Wednesday, 9 December 2015

"Broken Bird" broadcast: Latest TV

My music video for Ariel Undine's song "Broken Bird" will be broadcast on On The Verge - a music video show on Latest TV. Watch on cable in Brighton or online from anywhere in the UK here. On The Verge episode 38 will be shown today at 11pm, on Friday 11th December at 2am and on Monday 14th December at 5.30am and 11.30pm.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Dystopia City - final version [Scratch game]

This is the final version of my Scratch game Dystopia City - with thanks to Scratch users E1eventeen and alpacaceratops for their comments and to everyone who played the beta. I've tweaked the gameplay, instructions have been re-written, there's a soundtrack composed in MuseScore, a better menu system and six alternate endings.

Grateful thanks to Freesounders leuphana, nathan-lomeli, samararaine, medialint, lebcraftlp, hunter4708. Thanks also to the makers of Blender and MuseScore.


Scroll map - Up and down arrow keys

Build - click to move the build cursor, choose a tunnel from the Build Tunnel menu or use hotkeys: C=coridoor E=elevator V=clone-vat O=office L=life support

Assign Roles - choose a Faction from the Faction-Role menu, then choose a Role to assign to that faction: Construction, Repair, Paperwork or Firefighting. For example if you choose Hufflepuffs and Paperwork then all Hufflepuffs will be assigned to do Paperwork whenever they are near an Office. At the start, all Factions are assigned to Construction.

Clonevats produce cloned citizens. Offices make money through Paperwork. Life Support produces food/oxygen/water for 10 citizens. When these tunnels break down, assign a Faction to the Repair role.

Increase the population of the Citadel to 150 to win. Keep your citizens occupied to prevent boredom - bored citizens will start to light fires or try to break out of the Citadel. You can turn the music score on and off by clicking the music button. Hint: it's not a bad idea to start by building an Office then assigning one Faction to Paperwork.

Ringworld Engineers At Work [KIC8462852]

Star KIC8462852 is currently in the spotlight due to unexplained observations from the Kepler spaceprobe: one possible explanation for the pattern is an alien megastructure around the star. Here's that serious article by Phil Plait on why this is unlikely but not ridiculous.
Freeman Dyson and other astronomers suggested that alien civilizations might build giant structures around stars to make better use of space or materials, or to capture more of the star's energy using solar panels. This is a good scientific idea as it's testable - these structures should be detectable, as they would give themselves away through their interference with the light from their parent star. Science fiction writers have come up with many variations on the theme of alien megastructures, including Larry Niven's Ringworld.

SETI astronomers are planning to analyze KIC8462852 using a range of telescopes, looking for signals that might suggest the presence of technology. It's likely that over the next few months - perhaps by January - they will have a better answer as to whether this anomaly is artificial. In all honesty, the most likely outcome is that they find nothing of the sort - so let's enjoy the next few months while it's still possible to imagine that we're not alone in the universe. 

[illustrations by Sci-Fi Gene, created in Blender 2.7]

Just how alien are the constructors at KIC8462852, and what's the easiest way to communicate with them? Well, it turns out they do have a Twitter feed...

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Scores on the Doors [Work in progress: Dystopia City]

Nothing says dystopian future like a double bass...
Working on a final version of my Scratch game Dystopia City - will be ready for release very soon. I've made a few tweaks to gameplay, re-written the instructions, added a few more alternate endings, and I'm working on a score in MuseScore.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Things I Learned From The Movies

Inspired by this post by msmariah on her blog A Space Blogyssey, here's my own list of survival tips and life lessons from the movies. Hollywood really can teach you everything you need to know...

Remember cardio... and the double tap

No amount of Irish dancing will save you

Take a cruise on a replica of the Titanic? Sure - there's no way that could go badly wrong...

Always renew your antivirus subscription
(Independence Day)

Don't worry - air travel is really safe nowadays
(Snakes On A Plane)

Carry your umbrella at all times
(The Day After Tomorrow)

...and some fairly strong headache pills

Your perfect match is out there waiting to be found

It's a hard, lonely life being a superhero

but most of all...

Always be the person at the front of the queue

Friday, 25 September 2015

Dystopia City - Playtesters Wanted

Update 20.10.2015 - this is the beta version. I've since returned to this game and made some changes to gameplay, taking into account comments by beta-testers. I've re-written the instructions, added a better menu system, a soundtrack and there are now six alternate endings. You can play the final version here.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Far Out Man [Review: Out There]

Those human pilots! If they're so keen to make their way back to Earth, why do they keep getting themselves warped away from it?

Out There is a neat little space opera for Android and iPhone. You wake from cryosleep to discover your spaceship has been 2001'd into an unfamiliar galaxy. Hundreds of star systems away, you are aware of a particular star that may be important, but your first task is not to die. 

The game is turn-based and there's no combat. Well, that's not quite true. There is an enemy to discover and there is in fact a way to attack enemy fleets. But mostly, you choose the next planet or star, decide whether to land, whether to drill for resources, whether to meet the local species, whether to take over the abandoned spaceship etc. It plays a lot like a Fighting Fantasy gamebook - I have fond memories of Starship Traveller. It's also really, really hard. This is a survival-themed game - meaning you will die a lot. You can die by running out of hydrogen fuel, oxygen, or iron to patch up your hull, any of which is easy to do.

You stay alive by mining or scooping fuel, oxygen or iron from various worlds - along the way encountering aliens, discovering plans for technology to mod your ship, and experiencing random hazards and events. But as your ship only has limited storage space, and planets only yield a small amount of elements, it's hard to keep up stocks. If you've discovered a mod, you still need to mine the right elements to build it, and then it takes up even more of your hull space.

The map is random, as are many other game features, and when you die it's back to the start with a new map. However, if you're careful you can learn more about the game each time you die, and try out different strategies to survive for longer. As the game progresses, more "important" stars appear on the map, but so far I've only ever made it to one of them without dying. This is an extremely difficult game but one I've enjoyed exploring.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Another Day In Paradise [Work In Progress: Dystopia City]

The end is in sight: I've put together the main game cycle for Dystopia City, although I'm still doing some work on the various alternate endings plus the soundtrack. Beta very soon - promise.
Where indeed?

Game produced in Scratch. Graphics hand-drawn in Paint, or Scratch, with some backgrounds rendered in Blender.

Just another run-of-the-mill day in Dystopia City

Saturday, 19 September 2015

A Lack Of The Clones [Work In Progress: Dystopia City]

Dystopia City is taking shape: I'll release a beta version soon. I had originally planned the game around the task of growing your population of cloned Citizens to 500 - but while playtesting, as I approached a population of 200 other parts of the game started to break down. As well as the Citizens themselves, who are clones in both the Scratch sense and the literal sense, I also use cloned sprites for my scrolling map, for fires and for some of the effects and menu options. A response from a helpful Scratcher on the forum confirmed my suspicion that the number of cloned sprites Scratch can handle is limited to 301.

Factions of Dystopia City

I've re-weighted the game based around a lower total population. Now working on the various possible endings, and thinking about sound effects and possibly music...

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Broken Bird (Ariel Undine) - Music Video

Written and performed by ARIEL UNDINE
(C) Ariel Undine 2012

"BROKEN BIRD" Music Video
Directed and Animated by Joshua Westbury
produced by Ariel Undine and Joshua Westbury
production assistant Laszlo Almasi
(C) Ariel Undine 2015

Ariel on Facebook
Ariel on Reverbnation
Ariel on SoundCloud

Filmed on location in Somerset
The tower seen on the horizon is King Alfred's Tower, built in 1772

Special thanks to
Nicola and William Gething

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Broken Bird pre-release trailer

"Broken Bird" (Ariel Undine) - trailer for music video.

Ariel and I shot the visuals for this music video last year and I've been working on the animation and final edit  - the full version will be released very soon. To find out more about Ariel Undine or listen to more of her music go to her Facebook page here. You can also find my blog articles about the making of this video here: part 1 and part 2.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Towards A Darker Tomorrow [Work In Progress: Dystopia City]

My next Scratch project is underway - a dystopia simulator inspired by EVERY YOUNG ADULT SCI-FI NOVEL EVER.

I don't want to reveal too much about the plot but I will say that if you are a fan of post-apocalyptic underground bunker-based cities, semi-fascist societies, factions, factions and factions then you may come to like this game.

But first I have to complete it. Programming challenges so far have included creating a scrolling map that can be changed as new tunnels are built, and having large numbers of dystopian citizens exploring it. One of the best features of Scratch is, it's surprisingly fast at parallel processing: so you can have large numbers of active sprites and still keep everything moving quickly, as long as each object has a fairly short routine.

Scratch is a browser-based programming language a little like BASIC, but with an easy to learn object-orientated structure and commands that click together LEGO-style. It's provided free by MIT here in order to encourage the younglings to take up programming.

When I started programming as a child (I was raised in BASIC IV) I learned by experimentation and mistake-making. Over the years I've learned a little of other languages: 6502 Assembler, Basic V, C, Inform, DarkBASIC, COFFEE, HTML and Python. Scratch is the first language I've tried that brings back that feeling of experimentation.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Queen Elizabeth I's Execution Confusion [Scratch game]

Something different: my first Scratch-programmed game, inspired by what may be history's worst ever paperwork nightmare - that occasion when Queen Elizabeth I accidentally signed the death warrant for Mary Queen of Scots, as it was mixed up with all her other documents. I know, happens to me all the time. At least, that's her story - while it's frankly a rubbish excuse for an execution, it's a great excuse for a game...

As your ministers place their warrants before you, sign those deserving of death with your quill, - but beware! beheading the more popular celebrities of your reign will dent your popularity, so make sure you don't sign them, and some treacherous ministers might try to trick you into signing your own warrant.

Remember to dip your quill in the inkwell whenever it runs out.

Although Scratch is a fantastic BASIC-style programming system, for the moment it is Flash-based which means PC only. Apologies to Apple users - but hopefully there will be an HTML-5 version sometime.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Dig For Victory [Review: Waking Mars]

"Amani, this is Liang. I've been exploring these Martian caverns for ten hours now and I'm reaching a conclusion about the nature of this game. The discovery of a smooth-walled vertical cavern running through many layers of the map confirms my hypothesis: this is not a naturally occurring structure but a tribute to the classic BBC Micro era game Exile."

Waking Mars is a game for mobiles, tablets etc. with impressive scope. As astronaut Liang, you explore a network of caves with your jetpack, searching for a missing robot and discovering an ancient ecosystem as you go. In order to progress, you'll need to understand the relationships between the different life forms (your computer assistant, ART, is keen to point out that they are not technically plants or animals), and use this knowledge to increase the biomass in each area.

Gameplay video by Youtube user 1Retrodroid

The gameplay area is huge, and after you've taken the first few steps the game becomes non-linear, allowing open exploration and free travel between areas of the map you've visited. There's something new to discover in most zones, and plenty of memorable moments. The non linear play also means it's possible to "complete" the game, reaching one of the alternate endings, without making all the possible discoveries, and different players will have different experiences. That said, in about 15-20 hours of play I think I was able to explore the entire map and as far as I know I have found all the discoveries and possible endings.

Physically the game plays like Exile in terms of exploring a 2D cave system by jetpack, avoiding hazards such as molten lava, rockfalls and some of the more vicious plants. However the game mechanism of solving puzzles through planting seeds and managing ecosystems - third person gardener? grow-em-up? - is perhaps unique. I love the fact that while some puzzles are scripted or set up, some arise naturally from your own actions and mistakes. You can introduce a species of plant to an area that rapidly colonises and kills other species, and regaining control can be hard work.

There's some decent characterisation too. Liang, your character is cynical and prone to silence. He is assisted from base by Amani who is much more chatty and open minded, leading to some great Mulder-and-Scully banter. ART provides a comic element - he communicates through smiles (a little like GERTY) and suffers from a malfunctioning language module, as well as a habit of stating the obvious.

For comparison, gameplay video of the original Exile (BBC Master version) with comments by YouTube user Lord Triax

It's good to see that epic computer games are still being made, even if mobile gaming as a whole is skewed towards casual games. Yes, Crossy Road, I'm talking to you. There have been other exceptions - I previously reviewed the excellent Deep: Submarine Odyssey here - and of course there are newer gameplay styles such as Minecraft that reward longer play in different ways.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Living Doll [Humans]

The end is in sight for Humans - possibly in more ways than one, as the final episode approaches tonight. My thoughts: The quality of the drama in this series has been superb throughout - acting, script, characterisation - and I've really been drawn into the story.

Ruth Bradley as DI Karen Voss

The focus has been on the human drama rather than the technology, and the themes of slavery and individuality have continued. I was worried at the beginning that Humans was just a mash-up of other android movies or TV series but this has just been the background allowing a particular story to be told.

There have been plenty of plot twists and revelations, some predictable but some unexpected. I look forward to the ending even though I suspect it will not be a happy one, and once it's over I will be looking for the original Swedish series Real Humans to compare while I wait for series 2.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Reach For The Stars

An unusual star system containing five stars has been found by the WASP astronomy project, as reported on the BBC News website here. Multiple star systems occur in two classic science-fiction works. Isaac Asimov's novella Nightfall is set on a world with six suns - as a result night falls only once every few thousand years. Liu Cixin's novel The Three Body Problem, translated from the original Chinese, features a virtual world with three suns in irregular and unpredictable orbits.

Both stories explore the impact of these star systems on the civilizations below - in Nightfall, the inhabitants cannot detect stars beyond their system so cannot grasp the size or nature of the Universe, and they have a deep-rooted fear of the dark. The aliens on Liu Cixin's world also struggle to make sense of the Universe, and are striving to find a way to predict their suns' movements so they can prepare for the deadly hot or cold spells that occur when the suns get too close or too far away.

On our own world, we had it easy. All the clues were within easy reach - a single, stable sun, a clear view of the other stars, our own Moon and other planet/moon systems visible through simple optical devices, and it still took us centuries to work it all out, burning heretics along the way.

Friday, 3 July 2015

She's Always A Woman [Review: Ex Machina]

Programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins the opportunity to spend a week with his company's mega-rich and secretive boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). On arrival at the remote and ridiculously expensive location, inhabited only by Nathan and his housemaid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Caleb discovers his real purpose - to Turing-test Nathan's secret pet project, an artificial intelligence in a humanoid robot called Ava (played by Alicia Vikander).

Alicia Vikander as Ava

I love it when this happens: a film is promoted as if it is an effects-laden, action-heavy Hollywood blockbuster, posters on buses and everything, but when you get to see it, it turns out to be a low-key, four-handed character-driven stage play. Brilliant! There's plenty of darkness, drama, threat and revelations for all four characters, but not a single fireball.

Alex Garland's involvement probably boosted the promotional budget, but rightly or wrongly, it's probably the iconic look of Ava's transparent robot body that has mis-sold the movie. I do think, once again, that roboticists should think twice before designing their robots to resemble attractive women - have they not seen The Machine, Humans, Battlestar Galactica, or (especially) Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery? The warnings were all there. Robots need to look like robots, or there'll be so much trouble.

When the Singularity comes, it will look like this...

Monday, 29 June 2015

Bright Eyes [Review: Humans episode 3]

I'm enjoying Humans more with each episode. I like the easy Asimov references. I like the way different characters get to show new depths or aspects of their personality each week - and the way, each week, we get a more disturbing version of what synths can do, whether limited to their original programme like NHS droid Vera (Rebecca Front) or whether illegally modded or freed like Niska (Emily Berrington). Last week Niska discovered she could kill - this week she makes her bid for freedom and starts to explore the world. It turns out she has some scruples, or at least limits on what she's prepared to do.

Emily Berrington as Niska

Anita (Gemma Chan) is still the central character. It's becoming clear how good she is at lying and manipulating her owners - but she's different from the other synths, and when Mattie (Lucy Carless) tries to hack into her system, just for a few seconds we get a hint of what she really is. It's compelling viewing, gradually building into a classy sci-fi drama with the emphasis strongly on the drama.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Sci-Fi Gene Music Video Playlist

I present The Sci-Fi Gene music video playlist: a carefully curated museum of music videos that have caught my attention, inspired or amused me, plus a few of my own productions thrown in for good measure. The list will be updated from time to time whenever I come across new music videos that make the grade.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Plastic Man [Review: Humans episode 2]

A man lives at the corner of the street,
And his neighbors think he's helpful and he's sweet,
'Cause he never swears and he always shakes you by the hand,
But no one knows he really is a plastic man.
(Ray Davies / The Kinks)

There's some kind of tournament going on amongst the synths in episode 2 of Humans - who's the king of Uncanny Valley? Anita is her usual, cheery-creepy self: "I am watching you too, Laura. You're right in front of me!" But she also shows her soft-hearted side, and of course no-one who loves spiders is ever truly evil. Will Tudor's Odi, Dr. Millican's outdated and malfunctioning synth, is also in the running, but the race leader has to be Rebecca Front's NHS synth Vera, both for her cold efficiency and for the script which makes clear just how easy it is for the human secondary user to lose control.

Still not sure where this series is going, which is a good thing. Is it an analog of the Russian revolutions via Rossum's Universal Robots or slavery in the West perhaps leading to a Civil War?Or is it about the fear of the Singularity, or just a simple monster-horror scenario - in which case where are the Eyeborgs?

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Shiny Unhappy People [Review: Humans episode 1]

Synths - synthetic humans - are the new iPhones. They're cheaper than a car (with the discount), anyone can buy one, and they can do more or less anything. They're the perfect addition to your family. Watch the advert here - they're not creepy at all, are they?

Channel 4's new drama Humans is based on the Swedish drama Real Humans. The first episode revolves around Joe Hawkins and his family. Laura, his wife, is a lawyer and spends too much time away from home, so Joe buys a synth, Anita, to tidy up at home and help him look after the children. The fun begins when Laura gets home... but meanwhile, sinister events are occurring elsewhere, and Anita may not be quite the first-hand, new model she appears to be.

Humans is well written, produced and acted. The synths are brilliantly almost-human with perfect skin, shiny eyes and expressions that are slightly too slow and controlled. Watching synth Anita (Gemma Chan) freak out Laura (Katherine Parkinson) is compelling. Predictably the plot revolves around whether the synths are machines or sentient slaves, and Channel 4 does take some risks here - one scene, where a synth is challenged by a sinister investigator and runs away from his position in a poly tunnel farm only to be shot and recaptured, evokes very strong imagery of the plantations, including the racial appearance of the runaway.

However, the "reveal" of the first episode is pretty tame, and so far in plot terms there is nothing we haven't seen in AI, Blade Runner or I,Robot. I'll continue watching for the drama but I'm hoping that conceptually there is a lot more to come during the series.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Festival Music Video Highlights Part II: St. Albans Film Festival

Six music videos from St. Albans Film Festival, including five of my favourites plus my own video for John Anealio's song "Steampunk Girl".

The St. Albans selection included some beautiful videos, such as "Robin" and "Silver Girl", as well as some videos featuring talented young singers - Gaby Polcino's power ballad, and the Magician's Nephew Band who at just 8 and 10 years old are already so good at sticking it to the Man that they have been sued by Peppa Pig. True story (via the Telegraph).

"Robin" (Efrat Ben Zur) No words to describe how beautiful this is.
"Ice Cream" (Magician's Nephew) "Silver Girl" (Vanaka) "Judgement" (Gaby and 2ouche) "Steampunk Girl" (John Anealio) "Toadlickers" (Thomas Dolby) This is not good clean fun. Features adult themes and language and some extremely naughty puppets.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Festival Music Video Highlights Part I: London Independent Film Festival

Five of my personal favourites from the London Independent Film Festival music video event. However cool I try to play it, having my video for John Anealio's "Steampunk Girl" screened alongside these songs and videos was absolutely awesome.

"In Our Band" (Kentish Fire) Hilarious idea, clever lyrics, cool 360-degree video. "Dolphin Man" (Louise Gold) Beautiful song - and just watch and enjoy the story of this video. "Taste It" (Little Boots) This Little Boots track has a dark side and the video is not for the faint hearted. "All I'm Saying" (James) Superb, atmospheric animation for this melancholy James song. All I'm saying is, bring some tissues. "Lady Doctor" (The J. Evans Band) Funny, and also not entirely politically correct.

Friday, 5 June 2015

The Fast And The Furiosa [Review: Mad Max Fury Road]

Survivalist and all-round lizard-eater Max (Tom Hardy) is captured by the steering-wheel worshipping dwellers of the Citadel and destined for a deadly fate - but when Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of the cult's most trusted warrior-drivers goes rogue, steals a "war rig" and heads west taking with her the cult leader's five most valued "breeders", Max might just get his chance to escape.

For the first part of the film though, Max remains a captive - chained to one of the Warboys and stuck to the front of one of their vehicles, so while he does little more than grimace, Furiosa takes centre stage. She's an extraordinary character creation, and played with aplomb by Theron, but her real story has all occurred before the start of the film. I would imagine there's a prequel to be made here. Fury Road is still Max's story - at the start of the film he is at rock bottom, basically an animal focussed only on his survival; by the end he has recovered some of his humanity.

Visually, Fury Road is quite an experimental film - I've not seen anything like it. The visual style is a sensory overload of neon orange and blue, through which a swarm of exaggerated dieselpunk vehicles make their way; most of the story is told through one long, non-stop hyperactive car chase. Bringing the characters to life, giving them depth and story while maintaining the pace and interest is a real challenge. In my opinion Fury Road succeeds 90% of the time, never veering into the dull zone and only occasionally into the silly zone.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

I've Got A Brand New Alien Harvester [Review: Evil Aliens]

Sometimes you need to turn your brain off and just watch something stupid and bloody...

Evil Aliens is a comic horror film from 2005 starring Emily Booth as a cynical TV journalist and featuring Red Dwarf's Norman Lovett sadly only in a minor role. Booth and her crew are sent to investigate an alien abduction story on an isolated Welsh farm, accompanied by an eccentric UFO expert played by Jamie Honeybourne. It soon becomes clear that the aliens are somewhat hostile, and the film progresses into a series of close encounters of the messy kind.

This film is an unashamed gorefest, and it's very clear the budget has been spent mainly on realistic blood-and-guts effect shots which are detailed, delightfully inventive and utterly gratuitous. Everything else is cheaper - the script is perhaps not as fine tuned as it could be, the aliens appear to have bought cheap Predator costumes on eBay and rendered their spaceship CGI on Microsoft Paint. The acting is all hammed-up melodrama but it carries things along while you wait for the next bloodsplattering, and I think you've got to admire the endurance of the actors in this kind of film - some of those scenes would have involved hours spent in fairly disgusting set-ups.
This is not a film to watch with the kids, due to all the extreme violence and whatnot. Also, Evil Aliens isn't a porn film per se but does contain two or three sort-of soft-porn scenes involving sex with either aliens or camera crew. Which is weirder? You decide. Overall this film was strangely compelling to watch, plus any film that ends on as bad a joke as this one gets my vote.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Lost Vikings [Review: Dragonfly]

Greeta is a Northlander, a Viking living amongst Native Americans. The Shining Star Nation has welcomed Greeta and her people into their midst but acceptance is not universal, and suspicions and superstitions remain. Without warning, Greeta is rejected by her tribe and discovers that her own family has concealed an important truth about her identity.

Dragonfly by Resa Nelson is part alternate history and part magical fantasy, drawing on the folklore of both populations. Within the unusual setting, Greeta's story is about self-discovery and growing up in many senses - becoming an adult woman, discovering her past and identity, and making choices about who to trust and who to love.

This novel gripped me from about the third chapter onwards right through to the end and I would highly recommend it. Dragonfly is the start of a second trilogy in this setting (the three Dragonslayer novels come first) however I had not read these novels so I didn't see the twists coming and I particularly enjoyed this aspect - the secrets and reveals are handled extremely well throughout. I also thought the descriptions of the various tribes were credible and there was a real sense of tension between the two cultures.

You can find out more about Dragonfly and Resa Nelson's other books on her website here.

Friday, 1 May 2015

St. Albans Film Festival Preview

The Romans were forward thinkers. When they founded their settlement at Verulaneum, who knows - perhaps in their minds' eyes they could see, in the distant future, a time when their descendents might recline in the local forum, taverna or caldarium watching a finely curated selection of entertainments, while an army of slaves fed them grapes and sweetmeats and attended to their every whim.

We will perhaps never know if they did indeed ponder on such a prediction, but if so those Roman thinkers would be gratified to know that they got it broadly right. The third St. Albans Film Festival is already in full swing (admittedly with surprisingly little slavery), and there's an exciting programme coming up this weekend. On Saturday, choose either Monsters Vs Aliens or Alien Resurrection while you swim at Westminster Lodge, head to the Maltings to see the first three Star Trek movies in their non-reimagined, pre-reboot glory, or make your way to the Town Hall for the music video programme including live music from several of the featured artists.

On Sunday look out for the Young Filmmaker short film screening, where the next Steven Spielbergs and Kathryn Bigelows are taking their first steps.

Programme and tickets via the St. Albans Film Festival website here.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

International Music Video

So pleased to announce that Steampunk Girl has won the International Music Video award at London Independent Film Festival 2015.

This is my first film festival award in any category so it's a major bucket list item ticked off - probably don't need to do the parachute jump or the threesome now.

Shortwave Cinema, the location for most LIFF screenings and events including the awards ceremony and closing party.

Congratulations to all the winners:

No-Budget Feature — THE MILKY WAY by Tor Mian
UK Feature — SOLITARY by Sasha Krane
Best Actor – Pearl Chanda in THE FINAL HAUNTING
Best Director – Simon Blake for STILL
International Feature – VERTICAL by Steven Savage
Sci-Fi/ Horror — UNHALLOWED GROUND by Russell England
Micro-Budget Feature — THE LAST SPARKS OF SUNDOWN by James Kibbey
Documentary — ALFRED AND JAKOBINE by Jonathan Howells
Short Documentary — Jordanne by Zak Razvi
UK Short — BEVERLEY by Alexander Thomas
International Short — THE WHEEL OF TIME by Kagan Kerimoglu
Horror Short — THE HERD by Melanie Light
Sci-Fi Short — AIR by Emma E. Maclennan
LGBT Film — PLAYING THE GAME by Jeremy Timings
Experimental Short — PEEP DISH by Darragh Mortell
Short Short — KILLER ROAD by Marco Clay
Animated Short — MY STUFFED GRANNY by Effie Pappa
UK Music Video — ALL IN THE VALUE by Geej Ower
International Music Video — STEAMPUNK Girl by Joshua Westbury
Best UK Screenplay — THE COMPETITORS by Ruth Greenberg
Best International Screenplay — Shimmy by P.A Flanders
Best Short Screenplay — DREAMS OF TOMORROW by Cindy Walters
Best Screenplay Pitch — ZOG THE MAGNIFICENT by Prahib Sukoro

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

London Independent Film Festival Preview

As Niels Bohr once said, prediction is very difficult - especially about the future. Still no hyperdrives, flying cars, hoverboards, dolphin translators or dystopian gladiatorial contests, but according to this article head transplants are on the horizon - props to the makers of Worzel Gummidge for being such unexpected visionaries. Someone had their thinking head on...

However I can confidently predict that cinemaphiles will have plenty to enjoy at this year's London Independent Film Festival, which opens this Thursday. Horror fans should check out the programme on Friday 24th April, which includes the haunted-school feature Unhallowed Ground as well as a selection of horror shorts.

For science fiction fans, there will be a selection of sci-fi shorts on Saturday 25th April. Also try and get to the festival on Saturday 18th April, when the programme will include Emma Maclennan's dystopian short film AIR, winner of Phoenix Film Festival's Best Sci-Fi Short Film award earlier this year.

London Independent full programme and tickets here.

Monday, 6 April 2015

"Steampunk Girl" Festival Screenings

Programmes and tickets for both St. Albans Film Festival and London Independent Film Festival are now available on their websites. "Steampunk Girl" will appear at both festivals in their music video events: first at London Independent on Sunday 19th April, then at St. Albans on Saturday 2nd May. I'll post more about these great festivals soon, in the meantime please check out the websites and programmes as both festivals have some great features planned.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

When The Cat's Away [Review: Gone]

I previously reviewed The Speed Of Dark, Elizabeth Moon's near-future novel about adults with autism, here. As this week is World Autism Awareness Week I've chosen to review another novel featuring a character with autism: Gone by Michael Grant.

Suddenly and without warning or special effects of any kind, all the adults and over-15s living in Sam Temple's town Perdido Beach have disappeared. A mysterious barrier has also appeared around the town so no-one can leave or contact the outside world in any way. And there's more: Sam, and some of the other children have developed a range of superpowers, apparently before the disappearance.

Gone is the first book in Michael Grant's popular series of novels for young adults, set in a present-day world without adults. While the novel explores this scenario, introduces Sam and his companions and other less likeable children, and sets up a long list of mysteries to be revealed later in the series, it also explores some satisfyingly heavy themes. It's been written into international law that all YA fiction must be about social inequality, and Gone is no exception, but as it's set in the present day, the social tensions are perfectly familiar: attitudes towards immigrants, religious intolerance and the gap between rich and poor parts of town, rather than futuristic factions or districts.

Grant is a confident writer, able to tackle real-world subjects that some authors seem to avoid or allegorize: including religious tension and also discrimination over mental illness. A minor character is a teenager with bulimia, and Sam's allies include Astrid and her young brother Pete who is portrayed as severely autistic - either unable or unwilling to communicate most of the time and severely distressed by raised voices or other disturbances. There's a strong protective bond between Pete and Astrid, and without too much infodumping Astrid is still able to communicate the nature of autism to the others (and to the reader.)

The scenario is not particularly original: superficial elements may have been "borrowed" from Stephen King's Under The Dome and the many, many teenage-superpower books and films. It succeeds in mixing these elements to create something that feels fresh, and is willing to take the reader into a fairly dark place - it would be fair to describe Gone as a re-imagined Lord Of The Flies. It's a gripping read that also has something meaningful to say.

Friday, 27 March 2015

"Steampunk Girl" Screening: London Independent Film Festival

Some great news: "Steampunk Girl" is on the official selection for London Independent Film Festival 2015! This will be my second LIFF screening (the first was "2007" shown at LIFF 2012) and I'm really looking forward to being back. I'll post details of the screening and festival programme as soon as they become available.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Hi Honey, I'm Home [Review: The Bees]

Flora 717 is born to a life of drudgery as a sanitation worker, the lowest caste in a walled, fascist Queendom where only a lucky few foragers and drones get to see the outside world. She's an outsider due to her abilities - she can literally talk, unlike the rest of her caste, she is intelligent and questioning, and she has ideas above her station - and if the guards or the Fertility Police don't stop her, she just might be the cause of a revolution one day. Yes, this is every YA dystopian novel scenario ever, rolled into one book - but Flora 717 is a bee, and just for once the scenario actually makes sense.

Laline Paull's novel follows in a great tradition of anthropomorphization - Animal Farm, Watership Down. There are one or two flights of fancy - the chambers of the beehive have doors and scent-coded floor panels, the police have visors and gauntlets, and the bees have a jet engine in their abdomen. This last might be a reference to the old idea of scientists being convinced that bees could not fly - but as we all know, the 2005 Altshuler study (abstract here) put that one to rest. I mean, it's always seemed obvious to me that unsteady forces during stroke reversal would make a large contribution to net upward force during hovering, but then what do I know? I'm just a drone...

This book can be enjoyed twice - first by reading it and then by fact-checking it. With the exception of the doors and the jet engines, it was a lot of fun discovering that almost every concept in the plot is factually accurate with very little embroidery. Take the wide range of worker castes and activities - or the scent produced by a Queen which keeps the entire hive loyal - or the lazy drone lifestyle - or the winter cluster - or the not-so-royal behaviour of newly hatched Princesses - or even Flora 717's secret, it's all there in the real-life complexity of honey bee society.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

St. Albans - Short Film Selection

St. Albans Film Festival website is live! The full programme is yet to be announced but they've published the short film selection here. Steampunk Girl will be screened in the Music Video event.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Campaign For A Worse Tomorrow

So I've read The Hunger Games, Divergent, Delirium, Wool, Inside Out, The Bone Season, and recently Laline Paull's novel "The Bees." For the most part I've enjoyed them - but how do they stack up against the work of classic dystopian writers such as George Orwell or Suzy McKee Charnas?

What's not missing is some quality writing, with strong characters and intense settings. I think the opposite is true, this is a real strength of the genre right now and it's very clear , if only from the sales figures, that these books have been ensnaring and captivating new readers. So what's missing?

1. Originality While there are a lot of original concepts in all of the above books, there are also a lot of unoriginal ones: like the walled city, the fascist police, the rigid caste system, the unfair division of wealth, the outcast hero and of course the love affair that spans all boundaries. It all makes a good literary drinking game to play at your book group, but the result is a kind of create-a-dystopian-society-by-the-numbers. As if to prove the point, random YA dystopia generators have sprung up here and here.

It's a kind of laziness - save time developing your own backstory by referring to someone else's. To be fair it's not unique to this genre at all, it's something that occurs throughout literature. The result is a backstory that doesn't feel credible and doesn't connect to the real world. An exception is "The Bees" where the walled hive and the caste system make sense as the main characters are bees.

2. Social Commentary George Orwell's "1984" was driven by the development of Communism into a totalitarian state, and the fear that this could be the future of the world. "A Walk To The End Of The World" by Suzy Mckee Charnas is a feminist novel taking male oppression to a seriously extreme conclusion. While the new-ish wave does seem to care about class or wealth inequalities, these feel like easy targets but there's no real attempt to criticise or satirise present-day countries, societies, governments or political trends.

3. Hardcore suffering Kurt Vonnegut's famous advice to writers (summarised here) includes the following gem: "Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of." I'm not saying Katniss and the others don't suffer at all. But in all honesty I don't think she, Flora 717 or any of the new-wave heroes would last very long in Room 101.

4. Some curious omissions The Panem society, the Divergent scenario and many of the above settings, for all their fascist trappings, are surprisingly feminist. It's as if the overlords took a few years out of their plan to conquer and enslave the poor, in order to achieve total gender equality, apparently with minimum effort. Well done, dystopian leaders! Once again, "The Bees" is a notable exception.

So I propose to write a dystopia about a teenage girl growing up in a society where everyone is forced to read dystopian fiction from birth, who starts to suspect that, beyond the mysterious wall of dystopian books there might be some other mysterious reality, and who must pluck up the courage to lead a revolution so that her kin can enjoy (for example) Scandinavian detective novels. Cheers...

Sunday, 22 February 2015

En-Turing Love [Review: The Imitation Game]

The Imitation Game is a great example of cinematic Augmented Reality. I loved this film and, straight after watching it I was inspired to find out more about this interesting period in history. As I quickly found, there are several ways in which this movie improves on history, and several online articles fact-checking it. I'll point you to this one by an authority on Turing, it's very readable and the author agrees with me that the inaccuracies don't kill the movie. Incidentally this movie stars some guy or other as Turing, can't really remember who. He's quite good. I shouldn't wonder if he'll probably be appearing in some more films soon.

Augmented reality should be used for a reason. Adding a Communist spy to Turing's team adds some great dramatic moments in itself, but also dramatises the difficult relationship between the West and Russia during the war. Similarly, making Turing misanthropic rather than just shy, and making him fight with commander and co-workers (in fact he got along just fine with all of them) symbolises the conceptual battle to solve Enigma, which would otherwise have occurred in his head only.

On the other hand Turing's treatment at the hands of the authorities, including his criminalization and chemical "treatment" for homosexuality, is of course true, as is the depiction of his early life, school experiences and crush on his schoolfriend Christopher. Which brings me to a really interesting element of the film - the computer Christopher, built by Turing.

In real life Turing's work on the development of programmable computers was hugely important. He also designed a non-programmable machine called a Bombe, to automate the Enigma code-breaking process. So Christopher is a fictional character, a combination of two separate Turing projects - and fictional Turing's love for fictional Christopher outshines his love for human Christopher, human Joan Clarke or humanity in general. In a way, Turing's fictional mission is to persuade his fellow codebreakers that a computer can fight alongside them and contribute to the war effort. Equal rights for computers!

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

"Steampunk Girl" Screening: St. Albans Film Festival

I am absolutely thrilled to report that "Steampunk Girl," my lyric video for the song by John Anealio, is on the official selection at St. Albans Film Festival 2015. I loved being part of this festival in 2013 and am looking forward to this year's event. I'll post details of the screening as soon as they are available.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Take Me Out [Review: The Interview]

I had fairly negative expectations of The Interview having read some not-so-great reviews. It also appears Kim Jong-Un himself isn't a fan, so maybe we aren't so different after all. I haven't spoken to him recently but I would guess that he took issue with the contrived plot most of all. Celebrity interviewer Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) discover Jong-Un is a fan of their show, so use this as leverage to arrange a once-in-a-lifetime interview, then the CIA crashes their party and asks them to kill him.

I can't deny this film is contrived, or that it relies heavily on lowbrow laughs, or for that matter that in a few places it could be seen as racist and misogynistic, although I've seen far more offensive comedies. It's also utterly without  redeeming social importance, lacking the self-critical irony of the far superior Team America: World Police. However I also can't deny that it's extremely funny, and in some places surprisingly clever. Which, along with the two main characters who are weirdly likeable even when they're being absolute cads, and the supporting character Sook-Young Park (Diana Bang) who's personal story arc takes her from innocent propagandist to bad-ass freedom fighter via some hilarious scenes, means it's more enjoyable than I expected, even if I was occasionally left feeling awkward for doing so.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

New Brains For Old [Review: The Machine]

Military scientist McCarthy's (Toby Stephens) research into artificial brain implants is not going entirely to plan - recovered bionic soldiers become inexplicably mute a few weeks after surgery, and one experiment goes on a killing spree. To save his scientific bacon, McCarthy recruits quantum computer expert Ava (Caity Lotz) and together they work towards the creation of an android which, for dramatic or possibly budgetary reasons, bears a striking resemblance to Caity Lotz.

The Machine attempts to tell a complex and dark story - plot strands include McCarthy's motivation for his research, his relationship with the android as she awakens and discovers the world, as well as what appears to be a power struggle amongst the sinister bionics.

This film bears a superficial resemblance to Alex Garland's film
Ex Machina which will be released later this month, if the Ex Machina trailer is anything to go by. It also reminded me of Splice, as both deal with the twisted relationship between creator and created, as well as other recent films touching on the love between man and computer - Her, for example, or The Imitation Game.

I enjoyed this film, particularly Lotz' performance as both Ava and the android - a perfect Uncanny-Valley performance, neither clearly human nor inhuman.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Let Slip The Bats Of War [Review: The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies]

Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy concludes as Douglas the wisecracking dragon pilot from Cabin Pressure meets his fate at human hands, and a massive capture-the-flag grudge match begins between an odd number of Middle Earth factions trying to gain control of the dwarven mountain and a large stash of chocolate money. The trilogy ends on a high note - easily the most entertaining of the three, even when seen through 2D specs and at a mere 24 frames per second.

An issue I may possibly have mentioned in my reviews of Hobbit 1 and 2 here and here, was the fact that almost all lead characters were guaranteed a place in the final episode - so they were never really in danger. Once you reach the final battle, though, all bets are off. I'm not saying I want to see gory deaths for their own sake, I have a Game Of Thrones boxset for that! but finally, there is some actual peril, the stakes are raised and the drama is much better as a result. Now please can we have a Radagast The Brown spin-off?

Sunday, 4 January 2015


2015 has arrived and this year The Sci-Fi Gene has only one, modest New Year's resolution: to achieve total world domination. I promise to be a benevolent dictator and to treat all my subjects equally, although favouring loyal blog followers would not be out of the question.

First progress report:

Domination of the world via Ingress: in my first few days of playing I took control of a small Essex town, activating mind control units between the seven XM portals. I continue to hold this zone thanks to the intervention of some higher-level players and I will be expanding and fortifying it in the New Year. I also took control of a historic water pump elsewhere in Essex and a selection of landmarks in London, including (briefly) Nelson's Column. These portals quickly came under attack by enemy forces and are no longer under my control - for now.

Domination of the music and film industry: work continues on my music video for Ariel Undine's Broken Bird. This project is taking shape and I hope to have a finished or near-finished version ready in the next few weeks. Work also continues on Reply To All, and I am considering a number of new film projects for 2015.

Domination of the blogosphere: The mission continues with sci-fi reviews and reflections, filmmaking and animation, and limericks, or possibly no limericks. 2015 should be an interesting year for sci-fi as Jedi Knights everywhere come to grips with their new crossguard lightsabres - expect a lot of self-inflicted wrist injuries.

Happy New Year!