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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Ah, the 70's....... [lol]

Just Finished Reading: A Philosophical Investigation by Philip Kerr (FP: 1992)

In near Future London (actually 2013 which is amusing in its own way as comparisons can be drawn on the imagined and the actual) a scientific breakthrough in genetic research allows a simple test to pin-point men who are prone to violent outbursts and periods of uncontrollable aggression – in other words potential future killers. When nationwide tests reveal several hundred cases a national database of potential offenders is created with a system of monitoring to keep subtle tabs on all involved. Despite some ethical objections, as well as calls for every identified male to be locked up for societies protection, the system seems to be working well until the computer system housing the database is hacked into and the database itself heavily damaged. Now someone is using the list to target the men on the list and is eliminating them one by one to save future victims and their families the pain of potential future murders. Sections of the Press applaud the killings and lionise the killer, sections of the police even approve of his or her actions and wonder if they should be expending any great energy in tracking down someone who is effectively doing their work for them. But Chief Inspector ‘Jake’ Jakowicz cannot let the killer get away with it. Apart from offending her sense of what is right, the killer tasks her in ways that previous cases have failed to do so. This serial killer, unusually, is a killer of men, is proud of their achievements and believes themselves to be one of the great philosophers reborn who makes philosophical points with bullets rather than arguments.

This is yet another book that’s being sitting on my shelves for years. I actually picked it up because of the title. Even back then I was interested in philosophy and thought that this might get me into the topic more easily than a dry and dusty academic work. Of course it was nothing of the sort and was instead a borderline SF crime novel. Funnily I almost abandoned it about 50 pages in because the description of hacking was so appallingly bad – farcical in fact. I also found the description of 21st century London to be highly amusing as most of the speculation was way off – with the possible exception of police officers wearing body armour and carrying sub-machine guns! But I persevered and was rewarded by a fairly entertaining, if rather far-fetched and occasionally silly (and once or twice cringingly bad) detective novel with enough twists and turns to keep me interested enough to finish it. Certainly nowhere near the worst crime novel I’ve ever finished but not much more than reasonable overall. The mind of the killer (entered via his notebooks) was deeply disturbing at times and fairly well handed but it was probably the Chief Inspector herself that kept me reading. She was a very interesting, and quite screwed up, character in her own right. I have several of Kerr’s later novels which this book hasn’t managed to put me off. I’m looking forward to see how much his writing has improved since the early 90’s. Quite I bit I hope and expect.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Oh, the irony........

My Favourite Movies: Stargate

Controversial archaeologist Daniel Jackson (played by James Spader) is down on his luck after being ridiculed for his ideas. So it comes as some surprise that his talents and his ideas are needed by the US military. Taken to a secret underground base he is shown an ancient artefact the like of which the world has not seen for thousands of years. Within days he corrects the existing team’s mistakes and uncovers the key to open the Stargate – a device that gives almost instantaneous access to another world. To determine if there is any threat to Earth security a team of crack soldiers led by Colonel Jack O’Neil (played by Kurt Russell) is sent through with Jackson as insurance that they can make their way home. But when no ‘dial home’ instructions can be found it dawns on the team that they might be stranded on the other side of the galaxy with no way home. Hope is raised when they make contact with an apparently primitive people who at first site appear to be ancient Egyptians. But with the arrival of a gigantic spaceship in the shape of a hollow pyramid it becomes clear that the threat to Earth is very real indeed and that if they can’t stop the alien in human form who commands a formidable arsenal of exotic weapons a bomb will be sent back to Earth that could plunge the planet into a nuclear winter.

Whilst not a particularly great film this movie did have the saving grace of giving rise to two of my favourite TV shows – Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. Spader was OK as Jackson, the archaeologist who suspected that the Egyptians where always more than they seemed (a very old idea this one) but to be honest I much preferred Michael Shanks in the TV version. Kurt Russell as Jack O’Neil was a little too understated and I thought that his suicidal motivation was a bit overplayed. I do like the actor very much though and still think that he’s very much underrated. Of course the joke in the TV series is that its Jack O’Neill makes the fact that his name has two l’s very clear for the beginning to distinguish him from his predecessor. I did fall about when he did that. Again, though I do rate Russell I thought the Richard Dean Anderson’s O’Neill was much better – although to be fair he had multiple series for character development rather than a little over two hours (in the Directors Cut version)!  

More than anything the idea of Stargate struck a chord with me. The idea that a device could exist that could transport you, vehicles and anything else over truly vast distances and back again is pretty awesome. I can’t remember at the time if I wanted them to make this into a series (the ending is pretty definitive in many ways) but I certainly looked forward to the TV version when I heard about it. As a meta-idea it certainly has legs. Of course to begin with it was ‘planet of the week’ but once it found its legs with new enemies and a proper story arch – to say nothing of an excellent cast – it turned out to be something very special indeed. If you’ve seen the series and missed the movie I’d recommend seeing it to see where the ideas came from. If you’ve seen neither then I recommend starting her with the Spader/Russell version of the Stargate team and then watch the series to see who some things changed and much was built, and improved, upon. Yes, it was very much a B movie but the first two series that followed it where definitely A class.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Thinking About: Things that Might have Been

Imagine a world in which the Titanic didn’t sink. After missing or surviving the impact with the iceberg it arrives in New York harbour and the thousands of lives that might have been lost at sea continue to shape the world around them in uncountable ways. Or imagine something bigger. If Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not been assassinated in 1914 and the First World War had been avoided and, arguably at least, the Second World War had not followed on its heels how would the world look today after the millions of lives cut short in both wars continued on interacting in new ways with those around them. Is such a vision even possible? Could we know with any kind of accuracy, never mind certainty, of what might have happened if things had been different?

Two things got me thinking along these lines, firstly a book just out putting forward an idea of exactly what might have happened without the most catastrophic assassination in human history, the other is that I’m a few books away from a series of Alternate History books that are based on exactly such speculation but with the freedom of literature to imagin-eer as they will. Such speculation is naturally the fun part of this sort of thing but is that kind of knowledge really possible? Can we start from an incident, say the sinking of the Titanic or the assassination of the Archduke and predict, rather than imagine, what would come next? Honestly I think not. Think for a moment of how many interactions an average person has in a day of his/her life. Maybe hundreds if not thousands of words and actions that affect and effect the world around them. Most of these are vanishingly small and disappear in the background noise like ripples in a pool but occasionally a conversation or an action could change the world. In hindsight we might, given enough information, be able to pick out such incidents from the background but could you tell in advance? That’s just one person in one day. How about the interactions of a million people or a billion from all layers of society some with a great deal of power and influence and some with hardly any at all. Could you accurately pick out future trends and predict what will happen in 5, 10 or 50 years’ time based on what you know now? But I don’t think that it’s just about complexity. If it was all we would need is mountains of data and the computing power to handle it. Predicting the future isn’t, I content, like predicting the weather.

In order to move from an incident to an understanding of what will, and just as importantly won’t, come next we need something much more that data and the means to analyse it. We need something more than an understanding of human nature, sociology, culture, anthropology and even history itself – none of which, again I contend, we understand in anywhere near the detail we would need to for any meaningful predictions to take place. What we would need is a coherent conception of how everything hangs together – in effect we would require a Human Theory of Everything and we would need to be able to express it mathematically. If such a thing was achievable, which I don’t think it is in any conceivable timescale, we would be able to change the parameters of an equation, say adding or subtracting an assassination of a politically significant figure and show what the conclusions or the consequences would be. With that kind of knowledge, that kind of power at our fingertips, it’s difficult to know exactly what couldn’t be accomplished. We would know exactly how to act, or not act, to achieve any particular end. We would know in advance, possibly even years or decades in advance, what the world will be like and tweak the outcome by changing elements within the equations we know to work. If something unpredictable did happen then we could immediately see the consequences and act accordingly. Everything, and I do mean everything, would be under our control and that is one reason why I think such a tool is pure science-fiction. With the best will in the world such mathematics, even if we try to attain such clarity, will remain beyond us although we might finally, after many decades of struggle be able to predict with a fair degree of accuracy what the world will be like tomorrow or the day after, just like the weather report. Anything else is, I’m afraid pure fantasy.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Just Finished Reading: The Gun – The Story of the AK-47 by C J Chivers (FP: 2010)

The AK-47 has been in the news a lot lately and not just for the usual reasons. With the recent death of its official creator Mikhail Kalashnikov people have been talking about the legacy of this iconic weapon and what it has meant in world history. Coincidently, at least in the sense of timing as I was 2/3 of the way through this book when his death was announced, that was exactly the subject of this book.

But where do you start a history of the AK-47? With the Gatling gun of course, where else? Looking back from the giddy heights of the 21st century it’s possible to see the chain of events that led from Gatling’s awesome invention to the equally (if not vastly superior) awesome invention of the AK and its many variants. The author, in great style, makes that journey pointing out the initial reluctance of the US military to embrace rapid fire guns which forced Gatling and his many imitators to look abroad to make money. European governments seemed far more interested in the latest killing machine and it was enthusiastically adopted by the Russians in particular. In a particular interesting aside the story of Custer’s Last Stand and his refusal to use the Gatling in offensive operations was contrasted with the British use of Gatling’s against Zulu warriors in South Africa. When a contingent of British troops were ambushed by many thousands of that fearsome enemy who had already destroyed several British units they formed squares and deployed their Gatling guns.
Less than an hour later the Zulu’s where in disordered retreat and the Zulu Nation was effectively destroyed.

But the Gatling monopoly on killing could not stand forever and was first challenged and then replaced by the first true automatic weapons exemplified by the Maxim gun so familiar from photographs in WW1. Again, despite numerous examples of their brutal efficiency, the major European military powers, with the pronounced exception of Germany, turned their noses up at such a device. For the majority of the bloody conflict of 1914-1918 the Allies paid a stiff price for their reluctance to accept that the old style of warfare was forever gone. Indeed it could be readily argued that the whole of the fighting on the Western and other fronts was the result of the attempts to find a solution to the machine gun problem. Finally, after many false steps and many lives lost the machine gun began to be effectively countered.

So feared was the device that caused so many Allied casualties at the hands of Germans that such weapons where severely limited by treaty after 1918. With their usual ingenious methods the German military produced lighter weapons radically different from their Maxim forbears and hid their function by calling them machine pistols and assault rifles. One of these designs which fell into Soviet hands towards the end of WW2 became the clear predecessor of the most recognised gun in the world today – the AK-47 (or more accurately the later Ak-74 variant). After the initial design was agreed on, tested, refined, updated and field tested it was Soviet politics that determined its distribution across the world wherever NATO or US interests clashed with their Soviet counterparts. At first the West had no effective response to the AK but eventually managed to rush into production a radical design of their own – the AR-15 or M-16 as it became known. Unfortunately for the soldiers who had to use it in Vietnam the M-16 was clearly not fit for purpose and was, initially at least, hated by its users who, where possible, preferred to use their enemies weapons against them – quite an accolade from the richest and most technologically advanced country in the world.

Of course the AK and its many variants are no commonplace across the globe. No one knows exactly how many are in circulation but the figure of 100 million is recognised as a reasonable estimate. With its ease of use and uncanny robustness this most recognised of guns will be seen on our TV screens and its distinctive sound will be heard on streets, in jungles and in deserts across the globe. It is the most ubiquitous of guns and for very good reasons. The author of this fascinating, if sometimes long winded and overly detailed, work makes a very good case that the AK-47 shaped and continues to shape the world far more than any of its designers, distributors or users ever thought or planned it to do. Ignored at first it can be ignored no longer. If you want to find out where it came from and how it became the dominant weapon on just about every battlefield and in every post Cold-War confrontation in the world then this book is definitely a must read. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Just Finished Reading: The Great Airship by Captain F S Brereton (FP: 1914)

When offered it was a challenge that young engineer Joe Gresson just couldn’t refuse. As German businessman Carl Reitberg sang the praises of a Zeppelin flying overhead Joe stated in the clearest terms that British engineering could build a better, faster and much more luxurious craft. Outraged at the very thought Reitberg demanded proof. Given time, Joe responded, and sufficient funds he himself could build such a craft. With his pride stung as never before Reitberg offered a wager. If Joe could build his airship and sail it safely around the world in the next 8 months he would hand over a considerable sum of money. But if he failed then the airship, in whatever state it was in, would be the property of the German businessman to do with however he decided. Sure of a safe bet the deed was signed and the smug German began counting his winnings.

Little did he know that young Gresson, only 27 years of age, had already developed a revolutionary new material both lighter and much stronger than aircraft aluminium. Along with radical designs for the aircraft itself all Joe needed was an investor. Luckily one was at hand in the shape of his rich uncle recently returned from Canada and in receipt of a considerable fortune due to the sale of a flourishing business empire. Within months the great airship was built and crewed by British naval officers and men sets off across the world. Diverted at the request of the British government to a Balkan city under siege the crew is asked to pick up a spy who has acquired information of vital interest to the Empire. So begins a series of adventures that move across the deserts of Arabia, the heights of the Himalayas and the jungles of Borneo. But as they begin their return journey home to England the German, in fear of losing his bet, makes plans to ensure that the great airship will never reach English shores in one piece!

I discovered this book (and the author) completely by accident whilst searching on Amazon for books on real airships after reading a book of steampunk short stories. As I presently have a hankering for classic ‘Boys Own’ adventure stories – and the copy on offer was very cheap – I thought I’d give it a try. I actually found this book to be delightful in so many ways. Despite a slight tinge of racism here and there it was the innocent enthusiasm which capture my attention. Aimed squarely at teenage boys (what would today no doubt be called the Young Adult demographic) this would I feel have been supremely exciting to the young Middle Class children who had already grown up on ideas of King, Country and Empire. The exuberant writing never really degenerated into farce though keeping in mind the age of the book and the culture it was written in certainly helped to maintain the right mind-set whilst reading it. More than anything else the confidence, optimism and breeziness of the book reminded me quite a lot of Jules Verne. It definitely had that feel to it. Taken in the context it was produced in and the audience it was aimed at this is a lovely nostalgic read from a bygone, simpler and far more naïve time. Reading it with a cynical 21st Century head on will ruin the whole experience as the whole thing will seem laughable in the extreme. But if you want to make the effort to track down a copy you’re going to have to put your cynicism to one side for a few days and read like a child of the early 20th Century who knows nothing of the massacre of the Somme, concentration camps or atomic bombs. Read this book as an innocent would – as a ripping yarn of daring-do and as an adventure just for the fun of it.

Oh, interestingly the cover (the same as pictured above) shows the author as Captain Brereton while the inside cover shows him as a Lt-Colonel. I’m not sure how many editions are between this increase in rank but as he fought in WW1 I’m guessing not all that many. Promotion was fast back then when officers fell as often as the men around them!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

OK, that explains why I'm a nerd... but it doesn't explain why some people think I'm gay..... [muses] Or should I just take it as a compliment? [muses some more]
Michael Gove, using history for politicking is tawdry

By Tristram Hunt

For The Observer, Saturday 4 January 2014

Two days after Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse, published a beautiful essay calling for this year's First World War commemorations to "honour those who died" and "celebrate the peace we now share", Michael Gove has delivered the government's response. In an essay for the Daily Mail, the education secretary announced that the 1914 centenary should be about "battling leftwing myths that belittle Britain" and denouncing historians who "denigrate patriotism". It is shocking stuff.

There was always a fear that the timing of the Great War anniversary, alongside the May 2014 European Parliament election and the rise of Ukip could undermine a dignified response to the events of 1914-18. Yet few imagined the Conservatives would be this crass. The reality is clear: the government is using what should be a moment for national reflection and respectful debate to rewrite the historical record and sow political division. In the very paper that so grotesquely called into question Ralph Miliband's wartime service in the Royal Navy, the education secretary has sought to blame "leftwing academics" for misrepresenting the First World War.

His thesis is a bowdlerised version of historian Max Hastings's argument that the conflict was a necessary act of resistance against a militaristic Germany bent on warmongering and imperial aggression. Any talk of "lions led by donkeys" or "we are all guilty" of relativism is to betray the sacrifice of Flanders, Somme and Jutland, Gove wrote. The commemorations, argued Hastings, in the Mail last summer, "should seek to explain to a new generation that World War I was critical to the freedom of Western Europe".

So, first of all, some history. Much of Hastings's case is an update of the scholar Fritz Fischer's 1961 work, Germany's Aims in the First World War, which fully laid the blame for the war on the German lust for European and colonial power. Few on the left would wish to defend Kaiser Wilhelm II against such charges of militarism. "First cow the socialists, behead them and make them harmless, with a bloodbath if necessary, and then make war abroad. But not before and not both together," was his advice to his chancellor, Bernhard von Bülow, in 1905. The British left responded to such fascism by largely supporting the war effort. Appeals by trade union leaders to oppose German aggression, particularly against Belgium, led more than 250,000 of their members to enlist by Christmas 1914, with 25% of miners volunteering before conscription. Typical was John Ward, one of my predecessors as MP for Stoke-on-Trent and the leader of the Navvies' Union. To "fight Prussianism", he raised three pioneer battalions from his members and, commissioned as a colonel by Lord Kitchener, led them to battle in France, Italy and Russia.

Contrary to the assertions of Michael Gove and the Daily Mail, the left needs no lessons on "the virtues of patriotism, honour and courage". However, modern scholarship also suggests that Fischer underplayed internal opposition to the kaiser's ideas within the German establishment. What is more, the historian Christopher Clark has suggested that Serbia deserves significantly more blame for the spark of June 1914, while US scholar Sean McMeekin has even argued that Russian attempts to break up the Ottoman empire played an incendiary role in the fallout from Sarajevo. In Clark's judgment, other nations were just as imperialistic as the Germans and any attempt at a First World War blame game is futile. Whether you agree or disagree, given the deaths of 15 million people during the war, attempting to position 1918 as a simplistic, nationalistic triumph seems equally foolhardy, not least because the very same tensions re-emerged to such deadly effect in 1939. In the words of Professor Richard J Evans: "Propagating inaccurate myths […] is no way to create a solid national identity."

None of which is to belittle the significance of the First World War – its heroism, military engagements or social and cultural consequences. Indeed, the events of 1914-18 proved one of the prime motors of social change in modern British history. The growing impact of the state on production, employment and welfare soon came to affect most aspects of the lives of UK citizens. Culture and technology at all levels were transformed by the war and colonial frontiers redrawn, with Irish independence signposting the future decline of empire. The Representation of the People Act in 1918 saw a tripling of the electorate and the creation of a mass democracy with the enfranchisement of women over 30 and working-class men. And so, in the words of the curator and historian Nick Mansfield: "The key role of working-class people and their struggle for a different society and its outcomes needs to be given full attention if we are appropriately to commemorate the many lives lost."

That is surely the point. This year's anniversary events need to reflect and embrace the multiple histories that the war evinces – from the Royal British Legion to the National Union of Railwaymen to the Indian, Ethiopian and Australian servicemen fighting for the empire. And, in Britain, we know how to do it well. The 2007 commemorations on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade were brilliant exercises in historical understanding, community participation, scholarship and reflection. As a result of numerous exhibitions, events and publications, we were able to understand much more about slavery in 1807 but also Britain in 2007.

To the government's credit, it is using the £50m commemorations fund to revamp London's Imperial War Museum and to offer school visits to the battlefields of northern France. Sadly, the Tories have decided to use this year's anniversary to sow division with ugly attacks on "leftwing academics". Meanwhile, in Berlin's Theater des Westens, the theatre where the kaiser sat, War Horse is being performed each night. Between the government's partisanship and Morpurgo's play, I know which is more likely to generate the kind of reflective understanding of the meaning and memory of the First World War that its history so desperately deserves.

[I suppose that no one should really be surprised that an sitting right-wing government in need of a future election victory should talk up the 100th anniversary of WW1 as something to do with patriotism, honour, duty and heroism and inevitably blame those historians, supposedly on the left-wing, of calling such things into question as they write books and articles about the killing fields on the Western Front. No doubt there were many individual acts of heroism - there could hardly fail to be in such a titanic struggle across so many battlefields and so many years. But as the historian quoted above rightly said, to couch the whole sorry event as a heroic fight by the allies against German imperialism is extremely simplistic at best. To ignore the repeated stupidity of mass attacks against prepared positions which resulted in the deaths and injuries of tens of thousands of men merely compounds the original crime for which, as far as I know, no one was held accountable. All wars are horrid by their very nature but WW1 took this horror to new heights. To turn our focus away from such things makes their repetition all the more likely. Long may such things be resisted with the evidence of what really happened in the mud of the many European battlefields.]    

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The sign of a very good book......

Just Finished Reading: Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations by Jules Evans (FP: 2012)

Can philosophy save your life? Apparently yes, it can! At least it can according to Jules Evens in this interesting little book. Starting in autobiographical mode he relates how, after a fairly hedonistic existence both before and during university, he had a nervous breakdown in his early 20’s and was diagnosed with acute anxiety. Luckily a course of CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) was recommended to him which seemed to help a great deal. Now being a journalist he decided to check further into the background of CBT and was surprised that its creators used Greek and Roman philosophy heavily in its foundations. Not surprisingly he thought that going back to the pure source of the technique that arguably saved his life would be a positive step for him. So began a growing interest in all things Stoic and Epicurean.

The book was in part autobiographical explaining exactly why he had his breakdown and his attempts, faltering at first, to understand what had gone wrong and discovering ways of coping, controlling and ultimately mastering his fears. He was delighted and intrigued to learn that the early philosophers had already been there and actually offered up practical techniques for coping with life’s disasters both large and small. Ancient philosophy, he was surprised to learn, wasn’t the ivory tower blue sky thinking he expected but lived in the mud with the rest of us.

Set out like an agenda for a one day course (and something similar to Saturday School’s I’ve been on over the years) it offered insights to maintaining control from Epictetus, managing expectations from Seneca, the art of savouring the moment from Epicurus, the art of cosmic contemplation from Heraclitus, the art of justice from Plato, the art of heroism from Plutarch and the art of flourishing from Aristotle. Full of excerpts from the great men mentioned, interviews with the founders of CBT and other modern techniques for coping with the modern world and sprinkled with the authors own experiences this made for an interesting insight into how philosophy can provide real practical assistance to help resolve real world problems that each of us potentially could find ourselves struggling with. This is no academic tome discussing Plato’s idealised Forms but a guidebook to techniques with a 2,000 year pedigree of helping people deal with life’s outrageous fortune when nothing seems to make sense. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is a life changing publication but I think that it’s a very accessible introduction to Greco-Roman philosophy that you can explore in more depth and from the original philosophers at a later date an overtime build up a number of well-worn resources for when life inevitably starts handing you more than your fair share of lemons. If you were ever afraid of, or thought you’d be bored by, philosophy then this is definitely the book for you to start off with. It may not change your life but it should change your view of the philosophical endeavour. Recommended.      

Monday, January 13, 2014

My Favourite Movies: Solaris

I’ve attempted to watch the original 1972 Russian version of this movie several times and failed. Possibly because they usually show it after midnight and for an almost 3 hour film in Russian you really need to be wide awake! So I was rather intrigued when Hollywood decided to make an English language version with George Clooney starring. The fact that it was only 94 minutes rather than 167 was just icing on the cake at this point. So intrigued I went along to my local multiplex (with some friends in tow I remember) and sat through what turned out to be a very strange but very interesting experience.

From what I remember of the parts of the Russian version I think that they got the tone right. The director Steven Soderbergh has managed to create a film the likes of which we rarely see these days, thoughtful, mysterious, ambiguous and, by and large, unresolved. The music and the visuals create an other-worldly and deeply claustrophobic atmosphere that pulls you into the situation and the lives of the people involved. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

As the film opens we are dropped straight into the middle of things. Clooney plays eminent psychologist Chris Kelvin and we see him running sessions and giving advice on the phone but something is clearly missing in his life. He is like a drowning man desperately holding on to a piece of flotsam, a man going through the motions. When he’s contacted by a private company to help them with a problem on one of their space stations orbiting the newly discovered planet of Solaris he says yes. After all the lead scientist is a friend of his and the video message calling for his help is full of things left unsaid. On arrival he finds the station in chaos. He finds that his friend has apparently killed himself and that another scientist Gordon (played superbly by Viola Davis) refuses to leave her room. Most mysterious of all is the child he sees and chases only to lose him somewhere on the station. The boy is, so the other surviving scientists (played equally superbly by Jeremy Davies) states, is his friends son who should be on Earth light-years away. Only after he goes to sleep and dreams of his troubled past does Kelvin begin to understand exactly what’s going on here – when he wakes to find his wife (played by the striking Natascha McElhone) in bed next to him. Of course that’s impossible. Not only is Earth light-years away but Rheya has been dead for several years. So who or what exactly is she? Too traumatised to cope with the situation Kelvin talks Rheya into stepped into one of the stations shuttle craft and launches it into space. The next morning with door locked and barricaded Kelvin wakes up with Rheya next to him apparently unaware of what happened to her predecessor. Kelvin now decides to investigate exactly what’s happening to everyone on the station while Rheya has increasingly detailed flash-backs of their life together and discovers the horrible truth. Not only is she not the real, original Rheya but that her original killed himself back on Earth.

There are, as I’ve already hinted, many things to like about this film. It’s definitely out of the ordinary which is often a good thing, the music, though understated, is haunting and the cinematography (yes, that again) is a work of genius. The thing that I found most surprising, and which honestly delighted me was that nothing was truly resolved in the movie – though there is a sort of happy ending which apparently doesn’t appear in the original book version. As one of the characters (post-suicide rather oddly) says: There are no answers, only choices. It seems to be clear that the planet below them is somehow alive. It’s only really hinted at in the film by the almost brain-like activity in the world spanning ocean. It’s possible that Solaris is attempting communication with the humans in the orbital but that’s not made clear and the constructs have no idea why they are there and seem to have no real link back to the planet. What speculation that does take place goes nowhere. No one really knows what is going on or even how the frame the questions that might point them in the right direction. At the end of the film we are no closer to any kind of understanding. It’s just weird – but in a good way. I suppose that it’s all about our arrogant belief that the universe is understandable and that we are capable of understanding it. Clearly from this example we’re just not – at all. It’s good to see us come up against a problem and to be completely stumped by it. It makes you wonder what else we don’t understand and what we may never understand. I suppose that it’s humbling in a way – which, again, is good to reflect on. So many films show us humans pulling rabbits out of hats at the last moment and saving the day. Image a time when there are no rabbits and we can’t even find our hat. Thoughtful just isn’t the word for it. This is the kind of movie that will get inside your head and stay there for weeks afterwards. But expect to be frustrated and expect to be confused. Just don’t expect to be enlightened.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Saturday, January 11, 2014

...and rotate!

Thinking About: Going to the Movies

For years now, probably getting on for five at least, I’ve been very disappointed with the quality and variety of movies that I can see on the big screen. So much so that in recent years I’ve almost stopped going. Where I could have probably watched anything up to 20 movies a year a few decades ago I found that more recently I was lucky to see a good half dozen with ten viewings being what I now consider to be a bumper crop. I don’t think it’s because I’m getting that much harder to please – though I am. I think it’s because of a number of trends that you can see from the Hollywood machine in the last decade ago: the production of endless sequels and remakes, the Americanisation of foreign language films, the almost instant jumping on the bandwagon of anything that has a popular following be it a book series, comic character/series, TV series, successful stage show (and so on) and the production of films designed to appeal to the widest possible demographic and therefore made to be as bland and as palatable as possible. All of this, and more that has presently slipped my mind, comes I think from two main drivers – avoidance of any risk and a basic lack of imagination. Of course on the face of it the movies have never been more successful which means that they will continue to make and remake the same pap over and over again for years to come. So you can see that I was (and deep down still am) resigned to going to the movies less and less as the years go by. But 2014 has surprised me a bit…..

I do tend to haunt the IMdb.com website and use it as my main alert for new upcoming movies. It’s basically where I watch all of my advance trailers. I few weeks ago I went through the new movies list and was very surprised to find that I had written down 11 movies that had piqued my interest. Eleven – and it’s only January. How many more simply haven’t been announced yet? OK, maybe a few of them might get missed due to various reasons, but still – Eleven……

So here they are (in no particular order):

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Welcome to Yesterday
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Jupiter Ascending
I, Frankenstein
300: Rise of an Empire
Edge of Tomorrow

Some of these choices surprise even me. I’m not a huge fan of the Marvel films but Winter Soldier looks interesting. Likewise both Robocop and Godzilla. Part of the endless remake and reimage industry but still, they do look interesting. Others, like Interstellar and Jupiter Ascending are total shots in the dark which I might end up not watching but no doubt something might be around to replace them. All in all though 2014 could very well be a good year for the movies – go figure!

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Just Finished Reading: No Dominion by Charlie Huston (FP: 2006)

Sometime investigator Joe Pitt is down on his luck. After annoying several of the strongest New York clans he has few friends. Little money and almost no blood in his fridge. What’s more his girlfriend’s condition is starting to worsen on its way to full blown AIDS. Joe needs money and he needs blood before he risks taking some from an unlucky passer-by. So when he’s attacked in his favourite bar by a crazy drug addled youngster Joes thinks his world has just about hit rock bottom – until he realises that the hop-head (or whatever he’s on) is just like him. But that’s impossible. Joe’s system takes care of every drug he can think of. Joe can’t even get a decent buzz of alcohol and has long since given up on any other form of recreational pharmacology. So how is this vampire high and more to the point high on what? After he takes care of things and disposes of the body Joe goes to the only place he can think of that will take him in. But even within the confines of The Society he is taken to task for killing a fellow vampire on their turf. Explaining that he had no other choice and telling them about a possible new drug on the streets than can affect vampires in this way starts a ball rolling that no one knows how to stop. Sent north to The Hood to investigate rumours of the drugs manufacture Joe is thrown into the middle of a turf war between rival clans who will use any weapon to get the upper hand, even if it carries the possibility of discovery by humans and runs the risk of ultimate exposure. The stakes are high, the need for revenge deeply set and very, very old enmities are set to rise to the surface. All in all it’s going to be a very interesting 48 hours in the life, death and later existence of Joe Pitt.

I really enjoyed the first Joe Pitt novel with its fascinating and well-conceived mixture of noir detective and contemporary vampire novel. The mix, tried by many, really worked here. Joe is a great character and I was very glad indeed that there was a whole series of books starring this hard-boiled vampire anti-hero. I was even more pleased that the second book in the series lived up to and actually exceeded the promise of the first. Tightly plotted with a great ensemble cast of supporting characters (several of them who I wouldn’t mind meeting in different circumstances – mainly them not being vampires!) this was a fast paced subway ride through the intricacies of vampire society. Not only did the main players have fully formed persona’s that felt real the whole structure of the various vampire clans felt just as real too. Yet again we have slivers of background information that trickle down into the story allowing the reader to view part of an obviously complex and ancient culture which is clearly part human (the vampires where after all human before their infection) but part something else entirely. That was definitely a big part of what I found gripping here. The other was the mystery of the drug in question and some of the throw-away lines from people who really knew what was going on and going down. Almost everything about this book and its predecessor drives you to want to know more about their world and the vampires who inhabit it. Luckily we have three more books in this series to look forward to (so far) and hopefully more after that. Plus if these two books are anything to go by I’m also going to pick up this authors other crime related novels which I’m expecting to be every bit as entertaining. Highly recommended even if you’re not a vampire fan.