Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Apples, Oranges and Banana Wings

Or, why VCR never killed off the cinema.

Is it even possible to compare a paper-based fanzine to an e-zine or blog? As Scott Sandford's study demonstrates, it is entirely possible to compare apples and oranges, and by extension, anything with anything else.

For Mark Plummer, co-editor of Banana Wings, it's clear that the two are completely different. Answering questions at the BSFA open meeting on the advantages of the fanzine, along with co-editor Claire Briarly, he points out what might be the most significant difference: a fanzine has a much more controlled circulation, going out only to those who have requested it, and shared with only a few others - again those who are interested. For a blog with a similar sized circulation, some readers will be looking for the specific content while others may come across the website by any number of routes or search terms, so a fanzine might be a better way to foster dialogue between like-minded fans.

There are other differences too: a fanzine is likely to be released on a monthly schedule or even longer, while a blog is generally more frequent: so articles can be written more thoughtfully. And for Mark and Claire the process of putting together the publication is very much part of the pleasure of - and reason for - the enterprise. I can report this is also true of the different process of blogging!

From right: Claire Briarley, Mark Plummer, Tony Keen. Photo by Chad Dixon.

The Sci-Fi Gene may possibly have some very old copies of ZZ9 buried down the back of a sofa, appropriately enough, but has been away from the fanzine scene for too long so is looking forward to reading Banana Wings for the first time very soon. One of the great things about independent media is the many different forms it can take, each with its own advantages and unique pleasures, and the way each format can take on a life of its own.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

More thoughts on District 9

I'm wondering what the merchandising teams are making of this film. Computer game programmers are probably rubbing their hands with glee - the action sequences in the second half are just a few steps away from being a first-person shooter, complete with alien weaponry and vehicles. On the other hand cuddly toy manufacturers may have to work a little harder on the Prawn image. However where there's a rand there's a way, and I look forward to seeing District-9 branded catfood on the supermarket shelf any day now.

This brings me to another point - over the years Hollywood has been accused of being run by Jews, gays, Freemasons, the FBI, the mafia, the popcorn lobby and even (heaven help us) actors. But in 2009 the true rulers of the universe have been subtly showing their paw through science fiction. Catfood plays a key role in District 9. The haunting landscapes of Moon were filmed in a giant cat litter tray. Coincidence? You decide.

The Minister for Human Affairs declined to comment.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Tunnel visions

I was recently an extra in a short film set on the Underground and spent several hours travelling up and down the Piccadilly Line with cast and crew, trying to shoot a few seconds of HD footage on a Red One.

During the shoot I tried to observe and learn as much as I could vicariously. This is an extremely difficult film environment - possibly more so for the professional using heavy, complex kit like the Red One. Firstly the trains rock and roll and vibrate heavily. This means that, at best, every shot looks like a hand held shot. At worst, particularly on close-ups (and remember, a major USP of the Red One is it's ability to zoom beyond other HD formats) there's too much movement. Given the size of the Red One, some shots could only be achieved with three people holding it steady.

Secondly, there are huge differences in light levels between tunnels and stations, and between underground and overground track. This means you're always up against the clock - you may have only a few minutes to switch lenses, position the camera and crew, and capture that shot before the conditions change.

Thirdly, watch out for continuity. Each time the train passed through central London and came out of the tunnels, we had to change trains and head back the other way, finding a similar position in the new carriage, and of course the minor details such as the posters above the seats had all changed.

The general public weren't a difficulty: people were happy to move along the carriage to let us film at one end. I suppose you could shoot a scene like this without extras, using volunteers as you go along - the problem would be with the train changes or re-takes as there would be different people in the background of each shot. Overall the shoot was good fun and I was impressed with the team's ability to rise to all these challenges and really hope they got what they needed.

If you can deal with it's idiosyncrasies, the Tube is a fantastic set. The winner of SFL-48 in 2008, Factory Farmed, and the 2009 runner-up, Glimpse, both relied heavily on Jubilee line footage. If you want to see a feature made Underground, watch the 2004 horror Creep. In addition to a superb performance by Franka Potente, the film makes great use of the Underground's hidden treasures - miles of sinister disused stations and tunnels.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Review: District 9

2009 is proving to be an extraordinary year for science fiction cinema - and there may be more surprises to come.

District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter Jackson, is refreshing for so many different reasons - not least the complete absence of a single American or British accent or familiar face amongst the cast. Sharlto Copley plays the lead role, Wikus van der Merwe, as a delightful anti-hero - a civillian office worker suddenly promoted beyond his ability and put in charge of an army squadron who clearly hate him. There's more than a touch of David Brent about his character and while - naturally - he learns the error of his ways through a series of ironic plot twists, his unthinking prejudice and utter cowardice is a huge part of the story.

We've also moved way beyond the sci-fi blockbuster as just a series of national monuments to be trashed (unless, that is, we happen to be Roland Emmerich) - this is a blockbuster with plenty of action, particularly as Wikus' two man army storms MNU headquarters, but also extremely strong on character, story and the striking Johannesburg location. And this film doesn't just have great special effects - it knows how to use them. The Independence-Day style mothership is a good example: rather than being the focus of the action it's beautifully composited into the background of every other shot.

District 9 made me think about persecution in general and a particularly abhorrent recurrent event in history - forced relocations of entire populations such as the Trail of Tears. While falling short of literal genocide, relocation is still a particularly dehumanizing act, both because the victims are often processed more like farm livestock than humans, and because the act tears people away from their homes, possessions and familiar places that form the foundations of a culture.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Glass Souls

I know it's been said before, but could this be the beginning of the end for the director's glass ceiling? Andrea Arnold just released Fish Tank to huge acclaim from both audiences and critics, while The Hurt Locker showcases a director, Kathryn Bigelow, making a real impression on the mainstream action genre.

I'd rather watch films for their own sake than get into this issue, and "Woman Directs Moderately Successful Film" should not, I repeat not, be a headline. However the disparity between male and female directors is so great and so obvious - remind me, how many female directors have won Oscars? that it bears some thinking about. I was recently asked by a friend to name my favourite directors - not only were they all male, I could only name a handful of female directors.

Is science fiction better or worse than the rest of the industry? Hard to say, although as soon as you look into this, straightaway you start to read about female directors engaged in interesting sci-fi projects. I'm particularly looking forward to writer and director Sophie Barthes' film Cold Souls, an indie featuring Paul Giamatti and an intriguing concept, currently touring screens across the US but hopefully coming to the UK soon.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Here I am, brain the size of a planet [Review: Mental Repairs Inc.]

This is the website description of Renzo "Eshaktaar" Thรถnen's game: "Mental Repairs, Inc. is a 2.5D point'n'click adventure that puts you into the shoes of Henrik Liaw, machine psychiatrist. Henrik's unusual..." by this time I had stopped reading and hit the download button.

Mental Repairs, Inc. is an indie game built on the Wintermute Engine. Liaw, who doesn't look nearly old enough to be a medical student let alone a psychiatrist, is called out to a company HQ where the mainframe computer has malfunctioned. However before he can even reach the mainframe he has to deal with a number of disturbed appliances including (genius) a lift with multiple personalities, one of whom only wants to go up. Another nice touch is Liaw's PDA device which acts as a hint system and plays an integral part in the plot - but also has it's own character and a tendency to make jokes about Eliza or Turing Tests. The whole scenario is a little reminiscent of Douglas Adams' work, which is populated by manically happy sliding doors and eccentric robots including of course Marvin - who would seriously benefit from a few sessions with Henrik Liaw.
As this screenshot shows, although there are a small number of locations they are detailed, stylish and atmospheric.

The best compliment I can give this game is that it is much too short. I completed it in a few hours of gameplay over three days, and was left wanting much, much more. The gameplay around healing neurotic machines and computers works well, particularly in the first act (the second act tries to do something a little more metaphysical), the interaction with each appliance is different and well thought-out. The puzzles are both logical and consistent with the story, and the idea strikes a real chord - I've yet to see an office computer system, for example, that isn't at least a bit neurotic. So it would have been good to see this game extended, with more appliances to heal.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Taking Liberties with history [Review: 1812 The Rivers of War]

I first came across Eric Flint as author of From the Highlands, a novella in David Weber's Honor Harrington series, from the anthology Changer of Worlds. Flint shares Weber's obsession with military fiction - 1812 is an alternative history set during the American War of Independence.

In real life this formative period in Cousin Jonathan's history was a catastrophic period for the southern Native American tribes who were drawn into the fighting on both sides but essentially squeezed out of the new nation as they lost land to the frontiersmen. Two decades later they were forcibly dispossessed and relocated (the "Trail of Tears" ).

In the novel, a small group of Cherokees are given a prominent role at the heart of the action as they accompany Sam Houston and other historical figures. The novel centres on a key battle where American soldiers rally to defend and hold Capitol Hill against considerable odds. This chapter is full of highly charged symbols - the Capitol with both the Houses are still under construction; the statue of Liberty is used as part of the defences. What's taking place is wish fulfilment: no less than an alternative formation of the USA, and one in which the Native Americans won't be ignored or excluded to the same degree.

Battles in this period often consisted of two lines of men more or less taking turns to shoot at each other. However Eric Flint's descriptions of battle are accessible and interesting - he introduces issues of morale and psychology into these deceptively simple engagements to explain why one line breaks before the other. More complex engagements involving different factions and maneuvers are also explained clearly, with just enough detail to follow the action.

This is a "pure" alternative history in that the deviation from our timeline begins with a single, seemingly trivial change. I loved trying to guess how much of this novel was imaginary. When I investigated I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by just how much was real, including all but one member of the cast. Where major larger-than-life historical figures play a part they are well researched and particularly enjoyable to read about - a lot of fun is had with the all-cussin' Andrew Jackson for example. Other non-military period details are also present and correct and there's some very historically apt doctor-bashing.

This book is a compelling read: but reading it is worthwhile for two further reasons. Firstly you may well learn more about this period in history by reading 1812 than from a regular textbook or history class! and secondly the point about exclusion of native Americans is well made.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike

The Great Maze at Blake End is an annual event - a labyrinth grown in a 10-acre maizefield, one of the many maize mazes that springs up around the UK at this time of year. Exploring it brought back a lot of memories, such as playing text adventures on a BBC Micro as a child. Mazes were a common element of Sphinx Adventure, Philosopher's Quest and similar games: usually the various parts of the maze were joined non-logically (if you go north from point A and reach point B, going south won't necessarily bring you back to A) so you either had to come up with a way to map the locations or some other out-of-the-box solution.
I later graduated to PC games such as the original Colossal Cave or Zork. The genre has continued to grow and develop and there are scores of indie games on the net. However while mazes are still found in more recent interactive fiction, they often take fourth place to characters, atmospheric settings and other kinds of puzzles.
Running through maizefields is almost a cinematic subgenre of it's own - Children of the Corn and the more recent Signs being obvious examples.

I was also reminded of two of my favourite cinematic mazes, Labyrinth and Cube. Both films are structured around the maze, with it's hazards and puzzles - they're basically non-linear road movies. The Cube is a little more deadly but sadly lacks a Bowie soundtrack or any Jim Henson inhabitants. Being a good logician would help you survive the Cube but might actually endanger you in the Labyrinth which is all about subverting your assumptions and preconceptions.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Max Needs Thermal Curtain Failure

As the crew of Discovery work to complete the International Space Station, and we approach the end of the Space Shuttle programme, I was reminded of some of the Shuttle's most memorable on-screen appearances.

Disney's SpaceCamp - classic, innocent pre-Challenger film in which a somewhat literal-minded robot sends a group of children into orbit after overhearing a wish. Also a brilliant piece of three-layered propaganda: it's about the Space Shuttle itself which is portrayed as easy and safe enough to be flown by schoolchildren; because it's about the Shuttle this is also a pro-Western technology and civilization message; and thirdly it's an advert for the real Space Camp summer programme at Kennedy - presumably there are now hundreds of Americans who are devastated at not being accidentally blasted into space themselves.

Armageddon - you know, actually the propaganda in Space Camp wasn't too bad. Michael Bay's film on the other hand is an utterly jingoistic and physics-defying caper in which two secret military shuttles are sent to deflect an asteroid.

Moonraker - one of the most ridiculous Bond movies but also one of my favourites - villain Drax is stealing space shuttles and using them to build a space station where he can hide away while the rest of the Earth is destroyed. NASA fights back with it's own shuttles - converted to carry marines in their cargo bays! - while Roger Moore and Lois Chiles get it on in zero gravity.

Species II - opens with a Mars shot that is clearly a political stunt, with a space shuttle crudely welded to an additional engine rig and plastered with sponsorship logos. The senator's son leading the sample-return mission gets only a few minutes on the surface. Naturally this is enough to pick up a taste of the local alien nymphomaniac predator.

Space Cowboys - following John Glenn's return to space this film featured four "mature" but well-liked male actors led by Clint and Tommy Lee as they try to break NASA's ageist recruitment policy... a science fiction film with heart and a lot of gentle humour.

Spiders - where else would you send a secret biological weapon but on a space shuttle flight? And when it kills the crew, what else would you do but bring the Shuttle down into a secret military base and allow it to escape?