Ali B and the Forty Spaceships — Part the Fifth [Nov 2014]
“Fellow Travellers. These are people who join for a short while and then leave or get killed. If they have NAMES and characters, then you will be sorry to lose them, otherwise not.
See also COMPANIONS.”
—The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones
IT SEEMS DEVILISHLY appropriate that in a US magazine with a western/historical theme, we’ve been blessed with a rather fabulous weird western fiction anthology this year — Dead Man’s Hand (Titan Books, May 2014) is edited by John Joseph Adams and has already ascended to the top of my own ‘fave anthology of the year’ list recently. Featuring some fabulous work by a roll call of great genre authors, there are some fabulous tales of alien gold fever, dangerous and dodgy playing cards, clockwork gunslingers, fast-shooting Reverends, and reanimated corpses to be found herein. And despite a distinct ‘steampunk’-ish feel running through a number of the stories, they are all definitively set in the classic American Old West, bringing forth all the terror and heartache associated with such turbulent times. For a few years now I’ve genuinely believed there’s a big hole where cross-genre Westerns with a fantasy and/or science-fiction bent should be sitting (in a similar vein to Defiance and the tragically short-lived Firefly TV series for example), and this anthology serves as a handy reminder there’s a whole vista of endless possibilities surely going begging in this particular market. Regardless, names like Orson Scott Card, Walter Jon Williams, Elizabeth Bear, Joe R. Lansdale, Mike Resnick, Kelley Armstrong, Alan Dean Foster, Alastair Reynolds, Tad Williams, and Christie Yant won’t be lost on you guys over the pond, so you should already have this one on your wishlist — it is really quite, quite excellent.
I mentioned anthologies last time, too, citing them as an ideal format to allow readers to dip in and out of when there’s so much else going on, and praising the innovative nature of the many Independent publishers (aka ‘Indies’ or ‘small press’) putting them out regularly. However, we did a disservice to one because the title of Jonathan Oliver’s award-winning anthology was missed off last time — it’s called End of the Road (Solaris, Nov 2013), and deservedly won the British Fantasy Award for an excellent selection of original genre fiction from some brilliant and talented authors including Philip Reeve, Lavie Tidhar, Sophia McDougall and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz.
Sticking with the theme, albeit via a precariously thin connection to the violence thereof, I’ve been reading a few graphic novels of late, and wanted to bring your attention to a couple of obscure ones you may have easily dismissed. Onslaught (Titan Comics, Sept 2014) is by far one of the weirdest and most hilarious things I’ve read in a long time, and given its rather unsubtle subtitle, “Excessive Space Violence For Boys and Girls”, one can be forgiven for thinking this is most certainly ‘Not Suitable For Work’ (NSFW) or children — one of the stories is called “Into The Lair of the Space Wankers” for example (look it up). Written and illustrated in full colour by Greg Broadmore, this graphic work stars Dr E. Grordbort, the self-styled master of maniacal mechanisms, and Lord Cockswain, “a towering bastion of British heroism”, in a sparkling collection of wickedly black comic tales involving excessive violence, swearing, and the odd slaughter of harmless alien pond life. Featuring snippets from Grordbort’s catalogue of steampunk weaponry, a bestiary of the cosmos, a selection of dodgy testimonials, and a collection of shockingly non-PC (politically correct) posters sprinkled throughout, this really did make me cry out loud with laughter. Oh yes, and the artwork is simply gorgeous.
In stark contrast to the above, we have Violent Cases (Dark Horse Books, Nov 2013) from the pen of Neil Gaiman. This is illustrated by Dave McKean but carries a miserable palette of black, white, and greyish-brown all the way through, with the odd splash of red here and there. Presented as a form of fractured memoir, this very dark tale of violence, child abuse, and the fragility of memory is set against the underlying backdrop of Prohibition-era America, and even includes a walk-on part for Al Capone and his fellow mobsters. In typical Gaiman style, the title itself is also an accidental misnomer. This is seriously strong stuff, will be read and re-read several times, and with each new reading deeper understanding will follow. Make no bones about it this is a work of creative genius, and this particular 10th Anniversary Edition is stunning, a real masterpiece of presentation and elegance.
Finally, my classic this time round is Forever War by Joe Haldeman — part of a larger trilogy, including Forever Free and Forever Peace, Forever War is by far the strongest. A telling tale about the nature and futility of war told through the first person, our hero is a soldier called William Mandela who fights an interstellar war against a seemingly unconquerable alien. His tours of duty are such that whenever he returns to Earth centuries have passed and gradually he loses touch with the world he’s supposed to be protecting… The snapshots of future Earth are brilliantly done, and this set Haldeman up for a career in SF, so do check it out if you haven’t read it before.
* This column originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of BTS Book Reviews