Monday, May 31, 2010

The Oncoming Storm

From the synopsis of the finale of the current Doctor Who series:

"There was a goblin. Or a trickster, or a warrior. A nameless, terrible thing, soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies. The most feared being in all the cosmos. Nothing could stop it, or hold it, or reason with it - one day it would just drop out of the sky and tear down your world."

The implication is that this is one of the goodies talking about the big villain of the series, but that rather describes the Doctor himself, does it not?

Monday, May 24, 2010

It's a Kraken

China Miéville clearly quite likes Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, or perhaps he thinks it's deeply flawed. Either way, Kraken marks the second time, after the excellent Un Lun Dun, that he's tried to write his own version of Gaiman's story, but this attempt is rather less successful than the first.

The characters are the weakest I've yet seen from Miéville. His protagonist goes from undefined nobody to undefined hero, his "sidekick" remains fuzzy and indistinct throughout, and there's an attempt to introduce a secondary protagonist who more or less does nothing except wander around the edges of the story failing to get involved until she's kidnapped near the end. Oh, SPOILER, sorry. We get characters who turn out to be quite important to the plot but who we don't really get to know in any meaningful way, so their contributions seem hollow. Likewise we get characters (the same one, sort of, but to say more would be a spoiler) who are important up to a certain point, but then just sort of fade away into the background for no apparent reason. The most memorable character is a police-officer-cum-witch who is notable for her inventive swearing and little else. It's a bit of a vague mess, and the cast could have done with a bit of trimming, to allow more room to develop the rest.

I could also do without Miéville's strange and recurring tendency towards baiting his audience; this time he has a go at fans, Star Trek in particular, but the intent is clear, and he also throws in a couple of jabs at those who may have thought that a novel about cultists of a squid god might, just might, have some connection to HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu. In interviews, Miéville says that these swipes are affectionate, but they do seem rather bitter and unnecessary in the text. Then again, I get the feeling that a lot of his fanbase probably don't think of themselves as readers of fantasy, so these little nods probably empower their distended snootiness glands.

Miéville's biggest flaw remains that he is better at creating worlds than he is telling stories. His Bas-Lag series (there are three books so far, but it's not a trilogy) offers a look into a fascinating fantasy world, quite different from your bog-standard post-Tolkien elves-and-dwarves faff, but while The Scar presented a rollicking pulp pastiche and is easily his best book yet, Iron Council was a bunch of ideas looking for a plot, and Perdido Street Station was somewhere in between. Kraken is set in modern-day London rather than Bas-Lag, but the same problems remain, and it hovers somewhere in the middle of that scale.

I'm going to lose some of you here, but Kraken rather feels like Miéville's campaign setting for his personal modern magic role-playing game, just as his Bas-Lag books often seemed like primers for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting. There is a plot here, and it's quite clever in places, but it seems like it is really only there to link together the writer's ideas, which in fairness are also very clever. It still makes for an enjoyable read, but not entirely a satisfying one, unless you're looking for ideas to pinch for your Unknown Armies game.

(I'm done with the excessive geekery now; normal people can resume reading at this point.)

Kraken is not a bad book, and it's miles better than Iron Council, but it's not great either. Un Lun Dun may have been for kids, but it was a much more enjoyable read than this occult thriller which forgets to thrill.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Real Heroes Stand Around Doing Nothing

For the first time in I think over a year, I've reviewed an Avengers comic:

Up to now, my general opinion of Brian Michael Bendis's superhero comics work has been that he has no idea how to write superhero comics--which one might consider a significant flaw unless, of course, one happened to be a Marvel editor. He can't write action scenes, and he can't put together a plot--both of which are fairly important to the genre. Less important is the ability to write limp pastiches of Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet screenplays, and yet that's what we've had over the past few years.

More, along with a somewhat more positive counterpoint, here.

Sound and Fury

Every year, Brighton does its Festival, complete with Edinburgh-emulating Fringe, and every year I think about being all cultural and going along, because it would be silly not to take advantage of such an event. Yet I never do.

It's not well-known, but I'm a bit of a Shakespeare fan. I don't go on about it; you won't see me quoting his plays (except up there, obviously), and you won't get me slipping apostrophes into words which are doing quite well enough without them. I do appreciate a good bit of Bardology though, and my favourite one of all is Macbeth (Hot potato! Off his drawers! Puck will make amends!); it turns out that there are two different versions of the Scottish Play on at the Festival.

One looks like this:

And the other looks like this:

Guess which one I chose?

The Pantaloons performed their version out in the park, in the bright, warm sunshine, and I was worried that the setting would completely ruin the mood of the play, which to me is all blasted heaths and rain and mud and various other grim and gritty sundries (yes, I thought this even based on the bright colours and facepaint you see in the image above), but it all turned out well. The performances were strong, and it really is a very good play, so I was soon sucked in and could ignore the lovely summer's day. I even managed to ignore the stoned heckler.

The Pantaloons did the entire play with only five actors, making use of minor costume changes to distinguish characters ("Banquo wears glasses, Macduff wears a hat"), and a small number of props to create settings. It was modernised to a degree, with Banquo's (SPOILER) murder taking place on a train, and everyone wielding revolvers while clad in Philip Marlowe style hats and coats, but the language was kept close to the text. The only exception to this was the Porter, recast as a curlers-and-rolling-pin "Aunt Fanny", who spoke directly to the audience in a pantomime fashion, and in more modern speech; this worked quite well, and since the original character serves as a bit of light relief anyway, the shift in tone was not jarring.

Best of all was that the show was completely free and open to all. The Pantaloons' mission statement is to bring plays like Macbeth to a wider audience, and to do that, they do not charge entry. They're also not funded through any source, so I don't know how long they can keep going, but I hope they do. There's a list of upcoming dates at their site.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Politics = Comedy

While Channel 4 brought in Jimmy Carr to make the world a little bit worse with every word that staggered from his stupid face, the BBC's election coverage turned out to be full of presumably unintentional comedy gems. Here are some of my favourites.

"Where is Lembit Opik? Has he been killed?"

"You're not ruling out the possibility of getting into bed with Peter Mandelson?" - Jeremy Paxman, in front of Peter Mandelson.

"Let's isolate Scotland." -BBC presenter Jeremy Vine.

"The Queen is like Heineken lager; she reaches the parts others cannot reach." - a BBC political analyst.

"An asteroid has hit Lembit Opik!"

"Whatever type of Walls sausage is contrived by this great experiment, the dominant ingredient has got to be conservatism; the meat in the sausage has got to be Conservative." - Boris Johnson.

"The Queen can only be activated at certain times." - the "Heineken" analyst again.