Friday, 27 May 2011

Alien invasions?

My mind is on edge at the moment. It seems to be flitting from thought to thought with little consistency. One moment I'll be thinking about Battlestar Galactica, the next hamsters. It's just been the way things have gone. There is an advantage in this: I've been getting quite a few creative ideas.

The way my mind's flitted from place to place lately, browsing TV Tropes isn't the brightest idea. Within seconds of clicking on a trope about dialogue I could be perusing a very different trope on the nature of the apocalypse. However, with being an SF writer I tend to keep my trope browsing to the SF realm. And today I came across a beauty, which got me thinking.

My thought was this: Why would an alien race want to invade the Earth?

The Martians in The War of the Worlds had a good reason to pick the Earth as their target. They were living on a dying planet and needed to move. Earth happened to be the nearest convenient Goldilocks zone planet, so they invaded.

Less clear-cut was the Slitheen in the first series of the new Doctor Who. Their reason for invading was to reduce the Earth to molten slag so they could sell it off to the highest bidder as fuel. Only, they could have done this to any number of uninhabited small rocky planets anywhere in the galaxy. Mercury, Venus and Mars are all candidates in our own solar system. We also have dwarf planets such as Pluto (though the destruction of it following its demotion would be overkill, and possibly set the entire astrology community to a path leading to perpetual civil war), Ceres, Makemake and Eris which would fulfil criteria. None of the aforementioned planets have life, you'll notice, and neither do any of the dozens of moons in the Solar System. Why didn't the Slitheen just go to one of those? Yes, we might end up narked that some alien race nicked a planet, but (other than altering the entire gravitational balance of the Solar System) what real harm would that do?

Resources provide no excuse for an alien invasion. Water is available in colossal quantities throughout the universe (it just needs thawing out), as are uranium, iron, hydrogen, oxygen and any number of vital materials. Even lebensraum isn't a great exuse, as if an alien race is capable of building an interstellar fleet then, by and large, it should be capable of constructing habitats on uninhabited planets such as Mars and Venus.

It's fair to say I've never been a great alien invasion fan, especially when I'm expected to take them seriously. Only occasionally is an invasion really justified for the purposes of the plot (a mental religious attitude might justify it) and even then I doubt it'd be something I enjoy.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

I should be writing, but...

Where's my motivation to write gone?

It used to be there constantly. When I wasn't writing I'd be thinking about it, formulating situations and characters that would find their way to paper at some point in the near future. Days would go by when I wrote 4,000 and 5,000 words. Sometimes at the end of the day those words would disappear, consigned to the dustbin by my perfectionist tendencies, but they would have been there.

University hasn't made it easy to write, but that shouldn't be impacting on my motivation to do so in any way. It hasn't quenched my thirst to read, so by the same token my writing should be similarly unaffected. I suppose the last few weeks have been more than a little stressful, with writing an entire dissertation in under a month, work in the SLO to complete and then revision and exam preparation to be getting on with, and it's only natural I want some time doing nothing but curling up with a good book, but I should still have the writing bug.

I have ideas as well. Three good ideas to sink my creative teeth into. So it isn't like I'm struggling for that spark of inspiration. I just haven't got the motivation.

Normally, this afternoon would be the perfect opportunity to do an hour or two in front of the iMac with Word open, bashing out a few hundred words of a short story. I've managed to get four chapters of my book on ADR revised thanks to having an earlier start this morning, and I'm giving it some time before I go back to work on that. Not one, but two story ideas are lodged at the front of my mind, and I have extensive notes on both easily available to me, just the click of a button away. But I just don't have the motivation to write at the moment.

It's frustrating. On one level I want to be fleshing out a new SF world, creating an alien landscape that would transport a reader to imaginary planes of existence. But on another I just can't be bothered with taking the time and effort to do that. I want some time of doing nothing.

Perhaps a short break will see me right. Once I'm through this exam on Friday, then the opening Advocacy exam on Tuesday (I think), I'll have a little time to recover myself. Most of that time will be spent scouting the jobs market, but there will still be time to sit and relax. Maybe after a week or two the bug will bite again. I hope fervently that it does.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Half time

So that's the first half of the play-off semi-final out of the way. I don't think a single Town fan would describe it as a great performance, but the important thing is that we're level going in to Wednesday's home leg. A 1-1 draw at Bournemouth isn't a bad result by any stretch.

After two 0-0 draws in the Championship, it was left to Town to score the first goal of this year's play-offs. It duly arrived courtesy of the head of Kevin Kilbane, who glanced home Gary Roberts' corner in the 22nd minute. In its way it was an undeserved goal. Bournemouth had made most of the early running, and it had been Town's first corner. But on the other hand, Bournemouth hadn't created a clear-cut opportunity as Town's defence shut them out, and Town had looked the more likely to create something that would lead to a goal.

Not that it stopped Town having a luck escape when Kilbane pushed a Bournemouth player in the back in the box. For me, it was a penalty, being a clear shove. But the referee didn't see it that way and Town escaped - until the ref decided to make a complete hash of another incident in the box, this time involving keeper Ian Bennett, and award a penalty.

There was definite contact, I'm not arguing about that. But what I have an issue with is the context in which it was given. The lad's got a shot away and Bennett's done what every keeper should do, and made himself big by rushing out. He's narrowed the angles and forced the forward's hand, and forward's fluffed his lines. Had the forward tried to take it past him and been brought down, that's a completely different story. As it happens, contact is incidental to the action, accidental in its nature, and doesn't represent any kind of impediment on the player in the context of the game. They had their chance and they blew it.

Not that it mattered. Bennett made a brilliant save (his third in three away games - all of which arose as a result of more than slightly dodgy penalties) and it stayed 1-0. Town should then have doubled the lead, with Kay missing a great chance at the back post from another set-piece.

Town probably shaded the first half, creating better chances and controlling the way Bournemouth played. And this continued for the first 15 minutes of the second half, in which Afobe missed a glorious chance to bury Bournemouth. One on one with the keeper, six yards out, he managed to lose his footing and blast right at the keeper.

But the rest of the second half saw Bournemouth dominate. They levelled on the hour mark through a brilliant effort from McDermott, and pushed Town all the way. But they didn't create any particularly clear-cut chances from open play, and were limited to long-range set-pieces. Ian Bennett was superb in goal for Town, relieving so much pressure. The midfield were naive and should have got a better hold of the game for large periods, but they weren't helped by a referee blowing up for every little contact on someone in a red shirt.

This was incredibly frustrating. Every decision went against Town in this period. At one point Scott Arfield went on a run to alleviate the pressure, and was brought down not once, but twice, both times clear free-kicks. Sportingly, Bournemouth knocked the ball out for him to receive treatment. On another attempt to break out Roberts was cut down by the no.15, who was already on a booking. Town free-kick, clear as day, but the ref managed to find some reason to give it to Bournemouth. On another day, the no.15 could have walked. Moments later Roberts was held back off the ball as he tried to get to a clearance, and when he was released he nudged the Bournemouth player. Fine, the second one's a free-kick, but what are you going to do about the first one, ref? Not notice is the answer.

But Town were naive. Too many silly free-kicks were given away, and for all I can complain about four or five incidents, there were another ten where players went in and conceded cheap free-kicks. The pressure was kept on by a side desperate to win and who will be disappointed not to have created more against a Town side who couldn't get the ball second half.

The back four and keeper were very solid, which was fortunate. The turning point probably came where Peltier went off and Afobe missed his chance. Hunt did OK, but his naivety defensively led to the goal. The two central defenders were excellent and didn't put a foot wrong, and for me Naysmith had his best game for a while. The midfield was good first half, but disappeared in the second. Roberts looked dangerous first half and had his moments second, but still doesn't look at the races for me, looking tired and short of confidence. Ward didn't get into the game, and neither did Afobe.

Obviously, the bonus from the game is that we didn't lose. Going back to the Galpharm level is not a bad position to be in, and being at the Galpharm means the second leg will be a different kettle of fish. It's now a 90-minute season, and Town need to play better than they did. But in front of a big crowd, Town should be able to flex muscles going forward and perform far better than they did today, especially in the second half.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Feersum Endjinn

I don't think I've ever said this before for a novel by Iain M. Banks, so here goes:

By heck, that was disappointing.

I went into it with very high hopes. Here was an award-winning novel, for one thing. Here was a novel by Iain M. Banks for another. And I rate Banks, I really do. The Player of Games, Use of Weapons and Look To Windward are all books I could sit down and read from now until Kingdom come. Against A Dark Background, Consider Phlebas, Inversions and The Algebraist aren't far behind. Of course he's produced material I've found disappointing, but that was of a standard compared to his other works.

This, on the other hand, was just plain disappointing by any standards.

It's a sure sign I'm not enjoying a book when it takes me 6 days to read only 279 pages. And this was one of those cases. I found the narrative structure frustrating, switching in a regimented fashion between initially unrelated viewpoints. Chapters split into sub-chapters on a rota basis might help the writer to keep a track of where he's going - but from my perspective I found it artificial and frustrating. The story just wasn't organic enough in its structure.

As usual, the world was well-realised with some excellent writing. Set in the very far future of Earth (a rarity in Banks' SF, Transition aside), the planet is in trouble. The Solar System is about to enter a dust cloud that will blot out the sun (or the Encroachment, as it is known in-universe). Humanity has lost its technological background, with quite a lot of its members having shoved off elsewhere and those still on earth being relatively backward. Even if many of those who remain are connected to another sub-world, the Crypt. It's typically Banksonian in its style with despots and conspiracies abound.

And yet I couldn't get into it. In no small part down to the final one of the four main viewpoint characters, Bascule the Teller. His sections are amongst the most frustrating I've ever read in the English language. For whatever reason Banks has used phonetic English with a Scottish dialect (natural, I suppose, considering his own background) to write from Bascule's perspective. And it makes for incredibly frustrating going. It really breaks the flow of the story when you're having to go back and spend a few moments deciphering what's just been said. Not that there was much flow anyway, arbitrarily cutting between characters.

When it all comes together at the end (as it inevitably does), what's gone before does make sense. But unlike Use of Weapons the sense isn't of, 'ahhhh, now I see, that's brilliant,' but is rather of, 'why didn't you just say that in the first place?' It pains me to not recommend a Banks novel, but this is one I can't recommend. But it's a blip, and isn't going to put me off reading Surface Detail when it comes out in paperback later this month.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Is an ignoramus a kind of hippo?

We live in a world where the average person thinks himself deep if they see a conspiracy theory everywhere. Those same people will then watch Britain's Got Talent and The Only Way Is Essex and proclaim them the zenith of entertainment. It's safe to say I don't have a high opinion of the average person in British society (and we're not going to get started on what I think about more than a few people on the other side of the Atlantic - well, not until later).

Today's reports of the death of Osama Bin Laden have aroused the sceptics - and with good reason. The evidence of his death is sketchy. A photo has been doing the rounds of the battered body of Bin Laden, but there's more than a little doubt hanging over it and more than one fairly intelligent person I know has declared it photoshopped by someone aiming to capitalise on the story. The story of his death isn't entirely watertight, with reports stating that the body has already been disposed of, and at sea to boot. The conspiracy theorists are out in force at the moment, hypothesising that Bin Laden isn't dead, or is dead and has been for some time, or (in perhaps the most lunatic suggestion I've seen) never existed in the first place (yeah, television pictures of him over the course of 30 years or so aren't any kind of evidence and are just an American government cover-up, aren't they?).

I'm of an open mind in the issue. I'd like to believe he is no longer a threat, but I'm also realistic enough to see the holes in the story. As I lawyer, I see reasonable doubt in the evidence.

But as a reasonably intelligent human being I also like to think I see beyond the story and into the stupidity of the morons currently writing comments on the BBC's comments board at the foot of the report.

I've perhaps not been following the news as I could have been over the past few weeks, what with dissertations and other work to be doing. But I have picked up on the furore raised by the potential Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump surrounding Barack Obama's nationality. Not only do I find it cynical political posturing, I also find it a shameful incidence of racism. The question of President Obama's nationality has nothing to do with his ability to run a country, and has more to do with playing on the fears of an ignorant mass of voters who will react to any question of 'un-Americanism' by reacting against it.

We saw during the presidential race of 2008 the fear and ignorance of any non-white that certain parts of American society can't shake off. And we're constantly hearing now how Obama is Muslim (which he isn't), how he isn't an American citizen (which he is), how he's a terrorist (which he isn't), not through informed comment but through the fear and ignorance of an uneducated underclass.

Take one comment on the BBC website as an example of the ignorance, bigotry and sheer hatred that some people seem to have:

"I was elated this morning, when I woke up to find a certain Islamic leader who struck terror into the heart of America had been shot dead. Then I was left disappointed as I realised it was an S not a B"
If Obama was white then there would be no question of whether he was Muslim (which still begs the question - why does that matter? Being a follower of the Islamic faith does not mean someone's a terrorist: far from it. A true follower of Islam will be a peaceful man, as, at the heart of the matter, there's not a greatly significant amount different between the faiths of Christianity and Islam), wasn't American, or whatever. Yet because he's not of what certain Republicans would term an acceptable colour he's put under scrutiny for these things so his presidency is undermined. Apparently, racism is an acceptable tool of statescraft in Western democracy.

Time to move back over the pond to more familiar territory. After the abolition of the death penalty in the late 1960s, there seems to be an increasing amount of people demanding the flog 'em and hang 'em form of justice to come back. Personally, I'm dead set against capital punishment, but I'll listen to reasoned arguments in favour of it because there are some good arguments for it. Indeed, in the case of Bin Laden I don't actually have a problem with the reports that he was killed on the spot without a trial. I'm not saying that as someone who's turned his back on organised justice; it's a concession to the unique situation of Bin Laden and the West. Had he been brought in alive it would have resulted in chaos: terrorists would have tried to get him back, there would have been unrest at his trial, he would probably have been assassinated somewhere down the line. While the lack of a trial will worry many people, it's understandable and forgiveable in these circumstances. I think a majority of people would look at the situation and see it a similar way, whether they were American, British, French, German, Canadian, etc.

Of course, we have to have at least one person making a snide comment about British justice:

"Thank god the Yanks got there before the British as the Brits would have caught him and sentenced him to the full wrath of the British Justice, a maximum Community Order of 300 hours Unpaid Work with absolutley no chance of being extradited to the USA"
Note the poor spelling.

It's another comment arising from ignorance. In this case, of English (not British) justice. Whilst some people seem to think even a tiny indiscretion warrants doing time, and anything more major deserves hanging, the English justice system has in fact developed beyond these pea-brained responses. Fine, so some sentences are genuinely soft - but they're the exception that proves the rule. I far prefer English justice's measured approach against American justice and its need to appease the electorate, with judges being voted into and out of office. If Bin Laden was tried and convicted in an English court he wouldn't be leaving prison at any stage of his life. No, he wouldn't be extradited, because of the European Convention of Human Rights, which is apparently another bone of contention for Daily Mail readers.

According to some, criminals use the ECHR to stay in the country once they've been convicted. A state is under a duty to protect the lives of all it has charge of (Article 2). You can't pick and choose the lives you protect. Every human life is protected. Sometimes this doesn't seem fair - but think of the alternative. Small-time petty criminals being sent back to goodness knows where, where they face the death penalty for minor crimes committed in their formative years? People fleeing from war being sent back to face the horrors of genocide? Whilst the current situation is a little unsavoury in more than a few cases, the alternative is (or, at least, should be) utterly unpalatable to anyone with human feelings.

Unfortunately the modern day ignoramuses who seem to make up a majority get more of a say than people who have more than the Daily Mail's hate between their ears. I could have picked any number of comments from the story. It's a sad indictment of modern society.