Monday, December 24, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (film review)

I thoroughly enjoyed this, despite my misgivings about turning a very short book into three films. I knew there was background stuff that could be developed - e.g. Gandalf's battles with the Necromancer, which is hardly referenced in the book - but I wasn't sure there was enough for three films, particularly as Peter Jackson likes to make very long movies!

However, this zipped by. The story is more fast-paced than the Lord of the Rings, anyway, and I felt introducing more background information, particularly about Erebor, the lost Dwarvish Kingdom, helped the story along.

As in the book, the dwarves seem annoyingly incapable of avoiding scrapes, but Richard Armitage is knock-down brilliant as the exiled Dwarf Prince, Thorin Oakenshield. Sir Ian Mckellan is excellent as Gandalf again, but I'm not sure whether Martin Freeman will forever be regarded as a hobbit, the way Elijah Wood will (and he's back for a cameo). He was good, but he does too many of his trademark double-takes and being polite when offended. Sylvester McCoy was very effective bringing Radagast the Brown to life, as well.

People have already been noting the stand out bits of dialogue. I predict Gandalf's comments about evil being kept at bay through the actions of little people will be much-quoted in the future. I particularly liked the line that real courage is not taking a life but knowing when to spare one. It's the moment when he chooses to let Gollum live that defines Bilbo, and of course spares him from becoming another Gollum under the malign influence of the ring.

There's a lot more to get through for the dwarves and their hobbit burglar. Mirkwood will presumably occupy most of the next film, with a natural ending as Bilbo sneaks into the mountain and meets Smaug for the first time. Then the third film will be mainly the Battle of the Five Armies and Bilbo going home to the Shire, which if the third LOTR film is anything to go by, will involve lots of goodbyes. There are 13 dwarves for him to bid farewell to!

For me the most unexpected thing about this film is how eagerly I now want to see the next two. So, I guess from that point of view, it works well.

Jongudmund's rating: 8/10

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Would you read this book?

So, after a conversation recently with another aspiring author, I feel the need to get my Zodiac Team science fiction story idea back out there. So, here's a question. Would you read it? I'd like to know, so please comment. This is a background piece, establishing the context for the book...

Victorious Earth
The dawning era of spaceflight is well-documented, mainly because it took so long. The 99 years between humans walking on their own planet’s natural satellite and stepping onto the surface of a neighbouring planet was filled with many false starts. Subsequently, the development of inter-planetary and inter-stellar travel was rapid.

Shortly after the Mars visitation in 2068, the human race received incontrovertible evidence that they were not alone in the universe, making contact with the first of the xenoraces, the Vichin, just three years later. The Vichin brought with them the new physics, including the expansion model of the universe, which enables rapid corespace travel over massive universe-layer distances. Within ten years of reaching Mars, human engineers and physicists had built their own versions of Vichin density-matrices and had begin exploring neighbouring systems, forming diplomatic relationships with neighbouring races.

The new Earth-based hegemony included the rapid colonisation of uninhabited planets in what was subsequently called the first diaspora. This came to an abrupt halt in 2091 when the Palloshan Empire declared war on the colonies of Earth, and attacked and destroyed the nearest colony to recognised Palloshan territory, the water-world Oceanica. Several other human colonies, including HuVee, Terralis and Vista, were conquered, with more than 1 billion human inhabitants enslaved. The human prime system also came under attack, with outposts on Titan and Ganymede bombarded and the artificial township and space-dock Trans-Lunar the focus of a failed invasion.

Earth’s first space war turned on three fronts. Firstly, the failure of the Palloshan invasion into humanity’s home solar system, meant the successful defence of Trans-Lunar becoming a rallying point in the war and showed that the Palloshan could be beaten. Secondly, the technological development of Velocity and Vector Matching (VelVem), which meant that Earth-built spaceships could attack Palloshan spaceships within core-space – something that had never been done before and the Palloshan had no defence for. And, thirdly, the establishment of a pan-species alliance that saw human forces aid three other occupied races – the hectapode Repobohre and the insect-like sister-races of the Glyadduu and Klailaxuu – to emancipate themselves from the Palloshan, as well as persuading the Vichin to enter the war; the first time the Vichin had engaged in warfare for over 30 galactic years (approximately 44,000 human years).

The war was mainly fought ship-to-ship, with most of the Palloshan space navy destroyed in transit by human VelVem attack squadrons. The human forces never launched a planetary invasion, preferring instead to engage in hit and run commando-style attacks against key installations, including several on the sacred homeworld of the Palloshan, Pallo Prime. Before the war, the Palloshan had proudly boasted that no alien had ever set foot on their planet. This changed as several key military and industrial sites were targeted for insertion and destruction. The final commando raid on Pallo Prime switched to targeting a civilian site, the historic birthing temple regarded as the source of the Palloshan race, which was dynamited from inside by the most famous of several semi-autonomous commando units, the Zodiac Team.

With most of its fearsome navy reduced to ash in corespace, and commando raids on Pallo Prime now threatening key social, religious and cultural sites, the Palloshan presented an armistice agreement. It was the first time the Palloshan had ever had to sue for peace and the main outcomes of the were regarded as humiliating in the extreme for the Palloshan ruling elite.

There were dramatic limitations on the Palloshan Empire, with several territories and key space routes surrendered to other races. The armistice gave autonomy and reparations to the Repobohre, Glyadduu and Klailaxuu and significant reparations to the Vichin and the human colonies that were destroyed or occupied. The Palloshan were also forced to sign non-aggression treaties with the victorious races, with non-compliance to be treated as an act of war. This significantly limited where the Palloshan could move or station spacecraft even within their own borders.

As the armistice negotiations slowly unfolded, the Unity government of Earth and the Colonies (UEC) realised there was a danger of extremist elements among the Palloshan high command deciding to reignite the space war rather than lose any more prestige. The UEC therefore offered to recycle most of its larger battleships, including the ten massive weapons platforms that served as AI-enhanced mobile bases for its commando units. There were good economic reasons for UEC decommissioning most of its naval units, they were no longer needed and were expensive to maintain and run.

Unfortunately, at the main decommissioning ceremony, one of the commando teams absconded with mobile base number 8. The team in question were the most decorated and celebrated commando team, the Zodiac Team.

A number of reasons have been postulated for the team’s defection. The attack on the Palloshan birthing temple remained a major source of contention in the armistice agreements, and the team may have been worried that they would be tried for a cultural war-crime. One of the team helped develop the weapons platform and the independent ship-functioning AI nano-cultures that helped the huge vessels run on a minimum number of crew. This emotional attachment may have prevented that crew member from relinquishing the ship. Equally, there may have been a residual feeling of distrust towards the Palloshan in the team, who then decided to keep their weapons platform functioning in case hostilities broke out again.

The absconding team were tried with desertion in their absence and were officially declared enemies of the UEC. However, the versatility of their mobile base and their military and strategic prowess meant their services were frequently in demand in the more remote human colonies and in territories beyond official human control, or controlled by xenoraces.

These are the tales of the Zodiac Team.

Comments welcome!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Things I'd like to see less of in 2013

Presuming the apocalypse turns out tobe a non-event, here are some things I'd like to see left in 2012

People Facebook tagging me in photos of their babies
I know you think everyone in the world wants to see every photo of your precious bundle of joy, but trust me on this, nobody in the world finds your sproglet as enduringly fascinating as you do. I’ll see your photo on my timeline anyway. I don’t need notifiying that twenty-seven people like a photo that I’m tagged in when I’m not even in it. It’s annoying. Next person to do it to me will get a comment about how ugly their child is.

Media fawning over the Duchess of Cambridge
It’s nothing personal. I’m sure Kate’s a nice gal and there are far worse people who could be in the papers every week (cough, cough, Katie Price, cough). But she should be allowed to be pregnant in private. We don’t need ridiculous baby bump photospreads taking up acres of newspaper space. Leave her alone!

Adverts for staged 'reality' TV shows
Just the adverts for Made in Chelsea annoy me. If I wanted to listen to a collection of narcissists awkwardly pontificate as if everything they say is cosmically significant, then I’d pay attention to the pundits on Match of the Day. Speaking of which...

Montage introductions to the ‘big’ game on Match of the Day
I tune in to watch the goals, flashpoints and other highlights in the football, not to be subjected to the work of the film studies intern who thinks banging together a load of fuzzed up footage over an indie track is somehow ground-breaking. There was one a couple of weeks ago that was so tenuously linked to the game in question even Gary Lineker, the master of non-sequitur segues, said he didn't know what it was about. It wasn't so bad when it was a very occasional bit of filler. But this is a case when less is definitely more. And none would be better.

I’ve not read Fifty Shades of Grey because, like Twilight before it, it looks godawful, people who’ve read it say it’s terribly badly written, and it’s incredibly popular, which as a general rule of thumb means it’s going to be trash (the lowest common denominator is firmly at work when it comes to culture, witness the unwatchable crud of Saturday night TV schedules). Unfortunately, judging by the garbage clogging up the supermarket bookshelves, it seems every publishing house is now trying to cash in on the Fifty Shades success, even down to making sure there’s a ‘colour’ in the title and the cover is a random object artfully shot in black and white.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The selfish gardener (a short story)

Once there was a man who was a very keen gardener. He spent many hours working in his garden to make it look beautiful. His flower-beds were immaculately weeded, with many rare and exotic blooms. There were always some plants and bushes flowering, no matter what the time of year, around the exquisitely manicured and perfectly flat fresh green lawn.

The man was very pleased with his garden. The only thing he didn’t like was the way his neighbours and indeed anyone who happened to be passing would stop and stare at his handiwork. Sometimes people would even stop their cars on the road that ran next to his house, get out and admire the beauty he had created.

‘They haven’t done any of the hard work, and yet they get to enjoy the colours of my garden,’ he said to himself.

So he built a high fence around his garden. But that wasn’t enough. If anything, it made things worse, because people would jump up and down to catch a glimpse over the hedge, or sit on each other’s shoulders. Some even brought stools to stand on and one fellow even carried a stepladder right up to the fence so he could look over.

The gardener was even more annoyed by this and so he hatched a plan. On the other side of the fence he dug a wide ditch. And then he threw some sprouting brambles into the ditch. Within a year, the brambles had grown into a wide thicket. It was impossible to get near the fence, let alone look over it.

The gardener was able to enjoy his garden all by himself.

This lasted a while, but a few years after he had dug the ditch and planted the brambles the man fell ill and was unable to leave his bed. Fortunately, the people who came to care for him realised that he missed his garden, so they moved his bed to the window so he could look out on at the flowers.

But the people who cared for the man were not interested in the garden. So the man watched as first the exotic plants that needed the most care died, and then other plants started to wither and fade. The bushes that needed careful pruning grew knotty and stringy. Weeds began to appear in the flower beds, and moss made dark patches in the lawn. A mole made a little hill right in the centre of the lawn, and soon other hills of dirt marred the surface and the lawn began to get bumpy as the mole tunnels underneath it sagged inwards.

And way out beyond the fence the brambles grew high and dark and threatening.

That winter the fence was battered by a gale and fell inwards. The brambles that had been pressing against the fence toppled into the garden, a dark mass of grasping thorns. As the days began to lengthen and the iron hard ground began to thaw, the brambles put out green suckers, reaching beyond the fallen fence towards the enriched earth of the flower-beds and the lawn. The brambles plunged into the welcoming earth, taking root, nestling and putting forth more and more suckers.

By the end of the summer the garden was awash with cloying briars. The remaining flowers struggled to bloom among the thorns and the lawn had disappeared.

The carers still came to the house every day to look after the man, and they noticed that when he looked out of the window he would usually start to cry.

And nobody outside stopped to look at the garden any more.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

In 1995 Cathy and I were given a Christmas tree by some family friends who were replacing / upgrading theirs. It has served us very well, but this year we decided to buy a new tree for the very first time. We captured this moment on camera, with Cathy managing to take several unflattering photographs of me.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Provenance 2: The story of Durer's 'praying hands'

A couple of Sundays ago, we had another example of 'telling a dubious story to illustrate a sermon point'. This time it was about Albrecht Durer's 'praying hands' drawing.

The story goes that Albrecht came from a large family and had one brother in particular who was also an aspiring artist. They couldn't afford to both to university to study art, so they flipped a coin and Albrecht won. He went to art college while his brother worked to support him and five years later he came back home to work while his brother went to college, except that his brother's hands had been ruined by the rough manual labour of the last five years and so he couldn't go. Albrecht then drew his brother's careworn hands and they became the 'praying hands'.

The moral of the story is one of faithfulness and sacrifice and enabling others to achieve their dreams. Which is fine and dandy except that, like the Itzhak Perlman story I wrote about, it annoys me when people draw important life lessons from stories that aren't true.

It didn't ring true for me firstly because I'd heard the story before, except that time Durer's brother ruined his hands working as a shepherd. This time round it was down the mines. When details like that change, it makes me suspicious that I'm hearing an urban legend.

Durer's life is fairly well-documented for someone who lived over 500 years ago. For starters, he didn't go to university to study art. At 15 he became an apprentice to a local artist and engraver. Yes, he had a lot of brothers, but that was common in those days. The 'flip a coin' plot device was pretty unlikely. (Albrecht's brother, Hans, also became a famous painter.)

The artwork itself isn't considered one of Albrecht's finest. The 'praying hands' we have is a preparatory sketch for a piece of work known as the Heller altarpiece, which was destroyed in a fire in 1729. Durer painted the artwork when he was in his thirties, long after he would have returned from the mythical university. Presumably he waited to paint his brother's hands so they could get even more battered and holy-looking... except the hands in the 'praying hands' aren't the hands of a manual labourer. They are manicured, long-fingered and show no signs of arthritis. Experts think they belonged to a professional hand-model of the day - and some people even think they know who it was.

So, where does this story come from? The earliest provenance I can find for the story on the web is, unbelievably, a book written in 1990 called A Better Way to Live by American self-help guru Og Mandino. From there it has presumably made it's way into the chicken soup for the soul end of the web, and ended up as a sermon illustration. I have no idea where the international art historian motivational speaker Og Mandino got the story from. I plan to email his disciples.

But, on a more serious note, this is a story that is circulating, and was preached in a church to illustrate supposedly timeless truth, without any credible evidence. It didn't take me long to find out the story is baseless. (One quick trawl on Google in a lunch break.) But the thing is, as I've said before "if we’re just making shit up, then where do we draw the line?" Stories of healings, miracles, stuff like that? Your testimony, Mr Preacher?

I think this sort of thing matters. If you claim to have a truth that will set people free, then you don't need schmaltzy stories to sell it. And if you don't check that what you're saying about historical facts that can be verified is true, then how can anything you say about matters of faith that can't be historically verified be considered reliable?