Sunday, 26 February 2012


Anyone who knows me knows my love for Ronald D. Moore's reimagined Battlestar Galactica. I've yet to see a finer series. Nothing else has managed to capture the modern mentality towards differences in society whilst providing an illuminating allegory to the War on Terror. Then there's the last season, which, despite its bleak tone, carries a message of hope for humanity. And all of this without mentioning the core narrative of man on the run from a superior enemy that has forced the human race from its home after an attempted genocide on a massive scale.

The Cylons were an intriguing set of characters. They were human, but with a different psychology coming from their robotic roots and some unusual religious beliefs. They didn't believe in the polytheistic religion of the Twelve Colonies; instead, their beliefs lay in the worship of one true God.

Caprica tells of a time before the First Cylon War, when Cylons were invented. This is before even the initial 'they rebelled' bit of the opening titles of Galactica, when the Twelve Colonies weren't one supernation, but were fractured states. Daniel Graystone, computer genius and CEO of Graystone Industries, has a contract to fulfil, providing mechanised soldiers for a Caprican defence programme. His daughter is caught up in a terror attack (one she's linked to, in a way), and ends up dead. She's also a computer genius, and has secretly synthesised true artificial intelligence - or, as Cylons would probably have it, a soul in something artificial - which takes her form in a virtual world. We meet Joseph Adama, father of Admiral William Adama, who is a mob lawyer in Caprica City, and have a major side-plot involving gangsters and family homour in the vein of plenty of mob films.

The most intriguing character is Clarice Willow - played by Polly Walker, Atia of the Julii in Rome - who is Caprica's closest equivalent to Gaius Baltar. She's the leader of a cell of monotheistic terrorists - the Soldiers of the One - who provide the series with an interesting focal point. Working out their intentions is difficult, to a point. Are they evil or misguided in their pursuit of Apotheosis, or resurrection? What is obvious is that they're utterly ruthless. In a series of few action sequences, where the drama is largely personal, they give us a few moments of very strong violence. Seeing failed Soldiers of the One candidates lined up and shot is one of the series' most shocking moments.

Caprica has a major problem: it can't quite decide what it is. Too many episodes feel like they're a mismatch of ideas. At times the series seems to decide what path it will follow, and as a result there is an excellent episode or two. But these moments are few and far between. Part 1 has perhaps two episodes from nine which could be described as very good; part two has a similar ratio of very good episodes to those produced, one of which is the final episode. In between times, there are moments of excellence, but rarely more than one or two an episode.

That Caprica is a Battlestar Galactica prequel and is made by the same people is apparent throughout with things like camera angles, dropped hints of the future and references to Galactica ('The shape of things to come' from the final moments is one of the most obvious references, but there are plenty of others). Production values are high, and the acting standard is also good. There are also actors and actresses popping up in new roles, such as Luciana Carro (Kat, Starbuck's constant irritant, in Galactica), and Christian Tessier (Duck, another pilot).

But it serves as a constant reminder to what Caprica doesn't achieve. Battlestar Galactica is one of the essential TV shows to watch of this century, and one of the greatest of all time. Caprica is merely decent, convoluted in places, with some excellent moments.

To a Galactica fan, it will be essential viewing. It answers questions about the inception of the Cylons and their religious beliefs - and at times does it well - as well as providing an insight into the origins of everyone's favourite Admiral. The series finale will catch the eye for others, being what the series should have been throughout rather than for 41 minutes. But if you're not a Galactica fan the series may leave you feeling alienated with its glacial pace and convoluted storytelling.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Forever War

There's a set of clichés that attach themselves to war stories like limpets to rock. 'War is hell'. 'Soldiering is nine-tenths boredom and one-tenth terror'. 'Somewhere there's a bullet with your name on it'. Sometimes something is produced that manages transcend the clichés and become truly memorable for its particular depiction of war - an obvious example is Blackadder Goes Forth - although more often than not we're left with the same tired depictions which come back to the same old sayings. It's not to say that those idioms aren't true - because they clearly are - but I'd argue that we've all heard them so often that we've become desensitised. Which is why when something exceptional does come along we heap well-deserved praise on the book or film or series.

The Forever War is hardly new. It was written in the mid-1970s by Joe Haldeman, a veteran of the Vietnam war. It won the Hugo and Nebula awards, and became the first title to be released as part of the SF Masterworks imprint from Gollancz. Rumour even has it that it was written as a response to Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

It's not even new to me. I read it when I was 17, just after I first read Dune. At the time I was struck by the violence. Some of the emotional impact was fairly hopelessly lost on me, as was much of the cultural significance of what Haldeman was saying. All I knew was that I was being treated to a rip-roaring story about the horrors of war.

I've grown up since then, but it hasn't stopped me enjoying the re-read. The story remains as strong as ever. William Mandella is a young man conscripted to the United Nations Explorer Force (UNEF) following the Elite Conscription Act. He has an IQ of over 150 and the physical attributes needed to fight humanity's newly-discovered enemy, the Taurans. He - and 99 others - are trained up (which is where we come in, with the memorable opening line, 'Tonight we're going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man'), and then sent off to fight in a series of hellish encounters.

Thanks to time dilation (a topic I'm not convinced is covered accurately by Haldeman, but I'm no expert on the subject), when the recruits get back to Earth decades have passed while they have only aged a matter of a couple of years. Mandella is incapable of adjusting to the new Earth, being alienated by the massive changes in society, and chooses to re-enter the army with Marygay Potter. Yet more military fun and frolics ensue.

The whole book is good. The action scenes are brutal, with matter-of-fact descriptions of horrific injuries. In between, we have the military discipline and turmoil of a man who doesn't particularly want to be there. Mandella is a sympathetic character, and he's easy enough to like.

But, for me, the most haunting part of it isn't anything to do with the battles or the science or the sex (and there's quite a bit of that, on the quiet). It's the return to Earth. The soldiers are warned beforehand of the changes, but it's jarring once they get there. Mandella's inability to adjust to the planet he has been fighting for is almost heartbreaking. There's a palpable sense of almost traumatic alienation throughout the sequence, which only lasts for 30 pages or so, but which sticks with me more strongly than any of the blood and guts. All he has throughout is the companionship of Marygay, one of his co-enlisted. Eventually, the couple choose to join up again, the army being the only thing they're adjusted for.

It's this which marks The Forever War out as an exceptional war novel. Haldeman's own experiences come through strongly (and some feel that The Forever War has an autobiographical element to it - I for one wouldn't disagree with them), and they leave an almost bitter taste in the mouth. It's a war novel that makes you think beyond the battlefield, and one I'd recommend to anyone. Whilst the clichés are there, Haldeman works expertly with them to bring home more than just the bombs and bullets.

Sadly for Haldeman, I've yet to come across anything else which even comes close to The Forever War. Its sequel, Forever Free, was a train-wreck of a novel, the companion novel Forever Peace merely passable and the short stories I've read have been underwhelming. But if you're going to write one great novel, it's better that it's something like The Forever War.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Hi ho, hi ho, a-novelling we go

I can never work out whether I listen to Feeder because I'm depressed or whether it's because I'm listening to Feeder that I'm depressed. All that needs to be known is that at the end of a long week I'm listening to Feeder and feeling distinctly introspective and deflated. Something tells me I need to listen to something that'll get me fired up.

Unsurprisingly, I've not had much time for writing over the last few weeks. Work has had me exhausted and at the end of most days I've not wanted to pore over many words - it's my job to read thousands of pages of records every week. More often it's been a case of tea, kill time on the internet, watch an episode of Caprica and then bed.

But it's not stopped me doing a little writing. I've managed to get some sent off over the last few weeks, and I've been making sure that I'm gathering Lab Ways influences to me. This has entailed purchasing the full box-set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and spending time making pointless notes before finally setting finger to keyboard and writing 300 words last weekend. This weekend I plan on writing more.

How much more? I really don't know. I've occasionally thought of trying to get someone as a reader to encourage me to produce more work rather than ditching the project a few weeks after I start it on grounds of frustration, having tried to draft the opening six or seven times and getting no further than perhaps 6,000 words in (out of a projected 125,000). But I don't really want to do that.

Instead, what I want to do is get rid of the frustrations I have with my own writing and just cut loose. I want a few sessions where I write 2,000 words a time. I want weeks where I write 15,000 words. But I have the problem where my own perfectionist nature will take over. I sometimes think if I can get a buffer of 30,000 words behind me I'll be able to crack on. And so it is once more that I try to get this novel out of the way.

I'll be having a full afternoon on it tomorrow, and probably an hour or two on Sunday. The target is 5,000 words, beginning with Chapter Two. Chapter One will wait until later.