Thursday, October 29, 2009

Friday, October 23, 2009

Expand, Contract (16)

Now, what lately? Oh yeah, the final draft of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy: Summoners went in, and I reviewed the rough PDFs of a small Transhuman Space freebie that should appear in a little while. And I gather that someone else's Transhuman Space project of the moment is almost contracted for.

So I'm taking a short breather and dealing with some personal business before diving into a Pyramid article I've promised to write and deciding which projects are now at the top of my stack.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

This is a movie about a man with the ability to give people access to the inside of his own imagination (or perhaps more their own imaginations - on this, as on other matters, it's a bit vague). That's slightly ironic, as the best reason to go see it is the chance to spend a couple of hours on the inside of Terry Gilliam's visual imagination.

It's a Gilliam film which reminds one of other Gilliam films, especially Time Bandits but also The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and others - his most visually fantastical efforts, perhaps. However, it's a bit skimpier on actual content even than those, let alone than some of his more serious creations. There's a plot and structure of sorts on offer, involving the power of story (actually questioned quite harshly here, unlike in many fantasy films in our current Gaimanian era, which makes a change) and a deal or two with a rather half-hearted devil, but I was left feeling that any time Gilliam felt that he might sacrifice some clarity in favour of another fancy CGI-assisted set-piece, he took the deal gladly.

The cast is very good, but they've been given a bunch of non-characters to play, with damn all in the way of consistency, a tendency to disappear when no longer needed, and back stories that are at best left largely to our imaginations - and in some cases, notably Verne Troyer's, any hint of an explanation has presumably ended up on the digital cutting-room floor (unless we get a hint at the end that Troyer is some kind of cut-rate guardian angel, which feels like a stretch). Christopher Plummer sticks to doing world-weary like the old trouper he is, while Lily Cole looks amazing, static or in motion (and can act, too), but she and Heath Ledger (and the latter's stand-ins where required) are, well, stuck with the script.

But, but, but... Terry Gilliam. Visual design. CGI aside, the margins and fringes of London have never looked more shabbily gothic (what would film-makers do without Battersea Power Station?), and the way that a faded carnival show can so easily and swiftly expand into a visual wonderland stands as a symbol of, well, something. Time spent here isn't wasted, at all. But it's strange experience to find yourself missing the satirical bite of Time Bandits or a Monty Python sketch.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Don't talk to me about life...

So the latest BBC natural history series is now up and running. Is it what we might expect? Rich-gravelly-paternal David Attenborough voic-eover: check. (Shame he's no longer up to getting out with the camera crews and sitting next to the animals, but that's, well, life.) Blimey-how-did-they-get-that-shot dazzling camerawork in incredibly difficult environments: check. Various weird, cute, or terrifying animals in action: check. (Inflatable eye-stalks? Whuh?) Some of those animals dying and getting eaten: check. (Time was when Spitting Image had a running joke about wildebeest seemingly existing solely to get eaten by lions on the beeb, but these days, technology spreads the pain around, and we get young penguins dying for our edification and a leopard seal's diet. Underwater.) Ten-minute show-your-working making-of snippet tagged on the end: check.

Going by the first installment, what it doesn't have is much of a theme, beyond This Is Life; it apparently no longer needs one. (Well, yes, inflatable eye-stalks - but why, really?) Frankly, its main functions are to justify the license fee and to sell HD televisions. Still, reports suggest that later installments settle into some kind of structure. And watching the darned thing (while Uncle Dave's commentary washes over), it can be hard to complain.

Monday, October 12, 2009


As the leading exponents of a new media technology, Pixar make it their business to impress. Toy Story was a strong beginning; Monsters, Inc. demonstrated that they could show every hair on a furry creature; Ratatouille not only showed every hair on a rat, but showed every hair on a wet rat that had been struck by lightning; Wall-E featured grand vistas...

Up shows a photorealistic waterfall plunging off a Lost World plateau, a pack of semi-realistic dogs, and worn-out tennis balls covered in slime - all in immaculate 3D, if you go to the right screen. The humans are still more like plastic puppets, but I'd guess that Pixar won't try to change that until they can get to the far side of the uncanny valley in one titanic leap. Still, things are now getting to the stage that the cartoonish action sequences are looking markedly less plausible than anything else on the screen; increasingly realistic beings obeying unrealistic physics could become a problem. Though audiences used to modern action movies may not have too much trouble with this.

But that still leaves the question of the uses to which this synthetic realism is being put, which is becoming quite strange. Some critics have suggested that the protagonist of Up is a highly unlikely cartoon hero - a squat, grumpy geriatric. Actually, I suspect that "a cranky old man" would have seemed a perfectly reasonably lead character for, say, some of the classic Warner cartoons; it's only Pixar's connections with Disney that make it seem quite so strange, and heck, even Disney were noted for salting their emotional mix with the odd touch of sadness. But no, I don't think that any of the Golden Age Hollywood cartoon studios would have turned one of their movies into a wrenching meditation on aging, mortality, and the loss of dreams. (Not even if the tone shifted into something a little bit more conventional after half an hour or so.) But Up pushes its luck with the conventional cartoon audience fully that far; having the juvenile second lead turn out to come from a broken home, and then having the lead's lifelong hero prove to have been transformed by bitterness into a small-time Bond villain, end up looking like downright conventional touches. Another twist is to have the movie's talking animals - the dog pack - logically explained, and then to get a lot of good comedy from their pretty authentic canine psychology. (Mind you, after we've seen a whole furnished house wafted from North to South America under a cluster of party balloons, having anyone express surprise at a talking dog seems a bit of a cheek.)

Anyway, oh, yes, I nearly forgot - this is a good comedy, showing Pixar's customary eye for multiple details, with nary a clanking pop culture reference. The dogs get to provide most of the jokes, while also providing much of the practical menace; the leads are too busy being tragic. And Pixar do have some sympathy for the feelings of their younger audience members; on at least two occasions, some of the dogs should plunge to their dooms, but are granted soft landings instead. It's not a brutal film - just an oddly thoughtful one.

But where the heck are Pixar going to go next? Is the anglepoise lamp going to play King Lear?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Expand, Contract (15)

We've closed off the playtesting and I've started work on the final revisions for GURPS Dungeon Fantasy: Summoners. And we're moving along with a proposal for a very nice-looking Transhuman Space PDF supplement that isn't by me.

Not big news, I know, but I thought that people might like to know that I'm not asleep.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Recent Reading: The Dragons of Babel

by Michael Swanwick

This one took me a while to finish. There were some external reasons for that, but I guess it may have been a bit of a bad sign.

I really rather enjoyed Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter, so I was slightly bemused to discover that its sequel didn't seem to be getting UK publication, at least at the time when I looked. Possibly, I should have treated this as a bad sign. However, the Internet offers many solutions to problems, and I picked up an imported US hardback easily enough.

I seem to be hinting that this was a mistake. Well, perhaps it was - but not a catastrophic one. Swanwick can write, and he can also imagine, and his twisted modern vision of fairyland remains impressive. It's just not anything like as impressive this time around.

The Dragons of Babel reuses the picaresque structuring that worked so well in The Iron Dragon's Daughter, opening this time in a rural village in the fairy world. However, the villagers - a diverse bunch, including young Will, who is to be our hero - are painfully aware that there's a war on, and war-dragons duel in the skies above. One of them is damaged, crashes, drags itself into the village, takes over, and selects Will as its mouthpiece, revealing to him subsequently that his survival in that role proves that he must have mortal blood...

At which point, the past reader of The Iron Dragon's Daughter is wincing at the repetitiveness of it all. But Swanwick sidesteps that accusation fairly smoothly, as Will turns monster-slayer and disposes of the dragon within a few pages. A ghost of its personality actually remains in the back of his mind for the rest of the book, but frankly never does very much; we're getting more than a repeated story. We're just not getting as good a story.

Will is exiled from his village for the acts which his entanglement with the dragon induced, and Swanwick begins his clever shifting of stylistic gears, moving from timeless bucolic idyll/hero-tale to 18th century war-zone travelogue to refugee camp story, all the while enriching things with his modernised fairytale tropes. Then the prisoners, Will included, are transported to Babel, capital of fairyland's dominant political power, New York with extreme magical colour saturation and the dials turned up to eleven, and the book settles into what proves to be its favoured mode; pulp-style, street-level urban adventure. Will finds himself apprenticed to the sort of con artist who the pulps lionised and Hollywood came to love, and learns his way around the city, from the depths of its literal (or hallucinatory) underground to the spires from which it is governed. (Meanwhile, people keep telling him their stories, gently padding the text.) The multiplicity of fairy types dwelling here reflects the uneasy urban melting-pot of the pre-WWII USA, with the semi-incorporeal "haints" in particular suffering the casual prejudice (and displaying the flashes of communal strength and tricksy ingenuity) that elsewhere would be associated with black skins. Unfortunately, Swanwick also feels obliged to drop in a lot of detail that links this setting to our own urban reality, notably throwing in a lot of real-world brand names and trademarks - something I don't remember seeing in the earlier book - and the effect for me is merely jarring, a modernisation too far.

Will makes the mistake of falling in love with a woman beyond his reach, his mentor's big con turns out to have complications on its complications, and a dangerous and uncanny hunter wanders in and out of the plot for no reason that I could easily see (but perhaps I failed to analyse the text closely enough - honestly, I couldn't be bothered to try). Eventually the story reaches a resolution of a reasonable sort, adequately bittersweet and with a few flourishes. If I'd never read The Iron Dragon's Daughter, I'd probably have been more impressed - but this story lacks that one's dark visualisation of growing up as a voyage through story, the climax just isn't as hallucinatory or apocalyptic, and there's no real linkage back to mortality from the otherworld this time, despite the hero's mortal blood. It's just a clever exercise in the use of classic fairytale motifs in a modernistic world - rather too many of them, rather too knowing - when we know that Swanwick is capable of much more.