Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dr Who 2010(a)

Generic criticism; "science fantasy" is a bastard genre that lacks any inherent discipline. If anything is possible, nothing means anything.

Case in point...

Oh, okay, the Christmas Special wasn't that bad. It was done with a certain amount of panache, and it had its moments. It was also interesting as perhaps the first Who Christmas Special that really tried to be about Christmas in some significant way - although I imagine that all the stuff about midwinter festivals may make it a hard sell in Southern Hemisphere markets.

But the structure was all over the shop. The snag with the 21st century Doctor-as-demigod pattern is that it's hard to present him with a truly worrying challenge, and this story got wildly arbitrary in the attempt to get around that. When your magic-wand-sorry-sonic-screwdriver can do anything to any machine, having it not work on some not-very-wizzy-looking contraption is just unconvincing. When your hero's vehicle has towed whole planets around, being unable to rescue one modest-looking spaceship which is crashing very slowly just looks incompetent. And when you're running round history as a plot convenience, having a heroine suffer from a 19th-century-opera terminal disease - one that gives her one day to live but no visible symptoms - is going to look plain goofy to even the eight-year-olds watching. Maybe it is incurable, in all of time and space, but somebody ought to think to try.

Which reminds me, general hint to TV writers; virtually everyone knows how long the programme they're watching will run for. Therefore, having someone announce that your hero has got "just under an hour" to solve a problem at the start of the episode slices suspension of disbelief into tiny bleeding ribbons. See Nick Lowe's The Well-Tempered Plot Device for further discussion.

Also on the matter of time; it's been observed before, by smarter people than me, that Steven Moffat really loves plots that play games with time and causality. Sometimes, this has produced very good stories (starting back with Coupling). But putting him in charge of a series about a guy with a time machine may be too much like putting a child in charge of a sweetshop. Sending the Doctor up and down someone's personal timeline is the kind of time-meddling that Doctor Who has customarily avoided - and allowing people to meet older and younger versions of themselves is usually, canonically, treated as a bad thing. This thing about time is beginning to look like Moffat's hubris.

(Also, I guess having the special effects shark spring forward with jaws agape may just have been a conscious reference to Back to the Future 2, but if so, it was tempting fate. Who FX aren't so good these days that you can afford to remind people of famous lines about crap special effects.)

But regarding science fantasy... The defence of such things, when they're compared to science fiction, is that (like most competent fantasy) they invoke poetic and emotional truths rather than brute rationalism. Well, maybe. But aside from the fact that, when you're deploying the rationalist paraphernalia of science fiction, this is in danger of looking like mawkish tosh, the fact is that you have to make the poetic truths convincing. Chucking in a lot of carol singing and a carriage pulled by a flying shark doesn't cut it.

In other words; Bah, humbug.

(The trailer for next year's episodes after the credits looked moderately amusing, by the way, with no daleks or cybermen even. But I did glimpse a bloody ood. Unless we're going to get a story in which an arch-villain intervenes in their evolutionary history to transform them into the most stupid race in the history of biology, I shall be very cross.)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Expand, Contract (27)

Well, one more thing I worked on has made it out the door in 2010 (in electronic form, anyway); Gatecrashing, for Eclipse Phase, has ten or fifteen thousand words of mine in there somewhere.

The hardcopy version should come later, but right now, the PDF is on DriveThruRPG.com. You can buy the book alone, or the "hack pack" which includes some extra stuff.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Spanish Photos

Just a note - I've finally finished sorting through our photos from last month's trip to Spain and putting the interesting ones up on my Flickr Account.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Orange and the Red

Spain, October 31st-November 5th.

One snag with being a bit averse to overly hot weather - by UK standards - and thus prone to taking holidays in places that are climatically temperate, is that quite a lot of stuff that one really doesn't want to miss in a lifetime is draped around the Mediterranean.So, this year, we decided to try a workaround; taking a short break to points south in a cool month. Pictures are going up a few at a time over at my Flickr pages; consider this to be the supporting notes.

Sunday: We took an afternoon flight out of Heathrow, followed by a couple of buses through Seville, and we eventually tracked down the hotel we'd booked. La Casa del Maestro turned out to be a lovely little nigh-boutique place tucked away down a side street on the slightly scruffy north side of central Seville - but then, as we realised the next morning, everything in central Seville is tucked away down a side street. The major streets are tucked away down side streets. Honestly, I thought that I'd seen medieval street plans before, but then I saw Seville...

This being Spain, we had no difficulty finding a dinner quite late in the evening, albeit a snack-ish - sorry, tapas - sort of dinner, in a little nearby bar-restaurant that the guidebook suggested. And we slept okay despite a local church bell that seems to keep going on the hour and half-hour all night.

Monday: We'd only booked for a day and a bit in Seville, and examination of that guidebook suggested that the Real Alcazar was the number one priority. So we made our way down the maze of twisty little passages, all alike, that counts as a street plan in those parts (people drive in this place? aargh), passed the fancy city hall and the gigantic Gothic cathedral (complete with repurposed minaret as its bell-tower), and joined the short queue...

A few hours later, we staggered out in a state of mild aesthetic overload. I mean, I've heard of the idea of a building as a work of art in its own right - but I'd never actually experienced anything quite like this. Touring he entire palace complex (and attached gardens) is like being on the inside of a giant, exquisite jewel box, a Moorish-Spanish masterpiece of screens and arches and pools and tiles. It's a work of abstract art, mind you, with the Moorish influence ensuring that there was very little representational going on, but utterly breathtaking as an exercise in pure form. This decorative style ensured that moving from the carved or moulded interiors to the palm-filled gardens felt utterly natural, too. The realisation that history was made here - that Columbus and the colonial projects that followed him were sent from these interlocking chambers - was, well, not exactly icing on the cake, because this is one well-iced cake already.

After that, a stroll round the city seemed in order. We basically started in the Jardines de Murillo and struck north, past that cathedral and some other central sights and eventually crossing the River Guadalquivir and getting into the old ceramic-makers' district. (And with all the tiles around this city, it was clear that this was an important district in its time.) Then we headed back southwards, eventually re-crossing the river to pass the old Royal Tobacco Factory (thank you, Merimee and Bizet) and reach the Parque Maria Luisa. We had time for a quick look at the park and the huge Plaza de Espana (left over from the great Exposition of 1929) before dusk began to encroach, and we headed back to the hotel.

Oh, and after steering round a late-night religious procession, complete with band (just to confirm that we were in Spain, I guess), we had dinner in El Rinconcillo, which is supposed to be the oldest restaurant in the city, dating back to 1670. Decent southern Spanish stuff, I'd say. The restaurant apparently sometimes claims to be where tapas was invented, but I'd imagine a lot of Ancient Roman popina-keepers raising an eyebrow about that.

Tuesday: Our train was at 11:50, so we had time for another quick look around Seville, with another look at the exteriors of some buildings we'd missed the day before - then we were off to the railway station.Judging by the two we caught on this trip, Spanish trains are fine, albeit a bit basic and with little in the way of on-board catering, so we spent three hours rolling across an increasingly rugose Mediterranean countryside of olive groves and the odd cactus, and reached Granada by early afternoon. Then we spent rather too long trying to track down our hotel - we really should have downloaded better maps before we set out - before we found ourselves next to a taxi rank, and resorted to just getting into a cab and asking to be taken there. The Hotel Guadalupe proved not to be quite as cool as the Casa del Maestro, being rather more of a stock tourist place - but then, it was significantly cheaper, we got a positively cavernous room, and the place was more or less right outside the entrance to the Alhambra. Not that we were going in there that day; rather, we strolled down and round the hill to look around the Albaicin, Granada's old town. "Picturesque" is the keyword there.

Dinner, in Ruta del Azafran in the Albaicin, should have been good. Traditional southern Spanish dishes with a modern twist, in a stylish restaurant with views of the floodlit walls of the Alhambra. Furthermore, the execution was highly competent. Okay, my Remojón Granadino was maybe in the "try it once for the interest" category - a salad of potatoes, olives, and salt code is fine, if a bit bland here, but adding orange just seems perverse, even if it is "traditional" - but it was no more than the menu promised, and it was by no means unpleasant.

However, at some point during our three-quarter-hour wait for my dessert (a rather nice dark chocolate cake, not too sweet, accompanied by a matching custard that I'm happy to believe was actually Cava zabaglione like the menu said), long after the dessert wine had arrived and been consumed, I began to notice too much about the place. The atonal avant-garde music on the hi-fi, for a start. Then I went to the loos, which were labelled "boys" and "girls" on the door in multiple languages... Yeah, two unisex cubicles, except that the lights in one were gone and nobody was doing anything about it. On the way back to the table, I managed to suppress my invisibility-to-waiters field for long enough to prompt ours, much to his surprise, which is probably why the cake arrived before midnight. When we subsequently got the bill out of a different (but equally black-clad) waiter, it didn't include the dessert, which I chose to take as an apology- but it did include a couple of Euros for the two bread rolls which had arrived at the table automatically, as if free...

I'm prepared to believe that what we had here was a highly competent kitchen being let down by a front-of-house organisation so far up itself that those waiters only see daylight when they yawn. But then, I dunno who cocked up the dessert order (though I know who neglected to say anything to us about it). We only left a token tip, which was probably a mistake; none at all would have felt justified.

Wednesday: There's one reason to come to Granada, really, and our hotel was just yards away from the entrance. The Alhambra has a reputation as another building-as-artistic-masterpiece, and that's fully justfied - but primarily by two specific parts of the hilltop complex. Our timed entrance tickets for the Nasrid Palaces were for late enough in the morning that we had time to stroll through some of the grounds, pass through the Puerta del Vino, and visit the Alcazaba - the medieval castle at the tip of the hilltop complex, with magnificent views over the city and across to the mountains,

And then there was that Palace. Yup, it lives up to the hype. Well, the standard tourist route takes you through some merely impressive rooms first - then it hits you with the Court of the Myrtles, which is one of those justifies-the-trip things. The only snag with our timing was that the Court of the Lions is being massively refurbished, so we found the lions themselves in a side-room, showing off the radical clean-up that they've received, while the Court itself had a lot of scaffolding. (Made me feel like I was back in Cambridge...) Maybe we go back in a few years when they've got that little architectural gem back in full working order; even in its current state, the small forest of slender arches and carved screens still hints at the genius of the thing.

video
Anyway, after a stroll round the apartments where Washington Irving stayed, and the chance to admire the views and all, we wandered out into the merely superb remains of the Partal Palace, before making an indirect way to the other unique architectural masterpiece - the Generalife. (This is in the guidebooks as a separate site, but actually it's all part of the Alhambra deal.) Angela notes that you can't open a book on garden history without finding pictures of this, and it's really not hard to see why. It's kind of an exercise in gratuitously elegant Islamic garden design. With fountains. Twice. With extra beautiful stuff around it.

Having perhaps become a little Alhambra'd out, we headed down the hill again for a quick look round some other historic buildings in the main part of Granada, including the exterior of the cathedral, and the Corral del Carbon, a building that - despite being in current commercial use - is recognisably a medieval, Moorish-era caravanserai. Then we wandered back through the Albaicin and up to the Mirador de San Nicolas, a small square with the best views in the city - across to the Alhambra and down on the city, all with the mountains as a backdrop. It understandably seems to have become an evening hang-out for tourists and students.

Dinner that night was a simpler choice in a little bar-restaurant, including crepes and sherry.

Thursday: First priority this day was to find a shop where we could pick up a new suitcase, one of ours having lost a handle in transit, and then we decided that there was only one thing to do with this last day of sightseeing; we went back into the Alhambra. We aimed to focus on the stuff we'd missed of skimmed the day before, and succeeded, taking in not only the Palacio de Carlos V (a striking Renaissance palace dropped into the middle of the older site, with a great circular court in the centre - something that would be a significant place to visit in most cities, but here ends up looking like a discrepant afterthought), but also the Museum of Fine Arts which it houses, and which is currently hosting an exhibition of Matisse's work (on the reasonable excuse that he once visited the Alhambra and was inspired thereby). Oh, and some other lesser buildings, and more gardens.

And for dinner, we decided to treat ourselves to the restaurant at the Parador de Granada, the very swish hotel within the grounds of the Alhambra. This, I'd recommend; a high-end meal with some local touches. Okay, the amuse-bouche consisting of a tiny segment of Spanish omelette was probably trying too hard, but the chilled almond and garlic soup and the roast kid were great. Angela spoke well of her tuna, too.

Friday: The railway and airline timetables not being too full of options, we had a fairly early start (too early for the hotel's breakfast service - hey, it's Spain, they don't believe in 7am), and spent the morning descending once more into the plains of Andalucia. Then, it was a bus to Seville airport, lunch there, the flight, and a coach from Heathrow through the English rain. Hey ho, home again. At least with weather like that, we didn't regret missing any firework displays.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Recent Reading: PS238: When Worlds Go Splat!

Somebody once pointed out that there's a problem with serial genre fiction - in any medium - which starts out as a lot of interesting images and entertaining episodes, but then goes on. What happens is that the creator feels obliged to give it some structure and a coherent plot, which has to explain all the interesting stuff from the early, incoherent episodes... And it's all downhill from then on. It happened to The X-Files, which started out with a couple of pretty FBI agents running through amusing stock horror plots and encountering weird stuff, then slumped into a tiresome and horribly extended load of drivel about horridly powerful government conspiracies which still failed to do anything about the annoying heroes (punctuated only by silly bursts of religiosity). And it happened to Planetary, which started out as a string of beautifully depicted, inexplicable episodes in which a team of super-non-heroes observed the remnants of a world of twentieth century genre fiction - then slumped into an unconvincing battle between the non-heroes and an evil but not very competent version of the Fantastic Four.

In his own way, Aaron Williams has displayed an above-average gift for handling these difficult transformations. Nodwick started out as a string of gags about an archetypical D&D party and their long-suffering, much-resurrected henchman, then turned into a moderately exciting and oddly surreal fantasy saga, which even ended before it had outstayed its welcome. And PS238 started out as a string of gags about a school for the super-gifted children of a generic superhero universe, but evolved into a genuinely readable comic. The plots actually worked as slightly twisted superhero stories, without losing track of the fact that many of the protagonists were primary-school-age kids, and the jokes remained good. Even some of the characters from the early short gag episodes developed into, well, two-and-a-half-dimensions - notably Zodon. Initially appearing as a flying-wheelchair-bound, would-be-world-conquering scientific genius who, being trapped in the body of a small child, found himself subject to a sophisticated form of parental discipline, Zodon has never exactly been a sympathetic character - he's a selfish megalomaniac intellectual snob, after all - but his frustration at being trapped in a world which he never made, and his sarcastic perceptiveness, must appeal to the long-suffering intellectual snob in us all. Even the non-powered, rather Nodwickian Tyler Marlocke, a poster child for excessive parental expectations, avoided becoming cute, but grew into a genuine child hero without losing too much of his childishness.

The latest PS238 trade paperback, When Worlds Go Splat! - volume VIII, collecting issues 40-45 of the comic - may represent a tricky and unfortunate turning-point, though. This no longer reads as the story of a school for "metaprodigies" and its pupils, but as a story about a rather blandly generic superhero universe, which happens to feature the school when it suits the plot. Much of the focus of this volume is on the origin stories of two of the parents; Atlas, who discovers that his origin is much less like that of Superman than he thought, and Emerald Gauntlet, who discovers that his origin isn't at all like that of Green Lantern, really. This brings their sons to the fore; Ron, who has at least long been a major figure in the series, but whose main feature for a while has been his troubles over his parents' divorce, and Kevin, who's never been much of a character at all. But they don't drive the plot much, and indeed, the most interesting character for much of the book is the recently-introduced Alexandra von Fogg, older sister to Zodon's chief rival, who gets to handle the smart-cynical-adult viewpoint role, while defending her family from the pious criticisms of heroic adults with a certain amount of passion.

Well, we also get more of the likeable 84, whose inferiority complex slowly seems to be coming under control. Unfortunately, there's not a lot more to her, and when much of an episode is taken up with her and Kevin running a dull maze, things really have slumped. And we get some of Tyler - but he's now been equipped with an array of gadgets by his tutor, the Revenant (Batman with the angst taken out and replaced by a little wit), enabling him to fend off Superman-level opponents on occasion, and he's been forced to accept lumps of responsibility, so he's not quite the uncomfortable, battered, sympathetic Tyler of early episodes.

Like I said, this volume makes PS238 look distressingly like an ordinary superhero comic. Even the good new minor characters - the useless Atlas 2.0 and the ludicrous Near Mint - are adults. And the need to have the characters jump into heroic action from time to time leads to some iffy moments, as when a bunch of eight-year-old kids are apparently applauded by the writer for taking on what might be an alien invasion of Earth and might be an embassy from an alien species, while two other young characters who responsibly hold back are dismissed as pathetic and lacking initiative. It's also dangerously symptomatic that the back of this book is taken up with a joke-free series of in-character descriptions of the comic's universe, which hardly seems necessary given how little it differs from the stock Marvel/DC pattern. I think that PS238 needs to go back to school.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Miniature, Epic

... What have we to do
With Kaikobad the Great, or Kaikkosru?
Let Zal and Rustum bluster as they will,
Or Hatim call to supper--heed not you.

Anyone who reads at all around medieval Persian culture or history, and who pays any attention to art credits, must get to recognise the title of the Shahnameh after a little while. In my case, it was my adolescent interest in military history that acted as the key; those flagrantly gorgeous contemporary painted depictions of the arms and armour of noble Asiatic cavalrymen usually had that title attached. It then came back from time to time, and I came to learn what the book signified; it's the Persian national epic poem, the "Book of Kings", composed in the 11th century but based on older myths. Think of a combination of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Matter of Britain and the legends of Hercules, and you'll get the idea. Except that, as this one was immensely popular in much of the Islamic world for several centuries, it frequently appeared in exquisitely illuminated forms.

So when the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge runs an exhibition entitled Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, what they're actually offering is a couple of rooms full of classic Persian and Indian miniature painting (plus a few ceramics and such for variety). It's not a grand or sweeping theme - it's quite tightly focused, really - but it's well worth an hour or two, even at the level of casual and under-informed browsing and contemplation. And, to be fair, the museum's labeling does a fair job of making up for any visitor ignorance.

Not that one gets an especially full feeling for the full plot of the Shahnameh, mind. That's not the point of the exercise, and it seems that certain specific scenes from this lengthy epic were especially favoured by artists (or maybe by the curators of this exhibition). The great hero Rustam, his very superior horse Rakhsh, and his tragic duel with his unrecognised son Sorab, recur frequently, as does the scene of the night of Sorab's conception. (A princess in a castle where Rustam has taken shelter comes to visit him in the night, seeking to bear a hero's son.) Yeah, all the classic stuff - violence, tragedy, sex - and especially the bits where those themes emerge turned up to 11. I'm not sure where the recurrent scene of one hero fishing another out of a deep dark pit fits in with this pattern, though maybe the Freudians could have some fun with it.

The feel is thus quite reminiscent of the Arthurian cycle, at least at that level, but the art styles throughout this exhibition are distinctly eastern, with reams of beautiful calligraphy on pages dusted with gold and embellished with richly coloured inks. This does lead to problems for the show, mind; all these centuries-old books obviously need very careful treatment, so the room lighting is kept respectfully low, so maybe it's hard to catch the full impact of the artistry. The illustrated books and postcards on sale in the gift shop may actually provide a better clue as to the sheer technicolor pizazz of this artistic tradition. Still, there's a lot of rarefied boasting points to be had from seeing all those originals gathered together.

Gone Postal

Going Postal, the third of Sky's adaptations of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels (recently released on DVD), is the first that really seems to work quite right. The first two (Hogfather and The Colour of Magic) had their virtues, but the problem with genre fantasy on screen is that it's hard to avoid it looking silly, in a bad-'80s-Conan-clone sort of way - all those robes and swords and medieval towns are hard to make convincing, and "It's meant to be a joke!" doesn't save things the way it does on the page. With a recent Discworld novel like this one, however, the style of the setting has moved forward through history very significantly, and the production design could go for something much more Victorian than cod-medieval - which looks fine, even cool, without being unduly distracting. This in turn means that, for example, the cast could be as ludicrously good as in the earlier movies, while looking like a bunch of good actors who've been cast for their suitability for the roles, rather than a bunch of famous thesps doing panto. They were clearly able to get their heads around their lines and deliver them with some conviction, rather than seeming to wonder what they were doing here.

The two leads - Richard Coyle as Moist von Lipwig and Claire Foy as Adora Belle Dearheart - weren't the most famous of these people, of course (that would probably be Charles Dance, completely walking it with casual ease as the Patrician), but both managed very well indeed. Special mention, though, has to go to the perfectly chosen Tamsin Greig as Sacharissa Cripslock - a piece of casting that makes me dream of a prequel production of The Truth, just to see Greig playing  Sacharissa as a developing character rather than a cameo/plot device.


Of course, compressing a full novel into three hours of film requires a certain amount of brutal surgery, which was mostly executed quite well here, leaving a film that worked on its own terms - although the psychic power of the undelivered letters ended up seeming less subtle, and the big emotional thrust of the book - Moist's redemption and discovery of his own conscience - certainly became a much cruder process, being largely forced on him by visions inflicted by the letters (rather nicely depicted in the form of black-and-white silent movies, but still). Likewise, Adora Belle seemed slightly softened - she was still a dangerous character, but her hardness was depicted entirely as a reaction to family tragedy; likewise, perhaps inevitably these days, her cigarette addiction was shown as coming from the same source and as something she really needs to discard, rather than being an integral feature of her character which Moist's emerging masochistic side could find attractive. Less crucially, but rather sadly perhaps, there was no room for Anghammarad the Golem, while Moist's visit to Unseen University was gone, its expository role being filled by a visit from Archchancellor Ridcully - giving us the joy of Timothy West in that particular role, but should the Archchancellor show up in the Post Office at the beck and call of a golem?

But that's quibbling - and a really successful screen adaptation of a Discworld novel is too good a thing to deserve excessive quibbles. If Sky are going to continue doing these adaptations once a year, I hope that this one sets a pattern.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Miniature Architecture

Recently, Angela opened up one of our compost bins which hadn't been touched for a while. and discovered this structure...

I think I've seen similar before, but it's still mildly weird. An emergent product of whatever it is that ants do to optimise their nest systems, of course.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Going to see this was in large part an exercise in trying to get the hang of what the kids like these days. I knew in advance that it would really require a working knowledge of things like video games (which I don't have) to get most of the jokes, and I gathered that the whole thing was probably largely about the experience of being young (which I'm not). However, I write and edit roleplaying games material for a living (of sorts), and this is clearly the geek thing of the moment, so I feel a certain obligation to keep up with some of the references.

Plus, I can't help but feel a certain admiration for the work of Edgar Wright, going back to (and still largely focused on) the classic TV Spaced, so I was curious about this movie.

And, yes, it was genuinely entertaining, even if I didn't happen to know exactly which video games involve those particular martial arts movies, or defeated opponents disintegrating into coins, or whatever. (And, okay, no, I haven't read the Scott Pilgrim comics either, mea culpa.) Like Spaced, this film finds the essential, universal comedy in a specific and personal situation - and doesn't bother denying the essential comic gormlessness of the archetypal slacker-geek - so one doesn't need to get every reference to get enough of the jokes. I laughed, I might have cheered a bit, I didn't feel that I'd wasted my time.

The only thing that I would say is that the plot suffered slightly from the standard problem of slacker-romantic-comedies; with a male lead who's a bit of a clueless loser, it's hard to see what the self-assured, assertive love object was supposed to see in him. Admittedly, in this case, said object of desire had her own problems - the standard reading of the plot seems to be that it's really all about helping her to get over her hang-ups and to get rid of the ghosts of her past - but at least those are adult sorts of problem; compared to somebody who'd moved from city to city, learned to at least recognise her own emotional failings, and acquired some kind of proper paying job (making her "kinda hardcore"), Scott Pilgrim is just a child. Compare and contrast, say, Spaced, in which most of the characters have some kind of viable employment while all being at approximately the same level of psychological incompetence.

But, heck, the visual gags and stylistic tics were quite funny (see the aggressive female character who's perforce acquired the ability to generate her own verbal censorship effects) and occasionally clever, as were some of the one-liners (such as their drummer's introductions to Sex Bob Bomb's various performances). And I spotted the Princess Bride reference. If we're going to have stylistically flashy slacker-rom-coms for the video game generations, this will do for a start.

Stockholm Photos

I've finally finished uploading a photo diary of sorts of our holiday in Stockholm last month on Flickr:

I probably ended up posting more pictures than I should have, my selections may be a bit arbitrary or sloppy in places, and I'll leave it to others to judge my editing and post-processing. But it was a good holiday, and Angela and I both photographed some interesting stuff.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Recent Reading: Alexandria

by Lindsey Davis

I've been picking up Lindsey Davis's Falco novels - when the paperbacks appear - since forever, but really just as light reading. Even by those standards, though, this one is a lightweight. Falco and immediate family make their way to Alexandria-in-Egypt, stay with some more distant family, meet some people from the library, and run into a murder mystery, which eventually gets sorted out in a rather discursive fashion. Then they go home again.

The book seems to exist for two reasons; to let Davis unload some research she's done about Roman Alexandria in a moderately entertaining fashion, and to allow her a small joke about detective story forms. The Falco stories started out as time-displaced hard-boiled noir exercises with a reasonable amount of grit, but as the hero has settled down as a family man, and Davis has come ever more fond of her supporting cast, the requisite darkness has rather faded. Here, in fact, we get (a) a body in a library, and (b) a locked room murder mystery. But Davis can't do Christie-esque cosy puzzles particularly well, I'm afraid. The best scenes are actually a couple of set-pieces involving sudden death and night-time chases through the streets, which may not achieve serious levels of tension, but at least manage to be interesting.

I gather that the next in the series involves a return to Rome - and with any luck, we'll get Falco's honest-cop pal Petro back, and maybe a few brutal gangsters and some cynical court politics on the mean streets around the Aventine. Then, I'll feel less like my time-filler is a time-waster.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Recent Reading: Rainbows End

by Vernor Vinge

I picked this up a few months back, but I took a while to finish it, with various interruptions - which may be a sign about how much enthusiasm it didn't inspire in me, but could of course just be a sign of the men-over-45-don't-read-many-novels syndrome.

I was interested in it because I've quite liked some Vinge I've read in the past, and I was curious as to what he would do, as a fairly seriously hard SF writer with an interest in genuine futurology, with a near-future setting. The problem, perhaps, is that what he does is a bit too much like some of his far-future stories. He wants to tell a sprawling multi-stranded tale of wonders, but he tries to cram it into the more constraining bounds of an international espionage tale and a school story.

Yes, both. The plots are also crammed together with a story about an aged Alzheimer's victim who turns out to respond exceptionally well to new medical treatments, and who therefore finds himself more or less restored to youth. The strands are interlocked moderately competently - the restored geriatric is obliged to attend the school in order to learn his way around the brave new world of 2020-ish, allowing for a certain amount of low key touring of the balloon factory, while his family become the key to a multi-layered espionage plot - but there's a sense of excessive coincidence, and some moderately odd behaviour from one or two characters that mostly happens to drive the plot. Vinge plays with some interesting ideas about near-future developments in computer interfaces and large-scale networked decision support, but this leads to some odd, unexamined problems; for example, if a character is engaging in a deeply secret, incredibly illegal and morally dubious long-term project, could he really maintain a large network of online consultant-advisers without worrying whether one or two of them might, you know, work out what they're involved in and blow the whistle in a fit of conscience?

In fact, the human elements are some of the least convincing parts of this story. The central character, the rejuvenated geriatric, comes across as an annoyed hard-science academic's parody of an annoying, self-indulgent artist-intellectual, and is only patchily convincing, either in himself or in his response to his situation. We also get the bizarre situation of a school full of teenagers, plus some elderly people in newly youthful bodies, one of them that self-indulgent, emotionally manipulative poet-intellectual, where nobody even seems to think about sex for almost all of the book. I wasn't look for soft porn or bad comedy, but I was looking for either plausible human behaviour or some explanation why human norms might have changed so radically by this point in the near future. But answer came there none. Libido suppressants in the water supply, maybe.

Vinge's view of the information-saturated future isn't that deep, either. After most of the book has talked about such matters, the climactic scene is largely driven by someone's attempts to extract a physical object from a sealed location - a physical maguffin whose information content is all that matters, really. Also, about half-way through the book, some of the characters discuss whether one of the others might be, well, something which William Gibson established as a bit of a cyberpunk cliche decades ago. The characters dismiss the idea out of hand. It's not giving away much to say that it seemingly turns out to be correct. How this could have come about in the time between now and the novel's present isn't very clear to me, mind, but that's another of Vinge's problems; he wants all these wonderful things to have come into existence in the near future, but his plot needs them to have been around for a fairly long time, so that they can have had consequences. (It also needs a few moderately substantial political shifts, such as India becoming a global power player.)

The novel does have some decent ideas, and one or two characters it's possible to care about, for good or ill, even if a lot of them are a bunch of smug, shallow technocrats. But then, in the end, it shambles to a slightly confused and incomplete conclusion, leaving the fate of some of those characters unclear and with enough semi-loose ends that I wonder if we're supposed to be looking for a sequel. I'm not, though, really; I suspect that Vinge is at his best when he looks into the far rather than the near future. It's a shame; I was hoping that he could write short, snappy books that I could enjoy, as well as his interesting but physical-strain-inducing doorstops, and I hoped that he could do some good near-term futurology. But he's really not as sharp or convincing as, say, Greg Egan, or the better cyberpunks; for all his forward-looking pose, he's an older-generation skiffy writer, and it shows.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Theatre: Twelfth Night

Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, 28/8/2010

(Note to self; you enjoy Cambridge Shakespeare Festival productions, Philip, so you really should get to them earlier in the year. The last night of the last performance looks like brinkmanship. Fortunately, the weather held, this time.)

And it's back to Robinson College gardens for another comedy - more unambiguously comic than last year's, mind. It's still a nice venue for theatre on a nice evening, although this production doesn't seem quite to have got the hang of working with the space - lines were getting lost in the shrubbery, cast members were trying to interact from too far apart. Still, mostly, they were pretty good. Mind you, I've seen some not-very-similar Violas and Sebastians in my time, but these two really were exceptional - about a foot apart in height, and with no other similarities. Hey ho, accept the theatrical convention.

The director's line here seemed to be that Illyria is almost entirely inhabited by foppish loons - not just Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, Duke Orsino is pretty much as bad. This explains why Olivia isn't very interested in him - she's trying to be a sensible person and is still genuinely in mourning, but none of the aristocratic layabouts around her will be sensible - and why she falls so promptly for Viola/Cesario, who acts moderately seriously as well as being quite charismatic. (This Olivia then flips over into a state of girlish lust, abandoning black like a shot now she's got someone she can be cheerful rather than silly with, but then throwing herself very energetically at the object of her affections, which must be nice for Sebastian when she grabs him but doesn't look very consistent.) However, this then leaves a problem of explaining why the smart Viola should fall for the goofy Orsino... I know, she just does, okay? It's a Shakespeare comedy.

And, to be fair, quite funny in this production - notoriously not always the way with Shakespeare comedies, and not just because of Malvolio's character story (marginalised at the end in a faintly embarrassed way here). The Shakespeare Festival continues to make Shakespeare productions that are worth going to see. Must try to get to it more efficiently next year.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Expand, Contract (26)

Well, one of the big-ish Transhuman Space projects has now progressed to the rough layout stage. Looks highly promising.

Edit: As Kromm has now revealed the title in his blog, I can happily confirm that this book is Cities on the Edge, by Anders Sandberg and Waldemar Ingdahl.

And I have a fully signed contract for the big project which I can't really talk about yet, but which may make these sorts of posts relatively infrequent for a while (while making me quite happy).

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Toy Story 3

First, the easy bit. This film is brilliant. Funny, fast-paced, ironical - people have talked about Wall-E or Up being among the major films of their years, but to my mind, this is the big-time computer animation that really has a claim for that sort of standing; notably, when it tries to be moving, it usually does so without being too blatantly manipulative.

However, it also left me glad that I don't have children, because that means that I didn't have to try and explain this film to them. Aside from the fact that the whole thing is about maturity and loss and the prospect of death, there are the three-eyed green blobs with their religious obsessions and eventual apotheosis, or Buzz's Spanish alternate persona and its curious appeal for Jessie. One also imagines generations of children growing up into their first encounters with the prison movie and PoW film genres, and suddenly realising what much of this thing was all about - and that's not just the minor cliches, it's also big-ish things about the corruptions of petty power. The film's direction also repeatedly employs the semantics of the horror genre, with the blank-eyed zombie Big Baby and the culminating plunge towards a hellish pit. And, of course, there's Ken, concerning whom one might choose to explain subtle concepts like metrosexuality and '70s disco fashion to the sprogs, if one wanted to get more complicated than just saying that he's evidently gay. All this is much of the point of the movie, mind, and I think that it's in more danger of befuddling kids than of seriously traumatising them, but it really does feel like a film about a box full of toys, written for a non-child audience - something that may confuse some parents as well as their offspring.

I saw it in 3-D, incidentally, and that proved unintrusive without being at all necessary in this case. Which I guess could be taken as the sign of maturity in the technology, or just money wasted.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sherlock

Sherlock definitely accomplished what it set out to do - to update Sherlock Holmes and his surrounding myth to the 21st century. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman were good enough as Holmes and Watson that I wondered vaguely how they'd do in a period-costume version, although Holmes's nigh-sociopathic callousness was maybe over-emphasised - the original would at least observe the social niceties when interviewing a distressed client, and would sternly declare his opponents to be abominable before diving into the clues. Maybe someone thought that this was just a mask, and a modern Holmes wouldn't bother. Meanwhile, the scriptwriters had enormous fun working stuff from the original stories into the modern-day version, doubtless seeing how much they could include that would make the people who just think they know Holmes accuse them of gross distortion before the people who've actually read the stories jumped in to point out the truth.

But oh dear, it was rushed. I got the feeling that the writers wanted a full multi-week series and pitched a story arc on that assumption - and the BBC said "great, you can give us that in three 90-minute episodes". So in the first episode, we got the Big Meeting and the basic relationships framework, and Holmes heard the name "Moriarty"; in the second, Holmes cracked a case (with the aid of one stonking big coincidence, if you were paying attention) and unbeknown to him, the leader of the villains was collaborating with someone who signed himself "M" and who employed a sniper (doubtless name of Moran), and in the third, Moriarty decided that Holmes was both threat enough and entertaining enough that he gave him an episode's worth of arbitrary puzzles at huge cost to himself and his credibility, then emerged from the shadows to reveal himself to be a bit of a loony, eventually setting up an arbitrary To Be Continued.

Okay, now BBC; it works, okay? That much should have been obvious from the first, but anyway, if you're prepared to believe it now, give Moffat and Gatiss at least a dozen or so episodes to expand into, let them wrap up the Moriarty nonsense with one mighty bound in the first (Moriarty was always a dull and cumbersome element to the original Holmes mythos, after all - making him a big feature of the modern version was a bit lazy), and let's see Cumberbatch and Freeman weave their intellectually sinuous way across modern London the way that Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke made Victorian-Edwardian London look so damn good.

Otherwise, don't bother.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Notes from a Holiday

Angela having a couple of weeks booked off, it was time for a break.

Starting, on the last day of July, with a day at the Cambridge Folk Festival. This was less laden with names I knew in advance than previous years, I must admit, which didn't make it any less fun - and at least the weather was decent, the day we happened to be there. I quite enjoyed Pink Martini - I know that some people wouldn't consider them to be folk, to an even greater extent than a lot of performers who show up at the Festival, but hey, I'm happy to regard 1930s lounge lizards who like doing covers of Ravel's Bolero as my kind of folk - while Kathy Mattea, doing what seemed to my untrained ear like a traditional sort of American folk-country, with a lot of songs about coal mining, was very good at what she did. Anyway, a good day.

The next day (our wedding anniversary) was lunch with friends, and the day after that was packing, because on the Tuesday, we flew out to Stockholm. I'm mostly going to record this in the form of a photo log on Flickr, which is still a work in progress right now, and may take a while to finish (I have a lot of digital images to sort through and tweak), but anyway, for the record, we stayed in the Hotel Rival (strongly recommended, even at the cost of directing yet more cash into the great Abba money maw - and by the way, if the Swedes are so proud of their internationally successful exports, how come I kept seeing references to Abba but none to the Cardigans?), which was located in Sodermalm, Stockholm's Bohemian quarter. By the way, "Bohemian" in Swedish turns out to mean "was poor working-class a few hundred years ago, and now has rather a good selection of nice little restaurants".

Stockholm actually turned out to be a great city for a holiday, if not the cheapest place to eat (and an even more expensive place to drink, thanks to the Swedish government's tax-based attempts to stope the Swedish people from drinking to dull the pain of living in an orderly, prosperous society). The generous supplies of good-quality coffee, sometimes actually free, compensated somewhat for that. The preferred building style often suggested a peculiar fixation on Renaissance Italy - a better model than most, in truth, although the local light wasn't exactly Mediterranean in intensity, which maybe reduced the effect rather - but the city's real advantage is that it's wrapped round and threaded through a lake and bay and archipelago; there was a feeling that the first thing one should do each morning was check which cruise liners were dominating the skyline that day.

Highest points of the holiday included the extraordinarily well-preserved centuries-old ship Vasa in its own museum, ascending the tower of the fortress at Vaxholmen for a beautiful view over the inner archipelago on a summer day, and strolling round the extraordinary outdoor museum and zoo at Skansen. Anyway, a good ten days.

And then it was back home.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Doctor Who 2010

So I've finally got around to watching the last episode of this year's season of Dr Who (definitely no question mark as it seems these days), by which time all the serious fans have already blogged about it, sometimes at extreme length and occasionally with useful insights. So anything I'm going to say is going to feel deeply superfluous.

But since when did that stop a blogger?

One thing that those fans spotted was that this season seems to have been largely about Steven Moffat doing the sort of things that Russell T Davies previously did with the show, but doing them well. Now, while this is vastly preferable to many other things (such as, doing them the way that Russell T Davies was doing them), it wasn't what some of us were at heart hoping for (which was, at minimum, him doing Steven Moffat things well). Still, this approach produced some episodes that I enjoyed well enough... Until the last two.

Though the two episodes in the story in question were annoying in different ways. The first was just padded - okay, so bits of it involved classic Who thrills, but all the stuff with the Romans felt rather desperate, and when you're playing for these stakes, some running around and screaming with one (1) damaged Cyberman feels a bit feeble. It also involved some amazing incidental mental thickness; okay, the Doctor might somehow might be expected not to notice the obvious about his little speech about what was in the Pandorica, but you'd have expected one of the two smart-arse companions present to react with "sounds like you".

The plot felt cobbled-together and implausible, too. Okay, hoping for plausibility in a Who plot is a bit forlorn, but there has to be some kind of break point, some chance that stuff might be explained in such a way to make one go "ah!". The Alliance of Enemies had some credibility problems, too; there's infinite comic potential in trying to imagine their planning meetings ("THIS MEETING IS CALLED TO ORDER!" Later. "We have a cunning plan. He's going to cause the end of the universe because of these crack thingies, so we're going to raid his assistant's brain through one of these cracks, construct a hideously complicated plot to attract his attention, and then capture him." "And then we exterminate him?" "No, we lock him in a box that any idiot with a sonic screwdriver can open." "Can't we exterminate him a little bit?" Later. "What are the Silurians doing here? We thought that he liked you lot." "You mean, apart from giving us a scientific name that puts us in the same genus as those monkeys?" "Yes." "Well, he put us into hibernation, and set the timer so that we woke up in the 31st century - just when he knew damn well that solar flares would be sterilising the solar system...").

The second part, on the other hand, showed the severe difficulties with fairytale-style wild science fantasy, by just not doing it very well. If anything is possible - anything that fairytale magic might bring about, anything that wide-screen baroque space opera might conceive - then the most that you can get on screen is pretty pictures and over-acting. This was all-too-Daviesian NuWho, the Doctor as a demigod who can save the entire universe with a bit of dubious technobabble and some pained claims about self-sacrifice, and the assistant du jour as the mostest important magic girl in all the universe who can restore things which have been wiped from history by wishing hard enough. It just wasn't satisfactory.

This series has also given too damn many hostages to fortune. Another thing that some proper fans noted about the whole series was that Steven Moffat seems to like time travel stories - that is, stories in which stuff happens in the wrong order, cause and effect are chopped up for dramatic or comic effect, and so on. Actually, I think that the time travel is just an excuse, a convenience; Moffat simply has a lot of fun tinkering with causality within narrative structures. My favourite script of his, ever, anywhere, remains episode 1 of season 4 of Coupling, "Nine and a Half Minutes", which is essentially Rashomon as an urban sex comedy. However, Who has usually been a little bit careful about time travel stories, in this strict sense; to this show, time travel is just a way to get our heroes into an infinite variety of places and times, and any suggestions about going back in time to stop bad things have been clubbed down with pronouncements about the Laws of Time or Causal Loops. And there are several good reasons for this caution, given Who's nature as a mass-market TV show; time travel stories tend either to confuse casual viewers by being difficult to follow, or to bug the bejasus out of attentive geek types by being sloppy and illogical. Furthermore; they present huge problems for the long-term design of the show, in the way that excessively powerful technology does; if the Doctor can use time travel to solve one problem, to determine which flat to rent to find the monster of the week, why doesn't he use it every time a problem is serious enough to, say, involve the deaths of a few dozen people? The rule has been broken on occasion, of course - Davies broke it once or twice - but Moffat seems happy to plain ignore it. It'll come back and bite him, I tell you.

Anyway, Steven Moffat is definitely engaged in reinvigorating a classic British popular culture hero for television in the 21st century, and doing a fine job of it from what I've seen so far. Unfortunately for this blog post, the hero is Sherlock Holmes. This jury of one is still out on his work on Who; let's hope that, now that he's worked through the unhappily established conventions of 21st-century Who in his first season, the second will do something really worthwhile. The presence of, for example, an actual married couple on the Tardis (a first, I think) does at least suggest that we might get some proper Moffat foibles instead of the tired old Davies foibles.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Expand, Contract (25)

Transhuman Space: Martial Arts 2100 (or whatever exactly it ends up being called, but me I like that title) is now off to SJGames, my final draft editing being done - so I take a deep breath and look at the as-yet-secret possible project that now seems to be coming together. Oh, and I deal with a little Pyramid article I said I'd write. Just a short one.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Inception

"His subconscious has been militarised!"

Indeed.

The genius of this film is its solution to a deep-seated Hollywood problem; how to reconcile the Therapy Model of Plot (the idea that the only real point of the stuff that happens to a protagonist in a movie must be to solve some deep-seated emotional problem) with the demands of the action genre (which doesn't leave time for that nonsense if it's being done right). Past solutions have involved carefully paced talky intermissions between the explosions, kids needing rescuing, villains who represent (or just plain are) The Father, and so on. Inception skips all that in favour of something much more literal; it sets out to explore the subconscious - somebody's subconscious, anyone's subconscious - and promptly discovers that it's made up entirely of gunfights, explosions, car chases, and at the deepest level, a rather nifty, slightly grimy post-Bondian alpine villain base, complete with skiing guards.

And it does it gorgeously. Christopher Nolan lives up to the old Welles line about a movie set being the best train set any boy could have, and adds on the best computer game level designer kit that boy might want today. One tip; go see this movie on a reasonably large screen with a proper sound system - I doubt that it'll be anything like the same without wall-to-wall visuals and a seismic bass undertone. Admittedly, nothing later in the movie quite lives up to the early, fabulous poster-moment when Paris folds back on itself like so much well-designed cardboard packaging, although a late, bleakly exquisite landscape of abandoned mega-skyscrapers tries hard. But as his Batman movies showed, Nolan loves his cityscapes with an infectious passion, and can shoot a decent action sequence too; given the chance to combine the two, he's in his element.

Here, he shifts the scene to Mombasa for a while for no real reason other than that it lets him do a street chase scene with a new aesthetic edge (okay, maybe owing something to Casino Royale).That's during the early part, when the movie is still running through a highly traditional "assembling the team" phase, which reminds me; the movie also shows Nolan's knack for casting. The leads all do their best with often slightly thin characters, even Ellen Page, who spends the first third of her screen time being on the receiving end of some mandatory exposition, and the rest being the empathetic girl genius, manages to make something of her part. However, the plot is all about Leonardo DiCaprio's character, who's a damaged soul... This isn't a character movie.

What it is, is the action movie re-imagined as a Chinese philosophical parable, Freud with big guns in a cyberpunk world. The soul of the thing may be a little flimsy to justify the scale of the structure built to support it, but that's Hollywood movie dreams for you - and it is a big-budget SF movie with the sort of serious ambitions we've mostly come to associate with smaller-budget SF movies in recent years. The two-and-a-bit hours certainly went by for me in a glow of admiration.

Monday, July 19, 2010

High and Low

Hmm, no, I don't seem to have been saying much here lately. I've been a bit busy. There's a couple of things I will just make a note of, though.

For one, on the 28th of June, we got to the British Museum for the "Fra Angelico to Leonardo" Italian Renaissance Drawings exhibition. (Well, there was a lot of stuff you'd otherwise have to get to the Uffizi in Florence to see.) This turned out to be a very technical sort of exhibition - there were explanations of the various techniques used, samples of paper and parchment one could actually touch, and comparisons of some of the drawings that were actually preparatory works for paintings with images of the finished paintings themselves. And for the first stretch, it maybe felt a bit too technical; the drawings from the early years of the Renaissance weren't bad, but they weren't exciting either, and were often formalistic copies of standard designs. And I'm still no fan of late medieval art, with all its stiff religiosity, even though looking at drawings rather than paintings saves one from the usual surfeit of gold halos.

But then, well, the exhibition kind of proved that art evolved for the better in the Renaissance, and after the path through had hit the Leonardos around the mid-point, well, I was sucked in. Stunning stuff, some of this, and all of it certainly never less than technically interesting.

And on 11th of July, we got to see Shrek Forever After at the Cambridge Arts. We previously saw the first couple of Shrek films, but we missed the third, so this was a fairly casual interest, but we enjoyed the movie; it had the usual density of reference to both fairy-tales and other sources (amazingly for an American series, the Shrek movies hadn't thrown in anything from the Wizard of Oz until this final episode, so far as I recall), the usual grossly over-qualified cast (I missed noticing the presence of the wonderful Jane Lynch until the final credits), and the usual torrent of good jokes. The 3-D, while effective enough, was pretty much an irrelevance here - a few hurtling broomstick-mounted witches are nothing compared to, say, Monsters vs. Aliens' games with scale - and the movie as a whole was nothing like as sophisticated as, say, The Incredibles. Whereas in that movie, the hero is aware from the first of the ambiguities in his discontent with family life, and the solution to the problem is a complex process which requires adaption by all the parties involved, Shrek is just an understandably put-upon-feeling husband, father, and citizen, who gets a chance to see what the bachelor life would be like, enjoys it for a short while, and then gets hit over the head with the Hollywood presumption in favour of domesticity. It's an unearned moral, mere moralising.

One shouldn't think too hard about the alternate history plot structuring, either. Technically, it creates a whole universe full of people with their own lives and troubles and hard-won triumphs, and then obliterates them with a kiss, in a casual act of cosmic genocide. Although it was the even more casual death of the Gingerbread Man that might actually worry more viewers. Also, I was probably too taken with Rumpelstiltskin's palace - a gilded Versailles-for-dark-lords - and his wigs - all wiped out by the plot's tide of narrative Tipex. Still, yeah, don't think too hard and it's certainly huge amounts of fun.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Expand, Contract (24)

And yeah! The finished edit of Transhuman Mysteries is off to e23. I don't know when exactly it'll appear, but it's off my hands now. Good book, by the way.

So it's back to a couple of my own writing projects now...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Expand, Contract (23)

Oh yeah - Transhuman Mysteries is now in editing.

Other stuff (that I may have mentioned in the past) is waiting on various necessary administrative things. Further updates will probably be posted when those bottlenecks are cleared (and not before). There are also some possible major projects coming into view; if they come together, they'll take much of my time for months, and I won't be able to say anything about them for a while. So don't worry if these posts turn infrequent.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Concert: Blondie

Cambridge Corn Exchange, 11th June 2010.


I was at university from 1978 to '81, so Blondie are naturally an important part of my past. However, I never did get to see them back then, so the discovery that they were going to be playing Cambridge (I think for the first time ever, although I may have missed something in the last few years) was an opportunity to fill that gap in my life.


The evening began in appropriate '70s style; first, everyone had to queue up outside until the doors opened at the concert's advertised start time, and then the support band (Little Fish) turned out to be a three-piece (guitar/vocals, drummer, keyboards) with a female singer-guitarist playing jagged, slightly punky little songs; they weren't bad, but I found I was old-fashioned enough to wonder if they'd be better with a bass player to round out the sound.


Anyway, one interval later, Blondie hit the stage, starting with the inevitable assorted thin, slightly anonymous male musicians and then - Debbie Harry, wearing a platinum wig, shades, a black dress with a conical layered knee-length skirt, and Doc Martens. In other words, she looked a bit like some kind of crazy cat lady, if your neighbourhood crazy cat lady was a living goddess of power pop - complete with the voice we all remember, that coolly amused New York drawl. Actually, the voice may not be quite the subtle power tool it once was; during "Atomic", the crucial repetition of the title was first spoken, then handed over to the audience, then replaced with an apocalyptic guitar solo. Still, there was no doubt who this was.

The set actually turned out to contain a fair amount of new material - the band have a new album coming soon (and the new material sounded very Blondie) - which is great; this isn't just a self-tribute act, although many of the classics were in there too, to varying effect; this was a rock band with decent keyboards, not a synthesizer band, so "Maria" and "Call Me" were fine, while "Heart of Glass" was, well, rockier than the studio version. I never did catch who the line-ups lead guitarist was (Chris Stein, the long-time mainstay of the band, seemed to be leaving a lot of the lead work to this other guy), but he was a little bit prone to axeman exhibitionism. But that wasn't the point, was it? The audience of forty- and fifty-somethings (and some of their kids) were there to see the cool, streetwise blonde who was there before any of your Madonnas or Gagas. And we got what we came for.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Recent Reading: Recklessly Yours

by John Allison

Well, I suppose that this isn't technically very recent reading, given that I first read these strips at the time that they appeared in Scary Go Round. And a lot of what it requires isn't reading so much as looking, Scary Go Round being a comic strip and all. But anyway, the book collection appeared recently, enabling one to re-read the contents more briskly than one page per day - which does, all else aside, sometimes enable one to follow the details of what passes for a "plot" a little more effectively. For example, I now understand why Desmond Fish-Man attempted to recite an obscene limerick at the climax of the Jeremy Kyle Show. You can't put a price on that sort of understanding.

Furthermore, these collected strips are accompanied by brief notes from the author, John Allison, which together help explain why they turned out to represent the final year of the strip. Allison comments that he started the period in a positive frame of mind, but the narratives show that his mood - always crucial to his quirky brilliance - was changing from very early on, and it shifted radically even towards the very end.

There are five "stories" (often a rather loose concept in John Allison world) in this book, and the first two, "Carrot vs. Stick" and "Extra Income", show Allison's tastes in subject-matter moving towards the low-key tales and younger characters that have turned out to characterise Scary Go Round's successor strip, Bad Machinery. The first, a school story about the stress of growing up and the difficulties of maturity, substantially expands the role given to such previously minor characters as Carrot Scruggs and Sarah Grote. The second starts out with The Boy, for some time an interesting viewpoint character, seeking a part-time job and becoming entangled with sleazy businessman Hamilton Percy, but Allison evidently got bored with that idea, and shifts the focus to an unexpected romance between Sarah and Ryan Beckwith, which in turn leads to a brief outburst of drunken idiocy from Carrot - and the story ends.

"The Estate", on the other hand, sees Allison developing an almost social-realist interest in the actual community of the characters' home town of Tackleford, and making some vaguely thoughtful comments on its underclass - albeit with a plot centered on the moronic and obnoxious Desmond. While this is all a long way from the sort of story that made Scary Go Round popular, it's often very very funny indeed. The story also introduces Charlotte Grote and Shauna Wickle, two child characters for whom Allison evidently developed an affection, as they would become central to Bad Machinery.

Then, Allison made one last attempt at the kind of wide-screen-rococo, junk-movie-tribute tale that web comic fans like his so often love, and which he'd often started well and then ended rather abruptly as he ran out of the necessary bubbling energy. Actually, "Looking for Atlantis" is pretty good of its kind. Starting with a completely futile attempt to discover Desmond's origins, it brings in a dubious ex-Nazi researcher who takes Desmond, plus central characters Shelley and Amy to, yes, lost Atlantis. There, Shelley's idealistic optimism (plus some general human stupidity) causes chaos and destruction, despite Amy's desperate attempts to balance it with cynical realism. Allison claims that this story showed him that the plan he'd been developing, to replace Scary Go Round with a strip about Shelley's adventures as a time traveller, wasn't going to fly because he just couldn't face writing about Shelley's sunny sociopathy - although it appears that he kept the idea going until quite near the big break point.

Which comes, not surprisingly, at the end of "Goodbye". This brings back The Child, previously a quasi-supernatural agent of chaos, but here redrawn as a more mundanely manipulative brat, whose previously shadowy and Rasputin-like father-figure turns out to be a Michael Jackson doppelganger. Allison's notes say that this story was massively revised in the wake of Jackson's death and the ensuing public hagiographising, but it's hard not to see this as more of an excuse, because the original plot outline which he discusses here (with rough sketches) looks out of kilter with his shifting mood - and also uncharacteristically bitter as well as dark. Personally, I'm glad that he didn't use that plot, although this may be sentimental of me. Admittedly, he was planning to end things with a story involving a high school prom (not very traditional-British, that, though) and both Shelley and Esther going into action in Tim Jones/Matsushita Corporation battlesuits ("It's the Matsushita Gothnaut 1 - it can only be driven by someone Very Dark") - but he was also going to kill off a number of major characters, for one or two of whom I felt considerable affection. Instead, we get a lower-key precursor of the gentler wit of Bad Machinery, entangled with some life changes for other characters, with shifts and closures that almost verge on the moving. Mind you, the hopeless Carrot gets to suffer to the very end.

After this, Bad Machinery started slowly, and while I've stuck with it, I wasn't too surprised to hear that it had some trouble keeping the old strip's audience. It's a new angle on Allison's odd, sweet, dangerous, skewed world (which I haven't even attempted to describe in this review, because, well, you have to get to know it for yourself), suggesting a maturity which Allison shows largely through the eyes of child characters - although Amy and Ryan, once among Allison's least responsible adult characters, have survived and attained their own peculiar form of maturation. Hopefully, there'll be printed collections of that strip, too, documenting that rebirth into adulthood as this one documents the end of one era for one eccentrically brilliant writer.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Going West (Temporarily) - Sun, Sand, Fossils, Food...

Note: some photos relevant to the following are up on my Flickr stream.

It must be about forty years since I last visited Lyme Regis, and Angela had never been there - and in those forty years, the place has gained a twist of enhanced fame thanks to John Fowles (assisted by Meryl Streep) and Jane Austen (assisted by the BBC drama department). So when we wanted to take a long weekend away, we decided that we ought to head down there and see how many flashbacks I might suffer.

But first we had to get there, and the drive down involved a stop for lunch. Fortuitously, Angela looked at the map and realised that a service area on the way, at Popham, happened to be the location we'd seen on TV when Heston Blumenthal attempted to kick-start the Little Chef chain towards higher quality in front of the cameras. It's not often we structure our itinerary around a Little Chef... Fortunately, Blumenthal's efforts at this place turned out still to be working. I don't think that I'd ever tried ox cheeks before, but the dish I ordered had the texture (literally) of a fine piece of slow cooking. Everything else there was competent at the very least, and often very good. I don't know if the chain have tried or are trying to extend this approach to other branches, but if they managed it, they could in theory accomplish a mind-boggling improvement in image.

Anyway, yes, we did eventually reach Lyme, checked into the hotel, and went out for a walk. And yes, bits of it trawled memories up from the depths of my brain - not often too bizarrely, although I'm pretty sure that a shop called "The Toby Jug" was there in the '60s, with the same sign, and the aquarium out on the Cobb definitely was. Mostly, though, and I suppose predictably, it was the smell of the seaweed cast up by the tide that felt so familiar, along with the beaches full of soft grey tide-smoothed pebbles.

Lyme itself is attractive enough, and the paeleontogical importance and the Jane Austen connection give it ways to draw in tourists. It doesn't half cash in on those options sometimes, though, especially the fossils - there's ammonite imagery everywhere, and multiple shops selling the things, (with stock drawn from all over the world if you look closely - the beaches near the town have been picked clean, absent any recent landslips). The town museum holds maybe more historical stuff - a dense clutter of local history, in fact - and that was where I discovered that Charmouth, the village along the coast where my family used to stay, was where Harriette Wilson stayed while working on her memoirs. That's rarely mentioned. Personally, I think that the tourist trade ought to make more of it.

Oh, and the seafood is good. By Sunday, though, we were ready to head further afield. We paused briefly at Charmouth, but my memories notwithstanding, I didn't see enough there to justify spending time and parking charges. In fact, we'd decided to take a look at the Royal Signals Museum, over at Blandford - which is a pretty good museum, especially if you can enjoy a fair-sized collection of vintage motorcycles and other vehicles, though there's plenty on military signals generally if you're enough of a tech-geek. Heading back from there, we took in quick looks at the Cerne Abbas Giant and Dorchester, and then stopped off at Maiden Castle nearby - another location I remembered from childhood holidays; a great wind-swept sheep-field surrounded by earthworks, the biggest Iron Age fortification in the UK. It's impossible to capture the scale of the place in a ground-level photo, but it was worth a stroll.

Anyway, we got back to Lyme in good time for the booking we'd made to treat ourselves at the Hix Oyster and Fish House. This is, well, a very good restaurant, and a part of what makes it is actually the location, overlooking the bay and the coast through floor-to-ceiling windows; eating while the marine horizon fades to darkness is definitely an experience. The cooking was good, too, if quite militantly rustic-local; my nettle soup was, I think, rendered pleasingly oleaginous by the snails, while Angela vouched for her deep-friend sand eels... My main course of hake seemed a bit salty, and the service seemed relaxed to the point of being off-hand at first, but overall, the treat was a treat. One local ingredient that was definitely used well was Somerset cider brandy, incidentally, especially in the "shipwreck tart" that I hit for dessert - a Hix creation of pastry and nuts where the warming glow of the brandy provided a definite twist on the standard walnut/pecan pie formula.

We headed home the next day - but by the scenic routine, taking in a few more sights, starting with Abbotsbury Swannery (a tourist attraction that knows what will attract tourists; the roads for miles around were dotted with signs saying "Baby Swans"), and then going onto Bennets Water Gardens (very pleasant to stroll around in the hot weather), and lastly reaching Portland Bill. This last was one more location I remembered from childhood; I think that it was the first lighthouse I ever visited. What I didn't remember was how windswept, almost bleak, it was; it's the last low slope of a lump of rock projecting south into the Channel, and was probably always pretty austere, but by the looks of things, the Victorians turned into into a quarry for Portland stone, and it's never quite recovered. Still, on a hot day, it has a sort of blasted charm - and the lighthouse looked much as I remembered.

Anyhow, we made it home. And I didn't suffer any catastrophic flashbacks.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Concert: Ray Davies

Cambridge Corn Exchange, 13th May 2010.

If I'd wanted to give this post a smart-arse title, I'd have been spoiled for choice, wouldn't I? "Well-Respected Man", "You Really Got Me", "Not Like Everybody Else", "Loud, But Never Square"...

Or, to put it another way - well, it's not too hard to see some of the surviving legends of Ray Davies's form and era - from the far side of a stadium, at considerable expense. But in a venue the size of the Corn Exchange, for local-venue prices? That wouldn't really have been sensible to miss.

Of course, Ray Davies was one of the lesser Big Names of his era, being the most quintessentially British of the British Invaders. But I'll put him up there with any of them, for influence as well as talent. I don't really like "If no A, then no B, C, D, or F" comparisons - influence and history don't work like that - but subtract the Davies/Kinks influence and where are you with Bowie, or the Jam, or the Pretenders, or Blur? And the blighter was productive, too; every now and again at this gig I was thinking "Hey, he's used most of his big hits already, where's he going from here" - and then out would come yet another classic pop song.

Which said, being limited to the resources of a small-ish touring band did restrict the range of effects that Davies could apply, to the point where (whisper it) some of the songs were in some danger of sounding the same as each other. He started with just himself and another guitarist, playing mostly acoustic but seriously amplified, and then brought on the keyboards, drums, and bass; the classic rock/pop configuration, playing in fairly conventional style - and at one point performing a string of heavier numbers (yes, including "You Really Got Me") that would remind one that the Kinks also got some credit or blame for Heavy Metal. (Although to be fair, they probably gave it a useful sense of melody and some wit.) The other notable feature of the performance, though, the one off-beat stylistic touch, was the way that Davies used the audience in his arrangements.

I believe that he's long had some tendencies this way - live albums with the audience sounds mixed high, and so on - and I don't think that it's exactly egotism; rather, Davies treats his more exuberant fans (and the front row at this event were definitely exuberant) as part of the show and therefore part of the music, letting them provide vocal fills when they want to. The trouble is, a bunch of dedicated rock fans aren't the most precise of instruments... Still, it was often fun, and many of the songs could stand it, including some that perhaps shouldn't have had to. I've said before that "Waterloo Sunset" can withstand pretty well anything, and that turns out to include this sort of live performance with the audience providing occasional backing vocals.

Anyway - repeatedly, throughout the show, Davies and the band would hurtle yet again into some neat little pop song that was also a small masterpiece of slice-of-life poetry. And this guy wrote all this stuff, and has been performing since about 1962. The place was full of people of a range of ages, all doubtless being reminded of important parts of the soundtrack to their lives. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Recent Reading: The Age of Wonder

by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (Vintage)The Age of Wonder has a subtitle: "How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science". Which is accurate enough, although the terror only really shows in the chapter on Frankenstein, and maybe occasionally in the stuff about the discovery of the true scale of the universe.

Richard Holmes is a biographer by trade, and this is scientific history as biography. The spine of the narrative is formed by the life stories of two figures; Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) and his successor as the president of the Royal Society, Humphry Davy (1778-1829), around whom other stories twine in different chapters - with the Herschel family featuring in several of them. I'll admit that I learned an awful lot from this book; just for a start, I'd previously been aware of Banks mostly in connection to his contributions to the nomenclature of gardening, rather than for his status as the grand (ageing) man of British science over generations (or even for his activities as Coleridge's drug dealer), and of Davy as the inventor of the miners' safety lamp, which was certainly important but which rather neglects the stunning volume of work he did on the foundations of modern chemistry (the work which got the safety lamp project pushed his way, in fact). Blame the simplistic shorthand stories of British education in my schooldays, I guess.

Whether Holmes quite proves his stated thesis is another matter. His idea is that there was in Georgian Britain such a thing as "Romantic science", or perhaps more correctly a Romantic idea of science - science as the product of solitary geniuses, thirsting for knowledge at any cost, progressing by huge leaps at crucial "Eureka moments" and seducing that knowledge from the infinite mysteries of nature, but also objective and disinterested, willing to transmit their new knowledge to a wider public thanks to a new system of public lectures. The last part, though, seems to me to be the only place where "Romantic science" differs very clearly from the Enlightenment science of Newton and Descartes, although Holmes does trace the 18th century evolution of the myth of Newton's Eureka moment with the apple, and his story does culminate in the meeting where the word "scientist" was actually invented to replace the older "natural philosopher", retroactively fitting the likes of Newton with a new label. He might also have traced the relationship between British science and that of other European nations in more detail, but to be fair, the book has quite enough to talk about as it is.

But whatever. Holmes tells a good story, and reading more around the subject might well reinforce his case. Meanwhile, he draws an interesting picture of the "second scientific revolution" (as identified by Coleridge in 1819 - Coleridge is an important figure throughout this story). The primary sciences in this revolution were astronomy and chemistry, with the first largely driven by the methodical brilliance of William Herschel, an expatriate German musician discovered by chance making solitary observations on the back streets of Bath (I said that Holmes has a great story to tell). Herschel, aided by his sister Caroline (who became Britain's first professional woman scientist, as Herschel became personal astronomer to the king), redefined the universe; his discovery of Uranus (the thing about him that I learned in my schooldays) seems almost incidental, although helpful to his fame.

But before we meet Herschel, we get to know Banks, a fabulously wealthy naturalist who landed the job of botanist on Captain Cook's voyage to Tahiti. Banks comes across as one of those casually amiable aristocratic types who treats everyone with equal amounts of casual charm, whatever their social position or cultural background, and seems to have helped the slightly more stiff-necked Cook deal with the Pacific islanders he met; one ends up wondering if Cook would have survived his last voyage if Banks had been along to moderate his attitudes, instead of being kept off the ship by political chicanery in the Admiralty. (This is a handy book for devotees of the conspiratorial model of history, although it makes no deliberate efforts to support such silliness; fellow roleplaying gamers of my vintage will understand if I re-title it "When Void Seekers Ruled the Earth".) Instead, Banks became the patron of the new scientific movement, although his aristocratically conservative instincts maybe hardened into something less helpful as he aged. Indeed, the story of British science in the period emerges as one of older organisations growing sclerotic and being replaced by dynamic new groupings, as the Royal Society is followed by the Royal Institution, and that then leaves a gap to be filled by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. All very British.

Where the book maybe seems a little weak is in the actual science; Holmes comes across as having done the research and taken good advice, but it's hard to avoid the feeling that he's more interested in the people than in their work, occasionally digressing onto the lives of the Romantic poets with variable amounts of relevance, and he fails to really tackle more complex subjects in any detail; his explanation of Fraunhofer lines, for example, is limited to a footnote, where he calls them "similar to a supermarket barcode". Nor does he seem to understand why scientists get so irritated by Coleridge's bizarrely muddle-headed comments about mind being passive in Newton's "system", and one Shakespeare or Milton thus being equal to 500 Newtons. He also wanders off into specific subjects that barely qualify as "science" at all, although they were of some interest to scientists and to the Romantic poets; fortunately, these make for interesting chapters. One involves Mungo Park, an early explorer in central Africa who was to some extent backed by the old globe-trotter Banks, and who did appeal to Romantic poets; another, which I confess to finding sometimes hilarious, is the ballooning craze of the late 18th century. Lighter-than-air flight was actually invented by the French, but the British caught on fairly quickly (and told themselves that some of the chemistry involved was invented by Britons, so it was fairly British anyway, even if one of the pioneers in this country had the poor taste to be Italian); this being the Georgian era, early developments naturally included attempts to invent the Mile High Club, while more serious pioneers struggled to convince themselves that there were in fact reliable winds in any direction one might want at different altitudes, so given a bit more research, this technology could actually be made useful... Holmes actually misses an analogy which hit me while I was reading this chapter, between ballooning then and the manned space program today; ballooning involved new gadgets, public showing-off, and worries about national prestige and military applications, was basically about applied technologies but involved various scientists attempting to argue that it was all about serious scientific research, was a little bit too dangerous for comfort, and faded out rather after a few years as early promise came to little.

But the book begins and ends with sea voyages that facilitated vastly important biological research; at the start is Banks, vastly expanding the knowledge of European biology and returning a hero and a major public figure; at the end, as John Herschel dismantles his father's great forty-foot telescope (ending the age when Slough was a global centre of astronomical research) and young scientific radicals like Charles Babbage chafe against the Romantic establishment, a relatively obscure young enthusiast lands a job on HMS Beagle - and returns with ideas so dangerous that he doesn't dare publish them for decades. But Darwin's long-drawn-out Eureka Moment is a story that's been told well before, and largely lies outside the scope of Holmes's book. What is does show, and fascinatingly, is how the Georgians invented modernity, in this as in other ways - and then weren't quite sure what to do with it. It was left to their heirs to sort out that little matter.