Friday, 28 June 2019

Eye of the Observer is Out!

Yup, the third in the Black River Chronicles series, Eye of the Observer, is finally out to buy!  And it's hard to know what I can add to that announcement, since it feels like I've already been talking about this book for such a long while now.  I guess I'll just have to settle for summing up everything I've said elsewhere, now that people can actually read the thing for themselves, right?

Eye of the Observer has been a major part of my life ever since before The Ursvaal Exchange came out, and that was an entire year and a half ago!  In that sense, it's actually a bit weird to be finally letting it go out into the world.  Some of why it's arriving later than I'd hoped is to do with a bit of general rejiggering at the publisher end - all positive, mind you, and which will hopefully get the series under the eyes of yet more people - but part of it is undoubtedly my fault, so sorry for everyone who's been itching to see what misadventures Durren, Tia, Arein, and Hule get up to this time.  At any rate, I'm confident in saying the gap until book four will be a good deal shorter; with the first draft already finished, there's a solid chance we'll have it out before this time next year.

But back to Eye of the Observer ... and as I'm sure I've said before, you can get a  good idea of where the focus of each Black River book lies from who gets most space on the cover.  Durren was our viewpoint into the series in Level One, The Ursvaal Exchange dug into Tia's background and motivations, and here we have two characters sharing almost equal space.  Of course, part of the reason for that is that one of them happens to be a heck of a lot bigger than when we last saw them.  Can that really be the party's faithful companion creature Pootle squaring up to Arein?  Obviously the answer is ... maybe?  Look, I'm not going to spoiler my own book in the week it comes out, am I?  Let's just say that, as the title suggests, we're going to be learning more about a certain eyeball creature, and as the cover suggests, this one is in many ways Arein's book - which is great for me, because she's a joy to write and has always felt like the heart of The Black River Chronicles.  Indeed, since her character was my personal starting point for these books, there's a lot here that's been on the boil since before the first word was ever written.

Right, I think that's enough out of me!  To give you a taste of what Eye of the Observer is actually about, here's the blurb:
Durren Flintrand, student ranger at the Black River Academy for Swordcraft and Spellcraft, finds his life thrown into fresh confusion when his party's latest quest goes disastrously awry.  Magic is malfunctioning in strange and terrible ways, and what's worse, it might be their fault.  Certainly that's what their wizard Arein believes, and her doubts may be enough to accomplish what countless threats haven't: to tear their group apart.
Along with Tia the rogue and fighter Hule, Durren is determined to put right what's gone wrong, no matter the cost.  But when they embark on a desperate mission of their own, the friends end up far from home and lost in a subterranean labyrinth of monsters, traps, and buried secrets.  With Arein's fate on the line and Pootle the observer, their unofficial fifth party member, undergoing a bizarre transformation, the stakes have never been higher or more personal.  Yet they may prove trivial compared to what lies in the heart of the mountain Gongurren, an ancient horror now stirring toward the light of day.
And if you fancy a copy, you can find it on Amazon in the UK here and in the US here.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 50

49 posts!  196 reviews!  It's been a long road to get to this point, and there's been a great deal of nineties anime under the bridge.  What began as an idle whim has become something between my main hobby and a second job, and I find myself weirdly okay with that.  Along the way, my love of Japanese genre fiction and animation as a medium has only grown, and I've discovered some truly wonderful works, along with a lot that's silly but fun.  As time sinks go, I've no regrets.

But no, that's not true, I do have one regret, and here at the big half century mark, I'm going to address that.  Since my focus has always been on discovering gems I haven't seen, I've largely ignored the established classics of vintage anime, meaning that the list of works I've awarded nine, let alone ten stars to is awfully brief.  By the same measure, so much of my time's been taken up with watching new stuff for these reviews that I haven't been back to revisit my favourites.

Basically, then, it's personal canon time: these are the films I unreservedly love and that helped give birth to this whole crazy experiment, and for the first and perhaps only time in this series we get to gaze at the dizziest heights of vintage anime for an entire post, in the shape of: Perfect Blue, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, Ghost in the Shell, and Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade...

Perfect Blue, 1997, dir: Satoshi Kon

If there's a criticism to be leveled at Satoshi Kon's directorial debut Perfect Blue, it's that it's no more or less than a superlative thriller.  And even that's perhaps harsh: not many thrillers comment so perceptively on the culture they inhabit, or are so mechanically fascinating, or dare to challenge their audience in such flagrant fashion.  Nevertheless, with the benefit of hindsight and compared with everything Kon would do from here on in his extraordinary and all-too-short career, Perfect Blue is merely a smart, intricate, mind-bending genre picture made with outstanding craft.

But if it's true that Kon's characteristic mind games and fluid take on reality would subsequently be exploited to better effect - if I had to choose, I'd call Millennium Actress his masterpiece, out of a career consisting of nothing except masterpieces - it's also true that he hit the ground running, with a story ideally suited to the themes and approach he'd go on to make his own.  Perfect Blue follows Mima Kirigoe, who we meet as she's bowing out of her idol group CHAM! to pursue a career in acting, much to the chagrin of her devoted fans, one of whom in particular seems to consider himself personally responsible for setting her back on the right path.  That's hardly Mima's only worry, though, as her part in a straight-to-DVD thriller and the pressure to shed her little-girl idol persona drives her to make choices so wildly at odds with her natural inclinations that her troubled mind begins to splinter in all sorts of weird ways.  Or could it be that she really does have a doppelganger, and that the fairy-like other Mima she keeps seeing somehow exists outside of her increasingly muddled imagination?

It's a great setup, an intriguing melting pot of Hitchcock, Lynch, and Argento, all of whom Kon references more or less explicitly; but it's easy to imagine a version of Perfect Blue that wasn't a classic worthy of discussion two decades later, and what pushes it over the line is largely a matter of dedication.  Kon's contempt for an entertainment industry with no roles for women that don't fall into the categories of virgin and whore is palpable, and his adventures in reality-bending are wholeheartedly committed, the approach of an artist asking genuine questions about the extent to which we can trust our perceptions rather than an entertainer who simply wants to mess with his audience - though that's certainly a factor, and in the best of ways, one that's sly and playful without being smug or needlessly obscure.

Then of course there's the animation, which is as good as anything the nineties had to offer and holds up strikingly well today, and the score, which manages both freaky, disorientating pseudo-music and J-pop tracks so catchy that you can readily believe they'd be the work of a moderately successful idol group.  Indeed, how Kon managed to conjure up such production values to make so adult and uncompromising a film is anyone's guess.  That he did, and that it was successful enough for him to keep making films, is a fluke to be thankful for, even if it doesn't make his premature death at the age of 46 any less devastating.  He'd go on to make better films than Perfect Blue, ones that transcended their material in ways it doesn't, and he would explore these same themes more vigorously in his series Paranoia Agent.  But when that's the worst that can be said, you know you're looking at one heck of a movie.

Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, 1987, dir: Hiroyuki Yamaga

If Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise had nothing going for it beside its world building, it would still be one of the great genre films of the twentieth century.  The kingdom of Honnêamise belongs to a world like and unlike our own, similar enough to be recognisable and relatable but alien in its every specific.  This is one of the most designed movies ever made, with every element, from vehicles to telephones to clothing to lights to drinking glasses rethought in ways that are somehow both strange and correct.  Yet it's also a movie that never feels designed, because the job has been done far too well to call attention to itself.  We've no choice but to accept Honnêamise as a real place, absorbing its customs through osmosis rather than because they're forced on our attention.

Couple that with Hiroyuki Yamaga's assured, naturalistic direction, which refuses to treat the narrative as any sort of science-fiction, or really as fiction full stop, and what you get feels like a documentary beamed from another dimension.  That approach is absolutely correct for its material, the story of an alternate space program in an alternate world, one where to be a member of the Space Force is a wholly disreputable career that only someone like our slovenly protagonist Shirotsugh Lhadatt, whose poor grades nixed his dreams of flying jets, would consider.  When we meet him, he's too disheartened at the death of a friend to even bother turning up on time for said friend's funeral, and it's only a chance encounter with young, impoverished street preacher Riquinni that begins his journey toward being his world's first astronaut.  But as the unlikely possibility that the Royal Space Force might actually accomplish something begins to look like a potential reality, so it grows increasingly clear that his government's motives are less than noble, or much to do with getting a man into space.

In a sense, it's easy to see why the result was a flop that nearly killed off the burgeoning Studio Gainax: it's an ambling story full of odd diversions, not least the sort-of romance between Lhadatt and Riquinni, which culminates in an atrocious act on Lhadatt's part that would break a lesser film, because it's damned hard to sympathise with him afterwards.  But Wings of Honnêamise doesn't require us, or even particularly desire us, to sympathise with its protagonist.  Indeed, to do so would perhaps be missing the point.  Boiled down to its essence, its narrative is basically Oscar Wilde's adage, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars," and that message is the heart of the film both on the level of character and in its wider themes, to be ultimately expressed in a closing few minutes as sublime as any sequence put to film.

Oh, and it neatly sums up Studio Gainax too, who at this point were just a bunch of young Turks with the arrogance to assume they could do animation better than anyone in the industry and the raw talent and scrupulous commitment to their craft to actually pull it off.  Wings of Honnêamise offers some of the most astonishing hand-drawn animation you're ever likely to see, and at the same time looks unlike any animated film ever made, with that dedication to verisimilitude spilling over into every aspect.  Lhadatt spends most of the film looking miserable, exhausted, or both; the movie's central action sequence is notable mostly for how much it refuses to be exciting; and the attention to detail is bewildering, especially in the special effects work of a certain Hideaki Anno, who models details as seemingly trivial as tumbling ice shards with the most exquisite, mind-boggling precision imaginable.

The culmination of those efforts is unique even by the standards of late eighties anime, a period when the medium was stretching itself to a degree that would never truly happen again.  It's essential watching if you're an animation fan, that should be obvious; but it's also one of the most truly bold and original science-fiction films ever made, broaching material any Hollywood exec would dismiss as too bookish and complex to work on screen.  And in ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, they'd be right; Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise is the sort of lightning strike you could only get when a bunch of genius creators set out to smash their way into an industry through sheer talent and have the arrogance to break all the rules along the way, including a few that would normally be better off not broken.

Ghost in the Shell, 1995, dir: Mamoru Oshii

I'm not going to say Ghost in the Shell is the best science fiction film ever made.  I'm certainly not going to deny it either.  There are other contenders, for sure, but I'll go this far without hesitation: Ghost in the Shell is as close to a perfect sci-fi movie as it's possible to get, and thus its only competition comes from other functionally perfect movies, the Blade Runners and Stalkers and Aliens of this world.  And this struck me more on a rewatch than ever before: there's simply nothing unquestionably wrong with it, nothing to be definitively pointed out as a misstep.  As a narrative, as a work of animation, as the creative vision of a singular director, as a philosophical argument even, it's basically flawless.  For a little under ninety minutes of running time, it never puts a foot wrong, nor wastes a single frame, nor raises an idea that doesn't tie intimately into its central themes.

This certainly has a lot to do with Mamoru Oshii, a staggering talent who reached a peak here he'd never quite equal again, and refined techniques he'd developed on a series of lesser but still terrific classics over the last decade and change.  What struck me forcibly coming back to Ghost in the Shell was the degree to which the film breaks down into discreet chunks that are rarely required to do more than one thing: generally they're action, plot, or thematic exposition, with a nebulous fourth category that might be classed as world-building, though it's as much to do with mood-building: I'm thinking here of the famous sequence where our protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, wanders through the urban sprawl of New Port City, accompanied by Kenji Kawai's gorgeous, hypnotically alien score.  Anyway, the point is that mostly scenes are expected to fulfill one purpose and to achieve that purpose outstandingly.  Few directors could get away with this; there's a scene, for example, set in a brief moment of downtime, where the two main characters sit and basically discuss the movie's themes.  It shouldn't work, yet it does, and the reason is Oshii, who's honed this economy of storytelling to such a remarkable degree.

It helps, of course, that the animation is some of the finest ever created.  Normally in these reviews I'd have to caveat that with a nod to Disney and Ghibli, but not here: what Production I.G. and their collaborators accomplished is the pinnacle of the craft.  Moreover, there's not a second where the medium inhibits the storytelling, not a shot that feels compromised by the technical difficulties involved with drawing complex three-dimensional objects in motion or layers of action or the minutia of expressions or anything else.  Watch it on blu-ray and it's nearly impossible to grasp that it was made two and half decades ago; the only real clue is that pretty much nobody is producing hand-drawn animation so exquisite these days.

Should you not be an animation fan, I suppose you might argue that none of this is a reason to consider Ghost in the Shell an enduring masterpiece.  You might even propose that it's merely riffing on familiar genre themes.  Can mankind create an intelligence to rival its own?  Can an AI ever be truly considered intelligent?  How far can we modify ourselves and still regard ourselves as human?  If we rely on external memories, can those memories be trusted?  Interesting ideas to be sure, but none of them fresh, and all chewed over extensively since 1995.  However, Oshii, along with scriptwriter Kazunori Itô, invariably finds new angles and challenging conclusions.  The film is happy to conclude that one intelligence is much like another, and anyway, both are largely illusory: we think we think, therefore we probably are, for all the good it does us.  And if that weren't enough, there's plenty else to get lost in around the margins, and some of that really is still novel: particularly, the film's treatment of gender identity and sexuality remains fascinating and complex.

So sure, I won't flat out claim that Ghost in the Shell is the greatest science fiction film ever made, or the greatest anime film, or the greatest filmed work of cyberpunk, but it certainly might be, and it absolutely belongs in the highest stratosphere of all those categories.  It's a movie I never grow tired of, indeed one that I can never return to and not be surprised by; there are individual scenes of such brilliance that they're burned deep into my brain, yet I'm always startled by how new and unexpected the plot feels, how essentially distant and unreachable it all is.  At the start I called Ghost in the Shell perfect, and that's not a word I use lightly, especially not when describing films, but here I do so unhesitatingly.

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, 1999, dir: Hiroyuki Okiura

With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to view Jin-Roh as a last hurrah for the soon to be largely extinct art of purely hand-drawn animation.  By 1999, the writing was on the wall; indeed, Ghost in the Shell, four years earlier, and made also by studio Production I.G., had already become one of the benchmarks that proved CG could be incorporated seamlessly into 2D animation.  The approach taken here, amounting to an immensely laborious three year production cycle and some 80'000 cells, must have seemed dated even at the time.  As the new millennium was ushered in, most of those involved would embrace the incoming technology wholeheartedly: writer Oshii, adapting from his own Manga, would reset the benchmark all over again with his sequel to Ghost in the Shell five years later, and assistant director Kenji Kamiyama would team up again with I.G. three years later to make arguably the greatest sci-fi anime series of all time, Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, which would go a long way to rewriting the rulebook on how the skillful deployment of computer animation could up the bar of what TV animation was capable of.

All of which I present for basically two reasons.  Firstly, Jin-Roh is a staggering work of animation, so smooth and realistic and subtle in its effects that it's awfully easy to forget you're watching an animated film at all.  If it's not exactly what you'd call beautiful, that comes down entirely to its subject matter and not at all to its craft, which is in the very highest echelons of the medium.  And secondly, Jin-Roh feels not of its time on almost every level.  Even if you don't know to spot the lack of CG, it has the air of something that might have been made a decade earlier, in that window where costly experimentation in smart, difficult anime for adults briefly blossomed.  And though Oshii's influence didn't extent beyond the script, this very much has the feel of his earlier works, particularly his two Patlabor movies.  But none of that would matter much if it wasn't for the subject matter, and that's one of the things that makes Jin-Roh truly fascinating: its defiance of the cutting edge of animation technology is perfectly of a piece with the mood it creates and the story it tells.

That's not a story I want to spoil, but a bit of background should clarify my point.  The movie takes place in an alternate nineteen-fifties Japan, one caught in an escalating conflict between domestic terrorism and ever more extreme law enforcement, the darkest facet of which consists of the Capital Police and their heavily armed and armoured forces, who've shown so little restraint that even the other branches of the police are getting twitchy about their antics; that they look like Nazi stormtroopers with glowing red eyes probably doesn't help matters, nor do the rumours that they're running a secret counter-intelligence unit from within their ranks.  And what better way to take them down than by discrediting one of their number?  Say, Kazuki Fuse, sunk in emotional stupor after watching a young girl blow herself up with a parcel bomb and now showing altogether too much interest in her older sister?

Cheery stuff, right?  But truth be told, Jin-Roh is even more bleak and dour than all that.  When it's not being an examination of how totalitarianism destroys hearts and souls - mostly by numbing them into oblivion, if the film is to be believed - it's sidelining as a particularly gothic, Germanic telling of the Red Riding Hood story, one that scorns the very notion of happy endings.  Had Oshii directed himself, he might perhaps have found some poetry in the material, but Okiura doesn't appear to be trying - odd given that his return to feature directing, many years later, would be with the sweetly charming A Letter To Momo.  Then again, it's not really a criticism, merely an observation: Jin-Roh is a joyless, suffocating vision that captures as well as anything I've encountered the hollow feeling of deep depression, and it's hard to imagine that Okiura ever intended it to be anything else, given how surehandedly he controls the material.

It may be apparent by now that, unlike everything else here, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigage is not a film I recommend wholeheartedly and to everyone.  Its pace is leaden, its cynicism nearly overwhelming, and though there are some superb twists and bursts of action along the way, there's a reasonable chance you'll be feeling so bludgeoned on a first viewing that you might miss them.  Indeed, it was the last movie I rewatched for this retrospective because a part of me wasn't eager to return to it - though admittedly that had as much to do with the fact that I'd recently seen Kim Jee-woon's recent re-imagining Illang, which I dare say may even improve on its source material.  Nevertheless, Jin-Roh genuinely is a classic of its genre and close to indispensable.  It might not make you happy, but sometimes it's the job of great art to make you feel like crap and open your mind a little, and sometimes that's every bit as valuable.


You know, I think this was something I needed to get out of my system.  So I guess the fact that I had to write 196 reviews to get to this point is totally okay.  Occasionally it's really satisfying to remind yourself of why you love something, and then to try and put that passion into words.  I've no idea if I've done these four films any justice - honestly, I doubt such a thing is possible! - but the effort felt good.  And there's no other possible conclusion than to say that, if there's anything here you haven't seen, for goodness' sake correct that fact as rapidly as possible ... these aren't just masterpieces of anime, they're masterpieces of cinema and of storytelling.  Basically, they're flat-out masterpieces, and they deserve your attention.

Next time?  Well, I know pretty much for certain where we'll be next, because I have about ten of these posts finished and ready to go, but suffice to say that, while some of it will be good and some it might even be great, it's going to be at least another fifty entries before we hit this kind of high point again.

[Other reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]

Friday, 7 June 2019

Short Story News May 2019

As usual these days, the short story news isn't exactly coming thick and fast.  Apparently it's been six months since I had anything to say on that front!  But I figure I've gathered enough to more than justify a post, especially when there are a couple of seriously exciting bits of news to share.

If we're being honest, the two stories I had out over the Christmas period don't fall into that category.  It was nice to have new work released, but not so much so when both suffered from some rather wonky editing.  In the case of new UK-based cyberpunk magazine Write Ahead, I'm happy to put that down to teething troubles, since my story Glamorous Corpses appeared in the very first issue, and the general quality of the fiction and some lovely design work made the editorial slip-ups easier to ignore - though it was tough not to feel sorry for the author whose story appeared with line breaks inserted after every few words!  But these things happen, right?  And I sincerely hope this little 'zine sticks around, because the presentation is terrific.  There have been a couple more issues since, and I'd tentatively recommend picking them up; I get the impression that the folks behind it were keen to learn from what they hadn't got quite right.

I can't be quite so positive about the Bubble Off Plumb collection that Feral Cat Publishers put out.  Honestly, my hopes for this one were muted after some not-so-great experiences in the run up to its release, and the end result is pretty much what I was expecting - though I hadn't guessed how many of the stories would be by the editorial team, so I guess I can still be surprised!  As with any anthology, there are a few good pieces in there, though most would fare better with less typos.  At any rate, I'm hoping my story Cat and Mouse wasn't a low point, and there's a bit of evidence on that front because - and here we finally get to the legitimately good news portion of this post! - it wasn't long before it got picked up for my first ever best-of.  That would be NewCon Press's Best of British Science-Fiction anthology, which should be out pretty soon, and has one heck of a line-up: you can see the wonderful company I'm in here.

Speaking of great company, a bit of news I think I nodded toward last time but couldn't yet come out with was that I've another story in one of those gorgeous anthologies that Flame Tree Publishing keep creating.  This time it's Step Light, which originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  And as ever, the lineup is a mix of newer and classic fiction, which means that, along with numerous fantastic contemporary authors, I've now been published alongside Oscar Wilde and Fyodor Dostoevsky.  I mean, Fyodor goddamn Dostoevsky!  When you talk about wanting to appear alongside your personal favourite writers, you sort of don't expect it to include your actual literary heroes, but thanks to this series I've done awfully well on that front.  You can find the full lineup here, and if you're curious as to where we contributors that aren't long dead got our ideas from you can learn about that here, or if you'd like to discover a bit about influences and writing practices then that would be here.  Since my author copies are apparently in the post, I'm pretty certain this one's already out to buy, and I can't stress enough how fantastic and beautifully made these books are.

Speaking of classic authors, in a post that's lending itself well to neat links between paragraphs, I have managed to sell at least one original piece in recent months, rare as that's becoming, and if Dostoevsky is one of my all time literary heroes then H. G. Wells absolutely tops that list.  Want to learn how to write short genre fiction?  Then read Wells, because no one has ever done a better job of it.  There aren't many authors I'd write what amounts to fan fiction for, let alone dream of creating an unofficial sequel to one of their best known works, but I love the hell out of Wells and The War of the Worlds is one of my all time favourite novels, and somehow that led to my coming up with The Last of the Martians, a follow-up that also has the temerity to challenge some of the basic assumptions in the one of the great SF novels of all time.  Basically, if you're looking for a pacifist epilogue to a novel that literally has the word "war" right there in the title then I've got you covered.  And it'll be appearing in the A Tribute to H. G. Wells anthology from Belanger Books, somewhere toward the back end of the year, with a Kickstarter campaign coming in the meantime.

Weirdly though, given how exciting all of the above is, the sales I was most thrilled for weren't even in English.  I've had a couple of pieces out in translation - I learned recently that my story Stockholm Syndrome has made it into multiple languages, including Spanish and Korean, courtesy of John Joseph Adams and his terrific The Living Dead anthology - but it was only last year that I actually got directly approached by an overseas publisher.  So for the same to happen twice in rapid succession was definitely a shock.

First came The Only Way Out Lies Farther In, in what I take to be an Italian version of the 'zine in which the story first appeared, The Dark, appropriately named Il Buio.  And that was certainly cool, though they did change the title without asking ... I mean, Il Labirinto is fine and all, but it's not half so wordy and pretentious!  But I can't read Italian, and there's a reasonable chance I won't ever be able to read Italian, whereas I've been learning Japanese for the last year and change and I genuinely do hope that one day I'll be able to work my way through the May 2019 issue of Japanese weird fiction venue Nightland Quarterly, as published by Atelier Third.  I got a request from them out of the blue to use The Way of the Leaves, as featured in my collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, and I was hardly about to say no, was I?  I've yet to see a copy, but the cover is cool, and I've already learned that my name in katakana comes out as David Terraman, which is a useful thing to know.

And that's it for the moment, though I've vague hopes of devoting a bit more time to short fiction in the second half of the year, and I'm steadily plugging away at a second collection of horror and dark fantasy, which may or may not eventually see the light of day!  I mean, it will, one way or another, I'm just not sure how I get to that point quite yet...