainly weren't tapped out, and the rest may have fresh things to say. Call me insane, but I quite like the thrill of reading new writers and seeing what they can come up with; that applies to both Doctor Who and my wider reading. And if I see a familiar name having a go at Doctor Who for the first time, it's an extra thrill - I heartily approved of seeing Mike W Barr's name given his involvement in one of my favourite graphic novels of the mid 80s, Camelot 3000.

I'm still not certain that the overarching theme was a good idea. Prague's a beautiful city, albeit ones I've got bad memories of as I was miserably ill during my one trip there. Being confined to a hotel room with only the Simpsons in Czech to alleviate the misery isn't my idea of fun, particularly when I wasn't in a fit state to concentrate on my book. Plus it's diffcult to understand why we've never seen the Doctor reminisce about Prague before when it's apparently been such a big part of his lives. As a theme though, setting the stories in and around a foreign city is a sound idea, particularly when it comes with a rich history such as Prague's. The trouble there though is that you've a bunch of British, American and Australian authors who often seem to be relying on research rather than experience, not really capturing the essence of the city but playing around with the things that made the city famous instead. Familiar places and names recur - the likes of Rabbi Loew, Tyco Brache and Kafka, and the Astronomical Clock seems to get visited by every Doctor a couple of times over. And the second part of the theme, Prague's future, is difficult to extrapolate without knowing the city intimately. The stories sometimes become slightly SF generic, there's often nothing to stop this being almost any city in the world. And this being about Prague's future is slightly limiting on authors; it cleaves rigidly to the perception of Doctor Who as an SF show when really it can be much, much broader than that. That might be a difference in how the show's perceived by UK fans and how the rest of the world (including the broader UK population)sees the show though.

My favourite stories here do manage to avoid teling straight SF stories though. Steve Lockley and Paul Lewis succesfully use their story, War in a Time of Peace, to obliquely look at today. Stephen Dedman's Nanomorphosis ponders Kafka's literary concepts becoming reality and Todd McCaffrey's The Dragons of Prague is splendidly absurd, though the demouement is a little sudden and the prose itself is a little crude in places. Both manage a fine job of capturing Tom Baker's Doctor though, something that's eluded a hell of a lot of other Who writers. Actually, I found the second half of the collection very strong, the last seven stories all successful in telling different types of story - James Swallow's tale has a lovely elegaic atmosphere, Kevin Killiany's Men of the Earth has cockroaches and zombies - double points there! - and Fable Fusion uses what I assume is genuine Czech folklore as a starting point. I'm not entirely sure I'd have chosen opener Midnight at the Cafe of the Black Madonna as the representation for the Best of Short Trips collection, it seemes solid rather than inspired.

Strangely though, when I came to look back at the stories to write the review I found myself thinking more fondly of the first half of the book, even if the stories hadn't stood out to me at the time. The credits at the back of the book indicate the autors have extensive professional experience elsewhere, and it shows in the quality of the stories. There's nothing poor here, only the odd moment where the dialogue seems a little odd for certain Doctors, and the lack of Doctor Who experience doesn't show in retreading ideas but rather in minor details jarring with previously told tales. Not that such things bother me overly, I'm of the Robert Holmes school that thinks a good story takes priority over continuity details. If I'm going to level a charge, I'd say that I was never quite sure if there was a consistent timeline worked out for Prague's future - it may be a consequence of having the tales range over a vast timescale from 2012 to 848,988 though. And there weren't really any little details carried over from story to story that gave the collection a cohesive feel, the odd reference to other exploits in the collection slipped in might have made all the difference. And while it's obviously a choice on the part of editor Steven Savile, I wouldn't have minded a story or two set firmly in Prague's history, something to give readers a taste of the city's history and fully exploit the setting, rather than a second hand flavour. I suppose it stops writiers lazily homing in on obvious targets though, so I'm all for that. The book often feels like Savile's pushed his writers rather than settling for 'this'll do' at any point.

This ended up feeling like one of the stronger collections then, expereinced short story writers not falling prey to a trap Big Finish collections seem prone to, but understanding that a good short story isn't simply a cut down adventure (it can be, but that's rare). Well worth tracking down via the likes of Amazon Marketplace or eBay.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Hanging On To My Ego - Shooty Dog Thing by Paul Castle and friends

First a declaration of egotism and self-interest - I've written a fairly significant chunk of this book. So the review which follows is going to try to avoid judging all of my bits. Because I don't need to tell you how great they are, obviously...

I've been writing for fanzines for years - first off the stuff no-one gets to see (and I don't have copies of any more!) for a local Cult TV group, then a couple of reviews for Stone Circle and Strange Skins and, more recently, excellent Canadian 'zines Whotopia and Enlightenment. Most of which involved burbling on about Doctor Who one way or the other. But my main work's been done for the inestimable Paul 'Brax' Castle on - you guessed it - Shooty Dog Thing. Brax started the zine up in the wake of the Regenerations 2006 con, partly due to there being a lack of fanzine activity, and partly as a way to get to meet people. It must've worked wonders, certainly I made it a priority to reacquaint myself with him at the same event a year later (we'd had an all too brief meeting in 2002 and hung around the same mailing lists). And we spent a pleasant afternoon bonding over a shared love of Licence Denied, talking about the zine and kicking ideas around, ending with both of us going away buzzing and me promising him a couple of ideas. And I've been writing for him ever since, and he's become one of the best mates anyone could wish for.

Shooty's a modern zine, in outlook and production. It tends to concentrate on the old series, but with a modern outlook. Without wanting to sound too tediously hippyish, it wants to show what's great about Doctor Who, regardless of when it was produced or what form it came in. The real stroke of genius thugh was to become the first non-print Doctor Who 'zine, instead it was published as a quarterly PDF formatted for reading or for printing.

So we were socialising down in London in November when Tim Hirst, eminence gris of Hirst Books, collared Brax and asked him if he was interested in putting together a Best of Shooty Dog Thing for professional publication. ISBN, Amazon listing and everything. You might think Brax snapped his hand off on the spot but nope, after some deliberation and a revisit to make sure he had enough for a book that he'd be proud to put out he agreed. And frankly worked his arse off to pull everything together before Christmas. For my part, I was one of those he asked for extra material, initially for the tie in review section with Hirst Books other planned Christmas release, Colin Baker's Look Who's Talking, and a Bernice Summerfield Inside Story review to complement an already published article. And, madly, I managed to pitch him a piece about how the Sixth Doctor had been successfully evolved since his time on screen ended. At least that's how I pitched it, but it ended up being a massive overview of the evolution of the Sixth Doctor's character right from the start. I think that it ended up being a long article was that I was conscious of it being for publication in a book rather than a fanzine, and therefore having more space to flesh out the ideas in. I'm always trying to keep actual fanzine articles relatively short, as a) the longer ones fill up a hell of a lot of page count and I don't want to bore readers and b) with a lot of the zines I write for being prepared mainly for online consumption now, several thousand words can mean one hell of a lot of concentration and eyestrain.

Postal strikes and revisions meant the publication date slipped back to January, but that allowed a couple of articles to be switched and a stronger, changed running order of articles. I did a late proofread of the book and, despite it being late and knowing a lot of the material, found myself being drawn into it.

So what is it exactly? Well, it's a great big fuck you to the narrow minded concept that the best Doctor Who is exclusively the telly show. It's a love letter to the diversity of Doctor Who out there, the books, comics, audios, spin offs, conventions, plays... essentially about how damn great it can be, and how great being a fan of it can be. It's introduced by two Doctor Who alumni, first the multi-talented Paul Cornell, editor of original fanzine collection Licence Denied, and a quite wonderful and moving tribute to fanzines in general from ex-fanzine writer and editor and proprietor of Telos books, David J Howe. It's almost worth the cover price of the book alone. And it finishes with a loving tribute to Doctor Who and its fandom from 60s Doctor Who actress Anneke Wills. In between those pieces, all Time Lord life is there. There's fan theorising, edgy humour, convention reviews, directions to some sorely neglected corners of Doctor Who, holding fandom itself up to a mirror... it's an extended love letter to being a fan, the creative possibilities of fanhood and an exhortation to be as open-minded as possible, because otherwise you might miss something brilliant. It's perhaps less eclectic and anarchic than the collection that inspired it, but that's probably as much to do with the pieces all being drawn from one source, and possibly a certain generation of fandom being a little more mature, if still not short on mockery.

While the enthusiasm's one of the major selling points, it doesn't detract from the quality of the writing. Obviously excepting myself for egotistical reasons, it's excellent. Paul's an intelligent, genial host, knowledgeable, but never wanting to intimidate or show that off, wanting to share it instead. And his cadre of writers follow that lead, sometimes seriously, sometimes tongue in cheek, but always with a love of Doctor Who first and foremost in mind.

I'm proud to be part of it.

Buy Shooty Dog Thing here. And check out a few of the other fine publications from Hirst Books while you're at it.

Everything Picture - Round Up #1

...or the stuff I've read but want to keep what I say about the, short and sweet.

First up, Jo Durden-Smith's The Essence of Buddhism. It's a basic guide to Buddhism, essentially more of the history of the religion (and therefore a bit of a slog occasionally) and the various factions, with fairly shallow of dips into the philosophy underpinning the religion. Interesting, but only a starting point if you want to know more.

Colin Wilson's biography of Alister Crowley, The Nature of the Beast is fairly remarkable in that it's one of the most credulous books I've ever read. It doesn't shy away from Crowley's manifold flaws, but when it comes to Crowley's more mysticism he's got a disturbing tendency to take him literally at his word. It's an interesting position to try to hold, balancing scepticism with credibility, and I'm not entirely sure Wilson pulls it off. But it's interesting to get a fuller picture of one of the original tabloid daemons, and no man who pissed the Daily Mail off so much can be all bad, even if he did descend to eating shit.

And finally the band biography of one of my favourite bands, The Flaming Lips. There's nothing essentially remarkable about their story, bar their persistence, but when a remarkable character like Wayne Coyne's at the heart of the tale, it can't help but be interesting. Like the Lips music it feels like a mix of wide eyed cosmic optimism of with garage and punk, it's like tracking someone with a great deal of enthusiasm and determination trying to build a spaceship from the principle of trial and error. It's often close to crashing and burning in flames, but as much by luck as judgement, they eventually manage to successfully shoot for the stars. Author Jim DeRogitas often makes a classic rock critic mistake of telling you exactly what's good, and oh look, it's received orthodoxy. Trying to build a consensus, which seems extraordinarily appropriate for a band like the Lips. Although he's right when he says that the magnificent atheistic hymn 'Do You Realize??' should have been one of the biggest hits of all time. It's a reminder of how, in a ruthless bastard of an industry, there's still room for a bunch of hardworking nutters to make it on their own terms. The world would be a shittier place indeed without the cheeringly indomitable presence of the Lips, the purveyors of the finest, most joyous and inclusive rock 'n' roll show I've ever seen.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Sweet Dreams My... Lost 6.1/6.2 LAX Parts 1 & 2

You don't get cliffhangers much better than the one Lost ended Season 5 on. The mythologised Jacob had died at the hands of Ben, accompanied by a man who looked like Locke but which the dead body in the coffin indicated wasn't. And Juliet had just apparently set off a hydrogen bomb in an attempt to change the timelines so Flight 815 never crashlanded. Not so much a 'how do they get out of that' but a 'what the hell happens next' topped with the intriguingly obligue hint of Lost's usual logo being presented in negative - black on a white background. There's very few shows get to the end of five seasons and leave you with utterly no idea as to what the next season will be like. It's that 'where the fuck are they going?' that's made Lost one of my favourite shows. Other people are hanging on for the answers, for all to be revealed. And I can understand that. But it's very difficult to make the answers satisfying when everyone's been hanging on for them for so long. And I'll bet that, whatever the ending, some people are going to end up disappointed. Certainly Damon Lindelof seemed to be trying to soften people up when he mentioned Newhart's 'all a dream' ending in an interview with MTV News. Even if, as he implies, the ending's clever and germane to Lost, there'll be plenty vocally upset about it. Their loss, particularly when the ride so far's been so enjoyable.

There's no messing about to start the new season. It picks up precisely where Season 5 left off, with Ben killing Jacob in the modern day with a man who looks like, but't isn't, Locke, and, back in the other time zone, 1977, Juliet setting off a hydrogen bomb that - according to the theory of Daniel Faraday (physicist and member of the rescue party for Oceanic Flight 815. And... it immediately heads for left field once again. We go into a timeline where Oceanic Flight 815 doesn't crash, where the turbulence from 2004 is merely brief and doesn't bring them down, and the island they blew up is at the bottom of the ocean. We're back where we started, but this time heading in an entirely different direction, where the crash and subsequent consequences never happened. Desmond's here, not settled down off the island, Charlie and Boone are alive. Interesting to note that Shannon wasn't on the flight with him though - scheduling difficulties or plot to unfold? Hang on, Desmond's on board? We get to see what happened if the flight reached LA. It'd be a shock if it didn't take the full season for those consequences to unfold in this timeline. Part One ends as the flight touches down and everyone disembarks, the only really obviously notable event being Jack saving Charlie's life from an overdose, and Charlie resenting him for it.

And we're also back in a timeline where Juliet didn't manage to detonate the hydrogen bomb. Everybody lives! And just like that we're following parallel alternate timelines. How can you not love a series that actually considers the audience intelligent enough to deal with that without a word of explanation? You have to respect a series that's reformatted itself season by season without, despite appearaces around a slightly flabby midsection, losing direction. Anyway here we've got Juliet dying in Sawyer's arms, seemingly irrevocably breaking their never straightforward relationship down altogether. Even slash fans couldn't mend this one confincingly (unless it's a ritual disembowelling knife Sawyer rams where the sun don't shine). And Jacob's ghost appears to Hurley to tell him he was killed an hour ago, gives him a guitar case and tells him to take everyone to the temple. Which leads us to...

Another 'and', this one being being Not-Locke and Ben dealing with the aftermath of Jacob's death. We discover what Not-Locke is (not who, that's not up for revelation just yet) in spectacularly violent fashion. And gives us a kind of answer to the island's apparent power of cheating death. It's instantly the most gripping element of the episode, partly due to being so close to giving us definitive answers and partly thanks to the endlessly fascinating performances of Terry O'Quinn and Michael Emerson.

As if everyone hadn't got the idea over the past five years, Cuse and Lindelof are too savvy to satisfy viewers by returning to that. Instead the first half hour or so of part two is spent alternating between the two timelines, Jack discovering his father's coffin is missing and Kate escaping her captor. There's all sorts of meetings that seem halfway significant between characters we've come to know over five years, that have you asking if they mean anything. And meanwhile, back on the island, we find the Temple, although there's a further mystery opened with the people we find there. And some seriously major developments for one of the leads. While it's not dull, perhaps a touch on the slow side at times while events develop, I was hankering to get back to Ben and Not Locke. Yep, that's despite cast fatalities and a foxy lady kicking arse. And when we do get back to Ben and Locke? Explanations of a kind. And hints, and a sense that things are really moving at pace towards a big climax.

I think I know where they're going with the resurrection of Sayid. And with the Ben and Not-Locke storyline. But not a scooby with the LA story.

More answers then, but even at this late stage they open new questions. Lost's back, and it's business as usual. And as ever, business is good.

Monday, 1 February 2010

House of Books - Howard's End is On The Landing by Susan Hill

Yeah, I've mentioned this one before.

I confess I've never read one of Susan Hill's novels, I haven't even the slightest idea of what she writes, although Those Who Know reckon she's A Literary Heavyweight. Cest la vie, you can't read everyone, although literary snobs would undoubtedly be looking down their nose at me for that admission. But, as a bibilophile with a book collection that's evolving into a world devouring entity, the central idea of the book was irresistible - opt out of the literary rat race and instead turn inward to devour your own collection. Like I say, irresistible, particularly since I don't think I could do it myself.

This is far more personal than a straight autobiography could be. Anyone can tell their life as they saw it. Hill instead puts her library up for public scrutiny, and thereby exposes her personality and tastes for all to see. That's far more daring and interesting than selecting the events in your life you want to show people. And she isn't shy, openly proud of her collections of children's books and pop up books where others might have deliberately dodged mentioning them. I'm not sure I'd actually like Hill if we ever met, there's often the loud clanging of literary name drops, her life path and attitudes differ and our generational outlooks and tastes seem vastly divergent. And she often seems a touch on the haughty side, but given the literary circles she came to maturity in, that's perhaps only to be expected.

The book's at its best when she's enthusing about her favourite books, or books I didn't know about but which she makes fascinating. She's quite brilliant on the subject of the King James Bible and why it matters to her so much, and you'd be a curmudgeonly individual indeed (or a massive bibliophile. Or both) not to be moved to follow up on at least a couple of the books she comes across. I considered it a triumph to restrict myself to two (the already-covered-in-this-blog The Smaller Sky and The Paper House). It's that type of recommendation of books you otherwise probably wouldn't hear of that makes this such a fascinating and worthwhile book, although following up on those recommendations is obviously at odds with the book's central conceit. I'm determined to follow that conceit myself one day, but that book addiction is a hard habit to break. Probably worse than crack, although with less physical symptoms.

It doesn't matter if you've no idea who Hill is, by the end of this book you'll feel like you know her personally. And probably be impressed by how lovely her use of words is. It might only appeal to book lovers, but a book that can make you feel that not buying books is not only a worthwhile exercise, but something of a triumph, and not leave you feeling like a philistine, is a remarkable thing indeed.