Wednesday, December 25, 2013

On Receiving the Ebenezer Scrooge Memorial E-Mail

We buy our gas supply through EDF Energy, because they're not self-evidently worse than any other companies in the business, and I let them e-mail me the quarterly bills, because why not? However, I was a little surprised when the latest such bill showed up this morning. Yep, on December 25th, having been transmitted the same day.

Guys, really. I'm sure that it's terribly efficient keeping your computers running 24/7, but really, Christmas Day? We have no worries on this score, but some people are tight enough for cash that bills are a genuine source of stress for them. If nothing else, a company looking this clueless in relation to PR doesn't fill one with confidence regarding their cluefulness elsewhere.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Expand, Contract (40)

I nearly forgot to mention - but it merits a post; the latest issue of Pyramid magazine, #3/62, not only includes an article by myself, but is dedicated to the "Transhuman Space" setting, for which I'm line editor, so I feel a definite proprietorial affection for it.

Actually, I honestly think that it's a pretty good issue whatever. It has five substantial articles, and it's more or less designed to answer the tiresome old question of what gamers can actually do in Transhuman Space. There are five answers here; me talking about all the stuff one can run into in Port Lowell, on Mars; some character templates and ideas for a street-level game; the wherewithal for a military campaign; an idea about ultra-tech indentures, with assorted game possibilities; and a good bit of material on the world of the ultra-rich leisure class "Eloi", and what they can get up to in their copious free time.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Concert: Alison Moyet

Cambridge Corn Exchange, 16th October 2013.

I confess I hadn't been following any news or reviews before I went off to this gig, so I came to things quite fresh. To start with, I was interested to see what sort of backing band Alison Moyet would bring with her. This is, after all, a woman who moved from '80s pop to jazz standards, a stint on a musical, and even things like Purcell operatic arias (with a voice that can work with all this), trailing a range of backing musicians to suit. Well, come the time, on came ... a couple of synthesiser players, looking worryingly like the guys who come on when Bill Bailey is doing a Kraftwerk parody. Yes, the former lead singer of Yazoo had decided to revert to electronica for this tour.

And very good they were too, actually. The two guys were actually multi-instrumentalists (and one also acted as a backing singer, often I'm pretty sure singing higher than Moyet herself), and the set was built round a really good mix of tracks from Moyet's latest album, The Minutes, and from her back catalogue. From deep in that catalogue, in fact, as she commented when pointing out that at least one of these songs was written when she was 16. I can quite believe that the lyrics of "Nobody's Diary" came from a bright, passionate teenager; if she also created that small gem of a synthesiser riff back then, she really was a prodigy.

(Alison Moyet herself was looking damn good, by the way. Apparently, she's been saying in interviews that she thinks she may have overdone the weight loss a bit, and nobody could blame her if she put a couple of pounds back on. But she sure as hell doesn't look unhealthy in a black blouse and jeans. Definitely an inspiration to her generation.)

She announced that she had been rearranging the old songs, not wanting to act as a human jukebox; some of the rearrangements were more dramatic than others - notably slowing down "Is This Love?" to a wilful extreme, and setting "Only You" (a song whose innate melancholy is a bit at odds with its poppy jauntiness) in a minor key. In general, everything worked great, and I got the impression that Moyet herself was enjoying the process. Which probably makes this the best way to handle assembling a set of songs from across a thirty-year career. Oh, and you can dance to a lot of them, too, as was probably sort of the point of putting a straightforward rendition of "Don't Go" at the end of the encores. If some of the newer songs had fewer catchy hooks than some of the early numbers, building instead on a foundation of crunching rhythm guitar, they still worked in their own way, sounding like theme tunes for a James Bond movie if Bond went a little bit gothic.

Moyet gave "Filigree", one of the key tracks from The Minutes (and a song which is loaded with gorgeous hooks), a long introduction in which she explained it was about the experience of realising that the trick is to wait for the moments when everything comes together. I think that this gig demonstrated that for me. I just hope that we might get a live album from this tour.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Theatre, In Brief: In the Open, Come from Verona, Twice

Just by way of a diary note for my personal records, really...

We finally got our dose of Cambridge open-air Shakespeare for the year recently, twice. On the 17th of this month, we saw the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona in Robinson College gardens. I honestly don't think I've seen a live performance of this one before, and while it was fun, I guess that I can see why not. I can quite believe that this was Shakespeare's first play (as seems to be the current academic best guess); it felt like a sketch towards his later comedy career, or somebody trying to emulate a Shakespeare comedy and not getting it quite right. The production pushed for some broad comedy with the outlaws (all female in this production, presumably purely for practical casting reasons), which didn't quite come off for me. Still, even in early, weak Shakespeare, you can suddenly get a jewel like "Who is Silvia? What is she/That all our swains commend her?" dropping in.

The prototypical nature of Two Gentlemen extends to its having a character action towards the end that probably looked a bit off even when it was written, and is likely to annihilate modern audience sympathies for the character involved entirely. Talking of which... The second part of this accidental duo was The Taming of the Shrew, courtesy of the Globe Theatre company on tour, in the Master's Garden at Corpus Christi (a bit of Cambridge architecture I'd not got into before, come to think of it), on the 23rd of the month. I'd not looked at any reviews of this beforehand, so I didn't know it was going to be an all-female cast in vaguely 1920s costume. Which actually worked rather well, especially for Petruchio, who ended up as a rather dashing roaring girl type in a pilot's coat.

But the casting and costumes didn't really address the modern problem of Kate's last speech. That was handled by having her deliver it 100% straight, but then looking at the male characters' reactions, especially Petruchio's. This turned the end of that scene into a big oops, damn moment, as it seemed to dawn on him and that others that he might have gone too far there. He'd really rather liked the untamed Kate, one felt, and now he'd lost that. From then on, everyone delivered their lines hesitantly, going through the motions and giving the play a complete downer ending. Which is probably as good a solution to that issue as any.

Good music, too, by the way.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Expand, Contract (39)

Some time back in the mid '90s - I've lost track exactly when, and my records don't extend quite that far back, but it would have been around 1995-6 - Atlas Games were publishing material for Hero Games's Champions RPG under license, and I sold them on the idea of a scenario book called The Sands of Time. I put a manuscript together and off it went ... and after a little while, the project fell victim to the collectible card game-powered chaos of the period, as that license deal faded out.

It happens. It's wouldn't have been the only project in my history to have died on me after too much work had been done. However, this one happened to have been assigned an editor, Spike Jones, who not only stayed in the business, but kept getting Champions-related editing jobs, and kept faith in the book, and sometimes brought it to the attention of other companies for whom he was doing work. Well, it didn't cost me any significant extra work.

Hence, in late 1997, the project was with Gold Rush Games, and was being reworked into their San Angelo setting/world. In fact, by 1999 it was edited and heading for layout - if only they could find someone with the time to do that job. It was supposed to be published in 2001, but then Gold Rush sold the rights to San Angelo to Hero Games. Sands should have gone with that ... but in 2002, the rights to San Angelo stuff went back to Gold Rush Games, who ended up using the setting with a completely different rule-set, and Sands fell through the cracks again.

So I was pleasantly surprised in 2010 when I heard from Blackwyrm Games that Spike had been talking to them. Of course, by then, the Champions rules were two full editions on from where they'd been when I wrote Sands, but they were prepared to get somebody else to do something about that - and for that matter, about updating the geopolitical background details. But that took a while...

Getting on for three years, in fact. But The Sands of Time is now, actually out - at least seventeen years after I wrote it. I don't know if that's any sort of industry record - I doubt it - but, well, there may be gamers who'll buy and run it who weren't even born when I wrote it. And it's certainly a personal record. Anyway, thanks and congratulations to Blackwyrm for finally getting this out the door.

Now we just have to sell it.

(Footnote to this: digging through my computer files, I realise that the date stamps on my first draft word processor files for this book go back to 1994, or in some cases late 1993. So it didn't quite make twenty years from first draft to print, but darned close. Come to think of it, I'm not sure that the scenario wasn't originally written for Hero Games, before being offered to Atlas...)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Much Ado About ... Murder

There's a problem with trying to play Much Ado About Nothing in modern dress; these just aren't quite modern people in a modern world. They can seem that way for long stretches, but then - Beatrice snaps, spits, or whispers "Kill Claudio", and it all goes a little strange. The standard solution, by my casual observation, seems to be to set it no later than the Edwardian period - the last time that the combination of an honour culture and assumed aristocratic privilege makes this sort of thing, along with warfare as an extension of family squabbles, reasonably plausible.

Joss Whedon's cheerfully hastily assembled black-and-white movie treatment tackles such problems largely by ignoring them, bulling straight through the script as a reading by some people who happen to be highly competent actors in modern dress. Where modern equivalences can be found for details in the story, they're used; where they can't, never mind. There are occasional oddities; Beatrice and Benedick get a modern-style sexual history, whereas Hero and Claudio preserve their proper sense and assumptions of virginal purity - but even that can be seen as setting up a contrast between the worldly (and mutually suited) lead couple and the more idealistic (and flawed) secondary pairing.

However, there are hints of a darker modernity. These people in smart suits and big limos, fighting killing wars with their own family? The local cops, a bunch of bumbling dolts totally under the thumbs of the patronising rich folk? The reverence for Catholicism, in the person of a smoothly obliging priest? The improvised cable tie handcuffs and polished personal handguns? You know, it's just possible that these characters are actually a bunch of Mafiosi. They're terribly polite about it, of course - they wouldn't dream of talking business in front of the womenfolk (apart from Conrade, who's been sex-changed into a cold-eyed moll and honorary guy) - but the story ends up with a chilly edge if you look at it this way. The problem isn't that anyone contemplates killing anyone else, it's that they do so when everyone was supposed to be kicking back and taking a break from business.

(Like Whedon was, actually...)

But that's just a possibility; Whedon hasn't touched Shakespeare's words, so we just have to fit our assumptions to what ends up on the screen. And it's not like the analogy doesn't work quite well with Elizabethan aristocrats.

Amy Acker gives great Beatrice, by the way - more unhappy and betrayed than aggressive or dangerous, but well able to handle slapstick, love scenes, vengefulness, and Shakespearean prose. She's already got a decent TV career, but one suspects that a few big-movie casting directors will be calling her agent after this one.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Over the Break...

Christmas and the New Year were mostly spent at home (and with the weather lately, with no regrets at that), but we did get out for a couple of things.

One was Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire at the British Library. Hmm - I remember when the British Library was this thing buried behind the immediately-visible scenes at the British Museum. Then, for a while after they moved to Kings Cross, they seemed to do just little exhibitions about language and bibliography. This, though, had the look of a major museum exhibition. Actually, though, it did mainly lean on stuff from the Library's own collections - a few maps and letters and so on and a lot of gorgeous illustrated texts. The Mughals had that fondness for micro-detailed art - one assumes that a lot of anonymous artists with one-haired brushes ruined their eyesight to bring us this beauty. Just digging some of those pages out from the stacks and putting them on show certainly justified this event. Still, the curators had also borrowed a suit of mail from the Royal Armouries and some swords and plaques and sculptures from elsewhere, giving things a slightly more three-dimensional quality, and it was all presented nicely. Worth the trip.

Oh, and we also got to Kew Gardens. We'd been meaning to have a look at the place in winter for a while. One reason was the treetop walkway; we were somewhat curious to see what the view would be like with the leaves off the trees. The answer there turned out to be "not without interest, but not that much different either"; there are enough evergreens and densely-branched deciduous growth to obstruct views a bit, and there was no clear view through to much of London. On the other hand, well, the conservatories are always fascinating and of course mostly disregard the weather outside; I'm pretty sure that the Princess of Wales Conservatory had more open and on show than last time I was there, and there were some aquariums in the basement of another building that I don't recall seeing before. Oh, and there were some sculptures on exhibition, too.

So that was another good day out. And we didn't even get rained on very much.