There is an odd thrill in discovering that a particular artist or creator that you admire presently has also created things in the past that you also really liked, especially when you can learn more about that persons process simply by rewatching or re-reading their old stuff. A recent example for me was rewatching all of Press Gang1
For those not lucky enough to be British teenagers in the 80’s, Press Gang was a kid’s tv show that told the tale of a newspaper ran by school children. It isn’t a school newspaper, the premise is that it’s a local paper targeted at the youth audience2. This Junior Gazette is ran by the tyrannical Lynda Day (played by Julia Sawalha (who would go on to be the straight woman in Absolutely Fabulous), and she is supported by a cast of misfits including a chap called Spike3, who spends most of the series trying to pursue Lynda romantically.
At its heart, it’s a drama about truth and beauty, and yes, I know how that sounds, but hear me out. The beauty in this case isn’t the constant struggle for romance and happiness (though that is part of it), but the burning desire for unobtainable perfection. Lynda wants the paper to be perfect, Spike strives to be desired by all, the marketing manager Colin wishes to own all the money in the world and so on. The cold light of truth shines on all of these desires and is represented by the newspaper itself, which every episode must carry on no matter what. This allows the show to be silly and serious at the same time; one part of romantic comedy farce and the other part serious teen drama.
This is the framework for some rather dazzling stories that still work to this day. I thought that the more melodramatic scenes that involved themes such as teenage suicide, abuse and the death of the young would have less of impact on me now that I’m a more world weary type of chap, but the show still packs an incredible punch and this is all due to the incredibly well rendered characters and the wit and wisdom that seems to be burnt into almost all of the dialogue.
It certainly isn’t perfect; it suffers a little bit from the ‘moral of the week’ formula all too common in Eighties dramas, and is hampered by that decades unwillingness to be blunt about what it’s trying to say4. The performances are superb, and when it is good it is very, very good. Some of the ideas and scenes are clearly a first draft for more memorable moments of Moffat’s later shows; the slapstick of Coupling can be seen in some of Press Gang’s sillier moments (usually featuring the hapless gobshite Colin), and the relationship between Lynda and her best friend Kenny has echoes with Holmes and Watson in Sherlock.
The old show is well worth a re-watch, but be warned; you will find yourself rewriting the last episode in your head for weeks, if not years, to come.
1: Of course I’d known for years that Moffat was behind Press Gang and Coupling but the thrill only becomes obvious when you take the time to experience the earlier works again.
2: The 80’s were obsessed with capturing ‘youth audiences’ as if young people were this new and strange alien culture that had recently come to Earth. Looking back on it all, I cynically wonder if the 40-something commissioning editors weren’t merely trying to recapture their own youth.
3: Played by South London’s own Dexter Fletcher with a not-as-good-as-you-remember American accent, He went on to be in a wide range of British movies, typically as ‘slightly crazy cockney geezer’. We try not to talk about his stint as the presenter of kids show Games Master.
4: Back in the 70’s and 80’s, TV programming made the mistake of taking idiots with too much time on their hands too seriously. This severely hampered what could talked about on telly, especially children’s drama. Proto-trolls such as Mary Whitehouse and her ilk deserve their own blog post however, so I’ll talk about them some other time.
Over on Chuck Wendig’s blog Terrible Minds he invited people to talk about Book Piracy. Now it being me, the first thing that sprung to my mind was a dystopian Waterworld style future in which the most precious things in the world are books.
After all, if most of the landmasses on the planet became flooded and we all lived on re-purposed ships and barges, things that float would be at a premium. Those floating villages that could rig up enough power to run electrical devices probably wouldn’t waste that precious resource on e-readers, so it would be down to keeping surviving collections of books in a safe and dry place. Librarians would be more heroic than they are today, carrying shotguns and strictly enforcing fines.
All of this would lead to book piracy, of course. Tricorn wearing men and women would roam the seas in powerful ocean-going vessels, seeking out the precious booty of books. Libraries would be the targets of these terrible raiders (who presumably speak in Cornish accents), and librarians would have to protect those who wish to steal these stores of knowledge for their own selfish gain. Huge campaigns would be waged over the last surviving copies of House on Pooh Corner and adventurers would go off on quests to find the legendary “Amazon”, a mythical place that they say is filled with books.
Of course, when they say “Book Piracy” they might mean illegal file-sharing. It’s an interesting problem that isn’t as modern as we like to think it is. Art, be it movies, music, or books, needs to be shared and enjoyed by the community in order to be worth anything. As someone who makes a very modest living from writing, I want my work to do two things; be enjoyed by as many people as possible, and I also want to be paid. If the work isn’t good enough, it doesn’t sell. If I charge too much, it doesn’t sell, and both of those are fine; it’s on me to make sure it’s good work, reasonably priced and on time. If everyone steals my work then I don’t get paid at all, and I have to find something else to do in order to stay safe, fed, happy and living.
People will always seek to share art. This is such a fundamental thing that we even have a whole skill-set devoted to it. People train to be librarians, museum attendants and curators. A society that seeks to punish someone for wanting to enjoy music, view dramas or read books has gone wrong somewhere; we need to feed our brains almost as much as we need to feed our bellies, and if you try and deprive them of this right, then the metaphorical pirate ships will arrive.
The modern argument about file-sharing seems to be one of greed. On the one extreme you have people who wish to take everything for granted and never pay anyone for anything. On the other extreme you have people who want to charge people large sums of money for anything anyone has ever created. Neither of these are sensible approaches, a good book should not be the privilege of the wealthy or those with flexible morals. The middle ground for this debate is that of the public library, and subscription sharing services like Books Free. I like the idea of a service that mails books to me for a modest fee, though I’d be happier if they made sure the fee stayed modest and within the reach of everbody.
What is your take on this debate? Comments below please.
Once in a while, there’s a rush of interest when some actor/director/geek celeb mentions the possibility of a much loved TV series being remade, or coming back to TV in some way. In a way it’s the fault of Star Trek; there was a show that was cancelled, came back as a series of movies, and then went on to be re-imagined in many different ways. Collar a random nerd in the street and they will almost certainly have some show or other that they want to see re-done or just resurrected. These days it tends to be Firefly1, but it can easily be Blakes 7 or even Star Cops.
Do you know what TV series they should bring back? Jupiter Moon. For those of you who have never heard of it, Jupiter Moon was the flagship soap opera of the long defunct British Satelite Broadcasting company, and vanished shortly after Sky bought BSB out. The characters lived in a re-conditioned space ship that orbited Calypso, one of Jupiter’s Moons (hence the name). The ship, called the Ilea2 functioned as a university for students studying the cosmos. It had no aliens, no monsters, and at no point did anyone have a teleport accident and devolve into a weird lizard-duck creature. Set in 2050, all the technology was based on conservative estimates to what would be possible by then, so it had a very down-to-earth feel.
So was Jupiter Moon any good? Well, not really. It spent far too much time telling the viewer that it was set in the future and not enough time on being a soap opera. However, when it did concentrate on the more mundane elements it really shone. This is because the show was really about people living in a remote place and having to work together to get on. Cramming characters into a confined space a letting them talk tends to work as a drama3, and the hazards and emptiness of space do a decent enough job of adding an element of the exotic to the show.
So why remake it? Because it would be a science fiction show for a people who don’t watch science fiction. In the same way that The Big Bang Theory isn’t for nerds, a remade Jupiter Moon would hand the wonder of the stars to those who have never really looked up. It would also allow the broadcaster to educate and entertain. The format would allow the public an ‘easy way in’ to the idea of space exploration, and could be used to gather more interest in the sciences. It’s also a rich vein of drama; sure you could do a similar show set on a remote island or oil rig, but neither of those settings are quite as awesome a reconditioned space ship orbiting a moon of Jupiter.
So the next time you watch a soap opera, ask yourself “Would this be improved by being in space?” Because surely, the answer is yes.
1: As much as I love the show and the movie, if they ever relaunch Firefly it will be with an all new cast. Though I can’t see it myself; Whedon has been given the keys to the Marvel toybox, I suspect he’ll be busy for a while.
2: A pun. Named after the Inner London Education Authority.
3: If you don’t believe me, consider why Big Brother continues to be on the air.
The board game that most of us learn to play whilst growing up is Monopoly. When played incorrectly (which most people do), it teaches the players that managing money is all about luck, bluffing and buying the first thing you see. When played using the rules provided in the box1, it teaches us that managing money is all about arguing and swindling. As life lessons go, both of those are pretty rubbish, which goes to show that if you want to learn about money, don’t learn it from anything called Monopoly.
Instead, you should learn some lessons from the excellent German boardgame, Power Grid. Designed by the award winning Friedemann Friese, this complicated looking but surprisingly simple game actually does what Monopoly only claims to; it’s about seizing corporate control and being the sole controller of a particular resource. As the name suggest, the commodity in question is electrical power; you and your friends via for control of a nation’s power stations. The game is German, so the default map is Germany. However, other boards are available for those obsessed with maps and simulation. The aim of the game is to provide power to as many different cities as you can. Players bid on types of power stations, some more efficient than others.
The twiddle here is that this is really a game about managing cost, making budgets and bluffing. At the start of the game, the less useful stations are the first available to buy. Typically, these are also hungry for fuel, and you also have to buy those resources. The more efficient you are in your bidding power stations the better, as it means you can afford to get better equipment as the game progresses.
You might be wondering how a game about budgeting can be fun; well, it’s all in the way to try to outthink and out-bluff your fellow players. This is a game about picking your moment and purchasing wisely. Instead of the utterly random elements of Monopoly, the player gets rewarded for thinking ahead and out thinking their competitors.
The map provides a number of strategy elements as well, but handling power and cash is the key part of winning here.
Power Grid is a family game, though one that is squarely pitched at teenagers and older. Though the subject matter feels dry, it’s absurdly fun to see that there’s a bargain on the table and then plotting to see how you can be the one to own it. It’s fun but also sneakily educational, which is always nice. Of all the games that combine world domination with shopping (and they are quite a few) Power Grid wins hands down.
1: Johnny Nexus wrote an excellent article on why Monopoly never gets played properly here.
In 2012, I wrote over a hundred reviews for Starburst Magazine, and plan to write many more this year. Writers often talk about their creative process and the like, so I thought you might be interested in what I do when I get something in for review.
The first thing I do is read the damned press release, if one is attached. Often this is just a fluff piece, and tends to be designed for journalists looking for filler. Some publications will do a ‘new releases’ page, and you can often find the press release slightly reworded in those sort of sections. Obviously, they don’t get used in proper reviews, but they can be a source of useful information, such as when the book is coming out and if the author is available for an interview.1
The next thing is to use whatever it is I’m meant to review. If it’s a book, I’ll read it, if it’s an audio, I’ll listen, etc. The awkward one in this set are boardgames; I prefer to play the game as many different times as I can with as many different people, as it allows for a fairer assessment of the game. With books, I’m blessed with a decent read speed; I don’t speed read, I just read really fast. If it’s an author I know well, I tend to read them faster because I’m familiar with their voice. I have a good memory for writing styles, so it doesn’t take me long to adjust to a known authors rhythm.2 I tend to have two books on the go at any one time, and use novels as a way to fill in the gaps of a day.
Comic books are also different; I can read a 200+ page graphic novel trade paperback very, very quickly. Comics are the thing that got me into reading in the first place, and most of the ones I get these days tend to come to me digitally so the house isn’t littered with the things.3
When it comes to writing the review, I have multiple considerations. First, the review has to fit the format of the magazine or blog I’m writing it for. Mostly, this is Starburst Magazine so it has to be a short (500 words or so) piece about something that is Sci-Fi, Fantasy or Horror themed. I can do in-depth analysis and the like, but really, anything over 1500 words is a feature, and should be approached differently.4
The audience are the reason why you are writing the review. You are not writing the review for the publisher or the author, the point of the piece is to function as a consumer guide to help others decide if they want to purchase it. You need to be clear, honest, precise and accurate. Readers rarely want spoilers, but they do want a rough idea of how complex the work is. This often means you have to talk in general terms, but it’s important not to get bogged down in the details. Plot summaries should be concise and explain esoteric concepts in broad terms. Even horribly complicated conceits can be dumbed down; the point of the summary isn’t to show the reader how clever you are in understanding big ideas, it’s to communicate those big ideas in order to help the reader. Your audience does not care about how smart you think you are, they want you to explain the work to them in clear terms.
If the thing I’m reviewing isn’t a book, I tend to talk about production values as well; the quality of the pieces for boardgames, the ease of use if it’s an audio piece, how easy it is to get to the venue, etc. I tend to avoid talking about how a book is put together; the formats for novels are pretty standard and are rarely remarkable. You also have to take care to not be too technical; this is entertainment, not a thesis.
Finally, we have the score. Like many reviewers, I don’t like giving out a score, I want you to read the article I worked hard on rather than just checking the number at the bottom. However, it is a useful tool, but readers should always remember it’s just another part of the overall critique, rather than the aim of the review. I tend to set my standards by similar works. For example, if it’s an urban fantasy novel, then to get a Ten out of Ten, it needs to be as good as Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It’s a book I’ve read many, many times and I love dearly. That’s my bar, and I set it pretty high, otherwise a ten is worthless.
I also have a short list of books deserving the score of one and again, these are rare. Most of my calibration is done by considering previous works that I consider to be average, and working from there. I tend to be slightly more generous to output from small businesses, but I don’t have any time for vanity work. For example, that means I tend to give small press books a second reading, but if it’s clearly just been thrown out there to appease the writer’s ego, then I will be merciless.
I also love debut novels, and am delighted when a new author is brilliant from the very start. Context is also important to the score; a consistently brilliant five-part series impresses me far more than a rather good one off, though books that just stop rather than end (because they’re part of a trilogy) will never get a ten; each work should stand on its own merits.
Once the review is published, you then need to contact the person who gave you the thing you examined, and tell them it’s online. This is common courtesy, and ensures a good working relationship. I tend to housekeep at the end of every month, which means some suppliers get a boatload of reviews in one go.
So that’s my method, as raw as it is. My approach seems to work and people seem to like the reviews, so I think it’s valid. I am very lucky to have a platform to inflict my opinions on the world and hope to do so for some time.
1: I love interviewing authors. I tend to ask a bunch of specific questions and then a hand full of fun ‘standard’ questions. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that authors prefer truth to beauty but it’s still a nice question to ask.
2: They are some writers who mix it up every other book or so, however. This tends to make it very refreshing and these authors tend to be very prolific.
3: The house has many, many books. We need more shelves.
4: By which I mean more research. I do like research, who doesn’t like learning things?
It’s New Year’s Eve, so of course this is going to be a retrospective post looking back at the year and looking forward to the future. That’s what New Year’s Eve is for, after all.1.
2012 hasn’t been a bad year for me, all things told. My career, IT-wise, has been rubbish. Worked has dried up in the sectors I specialise in, and it’s also become much less satisfying. At the same time, copy-writing, editing and game design related work has turned up more frequently and it’s even looking like it might start to pay the bills. Still, it’s tight, but more satisfying. Early 2013 is going to be a real proving ground for me, and I’m actually excited by the challenge.
Creativity wise, things are getting better. My tabletop games column in Starburst Magazine is apparently quite popular (they tell me), and I had a lot of fun organising a 1950’s themed, Dan Dare inspired LARP, so much so that I’m running another game in late April. 2012 saw some of my very short fiction getting published, and fingers crossed, more of that should appear in 2013. Most importantly, I’ve simply gotten on with the important business of shoving words down and then flogging them to anyone who’s interested.
The intention for 2013 is to significantly turn up my creative output, and as such I’ve signed up for the Million Word Challenge. That’s a million words produced in a year, not counting general communications. Or to put it another way, 3500 words a day, allowing for days off. It’s not as daunting as it sounds, but it’s just scary enough to be motivating.
The most significant thing that happened in 2012, however, was that I proposed to Anne L Davies, and that she said yes. For those who don’t know, I took Anne on a Rail Ale Steam Tour 2 for her birthday, with a ring in my pocket. The entire vintage train station was in on it (due to the pile of paper work required to allow one to smuggle a young lady into the privacy of the cab of a vintage Deltic). I had a whole line of patter worked out and everything, though I suspect my beloved knew exactly what I was up to. Strangely, she still seemed surprised when I dropped on one knee and asked the question. Best day of 2012, no contest.
So goodbye 2012; you’ve been terrible for my pocket and it’s certainly not been a smooth year, but in terms of the things that matter; love, good friends, family and knowing your place in the universe, you’ve been a pretty good year.
1: What NYE isn’t for is turning up to a series of parties for mandatory fun. I’ve been to a great many New Year’s Eve blow outs, and though a lot of them have been a great excuse to celebrate the year with friends, an equally significant number have been ruined by the fact that I simply wasn’t in the party mood, or that so many people partying at the same time made it all a logistical nightmare.
The one sort of NYE do I’ve never done is the formal dance and dinner; the whole dressing up and showing off thing in some sort of hall or theatre, and I suspect that might actually be the way to do it in future, rather than simply having an extended house party.
2: Anne is a huge steam train nerd; despite this, some friends were very surprised by this, even the ones who’ve been to the house and seen the huge collection of trains.
They are a great many of projects that I’d love to do, but I am completely aware that I don’t have the time or resources to handle them with the level of care I feel they deserve. Many of these are LARP1 projects. Despite my huge love of games and a desire to tell wild stories, LARP is very hard to do well.
One of these dream projects is a thing that I call Ordos. Set in the Warhammer 40K universe, players would play members of the Inquisition. Each player would select an exquisitely detailed character from a set list, and it would be quite rules light. Inspired by NWO Games Ars Magica campaign2, this would bring together incredibly powerful characters and make them interact with each other.
There would be 3 games in total; Xenos, Malleus, Hereticus.3, and each would have very high costume standards and set pieces designed to evoke the universe.
Each event would be a High Conclave, and in the game world, the events would be spaced centuries apart. (In reality, you’d get an event every 18 months or so). The site would ideally be a repurposed industrial building, with plenty of places for conspirators to sneak off and talk in hushed tones. The Victoria Baths in Manchester would be ideal.
The idea would be to bring to live the complex and gothic world of Warhammer 40,000 without falling into the clichés that haunt LARP systems. Because the medium began as a way of simulating fantasy adventures, many LARP suffers from a focus on action, typically using rubber or foam weaponry.4 Though this has its place, the real appeal to larp is the same as any other media; it’s ability to bring you out of yourself and explore a fictional world, and this can be done without the need for waves and waves of monsters.
Such games are possible. As we speak, someone is organising a Battle Star Galactica game on an old battleship. It looks marvellous, but it’s unlikely I can afford it. I do hope it is the way that LARP will go in the future and time will tell. To echo the battle cry of many a games organiser, I want to play these sort of games, not run them.
1: LARP, aka Live Action Roleplay, often described as cross-country pantomime, it’s a deeply silly and extravagant hobby that combines the many of the logistical problems of theatre with the heartache and insanity common to novelists. Once you’ve ran the game, that’s it; it will be never repeated, you were either there or not. It’s a great experience that feels brilliant and looks very silly. It’s utterly ephemeral and there really is no other media quite like it.
2: New World Order Games were a merry band of larp organisers who created a series of remarkable and highly detailed game based on the Ars Magica roleplaying game. To give you a hint as to how much work went into briefing the players, you can take a look at 700-page book composed of the all the players briefs for the first game. Later games have two volumes rather than just the one, and an equal amount of love went into the props and costume. Unsurprisingly, several members of that creative team now produce other highly popular games.
3: These are three major factions of the Inquisition. For the uninitiated, Warhammer 40K’s version of the Inquisition is a fear inducing organisation who are utterly above the law. They root out demonic infestation, treachery and alien influence, and can use any means to do so, including blowing up worlds.
4: The game I’m currently writing, Greater Goods and Lesser Gods experiments with these ideas, but goodness will there be a lot of action. It’s a 1950’s Dan Dare style game, and it should be huge fun.