Saturday, 23 July 2016

Imagine A World Without Our Nostalgia

I went to see X-Men: Apocalypse a few weeks ago - yeah, not exactly a series high point, is it? - and as I was walking back out through the cinema, past the posters for upcoming movies, for the first time I realised something that had been boiling away in my subconscious for an awfully long time now.  Not only were there barely any original properties, there was barely anything that wasn't directed squarely at those who, like me, grew up in the eighties and nineties.  Every major blockbuster was aimed at me.  And that sucked.

What struck me in that moment is that, as a generation, we've failed miserably to offer ourselves our fair share of innovative concepts, let alone to do the same for those who've come after.  Many of my friends are parents, and I refuse to believe that all they want to entertain their children with is the chewed up cud of their own childhoods.  Yet that seems to be what we get, and oftentimes all we get: old toys, old cartoons, old films, old comics, glossed up to look just new enough that we can pretend we haven't seen them all before, but kept sufficiently intact that we can still persuade ourselves that not a whole lot has changed since our formative years.

Now, I'm as guilty of this as anyone.  Well, maybe not as anyone, but I'm not claiming innocence.  I mean, anybody who follows the blog even slightly will have noticed that I've spent a good part of the last year watching Japanese cartoons from two decades ago.  Still, I've come to a lot of new stuff too.  And I like that stuff as much, and usually more, than the things I value from my childhood and teens.  There are stunning films, books, comics and music being produced, right now, and there are uniquely talented new voices coming up all the time, just trying to make themselves heard.

So here's a thought: what if we just let it all go?  What if we could all unanimously accept that, yeah, the cartoons and video games and comics and movies and toys that were around when we were growing up were pretty good, some of them even pretty great, but that was then and this is now - and in any case, we still have almost all of those things, should we want them.  They're not going anywhere.  But nor are they the be all and end all.

Now I realise this sentiment gets aired a lot in one form of another - but it's usually coming from people with no affection for the properties in question, and I don't at all class myself in that category.  I have a lot of love for many of these things.  I'm as excited for a new comic book movie as anyone, I long for a genuinely good Transformers movie, and I'll be really happy if and when we get another G. I. Joe picture.  It's not like I hate this stuff, only that I don't feel altogether comfortable around it anymore.  More and more it seems that the influence of me and people like me is stifling, and that it's time we backed off, or perhaps applied our fannish energies in a more constructive fashion.

So ... imagine a world without our nostalgia.  Just spend a moment imagining how that might look.  Imagine that instead of Star Wars 8 we got a new science fiction property that was as thrilling to the kids of today as Star Wars was for us back in the day.  Imagine that instead of a new Ghostbusters movie with the genders switched we could have something fresh that bottled that same lightning and could have an all-female core cast without it being dismissed as a gimmick.  Imagine a world where new ideas and new attitudes weren't just trying to sneak through the cracks of our obsession with our own childhoods.  Imagine what would happen if we, as a generation, released this stranglehold we have over popular culture.

It's a pipe dream, sure.  But there are steps that we could be making in that direction, if we wanted to.  Maybe if we were all more open to new ideas then we wouldn't be here, staring at a box office filled waist deep with the slop of our recycled youth; maybe if we paid more attention, instead of seeing things that in all likelihood will be crap just because we recognize the brand, then smart genre movies like Ex Machina and Predestination wouldn't be such a precious rarity.  I guess, engage a little harder with your entertainment is what I'm suggesting.  Perhaps expect a little more, and realise that there's space in your head and in the world for new ideas.  Maybe don't tear into the Jupiter Ascending's of this world without even bothering to watch them.  You know, stuff like that.

Or don't, and maybe we'll finally get that M.A.S.K movie they keep promising.  Oh, and Thundercats, that's happening soon right?  And weren't they even talking about a Visionaries movie, even though no one ever gave the slightest damn about Visionaries?  You know what, actually I'm easy either way.  But could we at least all agree to keep Michael Bay away from these things?  Because Michael Bay's M.A.S.K is not a thing I have any need to see.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

The Sign in the Moonlight: Launching at Edge-Lit

 I think that the last time I had a book launch was for my first novel Giant Thief, five or so years ago, and that wasn't much of a thing all told - more of a book hermitage, really - so there's no shortage of reasons for me to be looking forward to this coming Saturday.

The thing is, as I never tire of pointing out, it's not so long ago that it seemed as though The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories was never going to happen, as the collection I'd spent three years trying to make a reality swam around the edges of the sucking whirlpool that was the demise of Spectral Press.  Then, when I found a home for the paperback early in the year with the wonderful Digital Fiction Publishing, I had to try and accept that the hardback edition - which had been my dream for the project all along, and the reason I persuaded Duncan Kay to provide his gorgeous illustrations - was going to fall by the wayside.  Then, somehow, I convinced Ian Whates, head honcho of perhaps my favourite UK small press, NewCon, to pick up the project, and not only that but Ian fell in love with it enough to give the book the sort of deluxe treatment I'd barely dared dream of.  And now here we (nearly) are and it's my second ever book launch, and the book in question is a thing of almost obscene beauty.  Oh, and I'll be launching beside one of my favourite authors, Adrian Tchaikovsky, whose collection of short fiction from perhaps my favourite ever series, The Shadows of the Apt, will also be out from NewCon on Saturday, which makes a nice sort of poetical sense given that Adrian was kind enough to write the introduction for The Sign in the Moonlight.


So that'll be happening between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., and alongside mine and Adrian's books are a collection from V. C. Linde and one from Mr. Whates himself, released by the ever foxy and ever spirited Fox Spirit.  Oh, and there'll be free wine.  Wait, I wrote that in lower case, didn't I?  What I of course meant to say was, THERE'LL BE FREE WINE.

Damn it, there must be a way to do flashing text in blogger.  No?  Really?

So do come along, please.  Even if you can't afford to buy anything, it's not often that getting drunk in the daytime at someone else's expense can be passed off as supporting the arts - but in this case it clearly is, and moreover it might be another five years before I get to do another of these things and I'd like to make this one count.

Oh, and if you really can't make it, please do consider picking up a copy here!  You'll miss out on the free wine, but you'll still get a gorgeous, fully illustrated book full of some of the finest short fiction I've penned, so there's that.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 12

So here we are, and here's more nineties anime, caught as ever on the cusp of the ridiculous and the sublime - though perhaps with rather too much of the former and not a great deal of the latter this time around.  And I say this as someone who sat through the Legend of the Overfiend sequel so that maybe no one else would ever have to.

But it's not all doom and gloom and horrifying tentacle monsters!  This time around: Burn Up WUrotsukidôji II: Legend of the Demon WombAll Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku and Tokyo Revelation.

Burn Up W, 1996, dir: Hiroshi Negishi

Burn up W is a four part OVA intended, so far as I can tell, as an introduction to the Burn up Excess series that would soon follow; it certainly plays out in a decidedly prologue-like fashion, ending with its characters at what feels like the jumping off point for a main act.  That's fine and all, and not really a problem - but there are problems, and they're not small ones.  I'd actually had some hopes for this, not based on much beside the box art and description it has to be said, but I'd be wasting my time entirely with this nineties anime thing if I didn't have a certain soft spot for violent comedy action shows with huge-eyed female protagonists.

Burn up W plays on that affection, and hard.  It's nothing short of brazen in its efforts to show off its protagonists being violent and at the same time scantily clad; we meet one character via a lingering shot of her prone, sweating body as she grumbles about how she's not allowed to fire the sniper rifle she's holding, which gives as fair an impression of what's going on here as anything could.  Though in fairness, you almost have to respect the degree of setup the show goes through to have one of the characters bungee jump naked out of a helicopter.

And anyway, that's still not the problem, unless you really want it to be.  In fact, for the first two episodes, there isn't much of a problem at all.  Part one, featuring a bizarre hostage situation, is pretty good; part two, where the show starts aggressively parodying other shows, is really fun, and one dig at Neon Genesis Evangelion (a giant purple mech that "takes 29 minutes and 30 seconds to confirm a target") had me in stitches.  Which, yes, says more about me than Burn up W, but still.

Anyway, then it falls apart.  Burn up W takes a tonal shift for its second half that nothing in the first half could hope to support.  Suddenly things get awfully dark and violent - whilst at the same time still being essentially a goofy, fan service-heavy pastiche of Bubblegum Crisis - and the bottom falls out of the whole business with an almost audible whoosh.  It's a terrible decision, and the most generous interpretation is that it's a parody of the similarly terrible decisions that other nineties anime shows made, which is a fun idea but I suspect giving too much credit.  Whatever the case, the end result is tough to be positive about.  Burn up W will always have a fond place in my heart for arbitrarily sending up Evangelion, but it takes a little more than that to get a recommendation round here.  (Though, let's face it, only a little.)

Urotsukidôji II: Legend of the Demon Womb, 1993, dir: Hideki Takayama

Here's the great thing about watching Legend of the Demon Womb: now that I've done it, I don't have to keep seeing the damn thing on my shelf.  And, since that doesn't help anyone but me much, here's another positive: Urotsukidôji II is not half so abominable and repellent as Urotsukidôji, the film better known to western audiences as Legend of the Overfiend, and the movie that introduced the wider world to the peculiar sub-genre of Japanese erotica that is tentacle rape pornography.

That is about as far as we're likely to get with listing positives, for "less abominable and repellent than Legend of the Overfiend" should in no way be construed as a recommendation.  Though, it has to be said, it feels like one while you're watching Legend of the Demon Womb, and it's hard not to mistake that sense of relief for vague and intermittent enjoyment.  I'll go further ... Demon Womb is an all-round better film than its progenitor, with a more tolerable protagonist, considerably more imagination, less of an emphasis on sexualised violence and considerably more solid animation.

Which still shouldn't be construed as a recommendation.  For Demon Womb remains horrible and rapey and frequently dull, with a middle act that mostly sits around spinning its ugly wheels to minimal effect.  But, unlike Overfiend, a movie that managed to be at once vilely unpleasant and at the same time basically dull, it's rarely flat-out terrible.  It even starts rather intriguingly, at least if you consider an occult Nazi experiment to summon Norse gods via the medium of a rape carousel intriguing.  And, as with Overfiend, the third act is by far the best, with that selfsame Nazi rape carousel popping back up, (it looks disturbingly like a birthday cake), veritable tides of blood, absurd violence and an emphasis on the one character who isn't made intolerable by the staggeringly poor US dub.

But, you know - still not a recommendation.  I'm trying to be as light hearted as I can here, because that's a big part of what these posts are about, but any review in which you type the word "rape" four times (now five) is, with the tiniest handful of exceptions, going to be for a product that's better off left to rot in the grubbier corners of history.  The thing is, you don't need to watch an Urotsukidôji movie, ever; I promise you, there's no hole in your life that will ever filled by what these things have to offer.  However, if you should absolutely feel the need then, all things being equal, Legend of the Demon Womb is without a doubt the one to go for.

All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku, 1992, dir: Yoshio Ishida

So last time around I said that I'd have to choose between watching Urotsukidôji II and All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku, but I realised quickly that the two weren't mutually exclusive - and indeed that after the former I might find myself really, really in need of the latter.  And so it proved.

Now, I'd be lying if I said that I bought All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku for any other reason than the title.  All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku!  What does that even mean?  Well, it turns out that, like many an anime title that sounded hopelessly bonkers at first glance, this is just literalism gone faintly wrong.  For this is indeed a show about a cat girl named Nuku Nuku, and she is indeed pretty versatile and, er, cultural.  Nineties anime: it does what it says on the tin, even when what is says on the tin makes no damn sense.

Anyway, Nuku Nuku is the brainchild of eccentric genius roboticist Kyusaku Natsume, who we meet at a particularly hectic point in his life: he's at once breaking up with his billionaire businesswoman wife Akiko, stealing the prototype robot he built for her and kidnapping their son Ryunosuke.  And when a kitten that Ryunosuke has tried to save becomes a casualty of the ensuing conflict, Kyusaku hits on the obvious solution.  At least if you consider transferring the cat's consciousness into an untested, military grade robot obvious - which, if you're a lightly comic anime OVA from the front end of the nineties, you surely do.

This leaves us in a broadly similar place to last month's Twin Signal, though with a higher budget that delivers some above average animation, especially in the frequent scenes of city-spanning destruction.  But oddly, what elevates All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku is not the general insanity but the slight degree of seriousness underpinning it.  There's no arc plot to speak of, but what we do get is a running custody battle - frequently fought with live ammunition - between Kyusaku and Akiko, both of whom are fond parents but deeply flawed individuals and both of whom are loved equally by Ryunosuke, who makes no bones about the fact that he'd just like to see his folks back together.  The sweet-natured Nuku Nuku, for that matter, feels much the same way, even going so far as refer to Akiko as mama-san.  And it soon becomes apparent that, despite their utter incompatibility, Kyusaku and Akiko still have a degree of fondness for each other.

If that doesn't sound like particularly rich material for comedy then that's probably because it isn't, and it takes a certain delicate balance to get right, one that All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku by turns gets close to, nails perfectly and forgets about altogether.  It's a wildly inconsistent show, surely by design, but the one episode where everything comes together is worth the effort of watching alone.  It centers on the show's strongest character, the marvelous Akiko, whose conflict between fond mum and gleeful super-villain comes to a head when she's blackmailed by Kyusaku into playing the role of traditional Japanese housewife, with the reward being that she gets to live with her son.  It's a surprisingly perceptive examination of what it means to combine being a successful woman and a mother in modern Japan, and it ends in a battle between a tank-driving Akiko and a robotic cat girl, because of course it does.

Ultimately, the very best thing about All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku is that title; it's a reliably fun show, but not quite consistent enough to count as a must-watch.  But if you have a fondness for daft nineties anime humour then this is definitely towards the upper end, and well worth a look.

Tokyo Revelation, 1994, dir: Osamu Yamasaki

Given that it combines two of my absolutely least favourite things in nineties anime - Manga's invariably half-arsed Collection series of budget releases and plots involving invading demons - Tokyo Revelation was something of a pleasant surprise.  Though to some extent it ticks all the relevant boxes that make both of those things so obnoxious, it has a few notable virtues that soften the blow somewhat.  So on the one hand we have Manga's typically low standards, and the obligatory nudity and gore, not to mention plenty of swearing on the dub to push up the certificate.  But on the other, that dub actually isn't all that bad, and the whole thing isn't half as grubby as an Urotsukidôji movie, or even something like Wicked City.  That's the crucial difference, I think; Tokyo Revelation manages to circumvent both the utter sleaziness of some similar titles and the desperate cheapness of much of the Collection line-up, and in so doing ends up being unexpectedly likable.

Let's not go mad here, though, we're still talking about something pretty trashy.  Again, though, the specific nature of that trashiness is at least more fun that nasty.  In particular, this reminded me of that whole weird hysteria around Dungeons and Dragons turning kids into satanists: bad guy Akito turns to devil-worship after being bullied as a child, and even does his demon summoning with computers, just in case "bullied kid who becomes a satanist" wasn't enough nerd panic.  Oh, and he's gay, a fact that Tokyo Revelation handles ... well, not terribly.  And really, the fact that that detail's in there at all speaks to why is something rather decent.  Even though none of the characters get a great deal of development amid the 55 minute running time, there's at least the sense that they're people with hopes, dreams and past lives, and that counts for a lot.  It's broad strokes stuff, of course, but at least it's there, and when you're hammering through a busy plot at the rate that Tokyo Revelation does, making time for a few decent character beats counts for at least something.

The biggest positive here, though, is the quality of animation, which is surprisingly impressive for 1994, and downright startling for a Collection release.  It's not revolutionary, of course, but it's certainly good, and - along with some pleasing character designs and detailed backgrounds - the result is definitely attractive.  Again, this makes a big difference, and speaks to why Tokyo Revelation is worth at least a glance: it might be familiar, but it does its thing better than most.  I can't quite stretch that out to an actual recommendation; still, you can pick it up for nothing these days and there are surely worse ways to waste an hour.


As we edge closer to oblivion as a species and as we start to tot up just what we've done with our time on the planet, I'd like to think that All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku is something we can all be proud of - if only because the name makes me chuckle ever time I type it.  On the other hand, if there's any kind of afterlife or cosmic judge, we're probably going to have to answer for the Urotsukidôji franchise sooner or later.  Which, with Tokyo Revelation and Burn Up W already beginning to fade from memory, I suppose leaves this post fairly balanced, karma-wise.

Still, all things being equal, I hope I get to watch some better stuff for the next one!

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10, Part 11]

Sunday, 3 July 2016

We're All Slush Readers Now

Woah, that title's a total lie.  But, I don't know, I thought it sounded cool.  At any rate, I at least am now a slush reader, an occupation I turned my back on many years ago when I realised it was thankless and joyless and payless and was recently sucked back into when someone actually offered me money to do it.  As such, I'm now the official slush wrangler for Digital Fantasy Fiction, imprint of Digital Fiction Publishing.  Yay!

And actually, to my surprise, I'm rather enjoying the experience so far.  It helps, frankly, that Digital only take reprints; that right there weeds out the slushiest of slush, and so far I haven't had to deal with anything too awful.  In fact, the overall standard has been rather good, all told.  However, I've noticed a few early trends, and I thought I'd share them here, because, who knows, the information might actually be useful to someone somewhere.  Oh, and I should state clearly that the following represents in no way the policy or opinions of Digital Fiction Publishing or of my fellow slush readers, who are probably all much better, wiser and less bloody-minded people than me.
  • First up, we aren't getting that many submissions.  Which is great because I'm quite lazy, but seriously people?  Money for reprints, that's a mug's game.  A good chunk of my short story income these days is off reprints, and it's literally money for old rope.  Well, not literally.  That would suggest that I wrote my stories on old rope, which would be an awesome gimmick, especially if I was writing about pirates or hangmen or, um, rope makers.  Anyway, point being, it's idiotic not to sell the reprint rights on your work if and whenever you can.  Send us some stuff.
  • Also: people who ignore the guidelines are severely irritating.  I know everyone says this, but seriously, it's true and it's a big deal.  And (though admittedly this isn't in Digital's guidelines) the reason markets tend to ask for standard manuscript format is because it's fairly painless on the eyes.  Fortunately, most everybody seems to be using it, but the one time someone didn't I got pretty grumpy.  And rejected their story.  Which, in fairness, generally wasn't much good, and would have been rejected anyway.  But at least I'd have been in a better mood.  I'm no longer sure what my point is here.
  • Wait, I know!  Here's the thing: I'm not reading stories here because I have a burning desire to read them, I'm reading them because it's a job.  That means I'm immediately predisposed not to like anything I read, even though I like fantasy and short stories and reading fantasy short stories.  I guess the moment something becomes work, all of that goes out the window.  And this, I realise now, is why editors and slush readers say half the things they do: about correct formatting, about strong openings, about not coming across as an idiot in your cover letter.  If a writer and a story get me on side early, that goodwill can carry a long way.  If they don't then I'm going to be a lot less inclined to bear with when I find my attention flagging, which is basically always, because I have the attention span of a drunken goat.  I know that sucks, but then so does being annoyed by other people's carelessness, so hey.
  • On that note - the one uniform factor across most everything that's come in, good or bad, recommended or declined, has been weak titles.  And, you know, the title is literally the first thing I pay attention to.  (Actually literally literally this time.)  Not one title has made me think "I want to read that this very second".  One made me want to delete the story before I even looked at it, but I didn't, because I'm a professional goddammit.  But please everyone, put more thought into your titles.
  • And let's end on a positive: as I said up top, the general standard of everything I've read has been particularly strong.  Again, I'm basically looking for excuses to stop reading here, and yet there hasn't been much that I bounced before I was, say, eight pages in.  Admittedly, there also hasn't been a great deal that I'd call really mind-blowingly extraordinary, but a baseline of very good is more than I'd dared hope for.  There are clearly a lot of people writing really strong fantasy fiction out there, which is reassuring to know.
So send something in, why not?  Preferably something outstandingly amazing, with a never-before-seen title, in flawless standard manuscript format and with a cover letter so brief that it verges on coy.  Am I asking too much?  Hell, no!  I am slush reader, here me roar.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 11

There was, of course, no way that I was going to repeat the high of last month's entry; still, all in all, and as the descent into double figures really begins, we don't have such a bad spread here.  Only the one thing that I'd struggle to recommend to anyone, one absolute wonder right out of the blue, and a couple of things that were fun but hardly mind-blowing.  Frankly, if I could keep that up to the end of this series - assuming there is an end, which looks increasingly unlikely - then I'd be a happy goldfish.

This month, then: Dominion Tank Police, Twilight of the Dark Master, You're Under Arrest, the Complete OVAs, and Twin Signal...

Dominion Tank Police, 1988, dir's: Takaaki Ishiyama, Kôichi Mashimo

I mentioned back when I rewatched New Dominion Tank Police back in part eight that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, having found it disappointing the first time I saw it in comparison to the earlier OVA Dominion Tank Police, made five years before.  Now it would seem that my tastes have done a complete one eighty: returning to the four part, two and a bit hour OVA series that is the original Dominion Tank Police, I found it not half so good as I remembered.  Fun, certainly, nicely animated for the most part, brilliant in places, but overall not much above okay - and thus, not quite on a par with the later series, which I enjoyed quite a bit.

Whatever the case, the two are certainly very different beasts.  The original OVA occurs entirely at night and its version of near future fictional city Newport is a phantasmagoria that looks grown rather than built - whereas by the time we get to the second series, Newport appears a great deal more like (then) contemporary Japan.  And only now, as I have a reason to research it, do I discover that this is because the first OVA was a prequel to the manga and the second was a sequel.  Huh.

Thinking about it, that also explains the greatest failing of Dominion Tank Police, which is that it spends a lot of time going nowhere much at all.  The first plot arc is all setup, with a central story that feels largely irrelevant, and the second, though more involved, is just as inconclusive.  However, in Dominion Tank Police's defense, I will say two things: it has terrific music - you can listen to the theme over there on the right, if you think you can handle the eighties glory - and it's deeply, deeply bonkers.  I mean, where else are you going to see tanks taken out by inflating dildo mines?  Or gun-toting cybernetic cat girl strippers?  Or a villain whose only goal is to steal a nude painting of himself?  Whatever else it might be, Dominion is never short of ideas, and some of them are genuinely terrific.  And actually, let's make that three things: this being the early days of anime adaptations, before Manga came along and lazied up the place, the localisation is pretty terrific.  Sure, you get the usual unnecessary swearing, but the voice cast are clearly having fun, and another thing I just discovered ... that glorious theme tune there has nothing in common with the original, which is rather bland by comparison.  Someone actually wrote that little masterpiece just for the English adaptation.  Now that's commitment!

Twilight of the Dark Master, 1997, Akiyuki Shinbo

It's a sign of my unreasonable dedication to this blog series that I've started watching a lot of these releases twice, just in case my first impressions were wildly off base.  When it came to Twilight of the Dark Master, that proved something of a mistake.  I mean, the first time through, I found it at least mildly diverting.  Plot-wise it's an awful lot like an awful lot of other things I've talked about here: Demons!  Punching!  Blood!  Bared breasts!  (And I realise that's not any kind of a plot summary, but it's certainly more useful than me trying to explain the real thing, or to differentiate it from any of a dozen similar efforts.)  But director Akiyuki Shinbo would go on to make quite the career for himself - most notably with Puella Magi Madoka Magica - and even way back in 1997, his sense of style was sufficiently in evidence to elevate hokum to the level of visually arresting hokum.  Plus, we have a really excellent score by Keiji Urata, who would be involved with disappointingly little after this, but who did also provide the music for one of my all time favourite series, the wonderful Texhnolyze.

And there we are with the entirety of the positives.  Stacked against them are that plot, the characters, the character designs - damn you, Clamp, and your pointy chins! - and, if you're me (I realise you're probably not) the fact that you've spent a significant part of the last few months watching similar nonsense.  Weirdly, none of those things were quite so bothersome the first time through, but on a second watch they really did stand out.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that there's only one reason that I'd recommend Twilight of the Dark Master, and it's a thoroughly silly one: its sole DVD extra shows the cover art being drawn from start to finish, and how cool is that?  Well, not very - but sufficiently odd to warrant picking up a mildly entertaining nineties anime OVA, perhaps?

You're Under Arrest, the Complete OVAs, 1994, Kazuhiro Furuhashi

If there's one thing this whole nineties anime watch has been shy on it's been pleasant surprises.  Things that I hoped would be good and were, sure, and plenty of things I hoped would be good and disappointed horribly, but things that I had only middling expectations for and blew me away?  Well, you're looking at it, basically.

Only, it's even better than all that, now that I think, because my hopes for this one were actually cautiously high.  I mean, I enjoyed the You're Under Arrest movie, and this is the other big franchise from Kōsuke Fujishima, the creator of Ah! My Goddess, which I basically love the hell out of.  Were it not for the fact that a show about two female cops driving around in a tiny car just doesn't have the high concept edge of A! MG's hilariously dense mythology, I might have expected a lot more.

Well, I should have had more faith.  Fujishima is a goddamned genius, capable of conjuring magic out of seemingly straightforward ingredients, and the You're Under Arrest OVA is flat out great.

I mean, I liked the movie a fair bit, but this is better.  What we have here are four episodes of somewhat above average length that all basically stand alone (though apparently they would also later because the first episodes of a series, which is agonisingly impossible to lay hands on.)  There are wisps of ongoing plot, but essentially the four stories stand alone, though the fourth part does bring things to a tentative conclusion of sorts.  So standard OVA territory, basically.  Except for, well, everything.  The animation, for a start, is stunning.  I mean, we're looking at an OVA here, so the frame rates are TV rather than feature standard, but within that the show looks pretty extraordinary; it's detailed, imaginative, top tier work, from a director with great visual sense (and who's still going strong today, incidentally.)  Perhaps more impressively, each of the four stories is fantastic in its own right: witty, exciting and involved, and consistently nailing the balance of comedy and action that a show like this survives on.

This is the point where I usually hedge my bets with a comment like "but hey, don't forget we're talking about an OVA from 1994 here!"  And yes we are, and if you're used to modern anime then, sure, obviously it looks a bit dated.  But, you know what?  Who cares about that.  I have no complaints here.  Even the dub is tremendous.  And you can pick it up for pennies.  If I had to point to a single disk that illustrated why mainstream anime was up to some awfully fun things during the nineties, this would probably be the one I chose.

Twin Signal, 1995, Takashi Sogabe

It's hard to know what to do with a parody of a genre that basically doesn't exist anymore - which is precisely what we have in Twin Signal, a three part OVA that takes for its target the anime subgenre of stories about lifelike, superpowered androids.  I assume these stem from Astro Boy, though I'm flailing wildly here; if memory serves, the only examples I've come across were Iczer 3 and possibly Casshan: Robot Hunter.  At any rate, I've no idea how something so weirdly specific become such a popular trope, but here we are, and here Twin Signal is, and I've never let ignorance of anime's long and involved history stand in the way of these reviews, so why start now?

Fortunately, Twin Signal doesn't lean too heavily on its central lampoon.  I'm assuming that at least the core concept comes from such a place: the details and relationships are remarkably dense and defy easy summation, but basically we have robotics expert Dr. Otoi, his creation Signal, his grandson Nobuhiko and his assistant and would-be roboticist Chris living happily under one roof, despite the fact that they're all fairly eccentric and the perhaps larger issue that, due to a design flaw, whenever Nobuhiko sneezes Signal turns into a cute, chocolate loving child version of himself.  Then there's a plot by another roboticist to steal Otoi's secrets, the arrival of Otoi's murderous previous creation Pulse, a cop with a robot sidekick, a female robot named Elara that both Nobuhiko and Signal have a crush on, something about penguins, and ... did I mention this thing is only three episodes?  Twin Signal gets awfully busy awfully quickly is what I'm saying.  Fortunately, one of the things it has on its side is that it lays its concept and characters out with impressive economy, meaning that by the end of the first episode you have a firm grasp on the whos and whys and wherefores and can focus on enjoying the happy-go-lucky craziness of it all.

Which is the point where mileage is likely to vary.  Personally I found Twin Signal amusing enough, and a few gags made me laugh out loud, despite being profoundly silly and fairly predictable.  I always ended up chuckling when Signal turned into his cute, childlike chibi form, and Pulse's weakness - he's amazingly short-sighted - was good for a cheap laugh or two.  A lot of the better jokes revolve around absent-minded Elara, who gets kidnapped by the baddies fairly early on and spends most of the rest of the show inadvertently sabotaging them.  You get the idea, I think; we're very much talking silly nineties anime humour here, and that's an acquired taste if ever there was such a thing.

It is, however, about all that Twin Signal has to offer.  The animation is functional, bordering on cheap, even down to some reused footage over the course of the three episodes; the music is standard fare for the time.  And, really, even the humour isn't pushed as heavily as it could be; the satire is on the gentle side and tends on occasions to vanish altogether, as during Signal and Pulse's showdown in the third episode.  Compared to the utter insanity and nonstop gags of something like Dragon Half, it's all quite restrained.

Ultimately, I liked Twin Signal and I'll surely watch it again.  It certainly hasn't gone straight onto the resell pile as plenty of these DVDs do.  On the other hand, there's no denying that it's a niche watch.  Here's a good test: do you find the idea of a superpowered android turning into a chocolate-obsessed child whenever someone sneezes funny?  If the idea is remotely yes then you'll likely get some enjoyment here.


Well, that didn't go so badly.  I'm starting to feel that this whole nineties anime thing is getting a second wind; there's a lot of stuff on the to-watch shelf that I'm eager to get to and only one thing I'm actively dreading.  Which, of course, would be the Legend of the Overfiend sequel; curse you, double bill DVD, for foisting the sequel to a movie I hated on me, and curse my inability to not watch something I've inadvertently paid money for!

Will I subject myself to that no-doubt joyless experience for the next batch?  I really hope not!  Certainly, if it comes to a choice between that and All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku, you can probably bet against the Overfiend sequel.

[Other posts in this wholly irrational series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9, Part 10, Part 12]

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Short Story News, June 2016

Let's start with the big news: the hardback of The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories is out very soon from NewCon Press, I've put my illegible squiggle to all 100 copies (well, 98, it's weird to sign your own contributor copies) and more to the point I've seen it and, holy hell, this book looks just lovely.  Between Duncan Kay's phenomenal artwork and the work Ian Whates has put into making SitM the bestest, shiniest thing it could possibly hope to be, I'm overjoyed with how this collection has turned out.  That it also contains some of the finest short fiction I've produced seems almost trivial compared with just how lovely the whole book looks.  And feels, for that matter - because even the paper is outrageously posh.

We'll be officially launching at this year's Edgelit, but the actual release date is likely to be a little sooner than that - or, rather than wait, you can pre-order your copy here.   (As ever, if you can't stretch to the deluxe hardback, there's the paperback and e-book already available from Digital Fiction Publishing.)

After that, the next biggest piece of news is surely the fact that my story Great Black Wave is up to read (and listen to) in the latest issue of Nightmare.  This may well be the best podcast of any of my work, Stefan Rudnicki narrates extremely well indeed, so I'd start there, personally, and avoid the strain of reading all of those pesky words.  Either way, though, I'm proud of this story; it was a tough write on a difficult subject.  Great Black Wave follows a bomb disposal unit in a very near future Afghanistan, as what begins as a routine operation turns into something much darker and stranger.  That meant a fair bit of research - which I talk about in the accompanying interview - followed by a descent into some weird mental places.  And also Arcade Fire references, because why not?  At any rate - and as always - I would recommend picking up this month's Nightmare, it's a terrific magazine, and isn't that cover just about the most horrible thing ever?  Yeah, I think so.

In other release news, I have a new story out from Digital Fiction, in solo e-book format, with the anthology no doubt soon to follow.  This time around it's Black Horticulture, my stab at writing a conventional fantasy story, except in so much as it's mostly about magical gardening.  So ... um ... maybe not that conventional at all.  Anyway, you can pick it on Amazon US here and Amazon UK here, at an exceedingly reasonable price.  Oh, and I've agreed to do a bit of slush reading for Digital, who are currently open for previously published fantasy, SF and horror submissions.  So if you send something in, there's a one in three chance that I'll be the one to read it.  You have been warned!

Finally, on the anthology front, there's a table of contents now up for Far Orbit: Last Outpost.  And, with the Mysterion anthology due to arrive soon, there are extracts of stories up on the website, including one for my story Golgotha.  You can find that, along with other extracts and pre-order details, here.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

My PayPal Policy (And Why I Hope You Might Consider Adopting It Too)

If you write short fiction for money, you almost certainly have a PayPal account.  That's a given.  The vast majority of markets will only pay via PayPal, especially if they're in the US and you're not, as it's invariably the cheapest and most straightforward alternative for them.

The point where this becomes problematic, as with so much in life, is charges - specifically, the sizable charges that PayPal places on transmitting and / or receiving funds.  They vary from country to country, but in the UK you're looking at 3.4% of the initial amount, plus 20 pence.  Only, it doesn't stop there.  Because, despite PayPal's grammatically dubious assertion that their fees "...are simple, straight forward with no surprises," the amount of money you actually receive is likely to come as something of a shock if you follow exchange rates even slightly - because PayPal's are lousy.  You can expect to get a couple of points below whatever the actual exchange rate is, which may not seem like a great deal, until you realise that you're effectively being charged another one to two percent.

All of that means that if you regularly sell short fiction, and depending on where you live, you can expect to lose between 3.5% and 5.5% of your income right off the bat.  That's potentially more than a twentieth of your income, charged just for the privilege of being paid.  And, sadly, none of this is likely to change any time soon.  PayPal have huge market dominance, and on the occasions when I've approached publishers with alternatives - on the face of it, Transferwise seems like a far more attractive proposition all round - I've been politely declined.

Which is understandable, of course, because I'm just one person and setting up your bank details with a new service is both a hassle and conceivably a risk.  Still, the fact is that the current situation remains unsatisfactory, and it's hard to imagine it being considered acceptable in any other field.  Just in case you doubt that, here's an imaginary scenario.  You're working in another job - let's say alpaca farming, because why not? - and when payday comes around you notice that your pay packet is light to the tune of five percent.  Let's say you earned two thousand dollars, that means you're short by a whole hundred.  When you question your boss about this, they explain that a cash machine charged them those hundred dollars to withdraw the money and so they've decided to pass that charge on to you.  Would you a) nod and smile or b) completely lose your shit?

Yeah, that's what I thought.

Now, to be clear, I'm not blaming this situation on publishers.  They have no choice but to work with the tools they're given, and frankly I suspect that many are simply unaware of how they're disadvantaging writers by relying on PayPal and not taking into account transaction costs.  There is in fact an easy, built-in means for the sender to cover costs, but since for some bizarre reason PayPal describes it as "friends and family", I imagine that many people assume they can't, or shouldn't, use it.

Anyway, here, as promised, is the policy I've decided to instigate, and that I hope very much you'll consider too if you sell short fiction.  From now on, whenever I work with a new publisher and they ask if I'm happy to be paid via PayPal, I'm suggesting that they consider either covering or splitting the charges.  They of course have the option of saying no, and I don't intend to press the point; I'm not in a position to be passing up sales here.  My hope is that it's simply the case that no one has thought to raise this before, and that a little gentle nudging is all that's needed.  And given that I've noticed an upswing in the percentage of markets that do cover costs of late, I think there's some evidence for that theory.

Anyway, it's a safe bet that my doing this alone is going to achieve a great deal of bugger all.  But maybe if a lot of us were to start asking the same question then things might go differently.  So I'm putting this up here in the hope that maybe my fellow writers would be interested in taking up the initiative - or at least sharing this round a little.  For that matter, if publishers who already cover PayPal charges were to state that explicitly in their guidelines, that would be a big positive move, too.  Basically, my hope here is to start a discussion on a topic that I've never seen talked about anywhere else.  So please, discuss!  And just maybe we can make the industry a little bit fairer.