Thursday, 12 November 2015

Harold, Albert, and Jim

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Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Curse of the Reverse Rip-Off

I recently watched, for the second time, Disney's somewhat disastrous movie, John Carter. This, if you don't know it, is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel A Princess of Mars, which was published in 1912. As you might imagine, the story does not contain cutting-edge scientific facts about Mars. Nor did it in 1912. But that's not the point, of course - it's just a bit of knockabout fun with some top British actors, as usual, doing service as aliens. (I mean, whaddya want, French aliens?)

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John Carter turned into a disaster for Disney not because it's a bad movie, but because they seem to have made a comprehensive mess of marketing it. You'd think an exciting adventure on a fantasy planet with lots of battles, swords, airships, four-armed green barbarians, alien cities with legs, and other weird stuff wouldn't be too hard to promote. But it was, apparently, and poor old JC bombed. And that made me wonder if part of the problem was simply that the story, with its 'sword and planet' (as opposed to Tolkienesque 'sword and sorcery') theme is problematic because people feel it's already been done too often.

Star Wars is a hybrid of space opera - a proto-science fiction sub-genre that arose directly as a result of Burroughs' influence - with other obvious influences. The actual plot of Star Wars (the first film, technically Part IV: A New Hope) is taken directly from Kurosawa's samurai film The Hidden Fortress, but now the only reason most people know of the Japanese film is because Lucas paid it such sincere homage *cough*. But anyone watching John Carter might have felt that, yes, this is in some way a 'Star Wars rip-off' despite Burroughs obviously getting their first.

This problem of 'seen it already' might affect another sci-fi project taking shape at the moment - an three-part TV adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 novel Childhood's End. The opening sequence involves big alien spaceships appearing over major cities and sending us the helpful message that a. they're in charge now and b. everything will be fine because they're going to solve the world's problems. Guess what? Things are not that simple.

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Super-powerful aliens flying in and claiming to be our pals is the plot of V, the hit Eighties sf series that was recently remade to no great acclaim. (I tried it - it was dull, a classic instance of unambitious 'by the numbers' writing, direction etc). Will people think 'Oh, this is just ripping off V, I know what'll happen'? If so, they'll be very wrong - it's nothing like V. But perhaps they won't stick around long enough to find out.

That would be a pity, because if there's one thing I'd like to see more of on TV it's adaptations of classic works of sf. There are some good signs, notably The Man in the High Castle, the first two episodes of which live up to expectations. There are so many good books out there, and it would be nice to think of programme makers deciding to go with proven quality rather than this year's (or, more usually, last year's) gimmick. Well, we shall see.

And if you don't know the original V series, it's really cheesy and well worth a watch on YouTube. Oh, and before it was shown nobody believe in Lizard folk running the world. Now millions seem to. Such is the awesome power of televisual cheese...

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Monday, 22 December 2014


Over at Extreme Energy's website you can find a very, very detailed map of the state of play re: shale gas extraction plans for the UK. I think anyone living in (say) Margate might find it especially interesting.

Looking at the South East in general, I think we can anticipate some wondrous ideological contortions from right-wing MPs, councillors, and newspaper columnists. The 'fracking is vital for Britain' brigade will struggle to explain why the view from their French windows should take precedence over their nation's future. But I'm sure they'll think of something.

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Mail's Mandy Misogyny

So, Mandy Rice-Davies died, and the Daily Mail referred to her as a 'call girl'. This is old-time newstalk for 'white prostitute with posh or at least upper-middle-class clients'. And no, I am not linking to this or any other story in the Mail, as a public service to you, gentle reader. Thank me later. I could go on about the fact that Ms Davies was never a prostitute, but that would merely be challenging the Mail on a matter of record. Why bother? They never cared about facts. So let's have a crack at the 'tude behind the inaccurate description.

First, the phrase itself. The dead language of cliché and worse, that's what our newspapers use. We're used to it, don't think about how bad it is, unless we happen to read it aloud. Words like 'reveller' when they mean 'someone who's been to the pub'. Except, of course, when they use 'pubgoer'. Anything rather than refer to people as people, and use ordinary people's language, it seems. So it's not surprising that 'call girl' is still in the Mail's lexicon. I wouldn't be surprised if the Express used the term as well.

But of course they had to use a sexually-charged and rather grubby term when a woman famous for the (unwitting) fallout from a sexual encounter died. Why? The right-wing press is apparently run by misogynists, who also manage - through efficient time-management - to be racist, homophobic, anti-intellectual, and a leering, slobbering interest in teenage girls.

Yes, I know journos have to make a living and someone who works for, say, Murdoch money isn't necessarily as horrible as Old Rupe, (Randy Ol' Rupe is this horrible, btw,) But, given that we live in a world where journos can make a difference for the better in oppressive states, very few seem to try and do the right thing in the relatively free UK,

But it's not just Murdoch. The Mail is part of a news empire owned by the fourth Viscount Rothermere, who lives in France to avoid paying UK taxes. (France is a country the newspapers he owns routinely tell us is hostile to free enterprise - go figure). The first Lord Rothermere worshipped Hitler, sending him fan-mail, terming him 'Adolf the Great', and predicting that he would become immensely popular with ordinary Brits. Oh, and Rothermere also wanted to King of Hungary, presumably on the basis that Adolf the Great owed him that much. He died in 1940, a very apposite date.

During the run-up to WW2 Rothermere didn't just spin for Hitler, he paid thousands to a Nazi agent, She may have been his mistress. Certainly if the Mail were publishing this item today, that's what would be heavily hinted at, so why not? 'Did Daily Mail Founder Shag Hitler's Call Girl?' - one possible headline for a belated non-scoop of the sort the paper specialises in. Oddly enough, though, it's not customary in the press these days to refer to 'Nazi sympathiser and possible traitor Lord Rothermere'. One law for call girls, it seems, another for long-dead, pro-fascist loons.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

An Illuminating Interview

You know how, back in the day (i.e. before the 15th century), people had to write all those long books out by hand? And how that Gutenberg bloke came along and started printing stuff, which led to More Books?

Right, now we're on the same page - so to speak - here's a link to an illuminated MS that's been created by modern scribes. None of them are monks, so far as I know, and they are unlikely to be struck down at any moment by marauding Vikings, or the Black Death. Otherwise, though, they are perfectly legit scribes. With ink.

It does look a bit odd, because of course mediaeval manuscripts were chock full of weird images of naughty/crazy people, strange mythical beasts etc. Here the scribes have done a cracking job of illustrating the piece with images of the Saturn V, Apollo spacecraft etc.

Anyway, they've produced a spiffing volume of illuminated writings about sundry topics. At the link you can see an interview with physicist and science writer Paul Davies. It's an interesting interview in itself.

I think Davies makes a good point re: Richard Dawkins, in that the latter's books made biology sexy, whereas before The Selfish Gene it had been seen as the rather dull, worthy cousin of physics and astronomy.

Re: written science fiction, there is the thorny question of whether it should - or can be - more optimistic. Davies makes the key point that the Cold War led to the Space Age because of intense competition for prestige between two power blocs. But if military strategy had been the sole issue, there'd have been no real need to try and convert/upgrade ICBMs to take men to the Moon and probes far beyond. Similar competition might produce a 'Second Space Age' fuelled by the rivalry of (say) India and China.

Sadly, Davies also makes the point that our culture seems increasingly rootless, or rudderless. Where material acquisitiveness is everything, nothing is meaningful. At the same time, he's right to argue that things are better now in many ways than they were in the Sixties or Seventies. What we lack is a 'framing narrative', a common core of myth or idealism. I don't see literary sf delivering that, but I could be wrong. Renaissance humanism only affected a small minority of people in theory, as only a few could read. But many more were touched by art, music, and the general spirit of the age.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Always carry a sausage...

In case there's a dog.

Not standard ninja practice, but still a useful tip.

Of course, if there's a sausage dog, you may be in trouble.

Sunday, 29 June 2014