Book review(s): two Icelandic murder mysteries

11 07 2016

More Scandinavian crime fiction, this time from a couple of well-established Icelandic writers. Deaths at sea feature in both books: two boats, no survivors. But how did it happen?


Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, a civil engineer, has written almost a dozen crime novels to date, featuring the Reykjavík lawyer Þóra (Thóra) Guðmundsdóttir as principal protagonist and investigator. In The Silence of the Sea (Brakið, 2011, translated by Victoria Cribb), Thóra is hired by Margeir and Sigridur to investigate the deaths of their bank-employee son Ægir, his wife Lára, and their twin daughters Arna and Bylgja, who were four of the seven people on board the repossessed luxury yacht Lady K when it set sail from Lisbon with an all-Icelandic crew. When the boat arrives in Reykjavík’s harbour with nobody on board, it’s obvious that something untoward has happened; but is it some kind of elaborate scam, or has something more sinister occurred? Margeir and Sigridur hope to use the younger couple’s generous life-insurance policies so as to provide for their only surviving granddaughter, toddler Sigga Dögg, who was left in their care while her parents and sisters went on their portuguese holiday. But with no bodies, no witnesses, and no missing lifeboats, Thóra’s task of proving both the deaths and the innocence of Ægir and Lára appears intractable. And when the first body gets washed up, the mystery only deepens …

Yrsa unveils the story in split-screen: alternating chapters give us Thóra’s efforts to make traction with the case, and Ægir’s efforts to keep his family safe on the doomed voyage. This, I have to say, is a nasty trick, and highly effective: we’re forced to empathise with Ægir and his family much more than would have been the case if, in typical crime-fiction fashion, they’d simply turned up dead at the start of the book. (And it’s clear from quite early on that something very sinister has occurred—but who is responsible? Is it the Lady K‘s grizzled captain Thráinn, or one of the other crewmembers Halli or Loftur? Or is there some hint in Ægir’s past that he’s not the honest, upstanding bank employee he appears to be? And how does the fate of the boat’s occupants connect with the disappearance of the former owner’s gold-digger wife Karítas and her personal assistant?)

There are several passages of highly unnerving writing in this one, as Yrsa places the shipboard family in a sequence of fiendishly-wrought (and wrackingly atmospheric) predicaments, to the extent that the Thóra-centred chapters act almost as a welcome respite. And the complicated mesh of partial (and often misdirecting) clues serves more to underscore the family’s looming peril than to allow us to beat Thóra to a solution to the mystery. This is a seriously spooky, frighteningly effective crime novel.


Arnaldur Indriðason is a former journalist whose ‘Detective Erlendur’ series now extends to over a dozen books. In Strange Shores (Furðustrandir, 2010, again translated by Victoria Cribb), the detective is teasing out the ghosts of his boyhood home: the disappearance of his younger brother Bergur, in a snowstorm, when Erlendur was ten; and the analogous vanishing, decades earlier, of a young woman Matthildur, a year before the death of her husband Jakob in a boating tragedy. But there are few people amongst the small settlements of eastern Iceland old enough to still remember the events surrounding Matthildur’s apparent death, and fewer still willing to rake over the past’s old coals with an inquisitive and persistent policeman. Besides, there’s no official police interest in either matter, so what can Erlendur possibly hope to achieve through his darkly nostalgic meddling? But when people—first the farmer Bóas, then Matthildur’s younger sister Hrund, then Jakob’s former friend and workmate Ezra—reveal what they know of the incident, a disturbing story starts to emerge …

This is a moody, often bleak story of which I’m still not sure what to make. Erlendur’s role in the book is a rather unusual one (the policeman as amateur sleuth) and one which I didn’t totally buy: the lengths to which he’s prepared to go to uncover the past’s secrets, more out of a curious compulsion than a genuine thirst for justice, are really quite extraordinary … but then I don’t have a strong sense of Erlendur’s character in other circumstances, such as would have been the case if I’d commenced with book 1 rather than, I think, book 9 in the sequence.

Strange Shores is elegantly written, in clean prose and with an assured, unhurried pace. I enjoyed the reading of it, but I suspect it wasn’t the most suitable Detective Erlendur novel with which to start. Still, it’s an impressively subtle piece of detection, and makes effective use of a deliberately-sparse palette to paint a starkly grim crime.

Book review: Arkfall / The Ice Owl, by Carolyn Ives Gilman

9 07 2016

Carolyn Ives Gilman is a historian / SF writer with multiple Nebula award nominations; she’s also been shortlisted for the Hugo, Locus, and Tiptree awards. Arkfall and The Ice Owl are a pair of novellas first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and subsequently separately published under Arc Manor’s ‘Phoenix Pick’ imprint. Since each novella is reasonably short, and since the books share a universe (though they have no settings, characters, or overlying story arc in common), it seems expedient to review them in tandem.


Arkfall is set within the ice-roofed oceans of a Europa-like planet, Ben, where pressure-adapted humans have colonised the Salton Sea. The colonists are divided into ‘barnacles’—those who make their living in one or other of the multiply-domed seafloor habitats—and ‘floaters’—those who roam from habitat to habitat in large, cyborg-like submarines called ‘arks’. Osaji is an unrepentant floater, but she’s not happy with her lot: as the youngest grandchild of, and reluctantly-dutiful carer for, the fading Mota, it seems to her that she is not allowed to make any choices for herself. Her ambition to emigrate to another world thwarted by Ben’s frustratingly-indirect bureaucracy (on Ben, almost all dialogue is held in passive-voice and using the pronoun ‘one’ in place of ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’ or ‘she’, so as not to cause undue offence), she signs up for yet another tour on a new ark. An accident places her on this ark alone with grandmother Mota and with Scrappin’ Jack, an inappropriately-upfront offworld mercenary with whom, surely, she cannot find any common ground. And yet, doomed to months of drifting in this ark, some kind of rapprochement is clearly necessary if they are to survive the hazards of this lightless submarine environment.


In The Ice Owl, century-old teenager Thorn lives with her mother Maya, an unlicensed reproductive-services provider, and Maya’s current boyfriend, the bounty hunter Hunter, in the tenements of a domed habitat on a tidally-locked airless planet where the overarching culture is one of piety and repression. When a gang of overzealous vandals—’Incorruptibles’—firebombs Thorn’s school, on the basis of inferred iniquity, she must find a tutor so as to continue her education. She chooses an old man she has seen in their neighbourhood park, one Soren Pregaldin, who she rapidly learns has lived on several worlds (she herself is on her ninth world, which accounts for her time-lagged age) and has amassed an impressive collection of offworld—and here illegal—artworks, books, and curios. Magister Pregaldin encourages Thorn’s developing initiative and independence of thought, but he presumably doesn’t intend for his young charge to use this newfound direction to explore his own past, which seems to grow shadier the more she learns of it. Nonetheless, a friendship develops between them, and he presents her with a small refrigerator containing the titular bird, a uniquely hibernating species which must be kept frozen until it is ready to revive. But the upheavals in Thorn’s neighbourhood have not ceased with the school’s sacking …

Though the societies in these books never truly came to life for me—I didn’t feel that there was sufficient depth, sufficient subtlety to the worldbuilding—Gilman nonetheless gives us plausibly complex and interesting characters, and trenchant problems for them to solve. They’re written in a clear and uncomplicated style which reveals several moments of genuine pathos in the lives of their respective protagonists. Forced to play favourites, I’d probably choose The Ice Owl over Arkfall, though Arkfall, with its biotechnological vehicles and ice-world setting, arguably adheres more faithfully to the requirements of hard SF than does The Ice Owl, which to my mind fudges it on the vexatious problem of interstellar travel. In Owl, humans are able to be transmitted between distant worlds as beams of light—essentially the same mechanism as the Star Trek transporter beams—while instantaneous communication between worlds is possible using a device called a ‘pepci’, which sounds similar to Le Guin’s ‘ansible’. I wasn’t really able to get my head around the notion that, while information could be instantaneously transferred across a multi-light-year gulf, a human encoded as a lightbeam signal—which must surely represent what is, at base, only a very large packet of information—is restricted to the slow crawl of lightspeed. (The same criticism would presumably apply also to Arkfall, which is set in the same universe as Owl, except that in Arkfall the issue of interstellar travel is never sufficiently backgrounded to reveal this particular sticking point; instead, the SF componentry centres on the intriguing Dawn-like application of biologically-inspired solutions to technological problems.) Nonetheless, The Ice Owl found favour for Pregaldin’s mysterious butterfly-wing portrait and for the busy interplay between the book’s several characters: though in each book the broad sense of the impending denouement is reasonably clearly foreshadowed, there’s more complication to Owl‘s unravelling than there is to Arkfall‘s.

In summation, I’d give Arkfall a qualified pass as hard SF, though I’d have to hold The Ice Owl back on that score. If equation-solving SF is what you’re after as reading matter, these probably aren’t for you. But they’re intriguing enough stories, in and of themselves: if you like Le Guin’s writing, you’ll probably enjoy these.

(This is the eighth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)

Book review: ‘Up Against It’, by M J Locke

4 07 2016

Morgan J Locke is the penname currently used by SF writer and chemical / environmental engineer Laura J Mixon, who has five earlier novels and a selection of shorter pieces to her own name. She also has, to her name, the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer, for her blog piece ‘A Report on Damage Done by One Individual Under Several Names’, exposing the actions of extreme critic Requires Hate.


Jane Navio is the long-serving resource commissioner of Zekeston, a city-sized habitat, set spinning for purposes of artificial gravity, within the hollowed-out interior of asteroid 25 Phocaea. Jane is also the family friend of Geoff Agre, whose job description might as well read ‘disaffected teenager’—think James Dean on a rocketbike. As Up Against It opens, Geoff and his rocketbiker friends have just participated in the capture of an incoming shipment of the ice that is so essential to the continued habitability of Zekeston and its subsidiary settlements. But the colony’s relief at having successfully harvested the ice shipment is shortlived: an accident at a neighbouring waste-reprocessing plant spills a dangerously large number of disassemblers (self-replicating nanomechanical molecular deconstructors), which rapidly set about devouring the newly-acquired ice mountain. Navio must make a command decision to prioritise either the ice’s protection or the rescue of several disassembly-plant workers trapped with insufficient air reserves by the corrosive nanite spillage: she chooses the ice, succeeds in saving a fragment of the shipment, and ten workers die. Among those ten is Geoff’s older brother Carl. But Navio’s problems are just beginning, as the colony now faces several weeks with inadequate material resources, with the only available incoming ice shipment in the hands of the Martian mob. The government of Zekeston has no real choice—their need for ice is desperate—but what will it cost them to deal with the devil? Can Jane manage an unprecedented suite of challenges, from both within and without the colony? Will Geoff’s reckless heroics lead to tragedy? And why are the habitat’s computer systems displaying anomalous, glitchy behaviour?

Up Against It is an impressive piece of action-based hard SF, with an imaginatively detailed setting, a busy, propulsive storyline, and a lengthy cast list of well-realised characters operating at loggerheads to one another. It’s broadly founded on established scientific principles and shows due deference to the laws of physics (with its one apparent infelicity in this regard a reference to a fifty-million-km lightspeed communication occurring in a fraction of a second), with several intriguing twists on established SF tropes. In content, it’s somewhat reminiscent of Lois McMaster Bujold’s ‘Miles Vorkosigan’ series—it has the latter’s predicament-heavy plotting style and somewhat space-operatic interplanetary politics, though there’s no recourse here to wormhole travel maguffins—but in tone it’s more in keeping with Golden Age problem-solving stories.

I do have some quibbles. It does feel that the storyline never lets up, with the result that the characters aren’t fully given an opportunity to sing. (Except, of course, when they’re using the music-based programming language Tonal_Z.) And on reflection, it’s not clear to me why the disassemblers’ consumption of a large fraction of the ice shipment was so materially disastrous: they hadn’t annihilated it, after all, they’d just processed it into other forms (from which, in the centuries-hence future presented here, I’d imagine they could have been reconstituted back into water and other feedstocks). Similarly, the resource-scarcity solution which eventually arrives does have a somewhat fortuitous flavour of deus ex machina about it, and I’m not convinced it’s quantitatively reasonable. (I’m being deliberately coy in my wording here, so as to mitigate spoilerism on the subject.) But these are things which occurred to me only after the event—I found the book strongly engrossing, and felt compelled to learn the fates of those assembled within.

It’s perhaps not a sublimely graceful book; but it is an effective one, and it rewards reading for its imaginative and multilayered futurism.

(This is the seventh in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)

Book review: The Healer, by Antti Tuomainen

1 07 2016

This is more Scandicrime, but with the difference that this one, I’d argue, is also SF. It hails not from the streets of Stockholm, but from Helsinki. Antti Tuomainen is a poet, novelist, and former advertising copywriter; The Healer (Parantaja, 2010, translated by Lola Rogers) is his third novel, although I suspect it may have been the first translated. It won a Best Finnish Crime Novel of the Year award, and was shortlisted for the ‘Glass Key’ Best Scandinavian Crime Novel in 2012.


Tapani Lehtinen, The Healer‘s protagonist, is also a poet, but nothing of his has seen publication recently: the world has more pressing problems. Climate catastrophe has kicked in, and although there is still some semblance of civilisation left within a city such as Helsinki—public transport (unreliable), a police force (after a fashion), commerce (in some districts, stores haven’t yet closed despite the looting)—it’s no secret that Finland’s capital, like pretty much everywhere else, is buckling under the strain, and about to go under. But such existential concerns are of little consequence to Tapani right now, because he has a much more pressing and personal worry: his wife Johanna, a well-regarded journalist with the city’s last newspaper, has gone missing. When Tapani learns that the story on which Johanna was working concerned The Healer, a ruthless serial killer / eco-vigilante responsible for the brutal deaths of several wealthy and powerful residents (and their families), he fears the worst. And when the chief of police expresses the view that his depleted force is unable to devote any manpower to investigating Johanna’s disappearance, Tapani realises that it’s going to fall to him to track down his wife and her murderous captor. But is Johanna as innocent as he has supposed? There are, it appears, some unpleasant truths to be uncovered.

The Healer is a comparatively short novel—I’d estimate no more than about sixty thousand words—and it tells its tale with a plain economy; with, I should say, a noirish and sparse elegance. Any book which includes within its first substantial section of dialogue the sentence ‘He looked at me again, from someplace far away where clueless idiots like me aren’t aloud to go’ not only has an engaging narrator, but also a refreshing mordancy about it. And within its slight frame it manages to combine the personae of an understated work of near-future SF, a dystopian crime story, an intelligent and evenhanded piece of commentary on the predicament in which we might soon find ourselves, and a literary novel dealing with the themes of love, loss, and despair. It’s a quite beautiful piece of work, with several memorable and complicated characters, a pervasive and precarious grittiness, and an abundance of deftly-applied tension. I’m not usually drawn to dystopias, but this one had me in its thrall.

Book review: ‘vN’, by Madeline Ashby

30 06 2016

Madeline Ashby is a US-born Canadian writer whose urge to write stems from a meeting with Ursula K Le Guin in a book company basement. vN, her first novel, was published in 2012 by Angry Robot. (It is, as should become apparent, a singularly appropriately named publisher for such a work.)


Amy Peterson’s parents, Jack and Charlotte, are keen that she have the most normal, the most well-rounded upbringing possible—for a given value of ‘normal’. To this end, they’ve enrolled her in a preschool for gifted children, and they’ve been conscientiously starving her so she doesn’t grow up too rapidly, nor iterate too soon. But Jack isn’t Amy’s biological father, nor is Charlotte a biological mother. Amy and Charlotte are von Neumann machines (vN), creatures of titanium, silicon skin, graphene coral, and carbon aerogel. They eat, think, and feel, much as organic humans do, but the food they eat is distinct from human food (aluminium pancakes, anyone?) and their thoughts and feelings do not follow precisely the same tracks as the humans in whose image they have been created. Nonetheless, Amy’s childhood is happy, and unexceptional, right up until that incident in her kindergarten graduation where she eats her grandmother, Portia. That last phrase, I suspect, requires some backgrounding: Portia is also vN, has just killed one of Amy’s human classmates, and is assaulting Charlotte, so Amy’s sudden ancestivorism is comprehensible as an act of defence, if not entirely orthodox. Also comprehensible, as a consequence of this turn of events, is the development that Amy finds herself a fugitive … for the murderous code by which her grandmother was programmed, indeed her grandmother’s entire personality, is now incorporated within Amy’s own memory banks. If Amy is to come to terms with her heritage, she must find out more about her past, and her mother’s upbringing—which will not be easy when everyone suddenly wants her dead.

This is, to the best of my knowledge, the third book I’ve read which has explored the particular notion of the female android (the other two are the excellent and poignant Virtual Girl by Amy Thompson, who might, just possibly, be some kind of nominative godparent to Amy Peterson, and Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross). It shares with those two books (and, I don’t doubt, others which I haven’t directly encountered) an exploration, on some level, of the motivations for humans to develop anatomically correct automated replicas of human beings, but there’s a somewhat greater depth to its exploration of the human/android dynamic than either of those books: here there are both many humans and many androids, so the Venn diagram looks different. There’s also a commendable subtlety to the android/android interactions, particularly between Amy, her travelling companion and survivalist mentor Javier, and Javier’s latest iteration (offspring) Junior. While I don’t completely buy all of the implications of Ashby’s extrapolations in this direction, the portrayal is nonetheless convincing.

The strengths of vN are in its characterisation—Amy, her parents, Portia, and Javier all emerge as real people, for all that only one of the five is genuinely flesh and blood—and its attention to detail: Amy’s home environment is carefully drawn, the history of vN development is revealed bit by bit, and the responses of vNs to hunger are logically consistent: for example, to conserve precious processing power, vision is downgraded to greyscale. And, while the book makes no direct nod towards Asimov’s Law of Robotics, it does include repeated reference to the ‘failsafe’ features which are designed to ensure that vNs go into an inactive mode (‘bluescreen’) rather than commit any actions which will bring organic humans into danger. (Clearly, Portia’s failsafe mode was no longer functional during the kindergarten prizegiving incident, which means Amy’s may not be either: thus she’s seen as a menace to society.)

I did feel, at times, that the violent content within vN was too much, or perhaps too messy, for my own tastes: this is not the stylised, carefully-choreographed violence of, say, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, but something more distressingly chaotic. (Portia, it seems, is neither merciful nor squeamish. I think I generally prefer my SF to be less dark than this …) I would also say that some of the fight scenes didn’t fully convince, in part because of a descriptive looseness to some complicated scenes and in part because Ashby displays a tendency to allow Amy’s parasitic Portia persona to go all ‘evil Mary Sue’ over overwhelming opponents: for this reason, and a couple of others, there’s a shade of unearned ‘specialness’ in the characterisation of Amy which stretches credulity in places.

Is vN hard SF? I would judge that it is, because it seeks to justify its roboticism (androidicism?) with materials science which, on first brush, appears reasonable (though I feel, for example, that its appropriation of graphene as a construction material smacks more of molecular zeitgeist populism than of any directly applicable structural relevance, in much the same way fullerenes were injudiciously bandied around in the SF of two decades earlier). And its exploration of android consciousness, and of the interactions of androids with other beings, is detailed, thoughtful, and predominantly logical. But it’s a rather postmodern flavour, I think, of hard SF, that obeys the letter of the hard SF envelope while in some respects flouting its spirit (whereas Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, for example, adheres more faithfully to the spirit even while transgressing the letter in certain measures). Still, what are failsafes for, but to be broken?

(This is the sixth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF, and appears after much too long a lag after the fifth review. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here. If you’d like to suggest further books which would fit the criteria — female writer, hard SF, novel / novella / collection of short fiction — please leave a comment. I have several more books lined up for review at this date; I’d like to reach 20 reviews in the series (to provide a Roman-numeral justification for the ‘XX’ alongside the chromosomal reference), though that will almost certainly take until at least sometime next year, quite possibly longer. Ideally, also, I would want to review only one book by each author, so I’d be particularly grateful to anyone uncovering ‘new’ authors for me to review. And please note the requirement for ‘hard’ SF: I’m looking for work which pays serious attention to scientific principles, rather than examples of ‘space opera’ and other subgenres of SF.)

Book review(s): another two Swedish murder mysteries

28 06 2016

This shows disconcerting signs of becoming a habit. But no matter …

I could, I suppose, establish the parallels between the two books under review here, much as I did for Lifetime and The Savage Altar last time around. But aside from a mutilated female victim, a not-exactly-by-the-book police investigation of the crime, a multiple-protagonist narrative and a solidly Swedish setting, there’s not a lot in common between these two books. No offhand Moomin references in these ones, either (although a reclusive, internationally-known retired children’s writer—that’s a retired writer for children, not a writer for retired children—does feature as a significant supporting character in The Disappeared).


The Ice Princess is the first novel by Camilla Läckberg (Isprinsessan, 2004, translated by Stephen T Murray), and introduces the crime-solving duo of Erica Falck, writer, and Patrik Hedstrom, detective, a pairing that has since been reprised in several subsequent books by Läckberg. The action in The Ice Princess is largely set in the western Swedish coastal fishing-village-turned-tourist-destination of Fjällbacka, and opens with the discovery of the body of Erica’s former close friend Alexandra Wijkner, a well-connected art gallery director, in a tub of frozen, blood-infused bathwater in the house Wijkner had been using as a weekend retreat. Alex’s wrists had been slashed, but there’s no suicide note; and if no-one knows of a reason why Alex should have taken her own life, nor are there any apparent motives for murder … until Erica starts looking closely into Alex’s past, and its interrelationship with her own.

This is a busy novel, full of clearly-delineated characters, many of whom get a guernsey as occasional ‘viewpoint characters’ within the narrative, though Falck and Hedstrom are the chief protagonists. It’s also a novel which is in no hurry to concentrate on the crime: there’s a lot of backstory, a lot of inner life, a lot of character exploration, all of which adds useful depth and promotes our investment in the protags. In particular, Erica’s frustration with her sister Anna’s ongoing subservience to a domineering husband (who has ambitions to force the sale of Erica’s and Anna’s deceased parents’ house, largely for his own monetary gain) is a useful additional facet to a finely-chiselled story. Läckberg does a nice line in blending the engagingly mundane with the grotesque, and only occasionally slips into the territory of two-dimensionality (most notably, I felt, with her uncharacteristically blunt portrayal of Patrik’s bumbling, self-important boss). The motive which ultimately emerges from the frozen bathwater is appropriately unsettling and logically coherent, and Erica and Patrik are a combination worth exploring further.


Kristina Ohlsson‘s The Disappeared (Änglavakter, 2001, translated by Marlaine Delargy; the Swedish title translates to ‘Guardian Angels’) is the third in Ohlsson’s ‘Fredrika Bergman’ series, in which the protagonist is an investigative analyst working with the Stockholm police. It opens, naturally enough, with the discovery of a body—or of most of a body; for, whoever the young woman was, the absence of her head and hands preclude rapid identification. It transpires soon enough, though, that the body which has for two years awaited its exhumation from a stand of trees on the outskirts of the Stockholm suburb of Midsommarkransen is that of Rebecca Trolle, a student at Uppsala whose disappearance has been the subject of a continuing investigation led by Fredrika’s police supervisor Alex Recht. The discovery of Rebecca’s body breathes—I hope you will pardon the expression—new life into the investigation, and Fredrika, keen to return to work after parental leave, is brought onto the team; but after two years the police are still unable to determine any motive for Trolle’s brutal slaying, and when, finally, the clues do start to emerge, they point in a direction which places Bergman in a highly conflicted predicament. Who can she trust?

Of the four Swedish crime novels I’ve read over the past two months, The Disappeared is the most solidly identifiable as a ‘police procedural’, principally because its main viewpoint characters—Bergman, Recht, and their colleague Peder Rydh—are all involved with the police investigation. Perhaps because of this, it has a flavour of methodicality, and sometimes seems to repeat itself, as an item of information is first revealed to one team member, and then to another. Nonetheless, it’s impressively detailed (as dead end after dead end is explored and rejected, while Bergman’s home life is thrown into turmoil), and the human elements in its various story arcs are sympathetically and effectively rendered. And the murders—for it soon becomes apparent that Trolle’s is not the only body among the Midsommarkransen trees—are satisfyingly opaque, if ultimately comprehensible.

Supermarionationing Again

26 06 2016

I got involved, a year or so back, as one of thousands of backers for a crowdfunded project to recreate, in such faithful detail as to be indistinguishable from the original, an iconic 1960s TV show: Thunderbirds. Puppets, strings, elaborate miniatures, explosions, stunt human hands, all carefully replicated. And for the audio (and, therefore, for the storylines): three original Thunderbirds EPs (‘Introducing Thunderbirds’, ‘The Abominable Snowman’, and ‘The Stately Homes Robberies’) which used all the appropriate voice actors but which had never previously featured as content on the TV show itself. This combination of original audio and an all-puppet cast ensured that, provided due diligence was taken, the episodes could perfectly match the original show, five decades on—something that would plainly not be possible for any show involving live actors.


So far as I know, the three episodes resulting from the ‘Thunderbirds 1965‘ project aren’t yet available for general release; I hope this changes soon. I can report that Stephen La Rivière and his crew (including 1960s veterans of the original production team, director David Elliott and puppeteer Mary Turner) have done a sterling job in reproducing a rather niche televisual art form. To give some sense of the flavour of their work, I can point you towards the documentary which was made about the project. It is extraordinarily well done, and beautifully respectful of the original show. If I have a quibble, it is that the storylines of the new episodes are not particularly strong—but that, I think, is a problem of the limitations of the original EPs (which were never intended as actual episodes), and no fault whatsoever of their new adaptation. It’s just wonderful to see those strings being pulled again after fifty years.

It’s tantalising to note, too, that a similar scenario—the existence of original ‘Century 21’ EPs representing audio-only versions of unfilmed TV episodes—provides the material for new episodes of Thunderbirds‘ Supermarionation stablemate Captain Scarlet (four new episodes, or at a stretch, perhaps five) and Stingray (perhaps three episodes, but I’m not sure how many of the EPs represent unfilmed content). There’s also an EP in which Fireball XL5—which was before my time—recreates the Apollo program …

We may not have seen the last of Supermarionation.


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