Monday, July 16, 2012

New Website

I'll be incorporating this blog into my new website.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Damnation for Beginners

I forgot to mention that my Subterranean novella "Damnation for Beginners" has received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly. So I'm mentioning it now.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


This film has split people. Either you love it or hate it. I'm firmly in the "love it" camp. What they could have done is this: "Bunch of characters unwittingly awaken an alien, which then kills them one by by one until the last character kills the alien in some final battle." In other words, they could have made it exactly the same as all the other Alien films.

Thankfully, they did something different. I don't want to drop any spoilers here, but the real horror in this film is not something bursting out of a chest, but rather the moment in the film when you realise why these alien giants created us and why the human race is going to have to die. Great concepts. I also loved Cthulhu and the frantic surgery the black supermutator catalyst gloop. And I loved the look of the film. So creepy. It's eerily similar to a place I've written about in my latest book. Also, Michael Fassbender was excellent. And so was Noomi thingy. And I love the irony in the final scenes and that the title works on multiple levels.

Some people over on IMDB have complained about certain flaws in the story. Notably - our protagonists just happen to stumble upon the alien base very quickly, and that as scientists they shouldn't have removed their helmets even if the air was safe. Well, yeah. But this is a story. The helmets come off so you can see the actors' faces, which allows them to act. Even these new see through plastic bubbles still create a barrier between you and the actor. And finding the base so quickly? As opposed to what? Flying round the surface for several days, mapping and taking readings? I don't want to spend four days in the cinema watching that. It's like the point William Goldman makes about unrealistic things that always happen in films - one of which is that a character can always park outside of a building he is visiting. In real life, Mel Gibson would drive around for 45 mins trying and failing to find a goddamn space for his Ferrari. But who wants to watch that? So - he gets there, parks, on we go. They get the planet, here's the base, on we go. If dreary realism is more important than story then turn off your TV and watch a blank screen for two hours. That's as real as it gets.

I did wonder why Michael Fassbender's character wears a helmet outside. Maybe they'd filmed him without a helmet initially, discovered that it spoiled the fantasy of a poisonous atmosphere, then rescripted it to give him a reason to wear it? And I smiled when, near the start of the film, they point out that one whole section is a self contained lifeboat. Whenever someone says something like that, you know the main ship is going to be destroyed. Was that a spoiler? Not really.

So the story's not perfect. Which story is? I think it's damn fine, an order of magnitude better than the previous Alien films, which is what it needed to be. Alien one and two were both great, but there comes a time when you have to move on. And that black gloop has opened up a whole new Pandora's box of possibilities.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

That Endless dark, That Endless Grey Gloom. The Horror, The Horror.

If you've ever wondered what it might be like to survive after a megavolcano eruption blankets the skies in dense grey miserable ash that smothers the sun and lasts for what seems like an eternity, and brings with it an endless deluge of grey rainwater that softens everything and turns grass to mud and rots plants and leaves you desperately yearning for just one glimpse of sunlight, then simply visit Scotland in summer.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Olympics

Olympic fever has gripped some part of the nation. I'm not sure fever is the right word. Malaise is probably a better one. I don't get it myself. The Olympic Games are essentially a jumping competition. People get together to see who can jump the highest. Part of it is also a running competition, where we discover who can run between two points slightly faster than the others. And then there's "who can throw something the furthest". So at the end of it, we will determine who is slightly quicker or stronger than the others on that day. And then everyone goes home. Thus heroes are made.


Heroes is a word that's misused when referring to athletes. The media uses it all the time. It can mean someone with great courage or someone who fights for a cause. Someone who triumphs over adversity. I think it means someone who makes a great sacrifice for others. It's used correctly when we talk about our soldiers. But please don't use it to describe someone who is good at playing, which is what sport is. All competitive sport is play fighting. Play fighting is practice fighting. And fighting is about asserting your dominance, which is about sex.

So the Olympic Games is a worldwide chest thumping confrontation driven by sex. The winner of the jumping competition (or the throwing a stick the farthest contest, or whatever the particular area of play it happens to be) comes from my tribe, my country, then I can celebrate because it means that my country is better than your country. Which means we can beat you up and take all your women any time we want to. Which means your women should come over here and breed with us.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Why "John Carter" was a flop

Some time ago, prior to giving a talk on world building to some university students, I looked up the top 100 grossing Hollywood films of all time. 97 of them where Science Fiction or Fantasy. The genre clearly has appeal. Now Disney's latest Fantasy epic, “John Carter”, looks set to rank among the biggest money-losers of all time. It had a great cast, sumptuous special effects, oodles of action and an entertaining story. On paper it would seem to provide the same sort of spectacle as Avatar – and, for a Hollywood blockbuster, spectacle is essential. So what went wrong?

I enjoyed it – but I think I went to see it for different reasons than most people would. I love classic Science Fiction and Fantasy. The story was never going to win any awards for originality – but that's because it was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs 100 years ago, and has been plundered by same genre films ever since. A guy is mysteriously transported to a faraway place, where he turns out to be “the chosen one”, beats the bad guys and gets the girl. Just like “Avatar”, you know how its going to end. And that's all fine. “Flash Gordon”, “Avatar”, even the “Star Wars” saga have all nodded their heads in its direction.

In terms of story “John Carter” and “Avatar” are very similar. An outsider arrives to save the native people from the bad guys and falls for the princess in the process. “Avatar” is stronger because we empathise with the “Poor Natives” who are in the process of being steamrollered by “The Evil Corporation”, whereas with “John Carter” we are rooting for our hero to save a privileged, kung fu fighting, sword master of a princess from a forced marriage to the handsome Dominic West. So there isn't quite as much at stake.

But I don't think that's where the film falls down. “John Carter” isn't a bad story by any means. “Avatar” didn't attract huge crowds because they really wanted to see native people kick corporate assets. It attracted people because of the sheer spectacle. You buy your cinema ticket, knowing you're going to spend the next two hours on a fabulously exotic distant world.

When you leave a cinema at night and the mall and car park are dark and quiet, do you ever felt a twinge of depression? Isn't it a bit like the feeling you have when you get back home after a wonderful holiday? Do you ever notice that this feeling is worse after big spectacle films like “Avatar”? Spectacle in a Hollywood blockbuster should not be underrated.

Most of “John Carter” was filmed in Utah, and it kinda looks like Utah. It's all a bit samey. That's a problem for this type of film, but not necessarily a terminal one. A Western set in Utah could have promised and offered more of a spectacle. Rather, it seems to me (looking at this from the viewpoint of a fantasy writer who builds worlds for a living) is that for any spectacle to be effective, the viewer has to be able to suspend their disbelief – has to allow themselves to be transported there. I've said this many times before. In Fantasy, no matter how weird a new world is, we need to believe, on some level, that it is real. If you're not remotely convinced that what you're seeing or reading is real, then why should you care about the characters?

Pandora and Middle Earth are fictional places, and yet I can believe that they are real. They are separate from our reality. My mind allows them to exist somewhere. Hogwarts School of Wizardry works fine because it's magic, and it's enough that magic could be real. The problem with a fantasy set on Mars is that you can look out of your window at night and see the red planet glimmering up there in the sky. And you've seen the photos and you know that it is airless and dead. And there aren't any four-armed green men or airships. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his Barsoom stories at a time when it was conceivable that Mars might be populated. Today is different. Subconsciously, we know before going in to see “John Carter” that it's going to be difficult, if not impossible, to suspend our disbelief, and that ultimately makes the film a waste of time for most of us.

Which is a great shame. Fans of classic science fiction will enjoy “John Carter”, even if there aren't enough of us around for Hollywood to make its money back.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Collective Nouns

I recently found myself looking up the collective noun for dragons (it's "flight", apparently, but also "weyr" or "wing"), and it occurred to me that as language evolves we must lack collective nouns for countless modern words.

We have collective nouns for certain groups of people.

A faculty of academics.
A troupe of acrobats.
A crew of sailors.
A worship of writers (which does seem odd).

But how would you describe a collection of programmers? A class of programmers? Possibly, if they were object orientated programmers. A geek of programmers? A compilation of programmers?

What about other groups? There may already be collective nouns, but I couldn't find any.

I did find someone suggesting "an absence of waiters", which is great.

A tremble of bungee jumpers?
A swindle of bankers?
A conceit of tweeters? (Or bloggers, or even writers for that matter.)
A fiddle of politicians?
A delay of pharmacists?
A ruckus of drummers?
A surfeit of councillors?
An impediment of Health and Safety officers?

Any other suggestions gratefully received.