Finding the balance or picking priorities

About a dozen years ago I discovered webcomics, a few of which I follow to the day. Some I gradually lost interest in, other came to a natural end, a lot though a faded out as the creator’s attentions shifted and eventually even the website shuts down. The reason I mention this is that I’m painfully aware this blog has all but faded away, with this I only its third entry in 2017 . In fact when I logged in this even to write this entry, it was the first log in since March. One of the problems with any kind of creative endeavors is they’re hard to monetize – even you’re good. Added to that life has a tendency to drop other things in your lap that demand time, energy and frequently money. In short you have to pick where your efforts are going to be focused.

In the last twelve months I’ve changed job, started a new education course, had to do a lot of DIY work at home and last and by no means least got engaged. In short my free time took a bit of a paddling and something had to give. My writing slowed down, but where the axe really fell ended up being this blog. I will be attempting to resurrect it during the summer, but for the moment, I hope you’ll all accept this short place holder.

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Film Review: Logan

So: Logan
I’ve never been a huge fan of the Wolverine character, not because of Jackman but because most of the X-men films were little more than Wolverine and his cheerleaders. I’ve only seen the first of his of his stand lone films and on the strength of it didn’t bother with the rest. So I went in with expectations low.
I came out impressed.
Jackman and Steward were handed a cracking script which is both dark and deep, with the relationship between the aging Logan and elderly Xavier showed in a way that’s both sensitive and convincing. It shows both the indignity of old age as well as both the love and resentment the can build up between the aged and their carer.
On the action front, Logan is vastly more brutal than any of the previous films and make very clear that when dealing with a man who has knives in his hands, things are going to get… splashy.
Frankly this is the last Wolverine film the world needs. Granted it won’t be, even if Jackman doesn’t do any more they’ll eventually re-cast the role but it would be nice to leave it for at least a decade.

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3D Print – Dauntless

A few months ago I received from a friend print a 3D print of a file I’d given him. Finally I’ve gotten around to painting it all up and so time to show it to the world. Readers of the Nameless War might recognize this as Dauntless from the first book of the series.

3d-print-dauntless-2from the three quarters view.

3d-print-dauntless-1This was based on this design:

dauntless-imageand finally this is a screen shot of the printing file in sketchup:

glorious-class-3d-model-engine-separate

I’ve learned from experience that it is best not to attempt to modify a model intended for pictures into one for printing. Instead better to start from scratch with printing very much in mind. Because it is effectively built up in layers there needs to be a flat base and you have to avoid overhang that lack any kind of support. For that reason I chose to remove the engine pods and have them printed separately. Once I had the model I decided to print Dauntless in her Nameless War colours. An in universe history of the ship can be found here.

 

 

 

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Let the dead rest?

This post is going talking a bit about Rogue One and will be veering a bit into spoiler territory but since it has now been out for a few weeks I’m assuming you’ve either seen it or aren’t interested in seeing it.

What I’m going to be talking about is the appearance of dead actors in new films, something that has become topical with the sad passing of Carrie Fisher. As well as appearing in 2015s The Force Awakens, Fisher had apparently signed up to appear in two more Star Wars films, I’ve heard that her filming for the next film was already done but according to media reports Disney – the owner of the franchise – is now in line to receive an insurance payout of perhaps $50 million. Which rather hints that she was due to have at least a reasonably significant presence in the third of this series. The question is will Disney write her character out or will Fisher appear anyway because recently we’ve seen there are options. Now those of you who have seen Rogue One will be aware that the film has seen the return of the character of a young Princess Leia and much more significantly Grand Moff Tarkin, as originally played by Peter Cushing. Since Cushing passed away more than twenty years ago and Fisher was no longer a teenager, these roles were fill by CGI ‘actors’, which has raised a few eyebrows.

Now in some respects Rogue One brings nothing new, in others it breaks very new ground. There is a long record of deceased actors appearing in new works via clever editing, smoke, mirrors and body doubles. If an actor dies during the course of a shoot – like say Oliver Reed during Gladiator – it is pretty reasonable that directors use what they have to fill in the blanks. Equally it doesn’t seem wrong reuse and modify clips of older work to do something new with an older actor/character combination – an example of this was a Doctor Who episode of a couple of years ago where with some careful editing the then current Companion was shown interacting with the Doctor’s various incarnations, the actors being in many cases being long dead.

Where Rogue One breaks new ground is with Grand Moff Tarkin, who supporting character with a significant speaking role. This is not old material being reused or a double being used to fill in few seconds of film, but instead new material wearing the mask of a diseased actor. Now in my opinion the digital Tarkin did not look entirely convincing but that’s just a question of technology and sooner or later we are going to get CGI character indistinguishable from flesh and blood. What will happen then. Will we see old favorites digitally rise from the grave to act again? In the case of Tarkin, I would imagine Cushing’s original contract allowed for his image to be used (pretty much the reason all those thousands of Star Wars toys could be produced) although I doubt anyone in the late seventies was thinking terms of digital actors.

I’d be really curious to know what the legalities of using someone’s appearance actually are. I know there have been court cases in regards merchandising, so I assume that if someone decided to make a new John Wayne film, agreement with his estate would have to be reached. As I write this the thought crosses my mind that I’ve been focused on actors and actresses but there are biopic films – there’s one on Jackie Kennedy this year – could movie studios choose to not to use an actor at all and instead have the image of the actual historical personage? Could we see digital actors that were never real people star in what are at least nominally live action films – an idea which know films have at least brushed against already.

The answer I suspect will, as if is so often the case boil down to this stuff:

Here's Johny!

Surprise!

Certain actors are inherently ‘bankable’, their appearance in a film guarantees a certain return. There is an entire secondary industry revolving around the private(ish) lives of celebrities. Would audiences be as attached to a collection ones and zeroes? Ultimately the entertainment industry will follow the money. If it makes sense on the profit and loss account it will happen. If it does not, then no matter how good the technology gets it will not.  In end it will be tastes of the majority that make the decision.

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Film Review – Rogue One – spoiler free

I didn’t go into this one with high expectations, actually that’s a bit of a lie – my expectations were limbo pole low. This is mainly because I though The Force Awakens was a banquet of mediocrity written by an accountant who measured the worthiness of each line according how much merchandising it was estimated it would generate, so I really expected more of the same from Rogue One.

So let us cut to the chase is Rogue One good? Yes

Is Rogue One great? No.

Now in the name of full disclosure I’ll say this: I love the original Star Wars films. They were a huge part of my childhood, I got the a Millennium Falcon toy for Christmas one year – my late Grandfather apparently searched most of Belfast for. I know that I look at the originals through full on rose tinted glasses. The prequels on the other hand the glasses came off and I gave up on them after the second film. The old Expanded Universe I never got into so I am mostly ignorant of what it covered.

The very short summary is that this is the tale of how the rebellion found out about the Death Star and how the data plans reached Princess Leia at very the start of New Hope.

Now in my own opinion where Star Wars films have been weak is the sense that this is a galactic level civilization stretching across tens of thousands of worlds where everything of importance revolves around the same half dozen or so people. By having such an extreme focus on the Jedi and the Skywalker clan, a setting of thousands of worlds ended up being boiled down to a collection of people could fit into a single room. Rogue One redresses this, certainly there are some familiar faces but they are supporting acts. In fact the world building as a whole is where Rogue One really shines, with the Star Wars universe coming out this film a good deal richer than it went it. The whole worlds looks more grubby and lived in. In particular I think it is worth mentioning the politics. There is somewhere between five and ten minutes of dialogue spread across the entire film covering political matters, it gives us an Alliance that is shown to be a good deal more tenuous than seen before while the Empire is still having to step with some care around the Galactic Senate. In short it has done something very impressive – it has managed to fill in some of the logic gaps of the first film and dovetail in very smoothly.

The other thing that I think worth noting is the character of Jyn played by Felicity Jones, she is the first leading Star Wars character who isn’t hyper competent. Luke Skywalker flew the setting’s equivalent to a high performance fighter with no training while the Force Awaken’s Rey demonstrates similar levels of hyper competence. Here there are pauses when characters of faced with new equipment and situations which makes them a good deal more human and relatable.

That said there are negatives and without heading into spoiler territory there is a limit to what I can say about them. The opening twenty minutes is very choppy. The cameos were a bit of a mixed bag. Some were good, some not so good due to limits of technology, only one was a complete waste of six seconds. More seriously character arcs as the film went along became increasingly predictable and there were one or two gaps in the internal logic, including one of my bugbears – irresponsible use of FTL.

Overall I view Rogue One as a positive viewing experience both as a single film and for the franchise as a whole. A bit of life has been breathed into a franchise that has been sleepwalking for thirty years and hopefully we can hope to see more of this setting without the stupefying shadow of the Jedi.

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Out now!

Just in time for Christmas the Omnibus edition of the Nameless War is now out!

trilogy-omnibus-cover-2This also includes a sample of my next book – Out of Era, due out in 2017

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Democracy deficit in SF&F

So the US election – wow, what a long drawn out painful affair that’s been, one that we sincerely need a break from. Okay so let’s talk about democracy in science fiction and fantasy.

Democracy isn’t actually all that well represented in SF&F, instead it’s fair to say that empires and other non-democratic governments are staple of both, sure there are exceptions but that’s what they are – exceptions. Where they do appear it’s particularly noticeable in SF they appear on the heroes side, although often poorly defined, while the opposition will be often described as as an empire or some other less than benign term. In fantasy the difference between the heroes and villains tends to be even more wafer thin, with the goods guys getting the wise and fair king, the bad the blood thirsty despot. Either way they’re usually the absolute ruler.

Fantasy’s default setting is a version of Medieval Western Europe. Now I’m not a scholar of medieval history but I do know a reasonable bit about English history of the period. In the case of the English kings of the medieval period, even the strongest of them were not absolute rulers. In theory they were but in practice below the monarch were the various nobles, these were people that had to be kept on side. Kings who failed to do so found themselves coping with either a lack of cooperation or outright rebellion – King John of England 1199 – 1216 being a case in point. Certainly it isn’t a democracy as we would recognise it but is still well removed from the idea of one-guy-calls-all-the-shots. The medieval or ancient period did see more formalised democracies, notably in ancient Greece. These would be more recognisable for us although the franchise would still be limited to people who were: male, free, wealthy, middle aged and landing owning – a franchise that was only exceeded in Britain in the late nineteenth century.

So if fantasy often takes its cues from a perceived version of history what about the future? Well if science fiction is a guide, empires and other non democratic forms of government have a fine future ahead of them. Obviously there are a few science fiction democracies, Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets is probably the best known although is pretty weakly defined in the films and television episodes. It also has the very underused Romulan  Star Empire, which despite the name was also described as having a ruling senate (which was wiped out in a virtual after thought in the underwhelming Star Trek Nemesis). There is also the Expanse Book/TV series that does portray both Earth and Mars as being democratic governments – at least on the face of it. Earth in particular elected officials appear to be borderline figureheads with the real power wielded by a tiny number of un-elected officials.

So why does SF&F have a problem with democracy? Three reasons I think 1) due process, 2) personalities 3) removal of ambiguity.

Even allowing for the excitement of 2016, politics is often a dry affair of committees, budgets and the various checks and balances, the more robust that democracy is, the more road blocks there will be between intention and action. Possibly this explains why in the Star Wars universe the first Death Star seems to have taken twenty odd years to build but the second, once the imperial senate was ‘swept away’, was banged out in a couple of years – no funding committees for the project to bog down in. Score one for for the totalitarian regime, yeah sh*t gets done!

Only problem is if we take a look at one of the most famous regimes – Nazi Germany – what you find is one that was horribly inefficient. Hitler had the final say so everything revolved around getting his ear, if you could manage it, then all kinds of pet projects could be authorised. Projects that ranged from mere duplication of effort to full on droolingly crazy. The same has proven true of various other despots, the top guy has a notion and there’s no one there to stop them. The really is that a lot of that due process, committees, going to tender and all the rest of it are in the name of efficiency and effectiveness. True out in the real world democratic governments have managed some massive screw ups but non-democratic governments have done the same and more. Where they manage to match democratic nations it has usually only been because standards of living being massively lower.

The other thing about democracies is elections, constant bloody elections, one that can see the sudden removal of leaders for reasons that have little or nothing to do with their actual performance. Take for example President Barack Obama, he has apparently a high approval rating but he will gone within weeks because that is the process within the USA. From a story telling view though it would be a pretty horrible way to deal with things if half way through, the established character disappeared to be replaced with one the writer and reader would have to get to know. Which brings us to our next area.

Now I write military science fiction, many years ago I remember reading someones comment that if you wanted to do a scientifically accurate space war, then your story would be about the life and times of Z-571 the nuclear tipped interplanetary missile. While you could certainly write it, finding someone to read it would be tricky.  So by extension a realistic democratic political system will see political figures removed with resulting changes in policy. Imagine Return of the Jedi, with the Alliance about to launch their attack on the second Death Star, only to hear that the Emperor has lost a vote of confidence and the new administration is proposing peace talks. That would be the point where you’d either walk out of the cinema or wing the DVD out the window.

Stories are about people. Writers create and develop characters then tell stories via them; generally there is limit to how many major characters a story can successfully support. In reality democracies tend to have a lot of people involved in the decision making process – even one like America where there’s a strong single executive officer. Trying to realistically portray this is likely to burn a lot of word count on an area that the reader might regard as secondary to the alien invasion, robot uprising, zombie apocalypse or whatever is the main point of the story.

If having a portraying functional democracy is tricky then doing two steepens the difficulty curve significantly. It is probably no wonder that the opposition side so often is described as an empire, if they’re a empire and the side the protagonists are on isn’t, then the implications are clear who are the good guys.* Sometimes this is the right decision – for the like of Star Wars (the originals) this worked because it went for the tropes. It needed the lack of ambiguity. For others it can be a missed opportunity for some real grey morality and added depth. Personally I’ve always felt that an author has to decide where the core story is going to be and to this the majority of the word count is dedicated, still that doesn’t mean the subordinate sections need default to cliché. I’ve only really touched on the various forms of government but history provides plenty of possibilities for those who go looking for them.

* I wonder a bit whether the preponderance of fictional empires can be traced back to the dominant role in entertainment that the USA has – a country formed when it successfully fought and broke away from an empire?

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