Tuesday, July 28, 2009


So, D. Jones launches a promising career with a tale of alienation suffered by a solitary astronaut...

"Planet Earth is blue, and there's nothing I can do."

It is nice to see someone attempting a lightly updated stab at a '70s-style "thoughtful SF" story, complete with model-based effects rather than CGI. It's not really very hard SF, despite the early reference to He3 mining to prove that somebody has read some popular science in the last decade; the movie mostly depends on the usual middleweight SF blend of implausibly advanced handwaved technology (to drive the plot) and other technology that's barely changed since 1965 (to keep the plot on track and the special effects budget down). Moderately regular SF readers (or even viewers) will guess most of what's coming after about twenty minutes, and the film doesn't really pretend to be a mystery - the big reveal, such as it is, comes about half an hour in - but I'll be polite and not give away too much. I will just note that, for an operation that's being run on a tight-fisted budget, Lunar Industries has constructed a remarkably spacious base, and even shipped out an old leather armchair for no clear reason, and no, neither is ever explained.

For that matter, there's little or no attempt to convey the fact of lunar gravity, and no consideration of communication lags over Earth-Moon distances. But, you know - white corridors, clunky spacesuits and lunar rovers, existential angst, no guns. Heading back to 1970, in a good way, means taking the clunky with the cool. Young Jones clearly has a brain as well as useful friends; his career may be worth watching.

Expand, Contract (10)

Well, the contract for GURPS Alchemical Baroque has come back, and I gather that the manuscript is being peer-reviewed, while Kromm has passed the revised first draft of Dungeon Fantasy: Clerics, so that should also be getting some third-party consideration shortly. And I can get on to Dungeon Fantasy: Summoners.

There are some small delays with some other stuff from way back, but hopefully they'll be dealt with shortly. Not my worry just now, anyway.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Theatre: Troilus and Cressida

Shakespeare's Globe, 18/7/2009

Call me a bit middlebrow, but I really do enjoy plays at Shakespeare's Globe, definitely including their "original practices" productions. The atmosphere is unique, with a combination of intimacy and theatricality; I don't know if the designers and directors have really recreated the authentic Elizabethan format, but they certainly come up with something. But we'd not been for a while, and we left booking this until a few days before, so we had to take "restricted view" seats.

And so, after a quick early dinner at The Real Greek, just down the road (the first time we'd tried this small London-based chain - not at all bad, and eminently suited to the need of a quick bite before the play), we found ourselves up on the highest level, almost behind the stage, and looking down on the heads of the cast and squinting sideways at the musicians. Actually, though, this worked pretty well; the wraparound audience is sort of much of the point of the exercise. I wouldn't put anyone off from taking these tickets.

Now, confession time; I don't think that I've ever seen a production of Troilus and Cressida before, though I think that I read it back at school. But then, one doesn't get very many chances, and looking up the history of the play, well, one wouldn't have had any for most of the period since it was written. You can tell that this is considered minor Shakespeare; it only has a handful of resonantly oft-quoted lines.

"Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, Wherein he puts alms for oblivion ... Wars and lechery ... Generation of vipers ...."

Gosh, Shakespeare was in a sour mood when he wrote this one, wasn't he? Not King Lear life-is-pain, the-gods-don't-care tragic, just life-sucks-because-people-are-idiots deep-seated annoyance. I rather wonder if he'd be out drinking with a few veterans of the Dutch wars for a few nights. I do like the idea that Achilles is somewhat based on the recently-fallen Earl of Essex, who was certainly compared to the "classical" Achilles when he was at his height of accomplishment. The play's Achilles is enough of an egomaniac sociopath glory-hound to fit my impression of Essex. (I'm not sure why this version had the play's only Welsh accent, though.)

Or perhaps, not knowing the play so well, I'm being influenced too much by a modern director's interpretation. The play's contempt for the business of war-fighting has evidently made it very much a piece for the post-1914 world, and it's doubtless impossible to avoid modernising much of it. The depiction of Cressida as a desperate victim of a male-dominated, militarised world, scrabbling to survive while being treated as property, while plausible and moving, may not have been entirely original practices. But then, this production interpreted that term fairly broadly; the fairly authentic-looking Hellenic arms and armour wouldn't have been very likely in the Elizabethan era, I think. Still, the designer and armorer had some neat (if arbitrary) ideas, giving the Trojans curved kopis-style swords and bucklers, while the Greeks had straight gladius-style blades and pelta-type crescent shields. I think that the idea was to give the audience back their own vague ideas about the setting, just as would have been the norm in Shakespeare's time; along with the warriors in skirts and Hellenic helmets, there were the women in floaty white nighties, sometimes with arbitrary cutaway panels. It mostly worked, although Helen's high heels were a bit distracting. The fight scenes were a touch stylised, sometimes going into slow motion, but given the numbers involved and nature of the stage, that was probably a necessity.

Anyway... I think that I can also see why this play was tagged as a history (rather than a tragedy or a comedy), perhaps even by Shakespeare himself. Not that it fits with the rest of his history cycle, of course, but the sense that it's re-telling an existing story to make a complicated point about the subject, and letting the messy complexities of the story just lie there rather than being resolved, because that's just how they are, not wrapped up in a neat plot. (Although not being an English history, and not featuring anyone with any sort of blood relationship to the Tudors, perhaps lets Shakespeare be more cynical than the other histories normally manage.) Actually, it's a rather untidy plot; the nominal protagonists more or less disappear by the end, as the attention shifts to the death of Ajax and the war lurches on, rolling over individuals. All this open-endedness and cynicism maybe sit oddly with the somewhat carnivalesque atmosphere of a Globe production, too; the (historically authentic) closing jig ends up feeling anomalous (although I don't know how such things work when the Globe does Lear either). But one has to wonder how Shakespeare's own audience took this thing, too (this being, one gathers, even less known than for some of his other works), and I can't think of a more enjoyable way to be confronted with such questions.

"like a treen in a disabled spaceship"

We decided to head up to London on Saturday the 18th - for a primary reason that will be explained in my next post - and we decided to take in a fairly small exhibition that we'd missed previously; Dan Dare and the Birth of Hi-Tech Britain, at the Science Museum. Actually, this turned out to be only a relatively little bit about Dan Dare - a case or two's worth of original art, a display board about the Eagle comic - and mostly about British technology in the '50s, with some imagery borrowed from the Eagle; not just Dan Dare strips, but cutaway illustrations of various bits of noteworthy technology of the time.

Still, this did illustrate two things; first, that the imagery of the comic strip was to a greater or lesser extent influenced by the big technological news stories of the day, and second, that the cutaway illustrations of Stingray and the Thunderbirds and such that decorated the TV21 comics of my own '60s childhood were actually fantasticised - and I'd have to say, thus debased - imitations of the Eagle's attempts to provide actual education. (For that matter, Doctor Who's Daleks, and in particular their TV21 incarnation, owed a significant amount to Dare's Treens, just as Doctor Who in general came to owe so much to Quatermass, especially in the '70s.) The museum had a point about the birth of "Hi-Tech Britain" taking place in that decade.

But that leads all too easily to another point. The problem for an exhibition like this, I fear, is that it has to deal with the persistent scent of failure that hangs over its subject-matter. The Hi-Tech Britain of which this exhibition speaks meant a motor industry whose management and workforce alike were all too stuck in old ways; it meant Comet airliners which crashed, and lost us that crucial lead to Boeing; it meant shiny new diesel and then electric trains, running on essentially Victorian tracks. There was some brilliance there, but too much of it was necessary ingenuity, improvisation around ingrained habits, bad decisions, and the problems of a country still recovering from its involvement in an expensive war. The exhibition was fun in many ways, but it was hard to avoid a sense of melancholy, induced not only by stories of make-do-and-mend shabbiness, but by a huge sense of opportunities missed - a melancholy not, I think, intended by the curators. This is the Science Museum, not a museum of social history, after all.

But not only is Dan Dare not flying the spacelanes in our defence, he's never going to, whatever may happen in space research. We're unlikely ever to see his sort again, and perhaps a big symptom of Britain's problems in the 1950s was the idea that the hi-tech future would lie with a square-jawed pilot who wouldn't have been out of place in the Battle of Britain, backed up by a comedy Yorkshire sidekick and a gruffly paternalistic staff officer. Still, the exhibition gets full marks for presenting the evidence.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Concerning Evolution

The Fitzwilliam no doubt thought that, as Cambridge's main museum, they really ought to do something to mark the Darwin bicentenary. However, they're not a museum of science, and anyway, that side of the man's life was already likely to be covered by larger institutions. So they hit on the idea of doing something on "Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts". The exhibition (entitled "Endless Forms") proves that it was a pretty good idea.

It starts with a small room of scientific sketches and illustrations, largely tied up to the Beagle voyage and Darwin's early education, which is mostly just a palette-cleanser - although it told me that Darwin got to attend a lecture by John Audubon in Edinburgh, which I hadn't heard before - and then one enters a bigger room and the fine arts stuff cuts loose, not least with a rather good portrait of the man that I again hadn't seen before. The main theme at this point, though, is basically art in relation to deep time and nature; Victorian painters looking at landscapes through eyes educated by new (though sometimes pre-Darwinian) insights of geology and paleontology. Seen in this light, the paintings here, mostly seemingly innocuous if often romantic landscapes, reflect a time of transformation - a fact only emphasised by the presence of a couple of attempts to paint scenes from just before or just after the biblical Noah's flood.

Other themes follow: "Struggle for Existence" (artists' responses to the whole Victorian social-pseudo-Darwinian "life is tough" idea, complete with a Landseer fighting stags painting), "Animal Kin" (mostly about Darwin's studies of emotional expression in humans and animals, and making the interesting point that Landseer's emotion-laden paintings of animals, which seem so drippy to modern eyes, may actually have embodied the then-radical Darwinian idea that humans and animal had more in common than people liked to think), "The Descent of Humankind" (illustrations of past-Darwinian Victorian anthropology, sometimes veering into uncomfortable areas of racial stereotyping, but also including one fabulous, quite modern-looking 19th century bust of a beautiful African woman that must surely have seemed downright shocking in its day), "Darwin, Beauty, and Sexual Selection" (a slightly tentative and uncertain look at the ideas about beauty and feminine influence which arrived in art from Darwin's work on sexual selection, but hey, you get a rather strikingly odd Tissot to look at), and "Darwin and the Impressionists" (yes, it seems that some of the Impressionists read Darwin; I can't see that his direct influence was huge, but there was evidently some). There's also a small display of photos of portraits of Darwin himself at different ages, showing that (a) he looked grumpy sometimes in his early middle age, and he knew it, and (b) he matured into the downright Leonardo-esque image of the bald sage.

And boy, the curators have been busy with this show, presumably calling in some favours as they went. There are paintings and sculptures from all over, chosen to illustrate the themes but often fascinating in themselves. For a free exhibition, it's stunning. Highly recommended.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Expand, Contract (9)

The second of my four new Personnel Files PDFs, Wild Justice, is now available from e23.