2008: A Bunch of Lists

So it's been a year since I last asked myself what cool stuff I found during the past year, and I guess I should set about doing it again. As before, this list is entirely personal - not just in being about what I personally liked this year, but also with regards to what qualifies as belonging to the relevant period. If I saw it, read it, or played it this year, it's eligible - regardless what year you might actually be inclined to attribute it to. Hey, they make a lot of cool stuff in a year, and it takes me a lot longer than that to find it all.

Okay, let's go.

---Of the movies I saw:

La Antena
A perfect evocation of everything great about the era of silent film, and a vibrant fantasy in its own right. I reviewed it here.

Another animated masterpiece from Satoshi Kon, by turns fantastically whimsical and deeply disturbing.

The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan returns to Gotham City for this sprawling comicbook epic, full of compelling, larger than life characters.

---Of the books I read:

Gods Behaving Badly - Marie Phillips
An understated and touching love story - at least until those pesky Greek Gods start meddling with mortal affairs. Since the rise of Christianity, the denizens of Mount Olympus have relocated to a run-down house in London, but they're no less keen on grand acts of selfish omnipotence.

Ubik - Philip K. Dick
A typical mind-fuck from the king of psychedelia. After narrowly escaping death, a group of superhuman psychics find that the world seems to be decaying at a terrifying rate - and one by one, each of them is turning into a dessicated husk.

Aces Falling - Peter Hart
An engrossing book about air warfare throughout 1918. Hart gives readers what they want, in the form of stories about the famous aces, but also sets them into the context of a new combined theatre of war where lone wolf hunters were being subsumed into a larger, more tactically-minded war machine.

---Of the comics and manga I read:

Death Note - Tsugumi Ohba, Takeshi Obata
Last year I lamented only having read the first volume. This year I read volumes 2-12, concluding the story. The combination of Obata's flawless artwork and Ohba's intense plotting results in something that should be read by anyone with an interest in fantasy or mystery comics - as a teenager who's resolved to rid the world of undesirables by writing their names in a death god's notebook is pursued by a legendary (and anonymous) detective.

Chiggers - Hope Larson
Although Larson's keenly observed tale of summer camp friendship and preternatural intrigue is aimed at teenage girls, it deserves to be (and probably has been) read by all and sundry. Undoubtedly one of the best western comic artist-writers you'll find.

Batman: Harley and Ivy - Paul Dini, Bruce Timm et al.
Cute beyond words, something about the bright artwork, colourful characters and psychotic cheerfulness of this book reminded me of watching Saturday morning cartoons as a kid and coming to the realisation that I wanted to tell stories as well as experience them.

---Of the TV shows I watched:

Batman: The Animated Series
Well, while we're on the subject, I've been rewatching a lot of this nineties cartoon show. Some of the episodes don't hold up too well now that I'm all grown up, but frequently the snappy dialogue and noir-ish art deco stylings produce quite striking pieces of television.

Ugly Betty
The only show I actually watched live and gave a damn about this year, Ugly Betty has the perfect mixture of melodrama and comedy, and an entire cast of memorable and lovable characters.

Mission: Impossible
Something else I revisited this year. Despite being about an all-American team of luminaries toppling dictatorships and preventing alliances with dirty communists, Mission: Impossible was for the most part a genial puzzle-box of a show, with a first-rate cast steadily unravelling devilish plans of deception each episode.

---Of the games I played:

Fallout 3
A huge, sprawling, engrossing game. The narrative and character interaction are over-simplistic, but I found the allure of exploring this impossibly detailed post-nuclear landscape and making a name for myself as a hero or monster to be quite irresistible.

Resident Evil 4 - Wii Edition
So it took me a few years to get around to it, but this atmospheric, grimly realised action horror game, with its memorably over-the-top characters, has easily become one of my all time favourite games (although I think I still prefer RE2, if only because Ada is more sensibly dressed). I've played it from start to finish three times this year, and got a good way into it for a fourth go on 'professional' difficulty (so far it is very hard).

Often indie games tread new ground, brave new forms of gameplay, tackle storylines that no mainstream studio would ever touch. Iji, a freeware game you can download from here, isn't like that. If you could give it a multi-million budget and the latest state-of-the-art graphics engine, you'd end up with a game that was a lot like the games already out there - only much, much better. Iji is a perfect demonstration of why gaming needs auteurs who want to tell stories and explore characters - rather than shareholders who want to play it safe and get a percentage. Melancholy, evocative, and uncompromising.

---Of the Happy New Years I wished you:

I've got to pick the one just coming up, now haven't I? I hope this new orbit brings you happiness and fulfilment, and your resolutions are both feasible and level-headed. In short: Happy New Year!


Tra La La La La...

I've been hard at work these past couple of days, on my new competition game. (Also I've been playing Super Mario Galaxy and reading a book about the air war in 1918, but you don't need to know about that.) This little public domain painting, by William Blake, is what I'm going to use as the cover image.

As you can see, it doesn't really give you much of a clue what the hell I'm making. Or at least, it shouldn't, since there's no dancing about in circles. Although I suppose there might be.


Tiger Stripe Stories

Image source with more information
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Worth reading this news item on the Cassini homepage:
Close views of the southern polar region, where jets of water vapor and icy particles spew from vents within the moon's distinctive "tiger stripe" fractures, provide surprising evidence of Earth-like tectonics. They yield new insight into what may be happening within the fractures. The latest data on the plume -- the huge cloud of vapor and particles fed by the jets that extend into space -- show it varies over time and has a far-reaching effect on Saturn's magnetosphere.


My Top Ten Authors by Quantity

So after a recent reshuffle of my bookcase, I decided to sit down and actually count how many books I have by different authors. It's one thing to try and answer the question, "Who are my favourite writers?" but it's another, possibly quite separate one to try and see which writers you've most read.

Anyway, this is what my list looked like. Conveniently, stopping at authors where I own four of their books meant that I wound up with a top ten.
1.Haruki Murakami (13 books)
2.Alistair Reynolds (9 books)
William Gibson (9 books)
4.Joseph Conrad (8 books)
5.Carl Sagan (6 books)
Andy McNab (6 books)
7.Virginia Woolf (5 books)
Philip K. Dick (5 books)
9.Franz Kafka (4 books)
Arthur C. Clarke (4 books)

That probably tells you something profound. I just don't know what exactly that profound thing is.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 26

Previously: “In the fight against the mysterious, seemingly man-made squid machine, Major Thurlow, EON-4 and myself were cast overboard. Stunned by the machine's death throes, I sank helplessly beneath the waves.”

Part 26: The Sky Spider Automaton

I could hear a thunderous clanging of metal. It reached me even in whatever submarine depths I languished, beneath a crushing weight of freezing water.

Something hit my chest and I leaned to one side, spewing out fluid and sucking back air so cold it burned. The weight seemed to lift from me. I felt dizzy.

“Breathe,” I heard Major Thurlow say softly, “but breathe quietly.”

I opened my eyes. I stared up into a spider's web of wrought iron latticework. It quivered in time with the clanging, flakes of corroded paint falling from it like black snow. Hands grasped my shoulders and the view overhead changed. I was further under the iron web. A black shape moved through the structure above, ponderous and graceful.

The structure above me, I realised, was the Smogton bridge. The silhouette could only be a Sky Spider machine. I sat up, my hands sinking into gritty mud. Water lapped around my heels. The horizon was obscured by thick white mist.

Major Thurlow knelt by my side. He touched a finger to his lips to quiet me.

I nodded that I understood.

Above us, the bridge reverberated with clanging metal. Most of the sounds were distant - the movement of Sky Spider machines across the top of the bridge. But every few seconds there was another kind of sound: not louder, but far more obvious to the ear because of its unique character. The peculiar sound of something enormous trying to move stealthily.

Slowly, his wet hands quivering almost imperceptibly, Thurlow slid forward the bolt of his rifle. Muddy water flowed out from the breech.

“That's no use,” I said, unable to speak above a whisper even if I had wanted to.

“Well it makes me feel better,” Thurlow answered.

“Leave it,” I said. “It'll only get you killed. When that thing sees us, we need to be as non-threatening as possible.”

If it sees us,” Thurlow corrected me.

“It'll see us,” I said.

We could certainly see it now. A black shape like a bat without the wing membranes, moving on four long, clawed limbs. It seemed to have little respect for gravity, pointing straight down while stepping from strut to strut as if it were moving along the ground. As we watched, one of the struts snapped clean in two and the machine reached out for the next one without even changing its stride. Slowly, inexorably, it was creeping down the bridge towards us.

The closest thing it had to a head was an incandescent flower of bright white light, aimed straight at us.

It stopped.

“It sees us,” I said. “Throw down your rifle.”

The Sky Spider machine fell. If I'd thought it was enormous when it was high above us, seeing it plummet directly at us only solidified that impression. Instinctively, I threw my hands over my head. Rationally, I knew it was a pointless action.

Close by, straight up, there was a thunderous impact on metal.

Thurlow grabbed my shoulder, pulling me to my feet.

I opened my eyes. The Sky Spider machine was clinging to the struts of the bridge right above us, blotting out the sky. It fixed its glowing white gaze directly at Thurlow.

I shoved him, hard. He was a strong man, but tall as well, and I managed to knock him clean off his feet. I looked up. Immediately the machine's gaze had switched to me. It stared hard, burning into my eyes like the sun. Dripping wet and freezing cold, I shivered uncontrollably.

The Sky Spider machine turned inside out. Suddenly it was facing the opposite direction and climbing gracefully back up the bridge.

Thurlow stared up at it, reluctant to stand back up. “What just happened?”

“I don't know,” I said, lying.

I offered him my hand.

“Very peculiar,” a new voice said, calm and soft-spoken, but startling us all the same.

EON-4 walked out of the water, rising up like a rock at low tide.

Thurlow relaxed his grip on his rifle. “You survived then.”

“They made me well,” EON-4 explained. “Which side of the bridge are we on?”

Thurlow sighed. “The wrong side. Fancy a visit to Smogton? Perhaps we could visit your parents, Four?”

“The Sky Spiders are doing something there,” I said.

EON-4 wrung water from his sleeves. “It's interesting to ponder exactly what.”

“I'm sure our first priority,” Thurlow said, “is to get to EON-1. Academic suicide missions can wait until after.”

“What happened to the others?” I asked.

“The ship limped off, trailing smoke. I suspect the others think we're dead.”

“Lovely. What do we do now? Can we cross the river beneath the bridge?”

Thurlow studied the murky water. “Perhaps. If we can grab onto the struts to take rests. And if we don't encounter anything nasty from the Twisted Forests.”

“There are better options,” EON-4 said. “For example a military aerodrome not too far distant from this bridge.”

“And you think the planes there will have held up better than, say, this bridge?” I asked. “Or the HMS Inquisitor?”

His single eye rotated thoughtfully. “Well, unlike those two examples, the planes will not have been sitting in salt water all this time.”

“What about fuel?” Thurlow asked.

EON-4 extended a hand towards the mist-choked sea. “All I am saying, is that it is a long way to walk from here to the Poison Wastes, and a walk which will take us quite close to Unity City. A swifter mode of transport than our shoes seems a fine idea for a brief diversion, at least to me.”

“If we can find a plane,” Thurlow said carefully, “can you fly it?”

“I'm well versed in the theory of mechanical flight,” EON-4 responded.

“And your practical experience?” I asked.

EON-4's eye clicked, a little sheepishly I thought. “None.”

Thurlow looked thoughtful for a moment. “We've done more dangerous things,” he said.

“Sure,” I said. “Why not.”


Next week: Can our heroes achieve the age-old desire of heavier-than-air flight?! Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Friday Tuco Blogging



So, The Dark Knight...

...is pretty fucking awesome then. As an avowed devotee of Christopher Nolan's films, I'm kind of ashamed not to have seen it in the cinema, but I picked it up as soon as it came out on DVD this week.

I'll confess, to start with I was a little underwhelmed with Heath Ledger's Joker. It was nicely done and all, but I wasn't really feeling it. But as it all snowballed together in true Nolan style, I ended up agreeing with Michael Caine when he said (with a dash more hyperbole) that this is probably one of the best portrayals of a movie 'villian' that you'll find.

I liked how Nolan/Ledger's Joker was very much superhero comicbook in his motivations and actions, but at the same time pretty grounded and believable. More than that, though, what impressed me was how thoroughly deranged and inspired his deeds were - the kind of things you laugh at gleefully when you see the trick he's pulled, only to stop yourself when you realise how psychotic it actually is.

And, I guess, since I laid into Nolan for his (these days I have to say predictably) over-directed action scenes in Batman Begins, I should also congratulate him here on a considerable recovery - although as with Batman Begins, the chief excitement in The Dark Knight comes from the fast-paced plotting rather than the physical set pieces.


Saturn, I

I seem to have hit a run of coherent captcha images on Blogger. The one above appeared when I logged in to comment on this very blog...


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 25

Previously: “When we neared Smogton bridge, our ship was attacked by a giant, tentacled machine. As the deck buckled, I stumbled through a rusted railing and towards its gnashing metal jaws.”

Part 25: Against the Squid Machine

A gloved hand closed around mine, slender fingers pinching with a machine-like grip, and Lady Una pulled me back to safety, throwing a protective arm around my waist. With a crash, the ship's aft superstructure partially collapsed, sheets of corroded iron peeling away from it like torn paper. Somebody - one of the crew, I supposed - leapt for safety, tumbling through the air and into the mist-obscured sea.

Major Thurlow was crouched in the gangway, his face turned up towards the nearest steel tentacle. “EON-4,” he bellowed, “where are you?”

The machine's calm, quiet voice answered from close by. “I'm right here, Major.”

The ship started to lean backwards. Something slid from the deck and into the water with a splash.

The Major turned EON-4 aft, towards the machine's segmented body and the meeting point of its constricting arms, “We've got to take this thing apart before it sinks us. Have you got any ideas?”

EON-4's single eye clicked and whirred. “I'm a philosophical unit, not especially familiar with nautical automata, or even basic mechanical maintenance.”

“I can help,” Lady Una interrupted. “Complex machinery has been a late interest of mine.”

“Well get out of that get up,” the Major said, gesturing to her hoop skirted dress, “because we're going over the side to deal with this thing up close.”

Lady Una stammered. “I- But-” She looked at me for a way out.

“This is no time for propriety or modesty,” the Major began.

“It's not that,” I said. “She can't swim. I'm not all that good with machines, but I guess I know as much as anyone other than Lady Una. Perhaps the ship's chief engineer-”

“He's overboard,” Commander Kelson said gruffly, scuttling along the gangway with a shell under each arm, followed by a sailor carrying two more. “Sigrid said you might need these, though I don't think I like what that implies.”

Major Thurlow grinned lopsidedly. “She's got a good head on her shoulders, I'll give her that. Doctor, EON-4, take a shell each. Let's see if we can't stick them somewhere where they'll do some damage.”

EON-4 looked from the Major to me and back again. “This does not seem like a good plan to me.”

Lady Una took my arm. “Me neither.”

“If you have a better one,” the Major said, “you have the time it takes us to get over that railing to think of it.”

“At least leave EON-4 here,” I said. “He's vital to our ultimate goal.”

The Major hefted a shell under each arm. “So you say, but if we sink here he's no more use to us than if he gets torn apart over there - and whatever he says, I'm sure he knows more about automata than he's letting on.”

“I am standing right here,” EON-4 said.

Thurlow stood up and turned to the squid machine. The deck thrummed as the superstructure folded further in on itself. “Good,” he said. “See that you keep that distance from me. Come on.”

I followed after him, but Lady Una pulled on my arm. “I should be the one going,” she said. “Don't die. If you can help it.”

“I'll certainly try my best.”

She pulled me closer still and kissed me on the cheek. “That's only for if you don't make it,” she explained. “If you live, forget I did it.”

“I'm sure I'll be fine,” I said, just as a mechanical tentacle flung a screaming sailor high into the air.

Major Thurlow waved to me. “Stop mooning and get a move on!”

I rushed aft, following close after him and EON-4. The squid machine's arms were close over us, crushing down onto the ship and shattering the rusted deck into uneven and disconnected shards. But it was massive and cumbersome and we were small and nimble. When the Major leapt over the railing, towards the segmented body, I paused only just long enough to see him land safely before following myself.

As my feet hit the smooth armour plating, I started sliding immediately towards the churning water. EON-4 grabbed my sleeve and pulled me to my feet.

“What do you make of that eye?” Major Thurlow shouted over the clanking of giant machine arms.

Jutting up from the automaton's body was a brass periscope that ended in a spherical glass eye. “Worth messing with,” I suggested, “but not likely to stop the thing now it has a grip on us.”

No sooner had I finished speaking then a tentacle rolled back onto the mechanical squid and snatched up EON-4, flinging him across the sea. The humanoid philosophy engine's featureless cylindrical head had registered little in the way of surprise, and he had made no sound.

Thurlow jammed one of his shells into the ring around the periscope. “It can't fight us if it can't see us,” he yelled, popping the shell's percussion cap and reaching inside. “Sixty seconds!”

I looked around frantically. The machine's eye fixed on me, and I heard the sound of at least one of its arms clattering through a rapid motion. Just behind the eye I saw something promising.

“Here!” I darted forwards. As I did so, a tentacle clanged off the armour where I had been standing on a moment before.

Thurlow saw immediately what I meant. “What is it?”

I started kicking at the fine mesh of the grating. “Exhaust, coolant vent, ballast tanks, something else - it doesn't matter. It's a way in. How long?”

We both ducked as another tentacle whipped overhead, trying to knock us overboard.

“I've lost count.” the Major confessed. “Keep kicking!”

Under both our feet the grating gave way. The Major set the fuse of his second shell in the same manner as the first. “Fifteen seconds this time!”

I handed him my own shell. He had just removed the cap when a tentacle punched right towards me. I tried to dodge to the side. I don't think it actually touched me, but it didn't matter. The gust of air in its wake was enough to pitch me off the squid-like war machine and into the sea.

I hit the water with stinging force, and had just resurfaced when Major Thurlow landed on top of me.

“No,” he gasped, “under!”

He grabbed a fistful of my hair and dunked me back beneath the water. It felt like I sunk deeper than I'd ever swum in my life. But when the war machine exploded, the shock still pulsed right through me. I saw the air rising from my lungs in a flurry of bubbles, and then passed out.


Next week: As great as the dangers may seem beneath the bridge, there are yet worse things crawling atop of it. Thurlow and Peregrine come face to face with implacable alien machinery in the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Friday Radio Guy on Skis Blogging

Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv
(German Federal Archive)
Some rights reserved


Ice White Gem

Image source with more information
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Click for the full view, because this Cassini image of the Solar System's most popular snowball, Enceladus, is simply gorgeous.

We're looking at the little world as it passes through Saturn's shadow. As you may recall, Saturn's rings create a system where a lot of light gets reflected around to its night-side, and some of this light is reflected again from its cloudtops and moons. All the same, Enceladus is about as in the dark as it ever is, and so the exposure time for the image has clearly been ramped up. Happy side-effect: stars! And not the blurry streaks we usually get, but a beautifully jewel-studded night sky.

Also of note - though far less surprising - is that we're also looking at Enceladus' south pole - the site of its famous tiger stripe Sulci, and its more famous icy geysers of profound mystery. So, an image of one of the most intriguing of worlds, against a starry backdrop. It reminds me just why I'm so fond of Cassini.



This 'Shorty' seems to be some kind of seafaring fellow.