Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Just when I thought I was out ....

Initially I was a bit wary of the two part film of 'The Hobbit' that is now in production. I love the book, much preferring it to anything else that Tolkien wrote. I've also got great faith in Peter Jackson after he directed the Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, I always have the niggling feeling that if I go and see a film of a book I really like it will turn out to be crap or (worse) just good enough that it insidiously gnaws away at the mental impressions of characters and locations that I got from the book. Eventually I end up losing my own subjective image and just remembering the cut and dried package the director produced.

Later I found out out that my favourite film director, Guillermo del Toro, was working on it. I dread to think what he would have done with it (the words 'darker', 'weirder' and 'edgier' spring to mind immediately as this is the guy behind 'Pan's Labyrinth', 'The Orphanage' and 'The Devil's Backbone') but it would have been great to find out and gave me a real buzz about the whole thing. This lasted until last year when he quit and I started to lose my enthusiasm for the project again.

Then they pull me back in. Aidan Turner from 'Being Human' as (that well-known character) Kili. I love Aiden Turner's acting and it will be nice to see what he does with a new role as so far he doesn't seem to have done much outside of playing Mitchell. In fact the whole cast list is great (Elijah Woods as a slight exception although since Frodo wasn't actually in the book he shouldn't get much screen time) and I like that they have echoed the LOTR film trilogy by selecting most of them from Britain or the Antipodes.

I'm still curious as to how they will deal with its non-standard structure though. Film producers generally like films with a few main characters who stay involved throughout the whole movie and a larger cast of bit characters who are only present in a few scenes. With 'the Hobbit' they will have the difficult task of making thirteen distinctive dwarf characters memorable, who will be around for most of the movie but by their sheer number will be difficult to fully develop. Possibly this is part of the reason for turning such a short book into a two part movie. It might just let them flesh out the characters adequately.

Monday, 28 March 2011

'Dupin and Holmes' Part 1 - The Murders in the Rue Morgue

'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' was Edgar Allan Poe's first story containing C. Auguste Dupin, his Holmes like fictional detective, and the anonymous narrator, who bears more than a passing similarity to Dr Watson. The connections are no coincidence. Poe's detective stories were some of the first ever written and had a strong influence on Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes even mentions Dupin in 'A Study in Scarlet', denigrating him as showy and extravagant while conceding that he has some analytic skill.

So how do Holmes and Dupin compare? While both fictional detectives share eccentric lifestyles and a whimsical approach to the horrors they encounter there are some noticeable differences. Dupin and his narrator are Byronic loners. They spend their days in a dim, shuttered house, occupying themselves with reading, writing and conversation in perfect seclusion. Only at night do they venture outside into the city in conversation on the topics of the day or in silent observation of the Parisian populace. In comparison, Holmes' dark moods and eccentric working habits seem relatively normal and Watson is so ordinary that he seems to exist only to narrate and trigger explanations of Sherlock's methods by his slow grasp of what is going on. Dupin's financial situation and background is also more romantic (in the gothic sense) than Holmes'. Sherlock is portrayed as obtaining a fair wage from his investigations and living a comfortable middle class life. Dupin, in contrast, is a fallen aristocrat who despite his brilliance has had his energy crushed by poverty. The only luxury he permits himself is the buying of books to distract him from his meaningless life.

As to who is the better detective I will have to wait until I've finished the other two Dupin stories. I've not read every Sherlock Holmes story but I think I've read enough to attempt a comparison. My only preliminary conclusion is that Holmes is right to accuse Dupin of showiness. Considering Poe's love of atmosphere and the macabre I think it would have been more surprising if Dupin hadn't been a bit of a showman.

Unfortunately the story itself is not quite up to Arthur Conan Doyle's standard. Early nineteenth century Paris makes just as creepy a location for a cryptic detective story as late nineteenth century London. However, the reader is not given enough clues to be able to preempt Dupin in any meaningful way. In this respect, Poe might have been better off writing a full length novel rather than a short story so as to draw out the conclusion more slowly and give a few hints about where it was going before the last scene. A longer novel would also have enabled him to make the most of his strong characters and excellent scenario. The final reveal, that the murders were committed by an escaped Orang-outang, has more than a faint whiff of the ridiculous about it. Worse, a similar idea was used later and in a superior manner by Doyle. The 'murderous beast' turning out to be the killer has had some of the novelty value stolen from it by the excellent Holmes story, 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Cyberpunk ripples

Fucking hell, I thought these ( were a product of William Gibson's twisted imagination. Then I find a reference to them in Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Red Mars'. Japan is a scary place.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

God save us from authoritarian politicians and their historical pretensions.

It was a miracle that the UN security council resolution 1973 on Libya was passed. Only 10 of 15 countries voted for the resolution when nine were needed to push it through. Neither Russia or China vetoed despite the widespread prediction beforehand that they wouldn't want to set any precedent for foreign intervention in countries with oppressive regimes.

Of course like most miracles it starts to tarnish a bit once you look closer. The Arab League seemed to want to have their cake and eat it - their chairman didn't wait long after the resolution was passed to start voicing worries about it. However, this at least was fairly understandable. Those with long memories will know that the subject of western countries bombing Libya is a bit of a touchy one in the Middle East.

Then, out of the blue, Putin takes on Gadaffi's rhetoric and starts referring to the resolution as a 'call to crusade'. I'm not entirely sure why this stock phrase always gets dragged out. Yes this is a coalition of broadly Christian states carrying out military operations in an Arab country. However, as far as I can see they haven't made any move to occupy Jerusalem yet and the Pope isn't signing the jet pilot's shirts before they fly out. The intervention in Libya is humanitarian and sanctioned by international law. Any attempt to try and muddy the waters with reference to religious or (supposed) culture clashes is the act of a fantasist or arch deceiver.

Also in historical terms it is completely absurd. Do we call the German occupation of Northern Italy in WW2 the second Gothic invasion? No, because over a millenia has passed and 20th century Germans had as little cultural and ethnic relation to the Visigoths as a modern Briton has to a Celtic tribesman. What is it that is so special about the Crusades which means that so many political commentators and politicians believe they can be used as a catch all description of any conflict between European/North American and Arab states?

Medvedev's surly 'criticism' of Putin, which nevertheless expressed his reservations about international intervention in Libya, showed a far greater grip of 'realpolitik' than Putin's absurd comparisons. Nobody is expecting Russia to be happy about allowing UN intervention in Libyan affairs but Putin could at least have tried not to play into the hands of Gadaffi's propaganda mill.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Gadaffi says he will open arms depots to the population of Libya.

" [Gadaffi] earlier said he would open arms depots to the people to defend Libya" BBC

Really, Gadaffi? I think the rebels have been doing a pretty good job of taking the weaponry off of the army already. You might want to think twice before handing over more firepower to the opposition.

But being a little more charitable Gadaffi probably means he just wants to arm 'the right sort' of Libyans. The upstanding supporters of the dictatorship rather than those crazy, 'al Qaeda', drug smoking young Libyans who seem to have got it into their heads that they might want some sort of democratic rights. Whether or not this will help his supporters against modern military jets is another matter.

So basically Gadaffi is again feebly attempting to score propaganda points as his situation worsens. 'Look, I'm so sure that the people love me that I would arm them!', he blusters, as the UN forces him to at least pay lip service to a cease fire. 'This is crusador aggression against the sovereignty of Libya!', he whines, as his air defences are destroyed by the French and Americans (fully backed by international law and solidly humanitarian principles).

Pathetic. Just another ailing dictator who thinks 'L'√Čtat, c'est moi' despite all evidence to the contrary.

Friday, 18 March 2011

A tale of two insanities.

Last night I watched Shaffer's film Amadeus for the first time and I absolutely loved it. I'm not usually a fan of historical dramas and novels due to the well known proclivity of directors to take the few sources and facts about the period we have, embellish half of them beyond recognisability and then chuck the other half away in order to make room for more sex scenes. However, knowing next to nothing about eighteenth century Vienna or Mozart's biography I could easily ignore whatever historical inaccuracies there were and enjoy the movie.

So what did I like about it? The acting was great. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were especially good, although I also enjoyed Jeffrey Jones' 'Joseph II' until he gradually faded out of the story towards the end. It was undeniably a long film with a running time of 2 hours and 50 minutes. However, the humour and strong characters helped to ensure that the story never slowed down enough to become boring. Every scene set up the next and there were no unnecessary side plots or distractions from the central narrative. The music was, of course, exceptional and brilliantly used to show how Mozart's life impacted on his work or to provide suspense and bombast when the story required it.

I also enjoyed the complexity of the main theme as I saw it - the contrasting insanities of Salieri and Mozart. The more obvious degeneration in the movie was Mozart's descent from a spoilt and abrasive newcomer at court to a pale and ill drunkard. Salieri is the jealous and machiavellian figure behind the scenes who ensures that Mozart, despite his success, never receives clients or full recognition. The stress of poverty despite constant hard work and lack of acknowledgement of his genius by others eventually drives Mozart to an exhausted death. His relationship with Salieri is where the young German's naivety is most obvious. His early successes in earning the Emperor's favour and getting around inconvenient imperial censorship are achieved by his clear enthusiasm and genius. However, he is no politician and can only recognise the most obvious of his opponents among the Emperor's advisers. He goes to his grave believing that Salieri is his friend and advocate when in fact the Italian has been doing all he can to undermine and destroy Mozart.

However, the structure of the movie means that even as Salieri seems to triumph over his younger rival we know that this his victory will bring him insanity and degeneration instead of satisfaction. The film opens with his attempted suicide and internment in a mental asylum where he tells the story of Mozart's death to a nervous looking priest. Throughout his recollection of the episode Salieri is obviously conscious that he destroyed something beautiful - the 'voice of God' that he heard in Mozart's compositions. Even as he sabotaged the man's career he couldn't help himself from attending and admiring his music and operas. Knowing himself to be a mediocrity, albeit one that had succeeded in attaining prestige and critical acclaim, he could not bear to see the talent that had been denied him embodied in the vain and braying figure of Mozart.

It is this respect for genius that subsequently leads to Salieri's own madness and attempted suicide. This degeneration cannot simply be blamed on his guilt at what he did to Mozart. Early on in the film we are shown that Salieri is comfortable with the idea of a 'necessary' death. His father was a humourless businessman who opposed the idea of a composer's career for his son. It was only with his accidental death that Salieri could travel to Vienna and begin his ascent to the post of Imperial Kapellmeister. The callousness with which Salieri talks about his father's death and refers to it as a 'miracle' disillusions us of any thought that he is squeamish about using the deaths of others to further his own ends. While Salieri is often an unpleasant character, in his persecution of Mozart he was driven far more by his love of music as an expression of divinity than by base jealousy. He cannot stand having extinguished a talent greater than his own and this leads to his own attempted suicide for which he is put in a mental asylum.

That's my interpretation of the point of the film anyway. Salieri is nothing if not an unreliable narrator and as I said above I have very little independent knowledge of the period or characters involved so take it all with a pinch of salt.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Why it is shit if Gadaffi gets away with turning the army on protestors.

This may seem a banally obvious statement. It's shit because nobody should kill people for engaging in non-violent protest (or maybe even violent protest if it has a good enough justification) against a dictatorial regime.

However, there is an additional reason why it is a tragedy if Gadaffi claws his way back to power by fighting his way through the rebel strongholds while the UN hum and haw about a no fly zone and freeze a few oligarch's assets. It tells other dictators that the way to deal with protest is to go in guns blazing. Mubarak's regime and the Tunisian government refrained from such violent responses to a far greater degree than Libya and they were toppled.

Arguably we can see this already happening. Bahrain has followed different strategies in response to protests, sometimes resorting to violence and sometimes not. However, soon after Gadaffi's army started gaining ground they called in reinforcement troops from the UAE and Saudi Arabia to 'guard sensitive areas'. If these regional heavy weights are getting involved they must be fairly certain that there will be no repercussions from the UN or America for their anti-democratic actions.

EDIT - 18.03.11 And as of yesterday we have a step in what is hopefully the right direction! UN security council passes a resolution calling for a ceasefire and no fly zone. Hats off to Cameron, Sarkozy, The Arab League and all the other countries that (by vote or in spirit) supported the resolution. Let us hope it is enough to save Benghazi.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Israel approves construction of settlements in West Bank.

"An Israeli government official said the construction would take place in settlements that Israel expects to retain control of in any possible peace agreement with the Palestinians." Quoted directly from the BBC site.

Oh well that's ok then. I'm sure the Palestinians won't mind you taking that decision without consulting them. Neither could they conceivably have different ideas about the content of a 'possible' future peace agreement.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

A panoply of book reviews.

I usually have a couple of books on the go, especially when I have time on my hands. I try to pick them to complement each other, so one might be some brainless science fiction that I can read a few pages of at work when I get a moment and the other a biography of a physicist that I only brave when I can actually commit mind and time to it.

Recently however my reading schedule seems to have gone a bit haywire. I'm reading (or have recently finished reading) several books at once and am rapidly approaching information overload. Therefore, in order to get my mind straight and for the benefit of medical science if my brain actually physically explodes I thought I would do some brief reviews of each one and explain why I'm reading it (An eclectic mix of spoilers below).

1) The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II (abridged) - by Fernand Braudel

Progress: Quarter of the way through.

Why I'm reading it/review: Back at university I did a historiography course which I generally found a bit dull but had occasional highlights that really stuck with me. Reading an extract from this book was one of those moments. I like Braudel's unswerving conviction of the predominance of long term geographical and economic factors over the opportunistic political actions of monarchs and rulers. It's a bit like reading Paul Kennedy but with a charming French writing style (especially impressive as it was drafted from memory in a German POW camp). It's also very well published with interesting illustrations spread throughout the text rather than whacked in a de-contextualized blob in the middle which always puts me off. The details of trade winds and the geography of the Mediterranean should be boring but it's actually pretty soothing. However, you can't read too much of it at once which probably explains the profusion of other books.

2) The Mammoth Book of Best New Sci-Fi 23- edited by Gardner Dozois

Progress: Recently finished.

Why I'm reading it/review: Picked up cheap in a charity shop for £2.50. Pretty good as it is RRP £10, 700 pages long and only came out in 2010. I've read the previous two collections so I knew what to expect. Very good selection with the highlight being John Wright's retelling of 'the Ring cycle' set on a severely damaged space ship where the crew have reverted to savagery. Interesting enough that I went straight to my laptop to read through the Wikipedia summary of Wagner's 15 hour opera. Other good stories included 'Events preceeding the Helvetican Revolution' by John Kessel, 'Infinities' by Vandana Singh, 'Paradiso Lost' by Albert Cowdrey and 'One of our Bastards is Missing' by Paul Cornell. My only criticism is that the front cover blurb blatantly lies. I was promised stories by Alastair Reynolds, Ken Macleod and Greg Egan, dammit.

3) Fragile Things - by Neil Gaiman

Progress: 3/4 of the way through

Why I'm reading it/review:

This one is from Poole library. I thought it would be a good bit of relief from Mediterranean as I approached the end of my Mammoth Sci-fi book. Bit of a mixed bag, most of it is good and creepy but only a few bits live up to the triumphant heights of Good Omens or American Gods. The real highlight was 'Keepsakes and Treasures' which reads like Gaiman was channelling Iain Banks. A tale of a disturbing muscle man working for a mysterious but powerful oligarch. The focus is on his past, from his first murder (aged 12) and subsequent hiring, through his brutal hunting down of men he suspects may have raped his mother and fathered him. An extremely dark look into the mind of a sociopath with (arguably) understandable reasons for his actions. I was surprised by the sensitivity of many of Gaiman's poems and short stories. It creates an extremely effective juxtaposition with the darker bits of the book, such as the story summarized above.

4) The Dunwich Horror - by H.P. Lovecraft

Progress: Finished

Why I'm reading it/review:

I forgot to mention above my other favourite story from Gaiman's collection. 'A Study in Emerald' is a macabre mixing of Sherlock Holmes and Lovecraftian mythos. By the end of the story we discover that Sherlock Holmes is working for 'the Old Ones' who rule through the monarchies of the world while Moriarty is what we would see as the hero, resisting the demonic beings that have taken over the world. I've always wanted to read some Lovecraft and discovering this book in Salisbury library seemed a good opportunity. Really good despite the fact that I'd had the ending ruined for me by a cheap retelling in a kid's book. Atmosphere was great but I think it was a bit silly of Lovecraft to make the 'Horror' that he's been building up to throughout the book invisible for the majority of the finale. Love the last sentence.

5) A Study in Scarlet - by Arthur Conan Doyle

Progress: Start of Part II

Why I'm reading it/review: More context reading for the aforementioned 'A Study in Emerald'. However, I also saw bits of the first episode of 'Sherlock' recently and it was annoying me that I had seen two reconstructions of this story without being able to recall the original. I found a copy on Project Gutenberg and am enjoying it greatly. Reserving judgement until Holmes finishes solving the case.

6) Teach Yourself Complete German

Progress: Chapter 15 of 23

Why I'm reading it/review: Sadly I've been neglecting this recently after an enthusiastic start. When I was applying for Modern History masters courses it was a good pressure release to practice some German language. Improved reading skills are sure to be useful wherever I go and it was something I could always work at if my applications were taking forever to come together or referees were slow in replying.

Phew, I don't think I'll be starting anything new until I've cleared at least half of that backlog! Luckily it is all so interesting I'm not losing heart and abandoning anything half read.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Diary of a Space Age Bureaucrat Pt 2

Khatami Al had been a croupier at the Sylvanus Prime casino ever since he was old enough not to try and eat the chips. He knew the regulars, the punters that needed an eye kept on them and the tricks that made the business profitable if not always as purely random as some interfering government regulators might like. Therefore, coming on shift in the early evening cool and adjusting the starched neckline of his uniform, he wasn't surprised to find old engineer Mattingly playing poker in a private room with some mid-ranking local businessmen.

As usual, Mattingly was keeping up a flow of verbiage. No one knew whether this was meant to distract others trying to examine their hands or whether the old man was simply incapable of silence. His discourse this evening was on his favourite theme, his younger days as captain of the Nebular explorer-class Frigate he had named 'the Honest Endeavour'.

Khatami Al had done some digging soon after he had met the old man, brought in from humanity's distant home world by the governor to look after the complicated drainage equipment and automated logging machines needed to keep back the encroaching rainforest. Mattingly might look withered and pedantic in the scruffy overalls, purple monocle and tarnished gold watch chain that he affected when gambling in the casino. However, his story was broadly true even if the details were naturally embellished to impress the more jaded space travellers that he might meet.

Mattingly winked at Khatami with his uncovered eye and resumed his stream-of-consciousness narration. “Never start off with the risky missions”, he was saying, “I travelled to thirteen different planets and fled from three enemy fleets before my 'Endeavour' fired its first shots in anger. You'd think that would have cut into my profit rates but I had the good luck to find an unemployed Zorg helmsman with an unpronounceable name on a forested world. Sort of like this one actually. After that I could travel between worlds in a tenth of the time that flying straight would have taken.”

He took a sip from his whisky cocktail and gathered a small pile of chips that he had bluffed away from the adjacent player. “Shame about him really. Made it most of the way around the solar system and then those officious Muktians blew his saucer up as we sweated and fought in the light of a super-hot star. We got the bastards that did it though. Me and O'Reilly swung behind their last corvette and hit them with chain gun and particle cannon until they were nothing but smoke.”

Khatami knew that Ripcord O'Reilly was a fighter ace who had taken up with Mattingly during his travels. He was less of a gambler than the talkative engineer but could occasionally be seen spending his pay checks at the casino bar or in a jet overhead flying out of the city on sleepy patrol missions to ensure that no unauthorized building was going on in the green belt. Khatami tuned back into the old man's ramblings just as the game came to a climax, with a big pot sitting alluringly in the middle of the yellow baize of the table.

“Always pay the Klakar well.” Mattingly was pontificating now, “Those avian traders were always on hand to help me wipe out hostile Tau Ru drones and Silikite fighters in exchange for a fair cut of my loot. You don't want to go up against that sort of fire power without assistance.”

His until now silent audience around the table groaned and slapped the table with their fists as he laid down his cards and won the hand. He flicked a brace of small chips to the bulky security man overseeing the table and bagged his winnings.

Rising from the table with a grin he patted Khatami on the back as he passed. “Next time I might just tell them the story of the Zelulig monocle I bought on Aurora”, he whispered, mouth close to the croupier's ear and smelling strongly of whisky, “Word is previous users made use of its x-ray functions to trick gambling fools out of their hard earned money. Disgraceful behaviour in my opinion.”

Khatami grinned as he made his way toward the Skyjack table to take over from another frazzled looking casino employee. He'd have to remember to remind security again that they weren't to allow the oh-so-innocent-looking engineer near any tables where he could bet against the house.

(This is a game report taking a certain level of artistic license from the free game 'Strange Adventures in Infinite Space', to which I have added the mod 'Even Stranger Adventures in Infinite Space'. Great game if you like space combat and complexity and don't mind basic graphics. For this mission I was flying a Nebular explorer on the Medium enemy difficulty but with high nebular density. I explored every planet in the solar system thanks to the Zorg helmsman and scored a respectable 7794 getting a place on the lower half of my high score table.)