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).