Wednesday, 31 August 2011

In the Buff

Well, that took a while. It's been a couple of months since I started my watch through of the full run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and last night I finally reached the conclusion of the eponymous Buffy's TV adventures.

First things first, I thoroughly enjoyed most of the series. It had charm and wit as well as a multi-faceted dramatic approach - it wasn't wholly a drama series surrounding the core characters and their dilemmas, neither was it entirely a series concerned with the big bang special effects. It found a balance after a season two and thrived on it.

Season three represents the zenith of the programme's run. That balance is perfected. It's not just monster of the week heroics like much of season one. Neither is it life angst (season six). Characters have already found their roles and they continue to develop in them. I think I've already mentioned that the characters are very human, multi-faceted and comprising of real depth. By and large even the villains are the same.

Unfortunately, Buffy doesn't sustain this level of brilliance. Season four's big bad seems out of keeping with the rest of the programme, even if the season finale does a cracking job of setting up coming seasons. Adam could have been skipped entirely, as could the Initiative, in favour of a more mystical feel to the season. Whedon seems to struggle with running two shows in tandem (season four of Buffy coinciding with season one of the as-yet unwatched Angel).

Season five is hit and miss - although that's mostly hit, to be fair. The decision to bring Dawn into the show had clearly been taken as far back as season three (in the finale, Buffy and Faith discuss her impending arrival whilst making a bed), but that doesn't stop it being a not-particularly-good idea. Glory is a pretty poor excuse for a big bad, despite the fact she's probably the second most powerful villain Buffy faces (the First being the exception). On the other hand, we see good character development and a stonking emotional finale.

For the most part season six focusses on its young characters' development in the world, supernatural occurrences taking a back seat. It also has yet another poor set of villains in the Trio. Until the last few episodes, there's never the sense of impending doom there was in the first trio of seasons and season five. There's a sense of incredulity while they appear on screen. That one of them goes on to become an ally of the Scoobies does nothing to aid their credibility as serious villains.

Again, though, the season finale bails the season out. That's something Buffy does better than other programmes: pulls the big guns out in the finale for a brilliant season conclusion. Season one had 'Prophecy Girl', which still goes down as one of my favourite episodes. Season two brought us the two-parter 'Becoming'; season three was 'Graduation'. After a pretty poor run up to the apocalyptic final battle, season four did something a bit different in 'Restless', but it worked and was one of the most intriguing episodes of the whole run. Season five's 'The Gift' was one of the most emotional of the series. And then season six came along with a hat-trick of episodes leading up to 'Grave'. Season six's finale did actually have a tear in my eye at the end, which means it ranks up with Battlestar Galactica's 'Daybreak'.

Season seven is almost a return to early seasons' form. Sometimes the plot seems outlandish, but it recovers some of the oomph of seasons gone. And there's also that knowledge on Whedon's part that this is the end - so he can do some things he wouldn't normally do in case the show got pulled. So there's the first lesbian sex scene on television about three episodes from the end, the graphic depiction of a suicide and some more gratuitous violence involving Nathan Fillion. It doesn't reach the level of seasons two and three, but at the end there's the sense that it lived up to expectations and was suitably apocalyptic for the end of a series that showed about ten apocalypses being averted.

There are more than a few choices the makers make that I'd quibble, the main one being why did Spike have to become a good guy? Angel had a reason, Spike didn't so much. Another would be what possessed Joss Whedon to make him think 'Once More With Feeling' was a good idea? Sometimes it moves away from its roots without thought as to what went before.

But on balance it's a tremendous watch which I enjoyed. Though you won't find me watching later seasons so much as seasons one to three. And fangs for the memories.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Writing update

Twelve minutes for an update. Right... I can do this...

What writing have I done recently? Not a lot. I'll be hitting the trail again tomorrow, though, kicking off Chapter 2 after starting Chapter 1 on holiday. Both Chapter 1 and the prologue need work on them (not to mention finishing), but the scene for Chapter 2 came to me today whilst watching Gladiator and feeling ill.

On the short story front, I have a few ideas to work on. I'll get round to those in due course. But first, I need to re-write The Noose after it made the shortlist for an anthology but ultimately fell short at the final hurdle. I like the idea behind it, but as it is, it doesn't quite pull it off to the extent I want it to.

The target for the week is 5,000 words of various things. Let's see if I hit this target for once.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011


I want you to picture the scene: two figures prowl the ice-bound land, blizzards around them reducing their silhouettes to little more than dark outlines in the whiteout. One of them carries a spear, a crude instrument of flint and wood hardened by fire. They come to a bluff, look down, and see a sight beyond their wildest dreams.

This is the opening of the three-volume novel Helliconia. Written between 1978 and 1985 by Brian Aldiss, one of the contemporaries of Arthur C. Clarke, it tells the story of a 'Great Year' on Helliconia, a planet orbiting a binary star system. Each of these Great Years lasts 1,825 'Small Years', or around 2,500 Terran years. As the blurb of the SF Masterworks edition points out, cultures are born in the spring, flourish in the summer, and eventually die out in the winter.

Helliconia focuses on a mix of the people, the planet, the science, and the politics which make up the planet's history. We start at the end of a winter, with Yuli. From him we go on to the early societies, then to the advancement of technology and religion, to the eventual fall of human civilisation.

It's a remarkable achievement. Ambitious in its scope, it would have been easy for Aldiss to alienate a reader by introducing too much. I only read it in the summer and on holiday because I felt that at any other time taking on the challenge of reading it would render me incapable of understanding or following it. Perhaps some readers will be alienated - who knows? The fact is that he manages to pull off everything he tries, and in my book that makes this book something of a monument to ambition. Why write small when you can write big?

I won't pretend that at times it isn't slow, difficult going. Much of the time it is. That blend of ideas and theories mixing together means that sometimes the plot - insofar as events pertaining to human protagonists make up the plot - moves at a glacial pace. This is especially noticeable in the second part, Helliconia Summer. But ultimately the standard of writing never drops and it's a rewarding experience.

Central to the whole work is this idea of the cycle. The most notable cycle is that Phagors - humanity's traditional enemy on Helliconia - dominate throughout winter, but fall under the yoke of human control in the spring and summer. Plans are laid to eliminate the Phagors - and for by the Phagors to overthrow the humans - but none comes to fruition. There are the diseases - bone fever and fat death - which are vital to the ecology of the planet but against which humanity fights, again, fruitlessly.

Earth is watching Helliconia through its observation station, Avernus, and through its observations we see another side of humanity, where everything isn't caught in a cycle. We see destruction and rebirth. We see the whole spectrum of humanity through various lenses, through the sweeping observations of life on Earth or Avernus, and the close scrutiny of Helliconian life.

Helliconia isn't a book about wonderful adventure or the everyday human dramas of life, much as it does have those things in it. It's got a grand majesty to it, being about something larger and greater. Ultimately, it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it had me interested and engaged. Much as I was pleased to see it end (it's 1,300 pages long - anyone would be quite pleased to move on!), I'm not averse to reentering its world and exploring Helliconia a little more

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

An open letter to the Telegraph

Dear Sir or Madam,

In the light of the current situation in the UK with riots and looting it is understandable that people have strong opinions on the cause of the riots and of what measures need to be undertaken to prevent further problems. Included on the letters page of the 10th August edition of your newspaper was a letter from retired Colonel David Whitaker, which read 'Sir - if the police were not racists before, they have every reason to be so now.'

Strong opinions are natural, and over the last few days I have seen many with which I disagree and more than a couple which I abhorred. However the letter published within your pages was the first I felt the need to write about.

The gentleman's letter, whilst short, contains several assumptions which are dangerous within a society such as the United Kingdom. Perhaps the most dangerous assumption is the assumption that the problems that have arisen are as the sole result of ethnic minorities and their actions. The letter also assumes criminality on behalf of members of a race, a fundamentally dangerous opinion to hold.

I do not know what the gentleman has formed his opinions on. News coverage has clearly shown the perpetrators involved in the riots to be of all races.

The man shot in the events leading up to the riots was black, that's true. It is also probably true that many of the original protesters whose protest was broken up were black. They lashed out as a result of frustration and anger, an understandable reaction considering that a friend or a family member had been killed. The colour of their skin has nothing to do with that reaction. A general sense of frustration, not only with the police but with perceived ostracism from society was the trigger. What would the police being racist towards the black community achieve beyond further feelings of alienation from society? It would be inflammatory and counter-productive. The end result would be further riots. More damage. In the end it would be a destructive cycle. Attempts must be taken to engage communities, not alienate them. The only way to end such riots is to engage the disaffected through positive policing and discourse with the community.

Events following the first night, however, have nothing to do with the black community. They are entirely to do with an underclass of all races seeing an opportunity to cash in. That the underclass in itself exists is a bad reflection on society, although the underclass also demonstrates no intention to better itself, seemingly content to exist without the morality of most members of society. It's the fault of society, but also of their parents. Earlier I mentioned people being disengaged with society, and somewhere down the line this has happened to many of the families of those involved, resulting in the loss of a moral compass, largely through irresponsible parenting. Somehow that underclass needs to be re-engaged and re-initiated into society as a whole. To characterise this issue as a problem in the ethnic minority communities ignores the deeper problems.

On the same letters page, I saw many letters and comments which ignored the deeper issues at hand. Whether that's down to the politics of the paper or not is known only to yourself and your colleagues. Another suggestion on the letters page was to criminalise the wearing of hoodies - another comment which ignored the millions of people, young and old, who wear them without causing problems. I am a qualified barrister, a published writer, a man with no criminal convictions and a man who doesn't engage in criminal activities, and yet I regularly wear a hoodie. Does merely wearing a hoodie place me in cahoots with looters and rioters?

There was, however, one telling comment: one gentleman noted that bookshops were apparently immune from looting. The ignorance of the looters is apparent, because they don't seem to have a grasp on reality and what their actions really mean, and what they are. However, it also seems that ignorance is on both sides of the debate.

That your newspaper published the offending letter is surprising. The Telegraph is known for high standards of journalism, even if the politics are not something I agree with. It's also understood that the letters are not the opinions of the paper. However more care needs to be taken when selecting letters for publication, especially when the ideas contained within them are potentially dangerous.

Peter Wilson