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Dirk Flinthart (ed.)

Agog! Press (2008)

ISBN: 9780809573288

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce (this review was first published in November 2008)

As a fan of the original Canterbury Tales, I was fascinated to hear that this project was being undertaken. The ‘let’s tell stories to pass the time’ idea has been used before as the basis of novels, and probably anthologies, but I’ve not heard of another that both moves the context to the future and blatantly rips off – I mean, pays respectful homage towards – Chaucer’s original. Such is the case here. And the concept really is a brilliant one. It’s 2109, and a group of pilgrims are travelling to Canterbury. They get delayed, and to pass the time they tell one another stories. So what we get are the stories that people in 2109 tell one another, and only incidental information about 2109 itself, not to mention the century between then and now. This in itself is a tricky ask: there’s little info-dump, little ‘the story so far’ – instead, straight into the concerns, mythologies, and complexities of the 22nd century. Which would all have made for an interesting anthology, I think, but what really kicks it up into highly clever territory is that the stories are linked together – as they ought to be, given their context. Between each story there is an interlude on the train with the pilgrims: seeing their reactions to stories, watching them interact, and generally reinforcing the idea that these are meant to be real people telling stories to other real people. It’s as if someone has transcribed the stories told around a camp fire. And it works – it really does. I can’t imagine the editing that must have gone into this book to make it internally coherent, but it worked. I enjoyed most of the stories presented – some, of course, more than others. Some will stay with me; some were nice at the moment of reading and I may struggle to remember them tomorrow. Together, though, they present a truly fascinating (and frightening) vision of the world a hundred years from now. (My personal favourite thing: the idea of Londonistan.) Also, concluding the book with author bios that stake a claim on the time between now and the setting of the anthology? Brilliance. Read the rest of this entry »

Robert Hood and Robin Pen (eds.)

Agog! Press (2007)

ISBN: 9780809572311 

Reviewed by Adam Bell (this review was first published in September 2007)

Giant monsters. To say it in such a simplistic fashion, it sounds like an overused theme. However, Daikaiju 2: Revenge of the Giant Monsters, edited by Robert Hood and Robin Pen and released by Cat Sparks’s Agog Press, refuses to settle down into simplistic monster stories. Instead it shows us haunting tales that sometimes lead us to question ourselves and our need for monsters.

I haven’t yet read the original Daikaiju anthology but have read a number of stories from it, collected elsewhere. These, and people’s comments on the original anthology, left me with high expectations for this sequel.

Overall, Revenge of the Giant Monsters, presents us with a selection of interesting stories. Many of these stories are haunting and manage to create an alien air around the monsters, while still retaining enough of a sense of familiarity that we can connect with them. On the flip side, some of the stories were not as interesting as my expectations had led me to hope for. Read the rest of this entry »

Robert Hood and Robin Pen (eds.)

Agog! Press (2005)

ISBN: 0-958056-74-9 

Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts (this review was first published in November 2005)

I suspect that when 2005 grinds to a close, Daikaiju is one of the books that will most stand out amongst the other tomes released within the Australian specfic community. I really hope it gets a far wider audience than small press junkies and congoers in Australia, though, because it’s good. Really good. Not just ‘I’m waving the flag for Australian speculative fiction’ good. The stories are top notch quality – even the ones I personally disliked aren’t what I would call bad, or even mediocre. But that’s only a handful – I mostly found the stories entertaining, thought-provoking and literate. And I have to say, this anthology contains some of the best short fiction titles I’ve ever seen all in one place.

The tendency in the more literary circles of science fiction is towards the unthemed anthology – probably because it’s so much harder to gather a balanced collection of excellent stories that fit a specific theme than those that don’t. Editors Robert Hood and Robin Pen don’t shy away from a challenge, channelling their mutual interest in giant monster movies into a truly unique science fiction anthology.

That’s what ‘daikaiju’ means, by the way. Giant monsters. But not ordinary giant monsters, oh no. They have to be unreasonably large, impossibly giant monsters … think Godzilla, King Kong, and the various imitators of both film phenomena. There’s something overwhelmingly enthusiastic about this book, from the garish, deliciously green cover art to the selection of film discussions at the end. The authors were evidently enthusiastic as well, providing a varied selection of stories from what should be an overly restrictive theme.

It is Godzilla more than his Western equivalents who seems to be the godfather of Daikaiju, and there is a Japanese flavour recurring throughout the majority of the stories, despite the fact that the writers and editors are from Western, English speaking cultures. Daikaiju can be read as a Western response to Eastern popular culture – a literary acknowledgement of the influence that a foreign, ‘trashy’ film genre has had on whole generations – but it can also be read as an excellent anthology of stories that will stretch your suspension of belief to its utmost and yet still, somehow, suck you in.

The great thing about this theme is that it automatically includes elements of science fiction, fantasy and horror – and makes a comfortable space for stories to embrace all three of these. There’s an overall urban feeling about Daikaiju, though, with the occasional element of the rural or historical/folk tale. And there’s lots of lovely black humour, for the twisted among you. My only complaint (and it’s a personal one) is that many stories are told through the voice of American or Japanese characters, when the ones I enjoyed the most filtered the daikaiju concept through distinctly Australian voices and characters. I also wasn’t keen on the military theme of so many stories, but I suppose that’s something you have to take along with giant monsters. I much preferred to see ‘ordinary folks’ dealing with the giant monsters than soldiers and generals, though.

Daikaiju is a predominantly Australian anthology with a few international authors; for those Aussiephiles among you I’ve marked Aussie authors with an (Aus).

“Lullabye”, by Doug Wood, is a simple, elegant story that evokes the kind of visual imagery familiar from black and white movies, setting the scene for what is, inevitably, a cinematic anthology. There isn’t much here as far as narrative or plot goes, but the first sight of a giant monster in a book promised to be full of giant monsters is still somewhat breathtaking.

With “Running”, by Martin Livings (Aus), the theme is given its first major twist away from the expected – and takes off at full steam. In a world where daikaiju films are documentaries of a real phenomenon, Ryuichi and his followers have invented the ultimate danger sport – they run with the giant creatures, risking life and limb to experience an adrenaline-fueled high like no other. Livings has managed not only to make the giant monsters of the theme feel realistic, but he has made it look easy. “Running” is a hard act for the remaining authors in this anthology to follow.

“The Transformer of Worlds” by Mark Rainey was far less to my tastes – a story where the style is so self-conscious that it distracts from any substance that might be there. The oddly stilted, over-descriptive protagonist’s voice felt old-fashioned and I found it difficult to access – but I suspect that fans of Lovecraft[1] would read it differently. The main flaw in this piece to my mind, however, is a lack of a feeling of particular largeness from the key ‘monster’.

“Big Day” by Chris Barnes (Aus) is an entertaining, thoughtful character piece which explores how two very different people react to the presence of a Monster in their midst.

“Footfall” by Terry Dartnall (Aus) is a more overtly fantasy piece, a clever short short which suggests a possible origin for all these giant monsters stomping around the world.

“daihaiku” by Sean Williams (Aus) consists of a beautifully wrought combination of two essential Japanese artforms – the haiku and the monster movie. I’ve heard Williams read these (or some like them) aloud, and this is far more effective than reading them on the page, but they’re an enjoyable moment as part of this anthology.

“Seven Dates that were Ruined by Giant Monsters” by Adam Ford (Aus) is a charming black-edged comedy despite never really giving the reader anything more than the plot and humour suggested by the title – the author gets away with this because of the self-deprecating tone of the protagonist, and the entertainment found in the depiction of a world full of giant monsters as being the most ordinary (though inconvenient) thing you can imagine.

A similarly ironic tone can be found in “Aspect Hunter” by Anthony Fordham (Aus), but this is balanced with the exuberance of a fullblooded adventure story. This one is enjoyable for its dialogue (“The devil take your light finger food and your internationally acclaimed string quartet too!”) and for the main character, a time-travelling champion who would belong in a Raymond Chandler [2] novel if he wasn’t busy fighting ice giants.

“Notes Concerning Events at the Ray Harryhausen Memorial Home for Retired Actors” by Andrew Sullivan (Aus) is another well-balanced action piece with plenty of comedy, answering the question of what happens to giant monsters after they retire from the movies … and if it was a movie, should be played as a double feature withBubba Ho-Tep [3].

I found it a little difficult to settle down to a more serious story after the humour of the preceding three, but “Watching the Titans” by Chris Dickinson (Aus) is an interesting piece nonetheless, introducing a Japanese monster-seeking equivalent to Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall … and as it turns out, it’s a story with a humorous sting in the tail after all. The size of the giant monsters in this story is well-conveyed through the main character’s exploration, though I would have preferred more meat to the plot.

“Requiem for a Wild God” by George Thomas is quite a good action story, but there’s nothing overly new or interesting about it.

“Five Bells” by Trent Jamieson (Aus) raises both the quality bar of the collection and the weirdness factor, presenting a giant Harold Holt [4] boiling up out of the ocean with a great white shark stuck in his foreskin (what the…?). “Five Bells” is dark and strange and twisted, one of those stories that takes more time to think about than the few minutes it takes to read it. Jamieson’s stories are always worth reading, but this one is worth a thorough, thoughtful dissection. And possibly a Valium.

“Once Giants Roamed the Earth” by Rosaleen Love (Aus) is a quiet, gentle piece – in anthology terms, it’s the lemon-scented water to wash your fingers in between courses. The reader can take a deep breath, appreciate the beautiful mood change, then move on to more weirdness and adventure.

“Crunch Time” Michelle Marquardt (Aus) is another very short piece, but effective, with a dark vein of humour running through it.

“CALIBOS” by Paul Finch is a solid action story, a bit too militaristic for my taste, but that’s a personal thing. When all the characters are General something or Colonel something (or in the case of female characters, Miss Something), my brain tends to drift out the window. It has the feel of an old-fashioned British movie – maybe 1950s – so if nostalgic military action fiction is your thing, this is the story for you.

“Newborn” by Eric Shapiro was a welcome shifting of gears, a funny and strange story about an expectant father whose wife is giving birth to … well, let’s just say it isn’t a human baby. Neither is it small. From the theme of the anthology, you can probably guess where this is going. The story has a few clumsy moments, but these are offset by moments of comedy brilliance – the sympathetic nurses (I’m so glad I’m not you), the protagonist coming to terms with his wife’s infidelity, the giant beak … this is sublime silliness of the highest order. I loved it.

“Park Rot” by Skip Peel is an entertaining mix of horror, action and humour – and is refreshing in that, despite an everpresent daikaiju presence, the story is actually about something other than giant monsters. Corporate greed is tackled head on in this story about theme parks and those who love them a little too much…

“Fossils” by D.G. Valdron is a strong, thoughtful story that, like Martin Livings’ “Running,” really brings home the effect of natural disaster on human beings. A very powerful ending. I read this one in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and had to keep reminding myself that no, this story wasn’t written in response to the disaster at New Orleans, just read in response to it. Actually, all the stories can be read in response to New Orleans and any other natural disaster, which is the strength of this anthology – it makes the daikaiju feel as real and terrifying (and at the same time as surreal and otherworldly) as a hurricane, flash flood or earthquake.

“Kungmin Horangi: The People’s Tiger” by Cody Goodfellow appears at first to be just another American-style military story, though the central idea is an interesting one. Worth reading simply for use of the term ‘kaiju-mongers’. The black sense of humour only hinted at in the early parts of the story, however, is given its head towards the end, and I found myself enjoying the nasty twists and turns.

“The Greater Death of Saito Saku” by Richard Harland (Aus) has a vivid, Japanese folk tale feel about it – a welcome simplicity after the more high-tech tales, and an elegant story.

“Like a Bug Underfoot” by Chuck McKenzie (Aus) provides a welcome Australian tone after so so much American and Japanese-themed material. McKenzie does what he does best in this story – angry, fiery black comedy with very sharp teeth. While the daikaiju in this story are background in a similar way to “Seven Dates that were Ruined by Giant Monsters,” the effect is quite different. You can actually feel the stomps and howls and damage caused by the giant monsters, and sympathise with the poor schmuck (can’t think of an Australian term for schmuck, but we need one) whose life would still be crap if his city wasn’t falling around his ears.

‘Read it in the Headlines!” by Garth Nix (Aus) is an entertaining gimmick story, in which the response to a daikaiju attack is told through screaming newspaper headlines. It works surprisingly well, and serves as a satire on media response to disasters as well as human response to disasters. Plus, funny.

“The Quiet Agrarian” by Petri Sinda (Aus) has some nice visual writing but the only character I found all that interesting was Gorgeous George, the daikaiju. The humans were a little pale by comparison.

“In Final Battle” by Iain Triffitt (Aus) is just plain weird. Really. On the one hand, nice to see a new kind of daikaiju (ie. non-lizard) turning up only a couple of stories from the end. On the other hand, giant robot prophets battling to prove the supremacy of their individual religions??? It’s not exactly a story that would hold up in any other publication, but here it forms part of the overal daikaiju dialogue, even if it’s a very strange piece of dialogue.

“The Unlawful Priest of Todesfall,” by Penelope Love (Aus) is a surprising change of pace – an otherworld fantasy story that sits a little uncomfortably amongst so much urban, contemporary-feeling fiction. That, and there isn’t much of a story apart from a general religious questiness. But it’s a personal thing again – fantasy with priests and long descriptive passages leaves me cold, and it just doesn’t seem to fit this particular anthology. Certainly I think it’s placed badly in the book – it might have seemed less jarring if it wasn’t so close to the end.

“Man in Suit!” by J.M. Shiloh is a fun and strange story with plenty of mad science; and I’m a daikaiju’s uncle if it wasn’t inspired by more than a pinch of Astro Boy.

“Footprint” by David Carroll is a thoughtful piece – though I’m not sure if it’s strong enough to carry the weight of being the last story.

“haikaiju” by Sean Williams, on the other hand, strikes exactly the right final note – as with his earlier “daihaiku” this piece conveys the mixture of humour and taking-it-seriously that Daikaiju has presented throughout.

Ah, but it’s not over yet. In the spirit of honouring the great daikaiju of popular culture past, the editors have served up a special Cinema Supplement.

I can only hope that someone has sent a copy of Daikaiju to Hayao Miyazaki, because I want to see “The Tragical History of Guidolon, the Giant Space Chicken” by Frank Wu made into an anime film. Truly. This script is the anime film of which all other anime films are but a mere shadow. It has to be made. Moral imperative. Of course, it could be made with stop motion … okay, better send a copy to Nick Park too. But read it first. Very funny. Very strange.

“Wonders 8 Through 88: A brief history of the Larger-than-Life” by Brian Thomas is an interesting and informative article about the history of Godzilla. I found this entertaining to read, but can’t help thinking it should have been at the beginning rather than the end of the book, for those of us who *didn’t* spend the eighties watching Japanese monster movies on scratchy video tapes.

In fact, if anything could have improved Daikaiju it would have been a few more short essays on the topic, possibly instead of some of the less powerful stories. I always want to see more clever non-fiction among the stories – and can’t help thinking that the dark humour and fun action that characterises this anthology could have led to some very entertaining non-fiction work.

Daikaiju is a far more substantial and significant anthology than its flippant (if beautiful) cover suggests. The fiction is a blend of post-modern comedy, urban fantasy, military action, genuine horror and out-and-out weirdness. This is certainly one of the most effective theme anthologies I’ve read in a very long time. It took me a long time to read the whole book (and thus to review it – sorry, Alisa! [5] This is one to have on the bedside table, to read one or two stories a night, rather than trying to swallow the whole lot in one go.

Daikaiju is grim, gritty and laugh-out-loud funny, all at the same time – or, to take Frank Wu wildly out of context, it’s a Shakespearean monster tragedy. With giant space chickens. And rollercoasters. Who could ask for anything more?

Highlights:

“Running” – Martin Livings (Aus)
“Aspect Hunter” – Anthony Fordham (Aus)
“Notes Concerning Events at the Ray Harryhausen Memorial Home for Retired Actors” – Andrew Sullivan (Aus)
“Five Bells” – Trent Jamieson (Aus)
“Newborn” – Eric Shapiro
“Park Rot” – Skip Peel
“Like a Bug Underfoot” – Chuck McKenzie (Aus)
“The Tragical History of Guidolon, the Giant Space Chicken” – Frank Wu

[1] I’ve never read any Lovecraft, but I know this: he wrote lots of books in the 1930′s about the Cthulu Mythos, which had something to do with Elder Gods and big scary interdimensional monsters. Just about every SF/Fantasy writer who loves Lovecraft (most of em!) has written a Lovecraft pastiche, or a story set in this world. Pratchett’s Dungeon Dimensions are a blatant rip off. Neil Gaiman’s a fan. Trouble is, true Lovecraft ‘homage’ stories require long, over descriptive and ponderous prose, which is terribly ironic and funny if you’ve read lots of Lovecraft, but is otherwise indistinguishable from old-fashioned and slightly dreadful writing. [2] Raymond Chandler – author of classic detective fiction such as The Big Sleep, many of which got turned into films starring Humphrey Bogart. [3] Bubba Ho-Tep – reasonably recent film starring Bruce Campbell as an elderly Elvis alongside a similarly elderly black JFK, battling mummies and similar forces of darkness. No, really. [4] Harold Holt – former Prime Minister of Australia whose term ended rather abruptly when he went for a swim at an Australian beach and never came back. Ever. Conspiracy theories abounded including that he was a Chinese spy. Personally, I’ve always thought it was rather Unaustralian for a PM to die whilst swimming. At a beach – Ed [5] And then a long time to edit it – sorry, Tansy! – Ed

Edited by Cat Sparks

Agog! Press (2004)

ISBN: 0-958056-73-0

Reviewed by Devin Jeyathurai (this review was first published in November 2005)

Most days, if you asked me to choose between a good short story and a good novel, I’d pick the short story. This isn’t really anyone’s fault. It has more to do with the way my life is structured. I work all day and the only times I have to read on a regular basis are when I’m on the bus in the morning, when I’m on the bus in the evening, and briefly before I fall asleep. You can then understand why a short story is perfectly suited to my lifestyle. I can fit a complete story into a forty minute ride to the office in the morning, and then head into work without feeling like I need to read just one more page. On the way home, I can read a slightly longer short story, and finish it off before I hit the sack.

The experience of reading a short story is different from reading a novel, and markedly so. A novel is more languid, more expansive. A novel has more room, more space. A novel can explore ideas and plotlines and character more slowly, more deeply, differently.

By contrast, a short story needs to work quickly, grab the reader by the (eye)balls and drag them along for the ride before they can change their minds. Forget about establishing background, or those long dreary descriptions. A short story is kinetic, it moves. Some short stories start in medias res and require that the reader catch up on their own. Often figuring out what’s going on is part of the fun.

All the same, there aren’t very many markets for speculative fiction short stories, and correspondingly few ways for readers to get hold of them. That’s why I applaud Cat Sparks’ effort to showcase new Australian science fiction shorts in anthologies like Agog! Smashing Stories (and Agog! Terrific TalesAgog! Fantastic FictionAustrAlien Absurdities and Daikaiju!). I can’t vouch for any of the others, because I haven’t gotten around to buying or reading them, but when writing about Agog! Smashing Stories, the word that springs to mind is “solid”. Read the rest of this entry »

Cat Sparks (ed.)

Agog! Press (2006)

ISBN: 0809562383 

Reviewed by Ben Payne (this review was first published in February 2007)

Over the years, Agog! has emerged as the standard bearer of Australian SF in the twenty-first century. As such, it sets itself a tough standard to reach with each new anthology. It is to the credit of the editor and the writers within that it continues to reach it.

Ripping Reads contains a fine mix of those authors who are well-known names (such as Margo Lanagan and Simon Brown), those who are rapidly becoming well known names (such as Ben Peek and Deborah Biancotti), and a couple of newer authors to round out the collection (David Conyers and David Kane).

Overall, the standard is a high one. If there is a general criticism I might make of the stories in the anthology, it is this: that the endings of the tales frequently do not do justice to the imagination of their world-building. As such, some of the stories work more strongly as springboards for the imagination than as structurally complete pieces. The best pieces are those that nail both. Read the rest of this entry »

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