I want to talk Who.
But first I want to remind everyone that I am a Bad fan. I don’t just love the things I love: I hold them to high standards, and am willing to express my disapproval when they fail to meet them, because the high standards are what made me fall in love with them in the first place. I don’t like falling out of love with things. It makes me sad.
You see, there are three kinds of writing that I class as good. There is the writing that makes me want to read more by that author. I enjoy it, it entertains me, it serves its purpose of allowing me to escape for a while. Some of those works become old friends, and it doesn’t matter that I could practically quote them word for word: I still derive pleasure from reading them. Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin are authors in this category. Then there is work that I admire for its prose or its bravery, its experimentation or poetry, its language or ideas. I will read it, admire it, then put it away and probably never come back to it. Flann O’Brien, James Joyce and Iain M Banks all write like this.
Then there is the really good stuff. Writing that inspires me. Writing that inspires me not only to read but to write. Roger Zelazny, Alfred Bester, Margaret Atwood, Octavia E Butler, Tim Powers, Iain Banks and Kim Stanley Robinson have written works that I have read and re-read and dreamed secret and not-so-secret dreams about being able to write that well — not like them, but as well as them. Kim Stanley Robinson inspired me not only to write but to pursue environmental science. Alfred Bester made me think that it’s possible to turn synaesthesia into literature. Zelazny showed me how to make literary science fiction exciting. Atwood and Butler demonstrated that it’s possible to write about otherness without losing the connection with humanity. Powers taught me that a writer can repeat a plot without writing the same story (to be fair, so did Moorcock, but he didn’t have the prose of Powers). Iain Banks showed how to pack oodles of story into sparse text.
These writers inspired me, and I don’t care what genre or medium in which someone writes, part of a writer’s job is to inspire others to write. Part of a writer’s job is to do it properly. Someone who is being given a huge platform for his or her work has a responsibility to write to a high standard, because it’s on show, and it’s going to demonstrate to a new generation of content-producers what makes good work.
And I’m sorry, but recent Who has fallen down very badly in that regard. If I had written any one of those stories and submitted it to either of my crit groups, I fully expect they would, quite rightly, have ripped it to shreds.
Plenty of people have had a go at Asylum of the Daleks — just typing out the title makes me laugh in a sad, despairing way. I can’t bring myself to go over the awfulness that was this episode. It had two lines, only two, that were of any value:
“You think hatred is beautiful?”
“Perhaps that is why we have never been able to kill you.”
The rest of it, short of a decent performance from Jenna Louise Coleman, was a mass of plot holes and hand-waving that we’re supposed to forgive because it’s Doctor Who and it was bombastic and full of SPECIAL EFFECTS and DRAMA.
Chris Chibnall picked up the baton and managed to make me like Pond for a whole episode. He does pull it out of the bag every so often — I also liked 42, from back when RTD was at the helm, although I didn’t rate the Silurian episodes from Series 5 all that much. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was probably the best of the recent episodes: rampant silliness that didn’t take itself too seriously and had enormous amounts of fun without trying too hard.
I haven’t liked any of the Toby Whithouse episodes, and A Town Called Mercy was no exception. A big deal was made out of the Doctor picking up a gun, but only in interviews about the episode. In the episode itself it was hardly a big deal. Yet I think back to The End of Time and the Doctor refusing to pick up a gun for anything. He is the ultimate paradoxical pacifist, and the watering-down of this absolute stance has given rise to endless frustration of late. Is this what happens when writers of a British series try to tailor their output to a more American market? I don’t know, but I don’t like it.
Sentimentality took hold for the next couple of episodes. I’ll skip The Power of Three because Chibnall didn’t fulfil the brief of “life with the Doctor” nearly as well as Gareth Roberts did in The Lodger and it was all a bit… Meh, really.
Angels Take Manhattan was the final episode and it committed what for me is a cardinal sin. It broke the previously-stated rules.
This is the problem I have with Moffat and the episodes he writes. If he wants something to happen in the plot then it happens, regardless of whether existing canon would allow it to or not. As an example, the Weeping Angels. Anyone remember why they were weeping? Because they had to hide their eyes so as not to look at each other. If they looked at each other they were stuck. THAT’S HOW THE DOCTOR SAVED SALLY SPARROW.
Blink was one of the best episodes of the 10th Doctor’s run, but Moffat has ruined it by changing how the Angels work. He did this way back, when he covered the inside of a massive spaceship with Angels and had them attacking en masse without so much as a blindfold to share between them. In this most recent episode he had our heroes trapped in a corridor by an Angel at either end — by earlier rules those Angels should have been trapped by each other, but no. And it got worse:
Am I supposed to believe that no one saw the Statue of Liberty get up and walk? Or maybe the automatic quantum lock doesn’t work on anything over 3m tall. Who the fuck knows?
And there was all that nonsense about how reading something written down fixes it in time. Time can be re-written, except if you read about it, apparently. But canon established, in The Waters of Mars, that text can rewrite itself if the Doctor interferes. He did it already. We watched the words change.
Moffat obviously has some over-arching concept of how the written word affects the Doctor’s timeline and his ability to change his past, his future, his present. River Song’s catchphrase —”Spoilers!”— has a whole other significance if reading something means it can’t not happen. But this is new. This is not how it worked before. And I’m sorry, but you can’t just rewrite the rules of how a world works to suit yourself; not without some form of justification or explanation. It’s unprofessional, in my opinion. If you are given the job of working with an established set of characters and the universe they live in, you work with those characters and that universe — you don’t go changing things because the rules make the stories too hard to tell. It’s the writer’s job to come up with ways to make the stories work within the rules of that world, or accept that the story needs to be told in a different world, with different characters.
Doctor Who has a huge audience. There are kids out there learning how to tell stories by watching it. I want them to learn how to tell good ones, and not to expect to get by on the cult of celebrity. Being famous and successful shouldn’t mean getting away with work that isn’t as good as that being produced by people still trying to make it. Those who are least successful have to work the hardest at being good in order to achieve success: it’s kind of insulting to think that success means forgetting all about plot structure, character motivation and consistency.
I am falling out of love with Doctor Who.
Sep.09, 2012, filed under Planet Sam
I had one of those WTF moments the other day. This particular one happened in Tesco’s car park at Danestone and involved a bumper sticker on the rear offside wing of a shiny red Ka.
As someone with a lifelong interest in things to be found outside the set of stuff most consider to comprise the rational world, this struck me as being, well, to paraphrase Pauli, not even wrong.
Nor is it any of these:
In fact, when I hear the word “angel”, the first thing I think of is something like this:
Now I don’t know if something like that can fly, but I’m pretty damn sure that if I saw one hovering behind me in my rear view mirror, I’d be putting my foot down. Or possibly screeching to a halt at the side of the road and running for it, in the hope it was the car it wanted rather than me.
The King James Version (not the album by Harvey Danger, do pay attention at the back), describes the Angel of Revelation as being:
…clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire
This sounds more like Katamari’s King of the Cosmos, and I can’t think of anyone I’d less like to have my back in the event of a road traffic accident.
Have you played the racetrack level? In Drive mode?
Ezekiel has a bit to say about angels:
I looked, and I saw beside the cherubim four wheels, one beside each of the cherubim; the wheels sparkled like topaz. As for their appearance, the four of them looked alike; each was like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the cherubim faced; the wheels did not turn about as the cherubim went. The cherubim went in whatever direction the head faced, without turning as they went. Their entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes, as were their four wheels. I heard the wheels being called ‘the whirling wheels’. Each of the cherubim had four faces: One face was that of a cherub, the second the face of a human being, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.
Let’s be honest. That sounds more like a bad acid trip. If you had one of those following your car you’d be calling BUFORA, not feeling reassured about your personal safety.
For me one of the best depictions of angels is in the 1995 film the Prophecy, starring Christopher Walken and Elias Koteas. The film depicts them with a modern imagery, all wings and trenchcoats, but the characterisation is what I enjoyed.
“Did you ever notice how in the Bible, when ever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?” — Thomas Daggett
“I can lay you out and fill your mouth with your mother’s faeces, or we can talk.” — Lucifer
Let’s forget, for a moment, the arrogance of assuming that God’s messengers have nothing better to do than compensate for poor driving technique. If all that’s preventing someone speeding is the worry that a supernatural entity of indeterminate appearance — a six-winged sphinx, a semi-precious flying saucer with more eyes than a scallop, a burning bush or Christopher Walken with bad hair — can’t keep up, then that person does not belong behind the wheel of a moving car in a shared public space.
If that person is advising other people the most important reason for watching their speed is the concern that said supernatural sphinx/UFO/bush/Walken won’t be able to match the pace, then he or she probably shouldn’t be allowed out unless in the company of a responsible adult.
This week Frood and I finally gave up on Sinbad, the new fantasy series being broadcast on Sky 1. Halfway through episode 7 we realised we actually couldn’t give a stuff about any of them and so went in search of something else to watch.
I had been looking forward to it despite the cringe-worthy CGI in the trailers. It was made by Impossible Pictures, who brought us Primeval — a series I enjoyed, for the first 2 seasons anyway. The premise seemed decent enough: young man in the prime of youthful folly is cursed by his Grandmother so that he has to spend the rest of his life at sea, hooks up with a bunch of people who are also on the run for one reason or another, adventures ensue.
Let’s face it. It’s basically Blake’s 7 meets Prince of Persia.
The programme starts off with Sinbad (Elliot Knight) —who wears as much eyeliner as a Sisters of Mercy fan for no reason that has been made clear— in a bare-knuckle fist-fight with another young man. It’s the sort of competition-fighting-for-money used as shorthand for “can handle himself and is a bit bad and dangerous” in numerous other works. In this instance, like so many others, the need for the star to have beautiful bone structure and saucy sex appeal means that he doesn’t get to suffer the usual thickening of facial features and scarring concomitant with the sport.
His opponent dies, in a manner suggestive of evil machinations and political intrigue. Said opponent then turns out to be the son of local bigwig Lord Akbari (Naveen Andrews), of course, who promptly goes completely ballistic and kills Sinbad’s brother in revenge. BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT ALWAYS HAPPENS. Sinbad escapes from jail and returns to his Grandmother, who, upon finding out what he has done, curses him so that he cannot spend more than a cycle of the sun on dry land hereinafter. AS YOU DO. Meanwhile Akbari is still frothing at the mouth and insisting that murdering Sinbad’s brother is insufficient payment for the loss of his son, because his son was a high status person and Sinbad’s brother was no better than the dirt under his feet. He employs the evil sorceress Taryn to find Sinbad for the purposes of torture and death. AGAIN, THE OBVIOUS RESPONSE.
It took me a while to work out how they managed to make something so ridiculously melodramatic so dull, and it comes down to the characters.
Take a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey trip back to the 80s and consider the aforementioned Blake’s 7. Stripped to the fundamentals, the premise was pretty much the same. A ragtag bunch of people on the run find themselves a ship, form an unlikely crew and head off to have adventures while pursued by a powerful entity. The effects were terrible, the budget next to nothing, and it was absolutely brilliant. The characters had depth and vitality, and were played by the actors in a way that made them believable. The plots were there to serve the characters and give them a stage in which to express: never were the characters shoe-horned into some implausible behaviour because it made the plot work. Avon’s constant deadpan snark didn’t let up for a minute, whether he was having an argument with Orac, insulting Villa or flirting with Servalan. Villa was never forced to turn heroic (although he was occasionally the hero) in order to give him a more palatable character.
Servalan had depth, character, motivation and was both admirable and admired.
Sinbad, on the other hand, introduced us to Sirens, Death, tattooed ladies, a magic gambling den, CGI monsters and black magic chicken sacrifices, but by the end of episode 6 had failed to explain why Taryn was such evil bitch. There was nothing to explain why Sinbad’s grandmother would take the frankly bizarre step of forcing her only surviving grandson to risk dying a painful, horrible death every day — especially considering that he didn’t have access to a boat when she cursed him. Cook was still little more than a fat, bald bloke obsessed with spices who occasionally dispensed nuggets of wisdom in the manner of a fortune cookie. The nerd was still a nerd, and a hopelessly naive one at that.
The different way the story handled male and female characters made me faintly uncomfortable. All of them had something awful in their past which informed their current behaviour. The Viking, along with his Viking chums, apparently raped, pillaged and slaughtered in the manner of a badly-researched Berkserker. But he was a changed man, and prepared to give himself up to a gang of warriors for justice if they let him save his friend, so actually all that raping and slaughtering was completely forgiven.
Nala was once promised to Death by her people as a sacrifice, and that left her cold and stand-offish. She turned Death down, even though it might kill her new friends, and she was still cold and stand-offish and, really, didn’t change at all except that somehow that made it rain. Kind of. What?
Rina was a thief, who kept stealing stuff, even to the point of stealing everyone else’s valuables when they needed them most. But she was sold into slavery as a child by her parents, and used that memory to defeat a (female) demon, so everyone liked her after that. She hadn’t changed, it was just that she used her degradation in the service of saving the menfolk, so that made it worthwhile having her around.
And Taryn, arguably the most potent of the female characters. Evil for the sake of evil. Compare with Lord Akbari, whose insane, murderous intent could at least be hand-waved as the effect of extreme grief.
I don’t like Sinbad. There’s this weird, corner-of-the-eye disparity between the handling of the male characters and the female ones, and not in a good or justifiable way. Plus it’s another instance of the plot being the over-riding driver, resulting in characters doing implausible things because the plot requires that they do so.
I think it’s time to buy the Blake’s 7 box set to remind myself of how such a show should be done, before they ruin it with a remake.
But what can you tell about a book owner from her books?
I have been heard to complain about the amount of trashy fantasy cluttering our bookshelves. But when we moved last time, Frood very kindly bought some new bookshelves so we had enough space to put out all of our books, about half of which had been in storage for years. He worked out, using the measure of length of stacked books, that we had around 1.3m for every year we’ve been together.
You can keep all your decomposing flowers, expensive chocolates and dubiously-mined gemstones: that’s romantic.
I have a couple of favourite exercises I do to get a firm grasp of any character I am writing. These exercises do not necessarily make it into any finished story —nor does the character, in some cases— but I find they work for me. One of them is the “what does he keep in his pockets?” exercise (which for one WIP turned into the “what does she keep in her courier bag?” exercise, as cyclists tend to keep not much in their pockets). You can tell quite a bit from what someone keeps in his or her pockets (or bag).
The other one is what the character’s living space looks like. What do they keep to hand? What do they have on display? Is it done for other people or for themselves? Why do they have those things? What meaning do they have?
Sometimes I look at what I keep around me and reflect on what it says about how I’ve changed through the years. My desk, where I write, is arranged differently from the way it was just a couple of years ago, and not just because we’ve moved twice in that period. Some things are the same —the inkpots, some of the pictures, the Penguin of Death— and some things aren’t (it’s a lot emptier now). It’s not possible to recreate a previous living space in a new environment, of course, but we also make very conscious decisions about what to leave behind and what to keep when we move house, and not just in the material sense of decluttering, or paring down to reduce the cost of the process. I imagine most people are the same in that respect.
Taken to the extreme, if a character had to keep moving, all the time, without having a chance to settle, what he chose to keep with him would be very telling. Then the two exercises I described above might become the same exercise.
I think I quite like what my bookshelf says about me these days. But then, it was Frood who stacked it for me.
Do check out his website. It has cool art and hypnotised rocks.
Aug.17, 2012, filed under Reviews
Long-time readers of this blog —as well as a good number of Californian wine makers, wine drinkers, restaurant staff, farmer’s market attendees and stallholders, and the passengers on May 7th’s flight VS020— will know that I am a big fan of Radio Static’s Minister of Chance. This crowd-funded, Doctor Who spin-off audiodrama has production values, acting quality and writing to match anything put out by Team Moffat, and I’d go as far as to say it exceeds in some respects because it doesn’t have visual effects to fall back on.
Episode 3, Paludin Fields, is the latest in this highly-anticipated production. It reunites some of the great and the good of British science-fiction acting talent (Paul Darrow, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Jenny Agutter) and introduces some equally talented new voices, including Tamsin Greig (Black Books, The Green Wing, the Archers) and Beth Goddard (X-Men: First Class, Ashes to Ashes).
The Minister of Chance, for those unfamiliar with the series, takes place in a world (I use the term loosely, for reasons that are obvious if you listen to it) of politics divided by a religion where the priests are witches and the currency is ineffective magic. To question the power of magic is to invite the kind of attention the Spanish Inquisition turned on heretics. Think Umberto Eco’s In the Name of the Rose, where the Inquisition is instead employed by an invading army to root out scientists, even though they make use of rockets and guns.
There are several interweaving plotlines, each driven by a main character conflict. The primary plot arc is that of the Minister himself, played with aplomb by Julian Wadham, and Kitty, believably voiced by Lauren Crace. The Minister is a Time Lord (although this has not been explicitly stated) and Kitty is a young girl who is not what she appears to be, as she has abilities not generally found in the populace. The pair of them are on a mission to stop the Horseman, who may or may not be another Time Lord, but is definitely a bad egg. Durian (Paul McGann) wants to start a war, although it is not yet clear whether he is doing so to take over as Witch Prime (Sylvester McCoy) or whether the war itself is what he wants, for an as-yet unrevealed purpose, and a coup is just a beneficial by-product. I was reminded of Prince Humperdink and his war on Guilder. Jenny Agutter’s Professor Cantha has a story arc to herself. In this episode her pacifist ideals are tested most sorely by the leader of the resistance (Beth Goddard) and, apparently, to breaking point. Although we have been there before and found her more than capable of fooling those who would have her turn to violence in their service.
I’ve already praised the sound effects in past reviews, so it will come as no surprise to learn that the soundscape in Paludin Fields is equally immersive and used to great effect to distinguish between the different settings and arcs. There are a number of jumps between the various plots, and it takes no more than a second or two to know which one is coming. The swamp life of the marsh is as distinct from the background murmur of the Coven’s assembly as it is from the echoing of an abandoned and ransacked library. Such is the attention to detail in the soundscape that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if two different listeners, when asked to describe what the various locations look like, came up with something similar enough to be recognised as the same place by someone who has never heard of the series. So I’ll concentrate on the story and the writing rather than the superb acting and production.
Episode 3 introduces further complexity to a story already full of depth and flavour. There is the Sage of the Waves (I wonder where they got that character name), played by Tamsin Greig, who would appear to be another refugee from the Minister’s world of technologically-advanced, scientifically über-literate, universal mystics; leading one to wonder what in the name of the Eye of Harmony happened to scatter them all over this steelpunk world of misogynistic pubs and frog-infested marshes. We are introduced to the Resistance, who rescue Professor Cantha, although this turns out not to be the blessing it first appears. We learn a bit more about Kitty’s unusual nature and, best of all, we learn more about the underlying principles governing how things work here.
I especially loved the Minister’s explanation to Kitty of why his talisman necklace was so important. It was a sublime piece of plausible hand-waving that I, as a fellow writer, can only admire: any writer who can explain something impossible in such a way as to make it sound not just possible but obvious is doing a fantastic job.
I also enjoyed Professor Cantha forcing the ex-librarian to recite the Theory of Fields she taught him in school as a counter to the resident magical explanation of “things just appear, by magic”. The populace has been beaten into believing it’s not just a rabbit in a hat that got there by magic, but every rabbit.
In the beginning was the data, and the data was complex and dynamic, and from the data came forth all the laws and forces of the world. And first amongst there was Causation, for for every effect there is a cause.
“If we look upstream do we not find a spring?”
Taken with the Minister’s explanation of how his talisman works, what it does and to whom he has given it, life is going to get very interesting on Tanto in Episode 4.
As I said, MoC is crowd-funded, and the campaign to fund Episode 4 is already well under way. There are some nifty rewards on offer for those who help, including the opportunity to have Paul Darrow record a voicemail message for your answering machine (now is probably not the time to confess to having the Blake’s 7 soundboard on my HTC — Orac alerts me to every text message). There are loads of creative projects out there asking for help with funding, and I’m well aware of the need, in the current financial climate, to pick and choose which ones to support. Episodes 1 – 3 are available free of charge, so you don’t have to take my word for it, but I’m certainly going to be putting money where my mouth is. I really hope you enjoy this as much as I have and will find even as much as the price of a pint of beer or a bottle of cheap Cabernet Sauvignon to help them on their way.
Aug.15, 2012, filed under Cycling
There are a few things I have argued about so many times that I have now reached a state of acceptance regarding my inability to change the fact that not everyone agrees with me.
I originally started off refusing to argue about gun control. I’m so far past arguing about gun control I can almost pretend there’s even a disagreement to be had. More recently I’ve had to give up arguing about certain things to do with cycling, and as a result feel no inclination to post on cycling fora any more. Posts on cycling fora seem to fall into the same broad categories: the helmet debate, red-light jumping, use of MP3 players while riding, where to ride this week/next week/on holiday, charity rides, campaigning for cycle path installation, whinging about idiots who think we should pay “road tax”, which bike to buy and which saddle to choose. Anything else is either some sort of stupid game thread that goes on for a million posts and is utterly pointless, a series of posts about cake, or a thread about Victoria Pendleton’s arse.
I know this comes across as rather grumpy, but take away the finer nuances or the political argy-bargy that results in moderation wars and this is pretty much what’s out there.
Here, then, are the opinions I have honed through years of argument, reading, research, experimentation and experience. Feel free to disagree, but don’t assume that my failure to engage with an argument on these topics is acceptance of your opposing viewpoint. Because it’s not. I just cannot be arsed.
I don’t agree helmets should be compulsory. The benefits are marginal and the reasons people offer for compulsion boil down to, “it must be safer, it’s obvious”. Well, at one point we thought it was obvious that a plant with leaves shaped like kidneys must have been put here to cure kidney complaints. Saying that the pros all do it so there’s no excuse not to —a statement I read on a cycling website aimed at beginner female cyclists, believe it or not— is a bit like saying that Lewis Hamilton and Jensen Button wear helmets so car drivers should too. Even though this would save more lives than making cyclists wear them, no one ever seems to think that making car drivers wear helmets is a good idea, so STFU already with your helmet compulsion. There are plenty of places out there where you will find information demonstrating that lids can increase the risk of injury and do sweet FA to prevent injury on the population scale, and it’s not my bloody job to educate you. Do the research.
RED LIGHT JUMPING
This is nothing to do with the adult section of certain cities, but a fundamental refusal to adhere to the rules of the road. The one principle that should be inculcated into all road users, regardless of vehicle, is this: SHARE NICELY. The road doesn’t belong to you, it doesn’t belong to anyone: it belongs to everyone. Grow up, suck it up and deal with it.
Conversely, there are instances where the frothing, ranting reaction to cyclists crossing red lights is hyperbolic to the point of comedy. A cyclist going through an empty pedestrian crossing is not equivalent to the Great Beast rising from the sea and donning seven crowns. A cyclist setting off slightly before the light turns green in order to get ahead of the juggernaut in whose enormous blind spot he is sitting is looking out for his own safety and isn’t going to bring about the entropic heat death of the universe.
A cyclist weaving his way across a lights-controlled crossroads in between orthogonal traffic isn’t just putting himself at risk but also other road users, and if a policeman pulls him over for a spot fine no one will cheer more loudly than me.
Deaf cyclists manage, there’s this activity called “looking behind you” (I know it’s not as widely known as one might think) and not all MP3 players have noise-cancelling headphones with a volume control set unchangeably at 11. I can still hear you. Really. It’s fine. Why cyclists should be singled-out for opprobrium when no one else on the road is expected to be able to hear anything other than an emergency-services siren is, as far as I’m concerned, merely another point of evidence for cyclists being treated as a special case.
WHERE TO RIDE
I dunno. I live in Aberdeen, which is hundreds of miles away from most other cyclists, and can’t afford foreign holidays. I guess there must be somewhere nice you could go that has hills/doesn’t have hills, is off-road/on-road, will be nice and sunny/refreshingly cool. It doesn’t really matter, as long as you enjoy it.
I don’t do these and am ambivalent about them. You see, back in the dim and distant past, when I did the odd charity event, it was paid by the mile (or the length) or for outright completion. They were proper challenges, and it wasn’t guaranteed they would be finished, and if you didn’t finish, or finished early, the charity didn’t get the money. These days people sign up for something and that, in itself, seems to be enough for the money to come pouring in.
I object to being told to ask people to give money (even to a worthy cause) to me just because I’m doing something I enjoy doing and would probably do anyway. I also object to being asked to give money in support of something that’s not that big a deal and, let’s face it, a century ride isn’t that big a deal for anyone with a reasonable degree of bike fitness (I’ve done 125 mile rides on no more training than my daily commute of about 10 miles each way); especially when you factor in all the support these rides offer, such as sag wagons and feeding stations.
I am deeply uncomfortable with the underlying concept of a ride of 60 – 100 miles being a huge challenge where the difference between completion and bail-out is whether or not the participant is going to make more money for a chosen charity — and that, to me, is what sponsorship should be in an event like this. If we think that a ride of 60 miles is worth £300 sponsorship, what is going to make us consider riding 10 miles to work and back? That’s a distance worth 100 quid, right? The effect of charity rides on our general view of cycling is something I’m not entirely sure is a beneficial one. If you want me to sponsor you for a bike ride it had better be something that you wouldn’t otherwise contemplate, where your chosen charity will only benefit if you finish, and there’s a real chance you might not. A 60 mile pootle involving cake and coffee every 20 miles just doesn’t cut it. And why do so many of them insist that helmets are compulsory?
The Dumb Run is not a charity ride. We do it because we enjoy it.
No, I do not support segregated cycle facilities and never will. They don’t help as much as people think they do. “But what if we do it like the Dutch?” I hear you cry. Thing is, though, we won’t. Because we can’t. Because we have neither the political will nor the space nor the flexibility of infrastructure.
My bike is something that takes me on journeys far longer than a 2 mile hop to the shops. I ride Glasgow to Edinburgh, Dundee to Kirkcaldy, Perth to St Andrews, Arbroath to Largo. For transport. There will never be a fully segregated network that will allow me to do this at a reasonable speed. In urban areas, segregated paths require me to share with small children who have little awareness, dog walkers and random drunks. In bad parts of town I am more likely to be dragged off my bike and assaulted if I use a segregated path. Worse than all of that, use of segregated facilities gives drivers the false impression that cyclists shouldn’t be on the road and a more intense feeling of righteous indignation when we are.
Many drivers also object to having to pay for such facilities, conveniently forgetting the fact that non-drivers pay for their motorways.
On that related note:
Sigh. There is no road tax. This baseline fact aside, the tax that does exist, Vehicle Excise Duty, is not applied to low-emissions vehicles. Vehicles with emissions of up to 100g/km are charged £0.00. The current estimate for cyclist emissions is 21g/km, putting them in the zero-rate bracket. So, again, just STFU already.
WHICH BIKE TO BUY
You can have no more than two of the attributes light, fast, strong and cheap. Other than that, buy whatever bike makes you happy and want to get on it and ride. That is the only criterion that matters.
WHICH SADDLE TO BUY
The answer to this is long and complicated and anatomically specific. Female anatomy is different from male anatomy, and thus I do not consider it to be in any way discriminatory in terms of either sex or gender to say that biological males will be better off with a different range of saddles from that which will suit biological females. Whatever gender you identify as is entirely irrelevant and I’m an ardent supporter of anyone who refuses to comply with the default bipolar gender paradigm, but what saddle will suit you best does, ultimately, depend on what you keep in your underwear. Because you’ll be sitting on it.
There is no generic answer to this question. I feel unqualified to discuss male saddles, and female saddles depend on individual anatomical qualities that vary widely. So I will not ever suggest a particular saddle (if only because I’m not often that interested in what someone else keeps in his or her underpants) but I may be persuaded to offer advice on how you can go about deciding which saddle would be best for you.
Hope that clears that up. I’m off to get me another lemsip.
Jun.09, 2012, filed under movies
I should make something clear from the very start: Alien was my diving board into the world of science fiction in film. It wasn’t ET, or Star Wars, or Star Trek. For me these were not science. They weren’t real. They were fantasies, soap operas, adventure tales. They belonged with Black Beauty, Bonanza and Scooby Doo. Even back then, as a girl learning the OILRIG mnemonic for chemical reactions (Oxidation Is Loss, Reduction Is Gain), I felt that science fiction was something edgier and harder than I was finding on the television or the movie screen. It was something I was only finding in books, where the mechanics and the plausibility couldn’t be glossed over with a veneer of special effects and explosions.
In space no one can hear you scream.
That was it. Right there. I was yet to experience the magnificent silence of Kubrick’s 2001. All I knew was that space is a vacuum, sound can’t travel in a vacuum because it is a compression wave, not a transverse wave, and Star Wars had given me far too many space lasers going “PEW PEW PIH-PEW-PEW-PEW!” followed by mega-explosions you could hear if you were standing on the moon.
No. Just no.
The gritty, industrial, supremely plausible sets of Alien, accompanied by the claustrophobic performances of the cast and, of course, the ultimate female action role model of Ripley (notable for not screaming), got me hooked on science fiction in film. As such, the film occupies a particularly well-kept pedestal in my mental gallery of things that have shaped my life.
You will understand, then, that I went to see Prometheus with something akin to a religious person going to witness some form of Holy Visitation, and I will save you the trouble of reading further, and exposing yourself to the ensuing spoilers, by telling you that the experience was rather like a Druid going on a trip to Stonehenge and discovering that it’s just a bunch of big rocks. Everyone around you is swooning over the mystic energies and the swirling chaos of Mother Earth reaching up and imparting visionary experiences of the Universe and Being At One With Existence and you’re thinking that it’s a shame it’s so close to the traffic and it’s not nearly as big as you thought it was going to be.
The film is extraordinarily pretty. It’s full of pretty. There is nothing in it that is not pretty. The scenery is pretty. The spaceship is pretty. The crew are all handsome or beautiful. Even old Weyland would have been good-looking, if they stripped off the cosmetics to reveal Guy Pearce (because, you know, there is a massive shortage of aging actors in the world who could have played that role — Ian Holm is still working and that would have been delicious). The Engineers are reasonably low on the ugly scale. Tall, built like rugby players, with a cupid’s bow lip (the male equivalent of the Jolie beestung pout). Charlize Theron is in fantastic shape, Fassbender’s grooming was lampshaded in the first section of the film — it’s all, you know, pretty.
Maybe that was part of the problem. I distrust pretty. Anything that pretty has to be distracting you from something and, when it comes to movies, it’s usually the story.
And, yes, there we go, the plot has so many holes in it you could use it to drain pasta. The characterisation of most of the characters bar the main four is so weak they might as well have been robots — there is little interaction, no badinage, nothing to distinguish them from NPCs at all. Plus, it makes the fatal mistake of a science fiction film: it gets the easy facts wrong.
The trip to find their makers starts with archaeologists uncovering a cave painting on the Isle of Skye and dating it to a time so close to the last major glaciation that the idea of anyone being there to paint it stretches plausibility past the Young’s modulus. One should also note that the evidence is unclear as to whether modern humans (as opposed to genetically not-identical Neanderthals) were in the UK at all 35,000 years ago. That is just the first of the WTF moments that had me motorboating like 4hp Evinrude two-stroke on a bad oil/petrol mix. There was the instant carbon dating on an alien planet where the CO2 isotope ratio had not been characterised. There was the thing with the head and the electric re-animation — seriously, what was that all about? You cannot trick a head into thinking it’s alive by tickling the vagus nerve with a purple wand. Really, you can’t.
There were others. Oh yes, there were others. Like how the ship was equipped with an autodoc capable of performing any conceivable type of surgery, but which couldn’t deal with having a female patient. Because it was calibrated for a man. I know that was supposed to make the audience ask why it would be for a man when it was supposedly Vickers’s autodoc, but flagging the presence of someone on board we didn’t know about was better done by David’s conversation with Weyland over the neural link, rather than asking us to believe something so advanced couldn’t re-calibrate itself. It was one of the many foreshadowing points throughout the film, the most t-shirt worthy of which was Chekov’s Space Squid (I know it’s not strictly speaking a Chekov’s anything, as it was hardly an irrelevant detail, but Foreshadowing Space Squid is more of a band name than a t-shirt).
Scott’s film has won praise, and I’ve even seen people accuse those who don’t like it of being stupid, of failing to “get it”. Well, hands up. I failed to get it. Oh I got the whole “be careful what you wish for” fable, and I don’t have a problem with a religious scientist. I have a problem with a scientist who is not only an archaeologist but also a forensic xeno-pathologist, because the level of experience needed for that level of expertise in both is not realistically achievable in someone of Shaw’s age.
There’s an automatic defensive reaction from writers who have honed their craft to people suggesting writing is just something you can do; that anyone who can string a few words together deserves to be published. I understand. When you’ve worked at your craft that effort should be recognised. But I have a huge beef with writers inventing characters who are polymaths in specialisations. It cheapens the work and effort of scientists who have spent decades achieving that expertise. It’s almost as bad as when people think their opinion on a scientific topic is as valid as an expert’s because they’ve seen a Horizon documentary about it or read the wikipedia article. I could have understood David being the one to examine the head, just as Ash had been the one to conduct the examination in Alien, but why get Shaw to do it? Why was their medical officer less skilled than their archaeologist?
Why would a bunch of scientists head 4 years into space to an unknown planet without finding out why they were going and what part of their expertise would be required? Why was any one of the other individuals picked? We didn’t ever get to find out enough about them to know, or even to care about their eventual fate. Was their biologist picked for his stupidity? What sort of biologist was he anyway? What sort of geologist was Fifield? Or was he picked for his hair-trigger temper and his tattoos? When the biologist and the geologist said they were going back to the ship, how come they ended up wandering around in the tunnels? The entire crew seemed to have been chosen according to the criteria of a reality-TV show rather than a science expedition, which makes me wonder if the big secret was that Weyland had also sold rights to a television company.
This was a science-fiction film that didn’t pay attention to the science.
How did they happen across the place where the plot was scant minutes after entering the atmosphere? How did a ship that shape and size carry enough fuel to manage landing and take-off? How did the Space Squid get so big with nothing to eat? The original Alien got big by nomming upon the crew of the Nostromo. There’s a conservation of mass issue, there, unless the Space Squid ate the autodoc. How did Shaw manage to belay the robot down a cliff with nothing holding her lower abdomen together bar a few staples on the outside?
There were many other questions.
Prometheus was billed as a film that would make the audience question, and I did. What it didn’t do was make me ponder the big questions of who we are as a species and how we came to be here. It didn’t make me feel like re-reading Chariots of the Gods (although, to be fair, there’s not much that would because it’s drivel). I suspect that the questions we were supposed to focus on were those to do with our evolution. How come the Engineers’ DNA matched ours exactly when our DNA differs from a chimp’s by 1% and a gorilla’s by 2%? Did they seed all life on earth and we failed to evolve? Or was Scott implying that we somehow evolved from a squiggly strand of denatured alien DNA to match those aliens in every genetic detail (but not in looks, though, because we don’t live in Space Heaven and there’s that whole nature-nurture thing) and that was why they were coming to wipe us out? Were we too much like them? Did they see us as competition? Did they think that one species like them in the Universe was already too much? Was this a film about hubris? Arrogance?
I think it was. And, in a way, it was successful at that, because there is an arrogance in the implication we are supposed not to notice or care about the basic errors and implausibilities. I don’t mean things like the technology or the idea that we could travel so far in such a short time: I’m talking about the little things, the things that should not have been wrong, that could have been right with a little more thought or care.
To get back to where I started this, it was when I started comparing this film to Alien that I began to grok what bothered me so much about it. Shaw’s painfully extended battle with her unwanted pregnancy did not come across as plot but as fanservice. Ripley, arguably Hollywood’s most significant strong female character, died “giving birth” to an Alien Queen. Shaw cut the Space Squid out with a device meant for a man and killed the Engineer with it. Take that! Shaw’s sterility wasn’t really a vital part of her character motivation, because other than a brief, weepy argument with Holloway it didn’t have any effect on her behaviour. Rather it seemed to reflect Ripley’s forced state of childlessness caused by decades lost in hypersleep and the loss of Newt. David wasn’t a Data-like prototype but a fully-fledged, functioning robot who seemed far in advance of either Ash or Bishop; and who possessed a self-awareness that allowed him to distinguish himself from humans — and consider himself superior. Shades of Alien: Resurrection there. Prometheus riffed so hard on the franchise that the story, the characters and the setting came across like fan-fiction written by someone who thought the original stuff was so brilliant it didn’t matter if this new story was full of holes left by jamming his favourite elements together in a big pot and not cooking them properly.
I thought Theron and Fassbender were great, Rapace did what she could with a character that needed to be much better written, Marshall-Green was left treading water with a character that lacked any believable sense of conviction and Elba managed to put more character into 3 lines of dialogue than the other NPCs had between them. The opening sequence was breathtaking, and my fangirl hard-science squee was jumping up and down in excitement at the vapour curling over the lip of the giant flying saucer. I just wish the rest of the film had followed through on that promise.
You may feel differently, but I like a bit more science in my science fiction.
It’s strange, sitting here on a relatively sunny day, during which the temperature hauled itself into double figures with the effort of a powerlifter attempting to beat his deadlift personal best, to think that a couple of weeks ago I was baking in the heat of California.
The story of how this came about starts last Christmas. My family gets together over Christmas —I hardly see them during the rest of the year— and my brother does the drink while I do the food. Being picky, I usually take a few bottles of wine for the Christmas meal itself. Last year I happened to have an Amazon voucher for a £40 discount from Naked Wines, a company I’d already been following on twitter because of a #FollowFriday, but about which I knew very little. We looked at the website, realised we could get a case of decent wine for around 4 quid a bottle using an introductory deal plus the voucher, and thought we’d take a punt.
When I bought my wine, the website told me all about the Angel programme. You give them £20 or more a month, which they invest in wines that otherwise wouldn’t get made, or winemakers who have all the skill but no support, and in return you get at least a 25% discount on wine sold through the site. As one of many new writers struggling to make it out of the slush pile, I know that talent and passion for one’s art isn’t always enough. You also need someone to take notice, to believe in what you are doing and give you a chance. I feel very strongly that artistic talent should be rewarded, and winemaking is, as Jason Moore says, “an art form supported by science”.
I signed up. I didn’t need any more persuading than that.
Roll on a few months. We were still without internet but I was making tasting notes of the wines I bought and posting them when I could. I don’t like reviews that say “I liked it!” or “This was lovely!” They tell me nothing about whether I might like it. You wouldn’t go to see a film based on someone else saying they enjoyed it without finding out what genre it was, at least. You wouldn’t buy a perfume just because someone on a website said it smelled nice. Well, I suppose there are those who would, but I’m not one of them. Having been exposed to plenty of the handwritten tasting notes produced by Oddbins staff over the years, I tried to post reviews that would tell others what the wine was like so they could decide whether or not they might like it.
Converting my synaesthetic experience into something that will make sense to others has been an interesting writing exercise.
Naked Wines have a number of volunteers helping out on their site, called Archangels. These are customers who are good at interacting, who post helpful reviews and do their bit to be welcoming of newcomers, both winemakers and customers. One of the staff asked if there were any Angels who would like to become one. I applied. A while later I got a phone call. I’d been successful. Not only had I been successful, would I like to go to California? A group of Archangels were being sent to Napa to taste wines and choose some to go on sale in the UK.
Yes, of course I would.
Which is how come I ended up flying to San Francisco with 9 other wine enthusiasts for two intense days of tasting.
After the party on the plane (it took me the entire flight to get through the Sherlock Holmes sequel) and dinner at a fabulous Mexican restaurant (I have no idea which one it was, but I didn’t know you could do that with pineapple), we were back to the hotel for a sleepless night before an early start the next morning.
We started with Jessica Tomei, where we sampled half a dozen rather fine wines, then moved on to Jason Moore, where we sampled another selection, including some of the best wines I’ve ever tasted. After that it was a trip to the Patz and Hall winery, by way of a rather famous Champagne house (I had to resist the urge to crawl into the cotoneaster hunting the Californian tree frog I could hear in there), where we were talked through more than a dozen wines by winemakers Robin Langton, William Henry and Randall Grahm. If Robin doesn’t bring me some of that Tallman Sauvignon Blanc I shall be forced to have words.
Lunch was a picnic provided by the rather wonderful William Henry, with me a bit starstruck by the big Ravenswood sign on the way up to the vineyard where we were to have it.
For someone who isn’t used to tasting wines in such rapid succession, and has never had the opportunity to do so in what amounts to a professional context —all the Archangels were very much focused on the job we were there to do— this was an amazing experience. The biggest issue for me was that I can’t taste and listen at the same time, because the synaesthesia means that sound interferes with my tasting, and so I had to choose between being able to taste the wine or listening to what the winemakers had to say about them. I chose the former, and my apologies if anyone thought I was being rude. I did have to explain the synaesthesia about 20 times over the course of the trip!
There was a social evening on the Friday night, where we were able to taste another couple of wines, although I hadn’t been expecting to do another tasting so didn’t have my notebook to hand. We also had the opportunity to speak to the winemakers and get to know them a bit better.
Saturday we started off with a trip to the Farmer’s Market in Napa, the mirthmobile in full swing already. I haven’t been to the Aberdeen one yet, but I hope it’s half as good as the Oxbow. Then we went to the Darioush winery, to experience the bling of the wine world. Bottles here started at around $70, and went up. Boy, did those numbers go up. I think the fact that the winery is apparently a reconstruction of the temple at Persepolis says enough about this particular winery without me having to add anything (although I still enjoyed the Cabernet Franc, even if I was the only person to do so).
From Darioush we went to visit the hugely contrasting Campesino, where we met the lovely Macario Montoya, who is making Spanish wines in homage to the heavy Spanish influence in California. There are not enough decent Albarinos in the world. I’m delighted that Macario has added to them.
Our final stop was one of the major highlights of the trip for me. So high up a mountain I felt I needed oxygen, we visited Christina Pallmann, who offered us some truly delectable wine, including an unoaked Chardonnay that belongs on my wine rack right this very moment, and an example of Zinfandel that caused me to fall in love with the grape after a decade or so of us not speaking to one another any more. It was an absolute privilege to taste her wines in that location, and get to meet her grower, Joe. It was clear that they have a fabulous relationship and acres of respect for one another.
That was the real eye-opener of the trip. These are people who are deeply passionate about their art. It is important to them, and they care about what they are doing. Anyone engaged in a creative endeavour knows that this is what makes the difference. If you don’t have that love and passion then you are in the wrong business. Every winemaker we met was eloquent and engaging about what they were doing and what they were trying to achieve.
If I ever had any doubts that my £20 a month was going to deserving winemakers, this trip got rid of them for ever.
The trip was also part of the Naked Wines launch for the US and Australia. The sales model for wine in the US is a product of Prohibition, and British wine lovers would be surprised by the pricing. Naked Wines intends shaking things up a bit, so wine lovers can pay what a wine is worth rather than what the label suggests someone thinks they can get for it. If you want to be part of that, go to nakedwines.com and sign up as a beta-taster (geddit?).
In the end we could choose only six out of the many fine wines we tasted. The Naked in Napa pack is now on sale for British customers on marketplace at Naked Wines. You’ll have to be quick, though, because it’s selling fast. I’ll put my tasting notes below for the wines that are in this pack, but don’t take my word for it: place a bid and get yourself some.
I’m putting the synaesthetic notes in italics, in brackets, for the sake of completion. Feel free to ignore or point and laugh.
1 x Christina Pallmann Santa Maria Pinot Noir 2010
Berry red and perfumed in the glass, this gives off wafts of violets, panna cotta and roses. It caresses the tastebuds with soft tannins, giving a smooth mouthfeel, but offers up an exciting and tantalising combination of flower petals and pollen with spicy notes of pepper and a structural component reminiscent of juniper.
(Star with rounded spikes made of soft silicon, coated in powdered purple.)
1 x Coloma Syrah “Meatgrinder” 2009
In the glass this is leggy, with a redcurrant translucency tinted by a note of plum. The legs carry on into the nose. It is moderately astringent, ever so slightly disjointed because it has not had a chance to breathe. Exuberant. To taste it is a block of structured tannins, following through with the redcurrant and adding cranberry and sloe wax.
(Honeycomb shape. Almost effervescent. Happy and eager.)
1 x Sin Fronteras Reserve Tempranillo 2009
Blood red, with the most evenly spaced legs I’ve ever seen on a wine. The nose offers an immediate hit of fruit, rounded out by toasted vanilla and locust bean. The taste has enough acidity to give good structure without crossing the line into pungency, and backs up the fruit with hints of coffee and spice.
(Mille Feuille of opaque, teflon-coated microbeads)
1 x Credence Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Soft red, bluish, lilac meniscus. Long, fading legs. It doesn’t hang about in the glass waiting for you, this one. It’s forward, leaping out to greet you. Big fruit with structural astringency. Damsons and redcurrants, quite leafy. Wholemeal toast and roasting seeds. Tasted quite youthful and a bit of an attention-seeker. Good talking point for a main meal at a dinner party, but give it something robust to lean against or give it plenty of time to breathe.
(Invasive, architecturally hard, but with soft fruit in the spaces.)
1 x Back Door Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
We didn’t taste this as it was away for bottling at the time.
1 x William Henry Riesling NV
We’re pretty sure that this is a 2011 rather than the non-vintage, as that’s what we tasted. I found this shy on the nose, with the odd note of athletic jockstrap. On taste, however, this was as balanced as an Olympic gymnast on the beam, with good acidity and excellent dry but unctuous fruit. This struck me immediately as the sort of white I would want to drink curled up in front of a roaring fire with snow thick on the ground and dripping off pine trees.
(The wine equivalent of Chris Brosius’s Winter 1972. Not immediately stunning but something that lingers in the back of your mind and keeps coming back long after other forms have faded.)
Blimey! It has been a while. Prolonged internet absence has made updating the blog a near impossibility. So what has been happening on Planet Sam?
In the last 6 months we’ve moved house, twice — as mentioned in this previous post, we moved from Edinburgh to Aberdeen last year as I was offered a new position in the day job — first of all to temporary accommodation and then into a wee cottage where it took nearly 2 months to get (very slow) broadband connected (although, on the plus side, we have open fires in every room, a garden full of birds, the perfect length of cycle commute and horses coming to say hello whenever we step out the back door, which is fabulous). Both Frood and I have been very busy in our enforced absence from the Virtual World. He has been looking for work and I have been getting to grips with a new territory and new responsibilities.
People kept saying to me: “I suppose you don’t realise how much you rely on the internet.” Oh, I did. I so, so did. At the time our internet went live I had been without a home internet connection since October last year. It has been frustrating, to say the least. On the other hand, it has given me the space to concentrate on other things and I suspect the experience will change my future internet usage. For the better. I know which things I missed the most and which I didn’t miss as much as I expected (cough FACEBOOK cough).
On the writing front I’ve already made more submissions this year than I have in the last two and am now a member of Lemon Tree Writers, which is proving most interesting. Frood and I are also hard at work on a comic that will allow us to pool our creative silliness into something we hope others will enjoy reading as much as we’re enjoying the process of putting it together.
In March we attended Hi-Ex, which was a great hoot, and definitely going on the repeat list for next year. Many thanks to Vicky and Richmond for putting on a great event and to all the guests for donating their time and effort.
I’m taking another year off triathlon, primarily for financial reasons. It’s an expensive sport, once you figure in the gym membership and travel expenses, and as I’m still working on getting my run fitness back, there’s no point investing in the rest until I’m sure I’m going to be able to complete a race distance. That doesn’t mean I’m sitting on my backside, though. This year’s Dumb Run has been swapped out for an away match. We are doing Edinburgh to Aberdeen instead, with an epilogue of Pirate Adventure Golf and, potentially, GoApe!.
I think that’s enough of a summary for the meantime. Hopefully entries will go back to being at least semi-regular from now on. I’ll leave you with a photo of a badger we took at the gallery in Inverness while we were up for Hi-Ex. We felt very sorry for this badger, who was probably a very respectable, fairly conservative mustelid while alive, and had been permanently fixed by the taxidermist in a position that can only be described as “provocative”:
I had hoped to be blogging rather more regularly by now. Unfortunately we’re still not properly settled in Aberdeen, and currently working with intermittent access to the internet. I’m busy with the new job and various writing projects, trying to squeeze the words in between work, food and sleep. My hypergraphia, which trundles along for most of the year but usually goes for broke in November/December, was a month late this year, and I’ve been frantically scribbling things I can’t use since just before Christmas. It does get in the way.
Both Frood and I will be attending Hi-Ex in Inverness at the end of March, seeing as how it’s practically just up the road. If any fellow writers/artists/comic fans/circumstantial-cyclists want to say hi, he’s the one with the beard and I’m the one with the black right eye and the Pictish tattoo. We’d love to meet you.