Iris: Abroad – JD Burton

Just finished Iris: Abroad and figured I’d do one of my little “reviews”. For those who haven’t seen one of these before, it’s basically me going story by story and just tapping away and spewing some of my random thoughts about each one, and calling it a “review” – which it isn’t…

Anyway, general thoughts. As usual, a very good book. A few of these tales, though, were less successful than in past efforts (in my opinion) but this feels like a natural result of casting a wider net, looking for new talent. While I wish they could all be super-stellar-stunning, that’s probably an unreasonable thing to ask, even of an Obverse Iris collection.

When these stories “go wrong” (and they don’t, really; I’m just stating what I feel to be the strongest negative in the weaker stories, but all of them are quite entertaining in the end, really) it feels like a lack of experience to me. Some of the tales stop abruptly, when the plot has come to an end, without ever feeling quite resolved. The themes in these few stories (I’ll probably comment on which ones these are later) never quite seem developed or fully attended to. Again, rather than a lack of talent it feels like a shortage of experience, and even in these few cases I expect future writing efforts from these authors to lessen this feeling.

On to the main body of my “review” then…

Annabel Regina by George Mann.

We begin the collection with a contribution from the quite successful writer George Mann. So far, my experience of Mann isn’t quite as warm as some others’ has been, but he’s very capable and begins the anthology well.

The plot is thin, and hardly original, but Mann sets the tone well and manages some moderate emotionality to the slight story. When a writer manages to tell a story in such a way that he refuses to explain the background to the narrative style, and yet the idea comes across perfectly plainly, I always feel in good hands. Compare this to something like K. W. Jeter’s “Noir” which delights in throwing its readers into the deep end and watching them struggle to stay afloat, and you’ll see what I mean by the previous statement. (A later story in this particular collection, Riviera Shakedown, is less successful in this.)

Among other notable elements, this story introduces the recurring theme of this book: that of story, of the way that Iris and Panda are often interlopers in someone else’s story. This is merely touched on here (mostly through the narrative framework) but will be brought to the forefront later on.

(Minor note: I’m not sure this qualifies as “Iris abroad”. I know that she and Panda are not where they think they are, but it’s still not a foreign country by any means.)

Chicken Fried Banana Republic by Jonathan Dennis.

Okay, so in large part it’s a not-entirely-original joke at the expense of a not-entirely-beloved American figure of recent importance. But it’s still amusing (love the Pyramids of Mars bit) and apart from the aforementioned Tom-Baker-era gag, the tale doesn’t focus on criticizing the man as you might expect it to do. Instead, it moves on to making with the funny.

While the “alien invasion isn’t what you think it is” plotline isn’t brand new either, it doesn’t follow the more oft-used route this gag tends to take (see Panda on Ice later in this book for the direction I mean). I’ll spare the surprise of the gag (which is a good one) and say instead that I felt the situation was handled rather respectfully (as odd as this may sound). Junior’s responses in particular feel “real” rather then the horrified reactions some other writers might have felt compelled to give him.

Another random note: my faulty memory thought that Dennis had made an error, but a quick check back at the text shows the correct military branch (Air National Guard) rather than the Air Force that I thought he had mistakenly used. One for Jon Dennis’ side there.

The Midnight Washerwomen by Scott Handcock.

France this time, for the setting of a tale that manages genuine horror amidst the usual Irisian silliness.

Utilizing a real Celtic legend, this story plays that old Doctor Who trick of revealing the alien reality behind the legend. Here, Iris must play the mythical Washerwomen’s game to restore her trusty companion’s integrity (physically speaking).

It’s a triumph of tone and humor, rather than story, since there’s not a lot of originality contained here. But that doesn’t matter terribly when the product is as well-founded, well-written, and, um, something else that begins with well, as this one is. (Hey, I told you I can’t write reviews. That’s why this is a “review” instead…)

Oh, Iris’ fur for this story is a bright red “Elmoskine”. Loved that.

The Little Bighorn Casino by Kelly Hale.

Another story based on a real legend; in this case, an American Indian legend.

This story was one of my favorites until it abruptly stopped (see my introduction for my minor complaint about this recurring feature in this book) but that didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the tale (just blunt it somewhat). It’s funny, intriguing and educating (for those of us less schooled in Indian mythology). And well-written too.

As I said, in the end it doesn’t seem to go anywhere (I mean, the plot resolves, but what’s it all about [Alfie]?) but it’s a remarkably good story up until it seems to rush to a conclusion.

How to Play Four-Dimensional Checkers, And Win by Lawrence Conquest.

There’s a reason this story seems to have been a favorite of almost everyone who has read Iris: Abroad. That reason is that it’s bloody brilliant.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not flawless. In particular, near the end the plot seems to decide there’s nowhere left to go and relies on an iris ex vehicula resolution, but it seems childish to complain about that aspect, particularly when it seems to almost be the whole point.

This particularly timey-wimey tale revolves around a revolution in China – but a Panda revolution! Iris and her ursine companion are separated in different time zones, but their paths seem to run on parallel tracks which are a mirror of one another. The meaning behind this all becomes clear later, and it’s consistently intriguing, entertaining, and amusing.

I’m not familiar with Iris’ pre-Doctor Who life I admit, but certainly from her introduction to this fandom in The Scarlet Empress, Iris’ existence has been largely built on fictionality. Her backstory steals shamelessly from that of the Doctor, refusing to admit its own nonsensical thievery, but instead insisting on its contradictory existence, no matter how non-factual it may be. This story, along with a few others in this collection, really draws on this idea of fiction versus reality, and the nature of story. This gives Checkers a lot of its power, and helps it to be certainly one of the best stories in this book.

Panda on Ice by Richard Salter.

This story shows perhaps the strongest signs of being by a new writer. The core concept is an old one, the execution competent without being excellent and the characters not always being consistent.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed it. But it is definitely one of the two weaker stories in the book (along with the subsequent one).

Panda displays an uncharacteristic selflessness which I like but wish was pointed up more. Which is to say, if it seemed like a bigger deal in the narrative that he is suddenly so caring, I would have an easier time with it. As it is, it somehow feels less like a growth of the character than a narrative necessity. But the fault could easily lie with me here, rather than with the author.

The villains here are unfortunately cliched, though the somewhat callous resolution found by Iris and Panda is at least somewhat unexpected. I do enjoy the way our heroes are pulled into this little community by circumstance, and find themselves compelled to help. I just wish there was a little more in this tale to sink my teeth into, is all.

Couch Potatoes by Scott Liddell.

I find this also to be one of the weaker entries in this collection, even though I greatly enjoyed it. It unfortunately suffers from that complaint I mentioned earlier of the abrupt conclusion that fails to resolve any themes. Like the author is uncertain how to pull out the central core of the story from underneath the plot.

But I don’t want to undersell it: this is a highly enjoyable story. I love the non-linear narrative framework, and the device’s instruction manual. The Braveheart speech seems less inspired (and certainly not timely) but works well enough in context. The core idea is amusing and interesting, but I can’t help but feel that Liddell had something to say at the heart of it that he forgot to actually get to, in the end.

The Swiss location isn’t made too much of, but is at least more interesting than the North American locales many of the other authors in this tome went for.

Riviera Shakedown by Simon Bucher-Jones.

I must begin this with a caveat. The method of storytelling employed here is a bit convoluted and difficult at times. This is not enhanced by the fact that the e-book version I read has several errors including punctuation and what I believe to be some missing text. Some of my negative reaction to the storytelling style, therefore, may be down to simple formatting errors which my brain was unable to properly compensate for.

On the other hand, it’s the only segment so affected by these errors, and I really, really didn’t like Art of War. But anyway…

As so often with these types of stories, I wonder just how many references and in-jokes I’m missing out on. Bucher-Jones seems to employ a method I enjoy myself of riddling his story with things that amuse him in their relevance which may or may not mean anything to anyone else. Thus, the 60s setting makes coy references to some of my favorite characters like John Steed, and Number 6, as well as comments that deliberately bring to mind both Bond films and their Austin Powers spoofs, and includes a host of named characters who may or may not owe their origins to some other work. Without recognizing a specific influence, I take each character on their own terms. Though any “character” here isn’t quite that, but a mere cypher performing a cameo. (This is not a complaint, BTW, but a description of a perfectly valid choice by the writer.)

In the end, this story is a confusing welter of randomness (what is with Panda’s oscillating size?), a plethora of what appear to be pop culture references that I just don’t get, and non-linear storytelling that gets in the way rather than enhances.

If this seems like a negative summary, then perhaps it is. But there is nothing inherently wrong with Bucher-Jones’ approach to the storytelling, and if one is in the right mind, and gets what he is alluding to, then I am certain one would enjoy this tale. In that sense, it is superior to several others in this collection, but I was personally unable to enjoy it very much at all.

Iris Wildthyme and the Colonic in Space by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright.

I think of these two writers as the Bob Baker and Dave Martin of Obverse Books. I’m aware that some may see that as an insult, but I always find Bob and Dave’s scripts to be competently handled, full of imagination, fun, and highly satisfying.

Like the Boys From Bristol, Scott and Wright don’t bring much literary merit to their Iris Wildthyme stories. What they do bring is a hell of a lot of fun. And who can deny that wonderful title?

In a Thai spa, Iris and Panda come across a scheme that is turning the populace into grinning zombies. And, as usual, it’s up to Iris and Panda to give the alien baddies a punch up the hooter.

A marvellously fun tale that draws on Doctor Who’s tradition of overturning an alien scheme which is masquerading as a legitimate business, I dare anyone to come away from this not smiling. And it may possibly be implied (and not for the only time this book) that Panda gets his end away…

By the way, I doubt it was entirely intentional, but Iris pulls a similar trick in this story to the method the Doctor uses to survive Skagra’s sphere in Shada.

First Meetings by Stuart Douglas.

Is this the best story in the anthology? Opinions will differ, but for my money this is the one.

Not for the first time, the story contains a mirror to Doctor Who. The character of El Jefe is a clear reference to the First Doctor: a man from a Time Lord-like society (probably, in fact, the Time Lords) with white hair who stole his bigger-on-the-inside timecraft, but who doesn’t know what to do with it now that he has it.

Is El Jefe actually the Doctor? Or does he just mirror the character? El Jefe would appear to have been a background character in an Iris adventure that mirrors The Three Doctors, which would make him most definitely not the Doctor himself. Except…

Here’s where (I feel) it gets clever. Iris was introduced to the Whovian world in The Scarlet Empress. In that story, the Doctor is upset that Iris seems to be stealing his backstory and reinterpreting it for herself, twisting it so the details are fresh but the core story remains the same. First Meetings has El Jefe getting ahold of Iris’ diaries (the ones that earlier – or later? – piss the good Doc off so much) and incorporating those into his timeline, as his adventures. And Iris later meets up with him again, not realizing her own history has been stolen and rewritten, and falls in love with this mysterious adventurer with the exciting history.

Whether El Jefe is actually the Doctor or not is immaterial. In his role here, he is the Doctor, down to Iris’ infatuation with him. Not only does the story cleverly reinterpret the character of the Doctor (or “mirror” the character, if you will) but it ingeniously reverses the concepts behind The Scarlet Empress to make Iris the original and “The Doctor”/”El Jefe” the pretender, the thief.

Besides just being damned clever, this story is poignant and moving, and strangely haunting. Actually, forget “possibly” the best story; this certainly is the best story in the book. So there.

The Best Holiday Ever by Ian Gregory

A remarkably fun tale, this one. Definitely a highlight.

Moving swiftly from Planet of the Apes to a cross between The Mummy and Murder on the Orient Express (inspired by the end of The Big Bang perhaps?) this is a funny and clever story, very well written. The final twist is unsignposted and all the more brilliant for it. (I’m talking about a certain woman’s final description, lending an interesting cast to the previous events.)

As with Colonic in Space, Panda gets the romance here. Though there’s a related continuity error where he’s said here to blush (without having known he was capable of it) while the very next story proclaims this to be a physical impossibility. But let’s allow that one to slide…

As I said, marvellous fun, highly entertaining, very clever, and I bet you don’t guess the identity of the killer…

The Story Eater by Richard Wright.

The other story that seems to (deservedly) get the most attention from reviewers. This is highly ingenious, very poignant, and extremely entertaining.

Out of all the segments in this book, this one touches most on the notion of fictionality, and of story. The one that comes closest to acknowledging Iris and Panda’s non-real status. But it never does cross that line, and all mentions of “story” remain consistent with the reality of the one being told.

Truly, in an anthology format, the stories being told are never those of the protagonists, but of the people they meet along the way. And yet, the best tales manage to be about our heroes as well, at their heart, and so is this. In demonstrating their non-centrality, it is in itself putting them at the center in order to examine this phenomenon.

And just like that, Iris is gone. On to other adventures, other people’s stories. Because she has none of her own – and this fact is at the very core of who Iris, in fact, is.

Hospitality by Paul Magrs

And here, things get different.

Back to Iris’ roots we go, back before there was such a thing as a trans-temporal adventuress in a double-decker bus. Paul Magrs, creator of Iris Wildthyme, tells us a story about a young gay man in a stagnant relationship whose path briefly crosses with celebrated author Iris Wildthyme.

It’s bold, brilliant, and moving, ending with an abrupt and strange feeling of hope. Hard to analyze this story, as it does throw one for a loop, but it is quite extraordinary.

On the other hand, it does not depict Iris as being abroad…

As with any multi-author anthology, a bit haphazard at times (and I wish the least successful stories didn’t wind up in a group together) but ultimately highly satisfying. (Cody Schell’s absence is felt quite keenly, however.)

While it may not be my favorite Iris anthology from Obverse, I do believe it contains several of my favorite Iris stories of them all. Despite some not-quite-hits, this book comes strongly recommended by me.