2011: Adventures in Fiction

2011! A year in which I consumed media of various forms! Here's my triple-picks of each category of stuff...

--Of the movies I saw:

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Thriving on believable tensions among a cast of likeable characters, this film is by turns funny, bittersweet and heart-warming.

Character-driven, atmospheric science fiction; an otherworldly road movie; eerily memorable.

District 13
A toss-up between this and Ip Man as the two great action films I saw for the first time this year. I found the damsel in distress in this movie less off-putting than the relentless nationalism of Ip Man (not helped by that of every other Chinese film these past few years, it seems), but your mileage may vary. A perfect collision of bold cinematography and incredible physical prowess.

--Of the books I read:

The City and the City - China Miéville
The greatest achievement of this astonishing book is not just the imaginatively Kafkaesque culture it fleshes out – but also that it manages to be a gripping thriller throughout.

Above the Snowline - Steph Swainston
Although this lacks many of the more imaginative elements of Swainston's other books in the same series, it doesn't suffer from it, and still shows an unflinching veracity that's quite rare in the fantasy genre.

The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi
Despite embodying a fair few national stereotypes, this vision of a world in drastic decline kept me hooked both by teasing out the details of its bizarre future Thailand and with dramatic developments in its interweaving story threads.

--Comics and manga:

20th Century Boys - Naoki Urasawa
I imagine this will be here next year as well – an epic series that spans genres, decades and generations. Definitely a contender for my overall favourite thing on this list.

Pluto - Naoki Urasawa
The great detective Gesicht must find out who's systematically murdering the seven greatest robots in the world – not least because he's one of them. I read this series on the strength of how much I liked Urasawa's 20th Century Boys, and was not disappointed. Note-perfect storytelling frequently leads to deeply moving scenes.

Biomega - Tsutomu Nihei
Imaginative cyberpunk horror that envisions an almost unrecognisable future – and charts its utter transformation into something even stranger.

--Of the TV shows I watched:

Downton Abbey
Okay, the second series wasn't as solid as the first, but neither was it as appalling as many made out, and the Christmas special was a definite return to form. A beautifully realised period drama that embraces progress rather than fetishising the Good Old Days.

Avatar: The Last Airbender
The first season was pretty good, but the second and third tell an epic story full of likeable characters. For me, this lived up to the hype.

The Shadow Line
A show that was fantastically good only whenever it forgot that it knew it was fantastically good. Abundant with in-your-face symbolism and unnatural dialogue, and yet splendid all the same. Also possessed a perfect storm of acting talent in the form of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Eccleston and Rafe Spall.

--Of the games I played:

Red Dead Redemption
An open-world cowboy-stereotype simulator married to a character-driven shoot-em-up, this has gorgeous landscapes galore and the most unexpectedly likeable lead character.

Portal 2
Laugh-out-loud funny dialogue, head-scratching puzzles, understated poignancy. The last time I enjoyed the writing of a game this much was Grim Fandango.

Ghost Trick
A fiendish puzzle game that I found to be addictive and enjoyably challenging, but not so difficult that I needed to resort to a walkthrough. I probably wouldn't have been so sucked in, of course, if the gameplay wasn't so intricately entwined with exactly the kind of colourful characters and meticulously crafted, twisting-and-turning plot that you'd expect from Ace Attorney creator Shu Takumi.

--That's all folks...


Almost Monday Movie: Aces High

A year after leaving Eton for the Royal Flying Corps, Major Gresham (Malcolm McDowell) finds that his squadron's much-needed reinforcements consist of a single young man: Croft, an old school-friend and the younger brother of his girlfriend. Although wide-eyed and enthusiastic at first, Croft quickly finds himself rudely introduced to a life where his life expectancy is measured in days.

Aces High is a gritty historical film of the kind you might expect from the late 70s, showing a relatively high degree of accuracy on its subject (especially compared to certain recent movies), perhaps no surprise given that it cites Cecil Lewis' Sagittarius Rising as a source. All in all, a pretty solid depiction of a broad spectrum of aspects of the era - from partying with a downed German pilot, to landing to ask for directions.


I got sneakier.

Sneakier than a... snow fox.



Getting up close to a fox has been one of my personal goals since I first saw one in Skyrim. Interestingly, sprinting turned out to be more useful than sneaking, even though my sneaky thief is sneakier than... well, apparently not sneakier than a fox.

Goal achieved, I can now resume stealing everything not nailed down.


Thursday Book

Terminal World - Alastair Reynolds

In one of the mid-level regions of Spearpoint - a city divided into societies of different technological levels - the pathologist Quillon is about to perform a post mortem on an "angel" that has fallen from the highest reaches. And then the subject turns out to be not quite dead. Fortunate, since it carries a terrible warning for Quillon, who is himself an infiltrator from another zone. It looks like his only option may be to flee Spearpoint altogether...

Terminal World is a heady cocktail of awesome ideas that never quite lives up to its potential. It seems rather similar to Reynolds' earlier Century Rain, but without the intensity or atmosphere. There are intimations that Reynolds might be setting up a new series of books here, but, although I enjoyed exploring this intriguing world, the story itself feels a lot like an author simply turning up to collect his pay cheque.


Played It: Gears of War 2

Game Central's review of the third game prompted me to pick up this budget re-release. It was, I must say, pretty much what I expected. A simplistic, macho shooty game, with satisfyingly meaty violence.

It also, in the planet of Sera, has some pretty interesting world-building - Old World architecture rubbing shoulders with chunky retro technology and subterranean monster civilisations. But for a game so interested in being cinematic, it actually doesn't place much stock in storytelling. Dom's quest for his wife is tacked on and ends questionably to say the least, while the main war story is rather haphazard and coincidental.

And yet for all that, the main surprise for me was how much I liked this thing. Shooting stuff in gorgeous environments is rather addictive when done this well.


Played It: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

As I played Castlenavia: Lords of Shadow, I kept comparing it, usually unfavourably, to the only other game I've played in this series: Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia. Which isn't to say that this isn't a solid game. The mixture of platforming and brawling is very satisfying, the art design and environments are all lovely to behold, and the story, while weakly plotted, remains consistently interesting.

The first major problem is this: while keeping the player within the bounds of the level is obviously not a problem in the 2D Castlevanias, it requires considerable finesse in a 3D one. The developers here have hit upon the simplest and worst solution: invisible walls. You'll see a barrier you should easily be able to jump over, but it still blocks your progress. You'll see a raised platform and wonder what's on it – the answer will be that a mysterious force blocks you from actually mounting it. For a linear game this wouldn't be so bad, but as you'd expect from Castlevania, this game encourages and even requires exploration – exploration which inevitably devolves into butting up against those invisible walls to find the places where you're actually allowed through.

The other major problem is Patrick Stewart. Bringing his best “I'm in a video game” voice to the production (see also: the opening scenes of Oblivion), Stewart's character provides utterly bombastic narration over the loading screens. It's a neat idea, but badly executed, especially given that it interrupts Robert Carlyle's superb performance as the player character. To go from Carlyle's quietly simmering intensity to Stewart melodramatically overstating the obvious does both actors a disservice.

Apart from those two annoyances, though, this is a supremely classy game, and I found it quite addictive from start to finish.


Played It: Aliens Infestation

On the face of it merely a competent Metroidvania – unashamedly so, the developers were keen to remind us that the Metroid series has borrowed heavily from the Alien saga – Aliens Infestation demonstrates brilliantly how story elements can enhance gameplay.

From the first screen it's obvious that this is possibly the best recreation of the movies' atmosphere since Rebellion's 1999 Aliens versus Predator, complete with authentic sound effects, fan-pleasing elements of lore, suitably industrial architecture and cats bursting out of closets.

But the really notable thing WayForward Technologies have done here is to go back to the old concept of “lives” in a platform game, of which you can have at most four, and then to make each one a unique Colonial Marine with their own character artwork and cut-scene dialogue.

Keeping your favourite marine in reserve is no fun, but sending them into danger comes hand-in-hand with the risk of losing them forever (either instantly in a shower of acid blood, or John Hurt-style if they are captured and you take too long to rescue them). This, more than anything, creates an incredible sense of tension, especially when you're far from a save room and low on ammo when a xenomorph drops from the ceiling and starts mauling your beloved point man or woman.

This game's probably a must-have for Aliens fans, living up to its pedigree in a sea of rip-offs and risk-averse tie-ins. It's also an interesting and daring example of game design and writing, and a fitting parting shot for the Nintendo DS.


Played It: Red Dead Redemption

In my review, I described L.A. Noire as an important game, but not a masterpiece. And I think the opposite is true for Red Dead Redemption. The premise is as safe as it gets – Grand Theft Auto in the wild west. The execution, however, is sublime – not just in terms of the sprawling, detailed landscapes brimming with stereotypical cowboy activities, but in the careful characterisation of player character John Marston.

As a notorious outlaw, it still makes narrative sense for Marston to inevitably go on the odd GTA-style rampage. But the man's so dedicated to his family, so unfailingly polite, so damn sorry for every bad thing he's done and continues to do, that most players simply can't bring themselves to add to Marston's woes with even more bad deeds.

The atmosphere is mesmerising as well – not just the desolate desert ambience, the fantastic storm effects, and the lively towns, but the sense of the era of cowboys and gunslingers drawing to a close, with Marston both hoping for a more civilised future for his son and discovering first hand that society can be more about appearing to follow rules than actually doing what's best for people.

All that, and any game that gives me a button for tipping my hat and saying “Howdy ma'am” gets bonus points from me.


The Other Lady

Not to be confused with that rather horrific-looking film with Meryl Streep.


Monday Movie: Monsters

Six years after a NASA probe broke up on re-entry, seeding Mexico with giant tentacled monsters, photojournalist Andrew Kaulder is called upon to babysit his boss' daughter as she heads back to North America through the "infected" zone. Although local corruption, US militarism and extraterrestrial migration stand between them and home, their journey proves to be both eerie, illuminating and the start of a deeper bond.

Filmed on a shoe-string budget, featuring local non-actors improvising their lines and emphasising ambience over plot or genre trappings, Gareth Edwards' first feature film, Monsters, is, despite what trailers and blurbs may try to tell you, an alternate world travelogue. It may have its moments of action and tension, but predominantly I found this film to carry a mesmerising atmosphere of strange beauty. It's also, like all smart science fiction films, thematically intriguing - with obvious allegories to issues around immigration, environmental destruction, terrorism and military intervention.


Washed up immortals and bizarre monsters.

Rebellion's first Aliens versus Predator game was too interesting an action horror experience to ever be repeated by risk-averse bean counters. With its hordes of respawning xenomorphs allowed to run loose through non-linear levels, it offered a level of fear and tension you just can't achieve with scripted jump scares, no matter how carefully crafted.

Interesting then, to see them collaborating on NeverDead with Konami, a game with some fantastic monster and character designs (well, I like them) and an Evil Dead-esque gameplay mechanic of comic dismemberment. I would describe my expectations as "cautiously optimistic".


Monday Movie: My Neighbour Totoro

Satsuki and Mei have just moved to the countryside and a decrepit new house beside a towering camphor tree. While their dad tries to cheer them in the absence of their hospitalised mother, they soon begin to realise that the forest is home to strange and magical creatures.

One of the most famous and beloved offerings from director Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, My Neighbour Totoro mixes imaginative creatures, beautiful landscapes and everyday childhood to sublime effect.


New Cushion

Somehow he was able to tell that it is for him.


New computer!

With a mid-range graphics card that can play Deus Ex: Human Revolution at a fair clip with the whizz bang pretties turned on.

Above is a screenshot of the subtle and complex method I used to get past the bouncer at the Hive. Don't worry, it was his pride that I hurt most of all. (That and the arm I broke.)


Almost Monday Movie: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec

When the legendary journalist and travel writer Adèle Blanc-Sec returns from her adventure to secure the mummified physician of Ramesses II she finds Paris besieged by a pterodactyl. And if she wants to cure her seriously ill sister, it turns out she'll have to tame this prehistoric beast...

Les aventures extraordinaires d'Adèle Blanc-Sec is a film likely to please fans of director Luc Besson, carrying all his trademark touches. It's brash, colourful, imaginative, stylish, always perfectly framed and bears that strange mixture of soppy centre and callous edge that he does so well.

It has all Besson's flaws too, of course - the plot is woolly, the characters are barely developed and it lacks focus. But in addition to its Besson-ness, the film has one more saving grace: an engrossingly fun performance from Louise Bourgoin in the title role.


"After spending years making a game for the US market, at that point we thought we failed."

Little late posting this, but my video games news and reviews source of choice has an excellent interview with Deadly Premonition director Hidetaka "SWERY" Suehiro.

I've mentioned before how I think there's too little diversity of opinion when it comes to video games, and Deadly Premonition is a really high profile example of a profitable cult hit in a medium that's often narrow and risk averse.


So I picked Deus Ex: Human Revolution, naturally. After a little dithering I got the PC version. It runs okayish, but I guess it's an added incentive to finally pick up a new computer before this one finally expires from its various small ailments...


So, Xenoblade Chronicles...

...is pretty much the JRPG we've all been waiting for. No random battles, streamlined interface, save anywhere, equipment choices change the characters' appearances, an open world complete with jumping and swimming (and fast travel)...

In short, everything you hoped that Japanese studios would learn from Western role playing games, without losing its character and uniqueness in the way that many Western-targeted Japanese games have this past decade.


Thursday Comic

Batman: Streets of Gotham, Hush Money - Paul Dini, Dustin Nguyen et al.

Batman's dangerous foe Hush has now assumed the likeness of the deceased Bruce Wayne, and even when Catwoman and the new Batman and Robin apprehend him, his complex schemes continue. Meanwhile, a brutal new vigilante stalks the streets, the pyromaniacal Firefly is implanting incendiary devices in the unsuspecting citizens of Gotham, and self-mutilating serial killer Zasz is planning something so horrific, a key member of the underworld resolves to rat him out.

If that sounds like the set-up for a stirring superhero yarn, let me get to my chief problem with this book: I just described everything that happens in it. It's not that they ran out of space, the book's really thin. It's just that all we get are a few disparate beginnings all but one of which go nowhere, and then you've turned the last page. Dustin Nguyen's art is as lovely as ever, but even he disappointed me a little, toning down the prettiness of his Bruce Wayne (or Hush, in this case) in favour of a more typically beefy depiction. Boo-urns.


Almost Thursday Book

Forgotten London: A Picture of Life in the 1920s - Elizabeth Drury, Philippa Lewis

A collection of photographs taken from the contemporary book Wonderful London, and provided with modern commentary. Pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.


Monday Movie: Ashes of Time Redux

In the middle of a harsh desert, the equally dry Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) makes a living as a middleman between assassins and their clients. As the seasons come and go, all sorts of odd characters come to see him: a cross-dressing princess (Brigitte Lin), a warrior about to lose his sight (Tony Leung), and a woman who hopes to buy vengeance with a basket of eggs and a mule... But as killers and customers come and go, Ouyang Feng's mind is forever on the woman who broke his heart (Maggie Cheung, no relation).

As you should expect from a Wong Kar Wai film, Ashes of Time has no plot or structure to speak of, its draw stemming entirely from its lush visuals and understated emotions. When it comes to the former, WKW and cinematographer Christopher Doyle are at the top of their game. I struggle to think of a more sumptuous and vividly realised film, full of fantastic uses of light, shadow, colour, reflections and, of course, that incredible desert. The emotions, though, while they may simmer quite nicely throughout the film, rarely survive emergence into the harsh sunlight, seeming, to me, somewhat forced.

Whether or not any of the multiple story threads grab you, this film is absolutely 100% high grade beautiful throughout. The fact that it was almost lost to history, leading to this "redux" edit of the surviving footage, is rather scary to consider.


Oh, hello.

Come in, take a toy mouse. Not this one, it's mine.



If there's two things I like in a Freddie Wong video, it's seeing him collaborate with members of the established film industry, and settings other than the usual car park. This has both.


"Kung fu."

This won't be Wong Kar-Wai's first kung fu film, but he's not normally a name associated with the genre. Regardless, it looks about as beautiful as you'd expect, Wong seeming to have found a good alternative to his erstwhile cinematographer Christopher Doyle.

On the topic of post-Doyle WKW films, I should probably get around to dusting off that DVD of My Blueberry Nights and finally watching it...


"Where are you going?"

Not long to wait now.


Thursday Book

Nights at the Circus - Angela Carter

Jack Walser, American journalist, has secured an interview with the famous aerialiste, "Fevvers", also known as the "Cockney Venus", a woman who claims to have been hatched from an egg with fully functional wings. Intending to debunk her as a fraud, Walser instead falls in love, and runs away with the circus to follow her across Russia. But with Fevvers an accomplished egoist and Walser very much a man of the Victorian era, it's not clear that either of them could ever bring one another happiness. Then again, this is the cusp of the onrushing twentieth century - so who knows what's really possible?

A barefaced work of literature that makes few, if any, concessions to marketability, Nights at the Circus is brazen, provocative and slippery, luring you in with strong writing and a bizarre cast of impossible characters, then bamboozling you with imagery both magical and political. Deposited at the end, dazed and confused, I can only conclude that I really like the thing. The final chapter, in particular, answers the question of what Fevvers "is" in a way that I found unexpectedly beautiful.


Monday Movie: Inside Man

When two detectives (Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor) attend a bank robbery turned hostage situation, it quickly becomes clear that the cocksure mastermind behind it (Clive Owen) has put a complex plan into motion. As the bank's owner (Christopher Plummer) and his fixer (Jodie Foster) get involved, it even starts to seem that these criminals may not be in it for the money.

Possibly presented as evidence that if director Spike Lee doesn't usually make slick blockbusters, it's because he chooses not to, Inside Man doesn't quite have the 100% airtight plot required by this kind of twisty thriller. It doesn't matter though: it's clever enough, and Lee's confident direction, subversive political themes and strong cast lend it a kind of unassuming brilliance.


I have to add that, although it's possible that Dini's Peyton may have influenced my decision to spell my own character's name with an "e" when I found "Payton" on this Wikipedia list of unisex names, when, in Private Casebook she is suddenly always to be found with her hair over one eye, I did have a flashback to this.

Batman: Private Casebook - Paul Dini, Dustin Nguyen et al.

An eclectic collection of Batman stories that Dini manages to always make snappy and enjoyable, even where we're clearly only getting a fraction of a larger, more convoluted story. And the further development of his character Peyton Riley, I thought, worked particularly well.

And then there's Dustin Nguyen's art, which I love. In these stories he also seems to draw an unexpectedly handsome Bruce Wayne - a little touch that makes his playboy persona suddenly seem much more believable.

I am, at this point, pretty much just picking up all of Nguyen's art I can find in my local book and comic book shops, but I have to say that Paul Dini makes this whole book work well, art and writing both, even if the stories still feel a bit piecemeal.



Psychic Teddy Bear and Bass

Just stumbled across this recent-ish trailer for a Half Life 2 mod that blows anything from E3 out of the water. If the finished product has half the ambience of this video...

There's an official site for the thing here.


"So you're still carrying that army .45, Cole."

L.A. Noire is an Important Game. Not, I don't think, because it is itself a masterpiece (except in comparison to previous attempts to do the same thing), but because it points the way to masterpieces that may be made in the future. This is a game that succeeds through its writing, acting and (sometimes second-hand) plotting. The action sequences are often simply less fun than searching crime scenes and interviewing suspects - although I did find the foot chases uniformly thrilling.

It's telling, to me, that the game's biggest problems - a dearth of likeable characters, bystanders who repeat the same quips over and over, and a lack of actual noir-ish sensibility - are all issues with the execution of its story, rather than issues with the mechanics it uses to tell that story in interactive form in the first place. And I was surprised to discover that the last few cases actually fix those three flaws anyway, which makes their existence either more or less of a missed opportunity depending on how you look at it.

For his final assignment at the L.A.P.D., our anti-hero detective Cole Phelps is partnered with Herschel Biggs, nicely played Keith Szarabajka (previously best known for "assuming direct control" in Mass Effect 2). Biggs is the first person Phelps actually seems to almost warm to, even as our protagonist finally crosses the moral event horizon from rude to full fledged bastard - an event which unexpectedly introduces another likeable character and turns the game into a proper jeu noir.

I don't want to spoil anything, but after completing the last three cases I couldn't help but wonder why the game wasn't like that the whole way through. Which, perhaps, does do a disservice to how much I enjoyed the police procedural aspects that made up the meat of the game until that point, but should also speak of how it found something else to do that was arguably more organic and human.

L.A. Noire's other big problem is genre confusion. Not within the game, but within players' expectations. L.A. Noire is set in an impressively detailed recreation of a swathe of late 1940s Los Angeles. In the language of contemporary video games, this implies that it's an "open world game", where you can abandon your objectives and go find fun things to do elsewhere in the city. Which is unfortunate, because there is very little to do in L.A. Noire's city at all, outside of your current case.

It's difficult to judge whether this is a misstep, because the game benefits so much from having this fantastic setting, with huge scope for interesting places to investigate, and endless streets and alleyways through which to chase and tail suspects. If you can unlearn what you've learned about large areas modelled in recent video games (perhaps thinking back to the cities of Syndicate, probably the first game to do this), then the L.A. on show here will suck you in and dazzle you. On the other hand, if you can't help but think of this as an "open world", it will seem almost comically flat, empty and robotic.

Another thing that people might dislike about L.A. Noire but which I thought worked well, is the way you can bumble through cases without really trying. Even if you mess up, other opportunities present themselves, and someone will usually end up in the slammer, if not necessarily the right person. Those who need games to be challenges that must be surmounted through blood, sweat and tears will probably foam at the mouth over this, but I really like it, for two reasons.

Firstly, the most frustrating moment in an adventure game (of which, yes, this is one) is when the whole thing grinds to a halt because you can't solve this one puzzle. It's especially frustrating in a genre historically known for its stories and characters because life doesn't work that way. If you can't find a way to do this one little thing, you're not stuck trying to do it for the rest of your life. You find an alternative way to achieve your goal, or find another goal altogether. L.A. Noire tries to model this, with the proviso that if you can't do things the best way, you'll lose out on a full understanding of the case, and may not even get a conviction out of your arrest.

The second reason I'm fine with L.A. Noire doing this is because it has a little trick up its sleeve called the star rating. At the end of each case you get a stamp with stars on it numbering between one and five. The number of stars you are awarded is basically dependent on how good a detective you are: how many clues you find, how many lies you disprove, how much you don't drive like someone playing a video game (I have problems with that last metric). If you are the right kind of person, the satisfaction of getting five stars is beyond words - as is the shame of getting just one. Of the three cases where I got a one star rating, I replayed two of them immediately - and I'm really looking forward to replaying the remaining one after I've had a little break from 1940s detecting.

Perhaps, finally, L.A. Noire's problem is that it really is that important milestone game, trying to do things that haven't really been done this way before. Because of that, it doesn't know how best to signal its intentions, sowing seeds of confusion among players looking for familiar landmarks. It looks like an open world game, but it's not. It looks like a game about the One Good Cop defeating the bad guys, but it's not.

This is the surprisingly small and personal story of a self-righteous man trying to readjust to civilian life after experiencing traumatic events at war, and the surprisingly small and personal stories of the crimes he investigates as a police officer. In today's market of big budget games, this is unexpected and weird and inevitably not done as well as it could have been. But its success in the video game charts is hopefully a sign to publishers and developers that in this direction lies fertile ground.


Thursday Comic

Batgirl: Kicking Assassins - Andersen Gabrych, Alé Garza, Pop Mhan et al.

Sent by Batman to Gotham's neighbouring city of Blüdhaven, separated from her mentors and friends, Batgirl Cassandra Cain has to face up to some enormous challenges by herself. Yes, of course, there are the usual murderous psychopaths in strange costumes. But even worse for a girl raised from birth to be a merciless killer is the prospect of having to interact with other people at the local coffee shop...

Let me get this out of the way first: the worst thing about this book is the plotting. Maybe I didn't read it carefully enough, but a couple of times I stumbled over what looked to me like out-and-out plot holes. That doesn't matter, though. What Gabrych does do extremely well (aided by some bold artwork) is characterisation. Cassie treads that thin, but compelling and often unexpectedly cute line bordering damaged, dangerous and naive. Alfred is portrayed as protective of her, but confident in her abilities and never patronising. And Cassie's friendship with coffee shop owner Brenda is amusing and touching - the moment where Brenda realises Cassie is illiterate is probably the best in the book.

So, yeah, I really dug this thing, but it still has problems particular to superhero stuff. At one point I realised that something bad had happened to Cassie's close friend Stephanie Brown, so, to get the background, I Googled the answer. "Oh right," I discovered, "it was that." I mean, I knew about it, but how was I supposed to know that this book was from just after that event?


So, superhero comics.

I'll be the first to tell you that DC superhero comics have a problem. Plots spill over from one franchise to another, ostensibly to attract readers between books, but actually just making the stories inaccessible to newcomers and casual readers (of which I might be either the former or the latter); complex mythologies weigh down what should be punchy, action-packed stories; the periodicals take ages to be collected into incomplete, unnumbered books...

So yes, DC, looking to clear out the crap and focus on good, readable stories is exactly what you need to do to turn your fortunes around (especially compared to the kind of head-in-sand thinking you were engaging in a year ago).

But, for fuck's sake, you don't do it by destroying the best character development and backstory you have. Especially not while still leaving in a load of useless cruft.

You don't do it by taking pretty much the only consistently disabled superhero and subjecting her to the most tired and offensive disability trope in speculative fiction.

And most of all, damn it, you don't do it by getting rid of my favourite superhero. ;_;


The Reflexive Engine XI

[Chapter List]


The birds chirruped happily in the morning light, flitting from branch to branch and plucking cherries with their bony hands. Cathy lay against the tree's gnarled roots, chewing a straw and watching the activity above.

“What is it, Boyo?” she said, without lowering her gaze.

He approached her, cap in hand. “You should come, Cathy. We're in trouble.”

She considered a flippant response about how they were always in trouble, but something about his tone made her think again. “The egg?”

“Just come see.”


Joe stood by their wagon, hands on his hips. From beneath his straw hat, his cold blue eyes fixed on Cathy as she looked in the back.

Her first instinct was that they had been robbed. And then she started to understand. The floor of the wagon was littered with wood: axes without heads, knives without blades, muskets without barrels or locks or triggers. And behind all this, glinting in the light of the low sun, were not one, but two golden eggs.

“Now,” Joe said, running a hand over his grey stubble, “you've done a lot of good for this caravan, so I'll let you make the odd mistake. Fact is, we needed those tools and arms.”

“Right. We should keep metal away from it. I mean, them.”

“Tools are one thing, Cathy. Is it safe?”

“I... Yes, I...”

Joe sighed. “Cathy, here's what we're going to do. We're going to tell everyone you got rid of these eggs. And if you have any sense, we won't be lying.”

He pulled down the brim of his hat and walked away. The other people of the caravan glanced furtively at Cathy, trying not to meet her eye.

Boyo said, “It ate the tools.”

Cathy stared at the two golden eggs. “Right.”

“And made another one,” Boyo went on.

“Yeah. It must have.”

“Can it eat wood?”

Cathy closed up the back of the wagon, hiding the eggs from view. “I really, really hope not.”


"One way or another."

Just call me Hypey McHyperson.


Monday Movie: The Station Agent

When Fin inherits a train depot from his only friend, he moves in, hoping to live in solitude. But between the loquacious hot dog vendor who plies his trade nearby, and a clumsy artist keen to apologise for almost running him over (twice), it looks like he's got his work cut out for him.

The Station Agent is a film about a short guy trying not to make friends and failing. It's also, to me, the perfect representation of what I expect from American non-Hollywood movies - slick and good looking, but leisurely paced, with an everyday veracity to its scenes, and overflowing with humanity.


The Reflexive Engine X

[Chapter List]

Travelling Salesman

The horse steadily trotted along the overgrown path, Charlie slumped in the saddle, the professor lying on the cart, propped up on a folded blanket. Here and there, the rolling green hills glinted gold.

The professor sat up. “Do you hear hoofbeats?”

She raised her head, just barely. “Yeah.”

“Should we be concerned?”

“Doubt it.”

Another horse crested the hill behind them at a canter, rode up alongside them and slowed. The smart dandy in the saddle doffed his tricorne. “A very good morning to you.”

The professor glanced at the back of Charlie's head, and followed her lead in remaining silent.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” the dandy continued. “My name's Beau. I'm a... travelling salesman. Perhaps I can interest you in some moth-eaten paper?”

From his overcoat pocket, Beau produced several sheets of paper dotted with neat rectangular holes.

Charlie pulled gently on the reins, and her horse slowed to a stop.

Beau leafed through the bundle. “How much do you suppose this would be worth?”

The professor scrambled down from the cart and ran his fingers through his wild hair. “More than you can imagine.”

“An answer I like,” Beau said. And then he looked the older man up and down, taking in his ragged appearance. “How much do you have on you?”

The professor patted his pockets. “Uh...”

“I see. What a shame.”

Beau spurred his horse on, stopping abruptly a moment later at the sabre barring his path.

Charlie said, “How much is your life worth?”

Beau shrugged. “Depends who you ask, really. Regardless, a price you'd be hard pressed to extract.”

Her sabre blurred through where Beau's neck should have been, if he hadn't suddenly been leaning out of his saddle, pressing a pistol to her side. With a blast of smoke and flame he shot her. Still her blade came down, and Beau tumbled from his saddle to avoid it.

As Charlie dismounted and he scrambled to his feet, she said, “You're fast.”

He spread his hands, producing two loaded pistols in the motion. “And you're bulletproof. What are the chances of us meeting like this? I think a hug is in order.”

She swung at him twice more, and each time he stepped aside with preternatural speed and cat-like grace.

“Should I shoot you again?” he asked. “Or shall we both accept that it's futile for us to fight?”

She let a half-smile form on her wind-blasted features and sheathed her sword. “We need that paper.”

The professor crawled out from beneath the cart, clearing his throat. “I thought it best to let you settle this between yourselves. My friend, you can have untold riches. But only after we follow that code to its source.”

Beau beamed. “A treasure map!”

“In a way,” the professor said. “But the treasure is a puzzle in itself.”

“Or so you would say,” Beau mused. “To maintain your importance once we know where we're going.”

Charlie said, “We?”

“We three,” Beau clarified.

“Please,” the professor said, extending shaky hands. “Let me see those papers.”

Beau drew a long breath through his lips and then exhaled slowly. “I... suppose. As long as I'm now a part of your little treasure syndicate.”

Charlie's face was unreadable. “Sure.”

“Wonderful! And a chance for us to catch up... sister.”

The professor frowned. “You don't look like-”

“We're not,” Charlie said curtly.

“Family in a very modern sense,” Beau said. “Let's get going. We can talk on the way.”

Charlie grimaced.


Farewell Spirit

Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
More info and larger version

It's sad, but not especially surprising that NASA has now officially called time on silent Mars rover Spirit.

What may be surprising is that the image above, captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's powerful HiRISE camera, shows the rover's solar panels glinting perfectly in the sunlight, suggesting that lack of power isn't the root of the problem (damage caused by a previous lack of power over winter is probably the next best suspect).


Monday Movie: The King's Speech

"Bertie" is a shy man with a speech impediment. As the younger brother to the heir to the throne, he does have the odd public speaking engagement, but at least he's not going to be king or anything. Actually, having said that... Oh dear. Perhaps an unorthodox, antipodean speech therapist can help?

The King's Speech is an impeccable historical drama charting the unlikely friendship between two men from wildly different backgrounds. Colin Firth's portrayal of an introverted man propelled into overwhelming duty is deservedly Oscar-winning, but the film's also a fantastic ensemble piece, with Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter, Guy Pearce and Michael Gambon all giving engrossing performances, working from a script that breathes life into historical figures without being weighed down by grandeur.


The Reflexive Engine IX

[Chapter List]

Thanks for the Horse

Stepping down from the stagecoach, Beau paused to consider the broken tripod as the rising sun glinted on its golden hide, casting strange patterns of reflected light on the thatched roofs of the village.

The driver peered down at Beau from his perch. “Are you sure, sir?”

He waved the man away. “Yes, yes. I'm more than capable of getting in and out of trouble by myself. Scurry back to civilisation.”

Adjusting his tricorne, Beau ducked into the local inn. Empty, as he'd expected. Just a burly innkeeper and a lot of empty seats.

“Good morning!” Beau announced cheerfully.

The innkeeper regarded his good spirits with unconcealed suspicion.

“I'm looking for the Franke brothers. I understand they've been a bit of a nuisance in these parts lately.” He set his hat down on the bar. “Perhaps I can help in that regard. They've just now become a nuisance to me too.”

The innkeeper shrugged. “Too late, friend. We all pitched in - those of us left and able - and paid someone to get rid of them for us.”

“I see. And anything they might have had with them?”

“She took it.”

“And which way did she go?”

Beau's perfect smile moved the man only to shrug again.

“My good man,” Beau said, “she, whoever she is, is much better able to look after herself than you are.” With a flick of his wrists, he held a pistol in each hand.

The innkeeper raised an eyebrow. “East. She took the east road.”

“Excellent,” Beau said, tossing his hat carelessly onto his head. “Oh, and thanks for the horse.”

As Beau turned to leave, the man said, through clenched teeth, “You'd be better off steering clear of her altogether.”

“Oh?” Beau said. “And why is that?”

“In all my years as a professional soldier, I never saw anyone as good with a sword as she is.”

Beau examined the barrel of one pistol. “Your concern for my welfare is touching, but fire beats steel every time. Cheerio.”

Beau strolled jauntily out into the street. A minute later, the innkeeper sighed as a horse galloped into the distance.


"Cole Phelps, traffic."

So I just bought an Xbox especially for L.A. Noire, my second most expensive recent purchase after my new glasses. (Well, I say "especially" but hopefully I'll find some other stuff to play on it too.) I'm surprised at how big the thing is, and how heavy. When I planned taking it home on the bus I was kind of expecting something more like my friendly little Wii.

Anyway, here's how my first proper case went: first I accused the only witness of lying and she stopped speaking to me. Then, driving away from the crime scene, I crashed straight into a shop front. Getting out to make sure that none of the people who ran away screaming were hurt, I stepped in front of a car and was knocked down. Now confident that no-one was injured (except me) I then got back in my patrol car and proceeded to reverse over the body and fail the case.

Shortly after that, I was promoted to the traffic division.


Thursday Book

The City & the City - China Miéville

When an unidentified woman is found dead in the city of Besźel, Inspector Borlú quickly begins to suspect that this is far from a typical case for the Extreme Crime Squad. For Besźel is a unique place, where the inhabitants must live every day without seeing what's right in front of them. Anyone who breaks this taboo is subject to terrible penalties. Could this murder be tied up in the very nature of Besźel - and the other city?

Okay, this book blew me away. Kafkaesque is probably the most obvious adjective to use to describe it - not Kafkaesque like Brazil, I mean Kafkaesque like, you know, Franz Kafka. But that's not all there is to it, I mean Kafka was this guy who didn't finish much and died young, while this is a carefully planned and plotted book with memorable characters and a strong sense of cause and effect (at least, within its surreal premise). It has these great, obvious, seemingly overwhelming themes, and then it engages with them and files them down with nuance and complication. And, at the same time, it's a crafty crime novel with a fantastic setting.

The City & the City is, in my ignorant opinion, a stonking great work of modern literature - but, just as importantly, it's also a bloody good read.


"She's behind the pillar!"

One of my inspirations while working on Gun Mute was a little Flash rail shooter called Nobuyuki Forces 3 - a fast paced game, full of secrets and unlockables, with a very neatly implemented (if far from original) cover system.

So huzzah and hooray, Nobuyuki Forces 4 has just blasted its way onto the interwebs. It's missing a lot of the things the third game had (although I suspect there's more to it than first meets the eye), but the most obvious improvement is that this one looks pretty sweet compared to the simplistic visuals of previous instalments.

Via Tim.


Pacian's Eurovision 2011 Picks

Wait, stop, they forgot to count my votes!

Okay, for all that I like a multitude of different kinds of stuff, one thing I always disavow any authority on is music. All the same, after watching some of the show and YouTubing the rest, here's how I'm distributing my points:

12 - Moldova
10 - Italy
8 - Germany
7 - Bosnia and Herzgovina
6 - Sweden
5 - Georgia
4 - Hungary
3 - Iceland
2 - Estonia
1 - France

Based on the music videos, you can swap Germany and Italy around, but on the night Raphael Gulazzi pulled out a fantastic live jazz performance, while Lena Meyer-Landrut seemed a bit lost amidst all the light and noise. Hungary has a similar deal - the song itself is a bit mediocre, but Kati Wolf sung her heart out and really sold me on it.

Anyway, here's the hats - I mean, song that got my douze points.

The Reflexive Engine VIII

[Chapter List]

The Skysail

They sat on the gently sloping roof of a cottage, one of the many little dwellings that clung to the sides of the valley. A valley currently occupied – dominated, rather, by the massive skysail.

The vessel's wooden hull blotted out the sun for many of the more rickety homes at the valley's bottom, and though its sails were folded along its sides like the wings of a bird, the sound of the wind riffling through sailcloth was inescapable. The smoke from the furnace that kept its envelope heated was just as pervasive.

“It's a beautiful ship,” the woman said. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, she sat girlishly, with her wineglass in one dainty hand. “But you've yet to set foot on deck?”

The man wore the uniform of a Royal Navy lieutenant. His perfect features were not so much young, as untouched by life, swathed in a halo of short golden curls. “I felt like taking in the village first. All work and no play, as they say.”

She giggled and raised her glass. “To play! May you find escape from your worries, however long it lasts.”

He laughed and raised his own glass. As he swigged back the wine, he didn't notice that the woman drank none of her own.

“What was your name again?” the woman said. “Nicholas Weatherly?”

He set down his glass and leaned back on the roof tiles. “That's me.”

“And you're the new second mate of the HMS Cockatrice?”

He nodded and yawned. “Exciting, isn't it? I feel perfectly exhausted.”

She leant across to kiss his temple. “Close your eyes and sleep a while. The night is still young.”


The Cockatrice would soon be underway, and the captain oversaw the loading of the last of her passengers and cargo from the quarterdeck. A stocky man, his left cheek proudly bore the scar of some freebooter's cutlass.

“Cutting it a bit fine, lieutenant,” he quipped, as a young man of uncommon delicacy approached and snapped a perfect salute.

“Sorry sir,” the officer replied, removing his bicorne. His long black hair was tied into a neat ponytail. “Lieutenant Weatherly, reporting for duty.”

The captain was about to rebuke the man further when a sailor blundered past, shooting the lieutenant a strange look that was returned with a frown.

“We seem to have picked up a lot of new crewmen at this stop,” the captain sighed. “So many unfamiliar faces.”

The lieutenant suppressed a smile. “Don't worry, sir. I have absolute confidence in their loyalty.”


Thursday Comic

20th Century Boys, vols 10-13 - Naoki Urasawa

So volume 12 sees Urasawa finally blow the lid on a mystery that has so far been central to the series. And then, reading volume 13, I couldn't help but think, "Wow. This is the book where it all kicks off."


As Promised

Remember I said you'd get a thing?

Here it is.


The Reflexive Engine VII

[Chapter List]


The sun was only just setting and already the hybrids were abroad, their presence evident from an odd electricity in the air, and howls that were not quite the wind. The wild-haired professor stood anxiously in the doorway of a run-down inn, glancing anxiously down cobbled streets that ran all too quickly past windowless cottages and into open, exposed hills. Half-hidden by the landscape, a massive, golden tripod lay broken on the horizon, weeds warily scaling its armoured hide.

The tall woman rounded a corner and strolled casually towards him.

“Charlie,” he hissed, “come on!”

She maintained the same pace, through the door, with a brief nod to the innkeeper as, musket in hand, he closed and bolted it behind her. “You sure my horse will be safe?” she asked.

The innkeeper let the barrel of his gun rest on his shoulder. The flickering light of the single oil lamp reflected strangely in one of his eyes. “That stable's kept our few draught horses out of harm's way so far, but no, I wouldn't be sure that anyone's safe in this village.”

The two visitors glanced around the empty inn – a few bare tables and only a single barrel behind the bar.

“Why do you even stay here?” the professor asked.

The innkeeper shrugged. “Why does anyone stay anywhere? I'm headed upstairs, where I'll have a better vantage of any trouble.”

They watched him disappear up the stairs, finding his way by memory into sheer darkness.

“It's not straightforward,” the professor said. “Once decoded, the papers will tell us where to go next. Finding them and getting them back will seem trivial compared to the next leg of the journey. We may have to travel over land untouched by humans in decades to reach our goal.”

Charlie peered through cracks in the door, her arms folded. “And then?”

The professor watched her carefully as he said: “And then we have infinite power. And we destroy it before anyone else can have it.”

Her eyes met his briefly. “Huh.”

“Unless,” the professor said slowly, “you want infinite power?”

Perhaps the barest hint of an almost-smile ghosted into existence on her thin lips. She shook her head.

The professor's shoulders slumped. “I'm so tired. It feels like I've been tired for years now.”

She said nothing. Just stood unmoving, leaning against the door frame.

He turned to the stairs. “I'm going to bed. Good night.”

As he began to fumble into the shadows, she said, without turning, “Take the lamp.”

He thanked her, and left her in darkness. After his footsteps had receded, she grabbed a chair and propped it against the wall opposite the door, slouching into it with one hand on the hilt of her sabre.

If she slept, her eyes still flicked open each time claws scratched the cobblestone outside.


Meanwhile, in education...

The University of Lincoln.


Monday Movie: Ip Man

Living a quiet life in Foshan with his wife and son, Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is nevertheless still frequently called on to exercise his incredible prowess at Wing Chun kung fu to sort out petty feuds and public disorder. But the stakes become life and death when China is invaded by Japan, with starving Chinese bandits threatening his friends, and the occupying army trying to draw him into a brutal martial arts tournament.

Yip Wai-Shun's Ip Man combines beautiful cinematography, a lean and efficient script, sublime action direction from Sammo Hung and a rousing score by Kenji Kawai to create one of the best martial arts films of the past few years. The only niggling dissatisfaction is the fact that this slick, nationalistic action film is supposedly based on the life of a real, flesh and blood man.