29.4.10

Thursday Book


Boneshaker - Cherie Priest

Sixteen years ago, in 1863, the mad inventor Leviticus Blue used his Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine to breach a pocket of poisonous gas beneath the city of Seattle - a gas capable of turning those who breathe it into flesh-eating zombies. Now a whole section of the city is walled off to keep the gas - and the zombies - trapped safely inside.

Living on the outskirts of this wall, Blue's widow, Briar Wilkes, and his son Ezekiel, struggle to escape the shadow of his legacy. But when Zeke finds his way under the wall to try and exonerate his father, Briar is forced to follow after in the hopes of protecting him from the horrors within - not all of them undead.

Cherie Priest's Boneshaker is the kind of cohesive blend of imaginative concepts that always leaves me in awe. Airship pirates, steampunk contaptions, drugs distilled from zombifying gases, family secrets and a hidden underworld of survivors - all these things are linked naturally together in a world that, while certainly beyond fantastic, is also entirely consistent and convincing. I read this from cover to cover in a few days, but I suspect it will linger with me for far longer than that.

25.4.10

Meanwhile

Meanwhile, in another time and another world...

The Box

The desert sun is low in the sky. She tilts back her head and its red rays stab past the brim of her cap. She squints. The two of them sit facing the distant cluster of rusting, dust-caked buildings that make up the town.

“Five dollars,” Raoul says. “The cork, without breaking the bottle.”

“Nah,” she says. “Not possible.”

He raises a six shooter, sights down the barrel, squeezes the trigger. Twenty paces away, on a haphazard stone wall, a green bottle loses its cork.

“Five bucks,” she says. “Green stuff, right? None of your funny robot money.”

“Green as a twelve day corpse.”

She takes the six shooter and draws back the hammer, takes careful aim at the next green bottle in the row.

“...can feel it on me...!”

She thumps the large wooden trunk she sits upon. “Shuddup in there!”

Back to sighting down the barrel. She pulls the trigger. A bottle explodes. “Shit.”

“...let me out...!”

He holds out a tanned, calloused hand. “Pay up.”

She presses the revolver into his palm. “I'm no good with six guns. I need way more bullets than that.”

He holsters the weapon with a twirl. “Money, not excuses.”

“Elias owes me. Get it from him.”

“Shit.”

“...on my face...!”

He reaches across and thumps on the trunk. “There's no scorpion in there. We lied. It's all in your head. So relax, amigo. It's almost sunset. Then we let you out.”

“...on my gods-damned face...!”

She stares straight ahead. “No scorpions in the scorpion box? Wow. That's pretty clever. I guess.”

He looks at her with eagle-sharp eyes. “You should know, you put him in- Oh Fiona, no, you didn't!”

She bites her lip. “What? I didn't what? Put scorpions in the scorpion box? I mean, it's only called 'the scorpion box', obviously I'd know not to be put scorpions in there!”

“Scorpions! More than one! Get off the poor bastardo!”

She stands up while Raoul rummages in his pockets for the key, wipes her nose on her sleeve. “He's gone awful quiet, don't you think?”

He slowly lifts the lid of the trunk.

They both stare inside.

She puts her hands on her hips. “Huh. I thought the ones with small pincers were supposed to be harmless.”

He lets the lid fall closed and sighs. “No, they have deadly stings, hermana, that's why they don't need big pincers.”

“Yeah, actually, that makes sense. I shoulda asked you before.”

“I'd have told you we don't want scorpions in there however big the pincers are!”

She pulls down her cap. “You know, maybe that's what Mute was on about. Maybe I should pay more attention when he's waving his hands around. Anyhow, we gotta bury this sucker before he finds out.”

Raoul takes a step backwards. “We? I like that. That's cute. I never seen you act na├»ve before.”

She kicks open the trunk. A lone scorpion scuttles out, scanning its surroundings with tiny microwave dishes. “So two of the old posse are there when a petty criminal dies in a grotesque execution. And one of 'em's like, Hey Mute, it weren't me, she twisted my arm!”

“It's always something with you, isn't it?” he snarls, before switching to a perfect mimicry of her harsh drawl: “'My new turret has a mind of its own!' 'Elias stole my soap!' 'Gertrude stopped speaking to me!' 'I don't know how I got that bounty on my head!'”

“Shuddup and find a spade.”

He jabs a finger at his broad chest. “You dig. I keep look out.”

*

The desert sun touches the horizon, an orange halo around her bobbing head as she steadily descends into the barren soil. He squats nearby, watching.

“Raoul, there's scorpions in my grave. If they sting me, you gotta suck the poison out.”

“Five dollars,” he says. “Your hat, without blowing out your brains”

24.4.10

"And they're trying to kill us. Isn't life dandy..."


I haven't played the original Dead Space, but from what I've heard it pretty faithfully replicated most of the gameplay mechanics of Resident Evil 4. Perhaps it should be no surprise then, that its creators decided to make a Wii rail shooter spin-off in the vein of the two Resident Evil Chronicles.

As I mentioned in my post on RE: The Darkside Chronicles, Dead Space: Extraction gave me issues with motion sickness. It's to the game's credit that I would consistently play two chapters, think, “I really want to play the next chapter, but if I do I'll start to feel ill...” Then play the next chapter and feel ill. But it was also this pattern that made me put the game down for some time. I finally managed to finish the game off recently, though, in part thanks to noticing the option to reduce the amount of camera shake. So what did I think?

The basic gameplay on offer is pretty addictive. The simple act of zapping undead monsters with a slo-mo gun and then dismembering them never really seemed to get tired for me. But I think I actually enjoyed the game even more as a piece of world-building - an action-packed POV tour through grimy and convincingly lived-in science fiction locations.

The typical mould for games of this type is to begin after the disaster has occurred, going around listening to recordings of people describing what happened and then being eaten. What I like about Extraction is that, although the original Dead Space fit this mould, this spin-off is actually set in the period that you might expect the recordings to cover - starting with ordinary people going about their jobs and encountering suspicious activity, passing through carnage and the collapse of law and order, and ending in a desperate scramble to escape.

The game relies on its characters in no small part, featuring a diverse cast of largely British voices. It's great to see a game of this type that's happy to take a little time to develop minor characters before inevitably killing them off - and the interplay between the four main characters, mysteriously immune to the infectious delirium around them, does a good job of making no individual seem either too likeable or too obviously untrustworthy. Special kudos to Ramon Tikaram, who pretty much steals the show as the face and voice of the misanthropic and caustic (but ultimately honourable) Sgt. Weller.

When I finally finished Extraction, I immediately went back and replayed it. Partly because I put it down for so long in the middle, but also because I found it pretty rewarding to see how certain subtle aspects of the game suddenly made a new kind of sense given revelations in the last few chapters. In general I'd say that I find the chapters in Extraction to be more replayable than those in Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles - largely because I thought Umbrella Chronicles was full of great chapters that ended in protracted and tedious boss fights - but not as replayable as the chapters in Darkside Chronicles, which, as I noted at the time, seem to be carefully structured to be as succinct and flowing as possible.

In short, if you like a bit of Wii rail-shooting, or a bit of science fiction horror, then if you don't already own Dead Space: Extraction, you can probably find it at a reasonable price. At the very least, the penultimate chapter features probably the most memorably macabre action you'll perform with a Wii remote.

21.4.10

Parasol Rings

Credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC/Oxford University


There's an interesting article at the Cassini website about just how much of a cooling effect the shadow cast by Saturn's rings has. Given that the shadow falls - almost by definition - on the winter hemisphere, this may go some way towards explaining the differences observed between Saturn's top and bottom, not least the striking blue hue first observed by Cassini in the wintry north.

Read it here.

19.4.10

Monday Movie: The Terminator


James Cameron's first proper film as director (charitably ignoring Piranha 2) is essentially structured as a typical serial killer film, albeit with numerous apocalyptic embellishments. But while The Terminator may revolve around Arnie's career-defining role as a relentless cyborg assassin, Michael Biehn's doe-eyed, raving performance as a fugitive from a future war is arguably more convincing; Linda Hamilton is a cut above the usual final girl; even Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen manage memorable turns as misguided but well-meaning cops.

Yes, okay, the sequel may provide a great deal more in the way of both spectacle and humanity, but it achieves this by building on the remarkable mythology of the original. As a future history, the bleakness and intensity of this film's mechanised, post-nuclear genocide is second to none.

16.4.10

15.4.10

Thursday Comic


Bleach (Vols 5-10) - Tite Kubo

I'm still reading Bleach. Ten volumes in and we're deep into the first long story arc, but Kubo's still keeping the characters interesting and moving things along at a fair clip. He's also continuing to display a great understanding of how to use humour and pathos together in complimentary ways - whether he's drawing his diverse cast of supernatural misfits together, or pitting them against one another.

13.4.10

First Person Monologue Shooter



One of the weirder notions that's become lodged in the oesophagus of game design is that a silent protagonist is somehow easier to identify with. Never speaking a word in any situation is actually a pretty unusual trait (whether it has its root in disability or otherwise), and when a game puts me in the shoes of the only person in the room who isn't speaking, even when everything also seems to revolve around me, it produces an eerie kind of disconnect. (The idea's also kind of belied by the fact that developers still so often identify their leads as white males.)

Watching Freeman's Mind, I'm reminded of Amy Hennig's pithy criticism of Half Life-style first person games: that they "leave the player enough control to make the game look bad." Which is not to say that this series doesn't seem to have been made with a great deal of love for the source material (no pun intended).

The premise of these videos is that Gordon Freeman is not only given a voice, but that he absolutely refuses to shut up, whether he's thinking about something completely irrelevant, noticing the bizarre inconsistencies in the world he inhabits, or trying to hold a conversation with other characters. Freeman's Mind is really well done, not just in the weird, in-universe, in-character commentary that it offers, but also in seeing the game played in a fashion that truly is reminiscent of how you might expect a real person to behave (albeit a person who's a bit of a jerk-face).

9.4.10

Friday Submarine Crew Blogging


The crew of Japanese submarine I-29, 1943.

8.4.10

Thursday Comic


Scott Pilgrim vs the World - Bryan Lee O'Malley

Scott Pilgrim now seems to have a UK publisher. On the plus-side it's a lot easier to get your hands on the books now, but on the down-side... Well, the ink quality is poor, things are pretty grey in places. And the paper quality is even worse.

Lee O'Malley makes great use of bold blacks and whites, for example one two page spread in this volume that consists of Scott on one page and a lone speech bubble on the other. It should be a strong effect, but the pages are like tracing paper - you can see through not just to what's on the other side, but what's on the page beyond that as well, and what should be extremely simple and bold instead looks a huge mess, with all these different (and quite irrelevant) images crowding into the (supposedly) blank space. On top of that, the book's taller than the Oni Press edition, but the same width, which is really weird. Has the artwork been stretched or cropped? Neither seems desirable.

And I wouldn't mind so much if the reduced quality translated to a reduced price. But comparing these pages to a cheaper volume of manga, the manga wins hands down. Looking at it cynically, we have a major movie coming out, lots of people will obviously want to read all these books, and the publisher (someone called '4th Estate' who seem to be owned by HarperCollins) have released a low quality book for a high price. I'm getting a definite whiff of profit margins trumping artistic integrity.

As for the actual content, Lee O'Malley continues his superlative dialogue, characterisation and artwork. The premise, which felt a little incongruous last time, is even starting to grow on me now, and seems to be better integrated with the more everyday parts of the story. It's just a shame that UK readers are getting such a shoddy edition. To be frank, if I can't get my hands on the Oni Press editions, I might not bother with the rest of the series.

7.4.10

On and On and On and Hopefully On Some More

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

Opportunity recently clocked up over twenty kilometres driven on Mars. Not bad for something originally expected to peter out after 600m, although her current destination is still twelve kilometres distant. Read more here.

Poor Spirit, meanwhile, has - as her friends on Earth expected - missed a scheduled communication, most likely due to simply not having enough energy to speak. Further south than Opportunity, Spirit is more affected by the southern winter, and also unable to angle herself too well to catch the sun. Hopefully communications will resume when things warm up again. Read more here.

And finally, as much as I like to anthropomorphise our robot explorers on and around other worlds, its worth remembering that there are hard-working human beings behind them, and those behind the Mars Rovers have deservedly won a NASA achievement award.

5.4.10

Monday Movie: Michael Clayton


Michael Clayton is the "fixer" for a powerful law firm, the man called in when everything goes wrong. While driving away from managing a hit-and-run incident in the countryside, the exhausted Clayton leaves his car to share a moment of tranquillity with a group of beautiful horses. And that's when the car bomb that was meant for him explodes.

Rewind four days and Clayton is just getting involved with a multi-billion dollar lawsuit where he's needed to manage a mentally ill lawyer who has developed the worst possible symptom: a conscience.

Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton is more than just an Oscar-baiting, well written, carefully plotted law drama. It's a film of evocative ambience and believable characters, that tries to get to the root of why otherwise pleasant people can do truly terrible things.

2.4.10

Awesome Thing of the Week


Spike Jonze's short movie I'm Here is now available online. In many ways a pretty conventional story about a reserved librarian being uplifted by his relationship with a carefree and rebellious woman, it's lent a quite unique (and ultimately bittersweet) angle by the fact they're both robots.

Run watch it as soon as you have half an hour to spare.

Thursday Comic


Biomega, Vol. 1 - Tsutomu Nihei

The story to Biomega is both imaginative and derivative; simplistic and subtle. Our hero rides a cyberpunk motorcycle through a gothic-industrial city that would make M.C. Escher proud, his mission to protect a young woman who is resistant to the zombie plague sweeping the world. On the way he'll have to deal with the death squads rounding up the infected - and a talking, gun-wielding grizzly bear.

I don't normally go for action comics/manga. I kind of get bored reading page after page without dialogue. But this first volume of Biomega held my interest the whole time. The story is lightweight, but through careful implication (rather than forced exposition) it nicely supports the gloriously epic (which I'm using in the literal, rather than slangy sense) action, with huge explosions, impossible motorcycle stunts, thousands of zombies and indestructible villains. Events move quickly, and no individual scene of danger or violence outstays its welcome. In the same vein, the characters are taciturn, fitting established archetypes, but they're also entirely memorable and convincing. Yes, even (perhaps especially) the talking bear.

If you're looking for something atmospheric and gripping, without much in the way of idle chatter, this may be the action-horror comic for you.