Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

Pushing Ice

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

I bought two books to take with me to Dallas. The first I read was Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds. I read his House of Suns in Lanzarote last month, and really enjoyed it. I think I enjoyed this one even more.

The story begins with Janus, one of the moons of Saturn, unexpectedly breaking orbit, and heading off to a distant star system. The Rockhopper, an asteroid mining ship is the only vessel in position to follow it. The book then follows the story of its crew as they follow this alien object to its destination. The characters were interesting and engaging, and the plot varied and imaginative. But what really impressed me was that every time I thought I knew where the book was going, it would do something unexpected. I liked that. I also liked that the cover of the book was relevant to the story, which seems to be not often the case these days in sci-fi.

So some solid sci-fi, that’s an enjoyable read, and hard to put down.

Moonraker

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

I finished my first holiday book standing outside the airport waiting for a coach to take me to my resort.

It was Moonraker, by Ian Fleming, one of the original James Bond books, and in fact only the third in the series (though it was a much later movie).

I like James Bond books to take on holiday. They’re physically small and light, and psychologically not too heavy going. Because of our familiarity with the films, they’re often quite predictable, but not this one, where the film has almost nothing in common with the book. In this book, millionaire Sir Hugo Drax is building an independant nuclear deterrant for the UK, in the shape of the Moonraker rocket, thus cementing Britain’s place in world politics. But all is of course not quite as it seems, and James is sent to investigate.

In this day and age, the idea of Britain having a world-leading nuclear missile programme, seems preposterous, but of course Trident is still up for replacement, so you never know. The action takes place mainly in M’s gentlemens’ club in London, and at the Moonraker launch site in the south of England, so there’s not a lot of glamorous locations.

But I do like the plot, which is much more straightforward and reasonable than that of the film, involving a massively complex revenge rather than the extinction of the human race. I found it just predictable enough to make me feel clever, with action and some vintage charm. There’s also an unexpected twist at the end, which I rather liked.

Torchwood – Children of Earth

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

The past week saw the return of Torchwood, for a special 5 day run on BBC1. Torchwood is one of those things that I quite enjoy, but I have to admit that I didn’t have very high hopes for this. I was wrong. It was good tv.
Since folks may not have caught up with it yet, I’m going to avoid any significant spoilers, but here were the highlights for me:

  • It retained its sense of humour. Admittedly, less so as the week went on, but there were still some good funny moments that were in keeping with the show.
  • The scenes with the cabinet, where they tried to work out what to do about the alien’s demands. I know that public opinion of our politicions is at an all-time low, but I think it was a fair reflection of what could happen in such an impossible situation.
  • It retained it’s Britishness. Right from the start, the look of the camerawork said BBC drama. With Torchwood being so successful in the US, it was possible that they might have watered down some of the local feel, but it was still there, with great lines like “Otherwise, what use are league tables?”
  • The big reveal of why the aliens wanted the children was really good. Really chilling. Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, it did. That explanation put other things into context too, like why there were no sleek and gleaming alien battleships, for instance.
  • And a nice role for Nicholas Briggs, who normally voices the Daleks, and here managed to get an on-screen role, playing an equally nasty piece of work in the cabinet.

The other thing that interests me is that, although I don’t think that it looked cheap in any way, it did not go over the top with the special effects. The children were eery, but did not require any special effects, just acting. Likewise the 456 themselves, who by appearing in clouds of chemical mist never needed to be done with sophisticated prosthetics. I can’t help thinking that this is a return to traditional values in a way, and showing that good stuff can be done with creativity and imagination, rather than lots of money and computers.

Because of how things ended up, I don’t think that Torchwood will be back after this. And yet its huge success in America makes it almost certain that the BBC would want to keep it going for as long as possible. So it will be interesting to see what happens next on that front.

But if it is the end, I think it had a great finish – a drama that raised moral questions about prices that are and are not worth paying for peace. And in a one-liner by the 456, it asked an even better question – why we would fight so hard for one set of children, while another group of children die every day, in the real world.

John Pilger at the CQAF

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be Alan in Belfast, and write on a political event at a local arts festival.

It was an interview of crusading journalist John Pilger, by BBC NI’s William Crawley, which was meant to happen a few weeks ago but was delayed because he had a bout of pneumonia. St George’s Parish church was well filled, with a pretty enthusiastic audience. The acoustics weren’t fantastic, but I was near the front, so it wasn’t a problem for me.

Pilger has been writing and making documentaries for a long time (about 50 years), so he has a wealth of experiences from all over the world, and the evening reflected that. His view on Barack Obama was perhaps the most interesting of the evening. To paraphrase, he felt that

Barack Obama is a brand… American foreign policy, like British foreign policy, has continued in a straight line since 1945… Going by the first 250 days, Obama is continuing what Bush had done before…

I thought that was quite interesting. Also interesting, though I guess not surprising, were his views on Israel. He stated that because Israel is a special case in so many elements of international law (nuclear weapons, the continued occupation of Palestine), that resolving that one single issue is a precondition to the resolution of conflicts all over the world, because until justice is seen to be done there, there will be an excuse for it in other places. When challenged on how this could happen, he advocated boycotts, but acknowledged that the UN as it is now wouldn’t do that.

There was also a fascinating question from one member of the audience who asked “How can you, an Australian, sit here in Northern Ireland, and talk about ‘we the British people'”. I don’t think anyone was entirely sure whether he was being funny or provocative.

Pilger is scathing on the modern media, which he believes simply reports whatever is in the best interests of the news corporations and governments which own them. He believes that the kind of journalism that made his name just doesn’t happen in the mainstream media any more.

But he does have hope for the future. Not necessarily in the western governments (especially our MPs with their snouts in the trough), but he sees the people-led movements in South America as being a sign of progress.

It was an interesting evening. He is someone who is very well-informed about the world, and although some of his views are challenging, they can’t be dismissed.

Dawn of the Dumb

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

I finished reading a very interesting book a few weeks ago, but hadn’t got round to writing about it. It’s Dawn of the Dumb by Charlie Brooker, a collection of essays from his newspaper columns for the Guardian. I’m quite shocked that some of these got published – he must keep their lawyers fairly busy. It’s a book that no-one should enjoy, as it is shockingly pessimistic and negative about basically everything that Charlie encounters. I would say that he hates everything, but every so often he unexpectedly admits to liking something, and writes a few warm and enthusiastic words. But it never lasts because he’s a complete misanthrope.

Here’s a quote from the back cover, which is a reasonable summary of the book:

“I don’t get people. What’s their appeal, precisely? They waddle around with their haircuts on, cluttering the pavement like gormless, farting skittles. They’re awful.”

From this, you’ll guess that he isn’t really a people person. Doesn’t he say terrible things about our fellow human beings? Except of course that we all feel that way some days. Well I certainly do anyway.
Here’s the start of the introduction:

“Hello.
Thanks for buying this book. I hope you enjoy reading it more than I enjoyed writing it, because I hated every minute. Well almost.”

I did enjoy reading it. He has some great ideas, and is very witty. Just flicking through, I found his theory about the link between dark matter (which scientists know exists, but can’t find) and Emmerdale watchers (who apparently there are millions of, but who knows anyone who does), who he claims are “Dark matter with shoes”. Perhaps there’s something cathartic about reading a collection of such angry thoughts. Perhaps revelling in irritation, and really throwing yourself into it helps you to let it go. I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to reading his other book Screen Burn, which I guess is more of the same.

But before I go, I can’t resist a few quotes from the essay called “I hate Macs”.

“I hate Macs. I have always hated Macs. I hate people who use Macs. I even hate people who don’t use Macs but sometimes wish they did. Macs are glorified Fisher-Price activity centres for adults; computers for scaredy cats too nervous to learn how proper compuers work; computers for people who earnestly believe in feng shui”

What a hoot ­čÖé

Watchmen

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

This is very late. I saw the film of Watchmen weeks ago. I had intended to write something about it at the time, but I never got round to it. But it was so good that I still feel I ought to say something, even if it has taken far too long to write.

It’s a film that could well defy expectations. It is not an action movie, though it does have some action sequences. This is not a typical superhero movie, though it is about costumed crimefighters. Perhaps it is more about philosophical or sociological worldviews than anything else.

One hero fights against evil because he hates it, but not through any real love of goodness. Another wants to save the world, but again, not through any real love of people; perhaps more for the intellectual challenge of it. Another is ambivalent, dissociated from the world because of his power – he is described throughout as god-like, but only when he learns to love can he be described as like the kind of god we would want to know. That still leaves two characters, about which I don’t have a lot to say, other than maybe they could be described as normal, the sort of people we can identify with, or would want to be most like.

The move is visually arresting, filmed with what I guess is an artist’s eye. The soundtrack is wonderful – instead of background music to reinforce the action, at times the action stops to allow the music to become the foreground, and to set a specific tone for the scenes to follow. The plot is complex, with key scenes told through flashbacks, and follows the original comic book until near the end.

I hope I haven’t given away any spoilers. I really liked this film, and I would hate to spoil it for anyone else. But I would recommend it to anyone who was comfortable with 18-rated films, and was able to cope with some unpleasantly violent scenes. I found the journey to be worthwhile.

Wired UK

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

This month saw the re-launch of Wired UK after being absent from our magazine racks for a long time.
I first came across Wired magazine a good few years ago, on holiday in America. For those not familiar with the magazine, it is kind of a commentary on the society that our technology creates as much as it discusses the technology and the science behind it. So although it talks quite a bit about science, computers, and the internet, it’s more about the people behind these sorts of things, and about the society that may result from them.

The UK edition was spun off from the US, ran for a while, and then closed down due to diminishing readership. I’m guessing that the plans to restart a UK edition were made prior to the current financial turmoil, as otherwise it seems like a really bad time to relaunch something that has already failed once.

So what did I make of the first issue? Well, I should admit up-front that I’ve always liked Wired. Although it can get a bit carried away with itself sometimes, I’ve always enjoyed its positivity and enthusiasm for the opportunities that are created by our technology. And I like how it casts its net widely, and covers a broad range of subjects, some of which can be pretty blue sky. The first UK edition contains mainly stuff that is fairly in keeping with the US edition. The article about Elon Musk was interesting, as was the article about a financial formula that is being blamed for the current economic woes of the world. The story of the salvaging of the Cougar Ace has appeared before in the American magazine, but was worth reading again. The predictions of their futurologists is classic Wired – interesting speculation, but fairly lightweight. Even more lightweight was the piece by Alain de Botton about driving a digger – at only two pages including pictures, they didn’t really get their money’s worth from him. The most distinctively British piece was the story of the BBC IPlayer, and the guy behind it.

All in all, I liked it. It told some interesting stories, gave me some things to think about, and at the discounted subscription rate (£2 per issue), it was good value for money.

As a side-note, the Register reviewed the same magazine here. Not unexpectedly, they didn’t like it much, since Wired and the Register are more or less polar opposites in terms of how they view the world.

And if you fancy checking out some of the content, you can have a nosy here.

A hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Monday, April 13th, 2009

I was out on my bike this morning. And a wonderful song came up on shuffle on my ipod. So I thought I would share it with y’all. Just in case there is any doubt that Bob Dylan is one of the greatest lyricists that ever lived (and I know of no such doubt, but just on the off-chance), may I draw your attention to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”.

Not being an extreme Bob Dylanophile (which sounds like one of those bizarre creatures that live in volcanic vents in the ocean floor), I don’t know a lot about the history of the song or anything. But rather than me regurgitate a wikipedia article to you, I’ll just add a link to it later on, and we can both read it together.

Anyway, the song describes the journeys of a young man who has been travelling, and returned home to his doting parents. The parents question their beloved son on his travels. “Where have you been, my blue-eyed son?” they begin. He tells them of a number of faintly disturbing places. Trying a different direction they ask “What have you seen?”. He describes the sights he has seen, which are even more unpleasant than the places were. The parents try again with “What did you hear?”. Mostly that’s the sounds of sorrow and pain. In desperation, they ask “Who did you meet?”. Unexpectedly, there is some good news here, but not much. After each verse, the chorus warns that “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall”, which I always think of as my favourite musical prophesy of doom. It doesn’t say much about this rain, but given the overall tone of the song, I think we can assume that it isn’t going to be good. Then comes the final question – “What’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?”. I suspect that my own answer might be “I’m going to stay right here, and I’m never going back out there because it’s all horrible” (obviously re-worded a bit to make it fit the tune). But Bob Dylan’s answer is “I’m going back out before the rain starts to fall”, and describes all the horrible places where he is prepared to go. Having seen the horror of the world, he does not turn away from it, but instead goes out to do something about it, while he still can. This last verse always challenges me.

As a post-script, I should admit that this morning I didn’t listen to Bob Dylan’s original version of the song, and instead was listening to the version recorded by Brian Ferry and/or Roxy Music (I’m never quite sure which). I like this version because of its richer instrumentation, and the fact that it goes along much more quickly, which keeps your attention better for what is otherwise quite a long song. However, it does miss out the “who did you meet” verse, which has the excellent lines “I met one man who was wounded in love, I met another man who was wounded with hatred”, which is beautifully symmetric.

And finally, some links – you can find a version of the song on youtube to listen to here (though I warn you the video is awful, and the song has been editted in some way), the original lyrics to read here, and that wikipedia article is here, but it doesn’t say a great deal.

Being Human

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

Just watched the final episode of Being Human, BBC 3’s latest attempt at fantasy drama. And I rather liked it. The setup of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost living together in a rented house in modern day Britain was enough to get me to watch the original pilot months ago. I thought it showed potential then, so I caught the full series. There were some casting changes, which initially just confused me, but otherwise the show remained very similar to the pilot. It’s the sort of thing that probably fitted very well on BBC 3 – not quite mainstream or expensive looking enough for BBC2 – maybe BBC3 does have a purpose after all.

As the title implies, the overall theme of the show was what is means to be human, viewed through the eyes of these three outsiders, who are no longer quite human, each in their different ways. They didn’t spend a lot on special effects, as the show wasn’t really aiming to look flash (especially the werewolf effects) – it was much more about the characters, and their situations. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it was thought-provoking, but it did explore a few interesting ideas about belonging, and people, and stuff.

I liked it. I hope it gets re-commissioned for a second series. And I would recommend you catch it if and when it gets repeated.

Slumdog Millionaire

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

I don’t often go to see award-winning films. I generally suspect that film juries are looking for different things to me. Unless it’s the award for special effects, admittedly, which does often tickle my fancy.

But I have been intrigued by the success of Slumdog Millionaire.  Having been to Mumbai a few years ago and having a friend who is involved with a charity that helps children in India, I decided it sounded interesting.

So I went to see it tonight. And it is a great movie; I was well impressed. A story of hope against overwhleming odds. I hope it does well in the oscars. And I hope that the child actors who were so good in it have a bright future.