Archive for April, 2006

It's been a while since I read any Frank Herbert, so I guess I was looking forward to reading The Green Brain. (Only guess because I wasn't thinking Oh, I must read this soon, but rather, Now what do I have that's genre and short?) It was OK – perhaps the weakest Herbert novel (or novella at just 158 pages) I've read, but still a million times better than Legends of Dune.

Brazil, along with various other countries, has in place a policy of exterminating all insects. Apart from genetically engineered bees that fill the insects' various ecological niches. Needless to say, the insects fight back. Specifically with giant, acid-spitting bugs and co-ordinated insect masses that impersonate humans and infiltrate the insect-free areas. All this is directed by a huge brain that lives in a cave. Yes, it sounds a bit shit and it pretty much is. There is a suggestion that the Brain, as it's referred to, was once human, but we don't really learn anything of where it came from or how it creates the insect mutants.

The two main aspects to this story are its political message and its psychodrama (for want of a better description). There is a very simple thesis here: don't screw up the environment because it's kind of important. Less obvious, but only slightly, is its pro-capitalism bias: it's only the socialist countries, with their controlling instincts, that have pursued this anti-insect plan – the US and Europe seem unaffected.

The main part of the story, the part where it seems happiest with itself, is when the three protagonists are stuck in a broken pod floating down a Brazilian river, hundreds of miles from anywhere and at the mercy of the insects – a section very reminiscent of Heart of Darkness. The narrative jumps between the points of view of the characters, giving us a near-360 degree view of their fears, hopes and schemes. This is the kind of thing that Herbert does very well, but, while it's the highlight of this book, it's not enough to raise it above mediocrity.


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End of an era

Over the last few weeks I've been thinking of quitting my Tuesday night roleplay group. The basic reason is that I don't feel quite at home there. The people in it are nice, funny, harmless, geeky people, but also very quiet. And that reserve, coupled with my own shyness, makes for a slightly uneasy relationship. They're all quite young, too – university students (and one teacher) – and all friends from Dorset. All further reasons why there's distance between us. It wouldn't be too bad (and indeed it wasn't), but that distance didn't seem like it was closing.

So, as the group had a break over the past month, I looked into and joined a couple of other groups in my five year mission to seek out new friends and civilisations. I therefore had even less reason to keep on with the Tuesday group.

What I told them was that a) I'm not that keen on World of Darkness-style games and my other games are more my thing and b) having games on consecutive nights is a bit stressful. These arguments are perfectly true: I especially don't like having to get up in the morning after two relatively late nights.

Only the ST (storyteller) knew about this before the game (I told him as we were waiting at Brixton tube station for someone to show us where to go) and he incorporated this into the evening's session. My character was replaced by a kind of evil doppelganger. His intention was that, upon seeing my other, original self, he would fly into a violent rage. Unfortunately, we successfully avoided some pursuers at the end of the mission – one of whom was my other me.

All right, the other reason I'm resigning from this game is that the new series of Lost starts next Tuesday.

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Monday evening saw the first session of the roleplaying game I'm running. I've entitled the campaign Empire of Destiny … although I haven't actually told my players that. It went surprisingly well. I gave them a little caveat this it might be a disaster because I'm not that experienced as a GM, and at the end people were like 'What were you talking about, it was good.' So that was good.

And it was good, too. The story for this session had a reasonable amount of variety: some combat – against mudane patrolmen and a rather strange little demon – a bit of character development, some charisma based tasks, and at least an attempt at sneakery. The whole mission was accomplished, as well, so for next time I can give them a completely new task and not worry about finishing off the last one.

One of my players talked about one of the small modifications to the D&D 3.5 game that I've implemented, namely rolling 2d10 and adding the results insead of rolling 1d20. Theoretically, it should reduce the probability of getting a very high or a very low score (a 20 on a d20 is 1 in 20 (obviously), a 20 on 2d10 is 1 in 100, for instance). His argument was that sometimes you really need that 10% chance of getting a 19 or 20. We agreed that DC 25-30 saves and such like aren't going to be an issue until the characters have progressed substantially.

Of course, later in the game this player was on the receiving end of both a double 1 critical fumble and a double 10 critical hit. What are the chances of that happening? (To borrow a catchphrase.)

For next time, I have various ideas but nothing is set in stone yet. Indeed, my original idea for the first session is now not going to take place until maybe the third or fourth. Whatever its content, I'll approach it with that bit more confidence now that I have this game under my belt. In fact, I did more actual roleplaying Monday than I do as a player. One of the things I'll have to think about is coming up with interesting characters as well as the plots.

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Douglas Coupland was recommended to me by someone in my reading group – recommended to all of us, in fact, in a kind of mini-presentation that we sometimes do. Dutifully, several weeks later, I bought Girlfriend in a Coma from the bookshop in Camden Market. Several weeks after that I dutifully read it.

The first hints that something is wrong with this book are in the opening chapter, which is from the point of view of someone who's dead and who introduces the following narrative. Then, however, part one turns out to be rather good. Again in the first person (although a different first person from the first chapter), it tells of Richard and Karen having sex for the first time, together. Then Karen falls into a coma. Nine months later their daughter is born (of the still-comatose mother). Richard grows up being miserable. The story is pretty bland at this point, it's just the story of Richard's life. But it's very well-told, with some beautiful descriptions and some moving passages.

Then Richard suddenly, and for no particular reason, realises Karen's woken up. The second section of the novel isn't as good. In order to encompass mulitple points of view, it switches to a third person narrative, and the casual tone, the laid-back angst that was so effective in the previous part just doesn't work here. The change to the present tense emphasises a sense of distance. The opening of this middle section has a decent story, and, despite all its problems, is, perhaps, the most moving part of the book. But by the end of that central third it's getting quite dull.

In the third section we skip back to the deceased narrator of the first chapter. And this is where it gets really bad. It's portentous and preachy and just incredibly tedious. The basic observation of this novel that modern life is crap and nobody has any time, or even a good reason, to really live anymore, while a sweeping generalisation and somewhat crass, is apt and one that certainly resonates with me. But Coupland has both underused this and gone way over the top in using it. Girlfriend seems to have been intended as a modern fairy tale but comes across as a pathetic rant. And deus ex machina endings are just so Middle Ages.

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Roleplaying to death

I've been officially upgraded to a player in the Thrusday night roleplay group, so I've spent some time during the past week creating my new character: Rokul Kariandarak, an ogrun monk. Ogrun being the Iron Kingdoms name for ogre – a race that is a lot more powerful than your standard D&D races. I was briefly in an IK campaign, or rather, I was in a brief IK campaign last year in St Helens, and I don't think anyone played an ogrun, although there was a trollkin. And never in all my, admittedly limited, experience have I been in a game with a monk – though they are supposed to be quite funky. Rok – as I'd like him to be known – is all about hitting things. A lot. And hard. And being a lawful good religious type, too, of course.

It turned out last night that I wasn't going to play him, at least not yet. So I carried on with my NPC duties from last time. Two players didn't turn up, so their characters took no, or little, part in the evening's proceedings. And the three of us got twatted by a patrol before we could scout out the army we were supposed to investigate. The next day we tried again and got re-twatted. Although we survived, we didn't complete the mission. The highlight for me was rolling a natural twenty to get a critical threat, then converting it into a critical hit – something I can't remember having done before. Excitedly, I rolled my doubled damage dice, 2d8 – and got … two ones. The GM kindly let me roll them again and what did I get? Two twos.

Oh, how we laughed, to borrow a catchphrase.

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Being bowled over, or not

Wednesday night was a team-building event for Facilities: bowling at the Namco Station in County Hall, with buffet.

Having had a phone call from a colleague to chivvy me up, I actually managed to arrive before said colleague, and before most people, in fact. One of the few people who were there was the scary, expletive-filled German catering manager, who waved me over and tried to have me join in his conversation. Fortunately, several less intimidating people turned up and a proactive colleague introduced herself and me to some other Facilities folk.

Strangely enough, I won the bowling – in my group of four, that is, which included two guys who'd never bowled before and a woman whose six or seven year old daughter did most of her bowling. Even so, I managed to get into triple figures on the second game. However, the lanes were quite short. And the skittles, sorry, the pins were held up with string. This latter fact actually seemed to help them right themselves when they were wobbling, but on one occasion I managed to get a strike that should only have been a nine because the string from one flying pin caught on the last standing pin.

Really, the Namco Station is far too downmarket an establishment to be located in County Hall. The building is a nice piece of neo-classical architecture that contrasts nicely with the gothic splendour of the Houses of Parliament across the river, and inside you have this warren of bowling alleys, bars and video games lit up with murky gaudiness. The score display screens in the bowling alleys have grilles over them. At least none of this shows on the outside. I suppose I should find time to go into the gallery and see how that compares.

I also, somewhat bizarrely, had a semi-offer of work. One of my colleagues is working on a website for improving the English of those for whom it's a second language. He reckons I could write example pieces for the site. The site itself is fairly basic, and apparently not what he wants it to be, but it seems to have its heart in the right place. Am I going to take him up on this offer. Maybe.

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Finally, after waiting a few weeks after I bought it to start reading it, and then a few more weeks to actually read the thing, I've finished the sixth tale of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. And have enjoyed it.

The Bonehunters brings together many of the plot threads and characters from previous books and is structured in a more organic way – whereas previous books had a rigid alternating sequence of sections, chapters and parts dedicated to the various characters, this book allots page time to its protagonists according to the needs of the plot. Another difference between book six and earlier instalments is that the end point of the story is not apparent as you read it (or, at least, it wasn't to me).

The book starts off with the pursuit of Leoman of the Flails and you assume that the climax of the novel will be deal with the siege of his army at Y'Ghatan. In fact, this happens a quarter or so of the way through the book (and the ninety page chapter that tells that story is one of the highlights of the volume – the short point-of-view sections distributed between a slew of characters create a sense of chaos and tension). What happens to the Fourteenth army after that constitutes much of the remainder of the novel.

Lots of other stuff happens, too. Ganoes Paran saves the day and we finally see what Icarium is all about. Karsa's subplot promises much, but the event he's heading towards is evidently reserved for book seven, Reaper's Gale. Of the new characters, Sergeant Hellian is largely comic relief (like many of the soldiers), Barathol Mekhar looks like he might be interesting, and Taralack Veed develops a bit too quickly, but could be a good viewpoint character for future volumes.

The writing is as concise as ever and, like its more recent predecessors, The Bonehunters is a page-turner. There are, though, a few tautologous descriptions and a very annoying apparent misunderstanding of the word 'lowering'. Also, because of the nature of the story Erikson is telling, it can be confusing in places: things you may have learned in earlier books you've now forgotten so, when characters turn up in unexpected places, you just have to accept it.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a hugely ambitious feat of storytelling, and book six of it hasn't changed my opinion that this is the best fantasy since probably The Lord of the Rings, certainly since the first books of The Wheel of Time.

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