Friday 24 December 2010

Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

I can't quite recall how I came to choose this book for review, because it isn't my usual reading fare. It combines two fantasy sub-genres, superheroes (I sometimes watch these on film but don't read about them) and zombies (which I neither watch nor read). However, I decided to regard it as educational and pressed on.

The time is the near future, when two different events have completely changed the world. The first is when a few ordinary people began to acquire specific superhero powers. The principal character is known as St George, an invulnerable crime-fighter of immense strength who can leap over buildings and breathe fire, but others include Gorgon, who can drain people's life force with his eyes, Zzap, who turns into a being of pure energy, and Cerberus, a young female engineer who has no superpowers but has developed a huge, powered, armed and armoured fighting suit. And then there is the mysterious Stealth, a beautiful woman dressed head to toe in a skinsuit, who is formidably intelligent as well as superhumanly fast and strong, and becomes the superheroes' leader.

The second event is far more serious and follows shortly after the first; zombies begin to appear in increasing numbers. They are driven by a desire to bite healthy people, who sicken and die and become zombies themselves. The only way to kill them is to destroy their heads. An initial slowness to react and take the drastic measures necessary to contain the outbreak means that it has spread around the world. Even many of the superheroes fall victim to them, and return to fight their former comrades.

As Ex-Heroes begins, almost the entire human population has become zombies. A few thousand people survive in Los Angeles in two groups: one, supported by the surviving superheroes, is concentrated in the Paramount Studious complex, a walled area which can be defended against the surrounding hordes of zombies. The other, much larger, group is a criminal gang known as the Seventeens, who attack the other humans and superheroes when they can.

The chapters initially alternate between "now" and "then"; the ones set in the past each focusing on a specific superhero as the zombie plague begins, and thereby introducing the reader to the characters in more detail than the main narrative. Towards the end of the book, the attention is very much on "now"; the fight for survival against the zombies and the Seventeen, which reveals the limitations of even the most powerful superhero.

The plot is unusual, the story well written, the characters developed well enough to engage the reader, and it's a gripping tale from start to finish. I have only two reservations; it's a very grim dystopia (although with a glimmer of hope at the end), and there are an awful lot of gruesome fight scenes with the zombies. It made an interesting departure for me, but has not inspired me to want to read any more books about zombies!

Saturday 18 December 2010

Films: Dogma (1999), Highlander (1986)

I was pointed towards Dogma in an SFF discussion forum, so I gave it a spin recently. The plot of this comic fantasy is novel: two fallen angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), living as humans in present-day USA after having been banished by God long ago, conceive a plan to get back to Paradise. The problems are that if they succeeded this would prove that God is fallible, and thus cause the end of all creation; and that God, who could stop them easily enough, has gone missing while in disguise, somewhere on Earth. To help prevent disaster, God's spokesman (Alan Rickman) recruits a woman (Linda Fiorentino) who, unknown to herself, is the last scion of the family of Jesus of Nazareth. She is tasked with stopping the angels, with the aid of an assortment of dubious characters.

This is the excuse for a lot of rather heavy-handed and sometimes crude humour, mostly at the expense of religion in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular - I gather that it prompted protests from Catholics in the usual Pavlovian manner. Subtle it ain't, but it fires enough comic shots for a number of them to score hits. All in all, worth watching if you are in the mood for some broad humour, unless you are religious and of a sensitive disposition.

I've been meaning to watch Highlander for years, but have only just got around to it. The story of the accidental immortal Connor MacLeod (played by Christopher Lambert) who spends centuries battling the Kurgan, another immortal warrior, must be well-known by now. Two plot threads run in parallel with the scenes flipping between them; one in the sixteenth century, when Connor first discovers he is immortal and is trained by fellow-immortal Ramirez (played by Sean Connery) and one in 1985 when the climactic battle takes place.

I have to say that I was rather dissatisfied. There are yawning plot holes, with no attempt at any explanation for what is going on and why. Lambert makes a broodingly impressive hero but the Kurgan is a cardboard cut-out villain and the rest of the cast (except Connery) are unmemorable. I found the background pop music jarringly inappropriate, and the whole film rather pretentious and overblown. It compares badly with some of the more recent superhero movies. I gather it has cult status and is highly regarded compared with the sequels, so I won't be wasting time on them…

Friday 10 December 2010

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21, edited by Gardner Dozois (Part 4)

The final batch of eight stories.

The Accord by Keith Brooke. A far-future story of people living pleasant, simple lives on a backward planet, all believing in a supernatural life-force called the Accord. Then an anomalous character appears to disturb the peace - and it becomes apparent that the world is not at all what it seems. An intriguing story concerning reality and identity. I recently reviewed Brooke's YA novel, The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie.

Laws of Survival by Nancy Kress. A dystopian future in which, following nuclear war, unseen and mysterious aliens arrive and establish impenetrable grey domes close to the sites of destruction. A woman, barely existing from hand to mouth by following her own rigid rules of survival in a collapsed world, finds herself inside one of the domes and learns that the aliens have their own bizarre priorities.

The Mists of Time by Tom Purdom. A fascinating tale of a future in which a kind of time travel is possible with great difficulty - but only to observe the past, invisible to the people then. Only one visit to any scene is permitted to avoid any risk of problems, and the time-travel rig takes only two people. A wealthy man funds a mission to film a crucial incident in the life of an ancestor, the young commander of a small Royal Navy vessel cruising on anti-slavery patrol off North Africa in the 19th century, but the film-maker who goes with him has her own ideas of what kind of film she wants to make. The viewpoint alternates between the young commander and his descendent, watching and listening in fascination. Combat at sea in the days of sail is richly and tensely evoked, and the difference in attitudes and priorities between the observed and the observers wryly portrayed. A gem of a story.

Craters by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Another dystopian future in which young children are turned into unwitting suicide bombers by having bombs undetectably inserted into them, timed to explode years later. A reporter visits a dangerous refugee camp to try to determine the truth behind the incidents.

The Prophet of Flores by Ted Kosmatka. A alternative present-day Earth in which the accepted scientific methods of dating the past appear to prove that nothing is more than 6,000 years old, so the Bible is regarded as literally and unchallengeably true. Hominim remains discovered by archaeologists are categorised as "human" (tool users deriving from Adam and Eve) or "not human", but these careful distinctions - along with the archaeologists - come under threat when the remains of the small humans of Flores are discovered.

Stray by Benjamin Rosenbaum and David Ackert. A bizarre little fantasy of an immortal, able to command anyone to adore and follow him, who falls to Earth in a segregated America, determined to try to live as a human.

Roxie by Robert Reed. A man's life with his old and ailing dog, told against the background of an impending major asteroid strike on Earth. Hugely sentimental, and for dog lovers only.

Dark Heaven by Gregory Benford. Aliens in the form of vaguely humanoid amphibians have arrived on Earth as peaceful visitors, and live in a few specially-made structures on the edge of the oceans, rarely seen by most people. But then bodies start being found with mysterious injuries, and a police detective in the southern USA begins to suspect that the presence of the nearby alien base may not be coincidental.

Something of a marathon effort, this; I don't think I've read so many short stories in such a brief period of time. The book provides a fascinating cross-section of the state of SF short fiction today, and reveals it to be at least as varied and interesting as it has ever been. The stories are all of a high standard, and the choice of favourites will be determined by the preferences of the reader. Of this group, I most enjoyed the tale by Purdom, and also liked the ones by Brooke, Kosmatka and Benford. My overall selection of ones I liked most from each batch (which also happen to be the ones I liked most overall) is:

Finisterra by David Moles (first batch - reviewed 18 September) - the overall winner.
Alien Archeology by Neal Asher (second batch - reviewed 8 October)
Hellfire at Twilight by Kage Baker (third batch - reviewed 6 November)
The Mists of Time by Tom Purdom (final batch)

Friday 3 December 2010

The Weaving by Gerald Costlow

This is a first novel by an author who has had numerous short stories published. The outline of the plot of The Weaving, featuring princes and kings, witches, wizards and shapeshifters, goddesses and an evil demon, all set against a medieval background , sounds very familiar and not all that promising. However, this one is a bit different.

The heroine of the story is the Witch of the Woods, a magically powerful young woman whose pining for romance results in a change to reality, delivering a loving husband to her but also freeing a long-incarcerated demon, in the form of an attractive woman, to begin to rebuild her evil empire. Two plot threads run in parallel; a supernatural one as the various magical powers prepare for the final confrontation, and a more mundane one of rivalries between small kingdoms preparing for war. There are twists, turns and unpredictable developments leading up to the unexpected conclusion.

This story turned out to be more enjoyable than I had anticipated. Gerald Costlow turns a mature and perceptive eye on the proceedings, successfully bringing his interesting characters to life and leavening his writing with a wry and sometimes saucy humour which prompted more than a few smiles.

(An extract from my SFF blog)