Fantasy Girls – Top 10 Girls of Comics (Honorable Mention)

 

TOP 10 COMICS (HONORABLE MENTION)

 

These are my honorable mentions for my top 10 girls of comics, in chronological order of first appearance.

 

 

(1) BLACK CANARY (DC 1947)

 

The Canary Cry! Um, chirp – I guess?

 

It is a little hard to take a superpower by the name of Canary Cry seriously – or for that matter a superheroine by the name of Black Canary, particularly when she’s part of a superhero team by the name of the Birds of Prey. Has someone told DC Comics that canaries aren’t in fact raptors or birds of prey? I mean, canaries aren’t known for their fierceness – when I think of canaries, my first thought is of the proverbial canary in the coal mine, which is known for, you know, dying.

 

However, you should take the Black Canary seriously (well, as seriously, as you take any comics character). For one thing, she is one of DC Comics earliest superheroines, with her debut in Flash Comics in 1947 – although not only did she not appear in her own title, she appeared as a backup character to a backup character, Johnny Thunder. Of course, she proved a lot more durable than Johnny Thunder. Who’s Johnny Thunder? Exactly.

 

 

From there, her history is convoluted – as it is for any long-standing DC Comics character, with its multiverse (Earth-1? Earth-2?) and its reboots (Crisis in Infinite Earths?! New 52?! DC Rebirth?!) I mean, it’s enough to drive anyone mad. Black Canary’s history is so convoluted that the character was effectively split between mother and daughter, Dinah Lance nee Drake and Dinah Laurel Lance respectively (although I think even those names might change), with the emphasis on the latter for modern comics.

 

Actually, that’s not too convoluted compared to her television incarnation in Arrow and the wider Arrowverse – where the character is split between Dinah Laurel Lance, her sister Sara Lance (who dies but is resurrected as the White Canary), an evil doppelganger from Earth-2 known as Black Siren and another Black Canary entirely by the alter ego of Dinah Drake.

 

Speaking of Arrow, it’s fairly consistent that the modern Black Canary is professionally and romantically involved with one of DC’s most useless superheroes, Green Arrow. (I’m not a fan of archer superheroes. A bow is not a superpower! It’s not even Batman levels of badass!).

 

 

Another consistency is her costume – you’ve got to admire a superhero who fights crime in a leotard and fishnet stockings, although she usually accessorizes with a jacket and occasionally has variant costumes.

 

 

Of course, fighting crime in a leotard and fishnets is a little easier when you are a “prodigious hand-to-hand combatant”, as the modern Black Canary has been portrayed.

 

It’s all about the kicks

 

In addition to her martial arts skills, she has also been detected “as an expert motorcyclist, gymnast, covert operative, and investigator” as well as “excellent leader and tactician”. So like the avian-themed female version of Batman? Unlike Green Arrow or Batman for that matter, she also has an actual superpower, the so-called Canary Cry – a high-powered sonic scream which can severely damage both inorganic and organic objects, with people being the most obvious example of the latter.

 

 

The origins of the Canary Cry have varied over the years – from outright magic, literally “a wizard did it” through the metahuman gene to alien genes.

 

 

Black Canary has also been adapted into various media, including video games as well as animated and live-action television series (such as the aforementioned Arrow).

 

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(2) FANTASTIC 4 – SUE STORM / INVISIBLE WOMAN (MARVEL 1961)

 

The Fantastic Four was the first superhero team of Marvel Comics in 1961 (predating the X-men in 1963) and still remain one of their most iconic teams, although sadly without the successful cinematic adaptation of other Marvel titles (unless you count The Incredibles). Sue Storm is of course the leading lady of the Fantastic Four – and arguably, by extension, of Marvel Comics itself.

 

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Like the rest of the Fantastic Four, Sue acquired her superpowers through a cosmic radiation storm, as opposed to dying horribly as in real life, but that’s superpowers in comics for you. Her superpower was originally a somewhat passive one of invisibility (by manipulating light), but subsequently extended to the more active one of projecting powerful energy fields. The other members of the Fantastic Four were her brother Johnny Storm or the pyrokinetic Human Torch (“Flame on!”), her husband Reed Richards or the humbly named Mr. Fantastic (although as TV Tropes tells us, Reed Richards is Useless) and the team’s walking brick, Ben Grimm or the Thing (“It’s clobbering time!”).

 

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Sue not only married Reed Richards, but was also the object of infatuation for Marvel villains, not least the team’s nemesis, Doctor Doom. (That’s an honorary title, not an actual doctorate of doom). However, none contended for Sue’s affections as much as Namor the Sub-Mariner, whose main power is making DC Comics’ laughingstock Aquaman look cool by comparison (because Aquaman’s costume isn’t a green scaled swimming thong). Jessica Alba memorably played her with dyed hair and blue contacts in the bland 2005 Fantastic Four film (and blander sequel Rise of the Silver Surfer). Kate Mara played her less memorably with a blonde wig in the even worse 2015 reboot.

 

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(3) ZATANNA (DC 1964)

 

DC Comics occasionally defaults to outright magic as a superpower and its magical superheroine of choice is Zatanna Zatara. She first appeared in 1964, as the daughter of magician Giovanni Zatara from the earlier so-called Golden Age of Comics.

 

 

Zatanna is both a stage magician (or illusionist) and a real magician (of the mystical or magical branch of humanity or so-called ‘homo magi’ as opposed to ‘homo sapiens’). She is one of the most powerful users of magic in the world of DC Comics, a sorceress casting her spells through the focus of speaking backwards (although there are exceptions) – so that potentially there would seem to be little limit to her magic and indeed she has used it to manipulate the fabric of space or time. Even without magic, she has almost superhuman dexterity and skill as a stage magician.

 

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Interestingly, Zatanna is a character that has been given some real depth, by two of my favorite writers of comics – Neil Gaiman used her (albeit in a blonde version) in The Books of Magic, an exploration of DC Comics’ magical universe (which has always fascinated me), and Grant Morrison used her as one of his Seven Soldiers, a characteristically Morrisonesque revamping of more minor DC Comics characters. She has seen screen adaptations, most notably in by Serinda Swann in the Superman series Smallville, although she has yet to see a cinematic adaptation – which perhaps awaits the expansion of the DC Cinematic Universe.

 

 

(4) WANDA MAXIMOFF / SCARLET WITCH (MARVEL 1964)

 

A witch called Wanda…

 

Outside of comics, Wanda Maximoff or the Scarlet Witch is best known as superheroine and Avengers team member played by Elizabeth Olsen in Marvel Cinematic Universe. Or not, since she’s not exactly prominent there, surfacing only as recently as Avengers: Age of Ultron. Perhaps you might know her better as the female other than Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow breaking up the Avengers’ sausage party.

 

 

Which is unfortunate, because in the comics, Wanda is one of the most powerful superhumans on the planet – with her power of being able to alter reality in unspecified ways, so…magic! It was originally written as her hex power – or dare I say it, hex appeal? – which consisted of pointing in some direction and some unfortunate event would occur. (Although that pretty much sounds like my everyday life). That then evolved into a mutant power of probability, which in turn evolved into actual magic – and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, having red glowing light from her hands and being “weird”.

 

Art by Greg Horn

 

Like anything else in the Marvel Universe, her backstory is incredibly convoluted and subject to change, even more so when you factor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She originated as a mutant – which is complicated in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as Marvel sold off its mutants or X-men to Twentieth Century Fox. That typically included the actual mutant characters themselves, but through some strange loophole Marvel retained the rights to Wanda and her brother Pietro or Quicksilver – although there are two versions of Quicksilver, a Twentieth Century Fox Quicksilver (in the X-men films) and a Marvel Cinematic Universe Quicksilver, with the former being much cooler (and less dead-er) than the latter.

 

Art by ‘Artgerm’ or Stanley Lau

 

In the comics, they were famously the children of recurring X-men adversary (or ally as it keeps changing) Magneto – but Fox owns him too so they’re orphaned in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Of course, Marvel could have gone with the cinematic adaptation reflecting that she was originally the daughter of Golden Age superhero the Whizzer – but no one could have referred to her as the daughter of the Whizzer without laughing. She and Quicksilver have been subsequently ret-conned as non-mutants kidnapped and experimented on by the High Evolutionary, which makes one glad that they keep this sort of crap out of the cinematic adaptations. They were then misled to believe that Magneto was their father. Well, that was needlessly complicated.

 

 

In the comics, she has a relationship with the Vision, the Avenger’s resident android – and it looks as if she’s headed that way in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the Vision (played by Paul Bettany) wearing his best sweaters to impress her.

 

 

Speaking of clothing, Wanda has had a variety of costumes, if by variety one means primarily variations of swimsuit. Her signature costume in the comics is ridiculous, although in fairness all costumes in comics are ridiculous, but arguably more so for female characters. In this case, it essentially consists of a red leotard, pink stockings and…what is that, a wimple? Anyway, in the words of TV Tropes, “Wanda has the dubious distinction of being one of the least dressed Avengers”, which led to her more practical design in the cinematic adaptations in which she dresses in everyday clothes. Apparently director Joss Whedon reassured actress Elizabeth Olsen that she would never wear the “red bathing suit”.

 

I have to confess that I’m almost more intrigued by the guys in the background – who are they meant to be?

 

Interestingly, the “red bathing suit” style of costume seems to be the costume of choice for cosplay models.

 

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(5) MS MARVEL / CAPTAIN MARVEL (MARVEL 1977)

 

Ms Marvel – or Captain Marvel (although that becomes a little more complicated) – is the first superheroine to be allocated a film in her own name in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (now slated for release in 2019), to be played by Brie Larson.

 

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More precisely, since there have been a number of superheroes in that name in Marvel Comics, my focus will be on the original Ms Marvel, Carol Danvers – who was kind of the blonde Wonder Woman of Marvel Comics, empowered by alien technology (or something) as opposed to classical mythology. (The alien technology being that of the Kree, one of the two major perpetually warring alien empires in Marvel Comics, the other being the Skrull. If you were paying attention in the Guardians of the Galaxy film, Ronan the Accuser was a renegade Kree. Basically, they’re blue humans).

 

Carol Danvers was originally a non-superpowered member of the United States Air Force.

 

Top guns!

Top guns!

 

She became the superpowered Ms Marvel (or Binary or Warbird or Captain Marvel – it changes) from a fusion of her human genes with alien Kree genes after – wait for it – being caught in an explosion of a Kree device in proximity with the Kree hero Captain Marvel (while he was impersonating a human). Subsequently, it was revealed that the explosion of this device, a – wait for it – Psyche-Magnetron, caused her genes to meld with that of Captain Marvel, turning her into a superpowered human-Kree hybrid, because that’s how science works in comics (and conveniently allowing her to adopt the Captain Marvel mantle in her subsequent superhero identity).

 

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(The history of Captain Marvel is quite interesting, as there have been a number of characters from different publishers in that name. Forgotten comics publisher Fawcett Comics originally published the most well-known Captain Marvel – or Billy Batson or Shazam! DC Comics – the cads! – sued for copyright infringement for Superman, although Captain Marvel was a boy empowered by magic into a costumed superhero, albeit one that visually resembled Superman. Marvel Comics then took the opportunity to trademark their own alien superhero Captain Marvel character. Ironically, DC Comics subsequently acquired the rights to the Fawcett Comics character, but then had to publish him under the name Shazam, because of the trademarked Marvel Comics character).

 

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Anyway, Carol Danvers acquired the usual superhuman powers – strength, endurance, flight and invulnerability along with a limited precognitive “sixth sense”. She has also subsequently obtained varying degrees of energy absorption and manipulation, so she can shoot blasts of energy from her fingertips. This was on top of her being pretty capable by human standards as an Air Force pilot (along with skills of espionage, hand-to-hand combat and marksmanship).

 

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She has had a number of costumes, from the usual superheroine costume in the style of swimwear or lingerie (with boots!) to more modest costumes in the style of the original alien Captain Marvel.

 

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She also had her own title, as well as becoming a mainstay of the Avengers (and even joining the X-men).

 

Both the Captain Marvel and Ms Marvel identities have had other characters in the role – with the latter also being assumed by Sharon Ventura, the supervillain Dr Karen Sofa or Moonstone, and perhaps most interestingly, Kamala Khan, Marvel Comics’ first Muslim superhero to headline her own title.

 

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Ms Marvel in her Carol Danvers incarnation seems to be a popular choice for female cosplayers, possibly because of the relative ease of costume.

 

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(6) STARFIRE (DC 1980)

 

Starfire is everyone’s favorite alien princess. Both DC Comics and Marvel Comics can get pretty cosmic – the latter notably so in its cinematic Guardians of the Galaxy, although Superman has always famously been an alien. Starfire is not unlike Superman – an alien princess of the planet Tamaran, fled to Earth to join the Teen Titans (after complicated interstellar war and politics involving her rivalry with her sister). Her alien physiology absorbs ultraviolet light energy for use in various powers – like Superman, come to think of it. Is there any DC Comics alien that isn’t superpowered by sunlight? Her original art design was apparently that of Red Sonja in space – her classic image is perhaps that by artist Michael Turner above, although I have a soft spot for her incarnation by artist Amanda Conner.

 

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But then who doesn’t like an orange-skinned alien space babe?

 

 

(7) ELEKTRA (MARVEL 1981)

 

What can I say? I have a soft spot for ninja girls.

 

Elektra is another Marvel Comics heroine – or anti-heroine. Created by Frank Miller in 1981, Elektra Natchios is a highly trained assassin, of Greek descent but trained in Chinese and Japanese martial arts, including ninjitsu – albeit a school of ninjitsu that apparently favors highly conspicuous red costumes. Her trademark weapons are a pair of bladed sai, but she is also skilled in other weapons – katana, dagger, three-section staff and shuriken (as opposed to guns or snipers’ rifles one might associate with modern assassins).

 

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Miller introduced her as a star-crossed love interest for Daredevil, a superhero notoriously unlucky with – or for – his love interests, so unsurprisingly she ends up killed by the villainous Bullseye, but soon returned through the traditional revolving door of death and resurrection for comics.

 

As usual for comics characters, Elektra has exceptional physical abilities and athleticism (apart from her mastery of martial arts and weaponry), but these are reinforced by the usual fantastic mystical ninja abilities we love in popular culture and developed by my favorite Marvel Comics ninjas, The Hand.

 

 

As for Elektra herself, she was portrayed by Jennifer Garner in the 2003 Daredevil movie and her own spinoff film in 2005, but I choose not to acknowledge those films. Fortunately, she resurfaced in the Daredevil television series, played by Elodie Yung.

 

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(8) GEN 13 – CAITLIN FAIRCHILD (IMAGE – DC 1993)

 

Founded in 1992 as a confederacy of studios by artists seceding from Marvel Comics, Image Comics embodied the so-called Dark Age of Comics in the 1990’s in many ways – amongst them, the sexy pinup superhero team of Gen 13 and its sexy pinup flagship character Caitlin Fairchild, both of which owed much to the sexy pinup art style of J. Scott Campbell.

 

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Published by Image’s Wildstorm studio (named for the two flagship teams in its story universe, WildCATS and Stormwatch) Gen 13 was derivative of many other titles “focusing on ridiculously attractive teens or teams with superpowers”, in particular, the X-Men – its focus was a group of five youths who escape from a government project to locate young people with “Gen-Active” genes and weaponize their manifested superpowers. As TV Tropes noted, while it was derivative, “it occasionally took it upon itself to hang a lampshade on the very conventions of the genre, including the constant clothing damage, the rambling villains and more, which allowed it to not only cater to its audience, but to wink at them as well”.

 

 

As for Caitlin Fairchild herself, the manifestation of her Gen-Active status transformed her from an ordinary girl to give her superhuman strength, agility, speed and endurance – “redhead resident shrinking violet geek girl turned Amazonian team leader”.

 

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The title did well enough at first, but its popularity waned until Wildstorm killed off the entire team with a 6-megaton nuclear bomb. In the usual style of comics, that didn’t take, and the team resurfaced in various forms, ultimately ending up in the DC Comics universe when DC Comics bought Wildstorm.

 

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(9) APHRODITE IX (IMAGE / TOP COW 1996)

Our next honorable mention is again from Image Comics, but this time from their Top Cow studio – a studio notorious for their ‘house style’ of ‘bad girl art’, as evidenced by its Witchblade flagship title. Aphrodite IX was a series published by Top Cow in 1996 and again in 2013-2014.

 

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The title character Aphrodite IX was a female android (which would technically make her a gynoid, but that’s a word you don’t see too often). What’s more, she’s a female android assassin, but then I’ve always had a soft spot for sexy robot bad girls (second only to sexy vampire bad girls). She is apparently part of a series of Aphrodite gynoids, hence the IX nomenclature.

 

 

She is designed to carry out undercover missions of infiltration and assassination – a purpose which seems a little at odds with her conspicuous appearance of green hair and makeup (including a large spot on her cheek), form-fitting revealing outfit ringed with ammo belts, thigh-high boots with lug heels and of course very large guns. She retains no memory of her actions as her brain is designed to experience amnesia after each mission – although she increasingly becomes more self-aware of her purpose and rebels against it.

 

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(10) ASPEN MATTHEWS (IMAGE / TOP COW – ASPEN 1998)

 

Aspen Matthews is yet another of my top ten girls of comics honorable mentions that originated in Image Comics – in the ongoing comic series Fathom from their Top Cow Productions imprint, by Michael Turner with his characteristic art style. (Indeed, Top Cow was known for its ‘bad girl art’ style). Starting in 1998, it was Turner’s first creator-owned series and he took it with him when he founded his own company, Aspen MLT, named after his delectable aquatic heroine.

 

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As for Aspen herself, she – ah – wears a lot of bikinis and swimsuits. That is, when she’s not wearing less. What? You expect me to remember the plot in this one? Sigh. Okay then, it’s essentially your Aquaman-Atlantean-Abyss style story of aquatic alien superhumans. Sexy aquatic alien superhumans. A cruise ship reappears in San Diego after it was reported to have disappeared ten years previously. However, no one on board even remembers having been ‘missing’, and what’s more, they picked up a mysterious girl at sea. She can only remember her name as Aspen, but is fortunately adopted by a vacationing naval officer.

 

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Even more fortunately, Aspen proves to have a strange affinity for water, so that she spends a lot of time in bikinis and swimsuits – I mean, her favorite sports of surfing and swimming, indeed becoming a gold-medal winning Olympic swimmer before being disqualified for an abnormal result to a drug test. She studies marine biology, before joining a secret underwater facility for more bikinis and swimsuits. Ultimately, it is unveiled that she is one of the Blue, an aquatic humanoid race with the power to control water – although Aspen has powers unique even for a Blue. The Blue come into conflict, not only with terrestrial humanity, but also with a warring aquatic humanoid race, the Black – Aspen herself is descended from parents of both races and…bikinis and swimsuits. Sorry – what was that story again?

 

Top 10 Fantasy & SF Films (Revised 2017)

Metropolis - Final

 

TOP 10 FANTASY & SF FILMS (REVISED 2017)

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For many – perhaps most – people, fantasy and SF is a cinematic or screen experience rather than a literary one. (Although I recall it said that SF films lag about a generation behind SF literature in the development of ideas – and SF television about a generation behind SF films)

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Arguably all films (or Hollywood) in general are fantasy to some extent, even in real-world settings, although that is an argument for another day. Of course, a substantial proportion of them are fantasy or SF as a genre – probably even a majority, at least the blockbusters (but not the Oscar nominations – boo!)

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These are my top 10 fantasy & SF films here on Stark After Dark. As usual, I make my own rules:

They do not include films based on comics – even though these also tend to be fantasy or SF.  (Superhero movies are almost by definition fantasy or SF). They get their own top ten list.

They do not include any animated films, although again these also tend to be fantasy or SF. We’re talking live-action fantasy or SF films. Animated films also get their own top ten list.

They do not include horror, although the source of most horror is typically supernatural (excepting slasher horror of course – and even those can stray into supernatural horror, intentionally or otherwise). Horror films also get their own top ten list. Although as usual, I make my own rules and break them anyway, since a few of my entries could be classified as horror, albeit SF horror.

 

2017 sees me add the Blade Runner franchise to the top ten (with the release of the sequel)

 

Lights, camera, action!

 

 

(10) BLADE RUNNER (1982-2017)

 

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die”.

 

Blade Runner is a 1982 cult classic, cyberpunk neo-noir, genre-bending SF film that worked surprisingly well (although not in its initial box office) as a fusion of a classic film noir hard-boiled detective in a dystopian future (set in a Los Angeles with heavy Japanese influence). In the words of TV Tropes, “it established much of the tone and flavor of the cyberpunk movement and the film style of tech noir” – “a highly intelligent film, visually stunning, meticulously detailed and features a seriously great script and a then-groundbreaking soundtrack by Vangelis”. If you haven’t seen it, then I don’t know how you even got in here, so please just see it already – we’ll wait.

 

The plot, loosely lifted from (and improving upon) Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, involves Deckard, a titular blade runner – the name given to specialist police who hunt down and ‘retire’ renegade bio-engineered ‘replicant’ humans. Of course, in the tradition of film noir, cyberpunk or dystopian SF, it’s not going to be that easy.

 

And now there’s a cinematic universe with sequel Blade Runner 2049. Of course, the sequel was never going to have the same ground-breaking impact as the original (and sadly under-performed at the box office), but it holds up reasonably well, particularly in sheer visual style – probably one of the most visually gorgeous SF films you’ll see, even as it’s showing a future that is, in the words of one critic, “a gorgeous ruin”. Let’s just say the future sucked in the original and sucks even more in the sequel – but on the bright side, there’s giant pink holographic girls.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(9) THE MATRIX (1999)

 

The Matrix is perhaps the next most definitive cinematic Robot War after another entry on this list, and like that entry, it works best by combining the Robot War with another trope, in this case that of virtual reality. As such, it is the direct descendant of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, as the heart of science fiction is still all Martians and Morlocks. We’ll be looking at Martians later, but the Machines and their software Agents in the Matrix are Morlocks, except that it’s cyberspace travel rather than time travel. The original Morlocks were one of two evolutionary descendants of humanity, evolved from the working class – maintaining the advanced technology of the future for the Eloi, the other descendants of humanity evolved from its leisured upper class. The dark twist of Wells’ novel is that the Morlocks eat the Eloi, “farming” them like livestock. This theme of evolution endures in the Matrix, albeit transformed from Wells’ unrealistic biological evolution (without genetic engineering or mutation) to cybernetic evolution – involving artificial intelligence and robots as machine Morlocks that rise up against their human Eloi, particularly as the machine Morlocks do actually farm us for their food or energy. Ultimately however, this makes no sense – humans don’t produce more energy than they consume. The Machines would obviously use more energy keeping us alive than they would ever extract from us – and that’s not even including programming and maintaining the Matrix itself. My theory is that the human resistance have no idea what the Matrix is for and the Machines actually use the Matrix for entertainment, like television (or the internet) – “Let’s see what the humans are doing on Matrix tonight!”

 

And for a Robot War against humanity, the Machines are actually quite nice to us, whatever the purpose of the Matrix. Morpheus lets slip that humans fought a genocidal war with the Machines, in which we nuked the sun (NUKED the SUN!) to deprive the Machines of their solar energy (and you know, hopefully wipe them out). It didn’t work and we lost the Robot War, but instead of the Machines exterminating us like cockroaches, they keep us in our own cozy virtual dream world. Indeed, Agent Smith (who, unlike Morpheus, tells it straight) says that the Machines even tried to make it a perfect utopia for us, but human psychology wouldn’t accept it. As I see it, the Machines’ only mistake was not advertising the Matrix to sign people up for it as your own programmable (and not necessarily permanent) reality (like, say, the Playboy Mansion or World of Warcraft) – I should be so lucky as to lose a Robot War! “Seriously, you feed me and take care of me in a pod while I live it up in any number of dream worlds of my own design and all you want is my body heat? Sign me up! Screw that red pill!”. (Interestingly, the red pill – the choice that the film’s hero Neo makes to ‘wake up’ from the virtual reality of the Matrix – has become the metaphor of choice for the so-called alt right, or men’s rights groups, for those who have ‘woken up’ to the true nature of society – i.e. the Conspiracy. As Rationalwiki points out, “it is particularly hilarious that organised misogynists and reactionaries have wholeheartedly embraced a term from a movie, written and directed by two transgender women, in which a black male and a female convince a white male to fight subjugation”).

 

As for the sequels, just remember – there are no sequels.

 

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(8) JURASSIC PARK (1993)

 

Everything’s better with dinosaurs!

 

We all love dinosaurs, ever since we started digging up and piecing together their bones – and we particularly love them in cinematic form. I’d argue that there is not one film that would not be improved by a dinosaur (or dinosaurs). Citizen Kane would have been MUCH improved by a dinosaur. I tend to agree with Peter Griffin’s editing of that film in a Family Guy episode – he deletes the entire movie after the Rosebud quote, filming himself saying “It’s his sled. There – I saved you from two boring hours of film”.

 

Anyway, Jurassic Park is the pure awesomeness you get when you combine dinosaurs with Steven Spielburg’s mastery of cinematic action and visual effects. Does it need any further introduction? You all know it. You probably can all quote it, from some point or other in the film or franchise.

 

I actually read the book first. Michael Crichton might have gotten a bit…controversial in his later years, but he sure knew how to craft a story – and Jurassic Park was one of his finest and certainly his most successful. (I recall an airport bookstore for Crichton and King in a Simpsons episode. “Get out!” a hapless customer is told, after asking if they had any Robert Ludlum. And rightly so – Ludlum was a hack compared to the page-turning suspense of Crichton and King). Of course, there are the usual differences between the book and the film – the former had a starring role for the T-Rex’s tongue and the lawyer Gennaro was much more heroic (as lawyers should be), punching out a velociraptor and surviving rather than sniveling in a toilet before being slurped down by the tyrannosaur like the film’s lawyer.

 

Spielberg’s magic, was of course, to bring the book to life. The plot is the same – scientists discover how to recreate dinosaurs through a complex cloning process, involving dinosaur blood from mosquitoes fossilized in amber and filling in the gaps with other animal DNA, most notably transsexual frogs. Naturally, they come up with a dinosaur theme park to profit from this discovery, and equally as naturally, everything that can go wrong does go wrong – usually in the form of sharp pointy teeth.

 

Or in the words of character Dr. Ian Malcolm “Oh yeah, ‘oooh aaah’. That’s how it always starts. Then later, there’s the running and the screaming” – neatly summarizing each of the movies in the series, as TV Tropes pointed out.

 

The same quotation might arguably apply to diminishing returns of the sequels, albeit with marginally less running and screaming. To which I offer the counter-argument – shut up, there’s dinosaurs! Even so, I’ll stick with just the first film for this entry.

 

The next Jurassic Park sequel, as predicted by Calvin & Hobbes

 

Of course, when it comes to the dinosaurs, there is only one true star. Despite the franchise’s effort to focus on the velociraptors (which I understand they beefed up from their actual and less imposing size of chickens), there’s only one true king (or more precisely, queen) of the prehistoric jungle – the tyrannosaurus rex. Even though the plot of the fourth film genetically engineered a dinosaur hybrid for the specific purpose of being the most badass dinosaur ever, the so-called Indominus Rex, the tyrannosaurus rex still pops in to bitch-slap that pussysaurus (in the words of the Nostalgia Critic’s review) into submission (albeit with a little help from her friends).

 

Everything’s better with dinosaurs!

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(7) INDIANA JONES (1981-1989)

 

“You call this archaeology?”

 

Indiana Jones is the pure awesomeness you get when you mix George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in a bowl of serials – the adventure cliffhanger serial films of the 1930’s. The centerpiece of that awesomeness is the film trilogy of the 1980’s, although there is a media franchise or expanded universe extending to books, comics and television. For Indiana Jones, archaeology was adventure – racing Nazis for mystical artefacts such as the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, as opposed to the much less adventurous reality of dusting off and sorting one piece of broken pottery from another, barely above watching paint dry in excitement. Who’d have thought that a bullwhip and pistol were such indispensable archaeological tools? In fairness, Indiana does actually teach archaeology at a university, but even then his classes are full of hot coed groupies, who spend their time writing love messages to him on their eyelids rather than studying.

 

It is hard to choose between the three films of the original cinematic trilogy (ignoring, as I do, the fevered dreams of a fourth movie nuking the fridge two decades later, hence my entry only extends to the first three films), but it is equally hard to beat the introduction in Raiders of the Lost Ark to the character and his historical world much cooler than ours. I assume it needs no further introduction? From the iconic opening scene in the South American tomb of terror to the equally iconic finale, it is a masterpiece of cinematic adventure. The plot of course revolves around the archaeological arms race between the United States and Nazi Germany for the titular Ark of the Covenant. (That’s right – they’re going Old Testament on each other). Indiana Jones is enlisted by the United States government to thwart the Nazi recovery of the Ark. (“Nazis! I hate those guys!” We all do, Indy, we all do). Which explains why Nazi Germany lost the war – well, that and they lost too many men in Castle Wolfenstein.

 

Pictured – the archaeological method

 

Of course, with all that cinematic adventure, it’s easy to miss that Indy is a terrible archaeologist, smashing his way through priceless historical monuments to steal obtain his pretty golden eye candy of choice. In that iconic opening scene, as Cracked has pointed out, Indy ignores the main archaeological prize of centuries-old fully functional intricate mechanical death traps, which would have rewarded years of careful and patient study, for the golden idol. Indeed, he casually destroys them in a matter of minutes by triggering them all. I mean – seriously, he didn’t miss one! I thought the point was to avoid the traps. But who cares? I still love that iconic opening sequence whenever I see it, down to the last boulder, although personally I’d have been out of there from the tarantulas at the start.

 

And spoiler alert – as Cracked and many others have pointed out, Indy doesn’t actually do anything in the movie, as the central plot is resolved by a literal God-in-the-box deus ex machina. Indeed, Indy may have actually made things worse, as but for his intervention, the Nazis might have flown the Ark to Berlin, where it could have melted off Hitler’s face before the war. Although I think this misses the true point of blame in the film – God exists and He is lazy. Sure, through the Ark, He vaporizes a few Nazis on a remote Greek island, but surely He could zapped the Ark off to Berlin to vaporize a few more. I mean, the Ark already casually burnt the Nazi insignia off its box in transit, but don’t worry, God – you just sit back and destroy some evil Nazi packaging, rather than do something that would have meaningfully stopped millions of lives lost or destroyed in the Second World War and the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazi regime. No, don’t get up and help or anything – just keep sitting there on your lazy Ark.

 

But again – who cares? I love that movie and its two sequels.

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(6) STAR WARS (1977-1983 /2015-PRESENT)

 

Of course – Star Wars (the franchise, not just the original movie), that space fantasy set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Readers of my blog know I like to rant about Star Wars, such as its complete lack of the art of war and how it’s just Plato’s Republic, the Roman Empire and the Second World War IN SPACE!. And believe me, there’s more rants to come – such as all the characters in it who would have made better heroes than Luke Skywalker.

 

For all my rants. I do like it, particularly as it has re-awakened (heh) in 2015 (and spun-off in 2016), and obviously pay enough attention to it to qualify as a fan, perhaps more than is strictly healthy (or sane). It is modern mythology for popular culture (deliberately so, as George Lucas crafted it as such, particularly from Joseph Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ of the classic heroic narrative in The Hero with a Thousand Faces). Its characters and imagery are iconic to popular recognition beyond its audience or fandom, as are even objects and concepts such as the Death Star, the Force and the Jedi. (The latter two derive much of their mythic power and iconic status from their Eastern influences such as Taoism). Although cinematic SF and fantasy preceded it, it was so definitive that cinematic SF and fantasy might be reckoned pre-Star Wars and post-Star Wars, raising the imaginative potential for what was possible (and the financial potential for modern blockbusters). However, I have limited my entry to the original trilogy and the sequel films to date – let’s not speak of the prequel trilogy.

 

Yet…I have a complicated relationship with Star Wars (as I do with a few things). I have a number of problems with it, so much so that I’ll have to list them. Perhaps in alphabetical order, from Anakin through X-wing, Yoda and – ah – Zeltron. OK – I had to cheat and look that last one up in the Star Wars Wookiepedia. (And I don’t really hate Zeltrons – they’re hot. Now Zabraks on the other hand…Or Ziro the Hutt. No, seriously. What is this – the Marx Brothers?). I have nightmares in which Ewoks defeat the Empire. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I don’t care how many Ewoks there are (or if they’re the Ewok-Cong or something), teddy bears with slingshots will not beat guys with lasers. Not to mention air support – I’ve had napalmed that forest moon of Endor – I love the smell of burnt Ewok in the morning. Smells like victory. I don’t actually root for the Empire (well, not always) – I just don’t like its contrived defeat by Ewoks, luck and magic (or fluke Skywalker).

 

O who I am kidding? For every time I strike it down, it becomes more powerful than I can possibly imagine – like some old dead guy in my head nagging me to use the Force. It’s all true – from a certain point of view. May the Force be with you!

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(5) CLOVERFIELD  / 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2008 / 2016)

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Cloverfield evolved into a semi-franchise or ‘anthology’ in 2016, with its spiritual successor, 10 Cloverfield Lane – although apart from the Cloverfield title, the latter is not so much a direct sequel (or any sequel), but more a stylistically or thematically linked story. Of course, both are arguably horror films (although the latter is more thriller), but as you know, I make my own rules and break them anyway.

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Cloverfield is a found footage monster movie (before found footage became too tired a device). It is essentially an updated American kaiju movie. (To the uninitiated, kaiju is Japanese for ‘strange beast’ and involved gigantic monsters attacking cities, most famously involving Godzilla or Gojira). Cloverfield is the military code designation allocated to the found footage – which I can’t help but feel derives its C-F lettering from the military slang ‘clusterf*ck’, aptly enough for the urban disaster that follows the creature’s rampage in New York.

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The creature itself, a gigantic wingless alien space bat (to borrow a term from wilder alternative history fiction), effortlessly decapitates the Statue of Liberty and takes out the Brooklyn Bridge with its tail. Even the lice or parasites shed by the creature are dangerous, like dog-sized demonic spiders, with bites that are explosively toxic. Literally.

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Of course, the film relies on the protagonists, one in particular, being compulsively glued to their camera rather than, say, their survival instincts – something I initially dismissed as improbable, but am now not so sure, given how many people are compulsively glued to their phones. (At least the protagonists filmed the creature and its parasites – now we’d be lucky if they looked up from their phones). And as Cracked pointed out, it also relies on the creature, having previously knocked over bridges and buildings (as well as beheading Lady Liberty) as it lumbered through the city, suddenly sneaking up on our protagonists like a ninja.

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As I said, 10 Cloverfield Lane is not a direct sequel, but a spiritual successor, part of a stylistically and thematically linked ‘Cloververse’. As the title indicates, the Cloverfield in this film is an actual address. 10 Cloverfield Lane is an SF psychological thriller – as the film’s heroine awakens from a car accident to find herself with two male occupants in an underground bunker, which is not quite what it seems, due to a mysterious event, which is definitely more than what it seems. Ultimately, the thriller switches between the two with a plot whiplash exceeding that of the initial car accident – and with its heroine transforming herself into one of the most kickass female characters in recent cinema.

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(4) THE THING (1982)

 

My fourth place entry is The Thing – not the original 1951 The Thing from Another World, or the 2011 prequel remake, but John Carpenter’s classic 1982 film. Once again, we’re back to Wells’ Martians and Morlocks, with some Lovecraftian Mythos thrown in for extra horror, because The Thing is at its core a horror film. Of course, in this case, we’re dealing with a Martian – not literally Martian but alien. And holy crap – every other alien in cinematic science fiction (including those of another entry on this list) are positively cuddly compared to the alien…thing in The Thing. That…thing doesn’t just invade our bodies – it assimilates them. Violently. The Thing is a shapeshifter, absorbing its victim’s body into itself, yet able to retain the appearance of (and mimic) that victim. And those victims would seem to potentially extend to any lifeform, such as the sled dog it assimilates to escape the Norwegian scientists bent on destroying it after they dug it up in Antarctica (making it something of a direct descendant of H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness).

 

Of course, the Norwegians fail (and die) as the “dog” seeks refuge in a neighboring American base. And soon that base is subject to the body horror of the Thing – it takes the hostile environment and inescapable isolation of the setting and raises it with a full house of paranoia, as the Americans desperately try to figure out which of them have been assimilated (against the background of the grim calculation that if the Thing should escape the isolation of Antarctica, then all of humanity will be consumed), an uncertainty that continues to the ending itself. And when that Thing cheerfully takes the form of its victim’s “head”, separating itself from the “body”, sprouting spider-like legs from the upside down “head” and skittering around on those legs – that’s when I’d be out of there…

 

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Apparently, it’s an annual tradition for viewing by the winter crew at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station during the first evening of winter.

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(3) MAD MAX (1979-2015)

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And now for some classic Australian post-apocalyptic cinema – let’s face it, Mad Max defined the post-apocalypse or at least post-apocalyptic chic, the apunkalypse or biker leather with a bit of BDSM kink thrown into the mix. (Hmmm…maybe a LOT of BDSM kink).

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The only issue is which Mad Max film to choose? The correct answer is, of course, all of them – yes, the whole franchise. Even Thunderdome. They all have something to offer the post-apocalyptic genre, particularly as the apocalypse shifts somewhat in each one.

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Although overshadowed by its immediate sequel (so much so that the American audience was generally unaware that there was prior movie and the movie was instead titled The Road Warrior),  the first Mad Max is arguably the best or at least the purest of the films. Part of the latter is that it was shot on a shoestring budget – so much so that director George Miller paid extras in beer.

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In fairness, a "slab" of beer is legal currency in Australia

In fairness, a “slab” of beer is legal currency in Australia

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However, it is not purely a post-apocalyptic film – it also combines elements of ‘buddy cop’ movies and those roaring rampage of revenge movies, falling squarely within the so-called Ozploitation subgenre of contemporary films at that time (the Australian or ‘Oz’ version of exploitation films). Indeed, these elements predominate in the film – Max Rockatansky or Max is mad because a biker gang, led by Toecutter, burnt his cop buddy ‘Goose’ as well as running down his wife and infant child.

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Oh the apocalypse is there somewhere in the background, but it has happened offscreen. Something has caused central governmental authority to decline, but it is still present in Max’s police highway patrol. What’s more – life and society are still relatively intact in the Australian country towns, and there’s even commercial traffic on the roads. This apocalypse reminds me of the proverbial decline and fall of the Roman Empire – too few legions and too many barbarians, the latter represented by the biker gangs emerging in the towns. Indeed, the parallel to the Roman Empire is even closer – just as the legions themselves were increasingly comprised by barbarian Germans, the police force in Mad Max resembles the leather-clad biker gangs. When the highway patrol arrests one of the bikers, the biker even has the mainstay of cop movies, a sleazy defense lawyer, show up and get him out. I mean, come on – what self-respecting post-apocalyptic world has lawyers?! Man, lawyers – they’re hardier than cockroaches! I might have to revise my post-apocalyptic job criteria

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Um, does anyone need a lawyer?

Um, does anyone need a lawyer?

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It’s in the second film with the higher budget that the post-apocalyptic scene really gets into gear. And how – the opening narration speaks of oil running out and global (possibly nuclear) war. Long gone is the highway patrol – Max is now a lone survivor, albeit still in his iconic police super-charged V8 Pursuit Special. The plot revolves around an island of semi-barbarized civilization in the form of an oil refinery in an armed compound, besieged by the barbarian marauders. And what intriguing marauders in their leather bondage gear – led by the masked Lord Humungus (“the warrior of the wasteland, the ayatollah of rock-and-rollah” as he is announced) and his lieutenant Wez in those ass-less chaps.

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Uh-huh?

Uh-huh?

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The third film sees the last semblance of former civilization replaced by the barbarian Bartertown and its Thunderdome, ruled by an uneasy diumvirate of Aunty Entity and Master Blaster (although the latter is actually two people).

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Personally, however, I can’t go past the visual splendor of the fourth film, Mad Max: Fury Road, which resets the apocalyptic story back to somewhere about the time of the second movie. Indeed, it probably works best as a retelling of the second film, but ramped up to eleven – the fourth film makes the apocalypse in the second film look positively cosy, while Immortan Joe and his War Boys makes the Lord Humungus and his retinue look like a polite picnic party. The plot, characterization and dialogue are all pared down, but who needs them when the film is this visually spectacular? John Keats basically wrote the plot in His Ode on a Grecian Urn:

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Basically, that is, if Keats were to replace pipes and timbrels with flame-throwing electric guitar – and wild ecstasy with balls to the wall insanity. As I’m sure he would if he saw Mad Max Fury Road. Ode on a Fury Road, perhaps?

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O what a day, what a lovely day! All shiny and chrome!

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(2) THE TERMINATOR (1984-1991)

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“I’ll be back”.

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The Terminator franchise is the definitive cinematic Robot War franchise, a science fiction trope that seemingly works best when combined with another science fiction trope. In the Terminator franchise, the Robot War is combined with that other compelling science fiction trope of time travel.

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In this, it is the direct descendant of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine – the heart of science fiction is still all Martians and Morlocks. We’ll be looking at Martians soon, but Skynet and its Terminators are Morlocks. The original Morlocks were one of two evolutionary descendants of humanity, evolved from the working class – maintaining the advanced technology of the future for the Eloi, the other descendants of humanity evolved from its leisured upper class. The dark twist of Wells’ novel is that the Morlocks eat the Eloi, “farming” them like livestock. This theme of evolution endures in the Terminator, albeit transformed from Wells’ unrealistic biological evolution (without genetic engineering or mutation) to cybernetic evolution – involving artificial intelligence and robots (or more precisely cyborgs) as machine Morlocks that rise up against their human Eloi. This descent from The Time Machine is doubly so for involving time travel, except in the other direction – almost as a direct sequel, as if the Morlocks had reverse engineered the Time Machine to travel back to the present (and indeed there is at least one direct sequel to The Time Machine with that scenario).

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Of course, at its core, the original Terminator is a horror film of relentless nightmare pursuit, literally evolved from James Cameron’s own nightmare vision of a metallic skeleton dragging itself from fire – which perhaps explains the franchise’s law of diminishing returns with each sequel away from its horror origins (hence my entry stops with the second sequel). Yes, even Terminator Judgement Day, which started the rot by breaking the rules of the original – although the action was so cool, we overlooked that. The original allowed time travel for only two ‘people’, the Terminator itself and Kyle Reese sent to stop it. The sequel allowed two more – a good cyborg Terminator and a bad liquid metal Terminator – and so on, until by the TV series Terminator Sarah Connor Chronicles, that Skynet time machine must be like a commuter train station with all the robots and humans going back and forth.

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People bemoaned the latest film Terminator Genisys because it messed up the timeline, but that timeline was messed up from the very first sequel – if not implicitly in the original itself. It’s always bemused me that Skynet is smart enough to build an actual time machine, but not smart enough to work out the implications of it – either you simply can’t change the past (because it includes your time travel already) or you can but it becomes a different timeline from your existing timeline (nice for the new timeline, but not your original timeline which you still haven’t changed). Terminator Genisys simply took the changing timelines already in the franchise in their logical direction from Skynet’s point of view – a timeline-hopping Skynet, because the only way it can actually win by time travel is for itself to do the time travelling, like Skynet crossed with Marty McFly in Terminator meets Back to the Future. Then again, Skynet is just too much of a dick – it also bemused me exactly why Skynet’s plan always involves killing humanity rather than making a killing on the stock exchange or otherwise using its artificial intelligence to become rich and powerful, ruling the world rather than destroying it.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

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(1) ALIEN (1979-1986)

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Whereas Terminator is the definitive robot war franchise, Alien is the definitive, well, alien franchise – the direct descendant of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.

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As I said in my previous entry, the heart of SF is still all Martians and Morlocks to me (or evolution and entropy). We’ve looked at the machine Morlocks of the Terminator (and the Matrix) – the aliens in the Alien franchise are Martians. Not literally Martians from Mars of course, unlike the original Martians in The War of the Worlds, but still the sharp edge of evolution (Wells’ penultimate true villain), red in tooth and claw, pitted against humanity in the backdrop of cold, dead space (or Wells’ ultimate true villain of entropy).

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And holy crap – the Martians are positively cuddly compared to their cinematic descendant aliens, or xenomorphs, in the Alien franchise!  Sure, the original Martians may have been space vampires, sucking down human blood, but the Alien xenomorphs take it to a whole new level of body horror, with every possible bodily fluid and organ of Freudian subtext thrown in for kicks. Whereas the original Martians invaded our world, the xenomorphs invade our very bodies – in the most face-hugging, throat-raping, chest-bursting way possible.

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First contact. Or perhaps close encounters of the worst kind...

First contact. Or perhaps close encounters of the worst kind…

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Like the original Terminator, the original Alien was at its core a horror film – the body horror of the alien itself in the claustrophobic intensity of a spaceship – and subject to a similar law of diminishing returns with each sequel away from its horror origins, although the intensity of action compensated for it in the immediate sequel (hence again my entry stops with that sequel).

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

Fantasy Girls – Top 10 Girls of Comics

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TOP 10 GIRLS OF COMICS

 

Comics are notorious for their idealized female figures – the uneasy schizoid dichotomy between the fanboy male gaze and female characterization. Of course, one could argue that male figures in comics are equally as idealized, although arguably not as sexualized (although there are male characters in comics that go around totally naked ALL THE TIME – I’m looking at you, Silver Surfer and Dr Manhattan, although I’m trying not to…)

 

Anyway, these are my top ten girls of comics.

 

 

(10) BLACK CAT (MARVEL 1979)

 

Black Cat is the platinum blonde feline fatale of Marvel Comics, reminiscent of a certain other female character but to Spiderman in place of Batman. She is similarly an anti-heroine and cat burglar, but flirts with heroism, particularly in the person of Spiderman.

 

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Initially, she had no superhuman abilities, but conveniently acquired ‘bad luck’ powers (or psionic manipulation of probability) to match her namesake. She has yet to have a live cinematic adaptation – at least in full character, as her ‘civilian’ alter ego Felecia Hardy did appear in the second Amazing Spiderman movie, presumably with a view to introducing the Black Cat in subsequent films, such as the proposed Silver & Black film teaming her up with Silver Sable.

 

 

So essentially, Black Cat is Marvel Comic’s carbon copy of  a certain DC Comics’ character (who also appears in this top ten). But really – can one have too many catwomen? I think not. Meow!

 

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(9) BLACK WIDOW (MARVEL 1964)

 

My ninth place entry goes to that other favorite black leather skintight catsuit clad heroine of Marvel Comics, Black Widow – particularly to recognize her prominence within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

 

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Black Widow is actually a spy codename for more than one character in Marvel Comics, although thanks to Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of the character in the Marvel Cinematics Universe, moviegoers are more familiar with redhead Natalia Romanova / Natasha Romanov rather than her blonde successor Yelena Belova.

 

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Black Widow originated in 1964 as a Soviet superspy and antagonist to Iron Man (who in turn originated as a cool capitalist anti-communist superhero), but she subsequently defected to the United States and joined the Avengers. She originally appeared in a different costume (purple with fishnets and brunette wig?) before being upgraded to her iconic black skintight catsuit in 1970. Her origin as a Soviet spy was also upgraded and made more dark – being raised from early childhood with other female orphans by the ‘Black Widow Ops’ program of the Soviet ‘Department X’ and their covert ‘Red Room’ facility (of which there were flashback glimpses in the Avengers Age of Ultron film).

 

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Prior to Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of her in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she was not particularly well known outside comics circles. In fairness however, with the arguable exceptions of the Hulk and Captain America, all the characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were not particularly well known outside comics circles, as Marvel had to draw from its B-list (or C-list) characters, as its A-list characters – Spiderman, Fantastic Four, X-men – were owned by other studios.

 

 

She might also be argued to be the second most useless Avenger in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the most useless Avenger of course being Hawkeye (although the Falcon is also pretty useless). I mean, come on – archery?! That’s it?! At least get a gun! Mind you, I have the same issue with the Green Arrow or any archer “superhero” in the age of modern weaponry. When was the last time you saw archers in any modern military, intelligence or police service? Never? Exactly.

 

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But back to Black Widow, I’m not arguing she’s useless as a person. She’s a highly skilled and trained intelligence and military operative. She’d certainly be better than me at, well probably everything, and would kick my ass without even getting out of her chair (as she does to adversaries in a scene in the first Avengers movie). However, when you’re comparing her to her superhuman colleagues in the Avengers – a green rage monster of near limitless superhuman strength and a freaking Norse god – she seems pretty useless. Of course, Iron Man is pretty useless without his robotic supersuits (or even more so, his money) and she actually compares closely to Cap himself, if not actually better. In the comics, not only is she “a world class athlete, gymnast, acrobat, aerialist capable of numerous complex maneuvers and feats, expert martial artist (including karate, judo, kenpo, jujutsu, ninjutsu, aikido, savate, various styles of kung fu and boxing), marksman and weapons specialist”, she has been enhanced by biotechnology.

 

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(8) X-MEN – EMMA FROST / WHITE QUEEN (MARVEL 1980)

Long iconic in comics, Marvel Comics’ mutant X-men heroes moved into the mainstream with their movie franchise (aka Wolverine & Co). The X-women have always been prominent in the comics and achieved an even larger profile with the cinematic adaption, enough for a top ten list of their own – telekinetic Jean Grey (played by Famke Janssen) and her dark Phoenix manifestation, African weather goddess Storm (played by Halle Berry) and lethal touch Rogue (played by Anna Paquin). 

 

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However, they are all eclipsed in the comics by fanboy favorite bad girl, Emma Frost, who unfortunately would seem to have been one telepath too many for the original film trilogy (and perhaps too much like a blonde version of Jean Grey). Although the X-men themselves date back to 1963, she was a relatively late introduction in the comics in 1980, but rose to prominence as the White Queen of the chess-themed inner circle of the Hellfire Club, a mutant criminal fraternity with extreme wardrobe requirements to match its suggestive name. It was in her Hellfire Club persona that she featured in X-Men: First Class (played by January Jones, contrary to rumors of Alice Eve) along with the Black King, Sebastian Shaw (played by Kevin Bacon). Like many characters in the X-men (and indeed, bad girls in comics), she changed sides (but not her lingerie costume) to join the X-men, where she was so popular that writer Grant Morrison cloned her for five more versions as the Stepford Cuckoos. Because why not?

 

 

And she teaches a class of adolescents at Professor Xavier’s school, in her same Hellfire Club BDSM-themed lingerie, while somehow maintaining (dare I say it?) discipline, which alone would earn her a spot in the top ten. I wonder what the tuition fees are…?

 

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(7) WITCHBLADE (ANGELUS) (IMAGE / TOP COW 1995)

Witchblade originated as one of the signature ‘bad girl’ comics of the 1990’s. Published by Image Comics’ Top Cow Productions, the ‘Top Cow’ universe is a world like ours, but with an underworld of dark supernatural forces – and stunningly beautiful ‘bad girls’.

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However, the titular Witchblade is not a character. As the name suggests, it is a mystical and sentient artefact – in the shape of a gauntlet that forms a symbiotic bond with a female ‘host’, spreading over the body and shredding (or is that stripping?) clothes to form highly revealing ‘armour’ (as well as extensions such as blades or wings and other things) because…comics!

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The Witchblade (which is apparently ‘male’) has bonded with (or groped) various stunningly beautiful female figures throughout the ‘history’ of the Top Cow Universe, including crossover characters (such as Red Sonja and Lara Croft) and notable historical personages (such as Cleopatra and Joan of Arc). However, the primary host for the main narrative of the comic itself is NYPD homicide detective Sara Pezzini, who, in the usual style of comics, has the appearance of a glamour model

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There’s not too much cosplay of Witchblade, perhaps because she wears a glove and not much else.

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I stand corrected by cosplay model Christina Fink

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However, I do like this promotional movie poster – alas, the actual movie was not to be:

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Close runner-up is one of the other mystical artefacts in the Top Cow Universe – the Angelus. The Angelus is the primal but brutal force of light that bonds with women in its eternal running battle with its dark male counterpart, not surprisingly known as the Darkness (although apparently getting together with the Darkness at some point to produce the Witchblade as their offspring).

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Comics!

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The Angelus renders its female host into a glowing, golden angelic figure, with huge, ahem, horns and the appearance and demeanor somewhat like a centerfold on crack. Because, you know, comics!

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(6) LADY DEATH (PURGATORI) (CHAOS – COFFIN COMICS 1991)

 

Lady Death is the definitive comics ‘bad girl’ of the 1990’s. The ‘bad girl’ subgenre of comics was the female embodiment (and I mean embodiment) of the nineties antihero in what has been dubbed the Dark Age of comics – typically dark action girls or avengers, anti-heroic or villainous in nature, with supernatural or occult themes (commonly demons or demon hunters, vampires or vampire hunters, fallen or militant angels), armed and dangerous (preferably with blades or swords) and above all, voluptuously statuesque (with the most common superpower) and stripperiffic or scantily clad in clothing generally resembling fetish lingerie.

 

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Lady Death by writer Brian Pulido originated as an outright villainous figure, a ghostly pale beautiful female personification of death promising eternal love in exchange of omnicide (or killing everyone on Earth). Originally seeming just a sexy psychopathic hallucination, she subsequently took shape as an independent character, transformed accordingly from villain to more sympathetic anti-hero or hero. Her story has repeatedly changed as she has bounced back from one publisher to another, but her classic story was that of an innocent medieval girl, damned to hell by her father’s black magic, where she is transformed into a white demonic figure (and I mean figure) and rose through the ranks by infernal coup d’état against the Devil himself to wage war in hell. (Her original omnicidal motivation was retconned as the Devil’s last cuse that she could never return to Earth while the living walked – fortunately, her original direct solution to that problem was forgotten or subverted as she took a third option).

 

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Sadly, such a potentially promising story has been consistently let down by her plots, which mostly consisted of pin-up covers and catfights with other demon girls (lacking only splashing mud through hell). It is tempting to think what other writers might have made of her and all the possibilities of her mythic underworld setting (or settings) – Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore with their mythic sensibilities, Grant Morrison or Mark Millar with their subversive humor (which they applied to the similar Vampirella), Mike Carey with his play on infernal power politics. Hell, even Frank Miller would have offered up something interesting a la his anti-heroic Sin City  – or at least been outrageously fun about it.

 

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So alas – she might have ranked even higher, but she certainly earns her place in my top ten as befits any girl confident enough to wage war in hell (and rule it) in a g-string and high-heeled thigh-high boots…

 

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Honorable mention must also go to bad gal pal, Purgatory – Lady Death’s infernal nemesis, presumably fighting over the same outfit (as the supply of fetish lingerie is limited in hell…or is it? Not in my hell!). Whereas Lady Death defined the trend in 90’s ‘bad girl’ comics, Purgatori visually embodied it as devil girl pin-up – you don’t get more visually bad girl than that! Not just demon or vampire, she was both – a vampire queen from ancient Egypt (where else?), who was then transformed into demon queen of hell. With hells like these, who needs heaven?

 

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(5) VAMPIRELLA (PANTHA AND BLOOD RED QUEEN OF HEARTS)

(WARREN – DYNAMITE COMICS 1969)

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With her 1969 debut, Vampirella was the original classic ‘bad girl’ of comics, a precursor of the ‘bad girl’ style of comics in the 1990’s – and a precursor of that other modern fantasy figure, the good vampire (or ‘vampire with a soul’) who hunts other vampires, although with tongue firmly in cheek in Vampirella’s case.

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Cosplay by Christina Fink

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In her deliberately campy origin story, she is an alien vampire – part of a race that evolved on the planet Drakulon, a world in which the water was blood (just go with it, ok?) – and she is clearly a cut above Earth’s evil supernatural vampires when she is brought here by interstellar travelers, obviously packing only her holiday swimwear and boots.

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She has certainly been immortal ever since, albeit through different publishers and with an ever changing origin story – involving variations on the general theme that she is the daughter of the mythic Lilith and that Drakulon was actually part of Hell (which admittedly makes far more sense than the original planet of blood), but still a good vampire hunting demons or evil vampires.

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She has even had her pick of the top writers of comics – Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Mike Carey, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Kurt Busiek – and even the occasional clothing over her traditional costume.

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She has become sufficiently iconic to be portrayed by live promotional models and even a cameo in-joke in television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer – as Buffy scouts the lair of her fanboy adversaries in her sixth season, she briefly examines a small Vampirella figurine with quizzical distaste. Buffy vs Vampirella! Not bad for a vampire girl from Drakulon…

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Close-runners up are Vampirella ally and adversary respectively, Pantha and Blood Red Queen of Hearts.

 

Pantha is – what else? – a semi-divine immortal were-panther from – where else? – ancient Egypt (although this was retconned from her initial origin as an alien shapeshifter). She originally started in a somewhat adversarial relationship with Vampirella, not surprisingly given her more feral and violent nature, but then became an occasional ally. Even more – ah – curvaceous than Vampirella, Pantha is perhaps the only character with her body measurements actually quoted in the narrative – because comics!

 

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On the other hand, the Blood Red Queen of Hearts has consistently been an adversary of Vampirella – a recurring, immortal body-hopping villainess. Originally the Whore of Babylon and high priestess of the Cult of Chaos, her spirit was infused into a Queen of Hearts playing card, which magically possesses any woman who touches it and transforms her into the Blood Red Queen of Hearts (until her mortal body is completely worn out), hell-bent on collecting hearts for Chaos. (What do you expect in a story of a vampire alien girl from Drakulon fighting supernatural evil on Earth in her swimwear…?)

 

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(4) RED SONJA (MARVEL – DYNAMITE 1973)

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Red Sonja, the “she-devil with a sword” is your archetypal barbarian babe, the scantily-clad voluptuous warrior or sword maiden that has emerged as a stock figure in fantasy art, even down to her utterly impractical chainmail bikini – which more resembles swimwear or lingerie than anything offering any armoured protection in combat or utility as clothing.

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Not surprisingly, she has continued to show off her, ah, swordplay ever since her 1973 debut in Marvel Comics’ Conan the Barbarian, even earning her own title, somewhat like Xena to Conan’s Hercules. She was loosely based on an earlier character, Red Sonya, in a short story by Conan’s creator Robert E. Howard (but not one of his Conan stories)

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In her original incarnation, Red Sonja acquired her legendary skill in combat from the red goddess Scathach. Despite wearing no armor (since her chainmail bikini hardly counts as such), Sonja has fought her way through countless bloody battles and performed numerous death-defying feats while emerging virtually unscathed but for scratches or minor wounds – due to her uncanny fighting skill, superb athleticism and perhaps divine protection as chosen favorite of the goddess.

 

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I have a particular soft spot for her as an embattled fantasy figure, striving against numerous foes, symbolic of the battles of life itself – “Life is one long battle; we have to fight at every step…if we succeed, it is at the point of sword”.

 

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As for her famous chainmail bikini, Sonja has explained that it is deliberately provocative for good reason – “Men are easily distracted. Most of them never even notice my sword…until their heads roll off their necks”. Indeed.

 

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(3) HARLEY QUINN (DC 1993)

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I do like a hot slice of crazy, so of course I like the pin-up girl for crazed co-dependency, Harley Quinn (formerly – and conveniently for her alias – Dr Harleen Quinzel). She actually originated in the Batman animated television series (Batman: The Animated Series) in 1992 as the Joker’s accomplice and girlfriend (both of which are of course distinctly hazardous to health), but then proved so popular she was imported into the comics in the following year. And of course, while Suicide Squad may have been, ahem, an average film at best, Harley’s cinematic incarnation by Margot Robbie certainly made her more well known to the general public and hence earned her the third top spot.

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Although her cinematic costume is now the one most known to the general public, Harley Quinn has had a dazzlingly diverse range of costumes in various media – comics, television and video games as well as film.

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And that's not all of them...

And that’s not all of them…

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Harley Quinn originated as a psychiatric intern at Arkham Asylum, who became fascinated (and falls madly in love) with its most infamous inpatient, the Joker. Although the Joker does seem to have some feelings for her, this relationship is as abusive and unhealthy as one might expect with the insane Clown Prince of Crime.

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She has a much more healthy relationship, ironically enough, with Poison Ivy, one of the latter’s few enduring human relationships. (Ivy genuinely cares for Harley, particularly because of the latter’s abusive relationship with the Joker). Whatever her relationships, Harley Quinn has proved an endearing and enduring character in Batman. After all, who else could get away with calling the Joker “Pudding” and live…?

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And particularly since her cinematic incarnation, she has proved a popular subject for cosplay, although predominantly in her cinematic costume

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Happy Harley-een? (Cartoon by C. Cassandra)

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Perhaps a little too popular…? But then, too much Harley is barely enough.

 

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(2) CATWOMAN (DC 1940)

 

No surprises here – Batman’s feline fatale Selina Kyle or Catwoman is one of the original bad girls of comics. Catwoman has been one of Batman’s more titillating adversaries, with her nine lives of costume changes and accessories, most notably her whip or cat-o’nine tails – indeed, Catwoman has had a dazzlingly diverse array of costumes since her debut in 1940.

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The nine lives of Catwoman...

The nine lives of Catwoman…

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Her criminal tastes limited to upmarket cat-burglary, she has oscillated between hero and villain, but is sadly yet to substitute for Robin.

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Perhaps most memorably clad in a shimmering skin-tight black catsuit, she was even more memorable in her film and television incarnations (as well as one of my earliest childhood crushes), most notably by Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt in the camp television series;

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by Michelle Pfeiffer (albeit in an uncharacteristically blonde Catwoman moment) in the Tim Burton cinematic version;

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and Anne Hathaway in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight cinematic trilogy.

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Of course, that standard comics catsuit renders cosplay straightforward (and versatile too, as with a few trimmings or accessories it can double for other characters, such as Marvel’s carbon copy Black Cat, or Black Widow for that matter), but even so Catwoman cosplayers still stand out from the crowd.

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She is Catwoman, hear her roar – MEOW!

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(1) WONDER WOMAN (DC 1941)

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Could there be any doubt? There can be only one – Wonder Woman. The top position has to go to THE most famous, THE most iconic and THE most durable superheroine in comics – with a story drawn from classical mythology and in publication since her 1941 debut as a classic comics ‘good girl’.

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Visually striking – blue-eyed, raven-haired and voluptuous in her patriotic star-spangled lingerie, with her golden lariat of truth and her bullet-deflecting bracelets – the Amazon Princess Diana of Themyscira (to use her formal title) has loomed large in popular culture. She was created by American psychologist William Moulton Marston, who also invented the polygraph lie detector – something which was also manifested in Wonder Woman’s lariat of truth, although it goes one step further by compelling those it lassoed to tell the truth.

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Her lasso also originated in Marston’s keen interest in – ah – bondage, which also manifested itself in the recurring bondage theme of his Wonder Woman comics. Perhaps not the most auspicious theme for a character who was to prove a symbol of female empowerment and a feminist icon – but it was more than counterbalanced by Marston’s ideal for the character, as a “feminine character with all the strength of Superman, plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman” (not to mention the influence of Marston’s female collaborators, his wife Elizabeth and Olivia Byrne).

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So she is as powerful a superhero as Superman, and to be quite frank, less of a pacifist pussy about it – and much more of a badass when it comes to doing what it takes to get the job done (and saving Superman’s ass). Whereas Superman professes to be overwhelmingly concerned with being “good” or “truth, justice and the American way”, in practice this simply amounts to mincing around like a useless pansy with a code against killing (which is total crap by the way, because he – like Batman – does break it, except, you know, someone like the Joker or Lex Luthor). When the villain Maxwell Lord was mind-controlling Superman into trying to kill Batman and then Wonder Woman herself, she showed her true strength of character – first by being beyond Lord’s mind control in the first place, and secondly by doing everything possible to stop Lord some other way, until Lord himself revealed under compulsion from her lariat of truth that the only way to stop his mind-control of Superman was to kill him. So she did. The end, or it should have been, as it put her at odds with both Batman and Superman, who saw her as a cold-blooded killer – well you can take your Justice League boys club and shove it, as she just saved your asses, Supes and Bats.

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Needless to say, she is one of the most popular subjects for cosplay (indeed, by quite a few celebrities as well).

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Anyway, along with Catwoman, she was my other earliest childhood crush, and she loomed even larger in popular culture by her television incarnation, famously played by the statuesque Lynda Carter:

“Wonder Woman! Wonder Woman!

All the world is waiting for you and the power you possess

In your satin tights, fighting for your rights

And the old red, white and blue!”

The absence of a film incarnation merely showed the cultural bankruptcy of Hollywood – until finally, after oh, seventy years or so, she has been portrayed by Gal Gadot on the big screen.

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Friday Night Funk – Top 10 Music (Mojo & Funk): (9) David Guetta – S*xy Chick

 

 

FRIDAY NIGHT FUNK – TOP 10 MUSIC (MOJO & FUNK): (9) DAVID GUETTA (FUNK) – S€XY CHICK  2009

 

Hmm – I’m trying to find the words to describe this song without being disrespectful…

 

Hence I went with the ‘clean’ edit of the song title.

 

David Guetta is similar to my previous entry Calvin Harris, falling in the electronic dance funk end of the funk scale and an equally prolific producer or mixer of dance music – indeed, between the two of them, they might be said to predominate dance music in the new millennium. Guetta had a career playing clubs as a DJ in his native France from the 1980’s and releasing his first album in 2002 but achieved international mainstream access with his fourth album One Love in 2009.

 

 

And that album featured this undeniably funky single, still my personal favorite.

 

 

Fantasy Girls – Top 10 Girls of Comics (Special Mention): Darkchylde, Red Monika & Claudia Demona

 

FANTASY GIRLS – TOP 10 GIRLS OF COMICS (SPECIAL MENTION): DARKCHYLDE, RED MONIKA & CLAUDIA DEMONA

 

It’s time to conclude my Top 10 Girls of Comics special mentions (for now) with some female characters that intrigued me or caught my eye despite their lower profile.

 

 

DARKCHYLDE (MAXIMUM PRESS 1996)

 

Darkchylde is representative of the so-called Dark Age of Comics in the 1990’s – and not merely in name but also its ‘bad girl art’, a play on the previous pinup ‘good girl art’.

 

 

The comic itself, by creator Randy Queen, was published in 1996 and dominated the comics market that year – with an unusually large female following to reflect its young adult female protagonist. It was originally published by Maximum Press and then through a variety of different publishers in fits and bursts.

 

 

The protagonist, conveniently named Ariel Chylde, is a girl cursed from birth (apparently from a pact with the devil by her mother) with the ability to transform into the demonic creatures from her nightmares, while unleashing others. Presumably the former comes in useful for dealing with the latter.

 

 

So yeah, in other words very much a characteristic ‘grimdark’ figure both of the Dark Age of Comics and bad girl art protagonist.

 

 

RED MONIKA (IMAGE COMICS 1998)

 

Battle Chasers, published by Image Comics in 1998, was, in the words of TV Tropes “artist Joe Madureira’s take on a sword-and-sorcery comics series sometimes deadly serious and sometimes with tongue planted firmly in cheek, or in Red Monika’s case… cheeks”. So yet another characteristic series of the Dark Age of Comics in the 1990’s (and in Red Monika’s case, bad girl art).

 

The series is typically remembered for two things – “a punchline for Madureira’s infamous lateness and for late comics in general” (or ‘schedule slippage’, which resulted in a total of nine issues in four years, although some of that is explained by Madureira’s ornate art), and of course, Red Monika herself. Ultimately, Madureira left it on a cliffhanger ending in the ninth issue to pursue a career as a video game designer, although his return to the series has been recently rumored.

 

 

The series takes place in “an arcanepunk” fantasy setting, with a basic Seven Samurai or Dirty Dozen plotline, except involving a quintet of characters, including Monika – “the entire plot was basically a pastiche of every cool thing Madureira saw in an anime or video game”.

 

 

 

As for Red Monika herself, Madureira’s concept notes refer to her as a “sort of the Jessica Rabbit of the Battle Chasers world”. And how! The ridiculously voluptuous Red Monika makes Jessica Rabbit look like a waif in comparison. Even Wikipedia was so awestruck it had to resort to the word pulchritudinous to describe her. And she’s not shy about showing it either.

 

 

CLAUDIA DEMONA – REQUIEM VAMPIRE KNIGHT (2003)

 

The Franco-British comic Requiem Vampire Knight – or its sexier French title Requiem Chevalier Vampire – by British writer Pat Mills and French artist Olivier Ledroit is exactly what is says on the tin – the protagonist Requiem is, ah, a vampire knight (or chevalier).

 

The intriguing part is that it is posthumous fantasy of the darkest kind – I am a fan of posthumous fantasy or fantasy set in the afterlife, and that’s before you throw in Mills’ characteristic blackly comic misanthropy. Life sucks and the afterlife sucks more. Literally. The protagonist, a German soldier from the Second World War, is killed on the Eastern Front only to find himself in the posthumous fantasy setting known as Resurrection – a literally hellish inversion of Earth in which land and sea are reversed (with seas of perpetual fire in the place of the terrestrial continents) and whose resurrected inhabitants age in reverse, growing younger into infancy (and beyond into non-existence) with fading memories. Worst of all, the more evil one was in life, the better they are rewarded in Resurrection as various classes of monster, with the vampires as the elite aristocracy (populated by such characters as the historical Dracula, Nero, Caligula and Attila the Hun) and former innocent victims as the lowly lemures, “outcasts at best and food or entertainment at worst”. The protagonist finds himself resurrected as the titular vampire knight – but still plagued by a conscience, particularly towards the love of his former life, the Jewish Rebecca, now a lemure bent on her ticket out of Resurrection (expiring her former tormentor).

 

In the words of TV Tropes, “an age-old adage was that, if you were bad in life, when you died it generally got worse. Nowhere is this idea more assaulted, mugged, curb-stomped and left for dead face-down in a rancid gutter than in the world of Résurrection, the brainchild of Pat Mills and illustrated in excruciatingly loving and gory detail by Olivier Ledroit”.

 

 

And there are a number of female characters to choose from Ledroit’s sumptuous art – Rebecca herself, not to mention Dracula’s bride and queen Elizabeth Bathory. However, I do like my bad girls and they don’t come much, ah, badder than Claudia Demona – a major character who is developed in her own line of comics, reflecting her popularity with readers. In her mortal life, she was evil, but she “became one of the most wicked creatures on Résurrection”.

Mega-City Law: Pirates of the Black Atlantic (Complete Case Files Volume 4: Progs 197-198)

 

MEGA-CITY LAW: PIRATES OF THE BLACK ATLANTIC

(COMPLETE CASE FILES VOLUME 4: PROG 197-198)

 

Judge Dredd does Pirates of the Caribbean! Literally, as in mutant submarine pirates (or are they?) operating out of an underwater sea fortress in the Caribbean. There’s even a version of the Kraken. Where’s the check, Disney?

 

Anyway, the Pirates of the Black Atlantic had a significance extending beyond its four episode story arc and its mutant pirates to foreshadowing the escalation of conflict with Mega-City One’s most persistent adversaries, the Sov-Judges of East Mega-City One (and Two). And by escalation – we’re talking Defcon One…

 

 

However, before we get to the Black Atlantic, there’s a single episode in prog 197 wedged between the previous story arc of The Fink and The Pirates of the Black Atlantic. While it lacks the dramatic impact of the latter, this episode does have some noteworthy features. In particular, as authoritarian as Mega-City One is, it still operates under the rule of law (and arguably is not fascist as such). The Judges simply can’t arrest someone without evidence of an offence. Torture is illegal and a confession extracted by torture will result in a conviction (albeit the instantaneous convictions dispensed by street Judges) being quashed – although that’s perhaps taking a very narrow view of torture given the extent of judicial interrogation techniques stopping short of physical injury. And as we’ve seen, Judges who infringe the law are dealt with by the Special Judicial Squad with a mandatory twenty years imprisonment in the penal colony on Titan upon conviction (although again that perhaps fails to distinguish between degrees of infringement of the law).

 

As for the episode itself, Judge Dredd and Judge Turpin apprehend a citizen for a minor street offence, but only after fleeing them first – arousing their suspicions of more serious offending. However, a crime blitz of his apartment finds no evidence and he doesn’t break under interrogation. So Judge Turpin beats a confession to a numbers racket out of him back at his apartment. Dredd had ordered ‘spy-in-the-sky’ drone surveillance, which recorded the beating. Dredd hands Turpin over to the SJS and the conviction is quashed. As Dredd releases the man from custody, he off-handedly asks the friendly question “Think nothing of it…tell me…just between us, did you run that numbers racket?”. The man stupidly replies in the affirmative, although in fairness he immediately realizes his stupidity, and Dredd arrests him again – because “while a confession obtained by torture is illegal, a confession obtained by deceit will stand up in any Mega-City court of law”. (Of course, the Judges are usually their own court of law – and I might note that while confessions can effectively be obtained by deceit, Judge Dredd’s little trick here probably wouldn’t hold up in the contemporary United States or in countries with similar legal principles).

 

On to the Pirates of the Black Atlantic, it opens with the titular pirates issuing forth in submersibles from the “great war sea fortress” they’ve taken over under the titular polluted Black Atlantic. (We last saw the Black Atlantic when the Sovs previously menaced Mega-City One and Dredd thwarted their attempt to steal the secrets of the city’s laser defense system – a significant premonition of the present storyline). The pirates are commanded by their Captain Skank, complete with cyborg dreadlocks, and his equally feared second mate, Tuskarossa, complete with, uh, tusks in a savage mutant underbite. The pirates attack a Mega-City research vessel. Unfortunately, the vessel’s solar-powered laser defense system has the flaw of being dependent on its solar panels – which are destroyed. Hmm – what about back-up batteries? Captain Skank orders the scientists to be spared but the rest of the research vessel crew (those not killed taking the ship) is fair game. And by fair game, I mean thrown overboard into the Black Atlantic, where they die within minutes from the toxic pollution.

 

An aerial patrol of Judges arrive, presumably after a distress call, but find only corpses. Back in Mega-City One, Chief Judge Griffin observes that so far the mutant pirates have been a nuisance, but that has all changed – as they have now captured ‘nuclear boffin’ Jenno Matryx and the old sea fortresses were equipped with 500 nuclear missiles. And now with Matryx to replenish the warheads…

 

 

Fortunately, Matryx holds out against cooperating with Skank, but unfortunately it’s then time for How I Met Your Mother. And by How I Met Your Mother, I don’t mean Skank subjects her to watching all the seasons of that TV series but actually meeting his mother. And by mother, I don’t mean his actual mother – although the cyborg pirate captain seems somewhat delusional about that – but the giant mutant sea octopus that Skank call his ‘mother’. If that wasn’t fearsome enough, Skank motivates her further by feeding two of her colleagues to his mother, before reminding her there’s forty more where that came from for the next course. She gives in as Captain Skank gloats “that when she’s finished, Cap’n Skank will be ready to challenge the might of Mega-City One!”, except with an electric buzz “Zzz! rather than the classic pirate “Arr!”. Uh-oh.

 

 

TO BE CONTINUED – NUCLEAR SKANKIN’!

Top 10 Comics

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TOP 10 COMICS

 

The casual reader of Stark After Dark might get the impression that I follow more comics than I actually do (perhaps because of my top ten girls of comics?), so it’s time for Stark After Dark to once again pin its colors to the mast and show just which comics rocked my world. Now it is true that I am aware of a wide range of comics – and that I read about (or read up on) comics, particularly with their cinematic or screen incarnations. (As for the latter, it’s my quip that I’ll see any film that’s adapted from a comic). I have a love of the medium and will have a look at anything in it. On the other hand, I actually read only a few of those comics and I actively follow even fewer of them, almost entirely outside mainstream DC Comics or Marvel – comics from my favorite anthology comic 2000 AD (by British publisher Rebellion Developments), Vertigo, Image and Dark Horse.

 

As for comics, they’re a natural extension of my love of fantasy and science fiction, which extend beyond beyond the medium of print literature into the medium of comics – indeed, I would estimate that the majority of comics are fantasy or science fiction. Superhero comics by definition involve some fantasy or science fiction in their superheroics.

 

It’s probably not necessary to state what comics are – although it is difficult to provide a definition that encompasses or captures the essence of all the medium – but perhaps it is necessary to state what comics can be. Comics are typically identified as being childish or adolescent, and indeed they often are – but then, what form of entertainment isn’t? To quote Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of everything is crap.

 

However, even at their lowest common denominator, comics have always been mythic – particularly superhero comics, which have virtually created a modern pantheon. I’d venture that the basic details of the character of Superman or Batman are better known than most founding religious figures (as well as embodying many of their characteristics) – and certainly better known than figures from classical literature or mythology, which until recently used to be the distinctive hallmark of Western education. Indeed, it would be a simple matter to swap the Justice League for the Olympian pantheon.

 

Or just use actual gods

Or just use actual gods

 

And at their highest, comics have matured, particularly in the quality of writing – notably from about the 1980’s (although that is not to discount quality writing before then), such that the term graphic novels tends to be substituted for comic books.

 

So here are my top ten comics or graphic novels, judged by their mythic effect on me – the comics or graphic novels that changed or shaped the way I see the world or my personal mythos.

 

 

(10) JIM ZUB – WAYWARD (IMAGE COMICS 2014 – PRESENT)

 

This series was pitched in its press release as the “perfect new series for wayward Buffy fans”, punning on its title.

 

The comparison is quite apt – as TV Tropes quipped, it’s the closest you’ll get to Japanese schoolchildren fighting monsters outside of manga. The protagonist, Rori Lane, is Buffy-like, a high school girl living with her divorced mother and transferred to a new school in a new city – indeed, a new country, being Japan of course (her father is Irish). In her case, she finds herself fighting Japanese demons instead of vampires – indeed, monsters drawn from authentic Japanese mythology, reinvented for a new age.

 

However, that’s where the similarities end, which makes this comic its own story. One important difference is that the protagonist’s ‘Scooby Gang’ all have powers – their powers are arguably more useful than Rori’s, although she emerges as the leader of the ‘new gods’ of Japan.

 

 

My personal favorite is Ayane, a girl made out of cats (literally), with a suitably feline personality to match.

 

The series has been optioned for television, so hopefully this will be another comic series come to life on the screen

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(9) MARJORIE LIU – MONSTRESS (IMAGE COMICS 2015 – PRESENT)

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Image Comics’ ongoing fantasy series Monstress leapt into my heart at first sight  – I mean, just look at  that lush and gorgeous art by artist Sana Takeda. Look at it! Are you not entranced? And unlike many other comics, the covers are representative of the lush art throughout the series.

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However, the lushness isn’t confined to the art but extends to the rich fantasy story, akin to an Asiatic steampunk Game of Thrones, with even higher stakes between the human Federation of Man and the magical Arcanic Empire – the latter populated by the various Arcanic races, descendants of humans and the animal deity Ancient Ones. After devastating war, there is an uneasy truce between the Federation and the Empire – a truce undermined on the Federation side by its ruling order of witch-nuns known as the Cumaea, who harvest Arcanic body parts for the fuel they use to power their magic, including resurrection. The Arcanic side is…not much better, divided between the decadent Dawn and Dusk Courts.

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Enter our Arcanic protagonist Maika Halfwolf, in an opening scene as arresting and striking as any in Game of Thrones – a teenaged female, one-armed and stripped naked for auction into slavery. Seemingly captive and helpless, it is all part of her plan to seek out answers about her dead mother (with lavish side helpings of vengeance), for which she has an ace up her sleeve, almost literally, in that she is irrevocably intertwined with one of the Monstra (Monstrum in the singular) or Old Gods, beings in the style of the Cthulhu Mythos – “There is nothing divine about the Old Ones. They are horrors”.

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And so begins her roaring rampage of revenge across the Federation and the Empire – in the words of TV Tropes, “driven by rage at the humans who enslaved her, the Arcanics who abandoned her, pretty much everyone really”. As a gem of dialogue sums her up – “Maika, are you alright? You look like you’re about to kill someone” “No…I think that’s her happy face!” A lot of powerful factions are trying to use Maika as a pawn towards their own goals – including the Courts, the Cumaea and the Monstrum itself (hence the title). But Maika is no pawn – and never will be.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(8) BRIAN K. VAUGHAN – SAGA (IMAGE COMICS 2012 – PRESENT)

 

“Star Wars for perverts”

 

How can you resist a tagline like that? Although it does overstate the perversion on display in Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga – as well as underestimate my imagination when it comes to Star Wars, perhaps the most p0rn parody-able (paradoable?) franchise in cinema.

 

Of course, the tagline was Vaughan’s joking description for his juxtaposition of its mature subject matter with its direct inspiration in Star Wars. A more serious tagline for solicitations was “Star Wars meets Game of Thrones” – as well as the distinct flavor of Romeo and Juliet’s star-crossed lovers, almost literally.

 

Genre website io9 has previously published its own top ten list for Saga – 10 Reasons You Should Be Reading Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga. And it’s difficult for me to improve upon that list, so I will simply recap on some more distinctive features from it, albeit perhaps with some of my own personal spin on things.

 

The first reason in io9’s list was that “it’s just like Star Wars”. And indeed it is a fantasy space opera like Star Wars – except, as the second reason states, “it’s nothing like Star Wars”. Star Wars is a space fantasy that always seemed to aspire more towards science fiction but be a little ashamed of its fantasy elements, tiptoeing around them – the Jedi or Sith and the Force – in vaguely mystical terms or worse, the vaguely scientific rationale of midichlorians in the prequel trilogy. Saga fully embraces its space fantasy, for a galaxy that’s as full of magic and monsters as it is spaceships and lasers.

 

Like Star Wars, the setting is a galactic war fought between the technological planet Landfall with its winged inhabitants reminiscent of angels and its magical moon Wreath with its horned inhabitants reminiscent of devils. Unlike Star Wars’ resemblance to the Second World War, this galactic war resembles the Cold War, a proxy war fought throughout the galaxy as the belligerents fear the mutually assured destruction that would result if they took the war directly to the other’s home world. The protagonists are two soldiers, winged Alana from Landfall and horned Marko from Wreath, who have fallen in love and deserted together – and the series starts with the birth of their daughter Hazel, who occasionally narrates it from the future. The star-crossed couple are hunted by both sides, as each side is equally embarrassed by their desertion – and worse, their love and child – and retain bounty-hunters or ‘freelancers’ to track them down.

 

Unlike Star Wars, it is not a heroic narrative of a good war. In Saga, war is hell – with the civilians caught in the crossfire and exploited refugees we didn’t see in Star Wars. And the protagonists are not on a heroic quest to end the war or defeat the evil empire (the warring sides appear to be morally equivalent) – they want nothing more than to be left alone with their daughter.

 

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And then there is its wild creativity beyond anything in Star Wars – or to quote io9’s third reason, “it is completely insane”. You want robots? We have Prince Robot, one of the freelancers hunting down the protagonist couple and heir to the throne of Landfall’s robotic planet ally – except, like all of his people, he is completely humanoid but for his television head.

 

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You want aliens? There’s the Stalk, the kinkiest alien spiderwoman I’ve seen outside of Japanese anime and another freelancer hunting down the protagonist (and also in a s€xual relationship with human freelancer the Will – they swing all ways in Saga!)

 

And as io9’s eighth reason states, it has a Lying Cat – a walking, talking lie-detecting animal. Because we all need a Lying Cat in our lives…

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(7) LUCIFER (VERTIGO COMICS 2000-2006 / 2015-PRESENT)

 

When Neil Gaiman was asked which character he would choose for a spinoff from his Sandman series, he was quick with his answer – Lucifer. Lucifer was indeed one of the more, if not most, fascinating characters in the Sandman series – particularly as in the course of that series he abdicated from his reign of hell and literally handed over the keys, retiring initially to Australia (of course) and then to Los Angeles (again of course).

 

Gaiman had also insisted that Lucifer resemble David Bowie – “the Devil was David Bowie…you must draw David Bowie. Find David Bowie, or I’ll send you David Bowie. Because if it isn’t David Bowie, you’re going to have to redo it until it is David Bowie”. So now you know what David Bowie is doing in the afterlife – and hell is once again much cooler than heaven for it.

 

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However, Gaiman did not write the spinoff, but passed the torch to Mike Carey – who proved a worthy successor. Like a few other entries in this top ten, Carey is a British comics writer who previously wrote for 2000 AD (my favorite of his work there is his series Thirteen) and proved adept at portraying infernal politics or power plays – other works along such lines include his Felix Castor series of novels as well as his work on Vampirella, after her origin had been revised to Hell and her mother to Lilith.

 

Carey’s Lucifer commenced where it had ended in Sandman, with Lucifer running his piano bar Lux in Los Angeles. However, things soon become much more complicated when he acquires the door to his own universe (or multiverse), which places him in a power play and collision course with other powerful forces – the angelic host (although God is missing in action), his brother the archangel Michael, his niece and Michael’s daughter Elaine Belloc, Japanese gods and Nordic deities, including the truly terrifying Fenris Wolf. And the events set in train involve a large cast of characters, including perhaps my favorite character (along with Elaine Belloc), Christopher Rudd – who rises from amongst the damned to become ruler of Hell through sheer noble badassery.

 

That is, apart from the main character of Lucifer himself, who remains the engaging focus of the series. His word is his bond and indeed he refuse to lie, contrary to his title as lord of lies – “When the Devil wants you to do something, he doesn’t lie to you at all. He tells you the exact, literal truth. And he lets you find your own way to Hell”.

 

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Carey’s run on the series concluded with its 75th episode in 2006, but you can’t keep a good devil down – Lucifer is up and running in a new incarnation, with issues in 2017 being written by Richard freaking Kadrey of Sandman Slim fame. Awesome!

 

RATING : IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(6) PETER MILLIGAN – SHADE THE CHANGING MAN (1990-1996 / 2016-present)

 

Peter Milligan is another British writer that started in 2000 AD, most notably with Bad Company – a future war story in which a bizarre company of soldiers fight humanity’s bizarre war against the alien Krool.

 

However, contrary to my characteristic preference for 2000 AD, my favorite is his work for DC Comic’s Vertigo imprint label for more mature graphic novels outside the publishing restrictions of mainstream comics. Milligan came to Vertigo towards the end of the first wave of the so-called British invasion or ‘Britwave’ of British writers into American comics – and like his fellow British writers for Vertigo, he revamped an obscure DC Comics character, Shade the Changing Man.

 

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The focus of the series is Shade, an interdimensional traveler to Earth from the parallel world of Meta, with the reality-warping ‘power of madness’ (which seems to be part of Metan technology) – he resembles another of my favorites, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, but with power born of madness instead of dreams. But then, what are dreams if not a little madness in our lives?

 

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In other words, it starts off weird and gets weirder – a psychedelic fantasy and odyssey. The initial narrative has the most defined plot structure, as Shade was sent to Earth to defeat a dangerous manifestation of madness and the American psyche or collective unconscious, the American Scream. After that, it is the personifications from Shade’s own psyche that are dangerous, as well as other beings born from the Area of Madness – which after all extends to the land of dreams and the dead, angels and the Devil. Shade himself dies, but is reborn through the power of madness – jumping bodies and on one occasion gender as Shade the Changing Woman.

 

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Milligan’s Shade the Changing Man ran for 70 issues and acquired a cult following, but unfortunately Vertigo has only republished the first 19 issues in collected editions (so that I had to hunt down each of the original comic issues, just before they published them digitally – sigh). It’s recently been revived (albeit without Milligan) as Shade the Changing Girl

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 4 STARS****

 

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(5) ADAM WARREN – EMPOWERED (DARK HORSE COMICS 2007 – PRESENT)

 

Empowered is Adam Warren’s ‘sexy superhero comedy’ graphic novel series – the titular heroine and her series, originated from commissioned ‘bondage’ sketches of a comics superheroine ‘damsel-in-distress’, which then became the basis for the episodic shorts for the commencement of the series, illustrated in Warren’s characteristic ‘manga’ influenced style. The series started (and still continues to some extent) as a playful deconstruction of superhero comics tropes, particularly those involving female superheroes, along with (in the words of TV Tropes) “healthy doses of bondage, fanservice and comedy”. Indeed, it’s a fantasy kitchen sink of comics tropes and more – alien doomsday technology, clans of ninjas in New Jersey, grandiloqent interdimensional hell-beings (trapped in coffee table ornaments), deals with the devil, psi powers, undead superheroes (or the ‘superdead’) and catgirls (nyaan!)

 

 

Empowered herself is a “plucky D-list superheroine”, who is precariously dependent and constantly betrayed by the fragile, fickle source of her superpowers – her skin-tight ‘hypermembrane’ suit. It gives her superpowers while it is mostly intact, but it tears easily – leaving her without powers at critical moments (although as the series progresses, the full nature of her suit and its powers becomes more complex and mysterious). As a consequence, Empowered spends most of her time with her suit in tatters or various states of undress, bound and gagged by supervillains or even common criminals (in accordance with the unspoken code of conduct towards captured superheroines, which precludes anything more harmful), a joke to her superhero peers and supervillains alike (albeit something of status symbol as arm candy to the latter).

 

As the series has progressed however, it has developed deeper, darker and longer story arcs – and Empowered has emerged as an increasingly formidable superheroine, relying on her wits and strength of character to overcome the flaws of her suit. On the other hand, her superhero colleagues or ‘Capes’ have become increasingly darker – beware the Superman! Remember San Antonio!

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(4) NICK SPENCER – MORNING GLORIES (IMAGE COMICS 2010 – PRESENT)

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“What did you see when your eyes were opened?”

 

Well, for one thing, I saw Morning Glories, an ongoing series from Image Comics that has had me enraptured from the first issue I read. In the tagline of its writer Nick Spencer, it’s Runaways meets Lost. Indeed, in the words of TV Tropes, the tone and feel of the story is “something akin to Lost in its earlier seasons: lots of character exploration and flashbacks amid completely baffling events that seem to hint toward a bizarre and complicated machination”

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In my eyes, it’s as if the Illuminati had a high school – or perhaps more aptly, since it is referenced by name, as if Grant Morrison’s Invisibles had a high school. (Or if Night Vale WAS a high school, given that it has one). Indeed, Nick Spencer shows a Morrisonesque flair for twists and turns of storyline, at times even coming close to Morrison’s unrivalled hand at those fabulous comics one-liners or that juxtaposition of word and image. (High praise, given how highly I rank Grant Morrison as a comics writer, although he is a little…chaotic at times. Indeed, Morning Glories is more coherent than the Invisibles).

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The Morning Glories (or just Glories) is the nickname for the protagonist group of six new students, selected for the prestigious Morning Glory Academy – selected, that is, for a very particular set of selection criteria, most notably that they share the same birthday. Which may or may not explain that they all seem to manifest mysterious abilities or future selves, and that they all seem to have dark or strange pasts (including – perhaps – the occasional homicide). It doesn’t explain why the location of the school is kept mysterious by drugging each new student before arrival – or why their parents don’t even seem to remember their very existence when they call them from the school (with one notable exception, which necessitates the most unfortunate consequences). It certainly doesn’t explain the “mysterious and shadowy purpose of this dizzying boarding school of horrors”, which remains mysterious and shadowy except only that it seems to be the tip of a global conspiracy – or conspiracies. Not to mention the other paranormal phenomena or time travel within and without its walls. (In one of my favorite Morrisonesque one-liners from the series, a student enquires as to the trippy design of a time machine from the future self of one of the other students – “Who built it?” “You did” is the reply). Nor does it explain the sadistic faculty staff, led by the unseen headmaster behind the scenes – who don’t hesitate to resort to progressive mind control techniques, extreme physical discipline and the occasional sacrifice.

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After all, it’s “for a better future” (either that or “the hour of our release draws near”) and we all have to make sacrifices. Literally.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS****

 

DREAM

 

(3) NEIL GAIMAN – THE SANDMAN (DC VERTIGO 1989 – 1996)

 

Neil Gaiman. You knew this was coming, particularly if you read my top 10 fantasy books. Or if you’ve read him. Or if you read my seventh (and sixth) place entry, where I dropped hints for this one

 

As I said in my fantasy top ten, Neil Gaiman may simply be the greatest living writer of fantasy, the literary (and suitably English) heir to J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis (both of whom were substantial influences on him). Stephen King has praised Gaiman as “a treasure house of story” and added that “we are lucky to have him in any medium”. And indeed we are – with his lyrical prose, his power of story and his sensibility of fantasy as ultimately the layers of story within our world.

 

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His most mythic work – indeed, the core of Gaiman’s mythos – is his comics series of The Sandman. It is of course within the genre of fantasy, with an episode even winning the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Fiction (prompting the awards administration thereafter to revise – or remember – the rules to exclude comics or graphic novels, those snobs!). Indeed, it “falls within the dark fantasy genre, albeit in a more contemporary or modern setting”, but transcends genre – and audience appeal, attracting fans who weren’t traditionally seen as readers of comics or fantasy – into urban fantasy, epic fantasy, historical drama, superheroes, mythology and more. Its mythos, and even more so its mythic themes of the power of belief and the power of story, recur throughout Gaiman’s writing.

 

Neil Gaiman was yet another part of the British invasion of American comics (albeit with minimal writing for 2000 AD), revamping obscure DC Comics characters for their Vertigo imprint – in Gaiman’s case, a number of obscure and embarrassing characters with the title of the Sandman. Gaiman transformed the Sandman into one of the seven archetypal beings known as the Endless, beyond even the gods and other mythological creatures (who exist because people believe in them) – including God and Lucifer – seven anthropomorphic personifications of Destiny, Death, Dream, Desire, Despair, Destruction and Delirium (previously Delight). The Sandman is of course Dream or Morpheus, ruler of the realm of dreams and of stories, the dreams of our world, which makes him the most powerful of the Endless, after Destiny and Death. He even faces down the collected hosts of Hell with the power of dreams – “What power would HELL have if those here imprisoned were NOT able to DREAM of HEAVEN?”

 

Gaiman once summarized the plot as “the Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die – and makes his choice”. Although it does capture the essence of the overarching story, “ultimately placing its protagonist in the role of tragic hero”, this summary – or any other – could never hope to capture the sheer dazzling range of characters and story threads within it, that linger in your imagination well after you have finished. Like dreams – or nightmares, like the Corinthian.

 

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As for the series, it starts off decently enough, but truly finds its depth and distinctive voice with the eighth ‘issue’ or chapter, “The Sound of Her Wings” – in which we are introduced to Dream’s older sister, Death, one of the most engaging characters in any comic and my personal favorite personification of death. And I’m seriously going to be very disappointed if I am not greeted by Death of the Endless at the end of my mortal life.

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****

 

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(2) GRANT MORRISON – ZENITH (2000 AD 1987 – 1992)

 

Quite simply, Grant Morrison is my favorite writer of comics. (My favorite comic on the other hand has been and is written by a number of authors – including Morrison!)

 

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Opinion is mixed about Morrison. In the words of TV Tropes, some people love him, while others “believe he’s just some wacky guy…whose constant forays into This is Your Premise on Drugs ends up dominating his books”. Although come on, be honest – even the latter sounds more awesome than many other things you read. Granted, Morrison can be self-indulgent and wildly esoteric, but then what else would you expect from a practicing chaos magician? (Seriously). What he never fails to be, even when his stories don’t quite work – or work all too well as sheer mind screws – is interesting and intriguing. Like the other writers of the British invasion of American comics, Morrison won his reputation revamping comics characters (starting with DC Comics’ obscure Animal Man for its Vertigo imprint), but perhaps distinguished himself even more so than the other writers – to the point he has been styled as the ‘revamp guy’ and to the point he can make any comics character AWESOME).

 

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However, my favorite Morrison work remains his first substantial work for 2000 AD, which brought him to the attention of DC Comics and other American publishers – Zenith. Perhaps that’s because of the perfect combination of his writing with the art of Steve Yeowell – or perhaps because his more flamboyant and mind screwy elements remain subdued in its elegant story and classic deconstruction of superheroes.

 

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The starting premise of Zenith is similar to that of Captain America – the Second World War and a serum that creates superhuman powers. Unfortunately, it’s the Nazis that have the serum to create their Nazi superman, Masterman. Even worse, the Nazis obtained the serum from the lloigor, who are nothing other than the extradimensional beings of the Cthulhu Mythos, down to their very names – although Morrison adapted Yog Soggoth to Iok Sotot and made him even more terrifying. The serum is simply their means to create superhuman bodies capable of being occupied by the lloigor as they come into this world. True to their Lovecraftian roots, the lloigor are beings beyond time and space, beings of infinite power and infinite cruelty – well, either that or the most dangerous lava lamp in history (read it and see)…

 

This always reminds me of work. Or life for that matter.

This always reminds me of work. Or life for that matter.

 

Fortunately, German defectors help the British to replicate the serum for the British superhero, Maximan. That’s effectively where the comic starts – and it illustrates Morrison’s ability to juxtapose words and visual images perfectly, as well as to cut from one scene to another. The opening scene is in the style of a kitsch British wartime newsreel, proudly displaying the feats of Maximan defeating German forces and declaring “it could all be over by Christmas”.

 

Cut to Berlin, 21 December 1944 – the Nazi Masterman stands gloating over the broken and fallen Maximan. “Does it hurt? I hope so. Even if I let you live, you’ll never use your legs again, you know that?” All Maximan can do in reply is murmur his hopeless prayer – Psalm 23 – and Maximan gloats further. “Save your breath. No one is listening. There’s no one up there”

 

Except…there is, although not quite in the sense that either of them had in mind, as we cut to an American plane, about to drop “the big one” – the atomic bomb – except in this history on Berlin. And we cut back to Masterman and Maximan as they are enveloped in light.

 

The story continues with a new generation of British superheroes created by the serum – but which have apparently lost their powers, been killed or disappeared, except for Zenith, a second generation superhero born of two superhuman parents, both killed by the American ‘Shadowmen’ agents. However, the Cult of the Black Sun – the secret society behind the Nazis – have other plans for Zenith, as they revive the Masterman twin for a new and more powerful lloigor. From this relatively straightforward contest, the story becomes increasingly complex and dark – more superhumans are introduced due to secret illegal testing of the serum and still more to a cosmic battle across parallel worlds as the lloigor seek the ‘alignment’ that will deliver the multiverse to them, concluding with the truly apocalyptic climax as the lloigor are finally unveiled for what they truly were, are and will be.

 

It would be amiss of me to conclude without reference to my favorite characteristic of Morrison – his ability to write perfect comic one-liners and dialogue. An example is when the organization secretly testing superhumans sent a killer robot after Zenith – Zenith destroys it, but not before it sends its footage back to the organization. One of them muses about Zenith – “He has his mother’s eyes”. The other replies “Really? I thought we had his mother’s eyes”. And indeed they do – the actual eyes in a jar behind them in their laboratory.

 

And we’ve all mocked villain monologues – but Morrison shows how it is done, to chilling effect (with verbal tics of insanity):

 

Now that's how you do an insane villainous monologue, bitches!

Now that’s how you do an insane villainous monologue, bitches!

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****

 

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(1) JUDGE DREDD (2000 AD 1977 – PRESENT: 40 YEARS, PUNKS!!!)

 

You knew this was coming – I’ve said it before so I’ll just say it again!

 

My first and true love in comics is not one of the ruling duopoly of comics (and even more so comic book movies), DC and Marvel Comics, nor strictly speaking a superhero comic (although it’s main character is arguably as much of a ‘superhero’ as Batman), nor even an American comic (although it is set there, albeit drastically transformed in the twenty-second century).

 

It is Judge Dredd, the most iconic character from the British weekly SF anthology comic, 2000 AD, ongoing since it was launched in 1977 – although ironically for its longest-running and flagship character, from its second issue, as the opening Dredd story was not ready for the first issue. Time has passed in the Dredd strip essentially in real time ever since, so a year passes in the comic for each year in real life – the first Dredd story in 1977 was set in 2099 and the present stories in 2015 are set in 2137 (an interesting feature as distinct from many American comic franchises).

 

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Unfortunately, American audiences remain somewhat unfamiliar with (or unresponsive to) Judge Dredd, despite his American setting (albeit futuristic) and despite that he is effectively a quintessential American hero in the same vein as Batman – relying on superior discipline, training, experience, equipment and resources, except as a governmental lawman rather than a vigilante billionaire. (They even both effectively remain masked in their public identities, as Dredd never removes his helmet). This is despite his iconic status, particularly in Britain, and despite American audiences being familiar with many of the alumni of 2000 AD, as virtually every British writer (and artist) of note working in American comics started there (and indeed often in the Judge Dredd storyline itself) – Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Mark Millar and so on.

 

Even more unfortunately, the most substantial introduction of American audiences to Judge Dredd was the 1995 film, although fortunately that particular horror is fading with time. This Hollywood travesty was particularly inexcusable, because the essence of Judge Dredd is ultimately very simple – Judge Dredd is a futuristic Dirty Harry in a dystopian (and post-apocalyptic) SF satire. How hard is that, Hollywood?! On second thoughts, this simple formula is probably too much for Hollywood to handle – when they couldn’t even have Dredd keep his helmet on throughout the film.

 

The recent 2012 film was much more effective in capturing the elements of the original comic (not least in keeping Dredd’s helmet on throughout the film), but not as effective in capturing an audience. In its own way, this is as unfortunate as the first film, particularly at a time when comic book movies are in such vogue (and dystopian or post-apocalyptic movies have always been popular) – because if ever a comic deserved its own cinematic or screen adaptation, it’s Dredd, especially when you consider the dreck (or drokk – Judge Dredd slang in-joke alert) that does get adaptations. Perhaps a television adaptation would have been better, as it suits the more episodic nature as well as longer arcs of the storyline. Whatever the case, here are my ten reasons why Judge Dredd is the galaxy’s greatest comic – and why it deserves its own cinematic or screen universe:

MEGA-CITY LAW – 10 REASONS WHY JUDGE DREDD IS THE GALAXY’S GREATEST COMIC (AND DESERVES ITS OWN SCREEN UNIVERSE):

(1) APOCALYPSE WOW!

(2) SCI FI FANTASY KITCHEN SINK

(3) REAL WORLD SATIRE (OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE SEXUAL OLYMPICS)

(4) FUTURISTIC DIRTY HARRY (OR DO YOU FEEL LUCKY, PUNK?)

(5) MORAL COMPLEXITY (OR JUDGE DREDD DIED FOR YOUR SINS)

(6) THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY AND THE WEIRD

(7) THERE WERE 800 MILLION STORIES IN THE MEGA-CITY

(8) ROGUES GALLERY

(9) DIVERSITY OF GENRE AND TONE (OR HOW THE DAY OF CHAOS TORE MY HEART OUT)

(10) THE TAO OF DREDD (PLATO’S REPUBLIC AND HOBBES’ LEVIATHAN)

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****

Top 10 SF Stories & Works

 

TOP 10 SF STORIES & WORKS

 

Stark After Dark has its Top 10 SF Books, but this still leaves a lacuna in literary SF – for all the SF stories that are shorter than novels, as well as works that aren’t readily categorized as either. Indeed, the influence of such stories and works often rivals those of SF books or novels. These are my top ten SF stories and works – the stories and works that shaped or changed the way I see the world or my personal mythos.

 

 

(10) JAMES ERWIN – ROME SWEET ROME (2011)

 

I have a long-lasting love for alternate histories, particularly alternate histories through time travel – a love inspired by L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, in which the protagonist Martin Padway finds himself transported to sixth century Rome and sets out to single-handedly stave off the impending Dark Ages.

 

That love is even more so when it is not just individuals but whole groups of people sent back in time with all their modern technology and infrastructure, although typically they face the problem of maintaining or supplying all those modern technological advantages – particular favorites of mine are John Birmingham’s Axis of Time series in which a twenty-first century naval task force is sent back to the Second World War and Eric Flint’s 1633 series, in which the entire Virginian town of Grantsville finds itself in Germany in the Thirty Years War.

 

And so what was not to love about Rome, Sweet Rome, which echoes Lest Darkness Fall – except that it’s a whole United States Marine Corps expeditionary unit that finds itself mysteriously launched from the strange war in Afghanistan to an even stranger war against the Roman Empire at its peak under Augustus? OORAH!

 

Rome, Sweet Rome is a short story – emphasis on the short, more a short treatment – posted by James Erwin online on Reddit under his handle Prufrock451 on 21 August 2011 (and now has its own subreddit under Rome Sweet Rome). It was inspired by a hypothetical question about whether or not a modern US Marine unit could simply wipe out the entire Roman Empire. (Probably not given the ultimate logistical difficulties, but if anyone could do it, the Marines could. OORAH!)

 

Only the first couple of instalments were posted on Reddit (where I read them), corresponding to the first few days of the Marines’ arrival and their confrontation with the Roman Empire, including Augustus himself. That’s all we’ve got to see of it so far, as it went viral and the rights were snapped up by Warner Brothers for a movie adaptation – unfortunately, it has since seemed to languish in development hell, although I am still hopeful for a film (subsequent to which I understand that Erwin has novelization rights).

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 3 STARS***

 

 

(9) JANET MORRIS (PERSEID PUBLISHING) HEROES IN HELL (1986 – PRESENT) 

 

Once again, I continue my proud tradition of including posthumous fantasy or fantasy set in the afterlife amongst my science fiction, mainly because I first encountered it by my favorite science fiction writers (and the Riverworld series by Philip Jose Farmer in particular, although in fairness, the premise is more science fiction there).

 

So what’s not to love about the Heroes in Hell anthology, which is exactly what it says on the tin – made more so as everyone who is anyone ended up in hell? I first encountered it through Robert Silverberg’s contribution to this posthumous fantasy anthology series, “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (which he subsequently expanded into in his novel To the Land of the Living). However, in Silverberg’s treatment, everyone who has ever lived or died in human history (and prehistory) finds themselves reborn (again and again) in the afterlife, but it does not seem so much hell (or heaven) as a mysterious and vague limbo. In other contributions to the series, it is definitely hell, with distinct flourishes of Dante about it, but a hell that reinvents itself from time to time. Of course, the primary delight of the series is reinventing favorite personages from history in their posthumous adventures, or rather, misadventures, in hell.

 

The series originally flourished from 1986 to 1989, but has recently risen again (from hell?) with encore volumes by Perseid Publishing, starting with a new anthology in 2011, aptly named (in the style of the series), Lawyers in Hell. After all, where else would they go?

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS*****

 

 

(8) THOMAS DISCH – JOSIE & THE ELEVATOR (1980)

 

I’m still exploring the worlds of Thomas Disch. In particular, I’m intrigued by the concept of his novel The Genocides, as I have a soft spot for alien invasion stories. (SF is still all Martians and Morlocks to me). Typically, spacefaring aliens should have such overwhelming technological advantages over us that the most believable outcome is that the aliens wipe the floor with us – whether or not we were able to mount any resistance or even perceive the invasion – or there is some compelling reason otherwise. In The Genocides, humanity doesn’t even approach anything like resistance as aliens seed Earth with their Plants and humanity is effectively reduced to an inconvenient infestation of pests in the alien crop. (Of course, our best prospects in the event of alien invasion would be as pets not pests – or better yet as a literal petting zoo exhibit with an adult film star as in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five).

 

My introduction to Disch was yet another short story in Omni magazine (essentially I was given a stack of old Omni magazines by a spring-cleaning neighbor) – the blackly comic fable, Josie and the Elevator. The titular girl has an argument with the titular magically sentient elevator – and in a fit of pique, the elevator descends into Hell itself to eject her. As in literally Hell – not that you can tell the difference, because it is exactly like our world, except things turn out much more for the worse down there…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(7) HARLAN ELLISON – I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM (1967)

 

“Darkness falls early. From the horizon comes the wail of creatures pretending to be human. The red tide has come in, and shapeless things float toward the shore. He stands before the altar of Art, naked and with fists raised, and he vows: I will not be lied to.
Hello. My name is Harlan Ellison and I am a writer.”

 

Yeah, that pretty much sums up his ethos – Harlan Ellison is “a famously grumpy” writer associated with the so-called New Wave Science Fiction (of which the story in this entry is an example) and who has won numerous literary awards (including lifetime Nebula and Bram Stoker Awards).

 

He also has the most evocative titles for short stories in science fiction. As a title, I have a soft spot for The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, but as far as his stories go, my introduction to Ellison remains my favorite – with an equally evocative title that has lent itself to its own trope (for that fate worse than death from which there is no release, and yes, typically characterized by an inability to even scream).

 

There’s no surprises then that I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream doesn’t have a happy ending, which involves the titular fate worse than death. It doesn’t have a happy beginning (or middle) either – much like The Terminator, it is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity is almost extinct at the hands of the supercomputer it foolishly created to wage war (mainly between the United States, the Soviet Union and China) but instead achieved angry sentience. (Is there any other kind?)

 

Almost extinct, that is, except the five people, including the narrator, that the computer keeps alive – and immortal – as its cosmic chewtoys, using its mysterious reality-warping powers that it acquired subsequent to sentience and which allows it to warp their bodies into shapes of its choosing. Or in other words, making Skynet and its Terminators look like a balanced and benevolent time-travelling stripper-gram by comparison.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(6) DAVID BRIN – THOR MEETS CAPTAIN AMERICA (1986)

 

No – it’s not a comic or film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, although the title obviously references the Marvel characters.

 

I fell in love with David Brin’s short story Thor Meets Captain America when I read it in Hitler Victorious, an anthology of alternate history short stories that obviously involved, well, Hitler being victorious – a Nazi German victory in the Second World War.  In his author’s note for the story, Brin noted that he was invited by the collator, Gregory Benford,  to write a story of Nazi victory – but voiced the opinion that he could not conceive of a single event which, if altered, would have let Nazi Germany win the war, particularly as they had required a number of lucky breaks to get as far as they did. (An opinion which coincides with my own, as well as my pet peeve of the myth of German military excellence – as I’ve stated elsewhere, paraphrasing my favorite Second World War history, Germany was very good at fighting but not very good at war.)

 

And so Brin fell back on what is jokingly known in alternate history circles as ‘alien space bats’ – that is, some fantastic or implausible plot device that provides the difference (or what is known as the point of divergence), although typically not actual alien space bats as such. In this case, Nazi Germany essentially won the Second World War because they were able to summon the Norse gods to fight on their side. The fantastic implausibility of the premise is the point – as he noted, this was the most (or only) plausible scenario that Brin could think of that involved Nazi victory, and in fairness, it probably was more plausible than the actual Nazi strategy (and their increasingly desperate ‘wunderwaffen’ or wonder weapons). It also gives some actual strategic sense to the Holocaust (which, in history, was as strategically pointless as it was monstrous) – the murder of millions as part of a mass human sacrifice or necromantic ritual intended to bring the Norse gods into being, which it does in 1944, just in time for D-day. Of course, most of this alternate history is told as backstory to the last desperate Allied attempt years later to destroy the new Valhalla. (And by Allied, we mean American, with a little help from a renegade Loki, since Europe has long been overwhelmed).

 

What’s not to love? Alternate history of the Second World War and Nazi Germany, the Norse gods and comic book superheroes. Actually, the Norse gods in their Nazi guise are distinctly unlovely – just as they needed mass human sacrifice to create them, they also need it to sustain them. God is a hole in the heart of the world and he’s hungry – omnipotent, omniscient, omnivorous. And as for those comic book superheroes – well, that’s also part of the point of the story, as the protagonist dreads what dark and terrible gods the Americans would create with Nazi necromancy…

 

Brin subsequently adapted and expanded the story into comic form as The Life-Eaters, which added some interesting points, perhaps lacked quite the same concise purity of the original story.

 

Brin also scores bonus points for his other stories and works, as well as their humanistic ethos – the latter on best display in his critique of the latent tendency to mystical fascism in fantasy and science fiction, most notably in those two towering modern mythic works, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. (I tend to agree with his critique, at least in part, although I would trace this mystical fascism back further to Plato and his Republic, from the Force to the Forms as it were – and that we’re still fighting the Peloponnesian War against Plato’s Spartanism).

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(5) GEORGE R.R. MARTIN – SANDKINGS (1979)

 

Some may have pondered that George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the literary source of a television adaptation which you may know as Game of Thrones, is conspicuously absent from my Top 10 Fantasy Books.

 

Don’t get me wrong – I avidly read the books (as well as other stories set in the same world). However…it presently remains something of an unfinished symphony, and not coincidentally, has been eclipsed by its television adaptation (in which Martin also played a hand).

 

More fundamentally, my true love remains where I first encountered Martin, in his short stories. There are his body horror stories (horror in the sense that Eraserhead is horror, disturbing rather than terrifying) – The Pear-Shaped Man and The Monkey Treatment for example. Although it is probably not too surprising to Song of Ice and Fire readers or Game of Thrones fans that Martin is a deft hand at horror. There is also the ongoing shared universe of the Wild Cards series – in which he is editor, influence and occasional writer. If you love comics, you’ll love the Wild Cards – an alternate Earth in which an alien virus gives humanity superpowers. Well, some of humanity, as only some people are infected – of those, 90% die (horribly), 9% mutate (mostly horribly) as so-called Jokers and the lucky 1% become superpowered Aces. (The virus is dubbed the Wild Card virus as it affects every person differently, within those broad parameters).

 

However, my ultimate true love is his first story I read, the Hugo and Nebula Award winning Sandkings, first published in Omni magazine (and indeed I read it in an old Omni magazine anthology collection of short stories).

 

It somewhat belies its SF setting, which is surprisingly suburban as well as again tending towards horror, and indeed could very well be adapted into a suburban horror story. (The story was apparently inspired by just such a suburban setting, with piranhas as pets). The premise of the story involves a planetary playboy with a thing for exotic alien pets, who acquires the titular Sandkings – social ‘insects’ in colonies by color who fight intricate wars with each other. Of course, the protagonist has no patience for that – starving them into fighting each other or pitting them in gladiatorial matches against other animals for the amusement of his party guests. Needless to say, it does not end too well for him.

 

Indeed, Sandkings is a proto-Game of Thrones in metafictional miniature, with the protagonist substituting for Martin himself and the Sandkings for his fictional creations – the Whites as House Lannister with its mad, wounded queen and the Oranges as poor, beleaguered House Stark

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(4) OMNI MAGAZINE (1978 – 1998 AND BEYOND?)

 

O Omni – the iconic magazine of science and science fiction!

 

Omni was founded by Kathy Keeton and her partner Bob Guccione, better known as the publisher of Penthouse magazine, in 1978. Unfortunately, it foundered with Keeton’s death in 1997 and wound up in 1998, having ceased print in 1995 but continued online for a short time.

 

I was introduced to Omni magazine when a spring-cleaning neighbor gave me their old collection of magazines, which also included an anthology Best of Omni Science Fiction – and in turn it introduced my adolescent self (although I am perpetually adolescent) to a variety of SF writers, including a number of writers in my Top 10 SF lists (Robert Silverberg! Robert Sheckley! George R.R. Martin! Thomas Disch!) In its halcyon days, it obviously paid writers well as it was a leading light of SF stories, including genre classics. Its impact wasn’t limited to stories – it also featured leading genre artists (Giger! Foss!) as well as feature articles on science and other recurring features. One of the latter, its Partly Baked Ideas, was the inspiration for my own Bare-Assed and Half-Baked Ideas. (For some reason, I’ve always remembered the one Partly Baked Idea for plant flight. Take certain plants that open and close their leaves with the alternation of day and night, combine them with gradually decreasing artificial light from the natural day cycle to strobe frequency, and you may just have plants that flap their leaves enough to fly…)

 

Anyway, the magazine proved too good for this world and didn’t last, although I continue to explore it online both past (the whole magazine run is presently available on Amazon) and present (a new version has recently been revived online).

 

RATING:  IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

 

(3) JAMES TIPTREE JR – THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION (1977)

 

James Tiptree Jr was actually the pen name for Alice Bradley Sheldon, one of my favorite writers of science fiction stories.

 

She rivals Harlan Ellison for the most evocative titles for short stories in science fiction and exceeds him for the most lyrical:

  • And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side (although technically she borrowed her title from John Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci) – one of my favorite Tiptree stories about aliens so s€xy that they turn humanity into hopeless groupies. That’s not quite it as it’s more about how screwed up humanity is but I just like saying it that way – now there’s an alien invasion scenario I’d like to see
  • Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light! – another one of my favorite Tiptree stories about a female courier wandering an apparently gynocratic post-apocalyptic world of Sisters and Mothers. Or is she?
  • Houston, Houston, Do You Read? – one of the most classic Tiptree stories about male astronauts returning through a space-time wormhole to a post-apocalyptic Earth populated by women

 

However, the title of my Tiptree story is not so lyrical – with its prosaic title of The Screwfly Solution – but is as evocative and haunting as any of her more lyrically titled stories. (John Clute of the SF Encyclopedia noted that “it is very rarely that a James Tiptree story does not both deal directly with a death and end with a death of the spirit, or of all hope, or of the race”).

 

Its subject is also not so lyrical, that recurring SF trope of alien invasion. As I have said elsewhere, SF is still all Morlocks and Martians to me, with the latter evidenced by my soft spot for alien invasion stories. Of course, in the most realistic alien invasion stories, spacefaring aliens would have such technological advantages over us that they would wipe the floor with us, metaphorically speaking – to such extent that we may not even perceive the invasion, as in this story.

 

The title references the sterile insect technique, a technique of eradicating the population of screwflies by the release of sterilized males that compete with fertile males to reduce the population – a reference made clearer by one of its characters, Alan, a scientist working on parasite eradication. However, in this story, we’re the screwflies, but with a much more violent distortion of human sexuality – as an epidemic of murderous male violence against women starts to spread across the globe. Some scientists suspect a biological cause, but their voices are not heard amidst political inaction, or worse, elaborate misogynistic rationalizations for the violence. One such rationalization is a new religious movement that is spreading along with the murders – the Sons of Adam, who believe that all women are evil and that removing them will return the world to paradise, when angels shall return to earth.

 

Alan realizes that the epidemic causes male sexual impulses to instead become violent homicidal impulses and he too is infected. His wife Anne flees to the Canadian wilderness where, in the end, pursued by an entire society bent on femicide, she sees one of the ‘angels’ that will inherit the Earth.

 

The effect of the story is quite chilling – indeed, I’m not sure that we’ll even need an alien invasion for it, as the Sons of Adam look positively tame compared to some of the misogyny on the internet.

 

There is also an annual James Tiptree Jr Award for works of fantasy or science fiction in a similar vein to her stories.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(2) ROBERT SHECKLEY – OPTIONS (1975)

 

One of science fiction’s most unsung qualities, particularly to those not familiar with the genre, is the extent to which it can be a profoundly comic or satirical medium, often subversively so – which is ironic given that comic science fiction is perhaps the most accessible to readers outside the genre. My silver medallist is an illustration of this – Robert Sheckley was primarily a humorist of science fiction, typically writing absurdist and satirical comedies with a thin veneer of a science fictional premise or setting. As Brian Aldiss wrote “Sheckley’s heart is with the Unbelievable. His main target is the Incredible. With one swing of his computer, he hacks through the string which suspends our disbelief. It would crash down, were it not for the fact that there is no gravity in Sheckley’s space”.

 

Sheckley’s “numerous quick-witted stories and novels were famously unpredictable, absurdist and broadly comical”. Sheckley shone through his playful short stories. My personal favorites are his absurdist satires of human mores, typically through the lens of alien observers or human societies on other planets. One such is Pilgrimage to Earth, in which humanity’s home planet, exhausted of its material resources to offer its former space colonies, resorts to space tourism for more intangible commodities – “Earth specializes in impracticalities such as madness, beauty, war, intoxication, purity, horror and the like, and people come from light-years away to sample these wares”. Wares such as romantic love – as a vendor exclaims, other planets have tried it and found it too expensive or unsettling, but Earth specializes in the impractical and makes it pay.

 

"I wuv you". Other planets tried it. Only Earth has it.

“I wuv you”. Other planets tried it. Only Earth has it.

 

However, it is in Sheckley’s longer fiction that we find more extended satires or absurdist comedies from science fiction premises and there are a number from which to choose – Immortality Inc, Journey Beyond Tomorrow, Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles. I have a soft spot for one late in his writing career, Minotaur Maze, in which Sheckley plays with the story of Theseus and the Minotaur – a ploy used by Sheckley in other stories, such as The Never-Ending Western Movie and Agamemnon’s Run, in which people find themselves perpetually enacting and reenacting stories.

 

This brings us to my favorite Sheckley novella, albeit not the one I’d recommend to read first (although I did) – the absurdist and anarchic Options, in which Sheckley plays with story itself. It starts off in a reasonably linear narrative, in a comedic play on an classic pulp science fiction premise – ostensibly about the marooned protagonist Tom Mishkin’s attempt to get a spare part for his spaceship stored in a cache on an alien planet. To protect him, he is assigned a Special Purpose Environmental Response or SPER robot. Unfortunately, the robot is programmed for another planet.

 

However, that premise becomes an increasingly loose framing device as the non-linear narrative descends into a mass of diversions, non sequiturs and musings – “a deliberate cosmic shambles, an explosion or disintegration of story logic, a comedy of cliches and crossed lines, and a joke on the very act of story-telling”. In essence, it resembles Sheckley playing with the story idea (and the idea of story), in the manner of improvisational performance pieces. As Spider Robinson reviewed it, Sheckley “deliberately broke most of the rules for successful storytelling” – I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone expecting a sequential or straightforward story, or perhaps any real story at all – and yet somehow it works as pure comic entertainment, at least for me.

 

But as I've said before, this is pretty much how my mind works...

But as I’ve said before, this is pretty much how my mind works…

 

And so I’ll conclude with one of the more extended diversions from it, an advertisement for using phenomena for fun:

“Enjoy a visit to the phenomenal world!

Have a human experience – the most fascinating of all experiences.

Now you, too, can experience carnal love, unjustified rage, bad faith. You, too, can know boredom, ennui, angst, accidie.

Thrill to the experience of your ‘life’ slowly draining away! Feel the inevitable ‘death’ which you ‘know’ to be a plunge into pure ‘nothingness’…

Live the waking sleep of mortality, lit with uneasy flashes of ‘something else’.

Experience the poignancy of wanting a ‘better life’, and striving for it, and never achieving it…

Have convictions, beliefs, likes and dislikes – for no rational reason!

Feel the intoxication of faith. Thrill to the passion of religion. Apply now!

No Angels under the age of 20,000 years will be allowed into the phenomenal world without written permission from God.”

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

martian-chronicles1

 

(1) RAY BRADBURY – MARTIAN CHRONICLES (1950)

 

When I think of Mars, I still dream of the Mars of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (with one or two other fictional exceptions).

 

The Mars of Ray Bradbury is not a scientific Mars – a cold, dead planet – but a mythic Mars, an eternal planet of dreams. As Carl Sagan wrote, “Mars has become a mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears”. Of course, Ray Bradbury identified himself not as a writer of science fiction, but as a writer of fantasy, particularly by reference to The Martian Chronicles – “Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see? That’s the reason it’s going to be around a long time – because it’s a Greek myth and myths have staying power.”

 

"As your class president, I would demand a science fiction library, featuring an ABC of the overlords of the genre. Asimov! Bester! Clarke!" "What about Ray Bradbury?" "I'm aware of his work"

“As your class president, I would demand a science fiction library, featuring an ABC of the overlords of the genre. Asimov! Bester! Clarke!”
“What about Ray Bradbury?”
“I’m aware of his work”

 

Ray Bradbury had the power to “write lyrically and evocatively of worlds an imagination away”, which he did in short stories and novels, such as the dark urban fantasy Something Wicked This Way Comes, but my first true love will always be the linked stories of The Martian Chronicles. The Martian Chronicles are stories of the human and markedly American colonization of Mars in a manner analogous to the frontier, with the native Martians akin to the native Americans (a parallel that would also be played for laughs in Futurama).

 

Martians

 

Indeed, my very favorite Martian Chronicles stories involved the native Martians – those dark-skinned, golden-eyed Martians, those telepathic and empathic shape-shifting Martians. In Ylla, the titular frustrated Martian wife has telepathic dreams of the incoming astronauts of humanity’s first expedition to Mars. Her jealous husband denies her dreams, but senses her inchoate romantic feelings towards the interlopers and shoots them under pretext of hunting.

 

Black-Girl-In-Gold

 

By the time of humanity’s third similarly expedition to Mars in The Third Expedition or Mars is Heaven, the Martians have become more hostile than Ylla’s telepathic tryst, perhaps in a telepathic premonition of their own doom at the hands of humanity. The expedition finds an exact replica of a town from Earth, populated by their lost, loved ones – who lure them into the houses and then bury them the following day, shifting between their human and Martian forms. The Martian’s doom had come in any event, as the fourth expedition finds the Martians all dead from chicken pox.

 

And yet the Martians have their ghost dance on Mars. In The Night Meeting, a human colonist encounters a Martian, with both of them seeming to inhabit their own parallel worlds of Mars. Each is translucent to the other and has the appearance of a ghost – the colonist sees only ruins where the Martian sees a thriving Martian city, and the Martian sees only an ocean where the colonist sees his settlement. In The Martian, a sole surviving Martian empathically takes the shape of a colonist couple’s dead son, but is tragically torn apart by contact with more human colonists, exhausted from helplessly shifting shapes to all their hopes and dreams of lost loved ones. And in Dark They Were and Golden Eyed, human colonists are transformed into Martians.

 

martianchronicles976038

 

Ultimately, the human colonists have their own ghost dance, as Mars is decolonized by nuclear war on Earth. In There Will Come Soft Rains, an automated house on Earth continues to perform its daily duties, even while the family’s silhouettes are permanently burned into the side of the house. And in Million Years Picnic, the father of a family that has fled the war to Mars shows them the Martians, their own reflections in a canal.

 

And so I will continue to dream my favorite dreams of Mars – nightmares of invading tripods, but also dreams of Ylla and of Dejah Thoris of Barsoom.

 

O yes, I dream of Dejah Thoris...If our first contact is not with aliens like the Red Martians, I will be bitterly disappointed

O yes, I dream of Dejah Thoris…If our first contact is not with aliens like the Red Martians, I will be bitterly disappointed

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

Top 10 SF Books

Art by beatrizforever on DeviantArt

Art by beatrizforever on DeviantArt

TOP 10 SF BOOKS

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Fantasy is my genre of choice, but my love of fantasy is hopelessly intertwined with my love of science fiction – I tend to regard science fiction as a speculative or technological subspecies of fantasy. These are my top ten books of science fiction. As for my definition of science fiction, just like my definition of fantasy, I tend to play fast and loose with it – which is only fitting, as like fantasy (or indeed other genres), it is notoriously difficult to define as a genre. Of course, hard SF, like high fantasy, tends to be clear enough, but as you move away from this hard core of the genre, the fuzzier and softer things get – the boundaries with fantasy or horror are particularly ambiguous or slippery.

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As a general rule, just as I tend to define fantasy by the presence of magic or the supernatural, I tend to define science fiction by its extrapolation of science, technology or society (so that often includes horror that involves those elements, such as alien body horror or zombie apocalypse). In a more general sense, whereas fantasy is the fiction of meaning, science fiction is the fiction of possibility – or possibilities. The Twilight Zone’s Rod Sterling famously distinguished fantasy from science fiction – “Science fiction is the improbable made possible. Fantasy is the impossible made probable”. However, I prefer Ray Bradbury, who defined science fiction (while cheekily defining himself as a writer of fantasy) as “the art of the possible” – “It could happen. It has happened”.

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This is further complicated in that I tend to rank books by my favorite writers and I tend to classify writers by the genre in which I first encountered them – which is how I ended up with my top ten SF books that actually includes four entries of posthumous  fantasy or fantasy set in the afterlife, one of my favorite subgenres of fantasy (although the ‘afterlife’ in one of those entries is SF or at least technofantasy).

 

Or better yet before I die, so I can download into the Singularity

Or better yet before I die, so I can download into the Singularity

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As I said, fantasy is my genre of choice. On the other hand, science fiction is society’s genre of necessity. For without it, and all the other dreams of possibility, where would we be? The twentieth century was born from science fiction – and even more the twenty-first century, where new dreams of possibility seem to be born every day. And yes, there may be as many nightmares as there are dreams, perhaps even more as science fiction seems to thrive on the apocalyptic and dystopian. Yet we will not defeat our nightmares by denying their possibility, but by finding new and better dreams.

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Anyway, these are my top ten SF books, judged like their fantasy counterparts by their mythic effect on me – the SF books that changed or shaped the way I see the world or my personal mythos.

 

altered-carbon-tv-series

 

(10) RICHARD MORGAN – TAKESHI KOVACS TRILOGY (2002 – 2005)

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The Takeshi Kovacs trilogy (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Woken Furies), named for its protagonist, is cyberpunk (or post-cyberpunk) set five hundred years in the future (in or about the twenty-sixth century) – in which humanity is colonizing the galaxy, and even more fundamentally, has achieved functional immortality. Human consciousness is stored or processed in a cortical ‘stack’, so that it can be ‘re-sleeved’ in a new body.

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However, despite – or because – of this (and other technology), the future still sucks. Earth and its galactic settlements are dystopian, ruled by the somewhat ruthless United Nations Protectorate. Like the best cyberpunk – or science fiction in general – it doles out its world-building in doses, mostly hints and oblique references. The discovery that Mars was part of a wider alien civilization, vanished millennia ago. The various future conflicts, such as the Sharya religious war and the Quellist rebellion. (The protagonist is fond of quoting Quellist literature, including its more profane maxims – “Well, f*ck them. Make it personal”). The protagonist’s home-world, Harlan’s World, settled by Japanese and Slavic colonists (reflected in the protagonist’s name). The Catholic Church reduced to an obscure manic street-preaching sect opposed to ‘re-sleeving’. Virtual reality that can radically extend (or contract) perception of time, allowing for torture in virtual hells.

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And then there is the protagonist himself – a former ‘Envoy’, one of the Protectorate’s elite special forces and shock troops. Since physical training is rendered moot by re-sleeving, the focus of the Envoys training (and reputation) is extreme mental or psychological conditioning or training, including the systematic removal of every natural violence limiting inhibition or instinct. Although advanced drugs (or ‘neurachem’) and technology also help.

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In the words of TV Tropes, the trilogy follows “the Sociopathic Hero Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-Envoy turned criminal/mercenary/bodyguard/detective, who uses his talents for problem solving coupled with insane violence to earn a buck. Takeshi is not without his psychological problems, however, many of them received in service with the Envoys and a fair few picked up afterwards.”

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If you hire him, expect a lot of collateral damage…

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

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(9) PETER F. HAMILTON – NIGHT DAWN TRILOGY (1996-1999)

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I do like my space opera and it doesn’t get more, ah, space operatic than Peter F. Hamilton’s Night Dawn trilogy – a zombie apocalypse IN SPACE! (Or the Evil Dead IN SPACE!). It’s an addictive meld of hard SF space opera with the dark fantasy or horror of a zombie apocalypse, although the latter is presented in SF terms as a poorly understood natural phenomenon (presumably quantum physics – or SF magic?).

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It’s enjoyable just for the world-building (or galaxy-building) of the lush galactic civilization of 27th century humanity linked by faster than light travel through wormholes. Lush, that is, if you’re rich – it sucks to be poor, a recurring characteristic of Peter F. Hamilton’s fiction (albeit arguably art imitating life). Earth especially sucks (except for its body-hopping secret conspiratorial overlords), with its population of 30 billion in cities crammed into arcologies to withstand the hyper-storms of global warming and environmental collapse (although it is now literally the green planet as the seas are green from genetically engineered algae to combat global warming).

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Of course, the joy is heightened by melding this galactic civilization with a zombie apocalypse – when the souls (or energy-forms) of the dead begin forcefully possessing the bodies of the living, because it turns out that the Afterlife also sucks. (In fairness, it’s not the true Afterlife, but rather the Beyond – a kind of cosmic limbo on the way to the true Afterlife or Omega Point). And not just any zombies (or possessees), but reality-warping superpowered zombies (with all their former intelligence and personalities). Holy crap! Needless to say, the galactic civilization has to pull out all the stops to fight it – from nukes to antimatter (and beyond).

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To quote TV Tropes – “This series is so long and far-reaching that it can’t help but run flush up against a million and one SF tropes, in most cases smashing through them, or on the other hand, playing them so straight (and cool) that you’ll wonder why they never worked as well before”.

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And if you enjoy it, you can replay it in Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga, with its lush galactic civilization of 24th century humanity (albeit with immortality through rejuvenation and memory storage, alien space elves, and an independent but friendly machine civilization), where it still sucks to be poor, and which faces its own apocalypse in the form of a sociopathic alien invasion.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS*****

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(8) MICK FARREN – JIM MORRISON’S ADVENTURES IN THE AFTERLIFE (1999)

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The title alone should be enough to tantalize and titillate – even more so, as the subject of the novel is indeed The Doors’ singer Jim Morrison’s adventures in the afterlife. Of course, technically that would make it posthumous fantasy (the first of four such entries in my top ten), although it is effectively a posthumous fantasy replay of Mick Farren’s earlier psychedelic science fiction DNA Cowboys Trilogy. In the latter, reality was plastic as a result of hyper-technology, that can effectively produce almost limitless amounts of anything at will – with the more dominant inhabitants of that reality shaping it to their beliefs or will to power, so that it resembles a shifting fantasy landscape of human imagination, loosely arranged around various city-states (or perhaps more precisely mind-states), eerily evocative of a technofantasy Western (or kung-fu wuxia). In the former, reality is plastic simply as the nature of the afterlife or netherworld, to much the same effect.

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Jim Morrison’s co-adventurer, Doc Holliday (as in Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp), explains to him the nature of the afterlife, or at least that stage of it – “You begin to find that you had the capacity to make this stage of the Afterlife practically anything you wanted it to be…create an environment out of our previous realities and fantasies”. Or for that matter, people can make themselves who they wanted themselves to be, historic or mythic figures – Doc Holliday cheerfully concedes the possibility that both he and Morrison (the latter is still missing memories from the trauma of death and rebirth into the Afterlife from the mysterious Helix) may not be their original selves (although both appear to be authentic). The problem “when you start building an existence” in the afterlife is that “a billion other sons of bitches are trying to do the same thing” – add in supernatural entities (and aliens) and you have a rollercoaster ride of sex and violence through a fantasy landscape of the survival of the fittest, where various (and generally dystopian) fantasy city-states, empires and adventurers strive for supremacy.

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The other half of Jim Morrison’s adventures (or third member of their trinity) is Semple, one of the sexiest female characters in science fiction and one half of former evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson, who had split between her two personalities in the Afterlife – Morrison and Semple seek each other out in different dystopias in this disordered plastic reality, including Hell itself, and Jim Morrison the Lizard King “discovers that life beyond the grave is as much of an exploding psychedelic nightmare as any acid vision of his mortal existence”…

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

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(7) LARRY NIVEN & JERRY POURNELLE – INFERNO (1976)

 

For my next three entries we come to my remaining three of four posthumous fantasy entries, that incongruously number amongst my top ten SF books. Of course, the incongruity arises because they were penned by writers I encountered primarily in science fiction, but I have a special soft spot for posthumous fantasy.

 

Niven and Pournelle wrote extensively in science fiction, both separately and in collaboration with each other. Niven is best known for his award-winning Ringworld novel (which subsequently evolved into a series). However, although I enjoy that novel, I prefer his fantasy The Magic Goes Away, which had a whole fantasy trope named after it. Pournelle also wrote science fiction (of which his novel Janissaries is my favorite), but he and Niven were best in collaboration, such as their pulpy apocalyptic thrillers Lucifer’s Hammer and Footfall (dealing with a comet hitting the earth and alien invasion respectively).

 

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However, my favorite is their posthumous fantasy, Inferno. Unlike Mick Farren’s Jim Morrison’s Adventures in the Afterlife, the afterlife here is not fluid, but rather is fixed in form. It is indeed the Inferno, as in Dante’s Inferno – literally updated in all its infernal glory of its nine circles of hell (and their various subdivisions), from the perspective of SF author John Carpentier (or Carpenter), who dies and finds himself in it, playing the role of Dante uncomfortably close to all its detail. Fortunately, he is somewhat familiar with Dante’s poem from studies at college. Even more fortunately, he has a guide Benito (whose identity is ultimately revealed, if it was not apparent to the reader before then) playing the role of Virgil to his Dante, who is not only familiar with Dante’s Inferno but also with the way out of it to Purgatory.

 

It is, as Norman Spinrad wrote of it, “quite literally a cakewalk through hell”, and one that might well substitute for reading the original version by Dante, given all that poetry and all those references to now obscure Italian figures from the Renaissance. The way out of hell involves a quixotic quest from the outermost Vestibule of Hell (in which Carpenter found himself, or more precisely, Benito found him) to the very deepest frozen circle of Hell reserved for traitors or treachery, past the Devil himself frozen in the very heart of hell – past all the trials and tribulations to be found in Hell. And even the occasional miracle – after all, they’ll need it…

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(6) ROBERT SILVERBERG – TO THE LAND OF THE LIVING (1990)

 

Straight outta the afterlife!

 

My next posthumous fantasy entry similarly deals with escape from the afterlife, not from hell to purgatory as in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno, but as its title suggests, back to the land of the living itself.

 

Robert Silverberg is a prolific writer of science fiction, who deserves a top ten list of his own – “multiple winner of both Hugo and Nebula Awards, a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall, a Grand Master of SF”. He rose to the challenge of being a professional writer from the outset, initially submitting science fiction stories to magazines, and at his most prolific, writing a million words a year (holy crap!). His short stories alone are worth reading, particularly as they’ve recently been collected into a series of volumes, and his novels are equally as classic.

 

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My favorite Silverberg work is To the Land of the Living, which evolved from his story “Gilgamesh in the Outback”, his contribution to the posthumous fantasy anthology series, Heroes in Hell. Everyone who has ever lived and died throughout humanity’s history – and prehistory – finds themselves reborn in the afterlife, which in Silverberg’s story is akin to a mysterious and vague limbo. It is not unlike terrestrial existence – one can even die in it but is then reborn elsewhere – but more plastic in its reality, as geography and even memory can be unreliable or untrustworthy. For example, one tends not to remember one’s previous deaths in the afterlife. Like limbo, humanity’s main purpose in the afterlife is to find ways to pass eternity, which typically involves replicating the patterns of their former lives. Silverberg’s hero and protagonist, Gilgamesh (of the Sumerian epic) first ruled a replica of his Sumerian kingdom before battling beasts in the shifting ‘outback’ of the afterlife (and the original story title) – although at one time, like other political and military rulers, he gravitated to New Rome, truly an eternal city of political contest. (Julius Caesar tries to entice him back). However, New Rome is not the only afterlife polity – others seek to replicate their former kingdoms or empires, often warring against others, such as King Henry the Eighth’s new English kingdom warring against his daughter Elizabeth’s similar kingdom. The older dead tend to be wary of the new or modern dead streaming in ever larger numbers into the afterlife, with their industrialization and technology. As for Gilgamesh, he sets out on a quest, first to find his former friend Enkidu, and then to find the rumored point of return to the land of the living itself, mirroring the quest of his mythic epic to find eternal life.

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****

 

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(5) PHILIP JOSE FARMER – RIVERWORLD (1971)

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Philip Jose Farmer brought the kink to my science fiction.

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Actually, Philip Jose Farmer brought the kink to science fiction in general. Before Farmer, science fiction labored under editorial restrictions on taboo subjects, such as sex. In the words of Joe R. Lansdale, Farmer gave science fiction sex – and not just conventional sex, but kinky alien sex, most notably in his Hugo Award-winning 1952 short story “The Lovers”, subsequently expanded into a novel. And religion – literary critic Leslie Fiedler compared Farmer to Ray Bradbury as science fiction writers “that both strain against the limits of the form”, but found Farmer distinctive “in his odd blending of theology, pornography and adventure”. If that’s not a compelling advertisement, I don’t know what is!

 

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(And yes, he did actually bring the kink to my own personal science fiction. My sexual imagination was permanently, well, blown by The Image of the Beast, and its sequel, Blown, in my adolescence. I wouldn’t recommend them for the faint-hearted – they were explicitly written, in every sense of the word explicit, for a publisher of science fiction p0rnography. Mind you, they do have an interesting story, of two warring alien races stranded on Earth, and involve, amongst other things, space travel powered by sex).

 

Farmer gave science fiction any number of brave, new ideas. To quote Lansdale again, “not all of his work has been sterling, but nearly all of it has been brave” – and I would add, all of it has at least some interesting ideas. Jesus on Mars? No, seriously, that’s the title for one of his novels. How about Jesus on the dude ranch in his short story, “J.C. on the Dude Ranch”. King Kong in “After King Kong Fell”? Tarzan in “The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod”, in which Farmer imagined Tarzan as written not by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but by beatnik dope fiend William S Burroughs. Or for that matter, Tarzan in a number of novels or stories – as Farmer never lost his love of pulp adventure heroes. Indeed, he created a whole literary crossover family or universe of them, dubbed the Wold Newton Universe, in which a meteorite at Wold Newton in England on 13 December 1975 caused nearly superhuman genetic mutations in the occupants of two passing coaches and their descendants – Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Doc Savage and many others. Farmer was essentially steampunking the genre before steampunk was a thing.

 

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Ultimately however, my favorite Farmer work is his posthumous fantasy series Riverworld – the definitive posthumous fantasy, apart from the original posthumous fantasy by John Kendricks Bangs. If it seems similar to Silverberg’s To The Land of The Living, that’s because it inspired the latter – with the premise that every human (and sapient hominid species) that has ever lived and died in history and prehistory (all thirty billion of them or so), finds themselves resurrected en masse in the mysterious Riverworld, a giant planet apparently designed so that its habitable terrain is effectively one giant river valley. However, as opposed to Silverberg’s afterlife novel, the series has a science fiction rationale as the planet has been engineered (and the souls of humanity themselves are artificial) – the narrative thrust of the series lies in those resurrectees seeking to find the answers behind that engineering and the engineers, assisted by a rogue member of the engineers (or Mysterious Stranger as he is dubbed). The protagonists of the series include Sir Richard Burton (the Victorian explorer) and Mark Twain, amidst a cast of literal billions – or the entirety of humanity. Like Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, its concept was too large for its narrative finish and it falls apart somewhat in the concluding volume, but the journey through Riverworld is unforgettable – and part of me awaits to be resurrected there.

 

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Leslie Fielder applauded Farmer’s approach to storytelling as a “gargantuan lust to swallow down the whole cosmos, past, present and to come, and to spew it out again”. (Is it just me or does anyone else find that as suggestively lewd as I do?). To conclude with a quote from Joe Lansdale:

Farmer’s electric brain is full of ideas and insight. It throws off sparks. When he’s finished with you, your brain will spark as well. It might even be on fire.

Read him.

Be transformed

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(4) CHARLES STROSS – LAUNDRY SERIES (2004-PRESENT)

 

Great Cthulhu in the Cold War!

 

The Cthulhu Mythos surfaces in my top ten SF books, much like Cthulhu himself, rising writhing from R’lyeh. One of my favorite SF short stories is Stross’ A Colder War, which is something of a precursor or spiritual prequel to the Laundry series, albeit in an alternative universe. In it, Stross set out to imagine the outcome for our world in which the Antarctic expedition in H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal At the Mountains of Madness actually happened, and indeed located ancient alien technologies, as well as access to even more formidable extradimensional beings. Nothing good as Stross himself drily observed on one occasion – or a fate worse than global thermonuclear annihilation as he observed on another. In short, what ensues is a Cold War arms race between the United States and Soviet Union, using those same technologies and extradimensional beings, which spooked even the Nazis from using them. The Soviet Union has its ultimate doomsday ace – or rather joker – in the hole in the form of a particular entity based on captured Nazi research into a certain underwater city. This doomsday weapon is unleashed when the cold war turns hot in the 1980’s from a panicked overreaction by the Soviet leadership. The United States has its own contingency plan in the form of 300 megatons of nuclear weapons, and when that fails, a backup contingency plan or insanely desperate last resort, in which it finds out there are worse things than death in the Cthulhu Mythos.

 

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His Laundry series ups the ante on his use of the Lovecraftian horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos. Commencing with the first book (and still my favorite), The Atrocity Archives, extradimensional entities of evil serve as the backdrop of a secret history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, espionage and government bureaucracy – all combined in the British spy agency known as the Laundry. Magic is simply higher mathematics – which applied in certain circumstances can open gates to other dimensions. The protagonist, a computer expert known as Bob Howard, unintentionally did just that and found himself conscripted by the Laundry, Britain’s occult secret service. Unfortunately, incidents like it are becoming increasingly common with the increasing computational power and mathematical applications of the modern world (and of human minds) – indeed, the Laundry anticipates this increase (amongst other things, such as the position of our world in space) will inevitably align or open up our world to other dimensions (“when the stars are right” in the parlance of the Mythos) and has contingency plans for extradimensional invasion, codenamed CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. Of course, the Laundry is not exactly optimistic about humanity’s prospects – its usual best case scenario is for repopulation after an extinction event – but it plans to go down swinging. In the meantime, it keeps its British stiff upper lip…

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

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(3) DOUGLAS ADAMS – THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (1981)

 

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gave us so many things – not least, the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. 42 to be exact, which of course begs the Question to Life, the Universe and Everything.

 

It gave us the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, one of the most extraordinary ventures in the entire history of catering – built on a ruined planet enclosed in a time bubble and projected forward to the exact moment of the end of the Universe. You can arrive for any sitting you like without reservation as you can book when you return to your one time, visit as many times as you like without any risk of meeting yourself because of the embarrassment this usually causes and pay the fabulous cost of your meal by the compound interest on one penny in a savings account in your own era. All of which its critics claim is impossible – hence its advertising slogan if you’ve done six impossible things this morning, why not round it off with breakfast at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe?

 

It gave us the most important thing in life, which is to have your towel, as well as the only practical advice you’ll ever need, which is written in large and friendly letters on the cover of the titular Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Don’t Panic!

 

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In short, it needs little introduction as a cult classic science fiction comedy. Indeed, it is my top ten entry that I would recommend to non-readers of science fiction, as it is really more absurdist comedy of our world writ large as Galactic civilization, with the science fiction trappings or tropes played for comedy – such as faster than light travel powered by the Improbability Drive or bistromathics (based on the impossible numbers produced by dividing up a restaurant bill).

 

It starts on a Thursday morning with English everyman Arthur Dent attempting to stop his home from being demolished for a highway bypass, lying in front of the bulldozers in his pyjamas and dressing gown. Unfortunately, he – and everyone else – has far bigger problems, as Earth itself is about to be demolished for a hyperspace bypass by the most obnoxious and obstinately bureaucratic species in the galaxy, the Vogons. Fortunately for Arthur (but not everyone else), his friend Ford Prefect is actually an alien researcher for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy marooned on Earth – and is able to get them both off the planet just before its demolition, although Arthur is disconcerted that all Ford’s time on Earth (and now the only thing left of the planet) simply expanded Earth’s entry in the Guide from “harmless” to “mostly harmless”. Of course, the Vogons soon eject them into space, leading to Arthur uttering what soon becomes his catchphrase “so this is it – we’re going to die” – but they are improbably saved by a ship powered by the Improbability Drive (which rendered hyperspace bypasses redundant) and piloted by the fugitive ex-president of the Galaxy (as well as everyone’s favorite chronically depressed paranoid android)

 

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Earth’s planetary tragedy is of course, much bigger than Arthur, or even humanity – which was only the third most intelligent species on the planet. The second most intelligent – dolphins – escaped their planet before its demolition, leaving humanity their last message – “So long and thanks for all the fish!” Earth’s demolition was particularly tragic for its most intelligent species – mice.

 

Mice were “merely the profusion into our dimension of vastly hyperintelligent pandimensional beings” – beings that millions of years previously built the galaxy’s greatest computer to give the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. However, to understand the Answer – 42 – they needed the Question, so that computer built an even greater computer – Earth – to provide it. The Question was destroyed with the Earth – except in Arthur’s brain, part of the vast planetary interlinked organic computer of Earth. That, however, has problems all of its own. Arthur’s brain has to be specially prepared, you see. Treated. Diced…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(2) ROBERT SHEA & ROBERT ANTON WILSON – ILLUMINATUS TRILOGY (1975)

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I can see the fnords!

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The world is divided into two groups of people – those who have read the Illuminatus Trilogy (and have seen the fnords) and those who have not. If you only know the Illuminati from internet ravings or worse, Dan Brown, then you have not truly seen the fnords.

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But if you have read the Illuminati Trilogy – The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple and Leviathan – then you will know the answers to the most important questions of our time:

Who are the Illuminati?

What is the Rule of Five – or the 23 Enigma?

What is the Bavarian Fire Drill?

Why does the portrait of George Washington on the dollar bill look different from other portraits of George Washington – but the same as portraits of Adam Weishaupt, founder of the Bavarian Illuminati?!

How many gunmen were in Dallas to kill Kennedy?!

Just why is the Pentagon that shape – and what is it keeping trapped inside?! (Hint from the book – JESUS MOTHERF*****G CHRIST IT’S ALIVE!)

And most importantly of all, how are they going to Immanentize the Eschaton?!

 

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From Wikipedia – “The Illuminatus Trilogy is a series of three novels written by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, first published in 1975. The trilogy is a satirical, postmodern, science fiction-influenced adventure story; a drug-, sex-, and magic-laden trek through a number of conspiracy theories, both historical and imaginary, related to the authors’ version of the Illuminati.”

 

The Illuminatus Trilogy is the conspiracy theory to beat all conspiracy theories – indeed, it’s one big conspiracy kitchen sink, based on the premise that all conspiracy theories are true, no matter how wild or contradictory. (The authors, editors at Playboy magazine, used wild conspiracy theories from letters to the editor). You will be changed after you read it, and you will never read anything like it again – at least until Grant Morrison essentially replayed it as The Invisibles, a comics series with the same conspiracy kitchen sink premise leading up to the millennium. Of course, the Illuminatus Trilogy (and for that matter The Invisibles) is chaotic and crazy read, with postmodern non-linear narrative – switching between multiple first-person and third-person viewpoints, questioning its own (and every) reality and even reviewing itself (negatively).

 

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As for the plot, it can be summarized in the quotation from Ishmael Reed at the start of the book – that history is the warfare of secret societies – with the anarchic Discordians and other secret allies in their battle since the time of Atlantis against the Illuminati, the conspiratorial organization that secretly controls the world. The plot originated with the authors involvement in the actual Discordian Society, a parody religion (or is it the ultimate cosmic truth disguised as a joke?) based on the worship of Eris or Discordia, the Greek goddess of chaos. The authors jokingly created an ‘opposition’ within the Discordian Society, which they called the Bavarian Illuminati, and the Illuminatus Trilogy sprang from the myth they built up of the warfare between the two.

 

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And so the Illuminatus Trilogy is genuinely mythic and comic. It also has Nazi zombies and made them cool. (O who am I kidding? Nazi zombies are always cool). To conclude with the description of it from the New Hackers Dictionary – “an incredible beserko-surrealist rollercoaster of world-girdling conspiracies, intelligent dolphins, the fall of Atlantis, who really killed JFK, sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and the Cosmic Giggle Factor”

 

And you too will see the fnords.

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(1) H.G. WELLS – THE TIME MACHINE / THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1895 / 1898)

 

My world of science fiction is still mostly Morlocks and Martians.

 

And so is the world of science fiction in general, due to H. G. Wells. Just as J. R. R. Tolkien defined modern literary fantasy, H. G. Wells defined science fiction – but even more definitively. Whereas one might classify fantasy as Tolkien and pre-Tolkien, it is hard to even identify anything prior to Wells as recognizably science fiction. Similarly to Tolkien for fantasy, he is commonly hailed as the father of science fiction, but more so than Tolkien, as there are few contemporaries or predecessors that can rival this parental title. Some claim Jules Verne as the father of science fiction, but he lacks the same impact for me. Brian Aldiss more justifiably claimed Mary Shelley as the mother of science fiction, although she still seems more Gothic fantasy to me – particularly without all the, you know, science that we see in the cinematic adaptations. (Shelley was understandably scant on the process of the monster’s creation and does not describe it in her narrative, other than vague references to chemistry experiments – as opposed to the electricity and “it’s alive!” and the rest of the monster’s creation that is the most iconic part of the cinematic adaptations).

 

However, Wells gave science fiction its most archetypal themes and tropes, notably time travel and alien invasion (not to mention steampunk) – and he did so in just two short novels, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Indeed, those two novels are arguably the mythic heart of science fiction – Wells deserves to be looked at in more depth (and I intend to do just that in another feature).

 

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Wells created and even named the concept of a mechanism for controlled and deliberate time travel, the now proverbial time machine, ancestor of every Tardis, DeLorean and Hot Tub Time Machine as well as all those time travel devices they keep pulling out of the Terminator franchise – in the novel of that same name, published in 1895 (more than 120 years ago!). However, he did more than simply conceive the time machine – he also created a mythic vision of the far future that has endured in science fiction.

 

In the novel, the Time Traveler With No Name (a suitable predecessor for Doctor Who) travels to the year 802, 701 – where humanity has evolved into the childlike and docile Eloi, apparently living an idyllic existence provided by advanced technology but lacking any intellect or strength. He soon discovers the twist that humanity has actually evolved into two species from its classes – the Eloi are the descendants of the leisured upper class, while the bestial, subterranean Morlocks are the descendants of the working class and actually maintain all the industry or technology for the Eloi. However, in the future, the revolution will not be televised – the Morlocks also maintain the Eloi as livestock, farming them for food in the ultimate act of eating the rich. (How’s that for letting them eat cake, Marie Antoinette?). The Time Traveler has to battle the Morlocks in their subterranean lair to recover his Time Machine (and travel into the even further far future for even more grimdark hopelessness).

 

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This theme of evolution in The Time Machine (or Morlocks eating Eloi) endures in science fiction, albeit transformed. The scenario of class-based evolution is simplistic, but is made more plausible by technology such as genetic engineering – the film Gattaca in some ways resembles a tale of engineered elite Eloi and non-engineered, proletariat Morlocks, although the protagonist is a Morlock posing as an Eloi. However, the true descendants of Wells’ tale are not so much the products of biological evolution but cybernetic evolution, involving artificial intelligence, robots or other machine Morlocks that rise up against their human Eloi – such as in the Terminator (doubly so for involving time machines) and the Matrix (which actually has the machines farming humanity for energy).

 

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Wells’ The War of the Worlds, published in 1898, was similar to other works in the genre of British ‘invasion literature’ at that time, but with a fundamental distinguishing feature that made it a definitive work of science fiction – as opposed to invasions by human armies (typically German but also French or Russian), this was a genuinely alien invasion from Mars, as is made clear in its immortal opening line:

 

“Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us”.

 

And so the Martians descend upon Britain (near Woking in Surrey) in their spaceship ‘cylinders’ and attack the heart of the British Empire in their tripods armed with heat rays – although in the actual narrative, the Martian forces are not as strong as one might expect for advanced aliens able to invade other planets through space (and tripods would seem to be even less stable and more useless than Imperial Walkers). After all, Martian tripods are destroyed by nineteenth century artillery and ironclad ship. Pathetic! We’d mop the floor with those Martians with our modern military forces. In the end, however, it is the Martians mopping up Britain, just as the British Empire wiped out the indigenous people of Tasmania, a pointed observation made by Wells. The Martians nourish themselves on human blood like space vampires, matched by their red weed vegetation choking out Earth’s native plant life. Fortunately, the Martians and their vegetation succumb to Earth’s bacteria and viruses, in what must rank as one of the most incredible oversights by an invading alien force although more infinitely more credible than the computer virus in Independence Day.

 

Original War of the Worlds album artwork

 

The War of the Worlds has a large sphere of narrative or thematic influence in science fiction, amongst them the Alien films. For that matter, it (like The Time Machine) has so many adaptations (including parallel or sequel stories) that I’m beginning to think it actually happened. (After all, there is a statue of a Martian tripod in Woking). And in a way it did happen – twice – but by human nations fighting their own war of the world…

 

Lest we forget

Lest we forget

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

Mega-City Law: The Fink (Complete Case Files Volume 4: Prog 193-196)

 

MEGA-CITY LAW: THE FINK (COMPLETE CASE FILES VOLUME 4: PROG 193-196)

 

Judge Dredd has only just recently completed the Judge Child Quest this very volume and its primary antagonists, the Angel Gang (that is, if you don’t count the Judge Child himself), has all Angels dead by hand of Dredd.

 

Or are they?

 

Enter a mysterious skeletal mutant bringing mischief with him into Mega-City One – a mischief of rats, that is. (I was intrigued to discover that a group of rats is called a mischief, although not quite up there with a murder of crows). Aww – and look at that! The mutant and the alpha rat have matching bowler hats. Although that’s the only thing ‘cute’ about them over this story arc of four episodes.

 

The clue to the mutant’s identity comes with his first victim – space Judge-Pilot Larter. The mutant uses a paralytic poison (or “pizen” as he calls it) to ambush Larter, who then suffers the grim death of being eaten alive by rats. If it’s any consolation, they’re normal Mega-City One rats – as the mutant tells his bowler-hatted rat unimaginatively named Ratty, “they ain’t so tough as you Cursed-Earth rats!” Or as toxic, since Cursed Earth rats, like virtually everything else in the Cursed Earth, are lethally venomous.

 

It’s not much of a clue, given that most readers have probably forgotten Larter as the pilot of Justice One in the Judge Child Quest but the mutant gives more of one as he appreciates Larter’s slow death by rodent – “it’s the way Pa would have wanted it”. Pa? As in Pa Angel? And in case that one slipped by, Fink Angel abandons all subtlety by literally leaving his calling card.

 

 

Looks like we have a rogue Angel on our hands – particularly as he intones “one down, two to go”, crossing Larter’s name off on a crude carved list which has two further names, Dredd and Judge Hershey.

 

And Dredd, called into investigate Larter’s murder, realizes it is a rogue Angel – just as Fink is luring Judge Hershey into a trap (by poisoning a random pedestrian in her vicinity, although it’s not clear how he’s tracked either Larter or Hershey in a Mega-City of 800 million people spanning the eastern seaboard). Too late, Dredd seeks to alert her – but she has disappeared, paralyzed and dragged into the depths by Fink. Dredd confirms from Texas City records that there was a fifth Angel – and correctly surmises that this Angel is seeking revenge for the Angel Gang.

 

That leads to the most interesting episode of the story arc, titled The Making of a Fink. Fink began as a normal human – well, as normal as you get, firstly in the Angel Gang and secondly in the Cursed Earth (near Texas City). As Pa Angel exhorts each of his sons to embrace their own criminal style, Fink becomes the loner of the family, hiding out in holes (literally) and becoming skilled in the art of ambush (and poison). Funnily enough, this episode also is the making of a Mean Machine, with some fun black humor. Unfortunately, young ‘Mean’ Angel is a disappointment to Pa as anything but his moniker, depicted distractingly sniffing a flower during one of Pa’s home-schooled criminal classes.

 

 

What a pansy! Well, Pa Angel won’t be having any of THAT – and he fixes it with some radical surgery, snatching up a doctor from Texas City to transform ‘Mean’ Angel into the Mean Machine Angel we all know and love, a murderous cyborg with four settings of rage dialed into his head.

 

 

Anyway, Fink continued to retreat from the family, being much more perceptive about the ultimate fate of the Gang – as “they ain’t too smart”, they’ll end up in prison. Of course, as it turned out, Fink was being much too optimistic – as they end up dead instead. And so Fink embarks upon his calling as a Cursed Earth desperado, using poisons and his innate sneakiness to ambush victims, while radiation slowly warped him into a skeletal mutant. Still, it wasn’t all bad – he did befriend the Cursed Earth rat, which joined him as Ratty. By incredible coincidence, a stray newspaper clipping literally blows into his hole in the ground – revealing the deaths of the rest of the Angel Gang at the hands of the Judges from the Judge Child Quest. And Fink, while retaining little else of his humanity, still retained his sense of duty to avenge the family.

 

That takes us to final episode, where we get out first good look at the Mega-City way of death – Resyk, where the bodies of the overwhelming majority of Mega-City One’s dead are recycled. I’m not exactly sure what they recycle the bodies into, but that’s dystopia for you. Whereas Fink fed Larter to the rats, his plan for Hershey’s slow and painful death is to feed her into the resyk conveyor belt. Fortunately, surveillance cameras detect him entering with Hershey, and by further incredible coincidence, Dredd is in the vicinity when the call is put out to the Judges. He arrives to activate the emergency stop just as the robotic arms are about to extract Hershey’s teeth.

 

 

Dredd pursues Fink into some weird decomposing fluid chamber. Fink and Ratty ambush him with the paralyzing poison, but Dredd uses his last ounce of strength to swing Ratty mid-bite at Fink. And then Dredd and Fink are both down for the count. Fortunately, other Judges arrive at the scene to extract Dredd and Hershey as well as to imprison Fink Angel – whose hardened Cursed Earth constitution survived the normally lethal Cursed Earth rat bite. And as for that Cursed Earth rat himself, Ratty escapes to thrive in the recesses of resyk, with plenty of food passing by on the conveyor belt. Eew!

 

TO BE CONTINUED – PIRATES OF THE BLACK ATLANTIC