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Archive for July, 2013

The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the WorldsThis is the third in Robert Rankin’s steampunk trilogy (the fourth and fifth books of which will be published later this year and next year) featuring Darwin, the talking monkey butler – upgraded to eponymity for this volume (although the conflation of apes and monkeys is quite annoying). As with The Mechanical Messiah and Other Marvels of the Modern Age, the detective Cameron Bell is, in truth, the main character.

The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the Worlds expands on the universe developed in the other two books. Ernest Rutherford joins Tesla and Babbage as minor characters, but his creation of a time machine has a profound effect on the story (it also turns out that he has created a Large Hadron Collider under London – during the day it is disguised as the Circle Line). The narrative takes Bell to Mars, where he meets Princess Pamela – Victoria’s secret twin sister and spare queen.

Pamela is just one of several strong female characters – one of the best developments in Rankin’s writing in these most recent books. There are two good girls and two bad girls, most of whom have interesting stories, but not much page time as viewpoint characters (if any).

As I tend to expect from Rankin, this book is very entertaining – especially in the first two-thirds; it started to drag a tiny bit towards the end – it’s full of silliness and strange covolutions of plot; it has some heart-warming moments and some tragedy; overall, it’s not too challenging, but it is a lot of fun.

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As any reader of my blog knows, I like to play games. I’ve played a few recently.

The Player of Games

The Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition) campaign I’m in here in Cheonan reached a major milestone last night with the killing of a big evil dragon (although this happened in a cave rather than a dungeon). The campaign has been fun – surprisingly so given the large group of people taking part: seven players plus the gamemaster. My previous experience with such a large group is the session becomes noisy and unfocused, but no one in our group has an especially dominating personality, so everyone gets a chance to say and do what they want. Which isn’t to say, of course, that the group is relentlessly focused on the game – there’s a lot of joking and chat, too – which is an essential part of the fun.

The Fight with Ice and Fire Elementals

After a summer break, it looks like a couple of our players won’t be coming back to the game and our characters are all jumping up a few levels. Having already killed a dragon at quite a low level, I wonder what challenges lie ahead for the party.

In the last couple of months or so I’ve been working on a couple of games – one is a board game, one a card game. The card game has an urban fantasy setting and a range of characters including vampires, sorcerers, hackers, drug dealers, corporate lawyers and so on. It’s still a work in progress, though; the games I’ve played with it so far show that my intended win condition is not at all easy to achieve.

The board game is much more polished. I’ve called it Islands of the Azure Sea and it’s a fantasy piracy game where you move a ship around a sea filled with islands, gathering treasure and items, fighting other ships (including those of the other players), native islanders and monsters. I’ve put a fair amount of work into making the board, the ships, writing out all the cards and changing them several times to balance out the gameplay. I’m pretty proud of it.

Islands of the Azure Sea

I’ve played it a few times with friends and students and it’s always been quite fun, but the treasure maps – which are essential to the mechanics and flavour of the game – have generally proved difficult to come by. Introducing a few cards to facilitate treasure-finding seems to have help, though. I played the game on Saturday with some friends down in Daegu, and they really got into the game, making characters for themselves and concocting narratives. Peter, for instance, kept avoiding taking potentially dangerous Sea Cards and adopted the personality No Risk Pete. When he lost a crewman due to a madness card, he said the man had abandoned ship due to boredom; when he subsequently gained a crewman due to a castaway card, he said the man had changed his mind.

The game on Saturday was part of Peter’s Daegu Gamefest. A pretty modest event, really, but a good opportunity to meet a few new people and play lots of games. When I arrived at the café, Peter and a few others were already playing Munchkin. I joined in for a few turns and then we turned to Dungeon Crawl Classics, a simplified roleplaying game where we each had three very weak villager characters – many of whom died. After lunch, a few of us played Islands of the Azure Sea and the rest played Smallworld – which I’d played and really enjoyed the last time or two I was in Daegu. While the other were finishing that, three of us played Space Hulk: Death Angel. Then we all played Betrayal at House on the Hill – in which we were eaten by tentacles. Later in the evening, we played Dogs in the Vineyard, a game about Mormon gunslingers fighting the supernatural. The following day, Peter and I tested my card game.

It was a fun, action-packed weekend; I had to hurry from Daegu back to Cheonan in time for the climactic D&D session – and mini-party beforehand.

A few weeks earlier, Peter had joined me and a few others for my own gaming day in Cheonan. Peter and I played Magic: The Gathering. One of the guys from roleplaying and his wife came and we played Islands of the Azure Sea and Settlers of Catan. Peter left and was replaced by Eve from roleplaying and we played an interesting card game called Dominion. Slightly embarrassingly but undeniably pleasingly, I won all the games (although we decided to cut Islands short).

Blue-Red Versus Green-Red-Black

Dominion, Settlers of Catan and Smallworld are all games I would like to play more. The two roleplaying game systems we tried out both seemed interesting and worth trying again – but with RPGs, you really need a lot of time to get to know them.

As D&D in Cheonan is on hiatus until September, I think I’ll try to organise another gaming afternoon here – and probably in Seoul, too.

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The possibility of getting skin cancer has been on my mind for some time. I have lots – lots – of mole, several quite big. They’re mostly on my back and seem to a have grown and multiplied imperceptibly over the years. Having moles and freckles is associated with a higher risk of getting skin cancer (although I’ve also read that having many moles is also connected to ageing more slowly – those of you who know me well won’t be surprised at that). It’s really about time I saw a dermatologist.

Which is what I did a couple of weeks ago.

Now You've Really Seen the Back of Me

On the Monday, I went to a hospital in Cheonan that was recommended by my boss, Soonchunhyang University Hospital. I went into one building and inquired after the 피부과, or skin clinic, and was directed to a neighbouring building. In the lobby there I spoke to a member of staff who spoke English and she explained that I should get a referral from another 피부과 first. I was given some directions and headed off there in a taxi.

This skin clinic – 퀸 피부과, ‘Queen’ – was also a cosmetic surgery place. It was a bit rhinestoney – kind of down-market princess chic. My presence there seemed to be equally confusing to the staff and the female clients. But I took my T-shirt off for the doctor and he figured out want I wanted. Eventually, I was sent on my way with a piece of paper.

I headed to a nearby Starbucks to do some work on one of my games.

The following day, I went back to the hospital and saw a dermatologist there. He gave my torso a fairly cursory examination and said that they would take a biopsy from the darkest mole – or naevus – on my back.

A younger man did the procedure. I lay on my front and he anaesthetised the area, used some device to punch a small hole in my back, then sewed it up with a couple of stitches. The sample was a little cone of skin a bit less than a centimetre tall and about half a centimetre across the base (the skin surface), pinkish-greyish-brownish in colour. I was told to keep it dry and was prescribed some medication and told to get iodine and waterproof plasters. I was to come back the following week to get the biopsy result and have the stitches out.

Diminished Mole

The mole is a little to the left of my spine, but pretty much in the middle of my back. Not easy to reach oneself. However, with a little daily practice, I got fairly proficient at wiping the stitches with damp tissue, dabbing it with iodine and putting on a fresh plaster (the waterproof plasters were excellent – they have a slightly rigid plastic covering that keeps them straight when you’re putting them on, they really are waterproof, they don’t peel and they don’t leave much of a sticky residue behind). I took the medicine – antibiotics, I think – most of the time, but had a few left at the end of the seven days. The wound didn’t bother me at all.

I went back the following Tuesday and the dermatologist told me the result was negative – there was no sign of cancer – in that mole, at any rate. I wonder whether some of my other moles ought to be tested, as well, just to make sure. I’m going to try to keep an eye on them – on the irregular ones, anyway. Having the stitches removed was quick and painless.

I walked home feeling pretty good that I’d finally done the right thing, but conscious that it may not be the end of the story.

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The HobbitThe Silmarillion with my Tolkien and the Inklings group the previous month, for June, we were supposed to read The Hobbit – so that’s what I did.

Of the three main Middle Earth-based works, The Hobbit is the one most squarely aimed at children. It has quite a Victorian children’s tale feel to it – the style of narration reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, of which I read a little recently. It has a definite narrator – an ‘I’ that pops up now and then, usually to profess its ignorance (‘I don’t know how Bilbo ever managed to …’, ‘I never heard what happened to [x] after that …’ etc). By today’s standards, the style is a little clunky and patronising, but it works well and is perfectly suited to the story being told.

That story is, of course, about Bilbo Baggins and his employment by a band of treasure-hungry Dwarves, at the behest of Gandalf the Wizard, to assist in stealing into the Lonely Mountain – once a Dwarven capital, now the lair of Smaug the dragon – and stealing it (or all the gold and jewels therein) back. On the long trek into the east, they are beset by various difficulties – goblins and wolves, an almost endless forest, a stream of anaesthetic, spiders and haughty Elves.

Bilbo’s character arc, from being a timid, stay-at-home Hobbit who’s most concerned with personal comfort and keeping up appearances, to becoming a wily, brave – even arrogant – thief/fighter, is one of the best elements of the novel. His presence in the Dwarven party and Gandalf’s recommendation of him is not so believable and you just have to put it down to Wizardly intuition; in the context of the larger Middle Earth narrative, we know that Gandalf is, in fact, a Maia, one of the second tier of divine beings created by Ilúvatar at the beginning of time, so his prescience is understandable.

Some of the other characters’ performances seemed a little off – namely the Dwarves. Dwarves’ legendary love of gold and other treasure comes through admirably towards the end of the story and makes for the most interesting conflict of the book. Before that, however, these supposedly doughty warriors often seem buffoonish and even cowardly. When, for instance, the band finally gains access to the halls of the Lonely Mountain, the Dwarves are content to huddle at the door while Bilbo alone goes to spy out the dragon and its hoard. Admittedly, by this time, they’ve come to trust and rely on the Hobbit a lot, but it didn’t quite ring true for me.

Another thing that bothered me is the dispossessed king syndrome. In The Lord of the Rings, it’s Aragorn who is destined by his heritage to play a major part in events. In The Hobbit we have not only Thorin Oakenshield – whose quest to recapture what his family lost is understandable – but also Bard, a seemingly random Man and minor character who pops up towards the end of the story more or less happily living in obscurity until Bilbo et al turn up. He then plays a pivotal rôle in defeating Smaug. Bard just happens to be descended from the kings of Dale, a city that was destroyed by the dragon. Part of this love of the idea of noble kingship, that kings are just better than the rest of us, is idiomatic of the early fantasy genre, and part of it is simply because Tolkien lived in a more deferential age, but I don’t much like it (I also, as it happens, don’t care for the more recent inversion of this, that those in authority are worse than the rest of us).

All in all, The Hobbit is an entertaining, if slightly slight, novel. Having now read the first book (not volume) of The Lord of the Rings – parts of which rather dragged – I now appreciate the conciseness of The Hobbit, although the later work is decidedly less twee.J R R Tolkien

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