in the present, nothing lasts

“True Detective” series 2: Everyone says it’s weaker than the first one. Everyone is wrong.

It has everything that was good about series 1, to be sure: the cinematography, production values and atmosphere of weird underlying menace are perfect, the leads are all brilliant in their roles, and the general sense of Place (both in terms of magnificently shot scenery porn, and in feeling as though this world is alive, and its characters are actually adrift among its modern troubles, rather than just being pieces in a narrative of convenience), though that Place is the California valleys and the interplay of dying industries and new high-speed rail, rather than Louisiana wetlands where everything is simply rotting.

But, unlike the first series it actually has a plot. Things happen (for a reason!), and while our characters ooze overwrought melancholy in every scene, there is more going on than character studies in grizzled manpain. S1 had lots of good things about it but also some huge flaws: it was one of those shows which tries to be Art through deliberate obscurity, and ends up as a chore to watch (while failing to come anywhere close to the actual artistic high water mark of HBO drama, The Wire); its overriding theme was “masculinity”, which, yeah, just read the Iliad instead, nothing has changed; its plot didn’t matter, and its final twist didn’t actually make any goddamn sense. The plot was there to service the manly grimaces, not the other way round.

Here it’s the right way round, and although it starts a little weakly and ends a little predictably, it’s a wonderful example of the density of plot, character and detail you can force into a show while still having a pace that is resolutely unhurried. The fare is a bit more commonplace (political crooks, gangsters and PMCs rather than sisterfucking bayou satanists) and the hardboiled stereotypes are more modern but just as broad (crooked cop with custody issues, hard-as-nails lady cop with one of Those backstories, closeted veteran caught between who he is and his sense of who he needs to be, gangster kingpin learning that nobody really leaves the game); but it winds its threads around each other with great skill and concentration, and succeeds in its real goal – which is having the audience take it seriously, though perhaps not quite as seriously as it takes itself.


past the square, past the bridge, past the mills, past the stacks

A very cool thought which occasionally occurs to me: in a world which contains both the Channel Tunnel and the Trans-Siberian Railway, I can hop on a train on any station in Britain and, eventually, find myself in any other station in Europe and Asia, without ever leaving the railway network. And Railhead, the forthcoming book from the explosively talented Philip Reeve, is that thought writ on an enormous scale, where you can get on a train and find yourself on the other side of the galaxy.

It’s a return to more grown-up books for Mr Reeve, whose work over the last few years has been aimed at younger readers, with the jolly good (if snot-focused) Goblins series and the even younger, wonderfully illustrated collaborations with Sarah McIntyre (Oliver and the Seawigs: recommended even if you aren’t 8). Mortal Engines, which came out a bit before either the “YA” or the “steampunk” trends really took off, has been retroactively pigeonholed into both of them; arguing about genre is the dumbest thing ever and I won’t do it, but Railhead is Proper Sci-Fi by anyone’s definition (and presumably to be marketed as YA, because there’s murder but not sex), set in the future with spaceships and robots and stuff. A lot of modern science fiction trying to set space opera in The Future has been caught slightly flat-footed by how, between various bits of microtechnology and the internet, the modern world has basically become science fiction, and so needs to make up alternative histories to keep things analogue enough to force Star Wars into – but Railhead deftly builds on what we have now (drones and miniaturised terminals, the Datasea and its “spam-sharks that would hack your mind and fill your dreams with adverts”) without letting it get in the way of being a great big space opera where things explode excitingly and the right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.

There’s a great cast of major and minor characters: our hero, Zen Starling, a thief trying to be tough but who really doesn’t mean badly; the magnificently named Threnody Noon, a thoroughly sympathetic spoilt-heiress type who develops hugely over the story; Flex, a gender-fluid graffiti artist who reminds me of Tim Maughan’s fantastic very-near-future science fiction; terrifying killer trains (you read that right), burned-out cops, monks made of insects, nuanced aristocrats, a man in black looking to pick a fight with the gods themselves. And the sense of detail and texture is superb: every concept has an underlying story, every glum little failed economy sits on a well-told history of how it ended up that way. This is (thankfully) not one of those books which has capital-T Themes, but touches quickly and convincingly on lots of them – automation and androids destroying jobs and livelihoods; great economic forces washing over worlds and societies, chewing through them and abandoning them; a power vacuum and the subsequent politicking between factions, shot through with the uneasy relationship between civil legitimacy and military force. Which makes it believable, because even when it’s about galactic emperors and hyper-intelligent close-to-goddesses, you can see echoes of the real world underneath.

And it’s full of great little Reeve-isms, double meanings and references to books and old bands and everything else. Robots are called Motorik, which sounds good in its own right, has a lovely double meaning if you know what it means in German, and an even better triple meaning if you know far too much Krautrock-related terminology. (Or Google it, as I did.) That sort of namedropping often comes off as a bit smug and trying-too-hard-to-be-clever in books (and especially games), but here, like in Mortal Engines (with “is this your first time on a harvester?” and an airship called Idiot Wind) it all fits seamlessly into the worldbuilding and adds texture and detail despite being a reference. A logo consisting of a pair of rails crossed by a lightning bolt carries a joke that will sadly be lost on non-Brits, but is still a perfectly good symbol for a future police force patrolling the rails. What I’m getting at is that this is a universe where trains are the most important form of transport, ruled by someone nicknamed the Fat Controller, and it’s a good nickname and gives the reader something even if they didn’t catch the joke.


I won’t spoil the plot (any more than the above vague allusions already have) but it’s very satisfying, twisting and turning without losing momentum, and culminating in the best sort of climax, a great explosive set-piece of resolutions and revelations where you can’t be sure, from page to page, who will come out on top – or who you really want to.

It’s due to arrive for real in October. I hope there’s another one along soon.

the trees can’t grow without the sun in their eyes

Finally watched Elysium. Ambivalent about it. Aesthetically, it’s perfect: almost every shot feels like a classic sci-fi novel cover, shining primary colours and blocky-but-detailed buildings and spaceships with big numbers on them, but all realised in lovely modern HD and with odd bits of characterful South African flair rather than the usual American boilerplate. (And the guns were great, which is always a plus.) There was a definite feeling of fanfic-y wish fulfilment underlying it (“so now Sharlto Copley the grizzled mercenary villain with the regenerating beard is dramatically leaping, katana drawn, over a precarious walkway in the underfloor refinery district of a giant space station. Reckon we can shoehorn in some drifting cherry blossoms? Also, combat droids with tacky golden bling”), but that’s fine when coupled with a decent imagination and production values (see: why Jupiter Ascending was not a completely worthless film.)

But the worldbuilding is just a bit too OTT and silly, and it all ultimately falls flat, because taking a Hot Button Issue, dressing it up in loads of sci-fi and turning all parties involved into absurd caricatures of themselves doesn’t actually count as “commentary”, even less so with a panacea ending. District 9 had the same problem, but halfway through it gave up on the documentary premise and the “aliens are here, but they’re really shit and we have no idea what to do with them” social metaphor to turn into a brainless but solid action flick with an Afrikaner twist. This… doesn’t manage it, not because the action is weak, but because space is a lot less compellingly new and weird to the Western moviegoer than Johannesburg.

Also, it’s an obnoxiously Tumblr look-how-right-on-I-am thing to say, but why would you write your Spanish-speaking working-class-hero, who was raised by Mexican nuns, who represents Mexico in the agonisingly obvious metaphor (“undocumented spaceships”, really?), whose pals (including the cute one from Y Tu Mama Tambien) are all Hispanic gangsters… and then cast Matt Damon, the most generically Aryan man ever?


“Sir, You Are Being Hunted” – The whole tweedy steampunk/affected “chappishness” aesthetic does less than nothing for me, and I raise an eyebrow at anything which advertises its “Englishness” as a selling point, because it usually means awful pandering-to-Anglophiles apples’n’pears kitsch. SYABH was a tough sell on that alone. But I gave it a try, and I’m extremely glad I did.

You start (with a disappointingly un-plummy voiceover) in the middle of one of five procedurally-generated islands, each realised according to a different beautifully designed “biome” (misty rural, redbrick industrial, Dear Esther cragland, wide open fens, National Trust Scheduled Ancient Monument in t’woods), and each of which has a few smoking pieces of the inventory-filling macguffin you need to take back to the standing stones in the centre of the main island. Increasing numbers and varieties of creepy steampunk robot patrol the islands as you progress.

You’re alone, initially unarmed, foraging for food and equipment among the junk in villages empty but for mechanical killers in tweed. If one sees you, he’ll call others. If you shoot him, the gunshot will bring cyber-toffs from miles around. Running and hiding are the order of the day, inventory management is critical, weapons are clumsy and ammo is scarce. If this sounds like DayZ, it’s because it is, and has the same in-your-face survival mechanics which made DayZ so compelling (despite it being an utterly and increasingly broken game).

It has a great deal of what I like about the STALKER series (which are without a doubt my favourite games ever): a wide-open sandbox where you can see enemies miles off, limited player resources, a total lack of scripting (NPCs have actual AI and move around of their own accord), and fearsome NPC lethality. These all combine to give you a hugely immersive degree of player freedom and player responsibility: you make your approach on your own terms, engage based on your reading of the situation – but if you’ve misjudged or missed a cue, if you’re a little clumsy on the approach or slow on the draw, at best you’ll waste a lot of your limited resources getting away alive, but most of the time you’ve had it.

Most of the time, fighting is not the best option. Much of the time, fighting isn’t even a practical option. That late-game stage when you’ve accumulated enough of the rare guns and ammo make the robot-smashing spree infinitely more satisfying than if they’d given you a piece to start with – but most of the time you’ll be crouched in a field motionless as blazing red eyes sweep the long grass and beeping killers clank back and forth, clutching a half-empty gun for comfort as much as practicality and praying they don’t trip right over you. It’s a game of patience, judgment, and total concentration.

The atmosphere is superb, and the game takes full advantage of its bleak (but frequently heart-stoppingly gorgeous) setting. Much of the game initially feels pseudo-Victorian, but as well as the ruined cathedrals and grim red-brick chimney towers there are wind turbines and modern road signs; it’s a handful of brutalist tower blocks and Business Development Parks away from reality. The enemies, for all the surface silliness of the “haw haw let’s have ROBOTS smoking PIPES” concept, are also genuinely threatening, from the poacherbot who sneaks around in the woods setting traps, to the fox-hunting cyber-toffs on rocket horses and the slow, horrible, two-storey-tall Landlord who stamps across the moors keening mournfully and shrugs off bullets like rain. The audio design is really, really excellent, informative but subtle, and relentlessly atmospheric.

Despite the procedural generation, I’m not sure how much replay value there really is to the game – past a well-designed but limited selection of weapons and tricks to deceive/blow up your robot pursuers, and a menagerie of robots which are differently horrible but all basically to be avoided as much as possible, there’s not that much really in there. Loss of inventory on death coupled with respawning mechanics for items might add a bit of return value, as when you die you load a previous save with all the useful kit (maps, artifact-scanner etc) you had then. But it’s absolutely worth playing through the first couple of times.

I wasn’t expecting “STALKER: Shadow of Northumberland”, but I got it, and it was a very nice surprise after Betrayer (which seemed like it could be “STALKER: Call of Roanoke Colony”) turned out to be such a letdown past the intrinsic coolness of fighting demon conquistadors in monochrome 1604. I’m very glad I played it now, after it’s had a while to mature past Early Access stage, as middling-to-negative reviews elsewhere seem to indicate that it was a bit shonky on launch.

not that we may see the stars, but that the stars may see us

“Interstellar”: It’s not often (the only other example I can think of is Cloud Atlas) that a film manages to feel like a thick ol’ novel, willing to take on massive generation-shifting relativity subplots and the continuation of the human species, and use them as its subject matter rather than background fluff for gunfights, chases and an inevitable unconvincing romance.
Unfortunately, it’s not a very well edited novel. The essential central plot isn’t too bad but there are far too many plotholes, some minor (how is it their dinky li’l SpaceShipThree shuttles need a Saturn V knockoff to clear Earth but can SSTO out of 1.3G?), some glaring (I suspect the “it’s the Oklahoma panhandle in ’34, but everywhere, forever, and somehow this hasn’t led to universal war” setup was handled so vaguely because any more details would make it even more pathetically unconvincing) and some so over the top you can’t even be bothered to argue (really though, what the zog happened at the end?)

However, despite being absurdly long it didn’t outstay its welcome, and it was one of those rare films which actually drew me in to the fiction and got me emotionally involved. Probably because the soul-sucking, imagination-torturing terror of space travel, with limitless nothingness in every direction, is what got me into science fiction in the first place, and this has that in spades.

Good performance from Jessica Chastain, OK from the McConaissance and Doe-Eyes Hathaway, hardly feels like anyone else was in it.

The place with the waves was such a massive missed opportunity to have a melancholy, long withdrawing roar for minutes (/years), though.

…that “we don’t need engineers, we need farmers” line is still getting on my tits. All modern farming – all agriculture at a higher form than hardscrabble subsistence – relies on some form of engineering, from mile-long centre-pivot monstrosities fed by dams beyond the horizon right down to steel ploughshares and harness to haul them. Engineers have been bringing water to the dry land since at least the time of the second Scorpion King (and look up qanats, they’re awesome). A farmer without engineering is a fucking forager.

the phosphorescence of the skid marks lighting the the M5 all the way from Exeter to Damascus

Dear Esther musings/review on The Solitary Bee! Though of course you’ve all already played it, right? Right? (Rake, Evangelion is downloading, it’ll get the treatment in due course. Stop torturing me long enough to prepare some bribes.)

Tom and I are making good progress with our current project, which is a pistol styled after the Rotovolver (a weird, obscure, mid-19th-century attempt at an early repeating pistols by the French gunsmiths Gouery and Noel) which is an important item in one of my planned stories, (the probably-never-to-be-finished Ten Ways to Keep from Growing Old). We’ve got a nearly finished 3d model and the foamboard to make a mould, after which we’ll need casting, painting, wood grips, pipe cutoffs for the trigger guards and ghost rings… But we should really talk about that on his blog, so I’ll take some pictures and Sketchup screenshots and post them on there with a proper writeup later.

Continue reading “the phosphorescence of the skid marks lighting the the M5 all the way from Exeter to Damascus”