Sunday, 23 August 2015

My Geekiness: Things I like.

Geek is hot these days, its everywhere you look; a trend that's been building up for at least a decade. We have a superhero films that don't suck and TV shows that are openly fantasy and immense hits. Science is hot and some of the most influential people in entertainment are gamers, geeks, and other formerly maligned groups. There seems to be more and more to be geeky over too, from the things mentioned above to computer games, comics, novels and a hundred other things. It's an expanding field, taking in new view points, including more and more people until its starting consume the mainstream.

We don't just live in Gothic times, but geeky ones too.

Perhaps as a result of this, I find myself looking at all the things out there cherry picking what I like out there in geekdom. I'm not a huge fan of television, simply because I find it a bit too passive; if I do watch stuff it tends to be cartoons and anime, though I would like to see Sens8 and Penny Dreadfuls as I've heard good things about them. Most of my geek stuff lies in books, comics and games and I tend not to think about television very much at all these days. I also have a somewhat regrettable tendency to dig my heels in if someone tells me I will love something; so sorry to anyone who has said that and then found they got a bit of an odd look.

As a result I thought I'd talk a bit about some of the geeky things I like/love and what attracts me to them.

Starting with video games: I love Skyrim, so much that I've got about four characters that I'm trying to take down different paths. The main character, a straight forward warrior has completed the main game but we've kept her to play the Dragon Born expansion, which is a bit more difficult than the main game. Other than that I'm experimenting, and have an Argonian assassin, a Dark Elf spell slinger and a Red Guard warrior, who is currently a werewolf and who I've finally cracked the archery skill with. One of the things I like is that I can come up with all sorts of different characters and explore the world in slightly different ways, acting how I feel the character would (the Argonian is far less sympathetic than the mammals I've been playing for example, even without the assassin aspect).

What I like about Skyrim, aside from the general plot of the game is how beautiful it is; the art takes my breath away frequently and there are times when I could just travel the area looking at the scenery (if only the game allowed such things), It is so well realised, I feel I could step into the world and feel quite at home. Add to this a complex backstory that actually mirrors what's going on in the rest of the game (love it when that happens), and brings up questions about power and rulership, faith and justice and it starts to become a heady mix that gets richer as you play, even if you are rolling your eyes because it is the fourth time the quest to rescue x or clear out bandits from location y has come up.

One of my absolute favourite anime shows is Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. It is a cyberpunk show, with a touch of philosophy in that it asks what makes a human in the first place (as all good cyberpunk should) and is filtered through the adventures of Section 9 in a near future Tokyo. The cast is great, wonderfully voiced and compellingly written. Every character serves a purpose and has a niche, so there's no deadwood. The story arcs are well put together and the society feels like its on just the right side of mad; it feels plausible as we teeter on the edge of a truly wired society, and that's a little scary.

The animation is lush, and well rendered, the vision of the future beautifully portrayed. Again, it feels plausible, fitting well with the ideas that drive the show. At the same time when I watch it I can see how it ties into current fears and themes about the growth of technology and the relationship between technology and the state. Which rather clicks with my love of politics...

Also, the theme tune is wonderful:

Onto print media and the first thing I love is Charles Stross' Laundry Files. A heady mix of spies, Lovecraft and geek memes, all centred on the final remnant of the SOE, hidden deep within the machinery of the British government. The first four novels were pastiches of various famous spy writers' work while the last two books the series has dived into new territory, taking on urban fantasy tropes. So far we've had vampires and superheroes, both delivered in a way that makes a worrying amount of sense within the universe. Stross has made a very flexible world, with a lot of potential and the novels really work. Even better we're seeing development happen, not just in the sense of characters growing in occult power but in the way that sees them move and change. Bob, the protagonist of the first five novels, is now an 'NPC' because he's been promoted into management. His wife, Mo, has just seen something similar happen as she's reached the end of her active status as an agent. The next novel focuses on a new character, one who was introduced in book five,

We're onto Laundry generation 2 and that's almost unheard of in these kind of novels where the protagonist is often so deeply embedded into the world that moving them on to a new role would defeat the purpose.

In the hopes that I have whetted your appetite, here's Overtime, one of the short stories lurking for free on Tor's website.

In comics I have a definite love for some of the kookier British voices out there, and while I do
like superheroes it feels as if Marvel and DC have really drawn things out too much and I have a touch of event fatigue. Also, it feels as if they don't really know what to do with a lot of their characters anymore, which is a shame. As a result in the past few years I have been picking up more indie books, and Image has become my 'go to' for comics. Of the books that have caught my eyes my favourites have been Trees, which I've reviewed on this blog, and The Wicked and the Divine.  Telling the tale of twelve gods who incarnate every ninety years, for two years, the book feels like a mixture of Neil Gaiman's myth building and Warren Ellis' real politic, but with Kiren Gillen's voice melding the two expertly into something that is uniquely his.

Drawing on pop music motifs, the book explores the price of fame and power, the idea that popularity is manipulated and the effects of the pop super stars on the world around them; all wrapped up in a mystery about who the gods are, why they incarnate and if there is a deeper reason for the events that occur.

It's a fun read, and a gripping story so far.

Finally it feels as if this would be incomplete without at least a hat tip towards RPGs. This is still a tricky one, partly because there's nothing that's standing out head and shoulders over the rest and partly because I've reached a point where I'm of the 'no gaming is better than bad gaming' school of thought. I haven't actually gamed in over a year now and Skyrim (and Rune Factory) is very much scratching my gaming itch). I retain a deep love for the World of Darkness, there's something about it that really works for me and so... given that the 20th Anniversary edition has just come out I'm going to say that my favourite game is, probably, Mage: the Ascension (I'm not going to type out an explanation of what the game's about so go ahead and click the link).

At its heart the game is one about the horror of absolutism, the idea that taken to the nth degree anything becomes scary. In a world where reality conforms to belief, this is terrifying because it suggests that not only could anything happen but that we are not gods, because we do not want to be (a theme in the third edition suggested that apathy was the main enemy of all sides, apart from the guys who want to drag us down into Hell).

What I like about the game is that it makes me think; it is apologetically about stuff from the real
world, rather than airy fairy fantasy, A story set in a secondary school is as valid as one out in the wider reaches of who knows where, a game where you blow up bases is as plausible as one where you dig into the history of the Ascension War.  There are no clear cut answers and it forces you to confront the fact that the ideas we live by are no more perfect than anything else. This makes a quandary that gives depth to a game about wielding magic and fighting a war, which is appealing. Well that and "freaks fighting the 'good people'" has always been one of my favoured stories, and I have to admit the Traditions stole my heart a long time ago and I adore the Hollow Ones.

But I think the thing I like most about it Mage is that it does not push towards a horrible end of the world, a point where we might as well give up and go home. It is a game that exhorts you to keep trying, to stay true to your beliefs and values and never give up: and that's pretty cool.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

A Dream Home

I've been thinking about my dream home a lot recently, building it as a retreat from the world, if you like. Being a writer, I decided to set it down and share it.

Climb the lane, the one that's barely used and is bounded by dry stone walls. Keep going for about twenty minutes and you'll find our place; a little cottage set back from the road. You'll know it when you see it, there's a little wooden gate, stained almost black, set in the wall. It's got a little American style post box next to it; one of the ones that has a flag to raise when there's post inside. Don't worry about cars, they're rare as hen's teeth around here. The last one came by weeks ago.

Pause by the gate for a moment. Take in the garden; tightly packed flower beds full of roses, red and white, hellebore and poppies. An apple tree sits over to one side, just big enough to bear blossom. In a few years it will have branches heavy with fruit.

Open the gate, and step through; wander the path. It winds a little to make it more interesting, you can't see the front door from the street anymore, because the plants are too tall. You might spot one of the cats out here, sunning themselves among the roses. Shadow usually spends the afternoons like this, showing her belly to the sky, paws folded over into soft paddles. If  you're lucky she'll greet you, escort you to the door; she sees herself as our security detail, and she is fearless.  I've seen her chase off foxes, and a stray dog once. Sometimes I think she must be half panther, just from the way she walks.

The front door is dark stained oak with a gargoyle knocker, a metal head with the ring through its mouth. Give it a thump and hear how it resonates against the wood. Push the door open, we didn't lock it today and let Shadow dart past you, heading towards the back of the house, her tail held high.

Step inside and cross the busy hallway, peek into the front room, though it's more like a library. Book shelves sag under the weight of books, everything from novels and graphic novels to art books and academic studies. Chairs and a settee cluster about the log stacked fireplace, and lamps sit close by to light our reading time.

Behind it there's a small dining room, nothing fancy and barely used. A table, some chairs and a dresser, that's all. About the most interesting thing is my dice bag, a guilty pleasure from a previous life, one that only rarely gets indulged. The end of the room opens out into a small conservatory, looking out over the kitchen garden; rows of vegetables and flowers; a cherry tree wrapped up in meshing to keep the birds off it. If you peer, you'll just make out the beehive with its inhabitants buzzing about, busily making honey.

The kitchen is small, spare. It has the triangle between cooker, sink and fridge, and a preponderance of fridge magnets, many of them rude. Nothing clutters the surfaces apart from a kettle, a toaster and a box of tea. A small cafetiere hides in a corner, in case a coffee drinker calls. A row of mugs hangs from hooks, decorated with Goth band logos from the Eighties. A door to the cellar lurks in the corner, locked. The key, a heavy iron thing that might have escaped from Castle Dracula, hangs on a hook nearby.

Let's head upstairs, it's airier up there. The guest room sits right at the front of the house, dominated by a big bed and bathed in sunshine. Dita and Hobbes sleep close to each other, letting the rays spill over them. As you enter Hobbes twists, viewing you with friendly eyes. He may be old but he's fast and he likes to play. This is his favourite spot, so if you're staying over you'd better get used to him. The view out of the window is amazing, you can see for miles across the village and countryside. It lays out like in a panorama that beckons; as if you could just reach out and pick it up.

Our room is different, a lot simpler; more spacious. Almost bare but for a tatami mat on the floor, a dressing table and a couple of wardrobes. Its neutral, apart from the ceiling, midnight blue with constellations of stars that glow when the lights go out. The back room is a contrast, brightly coloured, filled with beads and other crafting supplies. Strings of jewellery dangle from the ceiling, from hooks on the wall. A PC lurks in the corner, an order book for Eve's business sits there, ready to be filled. The door is kept shut, in case of cats stealing in and making a mess.

They do that in the bathroom instead, pulling the toilet paper to the ground and knocking down anything else they can reach. Hobbes likes to get in the shower and sniff about after anyone's used it and don't even think about going to the loo without an audience.

Lastly there's the attic, where I work. Climb up the spiral stair and take a look around. Sorry it's a state, things get messy up here. There's a computer and lots of notebooks, one wall is covered in a spider graph of plot, all radiating out from a central point. The only other thing up here is the TV with the PS3 and a couple of gaming chairs, for the evenings when we want nothing more than to curl up and play something. When we do that, all of us end up here, clustered together at the top of the house; cats on laps or by feet and humans sitting close, being silly.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Fairytales For Boys

The fairy tale is one the bedrocks of western culture. Cautionary tales of wonder and delight, they were created, and eventually written down, to provide moral or simple lessons to live your life by and became of particularly significance for the education and socialisation of children in the early Nineteenth Century. They are about more than just entertainment, but imparted disguised wisdom and common sense.

The Grimms and Hans Christian Anderson twisted their purpose a little, to make them fit the aspirant middle classes and the gender roles of the Nineteenth Century, which were becoming steadily more separate as women were pushed into the home and men became the principle bread winners. In Jack Zipes' Fairytale and the Art of Subversion, he notes that in just two years, 1810 and 1812, Snow White goes from simply having to tend the Dwarves' house to keep her place there, to a long list of chores and the threat of punishment for failing to do so, for example. This was a trend that largely continued up to the end of the Victorian period, though elements of it have never quite disappeared; they crop up frequently in early Disney films for example, and are part of what caused the German Democratic Republic to create The Singing Ringing Tree in the 1950s.

Others kicked back against it too, Angela Carter famously created The Bloody Chamber, a feminist reading of the stories, which spawned Company of Wolves in the 1980s. This opened  the gates to other interpretations, a trend that continues to this day. Horror writers have become keen to reinvent the form, embracing its darker side; returning it to what they see as its roots. While the original stories were certainly darker than the saccharine versions dreamt up by writers convinced they were only fit to be read by children, who must be protected from the rigours of the outside, grown up, world I am unsure that modern authors can recreate the originals with any success. Our culture is inured to horror, to an extent, and we go further even than children baked into pies or girls devoured by wolves. You only have to look at Saw and other slasher films to see that.

But while there have been developments, there has also been a backlash, possibly an unconscious one. The fairy tale has become increasingly associated with one market: teenage girls. The Hollywood blockbuster machine has created and recreated Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood so many times that it's almost hard to believe that other stories exist. They tread the familiar boards too, there's nary a hint of the idea that 'if there's a beast in man, there's a beast in woman too' that Carter espoused. No, woman has become again the holder of civilisation, the tamer of the savage beasts and men.I suspect that this is because Hollywood is incredibly conservative, relaunching franchises is safer than expanding their repertoire: everything boils down to money, Given how expensive films are to create, it's hardly a surprise. They make what sells and part of the rise of the fairy tale, in this form, is that it gets bums on seats. The core of the story, even sexed up for an all too knowing generation, remains the same.

What's interesting is how focused on girls and young women things have become. Nobody is suggesting making a film of The Boy who Learned to Shiver, or The Tinderbox; fairy tales are for girls. Marina Warner's Fairy Tale: A Short History, notes that in the last thirty years the form has become more and more focused on the female, to the extent nothing is aimed at boys at all. I admit this saddens me, I like Fairy Tales and think they're quite magical. One of my favourite poems is Neil Gaiman's Instructions; Company of Wolves gets a regular viewing at our house.

This begs the question, what do boys have now that fills this gap? I know there's a wide range of media that's targeted at young males, from Saturday morning cartoons to superhero films. I'm aware too, that girls and young women are more than happy to claim them for their own, and without the unfortunate overtones that have accompanied young men adopting My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I'm not going to judge either group; fair play to them if that's what gets them through the day. My concern though, is that the things that fairy tales teach are perhaps missing from boys' lives now. Does  a superhero film fill the same space that the fairy tale does? It might teach about being resourceful, about standing up to bad things, even about realising when something is a monster that needs to be defeated; having seen Antman recently, I think those themes are present within that film, so are they simply repackaged for a world where boys largely view fantasy with suspicion?

What concerns me here, is that at the end of the day the solutions in superhero films boil down to violence, to hitting and punching until your problem is defeated. They are no more revolutionary than the fairy tale films. Both genres are serving to further the socialisation process begun by the Grimms. Add to that a culture that increasingly embraces toxic masculinity and femininity, whether that's pink everything or boys clothing that glamourises violence and war and it seems as if the split between the sexes is growing larger and more pronounced.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Five Poems

Something of a cheat, while I work on something a bit bigger and pondery, I wanted to post some of my favourite poems, because I'm thinking about poetry a lot at the moment.

Catherine Smith: Heckmondwycke

Catherine came to do a Master Class at the course I did and this poem struck me as sweet and funny and so very earthy.

Kirstin Heibel-Steitz: Sublime

A friend, who is a poet, a damn good poet. This poem makes me feel the winter days and appreciate them all the more.

Philip Larkin: This be the Verse

This has been stuck in my head for a few years, I like the gently humourous fashion Larkin's reading of it here brings it to the fore.

William Blake: The Tyger

A beautiful poem that speaks of such majesty.

Dylan Thomas: Do Not Go Gentle into That Goodnight

Lastly I love the defiance in this, the clinging on reluctant to go into the dark and dissolution.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Liverpool and Lesley

Yesterday I went off on an adventure, off up to Liverpool to see a friend I haven't seen for years, probably more than a decade. I haven't been to Liverpool since 2001, when I lived up there, I always meant to go back but for some reason I hadn't, just got caught up in life I suppose, and when I did go off from Birmingham it was always south, to London and all its museums and galleries.

As my wife was off meeting a friend and normally I would have stayed home to write, or do something hum drum, but I wanted to do something different, and which didn't involve being pestered by cats (I love them but they're not always the most peaceful company, and as Hobbes is being kept indoors at present, he's decided I'm the best toy). So I wanted to get out, and sent my friend Lesley an email to see if she could get a day away from family. 

As you might be able to tell... she could, and so I bolted out of the house yesterday morning and headed up that way on the train from Birmingham New Street, past the many buddleias that line the railway tracks, to Liverpool. 

I went university up that way, not in Liverpool, sadly, but at Edge Hill up in Ormskirk, reading Politics and History, and enjoying my first time away from home, away from the parental thumb. It was my introduction to the stuff I was late to discover, parties, subculture, roleplaying, and so on. Not comics, I already read those, though I abandoned superheroes in favour of the likes of John Constantine or Sandman, started reading vampire books not Michael Moorcock or fat fantasy tomes. I also learned about hugging, and Lesley was the person who taught me... not in a rude sense but, my family is pretty non tactile, they don't touch really. I had few friends as a teenager, owing to various circumstances and had retreated into a world of books and listening to Radio 1. Lesley was the person who brushed all that aside and made me realise it wasn't weird to make human contact. Looking back, I can only admire her persistence. She was one of my closest friends all through university and in the few years afterwards.

We'd lost touch, going our separate ways and reconnected via Facebook, and email. It was an odd sort of thing, ephemeral. We would make contact, lose it for a while, and then get back in touch (say what you like about Facebook, it's very good for that). But we hadn't seen each other, over all that time. As I say, Eve and I usually head south, so it wasn't really on the mental map of places to go.

After such a long time away, it was inevitable that there was going to be some changes, it's a bit like when I go back to Coventry these days; there are things I remember that have been replaced, and my memory hasn't quite caught up with that yet. Liverpool Lime Street, for instance, is much airier than I remember, and cleaner too (though that seems to be part of every city these days, which makes the warnings about air pollution seem strange, if everything's so clean where are the pollutants?). The city centre seems more open, and more developed, though that's a shame in someways, as it means the creep of the glass monoculture has robbed the city centre of some of its character. We wandered about Liverpool One, the shopping centre, in the afternoon, and it was just like being in the Bullring or the Pallisades, even down to the way the shops looked. Quiggans, where I bought my first pirate shirt and drainpipe jeans, where I got my first piercings, is gone and Lesley says the replacement isn't the same; it lacks the atmosphere. We didn't go in, so I can't comment, though the windows at street level are very dramatic, with a gold, spiky flame effect rising from the frames. Again, it had that strange feeling of familiarity mixed with strangeness. I don't know the city and I feel like I should. I lived up in the North West for eight years, after all.

We ate at Cafe Tabac, looked for books in charity shops, and mooched around the Blue Coat Gallery a bit, before popping into Worlds Apart (and with a teensy bit of civic pride I would say Nostalgia and Comics, my 'local' for that sort of thing, is tiny bit better). Mostly, though, we sat and drank tea, and talked, catching up on, well, everything; family, children (hers), cats, jobs... life in fact and all those little bits that contribute to it. Lesley hasn't changed, though I'm sure she'd dispute that, and she remains charming, witty and caring. She's one of the easiest people I know to talk to; a natural counsellor as it were. 

I came away feeling refreshed, and like it had been a day well spent... along with a small determination that I should head back that way before another decade passes....