Archive

Archive for the ‘Rants’ Category

The Lime In the Coconut

March 11, 2014 Leave a comment

I was listening to the Reservoir Dogs Soundtrack recently, a collection of music that many people who happened to be teenagers in the 90’s happen to own, partially because Reservoir Dogs was the coolest movie ever back in the 90’s and mostly because it’s a really good collection of songs. Anyway, after I’d finished my dive into nostalgia by jumping up and down around the room to Blue Swede’s Hooked On A Feeling, I started to ponder the question of my generation.

What the hell is Harry Nilsson’s song Coconut all about?

It doesn’t mean anything1. There’s no subtle message to the song, no hidden meaning. The simple truth is that both coconuts and limes are things that people eat when they’re feeling a little bit ill. Both bits of food are packed full of stuff that’s good for you (apparently) and the words have nice feel to them. The lyrics are sung in a very specific way and it’s fun to wrap your laughing gear round co-co-nut, preferably whilst shaking your bum and having fun.

"I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren't there"

“I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there”

That hasn’t stopped people from endlessly deciding that it must mean something. There’s something about humanity’s ability to take a simple song about nothing of real consequence and decide that it must contain the wisdom of the ages. For some of us it’s not enough to simply wiggle our bodies about and have a giggle, everything has to mean something. This makes everything terribly serious, even having fun becomes an academic endeavour.

“It means nothing” is as a valid and important meaning as any other.2 Sometimes simple is good. The world is filled with meaning and context after all, not everything needs layers. If you really need a meaning, try this one on for size; Coconut is a request to shut up and dance. Stop your jaw from flapping and your chin from pondering and have a little jiggle.


1: Okay, we could make a serious argument between Authorial Intent and Critical Response, but honestly if you’re critical response to a silly song about fruit is to turn it into something dark and mysterious then you’ve pretty much left the realms of valid criticism and moved into the mystical land of pulling stuff out of your arse.

2: As a response, it’s almost as important as that great and powerful answer “No one knows”, though the response to that should always be “well let’s find out”, even if the answer turns out to be a cosmic shrug of the shoulders.

Advertisements
Categories: Rants

Mr Banks versus The Grumpy

December 13, 2013 Leave a comment

More and more these days, it seems every Hollywood movie that comes out immediately hits a wall of criticism for simply existing, often weeks before anyone has actually seen the thing. The movie that’s currently enjoying this sort of attention is Saving Mr Banks, a star studded retelling of the production Mary Poppins, focusing on media mogul Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) and the creator of the Mary Poppins and children’s author, PL Travers (played by Emma Thompson).

Predictably, it’s already drawn criticism that the film doesn’t focus on Traver’s back story enough; she was an interesting person with a rich and full life, and the movie focuses on a narrow band of her experience. Those looking to fling mud also point out that Disney have made a movie about their founder that paints him in a positive light, which is an odd criticism when you consider it; why would a light-hearted feature about the creation of a classic children’s movie overfill it’s plate with the darker side of the human condition? Critics seem keen to dig out their grudges against Hollywood and Disney and particular, and whine at length at about how unfairly the material has been treated.

Partially, this post is an excuse to stick this image on my blog

Partially, this post is an excuse to stick this image on my blog

This approach both confuses and amuses me. Because if I wanted to be educated and informed, I’d pick up several books on the matter, perhaps seek out a few documentaries. Movies like this are meant to entertain first and foremost1. Being critical of this sort of movie whilst failing to acknowledge it’s validity as a source material is to fundamentally miss the point.2. A word to the wise; simply ranting about how a dramatisation isn’t as historical accurate as you want it to be is one of those things people do to appear deep and clever, but typically reveals them to be pedantic, shallow and rather mean instead.

Disney can be relied on to entertain; that’s their job and they’ve gotten better and better at it over the years. If you’re expecting Disney to teach you the real and true history behind some of its classic works, then that’s either naïve or you’re deliberately looking for things to be snarky about.

Let’s be honest, most of us had not even thought about Travers until this film came out. The movie is almost fifty years old, so many of saw the film on telly when we were too small to consider who made the film or what its origins are. It’s a familiar thing that has always been there, so it’s likely that you’ve taken its existence for granted. That fact alone makes Saving Mr Banks something I want to see, I would hazard a guess that those who already knew about Traver’s life are now vastly outnumbered by those who have gone out and educated themselves as a result of this recent exposure.


1: Put it this way, you are as likely to learn real Scottish history from Highlander as you are from Braveheart.

2 : I call this the Daniel Day Lewis effect. To my knowledge, Lewis has never appeared in a movie based on history that didn’t take total liberties with the source material.

Categories: Geek, Movies, Rants

International Please Don’t Pirate Books Day

February 6, 2013 8 comments

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.

Floating Villages are not a good place to store books

Floating Villages are not a good place to store 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.

Categories: Books, Rants

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

How I review things

January 7, 2013 5 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

My 2012

December 31, 2012 Leave a comment

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.

It didn't happen like this at all, we had the cab to ourselves and it was a Deltic. Still, you get the idea.

It didn’t happen like this at all, we had the cab to ourselves and it was a Deltic. Still, you get the idea.

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.

Categories: Rants

Prometheus

June 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Fear is one of the greatest challenges that art faces; trying to communicate fear is a difficult task, and fear in and of itself can restrict and strangle an artist in such a way that their work comes out warped. One could cheerfully argue that Hollywood, with its urge to ensure that each and every movie it produces is a blockbuster, is plagued by fear. Fear is also hard to use in art; truly scary movies are rare, and the true spine-chillers are always memorable.

I bring this up because this is the main problem with the movie Prometheus. What starts out as a great film about the nature of man and gods is plagued by having to be part of a legacy of scary movies. By attempting to place itself in the Alien1 mythology, it also attempts to emulate parts of that franchise that fans will enjoy. I have no idea why, but I suspect it’s easier to make a movie if you can strongly link it to other successes.

Looks gorgeous, great acting, great idea. If only they had the guts to make it not part of a franchise and go with the promise it gives in the first minutes of the movie.

Sadly, this ruins the feature. It fails to use fear to entertain, and fear of being a failure means the production was attached to something it never needed to be part of. Which is a shame, as the first 40 minutes of Prometheus are near-perfect. Atmosphere is established early on, and a good, old-fashioned tale about mans place amongst the stars is begun2. The sets are gorgeous, the actors are superb, the characters, though plain, seem up to the task of carrying the story and the whole thing looks fantastic. Anyone who grew up with a H. R. Giger poster on their wall will find a lot to love here.

And then, for no good reason, it descends into gore-splatter, knee jerk horror. I am loathe to give out spoilers (so I won’t), but there is one scene which is so trope filled, so cliché ridden that I simply turned off, and it made me feel like I was watching two movies stitched together. I expect Ridley Scott to handle his characters much better than this, and though it’s not as bad as other scenes in the same franchise 3, it brings the movie to a nadir it never quite recovers from.

Throw in a truly dire, CGI heavy scene towards the end and we are left with no surprises and a broken promise. Prometheus should have brought fire to the fearful movie moguls of Hollywood, banishing concerns about clever movies. Instead, it fails, and becomes just another movie about monsters in space.


1: Various people, including the movies producers, have stated that it’s not a prequel to Alien, and they’re right; that would be Alien Versus Predator. The problem is that the movie is hampered by its ties to franchise.
2: One could talk a great deal of horse-hockey about wounds in the side of Promethean giants, the nature of god and all the rest of it. Indeed, this sort of deep examination of the movie is valid, and probably what the director wanted. It’s just that because the last half of the movie is so dire, I cease to care about the clever subtext – make the movie not a pile of pants first, then add in the things that will keep Film Studies teachers in a job for the next 20 years.
3: If you’ve seen Aliens Versus Predator: Requiem you know what I mean.

Categories: Movies, Rants, Reviews