Friday, 29 October 2010

The greatest society in the world

Last night was workshop and karaoke night for the Northumbria WriSoc (there being a tremendous amount of overlap between writing a sequel for A Midsummer Night's Dream and Frank Sinatra), and, as usual, it passed off in a blend of a sublime and the ridiculous. Mostly the latter, it has to be said.

I could go into detail about the president and her statement regarding top hats and chlamydia. Or how, two weeks ago, the secretary managed to mention Hermia's tentflaps. Or even our esteemed treasurer and his Brian Blessed impressions. But the point is this: we're not the usual.

One of our newest members said possibly the nicest thing it's possible to say about a collective of writers last night: that we're not pretentious and we accept all types of writers. And it's true. The aforementioned member writes (very good) screenplays, one of which we were treated to last night. I write SF. A few members write poetry, others write prose, others scripts. It's an eclectic mix, and we work well together, especially when we band together and do projects as a group, as we are with the sequel to A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Kate's script is brilliant. From the Shakespearean opening, it moves into more conventional modern prose, but it keeps the essence of Shakespeare in the way it can be acted. We have monologues, passion and fire. Unfortunately the 'kick your ass' line has been omitted, but a 'ooh, she's feisty' comment has found its entertaining way in.

Thanks to a stripey commitment I can't make it to the Newcastle Book Festival, where the prologue and opening scene (at least) will be performed, alongside readings of members' work (perhaps including some of mine!). But it's just the latest in a line of events happening down to the hard work of the committee and the other members since the society formed last year. We've got the anthology coming out (hopefully), in which members' work will be exhibited. And in February there was an open mike night down at the Head of Steam by the train station in Newcastle. The year was topped off in April when the society won best new society at the Union Awards Night.

So we're quirky. We're busy. We're eclectic. We're entertaining. We say odd things. We do odd things. And occasionally we write.

Nothing like patting yourself on the back, eh?

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Let's do the time warp again

I've now been back 7 weeks (to all slackers elsewhere, that's 7 weeks of intense, demanding work. Unlike your Media Studies degree), and by now I should be settled back in to the demands of Northumbria University and her LLB Bar Exempting degree. Of course, this being the fourth year the workload is now larger than an obese elephant, and it feels like I'm trying to shift it using a single shovel made of damp papier mache.

On the plus side, I am ahead with Law and Lit by about 3 weeks and the SLO's yet to really bite hard with its workload, so I've been able to get my dissertation synopsis sent off. I still have to complete my provisional bibliography (referencing about 60 cases and articles is proving to be somewhat problematic and exceedingly boring), but it's a start. Now to get cracking with the wonders of the introductory chapter. All 2,000 words of it.

Seeing as I'm meant to write about writing, I may as well give an update on that. In the past week I've managed to get one story finished and sent off (OK, it was 9 days ago, but hey), as well as make a start on another new one. I'm not much into the second of these, but that's entirely because I have a massive workload and no time at the moment.

It's also a major reason my reading volume is down this week. Normally I manage 50-0dd pages a night. This week the average has been 20, although I envisage that going up this evening after WriSoc's weekly karaoke sesh. Where we'll be doing the Time Warp. Again. The evening has the potential to be momentous, mostly because there is a chance I'll be singing. After Enter Sandman in the epic win of a fortnight ago, I need something to top that. Ace of Spades, anyone?

Sunday, 24 October 2010

All this has happened before...

It's been nice to get back into a system of work of late, especially as my work ethic when I'm at home is generally between dire and atrocious. However, this weekend I've managed to get both my opening submission and Sentencing seminar prepared.

On in the background, providing more than just pleasurable noise, has been Battlestar Galactica. Anyone who claims to know me knows how highly I rate the series. It hasn't been unknown for me to declare it the single greatest series ever made, above the likes of The West Wing. Some would say that's pushing it a little too far, but there's a case to be made.

This isn't the place where I'll make that case. Instead, I'm just going to eulogise over the series and bemoan the fact there's nothing to replace it, aside from the spin-off, Caprica, which is decent but not in the same class. Although a certain someone I know would like it just because James Marsters pops up in it.

So why do I love BSG so much? It's not easy to know where to start. Do I start with the story, the characters, the themes, the designs, the undercurrent of darkness, the underlying message, the fact that it isn't hamstrung like so many SF series by a lack of care being taken in the production, the quality of the writing...?

I could go on, but I won't.

I'll expand on a couple of those points. The story is a good place to start. The Twelve Colonies are destroyed by the Cylons and only 50,000 survivors manage to get away, starting an odyssey across space to find their new home, the legendary Earth. In that respect, the re-imagined series (the one I'm banging on about) isn't a million miles removed from the 1979 original. And even on its own, the story is a good 'un, especially when it's told with the bold elan that the writing brings to it. It would have been very watchable if it was just a remake of the old BSG.

But it wasn't a remake. It was a complete re-imagining. Starbuck is a girl (and yes is the answer to your question), as is Boomer (same again). And the changes don't stop there. There's complex politics, issues of race and warfare, and an undercurrent of darkness seldom seen in a TV series.

This is what marks BSG out from other SF series and other TV series as a whole. Where most aim for escapism, BSG brings the real world home. In this post-9/11 world, BSG goes further than any other series in examining those themes we see crop up more and more in day-to-day life. Don't be fooled by the conflict in the stars. This is a series about the enemy within, about tolerance and how we should live. Combine that with moments of unbridled awesome - like the Galactica itself leaping into atmosphere, dropping a load of Vipers and then jumping out again - and it ticks all my boxes.

This did turn into a 'gr8ist series EVAR' rant. Which is a shame.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Pro Evo 2011

Why do Brazilian teams have no decent strikers these days? What happened to the days when they'd have Pele, Garrincha, any number of top-notch strikers leading the line, sticking in goal after goal?

I ask as I've just started playing in the Copa Libertadores on the new Pro Evo. Playing as Internacional, I have a choice between Alecsandro, an exceptionally slow, cumbersome striker who can't head a ball to save his life, and Ilan, the West Ham reject. After Alecsandro firing blanks in the first play-off game against Cruziero, Ilan came in and also fired blanks, but he did set up D'Alessandro for the goal that put me into the group stages. After a 0-0 draw in which Ilan could have scored about 8 times but didn't have the skill, he finally got off the mark in the 4-0 drubbing of Colo-Colo.

Yes, he scored a hat-trick, but my point is that he isn't very good.

Which is a shame because the rest of the side is very decent. As is the game itself. Pro Evo seems to have finally done that thing it hasn't done since Pro Evo 6 on the PS2 and evolved to finally announce its arrival proper on the next-gen consoles. It's fallen behind FIFA this last couple of years, but if it continues to develop like this it'll soon be back on its perch, rather than be looking covetously at FIFA.

So Pro Evo 2010 was a frustrating experience. The gameplay was stale in places, lacked variation and felt like the designers had fallen into complacency. Graphically it was stuck on the PS2, with the animations anything but next-gen. And to compound it all, the overall experience was shallow, with the game also failing to provide any real challenge until the difficulty was set to World Class.

This year the game is a challenge again. New systems have been implemented and, while they're far from perfect, they push the game in the right direction. Gone is the on-rails short passing system, replaced by power bars requiring precision and concentration. The feeling of satisfaction when passing around a defence when 3-0 up with a series of perfectly-judged short passes is akin to the Pro Evo of old.

The pacing of the game is also much-changed. It demands tempo. You're put under pressure from the off, closed down, forced into quick decisions. The ball has to be kept moving - none of this pass it around the back four getting used to the game malarkey. If you can settle, then you can dictate the pace of the game.

When you don't have the ball - which will be most of the time until you suss out that the problem with your passing is that you're not judging it right and selling your midfield short all the time - pressing X to close down and relying on that to get you out of trouble won't cut the mustard any more. It's about careful positioning, then timing the tackle with X. Yes, you can still hold X and win the ball that way, but half of the time this'll just result in an out-of-position back four and gaps the opposition can exploit.

And the defence on the other side is, as mentioned, much changed as well. It's in your face from the off, getting in tight. There's more emphasis on the physical side of the game, men going shoulder to shoulder far more often. Sadly, this can still result in ridiculous free kicks going one way or the other.

So the general gameplay is better, and we haven't covered the linking tricks bit. Which will be problematic for me because I'm no longer about the single individual on the wing who can run faster and out-trick the full-back before whipping one onto the bonce of the onrushing striker. I'm a pass and mover, playing a more incisive version of Spain's tiki-taka, or whatever they call it. Though from reports it works.

The experience is enhanced by better presentation. The commentary suffers from the Curse of Jim Beglin (the capital 'c' entirely warranted here, grammar fans), but that aside it's a step above what it was. No more name plates at the bottom, the score in a BBC/Sky style box rather than floating with badges and gaudy numbers at the top, better crowd noise (but still not as good as FIFA), national anthems... It's not crucial for the gameplay, but it can make all the difference between a good game and a great one, although this Pro Evo still has a bit to go before it pushes back towards greatness.

There are weaknesses a plenty. Strikers don't get into the box, the shooting's a little wayward (but still better than FIFA's predict-o-strike system), penalties are still pot luck and goalkeeper AI still lacks something. But we are going back in the right direction.

The more observant readers of this will have noticed I haven't mentioned the individual modes. That's because I haven't played online Master League yet and want to do a separate blog on it if it's any good.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

The Crucible

If you're a snooker fan who's clicked the link hoping for comments about the home of said pastime (it isn't a sport, don't argue that it is), unlucky.

No, this is a review of Arthur Miller's classic play from 1953, the one that focusses on the Salem witch trials in a cutting criticism of mass hysteria surrounding McCarthyism in the USA. The two don't initially seem linked, but throw in the words 'mass hysteria' and suddenly they are. Miller deals expertly with a situation getting out of hand as public hysteria takes over from reasoned thought. Normally, the salient phrase is 'witch-hunt' but on this occasion, it's just too obvious.

I don't normally read plays for fun, and this one is no different. Although that isn't to say I didn't enjoy it, because I did. Greatly. When reading Shakespeare (yes, I have read and do read old Shakey's stuff, deal with it), I often struggle with the poetry and getting a beat to the whole thing. The prose in Miller's play is much easier on the brain, but is no less profound for it. There's a frenetic tempo the the thing, the play whipping by (when reading it) in just a couple of hours.

The intensity is just one of the things I liked the most. Combine the intensity with a gripping tale in the first place, of deceit and murder, and you're on to a winner, and the adaptation of the Salem Witch Trials are certainly that tale. I can't pretend to know much about them (other than the references in Harry Potter, which is pretty poor going for someone who professes to be fairly educated), but from what I do know, the events depicted are accurate and, when one applies them to the era in which the play was written, the allegory between the era and the play becomes far more obvious.

McCarthyism was in full swing when the play was first performed. People were being hauled in front of senate committees for being 'un-American' (which is ironic, considering America is allegedly the land of do whatever the flip you want). A witch-hunt was in progress in a metaphorical sense. People were running scared of a Communist threat that was, at best, minimal, and certainly had few links to the Soviet Union, but, oh look, it's an uninformed public and we have mass hysteria through the actions of a few who know how to manipulate the masses.

What has been said about McCarthyism has been said a hundred times and a slightly uninformed student with socialist tendencies isn't going to be able to add to the debate, other than to say that the Americans need to grow up when it comes to politics. Miller had his finger on the pulse and understood the situation. He was probably one of only a few.

I apologise for this being a pretty rushed review focussed more on political issues than the play at hand.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Oh, look, update...

Hurrah! My first Drafting session is down and it wasn't a complete disaster! For a first effort, I don't think my Particulars of Claim was too bad, to be honest, seeing as when we were doing them in second year I was laid up 120 miles away with my knee in a brace after dislocating it for the first time.

But it is another sign that uni is going to be the death of my writing. This is only the third/fourth week back (or fifth, if you're me) and already the amount of time I have to sit down and write something interesting is extremely limited. And this is without the SLO munching up my time like there's no tomorrow. Do this now, do that now, you can't do that you have a client, this letter needs writing, have you written that attendance note yet, do your research, have you liaised with your firm about this, jump through this hoop, you see that cliff there jump off it...

There's a taster of what is to come. Fortunately, I've got most of the rest of today free, and so I'm going to fill it with WriSoc (complete with an intriguing turn of events - tune in later to find out what happened when the censors said I couldn't report on it beforehand) and this story about evolution, when I'm not getting cracking on the bail appeal for next Monday and whatever drafting I'm meant to be doing for next Wednesday or doing dissertation work.

Ah, yes, the joys of university and a proper degree. None of that cushy Media Studies rubbish here. You actually have to have talent to be here (and I make no apology to those people on the Mickey Mouse degrees). Well, talent, and a certain amount of insane stubbornness.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Into the swing again

Uni's back in full swing at last. After several weeks of dabbling in work (I know, it's shocking), the BVC/BPTC element of the degree is kicking off again this week, and as such I now have less time than a clock with no hands (a poor analogy, but I'm rushed for time before Football Focus).

It's all kicking off for real on Monday with Criminal Advocacy. It's a plea in mitigation for a (fictional) 61-year-old woman guilty of theft in breach of trust. She's pleaded guilty, has no precons and has various mitigating circumstances. The guidelines say that the starting point should be 12 weeks in custody, but I reckon that a community sentence would be sufficient (as does whoever prepared the pre-sentence report - not a bad person to have on my side).

Following that, it's Drafting for Wednesday. On this occasion, I'm drafting a particulars of claim for a 16-year-old kid who was knocked down on his bike in Durham by a driver paying no attention to the road. Apparently this should only take a couple of hours, but this is the Bar Exempting route; it'll take at least 4. But it's still better than the 14 I used to spend on writing opinions last year.

Law and Literature's started off nicely. A couple of short stories (including one from Ursula K. Le Guin), followed by another short story for the next week, and now the first novel, Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. I finished it last night to a resounding meh. I was indifferent in the extreme. The lead character was difficult to sympathise with, being a woman- and child-beater determined that his sons would be men and not 'women', all because he had father issues. For 120 pages, I found that I really couldn't care less what happened to him, which probably wasn't the point. I only cared in the last 30 pages, when the English decided to impose the Empire on the small Nigerian villages where this bloke lived. Read for Law and Lit, I have my opinions on the legal structures identified, but I'm keeping those for Monday evening's session.

Away from academia, I got Moon yesterday and watched it at silly o'clock. Immediately after it finished, I felt the urge to watch it again. It was awesome, in the proper sense. More intelligent SF, to say the least. Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell) is on the dark side of the Moon, fulfilling a 3-year contract to provide the Earth with its electricity. He has 2 weeks left on his contract, when things start to happen. We're talking intelligent SF on the 2001: A Space Odyssey scale in the end. Deception, advanced science and a computer that doesn't take after HAL too much combine to make it a compelling film which I will have playing while I write my skeleton argument this afternoon.

And it's Football Focus time. Time for a break, lunch, and Dan Walker explaining that the Premier League is the most exciting league in the world (again).

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

"Would you like fries with that?"

There's a girl at the Burger King in Newcastle Central train station who always smiles. It doesn't matter whether the customer she's just served is a pleasant, courteous being, or (as is more common) a grumpy, antisocial grunter who treats her like she's hardly human, preferring to keep on talking on the phone. She always smiles.

Most of us would forgive her if she didn't. In her dowdy grey uniform, doing a menial job for however many hours a day she could get away with being surly, as most fast food restaurant workers are. But she isn't, and it's refreshing to see, especially when people treat her as a convenient food vendor rather than a person. Fine, she's on the other side of the counter, but would you treat her like that if you bumped into her on the street? No. So why are you so rude to her?

In recent times I've taken to being that bit more sociable with shop assistants and other people with whom I interact on a non-social basis (if that's the right phrase). This has had mixed results; for every bright, friendly shop assistant, there's one who really couldn't care less and who just wants me to shove off and stop talking. Probably the best person to chat with when buying something is the chap who works on the SF floor of Waterstones in Newcastle city centre. Every time I walk in and buy something, he'll be receptive to conversation. He'll tell me about this book that's just come out, recommend something a bit different for next time and be genuinely enthusiastic about what he's saying.

People who are prepared to go the extra mile in the execution of their duties make everyday things more enjoyable - or at least more bearable. We should be just as pleasant back to them. I doubt that the girl in Burger King wants to work there for eight hour shifts every day. How about those shifts become bearable because we, as customers, are friendly with her and extend common courtesy?

I think I managed to lose control of this blog in the middle of the third paragraph, when I forgot what I was writing. Oh, well.

Friday, 1 October 2010

The City & The City

China Miéville wasn't a writer I was particularly aware of until recently. Then I got a recommendation, which declared him the greatest thing since sliced bread. The City & The City is the first book of his I've read, and if that's typical of his works then the recommendation is bang on the money.

Let me start by saying not much I've read this year has left me feeling wowed. It may be that this is the first novel to have me reeling in thought, absolutely stunned by the way it's left me in that state. The City & The City is subtle and intelligent, multi-faceted, encompassing more than the typical SF detective novel.

Set in a fictional city on the edge of Europe with Balkan overtones, the novel focuses on Inspector Borlú, of the Extreme Crimes Squad in Besźel, as he investigates a murder. As is typical in SF detective novels, there's more to this than 'ooh, look, a trollop who's gone and got stabbed by her lover's jealous missus oh dear'. What we get here is a curious concept of two cities encompassing the same topographical location. The politics of these two cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, as well as the way the two cities coexist, make up the bulk of the novel's intelligent commentary on what we see and don't see in our own society, as well as the alienation in the same.

The concept is original enough, but its execution is superb. What I just told you does not do it justice. That I told you it says it all; Miéville weaves exposition of the world into the plot with such subtlety that no single passage at any stage can be said to be explaining the world. The concept permeates your mind rather than being forced upon it by heavy-handed infodumps. I can imagine that each reader will see their own version of the city and the city, rather than everyone being straightjacketed into one distinct vision. This makes the underlying alienation all the more stark.

At the heart of the story is a relentless pace that grips the reader and leaves them breathless. It has all the ingredients of the whodunnit in the Morse sense (although Morse tended not to have investigations into more than just the case); the culprit's eventual identity doesn't come as a surprise so much, as the point of the novel isn't the murder itself but the surrounding circumstances, but it still holds the attention. For a casual reader of mysteries, uninterested in the philosophies underlying the plot, the case would hold water. But it really is those surrounding circumstances that make the book what it is: brilliantly intelligent, and almost insidiously subtle.

Will I be reading more of China Miéville's work? Undoubtedly, yes. This is a novel that had me captivated in its themes and world more than any other since Look To Windward. I'm hard pushed to find a genuine weakness in Miéville's work, and I can't imagine it'll be too long before I pick up a copy of one of his other works.