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 work in isolation (though apparently they would also later become 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 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 blatantly 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 reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]

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 is stunning.  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.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Introducing Re:Fiction

There are tons of great writing resources out there, but that's not to say that there isn't the need for more, especially when they're bringing something fresh to the table.  For that reason amongst others, I've grown rather fond of new website Re:Fiction.  In essence, the bulk of what they have to offer is fairly standard - a bunch of articles on the craft of writing - but the presentation and ethos behind them is refreshing.  Pieces are exactly the write length, well-suited to browsing without being too light and trivial, and everything is easy on the eyes.  Founder Tal Valente makes the point in her bio that her twin passions for writing and computing fit well together, and I've always found this to be the case myself.  Partly because I'm obsessed with using spreadsheets for absolutely everything, I admit, but mostly because there's a lot to be said for getting the technical business right in this day and age.  Re:Fiction has the feel of a site put together by people who know their way around this stuff, and that automatically puts it head and shoulders above a lot of similar resources I've come across.

It's also worth mentioning that they actually have some good writers providing their content - my friend Andy Knighton amongst them, who always talks lucidly and well upon the subject of writing.  There's also a nice subdivision going on, with the meat and potatoes actual-writing stuff set aside from the thorny topic of inspiration and all of that extraneous nonsense we tend to file under "lifestyle" and inevitably ends up eating ninety percent of your time.

The main reason I'm pointing you towards Re:Fiction, however, is something I haven't seen elsewhere and that's, frankly, pretty awesome: they're offering a free critique service on short fiction, provided by experienced editors.  Theoretically there are some restrictions in place, but with the site still being fairly new, your chances of getting accepted appear to be high: certainly they were good enough to take a look at one of my stories, even after I admitted that I write for a living.  And the feedback I got was pretty solid, certainly as good as I've had from a few professional editors in my time.  More to the point, getting any kind of quality feedback on your work is profoundly difficult: friends are rarely harsh enough, other writers you don't know well are prone to competitiveness, and everyone everywhere is short of time to spare.

On those grounds - and as a small thank you for the free help they gave me! - I'm glad to recommend Re:Fiction.  If you're just starting out and need some pro tips, or if you're an established writer in need of an outside perspective, or if you're either and just want some good quality feedback on your work, then they're well looking up.