Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy Hogmanay
Bring in the New Year
With the BBC's Hogmanay archive.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


Title:Y Mabinogi/Otherworld
Cast: Ioan Gruffudd, Matthew Rhys, Lisa Palfrey
Director:Derek Hayes

Y Mabinogi or Otherworld is a Welsh SF/Fantasy animation, the UK TV premiere is on tonight - BBC2 11.45pm (At least in the BBC Scotland listings - check local press for variations).

The animation style looks like it could be a bit ropey, the trailer looks like it could be a little more fantasy orientated than my taste - but i'll certainly give it ago.

More Information:
S4C page

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Ares Express by Ian McDonald

Title: Ares Express
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher:Simon & Schuster

Sweetness Octave Glorious-Honeybun Asiim 12th is 12th generation Engineer. One of the track dynasties, the families that keep the trains running across Mars. The Stuards who serve the passengers, the Deep-fusion people who keep the fusion engines running, and the Engineer who drive the trains. Sweetness lives on the St. Catherine of Tharsis, and dreams desperately of getting a chance to drive the train. But daughters don’t drive.

At age 8 (in Martian years), Sweetness finds her life thrown into upheaval. A trackside prophet predicts engagement, but not marriage at the same time, unbeknownst to Sweetness, her family are negotiating her marriage to a Stuard. But Sweetness has ambition, and a confidence that there is more to life than being married to kitchen staff, even if they do have a stainless steel kitchen, so she runs away. Unfortunately she soon meets Devastation Harx, the head of a mail order church, their run in ending with her losing her most precious asset to the scheming church leader. An asset that Sweetness must retrieve or else Mars will be plunged into War.

To some extent Ares Express is a follow up to Ian McDonald’s earlier novel Desolation Road. Though the Mars presented can also be considered as being an alternate version of McDonald’s idea of Mars. At the core of Ares Express are the AI’s and 11 dimensional quantum mathematics – math being used to form reality from possibility, plucking a manformed Mars from versions that might come to pass.

This makes reality a tenuous concept, one that McDonald experiments with. Partly to emphasize and explore the idea further, McDonald takes the idea of reality being malleable a step further, with the idea of narrative as reality. Sweetness is conscious of the fact that from the point she meets the green man, the trackside prophet, she has become a part of a story, and as such comes to embrace the rules of the story to her own advantage. This gives the science fiction novel that is Ares Express an edge, a veneer of magic realism.

Sweetness as a character is, in her own words, “the feisty and resourceful (but cute with it) heroine”, and lots of fun with that. To a degree Desolation Road was about place, and following the story of place – ranging through generations, the rise and fall of a town. Fiction that takes that kind of approach can have a distancing effect, as you don’t always feel the same relationship to a place as people. Ares Express has much of the eccentric colour of Desolation Road, but is much more character driven, and with that I enjoyed Ares Express more.

An extract from Ares Express can be found on the Infinity Plus site.

Sunday, December 18, 2005


Title: Arahan [Arahan jangpung daejakjeon]
Cast: Seung-beom Ryu, So-yi Yoon, Sung-kee Ahn, Doo-hong Jung, Ju-sang Yun
Director: Seung-wan Ryoo

Arahan starts with a meeting between a guy and girl. He is a bumbling police officer, she is a shop assistant. They both try and stop a bag snatcher. But while the police officer is entirely ineffectual, it is clear that the girl has special abilities. She is able to launch "palm blasts", the force of Chi harnessed through Tao teachings. Tired of his failure, the police officer tries to get the girl, and her father - one of the Seven Masters to teach him.

The Seven Masters, or at least the five who are still about, are impressed with the officer's chi potential, but dismayed by his utter inability. Still they endeavour to teach him, while trying to promote Tao as much as they can in this changed world. However, one of the Seven was corrupted and turned to the dark side of the Tao, after a struggle he was contained. But now he is back and he wants the key to heaven, with which he will ascend to the level of Arahan.

The role of the bumbling police officer is filled by Seung-beom Ryu, who appeared in the Chan-wook Park's hit Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, as well as the anticipated Sympathy For Lady Vengeance. Sung-kee Ahn was in Nowhere To Hide and Musa the Warrior, while Doo-hong Jung was in Natural City, The Resurection of the Little Match Stick Girl, Public Enemy and Ji-woon Kim's Foul King.

Arahan is an action comedy, something along the lines of Kung-Fu Hustle. Though while Kung-Fu Hustle was given decent distribution in British cinemas, Arahan only featured in the likes of the Edinburgh Film Festival before appearing on DVD. Though perhaps this is not surprising as Arhan is determinedly downbeat, tentatively challenging boundaries for effect. But on the whole it is more straightforward and restrained than the competition. Regardless, Arahan is a decent enough film.

a shark in the head

Title:A Shark in the Head [Zralok v Hlave]
Cast: Oldrich Kaiser, Jana Krausová
Director: Maria Prochazkova

Mr.Seman leans on his windowsill, stands outside his flat in the street, waiting for people to pass, people he can talk to. He is a man who likes to talk, to be helpful. He raids his neighbour’s bins for things that might be of use, finding a bagful of rubber ducks and handing them out to passers by. Lending a hand to scaffolders, bringing them beers.

To some he is a charming character, they watch for him, eager for his latest. To others he is a daft old bugger they can do well without. In particular, a mother and daughter. The mother swaps observations with the man. Flirtations, perhaps? He gives both gifts, but despite her gratitude at the offer of a new coat, the daughter is more wary, as far as she is concerned he is a little mad.

Shark In The Head is a quiet film. All set in and in front of this one man's flat, observing the world going by. The film explores the man's warmth, his enthusiasm for life, for the people he meets. While also exploring his loneliness, that which drives him, almost desperately to talk to people. The long night hours being the hardest, described through odd little dream sequences and random animations. The scene with Santa being particularly unsettling, while maintaining that still veneer the film adheres to.

Shark In The Head is the last of a short season of Czech films to show in Glasgow, like the films I have caught in previous seasons, it has a peculiar charm. The first feature film by animator Maria Prochazkova.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

New York Dreams - Eric Brown

Title:New York Dreams
Author: Eric Brown
Publisher: Gollancz

Halliday is a burnt out VR junkie. Even if he is in denial. Over the past 18 months, his business partner was shot dead, his girlfriend has left him, and hell, even the refugee from the Georgia meltdown he took in has got herself a job, a flat and a boyfriend. So he wallows in VR, working it to the current safe limits.

But Halliday used to be a private detective. When an ex-client gets in touch because an autistic girl who has been working the cutting edge of VR has gone missing, Halliday is reluctant to get involved. However, when he realises that the last person she was seen with is ex-girlfriend, who is also now missing, then he is persuaded to take the job.

New York Dreams is the third volume of Eric Brown's Virex Trilogy. Each following Halliday as he investigates missing people and the like, all tieing into the virtual reality business in someway. The background sees the progression of the technology, from something that people do in bars for the maximum of an hour to here, where people have immersion tanks in their house, and can now remain in VR for 24 hours at a time.

At the same time he explores further the anti-VR stance. The idea of Virex, an anti-VR hacker/terroist group, or vrackers, has been present to some extent in each of the three novels. Though it is here that it comes to the fore - Virex infiltrated and turned, becoming a part of the big plot that forms the core of this novel.

The Virex stance had been that VR was worse than previous technology at isolating humans, at making them less socially capable. To a degree with this novel Halliday embodies that idea, a man become distant from his friends, who suddenly finds that he isn't nearly as fit as he used to be thanks to VR abuse.

To a degree New York Dreams reminds of the kind of science fiction that was more abundant in the 1980's. Comparisons to a couple of the novels Mick Farren wrote at the time coming to mind, the PI/Noir of Exit Funtopia mixed with the Westworld styled VR horror of The Feelies. So reading New York Dreams, a good while after reading New York Nights and New York Blues, it initially felt a little dated.

However, once you get past that, and get into the agreeable groove of Brown's writing it works well enough. Especially as the ideas are updated to give a contemporary edge, while sneaking in other elements as you progress. Such that as you read New York Dreams, you can start to feel Brown pulling the rug out from under your feet. To a degree, if you have enough familiarity with contemporary science fiction you can see what is coming. Still it is an interesting twist, especially given how it turns everything on its head.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Victor Pelevin's Omon Ra

Title:Omon Ra
Author: Victor Pelevin
Publisher:Faber & Faber

All Omon ever dreamed about as a child was becoming a cosmonaut. When he is old enough, he and his best friend join the Russian Air Force. At the seies of admission tests and interviews, both talk passionately of their dreams of going to the moon. This is the Cold War, a war of propaganda, where America and Russia try and out do each other. While America plan to send a man to the moon, Russia mocks their imperialist folly - Russia will not risk the lives of good communists, instead they will send a machine to the moon and it will drive around and conduct experiments! However as Omon and his friend find out, this is a bluff, Russia doesn't have that kind of technology. Instead Omon finds himself part of a top secret team, who will man a mission to the moon!

Omon Ra was the first novel by Russian novelist Victor Pelevin, and it is more highly focussed and easier to follow than his later novel The Clay Machine Fun, which I read previously. Omon Ra is a novel about Russia, about what drove the country - the bravery, the propaganda, and the competition. While it is a short novel, Omon Ra is an intense read with that, full of detail that creates a sense of authenticity and absuridty. Omon Ra is a memorable novel filled with a sincere good humour.

Paul McAuley's Mind's Eye

Title:Mind’s Eye
Author: Paul McAuley
Publisher:simon & Schuster

When Alfie Flowers spots a piece of anti-war graffiti it brings back memories. Not the image itself, but rather the glyph that has been used to frame it. Alfie's grandfather had been part of a group who had discovered ancient symbols in pre-World War I Iraq, symbols which dated back thousands of years and with the right priming could penetrate straight into someone's brain. Alfie was exposed to these symbols and the drugs involved as a child, and has had epileptic type seizures ever since. Someone is using these images as art, someone from Iraq - Alfie suspects maybe they know enough about the symbols to help cure of him of his epilepsy, so sets about trying to find the person behind the images. However, Alfie isn't the only one - certain parts of the British Secret Service are interested, the symbols having been used during World War II, and also some people who want to use the symbols for their own sinister plans.

Mind's Eye is a thriller, set between London and Iraq, giving it a particularly contemporary feel. As a novel, Mind's Eye is something of a departure for author Paul McAuley, who has an extensive back catalogue of science fiction novels behind him. Though, it is not an entirely surprising change of pace - novels in recent years like World Wide Web and White Devils saw a move more towards a thriller/crime market. While those novels still had the trappings of future fiction, Mind's Eye is set in the last few years. Though it still has an edge of the strange, provided by the glyphs and the power they can have over the mind. This symbolism, the effects and history, being the particularly interesting aspects of Mind’s Eye.

This makes Mind's Eye more comparable to someone like Michael Marshall than previous McAuley work. Which is perhaps why the novel has a quote from Marshall on the cover, one SF writer turned crime writer doing another SF writer turning crime writer a favour. In some ways Mind's Eye is a dryer read than normal McAuley output, perhaps displaying more of an exploratory dabbling with the genre than an assured one. Regardless with Mind's Eye you can now find McAuley stocked under either literary or crime fiction depending on your local bookstore - hopefully this will expand his readership, and he'll build on what he learned with this novel on his next outing.

Gateway - Frederik Pohl

Author: Frederik Pohl

Having colonised Venus, we made a discovery. We were not alone. An alien race had inhabited the planet before us. Managing to launch an alien craft from Venus, we discovered a space station. The space station is full of space ships, which are east to launch, but seemingly impossible to understand or guide. The station is named Gateway, and it becomes a new frontier. Prospectors come to gamble with their lives – some will take a trip into space and return with an artefact or information that will make their fortune, others will die, or never be heard from again.

Bob Broadhead is a food miner – extracting oil in Wyoming, that is converted to food. It is a hard life, and he dreams of going to Gateway and changing his lot. When he wins the lottery he does just that. But when he gets there he finds it is not so easy. The list of the missing and dead is enough to emphasize the risks. But he can’t stay on Gateway indefinitely – sooner or later, he is going to have to take a ship and go out, or admit defeat and return to Earth.

Gateway is the story of Bob Broadhead, the alien Heechee and that which they have left behind. The narrative alternates – switching from sessions in the “present” between Bob and his robot psychiatrist, and flash backs to his journey to Gateway and beyond. From the start we know about the fantastic potential of the alien artefacts, along with a sense of the loves and tragedies of Bob’s life. But Pohl unfolds the picture a snapshot at a time, establishing that Bob has issues, then we learn about Gateway at the same time Bob does, and with each snapshot of Gateway we come closer to understanding how Bob achieved so much, and at what cost.

The base idea behind Gateway is one of the most classic SF paradigms - that of the abandoned alien technology that acts as a catalyst to change humanity. Written in the 1970's we can see those idea repeated later with the likes of Piers Anthony's Kirlian Series, or more recently with Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovac's novels. Though, for me, the closest comparison I can make is to William Gibson's short story Hinterland. Both focussing on a point in our solar system, from which a ship can launch into the unknown with unpredictable results, and trauma even for the survivors. Of course being a novel, Gateway goes into greater depth - rather than focussing on one encounter, Pohl fleshes out the idea. in fact he creates a kind of meta-fiction in the process - as well as following the progress of those who arrive on Gateway with Bob or the people he meets there, Pohl adds a series of inserts - official Gateway documents, lecture notes, the reports from various trips, letters to the Gateway newspaper, and classified ads that cover the range of requirements or services on offer.

At first, the psychiatric sessions seem to be a distraction from Pohl's story - presenting us with a somewhat obnoxious character, a rich playboy working through the trauma of his shallow inconsequential love life. Through this, it is the material on Gateway that really drives the novel. However as we go on, we get a better understanding of the character - realising what we saw was cover for what really lies within, so that instead of being a distraction this material instead becomes central.

Gateway is a good read, full of classic ideas, and fun with it - for me this was a good introduction to Pohl's writing. Gateway is included in the SF Masterworks series published by Orion.

Links Updated:

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Title:A Shark in the Head (15)
Cast: Oldrich Kaiser, Jana Krausová
Director: Maria Prochazkova

A Shark in the Head at GFT
Mon 12 Dec 2040
Thought this sounded interesting,
I plan to go and see it,
anyone else about who is interested,
let me know.

S1Play Synopsis
Shark in the Head is the first feature from animator Procházková, about a middle-aged man who spends most of his time chatting to whoever passes his window; some are friendly, most notably an attractive neighbour with a teenage daughter; others are wary – not unsurprising, since he seems eccentric. Indeed, he’s not entirely stable, as is clear from his fantasies (incarnated by animated interludes - collage, hand-drawn and stop-motion). Made with humour and simplicity, Procházková's film which exploits the infinite potential of special effects and digital imaging, is refreshingly different.

GFT Synopsis
In this bitter comedy about a lonely man in middle age the main character of the seemingly ordinary story is a fool and a freak. He lives in an apartment on the ground floor on one of Prague’s streets, where the rattling trams and the city hustle are far away. Few people walk down this street, and few cars drive through here. And despite all that, this man experiences unbelievable adventures every day. His window is either wide open, or he stands before the window on the pavement, smoking one cigarette after another, he piles up ever-scattered dustbins and he regularly checks their contents. He likes to chat with people, but hardly anyone wants to chat...


Title: Wolves In The Walls
Author: Neil Gaiman

Meant to post this before, from Neil Gaiman's blog, Wolves In The Walls musical, starts in Glasgow next year - anyone interested in going let me know!

There are posters like this up all over Glasgow, only the rest of them don't have me standing in front of them. Actually, this one doesn't have me standing in front of it now, seeing I'm back in the snowy American MidWest, but it did last Sunday.

The Wolves in the Walls Musical Pandemonium will have its first night at the Tramway in Glasgow on the 23rd of March, 2006, and in London at the Lyric Hammersmith on the 10th of April, before careening around Scotland.

-picture copyright Gaiman, posted on my Flickr so I don't leach his bandwidth.

Scott Pilgrim - Precious Little Life

Title: Scott Pilgrim - Volume 1: Precious Little Life
Author: Bryan O'Malley
Artist: Bryan O'Malley
Publisher: Oni Press

Scott Pilgrim is 23, he plays bass in a band, and has just started dating a 17-year-old school girl (Knives Chau). He is between jobs, and is still coming back from a bad break up. But with the band getting a gig and his relationship with Knives things are looking up.

Then one night he has a dream. He is alone, crawling through the desert, desperate for water. When a cute girl skates past on rollerblades, telling him this is not a dream. From that point he is obsessed with this girl.

The dream girl turns out to be real, an American girl called Ramona Flowers, who has just moved to Toronto. This complicates things, especially with the impressionable Knives, and the fact that someone keeps sending Scott letters challenging him to a fight.

Precious Little Life is the first volume in what is intended to be a series of books about Scott Pilgrim. Even at this stage, the characters break the "fourth wall", be referring to what will be covered in future volumes. To start with Precious Little Life is a real life drama type graphic novel, following up from O'Malley's previous novel Lost At Sea.

But as it progresses we move into the realm where dreams cross into reality, and the obsessions those represent. These aspects have a particularly Haruki Murakami feel, dream girls and obsessions being a major theme in his work. The culmination of the book is a gig by Pilgrim's band Sex Bob-omb, where Ramona and Knives are both in attendance, and Pilgrim's enemy is revealed - flipping into a greater surrealism and "fight comic" territory, making it more comparable to something like Corey Lewis's Shark Knife. Indeed, in terms of narrative energy O'Malley and Lewis are in similar territories, and to a degree both are following in the footsteps of Paul Pope - though while Shark Knife has artistic references to Pope's work, O'Malley maintains his own style.

Lost At Sea was a great work, lots of charm and fun. The kind of thing I gave as a Christmas gift the year came out. For me, Scott Pilgrim perhaps doesn't top that, but it is an energetic and enthusiastic work, with an enigmatic edge. Ironically having given Lost At Sea as a gift, I’ve just received the first 2 Scott Pilgrim books for my birthday. Having read book 1 last night, I look forward to sitting tonight and reading volume 2!

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