Friday, 25 March 2016

Book review: Lyonesse by Jack Vance - a Mythic Fairytale of High Fantasy

Aside from the Dying Earth books, I’ve not read much Jack Vance. Which is odd, as I do adore those, the complexity and richness of the language, the sly wit and dark humour, the anti-heroes so well rendered. Lyonesse is a quite different beast. In some ways it feels far more of a traditional fantasy than the much earlier tales of Cugel the clever and Turjan and Chun the Unavoidable. It is definitely more of a true novel; most of the Dying Earth books are portmanteau made up of episodic short stories, while this is a distinct single tale.

The novel is set in several of the divided kingdoms of the Elder Isles, placed south of Ireland and north of Iberia, roughly where the Bay of Biscay becomes the Atlantic Ocean proper, as shown with a truly terrible map. We gather from the setting and occasional footnotes that this is where so many of the myths of Europe originate; this is Atlantis and Hy-Brasil and the Fairy Isles.

It did take me a little while to find my feet, for a couple of reasons. It wasn’t initially clear to me where this Atlantean land in which the tale unfolds was situated in time; the language and mores felt largely like those of the late middle ages (or, at any rate, with that Arthurian feel of the late middle ages from which much high fantasy takes its tone) but the references did not truly help to place it anywhere - or, rather, anywhen. It is stated that the founding family of one kingdom are also of the line that gave rise to Arthur Pendragon, although this seems to have been some time before. There is a Christian missionary, and reference is stated to the power of the church of Rome. It is, I think, deliberately vague and anachronistic, and it cased to be an issue once I was in caught up in the story.

Also early on, I had a problem with some changes of tone. At the outset the authorial voice is recognisably high fantasy, and becomes somewhat mythic or fairytale at points, but then we have a sudden shift into a rather dry chapter of historical and political exposition, before returning to the fairytale fantasy tone. Not long after this, however, I saw how the separate sections began to come together and that they were threads weaving into a greater tapestry. Vance does this quite superbly, introducing what appear to be obvious directions for the plot (obvious because of the fairytale fantasy inflection of the writing) only to immediately subvert them - and then call back much later on with an unforeseen payoff.

The characters are somewhere between mythic archetypes and actual people, something brought out by the habit of several of the magicians of the books splitting off from themselves scions, or sub-personalities, which begin as an aspect of the original but quickly develop their own characteristics.

For perhaps the first quarter of the book I was enjoying Lyonesse and thought it fine but, by the halfway point, I began to see why this is considered one of the great works of fantasy.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

adrift again

I haven't made one of these pathetic posts in some time.

I'd been in a bad way and sought help. I went to my GP in December and told him how bad I'd been, that I'd been suicidal and was frightened. He was as good as ever, made sure I didn't seem an immediate risk to myself and referred me to the local mental health service. Even though it took them ages to respond (I actually had another appointment with my GP and he was furious they hadn't arranged an an assessment, other than to check again that I wasn't in imminent danger from myself and to give me contact phone numbers), I'd been okay. I think that, having asked for help had been a kind of therapy in itself, knowing I was n the first step and the future looking brighter, actually being able to see a future beyond this thing.

I had my assessment last week, the day after my 45th birthday.

It wasn't helpful. I thought I expressed fairly well the problems I was having, but I obviously failed. I told the mental health worker about my suicidal ideation, how I'd been better for the last four months since I asked for help but how frightened I was that if I slipped I'd slip all the way. I tried to tell him about my background, about the problems I'd been having, about how disconnected and stressed and hopeless I'd been feeling, about how guilty and ashamed I feel all the time, but I guess I didn't express it very well. Perhaps I came across as calm and articulate and was hoping for him to read between the lines and I was asking too much. Or perhaps I'm not worth helping.

I know, intellectually, that this is a stupid, self-regarding thing to think but as I typed it my throat tightened unbearably and tears pricked my eyes. I know its a cry for help, and we in our culture differentiate between 'actual' suicide attempts and 'cries for help'. But if someone is crying for help, surely that is because they need help? and, anyway, I don't think it's as clearly delineated as that. There's the idea of letting fate take a hand. While I profess to not believe in fate sometimes I am quite happy to leave my life in its hands; for a while I made a habit of accelerating down a steep hill on my bike and closing my eyes, but came to my senses (or chickened out) before a fateful impact. The same idea surrounds the 'cry for help'. If I cry and nobody responds, then it proves I am not worth saving.

So I feel adrift, as though I've realised that the lifeline to which I was clinging is held by nothing but seaweed. So far there are a few things staying my hand, other than plain cowardice. The potential indignity of failure in even this. Not wanting to inflict pain on my friends and relatives, or trauma on anyone who has to clean up the mess. My son. But I know I stand on a balance and that the guilt that keeps me here can easily slide over to the other side of the scales. I don't know how many times I can hit the low point before I break through.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Review: The Secret by Rhonda Byrne: Wishin' & Hopin'

This book is so inspirational! It turns out that by just believing and wanting really hard you can get whatever you want out of life! And if that doesn't work you can write a vacuous self help book full of profound sounding but utterly meaningless tripe and there are enough stupid people in the world to make you rich! This book has also taught me that I don't need to care about other people; if they don't get what they want it isn't anything to with me or anything to do with society being fair or equal, it's because they didn't wish hard enough or learn to visualise what they want! I used to give a lot of money to various charities – cancer research, rape support groups, third world aid – but I've stopped that now because I realise that the problems people have are because they secretly, deep down, wish them upon themselves, and only they can make their lives better! It's sad if a child dies of leukaemia or lots of people are killed by a tsunami or a train crash but something in them brought it on themselves, and anyway they'll get another chance in the great circle of life and they should try harder next time. And by 'try harder', I don't mean actually work to achieve anything but just wish really hard, because it turns out that all sorts of brilliant people like Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Mozart, Beethoven, Plato and John D Rockefeller were successful not because they worked hard or were particularly smart or talented but JUST BECAUSE THEY KNEW THE SECRET!!!!!

NOTE: Just in case there is anyone who is especially slow on the uptake, this is sarcasm. I'm not that shocked that this book exists but that it has apparently sold somewhere in the region of 21 million copies really does make me worry for humanity. Does the author (along with her contributors, the most qualified of whom are described as “a doctor of Chiropractic” and another “an internationally known feng-shui mistress”) actually believe this bollocks, or are they just using it to milk the stupid. And if you believe in this book there's no sugaring the pill; you are a moron. A shallow, self centred, vacuous moron. I would happily spit in the face of Ms Byrne, any of her contributors or people who worked on the DVD. Yes, there is a lot to be said for the power of positive thought – because it can change your own attitude and behaviour! There's a whole field of psychology based on that idea called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. There is nothing mystical about it. You know the old saying, "the universe doesn't owe you a living"?

Some of my favourite quotes:

“Nothing can come into your experience unless you summon it thought persistent thoughts.” Damn, those Jews were pretty careless before WW2, weren't they?

“Quantum Physicists will tell you the universe was created from thought!” Really? Truly? Okay, NAME ONE. Seriously, just one published quantum physicist who is taken seriously by the scientific community.

“Our feelings let us know what we’re thinking.” What? What does that actually mean?

And the best, from Ester Hicks, conduit for a spirit called Abraham (seriously):
“...I used to be extremely disturbed when a person's rights were violated by violence on a person, or by someone forcefully taking someone else's property....But then, after meeting you [Abraham:], I got to the point that I see all those things they're doing with others as "games" that they're playing—more or less "agreements" that they have between one another, spoken or unspoken. I've gotten somewhat better at not feeling their pain. But can I get to the point that I don’t feel anything negative when I see someone violating the rights of another? Can I just look at whatever they're doing to one another out there, and think, You're all doing to one another what you have somehow chosen to do?"

Note: this is a review I wrote some time ago on the goodreads website

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Review: The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

It’s taken some time to get around to this book. Knowing it is the last from my favourite author, knowing that once I’ve read this there’ll be no new tomes to look forward to, to get excited about, no further exploration of the Culture and the universe that it inhabits. Fortunately he has left us with many fine and several (IMHO) great books, in both the ‘M’ (scifi) and ‘M-less’ personae. The short interview the appends this paperback edition is particularly poignant, as he refers to the many ideas he has for future tales.

As are the majority of Banks’ SF novels, this is set in the vast, ancient, post-scarcity society of The Culture - or, rather, almost entirely outside of The Culture, where it interacts with the civilisations which it encounters and with which it interacts (this is a necessity; as Banks himself has pointed out, an entirely peaceful utopia makes for very dull storytelling, and he was a self-professed fan of big explosions). In this case, the main focus is the Gzilt, a humanoid society as venerable as the Culture and, in fact, one that was instrumental in forming the latter and was very nearly one of the founding members civilisations.

Ten thousand years on, the Gzilt have decided to Sublime - to move, en masse, to a higher dimension of consciousness and physicality, as have many elder civilisations before. This is something that Banks has referenced occasionally, usually in respect of long-gone peoples who have left behind vast, mysterious artefacts, but here he address the idea, the politics and the logistics of this event head-on.

Of course, there has to be a complication, here in the form of a potential secret involving the strange fact that the Gzilt seem to be the only civilisation in the history of the universe in possession of a holy book that actually seems to be factually accurate, held in the brain of a possibly mythical Culture individual who has been around since the formation ten millennia before. This leads to a long and involved galaxy-arm-spanning hunt-and-chase involving several Culture Ships (each possessed of a Mind, the AIs that are the backbone of the Culture and of whom it has been said are so much more powerful than biologicals that biologicals can’t even imagine how powerful they are), facets of the soon-to-Sublime Gzilt and two lesser ‘scavenger’ civilisation intent on using the discarded knowledge and tech to boost their own progress.

We have all the usual parts you would expect from an Iain M. Banks novel - the superb writing, the wit and humour, the insane action pieces (often using technologies such as anti-matter missiles, field manipulators and hyperspace), the superb characterisation (including several strong, rounded female characters, of course) and the humanistic examination of different cultures, outlooks and political viewpoints. There are many interesting and intriguing parts - other than the ten thousand year old human, the Culture is almost entirely represented here by the Ship Minds (itself an fascinating idea of how a vast, powerful and entirely non-hierarchical utopia gets things done), the continuation of politics despite the hard deadline for when the society will cease to be, including deciding on a ‘preferred’ scavenger species to allow to take all your best stuff.

I would have loved the Hydrogen Sonata to be Banksie bowing out with one of his great novels - but, with the run of the last four or five being so very good, this was perhaps a big ask. It is very good, but falls short of great, I think because it doesn’t hold together as a piece in quite the way that his finest novels (I think particularly of Look to Windward and Surface Detail) do.

I am not quite finished with Mr Banks yet. I still have The Quarry. While I don’t think there has been a really good non-M book in some time (a sharp decline after Whit, with only The Business really coming up to muster), perhaps this will be a fitting farewell. And, in any case, he has left us with more wonder and humanity and compassion and excitement from his thirty year career than we have any right to expect.

Review: Feng Shui: Action Movie Roleplaying

As with most roleplayers, I first encountered the games in my early teens and via D&D. This would have been about 1983 or 84, with the red box set of D&D Basic Rules, then the blue Expert Rules. Our group very much took to heart the concept that these rules were a framework, a guideline - now take it and make it your own! While we did buy supplements and Dragon magazine, our fertile imaginations and bottomless appetite for movies and books in the fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres meant we were more than willing to build (and shoehorn) our own ideas into this basic architecture.

I also played with another group of friends (I’m not sure why the two didn’t really mix, it was just one of those things). This group was less adventurous; we played different games - largely Rolemaster and Paranoia and boardgames - but stuck more within the strictures of the given rules. This was also the group where you didn’t get too attached to your character-  perhaps unsurprisingly given the systems, mortality was fierce - while in my D&D group we would run characters and their relationships for years. Of course, both groups split when we reached college age and went our separate ways..

It was some years before I found another group of like-minded friends (I had considered going to one of the local game shops and seeing about joining a group, but gaming had for me always been quite a personal, intimate thing). This group, still going these <harrumph> years later, with some changes, had a much wider experience of games than I did and introduced me to some wonders, and we discovered many more together (one of the rules of gaming: never start to tot up how much you’ve spent on rulebooks…) and one that was an utter revelation was Feng Shui by a man who shall forever be known as The Mighty Robin D. Laws.

The subtitle “Action Movie Roleplaying” tells you much of what you need to know about this game. It is specifically the Hong Kong action movie genre of John Woo, Jackie Chan and Tsui Hark, although you can easily adjust it to fit Schwarzenegger movies, Indiana Jones or The Transporter. The main point is that it is Heroic; the characters are typically Big Damn arse-kicking Heroes who can leap off balconies firing a gun in each hand, punch opponents through walls and drive high octane cars down narrow streets at ridiculous speeds.

And it works brilliantly, due to Laws’ superb design. The basic mechanic is stunningly simple. Eschewing the multiplicity of dice I have come to know and love (the old joke is that you out a roleplayer by saying “would you hand me that d6?”) Feng Shui uses two six-sided dice of different colours, a good dice (positive) and a bad dice (negative), added on to a skill/characteristic rating (if you know what I’m talking about, you’re a roleplayer; if not, don’t worry about it). What really works is the level at which this is pitched; as I say, the characters are Heroes, they don’t need to worry about fighting with ordinary minions! This is accomplished by the simple expedient that Mooks (as they are designated here), generally the kind fodder the Big Bad will throw at the heroes to keep them occupied, tend to come in squads of six and each individual is taken out wit a single point of damage - so picture Jackie Chan running through a factory, knocking bad guys from gantries as they try to mob him. This is further enhanced by advantages that the game calls shticks, special abilities of an almost (or sometimes literally, depending on the character type) magical nature. For instance, the common one of never having to reload a weapon or, one of my favourites, the rather more tricky running up the stream of bullets coming toward you to attack your opponent.

However, the real revelation for me was a step beyond that injunction in the original D&D to make these rules your own, and that is the encouragement to use description and inventiveness within the game by giving bonuses for descriptiveness, resourcefulness and imagination - along with penalties for being dull or repetitive. Example: in a firefight you can get away with saying “I take aim and shoot” a couple of times, but if you don’t try harder the Director (as the gamesmaster is called) should start to penalise you. Adding some description will counter this, and maybe give a minor bonus (“I leap over the bar for cover, blazing away with an automatic pistol in each hand”) and particularly good/descriptive/crazy ideas should earn you better bonuses (shooting down a chandelier onto a group of mooks, sliding on your back along a stream of lantern oil someone is about to set on fire while shooting, or simply punching/tripping/throwing one enemy into a pile of others. Just use your imagination, or steal from your favourite action films.

The beam of celestial light hit me in my first session playing this game. We were in a New Year parade in Kowloon when it is attacked by Triad goons/terrorists/whatever (I forget the details). My character (a fairly bog-standard Martial Arts Cop, one of the basic archetypes) was on the edge of the parade and I asked if there was a nearby lamppost or pillar I could use to swing around, kick some bad guys in the face and continue to boost up over the parade. Simon, the director, looked me squarely in the face and said “If you need there to be, there is.” Of course: movie logic!

Of course, there is the danger with this that either the players will just be too silly in their inventiveness, of the Director will expect and demand ever increasing invention to avoid penalties, but that is partly where the trust and cohesion of a good roleplaying group comes into things. In any game, the gamemaster (or Director, DM, storyteller, etc) has to set the tone and expectations, usually implicitly but occasionally explicitly, and the players let him or her know whether they are onboard. Roleplaying is a unique form or communal storytelling where each participant adjusts and makes room and reacts and accommodates to move the story forward.

This game was my introduction to the work of (The Mighty) Robin D. Laws, for my money one of the great game designers and writers and someone who has continued to work on games that foreground the storytelling above rulemastery aspects of gaming, while having systems that support and give structure - Nexus, The Dying Earth, the flexible Gumshoe system. I’ve left much out of this review - the setting and background, the influence of magic (this is primarily based on Hong Kong cinema, don’t forget, so we’re not just talking martial arts and gunfights!) but, if you haven’t yet, you should get it, get together with a group of like-minded friends, some wine and beer and chips and dips, and have yourself a real good time. In fact, 2nd edition has recently come out and I’ve not got it yet. Ah, so many games, so little time....