Archive for January, 2013

Bring Back Jupiter Moon

January 28, 2013 1 comment

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.

The ILEA. Beats the Rover's Return hands down in terms of awesome.

The ILEA. Beats the Rover’s Return hands down in terms of awesome.

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.

Categories: Rants, TV

Power Grid

January 14, 2013 3 comments

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 game in which everyone wants the Wind Turbines. Except Daily Mail readers, of course.

The game in which everyone wants the Wind Turbines. Except Daily Mail readers, of course.

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.

Categories: Games, Reviews

How I review things

January 7, 2013 4 comments

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

(c) Charles Monroe Schulz

Review writing is still writing. You can still get stuck, it still requires discipline.

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?

Categories: Rants