Thursday, 22 September 2016

Where I'll be at Fantasycon by the Sea

Hey, that rhymes!  I'm a poet and I never knew it to be the case.

Well, I'm not doing a great deal at Fantasycon this year, which perhaps is for the best since I had a piece cut out of me by trained medical professionals on Monday and I'm still feeling rather sore and sorry for myself.  Never fear though, I'm sure I'll be my usual random and garrulous self by the time it comes to my panel, which is:

All About You

Saturday, September 24 @ 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm
Palm Court Ballroom – The Grand

First Steps as a Writer – How Do You Go About Launching Your Career? Rob Power, Sue Moorcroft (Chair), Helen Armfield, Iain Grant, David Tallerman

(You may be shocked to discover that I just copied that straight off the official program.)

Also, I will be reading, though what I have as yet no idea; probably something from The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, I'd imagine:

Reading – Mark De Jager and David Tallerman

Saturday, September 24 @ 10:30 am - 11:00 am
Reading Café (Royal Hotel)
Mark, by the way, is the author of debut novel Infernal, which came out from Del Rey just last month.

And, wow, I have literally two things scheduled and I still couldn't manage to get them in chronological order, that's quite the achievement.  Hey, let's blame it on the fact that for medical reasons I'm ever so slightly lighter than I was this time last week.  I suspect I'll be blaming a lot of things on that over the weekend, so if I happen to see you there and I seem at all inebriated then just assume that it's down to diminished body mass, okay?  

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Great Jones Street is Live

So I've made the odd mention of a thing called Great Jones Street, and that they've published a couple of my stories, while being kind of vague on the precise details.  If I'm honest, that was partly because I'm habitually vague and partly because I didn't quite understand them myself.  But now I've watched a video explaining things and I'm much clearer!

Great Jones Street is a short story magazine that's also an app.  Currently it's only available for Apple devices, but that will be changing pretty soon - and this is largely why it's taken me a while to figure out the ins and outs, because I have no apple devices, or even any apples for that matter, except tinned ones that probably don't count.

In essence, and assuming I understand correctly, Great Jones Street is an e-reader optimized for use on mobile devices, one that comes pre-loaded with its own huge, cross genre library of short fiction.  Those stories are being cherry picked from the top tier of markets, with an emphasis on award-winning material, so there's as much of a guarantee of quality as you could reasonably hope for.  The pitch on the website is basically "why is there no Spotify for short fiction?" along with "short fiction is really great for reading on mobile phones," and I agree wholeheartedly with both of those statements.  In fact, this seems to me a lot like an app based version of what Digital Fiction Publishing have been up to, and I've made no secret of how I think that's a great concept.  So I feel safe in saying that Great Jones Street is shaping up to be something pretty amazing, and that it's well worth checking out.

With that in mind, you can get more details and a link to the App Store here.  And here's a rather long (and probably already out of date) list of the stories already available.  You may, if you're careful, spot my name among them...

"Visitation" Corinna Vallianatos
"The Mourning Door" Elizabeth Graver
"Grad School" Fred G. Leebron
"The Idiot, or Life in Wartime" Fred G. Leebron
"When It’s You" Fred G. Leebron
"That Year Off" Fred Leebron
"In Other Words" Jennifer Haigh
"The Truth and All Its Ugly" Kyle Minor
"Going To The Big House" Tom Bailey
"Ruby" Tom Bailey
"This Is Not A Love Story" Tom Bailey
"Zombies" Tom Bailey
"A Neighboring State" Corinna Vallianatos
"Islands Without Names" Elizabeth Graver
"Paramour" Jennifer Haigh
"A Wild Night and a New Road" John Dufresne
"Between" Elizabeth Graver
"Ghostreaper, or, Life After Revenge" Tim Pratt
"Jenny's Sick" David Tallerman
"Great Black Wave" David Tallerman
"Mono no aware" Ken Liu
"Paper Menagerie" Ken Liu
"The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species" Ken Liu
"Enter A Soldier" Robert Silverberg
"Keeper" Steve Adams
"Hart and Boot" Tim Pratt
"Impossible Dreams" Tim Pratt
"The Secret Beach" Tim Pratt
"Why We Came to Target at 9:58 on a Monday Night" Andy Roe
"Eagle, Globe and Anchor" Geoffrey Becker
"A Time and A Place" Hugh Sheehy
"The Experience Collector" Hugh Sheehy
"The Last Days" Hugh Sheehy
"To Build a Fire" Jack London
"Saving Bambi" Janet Burroway
"The Mandelbrot Set" Janet Burroway
"Cliff Walk" Jessica Treadway
"Down Here" Jessica Treadway
"Ghost Story" Jessica Treadway
"Dirty" John Affleck
"Fine Arts" Karin Lin-Greenberg
"Paying by Check" Karin Lin-Greenberg
"Theft" Katherine Anne Porter
"A Kidnapping in Koulèv-Ville" Kyle Minor
"Till Death Do Us Part" Leslie Pietrzyk
"Remember Me To The One Who Lives There" Michael Parker
"Sredni Vashtar" Saki (H. H. MUNRO)
"Junk Food" Sarah Harris Wallman
"Only Children" Sarah Harris Wallman
"The Dead Girls Show" Sarah Harris Wallman
"Saint Petersburg" Scott Laughlin
"The Fish" Steve Adams
"Holiday" Terri Leker
"What We See" Leslie Pietrzyk
"Benefit" Brett Beach
"Slim Jim" Brock Clarke
"You Would Have Told Me Not To" Christopher Coake
"Compliments" Erin McGraw
"L.A." Erin McGraw
"Love" Erin McGraw
"Crossing Cabot Strait" Geeta Kothari
"Dharma Farm" Geeta Kothari
"Small Bang Only" Geeta Kothari
"Given Ghosts" Jane McCafferty
"Game Winner" John Affleck
"Immaculate Obsession" John Affleck
"Winter Practice" John Affleck
"Small Worlds" Karin Lin-Greenberg
"The Splashing Carp" Karin Lin-Greenberg
"Eight Track" Matt McEver

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 15

It's reassuring to know that there are still classics out there to be turned up.  In fact, this latest round sees a couple of the highest highlights yet - even if one of them does shoot itself in the foot at the last minute.  Still, months after the point where I'd begun to worry I'd exhausted every financially realistic avenue, it's conceivable that the best actually lies ahead for these posts: be it by hovering around E-bay or tracking down Korean releases with English language options or just stumbling over widely available releases I'd somehow missed, I'm still keeping the to-watch shelf stocked with exciting treats.

This time through we have: Ranma 1/2: Nihao My Concubine, Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, Sol Bianca and Silent Möbius...

Ranma 1/2: Nihao My Concubine, 1992, dir: Iku Suzuki

The criticism most often thrown at the second Ranma movie is that it has exactly the same plot as the first Ranma movie, and this is entirely fair.  You could perhaps justify the fact by appealing to the rules of sequel escalation: where the first film's villain only kidnapped female lead Akane to be his bride, the second film's villain has off with pretty much all of the female characters, so as to give himself a broader selection of fiances.  But really, you have to wonder what the makers were thinking; is this truly the only direction in which you can take a show in which the protagonist switches sex when they get wet and half of the characters turn into animals?  Was there no other plot line for a feature length Ranma 1/2 episode than "female characters get kidnapped for purposes of forced marriage, male characters win them back"?

You might argue that this is offset by the fact that Ranma spends a far larger proportion of the running time of this one in female form.  But that doesn't altogether help, given that female Ranma passes most of that time in the skimpiest clothes imaginable, or in one scene - inevitably involving the pervy old midget that hogged so much of the first film's running time - not even that.  But honestly, trying to parse the sexual politics of Ranma 1/2 would be a whole essay in itself, and not one I feel myself especially equipped for.  The only point that significantly bothered me on that front was that, contentious case of Ranma aside, only the male characters got to get involved with the fighting.  Explaining to the audience how kickass your women are and then not actually letting them kick any ass has always seemed to me a failing that anime tends to sidestep by comparison with Western media, but not so here.

And again I'm trying to analyse the gender politics of a cartoon from twenty-five years ago in which a boy turns into a girl when he gets wet, which isn't going to get us anywhere.  Nor does it really tell a great deal about whether Nihao My Concubine is any good.  And yes, it is; I'd certainly say I enjoyed it as much as the first film, and I think I preferred Iku Suzuki's direction over that of original director Shûji Iuchi.  There's perhaps a touch more sophistication to the animation, and some noticeably lovely backgrounds: the villain's floating island base, for example, has more than a dash of Miyazaki's Laputa about it.  Nihao My Concubine is also a little more low-key than Big Trouble in Nekonron, China, and that turns out to be a good thing, because it's also less frantic and exhausting.  Arguably the fact that it's only an hour long compared to the first film's seventy-five minutes helps there too.  And with all of that said, I find myself falling back on exactly the same conclusion as last time.  If you're down for what Ranma 1/2 is about then there are plenty of worse ways to waste an hour, but it's hard to see this making fresh converts.

Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, 1999, dir: Kazuhiro Furuhashi

Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, the OVA prologue to the well-respected series Rurouni Kenshin, has a reputation for being something of a classic.  And so it turned out to be - for all except its last ten or so minutes.  It's a real shame, then, that those last ten minutes are so frustrating as to nearly ruin everything that comes before.

But let's address the positives first: Samurai X is genuinely adult storytelling of the kind that's all too rare in anime, or outside of anime for that matter.  It tells a sparse and brutal tale about a child who chooses to become a killer, based upon somewhat shaky perceptions and an inflexible moral code, and is then ruthlessly encouraged to do precisely that by adults who may or may not share his desire for a better world - but certainly see the boy, Kenshin, first and foremost as a weapon.  Much anime trades in violence, but Samurai X takes violence as its theme, and then examines that theme unflinchingly; it's profoundly unapologetic about showing the effects that swords have on human bodies, but also about showing the consequences that killing takes on human lives.

Watching Samurai X, it occurred to me that most anime, and even much good anime, rarely gives the impression of having been directed with any sort of an agenda; in that sense, traditional animation is certainly more restrictive than film.  Yet Samurai X is full of clear directorial decisions, and most of them are terrifically good.  There's the way, for example, that Furuhashi uses moments of stillness and images of nature to make the brief bursts of violence seem aberrant rather than exciting.  But this is technically pristine work on all fronts, and it develops in a rewarding direction, as the boy assassin Kenshin encounters a mysterious woman named Tomoe and learns that just maybe there's more to life - even as Tomoe develops into an increasingly fascinating and complex character in her own right.

Then we get to the end, and discover what all this character building and moral greyness and gut-wrenching violence has been for, and - well, let's say, charitably, that it's less than it could have been.  I don't want to spoil that ending, but even a few hints will give it away to the attentive reader, so if that's you and you don't want to know then look away now.  Suffice to note that Samurai X is a prequel and that Tomoe isn't a character who appears in the series, and moreover that the ultimate aim here is to turn the damaged boy Kenshin into the show's presumably more sane and heroic version of the character, and you can probably fill in the blanks.  Or, to go a step further, I could add that there are many lousy ways to make use of a strong female character and Samurai X opts for the one that I personally find least tolerable.  Though, frankly, even that's only half the misstep: it's staggering how all of the show's carefully built ambiguity has leaked out by the time the climax is over.  For an hour and fifty minutes I'd assumed that Samurai X shared my concerns about the use of mentally unbalanced children as assassins.  By the time the credits rolled around I was less sure.

Ah, well.  I can't honestly not recommend Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, so much of it is beyond brilliant.  If you have the slightest interest in nineties anime, it's certainly a must see.  And I'm fully aware that the majority of viewers won't be half so bothered by that ending as I was; judging by other reviews, most like it just fine.  All I can say is that for me it turned what would have been a genre-transcending masterpiece into a painful near miss.

Sol Bianca, 1990, dir's: Katsuhito Akiyama, Hiroki Hayashi

If you ever needed proof that we're living in a broken parallel of the real universe then Sol Bianca is it.

In the real universe, every anime fan has heard of Sol Bianca, and it's familiar outside the fandom every bit as much as works like Akira and Ghost in the Shell.  Commentators routinely point out how it helped to inspire western shows like Farscape and Firefly, with its charming but immoral protagonists and its perfect mix of comedy, action and drama.  The show is held up as an exemplar for its diverse, mostly female cast, its imaginative manipulation of space opera tropes and of course for its marvelous animation, which in the remastered blu-ray edition looks like it might have been made yesterday.

But that isn't our universe.  In our universe, Sol Bianca got cancelled after two episodes, having failed to prove popular enough to justify the remaining parts that would have wrapped up its story, despite having won best OVA at the 1993 Anime Expo.  And the only way you're likely to see it is on a hard to find DVD edition that looks like someone transferred it from VHS.  While drunk.

But hey, we have two episodes of Sol Bianca, and those two episodes are entirely great, so I guess we can only make do.  The first, a thrilling fifty minutes that throws the piratical crew of the titular space ship into the middle of an interplanetary war, is perhaps the better of the two; the second is more interesting on its own terms, but spends a larger degree of its running time setting up the arc plot that will never be finished, which grows increasingly painful the more the intriguing questions pile up.  Either way, though, it's terrific fun, and I can't stress just how lovely it looks at points.  In particular, I don't think I've seen better hand drawn character animation anywhere: the crew of the Bianca blink and tilt their heads and generally behave exactly like human beings do, even though the extra hours of work that it must have taken to achieve that level of realism beggars imagining.

If it's not clear by now, I urge you to track down Sol Bianca; it's exactly the sort of lost treasure I started these posts hunting for.  There's no doubt in my mind that if it had been finished it would be considered one of the masterpieces of eastern animation, but even one incomplete half of Sol Bianca is wittier, more exciting and more elegantly drawn and designed than the vast majority of what I've talked about here.  It's great anime and great sci-fi, and shame on those contemporary audiences who didn't appreciate the treat they'd been handed.

Silent Möbius, 1991, dir's: Kazuo Tomizawa

I've always thought it an odd trend in anime that lengthy series - in this case, twelve whole volumes - were so often adapted into OVAs of a length that couldn't possibly hope to do them justice.  But it occurred to me after watching Silent Möbius that perhaps that's no more strange than a comic book movie that crams decades of continuity into a couple of hours.  The question, then, is not whether the notion is basically sound but whether it's done well - and the problem that it so frequently isn't.

Silent Möbius, which is fifty minutes long plus credits, does it pretty well.  There's only so much you can cram into fifty minutes, even when your basic setup - futuristic Tokyo, invading demons, hot supernatural police ladies - are rote enough to not need a great deal of introducing.  Silent Möbius's rather clever solution is to focus on one significant incident and then to use that as a jumping off point for a lengthy flashback exploring the background of a single character, which in turn folds back into the modern day crisis.  The result is a story that satisfies on its own terms - though at the same time fails to feel terribly unique.

Which isn't by any means to say that Silent Möbius is bad.  The design work is appealing - certainly more so than that in the TV adaptation that would eventually follow - and the backgrounds are lovely, taking on much of the heavy lifting of portraying a weird, off-kilter cyberfuture that feels wholly impractical and yet delightfully complete.  And the story succeeds perfectly well on its own terms, with a few standout scenes, some genuinely memorable imagery and enough intrigue and character development to give the sense of a feature length in what amounts to half the running time.

It's good then - better than most of these demons-invade-Tokyo things, in large part because of the sense of a fuller, more thought-out world that we're only seeing the edges of.  But that's not to say that it can overcome its inherent limitations, or that it's outstanding in its craftsmanship or ambition.  Silent Mobius is an engaging, attractive, rather too short slice of Cthulhupunk, and that's no bad thing to be, but it's also all you get.


Considering how good everything was this time through, it's strange to look back over this post with a vague sense of heartbreak.  But oh how wonderful Samurai X should have been, and oh how extraordinary Sol Bianca would have been if it had only been finished.  Flawed masterpieces are great and all, but unflawed masterpieces tend to be even better.

Still, you have to take your wins where you can get them when you're compulsively reviewing all the nineties anime you can get your hands on, I suppose!

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13, Part 14]

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Short Story News, September 2016

I remember thinking a few weeks back that nowhere near enough had happened on the short story front to warrant another of these posts.  Somehow, by the time I reconsidered, far too much had happened to reasonably cram in.  But I'm going to anyway, it's been a rotten week and a post full of good news might be just what I need to remind myself that 2016 hasn't been altogether a horror.

Firstly, I have books out!  At least, there are anthologies out with my stories in - a whole three of them, in fact.  Two of those are from Digital Fiction Publishing, making my total number of DFP anthologies out now a number bigger than I can be bothered to work out right now, but certainly no less than six.  And the reason I keep submitting to these things, other I suppose than that I keep getting accepted, is that they're really good.  I get the impression, as well, that readers are increasingly waking up to that fact: they've been pulling down some pretty tremendous reviews, one or two of which come from readers who've liked one book enough to try another, which is a heck of an achievement for a still relatively new small press.  Anyway, gushing aside, this time around I have Black Horticulture in the fantasy collection Uncommon Senses and Passive Resistance in the SF collection Operative Sequence.  That particularly story also recently got its own individual e-book release, as all these collected tales do: you can find it here.

Nextly, the Mysterion anthology that I seem to have gone on about quite a lot over the last few months is finally out to buy.  You can pick it up on from Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.  It only really occurred to me as I was thumbing through my contributor copy that perhaps it's strange that I, an avowed atheist, would have a story in a collection subtitled "rediscovering the mysteries of the Christian faith."  And to my eyes, Golgotha is a story upon the topic of religion clearly written by a non-believer, albeit one who's always found the subject fascinating.  But honestly, I think that's why (asides from the gorgeous cover) I've been so enthused about this project from day one: Donald and Kristin have put together exactly the book that they promised, one that digs about in those weird and fascinating corners of Christianity that normally get politely overlooked.  This spirit is nicely summed up in a comment from Kristin's introduction: "Mysterion is about Christianity.  But we're not sure it is Christian."  From what I've seen, I'd agree, and for that reason among others, I do hope this book gets the attention it deserves: it's a genuinely interesting project upon a genuinely unique topic, which is more than many anthologies can claim.  And Golgotha is among the top tier of short fiction that I'm proudest of, a nasty, wriggling thing full of difficult questions and uneasy answers.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, I've been selling more stories.  What's particularly unusual this time around is that fully half my sales from the last couple of months were effectively commissions; that's definitely never happened before.  A couple of those I can't talk about yet - I wish I could, they're exciting! - but the other two I probably can.  In perhaps my most surreal sale ever, Alasdair Stuart and Marguerite Kenner, respectively owner and editor of Cast of Wonders, happened to be in the audience when I was reading from The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.  And they enjoyed the story that I read - the deeply screwed up My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy Aged 7 - enough that they decided they'd like to podcast it.  Would that all readings went that way!  Meanwhile, at around the same time, one of my favourite editors pushed new publisher Great Jones Street my way, and they picked up both Jenny's Sick and Great Black Wave, with possibly - finger's crossed! - a couple more to follow.  (Great Jones Street, by the way, I'm sure I'll be talking about more, as they're up to some rather interesting and exciting things.)

The traditional sales front hasn't been going so shoddy either.  Br(other) is down for the middle volume of the three volume Let Us In anthology from Time Alone Press, which is due to start appearing next month.  And I enjoyed last year's Gaia: Shadow and Breath anthology enough that I thought I'd try for this year's entry in the series; as such, they'll be publishing my Feet of Clay, Mind of Coal, which I probably do no favours by referring to as my golem sex story.  (Hey ... I see an overlooked niche and I jump on it!)  Finally, I overhauled one of my earliest publications and gave it the title I realised it should have had approximately the moment after it saw print, and now Old Skin for the New Ceremony will be appearing in the sci-fi issue of Creepy Campfire Stories (for Grownups).

I'll finish up by noting that my slush reading for Digital Fantasy Fiction has come to a temporary halt, as they're closed to subs for a few weeks, but it was fun while it lasted.  Now I'm getting excited for the fact that at some point there's going to be an anthology coming out where I picked most or all of the stories, which is certainly as close as I've ever come to wearing an editor's hat.  And as much I may have grumbled at points, we did get a few really good subs, along with a couple of absolute stunners; if both of those make it into the same volume then I'll be very excited indeed, and probably pushing it a lot harder than I ever do my own stuff!

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Notes on the Inaugural Meeting of the Humber SFF Society

Me reading.
I do like the word "inaugural", and it's not often I get to use it, even less often I get to use it correctly.  So that made it all the more of a pleasure to be invited to read at the inaugural event of the new Hull based genre meet-up group Humber SFF, along with fellow author Daniel Godfrey, whose Titan debut New Pompeii came out a mere couple of months ago.

It occurs to me only now that I've inaugurated two of these things now; I'm pretty sure I read at the first York event too, which is nice but makes me feel kind of old.  (Although, at least I got to type inaugurated, so that's something.)  Anyway, this one was put together by the brilliant Shellie Horst, with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm and the common sense to realise that Beverley would provide a much nicer venue than Hull would.  (In fairness, this may have something to do with the fact that Shellie lives in Beverley.  Still, credit where it's due.)  The Monk's Walk pub was very cool and medieval, as you can sort of see in the pictures, though a bit on the noisy side.  I suspect Daniel got the worst of that, but his reading still got me excited for New Pompeii - because who doesn't love time travelling Romans? - and afterwards I regretted not buying a copy when I had the chance.
Daniel Reading.

For my part I read from my soon to be announced next novel - code-named Super Secret Project Andromeda for no other reason than that's the name I just made up - instead of The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories like how I was supposed to.  But no one seemed to mind and I had fun, because I've been itching to field test this one for a while now.  I'm comfortable enough with these reading things now that I've started trying to differentiate the characters a little, and of everything I've written Super Secret Project Andromeda is just right for that, because it's absolutely all about the characters.  At any rate, people seemed to enjoy it, and I got some good questions afterwards, which is always nice.

Of course, about half of those questions came from Alex Bardy, who you may know as the raconteur and dilettante behind the York incarnation of these things, or from one of the other hats he wears; oh, and while I remember, Alex, huge thanks for giving me a lift home!  Generally it was a good crowd, and I got talking to some interesting people, whose names I of course immediately forgot - but at least one of whom I think I persuaded to give this year's Fantasycon a go, so that's something.

Hopefully this will be the first of many meetings for Humber SFF, and I urge anyone who's at all interested to give the next one a try, this and the similar groups in York and Sheffield are always a great deal of fun.  I'd also suggest that you pick up a copy of New Pompeii, from what I heard it sounds very good indeed.  And while I can't exactly encourage you to buy Super Secret Project Andromeda, at least not until it gets announced under its actual, proper title, I may as well end by pointing out that you can pick up my collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories in paperback, e-book and hardback.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 14

With one exception, we're firmly in popular nineties franchise territory this time around, which inevitably proves both a good and a not so good thing.  I've come out with one new favourite, at any rate, and there was generally at least some good reason that nineties anime franchises proved popular, even if those reasons aren't always one hundred percent apparent now.

Anyway, enough preempting!  This time around we have: Dirty Pair Flash: Angels at World's End, Vampire Wars, Gunsmith Cats and Ranma 1/2 The Movie: Big Trouble in Nekonron, China.

Dirty Pair Flash: Angels at World's End, 1994, dir: Tomomi Mochizuki

Perhaps it was foolish to expect much from this second, self-contained volume of Dirty Pair Flash, but I enjoyed the first quite a lot: it was derivative, but it was a lot of fun.  Angels at World's End, however, is much more of the former than the latter.  It has the vibe, in fact, of a show that's limiting its ambitions due to a tightening budget; you know how nineties sci-fi TV would always skimp by finding a naff excuse to stick its characters back in the twentieth century?  Well, that's precisely what Angels at World's End does: it's a holodeck episode, in essence, with Kei and Yuri stranded at a theme park that recreates historic (that is, then present day) Tokyo in perfect detail.

Only it makes no sense for this to have been a budget saving measure, the animation is no worse than last time around and maybe even a fraction better, so the only possible explanation is that someone thought this was a good idea.  Because clearly what ones comes to Dirty Pair for is not explosions or laser fights or spaceships, its an episode where an underdeveloped side character falls in love with a flower shop girl that ends in a bizarre gay panic punchline.

In fairness, that's the only really terrible episode, though it's terrible enough to cast a pall over the other four.  The beginning and end are perfectly fine and feel at least somewhat in keeping with the first volume; the other two are too flamboyantly strange to really dislike.  One finds the Pair lodging in a haunted girls' dormitory, and feels very much like a parody of the Asian horror boom before the Asian horror boom had actually begun.  The other finds them trying to escort a professional shyster to prison in order to blow the reward money on a posh meal, and despite the fragile premise is perhaps the most enjoyable of the five.

Angels at World's End, then, is very much a wasted opportunity; the best thing it does is to develop the characters a little, but even then it feels as though the point is to watch Kei and Yuri moving nearer to their classic incarnations, which is really only interesting if you're familiar with the earlier show.  A tough recommendation to anyone but obsessive fans of the franchise, who surely already own it, and I suspect I'll be approaching the third and final volume with a bit of trepidation...

Vampire Wars, 1990, dir: Kazuhisa Takenouchi

When I discovered recently that the reason these Manga Collection dvds insisted on playing in a box in the middle of the screen was down to a setting on my PlayStation, I found myself wondering if perhaps I hadn't been unduly harsh on them: after all, four I'd even kept, and the last couple I'd reviewed had at least kept me amused.  Sure the mandatory dubs were atrocious and sure there were some profoundly dubious inclusions, but maybe Manga deserved at least a little credit for the notion of a series bringing anime to the West at knockdown prices.

So it's with some relief that I report that Vampire Wars is rubbish, and rubbish in precisely all the ways that I've been criticizing these things for over the last few months: mediocre animation, rotten translation, listless performances and, to cap it all off, a plot that simply stops at the end of its running time, with all the really interesting parts left dangling.  And it's not like there aren't at least a couple of those, in a story that pits the CIA against space vampires and doesn't even feel the need to make that hook the focus of its narrative.

Then again, the actual focus is our "hero", retired ex-pat terrorist Kuki Kosaburo, who is never for one millisecond of screen time as interesting as that summary makes him sound.  What follows is a boilerplate, if excitably bloody, thriller that takes a good two thirds of its running time to get round to the fact that we could have been hearing about goddamn space vampires all this time.  Come to think of it now, Vampire Wars reminded me a bit of Psycho Diver, which went to similar lengths to be all dark and hard boiled and edgy and to avoid absolutely everything that might have been interesting about its own plot.  And now I've been reminded of what a miserable load of nonsense Psycho Diver was!  Curse you, Manga Video, and curse your stupid Collection!

Gunsmith Cats, 1995, dir: Takeshi Mori

Gunsmith Cats is terrifically good.  And I almost feel like I could leave the review there, really: this three part OVA is among the best I've encountered in just about every way and I urge you to try and find a copy.

But perhaps I'm only being reticent because, as with so many of these things, it's not easy to pin down precisely what makes Gunsmith Cats stand out so dramatically.  I could certainly point to the animation, and rightly so, it's top notch, not to mention well directed, with some of the loveliest backgrounds I've seen in pre-twentieth century Eastern animation.  The opening sequence is particularly terrific, an effortlessly cool slice of pop art eye candy that prefigures (and perhaps betters) the similar work in Cowboy Bebop.  But there's much to love elsewhere as well, and I'd be hard pressed to point at another anime that captures the feel of being a manga come alive quite so well as Gunsmith Cats does.

Of course, sad to say, not everyone gets so excited over exemplary animation.  For those philistines, I suppose that Gunsmith Cats would be merely a well put together thriller with a couple of likable leads, some absolutely cracking action sequences and a fun, bluesy soundtrack.  Though even then, there's a little more going on than all that.  Gunsmith Cats is rare for anime in being set in the US with a largely American cast, but of course the version of Chicago where our heroes Irene "Rally" Vincent and "Minnie" May Hopkins run their titular gun shop and practice their sideline in bounty hunting is one filtered through a distinctly Japanese sensibility.  More than that, it's clear that creator Kenichi Sonoda gained most of his appreciation of American culture from seventies crime movies - and really, who can blame him for that?  Judged solely on the extraordinary chase sequence in the second episode, with Rally tearing about in a muscle car drawn in absolutely fetishistic detail, surely no one.

The thing is, Gunsmith Cats meshes its two sensibilities in a hugely satisfying way, with something of a Western animation influence creeping in that I've rarely seen in anime: just look at Minnie down there in the bottom right of the poster, and particularly the design of her eyes.  The overall effect is a general mode of realism that makes the traditional anime excesses - grenades thrown by the dozen are a particular favourite - stand out as charmingly goofy.  And that same balance of Western influence and anime sensibility stretches even to the plot, which finds the cats mixed up with a shady politician and a conspiracy within the ATF, yet also throws in a murderous Russian hitwoman for good measure.  (Its a story, by the way, that feels unexpectedly current, even a shade satirical; like most aspects of Gunsmith Cats, it's aged well.)  Heck, there's even a making of documentary on the DVD, which all alone is better than (and nearly as long as) Vampire Wars.

I'm finding that these positive reviews are breaking down into three basic categories: things I enjoy for largely dubious reasons, works of transcendent excellence that are much more than just good nineties anime, and those that are typical but exemplary examples of the work coming out of that decade.  Gunsmith Cats is without doubt in that last category, but definitely at its upper edge; it certainly has nothing to apologize for when pit against more recent work.

Ranma 1/2 The Movie: Big Trouble in Nekonron, China, 1991, Shûji Iuchi

Rumiko Takahashi's manga Ranma 1/2 was quite the sensation, running for nearly nine years and to 38 volumes, producing two anime series (one of which reached an extraordinary 143 episodes) and three films, among other spin-offs.  Yet, like many of these things, its concept was simple enough at heart: protagonist Ranma has been pledged by his father to marry tomboy Akane, who wants nothing to do with him.  Oh, and due to an accident at some magical hot springs on the way, Ranma turns into a girl whenever he gets wet.  And his dad turns into a panda.  So, okay, not that simple.

Anyway, by the time we get to Ranma 1/2's first feature film outing, the series had had time to get a great deal more complicated than all that, and as far as I can judge (partly from having read and enjoyed the first two volumes of the UK manga release) had done so by Takahashi piling on more characters, all with their own quirks and many of them also shapeshifters of one ridiculous sort or another.  Big Trouble in Nekonron, China expects you to be up to date with much of this, which probably seemed a good deal more reasonable when it came out; on the other hand, MVM video had the decency to include some brief profiles of the core cast and no one has more than a couple of character traits at most, so it really doesn't matter a great deal.  What's much more important is that you're willing to get on board with a story where the main intellectual demand is working out what characters have turned into which cartoon animals.

On the one hand, Big Trouble in Nekonron, China functions surprisingly well as a feature length tale: it has a beginning, a middle and a clear climax, it makes use of all its characters, and gags and themes set up in the early portions all have a payoff by the end.  On the other, there's nothing about this story that wouldn't have worked amply well as three episodes of an ongoing show; the closest it has to a dramatic hook is that it takes the characters away from Japan for a trip to China.  The only sequence that really feels like its doing something dramatically outside what an episode of the series might deliver, in fact, is the opening, which involves just about every significant character in a madcap chase sequence after master Happosai, a tiny, ancient martial arts teacher with a fetish for stealing underwear.  Nothing here screams "needs the resources of a motion picture" and nothing particularly suggests a proportionate increase in effort or funding.  Frequently excellent composer and Mamoru Oshii favourite Kenji Kawai delivers the score, but then he also worked on the series and in any case it's far from his best work; the animation is very much of the "gets the job done" variety, neither impressing nor drawing attention to itself with any significant flaws.

None of which sounds especially positive, but I think it gives a fair impression of what to expect: Big Trouble in Nekonron, China is not the kind of film adaptation that takes its source property to new heights or in ambitious directions but the kind that does broadly the same thing at more than the usual length and is content to call that a day.  Fortunately, the thing in question is a great deal of fun, and so an hour and a quarter of it in one go is a pleasantly concentrated burst of such fun - even if during the middle its constant mania threatens to become a little enervating.  I like Ranma 1/2 the franchise, it's funny and sweet and immensely daft, and I liked this film adaptation, but there's no getting around the fact that its one for the fans or for those aligned with its wacky, none too subtle blend of humour.


So Gunsmith Cats was pretty damn great.  And I've no regrets over the time I spent with Ranma 1/2; at any rate, it's ended up on the "to keep" shelf rather than the "get out of the house as quickly as possible" shelf, so that's something.  But Vampire Wars has already faded mercifully from memory, and I'm trying hard not to think about the fact that I have a whole nother volume of Dirty Pair Flash to get through, which I'll inevitably hope will be as good as the first while secretly knowing that it's more likely to be as joyless as the second.

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12, Part 13, Part 15]

Saturday, 20 August 2016

How Much is Too Much Planning?

I talked a while back, here and to a lesser extent here, about how my novel writing process has gone from being a fairly laid back and make-it-up-as-you-go-along affair to a current level of preparation that could justly be compared with that of minor military campaigns.

And honestly, I'd come to the conclusion a while back that I was preparing as much as anyone reasonably could: plotting out the entire novel as a detailed synopsis and then breaking it down into a chapter plan before a single word hits the page, that's pretty organised, right?  And it seemed to be working, too: with the skeleton of a plot in place, I was freer to focus on characters, dialogue, action, all the fun stuff that can sometimes end up being two dimensional in a first draft when simply keeping everything rolling becomes the overriding impulse.

Then I got to my current work in progress, and everything exploded.  The thing is, it's a book that requires an astonishing amount of world-building - the world-building, really is what it's all about - and not having that ready in advance has been disastrous.  I mean, not disastrous, I'll get it figured out, but right now I'm thinking that'll mean an entire draft more than I'd normally do, which is hardly a good thing.  Plus, the writing's been like pulling teeth, and then putting those teeth in a sock and hitting myself in the face with it, because it's not fun at all knowing you're doing a rubbish job of something and I've been doing a really rubbish job of inventing a complicated alien society and ecosystem on the fly.

At the same time as that was sinking in I was talking to people about my synopsis for the next book in line, and the feedback that came from a couple of readers was that they weren't clear on how the central relationship was supposed to play out.  As we discussed it, my writer friend Charlotte Bond suggested I should try putting together some character profiles.  My first reaction was one of wariness, since that sounds awfully like a writing exercise and writing exercises are one of the many things I classify as people who claim to be writing doing something else instead.  But I didn't have any better solution, and I really did need to get this stuff worked out.  So I've been giving it a go, and, what do you know, the results have been surprisingly great so far.  Looking at the characters in isolation is pushing me to delve into their motivations and backstories in a way that I know I'd struggle to do if I was worrying about having to keep the wheels of a plot spinning.  Minor characters are developing a level of complexity I'd normally reserve for my leads.  And now I'm thinking that I really need to do something similar for the world: the major locations, the major systems, perhaps even the major events of its history.

I've always been distrustful of this sort of my approach, too, and for the exact same reason.  If I'm honest, whenever I hear fantasy writers (it's always fantasy writers) talking about how they map out every last corner of their world before they begin, down to what rodents like to eat each other and who cleans out the privies in that tiny village the characters won't ever visit, I tend to assume that they are in fact prevaricating.  Because, you know, they are.  But I'm telling myself that this feels different: I already have the novel planned in its entirety, so I'm not trying to craft anything extraneous; the character traits and relationships I'm figuring out will almost certainly find their way into the final book, and I have faith that so will the world-building, once I get to that.

But where will this all end? I have no idea, though it's easy to start imagining nightmare scenarios where advance plotting means writing the entire novel before I ever start writing the novel, trapping myself into some kind of weird Möbius reality in which planning only ever leads to more planning.  And wait, there's a word for that, isn't?  I'm pretty sure it's called prevarication.  So let's not do that.