sf, tv

Sleep and No Raven?

Well, as far as we can tell, this one isn’t part one of a two parter. So I guess I should write about it on its own.

I enjoyed it immensely — well, quite a lot — but I just wish sometimes they would take the trouble to come up with good, rational explanations for the events. Relatively simple steps, only needing a few extra words — or different words — in the script, could make these episodes be so much better.

The critical example of a story like this from last season is “Kill the Moon”. As I wrote at that link, they could relatively easily have included a few words that would have made the idea less preposterous. It wouldn’t necessarily be good science, but it would at least be less-ridiculous science than the explanation that was actually given.

So too here, then, with “Sleep No More.” The atmosphere and style of the episode were great. And the plot was fine. It was just the execution of the plot, including in particular the explanation for the problem, that let it down.

Let me explain what I mean. The plot, in summary, was: In found footage a mad scientist tells us the story of some soldiers investigating a space station that has dropped out of communication. The crew have been turned into dust-zombies by a machine that enables them to function on five minutes sleep a day. The explanation for the dust conversion is stupid.

The Doctor and Clara, of course, have arrived on the station and help to investigate. Clara gets sucked into the sleep machine, which means she will become a dust monster too.

Our heroes and the surviving troops escape in the TARDIS, and the mad scientist reveals he is a dust monster and is spreading the infection via the very recording we’re watching.

As I write that I realise that the whole Clara/infection thing wasn’t resolved, and nor, of course, was the infection via radio business (it reminded me slightly ofSnow Crash, incidentally). So maybe they will revisit it, next week or later.

But the ostensible explanation — before we got the radio part from the mad scientist — was that somehow the sleep-compression machine caused the sleep in the corner of your eyes to — what, grow sentient and consume humans, generating more of itself in the process? It’s hard even to explain what they were getting at.

Yet all they had to do was to say it was an alien intelligence that hade got into the mad scientist’s head and convinced him that helping it to spread was the right thing. then even have the sleep-machines infecting people via nanotechnology.

The aliens could even be cousin-species of the Vashta Nerada, as there’s a certain similarity.

Of course, that way we’d lose the radio-transmission-based spread, which was a nice touch too. So maybe nanotech that is quiescent until activated by the code sent in the transmssion.

Either way, it doesn’t take a lot of thought to come up with an idea that doesn’t break the story, but which also doesn’t jerk the viewer out of their suspension of disbelief.

And don’t get me started on theStar Trek-style powered orbit.

In my family we have concluded that what the show needs is, like UNIT, a Scientific Advisor.

sf, tv

Invasion and Inversion

I thought of a couple of alternative titles for this: “Old Enough to be Your Messiah.” (I’ll bet that played well in parts of America.) “The Basil & Petronella Show.” “Who’s Gonna Make the Violins?” But for consistency with my other posts. I’m sticking with this.

This was a great pair of episodes. True, some will have found it hard to understand what was going on in the first episode; and true also, the whole Zygon plot might not have entirely made sense (why, in particular, do they have electric zappy powers now, and why does that turn people into sparking wire wool?) But the overall mood, and tone, and writing, were fantastic.

Not to mention the fanservice. The references to Harry Sullivan; the portrait of the first Doctor over the safe; “Five Rounds Rapid!” (Which, I discover, is the title of Nicholas Courtney’s autobiography.) I Loved it all.

This season feels to me like it’s really solid. There are no real highs: no “Blink”, no “The Empty Child” or “Father’s Day”. But there have been no really weak episodes yet either.

On second watching I caught an interesting snippet. When the Doctor is telling Zygella why he didn’t press the big button, he says he “let Clara Oswald get into [his] head.” Then he says, “she doesn’t leave.” Maybe that’ll be the big secret reveal of this season: Clara doesn’t leave after all.

No, I realise that can’t be so, as official BBC announcements have been made. But it was an interesting change from the heavy-handed foreshadowing of her departure that we’ve seen. Clara has been the Doctor’s — and our — companion for a long time now, and it’ll be strange for all of us to adjust to someone new.

I loved the Doctor’s speech — soliloquy, you might say — that reinstated the ceasefire. It’s his statement of Doctoriness.

Still wondering if there’s a big thing for this season. I mean, apart from Clara leaving. It has to be something to do with hybrids of some kind — I noticed that the second part didn’t use that word, though the first did. The Osgoods could be said to be a hybrid, but I can’t see them coming back before the end of this run. There’s the Dalek/Time Lord thing, which will have to play out at some point.

Then there’s the Minister of War — which could just be a throwaway name like the Nightmare Child; but I think it was placed too specifically for that. And Lady Me, or Ashildr. I fully expect to see her again.

I expect we’ll have to wait for the closing two-parter, “Heaven Sent”/”Hell Bent” to find out.

But before that we’ve got “Sleep No More” on Saturday. I don’t know if it’s a two-parter with the one after, “Face the Raven”, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

books, Books 2015

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (Books 2015, 10)

The pages, how they turn. I’m sure I’ve said that before of JK Rowling’s work, but not in public, it seems. Amusing to note thatThe Silkwormwas my number 10 last year.

Plenty of Robin in this one, and it’s probably the best of the three. Certainly better than the last one.

Strangest thing about it is the music. By which I mean: the title is taken from a song by Blue Öyster Cult, and quotes from them precede most of the chapters (some chapters have titles, and those are the titles of BÖC songs).

Now, I had no idea that Patti Smith wrote some lyrics for BÖC, but apparently she did1

Still on a musical note, in passing one of the ancillary characters roadies for a band who are called Death Cult. Since JK Rowling is about the same age as me, and since she obviously pays attention to music, I would expect her to know that The Cult used to be known as Death Cult, and before that as Southern Death Cult. But perhaps you had to read the music papers in the 80s to know about that kind of stuff.2

Anyway, the Death Cult here have nothing to do with either the famous Cult, nor the Blue Öyster one.

The ending is a tad unsatisfying, as it leaves a number of things unresolved — which is fine, as there will no doubt be more books — and doesn’t really give us enough time post-denoument to decompress with the characters.

Still, highly recommended, as long as you’re not put off by gruesome scenes.

  1. we went to see her at the Roundhouse the other day, incidentally, on the 40th anniversary tour forHorses; but I digress. []
  2. And it turns out not to be quite as I remember, as according to Wikipedia, the only connection between SDC and Death Cult/The Cult is Ian Astbury. []
sf, tv

Apprentice and Familiar

Out of sequence, but for completeness I should write a piece about the first two-parter in this year’sDoctor Who series. “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar”.

Excellent that they managed not to include the word “Dalek” in the title of a Dalek story. A genuine surprise when the boy in the minefield said his name.

And great, great interplay between Missy and Clara, especially.

But if we assume, as we must, that the Magician is The Doctor and Missy is the Witch , does that make Clara both the Apprentice and the Familar? Or is Davros one of all of the above? It’s all very mysterious.

And Dalek/Time Lord hybrids? This can’t end well.

Wait, though: following on from my previous: The Doctor isn’t the Scarecrow: he’s the Wizard. But then, who is behind the curtain?

films, sf

Attack of the Clowns, or: Send in the Clones

Some time in 2002, as I suppose it must have been, I was driving through Hackney with my then-small son in the car, when he said, “Dad, I saw a clown.”

OK, I thought, someone probably dressed up for a kids’ party. It was a Saturday, as I recall. “Oh, yeah, where?” I glanced around, but couldn’t see any white faces or red noses.

“On a bus shelter.”

“A clown? On a bus shelter?”

“Yes. A clown. You know, fromStar Wars.”

I guess I must have been able to give some explanation of what “clone” means, to a five-year-old. But it wasn’t till last weekend that we finally saw the relevant movie.

And as before… it wasn’t as bad as I’ve been led to believe. Keeping your expectations low always helps.

It wasn’t great, it’s true. In particular I wasn’t convinced by Anakin and Padmé falling in love. Anakin, yes, but Padmé, really, no.

I had a hard time working out what the sides were in the big battle. The clones end up fighting on the side of the Republic? I didn’t expect that.

And this bothers me: if you are an assemblage of planets joined together in common cause by treaty, and some of those planets decide they want to leave — going to war over it should be the furthest thing from your mind. It would be like if a country wanted to leave the EU, and the rest of the EU formed a vast army to force them to stay in it. That’s not the action of a peaceful democratic entity.

It’s also insane. Even if you win and make the would-be-leavers stay, you’ve now got a load of people — whole worlds — who are actively hostile to the grouping they are within. That can’t be healthy.

Now, if a subset leaves peacefully, and then war developed later on, that would be more believeable. After all, we acknowledge the EU’s effect of helping to keep Europe peaceful these past seventy years. It’s one of the reasons I am strongly against the idea of Britain leaving.

But most importantly of all: you can’t say “federation starships” and mean the bad guys. I know they were talking about the Trade Federation, but “federation starshipmeans something in SF, and to hear it used here was really jarring. Did Lucas have beef with Roddenberry, or something?

Yoda fighting was fun. He’s so tiny.

And I’ve booked a work outing to see Episode VII on the 17th of December, the day it opens.

sf, tv

Died and Lived

Some quick thoughts on the “The Girl Who Died”/”The Woman Who LIved”Doctor Who diptych.

It’s unusual and intriguing to see what was effectively a two-part story with different writing credits for each part. Yet there was no real need for these two episodes to be shown back-to-back, and indeed I partly got the sense that they might have been stronger if they had been separated by a few other stories.

On the other hand I’m fairly sure that the second part had to happen now becase they’re gearing up to something. Maisie Williams’s Ashildr or “Me” character is, I feel sure, fundamental to this season’s overall story, if it has one.

After the first part I had the idea that Ashildr was going to become “The Minister of War”, the mysterious figure that was referred to by O’Donnell in “Under the Lake” as being something that 1980 was before — along with the moon blowing up and Harold Saxon.

Such an ominous-sounding figure is surely going to be an enemy of The Doctor, and at the end of “The Girl Who Died” he had created a near immortal who might not be at all happy with him about the situation, and who might use her longevity to gain power.

As indeed was the case, as we saw in “The Woman Who Lived”. However by the end of the second part I was less sure that Ashildr’s future role will be that one. It seems fairly likely that she’s going to have one, though, with her promise to pick up the pieces after The Doctor runs away, the giant foreshadowing of Clara’s departure, and of course her appearance in the bckground of Clara’s pupil’s photo.

However I get the feeling that her intentions will be more benign.

All just wild speculation, of course.

This pair of episodes were probably the weakest of the series so far, but they were still very good. Effective lightening of the mood with the comedy elements, while still not shying away from the darkness.

One last thought: in the pub scene at the end there were two people at a table in the foreground. I haven’t checked yet, but I’m fairly sure that the shot was a visual allusion to theSandman episode whose title escapes me,1 but in which Death agrees with her brother that she won’t take this one guy, and Morpheus meets him in taverns every hundred years. Which would tie in with the immortality theme, of course.

Oh, and: on Jason Snell’s Incomparable Flashcast about the second part (which episode Mr Snell wasn’t on, but never mind), the alien was likened to an “angy Cowardly Lion”. Now I’m sure there was also a mention by The Doctor of Ashildr’s heart “rusting” or “needing lubrication”, or some such — which was surely a reference to the Tin Woodsman. Which makes The Doctor The Scarecrow?

And Clara is Toto, of course, since Missy already likened her to a small dog.

I’m sure it’ll all make sense eventually.

  1. It’s inThe Doll’s House, issue # 13, “Men of Good Fortune”. Hob Gadling; he’s got his own Wikipedia entry []
sf, tv

Lake and Flood

Well, I’m not quite sure that Toby Whithouse quite managed to make the second episode as good as the first, but I’m loving the new series ofDoctor Who.

The Beethoven bit at the start was unnecessary: a rare example of the modern show not expecting the viewer to keep up, but assuming they’ll need an explanation — a pre-explanation in this case, but still. (Also breaking the fourth wall; most unusual.)

On the other hand, maybe some people would have been a bit lost at the end without it. Maybe all of us would have missed the point and weeks later we’d have gonge “Wait, but he only did that because he —” Which has its own pleasure too, of course.

My main concern was that The Doctor let O’Donnell die, without any apparent remorse. I have a feeling that might come back to haunt him.

Also: loving the two-parters. Proper cliffhangers and all. How about a traditional four-parter next season?


The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu (Books 2015, 9)

I feel that we should be rendering the author’s name in the Chinese way, with the family name first: Liu Cixin. That’s how he signs himself in the “Author’s Postscript”, and that’s how the translator renders all the characters’ names. But the above is how the publishers have done it, so we’ll stick with that for now.

As a work in translation,The Three-Body Problem fits well within the parameters of The Tempest Challenge, which, as I told you, I’m taking this year. It’s also this year’s Hugo winner, so I was keen to read it for that reason.

Right at the start I felt a mild sense of annoyance, because it was only then that I realised it is part of an incomplete trilogy.1 I’m not keen on starting unfinished serieses (it is so a word).

I finished it last night with a sense of surprise. According to my Kindle I was only at 85%; more importantly it didn’t exactly feel like the end, though to be fair I wasn’t quite sure where it could go from that point. I knew there were notes from the author and the translator, but they surely couldn’t be that long?

They couldn’t. But it turns out that the digital copy contains an extract from the next book in the series. I’m not sure how I feel about this trend in general. I don’t think I’ve ever read one of them. But I do think they’re getting too damn big: this one was fully 10% of the file, according to the Kindle. One tenth of a novel is not in fact that novel, but an extract from the next one? I don’t think that’s a great trend. But to the content. What did I actually think of the work? Umm… mixed. I enjoyed it overall, am glad I read it, and will probably read the sequels. But it has problems that I don’t think are just caused by my cultural expectations. Though they might be: the translator, Ken Liu, in his postscript says:

But there are more subtle issues involving literary devices and narration techniques. The Chinese litereary tradition shaped and was shaped by its readers, giving rise to different emphases and preferences in fiction compared to what American readers expect. In some cases, I tried to adjust the narrative techniques to ones that American readers are more familiar with. In other cases I’ve left them alone, believing that it’s better to retain the flavour of the original.

Which is fair enough, and for “American” it’s safe to read “British”, as well. But perhaps the most important literary technique — or at least, the admonition most often drummed into beginning writers — is “show, don’t tell”. As I have argued myself, it’s not a rule that can or should be set in stone; but there are times when violating it comes across as clumsy at best.

There are many such times inThe Three-Body Problem. Long sections of characters’ lives are told to us as a history. Similarly with the sections that take place in the “Three Body” game.

There are some great ideas here; in particular the best use of monomolecular fibres since — was it “Johnny Mnemonic”? One of William Gibson’s shorts, anyway. It’s also worth reading for the historical parts: the terror of living through China’s Cultural Revolution is well evoked. But the aliens are hard to believe in.

And part of the initial setup: scientists are killing themselves because things seem to have gone fundmentally wrong with physics. I found that unconvincing. If as a scientist you find things not behaving as you expect — even seemingly randomly — you don’t give up on science and life; you try to find a new theory to fit the facts.

Lastly, I don’t think we ever found out what’s supposed to happen at the end of the countdown.

But I don’t mean to do a hatchet job. I did enjoy it, and as I say, I’ll probably read the sequels. Would it have won the Hugo in a less puppy-infested year? Maybe. You can never tell.

  1. Incomplete in English, at least; the third part is due to be published next year, so it may well be finished in Chinese. []


There has been little in the news lately but the refugee crisis and the Labour leadership election. I’m here to talk, briefly, before the polls close on Thursday, about the latter.

I just voted, and guess what? For Jeremy Corbyn.

I’ve never been a member of the party before.1 I always thought that I was too independent to toe a party line; too many of my anarchist ideals, forged in the fires of punk, still stood.

Well, maybe. But my anarchism, such as it was, was always on the socialist wing. And I recognise the idealism that drove it. I’d like to think that humans could live without governments and leaders — that we are perfectible, and could form a working society through cooperation. But the fact is, of course, that that is not yet the case. And until it is, there are things worth standing up for, worth believing in. Worth fighting for.

I didn’t want to toe a line; but in May we crossed a line. After five years of a Tory government in all but name, we have a named one. David Cameron and his regime will go down in history as worse than Thatcher’s; but until he does go down, we have to deal with the effects of it.

On the morning after the election I resolved to join the Labour party and do what I could to help. This wasn’t about electing a new leader, though I realised that would be part of it. It certainly wasn’t about Jeremy Corbyn: I made the decision before Ed Miliband had even resigned, and enacted it before the leadership candidates had been nominated.

And for what it’s worth, I joined as a full member, not one of these £3 Supporters that we’ve been hearing so much about.

I think the aftermath of the Scottish referendum had some effect on my decision. Seeing how the failure of the “Yes” vote energised the SNP and led many supporters to join led me to hope that something similar would happen with Labour. As indeed it has.

Anyway, getting back to that choice of leader. It’s long past time that Labour had a woman as its leader, but neither of those standing are right for me. Where we are right now, Corbyn’s views most closely match my own values. When he says things like this:

Paying tax is not a burden. It is the subscription we pay to live in a civilised society.

— “The Economy in 2020

that is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been saying about tax for years.

There is much else. I’m not convinced about leaving NATO, but I don’t think it’s a fundamental policy. I do think we shouldn’t waste vast amounts of money on replacing Trident. The cold war is over, more or less.2 And even if Russia is getting alarmingly expansionist these days, a British not-really-independent nuclear missile submarine is going to worry them much.

Corbyn might not be electable — I doubt that analysis, but let’s go with it for now — but he should at least lead a Labour party in opposition that actually opposes the government. Which, with its slim majority, could actually be vulnerable.

Interesting times ahead.

  1. The title of my blog is partly a nod to my long-time support of it, though. []
  2. I nearly typed “the cod war”, which is also long over, but was much less terrifying. []
books, Books 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Books 2015, 8)

I read this under false pretences. Self-inflicted false pretences, to be sure, but nonetheless.

It won the Clarke Award, as I’m sure you know. All I knew about it when I heard the result, when I saw Mandel’s acceptance video at the ceremony, was the title. But it’s a badge of recognition, if nothing else; a clear signal that a group of people, of our peers, perhaps, think it’s one of best books — maybe the best — released in the last year.

I downloaded it on Kindle (I think there was a special offer). I hadn’t read any reviews, not even the blurb. But it’s calledStation Eleven: it’s got to be about a space station, right?

Well, “Station Eleven” is a space station of sorts. But this isn’t a story set on it, or in space at all. Well, except inasmuch as Earth is in space, which of course is totally.

Thing is, if I’d known this was actually set mainly in a post-end-of-civilisation dystopia, I probably wouldn’t have read it it at all. Such scenarios really don’t appeal to me much, at face value at least. I’m always reminded of a call for stories inInterzone many years ago, which asked for “radical, hard SF”; but which specifically said they didn’t want the kind of post-holocaust story where the hero gazes wistfully at a can of baked beans.

It’s an image which has stuck with me, but this is not that kind of story (though there are elements of scavenging among the ruins).

It’s also not set entirely after the fall of civilisation. In part it tells the life story of a successful actor (who dies on stage while playing Lear right at the start of the first chapter).

I note that Mandel herself seems to reject the SF label, and my thoughts on it — while loving it to bits — centred around wondering why she chose to tell the story of a present-day actor framed or intertwined within the death of civilisation. Looking at some reviews now I see that people treat the central theme as being the attempt to keep culture alive. And while that is an important aspect, I don’t really see it as being what the book is about.

Particularly if we are to consider it as literary fiction1 wherein characters are usually the main focus. As such it’s mainly the stories of the actor and of the young woman who started out as a child actor who was onstage when he died, but who survived the plague.

The conclusion of this review at theNew York Times sums it up well:

If “Station Eleven” reveals little insight into the effects of extreme terror and misery on humanity, it offers comfort and hope to those who believe, or want to believe, that doomsday can be survived, that in spite of everything people will remain good at heart, and that when they start building a new world they will want what was best about the old.

SF or not, it’s well worth reading.

  1. Why not li-fi, I often wonder? []