(special) Guest Blogs Books & Comics Gaming

Back to the Future…with a Warhammer – Aaron Dembski-Bowden Guest Blog

The Appeal of Getting Your Ass Kicked

Back when I was a kid, in that era of willing vulnerability when we’re all sponging up ideas and inspiration to form our adult tastes, I saw something in the sci-fi genre that really stood out. In hindsight, I’m sort of proud of myself for noticing it, but maybe I’m giving my youthful self a little too much credit.

What I saw was this:

rogue trader

Futuristic soldiers in power armour and firing massive guns wasn’t exactly revolutionary twenty years ago when I was 10 – and these days, it makes up approximately 492% of video game sci-fi storylines. I’m not advocating that image as something outstandingly original. (I’d also be doing the setting of Warhammer 40,000 a massive injustice if I didn’t admit that the art, like the setting itself, has come a long way since then.)

What gripped me at the time though, was the fact that these guys who were obviously the human heroes of the whole deal… Well, look at them.

They’re losing.

This has “last stand” written all over it, and that’s what clicked in my head. These guys, whoever the hell they were, were getting their asses kicked by the shadowy shapes emerging from trenches in the background. The surviving soldiers are bunched together, surrounded by the bodies of their brothers, while inhuman silhouettes stalk towards them over a scene of literal scorched earth.

In England, the concept of war is very closely associated with World War II. Our grandparents fought in it; our media makes a big thing about it; we learn all about it in school (at least, insofar as all this applies to guys and girls in their 20s, 30s and 40s.) This picture evoked that feeling in me right then and there, which was clearly the artist’s intention – despite the sci-fi elements, this is blatantly reminiscent of the brutal battlefield photos from WWII. One of the guys is even clutching a flag, trying to keep it raised as he’s cut down.

This was sci-fi that instantly felt grim, bitter, and strangely English, of all things, which made it feel curiously familiar. In turn, the familiarity made it feel more credible, more plausible, and subsequently much more immersive.

What kind of crazily dark sci-fi was this? Why was it mixing the destructive imagery and themes of World War II with more traditional sci-fi?

In short, it resonated inside my spongy infant brain, and I wanted to know more.

Obviously, that’s a retroactive explanation with a vocabulary chock full of delicious hindsight, but even though I never phrased it in those exact terms back then, that was how I started to really get interested in the setting of Warhammer 40,000.

The Panicked Case for the Defence

This is going to come across as a little defensive at first. Just bear with me, and you’ll see why.

I’m a pretty cynical guy, sometimes. I don’t mean to be, but when one of your interests is a niche within a niche, you tend to come face to face with about six million insulting stereotypes. Some of them carry some weight, while some of them have pretty much no basis in reality.

If you’ve got a double-niche interest, you know the feeling all too well. Maybe you collect tractor magazines, or something. Perhaps you race those little radio-controlled cars, or whatever. Hell, maybe you even dress up in shoe polish and pretend to be a dark elf at Live Action Roleplay. I mean, someone has to. I’m not here to judge. I empathise with you.

Well, I empathise a bit. I also think you’re a nerd, but we can still be friends.

Let’s not beat around the bush, fiction based within an established license (Star Wars, Star Trek, Warhammer 40,000 or whatever else) often suffers some pretty extreme criticism, and a lot of it is valid – that’s Sturgeon’s Law, after all.

But when the license itself is based on “a board game”, you’re in for a brutal ride when the bell rings and it’s time to justify what you enjoy. Games are usually seen as inherently childish, thus lacking any value as something nuanced and detailed enough to nourish the adult brain.

And, damn, painting little figures of Space Marines is about as far from traditionally cool as you can get, unless you’re also saying stuff like “Actually, I’m a blue dragon”, or admitting you know what a hundred-sided die looks like.

I guess those are way worse.

(Spoiler: a D100 looks like a golf ball, making it a charlatan among proper dicekind.)

So with that in mind, I’m going to wax lyrical on what Warhammer 40,000 actually is. Not the game. Forget the game. I mean the setting as a sci-fi universe with decades of development, and the novels set within it.

We call it “Grimdark” 


There’s that World War I and II vibe again…

I’m aware that as articles go, the first one usually has to stick to a degree of setup, and it can read as a little dry. I apologise for that, and I’ll keep it to a minimum. But excuse me while I blabber just a bit, because I do freaking love this world.

Warhammer 40,000 takes its core concept and rolls with it right to the end of the universe: In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.

That’s the mood behind the theme, and it’s what creates the palpable undercurrent of gritty, dirty desolation.

I use three words to describe Warhammer 40,000 at its simplest, when we’re talking terms of theme and atmosphere. Bleak, Gothic, and Baroque.

Bleak: “Without hope or encouragement.”

Gothic: “Noting or pertaining to a style of literature characterised by a gloomy setting, grotesque, mysterious, or violent events, and an atmosphere of degeneration and decay.”

Baroque: “Extravagantly ornate, florid, and convoluted in character or style”.

That sounds pretty pretentious, I’ll admit. But it’s also accurate.

See, Warhammer 40,000 is a sci-fi setting where everything that could possibly go wrong, has gone wrong. All of the optimism in science fiction; all of the hopes and tales of a brighter future with the ascension and evolution of mankind… All of that has failed. The golden age has passed, and humanity failed to cling onto the precious lore of those magnificent centuries.

Our species has an empire that spans the galaxy, but everything – everything – is devoted to fuelling the engines of our eternal crusade against alien races and the ever-present threat of heresy. The galaxy is besieged, and humanity’s empire crumbles at the edges. We lose ground, we lose worlds and star systems, every night.

The God-Emperor of Mankind was a secular visionary devoted to bringing about humanity’s perfection, but for the last 10,000 years he has existed as nothing more than a stasis-caught corpse shackled to a life support machine, using his psychic powers to scream his last breath into the endless void, in order to power our species’ space travel. Humanity worships a husk bound to a throne – and worse, to keep the Emperor’s corpse and its vestiges of power preserved, thousands of souls are sacrificed each month, their lives fed into the soul engines powering the Emperor’s life support.

We are capable of warp flight, but it’s far from a matter of speed and convenience. To make a warp jump is to punch a hole into another reality, and race through a literal Hell realm of boiling psychic storms. Daemons formed from raw human emotion claw at the ship, kept at bay by ancient shield generators.

Invention is heresy. Literally, heresy, because only the schematics preserved from our golden age can be trusted. All mechanical genius is the purview of the Martian Mechanicus, who believe machines have souls, and construct massive Titan war machines to walk the battlefields as gods, and Imperial Navy battleships the size of cities.

Humanity feeds its sons and daughters into the meatgrinder regiments of the Imperial Guard, in the keenest allegory to both World Wars (the Guard’s tanks even resemble WWI vehicles), while our greatest warriors are taken as children and genetically modified in hidden monasteries who stand eight feet tall in layered ceramite power armour; can spit acid; and their personal firearm is a fully-automatic rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

These last are the hallmark heroes of Warhammer 40,000: the Adeptus Astartes. Those are the guys that come up the moment you Google “Space” and “Marine” in the same sentence. At best, they are monastic, hypnotically-trained religiously revered warriors so genetically enhanced that they barely count as human anymore. At worst, they’re psychopathic degenerates with chainsaw swords that are barely tolerated by their own species, but are too powerful – and too necessary – to be abandoned.

And these are the good guys.


“So it’s not for kids, then.”

Kids like it, sure. It’s got war in it, and it’s a developed, cool setting. The ties to the game bring in a lot of younger readers, though it’d be a lie to say I – and, I assume, my colleagues – are writing for that age group. The setting itself is just so absolutely, punishingly dark, that it hardly rewards immature storytelling. That’d be doing an injustice to it.

To paraphrase myself, what draws me to Warhammer 40,000 is how bleak existence is. How corruption taints absolutely everything, from a peasant’s harsh life; to a hive city worker toiling 17 hours a day in a meaningless grind; to the billions destined to die in humanity’s armies; to supernatural threats most humans would never see.

Yet people still live, fight, survive… and that’s where the stories are. Degeneration is inevitable, even in the aspects that are intentionally funny. I think that’s powerful. It’s a kickass theme. Omnipresent decay is an insidious concept that makes my skin crawl, and 40K has it in spades. It’s what Gormenghast would look like if Titus Groan had an empire. It’s got the stagnation versus freedom aspect that ran through Peake’s work, and it’s got the taint of madness, misery and emotional sensitivity.

And on that note, with the dreadfully vital introductions done, I’ll leave you to digest it in peace. Feel free to hit me up with any questions, comments, or demands for any aspects of the Warhammer 40,000 setting you’d like me to rage about in the future.

In a stunning break from tradition, I’m trying not to swear every three seconds.

Can I keep that up?

(special) Guest Blogs Sandman Meditations

Sandman Meditations – The Wake

the wake

Which Occurs in the Wake of What has Gone Before

Sometimes, the English language plays along. A god-like king of dreams has died, and so there is a wake. Dreams, in the literal sense at least, die upon the dreamer’s waking, and so, too, in The Sandman when Morpheus is no more: the dreamers wake.

Interviews Movies & TV

Gareth Edwards Interview | Monsters

Gareth Edwards is not what you probably picture when you think of a special effects artist turned science fiction director:  he’s personable and energetic, as charming to look at as he is to listen to, and utterly enthusiastic about his new movie, Monsters.  If you haven’t heard about it, it’s a near-future in which a NASA probe brought back life from one of Jupiter’s moons, and the creatures have taken over half of Mexico.

(special) Guest Blogs

Deadpool – Badass of the Week


Deadpool is a criminally deranged, psychopathic ninja mercenary with a mutant healing factor, a withering sarcastic wit, an encyclopedic array of pop culture references, and unfettered access to katanas, hand grenades and automatic weapons, which he uses to kill everyone ever.  He’s like Snake Eyes, Wolverine, and David Spade’s Hollywood Minute mashed into the body of an Olympic athlete, then combined with the impulse control of Charlie Manson – and the end result is that he’s so fucking awesome at pummeling people into meat juice that he somehow manages to be an effective assassin even though he sneaks around heavily-fortified military facilities in a fire-engine red jumpsuit.

Movies & TV

The Goonies – Troy’s Bucket (and Why I Ain’t Riding Up It)

If you’re anything like me, you’re broke.

Not quite selling-your-plasma-for-lunch-money broke.  But definitely dodging-bill-collectors-and-praying-to-a-God-you-don’t-believe-in-that-your-car-won’t-break-down-again broke.

Books & Comics


0. Looking Back in order to Move Forward

One of the more interesting developments in superhero comics has been the growing popularity of comics that take familiar characters and transplant them into unfamiliar historical contexts. Though this type of postmodern speculative exercise has been around in one form or another since the Silver Age, the current vogue has its roots in Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s Gotham by Gaslight (1989), an ‘elseworld’ that took Batman and reinvented him as a steampunk vigilante battling Jack the Ripper in a turn of the Century Gotham City. Other attempts at historical re-potting include Superman’s reinvention as a Soviet tyrant in Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son (2003) and Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 (2003), which transplanted the entire Marvel universe to Elizabethan England.

(special) Guest Blogs Notes from New Sodom

What is Style? – Notes From New Sodom

Picasso Guernica

What is style?

Movies & TV

Cut For Your Pleasure – LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL

Exploring censorship, alternate versions of crime classics and the reasons behind creative changes. This edition: LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL

Movies & TV

12 Time-Twisted Crime Films

It’s time to spring forward, as the saying goes. What daylight savings actually saves is beyond me. Just another way of making me wake up earlier than sunrise. Twisting time has worked a whole lot better in crime cinema.

Movies & TV

Paris in a Beijing Suburb: The Failure of Capitalism in The World of Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke is not only the best filmmaker to emerge from China’s sixth generation of filmmakers, but also widely regarded as one of the most important and vital directors working today by both his peers and the critics. The World (Shìjiè) is his fourth film and the first to be set outside of his native province of Shanxi, although a number of characters are from Shanxi and communicate with each other in the Shanxi dialect.

Movies & TV

Takin’ ‘er Easy for All Us Sinners: The World According to Jeffrey Lebowski

The Big Lebowski enjoys what is probably the largest cult following of all the cult-attracting films of Joel and Ethan Coen, and has pretty much since its release over a decade ago.  And “cult” has become more apropos a term since the advent of Dudeism, the official unofficial philosophy of Jeffrey “the Dude” Lebowski ( Dudeism teaches that we all need to just take it easy, man, and on a personal note, if there is one thing I’ve figured out about myself in the past few years, it’s that I am not perfectly calm here.  But I am learning to abide by adhering to a pretty strict Dude regimen.  Here’s some of the stuff I’ve figured out.

Books & Comics

Chew… Stripp’d

Food is the archetypal First World problem. While some parts of the world starve and other parts are turned inside out by our demand for low-cost and low-fuss supplies of exotic and increasingly refined foodstuffs, the West is growing increasingly alienated and distant from the things that it eats.

Movies & TV

Top 10 Science Fiction Movies of the Decade 2000-2009

All the end-of-year/decade lists going up right now inspired me to hit one up of my own. And all the hype about James Cameron’s Avatar, which is being trumpeted as some sort of monumental science fiction success, gave me just the topic:  the actual best science fiction movies of the aughts.

Books & Comics Movies & TV

Playin’ With Ice and Fire: A Game of Thoughts | Jon Snow Chapter 19

She’s new, I’m the re-reader. She’s the newbie, I’m the spoilery vet. Together She’s  g-mashin’ George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and getting here POV on. Today she moves on to Chapter 19, a Jon Snow POV chapter.

Books & Comics Movies & TV

Playin’ With Ice and Fire: A Game of Thoughts | Catelyn Stark Chapter 18

She’s new, I’m the re-reader. She’s the  newbie, I’m the spoilery vet. Together She’s  g-mashin’ George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and getting here POV on. Today she moves on to Chapter 18, a Catelyn Stark POV chapter.

Movies & TV

Songs of Hate, Part Two: The Visual Instead Of The Verbal

We left off last column with a run-down on the first of actress/singer Meiko Kaji’s Female Prisoner Scorpion series and a hint that things were about to get pretty weird. Well, the phantasmagoria goes full bore in the second film in the series, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (Joshuu Sasori – Dai 41 Zakkyobo). Filmed, like its predecessor, in 1972, here Nami Matsushima, aka Sasori (scorpion), is pretty much fully transformed into something supernatural and, like Lee Marvin’s Walker/Parker in Point Blank, begins to haunt the minds of all who’ve wronged her. She even transcends time and space through some stunningly psychedelic timeshifts and edits. At one point, as Sasori hacks away at her foe, she literally slashes through the “screen”, taking us to a different environment.  It’s completely, beautifully bonkers.

Movies & TV

Forget It, Eddie, It’s Toontown – The Crime Fiction Roots Of Roger Rabbit

My friend’s dad took us to see Willow one sunny summer’s day in 1988.  It was a good movie and all, but honestly I was extremely distracted throughout the whole thing.  All I could think about was one of the coming attractions I’d seen for a film called Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  I’d seen Bedknobs and Broomsticks and other fare where cartoons were mixed with live action.  But this flick looked much different—it had sex and violence and swear words.  Mix those with cartoons, and it was everything my almost adolescent heart could desire.

Books & Comics Movies & TV

G.I. Joe Rawhides – 30 Years Later, the G.I. Joe Animated Movie

Back in 1987 fans of G.I. Joe got an animated film that has gone on to become a pretty divisive movie during a time which was probably the height of or toward the end of the height of the popularity for the G.I. Joe brand. Much like the Transformers animated film from the previous year it can quite plainly be seen as a feature length commercial for a new wave, maybe even a generation, of characters. I was overseas as a kid and when one of my friends got this on VHS it was HUGE news in my school, a part of a close knit U.S. military community in Italy. Back then it was just awesome and when you click it on now you realize that the intro remains one of the best in cartoon history.

Movies & TV

Love Throughout The Ages: Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times

The Taiwanese New Wave that emerged in the 80s provided two of the best film makers of the modern age in the late Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Jonathan Rosenbaum has compared both of their work to that of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, in that they eschew the usual pacing and narrative structure of a film in order to portray life in a way that is more realistic. Both of their films are grounded in the troubled history of Taiwan and are deeply affected by the past that they are engaging, that of twentieth century Taiwan. Yang chooses to set most of his films in a contemporary setting (of his films, only the short film Expectations and his epic A Brighter Summer Day are set in the past) in an urban setting, usually Taipei, his characters tend to be middle class or upwardly mobile, but at heart of these films were the very human consequences of the legacy of Japanese rule and the onset of Westernization.  Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films in comparison tend to be set in the past, in rural areas, focusing on the lives of primarily working class characters as they go about their day to day life.

Movies & TV

The Ten Greatest Henchmen In Movie History

Say you’re putting together a syndicate.  One of the first things that you are going to need is somebody to take care of your light work for you when words have run out.  As a means of determining the appropriate skill set for this oh-so-important addition to your workforce, the Complex has assembled a ranking of some of the more legendary henchman ever to grace the screen.  You know, as a way to gauge some of the qualities you might be looking for.

In ranking these heavies, extra points were earned for singularity of purpose, imperviousness to pain, and skill within the realm of hand-to-hand combat.  Points were taken away for any actions tantamount to a betrayal of the henchman’s employer, or conspicuous behavior likely to cause more trouble than harm.

Here’s how they shook out.

Movies & TV

Everything is Transitory but the Family Remains: Yasujirō Ozu’s The End of Summer

Throughout his career, Yasujirō Ozu experimented with ensemble narrative. While it forms the core of his most famous film, one of the greatest films ever made, Tokyo Story, he first employed the style years earlier in Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family. There is something particularly special about Ozu’s ensemble films in the way in which the lives of the characters within the film are entwined for better or for worse. The slow pacing and the rarity of real confrontation give the films what David Bordwell calls “calm”, the lives of the characters are a sort of quiet sadness that makes the tragedy more affecting.

Movies & TV

The Millennium Falcon or Serenity? | Point/Counterpoint

If there’s one thing nerds like to do, it’s debate.  And if there’s one thing nerds like to debate about, it’s useless trivia from TV shows and movies.  Thus, we humbly submit for your reading pleasure: The Nerd Point/Counterpoint.

This week’s topic:  Which is the better cargo ship?  The Millennium Falcon or Serenity?

The Millennium Falcon—Eric Schlelein

My argument is short, because I don’t feel I need to say any more than this:  It’s the Millennium Freaking Falcon.

While I will allow that George Lucas’ grasp on the laws of quality storytelling may be comically tenuous, I’ll give him this, the man knows cool starship designs.  The Star Destroyer?  The X-Wing fighter?  The Emperor’s shuttle?  All very cool, very interesting starship designs.  The Star Wars movies set the bar by which all starship designs should be measured.

And for my money, the coolest ship in the entire Star Wars universe is the Millennium Falcon.  Elegant in its ugliness, clunkily sleek, aesthetically utilitarian, the Falcon is the only ship from here to Corellia that I’d want to fly.

I mean, come on!  It can make point five past light speed!  That’s not even possible!  It made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs!  It’s so cool its speed can be measured as an expression of distance!  The Falcon is so awesome it not only shatters the laws of grammar and diction, but also physics!

Let’s talk design.  Both the Falcon and Serenity are cargo ships, and both have clever little hidey-holes for smuggling, but the Falcon‘s are in the floor!  Who’s going to check the floor?  Plus, guns!  In a universe where the Empire lurks around every corner, it’s probably more than a little comforting to have those twin over-under four-barrel cannons that are so easy to use a whiny hick farmboy from Tatooine can sit right down and blow some TIE fighters away like a pro.  And let’s not forget that kick-ass little automatic belly gun!  I’ll just bet that’s handy to have around to get you out of some tight spots.  On Serenity, you have to steal a gun from some colony, or stick Jayne and Vera out the front and hope for the best.

Also, whereas Serenity mounts a crew of five, the Falcon is so well put together, you only need two crew members.  Well, let’s say one and a half (I’m still not convinced how great a role the Wookiee plays in the operation of the ship).  And while we’re on the subject of crew, let’s talk about who’s actually running the ship.  Both Malcolm Reynolds and Han Solo are paragons of coolness, but how much does that actually count in the long run?  Who actually runs his ship better?  Mal’s got enough problems just keeping his ship’s engine maintained, but on top of that he has to deal with his strongarm who is constantly undermining his authority when he’s not actively challenging his command, his pilot and second in command who are not only in love but MARRIED (show me a captain that allows that level of fraternization between his crew and I’ll show you a captain that would be better off running a day spa or a tree farm), he’s harboring a known fugitive, and he sometimes requires the services of a prostitute (sorry, Companion) to get him places he wouldn’t be able to normally get to.  Han Solo travels light, he moves quickly, and he doesn’t bother with the complications brought up by having a crew.  The Force?  Who needs it?  Han Solo sure doesn’t, which is a good thing since the power and mystique of the Force were all but destroyed in the Midi-chlorian Fiasco of 1999.

Yes, the hyperdrive on the Falcon can be a bit dodgy, but when you’re cheerfully guffawing at the laws of physics by going FASTER THAN THE SPEED OF LIGHT, a little mechanical difficulty is little more than a piddling inconvenience.  And sure, a couple of mynocks can put the ship out of operation indefinitely.  But Serenity breaks if you look at it funny.  For God’s sake, Serenity’s primary buffer panels seem to be stuck on the ship with chewing gum.  The Falcon’s taken more shots than a fraternity house.  Heck, its sensor dish got knocked clean off in the assault on the second Death Star, and it still escaped like a champ!  In comparison to the fine crystal goblet that is Serenity, the Falcon is built like an Abrams tank.

So, Elizabeth, you keep Serenity.  I’ll be on the Falcon trying to get the Kessel run down to eleven parsecs.


Serenity—Elizabeth Rappe

 Eric, I’m a big enough person to admit the Millennium Falcon has its charms. It’s all craggy and tough, and wastes no time with aesthetics because hey, there’s stuff to smuggle. It’s like the Tommy Lee Jones of the galaxy far, far away.

Yes, Serenity breaks whenever the plot dictates it must, but so does the Millennium Falcon, and at least the Serenity can be repaired by the elbow grease of its crew. One of the Firefly class selling points is its durability and ease of repair, whereas the Falcon is so fussy that only Artoo can repair it!   The Falcon is also an angry ship, sneering at droid, human and Wookiee alike, whereas the Serenity stays afloat with love. With love, man. How are you going to argue with that?

But it’s in the elements of longterm survival that Serenity beats Falcon.  She boasts a fantastic and sterile medical bay, whereas the Falcon has only that grimy medical bunk with a few dirty tubes hanging from it.    Let’s not romanticize futuristic intergalactic warfare – people get hurt, and not all of us are lucky enough to be dismembered and cauterized by a lightsaber.  I don’t want to catch tetanus because the Falcon doesn’t even have a Purell dispenser. Massive guns are great, but it’s the little things like a medical bay that keep the body count down and wins rebellions.

Plus, you can LIVE on the Serenity.  Really live.  I suppose Han has a bunk stashed somewhere (although judging from the medical bay, I shudder to think of what it’s like), but the Serenity has a comfy and cozy cabin for everyone.   It even has a darling kitchenette and living room where you can actually kick back and relax.  The Falcon has a gaming table, and judging from the way Han & Co are always clustered around it, that’s all they’ve got. War is hell and all that, but if you’ve got nowhere to decompress and sleep, you’re going to go down from space madness. And come on, how cute is that Western/Asian decor?  The Falcon is all black, steel, and sort of greasy looking. (If we consider the books canon, then the Falcon also smells bad, whereas the Serenity probably smells like leather and Chinese incense.)

Serenity is also a beautiful ship, both avian and insect, all grace and curves. She’s a real lady. Sure, she’s delicate, but that only makes her easy to underestimate, like a saloon girl or Chinese ninja nun.  Those smooth lines aren’t just good looking, they also make it impossible to hide a tracking device on.  The Falcon‘s blocky exterior makes it a scanning nightmare.

Finally, just what exactly can be smuggled in Han’s ship? Other than those floor compartments, we see no evidence of a large cargo hold.  I’m not sure it’s a ship that uses its space wisely, whereas every inch of Serenity can be accounted for, and its cargo bay is flexible enough to carry cattle in!  What can you put in those compartments beyond liquor, guns, and booze?  Sure, smugglers can live hearty on that trade, but it leaves no room for improvising.  If it’s alive or needs temperature control, I think you’re screwed.

You have fun with the Falcon, my friend.   I’m just fine on the Serenity.  There’s noodle bowls, love, dinosaur toys, armchairs and comfy beds, and a real operating bay.   If you need any of these things … oh, what am I saying, your hyperdrive will undoubtedly be too broken to visit me out in the black.

originally published 9/26/2011

Movies & TV

7 Toughest Comebacks in Crime Film

Crime heroes and villains got it rough. They’re usually up to the gills in trouble and their genre, unlike horror, doesn’t smile on its bad-asses soaking up too many bullets.

A fortunate – or unfortunate, if you’re a “the grave’s half empty” kind of person – few manage some superhuman comebacks. Whether by the power of a psychotic episode, sheer grit or timely medical attention, these crime film characters practically pull off an Easter miracle.

Books & Comics Movies & TV

Batman or Rorschach? – Point/Counterpoint

o, who would you rather have operating just outside the law to protect your city?  Batman or Rorschach?  Discuss!

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Ashes of Time Redux: Wong Kar-wai as a Poet of Memory

In 2046, Wong Kar-wai’s eighth film, Tony Leung Chiu-wai plays a journalist and writer (the same character he plays in In the Mood for Love), that begins to write science-fiction as an additional income when journalist work dries up. The story that he writes, also called 2046, set in the distant future about people who travel to 2046 (whether it is a time or a place is never explained) in order to live in the memories of their lost loves, a place from where no one has ever returned. Scenes from 2046 punctuate the narrative as a parallel as Leung comes to realise that he is writing about himself.

Books & Comics

Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay Review

I have a set of bright memories associated with various of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels: Sitting, aged 13, grief-stricken and sobbing in a cold bath having finished “The Darkest Road”, the final weft in his Fionavar Tapestry; drooping in my early morning lectures five years later having welcomed in the dawn with the last page of his “Lions of Al-Rassan”; throwing myself down into my pillows and grinning, grinning, grinning at the promise of a second book in the Sarantine Mosaic duology. This last is hardly tinted with the same nostalgia, what with it only happening yesterday evening but you take my meaning.

Books & Comics Movies & TV

Shai-Hulud from DUNE or Falkor the Luck Dragon from THE NEVERENDING STORY? – Point/Counterpoint

The question on everyone’s lips, which we humbly seek to answer today,Which is the better ridiculous mode of transportation, Shai-Hulud from Frank Herbert’s Dune series, or Falkor the Luck Dragon from The Neverending Story?

Movies & TV

The 5 Worst TV Crime Show Finales

You’d think it would be easy to wrap up a crime TV series. Punish the bad guys, save the day and solve the mystery. The audience can turn off the set with their belief in an ordered universe confirmed. Easy as it may seem, plenty of crime shows flip out and faceplant when it’s time for their finale.

Some try to get too clever or artistic. Some fling the story outside the genre in a geeky attempt to surprise their viewers. Most just don’t know what the Hell they’re doing.

Movies & TV

6 Most Twisted Pranks in Crime Film

A perfect crime always has a bit of a prank to it. When you’re breaking the law, you’re duping society, after all. You play a joke on old Lady Justice. The punchline just happens to be a few steamer trunks of bearer bonds or a well-buried corpse.

But some crimes take the yukks to the next level. These law-shattering shenanigans score big on style points, surprise or sheer humor. And when it’s done for the sake of cinema, twisted pranks can leave their kink marks in our memory for years to come.

Here are 6 Twisted Pranks in Crime Film that never fail to split our sides or sicken our stomachs.

Movies & TV

Dredging Suzhou River: Artifice and Art

At the very beginning of Lou Ye’s Suzhou River (Sūzhōu Hé) the unnamed and unseen narrator and protagonist whom works as a freelance cameraman tells the viewer that he is fine filming anything just so long as the client doesn’t complain. His camera, he says, shows things the way that they are. This statement recalls that famous one of Bruno Forestier in Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (his second feature film and first to star his muse and future wife, Anna Karina), “La photographie, c’est la vérité, et le cinéma, c’est vingt-quatre fois la vérité par seconde” – “Photography is truth, and cinema is truth 24 times per second”.

Books & Comics Movies & TV

The better sci-fi/fantasy pet? Spot from Star Trek: TNG, or Oy from Stephen King’s Dark Tower | Point/Counterpoint

This week we seek to answer that most pressing of questions: Which is the better sci-fi/fantasy pet?  Spot from Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Oy from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series?

Movies & TV

Authenticity in Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon

Before we begin, I would like to say a few brief words on the nature of this column. I believe it is impossible to talk about films without discussing what are considered spoilers, and to quote Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Is this form of worry a fit activity for grown-ups?” Therefore if you have an aversion to spoilers, I recommend that you do not read this column, consider this your only disclaimer.

Movies & TV

5 Terrifying Crime Films That Actually Happened

There are plenty of crime films that straddle some scary territory: Serial killer suspense stories, “realistic” horror and a couple gangster-style stories with eerie elements. But even though Hollywood gets accused of slathering on the ultraviolence with a spatula, that’s often just what we want to believe to protect our nerves.

Movies & TV

Songs of Hate: Meiko Kaji and Female Prisoner Scorpion (Part One)

She sold over a million albums, her films inspired much of Kill Bill, and when she didn’t want to do what she was asked of by executives, she said uh-uh and split for greener pastures. Her name is Meiko Kaji. Possessed with a confidence and an intensity that saw her type-cast as one of Japan’s toughest bad girls, Meiko’s beauty and fierce you’re-a-fucking-dead-man stare, framed by tresses of long jet-black hair (frequently shot in weirdly-angled extreme close-up), has made her a global cult film icon.

Movies & TV

It’s Not The Quantity, It’s The Quality: Sion Sono’s COLD FISH

Back in my days teaching English in Japan, I raised the topic of murders and why they were so frequently extreme in Japan. One student actually said in reply, “It’s not the quantity, it’s the quality.” Kind of grimly funny, and a nice attempt at busting out some natural speech, but the thing is, I totally got what he meant. I always believed that the severed heads stuck on school fence posts and the dismembered parts littered around cities, not to mention the extreme pornography, were a result of social repression that, in certain people, boiled up and manifested itself in horribly sick, violent and often public ways. It’s not exactly a long bow to draw, is it? There’s a reason Ian Buruma’s fascinating book on Japanese culture (and valuable aid to this project), Behind the Mask is called that. It’s not just a clever title.

Movies & TV

Top 10 Restaurants In Crime Film

Crime films often make me hungry. Often the restaurant scenes are among the best remembered in crime flicks. The coffee shops and Italian kitchens and juke joints where criminal characters go to grab a bite or do dirt serve to define them.

Movies & TV

Heroic Bloodshed: John Woo in Hong Kong | Tokyo Drifter

John Woo makes cool films. His Hong Kong action films are amongst some of, if not the best, action movies ever made. Films like A Better Tomorrow and its sequel, A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer, and Once a Thief had high grosses that contributed to the golden age of Hong Kong Cinema during the eighties and early nineties. His work proved influential not only in Hong Kong, but also in the international scene, leading to interest in Hong Kong cinema in countries like the United Kingdom and America, and influencing a generation of non-Asian filmmakers. Woo would himself later make the transition to Hollywood, making films like Broken Arrow and Face/Off, sadly not up to the same standard as his earlier work. For a generation though, Woo defined what it meant to be cool. Gangsters started to dress like Chow Yun Fat in A Better Tomorrow, complete with Alain Delon sunglasses (which caused them to be sold out in Hong Kong). The over the top gun fight choreography, slickness, hint of black humour, and symbolism that has become cliché through uninspired repetition by Hollywood was fresh and exciting. As Bordwell says, he is the ultimate Hong Kong auteur, because when you were watching one of his films, you knew that it could only be a John Woo film.

Movies & TV

The Entertainers: 5 Essential Movies of Scam Cinema

Hollywood: it’s all a scam, isn’t it?

For all of our lives, the movies have promised us big, big things.  Action and adventure are just out there waiting for us.  Good always triumphs over evil.  A simple confusion of gender will result in a humorous situation.  And everybody is having way more sex than you.  Like the good little marks we all are, we run frantically to these show-biz con-men with fistfuls of dollars, just begging to be parted with our money and our senses.  And then as with any good con, once it’s all over, we stand there on the sidewalk, squinting in the sunlight, our dreams crushed by reality and our pockets empty.  The movies are the longest running scam in world history.

Books & Comics

The Chimpanzee Complex… Stripp’d

There is consolation in conspiracy. Whenever something terrible happens, humans look for answers and they don’t stop looking even when they have found them: It wasn’t Oswald who killed Kennedy, it was the mob or the commies, or the CIA. It wasn’t a drunk driver who killed Princess Diana; it was British Intelligence and the Royal Family. The reason why our minds are drawn to conspiracies is because conspiracies make the world seem a less random and little more comprehensible. Our need to derive spiritual sustenance from a belief that we are part of some grand plan or pattern fuels religion as well as psychology. In fact, one could argue that the whole point of Freudian psychoanalysis is the construction of elaborate conspiracy theories that explain away people’s less desirable character traits:


Memories of Wing Commander

There aren’t many things from my youth that I truly miss, but one of the members of that elite group is the space combat flight simulator game. Once quite common, they are all but unknown today, and that’s a shame. For me, personally, my regret at the genre’s passing is about much more than the fact that I’ll never get to play Freespace 3. (Though that is also a source of nigh-overwhelming anguish, obviously.) My own first encounter with the genre was one of the things that really expanded my ideas of what a video game could be.

Movies & TV

In and Out of The Big House: DOING TIME and 9 SOULS

By his own admission, noted Mangaka (pro comics creator) Kazuichi Hanawa had long been interested in themes of confinement. An early, unfinished experiment was a manga concerning a masked man locked up in a basement. It’s oddly appropriate then that Hanawa, a noted collector of replica firearms would, years later, be incarcerated in Hokkaido and serve roughly twenty months of a three-year sentence (December 1994-October 1996) after “trying out” some remodelled guns he’d acquired.

Movies & TV

More Evil, the Borg or the Aliens? | Point/Counterpoint

In our never-ending quest to reduce the absurd, we offer the following Point/Counterpoint discussion:  Who is the better evil insidious race, the Borg, or the Aliens?

Books & Comics

Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit… Stripp’d

Some would say that beautiful lives bloom only in the shadow cast by death. But while this may very well be true, how could we ever know for sure? Statements like this one and Plato’s ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ are supposed to be useful and practical advice that help us to determine how we ought to live our lives but if we are going to change our lives and live them either with our heads buried in books or our faces pressed up against the nearest tombstone then surely these sorts of statements need to be tested? Motoro Mase’s manga serial Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit is set in an alternate Japan where the state regularly sacrifices one citizen out of every thousand as a reminder to the others that their lives could end at any time. The Japanese state does this because it believes that by reminding its citizens of their mortality, their citizens will choose to live more productive lives. Ikigami is an exploration of what it might be like to live in such a society.


RPGs I didn’t get to play: The 8-bit years

I had the bad timing to become a console RPG fan at the dawn of the 1990s. This was originally due to a promotional gimmick run by Nintendo Power magazine in which they gave away a free copy of the game Dragon Warrior to new subscribers. My friends were bored to tears by it, but for me- a kid with extremely poor hand-eye coordination and an affinity for planning, strategy, and numbers- it was ideal.

Books & Comics

Whitechapel Squad: The Detective Comics of Warren Ellis

I’ve long believed Warren Ellis is a crime-fiction writer at heart.  The first series of Wolfskin was a clear example of sword-and-sorcery comics, but had that distinct Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars feel, a dyed-in-the-wool crook playing both sides.  Comics like Aetheric Mechanics and Captain Swing are solid steampunk works, yet revolve around cops-and-robbers shenanigans.  One of the driving tenets of our work here at Boomtron is that any good story is going to have a vital aspect of crime fiction in there, even if it’s a small one, and the oeuvre of Warren Ellis is about as nearly perfect an example of that as I can find.

Books & Comics

Black Crime Fiction: An Introduction

I. Introduction
II. The Holy Trinity – Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines
III. Gone, Forgotten and Waiting for Discovery – Robert Deane Pharr & Clarence Cooper Jr.
IV. The Best of the Rest
V. Lost to History – Jerome Dyson Wright & Charlie Avery Harris
VI. The tip of the Iceberg (but not necessarily Slim) – Books for further consideration
VII. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Years ago I came across a veritable treasure trove of crime fiction. I was at a local library looking through the books that were for sale when I saw a forgotten box of books tucked away in the corner. Curiosity got the better of me and what I discovered inside the box were worn paperbacks with dated covers by authors that I had never heard of. Books with titles like Whoreson, Poor Black and in Real Trouble and The Jones Men. Books that featured characters with names like White Folks, Kenyatta and Giveadamn Brown. All of these books would tellingly bear the stamp of the Maryland DOC.

Books & Comics

Arrivederci, Eltingville

Comic book nerds are easy targets.  Fish in a barrel and on crutches, to boot.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but going to down to comics conventions and making fun of grown men dressed in tights or in Klingon make-up is not unlike heckling the Special Olympics.  Maybe it’s less guilt-inducing, but that’s about it.

Books & Comics

Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky Review

Empire in Black and Gold is the debut of British author Adrian Tchaikovsky and the first installment in a trilogy titled Shadows of the Apt. In his debut Tchaikovsky gives us a heroic narrative where a small group of travellers offer resistance against overwhelming odds – a narrative pattern typical of epic fantasy. Empire in Black and Gold is, however, a fantasy that is far from generic. Rather it offers a story of politics, war and ruthless imperial aggression set in a highly imaginative world inhabited by nations that model themselves in the style of their insect totems.

Movies & TV

Best Fantasy Movies of the Decade: 2000-2009

When I was asked to write a companion piece to my Best Science Fiction Movies of the Decade list, I thought it would be equally as easy.  I was wrong.  There were a lot of kind of good fantasy movies over the last 10 years, but not really a lot of great ones.  I think a top five or a top 15 list would have been easier–I had a hell of a time deciding on the last two slots on this list, because I think compelling arguments could have been made for other movies for each of those last picks.

Books & Comics Interviews Movies & TV

Charlie Adlard Interview – Portrait of the Artist as a Walking Dead Man

Back in the nineties, I had the pleasure of working with Charlie Adlard on Topp’s The X-Files comic.  Ages later, the man who draws The Walking Dead was kind enough to spend some time catching up on Skype.  And it all went something like this…

Books & Comics Movies & TV

The Scott Pilgrim Girlfriend Test

So you’ve finally met a girl who seems cool.  Outlook: positive…except that you can’t figure out how to suss out her level of nerdery without offending her or seeming even geekier than you are by running through every conceivable point of geekiness she might secretly have.  Well, you’re in luck, because the graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim has been made into a movie that could literally double as a girlfriend test if your interests and/or lifestyle require a girl who is at the least tolerant of the geek in you.

Books & Comics

Phonogram… Stripp’d

One could argue that the enduring popularity of genre motifs is a direct result of the death of God.

Prior to the Enlightenment, the people of the ancient and medieval worlds knew their place.  They knew that there were gods and demons, monsters and spirits. They knew that the good things in life could be lured to them by undertaking certain actions and they knew that the bad things could be kept in the shadows by undertaking other actions. They knew that their lives were meaningful and they knew that they were part of the elaborate tapestry of myth, prophecy and magic that held the world together. However, as science cast its light into the darkness old certainties were overturned and magic was forced from the world along with that sense of purpose that the ancients took for granted.  Suddenly, humanity knew that there was nothing to fear because nothing really mattered. Instead of ritual and magic, humanity contented itself with paperwork, breakfast cereals and trips to the bathroom. We had successfully dis-enchanted the world.

Movies & TV

Scam Artist Hall Of Fame: M. Sgt. E.G. Bilko

Welcome, dear friends and other suckers, to a new regular feature here at the Criminal Complex.  Yes, the Scam Artist Hall Of Fame, as demanded by none of you, will highlight those great men and women, fictional and non, who through their erudite shrewdness and intelligence part money from its fools.  Our inaugural inductee is none other than that captain of the cardsharps, the service’s own shuckster, Sergeant Bilko.

Books & Comics Movies & TV

Before Youtube, Ninjak Debuts with a Bloodshot Problem in VALIANT Comics

Okay, so Ninjak is going to be featured in an upcoming live action webseries on Youtube by Bat in the Sun, which considering they don’t do cosmetics tutorials is a reasonably big channel on youtube and has more subscribers/watchers than any American comic book has. I say American because I think One Piece still keeps comics alive and hovers around that 7 figure readership. I follow some entertainment channels on Youtube obsessively but can’t claim to have heard of them until the Ninjak announcement, which is no shade, this is just not really my type of thing, though I will admit that I did see an Epic Rap Battle pitting George R.R. Martin against J.R.R. Tolkien which was one of the funniest (and passed my fact check) things I’ve seen all year.

Books & Comics Movies & TV

 Back to Amberle & Brooks’ The Elfstones – MTV’s Shannara Chronicles Trailer 

I will admit that I’m pretty easy to please but this thing looks better than I could have imagined. I’d consider myself very well entrenched in the world(s) of Terry Brooks, including and perhaps mostly his Shannara output, even though I’m not a mega fan in that way being a The Lord of the Rings diehard won’t allow. That said, I’ve never been someone who doesn’t acknowledge both the historical significance of Terry Brooks as it relates to direct impact on the modern fantasy publishing landscape and market and that I used to check for Brooks every time I was in the Walden Books paper back section to see if the next Shannara installment had hit.<

Books & Comics Movies & TV

Judging Jorah Mormont as Daenerys Targaryen’s Champion

A lot things happened in last week’s episode that people want to talk about a lot more — and oddly I think that particular one was one of the better shot, edited, and acted scenes in a episode that was otherwise kind of a disaster — but I wanted to go into some other directions, namely that of a line by Tyrion regarding Jorah Mormont. I think for TV watchers it would be easy to forget that Jorah is the son of Jeor, and the Valyrian sword Jon Snow wields, Long Claw, was Jorah’s sword that he left behind before he went into exile. Also, if you recall, a couple episodes back Stannis was telling Davos about how a ten year old Northern Lord sent back a letter in response to him desiring their allegiance, and basically telling him they only recognize one King in the North (a Stark) — that little girl, Lyanna, (in the TV show) is a Mormont and is Jorah’s cousin replying for the House that Jorah used to be the head of.

Books & Comics Movies & TV

Ten Things About House Targaryen for Game of Thrones Fans

Back to Game of Thrones as a lot of people read my Ten Things about Dorne and House Martell and a similar post about House Stark so I thought it might be worthwhile to go back to Westeros and do something similar around for the HBO watchers. I’ve been reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire since the mid-90s but these are spoiler free and does not detail anything anyone who is even a passive reader doesn’t know. Just some added information or historical footnotes that may or probably won’t enrich the Game of Thrones experience.

(special) Guest Blogs Notes from New Sodom

The Order of the Blue Flower by Hal Duncan – Notes from New Sodom

So the 21st of May came and went without a whiff of the Rapture, nary a hint of Moby Douche, the Great White Fail, breaching the firmament above. No star called Wormwood fallen from the sky, turning a third of the waters to tasty absinthe.

A Scanner Darkly

No angels treading the wine gums of the wrath of the Lord. Not a peep of New Jerusalem on the early warning radar. Instead here we are, still in New Sodom, with Benny the Rat still in the Vatican, Fred Phelps still on the streets, and Harold Camping still on the radio, still selling his schtick. The Rapture’s postponed apparently, till the 21st October. Cool. That’s going to be one fuck of 40th birthday party for me that day then.

Yes, I’m cynical. Deal with it. Dawkins, Hitchens and Pullman are a little po-faced in their harrumphery for my liking, but colour me skeptical and run me up the “oh really?!” flagpole, because when it comes to religion, you can keep your gestalt schizophrenia; I am not innarested in your condition. It’s that whole Enlightenment thing: I favour a worldview that’s less inclined to burn me at the fucking stake. It’s not a religion thing per se, you understand, just bugfuck nutjobbery in general. The rapture of unreason.

I came to New Sodom from a small town in Central Scotland, see, a queer kid in exile from a childhood I can’t help glimpsing in the picture Lou Anders paints of his own upbringing — albeit backwards in a different way, a New Town housing scheme, built in the 1970s to take Glasgow’s overspill, to punt the plebs out to the suburbs, greener pastures, bluer skies and flowers. The razor-gang culture of Glasgow’s inner city, the small town mentality of an Ayrshire village, crossbred to perfection with anti-Catholic bigotry in place of racism, it was swellegant.

There wasn’t a whole lot of creationist evangelism, but racists and homophobes? My formative years were the era of the National Front, nazi punk bands like Skrewdriver, the “Gay Plague” of AIDS, Clause 28. Good old Clause 28, outlawing the “promotion of homosexuality” in the public sector, leading to a veto of the bill itself as a topic for our school debating society. A debate on Clause 28 might be construed as “promoting homosexuality,” you see; to allow pupils to argue Clause 28 could be a breach of Clause 28, a sacking offence. (That’s some clause, that Clause 28, a homo Yossarian might have said.)

Point is, religion wasn’t the driving force, but the reactionary bollocks sprang from the same source, the abrogation of ethical judgement to received moral wisdom, the bugfuck nutjobbery of the righteous. All prejudice presents itself as piety. And if today I proudly wear the title “THE…. Sodomite Hal Duncan!!” gifted to me by homophobic hatemail, I don’t know that it’s just being a bugger as makes me bolshie. It’s not just the background of bigotry as resonates with me in that opening quote from Anders. A geek and a gawk in specs, with elbow patches on my blazer, I was a teenage Spock even before sexuality kicked in, booted me out of any dream of normativity, into the evermade estranged reality of the queer.

I could almost imagine that it wasn’t then the day my teacher vetoed that Clause 28 debate that set me on the path to New Sodom, a blue flower pinned in my lapel, but rather the moment a mate shoved a copy of Asimov’s I, ROBOT into my hand. I could almost imagine it was the logic of the Three Laws, reason and the scientific worldview, that set me against the bugfuck nutjobbery, the hysteria and hate, the rapture of unreason. I could almost imagine it was the experience of alterity accepted in Klingons and Green Men of Mars that served as antidote to the conditioning of my culture.


Camp Consolation

“When I say ‘missing the point’ what I mean is that (so it seems to me) Benford’s real concern is that scientific rationalism — or simply rationalism, full stop — is under constant attack from base superstition and base prejudice… When Benford disses the rise of fantasy, it seems to me his real concern is the loss of science fiction’s core message: that it can introduce the reader — particularly the young reader — to one of the core values of rationality: questioning the accepted order of things.”

Gary Gibson, The White Screen of Despair

That quote from Anders comes from a few years back, from another cycle of the Great Debate. Picture a blogosphere of heads hitting desks as Gregory Benford testifies, brother, against a rising tide of unreason in the shape of Fantasy. Fantasy being Harry Potter, rotting the rational faculties. Anders, like Gary Gibson, stepped in to defend Benford, to cut through the turf war rhetoric, highlight a crucial point — the import of reason as antidote to prejudice. Anders presents it as impartiality towards alterity, Gibson as dubiety towards normativity, but both speak to the core of the critical nous: that it abjures the feedback loop of faith, purges the valorisation of credulity, the belief that questioning belief is wrong.

The rapture of unreason sustains the rapture of unreason. This is what makes it unreason, the inverse and inhibition of the discursive, the self-correcting.

Those core values Gibson refers to are dear to me then — analytic intellect against the onslaught of folly. When push comes to shove, that teenage Spock still stalks my little noggin, raising an eyebrow at the rapture of unreason whenever it appears — at the fervour for the End of the Enlightenment you hear, for example, in the crazytalk of those who believe Obama is a Kenyan Muslim. For all that I’ve argued in this column against tribalist rationalism, I come to the strange fiction genres as one who identified first and foremost as a reader of SF. As a child, I loved Michael de Larrabeiti, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, but that’s like saying I watched The Box of Delights on the BBC, hardly a true fandom. No Frodo or Fahfrd for me, no Conan or Elric, only John Carter got by my no-swords policy at one point. (He was nekkid.) Instead, Asimov led to Bradbury, Clarke, Dick, Ellison, Farmer, Gibson, Heinlein and so on.

Did it teach me acceptance of alterity, that SF? A little, maybes. From the Mule of the Foundation series to the Martians of Bradbury’s “Dark They Were and Golden Eyed,” there’s much that might resonate with a kid queered by desire, finding solace in the local library, turning from Sarek on the screen to Simak and Sladek on the page. I remember how Heinlein unlocked the closet door for me with his sexual libertarianism, how Delany kicked that door wide open. It makes sense. The fiction of the strange is, by definition, the fiction of the alterior; surely it must then, by definition, render the alterior familiar.

And yet… every boy’s own adventure needs its savage enemies. We’d do well not to forget that what we’re dealing with here is category fiction born of the pulps, barefoot summer games of heroes and villains. For all we might point at what it is now, or at the deeper, wider heritage of strange fictions outwith the commercial field, from Gilgamesh on, talking of science fictions and fantasies unbound by the imperatives of juvenalia, our taproots are in the Street & Smith that published Nick Carter Weekly and Buffalo Bill Adventures alongside Astounding. It’s out of that soil this cultivar of a strange blue flower has sprung.

There’s an aesthetic inherited from that pulp, one that idealises individualism as will-to-power, appeals to emotion over reason, discards the restraint of realism to glory in the wonder of the incredible made manifest, the sublime. It’s an aesthetic which looks to the past for imagos of virtue in the cowboy or the knight, even where it renders them as spacemen. It’s the aesthetic which gives us fascism wherever its self-infatuation extends to the culture at large, the folk as hero, wherever it demonizes or fetishizes alterior cultures — as it so often does. It’s the aesthetic of Romanticism, and if we’ve one thing to learn from the 20th century it’s how badly that aesthetic can go wrong.

So, to use Anders’s examples, the Klingons and the Green Men of Mars are savages of Romance, their warlike characters determined by ethnicity much as we find in Tolkien’s orcs, in all those races of Fantasy whose “swarthy” skin is evermade a signifier of inhumanity, alterity as wrongness. The same sources offer races we are far less a-okay with: the Ferengi of Star Trek; the Black Men of Burroughs’s Barsoom. Essentialised grotesques, their greed or violence (or moral degeneracy, one might say) suggests we’re more a-okay with biological determinism than anything. Sadly, it seems, the fiction of the strange can just as easily render the alterior foreign, an exotic Other readily made monstrum when the story calls for a sensational foe.

My skepticism kicks in then, I confess, at heroic fantasies of SF freeing children from their shackles of conditioning. Would it were so. The reality of the escapes we’ve found, may still find, from the bugfuck nutjobbery of our immediate environs — whether that bugfuck nutjobbery be Creationism or Clause 28 — is that these are holidays as often organised to rapture us in moral bromides as to teach us to challenge them. As space cadets in brown shirts, we have learned songs of the sublime along with science and survival skills. In wild campfire tales of adventures elsewhen, told at Camp Consolation by counsellors who were themselves taught by such tales, for a fiction of scientific rationalism, SF can be terribly Romantic.

The Echoes of Faith

“A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world. The outcome of his thought, ceasing to be renunciatory, flowers in images. It frolics — in myths, to be sure, but myths with no other depth than that of human suffering and like it inexhaustible. Not the divine fable that amuses and blinds, but the terrestial face, gesture, and drama in which are summed up a difficult wisdom and an ephemeral passion.”

— Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

SF has always had a love/hate relationship with Romanticism, happy to utilise its aesthetic of the sublime, but uneasy with the suspension of critical nous such rapture entails. Sense-of-wonder is a sense of incredulity, created in the breach of possibility — the technical or historical, physical or logical alethic quirk — so to appreciate the incredible in SF is paradoxically to fancy reason capable of that which it is not — not yet. Where even critics claim for SF a subjunctivity level of “could (have) happen(ed),” untrue because this would require technical possibility, the rapture is revealed: we fancy the fancy practicable. The denial is endemic. Our (in)credulity always already a betrayal of a wholly rationalist aesthetic — pretending the practicality of a quirk — it seems the less easy we are with the game of suspended disbelief as a game, the more we must gloss the impossible as possible, the implausible as plausible.

The rigour required to cleave to what’s actually plausible is the province of a rare few, not the core of the genre. An SF that eschews all mumbo-jumbo — a truly scientific fiction working only on the novum, with no place in it for errata, chimerae or suturae (the historical, physical or logical alethic quirks) — this is a fantasia of the genre’s future, a Hard or Mundane SF ideal, not an accurate model of our roots. This is not to criticise it as an ideal, simply to say it’s not the picture as it stands, as it has ever stood. The wildest technical impossibilities are seldom adequate, let alone the tamer ones which have real plausibility.

Instead, freely employing the Paradigm Shift Caveat to excuse all manner of impossibilities, SF blithely accepts into its canon works which breach not just known science but the laws of nature, works where the conceit is ultimately metaphysical. If a wormhole or FTL drive or an ability to jaunte is not glossed as magic, it remains a chimera, no more possible — or even plausible — than a teleportation spell. It requires a spurious physics in place of the established one. The difference in the text, like that between a mentalist and a magician, is only the schtick that sells the trick. The difference in the reading may be an actual plausibility we afford the chimera sold as novum, faith furtively sneaking in the back door as we swallow the pseudoscientific spiel of the illusionist. It’s a fun twist on the game, to suspend the disbelief that would remind us we are suspending disbelief, but a fancy of hyperspace is more credulous than that of an astral plane where it is afforded more weight; this is a tautology.

An SF that applies the Paradigm Shift Caveat or some other flimflam to legitimise those wilder quirks, but scorns them when (but only when) rendered as magic, is a fantasia of the genre’s present, glossing the illusion as a feasible marvel because it pulls the bouquet of blue flowers from the sleeve of a lab coat rather than a robe. It is a divine fable, and the higher the snoot is cocked at the frolics of those who don’t buy the schtick, projecting one’s own doubly-suspended disbelief into their gameplay, the more it reveals itself as grandiose conceit, its imagined tether of possibility mere credulity. The deeper the scorn of a magic carpet as against an Analog story of teleporting sun whales, say, the more we must arch a Spocklike eyebrow at the judgement lending such credence to the latter whimsy, so requiring it that it damns the former for not accommodating this doubly-suspended disbelief.

The more a straight man identifies as homophobic, experiments show, the more likely he’s aroused by gay porn, as if that hate is a song of fierce denial roared to drown out dread desire. I can’t help wondering what scorn of magic carpets comes from a similar doublethink of denial, angst at the echoes of faith that scorn reveals when not directed at teleporting whales of the sun, whether that doubly-suspended disbelief simply isn’t a game for some, but rather an actual belief, shorn of all doubt so as to disacknowledge that it is belief — not truth — that all those marvels now impossible are nonetheless more fundamentally possible, made so by the power of unknown science, even breaches of the laws of nature admissible, so limitless that capacity is in this credo.

A Romance with Reason

“There is nothing whatsoever in science — and this should be shouted from the rooftops of every scientific institution — that makes it immune from such abuses… Some scientists will dispute this, claiming that the values of open, objective enquiry, mutual criticism and protection of learning in the accumulated wisdom of science amount to an ethical system which, if applied to the world, would make it a better place, potentially protected from future horrors. This is not wrong, just fantastically utopian. Such values are not exclusive to science; they preceded it. Science sprang from philosophy, theology and even magic. The reason it became science at all was because of the direction these disciplines took in the course of the Renaissance.”

-New Scientist

It should be clear where I stand on the belief that reality cannot be ultimately amenable to reason because Old Nobodaddy in the sky slipped the ineffable into his crock pot of creation — dude, I am not innarested in your condition — but as the article on scientism in the special fundamentalism issue of New Scientist quoted above makes clear, the belief that the world is “accessible to and ultimately controllable by human reason” is also “a profoundly unscientific idea… neither provable nor refutable.” Likewise the notion of science as a universal panacea for all human folly. The author points to Hitler’s use of the biology of Ernst Haeckel, the roots of Stalinism in Marx’s conviction that a science of history had been discovered, to illustrate the dangers of this scientism, this fiction of science as hero. It would be bully to believe that everything is and must be explicable and that explication will and must lead to ethical improvement — it’s certainly a good operating assumption, I’d say, tried and tested — but to take that stance as a conviction is an act of faith.

My skepticism calls shenanigans then at the zeal of loyalists like Benford, at the overturned tables of the SF Café, the volleys of blanks fired at brothers-in-arms, accusations of intellectual cowardice, cultural treason. Where a writer takes umbrage at the Hugo win for Harry Potter as fandom’s betrayal of science in favour of superstition, I see rationalism that has ceased to be rationalism, goaded to pious outrage at the folly of the faithless. A fantasist writes of a blue flower’s petals stewed to a tea that, with one sip, transports the drinker to another world, a nightmarish détournement of biological determinist pulp, say, and they are the enemy because this unmoored metaphor of estrangement is not… a sun whale using paradigm-shifted science… in a story that casts religion as the source of ethics, science as a straw man of relativism that — quick, push the button! — excuses rape?

My skepticism asks whether SF is engaging with the rapture of unreason here or surrendering to it. Is it analysing the semiotics of reactionary agitprop to defuse it, dissecting the madness of societies, or retreating into the secure self-certainties of ghetto guttersniping? Is it applying Kohlberg’s studies of the stages of moral development in children to critique the conventional worldview as not historically but psychologically immature, or being raptured in a fancy of holding the fort against the savage hordes, of the infrastructure of fandom infiltrated by a treacherous Fifth Column of fantasists — which we must imagine uttered with the emphasis of a sibilant hiss?

Anders and Gibson offer conciliatory perspectives — the former focusing on “narrative complexity and whether the speculative material you read (whether SF or F) serves to turn your brain on or turn it off,” the latter refraining from imposing a definition on fantasy which, “like sf and every other form of literature, is a tool to be used in whichever way a particular author chooses to use it” — but moderates seldom set the tone in the Great Debate. The rapture of unreason won’t stand for such nuanced opinions.

Instead, characterisation collapses into caricature: the hawk-eyed, square-jawed, intellectual brilliance of Science Fiction in the red corner; the slack-jawed, blinkered, credulous nonsense of Fantasy in the blue corner. Science versus Superstition. Or vice versa — the noble poet versus the dreary pedant, the artistic versus the autistic. Dynamism versus mechanism. To close the definitions of science fiction and fantasy to a Rationalist Science Fiction on the one hand, a Romantic Fantasy on the other is tiresome whichever corner is claimed. But those who would do so will seldom be swayed, caught up in ttheir self-heroising narrative.

One expects such from the Romantic, such refusal to countenance the contrary, but reason is discursive or it is not reason. Where that conviction of the limitless efficacy of science turns to condemn the absence of conviction — refusing as inadequate commitment belief held as an operating assumption, as if only absolute conviction were truly conviction — this is not rationalism but a romance with reason, blinded by love. Where it collapses the complex discourse to the faithless and the faithful, eliding in one all possibility of truth, eliding in the other all possibility of error, it is not just unsound in principle but in practice, calls us to question the functionality of its dysfunction.

This Improper Conjuring

“They said, ‘You have a blue guitar, / You do not play things as they are.'”

— Wallace Stevens, “The Man with the Blue Guitar”

Any rational view of the field should not blind us to the countless writers of strange fiction set on blowing up the walls of Camp Consolation by means other than the novum of science fiction. The erratum that contradicts known history rather than known science, the chimera that contradicts the laws of nature, the sutura that contradicts the strictures of logic — all of these quirks may be grenades thrown at the accepted order of things. It is simplistic to imagine those most outré quirks, the chimera and sutura, always indices of base superstition.

As an eyeball-kick born of Romanticism, a metaphysical quirk is likely no more (or less) than literary SFX, no more (or less) powerful and perilous than a novum used the same way; that the thrill of incredulity is the quirk’s purpose in being is all we need know to know the nature of the game. If the marvel is to be taken seriously at all, it is likely as a figurative vehicle of metaphor, unmoored from its tenor and rendered concrete; it exists to be read for its non-literal meaning. To project belief is silly-kittens; if I write about a Styx-water swilling cynic collecting an unbaptised infant’s soul for the Nursery of Limbo, dude, this is not evidence of faith but a critique of it.

Where fantasy is Fantasy, its definition closed tight to the monomythic mode — to the magically-gifted darlings of destiny, black-and-white struggles of Good and Evil, Dark Lords threatening the bucolic idyll — a supreme wariness is called-for. Where the wonder button is being pushed, there may well be Romanticism at play, and of the most reactionary sort. Alternatively, the text may be articulating a modernist agenda, seeking to resolve the agon of passion and reason, emotion and intellect. It may even be the product of a rationalist’s Absurdism — because the Absurd is often, post-Camus, the rationalist’s work even in its apparent illogic, clinical as an autopsy, dissecting a system to expose its disorder(s). Pinter is never more coldly analytic than where exchanges are filleted to a series of non sequiturs.

But the notion of magic as a foreign element is expedient. All problems of structural clichés — of character and setting, plot and theme — all the trite formulae for escapist pabulum developed in the pulps of category product as generic junk food… all of this improper conjuring can be circumscribed as wish-fulfilment and encapsulated in that one word. Every fault in SF can be nailed to this romantic irrationalism. It is never SF that is of pandering purpose, puerile import; if it seems to be, this is because it is not pure SF. It is contaminated, seduced by the exotic colour of the blue flower, intoxicated by its soporific fragrance, polluted by its narcotising essence — magic, which is to say faith.

A contemptuous snort at a bugbear fantasy of fantasy dismisses the imperative of improper conjuring upon all category fiction. It is the first trick taught at Camp Consolation: to ignore a morass of hackwork and focus on the kernel of quality in one’s beloved genre; to ignore the kernel of quality and focus on the morass of hackwork in another; to treat the superior work as exemplary here but exceptional there; to take one mode as essentially good but swamped with dross, the other as essentially bad but scattered with the odd diamond. Such doublethink is a self-reinforcing view. As prejudice presents as piety, so it renders its faults as products of influence, scapegoats the reviled enemy as a blight creating wrongness by a process of corruption. The deflection strengthens conviction, certainty of worth rewarded with certainty of worth.

In the rapture of unreason, history itself may be rewritten.

*”[Benford] talks about SF’s infrastructure being invaded by fantasy writers and fans, implying that there was a time when the two genres WERE separate. In fact, if you look at British Fandom’s infrastructure you see evidence of this… you have the BSFA and you have the BFA, and the BSFA, I get the impression, clearly favours SF over fantasy. So unless the BSFA was an attempt by SF purists to split the genre off, I think that your historical model has problems.”

— Jonathan MacCalmont, comment on Notes From the Geek Show

Only in a short time frame that skips the formative period of SF entirely, skips everything before the 1970s, can we really sustain this notion of fantasy infiltrating SF from outside; and MacCalmont’s example of British fandom backs this up. The British Fantasy Society began in 1971 as the British Weird Fantasy Society, an offshoot from the British Science Fiction Association set up in 1958. Which is to say, the infrastructure of fantasy writers and fans was created by an act of separation out from SF, and in the same year the category of Fantasy began separating out from Science Fiction with the the establishment of Ballantine Adult Fantasy Books.

Before this first true Fantasy imprint, diversity was the rule in the Science Fiction imprints. The focus may have been on the latter-day E.E. Doc Smiths of science fiction in Campbell’s Astounding, but most of the seminal magazines of the strange fiction genres — Weird Tales, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy — were publishing the Liebers and Lovecrafts of fantasy and horror alongside such fare, the three genres intimate bedfellows from the start, right up through the Golden Age. No writer better encapsulates the fusion of forms at play than Bradbury, sliding effortlessly between the modes, from SF to fantasy to horror, in a story like “The Veldt.”

Bradbury himself claims FAHRENHEIT 451 as his only real work of SF, yet his fantasies took the default label of the day — like Silverberg’s THE BOOK OF SKULLS, Zelazny’s ROADMARKS — pointing us at the real seam of alterity running through SF. His legacy is not just popular TV shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The X Files. It is New Wave stories like Disch’s “Descending”, Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” It is Interzone in the ’80s, The Third Alternative, all that slipstream blending of the domestic and the fantastic that characterises the UK and US indie press. It is Jeffrey Ford and Kelly Link. It is not the fantasy of the magical, so much as the fantasy of the weird, old and new — a terrain of the strange that encompasses the liminality of Todorov’s fantastique, Freud’s uncanny, Pinter’s absurd, Jarry’s pataphysical along with the broadest of bizarro pulp. Looking to the history, it was there from the get-go.

But then… BOOM! The meteor of Tolkien hits the city of Writing, his impact shaking the SF Café to its foundation, shockwave travelling far beyond it, opening the age-old crack that splits our beloved haunt in two. In the ghetto of Genre, in the SF Café, the recognition of a wider market than the regulars leads to whole new imprints, a whole new commercial category, and formulation. The informal term fantasy gets formalised into a label for this new category — and that new category is populated with Tolkien’s peers and predecessors at first, but then… let’s see. Is that category characterised by works like Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COME, Silverberg’s THE BOOK OF SKULLS, Zelazny’s ROADMARKS? Hell, no. It’s dominated by the rotting corpse of Tolkien — the high heroism of “Epic Pooh,” as Moorcock scathingly calls it — and the noxious vapours of its decay, the umpteen volumes of THE CHRONICLES OF THE OBJECTS OF POWER. Those fantasists of the weird who gag on the stench of Tolkien’s fetid cadaver find there’s little welcome for them at the tables of adventurers on steroids.

The pap propagates, filling the tables, spilling out through the café. The rationalists in the booths react in horror. Suddenly McCaffrey’s Pern and Herbert’s Dune look suspect; their symbolic and structural tropes (dragons in one, epic in the other) reek of this unreconstructed Romanticism, this… fantasy, the term ceasing to signify any old fantastic conceit of the marvelous, the uncanny or the monstrous — a carousel that can reverse aging, a man turning into a beetle, a wheeling-dealing devil — come to signify instead specific formulae of story, structures of Romanticism — e.g. the monomyth at the heart of STAR WARS. No matter that SF has been selling snake-oil chimerae with a veneer of science for the last fifty years, from Buck Rogers onwards, now the shoddiest pulp charlatanry has a name by which it can be abjured. It is not SF, but fantasy. The Force is magic and jaunting is science.

Magic and monomyth, those fantasists of the weird say, is not what fantasy really is. That, they might say, is only market forces at their most heinous. Those market forces are all too persuasive though. At the booths of SF, they’re regarded with suspicion by those most devout in their idealism, most repulsed by the atavistic nonsenses of wizards and knights. And that suspicion has an impact. Fast-forward through the social pseudo-realisms of feminist SF, through the constant paranoia about “the death of science fiction” — as if it was not already the spectre of SF, that emptied signifier — through the boom of cyberpunk, the burst of New Space Opera, the blast of the Singularity, in which it is reborn in new flesh, new forms. The result? Science Fiction is risen from the grave. The definitions may contradict, requiring fuzzy set systems of subjective models, but there is certainty now in opposition to indefinition.

The ghost of SF as an empty signifier is exorcised, must whisper itself into the nanotech grey goo golem of speculative fiction to survive. Adrift in the SF Café, it stands in the corners or at the counter, wanders the gaps between the tables, lurks at the margins, in the indie presses of the UK and the US, small press magazines and webzines, anthology series. As the corpse of Tolkien rots down to its skeletal frame, the golem talks of slipstream and cross-genre, interstitial fictions, interzones and third alternatives, the weird. Clute’s fantastika as a faction inherently estranged from the SF Café’s main agon of aesthetics, as a fiction of estrangement. Those who would once have shrugged and said their work was SF simply because it could be sold as such now shrug as fantasy becomes the default label. The SF Café echoes with Knight’s and Spinrad’s indefinitions transfered to another signifier:

Fantasy is what we mean when we point to it, they say, a rosebud wristlet of blue flowers made obvious as they do just that, raising their hand to point at everything and anything.

The Impossible Blue

“Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art. However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, and straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the speakable, whereas what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.”

— Donald Barthelme

In the SF Café, if one looks out of the corner of one’s eye at the lapels of this patron or that, one might notice a blue flower as a buttonhole, a sweet-scented and asymmetrically-petalled orchid of a shade somewhere near azure and indigo, across from cerulean and cyan. Take a walk outside, squinting your eyes against the sunlight and you might notice these flowers growing from every crack in the sidewalks of the ghetto of Genre. They sprout in the crack that runs right across the floor of the SF Café. It is a strange blue, the blue of the blue flower — enigma and exotica, artifice or anomaly.

For one SF loyalist — let’s call him Strawman — those blue flowers on the lapels of the SF Café’s irregular regulars are a vile sight. Often you’ll hear him mutter that the blue flower is a weed to be eradicated, a sign of all that’s wrong with the ghetto of Genre, the lotus of the lotus-eaters. Those who wear it, he’s convinced, do so as sign of their allegiance to some mystic cult, some latter-day Golden Dawn or Theosophical Society… an Order of the Blue Flower. He does not trust such an enigma; all enigma is the ineffable to Strawman, and the ineffable is the irrational. It is fantasy. He recoils in revulsion from the heady hallucinogenic Blue Flower Tea served in the SF Café… which is an entirely natural response of disgust to blue-coloured food, of course… not reasoned, not rational, but natural.

His suspicion is not entirely misplaced. The blue flower was once a symbol of Romanticism: the blue flower of Novalis’s HEINRICH VON OFTERDINGEN; of Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff’s “Die blaue Blume”; the flower that Adelbert von Chamisso saw as the symbol of our striving for love and eternity; the flower Goethe searched for in the countryside of Italy; the flower C.S. Lewis declared himself a votary of, associated with the yearning of Sehnsucht. Strawman hears tell of it in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. He hears it in the talk of latter-day Romantics, their boasts of the grand lineage of their cult — Macdonald, Tennyson, Macpherson, Spenser, Mallory, Geoffrey of Monmouth. But if Strawman looked closer, he might see that the emblems of an imaginary lost idyll those dreamers cradle in their cupped palms are paper copies. Closer still and he might see the real blue flower they don’t even know they’re wearing on their lapels. He might see the blue flower he’s wearing on his own.

The blue flower is not fantasy but the strange. If it might be supernatural, some magical blossom sprouting and blooming through rifts in reality itself, it might as easily be extraterrestrial, an alien life-form carried to the planet by a meteorite. Marvelous or monstrous, uncanny or weird, all we can say for sure is that it has no place in our experience of the world. To glimpse the blue flower is to see something with no place in all known history, known science. It might even be beyond the laws of nature or the strictures of logic. Or not.

If Strawman studied his own blue flower, he’d find that its blue is Hume’s hypothetical “missing shade of blue”, a shade unknown in nature, never seen, but imaginable in the mind’s eye… perhaps. This was Hume’s thought experiment: if conception is a recombination of perception, he asked, could we then imagine a colour we have never sensed? Hume was unsure, but given that blue and yellow, green and red, black and white, we now know, are only the symbolic dimensions in which our sense of colour is constructed as an abstract modelling of light frequencies by opponent processes, to take this literally rather than figuratively, the positive answer is obvious. It’s like asking if we can imagine a number between fifty-four and fifty-six without ever seeing a group of fifty-five things; the possibility is self-evident, our mind a pallete made to mix shades of colours which are always already imaginary.

To push the question beyond the literal though, towards a deeper interrogation, is to make the blue of the blue flower a figuration of the figurative itself. It is to imagine that blue only our symbol of another missing shade, a blue that lies not between two shades we’ve seen but beyond them all — a bluer-than-blue. The blue of the blue flower is a colour out of colourspace imagined in place of a colour outside of it, a surrogate we conjure in order to visualise the strange flower right in front of us. It is our rendering of the as-yet-unspoken, which was once Romantic, once purely a locus of the sensational, but which became, with the advent of modernity, too dangerous to leave unspoken. It is the impossible blue by which we articulate what others claim ineffable, do so figuratively in defiant experiments of unmoored metaphor, success uncertain. It’s the entirely new yellowish-blue seen by the subjects of Billock, Gleason and Tsou’s experiments in suppressing the mutual inhibition of opponent processes that otherwise prevents such a sensation.

The blue flower is that from which Philip K. Dick’s fictitious Substance D is derived in A SCANNER DARKLY. It’s the strangeness in that fiction that’s not Romantic awe but existential angst, in which metaphysical questions of the nature of reality are bound to questions of the nature of humanity, in which scientific rationalism is far from the point but in which the core value of secular humanism is — empathy. It’s the blue flower worn by a character in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, an oneiric enigma of signifier divorced from signified, the irrational perhaps, but the unreason masked by mundane shams of order, the faux reality of the suburbs; it seeks to render the as-yet-unspoken of the bugfuck nutjobbery that lurks beneath. It is not the ineffable but the touchstones by which we demarcate it, begin to make it effable. It’s the blue flower that might have been described in the meticulous botanical detail of a Guy Davenport story, “The Meadow,” say… though it so happens that it wasn’t.

Bradbury, Silverberg, Zelazny — all wear the blue flower as a buttonhole. All strange fiction writers wear the blue flower, whether they call it supernatural or extraterrestrial, both words parsing to the same relational meaning, different only in the subtle shading: super- or extra- denoting from above, outside, beyond; natural or terrestrial denoting of or pertaining to the condition we were born into, the soil that we live on, the world as our material environment. The blue flower is the quirk, and the quirk is alterity. Wherever strange fictions serve as a force against base prejudice, it is because of how they treat that alterity — not credulous in a conviction that we will be saved or slaughtered by the extraterrestrial or supernatural but skeptical of all Camp Consolation’s tales that cast the Other as enemy. It is all too easy to be prejudiced against blacks and gays when your SF is telling you that the invading aliens and the mutants in the wastelands are just plain dangerous.

Where this is our heroic fantasy — that the blue flowers are poisonous weeds to be stamped out — we are not tackling the rapture of unreason but surrendering to it. We will be until we are able to see the flower on every lapel, our own included, until we can see that we are all of us of the Order of the Blue Flower.

Books & Comics Movies & TV

The Evolution of the Serial Killer

America has always been crazy about serial killers.

They’re our homegrown werewolves. They click with the fast-food car culture that roars in the country’s busy, busy heart. They fit neatly with our cult-of-celebrity-style national mythology.

These beasts that seem like men, mowing through victims like McDonald’s cheeseburgers, speeding for the televised takedown by John Q. Law – how can the USA not be wild for them?

Books & Comics Movies & TV

Real = Angst – The Grim ‘N’ Gritty Trend Of The Non-Powered Superhero

Arrow, the WB action television series, starring Stephen Amell’s abs, based on the DC comic book series, Green Arrow, recently debuted and has now been picked up for a full season.

Honestly, I haven’t seen the show yet, and had little intention to do so after what I felt looked like a lacklustre trailer. However, it seems the show has become somewhat of a hit, and is getting pretty good buzz in the dark corners of the internet, which is no small feat, considering it’s based on a comic book, and seems vaguely embarrassed of that fact (case in point: it won’t call itself “Green Arrow,” as that is somehow more ridiculous), and comic book readers are not known for taking changes lying down, instead preferring an elaborate outraged-sitting position akin to extreme-yoga.

Movies & TV

Cult Film Cult Crimes – Rob Zombie and THE LORDS OF SALEM

Somewhere on the fringe of mainstream film, there’s a frenzied community of artists who illustrate an elemental aspect of crime. They don’t bother with the ticky-tack trivia of the procedural. They don’t focus on the grand fables of revenge and wrongs righted.

Movies & TV

Strong Bonds – 007 from DR. NO to SKYFALL

British singer Adele has yet again proven herself to be a family friendly version of Amy Winehouse by recording a theme to a James Bond film, by (unlike the late Ms. Winehouse) actually getting the song recorded. And yeah, the song Skyfall (from the new James Bond film, the name of which I’m drawing a blank on…) sounds like the same kind of bland crap that normally gets made for these films. Just when I thought they’d maybe turned a corner with the Jack White-performed theme song from Quantum of Solace (perhaps the theme songs are inversely correlated with the quality of the films), which was so catchy that I could actually slap the meat curtains to it, as the common phrase goes.

Movies & TV

Mae Catt – She Likes To Watch Monsters And Men

On the occasion of the Emmys’ passing, let’s take a step outside the spotlight. I want to lead you to the fringes for a moment.

You need to meet an artist who has yet to hold a gold statue aloft on a high-profile red carpet, but who is brilliant enough to be seen in the shadows all the same.

You need to meet Mae Catt.

Books & Comics Movies & TV

Boozed Up And Beaten Down: Noir, Realism, And Alcohol

Booze and crime goes hand in hand like booze and being hugely attractive and winning in life. I am drinking while writing this, because something something simpatico and shit. After speaking with my editor about the topic of this week’s column, I was told “Liam, you’re a pathetic drunk, either clean up your act, or write about it!”

And here we are.

Movies & TV

The Innocence Of Morons – Sam Bacile & Cranked-Out Propaganda

If you find yourself with fifteen minutes to kill this evening, you can go to YouTube and pull up the video that is currently causing murder and mayhem and destruction in the Middle East this evening.  No, it isn’t Gangnam Style.  It’s that strange new cinematic sensation, Innocence of Muslims.

Movies & TV

To Ride Or Not To Ride – SAMCRO & Formulas For The Perfect Crime Story

Much like most of the civilized world, I knew what yesterday meant:

The premiere of Sons of Anarchy, Season 5. I was pretty jazzed. I would DVR that bad bastard and catch it when convenience struck. Or, if I was too lazy or forgetful to do that, I could snag it On Demand. I wasn’t sweating.

Movies & TV

The Pigs That Are Their Food – THE KING OF PIGS And BLEAK NIGHT

The Korean Film Festival in Australia (or KOFFIA, the acronym they’ve mercifully given me so that I don’t have to type out “The Korean Film Festival in Australia” too many times. I am not paid by the word, which is clearly why I’m so concise with any tangents and diversions within my pieces, and only stick to the most pertinent of assertations and never crowd the parentheses) has played its second year in Melbourne, and, as I can often be found yelling to people on the train, Korea currently has some of the most exciting filmmaking in the world. On top of the generally excellent pedigree, they’ve also been making what I would say is some of the most innovative and uncompromising crime films since America was doin’ it right back in the ‘70s.

Books & Comics Movies & TV

My Name Is Markham – The TV Sensibilities of NEAR DEATH

Near Death is one of the spate of high-quality comic books Image has been cranking out over the past couple of years, and I finally did myself the favor of reading it.  Of course, now it appears the series has gone on hiatus just as I am getting on board (sad trombone).  Fingers crossed that it starts up again and soon, but in the meantime, Near Death is a nice little jumping-off point for talking about comics for comics’ sake.

Movies & TV

Up Jumped The New World Order – The New Rules of Satanism In Pop Music

Before we get too far into this, I want everybody to remember that there was a time when the members of Mötley Crüe were presumed to be dangerous servants of the Devil.

I should also say that I’m relatively new to the notion of Illuminati Satanism, and that anything you read herein has been out there in some form or another for ten or more years.  If you’re pressed for time, I can save you the trouble of reading on and just tell you right now that I think the whole notion of selling one’s soul to the Devil for a few years of fame is a load of horseshit.

Movies & TV

The City Of I Will – Why BOSS Is Kelsey Grammer’s Greatest Work

It’s strange when you consider that Boss is Kelsey Grammer’s first major dramatic role.  He has always been known for playing upright, no-nonsense roles, but for laughs.  Boss season 2, which premiered this past Friday on Starz, is definitely no laughing matter, and regardless of how lauded Grammer has been for his comedy work, the role of Chicago mayor Tom Kane will be what he is remembered for, if there is any justice in the world.

Then again, a major theme of Boss so far is that there is no justice in the world.  So there’s that.

Movies & TV

Thawing Mr. Freeze – The Life And Death And Life Of Schwarzenegger’s Career

The implications of resurrecting Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For the record, I voted for Gallagher.

In the Second Great American Mindfuck of the early 21st Century, also known as the 2003 California Gubernatorial Recall Election, I was one of 5,466 watermelon-hating voters who chose to throw away their vote on comedian Gallagher rather than the action star Schwarzenegger, security guard Gary Coleman, porn merchant Larry Flynt, porn star Mary Carey, sumo wrestler Kurt “Tachikaze” Rightmyer, or any of the other names on the packed page of, er, uniquely qualified candidates provided at polling places across the Golden State.

Movies & TV

“Ya Wouldn’t Bloody Like Me When I’m Angry, Mate” – Eric Bana’s Weird Career Progression

Australian of many hats (and presumably berets, gloves, scarves and other assorted fineries) Eric Bana, is close to signing on to star in Lone Survivor. The Peter Berg-directed flick based on the events of SEAL Team 10’s “Operation Red Wing,”  where the Navy SEALs were ambushed while on a covert assassination mission in Afghanistan in 2005. Bana is to round out a cast that already includes Marky Mark (Wahlberg), Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, and Taylor Kitsch in the role of “Taylor Kitsch is acting.” Peter Berg will also be handling the screenplay duties on this one, adapting the book of the same name that was penned by Marcus Luttrell. Complex – and my pants’ – favourite, Mark Wahlberg is set to play Luttrell, the member of the expedition who wrote the book about his experiences upon which Lone Survivor is based. No telling at this stage who the ‘lone survivor’ of the title is going to be.

Movies & TV

Get A Haircut Robert Pattinson – COSMOPOLIS

Well, kids, it’s almost here.  The wide release on August 17th of Robert Pattinson’s latest vehicle, the David Cronenberg film Cosmopolis, is only days away, and if you listen closely, you can hear the eager squeals of anticipation from Bobby’s legions of fans.  And now there have been brand-new stills released from the film, which we bring to you today courtesy of The Playlist.  It never quite fails to fascinate just how these guys, these screen idols, continue to elicit such rabid devotion from so many.  It’s not that I don’t understand or anything; after all, I’ve nursed quite a few celebrity crushes over the years and still do.  And as we’ve discussed here before, Pattinson’s presence in this film will lead many to the works of his director and co-stars, many who may not have shown any interest in such otherwise.

Books & Comics

Books Punch Your Face – The Crime Midsummer Reading List

Eight noir novels to help fill your endless summer with a sense of overwhelming dread and paranoia.
Okay, so I’m the professor who wakes up three weeks before the end of the semester and hits everybody over the head with a pile of mandatory reading assignments that everybody has to crowbar in between midnight finals cram sessions and kegstands, but you know, only if they hope to make it out with a passing grade.

Movies & TV

What Are The Odds These Crime Film Remakes Will Happen?

Well, it’s a day ending in “y,” which means it’s time for Criminal Complex’s resident “typical internet fucktard” to vigorously blow his horn every which way over your face about film remakes. Film announcements are a lot like possums – cute to look at, but likely to disappear up your arse before anything more comes to fruition [A common Australian expression – Ed].

(special) Guest Blogs

Badass Moments in Sci-Fi History

I probably don’t need to tell the readers here that science-fiction is probably one of the most badass genres of fiction to ever explode out of someone’s brain.  I mean, any genre in which genetically modified cyborgs, hyperdrive-capable spaceships, chest-bursting aliens, disintegration death rays, handheld nuclear bombs, mutant apocalypses, and skimpy gold bikinis are the norm is OK in my book, and anybody who doesn’t think that stuff kicks more ass than an alcoholic donkey-herder really needs to get their priorities straight.


But how to reconcile my love of science-fiction with the seemingly-incongruous fact that my forthcoming book Badass is a non-fiction work about some of the toughest warriors and villains from history?  The answer is simple – compile a timeline of the most awesome and badass moments in the history of the genre we all know and love.  So that is what I’ve attempted to accomplish here.

Now, before I begin I would like to say that I am well aware that there are hundreds of utterly spleen-rupturingly awesome events from science-fiction that I neglected to include in this overview, but just by looking at my outline I can tell that this work has already spiraled out of my control enough. So please don’t email me complaining about how I forgot to include your favorite book/author/robot/food construct/sports team/whatever.  Instead, just feel free to use the comments section as a groupthink hive-mind experiment and leave your own important dates in the history of badass sci-fi on there.  (Of course, you can also just go with the time-honored Internet practice of using the comments section to call the author a total incompetent moron as well, so don’t let me dissuade you from exercising your constitutional right to be a total dickwad.)


1818: Badass feminist Mary Shelley defies all traditional social conventions and writes Frankenstein – a book about a half-demented scientist named Victor who blows a gasket, runs off to an old castle, and creates an insane homicidal monster using the sewn-together body parts of ex-serial killers.  For some strange reason, our pal Victor is surprised when this thing flips the hell out and starts manually asphyxiating people to death its bare hands, but I suppose he’s able to take some solace in the fact that his creation still looks totally awesome, and that he successfully impersonated God to some degree.  Shelley, who was homies with Lord Byron and somehow managed to put up with Percy Bysshe Shelley on a regular basis, wrote the horror/mystery on a double-dog dare from Byron and busted out an epic work of face-melting awesomeness that is now believed by many to be the forerunner of modern science-fiction.  Suck on THAT, romantic poetry! Nowadays Shelly’s story lives on in the diabetes-inducing deliciousness that is Frankenberry cereal.

1835: The New York Sun perpetrates The Great Moon Hoax – a bizarre account of lunar life that makes this whole Falcon Heene flying weather balloon thing look like a skid mark on the underpants of mass hysteria.  The gist of the newspaper series was that some astronomer looked through a mega-powerful telescope and discovered a bizarre species of flying demonic humanoid bat-men flying around on the surface of the moon, having keg parties with unicorns and building monolithic temples housing some weirdo lunar bison of some sort.  This caused quite the uproar among the populace, as you can probably imagine, because populaces are generally prone to things like “panicking” and “not appreciating how cool it would be if there actually were gargoyle men living on the Moon”.  Eventually everybody figured out that some disgruntled employee at the Sun was just Jayson Blair-ing it up and jerking them around, and that was the end of that.

1864: Jules Verne, known throughout history as the “Original Gangsta of Science Fiction”, puts geology on the badass literature map by writing a little book called A Journey to the Center of the Earth.  Verne pretty much blows everyone’s hair to the back of the auditorium with this shizknuckle about modern men running around with giant mushrooms and watching dinosaurs bit the crap out of each other, and goes on to be ridiculously prolific, busting out a 54-part series of novels containing some of the great staples of sci-fi literature – badass adventures like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, and the significantly-less numerated From the Earth to the Moon.

1898: H.G. Wells invents the “aliens invade the present-day and frag all of our asses into oblivion with futuristic death rays” genre with his classic work The War of the Worlds.  This story about low-tech humans harnessing their inner cavemen and clubbing aliens to death with their badass atmospheric Earth gasses was later adapted for radio by another dude named Welles and turned into a 1938 broadcast that made the entire United States collectively crap its pants in unison.

1917: Edgar Rice Burroughs writes A Princess of Mars. This book introduces us to a crazy alien-face-smashing hardass named John Carter, who (in my humble opinion at least) is one of the single biggest sack-kickers in the history of Science Fiction.  A mega-tough, no-bullcrap war hero who finds himself suddenly teleported onto the surface of Mars, Carter immediately goes to work throat-punching aliens’ esophagi out the backs of their necks and turning the surface of the Red Planet into one giant cataclysm of gore and fiery explosions.  He also fulfills every male sci-fi nerd’s ultimate fantasy by getting it on with a hot alien babe, losing her to the clutches of a diabolical evil mastermind, and then single-handedly saving her with nothing more than a tireless sword-arm, a heavy-duty laser gun, and a complete lack of respect for anything capable of locomotion.  This really isn’t something that should be overlooked.  Burroughs, who also wrote Tarzan, was actually a pretty hardcore guy himself – this dude was a sixty-nine year-old resident of Hawaii when the Pearl Harbor bombing went down, and got so pumped up about fighting the Japanese that he volunteered for the Army and served as one of the oldest U.S. war correspondents of World War II.

1920: Ray Harryhausen is born.  This pioneer of stop-motion awesomeness would be the principal animator on a bunch of totally bitchin’ sci-fi/adventure/monster movies ranging from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers to Clash of the Titans.

1927: Germany releases Metropolis, a movie that takes the beloved mad science of Frankenstein, morphs the reanimated undead monster into a giant robot, throws it all into a blender and dumps the resulting Promethian meat smoothie into a futuristic dystopian hellhole.  Everybody digs it.

1928: Readers first experience The Call of Cthulu, a giant, horrible squid-headed winged alien the size of a mountain that incites a cult of murderous seamen to choke people out in dark alleys and to leave crazy statues laying all over the place for no reason at all.  Cthulu is temporarily defeated when a Norwegian guy crashes a boat into its head, but comes back more times than Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger morphed into a giant unkillable behemoth of multi-mantibled destruction.  This year also marks the first appearance of asskicking future-man Buck Rogers, a mega-space-stud who bones Wilma Deering in space and detonates alien douchebags into vapor with a wide assortment of hand-held laser guns.

1934: Flash Gordon is created, finally answering the age-old question, “what if the guy I hated in high school went into space and was a total dick to everyone?”  Many alien face-punches follow shortly thereafter.

1942:  The Battle of Los Angeles.  U.S. anti-aircraft guns open fire on UFOs zooming through the night sky above California.  The Army eventually claims that it was inadvertently shooting at weather balloons, thus beginning a long and fruitful career of blaming pretty much every flying anomaly in history on those damned meteorologists and their stupid balloons.

1947: Roswell.  Alien UFOs crash-land in New Mexico, of all places, and the surviving aliens are immediately transported to Area 51 in Nevada, where they provide evil American scientists with the secrets of stealth technology and supersonic flight before time traveling back and giving the secret of fire to cavemen and teaching the Egyptians how to stack stones in such a way as to form pyramids.  The sci-fi community rejoices forever.

1949: George Orwell falls ill with Tuberculosis and, in a wild delirium, writes the definitive work on dystopian ultra-autocratic societies – Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Orwell, a badass veteran of World War II and the Spanish Civil War who once bayoneted a fascist to death with a bolt-action rifle, gives us one of the greatest science-fiction lines ever written, saying, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face… forever.”  Two years later, Ray Bradbury follows up with an equally-bleak look at the future (as seen through the gun sights of a gigantic blowtorch) in Fahrenheit 451.

1950: Literary mastermind / super-genius Isaac Asimov introduces us to the timeless Three Laws of Robotics with a collection of stories titled I, Robot.  People quickly realize that robots are useful, but trying to reason with them is a real pain in the balls.

1954: Richard Matheson kicks off the apparently-still-relevant post-apocalyptic zombie/vampire craze with his book I Am Legend.  This tale about a dude running around in a world where a super-infectious virus has turned everyone on Earth into a crazy man-eating monster is adapted into the excellent film The Omega Man, and manages to get everyone totally pumped up about turning their homes into a death-fortress from which to fend off nightly attacks by disgusting flesh-eating zombies.

1956: Invasion of the Body Snatchers released in theaters.  Nobody ever looks at vegetables the same way again.

1959: Ed Wood subjects the world to his magnum opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space, which is badass only in the sense that it features Bella Lugosi and is pretty much universally-recognized as the worst movie ever made.  It has spawned some pretty sweet drinking games, though, so that’s something.

1960: The creation of Space Marines. Robert A. Heinlein brings us the story of Filipino interstellar warrior Juan Rico kicking alien bugs’ thoraxes into gooey explosions in a civilization so neck-snappingly hardcore it would have made King Leonidas jizz.  Starship Troopers repeatedly beats into the reader’s head that communism sucks goat balls and “violence has settled more issues in history than has any other factor”, and is so controversial that it’s pissed off more people throughout the years than healthcare and rude telemarketers combined.  It also brings us the concept of asskicking space warriors who fight in self-contained suits of armor sporting night-vision gear, radar, and augmented strength and agility, forming the precursor to everything from the DOOM video games and Imperial Stormtroopers to BattleMechs and Warhammer 40k.  The story is later stripped of ninety percent of its content, dragged through a thick puddle of cheese, and finely sculpted into one of the best/worst trashy sci-fi films I’ve ever seen.

1963: The first season of The Outer Limits. Kids everywhere beg their parents to let them stay up late to watch it, only to immediately regret it the second the bedroom lights are turned off.

1965: After six years of writing and dozens of rejection letters, World War II veteran Frank Herbert accepts a $7,500 advance to publish what will become the best-selling science fiction novel of all time. Dune is now considered one of the seminal works of the genre, and describes the crazy, face-exploding adventures of asskicker/messiah Paul Atreides as he stomps crotches across the desert landscapes of the planet Arrakkis, blowing heads off with his weirdness, riding around on totally bitchin’ sand worms, and making pretty much all of House Harkonnen his bitch all over the place.  Dune spawns a few billion sequels, as well as a mind-flayingly convoluted film adaptation by David Lynch.  Paul eventually becomes Emperor of the Universe and then wanders off into the desert to morphs into a deity of some sort, which is pretty cool I guess.

1966: Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise makes his way into space, where he shoves the Prime Directive up everyone’s ass by cracking aliens in their space-nuts with open-hand judo chops and then making out with their hot space widows.  Star Trek grows faster than an infestation of Tribbles, exploding into so many different series and movies that nobody knows what the hell is going on anymore.  Shatner and Nimoy spend the next forty years doing enough awesome stuff to tear a hole in the fabric of the space-time continuum.

1968: Jackass Artificial Intelligence HAL 9000 nearly wipes out the entire crew of the spacecraft Discovery in Arthur C. Clarke’s classic book 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick develops the story of this lovable, hate-filled robotic construct with no remorse and less emotion into a movie that is now much beloved by stoners and acid-heads everywhere because of its trippy colors and general weirdness.  Clarke, who spent his early years serving as a radar man helping the RAF fight off Nazi Messerschmitts during the Battle of Britain, went on to host a series of TV shows about bizarre and mysterious crap.  He also wrote Rendezvous with Rama, a novel describing the inside of a giant space cylinder, was knighted by the Queen, and won the highest civilian award offered by the government of Sri Lanka.  Later this year Charlton Heston yells at some damned dirty apes in Planet of the Apes, and Jane Fonda introduces teenage boys everywhere to the glory of space boobs with Barbarella.

1969: Ursula Le Guin writes The Left Hand of Darkness, kicking off a cycle of books that will win her three Hugo, Locus, and Nebula Awards, and Kurt Vonnegut publishes Slaughterhouse-Five, the definitive work on time-traveling U.S. soldiers living in Nazi meat lockers during World War II.

1974: Tom Baker takes over as the Fourth (and best) Doctor Who.  The Daleks never knew what hit ’em.

1976: Logan’s Run released in theaters.  Two-thirds of the population of Earth develops a massive crush on Jenny Agutter.

1977: Star Wars.  George Lucas constructs one of the finest and most badass space operas of all-time, where Jedi masters cut down their foes with lightsabers so ridiculously cool they make people want to barf (in a good way) and Darth Vader kills fools just by looking at them menacingly and concentrating really hard.  A large portion of the world becomes instantly obsessed with the galaxy far, far away, and boys everywhere dream of detonating the Death Star from the cockpit of an X-Wing fighter or face-punching stormtroopers like ultra-bitchin’ space-scoundrel Han Solo.  Things start to go downhill a few years later with the introduction of the Ewoks, but nobody really seems to notice.  Timothy Zahn later builds on the badassitude of Star Wars with his Heir to the Empire trilogy in the early nineties, but then the prequel films of the 2000s sadly send the entire franchise down in a fiery death-spiral from which it has little hope of recovery.

1978: The original Battlestar Galactica gets people psyched up about macking on babes and shooting alien cyborgs with starfighters, as the crew of the Galactica desperately attempt to save humanity from destruction at the hands of the Cylons.  This series, while awesome, was not quite as cool as the remade version that came out in the 2000s (or “The Aughts”, as I like to call them), and I refuse to hear any dissenting opinions on the subject.  This same year, Douglas Adams performs the first radio broadcast of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is almost universally-recognized as the most totally hilarious sci-fi comedy series ever written.

1980: In addition to providing one of the most completely balls-out pump-up theme songs ever written, The Final Countdown teaches us not only about the serious responsibilities associated with time travel, but that it totally kicks ass when a F-14s blow up World War II-era Japanese Zeroes.

1982: Harrison Ford appears again in our list as the lead character in the hardcore futuristic dystopian crime drama Blade Runner.  Based on the legendary Philip K. Dick’s interestingly-titled story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner combines the most badass elements of 1940s detective pulp fiction noir with homicidal androids to make a film widely believed by people named Ben Thompson to be one of the most awesome things ever committed to the silver screen.

1984: ’84 didn’t exactly see the dystopian future that Orwell predicted, but it was the year in which an even MORE messed-up dystopian future presented itself – this time in the form of William Gibson’s badass novel Neuromancer.  Featuring “street samurai”, “console cowboys”, cybernetic augmentations, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and a crazy mercenary babe with daggers implanted in her fingers and sunglasses grafted onto her face, this book basically created the concept of cyberpunk, and opened the doors for all sorts of badass, gritty, futuristic crap ranging from Angelina Jolie’s hair in Hackers to a bunch of totally weirdo anime stuff like Akira and Ghost in the Shell.  I’m also told that that this novel invented the Internet, but I think we all know that was Al Gore so stop pretending that it wasn’t.

1985-1989: An excellent and under-appreciated four-year span in the history of science-fiction brings us Back to the Future, The Handmaid’s Tale, Ender’s Game, Aliens, Predator, Spaceballs, The Abyss, The Terminator, Mystery Science Theater 3000, The Transformers Movie, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Robocop. The sheer gravitational force of badassery exuded from this stretch of time causes many peoples’ heads to explode like that dude from Scanners.

1992: The Sci-Fi Channel launches.  It is soon followed by an endless onslaught of Sci-Fi Channel Original Movies, all of which are so utterly ridiculous and terrible as to border on awesomeness.

1993: Fox Mulder and Dana Scully start getting abducted by aliens with frightening regularity on behalf of the FBI on The X-Files.  Meanwhile, David Weber’s ass-kicking heroine Honor Harrington re-enacts the naval careers of Horatio Nelson and Thomas Cochrane by crashing her ships into planets and choking people to death with their own disemboweled intestines in On Basilisk Station.

1994: Babylon 5 starts.  I never really got into this show, but some people are really freaky obsessive about this stuff so I guess it bears mentioning on this list.

1999: Matt Groening offers his unique take on science-fiction with Futurama – the story of a team of space slackers doing generally-mundane tasks that somehow wind up requiring them to save the galaxy from their own stupid mistakes.

2001: Halo: Combat Evolved comes out on the Xbox, and the fine art of “space teabagging” somehow galvanizes frat boys across the country to suddenly become fanatically interested in futuristic warfare.  Traditional sci-fi fans have mixed feelings on the subject, and decide it’s probably best never to speak of it.

2005: River Tam cleaves a horde of space-zombies brand new assholes with a couple of antiquated Viking-style axes in Serenity, the film version of sci-fi geek hero Joss Whedon’s insanely popular TV series Firefly.  Scary-obsessive Whedon fanatics across the world commemorate the event with a giant collective nerd-gasm.

Movies & TV

12 Messed-Up Memorial Day HATFIELDS & MCCOYS Premiere Facts

No other folk do blood feuds like Mason-Dixon Line Americans. Wedged between the Smoky Mountains and the Mississippi is enough pure meanness to power New York City from now until the Mayan Doomsday. They may pronounce themselves zealots for the religion of “turn the other cheek,” but hillbillies make Sicilian mobsters look laid back.

Movies & TV

The Who, What, When, Where, And Why Of AWAKE’s Cancellation

 Or, why I’ll never be fooled by NBC again.

So, this is the last time that I will speak or write about Awake.  In fact, this might be the last time anybody issues any type of missive in regards to NBC’s most recent series cancellation.

Books & Comics

A Very Noticeable Young Lady: Lucie Blackman, High Touch Town History & PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS – The Nail That Sticks Out

“Peril of Jap Vice Trap.”

-Sensationalist People magazine headline following the disappearance of Lucie Blackman

In the summer of 2000, Lucie Blackman, a former British Airways flight attendant working illegally as a hostess in Roppongi, Tokyo, disappeared. Roughly a year later, a man named Joji Obara was brought to trial for her murder and the rape of several other women after police found numerous self-made tapes of an often-masked Obara having his way with clearly unconscious women of various ethnicities. The footage stretched so far back, there were even Betamax tapes.

The tale of Lucie’s disappearance, the eventual discovery of her body and the evil wiliness of the man who killed her is long and complicated and filled with more intriguing bit-players than an instalment of Kinji Fukasaku’s The Yakuza Papers. Journalist Richard Lloyd Parry, who worked in Tokyo and spent many years on the case (both on the clock and off) has released his account of the whole tale. People Who Eat Darkness is long and exhaustive (perhaps too exhaustive) but frequently riveting, with Parry wearing numerous hats (perhaps too many hats), those of the journalist, anthropologist, fixated Ellroy-esque writer obsessed with both Lucie and her case, historian, and commentator.

For our purposes here, without ruining Darkness, I’ll be using the book to help break down several elements of Japanese society, starting here with the hostess culture, following on in later columns with police investigations and finally into the immigrant experience, all framed of course through the lens of criminality, and certain Japanese pop culture depictions thereof, as well as the Blackman case.

People Who Eat Darkness is both objective and subjective depending on the section of the book you’re reading. Parry admirably takes great pains to extinguish any whiff off true crime ghoulishness from the work with heaps of historical fact and, yes, fair dollops of his own self. He says, “…I hoped I could do some service to Lucie Blackman, or to her memory, by restoring her status as a normal person, a woman complex in her ordinariness, with a life before death” (1).  However, the aforementioned Ellroy-esque streak is also apparent early: “The story infected my dreams…I found it impossible to forget Lucie Blackman” (2).

There’s also an almost unbelievable naivety on display from Parry for a man who lived in Japan for most of his adult life and is a journalist by trade. The culture at large is teeming with inescapable seediness, strangeness, and one doesn’t have to dim the neon much at all to be well aware of the darkness. This is not a judgement – from a Western perspective, it is simply a fact, and, as I’ve discussed in this space before, whilst Japan is a very safe and very awesome place, remarkably safe and awesome, when someone there snaps, it’s frequently very unpleasant. Parry writes, in one of his more overwrought moments, that Lucie’s case was like “the key to a trapdoor in a familiar room, a trapdoor containing secrets – frightening, violent, monstrous existences to which I had been oblivious”(3). It’s actually a little hard to swallow that, but perhaps this is an unnecessary attempt to either remain the English everyman or “pulp up” his exhaustive research and years of work.

While the early section detailing Blackman’s life is necessary, it certainly could have used some trimming. Parry establishes very well that Lucie was a consumer: she liked things and she liked to spend; indeed the whole point of her trip to Japan was to score some of that sweet hostess cash and pay off her mounting debts, but the details of the French manicures she liked could certainly have been cut, and childhood diary entries do nothing to increase sympathy for, or understanding of, Lucie, who by the very nature of her horrific end is as sympathetic as one could possibly be. We know, already by this point, that she is not some Lost Little Rich Girl – writing about her childhood paranormal experiences (along with her mother’s “senses”) do nothing but take a reader’s eyes off the page long enough to give them a roll.

Where Darkness excels, however, is in its wonderfully readable history sections of not only Roppongi, but the commercial sex trade (fuzuoku) in all its complications, and Japan’s frequently disagreeable treatment of its Korean immigrants (Obara is of Korean descent, and his family history, as much as Parry could get to, is fascinating stuff).  Yes, this is not your ordinary Girl Gets Murdered By Sex Creep book.

Thank God.

Just like Grey, the protagonist in in Mo Hayder’s overlong, but occasionally gripping ‘blockbuster,’ Tokyo (which is worth a read but won’t be covered in this space), Lucie’s role as hostess was essentially to chat, flirt and drink with the male clients of the bar, all of whom paid for her time.  It’s all a bit like that episode of The Simpsons where Homer chats up that model with “Do you come with the car?” and she tee-hees and goes, “Oh, you…” except that in this case, if the guy ponies up enough dough, he’ll take the hostess out for an all-expenses paid dinner date (called a dohan), generally act like top shit, take the girl back to the club and spend even more money there. It’s all a strange piece of role-play (something the Japanese are very fond of), with near pro-wrestling levels of suspension of disbelief required for the men involved. It’s supposed to be sexless, and in theory, it is. In practice, however…

In practice, at least in Osaka, where I spent the bulk of my time, hostesses are often plied with expensive gifts for the expectancy of a sexual encounter that, more often than not, according to my Japanese ex-hostess source, takes place. Repeatedly. This phenomenon is known as “compensated dating,” something that gained serious traction in the ‘90s when it was revealed that large numbers of schoolgirls were prostituting themselves to older men in return for designer goods. Although the government actually did attempt something of a crackdown, compensated dating spread from the underage to office workers and even housewives.

In last instalment’s brief look at Gate of Flesh, it’s mentioned how you could have fucked one of the prostitutes of the time for forty yen, or the cost of a pound of black market post-war beef (which may in fact have been horse according to Darkness; more on this in a later column).  However, James Farrer’s introduction to Joan Sinclair’s amazing, essential 2006 pictorial tour of Japan’s wonderland of sex shops, Pink Box: Inside Japan’s Sex Clubs, says that, “according to economist Takashi Kadokura, the commercial sexual services sector in Japan accounted for Y2.37 trillion in 2001, or nearly $20 billion” (4).  My, how times and economies change. Penetration, it should be mentioned, is illegal, you can’t just go about picking up johns and fucking them and expect to skate under the law, which is why some hostesses will do the deed in exchange for brand goods. And while literal intercourse may be illegal, “fellatio and masturbation, in all their forms, are permitted” (5).

Roppongi, bar-filled, foreigner-friendly hostess paradise is evocatively brought to life in Darkness:

“Roppongi was not especially trendy. For quality, variety, or good value, Tokyo had many more interesting entertainment districts – elegant Ginza, with its old-fashioned department stores and middle-aged gentility; the edgy street life of Shinjuku, with its gangsters and sex shows; and Shibuya, domain of the glazed, ultrafashionable young. Foreigners were to be seen all over Tokyo, of course, but only in Roppongi was their presence the entire point of the place” (6).

Indeed, those familiar with Robert Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld may recall that Nick Zappetti, an American who thrived in Japan after the war, thanks to the black market, was known as The King of Roppongi and opened a popular pizza joint there that became a Tokyo hot spot for many years. Indeed, Nicola’s, the restaurant concerned, “made Roppongi synonymous with pizza” (7).

In Darkness, Parry also completely nails the bitter sweetness of gaijin life and it’s not hard to imagine Lucie’s initial unhappiness smiling for rich morons trying to impress her with their broken English and their bank balances. I had a Canadian teacher friend who finally snapped on a train one day, raising her voice at a man who was utterly taken with her long blond hair, her blue eyes, her perfect smile. She, like Lucie Blackman, was, as Lucie’s father explained whilst appealing for witnesses, “…a very noticeable young lady…” (8).

Lucie Blackman, like many foreign hostesses, was coveted for her “exotic” appeal and, in most cases, it appears as though most of her clients were the typical well-behaved businessman in need of an ego-massage. As unseemly as the hostess culture could possibly appear, it must be stated that it’s a relatively safe occupation, if shallow, despite the clear objectification taking place.

Darkness divides the Roppongi nightlife neatly up into three tribes: Africans (the ultra-gaijin) wooing passers-by into clubs; “the Roppongi girls,” the Japanese females drawn to the place for the possibility of snagging a gaijin for the night or possibly longer; and the numerous foreign women, working the bars and clubs, of which Lucie was one.

In 2008, The Tokyo Reporter reported that Roppongi was seeing a major police crackdown, with all sorts of shady businesses being forced to close at 1 am, making trade in such establishments “virtually impossible.” This does not take away from the rich history of the place, however, which Parry elaborates on quite excellently.

The practice of men paying for the company of females dates back to the eighteenth century in Japan, when geisha, courtesans and common prostitutes were separated “by a gulf of accomplishment and respectability” (9).  Skipping over nearly a century and a lot of yen, it’s in post-war Japan that Roppongi began to thrive as a hub for foreigners, with the US army taking over a large, formerly Japanese, army barracks and, of course, businesses of all sorts started up to cater to the occupiers. Roppongi earned an enduring nickname during this time, “High Touch Town,” and although it sounds wonderfully lurid, according to Darkness, it actually refers to a Japanese explanation for all the high-fiving going on between gaijin (10).  It’s worth noting, however, that the aforementioned Tokyo Reporter article quotes a rather tired sounding member of the local shopkeeper association, who claims that “People don’t know what it means.” So take what you will from that.

It’s also worth noting that the hostess phenomenon works both ways – females spent ginormous sums in Host Bars where male hosts with ridiculous haircuts spend hours with hapless ladies as they spends thousands on them. Foolishly though, the Host Bar clientele seems far more fixated on love than companionship with an attractive partner and the Hosts are more often than not willing to take full advantage. Oddly though, there are even host bars with transsexual and lesbian women, butched up in suits and with boy band haircuts, playing the role of the male for the female too intimidated by the brashness of the male host. If you’ve ever seen hosts on the hustle, you’ll gain a better understanding of why this odd niche in the “dating” market exists…

Lucie Blackman’s disappearance and the subsequent international spotlight shined upon both Japan’s nightlife and its law enforcement practices caused much embarrassment to Japan and when we return, we’ll look at Japanese cops in greater depth, with reference to People Who Eat Darkness and Shohei Imamura’s masterful 1979 film Vengeance Is Mine, which details the exploits and murderous urges of Enokizu Iwao.


“World’s Greatest Crimefighters”: Cops & Killers Onscreen and Off In VENGEANCE IS MINE and PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS.


  1. Parry, Richard Lloyd, People Who Eat Darkness, FSG, 2012, page 19
  2. Ibid, page 17
  3. Ibid, page 17
  4. Sinclair, Joan, Pink Box: Inside Japan’s Sex Clubs, Harry N. Abrams Inc, 2006, page 13
  5. Parry, Richard Lloyd, op. cit, page 73
  6. Ibid, page 61
  7. Whiting, Robert, Tokyo Underworld, Vintage Books, 2000, page 116
  8. Parry, Richard Lloyd, op. cit, page 120
  9. Ibid, page 75
  10. Ibid, pages 75-76
Movies & TV

The Ten Most Dangerous Broads In Film

It’s Ladies’ Night at the Complex.

We’ve covered a pretty broad spectrum of shady characters over the past few months around here, but with Mother’s Day coming up in a few weeks, we felt it entirely appropriate to tip our collective hats to all the wonderful women that keep us under a thin layer of sweat.  Presenting the ten meanest, craziest, and most scandalous chicks to ever set the screen on fire.

Alert: Spoilers abound.

Movies & TV

Apocalypse Whores: Seijun Suzuki’s GATE OF FLESH

Welcome to post-World War II Tokyo. The Occupied City. It’s a crime-fest. Aside from yakuza-run markets, gang wars, gambling, and seemingly everybody on the grift, prostitution  is so utterly widespread, there’s even a governmental department named The RAA (Recreation and Amusement Association) specifically established to relieve the occupying troops of pent-up libidinal urges that could possibly be exorcised in even less wholesome ways. The ensuing  fuckfest is prodigious. So prodigious that  the moat around the Imperial Palace becomes “so clogged with used condoms”  it has to be “cleaned out once a week with a big wire scoop.”

Movies & TV

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON: My 8th Grade Dream Comes True

Yeah, feast your eyes on that little piece of hipster cred.  That is my official membership card in the N.W.A fan club, acquired in the halcyon days of 1991, when I was even more suburban and whitebread than I am now.  And finally my other favorite group of junior high (tied with Public Enemy) will have their own bio-pic.

Movies & TV

What Are The Odds That INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Will Turn Out To Be A Crime Movie?

Though largely regarded as humorists, directors Joel and Ethan Coen have produced some of the finest crime movies ever committed to film.  Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, and their adaptation of No Country for Old Men are straight-ahead crime movies enriched with the Coens’ visual style and lip-smacking dialogue.  Even Fargo, though the thick Minnesota dialect draws huge laughs, couldn’t be more of a crime movie.

Books & Comics Movies & TV

Odds That Oliver Stone’s SAVAGES Will Be Any Good?

Director Oliver Stone is bringing Don Winslow’s SAVAGES to the big screen.  But will it be any good? “Bet.”

Don Winslow’s 2010 novel Savages is one of those books you chide yourself for not reading sooner, even if you were able to get your hands on an ARC in ’09.  The drug-dealing anti-hero(es) and the adventures of the Mexican drug cartel are all reinvested with some relevance and some actual personality in the pages of Winslow’s novel.  Opening with a brief first chapter, the twin thematic powerhouses of minimalism and breakneckism (in both pace and morality) shoot you through to the conclusion, which is about as Mexican a stand-off as you’re likely to read.  There’s no time to do anything but take a deep breath and hope you come out on the other side (not all of you will).  If/when you do, it’ll be a day and half later and you will not have eaten and your hair will be all messed up.  That’s how good Savages is.

Movies & TV

5 Raunchiest Crimes on AMERICAN HORROR STORY

They call it American Horror Story. FX Network named it wrong. It’s not particularly American—California is only technically in America. Above all, it’s not really a “horror story” either. Horror generally requires characters you care about. But one thing’s sure about American Horror Story: It is loaded to the gills with nastiness, most of it criminal.

Movies & TV

In The Mick Of Time: 7 Best Irish-American Crime Flicks

There’s always something that’s just a little dirtier about Irish crime movies.  Irish movie mobsters don’t wear silk suits and don’t tip off an impending whacking with a kiss on the cheek. In fact, in most cases, it would appear that they don’t even shower.  That would require foresight and diligent planning, which are qualities not typically on display in an Irish-American crime film.

With St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, we thought it would be a good idea to tip our hats to the grand tradition of Irish thuggery in American film while we are all still coherent enough to do so.


Setting the mood: Mass Effect 3 Take Earth Back trailer

Bioware recently put out a new trailer for Mass Effect 3, entitled “Take Earth Back.” I quite liked it, and it’s a nice example of how a trailer like this can be effective that’s worth taking a closer look at.

Movies & TV

Why AWAKE Is About To Become The Best Show On Television*

*For those who are still jonesing for something to fill the void in their life left by Lost.

Just to get past the nagging qualifiers, I’ve been hyping this show since the moment I heard the premise and saw the trailer for it (I won’t post it again here as I have been spamming the Complex for the past three months).  I have a nasty habit of doing this.  As a result, the sight of Chinese Democracy sitting on the shelves at Best Buy with a $1.99 price tag gives me stabbing pains in the abdominal area every time I go to pick up batteries.

Books & Comics

My Valentine’s Date With BUTCH FATALE

A few months back, I ploughed through Jungle Street by Don Elliott. Elliott (the pseudonym of SF master Robert Silverberg) wrote numerous smutty novels (such as Escape To Sindom, Sex Gang and Party Girl), the kind which once flooded the market with their lurid pulp covers of half-naked buxotics either frolicking with strapping young men or running from them.

Movies & TV

The 10 Perviest Crime Films

Crime films give every genre a run for its money when it comes to getting hardcore. Murder, torture, kidnapping—they have it all and in many cases, they show it all. Even the lion’s share of the horror genre doesn’t hold a candle to scenes like Mr. Blonde getting down with a duct-taped cop and a straight razor.

Movies & TV

Silent House – Elizabeth Olsen Screams With Talent

Silent House holds a lot of dark splendor for such a lean feature.

This trim 88-minute thriller is rendered in a single shot. That artistic effort alone makes it worth the price of admission.

It braids in a lot of other captivating elements: Subtle unfolding of the plot. An eerie, understated atmosphere. Mounting tension that wrenches into the surreal for the final act.

Best of all, Silent House has the golden thread of Elizabeth Olsen’s talent to hold it together.