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Not literally all the TV, obviously. More accurately: most of the genre or genre-adjacent TV shows I’ve watched to the end in the last few months. That doesn’t make for a good blog title, though.

Brief reviews only, mild spoilers certainly possible but not guaranteed.

Star Trek : Discovery

Mad as a bag of squirrels. Don’t know quite what else to say, really. A bit like the reflection of something recognisably Star Trek seen in a heavily distorting mirror. Maybe half a dozen major plot twists get thrown at you – the kind of twists most series would probably settle for at most two or three per season. Honestly, I kind of like some of the twists, but not all of them. Two or three really good characters; several that are just OK; quite a few who are just blanks taking up screen space, really. Some really weird production decisions – nothing, from design to costuming to sub-plot to subtitles, about the Klingons works for me. Not one thing. Yet despite it all … I sort of enjoyed it. Sort of.

EDIT TO ADD: Since posting this, I had the misfortune to watch the last episode of ST : D’s first season. I did not like it. Not at all. If they’d all been like that, I would never have stuck with it through the season, I suspect. Ho hum. Fingers crossed for Season Two, I guess. More in hope than expectation. 

Godless

Netflix takes a swing at the Western, and for big chunks of the series I thought it was a home run. Beautiful to look at. Leisurely camerawork and pacing that often worked great for building tone and character. Some really nice scripting, delivered by some really good actors. But … it all got a bit too leisurely at some points. At least one, maybe two, episodes too many.

Still, I was fully on board until the last episode. At which point I was swept overboard by a tsunami of objections and reservations. I still give the whole thing a definite thumbs-up, but I could go on at nutty length about all the ways I disliked the final episode, and the degree to which it undid bits of the smart work done earlier in the series, but I’m committed to the ‘brief reviews only’ thing. So I’ll just say: what they did to Blackdom was, imho, horrifically misjudged; it sucks if you suddenly start relying entirely on coincidence and chance encounters to make your climax work; and the resolution of the various womens’ character arcs almost all left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. Nuff said.

Punisher

Quite liked it. Just a fraction too violent for my taste on occasion – I’m turning into a big softie – but not enough to put me off. Probably goes in my top three (four?) of the Netflix Marvel shows, and at the very least is a return to some sort of form after the unfortunate misfires of Iron Fist and The Defenders.

Did leave me asking a profound question about TV dramas in general, though: What is it with the apparent inability of so many writers/actors/directors to even slightly conceal the fact that character X, who appears to be a goodie is in fact a villain? Is it deliberate or unintentional? I genuinely don’t know. Anyway, The Punisher contains the most screamingly obvious, borderline cliched, heel turn I’ve seen in … years, maybe. I mean, you know this guy – who’s superficially presented as a good guy for over half the series or so – is on the dark side from the moment he appears on screen. You’d have to have never watched any serialised drama in your life not to spot it, I’d have thought. Is it really that hard to conceal a character arc, or do the creators actively want the audience to know hours before any of the other characters figure it out?

Travelers

Have you watched Travelers? You should watch Travelers. I love Travelers. Fun take on time travel, with teams of future folks ‘possessing’ present day folks in an effort to avert future catastrophe. The genius of the show is in the casting, the acting and the focus on character and relationships alongside occasional outbursts of plot and action. I really can’t remember the last time I found an ensemble cast in a genre drama so engaging, both collectively and individually. Patrick Gilmore, in particular, is acting his pants off in this thing – seriously, I think he’s doing some of the most detailed, precise TV acting I’ve seen in a genre show.

I find myself rooting for every single one of the main seven or eight or whatever characters; and somehow – not sure how – the writing pulls off a spectacular balancing act of selling not only the characters’ total commitment to and support of each other, but also their over-riding and potentially sacrificial (of themselves and others) commitment to their mission. It’s clever TV-making, if you ask me. Slow, at least initially, if you’re expecting slam-bang sf action; but stick with it and it sucks you in. And tragically not yet confirmed as having been renewed for a third season, as far as I know …

The Good Place

Have you watched The Good Place? You should watch The Good Place. I love The Good Place. I mean, who takes a hi-concept, long form genre narrative and turns it into a half-hour network sitcom? And builds it around questions of moral philosophy in the afterlife? And makes it good? It’s not something you see every day. In terms of weird pushing of format boundaries it kind of reminds me of Community, though it’s a very different beast. The twist at the end of the first season is pretty legendary. The one at the end of the second season I’m not nearly so sure about, but the creators have shown they can handle wild shifts of narrative and setting, so I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. Plus: Ted Danson is cool.

Stranger Things

Specifically, season two of Stranger Things. This, for me, was a demonstration of the power of the first time. It was fine. I liked it. But it didn’t have the impact of the first season, simply – I think – because I knew exactly what I was getting going in. The powerful sense of place and time and tone that the first season smacked you in the face with was a little bit diminished this time around, I think, but at least in part that’s because it’s familiar the second time around. Also, too many new characters; not all of them slotting into the narrative as neatly as the whole crew from the first season did. Still, it’s a distinctive, fun bit of TV and the world would be just a tiny bit duller without it.

The Expanse

Also specifically, season two of The Expanse. I liked season one, but thought it was slightly heavy going here and there (and can vouch for the fact it was more than ‘slightly’ heavy going for at least one non-sf fan of my acquaintance). Season two, though – which I had to solo watch due to that heavy going thing – I thought was great. A blast, on the whole. Much more stream-lined and coherent and almost accessible. Don’t know exactly what their budget is, but I reckon on the whole they’ve got great value for money on their effects and sets. It looks good and it bounced along very nicely and nimbly. Sign me up for season three.

But … I have one over-arching complaint that applies to The Expanse and at least a couple others of these series, which might be going to sound picky but really bugs me:

Basic Military Tactics, People! It’s Not Rocket Science!

Now and again in The Expanse, pretty much continuously in Star Trek : Discovery, in the final episode of Godless, and even in Stranger Things, people who are supposed to be either trained or in some way experienced and even expert in the art of combat – firearm combat of one sort or another specifically – behave during firefights like people who don’t even know which end of a gun is the dangerous one. The most basic notions of deployment, cover, tactical movement, etc etc sometimes appear to be completely unknown to soldiers who are supposed to be elites.

I mean anyone who’s played a few hours of video games could get the better of some of the supposedly fearsome warriors on display in these series. If you’re trying to sell the audience on the idea that these people are dangerous, militarily awesome or whatever, just make them act like they have a rough idea of what they’re doing. That’s all I ask.

Cover, people! It’s right there! I can see it, just a few paces to the side of you! Don’t just stand there blasting away, for … oh, never mind.

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This is the week – I think technically this is the very day, in fact – when The Free becomes an actually published book you can buy and read. It’s out there, online or bookshops, ready and waiting for you, right now! It’s in print, e-book and – an enjoyable first for me – audiobook format. I’d love to hear from anyone who listens to it, incidentally: fascinating to know how it works in audio for the new reader/listener.

Some folks have said nice things about it, if you need encouragement:

‘ … mesmerizing, magical and human.’Publisher’s Weekly starred review

‘ … complicated characters and vivid descriptions elevate this far above run-of-the-mill epic fantasy.’ Library Journal starred review

‘ … a gripping read … a lot of fun …’Graeme’s SFF

‘ … a blast to read, merging the standard medieval fantasy with Seven Samurai, complete with phenomenal set pieces of warfare and magic.’Staffer’s Book Review

You can even go read the whole first chapter, entirely for free (appropriately enough), over at the Orbit Books website. That’s got to be worth a try, right?

If you really want to make happy, though, the solution is simple: buy the book!

The Free Cover gif

The Free Cover gifAs with all my books, my local specialist sf/f bookshop, Transreal Fiction, offers a handy-dandy service for those interested in buying The Free: signing, dedicationing, personalising, that kind of thing.

If you’re at all interested in getting a copy that has been defaced adorned with scrawlings by my own fair hand, check out the options available at the Transreal website. For the measly price of cover price plus post & packing, you can require me to sign, dedicate or otherwise inscribe a brand-new copy of The Free just for you.

It’s a win-win, you know? Get yourself a unique copy of the book, support a real-life bricks and mortar store, entertain me. Smiles all round.

It’s been a while since a film I knew almost nothing about blew me away. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I watched a film without having first seen so much as a trailer for it (that’s the price you pay for living on the internet). I just happened to notice that this thing called 13 Assassins was on the telly, I vaguely remembered hearing something about it somewhere or other, and the description sounded like my kind of thing. So I set the magic box that sits under the TV to record it, and now here I am a while later having finally watched it and reporting that 13 Assassins is good. Really good.

It’s a 2010 remake, by Takashi Miike, of a 1963 original, of which I know absolutely nothing.

To deprive you of the opportunity of being as surprised as I was, here’s the trailer:

Which rather nicely highlights one or two of the things I found so striking about the movie. The colour palette for one thing, which somehow manages to be not only quite dark and muted, but also very crisp, enormously evocative of realism. All the visuals are great, in fact. There are some beautifully composed and posed single shots, lots of sequences that are visually memorable in a design sense, irrespective of the action they depict.

The sound’s the other technical thing that really wowed me. There’s not much in the way of music until really quite late in the movie. Before that, it’s all sharp, clear ‘realistic’ background noise. The loud rustling of the traditional clothes, birdsong. It made me wish, really quite intensely, that more western movies dispensed with music soundtracks. There’s a wonderful bit, towards the end, when the baddies apparently escape from the death-trap village (we’ll get to the plot in a minute), emerging cautiously to the edge of the countryside. And all you hear – after the tumult of battle that’s assaulted your ears – is birdsong. It’s a small detail but enormously satisfying, that little natural sound symbolising the propsect of escape from the hellish, man-made slaughter that’s behind them.

As for what the film’s actually about, plot-wise, it’s very simple. The eponymous 13 assassins set out to kill a tyrannical noble. They’re recruited, come up with a plan and try to execute it. That’s it. Because their plan revolves around fortifying a village and defending it against the noble’s vastly superior numbers, and for all sorts of other specific plot reasons, the whole thing’s structurally very similar to Seven Samurai and its US progeny, The Magnificent Seven. The miracle is that 13 Assassins doesn’t particularly suffer from the obvious comparison with Seven Samurai, one of the best films ever made (in my opinion, and that of plenty of others), because it is itself a fantastically accomplished bit of film-making.

The film’s essentially divided into two parts. The first, slightly longer, section sets up the plot, demonstrates the baddie’s profound and deranged badness with some really quite unpleasant scenes, assembles the goodies and gets them to the village. The second, far from short, part is wall-to-wall slaughter as the 13 go up against 200+. It’s savage, bloody (really bloody) and beautifully shot. And it’s never dull, which for a single, uninterrupted battle that’s probably the longest I’ve ever seen on the screen is no small acheivement. Especially considering that most of it is samurai fighting with swords. There’s some archery, some explosions, a little bit of spear- and rock-work, but in the main you’re watching the same swordy thing, repeated over and over. But it’s done with such panache, such stirring desperation, that it works brilliantly.

Which is not to say there’s nothing by way of character work, thematic undercurrent, even the odd touch of humour. All those things are there, and done well. I couldn’t help but notice that every single female character is a victim, which grated, and I confess to being a little confused in the first ten or twenty minutes, since to my uneducated eye everyone looked rather similarly dressed and coiffured and it was thus initially tricky to keep track of who was who. But once the set-up’s in place everything runs smoothly. You’re on rails, in fact, moving with the characters towards the inevitable, inescapable massacre.

And when you get to that extended massacre, it’s so visceral, so kinetic and so cleverly filmed and structured that you’re so engrossed you barely notice time passing. I didn’t, anyway. It’s not, though, really a celebration of violence. Clearly, it’s intended to be an exciting, invigorating specactle, but the film sows plenty of seeds for questions about why the characters are doing what they’re doing (honour, morality, politics, madness) and it is uncompromising in showing the cruelty and suffering that’re inevitable when a large number of folk with drawn blades try to settle an argument.

So all in all, I liked it quite a lot. If it sounds like your kind of thing from the above description, I think you probably would too.

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Only even more so than last time.  Current ‘feels like’ temperature according to the Met Office: -6°C.  It is 19th March, right?  I’m not trapped in some sort of time warp, right?

And lo, there came a time when the weather resolved to do just exactly whatever it felt like, irrespective of the long-established norms of socially acceptable behaviour.

And yes, I know I’m supposed to be providing Part 2 of my previous post.  I will.  Any day now, honestly.

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I got a very nice delivery from the postman the other day.  A letter (and a request) from a fan of The Edinburgh Dead, generous and warm enough to put a smile on my face.  Two things occurred to me about it:

first, yes a real letter.  Handwritten, in an envelope with stamps on it and everything.  The rarity of getting actually interesting stuff through that avenue these days is sufficient to make it a disproportionately enjoyable experience.  I mean, when was the last time you wrote an actual, physical letter to someone?  With a pen, in your own handwriting?  I actually can’t remember the last time I did it, but I’d guess it’s in excess of ten years; quite possibly a lot in excess.  It’s a bit of a shame, really, given how nice they are to receive.  But, of course, I’m fairly too lazy to actually conclude from this that I should start writing my letters by hand rather than just doing the e-mail thing.

Second, this letter only got written because, as it turns out, the fan in question had already tried to contact me – with the same praise and request – by the nowadays more conventional avenue of digital media, and failed to get a response.  So she took it upon herself to go the old-school route, and wrote to me via my agent.

Now, my failure to respond to the original approach was poor behaviour, for which I have reprimanded myself, but it was completely unintentional (honest).  I do try to make a point of responding in one way or another to any remotely sensible contact from readers (or anyone else, for that matter).  Apart from the fact that it’s only polite to do so, that sort of contact is precious beyond words to us writers, who are in the main a fretful and lonely bunch starved of human interaction.  Feedback from happy readers is – unless you’re a bestselling author whose royalty statements have numbers on them too large for the human brain to process – the very best, and sometimes just about the only, encouragement you could ever hope for.  I’m always grateful for it.

So, when I fail to respond to incoming queries, thanks, whatever, nine times out of ten it’s going to be due to an oversight on my part, not because I’m a callous soul, indifferent to the efforts of others.  It does happen now and again, and I apologise to anyone who’s been on the (non-)receiving end of my poor organisational skills.  You’re allowed to try and prod me into responsiveness again, should that have happened to you.

I’m guessing there are some writers around who find it completely impractical to actually respond to every contact they get from their readers, due to the sheer volume of adoration heaped upon them every day.  Prodding them with repeated questions is, I suspect, less likely to endear you to them.  I’m a softer (and less popular) creature than they, so I don’t mind.  I like it when folks tell me they enjoyed stuff I wrote, so thank you to any and all who’ve done so.  You undoubtedly helped, each time, to make my day a little brighter, and it’s much appreciated.

… but it’s a rather dull, housekeeping kind of question, which is why I didn’t reveal it in the post title but went with a tantalising come-on instead.

Anyway, the question is this: does anyone else out there sometimes – not infrequently, in fact – have trouble getting this here website/blog to load in their browser?

For the last few weeks, I’ve been getting intermittent delays in loading the page that are sufficiently long that the browser (two different broswers, in fact) gives up in disgust and just hits me with an error message.  Sometimes repeatedly.  Can’t figure out whether it’s my software, my internet connection or the website and its servers themselves.

I would really, really appreciate it if anyone who’s got any difficulties to report lets me know, either in comments or by e-mail.  Would help considerably in either figuring out what the problem is, or (if no one’s got any problems but me) resigning myself to individual frustration.

Thanks.

Knight Attack!

Just thought this was kind of funny, though no doubt not for the people directly involved:

Four Knights Steal 20,000 euros from a Medieval Festival in France.

So much for the chivalric code.  Sir Galahad would not approve, methinks.

I learned a new word recently.  Sadly, I can’t remember where I discovered it – possibly in Aristoi, by Walter John Williams, but I’m not at all sure.

I like learning new words, which I guess is a good thing for a writer.  The pinnacle of pleasure, when it comes to adding words to one’s vocabulary, is when you experience, think or see something and have no word to describe it, only to discover that such a word exists and precisely and evocatively describes the thing or sensation for which your vocabulary had no answer.  That’s a good feeling, right there.

(Quite often, incidentally, in such a case it’ll turn out there’s a word in German for whatever it is you currently lack the right word for.  It’s easy to have words for all sorts of specific, obscure things – especially states of mind – when you’re allowed, indeed expected, to make new words by gluing together old ones.  Hence Schadenfreude, and Weltschmerz, both glorious words.  This is a very sensible way of organizing a language, if you ask me.)

Slightly less satisfying, but still jolly good, is when you discover a new word for something that you did not know needed a word to describe it, but as soon as you hear the definition you think: “Yes, of course there should be a word for that; and this new word I’ve been given is a perfect fit.”  Such were the circumstances surrounding my acquisition of the word … SKEUOMORPH.

The dictionary that’s always by my desk defines skeuomorph as (brace yourselves):

‘… a decoration or decorative feature in architecture etc, derived from the nature of the material originally used, or the way of working it; a retained but no longer either functional or incidental characteristic of an artefact …’

i.e., in the aspect that pleases me most, a skeuomorph is a deliberately included feature of an object that serves no useful function, but is retained as a ‘call back’ to the manner in which that object, or similar ones, were formerly made.  Wikipedia, naturally, has lots of examples, of which my favourites are:

spokes on car wheels or hubcaps, which aren’t structurally needed but are there as an echo of how wheels used to be made;

fake woodgrain printed on all kinds of stuff that isn’t wood, but is used for things that wood used to be used for;

tiny, non-functional handles on bottles of maple syrup.

It had never occurred to me before, but as soon as it was pointed out, I thought: “Yes! Of course there should be a word for all that stuff.”  And if we’ve got to have a word for it, skeuomorph is an excellent choice.  Sadly, I can’t think of any likely scenario in which I’ll have an excuse to use it in my writing any time soon, but I’ll keep it mentally filed away for future reference.

Two other thoughts this word discovery prompted:

1.  Words derived from Greek, like skeuomorph, look and sound cooler than words derived from Latin.  On average.  That is my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.

2.  There should clearly and indisputably be a word for ‘the pleasure of learning a new word that satisfyingly describes something the learner was previously unable to concisely describe’.  In the possibly unlikely event that a word for this sensation does not already exist in German, I believe the people of Germany have a moral duty to the rest of the world to come up with a suitable word as a matter of urgency.

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So, here comes one of the oldest stalwarts of fantasy literature, roaring in from the horizon for another crack at the big screen.

Now, call me a grump (it has been known), but I think this is a pretty bad trailer. Not because of its impact on my desire to see the film – it looks like DVD fodder for me, but I thought that before the trailer ever saw the light of day – but because of the way it’s put together. The thing looks, to my aged eye, like it was cut and pasted by a toddler with attention deficit disorder. In the main, it’s a succession of bogglingly brief images of people shouting, fighting and bonking, intercut with horses and writhing cgi tentacles; some of the action is so brief, particularly in the second minute or so, it hardly has the time to register on the retina, let alone the brain, before it’s snatched away. The only extended (using the term loosely) scene is of some witch summoning up sandy ghost things to fight our hero, and it doesn’t look too bad, but the rest of the trailer’s a pretty formless stew.

It all screams ‘brainless spectacle with no interest in narrative or character, made for those of limited attention span’, which may or may not be an accurate representation of the movie. As it happens, I quite like a bit of brainless spectacle with no interest in narrative or character now and again, and my attention span is certainly not what it once was, but if you’re going to go that route, you still ought to have some spectacle coherent and spectacular enough to last more than a fraction of a second in the trailer, surely? If you’re going to rely on the wow factor to compensate for the absence of substantial content – which is a fair enough approach to trailers – at least give the images enough breathing space to elicit a wow. As it is, all this elicits in me is ‘oh, look what’s that … wait, it’s gone, what’s this now … no, gone, we’re back to those tentacle-things again … oh, no, it’s the beast with two backs … damn, I’m starting to get a headache …’ Maybe I’m just getting old.

Which may also be the reason for my increasing dissatisfaction with the technological sheen of movies these days. CGI and 3D just don’t really do it for me. Especially 3D, which I increasingly think is the curse of 21st century movies (true, I’ve only seen a couple of movies in 3D in the last few years, and neither of them was Avatar, but I stand by my only lightly informed opinion).

My anti-CGI inclination is a bit more surprising to me. As I said, I like spectacle, and I certainly like the way the advances in special effects have freed up cinema to do sf and fantasy on a grand scale, but there remains – with a few honourable exceptions – a weightless, inconsequential quality to even quite sophisticated CGI that somehow distances me from the images on the screen. For all the technologists’ talents, they still can’t quite replicate the texture and presence of reality inside their magic boxes, and I find myself noticing it more and more. There have been a few rare occasions in the cinema when I’ve totally, 100% forgotten that I’m looking at wholly digitally-created images – now and again with Gollum in LotR, for example – but generally, even when the CGI is done quite brilliantly, there’s always some tiny, near-dormant niggling part of my brain that is distantly aware that what I’m seeing isn’t real, and that can sometimes be just enough to dilute the immersive effect of the movie.

All this technological genius applied to films has produced a medium that looks, to my jaundiced eye, more than a little decadent. Awash with money and capabilities that have induced a kind of wanton frenzy, admitting of no restraint, that creates weightless, rather debased, wonders on a gargantuan scale.

Enough moaning, though. It’s more pleasing to reflect on the source material for all this: Howard’s original Conan stories. I re-read a few of them not so long ago, in the decidedly not weightless, very much real, collected edition that’s one of my favourite book-as-objects I possess.

I’m by no means an uncritical fan of this stuff.  Some of the stories feel a little over-extended, their length not quite justified by the content, and some of the racial and sexual assumptions don’t exactly jibe with modern sensibilities.  But still, I find a good deal to enjoy.  There’s an energy and conviction to the stories that’s very engaging, and on the whole they’ve aged remarkably well, considering how the world and the genre have changed since they were written.  I suspect the discerning fan of fantasy might well find their time better spent going back to source and reading or re-reading Howard’s original tales rather than sitting in a dark cinema being beaten over the head with 3D CGI.  But that’s just me, grump that I am.

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