feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (hmmm)

It was with a mix of sympathy and amusement that I read this article on iO9 responding to Glen Duncan’s piece on Colson Whitehead’s Zone One in the New York Times magazine. On the one hand we have the opening paragraph, which is clearly a rather unwarranted set of clichés and prejudicial presumptions:

A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star. It invites forgivable prurience: What is that relationship like? Granted the intellectual’s hit hanky-panky pay dirt, but what’s in it for the porn star? Conversation? Ideas? Deconstruction?

On the other we have the undeniable fact that Duncan clearly likes the work in question:

There will be grumbling from self-¬appointed aficionados of the undead (Sir, I think the author will find that zombies actually…) and we’ll have to listen for another season or two to critics batting around the notion that genre-slumming is a recent trend, but none of that will hurt “Zone One,” which is a cool, thoughtful and, for all its ludic violence, strangely tender novel, a celebration of modernity and a pre-emptive wake for its demise. If this is the intellectual and the porn star, they look pretty good together. For my money, they have a long and happy life ahead of them.

As it happens, Duncan’s The Last Werewolf has just moved off the top of my currently reading pile, and while I do have issues with Duncan’s blunt stereotyping of both intellectuals and porn stars, I think the only work he’s hurting is his own.

There is little chance of anyone trying to argue that The Last Werewolf is not a piece of genre fiction — and, before anyone starts screaming blue bloody murder, I do not think that this is a bad thing. Personally I get fed up with the insistence on labelling and hierarchies just as I get fed up with people who complain that action movies are somehow inferior simply because they tick all the boxes in the correct order. A book isn’t necessarily bad if it has as its primary goal the attempt to entertain. Not every single piece of written word has to have as its underlying purpose the statement of something profound about the human condition.

Nor is this to say that genre fiction can’t have something profound to say about the human condition. Genre fiction has a great deal to say about the human condition, and can be as thought-provoking as any so-called literary work.

Indeed, The Last Werewolf reads not so much as a depiction of lycanthropic existence as an attempt to pen a study of graceless ennui caused by over-stimulation, perhaps as an allegory for the internet generation’s desensitised state of been there, done that, got the two-girls-one-cup-happy-slap-t-shirt.

It did not light any fires chez Raven. It was a decent book — I have no showstopper complaints about it. I read it right through to the end and didn’t have to stop to rant (much) at any point. The prose was well-constructed, the imagery suitably lyrical, and the writing style avoided being clunky at any point. Marlowe’s character had a very definite voice, which meant the first-person perspective worked well. The idea that werewolves in this world were not eating the flesh of their victims so much as their histories and memories was a great one: taking a life meant taking a life, leaving one to infer that a werewolf’s lifespan was limited by sheer capacity more than biology. I enjoyed the throwaway trivia, for example that the expected pack structure was not there because female werewolves were in such short supply any other male would be regarded as a sexual rival. While I don’t want to give any plot spoilers, I appreciated that the female characters were, in their own way, powerful, and in some cases more powerful than gender stereotyping might lead one to expect.

Yet there were too many clichés spoiling the originality. Surely we have had enough of the vampire hates werewolf, werewolf hates vampire trope? Duncan went to some lengths to explain it but I sighed when Pratchett did it and Duncan does not have a pre-loaded soft spot in my heart as Sir Terry does.

I had issues with the pacing. The first two thirds of the book read like one of those movies in which there is lots going on but, inexplicably, nothing actually seems to be happening. This was no doubt meant to reflect Marlowe’s loss of enthusiasm for life, however it left me feeling oddly unmoved by any of the dramatic scenes, which meant that they were rendered not all that dramatic. Not enough was made of Marlowe’s access to the memories of those he had consumed and there were moments when I was left thinking “show, don’t tell”. At one point, in the last third of the book, there was an example of this so egregious I found myself thinking “FFS, couldn’t you at least try?”

Once again we had the assumption that living a long time means being able to accumulate vast riches. I suppose we wouldn’t have had all the globe-trotting if he’d been a pauper rather than someone for whom a cool twenty million is mere pocket change and I suppose one could argue that 200 odd years is enough time to get rich. Marlowe started off rich, though, which was irritating. I feel that there should be only so much disconnect between the reader and the protagonist, and there are big enough hurdles in getting to grips with the idea of being obliged to consume a person and his entire living memory once a month, as well as the idea of being so full of other lives and bored with one’s own life (not unhappy with it, but bored) that a violent death seems the preferable option without having to imagine being financially carefree in a way that only a tiny fraction of a percent of the world’s population experience.

You see, there was something that came close to being a deal breaker: Marlowe as a werewolf was the hybrid, bipedal, intelligent man-wolf type, nine feet tall and apparently unconstrained by conservation of mass.

I read advice somewhere to the effect that the reader will suspend disbelief for one thing and one thing only, so the writer would do well to make sure that one thing is the most implausible part of his story and that his plot hinges on it. Unfortunately for my enjoyment of this book the most implausible part of the story was that an ordinary-sized man can turn into a bipedal wolf-creature that is nine feet tall and stronger than Marius Pudzianowski. I let that slide, but then found myself unable to stop grousing about other major implausibilities.

Duncan’s review of Zone One left me wondering whether he thought it was the porn star or the intellectual who was aiming below his or her station in life. It is easy to infer he was describing a form of superiority when he wrote:

“…he’s a literary writer, hard-wired or self-schooled to avoid the clichéd, the formulaic, the rote.

Given that Duncan’s own work is a literary kind of genre fiction, taking this analogy at face value leads inevitably to one question: Does Duncan see himself as the porn star or the intellectual?

Because, quite frankly, in The Last Werewolf he has produced something that, while being entertaining and by no means the worst werewolf book I’ve ever read, fails either to deliver on the porn-star’s delight in his material or the intellectual’s hard-wired avoidance of rote and cliché.

If you want a good book about werewolves that examines the human condition, I recommend Kit Whitfield’s Bareback.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (annoyed)

Off work sick with a severe chest complaint that this morning has seen the doctor put me on Hulkinator medication and yet another course of antibiotics1. So, apart from doing a bit more research and coming up with a whole new line of plot to explore for the Russian piece (working title Winter’s Weeping) and fiddling about a bit with ideas for the fixed-gear zombie utopian near-future piece (Carmageddon? And yes, I did say utopian, if only because cycling on the M4 around Bristol has been a long-standing fantasy of mine), I’ve been pondering the last two episodes of Doctor Who.

I’m a fan. I’m not a Whovian, because my credentials extend only as far as owning the box sets for Eccleston onwards and watching certain episodes of Tennant’s run when I’m in serious need of cheering up. I haven’t read or listened to any of the extended universe (with the exception of the Minister of Chance) and have no desire to buy any of the classic titles with Tom Baker or the rest. Well. Maybe the Romana episodes, but only Romana 1. I admit that I own a copy of the terrible movie, number 8′s only TV outing, poor chap, and have a better than average grasp on how the Time War is supposed to have affected his mental state in the ensuing generations (and then only because the average person couldn’t give a stuff). But that’s as far as it goes. Seriously.

That makes me a bad fan. I’m pretty bad at being a fan in general. I’m a bad Marvel fan, too.

Why am I a bad fan? Well, as far as I can tell, the job of a fan is to squee relentlessly about how awesome something is and find excuses for any and all flaws (cough Liev Schreiber cough the hair cough what they did to Deadpool cough NO I HAVEN’T FORGIVEN THEM coughcoughcoughcoughcough). A fan is not supposed to hold up a creator’s offering and judge it with a critical eye. One is supposed to celebrate the NEW and EXCITING style and the INNOVATIVE use of VISUALS and HIGH DRAMA.

David Tennant got me interested in the New Who. It was his fault. Tennant’s Who was brilliant, genius, dappy, occasionally unpredictable, deeply flawed and carrying a deep, desperate sadness inside him because he knew where the bottom line was and knew what it was like to stand there and hold fast despite everything in the universe wanting nothing more than him to give up and give in. Where Number 9 was still on the rebound from the Time War, Number 10 had come to grips with the awfulness of what had happened and the things he had done. He wanted to be better than that while still knowing, somewhere, that he was already the best because there was no one else.

He was that kind of man.

I was sad when Tennant left, but Matt Smith’s entrance showed promise and it was Stephen “Blink” Moffat who was taking over. Stephen “I wrote all the really good ones” Moffat. I mean, it couldn’t not be good, right?

And yet, by the time I’d got to the end of the series and was gnashing my teeth over the Bill & Ted ending (acausal loops being a particular bugbear of mine), the complaints regarding Russell T Davies’s tendency towards the Doctor = magic/God/Messiah were looking unfair, to say the least. RTD’s Doctor had limitations. Even at the end, in Waters Of Mars, when he did get a bit God-complexy, the humans turned round and demonstrated that he was really being monstrous and that limitations on power are a good thing. Doctor Ten said “Time can be rewritten” and did so. But the people who needed to die still died.

Doctor Eleven said “Fezes are cool” and handed plastic Rory the sonic screwdriver that would release him from the Pandorica, because plastic Rory had used the sonic screwdriver to release him from the Pandorica. And that’s not magic/Godlike? Where are the limitations if time can be rewritten and all he has to do is decide to do something in the future so that something in the past can make that future possible?

Don’t get me started on the Christmas Special. Jumping the shark is so boring, like the blue stabilisers. Let’s take the shark for a ride instead. And, while we’re at it, change the thought patterns of someone in a way that renders the events leading up to the episode unlikely at best.

Gnash, gnarr, gnash.

Thus we come to the new series, so hotly anticipated it achieved the highest ratings of any BBC America show ever, and set the fandom abuzz with effervescent praise:

…the credits roll and a nation is left yelling at the screen in shock and awe.

http://www.cultbox.co.uk/reviews/episodes/969-doctor-who-day-of-the-moon-review

Really. Personally I was left with the sour taste of disappointment and the feeling that I’d been watching some sort of alternate-universe Doctor: Ultimate Doctor Who as opposed to Earth-616 Doctor Who.

Back in Forest of the Dead River Song had this to say:

When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it will never end. But however hard you try, you can’t run forever. Everybody knows that everybody dies. And nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever, for one moment accepts it.

Apart from a short bit of preamble, The Impossible Astronaut kicks off with the Doctor saying that it’s time to stop running then, not to put too fine a point to it, wandering over to an ambulatory spacesuit and getting himself (apparently) shot to death.

So. Here we are. We have begun with the impossible. We know that the Doctor isn’t dead. For one, this is the start of the new season and it’s called “Doctor Who”. I know they carried on Taggart after Taggart died, but still. It wasn’t terribly successful. There are also the Singing Towers at Derillium to consider. The Doctor sees River there — it’s the last time she sees him before the Library — and gives her the red sonic screwdriver. That was “her” Doctor. Fairly late in his timestream, almost at the end of hers (we’ll come back to that). Older, wiser, someone who has made entire armies turn back (and I don’t think she was referring to the night at Stonehenge). I don’t care that they’ve burned the body. Moffat might have once suggested that Matt Smith’s Doctor will never regenerate again but I doubt that one writer or actor can claim to own a character like the Doctor in that way. We could argue that Easter Island, Jim the Fish and the visit to the Singing Towers come before the invitations to the Impossible Astronaut Picnic. Just because Derillium was the last time River saw the Doctor before the Library, it doesn’t mean that was the last time the Doctor saw River. But still, Taggart Law applies. He’s not dead. It’s only episode one.

Then the Doctor reappears (bazinga), 200 years younger, calm as you please and for some reason is reluctant to go adventuring until Amelia Pond persuades him with fish fingers and custard. When has he ever been reluctant to go adventuring? Remember the episode in which he met Martha Jones in hospital? There they are, on the moon, contemplating going outside for a wee look.

“We might die,” says the Doctor.

“We might not,” says Martha. Big grins all round, she’s a girl after his own heart and has earned a space in the TARDIS.

Oh and the instruction to Amy and Rory to go off and make babies… ENOUGH WITH THE PREGNANCIES ALREADY. Seriously. What is it with Moffat and the idea that women should be, or be about to be, or have been not too long ago, pregnant? It reminds me of Absolutely’s Mr Nice relaying the facts of life to his children (scroll to 16’53):

“People get married and have babies. Any questions?”

The Doctor, under the written supervision of Mr Moffat, appears to be utterly obsessed with humans having babies. River Song gets kids after being uploaded to the library. In The Lodger the Doctor advises Craig and Sophie how many billions of people there are in the world and tells them that’s the number to beat.

It is possible to be successful, happy and fulfilled as a female without having produced more humans. Not having children is a valid choice and it bugs me that Moffat is giving the message that the natural and inevitable and desirable consequence of a woman building a stable heterosexual relationship is pregnancy and motherhood.

Leaving the baby-factory undercurrent aside, hard as it is in this particular double-episode, which is all about making babies, there are the inconsistencies.

I don’t mind confusion. As a matter of fact I enjoy a lack of exposition where that exposition is unnecessary. However, I do not enjoy the feeling of having to go back and rewatch something several times because the failure of things to add up makes me think I’ve missed something, especially when it turns out I haven’t. Here are a couple, although there were more, and I’m not going to start on the last series.

The Doctor asks Rory if he remembers the 2000 years of looking after Amy in the Pandorica. Rory says yes. How does that work? They restarted the universe. The universe that exists now isn’t that one because it has Amy’s parents in it, for a start. Rory is no longer a Nestene duplicate, so how could he remember? He wasn’t there. And if he was there, is he still plastic?

When Amy is at the children’s home, why does she resort to putting the black marks on her skin even though she (apparently) still has the implant (which, by the way, was enormous and would have bloody hurt, not to mention rendered the hand practically unusable)? Let’s, for a moment, consider that between first telling herself to get out and seeing herself with black marks, she has been sucked away in the time machine first seen in The Lodger and no longer has the implant. Why then, is it found on the floor in the room from which she is ultimately kidnapped rather than the room with the Greys hanging from the ceiling? That loose end had better be tidied up at some point, and not by destroying the universe again.

Has the Doctor ever been the sort of person who would blithely give the whole of the human race a post-hypnotic suggestion to commit genocide? Because that’s what he does, and I’m not accepting the argument that it was the Silents (or Silence, I’ve seen it spelled both ways) that did it to themselves: without his intervention the message would not have been distributed. He was also just a little bit too gung-ho happy in the final shoot-out too. This is Doctor Who, not Gunfight at the OK Corral.

And, assuming that this worked, by Moffat’s own rules Amy and Rory should already have been programmed to respond to the sight of one of the aliens by killing them because they were both born long after 1969.

River’s assertions that they are living their lives back to front doesn’t add up either, not when you take the Singing Towers at Derillium into account. Are we really supposed to believe that the time the Doctor gives her the red sonic screwdriver, knowing she is going to her death, as old as he is then; that the day he cries over her he doesn’t kiss her? She doesn’t get a kiss from her “old fellah” on the last time she sees him before she goes to the place where she will die? He was all up for a quick snog from Madame de Pompadour but he’s not going to give Professor River Song a farewell kiss because the next time she sees him he won’t know her?

Funny thing is, this means you’ve always known how I was going to die. All the time we’ve been together you knew I was coming here. The last time I saw you —the real you, the future you, I mean— you turned up on my doorstep with a new haircut and a suit. You took me to Derillium. To see the Singing Towers. Oh, what a night that was. The towers sang, and you cried. You wouldn’t tell me why but I suppose you knew it was time. My time. Time to come to the Library. You even gave me your screwdriver.

And, even assuming, for the sake of argument, we look at this from only her perspective, because she hasn’t been to Derillium yet, this still doesn’t make sense because she’s just seen the Doctor when he’s 200 years older than the one she saw the time before. The evidence is already there that:

We’re travelling in opposite directions. Every time we meet I know him more, he knows me less. I live for the days when I see him. But I know that every time I do he’ll be one step further away.

isn’t necessarily true. As an experienced time traveller, who knows that it’s possible to go forwards and backwards, she should know this.

The deliberate use of “dropped from the sky” by both River and Amy in order to confuse Rory was lazy writing. Yes it’s just a saying. But while it’s one that could be used of a man who arrives unexpectedly in a blue, time-travelling spaceship, it’s not likely to be used of someone with whom one has grown up in the same small village. The idea of Amy describing Rory, the boy from her village, as dropping from the sky is utterly implausible and done purely to make Rory and us think that maybe it’s the Doctor she loves after all. That’s blatant manipulation purely for the purposes of dramatic effect and the audience deserves better. We’ve had an entire episode devoted to which of the two Amy loves that way: it has been resolved. Move on.

It may well be that confusion is the new black and actually everyone is very happy to be left with far more questions than answers. It’s fair enough that people like the feeling of not having exposition laid on with a trowel and everything tied up neatly. Maybe they prefer the big special effects and the bangs and the gun battles and the melodrama. Perhaps what I see as being mashed together so that the joins are still visible is really a brave move in not pandering to audience expectation.

And yet I can’t help but feel like I did when they remade The Italian Job — the original was tight, witty, sharp, poignant, even camp. It was genteel. It had a mellow kind of joyful exuberance:

“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”

The new one was slick, polished, modern and had big bangs that were celebrated as opposed to being cause for exasperation:

Charlie Croker: That’s Left Ear. Demolition and explosives. When he was ten, he put one too many M-80s in the toilet bowl.
[Cuts to the exterior of a toilet stall. Suddenly the door bursts open from an explosion. The toilet is spraying a fountain of water up]
Kid On Left: Damn, that was cool. How did you do that?

I am afraid that the new Doctor Who might be falling into the pattern of characters conforming to plot, like so many things I used to enjoy. In this case the plot is brighter, bolder, BIGGER and more WHIZZ-BANG EXCITING with LOTS OF HECTIC ACTION and THINGS GOING ON. Have we forgotten that it’s possible to do lots and lots of running without it ever tipping over the edge into frenetic?

I really hope not.

~>0<~

1: According to various sources there are between 1 and ~4kg of bacteria in the human body. Given that I’ve been on antibiotics of one sort or another for around 2 weeks now, you’d think I’d have lost some weight. But no. Dammit.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (katamari)

While everyone else was rolling painted eggs down hills, chasing after Easter bunnies and stuffing themselves full of chocolate, my main concern about the penultimate weekend in April (other than the trip down to Lincolnshire for my mother-in-law’s birthday) was the release of Portal 2.

Portal 2 cover

In a gaming world where most of the action titles seem to be taking the "increased difficulty = more monsters and more shooting", finding a title that is engrossing, has a good narrative and doesn't rely on ultra-violence is quite difficult. I haven't bought a new adult action game since Bioshock 2 — I've been buying things like Little Big Planet 2 and Rabbids titles instead. Compare Resistance: Fall of Man with its sequel, FEAR likewise — I haven't gone near Dead Space 2 because the original took that to a frustrating extreme. There is only so much I can cope with button mashing through a fight only to run straight into another one with barely enough of a break to regain a couple of health bars.

Portal 2 is a breath of fresh air in a room stale with the scent of testosterone, cordite and spent shell casings.

It’s a puzzler, much like the first one. The first one, however, had us join Theseus after entering the Labyrinth then bug out as soon as the Minotaur was dead. In Portal 2 we get to see a bit more of Crete and the Kingdom of Minos.

Gameplay is similar to the first offering, although there is less reliance on laying portals in exactly the right place with impeccable timing and more on figuring out the correct sequence and making use of the portals to achieve the seemingly impossible. While I had a considerably frustrating time with the original, lacking the precise hand-eye co-ordination required to make accurate portals at high speed while flying through the air, I found Portal 2 to be just frustrating enough. I liked the logical progression of problem solving. Rather like doing a crossword, it’s necessary to gain an eye for it, to learn the rules and the patterns. There is a sense of accomplishment in gaining the mindset required to solve the puzzles. The achievement here isn’t being able to slaughter more and bigger and stronger rabid creatures: it’s being able to solve ever more complex puzzles that on first glance seem impossible until a solitary patch of white turns into the end of a thread that will lead you through to the exit.

There are nods to the original in the use of some of the same test chambers, run through the decay mill. If you are expecting the game to be as short as the original you are in for a shock at the point you think you have escaped into the outside world. The use of the derelict original facility to bring in a whole new set of puzzle types and give some background to the Aperture Science facility was enjoyable, seasoning the very dark storyline with welcome humour.

Another point for which Valve has my undying love is that our protagonist is a woman. But she just happens to be a woman. There is a point halfway through the game where GLaDOS says “She did all the work!” If you have been concentrating on the gameplay rather than laying out portals to get a look at your character, and know nothing of the game, this is the first time the sex of the character is clear. This isn’t Silent Hill, where being female inevitably leads to a plotline involving maternal instinct; or a reason for pneumatic busts à la Lara Croft; nor the ridiculous posturing of Bayonetta. Portal 2 passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, even when one of the women involved is a potato. (Spoilers!)

“Oh, it’s you. It’s been a long time. How have you been? I’ve been really busy being dead. You know… after you murdered me? Okay look, we both said a lot of things that you are going to regret. But I think we should put our differences behind us. For science. You monster.”

Chell
"And then you showed up. You dangerous, mute lunatic."

I couldn't have been happier had a Big Daddy removed his helmet to reveal he was actually a Big Mummy.

We haven’t started on the co-operative level, and there are several achievements that I missed on my first run through, so there’s plenty of gameplay in it yet. If you fancy something a bit more cerebral than your standard first-person shooter, where difficulty isn’t measured in how many times you die in a sequence before you learn the spawn patterns and get your timing just right, I can thoroughly recommend this engaging and satisfying number from Valve.

I won’t spoil the ending, but yes, there is a song.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (hmmm)

Some of you may remember (or not) that I had flu at the end of last year. Proper baby-eating Bishop of Bath and Wells flu. Well, said flu damaged my lungs a bit and so when I caught a cold last week it went straight to my chest and stayed there.

Seriously. My training is thoroughly jinxed this year.

However, there was a bright side. Just as I have a rule about taking a punt on music, I have a rule about taking a punt on DVDs, and a few months ago Amazon sent me one of their “You’ve shopped for these things and so we thought you’d like this” emails, in which the items on offer were cult science-fiction world cinema.

Yeah. Niche.

Anyway, one of the DVDs I picked up at that time, what with them all being less than a fiver, was an odd little number called Eden Log. Frood and I started watching it but it was quickly clear that it wasn’t Frood’s sort of thing so I put it away for a time when I could watch it myself. Being stuck at home ill was an ideal opportunity.

Eden Log posterEden Log is the 2007 directorial debut of Franck Vestiel. He also wrote the screenplay. If I had to summarise it, I’d say it was a cross between Pandorum and Silent Running with a bit of Logan’s Run thrown in for good measure. In reverse, if you can possibly imagine such a thing.

The film opens in the pitch black, and I mean pitch black. There is very little lighting and the lead character, impressively played by Clovis Cornillac and at this point nameless, is obviously freezing. The goosepimples on his arms look hard and prominent enough to grate ginger and the breath misting from his mouth has a realism that I don’t think could be achieved by CGI. Even his guttural grunts suggest the sort of forced vocalisation that anyone who has ever tried to exert physical effort while that bloody cold will remember all too clearly.

In what I think is a move that is either very brave or very French, the lighting remains intermittent, the colour scheme almost monochromatic, and the camera intimate for a considerable period while our protagonist finds his way to what appears to be an abandoned, dilapidated facility where he is greeted by an automatic message directed at newcomers. It talks of workers gaining citizenship by sacrifice and it is obvious, immediately, that there is some whitewashing going on here. It is pitched perfectly to alert the viewer to the desperation of the anonymous incomer: you know that whoever heard this for real would be so relieved to make it this far that he wouldn’t look for the small print.

As the film goes on it becomes clear that the “Eden” of the title is not achievable to those who approach from down here in the dark, and that, other than the ones running the place, those who derive the most benefit are kept in equal, if metaphorical, dark about what exactly is needed to sustain their quality of life, while those down below take mortal risks to provide it.

It is Yggrdrassil gone bad, a study in absurdo of what might happen if, in harnessing Nature, man should choose to use a martingale and the dregs of society as mulch.

Like many takes on this subject, including Hollywood budget-busters, as Man’s Disrespect for Mother Nature is a well-worn trail in storytelling, it over-simplifies and hand-waves the science and in places gets the science so wrong it becomes unintelligible. Couple this with the lack of exposition and reliance on metaphor and the film is, at times, horrendously confusing. But the performances of the two lead actors — the aforementioned Cornillac is particularly good, although Vimala Pons does as much as anyone could with the limited material available — are excellent and Vestiel’s determination to see what he started through to the end without mollycoddling his audience is admirable. I can’t even complain about the treatment of the female lead: there is one scene of rape that is so carefully done I could only quibble if I ignored the context entirely, and as this is a story entirely centred on Cornillac’s character I refuse to be upset about Pons getting less screen time. What she does get she puts to excellent use.

I confess I wasn’t entirely sure I’d grasped all of the story when it came to the end — like Valhalla Rising it left the viewer to come to his or her own conclusions about exactly how what happened actually happened. And, like Valhalla Rising, I looked it up afterwards because it was intriguing enough for me to want to know what other people had thought.

If you like your science fiction straightforward and your horror gory, leave this be. There’s no blasting off and nuking the place from orbit. There is no man vs monster. In this man is the monster, both figuratively and literally. There is scant dialogue and some viewers may find that there are sections where the use of hand-held cameras becomes a little nauseating, although it is not done for effect (it’s by far less irritating than it was in Cloverfield).

It’s not what I’d call a great film but it is an interesting one. The cast and crew cared about this, and it shows, despite the lack of resources available. It’s not as good as Moon but it’s many times better than most of the science-fiction films I have seen over the past few years. It’s a proper story, actually trying to say something, rather than a buffet of special effects and sexy actors pretending to kick ass in implausible scenarios.

Eden Log has the spirit of Aeon Flux the original series rather than Aeon Flux the movie.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (shiny)

Every so often I take a random punt on some obscure album, most frequently these days as a result of hearing something on a computer game.

It was Last.fm that spurred my most recent gamble.

Ulladubulla Vol 2 is a cash-in on Ulladubulla, itself apparently gestated within a PS1 game of which I have never heard.

I’m a big fan of the original musical War of the Worlds. When I was about 5 I couldn’t choose between that, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells or Vangelis’s Spiral as my favouritest things ever (which might say a lot about me). I’m considerably older now, and have a bad trance/dance habit, because it makes the endless hours on the turbo more bearable. When last.fm pitched up the Dario G remix of Brave New World I thought “Hello!”

My take-a-punt limit is around 4 quid, and it works like this: I hear a track I like. I find the album on MP3 download (if it’s not downloadable all bets are off). If the number of tracks on the album I like sufficiently to buy individually is large enough that it would cost more than the album, I’ll take a punt, up to the limit of 4 quid.

In other words, when Ln > A ≤ 4, where L = liked track, n is an integer smaller the number of tracks on the album and A is album cost.

Ulladubulla sneaked in on the boundary at £3.89, with 4 tracks I was sure I liked, one I thought I liked, and 17 tracks on the album.

I tweeted my initial review in realtime, and it went like this:

• Took the 4 quid punt. Papa Ootzie’s opener is creepy in a Stranglers, Men In Black gone really dark kind of way.
• Zube’s Horsell Common & the Heat Ray is Will Smith meets Ghost Dog. Initially I flinched but it might be a grower.
• Oooh. Tom Middleton’s Cosmos re-edit of the Eve of the War has some fat reverb reminiscent of Pendulum’s grabbier stuff. Like.
• N-Trance turns Forever Autumn into a dance track. Not as bad as I feared. Wouldn’t be out of place on a chillout mix.
• Onto Max Mondo’s The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine. Unconvinced. Needs more effort 2/5.
• There are weird noises in the background that make me think Shaggy is going Bombastic on a Martian. Um. Niche.
• Stephen Murphy’s light-handed approach to the Red Weed is interesting. Layers whimsy over the creeping horror.
• Todd Terry vs David Essex. Wangst turns chirpy cockney. Who’d've thunk?
• OMG. WTF has Max Mondo done to Julie Covington? KILL IT WITH FIRE!
• That was the first track I was forced to skip because it was just too awful.
• Hybrid’s remix of The Eve of the War is the sort of track you’d find on WipeOut HD. Before you replaced the soundtrack.
• Stephen Murphy’s Dead London is what happened when Jamie took his magic torch into the 28 Days Later universe.
• Sticking an Alan Parsons-esque piano/drum riff on a track doesn’t make it a remix. The Spirit of Man (Spirit of Dub) gets 1/5.
• Dario G’s Brave New World. Am liking it already. Take THAT traffic queue! I am fixie ninja! Choke on my l33t filtering skillz!
• Ben Liebrand’s remix of the Eve of the War is making me giggle. I don’t think that was the intended reaction.
• OK. Max Mondo’s Horsell Common and the Heat Ray is what got me started on this, so it can’t be that bad.
• And oddly, it’s just meh. Of all the tracks so far it doesn’t really stand out in anyway, good or bad.
• DJ Keltech’s take on same song reminiscent of the final levels of Rez. Multiple layers of implied architecture
• Zube assaults the Spirit of Man and leaves it beaten, broken, bleeding, humiliated and suffering from PTSD in a corner.
• Ulladubulla vol 2: worth the 4 quid, but only because it would have cost 40p less to buy the 4 best tracks (out of 17) individually.

Having listened to the album a few times since then, I’d largely stick with the above (particularly the kill it with fire comment), with a couple of additions.

Although Zube’s take on Horsell Common isn’t as bad as it first sounds, when you are stuck on the turbo in desperate need of distraction you start listening to lyrics. Maybe the effort was doing something weird to my brain but the lyrics to that particular track seem to be particularly offensive, advocating a degree of cultural and xenophobic paranoia so intense I am amazed the Jeff Wayne estate was willing to allow his name to be associated with it. I could be convinced I were imagining it were it not for the fact that (a) I’m not; and (b) the lyrics of Zube’s Spirit of Man remix convey some equally dubious sentiments.

On the other hand, I am more enamoured of Papa Ootzie’s opener, the Eve of the War, which takes a look at the situation from the Martian POV and would make a nice little flash piece:

The problem is, of course, the humans.
Mars is incapable of sustaining life: our efforts to sustain the biosphere are exhausted. The water table and temperature decrease annually, as does our population. The only consequential course of action is the conquest and occupation of Earth, our young Sun-neighbour. The means and methods for this attack are already being realised. A large scale hydrogen accelerator will be constructed. This will launch suspension pods carrying the assault forces…

Unlike some other reviewers, I’m not certain that it is fundamentally wrong to update the original musical with rap and dance tracks. Taking stories and transposing them to a contemporary setting is done frequently enough: why not musicals? I’m less convinced (to put it mildly) by Zube’s attempt to shoehorn an attack by Martians into a rant about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and his take on the Spirit of Man, which seems to be a Daily Wail-inspired rant about peedoes and immigrunts rather than a celebration of human perseverance and determination.

I’m not disappointed in the album, particularly, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a taste for mash-ups that shouldn’t work but sort of do and four quid burning a hole in your pocket. If I were a sackperson with her very own poppit and a retry button, I would not buy it again.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (happy stitch)

Ever since BMX XXX I have paid particular attention to the music used in video games. I’ve got a lot of material in my collection that wouldn’t be there without a combination of video games and the likes of Pandora (I’m currently using Last.fm for the same purpose because UK users have been blocked from Pandora).

As you’ll have noticed, recently I’ve been spending a lot of time on Little Big Planet, and the playlist for LBP2 is excellent. My favourite, by far, is Ladytron’s Ghosts, to be found in the Death By Shockolate level:

Every so often a track has a shape that does something for me that I really need, for whatever reason, at that particular point in time. In the past I’ve developed obsessions over Massive Attack’s Angel, Pass the Hatchet by Yo La Tengo, Yeasayer’s Ambling Alp and many others, from Vivaldi to the Dandy Warhols via Murray Gold. Right now the track that’s doing it for me is Ladytron’s Ghosts.

So much did I like this track that I bought one of their albums, Witching Hour. I was blown away. It is rare that I buy an album and have to comment to Frood that it is just brilliant.

Ladytron’s sound is somewhere on a spectrum that includes Goldfrapp, the Sisters of Mercy, Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, Cibo Matto, the Cult, Jefferson Airplane and Shakespears Sister. The band comprises Liverpool producer and DJ Daniel Hunt, Reuben Wu and singers Glaswegian Helen Marnie and Bulgarian-born Israeli Mira Aroyo.

The two women have vocal styles that both complement and counterpoint one another, with Marnie’s soft but assertive lead underpinned by Aroyo’s more spoken style. The soft-rock electronica ranges from harsh, dark reverb (Soft Power) to the sort of gothic effervescence that belongs running across rooftops with a heavily made-up Brandon Lee (High Rise), with a couple of whimsical diversions (eg Cymk) for light relief. This is certainly not an album you could describe as homogenous. High Rise is a stonking opener while Fighting In Built Up Areas stands out for its relentless pounding and Aroyo taking the lead in Bulgarian, lending interesting architecture from the vocalised sibilants. One of my favourite tracks is Last Man Standing, which has the same shape as bluebells in a sudden downpour on an otherwise sunny day.

It is very rare for me to come across a band I like this much instantly. I expect I shall be acquiring the rest of their discography in due course.

And thank you, Media Molecule, for introducing me. Take note, music moguls: rather than charging a fortune for the rights to use tracks in video games, you should be considering just how many sales will result from people wanting to buy the music.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (hmmm)

Outcasts is the BBC’s new flagship science fiction drama for the adult audience (I am assuming that Doctor Who remains the flag-bearer for science fiction in general). It follows the various stories of a group of people who are settlers on the planet Carpathia, after some so-far unspecified calamity on Earth made it necessary to evacuate. At the time the series starts the main characters have been there for ten years and the only known surviving transport ship is about to try to land on the surface, bringing with it the last influx of fresh blood the settlers are ever going to see. After this, they are on their own.

Outcasts

Carpathia is an Earth-like planet, named after the ship that came to the rescue after the Titanic disaster. No attempt has been made to make the setting seem alien, other than something called a “white-out”, in which presumably tidal forces from the planet’s moon cause what would appear to be a dust storm on steroids. They say it’s something to do with the moon, anyway. In the two episodes so far we have had bad science (aforementioned white-outs and something called deep brain visualisation, in which the subject sits in a special chair and his memories can be seen on the big screen) and good science (an excellent scene in which the teacher was describing the Goldilocks Zone to a class of children). It is therefore not what I would call hard science fiction, as it is the sort of science fiction I can demolish with two diagrams and a joke. A lack of hard science isn’t necessarily a negative criticism, I like soft science fiction as much (and occasionally more than) the next person. However I dislike science fiction that presents itself as hard and then widdles all over itself with hand-waving and dodgy research, not to mention something I saw done in Until the End of the World.

As far as main characters go, I was delighted to see very strong females in the early sections of the first episode. One of the reasons I like science fiction so much is that it has a track record of strong female characters. One of my earliest introductions to strong women was Dayna from Blake’s 7 — an assertive, competent, highly-skilled warrior who took no nonsense from anyone (and whose attractiveness usually took a back seat to the fact that she kicked arse).

Stella Isen, played with usual competency by Hermione Norris, is the Head of Security. Fleur Morgan (Amy Manson) is one of her officers. Both started out well, but Stella’s role quickly became that of the obsessed mother, while Fleur’s maternal instincts were also called upon before the first episode was halfway done when her best friend’s husband went a bit nuts, beat his police officer wife mostly to death, then took off into the wilderness with his son.

At which point my face did this:

WAT

So we’ve passed the Bechdel test early and now we’re going to ignore the whole bucking of the gender-bias trend and relax into the girls like babies and boys like guns model. I see.

By episode two the writer, Ben Richards, has made his premise for the series not only perfectly clear by way of storytelling, but also explicit in the dialogue: can humans truly live together in peace? Outcasts is a social pressure-cooker: the problem with it isn’t that this is a bad idea, but that Richards has come to it with the answer already and has arranged everything so that the story can’t fail to produce that answer.

The divisions of labour between the various sub-groups are artificial, counter-productive, and I can’t for the life of me imagine any settlement group on a distant planet trying to work that way. The method of introduction for the various plot points feels like shoehorning them in to serve the underlying premise, rather than things that might have happened and the consequences that ensued. While I enjoy the fact that there is little in the way of unnecessary exposition, I cannot get past the idea that the structure of the society there is implausible and thus everything that happens is difficult to believe on principle.

This is, in short, one of my pet hates: plot driving character, and in this case it extends to the very nature of the community. The desired conflict will not happen without imposing certain conflicts that come across as terribly unlikely with a few moments of thought about how people would actually behave in such an environment.

It is drama. That it takes place on a different planet is simply a device. Even the use of genetic modification is there to define an us-and-them conflict. They could have done the same by punting the characters a couple of hundred years back in time, sticking them somewhere remote and picking some arbitrary differentiation.

So, yes. The only thing that defines this as science fiction is that there are women doing what is usually thought of as a man’s job. It amuses me immensely that writers still find the inclusion of women who are taking on roles traditionally performed by men to be an easy way of saying “LOOK. THIS AM BE THE FYOOOOOTYOOOOOR! IN SPACE!”

But it’s also somewhat tragic.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (sackperson)

Is Little Big Planet 2 everything you expected? Have you been disappointed since getting your sticky, eager little paws on it? You have been terribly quiet about it and we thought maybe you were so heartbroken that you had consigned it to the oblivion of a mental oubliette, along with Highlander 2, Wolverine: Origins, X-Men 3: X-Men United and X-Men: the official game.

Cut for pics and mega awesomeness )

It’s as awesome as an awesome thing
That has as a hobby
Being Made of Win
And Rocking like a Ninja
Who is also God and King!

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (gah)

I love music. I listen to a lot of music. My tastes are eclectic, running from Baroque through onomatopoaeic, quirky, more quirky and utterly bonkers, by way of some psytrance, big beat, a bit of metal and stuff I find hard to classify. And everything in between. New Age ambient, prog rock… I’m synaesthetic, and my synaesthesia affects my proprioception. I don’t like any specific sort of music. I like music that does things to me. Check out my Last.fm profile and you’ll get the idea.

My MP3 player is probably the one gadget I have that would cause withdrawal symptoms if I lost it. I’ve had some form of personal stereo ever since the first Sony Walkman, back in the days of audio tape. (I find it scary that there are people alive today who might not know about audio tape.) I went from tape to minidisc to flash drive, and for the past few years have received sterling service from my Sony NW-S205F. It did everything I wanted it to do, despite the clunky and incompatible-with-everything-else SonicStage software, was small and light and easy to use while working out or on the bike, and it was showerproof.

Before any cycling chums start getting their knickers in a twist: yes, I listen to music while on the bike if I’m riding alone. No, it doesn’t affect my ability to hear traffic. As far as I am concerned if you are relying on your hearing to save you from being hit by a car then you’re doing it wrong anyway. If you wish to argue about this, please go and contribute to one of the many, many threads on CC and I will proceed to ignore you there, too. I am a big girl who has tried with and without and I have performed my own risk assessment, thank you very much. You are free to disagree but not to impose.

In the past couple of months it became apparent that my very much loved MP3 player, which was bloody expensive when I got it, was suffering from terminal battery failure. Desperate, I searched the internet thinking that maybe there was a DIY method of changing the battery, because Sony support said it was uneconomical to change the battery and it was better to replace the unit, thereby missing the point entirely because they don’t do anything similar any more. The internet said no: the design is so compact and the insides so tightly packed together that battery replacement is likely to destroy the player.

So that left me needing a new one. I looked at the various Sony products because I’ve always had Sony players. Sadly, as I said, they don’t make anything resembling the NW-S205F any more. Their sports player is this weird combination headphone/headband thing, and I don’t want my ears taking the weight, thank you very much. I find it hard to believe that can possibly be comfortable when running. The alternative is the B series, which diligent research revealed to be allergic to moisture. No good for a gym bunny/recidivist cyclist like me.

Samsung YP-U6ABAfter hunting around a bit more I settled on the Samsung YP-U6AB (the QP is the 2GB version) on the basis that it seemed to be exactly the same in terms of function as the lamented Sony NW-S205F, but it was rectangular and didn’t have a fast charge. I could live without fast charge.

First there was the issue with the shop losing my order, then replacing my order with one for the multimedia version (yeah, that’ll do well in the rain), then, once all that had been sorted out, sending it using an ancient, asthmatic camel that took a route via Klatchistan. I can only imagine that’s why it took so damn long to arrive.

But get here it did. Yesterday.

As the Sony had sickened to the point of me taking my old minidisc to work yesterday, you can imagine that I was impatient to get going with it. So impatient, in fact, that the lack of any form of carrying case (the Sony had come with a special armband that I have worn so much in the intervening years it has practically left a groove on my arm) only made me a little bit ranty. The software that shipped with the device wouldn’t work on the machine on which we keep most of the music. This did not fill me with joy and happiness. However, the product information indicated that it was compatible with Windows Media Player 11 and that transferring music was an easy drag and drop affair.

Now, say what you like about Sony’s compatibility and their godsawful ATRAC format, the SonicStage software did one thing very, very well: it managed music and playlists and transferred them to the player without me having to think about it. Create playlist, save playlist, drag it to player, done.

First of all I spent more time that I’d intended creating a new playlist in WMP. I meant to chuck a few songs on and get going but there were some I needed to have and then I had to make sure that they had compatible songs around them and appropriate spacing… You know how it is. Well. You probably don’t. So I was as impatient as an unruly sackperson waiting for an even more unruly sackperson to catch up by the time the device was charged, I had swapped across to the other machine and bullied Vista into network sharing properly so I had access to our whole catalogue and then constructed the aforementioned playlist.

I did the drag and drop thing, safely removed hardware as directed in the user manual, then fired up the new toy. I boggled at the small wiggly thing that appeared on the display along with the demand I choose one. What was this? An adoption centre for imps? I picked the one that looked most aggravated and fumbled giving it a name. DID NOT MATTER. NEED MUSIC. NEED PORTABLE MUSIC. GIVE ME MY PORTABLE MUSIC.

Noes!!!! The playlist hadn’t worked! All the songs were there, but they were arranged ALPHABETICALLY. What noxious effluvium of a mastitic ungulate from the nether regions of Beelzebub’s bowels was this? This is 2011! MP3 players are no longer the stupid, simple mass storage devices of old. I wanted a portable soundscape generator, not a flash drive!

I tried installing the software that came with it. It crashed my machine, leaving me with the horrible decision to switch everything off manually to get it unfrozen, even though the U6 had the “Do not disconnect while transferring” warning on it (which was a lie, because I wasn’t transferring anything).

My wrath was mighty.

With a grim determination that could only end up in the MP3 player doing what I wanted it to or someone dying a vicious and brutal death, I rebooted my computer and hit the internet. A seven stage iteration of search terms later I had learned about MSC and MTP and also that the Samsung U6 is one of the very few players on the market that’s still MSC. I spat the dummy at that point and was about to go into full-on berserker mode, but then I found this thread on anythingbutipod. Only the Korean release is purely MSC. In Europe the U6 can be switched to MTP. Once I’d found that I hunted down the instructions to do so because, guess what, it’s not in the user manual.

Success! With MTP enabled the U6 accepts drag and drop playlists from WMP with barely a shrug of the shoulder.

Sound quality seems good enough, although I’m using the Phillips headphones that I had already rather than the nasty-looking things that came with it. It’s not as user-friendly as the old Sony and I doubt I’ll ever use the sports function (I didn’t use it on the Sony, after all) — I only wanted a sports model because they tend to be more robust. The decision tree is more along the lines of Frood‘s creative than the play-all/play-album/play-playlist options on my old Sony. I’m not fussed about playing by genre, artist or whatever. The only option I’d ever want other than album or playlist is bpm. There’s a user-assignable button on it, although I have no idea what I might use it for. I’m sure I’ll think of something.

It’s a subtle, understated little thing in the black option, about half again as long as my thumb. The metal finish gives it a reassuringly robust feel. Now that it’s doing what I want I’m pleased with my purchase, especially as I got a 4GB player for less than half the price I paid for my previous 2GB one. Around forty of your Earth pounds is a pretty good deal, I’d say.

But, really, I shouldn’t have to spend an evening becoming even more of a geek than I am already in order to do something as simple as transfer a playlist. The device should come in MTP mode from the factory, but, failing that, at the bare minimum this should be discussed in the supplied user manual. Samsung, I like your hardware but you need to do some serious work on ease of use.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

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