Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegutk-slaughterhouse5I started reading this novel because of its status as a classic, but I must confess I knew nothing about its theme. As the story got underway, I had the distinct feeling that this was going to be a thoroughly depressing tale about reflections on the horror of war. Not my cup of tea. Imagine my surprise when the story made a weird tangent into Twilight Zone territory. The narrator, Billy Pilgrim, becomes unstuck in time. What I mean is, one second he could be in the trenches of World War II, and the next he could be cuddling up to the woman he married after the war. Two days after that, he could be on exhibit in an extraterrestrial zoo, where he spent some time after being abducted by aliens. Then he might be back in the war. He has no control over what point in time his consciousness leaps into, or when these jumps are going to occur, but his weird condition gives him a perspective on time that allows him to see “the present” as more than just a single knife-edge that exists at only one point in time and is always racing forward. His alien captors, the Tralfamadorians, live in four dimensions all at once, seeing every moment of time as the present. When events happen, good or bad, their reaction is always “So it goes.”

Slaughterhouse-Five is a war story, an absurdist science fiction tale, and also an entertaining philosophy text on the nature of time – which might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but is definitely mine. As someone interested in esoteric knowledge, I had my own eureka moment about time a few years ago. It’s a real delight when I’m reading a story and the author lets me know that we’re both privy to a life-enriching secret: the idea that no matter when you are in time, you’re always in the present.

Satan Burger by Carlton Mellick III

mellickc-satanburgerThe reason I read this novel was because of the author’s introduction, part of which I now quote:

I wrote this book (basically) when I was 20 years old and on the verge of self-murder. Not sure if my verge was due to a fascination with an unknown afterlife or due to utter boredom. Most likely the latter. The world becomes clearer and clearer the older we become, much less mysterious/exciting and all of its appeal we experienced during childhood turns logical, and logic is a dirty and boring word. This story is from the viewpoint of the rebel, who I am still deeply in love with, who refuses to accept the beliefs (logic) that have been issued to him like a uniform …

Wow, right? Anyway, the story goes something like this. The protagonist is a guy called Leaf, who lives with a bunch of punk friends in a squat. The world is semi-apocalyptic due to the presence of a weird big portal (the Walm) that is steadily stealing souls and also spitting out weird aliens from other planets, who then typically get up to mischief. Leaf and friends team up with Satan, who is a very real being, running a local fast food restaurant called (you guessed it) Satan Burger. The idea is that people have to sell their souls for a burger, and they’re all too willing to do it. And the story just keeps getting weirder from there.

So, apparently I’ve stepped into a genre called “bizarro” fiction. Honestly, I’m not that impressed. Traditional narrative structure has been abandoned in favour of a disjointed, surreal fantasy where anything goes. I had no idea where the story was heading until it got there. And when it got there, I had no idea why it was there. I got the feeling that the author had woven some subtext into the plot, particularly the material about how easy it is to lose your soul – in the sense of becoming a passionless human being who just wanders aimlessly through life. But for the most part, the novel just seemed to be a joyride through a lunatic dream. The weirdness had a creativity and a humour about it that maintained my enthusiasm for a time, but the more it dawned on me that this wasn’t going to ultimately make sense, the more I wanted to stop reading. So I plodded my way to the last page and finally put the book down with a shrug.

Finally, a word on the cover. It has nothing to do with the story. It’s just … bizarro, I suppose. Maybe a photo of somebody’s arse in the air does help sales, in the sense that you can’t help noticing it on the shelf. But I think it has to be one of the worst book covers in history. In bizarro fashion, maybe that’s a plus, in some weird way.

On the strength of the author’s introduction, I really thought I was in for a treat. With regret, I have to report disappointment.

The Black Hole by Alan Dean Foster

fosterad-blackholeNovelisations are a thing of the past – the distant past. They were useful in the days when hardly anyone owned a VCR (that’s video cassette recorder, since the term is no longer in common usage). Back then, the only chance of rewatching a movie was to wait until it was televised. So we had novelisations as a means of re-experiencing our favourite films. But since everything is now available inexpensively on DVD or blu-ray, novelisations are an irrelevance.

Alan Dean Foster could write them well. In the case of his treatment of James Cameron’s Aliens, I recall that it gave fans a chance to experience the content of the extended cut long before it was ever released. The movie The Black Hole is a childhood favourite of mine, and I have always been haunted by the strange ending which involved an elaborate journey through heaven and hell. Very disturbing for an eight-year-old to watch. I could never figure out what the conclusion of the movie was trying to say. So I decided to visit the novelisation and see if Foster would shed any light on the matter.

The story begins with a small spacecraft, the Palomino, carrying a crew of five, travelling through deep space in search of life. They come across a long lost vessel, the Cygnus, positioned just outside a massive black hole – remarkably not being sucked in. The Palomino crew investigate. Aboard the Cygnus is Dr. Hans Reinhardt, living with only robots for company. He has invented gravity-defying technology and plans to take his ship through the black hole. The story and characters are reminiscent of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Foster adds a lot of detail that wasn’t in the movie, giving Dr. Reinhardt a much more substantial background. There are also a few incidental things that are different from the movie. And what of the trip through heaven and hell, which clearly took up a significant slice of the movie’s budget? Well, Foster ignores it completely, opting for an abstract ending about unified consciousness. I feel cheated, frankly. I wish I had jumped to the last chapter and read it, instead of investing my time in the whole book. Then again, perhaps I was naive for thinking that a 1979 Disney space opera would have a deeper side.

The Year of the Comet by John Christopher

chistopherj-yearofthecometThis is the first novel by science fiction author John Christopher (although he did publish a short story collection before this), who is most famous for The Death of Grass and The Tripods. He wrote a number of disaster novels, and the title of the book under review would lead you to believe that this is one of them. But it’s not. The story is set in a post-capitalist future where countries have been replaced by huge corporations known as “managerials.” They have names like Telecom, Atomics, etc. Each managerial provides an essential role in the running of the world. The life of a seemingly average scientist called Charles (our protagonist) is thrown into chaos when he finds that his research into diamonds is being very closely monitored. He is soon tossed into a confusing world of kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy. His seemingly unimportant research appears to be of immense value to the various managerials, for reasons that prove to be world transforming. In the background of the story we have the Cometeers, a curious religious cult who are focused on the slow approach of a comet to earth.

For a novel written in the 1950s, the story is quite prophetic in its prediction of the rise of television into a forum of banal entertainment that people consume in a zombie-like fashion. It could also be argued that the replacement of countries by corporations is a legitimate possibility. We already have vast multi-national corporations that are free to operate outside of any one particular country’s laws.

As entertainment, the novel was average. It definitely had its moments of tension and mystery, but there was a distinct lack of conflict going on for much of the story and I felt my attention waning. It looks as if Christopher had some political ideas he wanted to express, and he used a fictional narrative as a vehicle for that.

Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human by K.W. Jeter

jeterkw-bladerunner2The 1982 film Blade Runner was based on an earlier novel by Philip K. Dick entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. That novel is much quirkier and more upbeat than the dystopian movie adaptation by Ridley Scott. The plot is also significantly different, if I remember correctly. My first question, then, on approaching this written sequel, is whether it is a sequel to the book or the film. The answer is the latter. Jeter’s book captures the dark tone of the movie and makes direct reference to characters and scenes from it.

The story is set in a future Los Angeles, where the sky is abuzz with flying cars set against a backdrop of neon. And the city is even more polluted than it is at present. Signs advertising off-world colonies seduce people into leaving the planet behind for good. Central to the story is the Tyrell Corporation, responsible for creating synthetic humans, called replicants, as a source of off-world labour and entertainment. Sometimes replicants try to sneak away and get to Earth. And that’s where blade runners come in. A blade runner is a police officer tasked with hunting down and killing replicants – only they don’t say “kill”, they say “retire.”

Rick Deckard, our main protagonist, is (or was) a blade runner. The movie concluded with this lovestricken cop running away from his job, and the city, with Rachael Tyrell, the replicant “niece” of the murdered Eldon Tyrell, head of the Tyrell Corporation. The book picks up the story of couple of months later, with Deckard living in a cabin in the woods with Rachael. The authorities locate Deckard, tear him away from Rachael, and ferry him back to the city for one more job. Apparently, there is a sixth replicant, in addition to the five that Deckard retired in the movie. If Deckard ever wants to see Rachael again, it’s his job to track down and terminate this loose end. Only, in a complicated twist, he’s going to have the whole LAPD out to get him at the same time.

Many characters from the movie make an appearance, even some we thought were dead. Resurrecting them is done relatively convincingly. I don’t want to spoil anything here. The book is let down somewhat by the story itself. It’s just not interesting enough. At times I couldn’t tell what was coming next, not because the story was unpredictable in a good way, but because I couldn’t make head or tale of some of the characters’ motivations. Some of the resurrected characters don’t even advance the plot; they’re just there as morbid background curiosities. Fans will probably want to know whether the book develops the matter of whether Deckard is a replicant himself? Yes, it does, but we’re still left with uncertainties.

Ultimately, if you loved the movie and you just want to immerse yourself in the same atmosphere a second time, you may appreciate this. Jeter writes with more artistry than is common in fiction these days, but sometimes it comes off as more confusing than descriptive. Ultimately, I just didn’t find the story interesting enough. In the end, we have fisticuffs mirroring the Deckard-Batty showdown in the movie (a tiresome trend in sequels) and mistaken identity shenanigans (which is rather predictable in a story about clones). The Edge of Human is the first volume in a trilogy, so maybe the plot improves. But I’m not sure I’m willing to invest the time.

Blake’s 7: Lucifer by Paul Darrow

The closing scene of the last ever episode of the British television series Blake’s 7 was so shocking that it forever imprinted itself on my nine-year-old brain back in 1981. Be warned, this review contains spoilers, but my guess is, if you’re interested in the new Blake’s 7 novels, then you’ve already watched the series. In the dramatic finale, Blake finally comes back into the picture after being absent for the best part of two seasons, only to be shot dead by Avon in a tragic misunderstanding. Literally seconds later, the Federation troops arrive and gun down every member of Avon’s crew: Vila, Tarrant, Dayna and Soolin. The series concludes with Avon standing over Blake’s body, gun in hand, surrounded by troopers, all with their blasters held really. Avon raises his weapon, smiles. Credits roll over the sound of blasters. It was almost Shakespearean. When the series was eventually released on videotape in the early 1990s, I had forgotten so much about it, including many of the main characters. But I could never forget Avon and that final scene.

Imagine my delight when I learn, in 2012, that Big Finish are planning to publish brand new Blake’s 7 novels. Even better, one of them is written by the very actor who played Avon: Paul Darrow. Lucifer is set in two different time periods. One of these tells the story of how Avon escaped death in the final episode. The other is set twenty years later.

First, let’s talk about how Darrow tackles the escape. I was glad that the author stuck to the idea that his crewmates really are stone cold dead. Some fans have speculated that they were merely stunned, since there was no blood. But those are clearly Federation blasters going off, and they’ve never had a stun setting. Avon gets away in the only manner I’ve ever been able to imagine him getting away; the scene is interupped by intuders. Predictable, but necessary. However, what is truly disconcerting is the manner in which Avon leaves without a single acknowledgement of his fallen comrades. I don’t think he even glances at the bodies. We know that Avon is emotionally disconnected and borderline sociopathic. Even so, I expected something. Maybe not grief, but just something. If anything, it was the perfect moment to reflect on the illusion of invincibility. But no, Avon just moves forward with his usual bravado.

At least fifty percent of the novel concerns itself with Federation politics. Servalan is there, along with a complement of new characters, none of whom come in contact with Avon. There seem to be two stories, told in tandem, which only intersect peripherally. One is the restructuring of the Federation after it is decimated by enemies that attack from something called the “Beyond”. The other is Avon trying to get off a planet. The Avon story is fairly simplistic. After surviving Gauda Prime, Avon is deposited on an earthlike planet, where he is marooned for two decades and makes a couple of friends. When the Federation gets wind of his presence, he plays cat and mouse with them until he can steal one of their ships. Avon then heads back to Gauda Prime and fetches Orac. Most of the political stuff in the background struck me as highly irrelevant. It’s possible, I suppose, that it will be developed further in Darrow’s next book (Lucifer is the first in a planned trilogy).

With any space opera, you have to suspend disbelief to an extent. We don’t worry about weapons that make sounds in space, or spacecraft that have artifical gravity. But there is a limit. When I said Avon was marooned on a planet, I was being too kind. It’s actually something the author calls an “island planet” (see the book jacket illustration). A fragment of a larger planet that somehow “fell away” but retained full gravity, atmosphere, and population.

The politics are also a little unconvincing. Somehow, on Earth there exists a Chinese empire called Eastern Earth. I find it hard to believe that the Terran Federation can’t take control of a rogue nation on their home turf when they’ve taken ownership of countless planets throughout the galaxy. Another bizarre inclusion was the continual references to present-day weaponry, such as napalm and machine guns. It was a strange choice for the author to make and it causes the novel to feel inauthentic as a Blake’s 7 story.

The Avon character is written convincingly, but lacks a lot of the dry humour he came out with in the series. I don’t think we can blame Darrow for that, since the humour was usually centred around mocking the now deceased Vila. Sadly, when Avon and Orac finally get together, the exchange is unconvincing. When Avon says, “I’ll be damned,” Orac replies, “You were damned a long time ago.” This is simply not a sentiment that I can picture the computer ever making.

What can I say? I was disappointed. I really wanted this to be great, because I love Darrow’s character in the series. And having seen the actor in interviews and read his autobiography, You’re Him, Aren’t You?, I also really like the man himself. In a sense, I don’t wish to be too hard, because when you’re writing a story that begins at the point where much of what made Blake’s 7 entertaining has just been killed off, you don’t have a lot left to work with. Maybe this was a tale best left untold.

No Man’s Land by Simon Watson

watsons-nomanslandThis obscure little children’s science fiction novel is another nostalgia trip for me. I recall reading it as part of the English curriculum in Junior High School. I recall that the main thought in my head, during the first read, was, “When do we get see the robot?” Action involving the robot, called Giant, was confined mostly to the closing chapters, and my twelve-year-old brain had little appreciation for the book’s subtler thematic content. Now, as an adult, I probably enjoyed the story far more, precisely because it dealt with real themes: the effects of over-population and industrialisation, where old people are forced into care homes, rural areas are transformed into urban, ancient landmarks are demolished to make room for housing. If anything, the presence of a gigantic semi-sentient construction robot that throws temper tantrums was a bit of a crude addition to an otherwise realistic story.

Alan, the protagonist, is a boy in his early teens, whose family is one of the last to move away from their countryside home. So ends a much-loved way of life for the boy, involving fun and games with other boys in an around the ruins of an old castle known as the Keep. Also brought to a close are Alan’s friendships with his best friend Ben and an old man known as the General. Alan reluctantly begins to adjust to his new life in the city, but when he obtains a motorcycle, the first thing he does is go back to his old home. He discovers that the General is still there; the man stubbornly hid himself when the authorities came to take all the old folks to a care home in the city. Later, the General discovers that there are plans to destroy the Keep, to make way for “progress.” Alan and the General will have none of it, and so they make a plan. But how can one boy and an old man thwart the might of a gigantic construction robot?

Some might criticise this novel for its slow pace and lack of dramatic action, especially when the front cover of many editions displays a robot. But I found it a very pleasant story, with realistic characters that I genuinely felt for. I’m glad I revisited this one.

Logan’s Run: Last Day by Paul J. Salamoff

salamoffpj-lastdayThis comic adaptation of Logan’s Run is much more faithful to William F. Nolan’s original novel than the 1970s movie and television series. Gone is the City of Domes, along with the Carrousel ritual. The whole world is run by a computer called the Thinker. After a global apocalypse, this computer brings humanity back from practical extinction, but with a particular set of rules to ensure a balanced population. Everyone is scheduled for termination at age 21. Go quietly, or you will be hunted down by an elite police force equipped with high-tech weaponry able to deal out extremely painful death. These are the Deep Sleep Operatives, or DS-Men for short. Logan-6 is one of these.

The story delves into Logan’s childhood training, and some earlier back story about how the world ended. Familiar characters make an appearance: Francis (Logan’s friend who is forced to hunt him down after he runs) and Jessica (Logan’s runner companion). Like the original novel, I was pleased to see Logan remain the villain for the larger part of the story – something that was dispensed with in the movie and TV series. Where this adaptation differs substantially from both the novel and movie is the conclusion, where it treads new ground (which I won’t spoil). I actually have a soft spot for the oft criticised movie version of Logan’s Run. I liked the religious overtones of Carrousel – a population blindly believing in “renewal” through death simply because that’s the only viewpoint on offer – one they’ve been indoctrinated with from youth. In truth, I like the book, the movie, the TV series, and this new adaptation. All bring something slightly different to table, but the overall theme of a brainwashed society is central to each. Do you dare to question the norms of the world you grew up in?

This is a beautifully written and illustrated adaptation of Logan’s Run that will delight existing fans and possibly make a few new ones. It had a run as a six-issue comic from Bluewater Productions. These are now available as a graphic novel. Even better, there is a follow-up series entitled Aftermath, which examines Logan and Jessica’s life after the collapse of civilisation left in the wake of the Thinker’s destruction. I’ve read a couple of issues of this so far, and I’ve been really excited by the direction of the story. I wish I had the full set.

Blake’s 7: Warship by Peter Anghelides

anghelidesp-warshipSeason 2 of the BBC television series Blake’s 7 culminates in the fulfilment of Blake’s quest to find and destroy the hub of Federation communications, known as Star One, located just off the edge of our galaxy. Whilst this has the intended effect of crippling the Federation’s totalitarian grip on the colonized worlds, it has the unfortunate side-effect of disabling a minefield laid down by the Federation to separate our galaxy from the next – a minefield beyond which an alien invasion fleet has been waiting for entry. (Of course, why the ships can’t simply go around the minefield is never explained, but one learns to accept such silliness when revisiting much loved TV from one’s childhood.) The final episode of the season concludes with Blake’s ship, the Liberator about to embark on a near-suicidal war against the alien invaders. Avon, at the helm, shouts “Fire!” presses a button on the console, and the end credits roll.

Season 3, televised the following year, commences with the tail end of a fierce battle. The Liberator crew is forced to abandon ship using lifepods, while Zen, the ship’s computer, tries to effect repairs. Warship is the untold story of what happens during the inter-season battle. It’s the perfect place to insert a “missing” episode, and indeed the novel reads just like that. The characters are all portrayed authentically, and fans will get a nostalgic thrill from seeing new life breathed into old friends.

The book is published by Big Finish, and is the third in the series. While books 1 and 2 (The Forgotten and Archangel) are lavishly produced hardcovers, sadly Warship is confined to ebook only. The reason for this is possibly because it is significantly shorter than the other volumes. Judging by time time it took to read on my Kindle, I’m guessing it would span not much more than 100 physical book pages. Still, it’s a shame that it couldn’t be included as part of the forthcoming Blake’s 7 anthology. Another reason for not producing a hardcover might be because Warship is actually the novelization of an audiodrama, and as such, may be more of an afterthought to the main product. I haven’t got hold of this yet, but am looking forward to listening to it, as it is acted by the original cast members, with the exception of Peter Tuddenham (Zen), who has passed away. It’s pretty amazing to be able to get almost all the significant cast back thirty years after the original programme.

The story of Warship is rather good. There’s a lot more going on than merely “Liberator engages in space battle until defeated.” Blake and Cally teleport off to a nearby planetoid in the hope of finding aid, only to discover a new threat; meanwhile the crew are having to contend with an alien close encounter – aboard ship. The only part of the story that suffers slightly (and this is inevitable) is its ending, as the plot is forced to join up precisely with the opening of season 3.

Peter Anghelides is a competent writer. There were a few faux pas, as is common with small press fiction, but a forgiveable amount – think of this like the literary equivalient of the shaky sets and dodgy effects of the original series. Of the Blake’s 7 fiction released so far, Warship is definitely a high point, and somewhat restores my faith in the saga, after the slightly disappointing effort that was Archangel.

Under the Dome by Stephen King

kings-underthedomeChester’s Mill is a small secluded town in Maine, bordered by countryside. One ordinary day, a mysterious invisible barrier appears right on the border. Anything in its path gets sheared in half, included an unfortunate woodchuck. Dale Barbara (Barbie to his friends), is hitchhiking out of town after an altercation with the son of the town Selectman. He figures it’s time to go, before anything happens to him. He almost makes it out, except for the bizarre forcefield that materialises right in front of him. And it’s no good turning around and walking out of town in the opposite direction, because this isn’t just a wall. It encircles the entire town, and not just at ground level, as the pilot of a plane quickly discovers – when he crashes into something that isn’t there.

So the citizens of Chester’s Mill are trapped, sealed off completely from the rest of the world, like fish in a bowl. Slowly, everyone begins to adjust to their new circumstances. No one is in any immediate danger just yet. Barbie’s plan is to find out what’s generating the Dome, working on the assumption that it’s being done from within. But town Selectman “Big Jim” Rennie has other plans. This is his one chance to shine in life, as a dictator. When he gets a taste of power, the last thing he wants is for the Dome to come down. Those are just two of the many plot threads in the story. The novel is populated by large cast of characters, each with different agendas.

Under the Dome is huge, almost 900 pages in trade paperback format, no doubt well over a thousand in regular – like It and The Stand. There’s nothing worse than starting a mammoth volume only to get two hundred pages in and realise it’s a mediocre story. Well, I’m pleased to report that this one held my attention admirably. It does feel overlong though, and King’s tendency to delve into lots of unnecessary back-story is in full swing – as usual. Pacing suffers, which is my one ongoing gripe about King’s work.

Some of the characters felt a little caricatured. It’s hard to believe that society would fall apart so quickly in a situation like this, and it’s really down to the proliferation of “evil” characters who are set up to take centre-stage. A highly unrealistic starting point as a mirror for real life. Even so, I enjoyed the drama a lot. As an ecological message (i.e. we’re all living “under the dome”), the story serves as a warning to take care of the environment, but the drama is a little too contrived for this to really hit home in a meaningful way.

But I can’t deny that I really enjoyed this, and I feel it’s one of the more memorable King novels that I’ve read. I especially liked the direction of the story towards the close and the explanation of the Dome’s presence. Very much looking forward to the television series, which is just starting as I write.

(Afterword: The TV series is dreadful, full of ridiculous mystical tripe that isn’t in the book. Don’t let it put you off King’s original, which tells a different, and vastly better, story.)

Judge Dredd: Total War by John Wagner

wagnerj-judgedreddtotalwarTotal War is the name of a terrorist group that was first mentioned in the Judge Dredd comic strip in the story “America” (1990). Under review here is a much later 12-part story from 2004 entitled “Total War.” The terrorist group seeks a return to democractic government for Mega-City One. The city is, as fans will know, a fascist police state. The Judges came to power following the chaos that followed a worldwide nuclear war. They were an essentially a force of order at that time. But should their reign be brought to an end? This has been a question that has come up before, but never in such an extreme manner. To overthrow the current system, the terrorists have planted two hundred nuclear bombs at locations throughout the city, demanding that the Judges step down and hand power back to the people, or the bombs will be detonated one by one. And indeed, by the end of this tale, the citizens of Mega-City One do not come out unscathed.

The theme of democracy is explored more fully in the earlier saga “America,” which I look forward to reading at some point. I imagine it tackles the theme with more depth, where the lines between good and evil are blurred. This introduces a maturity to the strip that is lacking in its earliest years. Back then, when 2000 AD was really aimed at children, there was no question of the Justice Department’s role as the epitome of goodness. But the truth is not so clear, as later stories would attest. As for “Total War” in particular, there is no such subtle undertone. The fight for democracy has been taken to an insane extreme and must be crushed.

Not the most exhilarating Dredd I’ve read, but an enjoyable tale of carnage nonetheless.

Judge Dredd: Necropolis by John Wagner

wagnerj-judgedreddnecropoliThe “Necropolis” story has been reprinted in several forms, as a two-parter and as a single volume. To really appreciate the story, you need to be familiar with a seemingly unconnected prequel called “The Dead Man” (which was crafily not billed as a Judge Dredd story in its original printing in 2000 AD, progs 650-668). Also it benefits you to be familiar with Dredd’s prior dealings with Judge Kraken, another Dredd clone. Also, “A Letter to Judge Dredd” in which Dredd is deeply moved by letter from a young person whose father was killed. Finally there are several short strips called “Countdown to Necropolis” (progs 669-673). Then we get down to “Necropolis” proper – a story that spans 26 issues of the comic (progs 674-699).

As if four Dark Judges who can’t be killed aren’t enough trouble, we now learn that Judge Death has three sisters. The Sisters of Death use a Psi Judge as a bridge to our dimension, enabling the whole Justice Department to be psychically controlled. Mega-City One is now totally at the mercy of the Dark Judges, who proceed on an unparalleled slaughter the likes of which has never been seen before in the pages of Judge Dredd. Dredd himself, having encountered the Sisters in the Cursed Earth, returns to Mega-City One to find the place in utter ruins. He manages to team up with some surviving cadets and Psi Judge Anderson. Together they attempt to overthrow the Dark Judges’ reign. They face insurmountable odds, and even if they win, Mega-City One will never the be the same again.

The story doesn’t sound like anything special, but it’s the backstory that injects it with so much potency – for one, Dredd’s reason for being the Cursed Earth (which I won’t spoil). The best place to read this story properly is in Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 14, where you will get all the extras, or in the two-volume edition published by Titan (2003), where you’ll get some of the extras. Avoid the single-volume edition published by Hamlyn (1998), as it fails to include most of the prequel material. This is deservedly one of the most popular and most remembered stories in the ongoing saga of Judge Dredd.

The Batman/Judge Dredd Collection by John Wagner & Alan Grant

wagnerj-batmanjudgedreddWay back in the mists of time (around 1990, maybe), I recall the Aliens vs. Predator comic. I think this may have been first to begin the trend of combining two well known movies or iconic characters. Since then we’ve had all sorts of combinations, involving Aliens, Predator, Terminator, Superman, Batman, and now Judge Dredd. Normally, my cynical side would question this publishing strategy as a crude attempt to extend a fanbase, but I have to say I really enjoyed the Judge Dredd vs. Aliens story Incubus that I read earlier this year.

So how do Dredd and Batman fare in the same story? Both characters are concerned with justice, but approach it from vastly different perspectives. Batman operates above the law, reaching where the law cannot. Judge Dredd is more of a by-the-book police-state lawman who has no tolerance for vigilantes. As you can suspect, the two characters do not get along. In the first story, Judgement on Gotham, Dredd finds himself in Gotham City as a result of Judge Death’s antics. The Dark Judge has used his dimension gate technology to open a portal to Batman’s world, where he proceeds, characteristically, to wreak havoc on Gotham. Batman ends up in Mega-City One, Dredd arrests him, and the two eventually wind up back in Gotham to fight Death. It’s a good story, marred slightly by a tendency to go for laughs more than scares – which harms the impact of Judge Death’s presence somewhat. Judge Anderson and Mean Machine Angel also feature in the story.

“Vendetta in Gotham” sees Dredd return to Gotham City, to pick a fight with Batman – seemingly for evading his fascistic brand of justice back on Mega-City One. Dredd’s actions initially felt out of character, but there’s a twist in the tail.

“The Ultimate Riddle” is a story in a similar vein to Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. Dredd finds himself mysteriously transported into a cage, in a room full of cages. Batman is in another cage. The rest of the cages are filled with weird and bizarre beings from other dimensions, representing the most fearsome warriors of each culture. A battle to the death commences. And who is the adversary who orchestrated all this? The clue’s in the title.

Lastly, in “Die Laughing” we have the Joker teaming up with the Judge Death, willingly becoming a Dark Judge himself. On Mega-City One, a biodome devoted to hedonism is getting ready to close its gates forever. Once it is sealed, the citizens within it will be permanently locked away forever from the rest of the city, their lives devoting to pleasure-seeking within its confines. Except the Dark Judges get locked in with them.

Not nearly the best Judge Dredd stories I’ve read, but good fun nevertheless.

Judge Dredd: Origins by John Wagner

wagnerj-judgedreddoriginsThe Justice Department receives a ransom demand from persons unknown residing in the Cursed Earth: pay one billion credits and they will return the body of Judge Eustace Fargo. Judge Fargo was the first Judge of the new judicial system that took justice out of the courtrooms and onto the streets. He was also the person from which Judge Dredd was cloned. It was universally believed that his body lay in a tomb at the Halls of Justice, but that story was just a fabrication. The ransom demand came backed up with evidence – a little box containing a sample of Fargo’s tissue, delivered straight to the Judges’ headquarters. And so, Dredd and others set off into the Cursed Earth, on a mission to retrieve the original Father of Justice. And the thing that makes the issue especially pressing is that the tissue sample appears to have come from a living organism.

Who is the mysterious adversary who made the ransom demand? What trials will the Judges face among the mutants of the Cursed Earth, en route to their destination? Is Judge Fargo alive? All the elements are there for a great story, and it is. One of the best aspects is actually the backstory. We are treated to a large look at the distant past – the history of how the new judicial system came to replace the old, and how America became the radioactive wasteland called the Cursed Earth. We also meet a young Joseph Dredd and his clone-brother Rico (before Rico went bad), thrust out of the Academy early to deal with state of emergency in Mega-City One. These are much more than just brief glimpses into the past to tickle the fancies of committed fans. A fair chunk of the graphic novel takes place in this earlier time period.

An epic Dredd story, spanning almost 200 pages, one that will appeal especially to long-term readers.

Blake’s 7: Archangel by Scott Harrison

harrisons-archangelThis is the second novel published in Big Finish’s range of Blake’s 7 original stories. Like the preceding book, it takes the form of a missing episode, set between the season two episodes Trial and Killer. Fans of the television series will know that this places the novel right after the death of crew member Olag Gan. Author Scott Harrison fleshes out some drama between Blake and his crew, as they deal with the tragedy. Blake comes under fire for his reckless idealism and lack of concern for the safety of those who accompany him.

The thrust of the story concerns Blake’s investigation into a secret Federation project called Archangel. It was once abandoned, but now there are rumours of it starting up again. But no one knows what it is. Blake’s only lead is Kodyn Tam, an old friend from Earth. After a bit of action here and a bit of action there (action that feels very much like padding), the crew of the Liberator eventually arrive at Project Archangel, which turns out to be … no spoilers, but it’s nothing terribly exciting.

The characters have always been the high point of Blake’s 7, and for the most part the dialogue penned by Harrison rings true to the original series. There are many sarcastic quips from Avon. This would normally be very enjoyable, except the author is a little over-enthusiastic, turning Avon into a walking bag of dry jokes. Harrison would have been better to pick the best ones, instead of saturating the reader.

Harrison’s writing is, unfortunately, distinctly amateur. There were numerous grammatical errors. He also has an irritating habit of cutting away from a scene to another scene, then cutting back to the original scene after the action has finished. At times, there was something awkward about the prose that made me struggle to get a proper mental picture of what was happening.

The novel is a mish-mash of familiar sci-fi themes, with no original spin, and the story moves from A to Z via a route that could easily have been shortened, but probably needed to be padded out for the sake of a required length. On a plus note, Harrison is fairly successful at capturing the authentic feel of Blake’s 7. But as a missing episode, Archangel is merely average. There are probably worse episodes in the television series itself, but I had hoped for something better here.