So Preacher’s another cool dark AMC show – but will it ever be more than another of the same?

Church signboard in AMC's Preacher: Open Your Ass and Holes to Jesus

Looks like Texan vandals aren’t without a sense of humour.

Even those of us who’ve never read a Preacher comic have probably all been hearing the name lately. After some weeks of AMC pushing their new series without respite, the TV adaptation’s pilot episode aired last Sunday; we can expect the season’s second episode shortly. I review the first episode, with some thoughts on the show’s future, for those of you wondering whether Preacher‘s worth your time (and to be clear, since I’m not a reader of the Preacher comics, I here discuss the series on its own merits alone). Fairly spoiler-free.

Joe Gilgun as Cassidy in Preacher's first episode

Meet everybody’s new favourite vampire.

In Preacher‘s premiere we’re handed a troubled hero, a maverick priest who possesses some sort of dark history – the specifics of which will doubtless be dragged out for a while, though at least in outline it’s all roughly apparent already. And meanwhile, some kind of a hell-force from space is entering, then exploding, various religious speakers worldwide (including Tom Cruise as a proponent of Scientology, a clever little touch that had me chuckling for a fair time). There’s a most enjoyable vampire, who’s an admittedly well-written/well-acted example of a shameless drunken-Irishman stereotype, and there’s a rather adorable mass-murdering female, with a mysterious (OK, let’s be honest, a plainly romantic) involvement with the hero in his aforementioned criminal history. The hell-force comes round to our titular preacher eventually, but leaves him both unexploded and with supernatural powers; we’ll have to wait for future episodes to show us the exact extent of these. The supporting characters are one of the strengths of this story, most of them having some level of interest or complexity, from the local sheriff who’s the father of a disfigured boy – a boy who I’ve been informed is Arseface, which might mean more to others than to me – to the abusive relationship that’s more complex than it seems initially. And another strength is the overall high quality: smart well-crafted scenes/dialogue, lots of fast-paced action, some skilled performances, a slick visual style.

Jesse Custer in the Preacher pilot

This dude doesn’t make a model preacher.

Thing is, though I found Preacher‘s pilot intriguing to some degree and entertaining to a great degree, it’s also a blatant effort by the network AMC to repeat the success of its shows Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, and perhaps to rival HBO’s Game of Thrones, with something aimed at a similar audience, something that’s graphic and far-out and gritty. It owes a lot to The Walking Dead particularly, being a comics-based character-driven visually-similar horror-fantasy. So is Preacher a mere imitator of these phenomena that exist already, or does it have the potential to become a phenomenon in its own right in the future? In this it seems to me that it has one disadvantage: whilst it has the surface elements of the shows it emulates, it might struggle with what in fact makes these shows distinctive: character change. If you think about it, each series I’ve listed develops its main players significantly (from lighter to darker, specifically). Preacher seems centred around the character of Jesse Custer, and our self-doubting hard-drinking priest can’t fall a whole lot further; nor in view of the show’s tone is he too likely to rise, meaning he’ll have to stay about the same. Of course there are a lot of shows which aren’t Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead, which aren’t based around character transformation – but Preacher seems to set out to be the next Breaking Bad or TWD, while not being strong in the same places as these. That said we’ve only seen one episode, so hopefully the series will either include more than the superficial elements of its influences, or better still become its own thing by finding an equally compelling way to evolve its tale; it’s reassuring that the comics seem to be well-thought-of for their story.

So if you’re a fan of shows like The Walking Dead, of shows that are smartish and stylish and not shy about violence, I’d totally suggest giving Preacher a try. But though it lives up to most of the hype, it maybe leans too much on its influences; and maybe not in those respects that have most importance. If you’re after more of the same, so far Preacher seems to be attempting to be more of the same. Though there’s hope that it will progress from being that merely.

The upside-down church from Preacher.

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Thoughts on the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex PS2 game

Major Kusanagi jumping in the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex PS2 game

Kusanagi being Kusanagi.

A new Ghost in the Shell game, the multiplayer shooter First Assault, is due in the near future. And of course we’re all awaiting the new movie, with Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, (justifiable whitewashing accusations aside, I have to say Johansson’s perfectly cast for the role). Perhaps it was all this that inspired me to give the old Stand Alone Complex PS2 game a go, having not done so at the time of its release. Here follow some thoughts on that game.

The GITS SAC PS2 game alternates between two playable characters, Motoko Kusanagi and her second-in-command Batou – the obvious choices. While their missions are separate, the two are both working to solve one case; a typically GITS story, packed with complex corporate-espionage/terrorism/cybercrime. These characters are in communication with the others whom we know and love, and the Tachikoma tanks make appearances (indeed the Tachikoma is a third playable character, albeit for one brief mission alone). The GITS feel is captured superbly through the cast and the tale, with the use of voice actors from the TV series adding to the effect considerably; and while it can be hard to follow the complicated story initially, let’s not pretend that isn’t something to which GITS has often shown a slight tendency.

The graphics are – well, the graphics must have looked great back in 2004, so, I’m guessing that gives an idea of how they look today. But this shooter’s not overly old-fashioned in terms of gameplay; it doesn’t have the highest sophistication in terms of targeting etc, and some aspects of the controls are perhaps a little awkward from time to time, but overall it does much of what more modern shooters can do. On normal mode, I wouldn’t have minded a little more difficulty – at any rate, highly advanced players should certainly select hard mode. I’d also have liked more boss fights, or at the least more diverse enemies, as taking out increasing numbers of the same-old low-level types can become repetitive. That said, the makers do find other ways to introduce variety. The use of two main characters is important to the gameplay even more than to the story, each favouring a different approach due to their different areas of ability; I won’t go so far as to say that Kusanagi’s missions require stealth play, but her low strength/high agility compared to Batou rewards more emphasis on strategy. Though I did tire of the fiddly jumping challenges which Kusanagi’s missions involve, as it took me quite a while to acquire the knack for these. The option of ghost-hacking enemies also lends a little diversity (but in later missions I personally found hacking tediously tricky).

Overall I’d recommend this game to the GITS fans out there, the ones who didn’t play it at the time – I doubt the game’ll mean much to non-GITS fans, to be reasonable. But to those who are fans of GITS already – in particular the TV show GITS SAC – this work’s an essential addition to the universe. The characters and story do convey the GITS atmosphere accurately, and furthermore the game’s a fun little shooter (if not a wholly flawless one). It’s pretty cheap these days, given its age, so grab a disk on Amazon, or get the game on Steam; what have you got to lose?

Liked Durarara!! ? You’ll love Durarara!! x2

Headless rider Celty Sturluson without helmet in Durarara!! x2

Sometimes a girl struggles to get a-head in life.

Durarara!! has been in the thoughts of English-speaking lovers of anime lately, with the dub of the second season nearing its end round about now if I remember rightly (I couldn’t wait when I ran out of dub watching this second season recently, so I continued on to the end by means of the already-released subbed episodes). When thinking of writing this article, I wondered if DRRR!! qualifies for a speculative fiction site; in a sense a curious doubt to have, considering we’re discussing a show which features a headless Irish fairy astride a motorbike and a mind-controlling demon blade in love with humanity. But that’s DRRR!! for you – concepts which could in themselves form the premise of an anime are details merely, constituting single strands in an endlessly diverting cat’s-cradle of storylines, all as delightfully wacky. And that’s why an article on the latest offering from this franchise does in fact deserve to be on a website devoted to the innovative – it’s speculative fiction without restricting itself to being that alone, throwing this together with other genres crazy in their infinite variety (crime/caper, psycho-thriller, comedy, romance…).

Shizuo Heiwajima carries Varona's motorbike in Durarara!! x2

Who doesn’t love Shizuo?

DRRR!! has always called for a fair amount of concentration, in view of its continual changing between stories and perspectives; there’s that tendency for each episode to focus on a character while being narrated by another one completely, and also the frequent jumps back and forth in time, an episode often occurring before the events of the previous one – perhaps explaining/leading to these in some way. With regard to this occasionally confusing quality, I find the second season, DRRR!! x2, rather easier to follow; not actually because of any decrease in complexity, but because of knowing the people by this stage. Or some of them, for the cast in fact becomes bigger than before – new characters are introduced, with old characters sometimes removed from the action to draw attention to these. I did miss Dotachin, leader of that lot in the van, one of my favourites, who spends much of DRRR!! x2 incapacitated; and likewise Shizuo, the lovable hothead, one of pretty much everybody’s favourites, who’s confined to a prison cell for a not-insubstantial portion of the time. But the new characters are sufficiently compelling that it matters little (with particular mention to the Russian assassin/badass book-lover Varona, and the full-of-himself but also oddly likeable ladykiller Rocchi). And certain older cast-members do receive their share of screentime, schoolboy turned internet-gangleader Mikado especially. I’m loving Mikado’s arc in DRRR!! x2, an arc which takes him to ever-darker places. Also, rest assured that even those favourites who leave the screen for a while will soon be back in force.

The finale of season one, though not unsatisfying in its way, clearly wasn’t the end of the tale. Without revealing too much here, DRRR!! x2 has much more sense of conclusion, rounding off the stories and the ideas meaningfully. For example, Irish dullahan Celty’s search for that missing noggin of hers finally leads somewhere. So too, at least to a degree, does that never-ending, ever-entertaining, feud between Shizuo and Izaya. In terms of themes, DRRR!! Seiji and Mika in Durarara!! x2introduces itself, in the prologue of that first light novel that began the franchise, as being ‘a tale of twisted love’. The obsessive loves in this series are many, from Shinra’s long infatuation with Celty, to the strange triangle that forms around Seiji, who despite feeling romantic interest only in Celty’s severed head finds himself constantly pursued by his stalker Mika and his sister Namie. (If it so happens you haven’t seen season one, then… yeah, you did indeed read that last sentence correctly.) DRRR!! x2 resolves the theme, with attention to the Shinra – Celty and Seiji – Mika relationships particularly. Other ideas which dominate DRRR!!, e.g. urban rumours/urban mythology, are tied up in a fulfilling manner also. My sole complaint is that things between Mikado and Masaomi and Anri, between Mikado and Anri especially, don’t advance much from the first season’s finale.

DRRR!! was a whole lot of fun, and DRRR!! x2 is essentially more of the same. In fact, perhaps I enjoyed DRRR!! x2 to a still greater degree. The second season benefits from our having had the chance to settle into the show over the course of the first one, introduces new characters while maintaining the old ones most (if not all) of the time, and concludes the story satisfactorily. So if you haven’t seen DRRR!!, then watch it, and watch x2; if you’ve seen DRRR!! already, and liked it, you’ll love x2 also.

Shizuo and Izaya fight in Durarara!! x2

Here, have some more Shizuo.

Haven’t read Alfred Bester’s 50s sci-fi? Then read it – here’s why

Alfred Bester The Stars My Destination Galaxy

The Stars My Destination was serialised in Galaxy.

Alfred Bester: less and less of a household name. Acclaimed though his two first sci-fi novels were in their time, I seldom meet people my age who’ve heard of these, or who’ve read them, at any rate. Yet the novels – The Demolished Man, published 1953, and The Stars My Destination, published in 1956 – are not only key developments in science fiction’s history, but are compelling works of literature which have retained at least some of their relevance. (Bester carried on numerous careers besides that of a novelist – including comic-book writer, radio scriptwriter, and journalist – and after this pair he published no more sci-fi novels for almost two decades, before producing some not-so-influential works starting in the middle seventies.)

The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination each feature their own one main radical advance in human ability; in each case an advance which is sci-fi ostensibly, though it in fact borders on fantasy. In The Demolished Man this is telepathy, while in The Stars My Destination it’s teleportation through mental effort alone (both developments which have had extensive impacts on their respective societies). The Demolished Man shows us the efforts of a wealthy antihero, owner of a successful company, to succeed at murder in a world in which his thoughts are read frequently. The Stars My Destination has an antihero too, an initially uncivilized one; he’s driven by a long search for revenge to increase his knowledge, rising above the quest which impelled him in the first place. As he states: ‘I went beyond simplicity. I turned myself into a thinking creature.’

Though Bester’s novels predate the New Wave and cyberpunk movements within science fiction, they contain elements of both of these. These aspects are particularly apparent in The Stars My Destination (alternative title Tiger! Tiger!, incidentally). Indeed, I’d consider this second work to be in most respects the more developed of the two. New Wave sci-fi left behind the pulp origins of the genre, being characterised by its literary and frequently experimental quality and often also by its political sensibility. The Stars My Destination’s visual experiments with typed text to depict synesthesia, bordering on shape poetry, are especially noteworthy; so also is its social point, underlined by its conclusion, with the protagonist putting power in the hands of the people in a most literal sense. And in terms of Bester’s influence on the cyberpunk movement, Neil Gaiman observes in his introduction that The Stars My Destination ‘contains such cheerfully protocyber elements as multinational corporate intrigue; a dangerous, mysterious, hyperscientific McGuffin (PyrE); an amoral hero…’

Of course, the novels have dated to some degree. The New Wave and classic-cyberpunk elements which made these books so ahead of their time have themselves dated by the present day, and this is perhaps applicable to cyberpunk particularly. And progressive as the novels are in some of their political attitudes, they remain rather stuck in the 50s in other senses; I refer especially to the female characters, who at least in The Demolished Man suffer from a certain two-dimensionaity and ineffectuality. This work’s three main women are ‘the virgin seductress’ Duffy Wyg&, who follows after antihero Reich with such invitiations as ‘Punch me around a little’; Police Prefect Powell’s companion Mary Noyes, who follows after him professing her adoration and pleading for marriage; and lastly Barbara D’Courtney, whose love-at-first-sight relationship with Powell strains the credulity, in view of her childlike half-catatonic condition at the time (she calls Powell ‘Dada’ mostly).

But although in some aspects these books show their age, they remain worth reading – for their historical significance of course, but not for that alone. In particular, the antiheroes at these works’ centres still fascinate; they are the type of characters who fascinate eternally. To quote Gaiman on The Stars My Destination once more: ‘Gully Foyle, the obsessive protagonist who dominates every page of the tale, has not dated a moment.’ And I’d recommend The Stars My Destination, at any rate – to sci-fi fans, and more than that to readers out there generally.

Tokyo Ghoul: these ghouls are better vampires than most vampires are

Ghoul attacks in Tokyo have increased in frequency of late, but these flesh-eaters remain a mere urban rumour to student Ken Kaneki – or at least until his promising date Rize proves to be one. After she has almost killed Kaneki, Tokyo Ghoul Kaneki maskfalling beams crush Rize; her organs are transplanted into Kaneki to save his life, turning him into a ghoul (a half-ghoul, specifically). Thus starts Tokyo Ghoul, which in its original manga form began in 2011, but which has found increased success since then due to a recent anime. The second season aired last year, with a possible third season this year sometime. It’s obvious that the titular ghouls – an humanoid species essentially, but one whose diet is nonetheless in the human blood and/or meat line – owe a non-inconsiderable amount to the vampire genre. But this is no criticism, for the franchise’s handling of this content recaptures what vampires themselves often lack today.

Vampires are much altered from the demonic beings of folklore, and even from Dracula. Anne Rice pioneered the repentant vampire; a creature with humanity as well as with monstrosity, a creature torn between these two extremes. Since then the demonic side has been taken increasingly less seriously, relegated to giving vampires a reason for getting a little bit angsty. (Let’s not even talk about Twilight – please.) Hellsing, a vampire anime about vampires per se, pulled off its own impressive take through returning to the origins in a sense, showing antihero Alucard/Dracula as a monster exultant in his own monstrosity. Tokyo Ghoul does something else; its ghouls are more human than most vampires are, as well as more monstrous than most vampires are, restoring importance to the struggle between the two. To explain this: the ghouls are not undead, nor are they nocturnal, nor do they differ from humans in many ways except for their dietary requirements and their possession of a predatory organ called a kagune. At the same time the absence of the romantic traditions surrounding vampires emphasises their feeding’s brutal nature – no slender white necks in moonlight, in fact it’s all a bit messy.

Given that the ghouls, half-ghoul Kaneki particularly, are so human save for their involuntary flesh-eating tendency, Tokyo Ghoul is in part a depiction of people impelled to desperate measures by that primal imperative of the will to survive. Nothing but human flesh keeps them alive, animal meat being no substitute; while some compromise by eating the dead, few have this opportunity. This urge – this theme of hunger, and of appetite – drives the first part of the manga and the anime particularly. The need to feed is the force behind the plot here, ghoul-on-ghoul fights erupting over prey, some ghouls grouping based on feeding preferences (binge-eater or gourmet, for example). Further into the anime – this being further than I’ve read in the manga – the conflicts become much more political ones, and increase a lot in scale. It’s the ghouls versus the government anti-ghoul operatives known as the Doves, as well as disputes between ghoul factions who differ in their aggressiveness towards humanity. The ghoul versus human conflict’s rather tragic, a war few want to be fighting, one with sympathetic characters on both sides, an inevitable war over an insoluble issue. And with regard to the arguments between the ghoul organizations, another benefit of ghouls not being undead loners is that this allows them to have complex affiliations including familial ones.

Tokyo Ghoul tells a compelling story filled with characters whom it develops all the time, and whom it’s not afraid to transform drastically; this last applies to its hero especially. Furthermore it delivers visually, the kagune battles inTokyo Ghoul Kaneki kagune particular being impressive. But above all it reinvigorates the vampire – or vampiric creature – genre, and approaches its subject matter intelligently. It questions humans’ position in the food chain, questions our right to see ourselves as the species of greatest importance; in a sense it exposes the anthropocentric nature of human morality, in this much like that other excellent recent anime Parasyte. I also appreciated the texture provided by the frequent literary references in the manga, in particular the comparison of Kaneki with the protagonist of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Perhaps not for the faint-hearted, but a must-read/must-watch for manga/anime fans with no objections to a fairly dark horror-fantasy.

The House of Shattered Wings

Aliette de Bodard has been in the upper ranks of speculative-fiction writers for a while, having claimed the Nebula Award a couple of times. However, her most recent novel – The House of Shattered Wings – was the first introduction to this author’s work for me.

De Bodard’s novel is set in Paris, in a world that’s ruled by fallen angels; thanks to their residual magic these Fallen have come to constitute an aristocracy. They run almost all of the numerous Houses around which the city’s feudal society revolves. It was these Houses which brought about the recent war that’s left Paris in ruins, left areas strewn ‘with spells… primed and ready to explode in your face, with the ghosts and the hauntings and the odor of death that still hung like fog over the wrecks of counters and the faded posters for garments and perfumes from another, more innocent age.’ The book concerns a mysterious curse causing deaths within House Silverspires. In addition to House head Selene, it focuses on the junkie alchemist Madeleine, the naive newly-Fallen Isabelle, and most of all an immortal loner who comes not from Christian mythology but from Eastern mythology.

One of the novel’s strengths is its sense of history. The best fantasy worlds tend to be those which are conceived of temporally as well as spatially. Details of the past are woven into this work’s present, adding to the depth of the story considerably. Customs and traditions; the war’s still-felt impact; the characters who dominate the book despite being long-gone, notably the original founder of House Silverspires – the first of the Fallen, Morningstar (Lucifer). The past’s weight presses upon those alive, finding its outlet in the murderous curse affecting Silverspires. The explicit parallel that’s drawn with Aeschylus’s ancient tragedy The Oresteia, which shows the generations of cyclical strife within the House of Atreus, is an apt one.

The House of Shattered Wings is vast in scope, many members of its extensive cast having their own subplots and backstories. Yet de Bodard balances the different perspectives, and the different storylines, most professionally. Though her work proceeds at a stately pace, it holds the attention consistently, can border on the unputdownable. This is a book composed with skill and care; while responses to it are of course a matter of taste, there’s the incontrovertible impression that it achieves what it sets out to achieve.

This novel is one of power, and of history, and of the power of history. It’s an atmospheric tale, due more to its abundance of contextual detail than to an abundance of sensual detail (for in fact its descriptions tend to be done with broad brushstrokes thanks to its scale). Assuming that its concept sounds like something you’re into – a setting of loss and ruined splendour and decadence, in which unfolds a slow multi-layered mystery story – be assured that this concept is executed with competence. De Bodard’s prose style’s not overly remarkable, but it gets the job done; and her command of plotting really is commendable, demonstrating why she’s become acclaimed among the speculative-fiction authors of today.

Zoo City: enter a Johannesburg filled with Pullman-esque familiars and Gibsonian mystery

The genres of sci-fi and fantasy as we know them today had their main origins in Europe and America; they still remain dominated by Westerners, and for that matter by men too. Which makes Zoo City, an urban fantasy set in author Lauren Beukes’s homeland South Africa, a bit of a change. In recent years Beukes has received critical praise both for this novel and for other works, notably Moxyland (her previous book) and The Shining Girls (her subsequent one). Lately I got around to giving Zoo City a go.

Zoo City takes place in an alternate history; in this reality animal companions are linked to humans spiritually. An idea that’s not quite unique, since Philip Pullman did it already. In Beukes’s version, animals only attach themselves to those humans responsible for the loss of another person’s life. Inevitably, this has led to much discrimination being directed at these ‘animalled’ by other people. The details and the implications of the phenomenon are worked into the book convincingly, giving much depth to the setting, a nice touch being the multimedia element added by excerpts from fictional articles, websites, etc. In fact the book’s world as a whole, in terms of other aspects as well as its spec-fic ones, is brought to life compellingly – the shamans and street-vendors, the descriptions and conversations, everything working to provide a real sense of place. Both the fantasy details and the real-world details contribute to the impression of a problematically stratified society. It brings to mind District 9‘s use of the South African location for its real-life parallels with that film’s depiction of anti-extraterrestrial intolerance.

In terms of plot, Zoo City‘s a mystery story revolving around a child pop-star’s disappearance. That said, it’s no tight slick thriller; in honesty, this sprawling tale withholds secrets less through clever twists than by digressing into numerous subplots while sitting on info as long as possible. Some scenes, particularly the climactic one, also seem a little contrived and melodramatic to me. I’m more impressed by some of the novel’s less significant passages, those smaller parts where Beukes uses her keen observations to create character or atmosphere, than I am by the try-hard feel of its over-the-top set-pieces.

Whatever else it is, Zoo City‘s something a bit out of the ordinary. And in some respects, such as its creation of its setting, it’s really first-rate. It has some flaws common to works written early in novelists’ careers, is sometimes a bit of a mess, but it’s a fun read on the whole. Yes – a loud, messy, fun story.