Monday 28 May 2012

Roger Waters: The Wall Live – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Roger Waters: The Wall Live, Brisbane Entertainment Centre, 2 February 2012. “I’ve got a big black pig with my poems on.”

Few lovers of speculative fiction would hold anything but affection for progressive rock band Pink Floyd (or, as they were billed in their psychedelic early days, The Pink Floyd). From Syd Barrett’s typically edgy brainchild “Astronomy Domine” through warp-driven and ethereal juggernauts “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, the Floyd were like a hippie’s conception of spaceflight.

(Mind you, one doesn’t have to be stoned to hear echoes of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme materialising in and out across the background of “One of These Days”. Just listen closely. It’s particularly evident in the Delicate Sound of Thunder live recording.)

Moving slightly more towards the mainstream—and very much into the big time—Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, and while this album, with its iconic, dispersive prism cover art, encapsulated much of the band’s cosmic otherworldliness, subsequent releases saw the Floyd drawn slowly yet ever-increasingly towards Roger Waters’ solo compositions and the war-torn diatribes of The Final Cut. Post-Waters Pink Floyd may have upped the ante on fantastic cover art and afforded more compositional room to David Gilmour’s eerie, cavernous guitar (“Sorrow” a notable example), but the split could do nothing to regain or hide what was lost. Occasional solo performances notwithstanding—“Astronomy Domine” and “Set the Controls”, by Gilmour and Waters respectively—the early Floyd spacey-ness can now only just be seen, spinning further and further out of orbit, soon never to be recaptured.

But as time goes on and visual media soars to new and greater heights, Roger Waters has chosen to revisit the other (perhaps even more famous) speculative aspect of the Pink Floyd legacy: his militant and nightmarish, at times Kafkaesque conceptual rock opera (then film and concert stage extravaganza), The Wall.

Of those who discovered Pink Floyd through their epic double LP (and although Pink Floyd did not release many singles during their concept album phase, there are three from The Wall—“Another Brick (Part 2)”; “Comfortably Numb”; “Run Like Hell”—that crop up regularly on radio), many will have thought to themselves, Surely this is part of something bigger? Isn’t there more to this than just music? In equal measure, there will have been those who watched the film of The Wall and thought, Fuck, this is awful! If only it were just music. But as much as fans may love the songs while loathing the relentlessly grinding imagery of the film, The Wall’s most satisfying manifestation probably does lie somewhere in-between. In the 1980–1981 concert productions of The Wall, Roger Waters’ former descent into self-isolation (or lead character Pink’s, to maintain the pretence of fiction) and his subsequent re-emergence through delusion and hallucination, were allowed to play out against a backdrop of Gerald Scarfe’s grotesque animations and marionettes. The animations were projected onto an actual wall, which roadies would construct onstage during the performance, gradually blocking out Waters and the rest of the band from the audience (or vice versa), and at the end of the concert this wall would come crashing down—Phantom of the Opera, eat your heart out—exposing Waters to begin the cycle again.

Which, fast-forwarding to the present day (and with due deference to his one-off performance in Berlin, 1990) Roger Waters is now doing. Five years since previously appearing Down Under—his Dark Side of the Moon tour, which thankfully dispelled any fears raised by a rasping Live 8 outing alongside Dave Gilmour in 2005—Waters revisited the Brisbane Entertainment Centre on 1 February 2012, tickets ranging in price from $100 (binoculars not included) to $400 (proverbial spitting distance). Despite the venue’s reputation for making all music sound like the hammering crash of a thousand sadistic basketballs, Waters’ return was all but sold out to a clamouring throng of Brisbanites. People handed over their bags for inspection on the way in; queued for (pricey) merchandise; consumed alcohol in lieu of watching a non-existent (not even a surrogate) support act…

Then warning chimes; the crowd inching its way forward, like worms; lights down in the auditorium; a half-built wall on stage; a fascist-looking jacket hung in bleak isolation from the coat stand mid-set; faint refrains from the olden day bridging music that links the end of The Wall back to its beginning; then—

With a jolting guitar strike, each chord accompanied by a geysering fire-hydrant burst of sparks, “In the Flesh?” crashes through the quaint almost-silence. The audience gasps. This is The Wall

“So ya / thought ya / might like to / go to the show”

—its opening number a bombastic parody of the performer/audience relationship, rendered even more ironic by the gusto with which it is embraced. A flamboyance of Brisbanite Floydies strain forward in their seats, enraptured to the point of ummagumma’d befuddlement by the two acts of Roger Waters’ magnum opus. (During intermission, at least one person tries to fire up a cigarette using a USB stick instead of a lighter.) And as Waters asks, “Tell me, is something eluding you, sunshine? Is this not what you expected to see?”, the most objective answer must surely be a combination of “yes” and “no”.

The first half of The Wall concert is nothing short of masterful, reflecting not only its greater cohesion—musically, lyrically, conceptually—compared to the second instalment, but also the more astute use of accompanying visual elements. While Roger Waters sings “Mother” in duet with a recording of his younger self, legendary guitarist Snowy White reinvents Dave Gilmour’s solos and the onstage assembly of the giant, eponymous wall proceeds with great finesse, serving both as a counterpoint to the unfolding story and as a screen upon which to project a choreographed maelstrom of images. The music and its multimedia aspect are perfectly integrated throughout the wall’s construction, and as the non-LP overture “The Last Few Bricks” plays (a stirring, sometimes adlibbed fusion of earlier motifs) and Waters gradually disappears from view, eventually bidding the audience “goodbye” (cruel world) and slotting the final brick into place, one cannot help but feel that the show has reached its perfect, natural endpoint. Gerald Scarfe’s giant marionettes of the schoolmaster and wife have been unveiled to great effect. “Empty Spaces” has been restored to its original, unexpurgated form (“What Shall We Do Now?”) as written in the LP’s liner notes and performed for The Wall Live in Berlin. Waters has even taken “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” and added to Snowy White’s closing guitar solo a new, rather sombre verse—call it “Part 2¾”—concerning the 2005 shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in London. Some might dispute this coda’s relevance to The Wall’s original premise, but such a quibble is nothing when measured against the overall effect—“to feel the warm thrill of confusion / that space cadet glow.” Simply put, the show has reached its zenith by intermission. The audience can go home happy.

Only they don’t, of course. There’s half a concert to go, and although this includes “The Show Must Go On” (with original opening verse restored) and familiar hits “Comfortably Numb” and “Run Like Hell”, sadly these (and others) make for little more than a protracted dénouement. By the time the bricks crumble down and Waters and Company take their bow in a revamped, more upbeat rendition of “Outside the Wall”, much of the early magic has been frittered away.

The second half of The Wall concert fails on several levels, stemming in large part from a dearth of musical structure. For all its highpoints—and there are plenty—part two of The Wall has always been something of a hodgepodge, lacking the progressive continuity of the song cycle that preceded it (only “Mother” sticks out in part one, and with the belated advent of “Another Brick Part 2¾”, Waters has now smoothed over some of those cracks). Ipso facto, the disjointed nature of Waters’ (or Pink’s) re-emergence from behind the wall is exacerbated by the first two songs (“Hey You” and “Is There Anybody Out There?”) being performed almost entirely from behind the wall. With none of its musicians in sight, the show becomes (as doubtlessly intended) little more than a film viewed from far away; and even when Waters returns to stage, there follows a tricky, quiet/loud medley where his voice—which at age 68 carries remarkably well, though more so when required to project powerfully—first struggles with the heartfelt, downbeat quiet of “Nobody Home” and “Vera”, then has its strident entreaties drowned out almost entirely by the triumphant military fanfare of “Bring the Boys Back Home”. When Waters, true to script, then swaps his normal stage attire (black jeans and short-sleeve shirt, white sneakers) for the fascist jacket and sunglasses of “General” Waters, the show loses most of its concert aspect, and puffs up instead with empty dramatics. “Waiting for the Worms” is particularly disappointing in this regard, while “The Trial”, which is a highlight of the studio recording, has its many voices performed pseudo-in-character by Waters, and relies heavily on screened images from the film version of The Wall. In fact, by this point it has become manifest that the visual aspect of The Wall concert is no longer there just to complement the performance. With the completion of the on-stage wall, it has become the performance, and although this, too, must in some way be the point that Waters wanted to make, nevertheless the music has been lost.

Part of Roger Waters’ original conception of The Wall was for it “to make comparisons between rock and roll concerts and war”[1]—a somewhat tenuous link, one might think, but one that is realised when Pink’s psychoses—all of which stem (in one way or another) from Waters, as a five month old, growing up having lost his father to World War Two—are twisted like narrative barbed wire around Waters’ real-life estrangement from audience members on Pink Floyd’s In The Flesh tour of 1977. The overt link from concerts to war is made through Pink’s hallucinogenic transformation across “In the Flesh”, “Run Like Hell” and “Waiting For the Worms”, yet one cannot help but feel that Waters has built his new Wall concert across slightly different terrain.

In calling on fans to submit photographs of family members killed during war,[2] and in projecting these images onto his wall, Waters seems, if anything, to be advancing the rock and roll concert as a unifying vehicle through which to decry and protest against—intrinsically, to distance oneself from—war. Indeed, if one may draw inference from the multimedia bombardment that assails the audience throughout the course of The Wall Live, Waters’ position appears to be that religious differences constitute a wall that separates and isolates people, and that, really, everyone is united by the shared abuse of having their Machiavellian and profit-driven governments send loved ones off to die in senseless fighting. The Brisbane crowd embraces his stance, but such is their love and nostalgia for Waters, Pink Floyd and The Wall, it is unclear whether they do so through sincere belief, or merely through suggestibility or even just the faint, naughty thrill of subversion.

Having secluded himself for most of the 1990s (to compose his opera, Ça Ira), Roger Waters emerged in the new millennium as something of an activist—particularly with regard to the Middle East—and has since aired (or otherwise presented) his views throughout three world tours. Nobody can criticise Waters for having and sharing his beliefs, or even for backing them with the currency of his rock star renown (after all, John Lennon did it), but it does seem a little sad—tawdry, almost—that Waters has chosen to give peace a chance while sitting astride his canon of early works. A musician and lyricist of his calibre, one feels, should be performing a new concept album; a new concert; he should be gathering up the occasional, cast-adrift compositions of the last decade (“To Kill the Child”, “Hello (I Love You)”, the sublime “Each Small Candle”) and uniting them with new material to genuinely put across his point of view, untainted by the decomposition of older songs. Would the crowd still respond with unbridled fervour? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But at least there would be a frankness to the new creation, rather than the Frankensteinishness inherent in Waters having sewn together his message from the disinterred and dusted-off corpus of The Wall.

These misgivings aside—and they should not be blown out of proportion—it must still be recognised that The Wall Live is an audacious and innovative, wholly immersive, spectacularly revamped exemplar of rock and roll theatre, and whereas the original Pink Floyd production was limited (to 31 performances) by the sheer expense of putting it together and taking it on the road,[3] Waters seemingly has brushed aside these difficulties, embarking on an epic, world-spanning tour that opened in September 2010 and is currently scheduled to continue until July 2012.[4] To the many Pink Floyd fans who missed The Wall tour of 1980/1981, Waters’ re-launching of the concert is an unexpected godsend, and even for those who hark back to the early days of The Pink Floyd, the ghostly rendition of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)”, with spectral, red waves rolling across the wall, above and around, even below the stage, making it seem like Waters and Company are standing aboard an open spaceship in flight, well, this feels like the culmination of a journey—a trip, even, sans Syd Barrett’s LSD—that started out with a dawning sense of wonder but clouded over and was broken off those many years ago.

1. Roger Waters, interviewed by Mick Brown and Kurt Loder, “Behind Pink Floyd’s Wall”, Rolling Stone 16 (September 1982), quoted in Nicholas Schaffner, Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1992), p. 10.


3. Roger Waters and Nick Mason, interviewed by Charlie Kendall, “Shades of Pink—the Definitive Pink Floyd Profile”, The Source (1984). [–gilmour-waters-mason-wright-shades.html]


Friday 25 May 2012

Supernatural, Season 6 – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

It took Sky Living a long time to get around to showing Supernatural, Season 6, and once they had it took me a little while to get around to watching it. The conclusion to season five felt like such a natural place to end the programme—series creator Eric Kripke left at that point, after tying up many long-running storylines—that I wasn’t in a hurry to see it start up again. But this season hasn’t been the pale imitation I expected, nor has it unpicked old storylines to rehash them, it’s done what almost every season of Supernatural so far has done, providing a significant new chapter in its heroes’ lives, while never letting the story arc get in the way of a good scare or a funny joke.

The series kicks off with Dean in in cohabitational bliss with his off-on-off girlfriend and the boy who might well be his son. But he wasn’t made for that kind of life, not while there are still monsters out there, and once Sam turns up again the two of them are soon back on the road. The first twist that keeps this season fresh is that Sam’s not the nice guy he used to be. He’s been pulled out of the cage in which they trapped the villains of season five, but something important was left behind. Now he’s sleeping with prostitutes, letting people get bitten by vampires and willing to sacrifice his best friends to achieve his goals.

Lacking a soul has its advantages. He’s fearless and heartless, and that often gives him the upper hand in negotiations; we see him facing down a goddess at one point. In episode nine, the old Sam would have worried about his missing brother; this Sam relaxes with a pretty hippy. But it inevitably leads to conflict between the brothers—not least because this Sam doesn’t want to make way for the old Sam. When he does get his soul back, a bit sooner than you might have expected, that adds a new wrinkle to the season, in that the brothers now find themselves running into trouble kicked up by Sam during his lost year (in the company of their resurrected grandad, played by Mitch Pileggi, who Dean previously met while time-travelling in season four).

The background to all of this is the aftermath of season five: a war in heaven between those who’d still like to get the apocalypse rolling and those, led by Castiel, who are rather happy with the way things turned out. The situation down below is equally in flux, with Eve, ancestral mother of all demons, returning to our world, and the new lord of hell (an old friend of the boys) looking for purgatory in a bid to get his hands on all those lost souls.

One of Supernatural’s strengths is its rich cast of supporting characters—as well as its tendency to kill them off. Episode eleven, for example, pulls in Bobby, Tessa the reaper, Death (his previous appearance was so good it was only a matter of time before he returned), and Balthazar the rogue angel. Conversely, its tiny core cast means no one is ever in a story unless they are needed—contrast with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, an often excellent programme whose second and final season was hamstrung by the need to check in with dull characters whose storylines advanced more slowly than a glacier.

Supernatural remains as imaginative as ever—for example episode fifteen, “The French Mistake”, brings the brothers into our world, taking the place and the lives of the actors who play them (I appreciated that the episode established that there are no gods, demons or magic in our world), or episode twenty’s vision of hell as an endless queue. There was the occasional let-down. “Let It Bleed”, the H.P. Lovecraft episode, did very little to capitalise on the story possibilities that name conjures. And the final episode of the season, spent largely in Sam’s head as he tries to re-absorb the pieces of his fractured psyche, frustrates when we’ve seen such stories so often before, and there are such massive events occurring in the world outside. The finale also felt pressed for money: the approaching stamps of huge feet turn out to herald just another flock of flying demons. However, the last five minutes of that episode redeem it utterly, as a good friend takes a bad, bad step.

I hope Sky Living don’t take too long to start showing season seven, because I’ve rarely been so keen to find out what happens next in Supernatural. It’s a good programme with many excellent moments, reliably enjoyable, and still the closest thing we have to a Hellblazer television series.

Monday 21 May 2012

Chronicle – reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Chronicle, Josh Trank (dir.). Suppressed rage + newly acquired super powers = compelling story.

The found footage technique has emerged as a highly effective strategy for genre films. The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007) were masterpieces of minimalism that broke new ground in horror. Cloverfield (2008) brought the technique to science fiction by creating a disturbingly realistic alien invasion. Chronicle continues the found footage winning streak as a psychologically rich and culturally relevant urban fantasy.

Protagonist Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) wants to get “all of it” (i.e. his troubled life) on film. Burdened by an alcoholic father and a dying mother, Andrew submits to the verbal and physical abuse that streams from his father, his classmates, and seemingly anyone who crosses his path.

Then Andrew, his philosopher-quoting cousin Matt, and his charismatic classmate Steve happen upon telekinetic powers. Whereas Matt and Steve are content with using the power for pranks and harmless fun, Andrew, whose calm exterior belies his suppressed rage, feels the need to transcend the games. Conflict broils between the three friends. Andrew, unable to balance his newly acquired powers with the dysfunction of his home life, develops a fixation on the “apex predator”. “You do not feel guilty when you squash a fly,” he tells the camera. “And I think that means something.” What starts as levitating Lego pieces escalates until it culminates in full-scale destruction on the streets of Seattle.

Unlike the standard shallow superhero film, Chronicle dares to explore the impact of a troubled childhood on one’s development. It is also a commentary on the potentially catastrophic effects of contemporary technology and its tendency to impede social development. One might even argue that the mysterious source of the kids’ power symbolizes technology. The film shows the spectrum of technological possibilities, ranging from humour (e.g., making a teddy bear float down from a store shelf to frighten a girl) to violence (e.g., forcing a vehicle off the road). Note that when Andrew does this latter example, he maintains a calm demeanour, and simply swipes his hand, as if exploring an iPad.

The film offers much more than special effects. In one goofy, yet charming scene, Matt (Alex Russell) captures the aloofness toward which today’s teen strives. Avoiding eye contact with the girl he likes, Matt repeatedly checks his phone, and pretends to be interested in something across the street, all while attempting to tell her his feelings.

The found footage strategy always begs a question: is it realistic that the character(s) would film all of this? In the case of Andrew, the answer is “yes”. At one point, Matt questions Andrew’s use of the camera, calling it a “barrier”. Andrew responds, “Maybe I want a barrier.” Moreover, Andrew uses his power to break free of found footage restrictions by levitating the camera and filming himself. The fluctuating camera angle reflects Andrew’s sometimes elevated, sometimes denigrating self-perception.

Although a couple of its scenes could be cut, Chronicle offers something for those who like “talk movies” and for those who prefer mayhem and destruction. There is no ticking time bomb (unless you count Andrew) or treasure hunt, but the characters are developed enough to keep the viewer engaged. Toward the film’s end, there is an image of Andrew that rivals in timelessness the iconic image of a blood-covered Carrie White shrouded in flames.

Friday 18 May 2012

Falling Skies, Season 1 – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

In my review of the Falling Skies graphic novel I said I didn’t plan to watch the programme, but the summer television drought left me high and dry, and reading my review after publication, I thought it seemed a bit unfair. A programme about the aftermath of an alien invasion, and I wasn’t going to watch a single episode? I could hear my ten-year-old self screaming at me from the wastelands of eighties television. (Dunno what he was complaining about—I let him watch a series and a half of the new V.) Ultimately, I didn’t love Falling Skies, Season 1, but I did enjoy it much more than expected. I’d have been very disappointed if a second season hadn’t been forthcoming.

Episode one throws the viewer straight into the action, running to keep up as the surviving humans, including Tom Mason and his sons, evacuate what’s left of Boston and form a makeshift army. In my review of the comic, I complained that it didn’t seem to open up many story possibilities, but the first episode takes care of that, showing this handful of civilians as part of a larger effort; this is a war, with hundreds of people on the move, small groups being sent out on sorties, and an invading force of spider-like skitters and robot soldiers—who don’t actually care too much about hunting down the surviving humans; they’re mostly content to leave traps and set ambushes.

One thing I very much liked about the first episode was that the lead was a history professor, and one whose special interest was military history. To me this promised a strategic, tactical war against the occupiers, drawing on our world’s long, proud history of war, and I was a little disappointed at how rarely this came into play as the series progressed: he’s less a source of tactical wisdom, more a source of ethics and conscience. He ends up being the one who always has to be told (usually by Captain Dan Weaver, played by Will Patton), you want to do the right thing, but we need a plan first.

Mason is often terribly—and disappointingly—naive in his approach. In episode two he experiences the problem with taking family members on a military patrol (though you’d think it a lesson few would need)—unable to walk away when one is captured, he is forced to hand over their weapons and the whole team is put in jeopardy. And he doesn’t learn the lesson even then, and takes his son and his son’s girlfriend out on a mission with him again. If he was here he’d probably tell me that it’s good to care about every member of your team, but it’s no way to run a guerilla war.

Other elements of the programme that left me a little underwhelmed included a series of mawkish special moments with a girl whose Christian faith has stayed strong through the invasion, the brilliant Steven Weber sticking around for fewer episodes than I’d have liked, the tendency of black characters to come a cropper, and a lovable rogue who used to lead a gang of rapists. Joe Cornish’s gun rule (last man to draw a gun wins the situation, regardless of how many other guns are already pointed at his allies) comes into play in episode eight, but that’s something I’ve almost come to enjoy.

On the other hand, there was much that was good: the queer sense of revulsion upon seeing that skitters are affectionate towards the harnessed children; the moment when a school pupil wonders why the multi-legged skitters would create bipedal robots; the sense that we are watching a big story unfold. Making notes for this review after watching episode three, I felt sure there had been a mistake—surely that was episode nine or ten, given how much had already happened?

It is also a programme full of interesting faces, not least those of the leads. Moon Bloodgood, playing Anne Glass, a pediatrican learning to cope with alien autopsies and battlefield wounds, is very beautiful, but it’s played down—this isn’t the kind of apocalypse where make-up remains a priority; similarly, Noah Wyle is as ever impossibly handsome, but his face is always dirty, his beard scruffy, his eyes full of pain. Both play intelligent characters; both convince in that regard. It makes a nice change, given that US shows tend to cast quite bland-looking lead actors. And beards don’t half look fantastic in HD.

Overall, not a knockout first series, but much more original than I expected. How many drama programmes—genre or not—have shown a fictional war from start to finish? The stomping robotic soldiers beg comparison with Battlestar Galactica, especially the episodes set on New Caprica. That’s a comparison with which any programme would struggle, but so far this is a much cosier catastrophe than the Cylon occupation; one in which there are still a few minutes spare for skateboarding. That isn’t a bad thing: BSG could be pretty gruelling. More tactics and mysteries, less soap and stupidity, and this could be a programme to reckon with.

Unofficial list of material that's eligible for fantasy awards in 2013

If anyone would like to contribute to a completely and utterly unofficial list of 2012 material that might be eligible for fantasy awards in 2013, here you go:

Fill in the form

And it'll appear on the list.

Doesn't matter if you're a member of any particular society or a convention goer, or if it's your own work, or something you published, or anything like that. Do try to suggest things that you think are good, though!

Note that this is completely unofficial and not even slightly endorsed by any particular organisation.

If you spot a mistake or a miscategorisation on the list, point it out using the "Correct something" option on the form.

I hope this'll end up producing quite a useful list of relevant 2012 releases, but if not it'll at least be handy for me. Already had a few contributions to the list, and been spurred to think of a few myself.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Bricks by Leon Jenner – reviewed by John Greenwood

How to review a book that is categorised by its publisher as fiction ("All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental") but which refutes its own fictitiousness?
I hope you listen and do not see them [the words in the book] as entertainment. They are true. This is not fiction, even if they make me sell it as such.
To confuse matters further, the only two named characters in the book are historical persons, Julius Caesar and Paulinus, although the accounts of their struggles against the Celts of Britain are indeed highly fictionalised. Moreover, the novel, if it is such, contains two lengthy appendices full of historical source material and philosophical discussion. The reader will find very little descriptive narrative here, apart from a few chapters in the middle which rewrite the Roman invasions of Britain as a triumphant victory for the indigenous people.

Several reviewers have suggested that there is a deliberate ambiguity here. Should we see the book as the delusional musings of an unreliable narrator recovering from a lengthy period of depression? But this is no self-referential po-mo game  - there is no ironic subtext behind the sermonising. No, I believe that Bricks an earnest attempt to write a philosophical novel in the style of Thus Spake Zarathustra or News from Nowhere.

The thesis of Bricks is as follows: pre-Roman Britain was a pre-lapsarian paradise inhabited by a morally superior, democratic and wise indigenous hunter-gathering people who lived in blissful harmony with the sacred landscape of Britain, and whom later historians called the Celts. The druids are magical immortals who lived alongside the Celts and sometimes inhabited their bodies. Then the Romans came, and with them the Roman mindset of conquest and acquisition, which set in train the development of modern civilisation: scientific discovery, agriculture, towns, institutions, all of which have caused immense harm, and caused the people of Britain to forget their true spiritual natures. The druids still dwell amongst us, disguised as builders, trying to guide us back to the right path, among whose number the narrator counts himself.

Historically speaking, this is all of course nonsense. The book also regurgitates every scrap of new age folderol you can think of. Craftsmanship is good, mass production bad. Science is arrogant in seeking to understand the mysteries of the universe (although String Theory and M-Theory "meet with [his] approval"). Reason is ultimately futile. Children are born wise, the reincarnations of earlier sages. Sex is a form of prayer a la D. H. Lawrence. Women alone possess this magical power of sex with which they can spellbind men. Ley lines of mystical energy criss-cross the land. Folks in olden days had secret magical wisdom which is now lost (but indigenous tribes preserve it). Everybody nowadays worships the God of Economics. Plus there are a few new claims I'd not come across before:
A plant will tell you if it is safe to eat it. Listen properly and it will tell you its deep history and all of its uses.
Every species evolves a certain way, purely as the female chooses.
[Conscious quantum pulses] could be described as a fight between matter and anti-matter, with anti-matter gradually gaining the upper hand. So we age and as a result must die.
If you want proof of our [the druids'] return, just look at the behaviour of animals, notably the fox. Have you noticed they are getting bolder?
Oddly, and rather at odds with all this mysticism and pseudoscience, there is elsewhere a flavour of Daily Mail online comment threads:
Don't you see that political correctness paves the way for the next Hitler?
Those [thugs] who want to hurt you by taunt or violence or damage to the things you need and cherish. Do not see them as human...Pre-emption is the best defence, and from this high order I can tell you that you can bash'em. Do this without conversation. Just hit and hit and hit. Believe me, it feels good...
If you're not convinced by this portrait of the pre-Roman Britons as the source of all human goodness, the long appendices reproduce contemporary accounts of the superstitions and brutality of Celtic customs: human sacrifice, torture of widows, sons forbidden to see their fathers in public until they are of fighting age, druidic excommunication, slaves and servants immured on their masters' funeral pyres. While Jenner is right to point out that most of these accounts from the viewpoint of the Romans, and therefore subject to bias and possibly even propaganda, what are we to make of their inclusion? Although the appendices begin in an appropriately dry, academic way, the author cannot help but continue the book's rambling, patronising monologue in much the same voice as before. This is one reason I think we are entitled to see the book not as merely fiction (although the jacket blurb tries hard to frame it all in that context, possibly a belated rescue attempt) but as a political programme, however outlandish:
[Celtic Britain] was a society that may in effect be the model of an advanced society of the future, existing without a nation state, yet able to defend itself.
Well frankly, no. I'll take antibiotics, the rule of law and the welfare state over woad, a ruling priestly caste and semi-starvation, thanks.

The whole thing is a muddle, but thankfully not too long. The philosophical thesis is bonkers. The tone lurches from condescension, through turgid intellectual histories (a long account of the conflict between materialism and idealism is particularly obtuse), to whinging. One of the bricklayer narrator's gripes (apart from the decay of humanity), is that his employers don't pay him enough, or make his tea too weak. In some instances, he is not even offered tea. "Aaargh!" is his despairing cry.

There are a few well-written and interesting paragraphs. The military campaigns are described with a certain brio and immediacy, but ultimately fails to engage because of the lack of any real characters of dialogue, and the drama constantly interrupted by exposition, cod philosophy and ponderous verse. I did like a few lines at the very end exploring the etymology of the word "coombe". Of ancient words still in use, the author writes:
Seemingly so perfect that, like a shark or a crocodile they have flowed through time without much of the friction of evolution.
Published by Coronet, a recently revived imprint of Hodder and Stoughton, Bricks is beautifully produced with a lovely cover by Jorn Kaspuhl and equally attractive illustrations inside. Having looked at some of the other books on Coronet's list (a lot of Chris Ryan SAS thrillers and books about how angels can help you), it's clear that the parent company are not pushing Coronet as a home of highbrow literature, but they are a major publisher, which makes Bricks all the stranger. I work at a charity bookshop, and from time to time we get donations of self-published books. Often (not always) these are flakey conspiracy theories, extreme right-wing political diatribes, new age mysticism or dreary heroic fantasy. Bricks combines all of these, and were it not for the rumoured 250,000 people who downloaded it as an audiobook before print publication (a frightening enough thought in itself), I would have been astonished that anybody at Hodder thought this worth investing in.

Bricks by Leon Jenner. Published by Coronet, 2011. ISBN 9781444706284, RRP £12.99, Hardback, 136pp.

Monday 14 May 2012

The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories, by Dr Seuss – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories, by Dr Seuss (HarperCollins, hb, 72pp). Left foot, left foot, left foot, right, feet in mourning, feat in spite. Few people who have grown up to read (or write) speculative fiction will have done so without a childhood encounter or two with author/illustrator Theodor Geisel—alias Theo LeSieg or, more famously, Dr Seuss. In fact, so iconic are Geisel’s surrealist drawings and rhyming verse that ever since his death in 1991 the children’s book industry seems to have placed an indefinite moratorium on any work even remotely imitative. It’s as if some publishing god (or perhaps just the Geisel Estate lawyers, who reputedly are as hard-lined as the Yooks and the Zooks of Seuss’s Butter Battle Book) sent out a rhyming memo—something to the effect of:

Enough fuzzy lines and ’apestic tetrameter.
Say, “Tough!” and raise signs against ham-fisted amateurs.
See, there’s but one Seuss—godlike more than a Titan.
Beware, don’t let loose plods who bore with their writin’.
So publish? Be dammed! See that watered-down would-bes
are rubbished and canned where they oughta and should be.
The cat has his hat and no other may try it.
(But bring back the Doc. and, oh brother, they’ll buy it!)

Well, now Dr Seuss is back, with the posthumous publication of “The Bippolo Seed” and six other “lost” stories—lost in this case meaning published in Redbook Magazine from 1950–1951 and not (until now) collected in book form. “Forgotten about” would perhaps be more accurate; or possibly “swept under the rug”—for, although such a tag may not tick the right marketing boxes, there is much about “The Bippolo Seed” et al that hints at a very deliberate policy (at least to this point in time) of shielding these particular tales from re-printing.

“The Bippolo Seed” and its six fellows clearly belong to the text-focussed body of Geisel’s work—McElligot’s Pool (1947); even Green Eggs and Ham (1960)—rather than more visually based books like Oh, the Thinks You Can Think (1975), or such evenly balanced classics as Dr Seuss’s Sleep Book (1962) and The Lorax (1971). Furthermore, parts of the trademark Seuss verse seem cumbersome in Bippolo, particularly in comparison to those later rhymes that were targeted specifically at young readers. These Bippolo Seeds, conversely, are some of Geisel’s earlier works—they are sixty years old!—and however striking and original they must have seemed to Redbook subscribers back in the day, there is a rawness, an unrefinedness to them that cannot help but slightly disappoint those people who grew up spoilt on the subsequent, more polished output of Dr Seuss’s ever-developing pitter-patter.

Which is not to say that this “new” Seuss book is unfinished in any way. The Bippolo Seed is not like Hergé’s Tintin and Alph-Art—a skeletal work in progress; a mere storyboard for an unfinished story. It is, however, a creation that seems to trudge slightly, presenting almost with the forlorn and resigned stoop of one that has come to light only after those that already have superseded it. The titular story, for instance, features a prototype Cat (minus hat) inciting a Sneetch-like duck into making exuberant and escalatingly greedy plans for his Bippolo Seed. It is a cautionary tale, thoroughly Seuss-esque, yet rather old hat, as it were, in light of The Cat in the Hat (1957), The Sneetches (1961), or even “Gertrude McFuzz”—an outing markedly similar to “The Bippolo Seed”, first published in 1951 but already deemed worthy of collation in Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (1958). Moving further into the Bippolo collection, “The Strange Shirt Spot” is almost shameless in its prefiguring of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958), while the longest of the lost stories, “Gustav the Goldfish”, is the acknowledged precursor to A Fish Out of Water (1961)—a more compelling, book-length treatment written by Geisel’s first wife, Helen Palmer, and illustrated by Geisel’s protégé, P.D. Eastman.

Of the other stories collected in The Bippolo Seed, “The Rabbit, the Bear and the Zinniga-Zanniga” is a playful (though sparsely illustrated) lesson in how to fight brawn with brains—predating, obviously, but now reminiscent of Julia Donaldson’s and Axel Scheffler’s The Gruffalo (1999). “Tadd and Todd” is a brief, almost truncated paean to self-expression—yet slightly belaboured in its wordiness, and lacking the vitality of the equally outlandish Ten Apples Up on Top! (1961). “Steak For Supper” is something of a crossover piece, harking back to Geisel’s first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) but at the same time showcasing an early Seuss menagerie of weirdly named and exquisitely rendered creatures—the sort that would feature in On Beyond Zebra (1955) and increasingly as Geisel’s nib tended more towards surrealism. And finally, concluding the sunken treasure-trove of lost tales, “The Great Henry McBride” is a short and simple story of big dreams—a topic that Seuss revisited with considerably more fanfare in 1974 with the Quentin Blake illustrated Great Day for Up!

The writing, the conception of the Bippolo stories, then, is not Dr Seuss at his absolute best, and even the pictures in two of the lost tales—“Gustav the Goldfish” and “The Strange Shirt Spot”—show a distinct blurriness, as if they’ve been taken not from Geisel’s original drawings (lost, then found) but merely reproduced (and apparently over-magnified) direct from the pages of Redbook. This is a shame, for elsewhere there are glimpses of what was to come booming from the illustrative cannon of Dr Seuss: expressively anthropomorphic animal parodies; droopy, fuzzy, feathery creatures; oversized clothes; trippy trees; a remarkable talent for rendering dark night- and water-scapes. Such imagery—the imaginative backdrop against which the real world and unbridled zaniness versed—such was always the triumph of Dr Seuss; and the tragedy, of course, is not that the seven Bippolo stories were lost, or found, but that twenty years have passed since the living hand of Theodor Geisel could have played any part in their restoration.

On the whole, The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories leaves the reader with something of a nostalgic yearning—feeling overjoyed, no doubt, to be in possession of seven Dr Seuss hors d’oeuvres not previously available, yet at the same time feeling strangely over that joy—unsatisfied by these “new” tales and so inspired, as like as not, to shelve them with appropriate reverence, and while doing so to pick out and revisit instead one or two of the more familiar old favourites.

Friday 11 May 2012

Rhysop’s Fables by Rhys Hughes – reviewed (sort of) by Stephen Theaker

Having just finished reading Rhysop’s Fables by Rhys Hughes (Gloomy Seahorse Press, ebook, 2593ll), a squirrel decided to visit his friend the blue whale. He rode on a train, jumped a few fences, and climbed a few trees, and in the time it takes to say as much he was looking his immense friend in the face.

“Good morning,” said the whale.

“Good morning,” said the squirrel.

“Good morning,” said the hundreds of thousands of krill that were trying without success to escape the whale’s baleen plates.

The whale shook his head sadly. (The squirrel gripped the sides of his little sailing nut as it was buffeted by the resulting waves.) “I’m so tired of krill, so tired of water sloshing around my mouth all day. I envy you, squirrel, with your diet of nice dry nuts, I really do.”

“Come stay with me a while then,” said the squirrel. “I’ve plenty of nuts stored away.”

“That sounds wonderful,” said the whale. “A change would be as good as a vest.”

“A vest? Don’t you mean a rest?”

“Have you been in the ocean lately? A good set of thermals is what I really need, but since they aren’t available in my size, a change will have to do.”

The squirrel nodded, and the two of them climbed a few trees, jumped a few fences, and rode on a train. In the time it takes to say as much they were sitting on a branch outside the squirrel’s hole.

The branch immediately broke. The whale fell to the ground and bruised his tail. The squirrel, however, managed to grab onto another branch and saved himself.

¶ The high life isn’t for everyone, especially not blue whales!

The squirrel placed a cold compress upon his friend’s tail.

“You wait here,” he said, “and I’ll go and get the key to my nutty cupboard.”

He scampered up to his little hole, went to his little bed, and slipped a golden key out from under his fluffy little pillow. He carried it down the tree and unlocked the little red door to his nutty cupboard.

The blue whale gasped in amazement. Inside there were one hundred and fifty gorgeous, golden nuts. Some were tiny, some were medium-sized, but all looked blinking delicious.

“Nice, eh?” said the squirrel. “Would you like to try one?”

“Would I?” said the whale. “Of course! Just poke a hole in my baleen and push it in!”

It was the most delicious thing the whale had ever tasted. The squirrel had one too, and then closed and locked the little red door.

For the rest of the day the two of them chatted as old friends will, their conversation covering such topics as politics, the environment, gossip about their mutual friends and enemies, films they had seen and books they had read.

The blue whale liked the sound of Rhysop’s Fables and decided to buy himself a copy, but, that aside, his mind was on just one thing: to eat more of those nuts.

Before long his friend went to bed, and once the whale could hear happy little snores drifting down from the tree top he climbed the tree himself, squeezed into the squirrel’s hole, sneaked over to the squirrel’s little bed, and slipped his hand under the squirrel’s fluffy little pillow.

The golden key! He had it!

When the squirrel awoke he climbed down the tree to see the red door to his nuts wide open, the store obviously depleted, and his friend the whale gingerly holding his tummy. The squirrel was sad.

“I’m sorry,” said the whale. “I ate seventy-four of your nuts, one after the other. I just couldn’t stop pushing your nuts into my mouth. Consuming each one made me want another just like it, and now here we are, our friendship betrayed by my whale-sized greed. I’m so sorry. Will you still be my friend?”

“All you had to do was ask,” said the squirrel. “I should have realised that while one nut was enough for me, it couldn’t possibly be enough for a big fellow like you. As long as you enjoyed them all, that’s the main thing.”

“I did, I did,” said the whale. “Although after fifty or sixty the fun went out of it. It began to feel rather mechanical. Maybe the nuts toward the back of your store aren’t as tasty as those at the front.”

The squirrel took one of the remaining nuts and tried it. “No,” he said. “As lovely as the rest. You just let your palate get jaded, and forgot to take the time to enjoy each individual nut. Having said that, I’ve never eaten so many in one go, and now I’m wondering what it would be like.”

And with that the squirrel and the whale ate the remaining seventy-three nuts, and thoroughly enjoyed them. When the store was empty the whale thrashed his tail a bit, causing eight large nuts to fall from the trees. They enjoyed these as much as the others, but took their time with them.

¶ If you squirrel everything away, you’ll never have a whale of a time. And though nuts, like jokes, wisdom and fables, can be most effective when taken in small quantities, let yourself have the pleasure of gorging on them once in a while.

Your morning cup of what the heck…?

Just received an email from someone offering to write for us:

"The good news is that I'd be able to offer my services at no charge; the only thing I would ask in return is that I'm able to include a link to a company within the article. Nothing adult or in bad taste, just one of the professional businesses for which I freelance."

She was kind enough to provide links to her work, letting us see who took her up on the offer, some of them even publishing the work under their own names (assuming that she's telling the truth).

See if you can spot the paid links…

What a world…!

Tuesday 8 May 2012

A few comments on the shortlist of the British Fantasy Awards 2012

The British Fantasy Award shortlist for 2012 has been announced. It's the product of BFS/FantasyCon members making up to three recommendations in each category (two sets of three in best novel), the top four in each category going through, and the juries then adding up to two "egregious omissions". Here are the nominees and a few of my thoughts. I have to admit I didn't recommend much this year, not having read much contemporary fiction in 2011.

Note that I'm just using that picture to the right because this lot are nominees, not us: we missed out this year!


Two awards will be made out of this one category, one for horror and one for fantasy. As many people have commented on Twitter, it’s an odd set-up, but that’s what most BFS members voted for. The explanation given before the vote was this, and I think the way the new BFS awards admin who inherited the new rules has handled it makes sense. Although the voting was divided into fantasy and horror, all those votes were counted together at the end. So four of these were the books that got the most votes, regardless of genre. Half the novel votes being ringfenced that way for fantasy does seem to have led to a more varied shortlist. The judges added two titles to this category – the books by George R.R. Martin and Jo Walton, I'd guess. I didn't read many novels from 2011 during 2011, but I went for Revenants by Daniel Mills. Though it didn't get in here, I hope it might still have a shot at best newcomer.

  • The Heroes, Joe Abercrombie
  • 11.22.63, Stephen King
  • Cyber Circus, Kim Lakin-Smith
  • A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin
  • The Ritual, Adam Nevill
  • Among Others, Jo Walton


Four nominations from one book! The jury added two titles to this category. I'd guess at Elizabeth Hand and Lavie Tidhar, but I could be completely wrong. I'm reading Gorel now, and it's very good, but haven't read any of the others.

  • Terra Damnata, James Cooper
  • Ghosts with Teeth, Peter Crowther (from A Book of Horrors)
  • Alice Through the Plastic Sheet, Robert Shearman (from A Book of Horrors)
  • Near Zennor, Elizabeth Hand (from A Book of Horrors)
  • The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer, John Ajvide Lindqvist (from A Book of Horrors)
  • Gorel and the Pot Bellied God, Lavie Tidhar


Another two nominations for A Book of Horrors; launching at FantasyCon always stands you in good stead for the BFAs. The jury added one title to this shortlist, but I couldn't guess which. I was expecting at least one story, maybe more, from last year's winner in this category, so I was pleasantly surprised by that. (And, okay, a little disappointed, because I don't like being wrong.)

  • Dermot, Simon Bestwick (from Black Static)
  • King Death, Paul Finch 
  • Sad, Dark Thing, Michael Marshall Smith (from A Book of Horrors)
  • Florrie, Adam Nevill (House of Fear)
  • The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter, Angela Slatter (from A Book of Horrors)


I have to admit, Ranjna and I recommended The Weird – a very, very lengthy book – at least partly out of devilry. But glad to see it’s on there. I haven't read the others.

  • A Book of Horrors, ed. Stephen Jones
  • House of Fear, ed. Jonathan Oliver
  • The Weird, eds Jeff and Ann Vandermeer
  • Gutshot, ed. Conrad Williams


I thought Zombies in New York and Other Bloody Jottings was a definite for this category, so that shows how little I know! I'm disappointed that Cat Valente's Ventriloquism didn't make the list, but I hadn't heard any other BFS members talking about it, so it was a bit of a long shot.

  • Rumours of the Marvellous, Peter Atkins
  • Mrs Midnight, Reggie Oliver
  • Everyone’s Just So So Special, Robert Shearman
  • A Glass of Shadow, Liz Williams


This category has five titles listed because there was a tie on number of votes and first place choices. I'm utterly amazed that no Doctor Who episodes made the shortlist: I thought "The Doctor's Wife", especially, a dead cert, given that Neil Gaiman wrote it and how much he is loved by BFS members. In fact I thought we’d have an all- or near-all Who shortlist. There were fourteen episodes of Who on last year, so maybe the vote got split. We’ll have a better idea when the BFS releases its complete list of everything that was recommended. I’m delighted to see Midnight in Paris on there (which was my pick), and Attack the Block too. I haven’t seen the others yet. Kill List doesn’t look like a fantasy film; but I'm afraid to ask about it in case finding out about the fantasy element turns out to be a spoiler!

  • Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen
  • Attack the Block by Joe Cornish
  • The Awakening by Stephen Volk and Nick Murphy
  • Melancholia by Lars Von Trier
  • Kill List by Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump


That last one is cruel - T, H, E - wait, what, where’s the A-K-E-R?!! Obviously I'm biased here towards the two magazines I've written for (albeit not during 2011), Interzone and Black Static, and hope that one of them wins. I have to admit I know Jeani Rector best from her battles with Dave Byron, but the zine looks to have some decent contributors. I used to love SFX – I bought the first issue the day finals began, and have the first hundred or so in binders. I stopped subscribing after they stopped putting any text on the subscriber covers. Sounds like a little thing, but it made them look so boring. Plus, I could never resist ripping open the spoiler section. In a member vote this would have gone to Black Static, no doubt, but a jury could go any way.


This category has five titles listed because there was a tie on number of votes and first place choices. The Walking Dead was my vote here, but I was kicking myself for not recommending Clint, which had a great year, and Kirby Genesis, which I just love. I've enjoyed what I've read of Locke and Key and the new Animal Man.

  • Animal Man, Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman
  • Batwoman, J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman
  • Locke and Key, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
  • The Unwritten, Mike Carey and Peter Gross
  • The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard


It still seems completely inappropriate to me that the BFS decided to let the sponsors of this category pick the entire jury, but I have to admit they've picked good people. No disrespect to the other contenders, who have all produced interesting stuff, but it’s hard to see anyone but Chômu winning this award, given the quality and quantity of their books.


Nothing to say about this one – all super artists.


This category has five titles listed because there was a tie on number of votes and  first place choices. Generally a very quiet category for recommendations; last year I think the longlist was shorter than the shortlist, though I might be misremembering! Good job no one went for the SF Encyclopedia – I was kicking myself the day after voting for not recommending it – or the jury would have had an awful lot to read. It’s funny how I’m more surprised by the things that I didn’t vote for that didn’t get in, than I am by the things I did vote for that didn’t get in. This looks like a very readable shortlist to me.

  • Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares: A biography of Herbert Van Thal, Johnny Mains
  • Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero, Grant Morrison
  • Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen since the 1960s, Kim Newman
  • Studies in Terror: Landmarks of Horror Cinema, Jonathan Rigby
  • Case Notes, Peter Tennant (from Black Static)

More general thoughts....

Well, it’s a typically BFS shortlist! The focus hasn't broadened that much from previous years - most nominations have still gone to writers and/or publishers who are FantasyCon regulars, to horror, and to men. I don't think those things will change without taking BFS members out of the equation, and we wouldn't want to do that. But it does look like the juries might have been using their powers to balance those things out, which is brilliant.

The absence of much of the small pressier stuff – which led one writer to declare "Order is restored"! – is probably down to there only being four nominees from the membership, instead of five. All those nominations for stories from one book, that was launched at FantasyCon by three BFS stalwarts, look just as cliquey as anything that happened last year. The difference being, I'd imagine, that this book is much better.

Looking at the numbers, the shortlist was produced by 952 recommendations from BFS members across 14 categories (fantasy and horror were listed separately on the recs form), with each person able to give I think up to 38 recs (three in twelve categories, one in each of the two special awards). So 952 recommendations is the equivalent of about 25 people using all their recs in each category.

It's odd to compare that with 2010, where we had 999 votes across twelve categories in the final round, or 2011, where 1248 votes were cast – and in both those cases people could only cast one vote per category, not three.

Membership has apparently soared since then. More members, allowed to cast three times the votes, but actually casting fewer in total – why would that be?

The difference can be explained, I think, by there being a big difference between proffering a recommendation, and voting for something off a list. Most people wouldn’t generally think to recommend something they hadn’t read, but asked to choose from a checklist they’ll draw on whatever knowledge they have about the books to make the best decision they can.

Anyway.... good to know that it comes down now to people actually reading the books. I was always really disappointed in previous years to see BFS members saying they had cast their votes the second the shortlist was announced. If I get time I'd love to work my way through some of the nominees as usual, even if this year it won't make any difference to the results.

Monday 7 May 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – reviewed by Howard Watts

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I enter cautiously, and with some apprehension. The place is a mess. Plates, saucepans, goblets are strewn everywhere—the place looks as though it hasn’t been cleaned for hundreds of years. Cobwebs adorn the corners of the rooms, adding softness. Dirt and dust has gathered in dunes along the edges of the walls, sculpted by the shuffling footfalls of the cursed occupants.

Not a description of one of the many hundreds of locations I’ve found playing Skyrim, unfortunately an embarrassing snapshot of my neglected home, Skyrim having seized my attention like no other game I’ve played before. I’d like to make one thing clear from the beginning of this review: I’m not a huge fan of fantasy games. I prefer a blaster or BFG in my hands as I explore the perfect angular starship passageways of the many SF first/third person shooter games—I even traded Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion following a few minutes of play when I bought my first (now sadly deceased) PS3, due to its low graphic quality. Thankfully (I may regret using that word), Skyrim is a different beast altogether. It’s not as pretty as say the Uncharted or Call of Duty series of games, its colour palette somewhat lacking across the spectrum in comparison, but what Skyrim achieves perfectly is playability, and from that point of view it is unsurpassed—the game is quite simply astonishing.

From the very outset the player is presented with a choice of characters to play as, each exhibiting different characteristics and abilities that will aid progression though Skyrim’s world. I decided to participate as a Nord—a lowly human, somewhat Vikingesque. Once the first trial setting the story off is complete, the player has the whole of Skyrim’s huge world to explore as they see fit. This is what I love about open world games. The player can explore in any direction they choose. So, on Christmas Day, 2011 I began walking the world, and have been doing so every day bar one (today is January 30) since. Skyrim’s game world is incredible in its detail, encompassing all the staples of Fantasy you’d expect. You will stop and just stare at the river meandering through the lush green settlements below your mountainside path, and for a few moments forget your quest. The stacked waterfalls and snowy peaks, forests, glades of wild flowers and frozen shores kissed by packs of miniature islands of ice will have you shaking your head in amazement. You’ll struggle to climb mountainsides, swim against raging rivers as you head for the opposite shore, lest you find yourself at the mercy of jagged rapids and the fall to (perhaps) certain death below. These brief descriptions hardly do justice to the superb visuals the game presents the player, and mention only the exterior of the game world. Once caves, crypts, towns, cities, settlements, castles, shrines and tombs are explored the game really does make you wonder what you could possibly be presented with next…

Dragons come next—or rather form an integral part of the central narrative of the story based missions. Upon killing one, the player absorbs the dragon’s soul, and these can be “spent” against “shouts”, the magical enhancements to assist for the most part combat based play.

To progress though the game the player simply talks to the characters they meet while wandering the world. You’re presented with a choice of questions to ask, and once you decide to assist a character a quest is set in place. These quests are many and varied and can at times overlap and present the player with a moral dilemma. For example, last week I rented a room at a very pleasant inn. I slept for seven hours and expected (as is the norm) to wake and continue with whatever I was up to before sleeping. However, I awoke as a captive of the leader of the Dark Brotherhood. I was presented with a choice by her. There were three bound and hooded captives kneeling before me. I should interrogate each and decide which individual should die, otherwise I would be killed. I interviewed each—deciding two were worthy of my blade, but decided to turn it against my captor. Once she was despatched I released the hooded captives and was presented with a new quest, “Destroy the Dark Brotherhood”. Last month I spent a fortnight as a vampire: as the disease spread I searched for a cure and found a mage, a savioursomeone who could perform a ritual to cure me. However, as the disease matured I discovered I could not enter any civilised settlement without being attacked, including the village where my saviour waited for my return! I had only one option—to feed and remove my blood lust appearance. Only then was I allowed into settlements without being attacked by every inhabitant to collect the ingredients I needed for my cure.

The missions can mount up rapidly; some will be miscellaneous such as delivering a letter, finding a missing relative or retrieving an object, while others are central to the story and assist completion of the game’s core narrative. I’m concentrating on the miscellaneous, as these aid levelling up (I’m currently at level 43 out of 81). Levelling up presents you with myriad aspects of the character’s abilities to improve upon, be they one handed combat, sneaking, lockpicking, spells—the list goes on … But prospective participant, if what I’ve told you so far has you reaching for your wallet, beware. Practically everything in Skyrim can be useful. You can pick up almost any object you encounter—from various species of plants, to cups, saucers, wine bottles, power ups, potions, weapons, apparel. Upon despatching a combatant, you can loot their body for their clothes and weapons. Sometimes you’ll find an object to steer you on another mission, or a weapon that’s far superior to the one you’re carrying. However, the downside of this is you’re limited to the weight you can carry. Some items such as arrows weigh nothing, while others will overload your carry weight capacity, and prohibit you from running. Reduced to a pathetic shuffle, you’re unable to continue so have to either dump items where you stand, or store them in a chest you own in a bought or rented room. There are hundreds of different weapons—from the lowly steel dagger, up to a devastating battle axe imbued with the magical ability to inflict elemental damage. There are also various forms of armour, necklaces, helmets, rings, circlets, boots, and tunics, some with magical abilities which when combined with each other can make progress through the game much easier. If that’s not enough, magical items can be “disenchanted” at an Arcane Enchanter table, and their characteristics applied to another item. Oh, and at one point you’ll discover a dragon priest mask (of which there are eight with different benefits) which will become invaluable. Books can be read and collected, some revealing power-ups, others clues to treasure, some filling in Skyrim’s back-story. After a while you’ll begin to accept that anything can happen. Someone may run up to you with a letter, asking you to attend a meeting—a rabbit will cross your path with a predator in pursuit, assassins will run towards you as you merrily take in the view from a cobbled roadway. You’ll round a corner to see bandits attacking hunters, mages in a magical fight to the death. Then, out of nowhere a shadow will fall rapidly across you and a roar will fill the room as a dragon prepares to attack. Sound design has been very well executed. Voice acting for the most part is convincing—although it would have benefited the characterisation of the player’s chosen character to have an audible (and perhaps selectable at the beginning of the game when choosing the character’s appearance) voice when communicating with others. It just seems a little odd to select either a question, response or statement and not hear it. Objects have the right amount of presence as they’re dropped, opened or knocked over. Weapons clatter together with resounding metallic notes, shields give a deadened thump as you block an attack. A special mention must go at this point to the musical score by Jeremy Soule, as it matches the visuals perfectly. The scoring is beautifully subtle in places, and at times I find myself pausing the game just to listen to the wonderful orchestration. Yes, it can be a little derivative in places, there are certainly elements of Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian here (there’s also a voice actor that performs a fairly good Arnie impersonation), as well as similar elements to Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings pieces, but hey—I certainly wouldn’t want it any other way, as a different approach simply wouldn’t work.

I’m scratching the surface with this review—I’ll admit it—I want to get back to it. To write in detail a comprehensive list of the game’s many attributes would not only take longer than I could devote time to, but would be too full of spoilers for you, and no doubt drive the editor of this fine publication stark raving mad. Okay, the game’s not without its problems, but I believe no game is perfect. I’ve experienced a few shearing of frames, the odd slow down in frame rate in heavily populated areas, several unfinished landscape segments atop mountains and one lock-up. My son’s PS3 has exhibited similar problems with several lock-ups—but I put that down to his somewhat rushed approach to game play—while writing this he has experienced two. It can be—no, is bloody well annoying to scale a mountain, picking your route carefully toward the summit, jumping from outcropping to outcropping, only to be greeted with a rather unapologetic “You can’t go that way” message at the top of the screen. Perhaps in the next instalment of The Elder Scrolls, the game world could be spherical, so the character can continue walking in any compass direction to ultimately arrive exactly where they began. There’s a slight halt in frame rate (I’m running the game on a 46" Samsung LCD at the maximum res—sadly no 3D support) heralding an adversary’s approach as you’re idly exploring. Partner characters can be assigned to carry items for you. My partner (a witch I rescued from a life of misery) now wears magical armour and a circlet, and carries a rather nice double-headed axe which inflicts frost damage that I equipped her with. Unfortunately on some occasions while entering into combat she decides to revert back to her black robes, releasing ice spikes at adversaries—some finding their way into my back as she attempts to defend me, despite my entering an area in “sneaking” mode. Saying that, I fully intend to marry her at some point—yes, you can do that also. Loading screens can become a little irritating at times, especially upon opening something as simple as a door, having just entered a cave with an identical loading screen wait.

Skyrim’s an experience on every gaming level, an experience not to be missed. The reports you’ve either read in game mags or on the net are true and I’m sorry to say I’m going to repeat them now as I come to a close—it will eat your life, you will be late, you will neglect your normal everyday duties—hell, this review was written two weeks later than I had planned, due to a little more “research”. But for such an experience of this quality Skyrim’s more than worth it. Just remember this should you decide to enter this alternate reality: there’s no such thing as too many lock picks…

The above review originally appeared in TQF40. Howard sent a further update on May 5:

I’ve resisted for six weeks or so, listened somewhat reluctantly to my son talk of his adventures in Skyrim, his discoveries of new locations, missions, and on occasions, glitches. Entering his room to ask if he has completed his homework, I stop and stare at his adventures, like an alcoholic passing a pub on his way to an AA meeting, taking a glimpse at the revelry inside.

Now I’ve returned. And as I sit here writing this on the fly, I find myself wanting to hurry along and complete it so I can return to the game’s reality to pick up where I left off yesterday…

I’ve found new locations—which initially I thought improbable. I’ve discovered new groups wanting my assistance with various tasks—some bordering on meaningless triviality (my son’s just entered the room and asked; “Shall I put Skyrim on for you dad?”!) others, dangerous and intricate, with worthy foes. I’ve met talking dragons, evil gods, and lowly blacksmiths with talking dogs. I’m also married to a rather buxom young warrior with a thirst for a fight, but don’t mention this to the wife.

When will this ever end?

I don’t know. And to be honest—I don’t care. Yes, it’s not perfect. Some mission tasks I’ve completed whilst just wandering the wilderness, before said missions were active, (killing the Hagraven, Petra for example) and when I try to complete them they remain as incomplete in my mission tab. A niggling glitch, but one I’m prepared to live with. Perhaps the next instalment will feature an option to father children; to train them, and pass onto them skills as my avatar grows old and incapable of swinging a Daedric axe with sufficient force to incapacitate a foe, or my eyesight too poor to score a headshot with an arrow, my mind too forgetful to remember enchantments. If I’ve learnt anything from my time playing this game, it’s that anything’s possible for the next instalment.

My son’s loading the game now—the score is filling my ears, I glance up and the loading screen draws me away from my laptop as I type this update. So I bid thee a fond farewell dear reader. Indeed, fare thee well.

Friday 4 May 2012

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Reading The Island of Doctor Moreau a year or two ago I was struck by how it wasn’t about what I had thought it was about: the animals are made humanoid by way of plastic surgery, rather than forced mutation or cross-breeding. Because these books are so famous, because we encounter references to them at every turn, we feel we understand them without reading them, and that often isn’t the case.

I’d always thought Fahrenheit 451 (The Folio Society, hb, 176pp) by Ray Bradbury to be a novel about censorship, and to some extent it is. The firemen who burn the books do work for the government. But to a greater extent it’s a novel about dumbing down, the numbing effect of mass entertainment, and—this came as a real surprise—political correctness gone mad.

Guy Montag is a fireman who is wobbling. He’s starting to save books he should be burning. Fire chief Beatty can tell—he’s seen it before. Trying to scare Montag back onto the hot and crisp, Beatty tells him how they got into such a mess: “our civilisation is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred”. (Reading passages like that, one can understand why Mel Gibson took an interest in filming it.) That led to the books becoming so bland that everyone stopped caring about them. Guy’s friend Faber confirms this: “The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.”

The people of this America bury their unhappiness beneath piles of worthless television, hate poetry because it reminds them to cry, know they’re about to go to war but rely on platitudes to carry them through. Although the destruction of the books is a tragedy, it’s a symptom of something worse, a desire for the illusory safety of comforting ignorance.

Some saw an irony in the recent release of Fahrenheit 451 as an ebook, but they are perhaps missing the point of the novel. It’s about content, not bibliophilia, as reflected by the fact that the ultimate heroes of the novel are book-burners themselves, though for different reasons: “even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn’t use what we got out of them”. Even more than the content, it’s about how we relate to each other as people, and how books help us do that, despite all our differences.

But that’s not to say Fahrenheit 451 does not regard the books themselves as treasures too. And if ever there was an edition of this novel that had the quality, the texture, the pores that Faber talks of, it’s this one, with its fine printing and colour plates, its brilliant, chilling artwork by Sam Weber. I don’t read or buy myself print books very much these days, but when I do I want them to look like this (or if not, to be small enough to fit in my pocket like Penguin Mini Moderns).

It’s worth mentioning, because it’s easily overlooked, that as well as being full of ideas, this is a very exciting book—Montag’s night flight through the city, pursued by a robot sniffer dog and watched on every television, in particular—and it’s written in a punchy, hard style that surprised me. Given an extract that didn’t refer to firemen or books, I’d have gone for Frederik Pohl or Philip K. Dick; Bradbury wouldn’t have crossed my mind, based on what else I’ve read by him. Another reason we (I) should read these famous books, however well we think we know them.

Giving my opinion on such a fêted book seems a little redundant, but for what it’s worth it was brilliant and as relevant as ever, and this was a very attractive edition, with an excellent and informative introduction by Michael Moorcock. The paperback edition I never got around to reading will eventually find its way to a secondhand bookshop, but this one will stay on my bookshelves as long as I have them.