Posts in Category: review

Sans Soleil

Last night I watched Sans Soleil with Jenny. For a film essay on the nature of memory I think it appropriate that I remember little of its contents. This is 100 minutes of montage supposedly filmed by the cinematographer who’s letters are being read by a detached female narrator. 

A day later I can only summon the repeated images of white cat statues found in a Japanese Shinto shrine and a second image of a woman in a Cape Verde market place. She wore a blue vest and peered into the camera.

I shall watch this again soon to make my impressions concrete. I am reminded of William Gibson’s 1992 digital poem Agrippa (a book of the dead). Something else to experience again and to meditate upon. Both are essays on memory that avoid a limitation written literature generally imposes on this subject. Words permanently inscribed on a page can be more readily scanned in an order free from the clock imposed by the forward momentum of frames or deletion. Agrippa and Sans Soleil ask you to forget.

Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island.


The whole of Africa is in turmoil., refugees from the continent are fleeing to anywhere they can force a landing. In their millions.

In England the trickle of refugees looking for a home, for safety, becomes a flood. Soon the South of England is overrun Towns succumb to mob rule, pitched battles are fought over houses. The refugees gather together a government, an army and soon the Afrims are in negotiations with the British Government. Compromise is reached, promises are made. And broken.

And through these chaotic days, as extremists vie for control, as violence flares and society collapses, one man tells his story.

Alan Whitman has lost his job, his home, his family, everything. He is a desperate man…

This is a curious book. The edition that I read is a revised edition of a book first published in 1972. Fugue for a Darkening Island posses a curious atemporality because while the book has been revised to make Christopher Priest’s intended neutrality more explicit the general attitude and details of the society depicted haven’t. The cover copy refers to the book as being a “classic catastrophe novel” and I read it as part of the same tradition that books by John Wyndham, although harder and generally of a less conservative and hopeful character. And while it is less cosey than other catastrophe novels there’s still some restraint that slows the books down so that actually the book becomes boring.

Not badly written or unreadable, just boring.

There are violent set pieces and scenes of domestic breakdown caused by both the crisis and Alan Whitman’s own emotional immaturity, and taken individually these scenes do excite and hold interest. Like I said, this isn’t a badly written book. But there’s a lot of bumbling around the south of England and all the standard problems found in a catastrophe are all present. We are shown there is a genuine lack of shelter (except the book does, for a short while, turn into a typical British camping holiday), security, and a place to go for a pint and read the newspaper. However this is a two hundred page novel and I’m quite sure that if this was compressed into a novella of half its length with all the fat and faffing cut I might not have drifted off into periods of profound boredom.

One final problem is that the novels end is fatally obvious and very Daily Mail. But Fugue for a Darkening Island is curious and I’m not sure if this is a deliberate dissonant effect intended by Christopher Priest. Not sure because while Fugue for a Darkening Island demonstrates a complex attitude towards extreme immigration issues, with Alan Whiteman being a tolerant liberal at the start of the novel, by the end of the novel we are left with a text that demonstrates Africans are always cruel savages and that white Anglo-Saxon little Englanders are decent people.

All I’m going to say is white people rape and kill women too.

So there’s Fugue for a Darkening Island. It’s a problematic book and I haven’t even begun to explore the issues raised by this being a revised edition of a forty year old book. That might be an issue not worth starting as unwrapping the past from the present is a notoriously difficult task and in a book like Fugue for a Darkening Island is rife with double arguments that leave us with no firm answers. Maybe all I can say on this issue is that I think I’d rather have read the text unrevised from the original 1972 edition.

This is a boring, yet curious, book. A dull catastrophe that in places seems close to the way thing are or would be, and in other places seems like the rantings found in the Daily Express/Mail letters page. Not bad, but also not good.

Alt Fiction 2011

Alt Fiction is the cutest SF convention that I’ve visited in the country. (Mind you, I wasn’t at the Sonic event this weekend. A friend was. His write up made that fandom sound fun.) It’s a less shabby event than the two other SF conventions I’ve been to. Both Novacon and Eastercon borrow their atmosphere from an air raid shelter.

Unlike those other two conventions, Alt Fiction has natural light, fresh air and the outside world is easily accessible. It also felt like I was allowed to be a guest there instead of an unwanted hairy young invader smuggling in illicit literary fiction inside my satchel past fandom’s griffins.

Can’t remember much of the weekend. Did I end up on a podcast? No idea. Did I go to some actual panels? I think so. Was I irritated by them? Not really. I remember talking to a lot of friendly people as well.

The only source of hate this weekend was Derby’s illogical road network. And I can’t really count that against Alt. Fiction, can I?

Old Habits


What I want are a games that I can play for a little while and then put down so I can go away to do other things. I don’t want any narrative, I have books for that. All I want is pure gameplay. I found the answer back in 2004 and really should try to avoid forgetting this. Rob mentioned Ikaruga at a BBQ on Sunday. In doing that he reminded me that I’m not so secretly in love with the games Kenta Cho puts out on his website ABA Games.

The short description provided on each the webpage for a selection of his games tells you most of what you need to know.

Abstract shootem up game, ‘Noiz2sa’.

Speed! More speed!

Speeding ship sailing through barrage, Torus Trooper’.

Strike down super high-velocity swooping insects.

Fixed shooter in the good old days, ‘Titanion’.

Defeat autocreated huge battleships. Shootem up game, ‘rRootage’.

And my favourite:

Defeat retro enemies modenly.

Retromodern hispeed shmup, ‘PARSEC47′.

These games are almost perfect because they each have a single purpose. Most of Kenta Cho’s games are variations on the 2D shoot-em-up but with a different gameplay twists. The graphics are kept abstract. Everything is minimal: the music, the instructions, the content, the file size. Most of the games have some randomly generated levels, but also these games have highly attractive endless modes where you play until it’s game over. (This helps keeps each individual session short.) All you can do with these games is play them to improve your high score. There is no creative thought involved, only reflex twitching.

Now excuse me because until the hammering stops from next door I’m going to play some Parsec47.

A Few Thoughts on Inception


Inception when watched on DVD at home is an entertaining waste of time. The film is purportedly about dreams and to that end most of what is shown is there to provoke the audience into asking questions about the film’s reality. This is a film that fits into the small trend of films released around the millennium that questioned the nature of reality. There was, of course, The Matrix, a film sold on its supposed intellectual qualities as much as it was sold on the then ground breaking special effects. Rather happily, for me at rate, Inception is a better and smarter film than The Matrix.

Also unlike The Matrix, Inception is a film that remembers that science fiction is often a parasite genre which latches onto the structural forms of other genre to convey its message. Inception may be a film about dream worlds but it owes far more to the heist film than any pure idea of science fiction. It isn’t too hard to imagine some future sequel to Ocean’s Eleven about putting incriminating documents inside a sealed bank vault and all that separates that imaginary film from Inception is a change of scenery and explanatory dialogue.

Still Inception isn’t a cynical film which assumes the audience are stupid. While Inception lacks any intellectual depth this might be excused because it is about dreams and the surface detail is all that counts. And Inception is an enjoyable two hours of surface detail.

Merchants of Extraordinary Tea & Coffee

This shop fills in one of Leicester’s missing pieces. For a long time Leicester lacked a place that sold a wide range of good quality loose tea and coffee. Until St. Martin’s opened in St. Martin’s Square just off Silver Street in Leicester there were a few places that sold tea & coffee along side other things. However this is a small shop dedicated to selling just tea and coffee tea along with all the paraphernalia to make yourself a decent brew at home. This is an improvement on the previous rather sorry situation for caffeine addicts within the city.

On my desk, in between all the empty mugs, I have a list of their current coffee stock for the month. It runs to five sides of printed A4 with a paragraph or so for each coffee with geographic and tasting information. I am tempted by the Algerian Special blend which combines Colombian and Mexican beans for what is described as having a “strong smooth flavour” and “One of our favourite blends, this is just lovely.” The Kenya Peaberry also looks interesting. After my brief conversation with the owner earlier it is clear they are a coffee aficionado. This is a good thing!

As well as being able to buy the beans they also sell drinks to take away or drink either in the small annex at the back of the shop or outside on chairs. Their drinks cost more than Starbucks or their high street competitors, but this isn’t a shop I think intends to compete with those places. Consider St. Martin’s to be equivalent to the wine & spirit merchants you sometimes find that have a small bar area. It costs more, but tastes substantially better than the alternatives.

The Secret War on Terror


Whenever I start to feel that the standard of programs broadcast by the BBC is declining I do often find myself pleasantly surprised. This has happened twice in the past five days. On Friday evening, quite by accident, I watched and enjoyed a documentary on British blues called “Blues Britannia Can Blue Men Sing the Blues“. I am not going to write about this. It was just another fine example of a music documentary made for BBC4. The second program, broadcast yesterday at 9PM, was the first part of a two part series called “The Secret War on Terror“. In this series journalist Peter Taylor is exploring the use of torture in the intelligence war fought against Al Qaeda in the decade since 9/11.

Much of the information offered in the program for an informed viewer is not new. The use of “enhanced interrogation” methods, including waterboarding, and extraordinary rendition by the CIA and their allies to secret prisons has been well documented over the past ten years. Instead “The Secret War on Terror” makes the skeleton of the documentary a sequence of extracts from interviews conducted by Peter Taylor with key people involved in the gathering and use of intelligence gathered in the war on terror. These are joined together by narrated reconstructions and explanations of the questions presented to the interviewed individuals. Individuals interviewed in this program include former heads of departments in the United States State Department, the CIA and the head of MI5 after 9/11 Baroness Manningham-Buller.

Because Peter Taylor’s interview technique is excellent many interesting reactions to questions arise. By asking the interviewee a direct question or a series of short questions about a single subject and letting the interviewee answer with no interruptions they reveal truth through omission and contradiction. One example of this method at work can be seen when the former head of the CIA is asked a direct question and is forced to answer looking stressed, blinking uncontrollably and searching for an answer. A second example of this is a pair of answers given by Baroness Manningham-Buller and the former president of Pakistan General Parvez Musharraf about British complicity in torture. Their answers contradict each other. General Musharraf states into to the camera that the British Government did not tell him to not torture detainees.

At the end of the first part of this two part documentary we know where Peter Taylor stands on the use of torture, and we know what the opinions of the FBI and MI5 officially are: they are against it. This opinion is never thrust into the program as an agenda. If “The Secret War on Terror” has an agenda I suspect that it is solely to document rather than to change opinion. In the closing remarks of the first part, Peter Taylor does concede that the use of torture has saved lives, and Baroness Manningham-Buller says that security cannot be guarantee and that all terror attacks can not be stopped. In fact it is a delusion to think that they can all be stopped.

“The Secret War on Terror” is good intelligent journalism. It is a model I wish more programs on the BBC would follow. Gather primary sources and present them to us with as little editing as possible. Let journalists have an opinion, make it clear, but never let that dominate the presentation of evidence gathered. There is a difference between a polemic and a documentary. This is a documentary and we need more good documentaries like it.

OpenTTD: Stepping Away


My criteria for a perfect time wasting computer game is quite basic. I want a game that has no ending conditions. A game that as long as the player possesses enough luck and skill can be played forever. What I really like are for games to present me with a pet city/civilisation/organization and let me manage it. On Friday I found that game and it came very close to stealing my life.

The game is OpenTTD. It is an open source remake of the classic PC game Transport Tycoon Deluxe. The premise is straightforward. It’s a capitalism simulation. You are given a random map with a number of unconnected towns and business. You are also given a loan which is also your seed capital. With that loan your job is to build a transport infrastructure with trains, road, shipping and airports at your disposal so you can start moving commodities for other businesses. The ultimate goal, once you’ve paid off your loan, is too maximise your company’s fake bank balance or, as the aficionados would argue, the beauty and pleasure that can be found in developing elaborate networks. Unless you’ve turned on the optional AI opponents or are playing a multi-player game it is all meaningless. Even then OpenTTD has no story to tell you. It’s just an elaborate digital train set.

And this is exactly the sort of thing that’s very dangerous for me to start playing. To even start thinking about playing this game now that I know it exists is risky. Every fake pound of that flows into my company’s coffers is a little psychological boost that says I should play for just five minutes more. I ruined any hope of doing anything useful on Friday and Saturday trying to get to grips with OpenTTD’s complexities. (I’m terrible at raising money. I suspect I lack the patience and natural talent.) I know a bad thing when I see it. I can see an addiction on the horizon. Don’t misunderstand me: this game is good. Too good. If I give any more time to this infernal game I know it’ll consume me. For my own good it’s time to uninstall OpenTTD.

The occasional Xbox game I can manage while still reading and writing. I doubt I can with OpenTTD in my life. What I want is a time waster and not a full blown hobby.

Snow Country

“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop.”

— Opening Paragraph

In Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata we are presented with the story of Shimamura’s escape from Tokyo and his family. He escapes his responsibilities by travelling to a snow covered spa town in the mountains of western Japan. Over the duration of Shimamura’s first visit to the town he has an affair with a local geisha, Komako, who is looking for love and another life. However, Shimamura is also attracted to Yoko, the maid he first saw on the train as he arrived at the town. Shimamura and Komako’s lives and desires are incompatible, and their relationship is destined to fail. From the time that Shimamura returns to the town for a second visit in the autumn they both know this. They still fight it.

The language that Kawabata uses has often been described as haiku like in form. This is an accurate description. What we read here is a series of brief scenes presented in slight but carefully composed images. A style of storytelling which leaves the meaning in the crisp shadows cast by the words given.

Overall this short novel is a fine example of the virtues of brevity. It left me with a feeling the edges of mono no aware. Snow Country is not a book for a reader seeking a neat escape. As the novel closes, Shimamura, Komako and Yoko have been irreversibly changed. How have they changed? We don’t know every detail. We are left only with an ambiguous and open ending. The only knowledge we have is that we have reached the end of the novel’s 121 pages and that we have to close the book even the story is unresolved and closure hasn’t been achieved.

Note: I have employed Western name ordering in this review. The correct order for Yasunari Kawabata’s name is Kawabata Yasunari. Kawabata is the family name.

Outcasts: Episode One

Outcasts, the BBC’s new Monday night science fiction drama, isn’t bad. I’m surprised. Although not too surprised because the series is produced by the same team behind Hustle and Spooks. The basic scenario is a fairly sound foundation for some good drama. It’s 2040 and a group of humans having been living Carpathia for ten years after leaving behind a doomed Earth. There’s a lot of fronter politicking which makes me wonder if this is taking the look and feel of the New Caprica episodes of Battlestar Galactica and trying to do a Deadwood with it.

I doubt this. Although the elements seem to be in place for a narrative of isolated human strife over the right way to run a civilization this is the BBC and this has the label of science fiction attached to it. There have already been hints towards something spooky and strange is going on in the Carpathian wilderness.

Which is a shame, because although some of the dialogue is a bit ropey in places the actor’s they’ve managed to get are making a decent job of it. The special effects aren’t on par with American SF shows, but surely we all know by now that the size of the budge and the amount of special effects has little baring on the quality of the final product. I like the use of a digitally altered South Africa as a backdrop. The fashion and prop design has a nice familiarity to it as well. It looks like that tomorrow I’d be able to go into John Lewis for my alien planet kit.

At this stage of the series, after one episode, many of its problems can be attributed to being a BBC science fiction drama shown at prime time. This series has to work with two distinct audience. In the UK domestic market, it has to appeal to some notion of the average viewer. In foreign markets, by which I really mean the USA, the audience I imagine is intended to be existing fans of British SF or dramas like Battlestar Galactica. Most of the tedious explanation in dialogue of what is happening can be understood to help the less SF literate average viewer along.

There is one final element of Outcasts which I really appreciated. This show is calm. Each thread of the first episodes story contained elements which in other, more SF, programs would have involved shouting and running around. Yes, in Outcasts it appears a kid can be kidnapped and the president threatened by a mad libertarian, but no one is going to get too vexed by this and the situation will be dealt with by careful, rational adults. Maybe the air in Carpathia is full of mild sedatives.

Will I watch tonight’s episode? Sure, I’ll give it a go. I’m interested to see if this turns into low-fi version of Battlestar Galactica’s best moments (the New Caprica episodes) or into a mess no one can agree to like. I hope this turns out well.