Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Best of 2014

Where 2013 was a year of having the time to do as I wished, 2014 has been one where time has been at a premium. My reading for pleasure has been more limited than it has been for some time as I've studied for a masters in history. Writing time has been severely limited. I've not even managed to complete a single DVD boxset while I've been relaxing, and the only two games I've completed this year have clocked in at less than 100 hours.

That's not to say I've not read some fine work this year. In terms of non-fiction, it's been the best year I've probably ever had; indeed, my non-fiction reading has exceeded the amount of SF I've managed to read. On the other hand, I've not read as much short fiction as I would like. Interzone and Black Static have been all I've managed on a consistent basis, and I'm an issue behind in each of those as it is.

My reading this year has been more eclectic than in previous years. The Iliad, Superman: Red Son, How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, The Explorer, Calcio... The list goes on. As usual I've consciously tried to read an equal split between men and women writers, a task I've hopelessly failed at this year (just 23 out of 102 books were written by or contributed to by women). Thanks to now possessing a Kindle Fire, I've been able to read a number of graphic novels which I've been waiting to read for some time.

From what I've read, seen, and played, my year's best is as follows:

Best film

Interstellar reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey in some ways, although in others it was a very different film. Perhaps the start was slow, and some of the science failed a little, but as a spectacle it was superb. One scene in particular was outstanding.

Best football book

Jonathan Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid was an outstanding history of football tactics. His more recent work The Outsider was a remarkable work on the history and development of the position and role of the goalkeeper. Anecdotal in places, and showing Wilson's tactical awareness, The Outsider is one of the most readable books I've read about football.

An honourable mention goes to Simon Kuper's Football Against the Enemy, which is one of the outstanding football books of the last 30 years.

Best history book

Both Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum and The Penguin History of Modern Russia by Robert Service were outstanding, but the best work of history I've read this year is Anna Funder's Stasiland. Political history can be terrifying, but it's this kind of oral social history which brings the realities of a totalitarian state home.

Best graphic novel

I have to admit that after a good start, Y: The Last Man tailed off. Superman: Red Son was a tremendous stand-alone work. But the best I've read this year was the conclusion to Joe Hill's Locke and Key series, which brought the tale of the Locke children and their struggle to a conclusion. It was tremendous read throughout, and the conclusion was appropriately powerful, horrific, and compelling.

Best novel

There are only really two contenders, despite having read some good books this year. Perhaps the pick of the new fantasy novels I've read was Scott Lynch's The Republic of Thieves. And I didn't read any horror novels whatsoever. But the two main contenders for best book I've read this year are Emphyrio by Jack Vance, and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carré. And I can't pick between them. Both were outstanding in different ways.

Best TV series

Another tough category to finish. I've not watched much telly this year, either on the telly or via boxsets. The most I've watched live has been the World Cup, having given up on Doctor Who a couple of years back. I've caught snippets of Borgen, and occasionally watched the odd episode of The West Wing, but otherwise the sum of my telly watching this year has been:
  • Star Trek: The Original Series (48 episodes)
  • Star Trek: The Animated Series (2 episodes)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1 episode)
  • Game of Thrones (10 episodes)
  • Dollhouse (18 episodes)
And the clear winner is Game of Thrones.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Top Ten Book List

After being nominated to compile my top ten books on Facebook, I had to think. One problem of always having at least one book on the go and getting through a book every few days is that I have read a lot, and a lot of those books are books I've fallen in love with for one reason or another. Ask me my favourite book and I can give you a shortlist of three or four; ask me for my top ten and expect to be besieged by a list of somewhere between thirty and forty.

This list isn't perfect. I reckon I'll be back to edit it at various points, and I feel I should probably include some honourable mentions at some point. Enough books have entertained me and changed me and made me think that I should at least mention a handful of them beyond the 'top ten'. But, for now, this is my top ten (subject to my ever-changing opinion).

10. Perdido Street Station (China Miéville)

There are a few books by the master of the New Weird which I could have mentioned. The City and the City was a Philip K. Dick-esque journey through the seen and the unseen in the course of a murder investigation, and Embassytown is probably the best SF novel of the last 5 years, to name but two. But I've plumped for Perdido Street Station, the 900-page steampunk brick, which introduces the grotesque world of Bas-Lag in all its raucous glory. It's fantasy, but it's not typical fantasy, and it marks itself as separate from the mainstream JRR Tolkien knock-offs from the word go. That it's supremely entertaining and engaging also helps matters.

9. All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque)

When I read this I stayed up until 2am to finish it - a mark of quality if ever there was one. It's a touching war story that makes you re-evaluate war and its consequences from a human perspective. That I haven't re-read it yet it something of a travesty. As a human being you owe it to yourself to read certain types of book, and this falls into that category.

8. Hamlet (William Shakespeare)

Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew...

Hamlet's first soliloquy is actually better than his most-celebrated lines, in my view, at least. Some people don't like Shakespeare because it was forced on them at school. There are some Shakespeare plays which aren't the most fun and don't make sense (see: The Tempest), but when Shakespeare is at his best his plays are brilliant storytelling, with humanity encapsulated beautifully. This is apparent throughout my favourite play - which I've never had the chance to see performed live.

7. The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham)

Man-eating plants that can walk, possible Soviet conspiracies, and humanity being rendered blind overnight in massive numbers by an improbable meteor shower leaving it vulnerable to the aforementioned plants combine in an orgy of pure silliness. All it really needs to improve it is someone saying that dogs can't look up (Big Al said so). Just don't try to take it seriously.

6. Hyperion/The Fall of Hyperion (Dan Simmons)

OK, so I'm cheating a bit by getting both of these in at once, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. You can't have one without the other, and both are absolutely magnificent, despite differences in structure. Space opera sometimes struggles to balance characters with events, but on this occasion Simmons creates a touching story set amidst great events which don't lose their impact. And there are added literary references to enjoy.

5. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell)

Prophetic, essential, misguided, overrated, magnificent... I can't add anything to what has already been said a million times over about Orwell's magnum opus, certainly not in one paragraph. Its dissemination of totalitarianism is essential for understanding the psychology of the world in its post-WWII state.

4. A Game of Thrones (George RR Martin)

I agonised over this one. I wondered whether to pick one of Robin Hobb's Assassin books, or whether to select The Lies of Locke Lamora. When done well, traditional fantasy can be wonderfully entertaining and still be challenging, as those two books show. But A Game of Thrones won out, if only for one reason: Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion probably comes into his own more in the later volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, but the first volume in the series has yet to be surpassed in terms of quality.

3. The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy series (Douglas Adams)

42. There. I've said the obvious joke. The problem of HHGTTG and the rest of the series is that it suffers from over-exposure. The jokes are so well-known that they're part of the British canon, like the Spanish Inquisition or Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. The whole series (well, maybe not Mostly Harmless) is brilliantly funny and provides a great pick-me-up on a regular basis after long, mirthless days.

2. Dune (Frank Herbert)

I think I've read Dune at least six times, and every time it's offered me something new. Its sequels provide raw, unadulterated philosophy, but the original provides adventure as well as politics. The true vision of Frank Herbert may be in later volumes, but it's the first which is the masterpiece (despite its admittedly clunky prose and occasionally flat characterisation).

1. Use of Weapons (Iain M. Banks)

'Tell me, what is happiness?'

Iain M. Banks wrote some stonking books. Most of these were set in or around the penumbra of his ultimate utopia, the Culture. Use of Weapons was the third of these, and it was his best. He never topped it, either in his SF writings or his mainstream output. Use of Weapons was - is - as close to perfect as SF gets. Ideas, characters, settings, politics, set-pieces... It had them all in a perfect blend of beautifully-controlled prose. It was funny, it was touching, it was violent, it was sexy. And it's a book I fully intend to take to the grave with me.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Final Fantasy XIII

It is, of course, just like me to be late. Final Fantasy XIII, the first JRPG released by Square-Enix in the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation, came out in 2010 and I've only just found the time and stubbornness to complete it. And this is despite receiving it as a gift just after it was released.

For anyone who doesn't know their videogaming onions, Final Fantasy XIII is the fourteenth (counting Final Fantasy X-2) numbered iteration of the exceedingly popular Final Fantasy series of JRPGs. Their formula is simple and effective, and has kept gamers playing for the best part of 30 years thanks to well-woven stories, interesting characters and a diverse range of gameplay. My own introduction to the series came in 2002 when Final Fantasy IX for the PS1 went platinum and found its way into my birthday wish list. I fell in love with everything to do with it almost immediately. It wasn't long before those other early 3D Goliaths Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII were sitting on my shelves.

What attracted me wasn't just the story or the gameplay. The games were big, serious games which were heavyweights in their field by any standard, but they never seemed to take themselves too seriously. There was a lightness of tone even in the darkest moments. They were difficult and frustrating at times, but they were also fun. Even now the classic FF games can make me laugh and brighten a dark day.

And that's why Final Fantasy XIII is the biggest disappointment I've played in many years. Although I can make many criticisms of its gameplay and story whilst praising the design and production quality, what it lacks most is the sense of fun which was inherent in earlier instalments. For the first time, I had the sense when playing through the 60 hours of the game that it was taking itself too seriously. Dark characters played their roles against an unrelenting dark background of dark darkness. Had the game been fun I would have been willing to forgive it its many flaws. As it is, the seriousness robs the game of any character and turns the whole thing into an unremitting grind.

There are lots of good things about the game, though, even if they don't seem to be the things which affect gameplay and enjoyment. Quite frankly, the production values are stunning. Without being a player of many modern AAA titles I can't properly assess these against others in the field of gaming post-2007, but I was blown away by the graphics and the design. From beginning to end the game is rich in gorgeous details. The atmosphere is superbly realised throughout.

However, you don't play a game for its atmosphere (not unless you're playing Silent Hill 2, at any rate). And in some ways the game's gorgeous façade actually serves to highlight some of the game's biggest problems. After all, why would you design so many stunning vistas and then restrict the player to only being able to gawp at them from time to time whilst running through fifty-odd hours of linear tunnels? It's a paradox that the game serves up time after time.

Because at its heart that's what Final Fantasy XIII is: a linear tunnel of frustration looking out onto the magnificence it could have had. There's a lack of variety in the gameplay which will frustrate even the most committed fan (and I'm pretty stubborn when it comes to my support of the franchise up to now). The puzzles, one-off mini-games, side-quests and open-world gameplay of previous editions have been sacrificed in favour of a two-facet game where the two facets are running around and battling a lot. Although all team-based JRPGs have those two aspects and rely heavily upon them, they normally have something to break the game up and retain the player's interest. Final Fantasy XIII doesn't.

Then there's the sense that the game doesn't want player involvement at all and has aspirations of being the first 60-hour film in cinematic history. Player involvement can be summed up as winning battles and then proceeding down a linear path to the next cut-scene. Dramatic set-pieces happen completely without player involvement even where there was scope for a mini-game. At one point near the end your party finds itself flying back to the game's first world only to be dumped in the middle of a series of what can only be described as street races. Final Fantasy VII would have had you controlling your speeder through the streets, avoiding oncoming traffic. Final Fantasy XIII simply engages in another drawn-out FMV that heightens frustration rather than encourage a sense of awe that you're meant to feel.

Even the battles are largely computer controlled. The paradigm tactical system lets you switch between tactical sets, but all that does is switch your characters' roles. Two characters in your three-man party will always been computer controlled while you control the party leader. The gambit system of Final Fantasy XII may have wrestled absolute control from the player, but at least the player could turn it off and make split-second decisions. In this, you're left switching between pre-set tactics and hitting X. And this goes on for 60 hours, without change.

In the right hands, Final Fantasy XIII would have been a good game. As it is, it's a mess hardly worthy of the title 'game'. It may look nice, but there's nothing beneath that shiny exterior to excite anyone but the most hardened fan. My advice would be to steer well clear if you're ever tempted.

Friday, 28 February 2014

The Target Man

In my weekly Huddersfield Town column for the Reporter series I argued that the Terriers need a new striker. My rationale could be distilled into one sentence: we need a like-for-like replacement for James Vaughan.

The only problem about the column is only having a couple of hundred words with which to explain my position. I want to go into detail, explain not only how a change can effect something, but why. I want to talk about the games I've seen and seasons I've experienced which have informed my opinions. Up to now, it hasn't been necessary to go any further and write a supplementary blog, but I feel I should explain my opinion in this week's Reporter. I doubt everyone will agree with it.

James Vaughan is Huddersfield Town's talisman. He's a powerful striker with a physical approach to the game. He gets in defenders' faces and unsettles them. He gets involved in battles to win the ball. He chases lost causes. He holds the ball up for team-mates. His power and pace allied with his team ethic and eye for goal make him a nightmare for defenders.

He's also injured for a significant period every season. One of his biggest failings is his fitness record - or lack of it. I doubt you'd find many people who would disagree with the statement that he's a Premier League quality striker playing in the Championship. Ultimately, he's playing at this level not because he isn't good enough, but because no one in the top flight is prepared to take a gamble on his fitness when they can sign a player of similar quality with a much better record of actually getting onto the pitch.

The Premier League's loss is someone in the Championship's gain, so long as that side in the Championship is equipped to handle the inevitable long absences. And this is where Huddersfield Town have problems. With Vaughan in the side, the side are play-off contenders. Without him, it's a struggle to maintain an overall record of earning an average of a point a game.

Vaughan's attributes make him the ideal modern target man. This is where I may need to explain what I mean. The phrase 'target man' conjures images of the old-fashioned English number 9, a burly front man knocking central defenders out of the way as he bullies his way past the opposition. And that still holds true to a certain extent, but the modern target man has a little more to his game than his less refined forerunners.

James Vaughan isn't 6'3". He's good in the air, but he's not got the ability to hang there like an Andy Booth, the archetypal target man of the last century. But he is direct, quick, and intelligent. He alone of all Town's strikers can pull the defence this way and that with his movement and win a physical battle. Defenders are scared of him because he has all the above attributes, and it means someone will go with him at all times, creating space elsewhere.

This is the true role of the target man: to create space. Often it will be for his strike partner. Alan Lee fulfilled this role superbly when playing alongside Jordan Rhodes. Wayne Allison's introduction to the team in the Great Escape of 1998 gave Marcus Stewart the space he needed to destroy Division One defences almost at will. Andy Booth was first allowed to flourish when Ronnie Jepson arrived in 1993, and ten years later Booth provided the foil for a young Jon Stead.

But it's a necessity in English football that the target man be a physically strong player. Pavel Pogrebnyak at Reading has little to his game other than strength, but he's a player defences struggle with because of that attribute. Even Atdhe Nuhiu - an absolute clogger of a footballer by any standard - managed to play the role on Saturday, holding the ball up tirelessly for his Sheffield Wednesday team-mates. And it seems to be a necessity for the weaker sides in any given division to have a target man who can pull defences one way and another - even if he isn't a prolofic goalscorer - to cover for the technical shortcomings in the team.

Having said that, most of the top teams in the Championship do have a target man of some description in their side. The exception to that rule are table-topping Leicester, although you'd still argue that between them David Nugent and Jamie Vardy have the qualities of the modern target man.

Without James Vaughan Huddersfield Town do not have a target man. The players available currently are Nahki Wells, Martin Paterson, Danny Ward, Sean Scannell, and Cristian Lopez. Two are goalscorers, another two are primarily wingers, and the one left over is unlikely to ever be good enough for Championship football. Elsewhere, Jon Stead - perhaps the only player in the squad who can play the role of the target man other then Vaughan - has endured a torrid season and has been loaned out to Oldham after scoring just once and making a handful of starts.

Against those strikers and without the sheer presence of Vaughan, Championship defences can maintain their shape. Defenders who would find themselves drawn out of the back line or leaving gaps between themselves for strikers to exploit have a comfortable time. Sheffield Wednesday - organised, well-drilled, solid, call them what you will - and their two deep lines of four were never likely to be troubled overly by a Vaughan-less front-line.

So what are the options? The loan market could yield a striker who can play the target man role. Or another change could be made, in the system Town are playing. Maybe the response should be to encourage more runners from deep - even if the best man to do that has been loaned to Yeovil - who can break beyond the front man who, as a part of the defence dropping deep to combat those runners would have more room.

Football is, of course, a game of opinions. My opinion might be misguided, incomplete, or just plain wrong when put into practice. What is for certain is that Huddersfield Town with James Vaughan are a much more complete side than the team without him.