Friday, 26 June 2009


From a desolate, deserted street, I heard a tuneful barking....

Skulking amongst the debris that had been Liverpool Street Station I came across a feral piano, battered, patched, weathered. Pianos were once kept as pets by the pre-Recession super-rich; pampered, tuned, entered in prize shows. Only the finest scores would do. Now the survivors roam the streets unchecked, searching for scraps of music amongst the rubble and litter.
I spotted another piano here in Devonshire Court. These are hardened beasts, evolved beyond the pretty creatures of their heyday - observe their weatherproof shells. Should you find yourself in a close encounter with one, stay calm. Resist the urge to run. Approach very slowly - let them see you coming - and play something gentle and soothing. Singing is also recommended.

It's a piano-eat-piano world out there - this specimen had come off worst in a fight, and so dragged itself into a corner of St. Paul's Churchyard to lick it's wounds. The piano itself survived but the stool will eventually die - and there's no guarantee that a new one will sprout.
I found this piano scratching out an existence beneath the Gurkhin, a pre-Recession henge or monument to the glass god. Standing out in the open, it had lost any fear of humanity and did not shy away as I approached to play it.I understand pianos. Abandoned by my parents in a musical instrument warehouse as a helpless babe, I was raised by a Knight upright and a Clavinova. Pianos are conservative at heart. The leader of the tribe, a Bosendorfer, wanted me thrown to the howling strings but a sympathetic glockenspiel intervened on my behalf and taught me the laws of music. To this day I still dream in blues scales. But when I discovered the secret of rock and roll I knew I had crossed the line that separates man from keyboard instrument, and I went out into the world in search of my own kind.The range of colourful markings on these feral pianos may represent a new, disturbing evolution: tribalism. Alternately they may be a form of camouflage - this piano has taken on elements from the surroundings of Leadenhall Market. Feral adaptation is a sign: life will find a way.

Pianos featured are part of Luke Jerram's streetpianos project which can be found across London from now until July 13th. Photos are my own.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Electric blue

This picture pretty much took itself as I walked out of Liverpool Street a few days ago: all I had to do was lift the camera and click. There's no post production at all. The elements (traditional, modern and futurist architecture) were already composited, the colours and hot/cold map already filtered and masked.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The devil's audio-video format

Have spent most of tonight and previous nights struggling with the Blender Video Sequence Editor under the impression that it was unwieldy, bug ridden and useless - and worse, it seemed to be actively, intelligently sabotaging my imported footage, jumbling up the video and audio and deleting any scenes it didn't like. I have now seen the light: Blender VSE is easy, well designed and functional - the culprit all along was Quicktime, the devil's own audio-video format. One conversion job later and everything suddenly works fine! and my edit is back on track.

The VSE is part of the Blender freeware animation package. It's basic but functional, and while it doesn't have the features of, say, Final Cut, it does feature a decent multi-track editing system which is lacking in Windows Movie Maker or most freeware editors. As I get used to the interface I'll share any tips: today's tip is - avoid Quicktime.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

What Lando did next... [Review: Alien Intruder]

I've been testing the limits of the sci-fi gene deficiency with some real elephants' graveyard movies. Alien Intruder (1993) comes from the Red Dwarf school of scriptwriting: if your script requires two starships, make sure they are identical sister-ships so you can re-use the set. Also like early Red Dwarf episodes the plot revolves around a male-only crew on a long space voyage. Here they are a bunch of criminals with different skills recruited by Billy Dee Williams' Captain Skyler who are set against each other by Tracy Scoggins' alien seductress through a virtual reality entertainment system - Homer may have had exactly this film in mind when he first penned the Iliad.

It was interesting to see what the two more familiar cast members made of this film - Williams of course played Lando Calrissian, while Scoggins has a respectable CV of major roles in classic TV series including The A Team, Dynasty and more recently Babylon 5 and Crusade.

The USS Presley has been sent to rescue its' sister ship the Holly. See what they've done there? As with the Nostromo the crew includes an android, Marlon played by Joe Durrenberger, who is perhaps the world's most irrelevant robot - he follows Skyler around, is teased by the crew a few times, but has no other role in the action until he is suddenly electrocuted.

I'd like to excuse the special effects but can't. This film comes well after 1977 and the debut of Industrial Light and Magic and this aspect really should have been better - painted cardboard box spaceships, doors covered with silver foil and water pistol ray guns just won't do, even with the magic of Coloured Lighting (TM). Similarly these are a group of male actors severely lacking in stage-fight choreography.

What works much better than anything else in this film are the forays into the men's fantasies during their VR "weekends" - deliberately cliched worlds of the Wild West, 1950s biker country, film noir and a multi-millionaire bachelor pad, each accompanied by a submissive fantasy partner. While these sequences are highly exploitative, they are also realised with imagination, and the way Scoggins' character Ariel appears in each setting and introduces some much-needed sadism into the outcome of each fantasy plot is both funny and sinister.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Back to the near future

Primeval series 3 ended leaving me with mixed feelings. Some of the most fascinating characters (particularly Helen Cutter and Claudia/Jenny) are gone. Helen's ultimate goal turned out to be a fairly crude wipe-out-those-naughty-humans plot - I was expecting something a bit more subtle and super-intelligent, perhaps a more targetted interference in history that would account for the timeline changes between series. I was also completely wrong about the first episode - the idea of myths and legends didn't really get developed. Instead the series mainly jumped between the present and the near future so there were too few new (or old) beasties and slightly too many encounters with those bat-evolved predators, cool though they are.

Series highlights: Two stories stood out for me: as a cat lover I particularly enjoyed the sabre-toothed tiger and it's misguided guardian who should have known that you can't take the wild streak out of any cat. The parasitic fungus story was also cool. Hannah Spearitt finally got her gloves off and tried her hand at some action sequences; that annoying "intelligent" flying gecko was finally replaced by an ordinary baby dino; action in general was pretty good; and it's still near-faultless CGI with the added attraction of being palaeontologically correct. And nothing with velociraptors in it can ever be all bad.
ITV are also trying really, really hard with their ongoing interactive episodes. The concept is good and the effort that's gone into the polished and feature-packed website really shows; but I couldn't get into the online story. There was a similar problem with the one-off Doctor Who "Attack of the Graske" - these have to be accessible to quite young viewers so for anyone else they can't help but come across as a bit slow and patronizing.

I'm curious as to the future of this show - there's talk of international adaptations and a film, but ITV have confirmed that there won't be a fourth series in the UK. If I'm honest I think this is probably the right decision - this is a good point for the producers to just head for the nearest anomaly, carrying the mostly positive experience of this series with them to new projects.

[edit 23.6.09 - Lucy Brown is the actress who plays Claudia and Jenny]

Monday, 15 June 2009

Stairway to Heaven

These photos were taken during a visit to the Xstrata Walkway at Kew Gardens.

Is Xstrata the fruit of an Ewok-Doozer collaboration? Actually it was designed by Marks Barfield, the architects behind the London Eye, and gives visitors a close-up view of some of the park's larger specimens. There's a definite sci-fi aura - this could be part of a human colony on a forested alien world.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Lonely Planets

Another positive feature of a series (as opposed to a stand-alone novel) is that it sometimes gives the author the chance to take you deeper into their imaginary universe and give you a guided tour of a key location. Two good examples are Chasm City (Alastair Reynolds) and Look To Windward (Iain M. Banks).

Reynolds' novel continues in the same vein as Revelation Space - trust nothing you read. Chasm City is a multilayered society with extremes of poverty and avarice, and a criminal Layer Cake that leaves no sector untouched, and the mysteries and betrayals are equally multilayered. The architecture of the city itself relates to its past as you will discover, with structures at a certain altitude distorted by a nanoplague.

Ma'saaq Orbital, the setting for Look To Windward, is a Culture ringworld, and the population have expanded around the ring to find the space to explore their imaginative and eccentric Culture lifestyles. The plot takes the reader around the ring. Ma'saaq is governed by one of Banks' superintelligent ship AIs, and this AI, it's history and the significance of it's ruling task are explored in depth.

Both locations and their populations are fleshed out into complex and plausible human societies - this is travel fiction at its best. Curiously both locations feature an eccentric cable-car network - Reynolds' cars traverse the height of an overgrown city sector by leaping from vine to vine; Banks are clockwork and deliberately maintained in a state of disrepair for artistic reasons.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

I shall not discuss squirrels

When Cats & Dogs came out a few years ago I was extremely disappointed. I know I shouldn't get too worked up over a kids film but the premise for this one - cats and dogs fight a high tech war under our noses - looked as if it had real potential. The film was let down, however, by the shameless pro-dog propaganda stance: dogs are portrayed as the valient, obedient servants of mankind while cats ruled the Egyptian empire as gods and are plotting to re-enslave humanity. What's more this outcome is somehow contrived to be a Bad Thing.

Our feline overlords will be pleased to read Sean McMullen's light-hearted and wickedly humorous short story Mother of Champions in Interzone 222 as it goes some way towards redressing the balance. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of the deadlocked and futile conversation between the (human) scavenger and (feline) Champion - two species that think very differently.
Elsewhere in Interzone 222: cinema reviewer Nick Lowe's PhD thesis on the subject of Watchmen is published in full. Conclusion: he quite liked it - I think. There's also a moody and metaphysical Aliette de Bodard short fantasy, Ys, with an Atlantean legend at its heart. de Bodard's writing is always a pleasure and I look forward to more of her Aztec-themed stories including a forthcoming novel.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

It's about time...

Time travel is everywhere. I recently read Slam by Nick Hornby. This is not a sci-fi genre novel at all, but a novel about a Tony Hawk-obsessed teenager who has to grow up fast when he and his girlfriend become teenage pregnancy statistics - Hornby's very readable and funny adolescent writing style is for once used to bring to life an actual, likeable teenager rather than a regressed adult. However the book uses a flash-forward plot device - a magic Tony Hawk poster that flashes the protagonist forward along his own time to experience events in his future. Hornby and the protagonist are clearly aware that these trips might be real or imagined, and as Hornby allows the linear plot to catch up with the flash-forwards this question is answered. And what's the protagonist's name? Oh yes, Sam.

Monday, 1 June 2009

48 Hour Challenge Shortlisted Films

The ten SFL48 2009 shortlisted films can now be seen on the Sci-Fi Channel website here. Annoyingly you will have to sit through the same 20 second commercial trailer before you can see each one - thanks SyFy. My personal recommendations are the beautiful and stylish "Minute Adjustment" with its' poignant ending, and "Mark Up" which features some simple but well executed special effects and was placed joint second. In different ways I think both these films push the limits of what you can achieve in 48 hours.

Also at this site are the winner "Tracker" and the other second "Glimpse" as well as the entries from the 2008 competition. "Glimpse" features a lot of running - it's exhausting enough just to watch it! - and while the plot is very basic there's some great camerawork and sound and it has plenty of action movie edge.

[update 7.10.09 - link added to Minute Adjustment without SyFy adverts - thanks Rob]