Brian Ruckley's News & Views

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Some Musical Fantasy for You

Over at his Debatable Spaces blog the very nice sf author Philip Palmer has a weekly feature inviting fellow spec fic writers to showcase music with a science fictional or fantastical vibe. My turn this week, and you can see my choice here. You might want to browse around a bit while you're there. Lots of diverse and interesting content on his blog.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

MPoaF: Bubbles Make Me Smile

There have been bubbles blown in the house recently. Watching them, I was struck by a child's eye view (a perspective highly recommended for its ability to give the whole world a wash of wonder and fun): 'Wow. Bubbles are cool.' And for no other reason than that: bubbles!







And I have to just add: 'Wow. Dolphins are cool.'

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Friday, February 05, 2010

MPoaF: JJ Abrams just talking, really

JJ Abrams, the guy behind Lost, Cloverfield, the Star Trek reboot and other significant bits of recent popular culture (i.e. easily one of the most important figures in the early 21st century genre-as-mainstream boom), talks about what he does, why he does it the way he does, his grandfather, boxes, magic, all kinds of stuff ... Nothing especially astonishing about it, just a rather nice, well-delivered talk, I thought.


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Friday, January 22, 2010

MPoaF: Making a Book in the 21st Century

Well, one way of making a book anyway. The Espresso Book Machine is already installed here and there, including a few bookshops around the world, I think. Is this a possible saviour for a handful of the doomed bookstores I was talking about last week? I'm a bit dubious, but you can see why they'd want to give it a try. Any straw you can get hold of probably looks appealing when you're sinking fast. It is quite clever, I suppose, and it's fun to watch a book coming into existence like that.



I'm not sure it really offers much defence against the e-book advance, though. Much as I hate to dwell on the gloomier aspects of this revolution, it's stayed on my mind this last week, so a couple of further hints at what the future holds:

As pointed out by Simon in the comments on the last post, Waterstone's, the UK's last big chain of dedicated bookstores is shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic. They plan to turn their backs (partially) on the dreaded celebrity biography and give individual store managers more control over what books their shops stock and promote. It's an idea I can get behind, but will it stave off the coming storm? Somehow I doubt it. Might prolong the life of some of their stores, but can't see it saving large numbers of them in the long run.

20% of digital book buyers apparently stop buying print copies entirely. Can't make up my mind whether that's a higher or lower percentage than I would have expected. One thing's for sure, though - it's a chunky enough number (and one I'd imagine is only going to rise) to put a big ugly question mark over the viability of all bricks and mortar bookshops once the digital habit has spread a bit further through the reading population.

Lots of digital books are illegally downloaded. A staggeringly unexpected discovery, I'm sure you'll agree. Reading about it a bit more widely, it's not obvious the study's findings are exactly robust, since there's a lot of extrapolation and sampling involved, but maybe I should just be pleased to see that fiction titles are actually amongst the least affected. (But in this case 'least affected' still means thousands and thousands of copies). Again, one thing's for sure: the numbers will only rise once on-screen reading of books becomes a more widespread and deeply entrenched norm. What effect it'll have on the financial stability of the whole writing business remains to be seen, and I'm instinctively doubtful of anyone who claims to know.

And as for publishers ... well, all I can say is I'm glad it's not my job to spend all day trying to figure out where all this is heading, and whether I'll still have gainful employment when it gets there ... I'd be in a perpetual cold sweat.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

MPoaF: Trailer Time

I have a confession to make. I don't know if this disqualifies me from my membership of geekdom or something, but ... The Dark Knight wasn't my favourite superhero movie experience of 2008. Shocking, I know. Just shocking. I liked it well enough, and obviously thought bits of it (mostly Joker-related bits, I suppose) were brilliant. But I'm pretty sure I derived more simple enjoyment from ... Iron Man. It was a straightforward, slick, pretty confection that didn't really try to be anything more than what it was, and as far as I was concerned it succeeded pretty triumphantly. Which is not in any sense damning with faint praise: I seriously think it's an impressively well put together package, with the directing, acting, scripting and effects all working in near-perfect harmony towards a clear and shared goal. Sure, it's some way from being perfect, but I left the cinema wearing the dumb smile of the satiated seeker of eye candy.

Dark Knight, by contrast, was an altogether more complicated and ambitious beast. And perhaps because I'd fallen for the pre-release hype, it seemed to me to come up just short of the lofty targets it set for itself - aside, as I said, for some passages of seriously accomplished film-making. It's clearly the more interesting film of the two, but it just didn't deliver quite the entertainment kick to me that Iron Man did.

All of which is a convoluted (and believe me, I could go on and on, making it more and more convoluted, because I've thought about this particular compare and contrast exercise far more than is healthy) ... anyway, all of this is a convoluted way of saying that of all the big budget, sfx-heavy films promising to grace our cinema screens in 2010, this is probably the one that tickles my fancy most of all:


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Friday, December 11, 2009

MPoaF: The Cryptozoological Edition

I've got a passing interest in cryptozoology. Not in the sense that I actually believe there are dinosaurs living wild in the Congo, or hairy hominids roaming the North American continent, or plesiosaurs splashing around in a certain well known body of water not too far from where I currently sit (even though I am apparently blind to the evidence provided by Google Earth itself in that last case).

No, it's more a case that I would like to believe all that stuff, and find those who do, the stories they tell and the quests and investigations they undertake interesting and vaguely appealing. There's a certain romantic instinct - a sort of longing for mystery and strangeness in the world - that seems to be part of the mindset, and I think that's a very basic human attribute. A very high proportion of us are drawn in one way or another to the mysterious and the strange, and we find our own personal ways of bringing those elements of the world into our lives. The search for unexpected wildlife fits the bill in a lot of respects.

And although I dismissed the plausibility of some of the most famous cryptozoological icons right at the start, there are several other cases that I tend to think of as 'semi-cryptozoological' that appeal much more strongly to both my heart and my head. For example, there's the possibility of big cats living wild in the UK, eating our sheep.

Or, and here we get to the thing that really captures my imagination, and even moves me, there's the thylacine. Could there be, somewhere in Tasmania, or even mainland Australia or New Guinea, a surviving population of the largest modern marsupial carnivore? Living in the wildest places it can find, skirting the fringes of human awareness and imagination? I would be utterly delighted if that one day proved to be true, not least because it's humanity's fault that the poor old Tasmanian Tiger disappeared in the first place.

I think part of the reason the thylacine has a hold on my imagination, and that of many other people, is that we have film of what may well have been the last individual of the species. Call me a big softy if you like (my excuse is that I'm a wildlife fan by instinct and by education) but I find this clip really quite moving. Was this animal, at the time it was filmed, the very last of its kind on the whole planet, thanks to us:



Probably. But not necessarily, if you climb aboard the cryptozoology wagon. There have been heaps of alleged thylacine sightings, and even some films, including one from this very year that's now drawing to a close.







Not exactly conclusive, huh? Unless you were after proof that there are mangy-looking dogs and foxes running around the Antipodes, in which case - well, make your own judgement.

But this, out of all the cryptozoological tales, is the one I want to be true. I reckon it'd be wonderful if in one of those clips we were looking at an animal that had survived, hidden, despite humanity's best efforts - both intentional and otherwise - to rid the world of it. If I was a multi-millionaire with time on my hands, I wouldn't be remotely tempted to embark on expeditions in search of the yeti or the sasquatch; but the thylacine ... yes, I could spare a fraction of my vast wealth to mount a quest in the wilds of Tasmania. Guess I'm just a romantic at heart.

(Though if I did find something out there, whether or not I'd tell anyone, I'm not sure. If anything deserves a bit of privacy, a bit of human-free peace and quiet, it's the thylacine.)

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Friday, December 04, 2009

MPoaF: On the Subject of Writing

Earlier this week I spent a pleasant hour or two in the company of the students who make up Strathclyde University's Writers' Society, inflicting upon them some of my experiences, views and prejudices regarding the whole writing thing. I've done this kind of thing a handful of times now, and so far it's always proved enjoyable. I can report that our nation's students - at least the aspiring writers amongst them - are a fine body of folk. (But when did they get to be so young? More to the point, when did I get to be so old? Surely it was only a year or two ago that I was a student myself ... oh, wait. Maybe it was rather longer than that ... don't think about it. Ignore the harsh realities of time's passing. If you don't pay it any attention, it's not really happening ...)

Some universities, it has to be said, benefit from the wisdom of writers rather more ... well, rather more consequential than me. Here, for your Friday viewing pleasure is a whole half hour of a speculative fiction legend talking about his craft at Point Loma Nazarene University. Take it away, Ray Bradbury:

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Moving Pictures on A Friday 2

I quite often like the results when science and art rub up against each other. From Semiconductor Films, here's Magnetic Movie:

Magnetic Movie from Semiconductor on Vimeo.


More info on the film here, and on Semiconductor Films here (clicking on the 'Art Works' link takes you to lots more clips of their sometimes decidedly weird little films).

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Moving Pictures on a Friday 1

First in a potentially regular, but more likely irregular, unreliable and haphazard, series in which I get to post random bits of video - generally of a more or less sf or fantasy type - that have tickled my fancy for one reason or another. Exciting, huh?

With or without commentary, by the way. This one without, since it's just a bit of fun that speaks for itself:



Original is here, where if you dig around you might find a few details on how it was done.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Interview with the Knight

About time we had something a bit different around here, I figure. Couple of weeks ago, someone got in touch with me via Facebook (the Winterbirth fan page, to be precise), and I thought the story they had to tell was so interesting that ... well, here it comes. Meet Richard Alvarez, a real live knight in shining armour. Some of you, it turns out, know exactly what he looks like already. He'll introduce himself, and then I'll pitch him a few questions. Hope at least some folks find this as interesting as I did!

(Note, the photos appearing are, in order of appearance, by and copyright Cat Connor, Ron Koberer and Linda Alvarez. No use without permission, please).

RA: I've always been fascinated by the renaissance and medieval eras. In college I studied fencing, and went on to pursue teaching as a Classical Fencing Master. Simultaneously, I've pursued my interests in media production, theatre and film. This parallel track led me to performing at the first Renaissance Festival I ever attended in Houston Texas, back in the early seventies. A friend and I formed a Dueling Team we called "Triomphe".

We performed as "Triomphe" for eleven years at the Texas Renaissance Festival. In the early eighties, I met four young men who had been hired to perform the joust. A few years later, they invited me to joust with them at a show in Chicago that summer. 'I can't ride,' I told them. 'That's okay, we'll teach you.' So in the summer of 1984 I started my career as a professional jouster. A few years later, I was asked to take over the managing duties of the company, and I formed "International Action Theatre". We had three companies of men, with four to six horses each - touring the country all year long. In addition to renaissance festivals, we did Wild West shows and stunt work for films and theme parks.

In 1994, I officially retired from the renaissance festival circuit. I have focused on my filmmaking and screenwriting endeavors for the most part since then, though I did manage to merge my two interests in 2005, when I produced my award winning documentary American Jouster.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting at home when I got a text from a friend. It was a jpg, and I couldn't quite make out the image. I handed my phone to my son, and he squinted at it saying, 'It looks like YOU! Yeah, I think it is you, on a poster or maybe a book cover ... Fall of Thrones? No, the Fall of THANES?'

I downloaded a larger image from your website, and couldn't for the life of me remember where the photo came from. I know I didn't pose specifically FOR the cover, so the photo had to be an old one. I began to scour my hard drives, trying to match the shot on the cover with something I might have on hand.

Bingo! In 2005, I responded to a call from a student filmmaker, John Joynert, who was working on his senior thesis film. It was called Pro Meus Rex - and the story centered on two live chess pieces who meet in a fantasy forest setting to battle it out. I played The Black Knight and another actor played The White Pawn. During that shoot, unit photographer Ron Koeberer took a number of still photos (Ron does amazing work, and you can view some of his shots at www.koberfoto.com). It turns out that Ron had listed a few shots from Pro Meus Rex with stock photo companies online. Apparently whoever did the layout for the cover of Fall of Thanes licensed the image through one of the stock agencies.

And that is how I wound up on the cover of Fall of Thanes.

BR: Given that you started out as a classically trained fencer, to an outsider like me it looks like a pretty radical shift in weaponry and fighting style when you get into the medieval end of things: possibly in my ignorance, I imagine much less finesse and much more brute force being involved. To what extent are skills or instincts or techniques transferable between the fencing and the medieval side of things?

RA: "Mixed Martial Arts" is a very popular form of sport entertainment right now. You see fighters combining different skill sets from different martial arts training against competitors with other skill sets. This is possible, primarily because the main component is the same for all martial arts - The Human Body.

In terms of using a blade - the target is the same regardless of era - the weapon has a point and/or edge. The human body moves the same regardless of era. What changes are the tactical applications of point and edge - especially in response to terrain and armor. So it really was just a matter of understanding what the weapon was designed for, and what the target area was supposed to be. Probably the most difficult of the medieval weapons to master (for me personally) was the flail - damned unpredictable rebound. And of course, getting used to wearing armor and the limited visibility of a helm.

BR: I'm fascinated by the practicalities of this whole business. The horses in the jousts, for instance. How much specialised training is needed to get a horse to do what you need it to do? Can any horse be suitable, or only those with particular physical or mental attributes?

RA: We have always selected horses primarily for their temperment. They have to be sound of course, and capable of supporting the armored rider. (Rule of thumb - a sound working horse can carry/work with one third of it's own body weight ... this is a 'rule of thumb' - not a hard and fast law). Breed was not as important as temperment. We 'auditioned' horses by asking them to do a specific set of drills. Such things as passing another horse, riding with flags, riding close to/at a man on the ground. The horse didn't have to perform well, it just had to show an aptitiude to be trainable. We didn't always have the luxury of time in training horses.


BR: There must be risks involved, no matter how skilled and practised someone is. Have you ever been injured yourself or - and I suspect this might be even more alarming - inadvertently injured someone else?

RA: Bumps and bruises happen every time you fall off a horse, and we did scheduled falls in every show - so sure, people got bumps, bruises, scrapes and the occasional dislocation or break. In stage combat - you can generally expect to get the odd scraped knuckle and bruise from your partner - but you really do train hard for safety's sake.

I've probably given my share of knicked fingers, and clipped hands - but I don't keep track of those any more than I keep track of the ones I've recieved. It's part of the game. My own worst personal injury came fom a 'knee to knee' collision in a cantering pass with another rider. We were NOT armored - this is the same sort of injury one typically gets in playing polo.

BR: I know you played a specific character during your jousting career - Sir Richard, Early of Greyhame. Is this name just an identifying badge, or did you have personalities (good guys and bad guys!), plots and backstories developed for the characters you all played? I guess I'm interested in how much of this is theatre - complete with fictional narrative - and how much is demonstration, stunt show, sport etc.

RA: The character I portrayed "Sir Richard - The Earl of Greyhame" was usually a bad guy. Tall dark and bearded - yeah, I looked the part. And lets face it, it's more fun to be the bad guy! Our shows were carefully choreographed, and scripted. There was always room to ad-lib lines with the court and each other, but we all knew where we were going, and what was supposed to happen on the field.

In the jousting business you will sometimes hear the distinction made that a particular company does 'Theatrical Jousting' while another company does 'Sport Jousting'. What this usually comes down to is whether or not the hits delivered during the joust passes are choreographed or spontaneous.

In a theatrical joust the hits are planned, usually a specific number of hits, with a 'dismount' at the end. This is a running, full speed fall. The fall is followed with horse to ground combat - and another dismount - followed by ground combat and possibly a bloody 'kill'. (Depending on the philosophy of the company and/or the faire regarding kills and blood).

In a 'full contact' or 'sport joust' show the jousters are trying to unhorse each other. Again, there is usually a prescribed number of passes. They may or may not succeed in unhorsing their opponent. They may hit, or miss. There may or may not be a fall. After which, they will usually give a demonstration of combat that may or may not be choreographed.

Understand, the EXACT SAME SKILLS are needed in either version of the show. You MUST be able to controll your lance to hit a target, and control your horse. You must have an excellent seat to maintain or deliver a hit. THE HORSES DON'T KNOW if the combat is real, or 'choreographed'. They are being asked to perform the same tasks either way.

BR: Given your professional involvement in film and media, have you got any particular favourite movies set in the medieval or renaissance eras, either in terms of entertainment value or the vividness or accuracy with which they capture those eras? How about books, fiction or non-fiction?

RA: My favorite fight choreographer has got to be William Hobbs. (A Brit as it happens). His best films in no particular order - Robin and Marion - the end fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw as the aging Robin and Sherriff is a classic (One of my all time favorite films too). The Three and Four Musketeers - Dick Lester's version - shot as one film but released as two, starring Michael York as D'Artagnan and Oliver Reed as Athos. Still some of the best rapier work on film. The Duellists - Ridley Scott's first feature film - and the film that turned me into a Napoleonic Era buff. Excellent smaill sword and sabre work - and the best film ever for capturing the gut-wrenching terror of personal conflict. All these films are William Hobbs work. (He also did Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet and the latest Count of Monte Christo and Man in the Iron Mask - so yeah, if his name's on it, I'll watch it).

Best written description of the mindset and action of a duel ... for my money, is the final duel between Oscar and The Eater of Souls in R. A. Heinlein's Glory Road. Of course, Heinlein was a sabre fencer - and it shows.

For just plain fun, and insider's reference - The Princess Bride - the book and the film, with their reference to actual period fencing masters and books. The fight in the film is also extremely well done - in the classic Old School Hollywood tradition.

As for recommended reading - one should read the actual period fencing manuals. Many are now available on-line. (Back in my day, you had to got to a real library, and check out the books IF you could find them).

BR: Thanks, Richard. I'm very grateful to you for taking the time to satisfy my curiosity! And to round things off, a nice clip of Richard talking about his film American Jouster, and the life of a touring knight:

Director's Statement for AMERICAN JOUSTER


And here's the short, but great fun, trailer for American Jouster:

American Jouster


You can also see a promo video for Noble Causes Productions - a company Richard rode with in 2006/7 - here. It's a fun little watch, too.

Thanks again, Richard. It's been an education.

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Stuff Various

So, the great big signed Bloodheir giveaway on Facebook has drawn to a close. To be honest, until I actually signed up for Facebook I was a bit of a sceptic about the whole social networking thing. I still don't think I'm really quite on the right wavelength, but I'm starting to 'get it' a bit more. I'm prepared to concede that they do actually offer a new kind of dynamic and structure to the whole internet thing that nothing else does in quite the same way. Anyway, now that the giveaway's done, I should mention, as I traditionally and predictably do at such moments, that signed and dedicated Bloodheirs are available to all sundry - socially networked or not - from Transreal Fiction. I quite like stopping by to sign them, so don't you worry about putting me to any trouble. It's a pleasure, really. So you're buying yourself a signed book, and me a little bit of pleasure. Everybody wins.

The latest must-read blog for sf/f bibliophiles: Enter the Octopus. Lots of good content, most significantly the huge, more-or-less daily, round ups of book-related links.

Pre-release reviews and rumours about this suggest that something interesting is on the way, and I'm gradually allowing my expectations to get high enough that I'm virtually inviting disappointment to come and stomp all over me:



Rumours abound that this chap is being lined up to be the new Dr. Who. Like him very much indeed as an actor, but Dr. Who? Maybe, so long as they went the not-too-manic route. Guess we'll see in due course. Or not, these being rumours of the plausible but entirely unconfirmed sort.

Strange Maps, which is one of those sites that pretty much justifies the invention of blogging software all by its lonesome if you ask me, has an interesting post on a wildly silly proposal to drain the North Sea, put forward in 1930. It kind of sums up everything I like about the blog: fun maps and loads of semi-obscure geographical and historical info.

Funny/Clever (via SF Signal, which unlike Enter the Octopus is a long-established must-read site for sf bibliophiles):

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Return to The Isle of May

A ritual of sorts has been enacted: the all but annual trip to the Isle of May (2007 version was recorded here). Good news for me, since it's one of my favourite places. Less predictable in its consequences for readers of this blog, as it leads inexorably and inevitably to ... my photos! Hooray.

That's the Isle in question, and very pretty it is too, but here's the real reason I actually take the hour long boat trip required to reach it:




The birds, obviously. But there's no denying the place itself is so extremely pleasant it might be worth even if there was nothing with wings within ten miles of it:


The last of the bird pictures, by the way, is an Arctic tern. These are heroes of the bird world, going from the Antarctic to the Arctic and back again every year (and no, Scotland is not quite in the Arctic - for all that it feels like it occasionally. I guess our Arctic terns are ever so slightly less motivated than most of their brethren). Watching them, if you take a moment to reflect that not so very long ago these very birds were surfing the breezes of the Antarctic Ocean, perhaps even dodging Antipodean icebergs, it blows your mind just a little. I think they're fantastic.

That sentiment is not, it has to be said, mutual. This year, the tern colony has taken a collective decision to locate itself right next to the landing stage. To reach the boat, therefore, you have to run the gauntlet of righteously agitated and protective parents. I am thus able to leave you with this world exclusive video. A brief (and I do mean brief, like 2 seconds brief, so pay attention) clip revealing, for the first time anywhere, the sound a fantasy author makes when the immensely well-travelled beak of an Arctic tern connects with his skull at high velocity:

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Monday, May 26, 2008

A MeTube

There's a video of me reading from Bloodheir at the Alt.Fiction event up on YouTube. I'm not, though, going to embed it here, for two reasons:

1. Like most people, I dwell in a happy little fantasy world in which I sound and appear to everyone else exactly as I sound and appear to myself within the confines of my own skull. This pleasant illusory state of mind is directly (and cruelly) contradicted every time I hear my voice as it is heard by others, and having a permanent reminder of the glaring discrepancy staring out at me from my own blog would be just too masochistic. In this case, I choose to preserve my feeble illusions, thank you very much.

2. More importantly (as if anything could actually be more important than preserving my precious self-image!) the reading contains what might well be considered SPOILERS for not entirely insignificant plot developments in Bloodheir, so a little bit of distance is probably a good thing for those who might want to consider whether they really want to watch it. If you prefer your reading experience to be entirely unsullied by advance knowledge of what's coming up, proceed no further. You Have Been Warned.

For those undeterred by these two caveats, here's the link. You will have to excuse my not exactly masterful reading technique; first time out, and all that. If I get to repeat the exercise at some point in the future, I'll try to do a bit better. There are plenty of clips of other authors showing how it should be done elsewhere on the Orbit Books YouTube channel.

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