Transition by Iain Banks (Books 2019, 25)

This post was written in the new year, but read in the old, and accordingly backdated.

This is a strong as it was ten years ago when I first read it, but still has the same narrative flaw. That’s not surprising, but the flaw in the universe-hopping detail is so jarring that I read it half-hoping to pick up on something that I had missed the last time.

It was not to be. Our heroes and villains still hop to uninhabited Earths, and yet find a body there to receive them.

And of course, the ethical question of possessing another human being remains barely addressed.

All that said, though, it’s still a great read.

OA Going Away

I just discovered via a conversation on Micro.blog, that Netflix have cancelled The OA.

This is very disappointing. The OA was an incredible, confusing, glorious piece of work, and Brit Marling, its co-creator, has assured us that it all has a plan and an ending.

Now (or back in August, anyway) she’s had to write its obituary. I suppose some other company might pick it up, but since it’s mostly Netflix who do that these days, it seems unlikely.

Presumably the two completed seasons, 16 episodes in total, will remain on Netflix. I‘d still recommend watching them. Just remember that you’ll be left somewhere strange.

Watchmen on TV

I succumbed. As I suggested I might.

It felt a little grubby, going to the NowTV site and setting up an account. As you know, Sky TV and I have a history. Or maybe an anti-history, insofar as I am anti everything that their former owner stands for. But the key word is “former.” With Comcast now owning it, I can feel a little better about giving them my time and possibly some money.

Still, though: grubby.

But what’s worse, as a viewing experience, is that their app is the worst video-playback app I’ve ever used. It’s fine at all the basics; it even has a ten-second jump back and forward feature, which is good. But! It completely fails at subtitles.

Now, in this era — this platinum age of television — subtitles are often an essential part of viewing. And that isn’t true just due to my age, because my kids, who are young adults, are at least as likely as us olds to want them on. Mumblecore actors are to blame. Or maybe bad sound on our TV. Or a combination. Doesn’t matter. We watch with subtitles on a lot of the time, and I wanted them on for Watchmen.

But NowTV — in its Mac app, at least — just can’t handle them properly. They either freeze, so you get the same sentence stuck on the screen for five minutes; or they just get out of sync. Sometimes they rush through minutes of text at a time, as if trying to catch up. In the end I turned them off.

But I watched one episode on my iPad, and the subtitles were fine there. So I guess it is the actual Mac app. The Mac plugged into the telly is an old one. A nine-year-old MacBook Pro, in fact. I’m impressed that it’s still working, though I did upgrade it at one point.

Anyway, that can’t be the reason it’s bad, because I’ve also tried it on my 2017 MBP, with exactly the same results.

But what about the programme?

It’s a sequel to the comic, set around thirty years later. I found the first episode kind of annoying, though I’m not quite sure why. Too much of it set in the past, maybe? But as we’ve got to know the characters and things have moved along, it’s definitely interesting. I’ve watched the first five episodes so far. Up to which point it’s kind of a cop show with an unusual background. Cops go masked so that criminals can’t identify them. Criminals go masked too, of course, specifically in Rorscach-style black and white masks.

And there’s a mysterious old guy who puts on plays reenacting the origin of Doctor Manhattan. You’ll have guesses about who he is, if you know the source material. Well, one guess.

I like the way they’ve built on the comic, and are weaving the backstory in. Though I think it must be extremely confusing for anyone who hasn’t read the novel, or at least seen the movie.

My main question (apart from the obvious ones, like what’s going on with Veidt?) is: why is Laurie using her father’s surname? It doesn’t make sense to me that she’d call herself Blake, instead of Juspeczyck.

Oh, and whatever happened to Dan Dreiberg? I want to see some Nite owl action. Something that looked a lot like the Owlship appeared in the first episode, so maybe he’ll turn up. As, I imagine, will Doctor Manhattan.

His Dark Materials on TV

Minor spoilers ahead.

I am loving what they’re doing with HDM1 in the BBC/HBO adaptation. It has just enough variation from the books to keep it interesting (especially since I re-read them recently). Yet it manages not to distort the story in the way that so upset my then-ten-year-old son in the film version of (part of) the first book.

Bringing in the scenes of Lord Boreal crossing to “our” Oxford, and finding out about who Grumman is, is inspired. It will have the effect of making more sense of the inciting incident for Will, when he turns up. In the book it was never entirely clear who the people who searched his house were sent by, and why the authorities were interested in him. This way, it will.

I’m looking forward to next week’s arrival of Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby.2 And we’ll get Iorek Byrnison, too. That’ll be a big test of the CGI.

Which leads me to the only thing that slightly lets it down: Pantalaimon’s default form as an ermine. It looks a little too fake and plasticky to me. Most of the other daemons look fine, so I don’t know why the lead one should be so poor. Maybe it’s because he’s the only one that gets much screen time where he talks.

On that note, two points about Mrs Coulter’s daemon, one which struck me on my recent reread, and the other just tonight. We never learn its name. Nearly every other daemon that gets a mention, gets a name. And it never speaks. Certainly not so far in the TV version, and I’m fairly sure it never does in the books, either.

Which no doubt tells us something about the character of the woman.


  1. As I imagine no-one calls it. 
  2. Pity it isn’t a singing part. 

Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (Books 2019, 21)

I like to reread this from time to time, and right now I’m considering watching the TV version that’s currently on. It’s HBO, which means Sky over here, which would traditionally have ruled it out on ethical grounds. But times and corporate ownerships have changed. The Murdochs no longer own Sky TV, so I can let myself watch it.

But then we have the other ethical question, about Watchmen in particular. Which is to say, since Alan Moore feels that he was cheated by DC over the ownership of the creative work, and repudiates all derivative works, shouldn’t we avoid them too? I saw the movie version, but I didn’t get the Before Watchmen spin-offs.

Well, it’s been a long time; Moore and Gibbons must have known what they were signing up for, even if things didn’t go quite as they expected. I recall seeing Moore at a convention in Glasgow in 1985 or 86, where he said, “DC are utter vermin.” Yet he went on to work with them often after that.

Plus, I’m already reading Doomsday Clock, which brings the Watchmen universe into the DC multiverse, so personally, that ship has sailed.

How does the story stand up today? It’s still excellent, I would say. With the obvious weakness of the ending. Though thinking about that, what’s weak is how preposterous Veidt’s plan is. Accepting that, that part of the story is well executed.

It’s still one of my favourite comics.

Who’s Who?

Right, let’s get 2019 off to a start by talking about my favourite TV programme. I haven’t said anything about the recent season of Doctor Who here since my appreciative post at the end of the first episode. Not for any reason other than not getting round to it.

I absolutely love this iteration of the series. Jodie Whittaker is fantastic as The Doctor, and the supporting cast is brilliant as well. I like the crowded Tardis feel. It does have the limitation that some of the characters don’t get as much time or as many lines as others. That’s been notably true of Yaz — except in the “Demons of the Punjab” episode, of course.

But there’s plenty of time for her to be developed further, assuming they’re all sticking around. And the focus being more on Ryan and Graham was entirely correct, since if there was an overarching theme to the season, it was grief.

It’s not perfect. There have been several occasions when I’ve thought that the writing team don’t really understand what a galaxy is, or the scale of it. Lines like “half the people in the galaxy are unemployed,” or “they’ve crossed four galaxies to get here,” just don’t really make a lot of sense. And there have been several episodes where things maybe weren’t as tidily resolved as we’re used to.

Tonight’s New Year special episode, “Resolution,” was a classic example of the kind of story where the ideas are good, but the whole thing could have been improved if they’d taken the time to come up with slightly better ways to make things happen. Some way of defeating the enemy that didn’t involve the microwave oven, for example. And the whole vacuum/supernova bit at the end was kind of farcical.

But no matter. This season was all about the character dynamics, and those were great. It’s a strong start for Chris Chibnall as showrunner, and an incredibly strong start for Jodie Whittaker.

Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith (Books 2018, 28)

I think I’ve read this twice before, but as ever, my memories of it are not strong enough to support that thought. Doesn’t really matter. I read it years back and loved it. When I started it this time, at first I wasn’t so sure. It felt like it wasn’t living up to my memories. Maybe I was reading it for the wrong reasons.

But there can be no wrong reason to read a book. Just sometimes you’ve got to be in the right mood for a particular one; or it needs to be the right book for you at that time.

Luckily reading changes us. So we might be in the wrong mood at first, but the book brings us around. That’s what happened this time.

I wish MMS would go back to writing SF. I suppose his crime/horror fiction as Michael Marshall (the second-most transparent pseudonym in literary history) is more lucrative — and to be fair, maybe he enjoys it more, or just as much. But god, it feels like a loss to SF.

Anyway, this was a mighty debut, but thinking about it now, it’s actually more like magical realism than SF. There’s no attempt to explain Jeamland or how the narrator and others get to it.

“I can send you a postcard, but you can’t come to stay.”

“Everything you’ve done, everything you’ve seen, everything you’ve become, remains. You never can go back, only forward, and if you don’t bring the whole of yourself with you, you’ll never see the sun again.”

Against A Dark Background by Iain M Banks (Books 2018, 13)

Back to the great reread. Some thoughts here. This book is 25 years old. Twenty-five! I think I’ve read it twice before, but (and you won’t be surprised here if you’ve been following along) I don’t remember much about it.

I didn’t recall, for example, that Sharrow, the protagonist, was a noble; or that it’s set as we approach the decamillenium on and around what I at first assumed to be an Earth colony, although one that is long detached from Earth. And it’s in a similar state to the last one I read, Feersum Endjinn, in that we’re in a decadent stage, where technology was more advanced in the past, but things have been lost or forgotten.

The most notable example of that, of course, is the Lazy Gun, the big maguffin at the heart of the story. I had thought it was semi-mystical, or at least alien in origin. But now I think maybe not, it’s just from the more advanced past.

Turns out it’s not anything to do with Earth, of course. Golter is a planet round an extra-galactic star. The million-light-year distance to any other star seems to be the “dark background” of the title. Though I still don’t really get why it’s called that.

Anyway, I still loved it. And strangely the ending felt less bleak than I had remembered. Though it’s still pretty dark. And it turns out he published an epilogue online. Which doesn’t change anything, but it was nice to read.