Review: Don’t Touch That!: A Sci-Fi & Fantasy Parenting Anthology

DISCLAIMER: I backed this anthology on Kickstarter.

It was, if nothing else, an attention-getting premise. An anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories centred on parenthood was a very agreeable prospect, especially in 2020 when the concept of parenting was, for obvious reasons, at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds. It was certainly why I backed editor Jaymee Goh’s project when I stumbled across it on Kickstarter back in the day. It was a timely, open-ended theme, broad enough to allow a variety of takes and specific enough for those takes to add up to a cohesive whole. It was a project with plenty of potential. But having now read the finished book, ‘plenty of potential’ is still about the best that can be said of it. While a number of the anthology’s 22 writers have responded to the brief with interesting, worthwhile stories, the overall package is something of a let-down.

The first story, ‘Let Us Start The Story Another Way’ by Brit E.B. Hvide, effectively sets the tone. Its narrator is a mother living in a standard fantasy setting, who is worried that a wizard is about to scoop up her son and take him on an adventure. It’s an effective comic angle, sending up the exclusion of inconvenient parental figures from standard Campbellian narratives, with the generic staple of the kindly old wizard recast as a child-stealing pestilence. (It is slyly noted these wizards “usually go for orphan types”). The story capably portrays the narrator’s mounting anxiety, and builds to a twist ending whereby she steals a sword, tracks down her son and his would-be kidnapper, and tells them that “I’m coming with you.” It’s a funny, pointed subversion of standard fantasy tropes; the sort of thing that outlets such as Daily Science Fiction tend to do well. But it also serves as a template for some of the anthology’s failures; too many of the included stories share its slightness and its tropiness, the novelty of a parent protagonist masking otherwise insipid storytelling.

Valerie Valdes’ ‘Parenting in Daemonum Extremis,’ for example, elicits a laugh when it opens with a demon-summoning ritual, subsequently interrupted: “‘Mommy!’ a shrill voice whined. ‘My blocks are all floating!’” But having introduced the premise of a satanic ritual interrupted by a demanding toddler, Valdes proceeds to do nothing with it, and the story feels like it’s building to a plot twist that never comes. Sylvia Liu’s ‘Life 2.0,’ meanwhile, about a woman who uses a robot version of herself to maintain parallel lives as both a stay-at-home mother and a high-powered career woman, does build up to a twist, but the execution is muddy and confusing where it ought to feel surprising. That said, at least Valdes and Liu remember to subvert something. Jenny Martin’s ‘The Language of Trees’ is a disappointingly straightforward generation starship story, and ‘The Liege-Mother’ by N.E. Davenport is simply incompetent, a dull fantasy story about securing a royal bloodline, drowning in its own exposition.

But while the book overall has more misses than hits, a thousand words of negativity would be boring, so let’s talk hidden gems. ‘At the Turning of the Year’ by Rowenna Miller is a lyrical, heartfelt story about a shape-changing fox-woman married to an ordinary human man. When the family finds itself targeted by violent criminals, she must guide her two children in using their own shape-changing abilities, until eventually the combined family of fox, doe, and owl unites to protect husband and father from the violent humans endangering his life. Miller’s prose is thoughtful and precise, demarcating the human and animal worlds through structural tricks like narrating in past tense for the human sections and present tense for the animal ones. The two worlds’ comments on each other are deliberate, mirroring things: the narrator reflects as a human that “the first time she had shifted… it felt like turning a sweater inside out to discover a different pattern on the other side.” This chintzy, mannered description contrasts sharply with the narrator’s animal mind. This version of her is both instinctive and dispassionate, stating that “worry is for humans,” and dimly remembering human society as “A world made of words and hands.” ‘At the Turning of the Year’ is a well-crafted story about shapeshifting as a family, and is likely to please both young children and the furry adults in their lives.

Where Miller’s story emphasises togetherness, Shweta Adhyam’s ‘To Conquer Time’ is a bittersweet reflection on separation, and the loss that comes with a child surpassing their parent. Vandana is a single mother who encourages her daughter Akshara’s childhood interest in outer space. When, as an adult, Akshara is selected for a NASA expedition that will leave her incommunicado for forty-eight years, Vandana must contend with the effective loss of her child:

“Vandana returned home to her Oakland flat. It had been two years since Akshara had moved out but it had still, always, remained hers, available whenever she needed rest and pampering and a return to childhood. Now she would never again talk, laugh, hiccup, within these walls. For the first time, her absence lay like a heavy shroud upon the flat: a weight upon every second, every quantum of space.”

It’s a melancholic but ultimately hopeful piece, as Vandana’s reflections on her particular type of loss lead to a rediscovery of old passions, and a realisation that she need not passively accept her fate. It’s an empowering conclusion to this slender but touching story about loss and moving on, where parenthood is a defining but not all-encompassing part of a woman’s life.

‘In Parallel’ by Adrienne Maree Brown, on the other hand, is one of the most disturbing stories I have read in a long time. It follows two halves of an interracial couple, both of whom wake up to find the other missing. We soon find out that the world has been invaded by the Garacsz, an alien species whose mission is to “support traumatized species to heal the wounds that can develop between species and planet.” To do this, we are told, they have placed “the dominants” in “parallel for now” – that is to say, they have consigned all white people to a parallel universe, which they will not be able to leave until they have overcome their own internalised racism.

It’s a provocative, uncomfortable premise, which takes the facile ‘racism in space’ allegories of golden age science fiction and makes them into something tangible and real. The wife’s processing of her situation is a raw, visceral thing; she moves through “a different level of grief, that extra heft of intimate contact with oppression.” When she observes that her husband “was going to have to be her equal before he came home,” it lands like a punch in the stomach. The husband, for his part, falls into the classic tropes of white fragility when confronted by the situation, demanding “Who am I dominating? I live in peace with all kinds of minorities. I married one,” but quickly following the statement up with “I didn’t have to, there were plenty of White girls who wanted me.”

Brown’s story is a dense, confrontational bit of science fiction, and hands down the most memorable entry in the anthology. Like the other standout stories, it manages to use science fiction and fantasy iconography to tell stories about parenthood that also feed into wider themes, whether they be systemic racism, queerness, grief, or the upheavals of adolescence. These are stories about parenthood, but not only about parenthood, and it’s hard not to prefer them to the contrived and shallow offerings elsewhere. I don’t want to write off the project entirely; there are a handful of stories worth reading here, and Brown’s effort in particular feels destined to be remembered as a significant piece of short science fiction. But it is, pound for pound, a distinctly underwhelming anthology.

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Review: William Blake Vs The World by John Higgs

The finest piece of William Blake criticism ever written came from Twitter user @nailheadparty in 2019. The piece reads, in full:

“William Blake stans: this man is visionary… a true psychedelic mystic and seer of old Albion

William Blake:
tiger tiger you are neat
seeing you’s a real big treat”

I have yet to find another piece of writing that so elegantly captures the weird, rare joy of Blake’s work (or the mildly silly pomposity of stans like me). Blake is both simple and complex, both psychedelic and grounded, both sublime and ridiculous. He is, indeed, neat, and reading him is a big treat. Yet while it may not manage to unseat this tweet, John Higgs’s new book, William Blake Vs The World, is an admirable attempt to capture the mercurial spirit of William Blake and make him accessible to the lay reader. The result is an expansive, playful, and riveting piece of pop criticism, even if it sometimes proves lacking from a hardcore fan’s perspective.

The book is structured as a loose biography of Blake, with frequent digressions into relevant historical and philosophical contexts, as well as into contemporary science which uncannily echoes Blake’s ideas. The effect is almost Shandean in places, but Higgs is a succinct and perspicacious stylist, rendering fraught and convoluted ideas in clear and readable prose. Chapter five, for instance, ‘The Tygers of Wrath,’ starts with a broad overview of eighteenth century politics, including sectarian tensions and revolutions, then transitions into an account of the English radical tradition starting around the Civil Wars, before explaining how its ideas filtered down to Blake and were expressed in his character of Los, an avatar of human creative labour, with a brief stop-off to explain Blake’s own unique engraving techniques.

As with Higgs’s previous work, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, the sheer breadth of material covered is a source of real pleasure, and Higgs has a good eye for historical anecdote. In demonstrating the survival of radical ideals among the English proletariat, he wheels out a story of Methodist leader John Wesley, who

“recorded conversations with people in Birmingham during a tour of the Midlands in 1746… who claimed that they were not bound by the law as they possessed the light of faith. Although the views seemed shocking to Wesley, they did appear considered and sincerely held. ‘Have you also a right to all the women in the world?’ Wesley asked, perhaps trying to catch the person out with an extreme position. ‘Yes, if they consent,’ came the reasonable reply.”

Blake’s working class existence is presented as the source of the radical ideas in his own work. Although these concepts were around a century old, Higgs argues that Blake’s knowledge of them implies that although they were “shunned by the universities and publishers of the eighteenth century, they did not vanish from the streets of London.” Higgs explicitly ties Blake’s background to his depiction of Los:

“Typically portrayed as a blacksmith, Los is said to be endlessly labouring with his hammer at the furnace, constructing a city of art known as Golgonooza. This sense of creative effort as hard physical labour without end, forged by sweat, fire and determination, stands in contrast to images of refined aristocratic poets being visited by the graceful muses. It is, however, an apt description of Blake spending his entire life working with metal and acids.”

It’s a refreshingly grounded portrayal of artistic genius, even if Higgs occasionally waxes a bit too sentimental about Blake’s life story, such as when he states late in the book that Blake “ended his days a profoundly happy man”. A touching emotional beat, to be sure, but a little corny as a description of such a mature and complex artist.

Yet for all that Higgs finds to admire in Blake’s life as a hardworking artisan, he has curiously little to say about Blake’s commercial engraving work. It may be hard to begrudge a biographer for being more intrigued by Blake’s elaborate personal visions than his works for hire, but it does seem a little out of step with contemporary Blake studies. The 2019 Tate Britain exhibition of his works, which Higgs repeatedly references to stress his contemporary relevance, happily presented Blake’s hack work alongside his weirder, more enduring pieces, and both contributed to a rich and strange portrait of this fascinating artist.

It’s one of several elisions that make the book feel a little disappointing to a reader grounded in literary studies. The notion of queerness in Blake gets a single, awkward nod when Higgs observes the androgynous nature of many Blakean spirits and notes that “there may have been a transgender aspect to his sense of self when it was let free in his imagination.” The book’s account of Romanticism is oddly perfunctory, with only Wordsworth and Coleridge getting much more than obligatory name drops. Higgs marks Blake out when he observes that he was

“of a different class to the majority of the Romantics. He did not have the aristocratic background or private income that allowed, for example, Percy and Mary Shelley and Lord Byron to spend years travelling around classical antiquity. Blake had to work and hustle in order to eat, so the aspect of Romanticism which rejected commerce and labour in favour of leisure, luxury and contemplation was alien to him.”

True enough, but it’s hard not to crave a more nuanced or detailed assessment of the Romantic canon here. If nothing else, John Clare leaps to mind as an obvious counterexample, a poet who would make an interesting companion and contrast to Blake, but his name appears nowhere in this book, which is doubly odd given how much attention is paid to ideas like neuroscience and quantum entanglement. While interesting, these excursions feel like the product of an author more invested in contemporary science than in literary criticism, and even if that weren’t enough, the fact that Higgs seems to take Harold Bloom seriously ought to seal the deal.

However, these criticisms need to be understood as what they are: the gripes of a literature student, not of that elusive poetic ideal, ‘the general reader.’ Higgs has not written a book for English undergraduates, but a generalist introduction to a complex and occasionally daunting artist. This is both a good and bad thing; further engagement with Blake’s literary culture may have lent the book more depth, but there is always the risk of getting too wrapped up in scholarly debate and missing the forest for the trees, Urizen-like. William Blake Vs The World is a readable and rewarding piece of middlebrow popular scholarship, and an excellent starting point for any punter wanting to learn what all Blake’s fuss is about. It’s a strong polish on the doors of perception, even if they will ultimately be cleansed by other, more specialised books.

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Review: Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century by Kim Fu

In ‘Sandman,’ an insomniac is visited by a mysterious hooded figure, who pours sleep into her by “the faint light that leaked around her drawn curtains.” In ‘In This Fantasy,’ the narrator disclaims that “I don’t have fantasies where I’m the young, cheating wife, the one rolling over a made bed, drugged light leaking past net curtains, pulled shut in full daylight.” In ‘Liddy, First to Fly,’ a group of adolescent girls react calmly to their friend sprouting wings from her ankles. “The realm of pretend had only just closed its doors to us, and light still leaked through around the edges.” This motif of light spilling past an imperfect barrier defines the feel of Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, the debut short fiction collection from acclaimed novelist Kim Fu. Actual bug-eyed beasts are thin on the ground; Fu’s monsters wait just outside the frame, as patient and inevitable as daybreak.

The collection contains twelve stories, ranging from science fiction to horror to literary absurdism. Fu has stated that she aimed to “take the speculative ideas very seriously and at face value… asking what this character would do in this situation, without a winking eye to metaphor.” In truth there are moments when the metaphors become obvious, but Fu’s attention to character is unwavering. Even the most obvious literary archetypes reveal hidden depths, such as the genius inventor who never moves beyond designing elaborate toys, and the plucky band of child adventurers including “Isaac and Abby Gibbs, enemies the other nine months of the year, [they] finished each other’s sentences in the summer.” These details are delivered with wit and economy, a lyrical finesse which helps deepen the more stock elements of these stories.

The deadening, ossifying qualities of neoliberalism inform many of Fu’s settings. ‘The Doll,’ for instance, centres on a group of a young kids who find a haunted toy after a family in their neighbourhood tragically dies. It’s a premise one might find in an 80s Stephen King story, but the setting is deliberately made less distinct, too faceless to even be sinister:

“The rest of us lived in two-story homes that crowded to the lots’ edges, hipped roofs matching the cube-like dimensions as neatly as a lid to a jar, our driveways and yards stout and begrudging. The Mullens’ house, conversely, was a midcentury bungalow with a long, low roofline, orange-toned brick and wood, with that carport and a sprawling, unruly backyard — the specific architectural dream of a designer or previous owner, representing a specific moment in time. Our houses were specifically for the dreamless, signifying nothing.”

The end of history becomes yet another inadequate shield, a barrier that is implied to let in the strange nightmares of the titular doll. More confrontational is the future setting of ‘Time Cubes,’ an entire society that lives in a giant shopping centre. The main character is an explicit “Depressive,” who attends a revealing if unhelpful kind of therapy:

“Alice’s Depressive Specialist said they were living in a paradise, and Alice had to agree, in the sense that the recent past was worse, the future would almost certainly be worse, and the present was worse for most other people, living elsewhere.”

The hopelessness of Alice’s situation mirrors our current moment of helplessness and pessimism, even in the ostensibly comfortable, consumer-centric western world. Alice finds an intriguing distraction in the titular ‘Time Cubes,’ a set of toys allowing one to view the full life cycle of an encased plant or frog by simply turning a dial. It’s a fascinating premise, and Alice moves through an unsettling portrait of her future world to an ending that feels both tragic and inevitable.

The breadth of the stories on offer here demonstrates a pleasingly catholic attitude to genre fiction. The conceit of ‘Time Cubes’ and its spare, intimate style feel reminiscent of stories by Kelly Link or Helen Oyeyemi, yet its ending would not feel out of place in Tharg’s Future Shocks. Similarly 2000AD-ish is ‘Twenty Hours,’ in which a new kind of 3D printing allows a married couple to murder and resurrect each other over and over again (though the narrator husband kills his wife repeatedly while she dispatches him only once). It’s an appealingly nasty depiction of domestic alienation and the consequences waved away by wealth, though the final lines are most striking for their perverse sentimentality:

“Connie appeared at the top of the stairs in a rumpled set of pajamas she’d pulled out, holding the laundry basket against her hip. She sat at the kitchen island. I put down a plate of pancakes and bacon in front of her. I put on some music. She smiled faintly, a mysterious smile, gone and back from somewhere I could never truly know, all her secrets her own, fascinating again.”

The logic of consumption, of using up, throwing away, and acquiring anew has migrated to the realm of human relationships. With enough money, everything old is new again.

While the monster umbrella is broad enough to encompass many things, a couple of these stories feel a little tangential. The social media satire ‘#ClimbingNation’ offers a fun Fitzgeraldian portrait of unpleasant elites, but a somewhat pat final twist. The wedding comedy ‘Bridezilla,’ meanwhile, stops abruptly at its most interesting point, leaving implications to fizz out rather than developing them further. But even in these stories there is the poetic spark that animates the rest of the collection, such as when the protagonist of ‘Bridezilla’ reflects on her desire for a marriage ceremony: “Weddings were obscene in any era, but especially in this one, a narcissistic spectacle at the end of the world.”

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century is a confident, intoxicating collection, the work of an exciting young talent reaching the top of her game. It would not be surprising to see stories from this volume make the year’s best lists and anthologies for this year, and impossible to argue they were undeserving. This book is, quite simply, delicious.

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Review: Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin

There is a subgenre of science fiction that I am tempted to label chromosomepunk. These are stories set in the future which depict a radical shakeup of gender politics while displaying a curious rigidity about karyotypes. The subgenre was best formulated by Daniel Lavery in 2020:

“There was a big, uh, Y-chromosome flu, and then all the X-chromosomes got activated by a spilled jar of Chemical X-acto-tron… so all the women turned into Storm, and all the men exploded, and probably something happened to trans people too.”

That last clause, the ease with which these works dismiss trans people, has become harder and harder to ignore in recent years. I remember reading The Power in 2017 and being surprised by the fact that intersex people are featured for precisely one scene before being dropped from the narrative entirely, and trans people are not mentioned at all. In 2022, with anti-trans legislation being introduced across the US and an ostensibly feminist hate movement gaining traction, these stories’ rigidly chromosomal conception of gender starts to look downright insidious.

In this context, the appearance of Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin is a refreshing change of pace. In a zombie apocalypse where testosterone transforms men into ravening beasts, trans women survive off estrogen extracted from the testicles of the creatures who once ruled the Earth, and try not to get killed by a growing movement of fascist TERFs.

We open with two ‘manhunters,’ Beth and Fran, stalking their prey through a New England forest, and as the novel progresses we meet our other main viewpoint characters. There’s Robbie, a trans man grown isolated and paranoid over years spent sniping the cis hordes in the woods, and Indi, an overweight doctor who refines tradable estrogen from the severed balls Fran and Beth bring home. Finally, and most disturbingly, there’s Ramona, a young officer rising through the ranks of the fascist XX movement (“Don’t worry, citizen — I have the right chromosomes”), who we soon learn is a chaser who sees a trans sex worker while striving to eradicate trans people from the New Womyn’s Commonwealth. These characters, caught up in the crush of history, offer a wide variety of perspectives on Felker-Martin’s narrative, which acts as both a rejoinder to the orthodoxies of chromosomepunk and a visceral post-apocalyptic thriller, albeit one with the rough edges to be expected from an indie writer making their mainstream publishing debut.

When Beth and Fran return home to Indi in Seabrook with Robbie in tow and Beth severely injured, they find the town in the early stages of an XX takeover. Unable to travel long distances due to injury and disability, the four of them take up an offer from “bunker brat” Sophie Widdel, and find themselves thrust into the Screw, an underground community of surviving upper-crusters and those who do their dirty work. With XX on the rise and sinister goings-on at the Screw, it’s only a matter of time before conflict emerges, and the novel races towards a spectacular climax as the Screw ultimately collapses and our protagonists find themselves in a pitched battle with both the male zombie horde and an army of TERFs with a refurbished battleship.

Manhunt is a book with lots of ideas, and it rattles through them at a giddying pace. Yet while the book has plenty of stomach-churning set pieces, from DIY tooth removal to gory public executions, its best moments come in its slower, more conversational stretches, as the reader is left to squirm at the sheer fuckedness of the situation. The XX movement is a terrifying threat, and their leader, Teach, is good for some nightmarish rhetoric only a shade more twisted than the worst of TERF Twitter. Yet perhaps the most insidious forms of transphobia come from self-avowed allies. This is most overt when one bunker-dweller protests “I have trans friends” before attempting to murder Beth, having just pulled her off a bus full of trans women about to be sold into slavery. But the most extended bit of cis allyship satire comes when Fran, having been assigned the role of trade negotiator between the Screw and the New Womyn’s Commonwealth, meets up with Sophie Widdel:

“‘I just think it’s such a, like, such a fuck-you to those bitches,’ Sophie chattered as they careened down Rainbow Road, karts skidding over the track’s technicolor film. ‘Like, okay, you want our shit? You wanna deal with us? You have to talk to our dickgirl and like, recognize her humanity.’

She hurtled off the course’s edge into the bottomless void and let out a nasal blurt of laughter, the chocolate milk she’d just slurped dribbling down her chin. Fran, in the middle of braking through a hard turn hot on Wario’s heels, set her controller down on the glass coffee table as Sophie let her own slither forgotten to the floor. ‘Yeah,’ Fran offered, smiling feebly. ‘Fuck them.'”

Sophie’s depiction as an infantile elite is hardly subtle, but her spinning putting Fran in harm’s way as a progressive act is a gobsmacking moment of exploitation. And Fran plays along, not only to protect her own life, but because Sophie dangles a tempting prize: a shot at vaginoplasty from the last qualified surgeon in North America. She wilfully blinds herself to the cruelty of Sophie’s regime, and when it finally goes down in flames, she reflects bitterly: “I’m never going to have a cunt.” Felker-Martin is unsparing in her depiction of Fran’s complicity, but does not tip into outright condemnation. Fran makes bad choices for completely understandable reasons, bound up in the pain and cruelty of her political situation.

For all its gore and depictions of outright bigotry, perhaps the greatest horror in this story is the idea of social severance; that one gender or political class can achieve safety by sealing itself off from all others. The book’s villainous TERFs are consistently framed as out of touch, as “enclaves of sneering middle-class white women who talked a lot about performing gender roles and appropriating lived experience,” though the most memorable condemnation comes when one character remarks that “they’re the same stupid white women who thought pussy hats could overthrow the government.” The bunker-dwellers, too, come in for sharp criticism along these lines:

“The end had left them stiff and fragile, unable to accept that the suburbs were gone, that there was no more escaping the mob, no more pretending floors and toilets scrubbed themselves and reading about black people in monthly book clubs the way you’d read about the construction of London’s sewers or the history of the fur trade, as a kind of boutique curiosity, instead of actually talking to them.”

Such isolation is shown as not just undesirable, but untenable. The XX army’s resurrected battleship is ultimately sunk by internal saboteurs. Ramona is not the only XX member with ties to trans women, and towards the end of the novel she asks herself “Was her whole outfit riddled with snitches?”

The book’s heroes, by contrast, are consistently bound by community. This is spelled out in the final section, as they mourn a fallen comrade and prepare to defend against the TERF army:

“Indi thought with a bittersweet pang of regret that every time she’d heard the words ‘queer community’ used like a cudgel or posited as some benevolent given, every argument she’d had about lesbian utopianism or gay communes or whether or not sex should be allowed at Pride parades — fuck you, of course it should — on one of her scrupulously locked and hidden Twitter accounts, no one had ever had any idea what that meant.

Community is when you never let go of each other. Not even after you’re gone.”

This insistence on community and repudiation of separatism is the animating spirit of Manhunt, fuelling its darkest scares and its tenderest moments.

But as heartbreaking and cerebral as the novel often is, it’s also very, very funny. One of the book’s epigraphs is a piece of transphobic bile attributed to “Unknown troll,” and at one point the XX movement are described as “the Knights of J.K. Rowling.” Rowling makes a couple more appearances later in the novel. The story of her fate when the plague went down is audacious, but naming the TERFs’ fearsome battleship the Galbraith is one of the most elegant literary insults in recent memory. Other pop culture references form strong and memorable jokes, such as the woman who feeds prisoners to a pit of captive men “like Jabba the Hutt serving his dancers up raw to the stop-motion monster under his palace,” or the moment where Beth kills a bunker-dweller in self-defence:

“Sylvia went down like a Looney Tune slipping on a banana peel, except Sylvester the Cat’s skull had never made a sound like that — a sickening, gravelly crunch — when it hit the floor, and Porky Pig had never groped weakly at his murderer’s throat and face while being strangled, had never let out a ghastly, rattling whimper as her thumbs crushed his trachea.

This is a fucked-up thing to think about while you’re killing someone, Beth reflected, squeezing with all her strength against the thundering pulse in the sides of Sylvia’s throat. Thufferin’ thuccotash! Thith ith thecond-degree moider!”

Where the book struggles is in broader narrative pacing. Of its three main sections, the second is the longest and most substantial, its scenarios the deepest and most elaborate, making the grungier, more stripped-down first section and the faster, more chaotic third feel drabber by comparison. A few concepts go underdeveloped, particularly the fate of male children born after “T-Day,” and the position of the “Maenads” — trans footsoldiers allowed to serve in the XX army. Plus there are some noticeable stylistic tics, including a slight overreliance on sentence fragments to convey chaotic combat situations and an overuse of the word ‘boiling’. But it’s difficult to care too much about the technical problems when all is said and done. Manhunt is a crammed, messy, utterly riveting novel, which firmly establishes Felker-Martin as a talent to watch.

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Review: Even Greater Mistakes by Charlie Jane Anders

In the introduction to her second collection of short stories, Charlie Jane Anders describes the grind of becoming a short fiction writer. The hustling undertaken, the relationships formed, the communities frequented, and above all the long list of rejections; over 600 in her first decade of writing. But the most intriguing detail is a pleasingly catholic attitude to genre:

“Journalism taught me to be punchy and concise, and to turn a jumble of facts and self-serving statements into a true story. Erotica showed me how to establish characters quickly and find the emotional ‘hook’ of a particular moment as soon as possible, because the sex wouldn’t be fun if we didn’t care about the characters. Literary fiction made me pay more attention to my use of language and to the small moments that make the big moments work. A hummingbird fickleness when it came to genre kept me growing as a short story writer.”

It’s a refreshing attitude from a genre writer, a field that often feels like it’s in a one-sided war with literary fiction, with ‘lower’ genres like journalism and erotica barely considered at all. But it also demonstrates the open-mindedness and invention of Anders’ fiction. Reportage, refinement, and, yes, horniness, are all tools in her toolbox, and there is no self-consciousness about using any of them. This is not to say that Even Greater Mistakes is a potpourri of wildly different tones; in truth, Anders’ style is fairly consistent throughout, and as Gary K. Wolfe has noted, nearly half the stories feature obscure and LGBT-friendly bars. But that curious, tinkering, try-anything-once approach is clearly a driving force in Anders’ fiction, and the source of much of this book’s charm.

Of the nineteen stories included in Even Greater Mistakes, several have already been justly acclaimed. ‘Six Months, Three Days’ is a quirky and heartfelt riff on clairvoyance-as-metaphor for a doomed love affair, which also finds room for lines like “Just remember: Would Samuel Johnson have let himself feel trapped in a dead-end relationship?” ‘As Good As New’ is a hilarious mash-up of apocalyptic sci-fi and genie-in-a-bottle archetypes that builds to a moving dénouement. And ‘Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue’ is a harrowing depiction of a fascistic near future where trans people are forcibly detransitioned by having their consciousnesses placed into cadavers of their assigned genders at birth. The story ends when the protagonist, pursued by a walking corpse, “reaches the waterfall, seizes a breath, and jumps with both feet at once,” placing the story in the context of other contemporary SF stories such as Snowpiercer, where leaping into a likely fatal abyss is still preferable to continuing to live in such a thoroughly broken society.

But as brilliant as these works are, the collection is most valuable for its more offbeat and marginal stories. ‘Love Might Be Too Strong a Word’ depicts a generation ship whose society is stratified across six genders, each with particular roles in both ship maintenance and social reproduction, and a protagonist who delights in transgressing those roles when a high-status “pilot” takes a shine to them. It’s a complex and engaging sci-fi premise, allowed to unfold organically and without excessive hand-holding via an endearingly sardonic narrator:

“The city runs on love. It keeps us sane, more or less. Unlike the dark matter that flows into our massive converters, it’s an infinitely renewable fuel. As to whether it pollutes, you probably already have your own opinions about that.”

Themes of love and intimacy also preoccupy ‘Captain Roger in Heaven,’ which demonstrates its key themes and Anders’ gift for narrative hooks in its opening sentence: “Marith didn’t mean to start a sex cult, she just wanted to feel sexy for once.” Marith’s first disciple, Tanya, develops her half-formed bragging about a “sex prophet” named Timur into a bona fide religion, eventually working with a physicist to develop a literal afterlife where the deceased can be viewed via a “Visualizer,” a kind of television showing broadcasts from the spirit world.

“They switched to Jiffy, who was an up-and-coming Visualizer star. Jiffy had been a gay rights activist in the seventies, and then a Radical Faerie in the nineties, and now he was a giant purple unicorn, with a dolphin’s tail instead of back legs. He trotted/swam across the shimmering Fields of Liberation, under the beneficent smile of Timur the Sex Prophet, until he met a swarm of pixies (which were apparently another dead perv, named Rebekah).”

The surrealism of passages like these belie the story’s underlying melancholy. There is a genuine yearning for human touch and community motivating many of the cult’s recruits, as well as a fear of death and consignment to the Hell the Visualizer also displays. Tanya becomes a tragic figure, her real love for Marith ultimately denied as she finds herself alone at the head of this new religion. Anders has argued that many of the book’s stories are about “not just acknowledging, but celebrating, horniness and healthy, consensual hookups.” The sexual content of these stories is not only well-executed, it works perfectly as a way into Anders’ larger themes of loneliness, connection, and finding your own way through human tangles of expectation and desire.

All of which said, there are some weaker stories here, too. The novella ‘Rock Manning Goes For Broke’ feels simultaneously over-stuffed and under-developed. Its guerrilla-filmmaker heroes decide to fight a rising fascist dystopia by making slapstick comedies, and while there are a handful of amusing moments the story never finds an emotional hook. Anders describes cutting down the draft from novel to novella length, but it’s frankly hard to find more than a short story’s worth of material in its silent-cinema-on-the-page antics.

Similarly grating is ‘A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime,’ an overlong Douglas Adams pastiche that throws a bunch of tediously whacky concepts at the reader but gives them little reason to care. This is a story where a hero thinks “Hall and Oates save me, they’re going to put us in the Libidorynth,” but if you don’t find polysyllables and references to 80s pop music automatically funny there is little to recommend it. These stories hint at the failure mode of Anders’ fiction more broadly. When the characters feel like a means to generic action, rather than the other way round, or when the reader is simply bombarded with nifty ideas at the expense of introspection, things can get strained pretty fast.

But the collection’s best story, ‘Ghost Champagne,’ finds a perfect balance between offbeat humour and personal reflection. Its protagonist is an aspiring comedian dealing with relationship issues and personal insecurities, exacerbated by the fact she is being haunted by her own ghost. It’s a weird situation, and the narrator responds with sardonic humour masking a deeper hurt: “this is my life, and I want it back. I want to care about things, without my ghost always throwing shade.” Things come to a head at a wedding, when she seizes the champagne her ghost is drinking and downs it, resulting in a bizarre near-death experience.

“A ghost wedding is a funeral, only with dancing, and a cake instead of a casket. What do you give the newlyweds at a ghost wedding? Bone china. Ghost vows are much the same as the regular kind, except you vow to stay together for as long as death holds you.”

The warped, drunken stand-up energy of this scene effectively turns the comedy into something sinister, but it also helps set up the story’s final turn, as the protagonist recovers from her collapse, and reconnects with her boyfriend. The ending pays off the story’s twisting cleverness with a moment of pure cornball:

“Honestly, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me, and the gist of it is that you need to try a different shrink, and maybe no more regression therapy or whatever. But I’m just a layperson, right?

I agree that regression therapy sucks and that Raj is indeed a person that I want to lay. I climb on top of him, even though he protests that my head is still like a Faberge egg, and I grind into him while telling him that if he’s going to be a kept man, he’d better put out the goods. Dry humping, we are alone together for maybe the first time. I laugh between kisses.”

This marks the perfect distillation of Anders’ techniques; peeking out from beneath these stories’ beautiful intricacy is a fundamental earnestness. And when she is on form, as she is for the vast majority of this collection, you believe in her characters as strongly as she does.

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Review: Doctor Who: Eve of the Daleks

And so the era that aspired to be an insipid Tennant era cover version seems determined to end with a series of dull and ill-advised specials. While Eve of the Daleks displays a level of plot cohesion and scripting competence that was lacking in Flux, it falls far short of even Chibnall’s previous new year’s day specials, let alone the likely standards of the actually relevant BBC One dramas so breathlessly teased beforehand. This is yet another Chibnall effort consisting of a handful of charming moments lost in a sea of opaque exposition, uncomfortable character dynamics, and grey, uninspiring locations. There are more laughs to be found in its cack-handed attempts to set up a running plot arc than in any of the actual jokes.

What makes this irritating is that it didn’t have to be this way. ‘Groundhog Day with Daleks’ is a perfectly decent pitch for a Doctor Who story, and COVID safety requirements limiting the action to one location and two human supporting characters should enable either a nice self-contained comedy or a claustrophobic drama. Plenty of Doctor Who stories have achieved impressive results by deliberately going small like this. But as a comedy, Eve of the Daleks is distinctly lacking. There are some fun scenes; John Bishop trolling a Dalek is self-evidently a great idea, and “Daleks do not have managers” is a nicely quotable line. But most of the other comedy ideas either grate (the middle-aged mother misunderstanding technology was not funny the first time, let alone the fifth) or are smothered by the relentlessly dour production.

And as a drama? Pffft. The business-acquaintances-to-lovers dynamic between Sarah and Nick lands on the wrong side of creepy (he keeps his exes’ belongings?), and their supposed “meet cute” feels like it merits at best a vague promise to get a coffee, and at worst a restraining order. The ‘escape the warehouse’ dynamic makes the whole thing feel like a very boring video game (hey, there’s the Terry Nation influence), and the Doctor’s plan to create a decoy loop but then execute the real plan tips over into the outright confusing. Chibnall still seems to think that ducking and letting the baddies shoot each other is a worthwhile thing to put on TV as opposed to the most clichéd dodge imaginable, and is apparently still so self-conscious about the Daleks looking silly that he’s given them laser miniguns that look far dafter than anything Raymond Cusick ever had the credit stolen for. About the only vaguely dramatic thing that happens is the show saying that maybe, possibly, hypothetically, there’s an outside chance that Yaz might be in love with the Doctor.

Ah yes. Having joked in my previous review that these characters were too poorly-defined to interpret a single meaningful glance as queerbaiting, I was honestly surprised to see Thasmin rear its head again so soon, apparently in all seriousness. The execution, of course, is complete horse shit. Giving Yaz nothing to do for three series (and indeed much of this episode) only to turn around and declare her in love with the Doctor with only two specials to go is such obviously perfunctory and half-hearted storytelling that I feel ridiculous even pointing it out. It certainly doesn’t help that it takes a straight man to actually initiate this supposed queer love story, with Dan referring to his vague and off-screen romantic disappointments in lieu of the Doctor or Yaz actually building off anything from their dozens of hours of shared screentime. The Doctor blowing off the possibility of discussing her feelings to go on more adventures would be one thing if this were the start of a new series, but with so little time left on the clock for these characters it feels like nothing short of shipping aporia.

Once again, Chibnall’s obvious desire to still be writing for the Tennant era sandbags a potentially worthwhile concept. (Incidentally, note how the kinda bullshit ‘real time’ format of this episode evokes 42). This is clearly setting up a repeat of the Martha dynamic; a companion who loves the Doctor, and a Doctor incapable or unwilling to return her affections. Setting aside the issues with this plotline the first time around — in hindsight, having the Doctor explicitly be less affectionate for the first black companion was an uncomfortable move, and it unfairly marginalised the quite good Freema Agyeman — at least series three recognised that this was its story and built the character dynamics around it from the start. We were meant to notice when the Doctor was distant or untrusting with Martha, and we saw that Martha was hurt by it. But Yaz has been neglected for too long by the actual show for that same show to turn around and try and sell us the story of her being neglected by the Doctor. A same sex romance between the Doctor and her companion could make a fantastic story. There may even be potential in an unrequited love story. But this is not, and at this point likely cannot, be it.

But hey, at least we got Karl back. If he Wilfred Motts Thirteen I am going to laugh so hard.

Review: The Demon Headmaster: Mortal Danger by Gillian Cross

With the Demon Headmaster gone, the Hazelbrook gang are excited by the arrival of the new Head, Ms Martin, or Ms Mountain to her friends. A charismatic speaker and believer in the power of fun, Ms Mountain encourages the kids to seek fulfilment in the arts. But sinister things are afoot, as schools in the surrounding area start making bizarre decisions, before being snapped up by a group calling itself New World Education Consultants. As the gang compete for a chance to go on a school trip to a remote Scottish island, they begin to suspect that the Headmaster may be up to his old tricks again…

Of the many 80s and 90s reboots that clog up the contemporary media landscape, Gillian Cross’s The Demon Headmaster is among the most interesting. After a successful run of books between 1982 and 2002, and a beloved 90s TV show starring Terrence Hardiman, Cross revived the series with 2017’s Total Control. Inspired by the horrors of Conservative academisation, the book featured a Headmaster who planned to use Hazelbrook Academy to churn out ideal workers with the help of creeping private sector involvement. The book inspired an excellent CBBC adaptation broadcast in 2019, a second series of which was announced last year. 2019 also saw the publication of Mortal Danger, the sequel to Total Control, on which the second series will be based. Like its predecessor, Mortal Danger is an exciting and fast-paced children’s adventure story, but with an underlying anger at the state of modern education.

Mortal Danger continues the anti-privatisation themes of Total Control. The New World Education Consultants are represented by decoy villain Simon Weatherby, who declares that “Schools are machines for learning… They should be producing the workers our country needs.” Where previous books have had hypnosis victims describe the Headmaster as “a marvellous man,” here the pupils at New World schools mindlessly repeat that “Our school is very well organized… Learning targets are being met and all the pupils behave perfectly.” The book places emphasis on the Hazelbrook gang as young creatives, and the disappearance of passion from their friends is a chilling sign of corporate takeover. At one point a local newspaper refers to “reports of children suffering from depression and running away from home” — a surprisingly brave reference in a book for younger readers. 

But the book goes one step further in its critique of privatisation. The Headmaster’s plan involves hypnotising the heads of the schools around Hazelbrook into making bad decisions, leading to protest from parents, allowing his puppets at New World to swoop in and take over. This cannily mirrors the dynamics of real-world privatisation, in which politicians run state services into the ground and then use their poor performance as a pretext to sell them off. Admittedly in this case hypnosis takes the place of chronic underfunding, but the basic course of events is the same. This is all very similar to the corporate satire of the 2019 CBBC show, and I would not be surprised if the basic shape of the Headmaster’s New World scheme made it into the next series.

Other things feel less well-suited to the show by Emma Reeves et al. The book’s final third, with its trip to a remote island and expedition up a misty mountain, may be beyond a CBBC budget. More broadly, the book’s climax feels ill-suited to the television versions of these characters. Lizzie is saved at the last moment by her friends, who cause the Headmaster to make a crucial mistake, give up, and run away. This Headmaster is the sinister but easily defeated figure of the original series, rather than Nicholas Gleaves’s near-unstoppable monster. It seems likely that the second series will pit Gleaves’s Headmaster against Hardiman’s, perhaps with Gleaves taking the place of Simon Weatherby, who makes little impression as a villain in his own right.

Speculation aside, The Demon Headmaster: Mortal Danger is a lively and engaging entry in its genre, and preserves Cross’s book series as its own equally worthy endeavour. Precisely how much of it directly translates to the screen is less important than the fact the programme-makers are working from a damn solid foundation.

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Review: We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020

Hard as it is to be positive these days, I think it’s fair to say we’re in a good period for short science fiction. Publications like Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Apex, Uncanny, and FIYAH reliably put out quality material, and a glance at this year’s Hugo Award nominations reveals solid and thought-provoking work by writers such as Rae Carson, A.T. Greenblatt, and Isabel Fall. While structural issues persist — chiefly, as with much of the literary world, a lack of money — quality work is coming out, and some of it is even getting recognised. Within this context, there is a decent amount of good queer fiction. While far from an avalanche, queer themes are more common than they were before, and explicitly queer characters are handled deftly by superstar writers like Sarah Pinsker and Charlie Jane Anders. Enter small press Neon Hemlock and editors C.L. Clark and Charles Payseur with We’re Here 2020, the first in a new anthology series designed to showcase the best LGBTQ material from this new new wave of cognitive estrangement. These sixteen stories provide a fascinating glimpse into the rich and strange world of contemporary queer SF, even if there is some noticeable roughness to the overall package.

One of the anthology’s greatest pleasures is its diversity of styles. This is a book where metafictional Gothic pastiches, true crime podcast parodies, melancholic post-apocalypses, morally ambiguous fairy tale sequels, and bittersweet coming of age stories sit side by side. The wide variety of tone and subject matter lends the book an unpredictable edge, effectively demonstrating the versatility and inventiveness of the contemporary scene. That said, there are a handful of running themes which suggest a greater unity.

One of these is embodiment and transformation, whether through magic or sufficiently advanced technology. In Lina Rather’s ‘Thin Red Jellies,’ a couple find themselves cohabiting in a single body after one of them has a car accident and gets her mind “uploaded.” The story dramatises the economic hardships Jess and Amy face as they try to scrape together the money to buy a liveable robot body, their dual embodiment serving as both analogy for and heightening of the resentments that can build up under closeness and duress.

“Amy’s hands shook, because Jess was trying to clench them. Amy fought it off. It was her body after all. She had better control. As soon as she thought it, she felt guilty right down to the pit of her stomach and she crushed the feeling before — she hoped — it bled over to Jess. They’d made a conscious effort to talk about ‘our body’ and ‘ourself’ and ‘our hands’ as instructed by the hospital pamphlets, for all it did.”

‘Rat and Finch Are Friends’ by Innocent Chizaram Ilo, meanwhile, tackles a boarding school crush between two young shapeshifters who must hide their rodent and avian forms from those around them. When the narrator’s aunt catches him flying, she is quick to intervene, preparing to clip his wings on the pretext of protecting his safety:

“Aunty Njideka fished out a pair of scissors from her waist-bag and began to stroke my back, light strokes which grew more intense until two grey wings sprung out. ‘Close your eyes and count to ten. This will be over before you know it.’

The door opened. Papa walked in, still in his pajamas. He hesitated before asking, ‘What is going on here?’

‘I am saving your son.'”

It’s easy to read this as a metaphor for socially conservative family members forcing queer people into the closet, and the horrifying ways in which queer bodies are policed and abused more generally. And while the story does explore this territory, it’s a more nuanced and bittersweet engagement than the children’s picturebook title might suggest. We learn than the narrator’s father is a shapeshifter whose family clipped his wings, and though the story’s climax sees the two boys forcibly separated and the narrator’s wings clipped, the final note is one of defiant hope:

“It is the first night of the new school year, and we should not be seen together. But here we are, a boy and a finch with no wings, sitting on the hostel roof, counting the stars.”

Several stories deal with broad social and political disasters, juxtaposed with a kind of personal catharsis. ‘The Last Good Time to Be Alive’ by Waverly SM depicts a near-future Rugby, “on the wrong side of the flood barrier that hasn’t been opened in years,” rapidly drowning as London looks the other way. It’s a bleak vision of climate change-driven disaster, but it ends with the protagonist receiving a clueless text from absent parents:

“You don’t register your own reaction until your knees are pressing hard against your forehead, your shoulders shaking with useless, breathless laughter. There has to be something to leaven these last remaining days, some small, stupid joy you can cling to.”

This sense of happiness snatched from impossible circumstances is most acute in R.B. Lemberg’s ‘To Balance the Weight of Khalem.’ It centres on a refugee, buffeted “from one war to another,” seeking community and self-expression as well as to satisfy their constant hunger. It is a densely-structured story, the repetition of key phrases lending it a poetic, rhyming quality, and the abundance of otherworldly detail invoking the confusing rush of being caught in geopolitical circumstances beyond your control.

The narrator is grappling with their own identity, powerfully asserting that “I need to be what I am, even if it’s a boy. I am neither — or both — and one day I may be entirely a boy, or not.” Paralleling this declaration, though, is a wry acknowledgement of their wider situation: “I am here only provisionally.” It’s a powerful statement, especially for a year in which it was reported that LGBTQ asylum seekers in Europe are met with a “culture of disbelief” about their own identities. Lemberg’s story may be the finest on offer here; it certainly feels like the most urgent response to a 2020 in which the international struggle for queer rights was more pressing than ever.

But for all the brilliance of the individual stories, there are some questionable editorial decisions. The choice to put the two video game-themed stories, Naomi Kanaki’s ‘Everquest’ and John Wiswell’s ‘8-Bit Free Will,’ side by side is an odd one, making the anthology feel less diverse than it is. Less acute but equally noticeable is the clustering together of found document stories and stories featuring parents implied or stated to be repressed. A more deliberate spreading out of these stories might have helped things feel less repetitive.

These are not the book’s only sequential oddities. Arley Sorg at Lightspeed points out that We’re Here 2020 is made up predominantly of stories by lesser-know writers, with the outlier being ‘If You Take My Meaning’ by Charlie Jane Anders. Other than its author’s celebrity, what marks this story out is that it does not stand alone; it is a sequel to Anders’ 2019 novel The City in the Middle of the Night. The City in the Middle of the Night is an excellent novel, to be sure, and ‘If You Take My Meaning’ is a reasonably interesting sequel, expanding on its idea of human-alien hybrids and adding some welcome nuance to its occasionally vapid liberalism. But the story’s inclusion does strike me as a bit inaccessible. If the aim is to provide a primer on what’s interesting in queer SF right now, bolting on an extra 485 pages of required reading seems counter-intuitive.

Even more striking, however, is the reference in C.L. Clark’s introduction to “Charlie Jane Anderson.” The book’s copyediting is beyond a mess, at times making stories actively unreadable. This goes beyond simple typos (though there are plenty of those); Anya Johanna DeNiro’s ‘A Voyage to Queensthroat’ is titled differently on contents page and title page, and L.D. Lewis’s ‘The Currant Dumas’ does not seem to have been proofread at all. Some dialogue is formatted improperly, there are inexplicable shifts from present to past tense and back again, and at one point our heroes are chastised: “I hope those ladies dismissed you and you didn’t sneak just sneak off.”

Worse, there are points where the editors have somehow introduced new errors into the texts presented. Take this passage from the original version of ‘Rat and Finch Are Friends,’ in which the protagonist receives a letter:

I’m sorry. I apologize for my behavior. I appreciate understood what you did for me humanity last night. You know we Amusus and our pride that won’t let us say thank you be appreciative.

And compare the same passage in We’re Here 2020:

I’m sorry. I apologize for my behavior. I appreciate understood what you did for me humanity last night. You know we Amusus and our pride that won’t let us say thank you be appreciative.

I freely admit that copyediting is the dullest quality on which to judge any book, but the confusion and frustration of these passages do negatively impact the reading experience, and serve as a caveat to any recommendation. Hopefully these lapses can be chalked up to the stresses of launching a new yearly title, and can be smoothed out in future instalments. The We’re Here series is an eminently worthwhile project, and this inaugural edition succeeds in demonstrating the richness and vitality of the field, even if the presentation often leaves a lot to be desired.

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Review: Doctor Who: The Halloween Apocalypse

The story of Doctor Who since 2005 can be understood, among other things, as the show reverting to the mean. The appearance of more monsters, characters, and locations from the classic series gave way to the dethroning of Russell T Davies as the show’s controlling auteur. Moffat and Chibnall, by virtue of offering new takes on the format, dragged this prestigious BBC flagship back towards the old ropey, eccentric embarrassment of channel controllers everywhere. And so, on the eve of the second coming of Russell T Davies (which can’t help but overshadow this series as the Impending Chibs overshadowed the adventures of the Doctor, Bill, and That Guy Who Used To Do Brownface), the show offers the first episode of a six-parter more concerned with setting up a nebulous evil than in telling its own story, which ends with the Doctor and chums finally confronting the titular threat head-on. It’s a shame that Sontaran took off his helmet before the cliffhanger, really. 

But for all the folly of reviewing individual parts of a whole story, The Halloween Apocalypse is remarkable for not even pretending to stand alone. Its goals within the arc are surprisingly modest; establish Dan as a character, introduce the flux, then just pile on the hooks until cliffhanger time. In New Who terms it’s most reminiscent of The Magician’s Apprentice; like that episode it’s at its best when things slow down and our leads can talk amongst themselves, though unlike that episode the leads have little to talk about beyond the dregs of last series’ arc. Nonetheless, the party mode retains some of its charm, and the sheer volume of stuff means it rarely gets boring, even if it does feel weird to hold off on remaking The Chase until Bradley Walsh left the programme.

And truth be told, there’s some good stuff going on here. Dan is instantly charming, and John Bishop is an intensely likeable screen presence. He’s enough of a comedian to make duff lines like ‘who likes soup, really?’ work, and his character’s status as a food bank volunteer too proud to take anything home is a decent character hook. (Even if there is reason to be sceptical that a Chibnall take on contemporary food poverty will land well when all is said and done). The banter with Karvanista (clichéd alien name aside) is genuinely funny in a cut-price Arthur Dent kind of way, and the reveal of the ‘man’s best friend’ motivation is utterly charming. In an odd way, Dan’s story benefits from being surrounded by arc setup; given a smaller amount of space to sell the character, the episode manages something sweet and relatively economical amongst all the explosions.

The explosions themselves are another matter. While a certain amount of slack can be granted in a multi-episode story, the result is no less, well, slack. Even as the episode is all set-up, it still manages to have a slow start, and once Big Bads do start popping up they’re frighteningly generic. One Sontaran insulting another who awkwardly tries to change the subject is funny, but not quite as funny as treating ‘and THE SONTARANS’ as an epic raising of the stakes. The Weeping Angels menacing a River Song knock-off feels like a re-run of the most banal aspects of the Moffat years, and the two dark lord characters feel like Can You Hear Me? Redux. Their method of contacting the Doctor feels particularly cheap, just intermittently conjuring visions of themselves in a move obviously copied from the ‘psychic connection’ plotline of the later Harry Potter books. The decision to hinge so much of this series on lore from The Timeless Children is frankly a headscratcher (who still remembers a name as generic as ‘The Division’ eighteen months and a whole pandemic later?) and Vinder manages to contribute less than nothing to the story. Oh, and I guess the episode takes place on Halloween. OK.

Fading into the background somewhat, in the episode itself as well as this review, are the Doctor and Yaz. They do benefit from the smaller TARDIS crew, with Whittaker and Gill selling the pair as dashing adventurers in the cold open (even if it feels a little too exposition-heavy to be a breezy action beat). The conflict between them as the Doctor tries to hide her agenda from Yaz gives the TARDIS scenes a sense of vigour they haven’t had in years; Whittaker is particularly good at selling the angry petulance of the Doctor trying to turn the tables, and at the paper-thin denials as the TARDIS succumbs to Bidmeadean malfunctions. Gill is still stuck playing a rather generic role — not helped by Chibnall’s weird tic of having the Doctor ask and answer her own questions in the investigation scenes instead of creating character interplay — but she competently conveys a sense of plucky charm. That this marks a high water mark for the character is damning with faint praise. It’s hard not to hope than Mandip Gill goes on to better things, even as the episode’s proliferation of characters talking to themselves feels like it’s setting up the era’s inevitable Big Finish revival.

Also, apparently the Doctor and Yaz share a bed? Well that’s certainly a bone thrown to the shippers, even if an actual commitment to another Doctor-companion romance would be more satisfying.

Judged on the terms it so laboriously sets for itself, The Halloween Apocalypse is a diverting piece of television. It is not remotely its own story, but if the plight of the shipper tells us anything, it’s that the making of promises can be its own kind of entertainment. (I remain, always and forever, Whoffaldi trash). Doctor Who is back, and it’s making a lot of promises, but is at least doing so with some charismatic leads and a sense of manic glee. Perhaps that’s enough. For now.

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Schedule Announcement: A Blog in Flux

Well, we’ve got an air date now. And a trailer. So I guess it’s time to announce what we’ll be doing here for the rest of 2021.

I will be reviewing every episode of Doctor Who: Flux as they go out. The first review will be available to everyone on this blog for free. The subsequent reviews will be exclusive to my Patreon, where you can read them for as little as $1 per month.

I will try and get these reviews out as quickly as possible, but the late timeslot and the balancing of work and other commitments is going to make that a challenge. Expect them some time between the Monday morning and the Wednesday evening after the episodes go out.

I will be continuing my monthly arts coverage while Doctor Who is on. November’s post will be about the We’re Here 2020 anthology from Neon Hemlock Press and December’s post will be about Even Greater Mistakes by Charlie Jane Anders. As usual, you can back the Patreon if you want to read these reviews a week before everyone else.

Doctor Who and book reviews should keep me busy for the rest of this year, and if there is a new year’s day special in January I will review that as well.

After that, things get tricky. I’ve been running this blog on a more regular schedule since the start of 2021, and while it’s been a lot of fun, I’ve been operating at a loss. That’s been fine, but after January 2022 my financial situation will change significantly. If the Patreon doesn’t reach a sustainable level by then, say around $100 per month, then I will not be able to continue this as a monthly blog.

It would be wonderful if we could reach $100 per month, and if you consider this blog worthwhile, please do share it with your Doctor Who or science fiction enthusiast friends. But if we can’t reach it by January, I will switch over to a bimonthly schedule, with patrons being charged per creation rather than per month. I will deliver more detailed updates to my patrons nearer the time.

For now though, there’s a new series of Doctor Who to get excited about. I admit I’m leery after the flaws of Chris Chibnall’s first two series, but I’m curious to see how the show has adapted to the challenges of filming amid coronavirus, and I’m always a sucker for some good Cybermen action. I can’t wait to start blogging about it, and I hope you’ll join me for this blog’s most epic adventure yet.

TL;DR, the Patreon is here. All my Doctor Who reviews will go on there. What happens after that is partly in your hands. You might even say it’s… in flux.