Where Would You Be Now by Carrie Vaughn is an extremely well written and considered look at life a few years after an apocalyptic event. The title is a repeating question, asked and answered by the main character and her immediate companions. Meditating on how life pushes on, Vaughn captures the essence of loss; loss of what could have been as well as what was. As the survivors slowly come to terms with their new reality, the issue of what the future holds becomes paramount. It’s an interesting essay on how the apocalypse bifurcated the paths of their lives comparing where they are to where they would be had it never occurred. A meditative, somewhat melancholy, story that digs into what the reality of a post-apocalypse existence would be.

As Good As New is as different from the other stories as could be. Author Charlie Jane Anders has taken a wonderful idea and runs with it. Whilst her protagonist, Marisol, survived the end of the world inside an impenetrable bunker, it isn’t until she explores outside that this story takes a massive swerve. Marisol finds a bottle, within which is a very sarcastic and pedeantic genie. What follows is a clever consideration of how genies (or any other wishing machination) contain within both potentially fantastic and catastrophic results. As Good As New is thoroughly enjoyable in its take on the genre and the tools it uses to convey its ideas.

Hugh Howey’s Bones of Gossamer is another quiet and contemplative look at what the ‘end of the world’ would mean. Yet, Howey takes the perspective of an isolated culture, far from the western world. A culture used to separation and disconnection; a man who grew up with distant parents who’d travelled to the ‘big island’ and who, once older, left to find work. Now even older, his children also gone to earn money, he watches as the silence stretches. Where a steam boat would make the harsh journey to deliver supplies once a month, the horizon remains empty. Where a new satellite phone would connect them, silence has returned. When a starving European washes up on the shore, talking of disaster, the old man realises he must somehow make the journey to find his children. It’s a journey both physical and cultural as he embarks on remembering what his ancestors knew before steamboats and satellite phones. Howey captures something here; something well worth reading.

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Published by Titan Books

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Aside from the frighteningly accurate and realistic introduction by editor John Joseph Adams, I do enjoy a good tale of the apocalypse and this collection contains stories from a number of highly regarded authors. I’ll be doing a series of reviews as I read the anthology.

First up, Elizabeth Bear’s Bullet Point. How the author manages to pack so much into the short story just goes to show her skill at the craft. After an unknown event, where the entire population of Las Vegas simply disappears, Isabella is left wondering and wandering in the desert heat. Ticking off lists off what is left and what has gone, never to return, Isabella finds solace in a future free from the troubles that plagued her past.

That is, until she meets a fellow survivor. What follows is a tense yet intriguing and, to be fair, unexpected. It’s a wonderful window into a weird scenario that captures a feeling with impressive ability.

Red Thread by Sofia Samatar is told through the eyes of a teenager, leaving messages on some sort of virtual notice board to her friend Fox. Each note tells of her travels as she and her mother find sanctuary and shelter at different ‘centres’. And, with each note we learn more about the world they live within; one populated with isolation zones and ‘centres’ and something described as the Movement. Between the lines and behind the personal story there is the greater concerns of climate change and war and violence, and in its subtle way, Red Thread draws a somber tale of humanity scrambling to survive.

I skipped ahead in the collection to read Jonathan Maberry’s Not This War, Not This World, because, well, it’s Jonathan Maberry. As the author explains, this short is a sequel to some of his other work, connecting other stories together and acting as a prequel to George A. Romero’s films. It is a no-holds-barred look into the life of a DELTA sniper, unravelling in the face of a zombie apocalypse. Maberry pulls no punches as his protagonist is faced with the most awful of choices. As the sniper, Sam Imura, breaks under the pressure, his world shrinks down to one of two decisions; to match forward and protect the innocent or to take himself out and end the nightmare. Under the stars, on a cold night, facing down a hungry, undead horde, neither is an easy road.

Published by Titan Books

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Ah, Black Summer. A balm to ease my zombie needs. If you’ve read my post on why I stopped watching The Walking Dead, you’ll know just how bitterly disappointed I was that my love affair with the series came to an end. Yet, here comes Black Summer, strutting it’s gory stuff all over Netflix and getting my heart racing as zombies chase down their hapless prey.

Set (apparently – but only because I haven’t done my research) in the same universe as Z Nation, Black Summer is very different. There’s little in the way of humour nor any of the tongue-in-cheek nods given to the tropes of the genre that Z Nation manages to play with. Instead, what we are left with is a gritty, breathless start to the zombie apocalypse where no-one is safe.

What begins with a family trying to find passage with a retreating military, soon devolves into a frantic fight for survival. The father is tagged as infected, the daughter is whisked away on another truck whilst her mother is torn between the two. When her husband turns, it’s all she can do to stay ahead of him. In amongst the madness, set in a housing estate, as people are attacked and reanimate, storylines unfold. A gangster is held at gunpoint by soldiers looking for loot; a boyfriend abandons his other half; a woman looking for her family is carjacked and then saved yet only for a while.

It’s brilliantly executed, breakneck speed action that unfolds and twists back on itself within the same set of streets, and told from multiple angles. And, soon, some of these survivors migrate together. The gangster saves the mother who both help another lost soul. The carjacked woman and her saviour take in a young Asian lady who speaks little English. These strange, fractured and desperate relationships are intense yet unexplored as, just like reality, there is no time to dwell and ponder and give monologues. It’s about staying alive and staying ahead of the pack; both zombie and human.

Black Summer, is relentless and there’s little plot armour for the cast. Things happen and they happen fast. Feral kids; hedonistic-drug fuelled underground raves; kind strangers; and all out terror. I’m hoping there’s another season as I thoroughly enjoyed the first one. The no frills, all action, the ‘apocalypse is happening right now’ style to the story telling and camera work was excellent and hooked me from the get-go.

Comparisons to World War Z by Max Brooks might be apt but only in so much as this is a complete, and I do mean complete, history of a supernatural change in (fictional) human history. Where Brooks uses verbal accounts and different perspectives, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising goes further and deeper into what it would mean for vampires to appear in modern society. The author does a great job at looking at how law enforcement, the press, politics, religion and all the institutes in between would address such a person; a person who is suddenly more powerful physically and psychologically; who is now capable of living for hundreds of years; a person whose moral and ethical compass is drastically different.

Whilst the book is a history, and an exhaustive one at that, it is a narrative; a story told from numerous perspectives that overlap and, eventually, dovetail into each other. Told through the eyes of an FBI agent, a research doctor, a priest in the Catholic Church and a political campaign manager, the novel manages to iron out so many details that the ‘history’ takes on the feel of being real. Political wrangling and amendments to the law sit neatly next to creepy house raids and the worrying spread of vampire fandom. What starts with a body disappearing from a small town morgue turns into numerous threads, all chasing the idea of a vampire in its various forms: as a blood-sucking drifter, as a disease, as a supernatural force, as an ideal.

For some it’s an issue of law; clearly draining people of their blood is a crime but where is the line drawn when it comes to turning another person into a vampire? Ethically, what rights do these people have as citizens and active members of society. For others, what and how does vampirism occur; is it a disease that’s controlable or reversible? Are any of those things right to pursue? All the while the author poses and explores these questions, the book is also considering the darker side of vampirism and what a new species of superhuman wants. Heists and strange kidnappings, underground networks and nefarious doings abound. Not only on the vampire side but also from humans. Humans who morally or otherwise decide to take the fight to the vampires.

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is intriguing. It’s not an apocalyptic event but rather a slow, steady burn as society is infiltrated and changed from within. The depth of consideration into all aspects of the idea is impressive in itself, but how the author has woven it all together into a bizarre tapestry of a story is even more admirable. There’s a creeping darkness underneath it all, lurking under the surface, making all the machinations above seem off centre and, in that sense, truly capturing the essence of human history.

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Published by Titan Books

It’s easy to use terms such as interesting or intriguing when discussing a book; sci-fi lends itself to these type of ideas that explore and consider the human condition. However, what M.T. Hill has done in Zero Bomb is produce a very thought-provoking work that deals in issues which are extremely relevant to the social situation prevelant in Britain today.

Of course, these concepts and concerns are extrapolated into a near future, though one built on the problems of today; Brexit, social mobility, economic welfare and the rapid expansion of technology. It is here that the author runs free, building a Britain divided and fractured, brimming with automation and mechanisation alongside an overarching obligation to be part of the social network. Told in three parts, each connected and explaining the wider plot, Zero Bomb takes all these issues to task and explores what happens when a minority of dissidents disrupts the status-quo.

In the opening part, we meet Remi, a man so confused and at odds with the world in which he lives that he tries to become a ghost, leaving his family and everything else behind. Yet, so lost is he that even his own memories are unreliable. His aversion to technology has left him adrift in a world ever automated, making him a perfect target for minds much more nefarious than his. As the book gathers pace so do the stakes. In the second stanza, a book within the book explores the idea of a robotic revolution; of the end of human worth under the weight of technological advances but also the strength to fight back and overcome, to destroy and rebuild. A mystic and magical fantasy that strikes at the heart of Remi’s delusion.

It’s an excellent vehicle that portrays the mind of a person willing to undo society, a person so obsessed and driven by an idea that they feel they have the authority to destroy a whole population’s way of life because they know better. It’s frighteningly close to reality; zealotry and elitist thinking balled up in an insane idea capable of collapsing society.

The final part deals with those it would affect and the effects a revolution of this kind, as unasked for as it is, would have. Zero Bomb asks so many questions and does it with wonderful prose and considerable acumen. It’s as unsettling as it is fascinating,the characters blindly groping their way through what is happening around them, striking, once more, at the heart of the human existence. The resonance of cause and effects, of being products of an environment, of being shaped by forces and being forced into situations echoes throughout the book.

Zero Bomb is a unique read both in terms of how it is written and what it deals with. It’s great science fiction, full of all the worldbuilding and ideas that make the genre great. But, it’s something else as well, something a little more special as it digs a bit deeper and pushes a little harder at the boundaries.

Review copy

Published by Titan Books

I’m not happy about this. It’s just my anonymous opinion. But, I gave up on season two of The Punisher.

I really enjoyed the first season and was as spellbound as the rest by Jon Bernthal’s portrayal of Frank Castle aka ‘the Punisher’. From the ensemble cast, each checking and countering the other, to the morally ambiguous actions of both antagonist and protagonist, the first series kicked in the doors and laid bare its intentions from the outset. It was grim and gritty and bloody, and I loved it.

I couldn’t wait for the next season. I shared text messages with a friend when it hit Netflix. And then….

And, then. It wasn’t what I’d hoped for. It didn’t fulfill its potential. It could have done better.

Perhaps, the first season was so everything that it was hard to follow up. Perhaps, it had done so much with the source material in that opening stanza that what came next paled in comparison. To me – and just in my eyes – it felt forced. The way in which they dragged Castle back in to a fight seemed beyond contrived. The person he was helping earned no empathy from me as a viewer. Added to that, the clumsy dual plot line of Russo/ Jigsaw just made it all seem forced.

Everything about it from Russo’s overly acted yet non-consistent character to the new big baddy hunting Castle threw me off. It was all to strained and I just couldn’t invest. Perhaps I’ll revisit it because, believe me, I wanted to like it but, after four episodes, I bailed.

It seems, by writing these posts, that I’ve been watching more media than I’ve been reading. However, I’ve also quit on a few shows as well and I wanted to briefly discuss why…

First up, The Walking Dead. I was a big fan of this series; I’ve re-watched the seasons 1-5 quite a few times and, it’s fair to say, I was slightly obsessed with it when it first came out. It made me more of a fan of the genre due to its internally consistent logic, it’s great world-building and some very decent acting. The human element was intriguing and the threats were real. That the zombies became a secondary danger compared to other survivors was well played initially but, for me at least, things began to unravel somewhere around season 6.

Rick’s character lost that thing that made him, him. He made choices that weren’t consistent with who he had become. Choices which, whilst obviously plot driven, seemed contrived. The introduction of yet another war-lord/cult leader with (again) a more equipped army and (again) a better suited stronghold who (again) has megalomaniacal ideas of control and domination felt… tired. Negan wasn’t the character he was promised to be and his Jim Carey-lite portrayal didn’t really work for me; he was neither unhinged enough to be scary and nor was he imposing or brutal enough to fear.

And then we came to ‘the scavengers’. It was this group that ended my love affair with the show. Whilst my wife bailed after season 6, I powered on, hoping the series would find itself again and reaffirm it’s gritty, realistic style, and get back to its roots. But, no. What we got was a group of post-40 year old emo/goths living in a scrap yard talking in a type of slang that had little to zero bearing on anything. The internal logic was gone. The Walking Dead had finally lost that thing that made me relate and had fallen into a feedback loop.

I couldn’t shake it off. In the world of Rick and the others, the apocalypse had been, at most, going on for three years (?). How on Earth had these scavengers devolved into a bunch of mute, Mad Max cosplaying, pidgin- talking weirdos in that space of time? It grated at me until I realised I’d lost the desire to know, to understand, to watch along anymore. I no longer cared if Carl stayed in the house; I no longer worried if Maggie or Carol would find their inner strength again (and speaking of Carol, her character arc was another massive sense of annoyance best left unpacked).

I loved The Walking Dead for a long time but, sometimes, it’s best to just delete that season you’ve been saving just in case and move on.

Continuing from yesterday, here’s one more awesome thing I’ve watched in a stupor of post-training fatigue..

I saw the trailer, more than once, but I wasn’t wholly convinced. I initially felt like this mini-series would be one of those melancholic, navel-gazing type shows where little would happen but much would be discussed. How wrong I was.

Maniac is anything but. Instead, it was a journey out of despondency and depression, spiralling upwards toward a kaleidoscopic expression of wholesome emotion. In a retro-futuristic world of robots and weird science, there’s an off-key, off-centre feel to its sci-fi background that is as intriguing as it is tricky to hold on to. Following the entwined stories of Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone) the narrative simultaneously converges and fractures around a bizarre pharmaceutical trial. Owen needs the money to strike out and find his dependence from his domineering and overly successful family; Annie is chasing the drug on trial and it’s particular effects.

Whilst Owen is anxious and withdrawn, Annie is brash and bold, and the pair are soon thrust together in the same group testing the drug. Adding more unique layers to the already unusual worldbuilding, the pharma Company is itself a story that unfolds in fits and starts, revealing a scientist exiled from his own research only to be brought back at a crucial time and a computer that is so self aware it’s sabataging it’s own experiment.

The drug works by dropping the user into old memories and visions, helping them realise a healthier and happy conclusion. However, each time Owen and Annie find themselves in each other’s visions, as different people, in different lives but always thrown together. Eventually both do escape their most negative aspects and find inner peace yet the journey there is a winding and fantastical path.

As a vehicle for the actors it’s a chance to play multiple characters within a narrative framework. This is where the uniqueness works, ebbing and flowing forward and rising ever upwards. It was surprising and fulfilling and hopeful, all couched in a thoroughly distinct and inventive worldbuilding. It’s odd, hard to categorise but excellent it’s own special and quirky way.

I was recently looking for something to watch (in a state of post-training exhaustion) and it made me think about all the great things I’ve watched but not blogged about (because I’ve been training a lot and “recovering” on the sofa). It also made me think of all the things I stopped watching, though I’ll save that for another post. So, without further ado, and with thanks to Netflix and it’s great programming – The Umbrella Company.

Adapted from a comic book, this series was an instant hit with my wife and I. Drawing you in with great characters and a number of unanswered questions that are slowly and cleverly explained, The Umberlla Company is a bright, engaging piece of fantasy. Similar in style and feel to the Marc Caro/ Jean-Pierre Jeunet films, such as City of the Lost Children, there’s a mix of seriousness and comedy that seemlessly entertains whilst never losing sight of the story.

The ensemble cast of characters, each with their own deep, and sometimes dark, background are brilliant. Their wild abilities, their shared history of adoption and their sense of being cast adrift from any sense of purpose is thread through the narrative. Adopted as babies by an eccentric millionaire (himself a strange character) and nurtured to manage and develop their super powers, the children become poster boys and girls for the eponymous Umbrella Company. Saving the day and going on missions being all part of the fun.

However, little is normal here and when your name is a number and your surrogate mother is a robot, it’s no wonder things get weird. After one of the gang disappears only to return decades later looking just as he did, a twelve-year old, but acting like a fifty-year old, the mystery begins. It’s a wonderfully, tangly mix of time travel, apocalyptic prophesy and crime caper as secrets are unearthed and the bigger picture is slowly revealed.

The Umbrella Company does a lot of things right from it’s stylised worldbuilding to its witty and engaging characters. Fantastical and fun but with an edge.

Richard K Morgan’s latest novel is, without a doubt, an amazing read. His special blend of cyberpunk, crime thriller, sci-fi action is as unique as his voice and is put together so well, so seamlessly, that there was a point where I had to stop reading and acknowledge, out loud, just how great the author is at his trade.

Set on a colonised Mars, Thin Air is, however, more than the sum of its parts. Whilst the plot weaves and wends and the story grips from the opening gambit right up until the last sentence, there’s much to read within it about the human condition and all our meat-wrapped foibles. Yet, and yet again, it is the story that powers it all and Thin Air is a tour de force.

Following Hak Veil, a bio-engineered corporate soldier, we are shown a Mars decades into its colonisation, with a society largely separated from Earth, living under a massive atmospheric dome and etching out hard lives at the frontier of humanities technological expansion. There’s a neo-western edge to the whole premise and Veil is the perfect morally grey protagonist that stalks throughout. Corruption and cut-throat business prevail and, as a skilled and dangerous enforcer, Veil has seen it all since being dumped on Mars by his former employer.

Yet, though business and tech is booming in that wild and lawless ecosphere, Earth wants to keep a handle on its fractious brethren. An audit team is sent to investigate the rampant corruption all caught up in a lottery scheme that seems to be disappearing its lucky winners instead of giving them their prize of a trip back to Earth. And Veil is tasked with helping out a second string Earth official who very quickly finds herself in deep trouble. It’s the thread that unravels the whole mess but Veil has to work blind, against all manner of obstacles as he tries to run down the truth. The more he digs, the deeper the rot goes.

Hak Veil is a brilliant character; hardbitten, hardwired for combat and hard to kill. Gritty and mission driven ( due to his engineering) there’s no stopping the “Black Hatch man” once he’s unleashed and it’s a theme that powers the story along. Yet, this isn’t a fast read. There’s so much given in the prose and such amazing detail offered as the world is revealed around the cast of actors. Like his Takeshi Kovacs novels or his Land Fit for Heroes series, Thin Air manages, and succeeds, to create a stunning combination of elements into a book that will transport you to another place.

Truly remarkable, I sincerely hope Hak Veil makes another appearance.

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Published by Gollancz