Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Views from a Busy Day

The 19th of October this year was, I see in retrospect, a busy day for us.

As previously noted, we started at my brother's place, and after a run up Lawrence Hargrave Drive and onwards, we arrived in Sydney, dropped off the hire car, and found our way to our hotel - which was located on the harbour, in fact in a converted warehouse on the quayside below the south end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. (Good location!) Then we set out for a walk, under the Bridge (which is as impressive a piece of engineering as you may have heard), round Circular Quay (which is, if you look at the map, kind of square - I'm thinking Aussie humour here), and up to the Opera House (which is as impressive a public building as you may have heard, from a distance or close up).

That put us at the north end of the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens, so we walked down through those in the late afternoon, taking in flora, fauna, and statuary. A kind of high point was seeing fruit bats roosting in one set of trees, even if the gardens seem to regard them as a borderline pest... Then we headed back up through the city, past assorted historic buildings, and back to the hotel, before heading out for dinner in an open-air oyster restaurant on Circular Quay.

Okay, it was basically a day sightseeing. But you'll notice we ended up with a lot of pictures.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Views South of Sydney

I've now put up a batch more photos from our October holiday up on Flickr, this time covering the 15th-19th of October. On the 15th of the month, we arrived by train in Sydney, picked up a hire car, and went to visit my brother David and his wife Shirley south of the city, in the area which turned out to be describable as the Illawarra/Wollongong region. The next day, Dave and Shirley showed us around some of the local sights, and we caught up with their family.

The serious sightseeing started on the 17th, when Dave and Shirley contrived to show us some serious views in the Southern Highlands. We took in the Illawarra Fly, an amazing treetop walkway with views across the forest and the coastal plains to the coast, the stunning scenery at Fitzroy Falls, where a river has carved a canyon out of the edge of the highland plateau, and yet more views at Cambewarra Lookout, where what looks like a pleasant rural tearoom garden (okay, with palm trees) suddenly plunges over the side of a mountain, with a view across to the Pacific. To wrap up, we went down to that ocean, specifically for a short visit to Seven Mile Beach.

Then, on the 18th, we got back down to the coast again, pausing in Shellharbour (and photographing some pelicans) and then looking round Bass Point, which is basically an attractive sea-shore park (with protected nurse sharks off shore, apparently), and a war grave/memorial. Then, after a pause to take in the Kingsford Smith Monument and the view down the coast at Gerroa, we had an excellent lunch at Coolangatta Winery. On the way back, we saw Blowhole Point at Kiama, and especially the blowhole itself - a striking natural formation where the sea drives in through a covered channel eroded in the rocks, then erupts upwards (though the day was calm enough that we didn't get soaked by it). We got pictures of that and of the helicopter that came past overhead, but unfortunately the whale that was swimming past that day was visible only at a considerable distance.

Finally, on the 19th, we were scheduled to head back to Sydney, so we drove up the coast a ways in convoy with Dave and Shirley. This took us over the striking Sea Cliff Bridge, up onto Bald Hill (scene of Australia's earliest aviation experiments, courtesy of Lawrence Hargrave), further up for a stop at Governor Game Lookout, and then into the Royal National Park, where we said our goodbyes at the Hacking River.

And then we drove onto Sydney. It had been a great few days with a lot more striking sights than we'd perhaps expected; the scenery in that part of the world turns out to be stunning. But there was more to come.

I Talk

If anyone is actually digging round here out of interest in me - Victorian Adventure Enthusiast have just run an interview with me.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Concert (+ CD): Magazine

The Junction, Cambridge, 2nd November 2011.

Posting this a month or so late, but what the heck.

To start with, a boast. I first saw Magazine in (I think) 1978 at a gig in a university hall, and then again in 1979 at the Corn Exchange. So, having made it to their gig at The Junction, I think I must have seen them every time they've played Cambridge.

Actually, the '79 gig was one of Angela's and my first dates, so we weren't going to miss this one. But first, we got hold of No Thyself, their first new recording as a band for thirty years. I'm not sure if anything on this is quite up to their best work c.1980, but it's definitely real Magazine, recalling, say, the menacing pulse of "The Light Pours Out of Me" in "The Burden of a Song", and the deliberate four-letter shock effects of "Permafrost" (only more so) in "Other Thematic Material". The pushing-for-accusations-of-bad-taste lyric of "Hello Mister Curtis (with apologies)" might almost count as something new, except in that it fits with Howard Devoto's general, habitual post of punky irony. (Though that his disdain clearly extends to punk: "No decadence, no cheap thrills of hate from me...") Some of the songs could probably grow on me quite a lot, in fact; they may look like conscious recreations of the band's old style, but in the worst case, that's a fine model to emulate.

(I was amused when some critics detected a new maturity in "Of Course Howard", incidentally, given that I recognised some of the lyrics from the introduction to a collection of other Magazine lyrics published thirty years ago. Actually, the song seems to represent a dialogue between Devoto today and his younger self, which is interesting in itself.)

But anyway... For those who don't know them, Magazine were a group who evolved out of the punk scene when lead singer Howard Devoto decided to do something a bit unashamedly smarter, then vanished when Devoto apparently just got bored of the whole business, leaving a legacy that took the rock world decades to acknowledge. Unfortunately, since 1981, John McGeoch, the band's authentic post-punk guitar hero, has died. Also, when they reformed in 2009, Barry Adamson, their bass player and other most strikingly capable musician, rejoined, but he's since evidently decided that his career in film music and so forth means more to him, and walked away. The replacements, Devoto's occasional collaborator Noko on guitar and "Stan" on bass, are entirely capable of emulating the originals' playing well enough, but whether they can emulate the original synergistic, innovative brilliance is another matter.

Not that the audience at this gig were too worried (and I speak as one of them, believe me). We may not have had associations with the two guys on his left and right, but that was Howard Devoto in the middle. Okay, a lot of us were clearly there to be reminded of our youth. I haven't seen this many grey hairs and this much male-pattern baldness since ... um ...the last folk gig I was at. And I guess that Devoto, who's gone from "high forehead" to "bald" in thirty years, could feel entirely at home in this company. But enough tacky irony. That's Howard's job.

The set consisted of a mixture of old and new songs, in pretty conventional rock gig style, really, not that I'm complaining. It even used staging tricks I remember from thirty years ago, notably hitting the audience full in the face with white spotlights behind the band for "The Light Pours Out of Me". Among the new songs, "Hello Mister Curtis" was dedicated, a little strangely, to Terry Pratchett; I assume that the point there is that the song is about facing up to mortality, though whether its pose is one of acceptance or defiance - whether the lyrics are addressed to Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain in tones of wry admiration or contemptuous sarcasm - seems unclear. Clarity has never been the point with Magazine, mind; during the first song, Devoto was at one point wandering around the stage with a placard say "You Do The Meaning".

And we will, Howard, we will. Whether we were here for abrasive surrealism, or wry and twisted humour, or to be reminded of our student days, or just because we know the band will rip into that guitar riff in the encore of the monumental classic "Shot By Both Sides", we all likely went away satisfied.

The support, incidentally, were In Fear of Olive, whose country-tinged rock was competent enough, but seemed on this brief exposure to lack sufficiently memorable tunes, aside from the fact that they really didn't look to have much in common with Magazine. But the support act in '79 was Simple Minds, and I didn't think very much of them, so what do I know?

Thursday, December 01, 2011

More Views: Ocean to Ocean

I've now finished posting the set of photos covering our trip on the Indian-Pacific railway, which involved leaving Perth on the 12th of October, with a brief and under-lit visit to Kalgoorlie that evening. Kalgoorlie being a mining town where the main sights on a coach tour are a giant hole in the ground (sadly under-lit while we were there - apparently they'd had a minor landslip, so the usual round-the-clock work was cut back) and the red light district.

On the 13th, we passed a full-scale airport with a staffing level in single figures, crossed the Nullarbor Plain, and stopped in the ghost town of Cook. Then, on the 14th, we reached Adelaide - early in the day, but still a bit late, so we took only a flying coach tour of the city with limited opportunities for photography through rain-streaked coach windows. It looks like a pleasant sort of city, going purely by the central area, even if the statue of the founder has its back to visitors, and the local habit of laying claim to Don Bradman seems to lead to heckling if one mentions it anywhere else in Australia.

Later in the day, still running late, we had only a few minutes in the remote mining town of Broken Hill - just time to get a few photos from the station platform. Finally, on the 15th, we descended from the Blue Mountains (nice views) through small town like Medlow Bath, into Sydney, from where we were set to drive down to visit family.

Yes, it was quite a trip

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Views of Perth

Next up in the photo uploading to Flickr; our couple of days in Perth, from our arrival by air to our departure by train.

It's an attractive city, in ways that I hope that the pictures hint at. And we knew we'd reached Australia when, on our first morning there, we were woken by a weird raucous noise that, when I was conscious, I identified as a kookaburra.

Missed seeing: the art gallery (closed in the time we were there), much of the outskirts. Saw: the Mint (founded as an outpost of the Royal Mint, to provide the Empire with coinage courtesy of Western Australian gold, and the big thing about a visit there is the demonstration of molten gold pouring - essentially a fireworks display, but with really expensive fireworks), the museum with a fine collection of meteorites, the botanical gardens, the bell tower...

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Views of Singapore

My, we came back from that holiday with a lot of photos. It's going to take ages to put the good ones up onto Flickr (with appropriate editing). In fact, I've only just finished those from our day in Singapore. Well, that was a fairly full day.

I ended up with a lot of flowers. (Hotel exterior, Botanical Gardens, Fort Canning Park), and a lot of skyscrapers (Singapore). It's an interesting city, in a very tidy sort of way. Warm, too, being within a degree of the equator and all that. But the photos probably sum up our experience of the day.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

And... We're Back

I've not been very good about posting here this year, for all sorts of reasons, largely involving distractions, but my silence of the last three weeks has had more solid justifications, which kind of run Singapore-Perth (mk.2)-Indian Pacific Railway-Visiting Family-Sydney-Ayer's Rock-Sydney-Hong Kong.

It was fun. We're home now. Right now, we've been awake for c. 21 hours, most of them on an airliner, so don't expect much coherence or many words immediately, but at least your e-mails or whatever now have a solid fighting chance of being answered. Or at least read.

Hopefully, there will be retrospective blogging eventually. Or at least, about 6 gigs of image posting to the Flickr photostream.

(First thoughts on Asian cities: Somebody said to me during the trip that Singapore is a beehive, Hong Kong is an ants' nest. Yeah. Alternatively: Singapore seems to be about making money, while Hong Kong seems to be about spending money.. Or, perhaps: If you show Singaporeans the city scenes from Blade Runner, I think they'd say "Yes, that is a horrible warning of how things might go if we don't regulate matters very carefully." If you show those scenes to someone from Hong Kong, the response would surely be "Hey, really good ideas with the flying advertising there!")

(Oh, and the Jenolan Caves are freaking well amazing. While Uluru has a simple job, which is to just sit there on a geological scale, and performs it brilliantly.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Expand, Contract (34)

Oh yes, I neglected to mention last week when it happened; my Transhuman Space: Martial Arts 2100 is now out from e23.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Expand, Contract (33)

Oh yeah, I hadn't mentioned... If anyone who's interested hadn't heard, revised drafts of the new edition of the Discworld Roleplaying Game (by me) and Transhuman Space: Wings of the Rising Sun (by David Chart) are both in and currently being subjected to various sorts of playtesting and review.

Which is the kind of thing that's been keeping me busy these last few months, and so providing me with an excuse for not keeping this blog at all up to date.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Expand, Contract (32)

Well, the Discworld RPG manuscript is back from Sean Punch - with 100+ pages of initial commentary to act on. And other stuff of mine seems to be moving along in other people's hands.

Also - the Ennie Award Nominations are now out. These never seem to include much GURPS material, which means that little of my work ever rates a chance of a mention. However, this year, my modest but non-trivial contributions to Gatecrashing, from Posthuman Studios, mean that I can at least claim a part-share in three nominations.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Expand, Contract (31)

I'm not getting a huge amount of writing or editing done myself at the moment, largely because I've got a whole bunch of stuff to do towards Consternation next month. However, Sean Punch has now made entirely public something that I thought wasn't a very secure secret; that my big project of the last few months (and next year or so) is a new edition of the Discworld RPG.

(About which, I am happy to talk a bit. However, I'd prefer to avoid games of Twenty Questions with obsessive fans who are trying to extract the entire content of the planned 400-page book from me a paragraph at a time.)

Also, I have been fielding a few questions from the author of a new Transhuman Space supplement which hasn't been announced yet. Ah, the fine art of fitting GURPS rules to a high-tech setting and getting character creation to look right...

Friday, June 17, 2011

Expand, Contract (30)

Just one thing this time; Bill Stoddard's Transhuman Mysteries, which I edited (and which is in a line of which I am the line editor) has just been published on e23.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


I'm on Amazon UK's mailing list (surprise), and for some reason, their algorithms apparently not only have me down as a Discworld reader, but a serious fanboy. Why else, after all, would they tell me when they've got German editions of the books available?

But this does mean that I get to find out when I could be purchasing Klonk!: Ein Scheibenwelt-Roman.

It sounds so much cooler than Thud! somehow.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Doctor Who 2011-1

First off, to damn with faint praise, Doctor Who has been better this year than for a while. For much of this first half of this year's series, I have been able to watch it with actual interest, rather than feeling that I've been suckered by a title borrowed from a series that was significant to me in my teen years, and that I'm being insulted by self-indulgent junk. It's become light science fantasy with a bit of style, some functional plots, and decent characteristation.

Well, the first half of the first half, anyway.

The core problem with NuWho resurfaced in episode 5. It wasn't just the skimpy, predictable, but painfully implausible plot, the ropey science and the frenetic hand-waving; it was the sense that all of these things were familiar. They weren't just repeating Who-at-its-worst; they looked like an almost-conscious homage to Who-at-its-worst. In other words, this was Who written by someone who'd seen far too much Who, and who thought that repeating stylistic stuff from over the last fifty years with nary a thought to how stupid it might look today was the way to go. Given that, the decision to stretch the story out over two episodes, when  many better plots have been jammed into one, was just adding insult to injury.

(I notice that some more serious fans are complaining about moral inconsistencies in the Doctor's behaviour at the end of this story. This seems to me to be missing a large point. Before you can worry about moral logic, you need simple consistent logic - without any and all inconsistencies being hand-waved away.)

Then, strangely enough, along came episode 7. Oh dear.

You could say that this made a similar mistake, seeming at times to be paying homage to the worst bits of Davies-era NuWho. But I'd be simpler than that. This episode resembled nothing but the worst sort of fanfic.

It was overloaded with guest appearances that made less and less sense the closer you looked at them, and introduced a whole bunch of new characters who the writer thought would be cool (a sword-wielding Silurian detective in Victorian London!) or funny (a Sontaran nurse). Unfortunately, none of it was half as clever as it thought it was, and surely even the youngest of fans will noticed that they were being pandered to - ineptly - by the end?

Okay, I'll watch the second half of the 2011 series when it shows in a few months. I'm hoping that the nature of this war against the Doctor will be explained in more detail, and that his enemies' need for a baroque and implausible plan in order to create a bizarre weapon to use against him will turn out to have an interesting explanation, instead of just being another stupidly complicated attempt to destroy him (when they could have shot him or blown him up at various points during this episode). I'm hoping that the Headless Monks will have an interesting explanation and history, instead of just being another bunch of nursery-scary, stylish, faintly surreal Moffat monsters. (Actually, it's a terrible thing how nursery-scary, stylish, faintly surreal Moffat monsters have gone from being wonderful to being a cliché in a few short years). We'll probably get some half-decent episodes. But frankly, I think that I'm going to be stuck damning with very faint praise again.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Photos on Flickr

Just for the interest - I've just finished putting up a couple of new small batches of pictures on Flicker:

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Old Stuff in Museums

When we - the general public - go to museums, we tend to think of them in terms of the stuff that we see on display. Which is fair enough, but - to a degree doubtless varying with the museum - also wrong. There's a whole load of curating and preservation and additional material and scholarship going on behind the scenes, which we glimpse in dribs and drabs if we pay attention.

The Fitzwilliam's current big exhibition of Italian Drawings, which we went to see on Saturday, reminded me of this, with something of a kick. It draws largely from the museum's own back rooms - items which aren't normally on display. But one motive for going to see it is, frankly, something akin to name-dropping. It's not often that one gets a chance to see art by (among others) Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Vasari, and Modigliani, all in the same room, within a dozen miles of one's front door, after all. Okay, so what one sees is actually a bunch of, well, drawings, ranging from quite stylish but dashed-off pen-and-ink pieces to tiny preparatory sketches and doodles. But the raw density of art history in that one room is quite impressive.

That's one fairly dimly-lit room, mind. One reason that some of these highly significant pieces can't regularly appear on display is clearly that, even more than a lot of art, they're fragile. I won't quite say that they're disintegrating before one's eyes, but some of them certainly look lucky to have lasted this long, and despite all the technical brilliance of modern museums, I'd guess that they have a finite lifespan, even if it can still be measured in centuries. There's a definite sense of the memento mori when one looks at a tiny, fading sketch that was in fact dashed off by Leonardo when he was thinking about how to depict horses and riders, five hundred years ago.

Then, on Monday, we went to a completely different museum which has an equally important backroom function - the Shuttleworth Collection in Old Warden. For those who don't know it - this is a fairly substantial aircraft collection, but most impressively, it's got some old aircraft. That is to say, they have a couple of planes, in actual flying condition, which are over a hundred years old. This puts them in the business of restoration and preservation as much as any museum, which is something they happily talk about; for example, they have a Spitfire (pretty much inevitably, I guess), and one can see it in one hangar - in bits. It needs sprucing up, it seems.

Mind you, aircraft restoration evidently involves a lot of refitting and replacement work. The displays talk about the art of fitting new fabric surfaces (so with some of these aircraft, most of what meets one's gaze is actually new) and the necessity of replacing, say, thousands of magnesium rivets with something newer and less lethally corrosive. But aircraft are machines, built to do something; a restoration process that kept more of the original but left it incapable of flight, would perhaps be too much like taxidermy.

(I grabbed a fair few pictures on Monday, incidentally, of aircraft and also of the adjacent Swiss Garden and Bird of Prey Centre. I'll try and get them up on my Flickr photostream reasonably soon.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Conspiracy Theories

Blogger suffers its second problem in a fortnight, leaving me unable to sign in to my account. Then, after a couple of days, I have a bright idea and try using Chrome instead of Firefox - and lo and behold, I get in.

Thus are conspiracy theories born. Google must surely be trying to force people away from the competition and onto their software. Fortunately, (a) I hear that Internet Explorer works too, and (b) I've even been able to get in using Firefox from another computer.

Still, two service collapses in consecutive weeks? Aren't Google supposed to be better than that?

Friday, May 20, 2011


The superhero movie fashion continues...

Cranking through the list of their major characters as a preparation for the Avengers movie (with lesser Avengers popping up to fan service effect - here, "Agent Barton" spends a couple of minutes on-screen with a bow, just to confuse the non-geeks) and just because, the Marvel films people run head-first into the difficult one. Most superhero movies can be presented as slightly over-exuberant technothrillers, but, well, what the heck can you do with Thor?

Throw a posh British Shakespearean director at it, maybe? Just for Odin's sake don't try to make the original '60s costume work on screen. Which is presumably how Walt and Louise Simonson earn themselves credit mentions alongside the '60s Marvel names, having given the (Marvel) God of Thunder his vaguely plausible suit of armour and his beard. Still, it's all about dropping a clunky modern-fantasy reading of Norse myth into the modern world, and there's only so much anyone can do with that - the script tries a bit of waffle about magic being sufficiently advanced science, but that really doesn't survive a moment's scrutiny - this is sufficiently advanced science that can generate immovable objects, execute conditional operations based on moral judgements made from beyond line of sight, and operate at the mutter of a patriarchal guy in an eye-patch several light-years away. Oh well, at least they didn't try any mumbles about nanotech.

And let's be fair, from a geeky point of view - the visual realisation of a lot of stuff from the comics is really pretty good. The movie also moves fast enough to stop anyone worrying about the obvious glaring logical holes so long as it lasts. (What language do the Asgardians speak? Does Bifrost have a Tardis translation circuit? How old are Thor and Loki? How did they get into human myth if they were born after regular contact between the Nine Worlds ended?) The Casket of Ancient Winters is reduced to a canister of pure distilled Maguffin, though, doing nothing except sit there glowing blue and being important for as long as it's needed; one wonders if early script drafts did more with it, but I wouldn't even bet on that. The visual design for much of Asgard is certainly fun, especially in 3-D - a garish high-fantasy cityscape, rendered with a bit of budget. Bifrost, though, looks like a bad '80s home computer visual effect given unwarranted solidity

The cast is over-qualified, of course, even given that it has some relative newcomers - Chris Hemsworth has fully adequate charm and charisma as well as the body for the lead role, and Tom Hiddleston brings ice-blue eyes and icy elegance to Loki, aided by good direction and costume design which recalls his horned helmet from the comics without getting goofy. (The film has a relatively complex treatment of that character, actually, even if the psychology is a bit Hollywood-routine.) Anthony Hopkins does dignified, Natalie Portman does her best with the career-upgraded Jane Foster, and Idris Elba gives Heimdall plenty of deific dignity. They're fun to watch, but they can never quite suppress the impression that this film exists because the comic exists, and not because it has any great claims to interest in its own right. Still, we get that fight scene between Thor and Loki...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

(Another old post finally being finished...)

To begin with a confession, I suppose - I haven't seen The Mummy, or some of the Indiana Jones movies, or any of the Tomb Raider films, and nor have I read the French bandes dessinées on which this film is based - so I'm probably even less entitled to comment on it than usual. But this blog is only supposed to be about personal reactions anyway, so here we are.

Actually, I think it's the last omission which probably ought to count against me most. I can see why reviewers have been invoking those English-language reference points, but really, this isn't much of a Hollywood-style action movie. Luc Besson may have had some influence in Hollywood over the years, but he's always been a bit too Frenchly odd, and with its lack of a proper villain and focus on a style-soaked female lead, this is very much a Besson movie. More to the point, with its peculiar sense of partial detachment from any sort of reality, its weird dialogue and disregard for much in the way of psychological reality, it's extremely reminiscent of any number of BDs that I have seen, so I suspect it's pretty faithful to its source.

In case you were wondering, Adèle Blanc-Sec, played by the inevitably winsome Louise Bourgoin, is an Edwardian-period adventuress who is, as it turns out, looking for the mummy of an ancient Egyptian doctor so that she can get it resurrected by a loopy academic psychic, because she knows that the ancient Egyptians had the medical knowledge she needs to cure her sister, who is in a coma with a hat-pin through her skull. Unfortunately, though, the psychic has already resurrected an ancient pterodactyl egg, and the pterodactyl is terrorising Paris. Not that Adèle cares about Paris or anyone else much, it seems - family comes first, and Adèle sets out to deal with her own concerns before anything else, leaving a trail of chaos and one or two accidental deaths in her wake...

It's all rather self-consciously French, too, what with the politicians having affairs with cancan dancers and the gendarmes who insist that they are wine connoisseurs and the Eiffel Tower. Yeah, I guess it could even be called charming. Or at least, charmant. Not without its interest, even. More a curiosity than a masterpiece, though.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Source Code

((Many thanks to the people who sent me copies of this article, after I failed to keep one and Google lost it.))

(More catching up on posts I should have made a month ago. I can just about remember what I meant to say...)

Obvious note; the problem with commenting on this movie is that it's hard to do so without spoilers. And it's honestly good enough not to deserve that.

But, okay, the reviews and trailers have (unavoidably) given away a bit. Not everything, though; a certain amount of layered revelation is part of this film's charm. It's widely described as a time travel story, but what emerges fairly early is that this isn't quite true - or perhaps it is, as it turns out. Choose your own definitions. More annoyingly, a lot of comments seem to describe it as complicated or hard to follow, which suggests to me that too many people's brains just shut down when they're confronted with skiffy ideas about time or any kind of game with causality, because I really didn't see much complexity at all. The explanation of how things seemed to work, and eventually of the film's conclusive twist, struck me as very straightforward, even linear, even if the protagonist did replay the same few minutes of apparent time repeatedly as he went along. Nor was the film quite as rigorous as comments suggested; several of the eight-minute replays that were necessary to the plot would have been too repetitive for any audience, and so were skimmed over.

(Anyone who finds this film unpleasantly hard to follow really, really needs to avoid Primer, by the way.)

In fact, the relatively rigorous approach to plot logic made this a true science fiction story (as opposed to "heroic fantasy in space" or "action thriller with extreme special effects", which is what Hollywood tends to mean by "science fiction" these days), and with Source Code following on Moon, it seems that director Duncan Jones has a genuine and fairly unusual interest in the genre. This isn't hard SF, mind; the core idea of the plot is handwaved fairly frantically, involving as it does multiple scientific and technological jumps far beyond anything that could be made to look hard-SF plausible in the modern-day setting.. In the end, it's using the word "quantum" a lot to justify a fairly arbitrary story with a large dose of wish-fulfilment, even if one could argue that what it does is opt for the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics without being so crass as to say so (or to even mention Schrodinger's cat).

Nor is the plotting entirely immaculate; looking back over the film, one can identify significant unanswered questions of both logic and morality. (What could one say about the fate of the original occupant of the body which the hero borrows, for a start?) Still, it is a film about an idea, even if that idea is a bit shaky.

The cast, by the way, are good, and the leads are given enough to get their teeth into. Jake Gyllenhaal makes an effective hero, confused and stressed, far from infallible but ultimately capable enough; Michelle Monaghan is an attractive overt object of desire; Vera Farmiga really carries the film, balancing professionalism with sympathy. Only Jeffrey Wright really has a problem - not that the actor isn't fine, but his character seems unfairly treated. He's vain and unsympathetic, to be sure, but I couldn't help feeling that a man who invented such mind-bending technology would have the right to a very large dose of vanity indeed, and even if that is his main motive for employing it and exploiting the hero, he is actually trying to save thousands or millions of lives in the process. Making the scientist into something of a villain, with silly physical preening to match his intellectual hubris, was the one place where this turned into cheap, bad Hollywood SF.

But if that's the one place, well, we can't complain too much, can we? This isn't the film of the year - probably not even the SF film of the year - but it's a film that I could wish a lot more films were like.

The Cloud Ate My Homework

Just in case anyone noticed a post about Source Code (the movie) here a few days ago, and is wondering what happened to it - evidently Google/Blogger had a little problem late last week, which meant that they had to roll everything on Blogger back a couple of days, then restore stuff one thing at a time.

Oh well, stuff happens.

Then they announced that they'd got just about everything restored by the end of Saturday or thereabouts. Evidently, my last post didn't fit under "just about everything". (Nor, to judge by the support boards, did a fair number of others.) Google are being deeply silent about when the remaining stuff will be restored, if ever. I'm not bothering to reconstruct that post from memory yet, because you never know, they might yet actually deliver on their initial promises.

One criticism of the whole trendy concept of "cloud computing" is that you're trusting your data security to some other party. (Conversely, one thing to be said for it is that it provides inherent off-site backups.) Well, all I've lost, at worst, is an hour or so's opinionated noodling. No big deal. But that loss has reminded me that I need to keep my on-site backups up to date.

(It's also shown me that Google's support people are as prone as any to go into vacuous cut-and-paste arse-covering BS mode when trouble strikes. Big surprise there.)

Monday, May 09, 2011

Concert: Neil Innes

(More catching up on a bunch of posts that have been sitting around half-finished for far too long.)

The Junction, Cambridge, 29th March 2011.

At 8 o'clock in the evening of March 29th - the scheduled start time, good heavens - an amiable old buffer in a waistcoat and beret ambled on stage and launched into a show which lasted a couple of hours, with an interval...

The last time I saw Neil Innes on stage was thirty-something years ago, when he was basically playing the good stuff from his TV series of the time. This older, plumper, greyer Innes was playing something a bit less formal and structured and a bit more relaxed. I think that there was stuff from a radio series, but I confess I'm not familiar enough with his repertoire; there was certainly little sense of product to sell, except perhaps for retrospective collections. There was a bit of chat between songs, some of it going back to the foundation of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (basically, a bunch of London art students bonded over a taste for not-very-good pre-war British trad jazz) and including recollections of that band's somewhat edgier leading light, Viv Stanshall, as well as some mention of Monty Python and the Rutles. It was all very pleasant. Innes, it must be said, clearly isn't very edgy at heart. Gentle comic melancholy is more his style. There were some comments that might have been taken to relate to contemporary politics, but they were at the level of general benevolence than satirical ferocity.

And yet - it wasn't hard to remember that this man has provided musical underpinnings for the defining Anglophone comedy of the last half-century. This is Sir Robin's minstrel and Ron Nasty. This is someone to catch up with from time to time.

Trailer Trash (in 3-D)

Went to see Thor on Saturday, about which I may blog more properly in due course. However, because I went to see the 3-D version, I also got to see a bunch of 3-D trailers.

Oh, dear.

As I may have demonstrated here in the past, I do have a certain horribly naive fondness for this technology, although I'd some time since begun to notice that it worked best in computer-animated movies which were designed that way from the beginning, and which could make amiable jokes about the subject. Thor, incidentally, uses 3-D fairly well, or at least harmlessly - there's a vague sense at times that one has a lava lamp exploding in one's face, and it probably makes the big early fight scene even less comprehensible than it would be in 2-D, but on the other side, there's a pleasing sense of grandiose fantasy art coming to LIFE, kerrpow!

Anyway, from the trailers, well, the 3-D in Kung-Fu Panda 2 is probably likely going to be mostly tolerable, because it's another computer animation - I may well go see it (and yes, I have just expressed moderately keen anticipation for a film called Kung-Fu Panda 2.) But the trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides made me utterly determined that, if I go see it in a cinema, it'll only ever be in 2-D.

The problem is clearly the post-processing of a live-action film, shot in 2-D, into the third dimension. This doesn't have to be done too badly, to go by other films, but the visual effect in this case was quite horrible and a bit surreal. It was like watching full-colour cut-out pictures of Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz being slid around a toy theatre lined with similarly flat background pictures.

Priest, by the way, appears from its trailer to be a bad joke.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Theatre (sort of): Frankenstein

(I'm catching up - partially, slowly - on an embarrassingly long string of blog posts that are sitting on the system in incomplete draft mode. Hence the age of this one)

National Theatre, London, transmitted to the Arts Cinema, Cambridge, 24/03/2011

Another live broadcast from the National Theatre to the Arts Cinema in Cambridge, and this time it's the hot ticket of the London theatre season - Nick Dear and Danny Boyle's stage treatment of one of the key modern myths. Which turned out to be pretty good and quite well suited to high-definition broadcast to cinema, with a certain amount of playing with camera angles and viewpoints, and enough chances to observe the stage design, especially the giant chandelier laden with as many different types of light bulb as someone could find.

It was all a pretty consciously stagey sort of production, with a consciously brave wordless extended opening  scene as the creature was born, a brief outburst of steampunk as it encountered some horrified urban proles, and lots of colourblind casting. One problem, perhaps, was that Jonny Lee Miller looked merely rugged and a bit scarred as the creature, while everyone who met him was obliged to react as though he was some kind of nigh-Lovecraftian abomination; even given the level of abstraction in the visuals, I found it hard to suspend disbelief quite enough there.

But we all know that the monster is hideous, don't we? Like I said, modern myth. It's been a while since I read the novel, and once or twice I found myself trying to remember whether some elements came from there, or whether they'd sneaked in from the films - the elderly exiled intellectual in the woodland cottage is in the book, of course, but was he originally blind? Actually, yes - Dear follows Shelley quite faithfully in that scene, but in so doing, can't help but remind audiences of the movies (including Young Frankenstein). No great matter, to be sure, but it's all a  reminder of the potential complexities involved in adapting a text as time-crusted as this one.

But yes, Dear's script did cleave to the core myth fairly well throughout- although it always seems a shame that Robert Walton, the Arctic explorer, so rarely makes it into adaptations, even when, like this one, they end in the Arctic. (The absence of that observer made the ending a bit anticlimactic, I'm afraid.) The one rather jarring and consciously "modern" - though actually rather dated-seeming - inclusion was some pointedly feminist stuff about Frankenstein being a heartless male scientist who needed to pay more attention to nice intuitive feminine ethics, or at least to listen when his fiancée asked if she could learn about his work. Okay, okay, so Mary Shelley has a significant part in feminist history, and certainly, if you look at Frankenstein's behaviour at all seriously, he treats Elizabeth abominably - but if you're going to treat that relationship at all logically, then there's no good reason for her to put up with him at all (apart from the dominant influence of the rest of the family). The only effect of this added stuff, for me, was a sense of 1970s right-onnery lurching into the middle of this Georgian gothic-romantic lunacy.

Probably, in fact, the production should have gone all-out for gothic effect, and forget any attempts to inject a modern moral consciousness or to explore the relationship between creator and creature. (Benedict Cumberbatch was more than fine as Victor, by the way, leaving me curious as to how the alternate-nights presentations, with him as the monster and Miller as Victor, played out. The idea felt wrong, but that may just say something about Cumberbatch's skill as an actor.) Mary Shelley was being entirely morally serious, yes, but on a topic which has been thrashed out every which way and tackled by two hundred years' worth of political thinkers and science fiction writers. At the risk of sounding all post-modernist, it really isn't the same story now that it was then, even if you tell it in the same words.

But it's a story that's survived for a good reason, and it's always interesting to watch experts having another go at this sort of thing. And nice to see technology being expertly and benevolently applied to bring it to a wider audience.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Expand, Contract (29)

Just a note in passing - the first draft of my latest (big) project finally went in on Monday. So now I'm catching up on a whole stack of non-writing, non-games stuff that had been pushed aside.

Hopefully, another (small) Transhuman Space editing project will be along fairly soon.

Sorry I can't really say much more about this stuff just now.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Cities on the Edge - After-Note

Just a note in passing, as I suspect one or two people coming here might be interested; Cities on the Edge has been the subject of a few posts and pages elsewhere on the Web. Author Anders Sandberg has blogged about it, and co-author Waldemar Ingdahl has done so twice, once for gamers and once for futurists. It's also sold well enough to merit a mention on RPG Countdown, among other places.


The book ended up with (mostly) original line art commissioned by Steve Jackson Games. However, at one stage, when the art budget looked a little questionable, I suggested that some processed B&W photographic imagery might work. The company disagreed, but for those who are curious, here's what might almost have become my first art credits in the RPG business after thirty years of writing:

Sunday, March 20, 2011


It is a well-known fact that, because of the insane amounts of money involved in making a Hollywood movie, the companies are terrified of taking chances on anything at all unlike that which has made money in the past. Which explains why the dull predictability of so much Hollywood output.

However, every once in a while, a director with a record of financial success can slip something odd past all those filters. And animation is partly immune to the problem because the money people don't understand it yet and anyway they expect it to be a bit weird...

"It's a post-modernist surrealist western, set in the modern day, with Johnny Depp as a delusional chameleon on a vision quest."


I mean, the @$*#?

It's also utterly beautiful, by the way, with truly astonishing creature designs and the most gorgeous landscapes I've ever seen in a computer-animated movie (which is saying something for a field which has let quite so many skilled artists have quite so much fun in the last ten years). It seemed that, every time the plot started becoming predictable or conventional (which it does from time to time), the animators were instructed to make the pictures on the screen even more breath-taking. And it's frequently utterly hilarious. I'm just glad that I didn't have to explain it to a ten-year-old being taken along to see a funny-animals movie on a wet Saturday afternoon.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Expand, Contract (28)

Just a quick mention; Transhuman Space: Cities on the Edge, one of my little editing/line-editing jobs, has now made it out the electronic door. Being co-written by Anders Sandberg should give this one a bit of extra cred, I hope. Anyway, I think it's good.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Concert: British Sea Power

The Junction, Cambridge, 20th February 2011.

British Sea Power are one of those bands that come along every few years to reaffirm one's faith in the basic guitar-band model of rock - even if they do have a cornet and an electric viola underpinning the guitars, and sing love songs to Antarctic ice sheets or create new soundtracks to 1930s documentaries. So when they turned up in Cambridge, I went along to see how they were live.

But first, there was the support band, Bo Ningen, who I guess can be described as some kind of mutant Japanese thrash metal. They opened with the sort of apocalyptic noise that a heavy metal band might use as a climax, then carried on from there. Works for some people, I guess.

Then, after half an hour in which the roadies attached assorted foliage to the mike stands, British Sea Power were on, kicking off with "Who's in Control", the opening track from their latest album. They turned out to be a well-rehearsed, capable bunch, albeit that their down-the-line rock approach on stage lost some of the breathy atmospherics of their recorded work. It's what the crowd wants, of course, and they may have given something of a hostage to fortune with the football-chant refrain in "No Lucifer" - the front rows of the audience were anticipating it some time before it came along - but there's no denying it's a good song, and they followed it with the punchy "Stunde Null" to hammer something home. That was around the middle of the set, after "Larsen B", "Something Wicked", and "Lights Out", and some of the subsequent songs weren't quite so interesting, making me wonder if they'd shot their bolt rather - but then they delivered "Living is so Easy" followed by "Waving Flags", which nailed that worry. "It Ended on an Oily Stage" showed up, too.

From where I was standing, British Sea Power seem caught in tension between being a crisply efficient, conventional guitar band, following the fifty-year-old script of "finishing" and then playing an encore and so forth, and being something a little bit more idiosyncratic and whimsical and British-rock-surrealist, with decorated stages, violas, and back-projected movie snippets. But they're actually rather good at both, so I'm not complaining at all.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

English, Evolving and Evolved

Recently visited (well, last Monday, actually); Evolving English, an exhibition at the British Library.

Actually, this felt a bit like two exhibitions. The first, smaller room was about the emergence of Old English, and then its evolution into Middle English - illustrated by stuff mostly (I assume) from the Library's own collections. This was where one got to see an ivory plaque carved with ancient runes, the original manuscript of Beowulf, samples of Henry V's handwriting (apparently he was the first English king to send letters in English), an Anglo-Saxon Chronicle... Little things like that. A small exhibition, but kind of in-your-face seriously impressive.

Then there was the second, larger room, which was less chronological and more thematic, full of relatively recent texts and manuscripts and sound recordings playing over headphones. I mean, Tyndale Bibles and Caxton printed books (and copies of Viz and John Betjeman manuscripts and "Murder on the Dancefloor" as allegedly the first pop hit to be sung in pure RP), to be sure, but less sense of mists-of-time depth than the first room. On the other hand, it was fascinating stuff; see the Web page for some of the star items. The Shakespeare texts read in what is believed to be period style (i.e. kind of West Country rural) were fun, certainly; the bit of King Lear was oddly less disconcerting than "Now is the winter of ooor discontant.." Nicely presented, too, even if one of the two screens playing TV and radio comedy as examples of the way English can be used was on the blink. (So I had to wait awhile to see Fourcandles and the Goons.)

Anyway, generally recommended if you're in London in the next few months.