Category Archives: Humour

In Memoriam – James Herbert

Everyone agrees what the best music in the history in the world is, right? Yeah, it’s whatever tunes reached your eardrums during those precious formative years when every minor mood change is a rollercoaster and the tiniest events assume the greatest significance. We all recognise this as it applies to music but the literary analogue is rarely mentioned. Anyone who spent too much time with their head nestled among the pages and their mind in another dimension while growing up has those authors who will stay with them forever, who moulded their literary tastes, sense of humour/morbidity, morality and more besides. Today I lost one such figure, James Herbert.

I first encountered his work while browsing my dad’s bookshelves, the only sci-fi/science library I ever needed. I’d already dabbled with Stephen King but even as an early teen I could recognise the cloying sickliness of his folksy Americana, marring an otherwise unsurpassable horror canon. As soon as I saw the title ‘The Rats‘ on the spine I knew this was worth an investment of time. It was exactly what I needed – a gore-drenched tale preying on our modern suburban fears as well as our primal disgust of all things scuttling. None of King’s cutesy breaking the fourth wall, this was all razor-sharp and crammed full of flawed characters, stupid mistakes, sarcasm by the bucketload and the natural ability with language which propelled King to his status. James Herbert was my new obsession.

First task was to complete the Rats trilogy. Lair was mildly disappointing but Domain blew me away and was my first experience with the genre which was to become my home from home – post-apocalyptica. I mean, mutant rats devouring the scattered survivors in the wake of nuclear holocaust? What’s not to like? From there I moved on to The Fog – not, as I had expected, the novel on which John Carpenter’s classic was based! This fog managed to be even more sinister, the episode involving the mass drowning at the beginning haunting my thoughts for months afterwards.

The Dark, Sepulchre, Haunted – you name it, I had to read it. Even his less stellar offerings managed to captivate me through his utterly believable characters, endless imagination and ability to turn the most innocent situation into a font of creeping dread. Recently I returned to one of his works which had failed to impress me as a teenager, The Magic Cottage, and found it transformed beyond all probability into one of my new favourite books, reminding me of none other than Neil Gaiman who in earlier years was unknown to me other than as the co-author of Good Omens. That his books can stand the test of time and even sneak their way onto your top ten list without so much as a by your leave is testament to the fact that he was far more than just another horror hack. He was a master of his game, never making ripples as large as some of the other players simply because he didn’t have to.

Today he died at his home. He was 69, not a bad innings but tragically short for someone with as great a talent as he possessed. It’s difficult to avoid the thought that we may have been robbed of some amazing works. Instead I’m going to focus on the legacy he left behind, the fact that he transormed his genre and lent it a level of respect during a time when it was sorely lacking. Over the next few weeks I’m going to revisit those classics of my youth in tribute to the man we lost, perhaps posting some reviews here but more likely just doing it for my own damn pleasure.

Thank you James, and goodbye.

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Pirate Party

Pirate Cinema by Coy DoctorowReview: Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow (Tor Teen, 2012)

(Note: This was originally written for The Mountains Of Instead but turned out too long. I had to use it, especially in light of the recent death of Aaron Swartz. The themes of this book are very relevant to the case)

The year is, well, not so far from now. Life in the UK is much the same, only the technology has changed. Even in that sense society is entirely recognisable, with the only significant difference being further reliance on the internet: for study; for work; for recreation; even for claiming benefits. It is against this background that nerd icon Cory Doctorow sets his latest YA novel, Pirate Cinema.

Pirate Cinema opens with Trent McCauley, a nondescript 16 year old Bradford schoolkid, indulging in his hobby. Trent is a remixer, downloading any appearances of fictional actor Scot Colford which he can lay his hands on and rearranging them into his own wildly creative and popular montages. Unfortunately for Trent, the entertainment industry takes a dim view of such activities and under the draconian laws of the land his family have their internet service disconnected.

Even today this would be a blow to many people – one year without access to email, Facebook, YouTube and everything else. In Trent’s world it is nigh a death sentence. His younger sister is cut off from vital educational resources in the middle of her schooling. His father, barely scraping by at an online temping gig, has his sole source of income removed. His mother can no longer apply for benefits to aid her crippling leg problems, nor can she find any online help. Trent, shocked by the consequences of his innocent downloading, flees home and heads for the bright lights of London.

By the end of his first night he has lost his laptop (using it as a pillow while sleeping in a park was perhaps a silly idea) and is reduced to begging for change. Fortunately he is adopted by Jem, a genuinely altruistic old hand at this life and Doctorow briefly transforms Pirate Cinema into Oliver Twist. Jem introduces Trent to the smart (and honest) way to live on the streets, with the principle of sharing their gains with those less fortunate at the forefront of their minds. Before long they are squatting in an abandoned pub and renovating it, transforming it into a veritable palace.

Trent soon finds his internet feet again and is continuing his remixing under the alias Cecil B. DeVil. This soon lands him in hot water yet again and matters escalate to the point of a legal battle and a grassroots war with the entertainment industry and the corrupt politicians whose pockets they are filling to ensure their laws pass. The ongoing collaborations with Trent and his new-found activist friends, set against the scheming and machinations of the executives and politicians, form the meat of Pirate Cinema, with Cory Doctorow subjecting his characters to all manner of mishaps and misadventures before reaching an exhilarating conclusion.

Pirate Cinema is a great little read. My only real gripe was his often embarrassing attempts so conduct dialogue using teenage slang. Canadian Doctorow has been resident in the UK for several years but his grasp of kidspeak is tenuous at best and makes for some unintentional giggle along the way. Seriously, I have never seen anyone say “Cor!” outside of the Beano.

On the plus side, it never takes itself too seriously and plays about with pop culture references, pokes gentle fun at its geeky excesses and manages to entertain and ultimately educate at the same time. It’s suited perfectly to an audience of an age with its protagonist and any references to sex, drugs and swearing are subtly glossed over. It’s possible that some may find Doctorow’s style overly preachy, an accusation levelled at his previous YA effort Little Brother (a book which made me wish I had been born 20 years later so I could be reading it as a teenager today). However, as an avowed copyfighter this was not an issue for me personally. Overall it delivers exactly what one would expect from a YA novel with this premise – a funny, rousing techno-fable which should please a wide audience, especially among computer-literate teens.

So that’s the meat of the review. Now for the Public Service Announcement. Pirate Cinema is a fictional novel but the world it depicts is most assuredly not. The legal battles, political maneuvering and lobbying which form the heart of the story are based, with very little exaggeration, on events occurring right now. UK readers may be familiar with the Digital Economy Act which passed in 2010 and handed unbelievable powers to rights holders to prosecute those they believe to be infringing copyright, even without evidence. France recently introduced a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule identical to that used in Pirate Cinema. The copyright battles in the US are probably well known to everyone with an internet connection.

There is a mammoth power struggle going on and unfortunately consumers and artists are getting the short end of the stick due mainly to simple lack of funding. Multi-billion dollar industries whose profits continue to grow year on year – despite deepening recessions – would have us believe that those who would dare to remix existing works and share them without charging a single penny are on a par with organised criminals like the mafia and should be jailed. People like me, who buy an ebook at Amazon for an insanely inflated price and are forced to use third party programs to strip its DRM and read it on the device of our choosing, are lawbreakers – a threat to the entire publishing industry.

This is not hyperbole. This is real. This is how the situation is portrayed to MPs by lobbyists with pockets full of party invitations and brown envelopes. People like Cory Doctorow are trying to help the situation by informing and educating.

And yes, he is a man with the courage of his convictions. Pirate Cinema is available for free download at his website, along with all of his other novels. Contrary to what the industry would have us believe, he conducted his own experiment and, in line with what other similar studies have shown, found that offering free downloads with no DRM at all actually increased sales of paper and electronic copies alike. Sharing is good. Sharing works.

(Okay, the free copy has regular ‘commercial interludes’ reminding you that he has to eat but this is a small price to pay. If so inclined you can choose to donate a copy to a school or library via his website while retaining a free copy yourself. This is very, very good thing.)

So there we have it. Call Pirate Cinema a simple novel, in which case it is a wonderfully enjoyable David and Goliath tale. Call it an educational supplement, opening people’s eyes to the goings-on around them. Call it a call to arms for today’s young generation, warning them of the need to exercise their rights and maintain eternal vigilance. Whichever way you look at it, Pirate Cinema is a gem of a book for any tech-oriented, creative or even vaguely pro-active mind.

Download Pirate Cinema: http://craphound.com/pc/download/
Open Rights Group: http://www.openrightsgroup.org/
Electronic Frontier Foundation: https://www.eff.org/

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Of Spiders And Men

This Book Is Full Of Spiders - David WongReview: This Book Is Full Of Spiders (Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It) by David Wong (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012)

It’s a normal day in [Undisclosed], which means that for human values of normal it’s beyond strange. For starters, David’s session with his psychiatrist hasn’t gone too well. The court-ordered therapy for shooting that pizza delivery guy in the gut with a crossbow are a drain. He might have  been a monster, what’s a guy supposed to do? But depressing couch trips aren’t strange, they’re just depressing. What’s strange is being attacked in his room by a skittering mutant spider, which goes on to possess the body of the cop his neighbours called to investigate the disturbance he was making while fending off its attacks. That the cop then morphed into a nigh-unstoppable killing machine and wreaked merry havoc in the local hospital only serves to complicate matters.

This, in a nutshell, is the opening gambit of This Book Is Full Of Spiders (Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It), David Wong’s sequel to the cult 2011 novel, John Dies At The End. If you haven’t read the first book then avert your eyes because herein lie spoilers, the first being this – John most certainly did not die at the end. Not really. During the course of the first book, he and his best friend, David, imbibed ‘Soy Sauce’, a sentient drug which had unfortunate and often explosive effects on 99% of those who ingested it. The lucky ones, such as John and David, found themselves able to see behind the normal veil of reality. In this world lurk untold horrors, having their wicked way with an unsuspecting human race. Evil shadow men stalk their clueless prey and nothing, apart from the endless stream of puerile and hilarious gibberish pouring from our heroes’ mouths, is as it seems.

The months between novels have been less eventful. With the horrors of the sauce world somewhat tamed the inseparable pair, joined by David’s girlfriend Amy and truck-driving dog Molly, are back to being cogs in a machine. David works at a painfully boring video store while Amy studies in a nearby university. John is, well, just John. A conspiracy of silence obscures the more interesting events in [Undisclosed] , relegating the previous events to a scant few local newspaper column inches. No-one mentions the unmentionable as long as it can be avoided. Which it could be, of course, until now. A SWAT team being slaughtered in full public view while a hospital is nearly demolished tends to attract unwanted attention. And that’s just the beginning.

Before long David and John are fighting off what looks to be nothing less than a full-on invasion. [Undisclosed] is cordoned off by the National Guard and the sinister REPER organisation in an attempt to contain the spread of what appears to the outside world to be a genuine zombie apocalypse. Outside the quarantine zone is a full-on panic. News reports are drenched in guts, the ‘Z’ word is everywhere and people nearby are either tooling up or panicking. Amy and John are on the outside, trying to get in. David is on the inside and is slowly realising the full extent of what is happening and the sinister forces at play.

You may have gathered from the review so far that This Book Is Full Of Spiders  isn’t exactly Anna Karenina. David Wong’s literary style is akin to the scribbled notes you might find dotted around your house after an evening of House Of The Dead and tequila with the friends your mum always told you not to hang around with. It’s juvenile, puerile and the plot is held together with scotch tape. And that’s why I loved it so damn much.

Wong’s strength  is his enthusiasm. The relish which he concocts a particularly gruesome abomination and then dispatches it in equally splattersome fashion is infectious. The throwaway stoner dialogue and non-stop childish insults had me laughing out loud in public. In Taiwan. The eventual fate of one of the book’s central characters, the improbably named Lance Falconer, had me erupting in my school’s office. Trying to teach after that was interesting. The humour comes at you right from the outset with his description of [Undisclosed]’s Native American history and just keeps piling it on. Even the core romance between David and Amy is treated lightly to allow it to form a moral backbone to the story without detracting from the mayhem going on around it.

The whole book is also just so damn cinematic. I still haven’t seen the big screen version of John Dies At The End but I seriously can’t wait for an adaptation of the sequel. Hell, even during the course of writing this review I found myself subconsciously typing ‘movie’ instead of ‘novel’. Any lover of comedic sci-fi, the Evil Dead movies or just insane humour and nerd culture in general should get a huge kick out of This Book Is Full Of Spiders. You can pick up a copy damn near anywhere, right now.

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