Sunday, 27 December 2015

MaRey Sue

Much of what I might want to say about The Force Awakens doesn't particularly deviate from a large amount of commentary already written: it's fun, frequently well-written, and features plenty of charm from both the new characters and Harrison Ford. Much of the designs tread well the line between nostalgic and new, the action sequences feel very Star Wars - which isn't as easy to do as it sounds considering the differences not just in technology but in filmography in general that have taken place over the last 28 years. Kylo Ren's backstory makes him a much, much more interesting villain than Darth Maul (though Gwendoline Christie is unforgivably underused). BB-8 is adorable, and so obviously Abrams saying "this is how you make a cute character for the kids, George" it's wonderful. Throughout the film he reminded me of our cat; there can be no higher praise. Abrams has also cannily emulated one of the original trilogy's nicest aspects, which is the sensation that this is just one story taking place in a galaxy teeming with life and other tales. Plus, obviously, the gender/racial balance is a massive improvement not just on the original trilogy, but no small number of contemporary films, and has annoyed all the right people.

(Seriously; people are furious about Abrams making a point of seeking out non-white talent, because apparently widening a recruitment pool means getting worse candidates, or something. Also, there's much squawking about women being Stormtroopers, because women don't have the levels of physical resilience to become US Marines which apparently has some relevance in a universe where cybernetics and DNA manipulation are things.)

On the other hand, the plot is derivative well past the point of self-parody. Maybe, with Abrams having got this first film out of his system, Episode VIII might tread newer ground, but obviously that won't help here.  I'll come back to this problem later, but for now I wanted to sketch out some more of my issues.

(Spoilers below).

Sunday, 20 December 2015

They Came To Outer Space

It’s Orange Is The New Black in space! It’s Orange Is The New Infinite Blackness Between Stars!

Except it isn’t, of course (though that may have made for a handy elevator pitch), and given its politics it’s hard to imagine anyone involved in making Bitch Planet would be happy with the idea of equating it to the Netflix hit just because both are set in a woman’s prison.  There are parallels, obviously, but the TV show (at least in its first season, which is all I’ve seen to date) concerns itself with the isolation and hopelessness generated by an incarceration system swollen utterly out of control by the twin political aims of generating the cheapest possible labour force and of always looking tougher on crime than the other guy. Bitch Planet is saying something very different.

And it is not saying it quietly. The comic opens on a woman trying to make it to a job as a voice actress. It is not a job at which she is appreciated, with the technician – despite being in the middle of an asthmatic episode – swearing he will do the job himself if she is any later. Because why wouldn’t a wheezing techie do as good a job at speaking with clarity and panache as the woman someone hired specifically because she's good at those things? What’s no less telling is why this woman is having to rush to a job she’s already late for; she’s trying desperately to make her way through streets packed with men who are too caught up in their masculine shit to recognise they need to make way for her. Above her gigantic billboards say things like “BECAUSE HE SAID SO”, “EAT LESS POOP MORE”, “OBEY” and “WE GET BY WHEN WE COMPLY”. It’s They Live with capitalism replaced with the male gaze. It’s our world if the patriarchy would actually admit it exists, rather than dressing as Batman because it doesn’t get to see its son as much as it thinks it should.

This is the central theme of Bitch Planet; what if society started saying the quiet part loud? What if refusing to lose weight or answering back or just basically being unable to retard your ageing process indefinitely got you literally expelled from society rather than just - “just” – being looked down on by all and sundry?

What with this being the first issue, there’s not much time to really explore that question; there's simply too much set-up to get through. Even so, though, DeConnick manages to get in another hard-hitting dig at contemporary Western civilisation – even in a prison designed  for “non-compliant” women, it apparently occurred to no-one to stitch together uniforms for plus-sized inmates – and two solid narrative twists which each not only work splendidly in their own right but further underline the fundamentals of the book.

Saying more on these issues would be to rather spoil the, er, issue, so let me simply say this is some of the most intriguing and progressive writing of the year and move on to discussing De Landro's artwork, which is kinetic but scratchy. It's not my favourite style, to tell you the truth, but it's a good fit for the purposefully retro feel of what is going on here. This is a book concerned with taking the past (specifically exploitation flicks and the surrounding unfettered sexism) and forging them into something new and better. That's bound to be a messy process, and at least on that level De Landro feels like a solid choice.

As does this whole package, in fact. Even saying that though feels like I'm underselling this book's potential. DeConnick has proved in less than two dozen pages that she understands not just how to spin a yarn, but how to anchor herself to something that will make the yarn worth spinning. As opening salvoes go, what more could you possibly need?

Friday, 18 December 2015

Providence Provides

In theory, Moore and Lovecraft should go together like chocolate and squamous peanut butter. Moore's best work is often cold, at a remove, an artist writing like a computer simulation of a genius. Lovecraft's prose is similarly distant, the text shorn of warmth or adornment to bring stark cosmic unutterable horror more fully to life. It's not an uncommon trick - nor does it have to revolve around the tentacled and the cyclopean, as those who never shut up about The Shining will surely tell you - but that doesn't necessarily damage or even dent its usefulness today.

So the combination works on paper. Does it work in practice (or on shinier paper, perhaps I should say)? Well, it's certainly well-formed, with strong, precise pencils from Jacen Burrows and a sensibly restrained palate courtesy of Michael DiPascale. But can it function beyond the level of prettiness? Moore is certainly keen to assure us it can. The very first panel features only prose - a close-up of a love letter - which is then progressively ripped apart to show the landscape of New York beyond. The written word is giving way to images, and what they can do that mere letters and punctuation cannot (this is reinforced later with a visual clue regarding the mysterious Senor Alvarez, but I am getting ahead of myself). Moore has always insisted that comics are no pale approximation of other mediums, but a device through which one could tell stories that could exist nowhere else, no matter how much money Hollywood wants to spend. More tellingly, the letter itself talks of breaking through "mere words" to get to the underlying reality; the tear in the paper splits those two words apart. "Mere words" cannot contain this story any more than they could the indescribable other Lovecraft concerned himself with. "Don't worry", Moore is telling us. "I know what works in the Cthulhu Mythos, and I know how to translate that to a new medium."

All this almost gets us to the end of the first page.

In other words: this is a dense work. Not so much by Moore's own standards, perhaps, but certainly by almost anyone else's. Consider for instance that Moore begins this series with "The Yellow Sign". The choice is as inevitable as it is clever. This first issue is a story about the distance between where a writer starts off and where they end up; of course Morse chooses the Yellow Sign as the accompanying symbol.

And if all this feels like I'm focussing on the adapter at the expense of what he is adapting, there's good reason; precious little in this first issue exists of very few Cthulhu references at all, and almost nothing of Lovecraft's own work (King in Yellow being a work by Robert Chambers, an inspiration for Lovecraft's stories). The central idea of a play that brings about madness and suicide remains, but the narrative seems to reject the very idea, suggesting that what is important about the book isn't that it drives people to commit suicide, but that everyone in New York is so close to the edge, so wrapped up in appalling secrets, that suicide all too often feels like the only escape, and that some of the people who reach that conclusion that will also happen to be well-read. There is something buried in us all, waiting to reach the surface and cause havoc (hence Sous le Monde being the title of the book Moore suggests King in Yellow was inspired by).

To say more would be to tread too far into the realm of spoilers, but Moore is clearly linking the looming rise of R'yleh to the deep currents of the human subconscious - not astonishingly original, perhaps, but let's give the man time - which has particular implications for protagonist Robert Black. Black is a newspaperman working for a broadsheet finding itself slipping into the abyss of irrelevance, and desperately trying to up the scandal quotient to stay afloat. This shouldn't particularly concern Black, who tells himself he's just working there until he can get somewhere as a fiction writer. Things aren't quite so simply, though. As I've mentioned, this isn't a story about where Black is going (not yet at least) but about the cavernous distance between where he started (replayed in sepia flashbacks that further fade an already cold, drab colour scheme) and where he is now. How far the reality has drifted from the dream. Not that the specifics of Black's goals are what we might expect from his seemingly familiar tale of small-town dissatisfaction - how Black's secrets influence the narrative is one of the principle hooks here. The mysteries of Black are both intriguing and swiftly revealed, and result in a first episode that fits together like a jigsaw, or perhaps like the torn pages of a diary. Or a love letter. He certainly ends this first issue as a more intriguing character than he began.

Speaking of intriguing, to the extent the supernatural intrudes upon this opening issue at all (which it doesn't, at least obviously, though from the cover alone it's clear that the nightmarish may already be hiding in plain sight, reaching slowly for us) it's in the form of Dr Alvarez, a Spanish medical doctor who lives in rooms specially chilled for the sake of an unspecified medical condition. The broad strokes of what is going on here are obvious (Moore underlines them both in artwork and text), but there's enough here to make us curious about the specifics. There's fear here too, not in anything overt, but in the sick feeling that the two most interesting ideas here - who or what Alvarez is and the spiraling misery of Black and his tragic secrets - cannot possibly exist alongside each other for long before the former swallows the latter. Cthulhu stories always end the same way; the heroes end up mad or dead or worse. In giving us so compelling a reason to root for Black, Moore has both kicked back against two of Lovecraft's worse tendencies - to ignore characterisation and sneer at any deviation from "polite society" - and ensured that when the hammer drops, it will all be so, so much worse.

I'm still going to devour the next issue, though.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

D CDs #475: Function In The Unusual Way

The great irony of Elvis Costello's famous quip that writing about music is like dancing about architecture is just how easy it is to write about Costello's own output. It's simply too unlike anything else to make discussion difficult. Even separately, the angular synth pseudo-punk and Costello's ragged eye-rolling croon (obvious mission statement: love like you've never been hurt, dance like no-one's watching, sing like you couldn't give a fuck about how you sound) would be of interest. Combine them and you get something almost otherworldly in its oddness; the cold precision of the instrumentation and the sliding quasi-croak of the vocals simply refusing to cohere. It's as awkward as it is defiantly confident, four young men thoroughly demonstrating the philosophy of "it's hip to be square" seven years before Huey Lewis studied the phenomenon.

It's a neat trick - though one that makes the album feel longer and more repetitive than it actually is - but the real risk Costello ran with it was that he would create music people could appreciate, but not feel. To some extent it feels like this is case on Armed Forces - cold detachment is almost everywhere here, this is punk rock at near absolute-zero - but the emotion is there, bound up in Costello's paradoxically unsentimental lyrics. Written when Costello was twenty-four, the overriding concern here is still of life as a teenage outcast, which is to say life as a teenager, full stop. Much of what is said here is purposely obtuse - though what more perfectly captures communication between teenagers and those who aren't than the feeling that much is being lost in translation?- but it's clear Costello is stitching together the sick feeling of sense of emotional and physical alienation of the hormone-charged bewilderment of teenage life with the profound sense of political alienation that plagues every young person to the left of William Hague. This album may have been written before the Winter of Discontent, but Callahan stood already as a clearly insufficient bulwark against the country's lurch toward avaricious self-interest. Thatcher and Reagan did not rise in a vacuum. The wind was changing, and the smell was getting worse.

Costello's genius is to argue it's all the same thing (check out the album's original title: Emotional Fascism). The personal is political; being ignored by the pretty girls is as frustrating and upsetting as being ignored by the people gathering to ruin the country - and both are linked to the fear of having to grow up and enter the world of work full-time. But whilst Costello is adept at presenting this fusion, he doesn't shy away from pointing out how easily it leads to self-obsession and a horrifying failure to keep things in perspective. It might feel to a young man that being jilted by a pretty girl is as bad as learning the government of the day is going to raise taxes on the poor, but that's an obviously indefensible response; an almost weaponised solipsism.

This is something Armed Forces is very much aware of. "Accidents Will Happen" casts the narrator as an adulterer, no less guilty at causing misery and a sense of betrayal than those he blames for generating those feelings in himself. References to "white niggers" and claims that "you'll never make a lampshade out of me" drive the point home further. Whatever life was like for Costello growing up as a white British teenager attending (so far as I can tell) decent enough Catholic schools, it can't possibly have been bad enough to warrant a Holocaust reference (see also "Chemistry Class", which not only returns to Holocaust imagery, but does so for the sake of a cheap pun). "Oliver's Army"'s most infamous phrase is perhaps more understandable - Costello's parents were also British, but he has Irish ancestry - but the phrase itself is a tone-deaf attempt to link the undoubtedly hideous anti-Irish bigotry in Europe to the grotesque nightmare of slavery and its aftershocks that continue to reverberate to this day. Being a white British teenager is hard. Being Anne Frank or Trayvon Martin means dying before you reach twenty.

In short, then, this is both the Grand Unified Theory of teenage alienation and a caution to not oversell the usefulness of same. All this is then set to exemplary bass from Bruce Thomas and exceptional key-work by Steve Nieve, who between them carry the whole album to its multiple heights (not that Pete Thomas' drumming is anything to disparage, either). Interestingly, the guitar-work of My Aim Is True is almost totally absent here. Costello's playing is functional at best when it can even be detected in the mix, as though his commitment to reliving alienation extends to his own band.

Alienation was eventually something that became inseparable from Costello, of course, as the myriad stinking horrors of the Thatcher government paraded through the country. The universal disconnect of youth became something more focused, as it became clear that the worst suspicions of teenage paranoia were, in fact, coming true. They really were out to get us, for a horrendously wide definition of "us". Knowing what we were doing - and what they were doing - didn't actually make anyone any happier. In that sense, Armed Forces would ultimately prove both a blueprint for Costello's work for the next decade at least, but also stand apart from it.

Just as it stands apart from everything else.

Seven and a half tentacles.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Put Right What Once Went Wrong

"You can't do this to me! I used to have a submarine!"
I've said it before, Marmite wishes it was Doctor Who.

Given how violently "Hell Bent" has split viewers, I'm going to start off by giving my own opinion - bloody loved it - and spent pretty much all of what follows justifying why by batting around various objections (to be clear, none of which I find ridiculous) I've seen online.  Spoilers, obviously, beneath the fold.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Greedy Geoff's Warporium Of Death

What's the good in having a Labour MP if you can't even trust him to not vote to murder children?  I asked him that very question via email.

Actually, I didn't. I just abused him for a bit. Changing hearts and minds is all very well, but on occasion one simply needs to vent in an appropriate direction.
Dear Mr Robinson,

There seems little point in writing this email – how can one hope to persuade those with so much blood on their hands they think they’re undergoing a brain haemorrhage every time they pick their nose? – but nevertheless, let it not pass unremarked that your vote has shamed your party, your city (which these days is also my city) and essentially humanity in general.  Innocent people will die, and you have killed them. Innocent people will become refugees, and you have set the torch to their houses. Innocent people will hate our country, and you have shown them why they are right to do so.

We will not win this war with bombs. We will not win this war with Tornadoes. And we certainly will not win this war with you presuming to lead us. It would please many in the fine city of peace and reconciliation if you were to resign immediately, join a religious order of your choosing (if they'll take you, though you could always try Sam Harris if you get desperate), and take a vow of silence, to last until your dying day, with exceptions made only for the phrases “I am so, so sorry” and “Oh Gods, what have I done”?

Yours in disappointment and disgust,

Dr Richard Crossman

Monday, 30 November 2015

I Love It When A Best-Laid Plan Comes Together...

...Albeit very much not how I'd anticipated. In particular, I had no idea that the third of Heri's stories (second in the running order) would become a novella in itself, nor that it would be, after 21000 words, still going.  It's not even very good.

But a win's a win. Even though I fucking hate that title.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

No Apologies For The Infinite Radness 1.1.6 - "Grazed Knees" (Snow Patrol)

Some songs are night songs.

There is no daytime equivalent. A day song simply doesn't exist. Who could possibly want a day song?  Night songs, though, are something wonderful. These are the songs that sound perfectly respectable when the sun is up, but somehow faded, muffled like they're being played in the next room.  But by night, they bloom. They seem closer. Or maybe it's that everything else seems further away.

"Grazed Knees" is our first night song. In daylight it feels sparse and faint; pretty, sure, but inconsequential. After sundown, though, the sparseness suggests expanse, an echoing off distant hills. The track becomes not just a song, but a place.  Some songs always remind you of a person. Others remind you of what you were doing when you first heard them. This one, though, waits patiently for you to be in the place and time that it needs from you before it blossoms, anchoring itself there indefinitely.

Doubtless this is a feeling strengthened by my own circumstances; I bought this album in the autumn of 2003. I listened to it driving across the high moors through low clouds (maybe it was fog; out there there's never any way to tell), on the way to a rendezvous with my old friends in a pub beside Rosedale. The Lion Inn is on the highest point of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park. Sound works differently up there. It was night when I did it, but then it was Christmas, night was really all that was available. The desolation fitted the beginning stages of the song perfectly; the chiming, echoing guitar an expanse for Lightbody's vocals (employing his standard trick of earnest simplicity) to fill. A giant leap, as he puts it. The moors of Yorkshire and Scotland, talking to each other from very far away.

Even once other elements swim upward to break the surface (lush strings, a second guitar, restrained but insistent drumming), this feeling of minimalism is maintained, which is no mean feat. In part this is down to the structure of Lightbody's vocal track. The verses are slight, but the chorus is almost absent - twelve syllables in two lines, making this feel more haiku than pop song.  The chorus doesn't even create weight through repetition; there's not a single word used twice in the choruses until after the middle eight, and even then it's just "just".

The result is a song that doesn't show interest in building itself into a solid structure. It doesn't lay foundations, it sketches shapes in the mist. It pays for its fragility in the end, collapsing after just 161 seconds into a repeating string sample skipping like a literal broken record. The song doesn't end, it breaks down. As though it were someone who had leaped a great distance, and not been caught, and found itself broken and cold out on the moors, where there is no-one around to fix you.

Monday, 23 November 2015

The Best Laid Plans: Redux Squared

Nope, still not given up. The problem now is after writing a combined total of ten or eleven thousand words on story two and the Heri/Ryarn follow-up, and being some way into the editing them, I realised there needed to be a story that went in-between it and "The Eight-Pointed Star." I'm probably just past the halfway point of that replacement second story, but I'm not sure how long it'll be until it's up.

But the actual word-count is coming along pretty nicely. At the time of writing this I'm about to hit thirty-four thousand, which has me behind, but only by a day and a half or so.  It's going to be tight, since I've got so much on this weekend (mainly going to the Birmingham Christmas Market and recovering from going to the Birmingham Christmas Market, though we're headed to a castle too), but if I don't let anything distract me, I should be able to win my first NaNoWrimo since 2008.

So, obviously; I'm going to go write a "No Apologies..." post. Because fuck you, Squid's muse.

Monday, 16 November 2015

II. Initiation

Heri stood, walked to the table, and took a long drink of water.

"What did you think?" she asked, pouring herself more and returning to her seat.

Ryarn considered for a moment.

"It was pleasant enough, I grant you. Or unpleasant enough, should that be? I like the stories that take us to dark places. I like a page smeared with blood. When did all this happen? When was it supposed to have happened, I mean?""

"Oh long, long ago."

"Did they really talk like that?"

She smiled deeply. "Once upon a time."

Saturday, 14 November 2015

1. The Eight-Pointed Star

Sandra Yana looked out over the grave-site and smiled. She did what she always did at this point, and imagined all the treats she could buy herself now she was about to be in the money. And this time, it was real money, this was the job that finally promised to make her fabulously wealthy. All the things she could have! A new ship, that went without saying. A tailored spacesuit, so she could stomp around asteroids whilst looking for tombs to rob and not have to worry about chafing. Indeed, she’d have so much money she wouldn’t have to do any asteroid stomping at all if she didn’t want to, though she could see herself keeping up with it, just as a hobby.

"Oh for fuck's sake!" Corrin bellowed from below the escarpment. "What have you done now?"

Better employees were also high on the list.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Best Laid Plans Redux

Well, this isn't working out the way I'd (barely) planned it. Not in the sense that I'm not writing, but in the sense that the story prompt that I used intending to get a thousand word story out of has resulted in something currently pushing past nine thousand.  I'll put that up tomorrow once the editing (very light touch, with time such a factor) is done.

I've also finished the second link, which needs its own polish before it can go up (maybe Sunday), and then I can get back to my second story prompt, which is working out very well, assuming you like horrifically cynical political stories with dashes of stupid humour.

Enough informing; back to work!

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

A Tale Of Cocktails #57

Blue Hawaiian


2oz white rum
1oz blue curacao
2oz pineapple juice
1oz coconut cream

Taste: 6
Look: 7
Cost: 8
Name: 6
Prep: 6
Alcohol: 5
Overall: 6.5

Preparation:  Add crushed ice to ingredients and put it through a blender. Add cherry and pineapple garnish and serve.

General Comments: What a difference a shade makes.

Obviously, this should be called Aunt Beru's Blue Milk.  No wonder Luke was so tetchy on Tatooine; the poor bastard must have been constantly hungover. But you can see why she was so into it; this is fairly tasty. It's much sweeter than its Casablanca cousin, which helps the pineapple settle in with the coconut cream. The thickness now feels much more reasonable too; it really does taste like a shake now, rather than some abominable "health" drink designed to suck your will to have fun. The only way this is a step down from its predecessor is it's slightly less interesting name, though I can hardly deny its appropriateness, at least at the stereotypical level which is all I have the knowledge to consider.

Anyway, tasty, even if I suspect that were I actually in Hawaii, this might be too thick of a drink to really cool me down.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Who's There?

I'd been itching to read Jack Graham's (spoilery) post on The Babadook ever since he put it up, but I managed to resist until after I'd seen the film myself, which I did - surprise! - on Halloween.  My discussion of Jack's opinion is no less spoilerising than Jack's piece itself, so consider yourself warned.

I. Arrival

Fullprince-In-Splendour Ryarn Callican, Duke of Radox Sound, Keeper of the Seven Worlds, seventy-ninth of his line and heir apparent to the entire Eternal New Sol Empire, sat forward in his seat and contemplated how unfair life was.

He smiled tightly at the absurdity of the thought. It was delicious, but thick, like the heavy cream his mother favoured on her sweet courses. His people, his subjects to be, would howl with outrage at the idea that the Emperor-Of-All's eldest child could have the slightest cause for complaint in his charmed life. He was, after all, by any objective measure among the galaxy's safest and well-treated inhabitants. No war would ever touch him; a hundred worlds could fall before he need even bother to ask whether their palace had defences. Hunger was a word he knew only by definition. The slightest cough or variation in internal temperature would be responded to almost instantly by the most talented physicians and medicomps the human race still had access to.

But that was only one half of the story. It seemed to Ryarn that the price of such safety through scrutiny was the loss of something simple and yet fundamental: freedom. Yes, no human being had been so protected and pampered since the Second Fall of Vega. Yes, his every view was breathtaking, his every meal delicious, and his every lover astonishing to behold and desperate to please. But despite, or even because of all that, he felt like one of the crude track-bound locomotive engines of steel-tech worlds and the holdings of the Neo-Luddites. No matter how picturesque the scenery, the route was essentially unchangeable.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Best Laid Plans Of Squids And Men

So I had originally decided that there was no way I was going to attempt NaNoWriMo this year, what with a full teaching schedule during the day and multiple blogs to curate in the evenings.

But then Alisdair Stuart pointed me to SF Swaps on Twitter, re-tweeting the suggestion that NaNoWriMo could be done by using the website's prompts to generate 50 stories of 1000 words each.

That sounded like something I could do, allowing me to steer clear of the bog I fell headfirst into last time somewhere around the 5000 word mark.  All I needed was a framing story, which I know the bare bones of, and I was good to go.

So, then.  The aim is for me to put up a 1000 word story here each day, along with pieces of the framing story.  Depending on how involved that story gets, I'm unlikely to write 50 stories over the month, but we'll see what happens.  This will inevitably mean that I won't be blogging much about other subjects over this period - unless I get something stuck in my head that needs levering out.

I'll be spending most of today running my eleventh and final Halloweenapalooza, so I can't guarantee this will start until the 2nd due to hangover issues, but I'm hoping you all will at least get some enjoyment out of it.

Update: I'm plugging away at this, but the first framing piece is currently approaching 3000 words, hence why nothing is up yet. It should be done before long (perhaps even tonight) and I can start chipping away at the good stuff.

No Apologies For The Infinite Radness 1.1.5 - "It's All In Your Mind" (Beck)

No-one needs me to tell them that the timing of an album's release can do as much to affect its impact and legacy as the tracks it contains does. When Beck put out Sea Change, an album almost unrecognisable as being from the same artist who gave us the kaleidoscopic buzzing charge of Odelay or the more tightly-bound funkscapes of Midnite Vultures. There was no doubt Sea Change was a bareak-up album, and Beck's public split with a famous actress at around the same time led some wag - their name now mercifully lost to history - to suggest it should be subtitled "Crying Over Winona Ryder".

In fact, Sea Change marks the end of a quite different relationship, one that had lasted for eight years. This was always obvious from the songs themselves; not only are they not about Winona Ryder, they're not even really about crying. Instead the disc is filled with the kind of weary acceptance and troubled relationship with nostalgia that marks the end not of whirlwind romantic car-crashes (to mix my metaphors unforgivably) but the slow deflation of a longstanding concern.  Very little in this collection of songs escapes the long reach of melancholy, but it would be very much inaccurate to suggest the sadness is foregrounded.

This song - along with first single "Lost Cause", which probably has something to do with why Sea Change has the dour reputation it does - is the closest the disc comes to genuine misery (which is ironic given Beck originally released it seven years earlier). I'm thoroughly unashamed to say that that's why it's my favourite song on the album.  Timing works both ways; I bought Sea Change almost at the very start of my teacher training year, at a period in my life when the best I could hope for was to feel balanced between the competing panics of being unable to hack the course and having to survive the crap I knew I had to wade through in order to complete it.  For months my mantra as I walked into the school of education, or towards where I'd be picked up to be driven into my first placement school, was simply "Try not to quit until you feel the breakdown coming."  It was not a good time in my life.

"All In Your Mind" resonated with all that.  Yes, it's perhaps most plausibly read as a lament to a lover whose let their new friends sour you to a relationship that was working just fine, but it can be repurposed - as so many of the best songs can - to speak to those with mental health issues. The titular refrain suddenly sounds comforting rather than accusatory, and the singers insistence he wanted to be our good friend becomes a reminder rather than a bitter admission of defeat. Yes, these messages of hope are still awash with sadness, but so was I at the time.

All of this is married to some rather lovely music. I only found out recently that (as mentioned) this was a new recording of an old single (I've included both in the videos). It's always interesting watching artists try to reinterpret their own acoustic work; it obviously doesn't allow for the often lazy "unplugged" approach used as a substitute for actual invention. Here Beck's decision to sing in a lower vocal register, pick his guitar, add in strings, and toss off the best use of a banjo in folk rock history takes a slight sad strum and turns it into soundscape just lush enough to capture your attention and just sparse enough resonate. Wayne Coyne once told a story about Beck telling him that Midnite Vultures was where his genius had really found its expression, and Coyne disagreed: "That would be Sea Change". To be honest, I think Beck was closer to the mark than Coyne, but with a song as wonderful as this, it's not hard to see Coyne's point. Beck, it turned out, could reinvent his own material even better than he could other people's.

Back then, self-reinvention was very much on my mind.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Friday Space Hulk: Brother Scipio

I've now finally made it one third of the way through my Space Hulk Terminators, continuing my pattern of painting one every two years.  Very much looking forward to finishing the full set in 2033.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Transcript Of Human Recollection Seminar 348827-C: Idaho Flywidth Of World Network News

Initialise cortex crystal seven-two-five, constellation housing. Human file three-three-two-six-seven-two responding. Personality retrieval at eighty-three percent. Memory retention at ninety-three percent. Consciousness streamlining within acceptable error bars. Calculate seventy-two percent chance personality subroutines will respond within point five standard deviations of original subject.

Crystal at resonant harmonies. Begin extrapolation.

Is this on? Nothing feels any different. Is this on?

Right. OK. Here goes, then.  This is Idaho Flywidth, independent media-local-maxima and futurial extrapolator par excellence.

And I was there. I was there the day the Earth died. I was also there for quite a few of the days before, which is why I'm asking for your time today. Because, as should be obvious, even on this journey to a distant star, how can we know where we're going unless we understand where we've been?

Obviously the glib answer to the implied question is "Earth". A rather more coldly accurate one would be "an expanding cloud of faintly radioactive oxygen and silicon that used to be a planet".  But there is more to it than that.  There has to be, otherwise my requesting you listen to my memories of those last years in which I was deputy CO of the World News Network would be unbearable narcissism. I have, I assure you, always striven to make my narcissism bearable, at least when not drunk.

Barring a miracle of medical and technological reinvention, I shall never be drunk again.

On to the subject. We shall begin, I think, in January 2020, the first month - to my knowledge - in which UFO sightings reached such an undeniable peak, and were viewed with such unimpeachable eyes, that we could no longer deny that we were Not Alone. Alas, the print news roundup we published at that time contained no hint of what was about to descend. We had heard rumours, of course, but the WNN did not publish gossip and rank speculation. Not at the time, at least; our policy on that changed rather dramatically not long before A-Day.

I include a copy of that issue with my transmission. I think I do, anyway. What do I - ah, yes. I think this thing, and then this thing, and then...

There. That should've worked.  You'll note that in fact we were reporting on alien activity even in those early days, it's simply that we had no idea that's what we were doing. You can also see immediately our commitment to bringing you the most expertly-crafted puns in news. The UN one was mine (though my story on the actual beginnings of the session was spiked after I insisted on implying the whole sorry organisation was about to collapse under its own pretension; given we can essentially blame that august former body for getting the Earth killed, I'd say my original story rather low-balled how snivelling and wretched they were), as was the whole story titled "We Are Scientists", a band my son liked back in the days when he had ears. Personally I think the lack of math-rock is one of the very few things that makes life as a vibrating crystal without so much a sniff at a gin and tonic halfway close to being bearable.

(I always laugh when I remember our naive insistence on "credible" sources as we started out with our new print editions. Within a few years we'd take a story from a meth-addled snail farmer if it meant we could get things printed in time for cocktails.)

It was at about this time that America and Russia both rediscovered their interests in what had once been their number one hobby: flinging shit at each other. The Americans had announced the existence of alien life and insisted they were best left at the forefront of communication with same. The Russians claimed the Americans were trying to blackmail them into military co-operation. I had my first of a number of run-ins with the American Vice President over the matter, during which he said a great number of placating statements of no real content, and a single unguarded phrase which immediately framed the story: "Our aim is to ensure other countries are in step with our goals". It was so perfect an encapsulation of American arrogance that it simply had to make it into print. Naturally, this early swipe at US imperialism was not enough to satisfy the Russians (even with another story in the issue printing their accusations against Washington); they later accused of us being "blatantly in the can" for America.  Proof you can never please everyone, I suppose, though perhaps we'd have kept them happier had I been allowed to print my intended headline for the piece: "America, F**k Yeah!". Would they have understood the reference? Perhaps not. But given the choice, I always prefer to be misunderstood due to other's stupidity than my own timorousness. Better to have to apologise than to have to restate. Better still to just sneer loudly and walk on.

(Here you can see my growing obsession with attempting to fashion puns out of languages I can barely speak. Also, I was never happy with my "From Russia With Lychees" headline, mainly because Russia's CABAL acronym was vastly more clever. I think if more forces armed with bewilderingly destructive weapons took the time to underline their sense of humour, the world would be a less dangerous place. Or, you know, would be if it wasn't now a glittering expanse of dust and ice.)

No sooner than it appeared the New Cold War was spooling up, though, tensions eased between the two powers when the sudden emergence of pro-Russian guerrillas in Ukraine caused everyone to stop and think about whether cross-continental fisticuffs should be where they should focus their energy. Despite the avalanche of trembling stress it caused (at one point I thought my boss Ms Kelly would rather eat her laptop than type up another story on it) we threw out everything we'd been working on, replacing it with up-to-date coverage of the greatest act of US-Russian co-operation since the fall of Berlin, or possibly Yul Brynner putting up with Steve McQueen for long enough to make The Magnificent Seven

With the echo of glasnost in the air, the two powers were free to find new foes. Both countries chose us; continuing to grumble our reporting was biased (perhaps our "Breaking News" segment was written in too much haste). Their mutterings notwithstanding the only people we had our sights on at thia point was France, who - in an official interview, no less - announced the rising tensions across Europe had forced them to deploy major air assault resources... in Africa. Fortunately for their public reputation, word arrived just in time that this was a (hilariously transparent) deception, intended to cover up the fact they'd discovered a major alien base in South Africa and were determined to not leave the continent unchallenged.

(This issue contains my absolute favourite pun of our entire publication history: "A Cote De Cote D'Ivoire". The impact may have been lessened by us forgetting how to put accents on letters - recent redundancies had left us badly understaffed by people who knew how computers work - and in an ideal world someone would have spotted we'd spelled the name of the damn country wrong. Still, though: French puns. You're welcome. The inclusion of this nearly made up for my original headline for the news bulletin - "You Cray, Ukraine?"-  being spiked on the grounds of taste and/or basic human decency. If I'd wanted a job where I was expected to generate or even consider decency, I can promise you I wouldn't have gotten into news reporting.)

Looking back on our slightly confused coverage of the Ukraine crisis, I can at understand at least in part why not everyone was happy with us. In our defence, though, how much chance did we have of doing better? By now we were getting whiplash at how often Washington and Moscow were changing their minds over whether they were co-operating outside Kiev or threatening each other through clenched teeth. Absolutely no-one seemed to know the facts on the ground. Certainly we didn't; our only reliable reporter was too busy sitting in at the UN and hoping for a Ferrero Rocher to roll his way. All we had to go on was the bellowing heads of the respective countries, whose shouting changed in tone and content almost literally minute by minute.  The lunatic circle of blame that blew up between the US on the one hand and China and Russia on the other over the actions of one or both or neither country in sending spies or perhaps cultists to America's eastern seaboard (all I knew here was that the Chinese were out of their minds: every time I hear someone yelling "FALSE FLAG!" it makes me want to reach for an absinthe and paraquat cocktail) had everyone on edge. Events were threatening to undermine what little goodwill the US's slow withdrawal of forces in Eastern Europe had generated.

Meanwhile, France and Brazil were at loggerheads over the latter's violation of Moroccan airspace, someone shot the President of Nigeria literally seconds before we sent the Jan '21 issue to press (a story we never got to follow up on, which gives you some idea of how badly we'd been downsized), and only Japan seemed content to mind its own business and strive for global improvement. That's if you don't count the massive resources they funnelled into CABAL, of course; by joining that organisation they forged an allied air force that now covered half the globe. We called it CABAL+ in the paper because I'd forgotten what the Japanese word for "plus" was, but however it was framed, it made the Americans nervous. And when the Americans are nervous, it's best to be nervous too, because last time the US got upset with how the Japanese air force was operating they nuked Nagasaki.

(Poor Japan. They put all this effort into feeding the world and I announce it with a thoroughly tasteless headline. Which is actually much less tasteless than that joke I just made about Nagasaki, I guess. So it could have been worse. And now is.)

By this point nations across the world were beaming transmissions to our alien visitors, with the by-all-accounts almost total failure to translate the replies apparently seemingly to not causing the slightest consternation. Accusations and counter-accusations were thrown at the UN as they tried to determine who had sent what when, and what replies had been received and what they could mean. Japan's brief period of positive press collapsed when it was claimed they had pretended to be the UN itself in their hopes of levering an advantage from our alien visitors. It's almost funny to think about how at one point this was the biggest problem the world had with Japanese-extraterrestrial relations. It's like imagining some hypothetical Romeo and Juliet prequel where Lords Montague and Capulet basically get on even though Capulet didn't really spend all that much on Montague's last birthday card.

Meanwhile, WNN had its own problems. The Americans, having been stung early on by us focusing on their haughty hubris, had become increasingly unhappy as issue after issue went by without them being given the respect they had convinced themselves they were entitled to, and were making noises about total refusal to co-operate with the press (at this point they were preceding every comment they made to us with "On the record", which I presume was offered in the spirit of bitter snark rather than seen as an actual method for maintaining secrecy). Something had to be done to keep them at least vaguely onside, or we risked losing the most secure access to alien information we currently had.

The decision was quickly made to offer a puff piece opportunity, a quick interview with Vice President Hart that would offer the Americans the chance they believed they'd been denied to deliver their message to the world. The resulting piece was ultimately fairly anodyne; I expected the Russians to demand their own similar piece (something we were prepared to grant but not to specifically offer for fear of offending the Americans once again), but nothing was said from Moscow. Later I learned this was because the same coverage that had so offended the Americans we needed to make a peace offering was seen by Russia as so blatantly pro-Washington that Hart's interview simply cemented us as a pro US mouthpiece. I suppose printing the rumors that the Russians had captured a live alien didn't help. I still don't know if that was actually true, though really, what could it possibly matter now?

(Note that at this point we couldn't even be trusted to keep our articles within the margins. The problem with making redundancies is that it drastically decreases the pool of people you can blame for this kind of cock-up.  Still, the Americans were still thrilled they got to get their side of the story across, and everyone else was thrilled our formatting mistake had cut this embarrassing example of public fawning at least slightly short.

This was also the issue at which we reached our pun nadir, at least in terms of quality. Brown-nosing the Americans had left me with very little time for inventive wordplay. This is presumably why comedians get less funny as they climb society's ladder, with Ben Elton being the most stark example.)

At long last my prediction finally bore fruit; the United Nations now really was on the verge of collapse over internal bickering, and I was finally able to deploy one of my finest puns. But despite Japan taking up so much oxygen with its total refusal to play space-ball (ironically if we'd ever gotten around to inventing space-ball, we would in fact have had to take up a lot of oxygen), it was once again the US that was our focus, due to the twin stories breaking that America had a military spaceship ready to go, and also possibly an alien posing as their President.  The combination of those two stories bled into each other to heighten tensions everywhere; together they were the perfect storm of jealous resentment and smug superiority that characterises seemingly every non-American's view of that country. You know how it goes: the Americans are terrifying despite/because of their idiocy! Their hilarious ineptness makes them the most dangerous people imaginable!

So much time was spent on the US we almost didn't have space to announce the new prestigious science awards that was being discussed in whispers along the halls of power.  This, we were informed by our shadowy "benefactors", would not do/ I must confess that originally my pride was pricked by us being quietly strong-armed into advertising the competition in our news-sheet - I say pricked, but I inflated like a sozzled bullfrog over this, so whatever pricked me, it could not have sunk all that deep. With the benefit of hindsight (if there is any point anymore to using that phrase in any context other than looking back sadly at the roads we could have taken to not get our home planet blown to bits), I realise what was really going on.  This wasn't a scientific convention.  It was a sting operation.

(No, there is no Professor of Spaceships at Oxford University. I just made the job up. And the Professor. What kind of name is "Fatwasp", I ask you? I assume I was drunk.)

Earth was entering her endgame now. None of us could have known that, of course, but even in our ignorance there was a sense of acceleration, of history falling so far behind us that it no longer mattered.  The future was a freight train heading straight for us, and we could jump onto it or be crushed beneath. The laws of physics didn't favour us on that one.

The sense of adrenaline and madness was everywhere in those days, and WNN could not claim to be an exception. With contact with the aliens becoming more and more common, and more and more concerning, events were unspooling to the point where almost every story we released was either outdated or inaccurate, often both. We announced the winners of the international science competition whilst those running it were up on corruption charges. We announced the US and UK were joining Le CABAL+ when in fact they had promised only to work alongside them (really, though, once you announce you'll let an international organisation give orders to your fighter jets, you've joined that organisation and no amount of hair-splitting is going to change that). We were running out the clock, and we knew it. Print was dead. The lay of the land could change utterly in the length of time it took for our printer to finish spreading ink across a page in a rough approximation of what we'd sent it. Even my puns were falling behind the curve. "Top Top Top Top Top Top Top Guns"? That's not a joke; that's basic bloody arithmetic.

Still, as bad a time of it as we were having, it could've been worse. The calamitous fall from grace of Brazil's Professor Ferreira was proof enough of that (the poor man tried to bribe us with information to keep his name out of the papers, but all he could offer us was that the alien forces came from Jupiter, which a) everyone had heard, and b) no one believed). Rather less amusing was the number of alien vessels entering our atmosphere to abduct people. The fact they labelled their victims "refugees" was a distinction that reassured precisely nobody.  Especially since America's weaponised-space program had reached the point where they could be in a position to declare war on the aliens any day now, and everyone in the international community was fully cognisant of how much the US hated building weapons that they couldn't use more or less immediately on someone who didn't look like them.

To make matters worse, at least for us, our access to major political figures had been drastically curtailed, not out of spite, but because they were all too busy trying to keep the world from falling apart. What little snippets we could pry from them as they jetted from country to country was garbled and contradictory, as is made only too clear by the fact that more or less every piece of information we published about our alien visitors was completely wrong. The rot set in with the edition below, in which we repeated the utterly inaccurate intel from Japan that the aliens comprised of two factions, a rumour that can plausibly be said to have cost the lives of millions of people who stayed behind, and the bodies of those of us who managed to acquire a last-minute upload.  Had I known I would be trapped as memory engrams inside a buzzing grey crystal for the rest of eternity, I suspect I might have put a little more effort into fact-checking.

(The ending to the Brazilian scandal story might be my favourite moment among all the sheets we wrote up, actually.)

And now we reach the final hours of our planet's life. The Out Of Context problem. The old black joke turned into a horrifying reality - no wonder Douglas Adams decided he was better off out of it so early. By now events were moving so quickly WNN managed the oddly impressive feat of releasing an entire issue that contained not a single piece that wasn't either utterly inaccurate or thoroughly outdated. If the planet hadn't been destroyed, I'd have dropped a rock on our offices myself in shame. Still, no-one needed the media anymore. They needed a miracle. Mycroft was awake, and the aliens were furious. War had broken out in Antarctica and threatened to spread. The UN had abandoned their rigidly-structured bitching sessions so they could gather nervously around computer monitors updating the apocalyptic severity of our situation in real time.

So we just came up with the best puns we could think of, shut everything down, and ran screaming for the nearest alien transport. Our discarded printed bulletins blew across the surface of a dying earth, gripped in the storms of an atmosphere driven mad by what was being shoved into it. Our hopes were as doomed as everything else.

So there we go. The story of how the world ended, by one of those who should have known the most, but somehow managed to be amongst the least well-informed of us all. Being a journalist, I ultimately learned, does not mean hearing more truth. It means hearing more everything. The meal isn't more tasty, or more healthy, it is simply bigger, and utterly unconnected to any sane vision of coherent cuisine. You can't eat it all, you know that some of it will be foul and some of it will be poisoned. But you have to gulp down as much as you can regardless, with no way to know what's good for you. Certainly your menu is no help, it simply states "Eat the right bits or we will hate you". And so you desperately scoop food into your mouth, lacking the time to chew, lacking the time to swallow, really. In and in it goes, handful after dripping handful, as you search desperately for the taste of something true and interesting you can sift from the morass and try to recreate for public consumption. A task as impossible as it is depressing.  I would have preferred to retire to the Scottish highlands and distill whisky rather than have my brain stored inside a shiny rock for all eternity, but either way, I can at least be glad I'm out of the business.

Next time you need someone to tell you a story, look somewhere else. This will be the last tale that I tell.

I hope that I got it right.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

A Tale Of Cocktails #56



3oz white rum
4oz pineapple juice
2oz coconut cream
Dash grenadine

Taste: 3
Look: 7
Cost: 8
Name: 7
Prep: 6
Alcohol: 4
Overall: 5.6

Preparation:  Add crushed ice to ingredients and put it through a blender. Add cherry and pineapple garnish and serve.

General Comments: Well, this is awful. Just a pina colada - which I'm already not much of a fan of - with coconut cream replacing the milk, making the whole thing thick and cloying and savoury; just this big lumpen boring mess. A milkshake for self-flagellating alcoholics, or for deep-sea divers wanting something to reduce buoyancy whilst they tipsily search through shipwrecks. The fact that it looks so tasty and creamy just makes things worse; presumably the cocktail umbrella is for scraping the vile mess from the insides of your throat so you can breathe and feel joy once more.

It doesn't even taste nice out of my nice new seasonal goblets.

The Vale Between Twin Peaks

They say talent borrows and genius steals. We need a word for what glorious, deranged genius does; how it takes a structure and refashions it into something instantly recognisable and yet profoundly different. The sort of thing David Lynch did with his gigantically underrated Dune adaptation, an example of course which I do not remotely pick at random.

Deadly Premonition is not a good game. The graphics are hopelessly outdated. The controls are defiantly digital. There are only four enemy types in the entire game (aside from the occasional arrival of the Raincoat Killer), three of which don't show up until after the midway point. The open-world environment sprawls across a huge map which fails to allow you to set way-points. Playing this lumpen, leaden game is frequently an exercise in simmering frustration.

But playing this game isn't really what you're supposed to be doing. It would be more fair to say you're reading a graphic novel, and moving Special Agent Francis York Morgan from location to location is how you turn the page. Really the only difference is that this a graphic novel set up like a video game, which allows you to decide to some degree what order you read its pages in, and which to skip.  This feeling that you're simply here to experience a narrative is strengthened when you consider that the combat scenes in the game (by far its weakest aspect; imagine Resident Evil 4 with terrible visuals, a desperate lack of variation, and utterly awful controls; though I guess RE4 never let you decide whether you would attack a zombie with a crowbar or a cavalry sabre) was only included due to studio interference, acting just like the clueless suits that cram every TV show about TV shows, insisting western audiences couldn't be expected to play a game about unconquerable supernatural nightmares unless those same unconquerable supernatural nightmares could be shot in the face a few times. [1]

What's interesting to note is that without these forays into sub-par survival horror, the game would be almost entirely lacking in ways to get yourself killed. With the game giving you a hunger meter, it's possible to get so famished that you actually pass out from starvation, ending the game, but even then your restart point involves stumbling from the local hospital the next morning, and it's not like food is hard to come by in the town of Greenvale [2]. The only remaining threat would be the very killer you are trying to track down, who shows up every couple of chapters to make life briefly difficult for you. As imagined, then, this is not a game in which staying alive was much of a concern. The only impediment to player progress was how big the game is (I finally finished it just past the twenty-five hour playtime mark).  Deadly Premonition is not a challenge. It is a cartoon story in a non-standard delivery system.

Even this falls short of the mark, though, because of how obviously Deadly Premonition is modelled on early nineties television - indeed, every one of the game's most frustrating issues can be squarely explained away by the attempt to replicate as far as practical what playing video games was like during the early days of the 16-bit era.  Specifically, this is about as obvious an attempt to capture the windswept, lonely beauty of Twin Peaks as has ever been attempted (well, except for the currently-in-production season three, but that's cheating). The links are everywhere, most clearly in the plot: an eccentric FBI Agent arrives in a seemingly sleepy American town to investigate the brutal murder of a well-loved local teenage girl by a killer who leaves a baffling calling card, only to find nothing is as it appears, including the laws of reality.  But it's everywhere else too. There's tremendous overlap between the characters here and those of Twin Peaks, or Lynch's work in general. You have the aforementioned eccentric Fed, but you also have the nervous deputy, the no-mark teenage drug-pusher with links to something far darker, a woman we might as well call "Pot Lady", a powerful local businessman equal parts Ben Horne and Frank from Blue Velvet, and a love interest deliberately modelled on Naomi Watts as she appeared in Mulholland Drive.

Even her name is similar: "Emily Wyatt," with the switch of the first initial important because... well, that would be telling. Beyond these specific links, though, the offbeat nature of the inhabitants of Greenvale is overwhelmingly reminiscent of their Twin Peaks counterparts. Then you have the parallel locations - an opulent hotel by the water, a diner where everyone meets to swap gossip, a night-spot done up to remind us of Julee Cruise's in-show performances, dark forests in which dark deeds can take place and, most significantly, the game's very own Red Room.

But it's the themes where the two stories intersect most profoundly. Without wishing to give anything away (I'll put some spoiler-laden comments after the fold) Deadly Premonition is obsessed, like much of Lynch's work, with the duality of existence. The difference between who we are and who we show to the world, a discontinuity that exists not only at the level of individuals, but at the level of entire towns, and indeed civilisation itself. By day Greenvale is one place, by night it's another, almost literally, with the townsfolk safe in bed and the shadows of the dead stalking the streets. Almost every character hides a secret, some benign, others murderous. Just as with the investigation into Laura Palmer's death, every new twist in this tale reveals how far the murdered girl really was from the image everyone has of her. Drugs and sex and death and dreams.

Most importantly, as with the evil of Killer BOB, learning who is responsible for the murder doesn't necessarily mean learning who wielded the blade...

Given the fact that this is clearly meant to be an interactive homage to Twin Peaks, then, questions of control sensitivity and navigation issues seem more or less entirely beside the point. What matters is how well it captures the spirit of what it is referencing, and how well it stands as its own story. The news there is generally good; it takes too long for the story to get going, perhaps, but then ...Peaks was a slow-burner too, indeed its ambling pace continued more or less throughout. And when this story gets good, it gets good, full of allegory and symbolism and neat little linguistic clues that often only make sense in hindsight. Again, I can't say more for spoiling the surprise, but the balance between homage and originality is well-maintained.

There are problems here too, admittedly. Most obviously, a game intended to take more than a full day's play to complete, the score is far too slight, requiring endless repetition of the same pieces. This would be somewhat irritating in any case, but the real problem lies in the limited choice of music basically ensuring a large number of cut scenes being accompanied by horribly jarring music - most obviously the atonal saxophone amble that occasionally intrudes whilst York is facing instances of his quarry's brutality. Twin Peaks thrived on huge tonal shifts, of course, but in Lynch's trademark dream logic way, a flow from light to dark aided hugely by Angelo Badalamenti's exquisite score. Deadly Premonition's music doesn't imply the dream state, instead suggesting self-conscious attempts at zaniness.  Even here, though, the game improves as it develops, with some of the final scenes set to absolutely gorgeous pieces that, crucially, the game has not overplayed. And if nothing else - and I'm still trying hard to give nothing away - the game's ending is pure Lynch, insofar as the sense of bittersweet melancholy is overpowering, staying with you long after the game has ended.

(Major spoilers from this point on.)

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Villainous Vikings

Since the end of the war with humanity the Cylons had felt free to let themselves go a little.

Since I've said something about every episode of this Who season so far, I feel like I should at least pass brief comment on "The Girl Who Died." Spoilers: I didn't like it.

(Also spoilers: spoilers.)

Saturday, 17 October 2015

I Will Make You Fishers Of Men

"Fucking pigeons"
(Update: I've now added a specific Doctor Who tag to all relevant posts, though this goes against my better judgement considering how uniformly terrible I was at TV criticism I was seven years ago.)
"Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned." Romans 5:12
(Who spoilers from jump)

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

No Apologies For The Infinite Radness 1.1.4 - "Fake Plastic Trees" (Radiohead)

Radiohead are one of those phenomenally successful and critically adored bands that I've never entirely "got". I remain defiant in my belief that their debut Pablo Honey is fiercely underrated (for all its slightness), but where I really diverge from common opinion is in finding OK Computer a po-faced slab of a disc, all but entirely divorced from human feeling. It's the album Stanley Kubrick would write; all cold surfaces and long, unfeeling glances.  Their later albums are even worse.

The one point upon which I agree entirely with consensus is how absolutely wonderful The Bends is. It's a work of angular, angry exhaustion with the world, but it maintains a fragile beauty at its core. This stems from nothing so positive as hope, of course - "(Nice Dream)" makes that clear enough - rather it reveals a central core of the "calm, autumnal sadness" Bertram Russell insisted was the proper response to the world as it is and always was.

"Fake Plastic Trees" represents the best of this latter approach, with all the rough edges filed away to produce a gorgeous expression of sleepy sadness, a kind of insomniac's lament over - appropriately enough - the unreality of everything surrounding them. It might be classic white-boy territory to fret over society as facade rather than as antagonist, but Yorke's lyrics - which he insists he wrote as a joke -weaves concerns over cosmetic surgery into the unsettling artificial landscapes surrounding us. It's no longer just the places that might not be what they seem, but the people.

Often these concerns come attached to the sinister or the cynical, a judgment of "those people", the teenage-born obsession with everyone being fake except yourself - the precise root of the petty misery of mankind that guarantees we can never have nice things. Here, though, Yorke doesn't sniff at the fake plastic people, he identifies with them. The woman who feels compelled to act as if naught is amiss by buying a plastic watering-can for her artificial plants. The girls who paid for cosmetic surgery ten years earlier only to find out there's no beating the long, slow pull of time. The cosmetic surgeon himself, sitting and wondering whether he really did any good for anyone. Hell, the whole town is now so filled with plastic it's like it's trying to "get rid of itself", like Cybermen cutting out and replacing one organ after another until nothing is left. These postage-stamp portraits are all ineffably sad, but Yorke saves the most affecting for last, as he moves up his vocal register and admits, falsetto, that he can't maintain his facade any more than anyone else can, but if he could...

All of this captured in a song of almost perfectly-judged instrumentation; the deceptive simplicity of the acoustic guitar and the mournful chimes of synthesiser gradually augmented by lush strings and stabs of electric guitar as the list of the broken grows and Yorke becomes more frantic about the seductive power of the artificial wars with his desire to escape, only to be punctured and disappear at the exact moment he surrenders, confessing he's no better than anyone else here, he's simply more familiar with how and why he's trapped.

According to various sources Yorke sang the vocal track in just two or three takes after seeing Jeff Buckley perform, and then burst into tears. This has never been difficult for me to believe. Far more surprising is that any of us manage to get through the song without doing the exact same thing.

And special bonus video:

Wednesday, 7 October 2015


Somehow I made it.  Two thousand posts.  This blog has been a real labour of love for the past seven-and-a-lot years, and I'm really proud of... well, most of it, anyway.

My thanks to my commentators and lurkers, my readers and my hate-readers, my muses and those people who are just such colossal turds that I can't resist heading online to explain why they should be accosted by honey badgers.

I don't really have anything useful or interesting to say today, so instead I'll just provide you with a Storify of the ludicrous conversation I had this morning whilst polishing Friday's lecture.  If nothing else, it's been too long since I last got to use that tag.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

You Dream About Going Up There

"Darling it's better down where it's wetter." And we teach this filth to kids.

(Who spoilers below)

Monday, 5 October 2015

A Tale Of Cocktails #55

El Diablo


2oz tequila
3/4oz creme de cassis
1oz lime juice
ginger beer

Taste: 7
Look: 6
Cost: 8
Name: 9
Prep: 8
Alcohol: 3
Overall: 7.1

Preparation:  Shake all non-fizzy ingredients, pour into iced-filled glasses and top with ginger beer.

General Comments: Hail Satan!

What with the most wonderful time of the year rapidly heading towards us, Fliss and I decided to seek out an appropriately themed cocktail. Unfortunately, most of what we found we didn't have the ingredients for (having not yet fully replaced the stock used up at our last ludicrously debauched cocktail soiree-cum-orgy), but we were able to slap together this thing.

I'm not much of a fan of ginger beer, and I actively dislike tequila, so hopes here were decidedly not high. And yet this really does work. The ginger beer takes the edge of the tequila, and the lime in turn prevents the ginger from going too far, as well as limiting the sweetness from the creme de cassis, which is doubtless good news for those who find my usual cocktail choices too sugary. The end result is a cocktail that should kick in about four different directions, but, like some clever trick of Newtonian physics, ends up perfectly balanced.  And with a kick-ass name, too.

Hail Satan!

Friday, 2 October 2015

Friday Talisman: Cheaper Books?

Usually I like to have more posts between painting updates - they're so easy to do they feel like cheating - but I've painted this up in under two weeks, which is quite possibly a record for me. It's made all the more impressive by the difficult circumstances I have to work under these days, i.e. a quadruped [1] that loves, in order of increasing mischief: knocking my paintbrushes on the floor, nibbling at my plastic miniatures, and drinking my paint-water.

Still, you don't need to hear about my problems.


[1] "A quadruped? You don't know if it's a dog or a cat?"
"I respect it's privacy. Also it might be a weasel."

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The French Connection

John Woodcock's unhinged lunacy reminded me of an old argument I had with various friends of t'blog about the benefits or otherwise of abandoning Trident. So, since I'm pissed off about it all over again, let's go over the key facts once more.

First of all, the terror of a nuclear holocaust is, at least these days, a peculiarly British obsession. I've been lucky enough through my job to visit many European countries and attend conferences with people from many more. At this point there's barely a country in Europe from which I've not met someone with whom I've sat down and had dinner or a drink (I'm still searching for an Andorran). Whilst recognising entirely that these people have almost exclusively been mathematical academics, and thus my experiences are heavily weighted towards very smart people who understand how to think logically, the general feeling I picked up is that those who live in countries without nuclear weapons (that would be around 96% of the states fully in Europe) are absolutely thrilled that it's not their problem. They see the presence of nuclear weapons as an accident waiting to happen at best and a magnet for terrorist attacks at worst. We may be desperate to hold on to our nukes, but it is not the case that other countries are desperate to acquire them. They don't fear a nuclear war; they fear a nuclear accident.

"Butwhy should they fear the bomb," goes the argument "When they can rely on us to do the protecting for them?" Well, first of all, I'm not particularly convinced countries like Lithuania or Serbia sleep soundly in their beds certain that Western Europe will have their back come the nuclear squalls - and I guarantee you whatever the many reasons Putin had for not nuking the western Ukraine over the Crimea, What Would David Cameron Do? wasn't anywhere on the list -  but leaving that aside, the immediate response to that question is why we can't enjoy that same protection? If Germany doesn't need to worry about being nuked so long as someone in Europe has the deterrent, why don't we take advantage of that same logic?

The answer, so far as I can see, is simple: it's because that someone would be the French.

The basic inbuilt distrust of our Gallic neighbours is of course hardwired into vast swathes of the British public. At its best, this affects our discourse through the spoken concern that once we get rid of our nukes, those feckless Frenchies will as well, leaving all of Europe as unprotected as say, South America, or Africa, (or even Australasia, depending on what you think the likelihood is of the UK actually going to nuclear war to protect New Zealand). Obviously the glowing radioactive remains of those continents testify to how dangerous such a a course of action would be.  But even beyond my facetiousness, the argument fails to persuade because there's no coherence to it. What, keeping nuclear missiles in Europe is so unquestionably necessary for basic survival we can't afford to get rid of a fraction of them in case it starts a trend? You might as well say we have to eat six meals a day because if we busted ourselves down to three we might start thinking about the benefits of a starvation diet. The argument confuses a positive feedback cycle for a negative one.  It's particularly odd seeing people buy into the French stereotype of feckless unreliability whilst ignoring the equally strong stereotype of unbearable French arrogance. Why assume the French would give up their weapons when they could use them to lord it over an entire continent, giggling as they watched their own breed of neoliberal hawks strut around calling themselves "la dernière défense pour l'Europe"? Because, as always, stereotypes are only useful rhetorical tools as long as they are convenient.

Anyway, that's the best form of the argument dealt with. The alternative form is that we can trust the French to keep their missiles, but not to use them (or threaten to use them, which is all it would really take) in response to a nuclear threat on the UK.

It is almost impossible to state how ridiculous this is.  Even the most rabid anti-Gallic xenophobic Rosbeef should be able to process the fact that the UK is simply too close to Franch geographically for them to ever allow a nuclear strike on British soil.

Back in 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear plant in modern-day Ukraine exploded, causing an unprecedented level of nuclear fallout at the time, something in the range of 400 Hiroshima bombs. The effects on Ukraine were catastrophic, but there was plenty to panic about across the entire continent. Indeed, the level of radioactive material that swept into France as a result of the disaster was so great the government felt compelled to cover it up from its own people. This from a single disaster, of a degree of power equal to less than one thirtieth of some of the nuclear weapons the US has in active service, that happened some 1500 miles from Paris.

London in constrast is less than 300 miles from Paris. In simple terms of distance, and depending on wind direction, it would be more harmful to Paris to drop an ICBM on London than on Marseilles. And speaking of difference and effect, if we make use of the inverse square law to calculate dispersion of radioactive materials (which is actually low-balling things, but never mind), do you know how many Hiroshima fallouts in London Paris would consider equivalent to 400 in northern Ukraine?


Sixteen Hiroshimas. Whilst accepting that radioactive fallout and destructive capability are not the same, that's not even equal to just one of our most powerful Trident missiles. A single one of our own larger nukes goes off by accident and Paris has the same headache as Chernobyl caused them.  Now consider the utter devastation a "nuclear holocaust"of the kind Woodcock claims to be threatening about engulfing Britain, and try to tell me the French would greet that with a shrug of their shoulders.

Even this doesn't seem to work as a counter, though, because we're not arguing with people who think our need for Trident is plausible, simply that it can't be proved entirely non-existent. Nuclear war could kick off. Britain (well, who are we kidding, England) could be targeted. The French could just munch cheese and quaff wine and mumble "boff" as their neighbour to the west burns. But the problem with these kind of argument strings - we need a deterrent in case a nuclear war starts, and were caught up on it, and those who literally couldn't survive a sustained bombing of our country suddenly forget the fact - is that they ignore probability entirely on the grounds that "it isn't literally impossible". Well, no, it isn't. But once your definition of something we must spend billions on acting to prevent is that it is something that at least theoretically could happen, you have to accept a need to defend against every scenario, no matter how implausible.  Maybe the nuclear war will kick off whilst the home counties are in the grips of a plague, so we need to make sure we have sufficient nukes in say, Cornwall and Cumbria to defend us all. But maybe Cornwall and Cumbria - AKA "The West Coast Quislings" have taken advantage of the plague to rebel, so we'll need to keep enough missiles in plague-free loyalist Hull to defend the entire island for when the crown finally regains control. There are any number of fantastical scenarios that are still technically possible that I could add on to the argument for keeping Trident, and by their own logic supporters of the system would have to sign off on them too. I'm not saying it's impossible to come up with a "probability of catastrophe" that would include nuclear war but not epidemic and revolution, but I don't see anyone actually trying to do that.

And so we continue pumping money into a system no-one can prove we're ever likely to need and which none of its defenders can claim is actually what we'll need if push ever comes to mushroom cloud, and meanwhile our underfunding of the health service or the welfare state is literally killing people. You might as well cut out people's hearts to wear as brooches in case they scare werewolves away as let people die alone and abandoned because you're worried someone's going to nuke your village green.

We don't need Trident. We can't afford Trident, for all that cutting it wouldn't make a colossal difference to our finances. And anyone who's objecting because of a mistrust of the French should stop and think how funny it would be to make them shoulder the full cost of running a nuclear deterrent whilst we fill our missile silos with cash to be spent on keeping people alive for real, rather than in a second-rate Tom Clancy hypothetical.