Sunday, 26 January 2020

Five Things Short Fiction Magazines Might Want to Reconsider

It's fair to say that I've sent off quite a few short fiction submissions in the fifteen years I've been doing so.  Indeed, it appears I've got through somewhere in the region of fourteen hundred of the things, if my trusty spreadsheet is to be believed!  And it's equally fair to say that, while most of those submissions have been at worst a fairly neutral experience, there are those that have been needlessly irritating in one way or another.  And after fifteen years, it gets hard not to notice that those irritations tend to be the same handful of unnecessary slips that market after market makes.  But nobody wants to be irritating, right?  Of course they don't.  So, eternal optimist that I am, I reckon the problem is that nobody's taken the time to put together a blog post flagging up all of these issues so that no-one need ever drop these particular balls again.  I mean, that's got to be it, right?

Pedantic Formatting Requirements
Ugh, formatting guidelines!  This is actually the whole reason for this post, but I figured, why rant about one annoyance when you can rant about a whole bunch?  Anyway, here's the thing: expecting every submitter to reformat their story to suit your specific needs is a heck of a waste of everybody's time.  Has anyone stopped to work out the total hours that go into hundreds of writers changing their work into fourteen point Comic Sans with four inch margins and asterisks instead of quote marks and every third word highlighted in purple just because a particular editor likes it that way?  I bet they haven't.  And is it really so difficult to read subs in standard manuscript format, or even in something that's pretty close to it?  Here's my suggestion: if you genuinely can't be bothered to spend an hour or so per issue reformatting whatever you ultimately accept, why not just specify in the guidelines that submissions will have to be revised once they're accepted?  That way, maybe five people a month are going through this, and with good reason, rather than five hundred people for no reason at all.
Burying Charges
Not really one for the genre markets, thank goodness, but this is a personal bugbear because I have one damn poem that I've been trying to shift for who knows how many years now.  (And yes, I realise it's probably just terrible!)  For those poor suckers over on the literary side of things, submission fees are a standard feature of life, presumably because everyone accepts that the only way literary magazines can support themselves is by gouging their submitters.  But if you're going to charge, have the decency to be upfront about it, don't hide the fact three pages deep into your submission process, presumably in the hope that people will be so excited over the possibility of being paid three dollars for their work that they won't object to paying two dollars and ninety-nine cents to submit in the first place.
Waffly Guidelines
Halfway through the list and it occurs to me that a lot of these points add up to the same thing, which amounts to respecting other people's time.  It's nice when editors are enthusiastic, but when that enthusiasm takes the form of a page-long essay about how a childhood water polo accident gave them the emotional fortitude to, twenty years later, found a magazine, and the crucial information needed to submit is hidden amid the third and fifth paragraphs, that enthusiasm crosses over into being kind of annoying.  In general, submitting authors want to know what a market's after, how they want it, how to submit it, and what's offered in return, and they want that information to be up front and unmissable.
Bafflingly Worded Rejection E-mails
A few days back I got a rejection e-mail that said "We're afraid we're unable to publish your submission" and my instinctive reaction was, Wait, why?  I could totally get that they might not want to publish it, but that they were unable to?  That was a mystery right there.  Had the magazine closed down, or was there some darker possibility?  Maybe their hands had fallen off?  Maybe their office was full of bees?  Ought I to be contacting the emergency services?
Bad rejection e-mails tend to veer in one of two directions, and obviously the flat-out offensive ones are objectively the worst, those that are quite happy to leave a writer with the impression that the problem's absolutely with them and their work.  But sometimes it's easier to dismiss rudeness than e-mails that feel like they're ducking responsibility for the whole sorry business.  Nobody's ever going to enjoy getting a rejection e-mail, but all it takes is to say is that the story didn't quite work for you; it's hard to be offended by the revelation that not every editor in the world likes every story.
Demanding You Buy an Issue
Here's a confession: I've never once bought a magazine to get a sense of what they publish, however many times I've been encouraged to do so.  And while I'm far from being the best-selling short fiction writer of all time, I've done okay.  Obviously it's not unreasonable for editors to push writers toward also being readers, so I'm not at all suggesting that a nudge in that direction is out of order, or that writers shouldn't help to keep the markets they value alive.  But there are always those that take things too far, who spout cryptic nonsense and end with a declaration that the only way to work out their profoundly idiosyncratic requirements is to see what they've picked in the past.  All else aside, this feels like a general red flag, because not being able to articulate what you're after is hardly an appealing quality in an editor, nor is only selecting work that's of a piece with what you've picked in the past.
There!  Hopefully I've fixed the short fiction scene for all time.  Or, more probably, alienated every short fiction editor on the planet.  Then again, most of the markets I submit to regularly don't do most of these things, a big percentage don't do any of them, and in general, my experiences with short fiction editors have been pretty good, so ... hopefully not?  And, you know, I get that these are minor niggles at most, but wouldn't it be a slightly better world if everyone quit doing them?  I think it would. 

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 61

There are anime franchises that are fondly remembered to this day, there are some that have never really gone away, and there are a few that history has been less kind to.  The Gall Force series ran to a feature film and eight OVAs, not to mention a video game, and yet the last of those entries - an attempted re-imagining that never made it to the West - came out over two decades ago, and it's rare to hear the series get much mention even among vintage anime buffs.

This, of course, is all the more reason to track down what's available and take a good hard look!  Not an easy task these days, it has to be said, since the entire lot is majorly out of print and incredibly hard to come by.  But is doing so worth the effort?  Here's my thoughts on Gall Force: Eternal Story, Gall Force: Destruction, Gall Force: Stardust War, and Rhea Gall Force...

Gall Force: Eternal Story, 1986, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

Gall Force: Eternal Story contains a great many things that I  like in my vintage anime: some high-concept, epic science fiction; an almost entirely female cast made up for the most part of competent, capable characters; some pretty-cool-for-the-time designs, including distinctive character work from Kenichi "Gunsmith Cats" Sonoda; an actual plot, with its fair share of ideas and unexpected developments; the odd neat pop song; moments of genuinely ambitious animation, despite a clearly somewhat constrained budget; and, er, rocket swarms.  Look, I'm a sucker for rocket swarms, all right?  You know, that cheap eighties effect where they basically simulate massive ship-to-ship attacks using lots of lines?  For me, nothing screams eighties sci-fi anime more, and I love it utterly.

Inevitably, Gall Force: Eternal Story also contains a few elements I was less enthusiastic for.  There's an awful lot of fan service, for example, to the point where you sort of begin to wonder if that wasn't a factor in having a ship crewed entirely by women.  At first, it's quite unobtrusive, but by the fourth or fifth time in a ninety minute movie, it starts to seem more gratuitous.  And as much as I basically liked the plot, it ends with a twist that I've seen done at least once before, in another vintage anime no less, and for which I have no sympathy at all, for reasons I can't go into without spoilers.  Suffice to say that to get much satisfaction from it, you need to buy into a set of beliefs that I don't personally share.  Though it's a testament (hee, clue!) to the good work done elsewhere that the final turn didn't bother me a great deal.  The plot is rather rambling and perhaps doesn't altogether tie up in the final analysis, but it's also hugely cynical about the notion of gigantic space wars, and wars in general, in a way you hardly ever see in this sort of material.  It's not exactly Gunbuster, but it's certainly up to similar business, and with similarly pleasurable results.

The end result was a nice surprise - or, rather, a nice lack of disappointment, since I'd been quite hopeful for this one.  It's not a masterpiece or anything, the ambling plot and notable borrowing from other franchises see to that.  (Take, for example, the point where the narrative basically stops to play at being Alien for five minutes.)  But slagging off eighties sci-fi anime for being derivative is a lost cause, let's face it, and that Gall Force: Eternal Story manages to feel very much like it's own thing despite those points of unoriginality, along with its other virtues, is enough to make it a definite recommendation.  And I can see why this would spawn a franchise: for a film of its length, there's some respectable world-building, and enough hints at a wider universe that I'm eager to see where things go next.

Gall Force 2: Destruction, 1987, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

Really, there's only one way in which the second Gall Force film isn't at least as good or better than the first, but unfortunately it's a big one: it's a whole lot shorter.  I mean, the first Gall Force felt like a movie.  Destruction does not feel like a movie.  And that's disappointing, because if it was a movie, it would be a great one, with some splendid animation and fantastic design work and a cool, eighties-tastic score, along with a startlingly good end theme, and some hefty antiwar themes of the sort it's already evident are going to be a staple of the series.

But it's fifty minutes long, and there's only so much you can do with fifty minutes.  Destruction uses its running time to the max, as so many of these shorter anime films do, and to its great credit, it never feels rushed.  Though it does certainly skimp on the back story: having let a few months pass since I watched Eternal Story, it took me a fair few minutes to regain my footing.  Not that the plot is especially complicated.  The war between the Solnoid and Paranoid races that was introduced in part one has escalated to the point where, a couple of minutes in, neither has a home planet to go back to anymore, and both seem entirely bent on ridding the galaxy of the other at whatever cost, even if the whatever in question is mutual annihilation.  But there are a minority among the Solnoid forces who'd like to leave at least something or someone behind, and it so happens that a few of their number are the ones who rescue Lufy, the crack pilot who was among the few survivors of Eternal Story.  After a (rather awesome!) battle, they decide they trust her enough to let her in on their plan, but Lufy isn't so sure that fighting the war to its ugly end is that bad of an idea.

Actually, that's a fair bit of story, isn't it?  And as I say, it's told well, with no sense of rushing from A to B.  Akiyama does a fine job of introducing his cast while the larger conflict ticks away in the background, so that when the climax kicks into gear, we feel as though we've been hanging out with these characters for a lot longer than we have.  Still, as good as Destruction is - and I must stress, it's very good indeed - it still never quite feels like a proper movie.  And it doesn't help that it's very much a middle part, with an ending that wraps up its own central conflict in fine style but makes no efforts to hide that we'll be seeing the climax of the larger narrative in part three.  Yet I can't bring myself to complain too much.  I'm pretty much in love with the Gall Force universe by this point, with its weird mix of cheerful female protagonists and horribly bleak anti-war themes and wildly cool action sequences.  So if nothing else, Destruction has left me craving more than ever to get my hands on the basically impossible to find third part.  I've a feeling that, if by some miracle I track down a reasonably priced copy, it's going to be pretty damn special.

Gall Force 3: Stardust War, 1988, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

One thing that's remarkable about the Gall Force series is its consistency, and I don't just mean in terms of quality, though that too.  All of its parts feel very much of a piece with each other, which isn't something you can take for granted.  Every one of the core entries was directed by Akiyama, every one used Kenichi Sonoda's character designs, and every other aspect - the high quality of the animation, the excellent scores, the superlative design work elsewhere - has either stayed the same or got a little better with each entry.  And indeed, by the time you get to Stardust War, it's hard not to start thinking of these initial three parts as a single entity.  At the very least, it's impossible to view this as anything besides a sequel to Destruction, which it follows directly on from, a matter of what can at most be days and is possibly mere minutes later.

That means, somewhat surprisingly, that we get to keep the same core cast for another go round, which is no given in a franchise so willing to kill off protagonists as this.  Which isn't to say that the franchise's standards of bleakness have been relaxed in the slightest.  Really, this is about as dark as it gets!  With both sides of the Solnoid / Paranoid war toting weaponry capable of annihilating entire star systems, and neither having a home to return to, the stakes are more than ever to try and ensure that something survives this futile genocide, with the potential added bonus that it would be great if whatever successors are left behind could learn from the idiocy of their forebears.  If Gall Force has always been that conspicuously anti-war anime franchise, this is the point where it goes all in on its message, and at the same time begins to feel altogether like a product of the Cold War era.  Indeed, there's even a mention of that most on the nose of acronyms, Mutual Assured Destruction.

If there's a criticism to be made of Stardust War, aside from the fact that it doesn't stand alone in the slightest, it's that it's awfully talky, and its first half is often talky about facts we either know or have good reason to believe if we've been following along until this point.  That said, it's a mark of the all-round quality that such a hefty focus on exposition really isn't a problem; indeed, it's rather satisfying to have the jumble of plot points we've been presented piecemeal laid out and analysed in such stark terms by characters as eager for answers as we are.  Nevertheless, and while we do get some epic space battling toward the end, I couldn't help missing the terrific, smaller scale action sequences that were a highlight of the previous two entries.  If there was a way to split the difference between Stardust War and Destruction, which leaned too far in the other direction, the result would be a definite classic.

But look, these are niggles, and I've no qualms about calling these first three Gall Force entries one of the highlights of pre twenty-first century anime.  This is mature, intelligent space opera of a sort you simply don't see outside of books, with a strong feminist bent, big ideas, and the technical values to do its material justice.  Indeed, it's fair to say that Gall Force has never looked better: for this entry, the series acquired some astonishing lighting and special effects, and it really does look superb.  Eternal Story was great, Destruction was great, and Stardust War doesn't drop the ball, bringing an epic narrative to a thoroughly satisfying close.

Rhea Gall Force, 1989, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

Just a line ago I was pointing out what a solid, self-contained narrative the first three Gall Force movies formed, and yet here we are, looking at another sequel, and one to a film that left practically no scope for a follow-up.  Which means we've officially entered the second Gall Force "arc", which would continue a few months later with the three part Earth Chapter, reviewed all the way back in post number four when I really had no idea what I was on about.

None of which altogether tells us what Rhea Gall Force actually is - and that's a question that, even having watched it, I'm still trying to pin down, since it's not often that sequels pick up entire millennia after their original casts have died along with their entire species.  The Solnoid and Paranoid races of the first three films are now ancient history, and would have stayed that way, but for the discovery of a Paranoid ship on the moon at precisely the worst time: with the planet already divided by a global conflict, advanced alien technology has proved to be gasoline poured on an already out of control fire.  The result, by a circuitous chain of events, is that both sides are now fighting in grudging truce against the robot soldiers they created to kill each other with, and which have since gained sentience and decided they really ought to be wiping out their fleshy former masters, because this is a movie containing robots made in the eighties.

That leaves us with something that, on the one hand, has bugger all to do with the events that we've previously witnessed, and on the other is infused with a great deal of Gall Force DNA.  It's there in the slick, detailed animation, and particularly in the superlative mechanical designs; it's there in the strong female protagonists, though it's a shock to the system to have a number of male characters milling about also, albeit one that makes perfect sense given what's come before.  And it's definitely there in the cynicism and lengthy pacifist streak; our hero even gets a showpiece speech about the virtues of cooperation.  War is hell, be it against killer robots or other humans, and there are some particularly bloody and unexpected deaths along the way to underscore that point.

Nonetheless, the result is definitely the least Gall Force-y of Gall Forces.  Or to put it another way, eighties cinema wasn't exactly overloaded with complex anti-war space opera fables, whereas however much you dress up a tale of brave resistance fighters battling the robot foe on a ruined Earth, it's still going to end up feeling a lot like The Terminator.  That leaves Rhea Gall Force as an above-par example of what it is, with impressive visuals and some interesting wrinkles, but with that thing being inherently less exciting than what's gone before - and thus the franchise's first real disappointment.

-oOo-

Yup, Gall Force is great.  I mean, the core trilogy is now high in my list of personal favourites, and even Rhea is well above average.  And it's one heck of shame that this franchise above all others has vanished into the mists of history.  Somebody definitely needs to get working on a blu-ray box set.  Eastern StarAnimeEigo?  Anybody?  In the meantime, those hard-to-find DVDs are a definite highlight of my collection, and for everyone less obsessive, you can find at least a couple of them on shameless piracy giant Youtube.



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

Friday, 10 January 2020

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2019

As usual, putting together this list has made me feel more positive about the fate of genre film-making than I did throughout the year.  At any rate, the developing trends feel positive.  Marvel may have bottomed out with the shabbily constructed Captain Marvel and wrapped up phase three with a five hour scrap in a gravel pit, but their slate going forward looks like a drift back toward the more standalone, experimental (by big-budget movie standards!) style of their best outings.  And by being that bit quicker to realise that giant interconnected universes are less fun than we all somehow expected them to be, despite decades of them screwing up good comic books, DC are one step ahead, with increasingly exciting results.  Speaking of exciting, we're finally, definitely at the point where CG is cheap enough that pretty much anyone can afford to make good use of it, including directors with actual ideas, who - the really crazy part! - sometimes don't even speak English as their first language.  And as much as I hate to admit it, it's possible that one of the main driving forces there is Netflix, who may at last be getting free of their lengthy "pair gimmicky idea A with talented-but-cheap director B and give them either too much or too little money" phase.

Oh, and also, there was a Star Wars.  But let us never speak of that again.

10) Gemini Man

Hey, you've got to start somewhere.  Gemini Man is what happens when you throw a director of immense but inconsistent talent at material so beneath them that they can't help but dredge up something intermittently special.  Sure, it's a shame that Ang Lee is much more bothered about playing with new technological toys that making great films these days, and sure his CV is getting awfully spotty, but still, as hackneyed as "government assassin faces off against a cloned younger version of himself!" is as a concept, Gemini Man is still capable of throwing up the odd sequence of terrific b-movie action.  My enthusiasm has died down a lot since I watched it, and even then didn't get much beyond "well, that was better than it might have been," and I'm mostly sticking it on here because it deserved fractionally more attention than it got, and also to look a bit prescient: I've a feeling that in 2020 we'll all be talking about the sort of digital technologies put to use in making this, as deepfake takes fake news to society-wrecking new levels.

9) Aniara

Okay, so depending who you ask, this one actually belongs to 2018, but I'm desperate and it's this or The Wandering Earth, which was pretty much a mess (though one that's admittedly worth a watch if you're in the right mood for a bonkers two hour sci-fi epic.)  I'd be lying if I said that I thought Aniara succeeds in what it's trying to do, or even that I could say for absolutely certain what it was trying to do, but that it's all sorts of ambitious?  That much is certain.  Admittedly, the very notion of a Swedish space opera is pretty damn ambitious, and an interesting testament to the steady sea change that cheaper CG is bringing to genre film-making.  If the poetry-inspired end result resembles a really long, depressing IKEA advert, I'd still much rather live in a world where we get challenging, miserabilist movies like this than one where Hollywood alone gets to determine what the future looks like.

8) Spiderman: Far From Home

A pretty good Spiderman film hiding in a mediocre Iron Man film wrapped in a thoroughly unnecessary epilogue to the already over-epilogued Avengers: Endgame, this did a good job of illustrating everything I've come to find annoying about the MCU.  Still, there's something to be said for a pretty good Spiderman film, even when it's one that could easily have been much better.  Jake Gyllenhaal made for such a legitimately great villain that it didn't matter that anyone who's ever picked up a comic knew what twist was coming, the returning cast were as charming as in the first one, the action was a marked step up from anything Marvel have offered in a good long while, as was the effects work, but most importantly, there were a few stray moments of genuine comic-book brilliance mixed in there, and one sequence in particular that felt unlike anything we've seen before up on the screen.  With innovation becoming ever more the opposite of what these things seem to be trying to accomplish, that was definitely a nice surprise.

7) Pokémon Detective Pikachu

A film that had no right to be anything except terrible - despite having a couple of my favourite preview posters of recent years - I still haven't quite figured out how Detective Pikachu got away with being so joyous and charming.  We could put it down to the presence of Ryan Reynolds, and he certainly does as fine a job of bringing life to a certain rosy-cheeked, lightning-bolt-tailed critter as anyone could have (or anyone who's not Ikue Ôtani, anyway) but Reynolds's presence is perhaps more a symptom than a cause, in a movie that sets itself the nigh-impossible task of threading the needle between breezy, brightly coloured kids' movie and darkly funny noir pastiche for adults and somehow mostly pulls it off.  The human cast are largely just there and the plot is disposable nonsense, but it's still a million times better than anyone could have reasonably expected, and even if it hadn't been, it would probably have got this spot for including every one of my favourite Pokémon.  (Admittedly, that's not a very long list.)

6) Shazam!

Shazam! looked kind of shrill and irritating and like yet another attempt to mine nostalgia by dressing up in the clothes of an eighties genre movie, and even when people kept saying it was actually really good, I stuck to my guns and avoided it.  Yeah, shows what I know!  Except that I was exactly right, and yet somehow the film managed to transform all its flaws into virtues.  When I finally caught up with it, Shazam! turned out to be an adorably goofy, kind-hearted, and fresh stab at a genre I've been getting increasingly bored with.  At its best, this doesn't feel like a superhero movie at all, more an indy comedy drama that happens to have found itself trapped inside of a superhero movie, but what's most incredible is that it actually found something genuine in all that.  It would have been so easy for its themes of building a family from the leftover scraps of others to come off as cynical window-dressing, and it's pretty much a miracle that instead, they end up informing every aspect and providing moments of real emotional heft.  Oh, and it's also pretty damn funny.

5) Us

Just enough of a drift away from horror to warrant a place here, Jordan Peele's second movie was, for my money, a marked step up from his first.  Sure, Get Out had two great acts, but Us sticks the landing, besides being something a lot more interesting in general.  It's the sort of film that only gets made with a certain amount of prior financial success to back it up, and hats off to Peele for risking so much goodwill on something so downright weird and nasty and uncompromising.  One other boon over Get Out: this time, the fact that the concept is basically familiar is a boon, as Peele plays on our preconceptions to really twist the knife and screw with our sympathies.  If the price of such daring and audience-bating is that it doesn't always work, or have an altogether clear message, or necessarily make a lot of sense, then what the heck?  The world is full of films that do those things, but sadly lacking in demented experimentation with moments of real nightmare logic and the budget to back up their weirdest ambitions.

4) Frozen 2

All right, so the plot's a bit of a mess, and by a bit I mean a lot, and by plot I mean "series of events that happen within the same film and so presumably fit together," but is that the criteria we're judging Disney movies by now?  In what seems to be becoming a running theme, there was no reason to expect much of a transparently cash-grabbing sequel to a movie that had no need or even space for one.  So, for me anyway, the fact that Frozen 2 was a triumph in all sorts of ways was one of the nicest treats of my movie year: a melancholy, sometimes outright bleak character piece with some hefty themes to back it up that at least made bold, interesting choices even when they weren't necessarily, categorically the right ones.  As such, I'm happy to call this the best Disney sequel of all time.  Yes, better than Cinderella 3: A Twist in Time!  Better than Pocahontas 2: The Quickening!  And while I'm making controversial statements, am I alone in thinking that Frozen 2 has an overall better soundtrack than Frozen did?  Okay so maybe Into the Unknown isn't quite the equal of Let it Go, but Let it Go is all the Frozen soundtrack had, whereas Frozen 2 hasn't a single real weak spot.  And it has the secret weapon that is Do The Next Right Thing, which in a juster world would have been the anthem for the blazing trash fire that was 2019.

3) Joker

Since I was much less of a DC fanboy at the start of 2019 than I seem to have become by the start of 2020, I didn't expect to like Joker any more than I did Shazam!  That first trailer made it look like precisely the film that many have taken it to be, often without watching it first: yet another study of yet another poor white guy being pushed too far and exacting violent revenge.  Probably there's no convincing anyone that, in actual fact, Joker is the inverse of that, a story of how only a monster would use their ill-treatment as an excuse to exact similar ill-treatment on others; indeed, I have genuine doubts that Todd Phillips wasn't trying to make that first film rather than the second.  Nonetheless, one of the great things about art is that once it's out of the bag, we all get to interpret it, and one of the great things about Joker is that it's such a legitimately demented piece of work that it's hard not to bring your own take to the material.  I'd have loved it for the gorgeous lighting and photography and the pitch-perfect homage to the heyday of American cinema, not to mention Phoenix's extraordinary portrayal of a man who realises his personality can be whatever he chooses from one minute to the next, but that it's such a slippery, troublesome piece of work is the icing on the cake.  How anything that feels this legitimately dangerous came from a major studio in 2019 is beyond me.

2) I am Mother

I'd convinced myself that 2019 wasn't going to offer up a single film in my favourite genre niche, that of the smart science-fiction film with some genuinely challenging ideas under its belt.  And even if I'd been holding out hope that one might appear, I wouldn't have looked to Netflix, whose contributions to previous lists have entirely consisted of movies that lost out on even a limited cinema release because the platform got their grubby mitts on them, rather than those original creations that routinely get critically trashed.  But I am Mother was the rare Netflix exclusive that not only got great reviews but deserved them, a fabulous, difficult chamber piece of a morality play that also managed to be pretty thrilling and epic when it needed to be.  In a year when it was more apparent than ever that human beings probably shouldn't be left to manage our own affairs, Rose Byrne's robotic Mother was either the perfect villain or the hero we didn't know we needed, but either way, her masterful performance of subtle inhumanity provided a cold, calm, terrifying voice of reason to a movie of uncomfortable questions and distressing answers.

1) Alita: Battle Angel

From the moment I sat down to watch this one and realised that somehow, impossibly, it wasn't going to be an utter disaster, there probably wasn't a chance of anything else pinching the top spot.  If ever a film seemed to have been made expressly for me, this was it, because after all there can't be that many people crying out for adaptations of decades-old and mostly forgotten manga and anime.  Yet what really stood out was the painstaking care that had gone into each and every aspect: it seems ridiculous to say of a Hollywood tentpole, but this feels like a movie crafted from the ground up with love.  It's there in every aspect, from the heartfelt performances to the adorably fussed-over mise en scène to a plot that's far too busy only because it obviously wants to cram in everything it conceivably can to Rodriguez's joyful direction, unrecognisable as the work of a director who's been on autopilot for over a decade.  Of course, inevitably all people could do was bleat on about how they couldn't cope with Alita's big eyes, and we probably won't be getting a sequel, because even if the movie had performed mind-blowingly the franchise never stood a chance amid the ongoing Disneyfication of everything, and that all means I'll never get my Bubblegum Crisis movie, and still I'm happy.  The very existence of Alita: Battle Angel is a goddamn miracle and that it somehow turned out to be utterly wonderful in its own right feels downright surreal.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

2019: Is It Bad to Have Had a Good Year?

Looking back, it feels absurd to say that 2019 was a good year, even when I'm only trying to sum up my own experiences.  Whatever your stance, it's safe to assume you probably got as fed up as everyone did with the unremitting tire fire that was British and US politics, which increasingly looked like a cruel parody of how you might imagine modern democracies ought to be run.  And even all that seemed like nothing besides a messy sideshow to far more cataclysmic problems, as the world in general finally caught on to the fact that we're not centuries but decades away from irreparably trashing the only planet we have and then proceeded to go back to sticking its fingers in its ears and whistling.  In the face of all that, anything that's not screaming despair seems a bit silly.

Still.  Personally I had a pretty good year, all told.

To immediately row back from that glimpse of optimism, it's fair to say that probably had a lot to do with 2019 not being the horror show of 2018, and thus being better basically by default.  But it's also fair to say that, while it had its share of tribulations, nothing went horrifically wrong, and there were a lot of happier moments along the way.  On the writing front, I was convinced at the end of 2018 that I wouldn't still be in business by this point, and I am, and I have four books lined up, among them a project with one of my favourite publishers that came absolutely out of the blue.  In that sense, it's probably also true that 2019's biggest virtue is the extent to which it set up good stuff for 2020.  Okay, so I have no clue how I'm going to get through this one, either, the money hasn't exactly been rolling in and I can't keep on operating at a loss forever, but this time I'm determined to stick with the writing career for another twelve months at least.  Things have gone well enough to warrant that commitment, but even if they hadn't, there are a couple of novels I'm itching to write and I'd really like to get one of them out of my system.


And it's not as though 2019 didn't have a few legitimate high points.  I've had a couple more books released, that's certainly something.  With some doubts towards the end of last year as to the future of the Black River Chronicles, it was a tremendous relief to get book three, Eye of the Observer, out there, knowing I'd be wrapping up the series exactly as I was hoping to in the upcoming Graduate or Die.  And while the release of my standalone thriller A Savage Generation wasn't such a joyous experience - the reception has been on the decidedly quiet side - I was still glad to finally usher it into the world after a gestation period of nigh on a decade.  After all that time and so much revision, I was past the point where I could objectively say whether it was any good, so the fact that what reviews there have been are positive was a big weight off.  Sad to say, the under-performance of both my books with Flame Tree Press means that writing more thrillers in the foreseeable future feels like too big a gamble, but I hope it's something I'll return to eventually, since I feel like I didn't altogether suck at it.

Elsewhere, while the short story side of things didn't prove terribly profitable, a lot of what I had out was exciting in its own right.  After a desperately slow start, the year saw my first translations into Italian and Japanese, my first pick for a best-of anthology, a return to Interzone after too long a gap and my fourth appearance in those stunning hardback anthologies the other branch of Flame Tree have been routinely putting out.  Add to that a couple of new stories appearing and a couple more reprint sales upcoming for this year, and the short fiction front definitely offered up its share of treats, not to mention a reminder that it's something I really want to go back to devoting more energy to if I can possibly find the time.

And then there's the personal stuff, which hasn't been particularly dramatic and was all the better for that.  Mostly it was a case of plodding along, both figuratively and literally; most of my happiest moments were spent wandering in the wilds, and the highlight of my year was getting through all twenty-six miles of the Yorkshire Three Peaks on my own, an achievement I've been meaning to tick off my bucket list for an awfully long time but certainly didn't expect to enjoy half so much as I did, or to get such phenomenal weather for.  Oh, and I got to the end of my first fully fledged D&D campaign, which was an awesome experience ... thank you, Jimi, if you happen to read this, for the immense amounts of work you put into our crazy epic of an adventure, I'm about to wrap up a four book series and I still don't have a clue how you pulled it all together!

Now, I'm not much for new year's resolutions, and if I was going to make any, they'd mostly involve continuing stuff I've already started.  Foremost is a bid to stop working such nutty hours, which I've made some real advances with - yay for not hammering away until nine o'clock most nights! - but still have a way to go on.  Generally I've come to appreciate that you can't become a successful writer by simply throwing every waking hour at your career, or that maybe you can, but it's probably never going to be worth it in the long term from the point of view of not becoming a burned-out shell of a human being.  This job has demanded a lot of me over the last decade, and I don't resent that - I hope to have fourteen or fifteen books out by the end of 2020, and that seems a fair payoff - but there are other things I'd like to be devoting attention to, and it would be amazing to get to the end of a year and not feel ready to drop.  Actually, I think that maybe is my new year's resolution: to not put writing first to the extent that it totally kicks my ass.  That seems reasonable, right?  If I could pull that off, get these upcoming books out, and, I dunno, maybe make some proper headway with my snail-paced attempts to learn Japanese, then I reckon that'll be 2020 put to good use.