Trooper Orac's Fantastic Plastic Army--Edited by Neil Faulkner, 134 double-column pages. Basically gen, but one story contains explicit sex and two contain foul language (these are clearly noted in the Table of Contents).
For starters, the cover is a blast. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is my favorite Beatles album, and I recognized immediately that it was the inspiration for the montage Neil has assembled. (Which is not to say I recognized all the individual images. You can test your own recognition quotient by clicking on the picture at the right and having a look.
The zine consists of 11 stories, plus 3 short vignettes and a couple of cartoons from what Neil calls "Aunt Anna's Casebook." Apart from one story featuring telepathic penguins, these constitute the humor in the zine. (Since I prefer the serious stuff, that's not a complaint :).) Apart from the cover and the cartoons, there's very little artwork. (That's not a complaint either, just an observation.) The quality of the writing is consistently high (ranging from competent to outstanding), and the Blake quotient is more than acceptable (he's a major player in 6 of the 11 stories and puts in an appearance in 2 others). So, do I have any complaints at all about this zine? Well, yes...
Blake may be present for much of the action, but (in my opinion), he isn't always in character. In fact, he's sometimes extremely out of character. For example, in "What Might Have Been" by Firerose, which posits that Blake and Avon did know one another during their common tenure on the Aqitar Project. It didn't feel like Blake to me, and while it did feel like Avon, the relationship depicted is difficult to imagine (eg, attending concerts together, dining on gourmet food, etc). Though a hint of homoerotic attraction between them lends credibility to these "quasi-dates", it diminishes the overall credibility of the portrayal. On the other hand, if you like stories that try to flesh out the details of everyday life in the domes, this one gets high grades on that score.
Firerose's other offering, "A Short Ride in a Fast Machine", portrays a chance meeting on a train (several years before The Way Back) between Blake, Avon, Jenna, Vila and Gan. Here, too, the author puts a lot of effort into depicting "life in the domes", the grading system, and so forth, but again only Avon was really recognizable to me, and I was totally confused about Gan, who seemed to have two women in his life, contrary to canon. In fairness, I should add, that it's possible my enjoyment of the story was impaired by my lack of familiarity with the 3 pieces of music selected to "accompany" various parts of it.
The zine contains 3 stories by Morrigan, all of which deal, in whole or part, with the Blake-Avon relationship. The least convincing to me was "The One Shot", a pgp in which Blake puts Avon on trial for attempting to kill him. I didn't buy the verdict, the sentence, the way in which the sentence was carried out or Blake's reaction after it was carried out. (Morrigan clearly envisions a GP Blake who's changed far more radically from the earlier man than I do.)
Fortunately, her take on 2nd season Blake is much closer to my own :). Both "Physics 101", in which the Terra Nostra attempts to take revenge for Blake's destruction of their Shadow crop, and "The Second", in which Blake and Avon get caught up in the local customs of a planet steeped in medieval chivalry, are, for the most part, faithful in characterization and well-plotted. Blake's anguish in the first story when the crime syndicate targets not him personally, but Avon and Jenna, is entirely believable, as is the sense of danger and suspense over whether a solution will be found in time to save them. (There is one awful interior monologue in which Blake frets about the meaning of physical touch while holding an unconscious Avon and worrying that the others will see him and "misunderstand"--but, hey, what's one scene out of 30 pages?)
Marian de Haan has 2 stories: the aforementioned telepathic penguin romp and "A Clever Plan"--a 1st-season story involving several clever plans, one of which goes badly awry, one of which gets thwarted (but that's good because it was a bad plan by a "bad" character :)) and one of which ends nicely for perpetrators Avon and Vila (a trial run, no doubt, for their later escapade in Gambit). Nothing terribly profound in this one, but I daresay it wasn't meant to be, and not everyone shares my appetite for unremittingly profound :).
The remaining story in which Blake puts in a brief appearance (but in which his absent spirit overshadows much of the action and events) is a 3rd-season story by Ika called "With/Out Blake." This is another long piece, extremely well-written and narrated by an original female character: a Space Commander who becomes disillusioned with the Federation while fighting beside rebels in the Intergalactic War. This is the non-gen story in the zine, but it's also the most original and the one which most held my interest (despite an explicit sex scene between the narrator and Tarrant, which I found gratuitous, and a statement that Blake and Avon were lovers, which I found preposterous). Totally believable portrayal of life in an oppressive society, spot-on characterization of, and dialogue between, the 3rd-season crew, an equally well-rendered Servalan (I can believe the portrayal of her as bisexual) and masterful little touches throughout, connecting the story to canonical events, both prior and yet to come.
As for the 3 stories without Blake in them...
"Escape" by Tom Forsyth is a super-technical account of Avon's escape from a Federation prison, whose only redeeming feature for me (the story's, not the prison's :)) is its exploration of his ability to resist torture. (I mean that seriously. One of my pet peeves in fan writing is writers who take the position that nobody can possibly resist torture and that to imagine otherwise is hopelessly naive. Having had contact in real life with people who've been tortured, I can attest that the "sophisticated" position is wrong. Some people do resist. Honest.) Oh, and I'm sure there's a contingent of fans out there who will hungrily devour all those technical details I ran screaming from :).
"Animal Nature" by Andrew Williams is an extension of the episode Animals combining Dayna-centered hurt/comfort with an investigation into just who were those subjects Justin experimented on to create his animals. The story's conclusion is meant to come as a shock but, while chilling, didn't really take me by surprise. (Then again, I was around for a discussion on Lysator some time back that floated the idea in question. If you weren't--or don't remember that discussion--you might well receive the intended jolt full-strength.)
"Twilight" by Ellynne Grant is difficult to describe in any detail without giving away the goods. Suffice it to say, it's a Cally-centered story which posits that she didn't die on Terminal, but was recaptured by the Thaarn. Events of late 3rd and 4th season are then cast in a new and eerie light. Did I believe it? Not really, but I appreciate the imagination that went into crafting it, and if you're a Cally fan or into the Avon-Cally relationship, you'll probably be moved by it.
Bottom Line: I didn't personally find as much to my liking in this zine as in Neil's two previous ones, but good writing makes up for a lot, and the sheer variety of the stories virtually guarantees that few fans who buy it will regret the purchase.
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