Category Archives: Ramblings…

What’s not in a name?

Names are strange things, words that define a person, an object or even a more ephemeral concept such as a country or a philosophy. In certain kinds of lore there was the belief that if the true name of a thing was known, then the person who held that knowledge was able to exert control over the named in one form or another. Even today we still buy into this strange cult of naming, with designer labels being afforded status and the utterings of famous names individuals quoted as the kernels of wisdom by which to live our lives.

As a writer the currency of names is always apparent, be it J K Rowling putting out an underwhelming novel after calling time on Harry Potter and it being the subject of attention more on account of the morbid interest in what she did next than anything else, or Robert Jordan turning what had been a promising tome in the shape of “The Eye of the World” into a series that became more boring and turgid with every sucessive title and yet somehow ground on because the first one was not bad and people deluded themselves into wanting to see what happened next (which in the case of most of the Wheel of Time books was less than nothing).

But what struck me most recently was the way in which past glories are used to sell whatever a person has been working on or associated themselves with in the here and now. At the weekend I chanced a few quid on a cheap copy of the PS3 RPG “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” based upon the fact that a friend had played it and not slated the game and I was looking for something to phase in as I got towards the end of “Dragon’s Dogma”. I was informed – and seldom allowed to forget – that the game had involved the artistic talents of Tod McFarlane, story and setting input by R A Salvatore and been produced by Ken Rolston (apparently responsible for work on Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion – which didn’t interest me much as I thought that game was crap).

Now there have been times when I didn’t know the names of those involved with a creative project and looking them up have been nicely surprised to find that it was good work by someone whom I already thought highly of. This has happened most often, for example, with Anime when finding that Yoko Kanno was behind a soundtrack that was simply amazing. Though the opposite is most often true when the names and their previous associations are seemingly given more prominance than the product in question.

The long and short of it is that KOA:R is a disappointing game, but more importantly the input by Salvatore is both unoriginal and nothing short of boring. This from the creator of Drizzt Do Urden, arguably the only character from a D&D novel ever to come close to transcending the limits of the RPG and become compelling to those not concerned with playing it.

For me it seems obvious that what has happened here is more to do with the fact that Salvatore came to the fame that he now enjoys while working in genre fiction than striking out on his own. One advantage of genre work is that you have a complete universe already established into which you can drop characters, so the time that would have been devoted to world-building is instead lavished upon the protagonists. Rather than creating another clone of the flat characters from stuff like the Dragonlance novels, here we had an outcast who came from a twisted society and could never fit in, drama and pathos earned almost instantly. An anti-hero for D&D was instantly far more iconic and credible than some peasant berk who just happened to have tripped over a magic sword or been born the chosen one. So far so good, the books kick against the goody-goody perception of heroes in the D&D universe, they become bestsellers – but what then?

When we move onto a new project, the backdrop of D&D has to be dropped and the writer is suddenly burdened with all that background work of creating the world in which his new masterpiece will take place. Now this is where the crunch comes (and to be clear, I’m not saying that Salvatore isn’t a talented writer, just that KOA:R doesn’t show up that quality in his post-D&D work) and instead of a fresh setting, you get a world that feels a great deal like the one we just left behind, only without the excuse that it’s someone else’s creation and you’re just being paid to fix the leaky roof.

I think there’s an element of this in Dan Abnett’s work away from GW as well, while he kicks back the stereotype of the Black Library focusing on typically limited 40K characters and subjects, he has an entire backdrop of the decades it has taken to populate the same setting with material. In such circumstances it allows a talented writer to invent a complex protagonist the likes of Ibrahim Gaunt, Gregor Eisenhorn or Gideon Ravenor and set them on that stage, presenting a great narrative along the way. But then you read some of his stuff written away from the GW universe and that same spark is gone somehow, replaced by a resort to abrasive characters and violence.

The lesson for me is that a name being bandied around in relation to a new product should be approached with great caution, and that sometimes a writer can shine brightest when they are surrounded by dull settings.

But just for the record: R A Salvatore and Dan Abnett, I still love you dearly.


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Skewed perceptions of intent and responsibility

I’ve always been somewhat intersted in the areas of human experience that are a little bit more “out there” and intriguing. Subjects like the supernatural, UFOs and cryptozoology were things that I really enjoyed absorbing information on when I was a kid and as I got older my approach to them was altered as things always are by the experience of becoming hopefully more worldly and less credulous in general. This often meant that when I came back to a subject, I was reading it with a far more critical opinion of the claims people were making and the evidence they presented to back up their findings.

I suppose this process for me was almost begun by the popularity of TV programmes that had the peak of their fame almost a decade ago now. I had never been the kind of person to catagorise myself as a skeptic before, but it was not long into the time I spent watching a particular programme (which will remain nameless) that I was forced to admit that it was tantamount to open bilking of the audience. The presenters would mince around a supposedly haunted location in the middle of the night with their pet medium (i.e. fraud in this and most other cases) and ascribe any random noise or mote of dust that floated in front of the camera to the supernatural while making no effort to introduce a scrap of scientific rigour to what they were doing.

The most thankless job went to a professor who was asked to watch the episode back and comment from the perspective of a scientist on the so-called findings. Inevitably his conclusions were the same: that there was no way to prove or disprove that what they had experienced was mundane or otherwise due to the amatuerish and unprofessional approach the programme took. But of course in the mind of some, this oddly served to add weight to the idea that something beyond the ken of science was going on, rather than that everyone involved was wasting their time unless they had no interest in what was going on save for making a TV program that was eagerly lapped up by the audience.

My choking point came when the same expert was asked onto one of the live marathon shows they had begun to produce on events such as Halloween. On this occasion he was asked by one of the presenters (and interstingly based on the exchange that followed also an owner of the production company responsible for the program) what his opinion was of a random sound they had heard and recorded. He did the usual thing of speaking as though he wondered why he bothered, listing the logical things that could have made the noise that were not the spirits of the departed. But then he voiced the obvious fact that it could have been faked to generate interst in the show. At this the presenter seemed to lose his mind, almost threatening the skeptic and demanding to know what possible motivation he could have to fake the evidence.

Of course it does not take a genius to speculate as to the motivation of man who owns the company making the show and why he would want to see impressive “evidence” of the paranormal onscreen, whether it be real or not.

From there the original skeptic was replaced with a slew of ever more pathetic and bored-looking skeptics who mumbled about rational explanations, while the over-eager presenters came out with priceless lines such as: “By the end of the night, we will make you believe!” But the most amusing was when they paired the skeptic with a credulous individual who was sold on matters of the supernatural and described the latter as the one who had “an open mind”.

Is it possible to have a more blantant failure to understand the meaning of words in the English language?

The skeptic is asking for proof of these extraordinary claims, willing to subject them to the same scrutiny as every scientific theory is made to endure and only then decide if the phenomenon is credible. The believer on the other hand has already made up their mind based on either the word of another or something they have seen and under their own auspices decided stands as proof of the supernatural.

The more I read around there subjects, the more I see this bizarre and frankly worrying juxtaposition of roles being imposed on the viewpoint of the skeptic and the believer. Almost without exception, when an individual makes an outrageous claim of one kind or another in these areas, the rational mind that seeks to respond and ask for proof is characterised as at the best an arrogant and uncaring cynic and at the worst a vindictive monster.

This is all the more disturbing when one considers the realms of public life in which we demand such scrutiny without question and would think that its absence made the process highly questionable. In a court there would be nothing to be gained by calling the prosecution all the things that a skeptic is accused of being simply because he points out the evidence does not favour the accused. And yet this happens in almost all cases where a skeptic takes the time to study and comment upon the claims of those who tell the public at large that they can commune with the dead, have been abducted by aliens or know the location of Bigfoot.

I can only think that there exists a level of dislocation from or experience of the real world in the minds of many who are either claming to be witnesses to this kind of phenomena or seeking to make a career out of bringing them to the attention of the public at large. Anyone who has been party to way that all too harsh real world works will attest to the fact that there is little room for fudging the facts and asking that what you are claiming to be the truth should be accepted on your word alone. If something does not stand up to fairly harsh scrutiny, it is likely to be derided and tossed out as bullshit in very short order with little or no thought for the feelings of the person making groundless claims.

Perhaps the most outlandish of these sentiments was encapsulated in the UFO researcher who was sold on the idea of abductees who claimed to have been repeatedly taken by aliens, when he compared the nature of skeptics who took the opposing point of view to those who would accuse a rape victim of making fake claims or having brought it on themselves. I mean really, could there be a more distasteful and in the end revealing statement of the skewed view that such individuals are capable of adopting to protect their own precarious take on such a matter? This person would characterise the act of merely approaching an issue with an unwavering commitment to dealing with the hard facts rather than indulging in potentially damaging and patently untrue claims as being tantamount to condemning a victim of a violent crime?

Even when the same demands are made in a court of law to prove crimes every day around the world?

In the end it becomes ever more disturbing to realise that we live in a world where some people would see the credulous believer as the champion of what is right and deride the skeptic who merely asks for proof before he believes as the villain. Like the crowd who were whipped up into buying the magical cure-all tonic by the travelling salesman, they may find later that they have swallowed something quite unpleasant.

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An Open Mind as opposed to an Open Mouth…

Why do people ever think that an answer exists to the most fundamental of question as regards the very things that make us human beings rather than just another variety of primate? There are many examples of this kind of thing, but the one that keeps returning to me at the moment is the way in which the study of history and archeology can suffer from this very thing when presented in a medium which is seen by the masses. I’m making my way through an interesting book about the historicity of the Trojan War as described by Homer at the moment, in which the discoveries made by archeologists in Greece and Turkey are examined to compare them to the world that is described in the Iliad and Odyssey.

More often than not it seems that there was a world which would have looked something like the one that Homer creates, but the major surprise for most experts was that when they finally managed to translate all of the clay tablets in the ancient written language of Linear B, they were given an insight into a bureaucratic, rather than heroic world. It appears that as well as spawning great warriors and tales that would be handed down the ages, the ancient Greeks were just as concerned with keeping tabs on the accounts and making sure that everything tallied at the end of the financial year as we are today.

But then why should it surprise anyone to discover that people in that age were as complicated and possessed of different aspects to their cultures as we pride ourselves on being today? I think that all too often we fall into a trap of defining others according to the features of their historical legacy that we find romantic or most flattering to ourselves. A case in point was the first episode of the new documentary entitled “The British” (I can already hear the rumblings in the hills of Wales and Scotland over that choice of title) on SKY that could best be described as “history lite”. Here we had the ancient Britons pitted against the Romans and a basic treatment of the way in which the largest part of the islands became Romanised, gaining a taste for amongst other things gladiatorial combat.

Helen Mirren then popped up as one of the many talking heads (chosen more for their celebrity value in most cases than ability to make a relevant comment) and opined on the way in which the Romans understood that such things were needed to keep the masses in line and not questioning the way things worked. But how common is this attitude towards the subject? The assumption that such things were primarily intended as a means of control and a sedative for the common man? Of course a Roman pleb would have lapped it up without a moment of thought, but when we sprawl in front of the X-Factor and forget the problems of our day, we’re just relaxing and never a hint of being kept in line by the powers that be is mentioned.

The comment reminded me of the time I was standing in the middle of the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, being told what can be said about those awesome standing stones and the culture that raised them. The guide explained that while we can be sure there are reasons that the alignment is dictated by the motions of the sun, moon and stars, we cannot really be sure just what the entire purpose of the place was. In this he compared the ring quite obviously with Stonehenge, world-reknowned and yet still an enduring mystery.

But at that moment, a woman piped up towards the front of the crowd: “That’s not right, they know what Stonehenge was now. It was a graveyard…I saw a programme about it the other week.”

Well, that was the end of the debate, case solved.

Was it bollocks.

The guide was polite, nodding and making those sounds that say at once: “Really, how interesting…now please be quiet while I finish my bloody talk, for which I am not paid enough to debate these matters with the likes of you.”

What struck me about the woman’s statement was the way in which she sounded so sure the matter was closed. She had seen a TV program and so that was that in her own mind. I’ve seen more than a few documentaries on Stonehenge and the one thing that each one has left me thinking is that we really have no bloody clue as to what the point of the place was overall and we may never have a hope of finding one. To me it always seems that as soon as you find one use for the place another pops up and most likely this is because it did not serve one specific purpose at all, but rather had a myriad of roles to play in the lives of the people who built it and the generations afterwards who then used it.

Take a Christian cathedral for example, say you happened upon it in the far future and all that remained was the shell of the building and perhaps a small portion of the statuary. If you had no notion of what the religion that had been behind its construction was, what then would you think the purpose of the place was? Remember there are no books, paintings, stained-glass windows or associated knowledge with which to make your assumptions, just a massive and obviously labour-intensive building that must have been an achievement for the people who built it. Do you see it as a tomb, because there are people buried beneath the floor? Is it a venue for a musical or theatrical performance on account of the wondrous accoustics and the remains of the seats? Or could it be place of civic administration because of the similarities with the layout of a Roman Bascilica?

My point is in the end, that when we explain our own time and the things that we create, we like to allow them so many levels of meaning and different and yet complimentary functions that we would be offended if someone failed to appreciate these when they looked in from the outside. So why then are we so quick to do the opposite when we try to appreciate the things that were created by those who came before us? Why does there have to be one defining label attached to Stonehenge? Only an idiot thinks that Hadrian’s Wall existed only to keep the northernmost tribes of these isles on the other side of it. And why can’t Homer’s ancient heroes have come back from the sack of Ilium to debate with their scribes whether or not the Trojan maidens they had carried off were a tax write-off?

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5 Books that changed the Game…

Things are rolling along quite nicely at the moment with the stories that I’m working on and there are no major gripes for me to spill into my journal entries, so I thought I’d try to do something positive for a change. People always bang on about the books that changed their lives and what they learned from reading them and so I thought that I’d do the same and share a couple of titles that I feel are out of the ordinary, exceptional and really made a difference to the way I saw the world of literature after I’d finsihed them.

I’m not suggesting that they are essential or even that I can add some new degree of insight into what makes them special, rather I want to share the reasons that I still think of these books as landmarks for myself. If you have read them and agree with me than that’s a boost for my ego. Similarly if you are inspired to pick one of them up then we both win. But if you hate one of these books or are turned off after an attempt to read them, then I hope we can just agree that we differ in taste and leave it at that. So here goes, in no particular order:

1) Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien

No surprise there, not when you consider that this book is the closest thing that modern fantasy has to the Iliad in terms of scope, vision and influence. But it’s so easy to get caught up in the fog of fandom and recieved opinion surrounding this trilogy of books (actually there are six in total, if you want to be pedantic) that you forget what a gift Tolkien gave to his readers with this one. A lifetime of work on the history, mythology, languages, geography and peoples of Middle Earth went before and allowed that somewhat stuffy Oxford professor to weave the epic struggle between the overwhelming forces of evil and the isolated, divided but ultimately noble and enduring forces of good into a seemless world that lived, bled and died from the first time a Black Rider appeared in the Shire to the final battle at the gates of Mordor. There is no fantasy writer working today who is not influenced by Tolkien, with even those who claim not to be making a conscious decision to do so and thus revealing his effect upon their writing.

2) Drachenfels, by Kim Newman (writing as Jack Yoevil)

When Games Workshop began to publish novels back in the day, there were so many fewer titles than the Black Library can boast today and perhaps at the same time a greater number of outstanding reads as a result. Drachenfels is many things that are often considered negative in terms of being genre fiction, filled with gore and written to hawk the wares of GW first and as a work of fiction second. But that having been said, I remain fond of the book on account of the fact that it taught me the that fantasy can be brought down from the lofty heights of the epic and dropped into a world of sex, violence and seedy motives without losing the art of telling a compelling story populated with flawed and yet ultimately heroic characters. You can argue that there are other writers who did the same thing before and after in a better manner, but this was the first time I encountered fantasy that was about the outcasts and non-conformists rather than the shining heroes and to me that really changed the who scope of what the genre could encompass.

3) Game of Thrones, by George R R Martin

There really is no other single writer who has done more to make fantasy relevant and marketable in the latter part of the 20th and into the 21st century than Martin. In a time when the standard of the genre was groaning tomes of 700+ words in a series of up to and beyond a dozen books, in none of which anything happened or derivative children’s titles picked up by desperate adults starved of anything to keep them occupied, this book was different. It took the genre by the ears and proceeded to headbutt it square on the nose every time it mentioned a tired and overused trope or cliched character carrying a nonsensical magical maguffin towards a confrontation with a dark overlord in his land of evil. Sure the world is full of horrible stuff that wants to eat you, yes the corruption of the court is pushing the nation into a disasterous civil war just when the nobility needs to be united, I know magic is coming back into the world and dragons are back. But this is so much like the real world that people are just too greedy, stupid and self-absorbed to give a shit. How I loved the experience of reading this book, more real in some ways than anything written outside of the fantasy genre.

4) The Whisperer in the Darkness, by H P Lovecraft

Not technically a novel, this is one amongst many of the stories and novellas written by perhaps the most naturally talented man to produce horror that has ever lived. Not only did Lovecraft manage to move the genre away from the stuffy gothic trappings that had held it back in the realms of Stoker and Shelley with their hangover from the age of the Romantics, he began a move towards cosmic scope in popular literature that endures stronger than ever to this day, and most amazing of all he did it from beyond the grave having died before his body of work was accorded the status it truly deserved. Through his fevered view of the world around him, Lovecraft invested his paranoia and unease with a galactic and trans-dimensional quality which linked the limited manner he exprienced life to the concept of beings and powers that spanned time, space and beyond. And trust me, there are some of his stories that once they have been fully disgested, will make you very unwilling to spend time alone and remote from the supposed security of human civilisation.

5) The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I once came across a quote that claimed while writers from some cultures in the time of Dostoyevsky could be said to excell in certain modes or subjects, only the Russians truly managed to capture the essence of life in their literature. If that is true, then none have been able to do so to the same degree as Dostoyevsky or with the pained and raw emotion that he achieves in this book. Based upon his own time spent in a Siberian Gulag, the reader is treated to a microcosm of human interaction, hopes and fears all observed with minute attention to detail and embodied in the characters and moods of the narrator and his fellow inmates. Rather than presenting a uniformly grim vision of the men whom he invents, Dostoyevsky instead uses their bleak circumstances as a background against which to present their emotions and the colour of their characters in all the more startling details. There is never a moment in this book when the reader is not aware of both the internal workings of the characters, the situation they are in and the intention of the author to provide an insight into the human condition by their example. If you are going to read any Russian novelist of this age, consider Dostoyevsky and I hope you will not be disappointed.

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Game of the Walking Dead of Thrones

Suddenly having Craister chop off your cock seems like the easy option...

Suddenly having Craister chop off your cock seems like the easy option…

So we made it to the end of the second season of Game of Thrones and are secure in the knowledge that the third season was comissioned after the airing of the first few episodes once more. Now all we have to do is find something to do until next April while we wait for the boxset and the premiere of the new season, perhaps this little film that Peter Jackson has been bevering away on might provide a minor distraction until we can return to Westeros?

What were my impressions of the second season? Did I bathe in the glories or see places where improvements could have been made? Does anyone care what I think?

In the case of the last question, it’s a moot point as this is my blog, so if you have no interest in my opinion them what the fuck are you reading this for in the first place? Well, if there’s anyone who I haven’t alienated with that comment and some people who are looking to read a kinky story involving the undead and the inhabitants of Westeros still scratching their heads as to what this is all about (more kinky stories comming soon, I promise you), here are my feelings about the second season now that the final credits have rolled.

Overall there has been no drop in quality from season one in terms of either the writing, direction, casting, acting and scope of the episodes whatsoever. One merges into the other with no real let up and I would expect that a newbie would be able to watch both seasons back to back with little trouble. The new characters introduced in no way jar with those that were stalwarts in season one and in fact add a new dimension to the whole rather nicely as the narrative is inevitablty further split down as new factions emerge and alliances are broken and forged.

There are moments at which the division of screen time can make you aware of the fact that you had forgotten a particular character for a while, but this was always going to be the case with such a sprawling series of novels. Where the writers have chosen to make changes and omit some less central plotlines, these have for the most been made in a logical manner that suits the small screen and helps the more casual viewer to keep up. I truly think that had the series been made to the exacting standards of the average Game of Thrones obsessive, the thing would not have been nearly as popular with the great unwashed masses.

My criticisms are small and probably better taken as very individual points that occured to me rather than things that make me foam at the mouth with nerd rage. One is the fact that while I like the ongoing practice of hiring actors who are well known in the UK for minor roles (e.g. Ralph Inerson as Dagmar Cleftjaw and Tony Way as Sir Dontos), it would have been nice to see Clive Mantle return for at least one episode as Greatjohn Umbar as well. There was also the fact that some of the scenes that later in the series that focussed on Rob Stark and the Nights Watch minus Jon Snow felt more like placeholders intended to keep the characters in the mind of the viewer rather than actually advance the plot.

Oddly it was one of my favourite scenes from the series and not one that I have an issue with or that could have been avoided that struck me as the most obvious negative of the whole thing. The Battle of the Blackwater was without doubt the best episode of the entire season, with pacing, set pieces and acting that put Hollywood to shame. It should have been as well thanks to George R R Martin penning the thing. But comming before the end of the season, it inevitably made the final episode more an epilogue than a finale.

They tried, bless them for it as well, to make the final episode a slew of delight for the viewer with Danerys recovering her dragons while locking a man in his own vault to starve to death, Winterfell being burnt to the ground and Theon handed over to Ramsey Snow (a glimpse of him would have been nice, based on how much was revolving around him) and Geoffrey sliming his way out of the noose once more thanks to the efforts of others. But in reality they were just cleaning up loose ends and getting the viewer prepped for season 3.

Having Sam surrounded by an army of Wights was the last scene when I was expecting a moment of Mance Rayder to reveal who was going to get the role and set tongues wagging, but what would I know? It was a chilling sight and well done, but you and I both know that within moments of his first scene in season 3 Sam will be back in the company of his fellow crows, perhaps after an adventure with an onyx dagger. All in all the thing seemed more a self-conscious attempt to spice up the end of the episode rather than a genuine element of the storyline propper. But nonetheless, it was 99.9% perfect and I cannot wait for season 3.

PS: Why did we have to see Bran being spirited away from Winterfell in a barrow? Would it have been too much for Hoddor to have been carrying him in the sling across his back? And where do they find these odd but undeniably cute actresses? Ygritte is the latest to pop up and one of the best so far.

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Where to start?

Well, I’ve been posting stuff on various internet sites for a number of years now and never really thought about a central point online where I could concentrate and post all of my stuff before. In the past there has always been the problem that I write on a number of differing subjects at any one time and a story that suits one site may be way out of the comfort zone of another. My page over at Deviantart solved some of those issues by allowing me to post those different titles in the same place, but the idea of being able to reach a wider audience still appealed to me. Hopefully this blog will allow me to do just that and provide a one stop location where I can post and share work as I complete it.

I plan to start things off here by reposting the stories that I have completed over the past few years. These may not be new and some people may (I hope) have read them in the past, but I feel that having them here allows me to refer back to them more eaisly and therefore introduce new stories in a more seemless manner.

Now all I need is for someone to actually want to read this thing.

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