Review: One Word Kill by Mark Lawrence

Mark Lawrence’s teenage time-travel fantasy has all the elements to make an easy comparison with Stranger Things: a group of Dungeons & Dragons playing friends in the 1980s encounter some actual weird stuff and must solve a deep mystery while coping with a host of real-life problems.

The comparison obscures the novels distinct charm and personality. Set in an not always convincing 1980’s London, the novel is focused on a single character Nick Hayes — a mathematical prodigy struggling with chemotherapy for a potentially terminal case of leukaemia. The more fantastical events that intrude into his life drive the plot but the bulk of the story deals with the interplay between Nick, his friends and the more mundane threat of two bullies aspiring to be brutal criminals.

Deftly written, the story carries some real emotional punches but few surprises. The supernatural/science-fictional element has its own twists but not ones that are terribly surprising. However, the story plays out deftly and what it lacks in the unexpected it makes up for in engaging characters and atmosphere.

Apparently this is part one of a series (Impossible Times #1) but the story works as a stand alone novel. Very enjoyable.

My favourite SF&F signature tunes

This started because I couldn’t remember what the theme music of Babylon 5 sounded like. I could remember (not word for word) the opening narration but I couldn’t recall the tune. I didn’t watch a lot of Babylon 5 (TV schedules, life etc) but I watched enough that I was surprised I couldn’t recall it. Skipping forward in time, I realise that the Marvel films really haven’t managed to stick a iconic tune into pop-culture. There is the Avenger’s theme but I had to hunt it down on YouTube to remind myself how to hum it.

So which tunes really stick? I don’t mean which shows or films had the best incidental music or scores, just the signature tune that identifies the film/show immediately. These are my top ten.

10. Battlestar Galactica (1978)

The show itself was a weird mix of Mormon mythology and proto-Reagan perspectives on politics. Yet it has its charms and one of those was the opening theme music. Composed by Stu Phillips it layers two different tunes, one more like a military anthem and the other more wistful.

9. The X-Files

It isn’t a tune you are going to hum as you walk down the street but Mark Snow’s theme was utterly distinctive. The tune is unsettling and odd in a way that is hard to describe – not unlike the show. According to Wikipedia:

The theme, “The X-Files“, used more instrumental sections than most dramas.[84] The theme song’s famous whistle effect was inspired by the track “How Soon Is Now?” from the US edition of The Smiths‘ 1985 album Meat Is Murder.

8. Indiana Jones Theme

Inevitably, John Williams will make more than one appearance in this list. The “Raiders March” is the definitive tune used (and co-opted by the rest of the series of films) to symbolise the titular character.

7. The Twilight Zone

There are lost of alternative histories in which the famous music of a film or show could have ended up being quite different than the tune we associate with it. Fittingly, The Twilight Zone lived through these alternate realities. The famously unnerving notes didn’t appear until season 2 after the original theme by Bernard Hermann was replaced using music sourced from a European composer Marius Constant in an attempt to avoid union rates.

“On one of those trips, Gluskin hired the Romanian-born composer Marius Constant, who was struggling to get by in Paris at the time. “I received a phone call from a producer, and he said, ‘We’re doing this TV show and I’ll give you $200 to write a theme by tomorrow. If your work is accepted, you’ll make another $500, ’ ” Constant recalled in a 1997 interview. Feeling like the offer made him “as good as Stravinsky,” Constant wrote a collection of cues, waited three months before getting paid, and promptly forgot about the whole thing. Sometime during the summer of 1960, faced with a pile of unusable music, Gluskin had the idea of Frankensteining together a theme from the stock music cues. He took two discordant pieces Constant had written, originally entitled “Milieu No. 2” and “Étrange No. 3,” spliced them together, and made television history on the cheap.”

6. Wallace and Gromit

In May 2010 the space shuttle Atlantis was on a routine mission to the International Space Station and so what better tune could NASA send as a wake up call than the Wallace & Gromit theme:

First used in the A Grand Day Out the tune is a jaunty march intended to evoke the tradition of brass bands in the North of England. Composed by Julian Nott who met Wallace & Gromit’s creator Nick Park at the National Film and Television School.

I once managed to complete a very difficult hike (difficult for me – not for everybody else) by humming the tune to myself.

5. Adventure Time

I decided to ration the number of kid’s shows in this list but that just made picking a smaller number much harder. Even picking on Adventure Time as a show creates a dilemma because I love both the opening credit’s theme and the more closing theme. However, of the two I’ll pick the opening theme which itself comes in two parts: an intro that is mainly stranger noises and then the short song which explains as briefly as possible the premise of a show with a vast, vast backstory (mainly hinted at in visuals).

4. Spider-Man (1960’s cartoon)

Plenty of superheroes have signature tunes from older TV shows. Notably Batman’s theme from the 1960s live action show is a tune that has had a longevity far beyond that of the show and which is still associated with the character even in his more grim versions. However, of them all I’ll pick on the Spider-Man theme song

The song is forever connected to Spider-Man even though the cartoon itself was pretty weak with a heavy reliance on re-used footage (including from other cartoons). The song itself, composed by Bob Harris and with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster, has not been used directly as the Spider-Man theme since but has been re-worked into new themes and played as a kind of musical cameo during more recent Spider-Man movies. The song has a life of its own.

3. Star Trek (original series)

Alexander Courage composed this wonderful and unearthly theme music that mixes organs and a human voice to create an effect reminiscent of the kind of 1950s spooky theremin style sound but also more upbeat and orchestral. I don’t think any Star Trek series or movie since has had a theme tune this good. It is instantly recognisable, unusual and distinctive and sets the tone of the show as being futuristic, unusual and exciting.

Apparently Gene Roddenberry wrote lyrics to the music without Courage’s knowledge and thus enabled Roddenberry to be co-credited for the music.

2. Star Wars

You could fill this list with John Williams and if this was a list for most iconic score then Star Wars would win hands down. The fame of the opening theme is rivalled by the rest of the music from the films including the Imperial March. The leitmotif approach to the music of the films has generated a whole host of memorable and distinctive melodies but for my purposes I’m singling out the opening fanfare-like signature (aka Luke’s Theme). It is a big bold promise at the start of the film that you are going to get something extraordinarily exciting.

1. Doctor Who Theme

Delia Derbyshire’s work at the BBC’s experimental Radiophonic Workshop took an initial composition by Ron Grainer and turned it into something utterly different. The theme is both a pioneering example of electronic music and cleverly timeless.

Derbyshire’s theme has been re-recorded and updated on multiple occasions but the fundamental aspects of it remain the same. It announces that something very weird is on it’s way with a rhythm of a train playing along side a kind of ghostly cry.

Until the 50th anniversary episode, Derbyshire was not directly credited as the BBC preferred to credit the Radiophonic Workshop as whole.

Honourable Mentions

  • Harry Potter’s theme tune (aka Hedwig’s Theme) is another John Williams classic but I decided to ration the amount of John Williams.
  • Also Spach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss is forever associated with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and rocket flight in general. I’m not sure it counts as a theme tune though.
  • The music to Lord of the Rings is wonderful but I don’t think it quite has that signature quality to it to make my list.
  • I strongly considered the spooky sequence of notes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Is it a theme tune or an actual plot point or can it be both?
  • So many kid’s cartoons could have got on the list that I don’t know where to start. Feel free to swap out Adventure Time as you see fit. Is Spongebob genre or just really weird and is that even a distinction?
  • Suggestions please!
  • ETA: On Twitter the team at Hugo Book Club suggested Red Dwarf, Hitchhiker’s Guide and Star Trek the Motion Picture. All good suggestions but on reflection I think I should have put Hitchhiker’s in a top spot aka “Journey of the Sorcerer” by Bernie Leadon of the Eagles. It is another one of those pieces that just sound like themselves rather than anything else. Best use of a banjo in science fiction ever.

Review: The Dragon Prince Season 3 (spoilers avoided)

Netflix’s animated fantasy series delivers a very satisfying finale with Season 3. There are a number of loose threads left hanging (particularly around the mysterious eleven bad guy that has been manipulating events) to lead into a proposed season 4. However, the three seasons that are available now form a complete story.

I am deeply impressed by how each season of this show has improved upon the last. I was doubtful about season 1 which sometimes got stuck in the weeds of establishing the setting and back story of the world. Season 2 was much stronger and more confident in its own story telling.

This third season really benefits from the work done in establishing the characters in the earlier season. The quest to return the titular baby dragon to its mother enters its final phases and the conflict between the humans and elves becomes all out war.

There is romance, tragedy and an epic fantasy battle that plays out at a cinematic scale. As with the previous seasons, the show has avoided simplistically evil characters (aside from the as yet still mysterious Aaravos) and has instead let the ‘bad’ side play out with the interaction between the dark mage Viren and his two children Claudia and Soren. Needless to say both Claudia and Soren have their own notions of morality as well as their filial loyalty tested to the limits as their father falls increasingly under the influence of Aaravos.

Together the three seasons make for a really enjoyable child-friendly fantasy epic that manages to evoke a classic fantasy tale of elves, castles and dragons but also does novel and fresh things with the sub-genre.

…and that would all be happy and lovely but sadly it isn’t. Behind the scenes reports about the making of the show have been deeply troubling:

“In early November, The Dragon Prince fandom was rocked by allegations from several women that showrunner Aaron Ehasz had created an abusive environment for women on the Netflix animated show and in his previous position at notoriously hostile-to-women video game developer Riot Games. The claims that he ignored, belittled, and gaslit his female employees, leading some of them to quit or be fired, were especially jarring to a community that strongly supports the show and his previous venture, Avatar: The Last Airbender, in part because of their empowering stories about women. Ehasz’s tepid Twitter response hasn’t done much to resolve the conflict.”

This is certainly disappointing news given how so much of what The Dragon Prince has been doing with its characters and story has been positive. The framing of these revelations has often been in terms of “season 4 in doubt” (eg here) which surely is a lesser issue than “can creative work places stop being so shitty”. [see also this tweet ]

I would still recommend watching the show. Nobody is calling for a boycott but rather support for the former and current writers. I had intend to watch it spread out over next week but I essentially abandoned my Saturday morning to compulsively watch every episode in sequence.

Charming and funny, full of mushy feelings but delivers that big epic fantasy buzz. Good stuff, shame about the company making it.

Reading Vox Day so you don’t have to part…I’ve lost count

I had wondered if extreme nationalist Vox Day had given up writing political pamphlets but yet another popped up the other day. It was sort of out of the blue, so either he’s been promoting things less or I’ve been paying less attention and probably the latter.

Entitled Corporate Cancer: How to Work Miracles and Save Millions by Curing Your Company it is primarily a rehash of his tow earlier “SJW” books. It’s the same thesis (vaguely defined social justice warriors are somehow out to get you) structured in a similar way but using mainly examples from businesses rather than church groups or publishing.

It purports to demonstrate that social justice will cost a company lots of money but you won’t be surprised to discover that the criteria for ‘social justice’ is very flexible as is the harm done to the companies. He leads with the latest Star Wars films (which he hasn’t watched and which he only has a second hand grasp of) and the fact that they didn’t make as huge a profit for the hugely profitable Disney company as Disney wanted. It is just a rehash of the tired grievance from past years and poor example for his thesis. The claim is that Disney s ‘converged’ a fatal stage of commitment to social justice that destroys a company (or perhaps turns it into a company dependent on government grants or something – the goalposts shift). Day manages to be wrong about both things: Disney is a cynical money grabbing corporation whose commitment to any kind of progressive values is superficial and also it manifestly isn’t going bankrupt any time soon.

Later “examples” are similarly dis-attached. Google is given as an example but again it manifestly isn’t collapsing financial. Apple’s lack of direction post Steve Jobs is also given but here Day neither shows in what way Apple has become more social-justicey recently nor how that connects to Day’s gripe about dongles.

The villain of Day’s previous polemic was nice ladies who help out at church groups. In this one he focuses on HR departments, which are also a recurring bête-noir for Day. Note that as far as I’m aware Day’s multiple career choices have not included a job in a moderate sized corporation with a HR department but he projects a deep grudge against a stereotypical HR team. That HR-phobia becomes easier to understand when you recall that Day’s target audience is disaffected men who feel they have low social status. The thrust is to persuade some confused, somewhat lost person that their troubles at work are due to a vast “SJW” enemy that bizarrely appears in the form of modern corporate capitalism. So if the reader is feeling picked on because of lateness or poor work performance or poor relations with colleagues or bad personal hygiene etc they can rationalise the involvement of HR as political persecution.

Cults, crank self-help groups and crypto-fascist organisations (in so far as those three things are different) have always preyed on the disaffected and the lost. The disdain Day frequently shows to “gammas” is part of that strategy: fuelling insecurity by citing issues that people can see within themselves and then violently reject. Self-hatred is both a powerful drug and a sinister recruitment sergeant.

When looking at the chapter headings I was close to deciding not to bother reviewing the book. The main motive was for completeness having trudged through the previous related volumes. Not to bother probably would have been the right decision: there is nothing new here and I would imagine even Day’s fans would find this book repetitive.

However, what tipped the balance was a something that I was curious about and the chapter headings implied that Day had some revelations to make about a story I’d been following. I’ll spoil the surprise and reveal in advance that he doesn’t but let me explain the background.

About a year ago Day had a crowd-funding campaign suspended in an unusual manner. I covered it here and and File 770 covered it here and Day cites the File 770 article as background (i.e. he accepts it as being factually correct). As a whole bunch of things were going on at the same time (a NPR podcast, a Bleeding Cool interview, a crowdfunding campaign finalising), Day claims these were all connected. However, we have little background on the circumstances of Indiegogo suspending Day’s crowdfunding campaign other than from Day himself. Day is far from being the most blatantly dishonest person in Puppydom but he is not a reliable narrator either.

We do know that Day threatened Indiegogo with legal action but I’ve seen many examples before of Day doing so but without any public conclusion – which could, of course mean anything. Day had suggested on his blog the matter had come to some sort of end but of what kind was unclear.

However, in a recent twist, Day’s publishing company had started a new crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in the last few weeks. Did that mean everything was resolved between Day and the crowdfunding platform? Maybe or not quite. The new campaign (which I believe has just ended or is about to end) was to reprint 1910 ‘junior classics’ in what appears to be an attempt by Day to capture the money of far-right Baby Boomer grandparents.

There were some oddities about the campaign though. It was clear that Indiegogo were aware it was one of Day’s companies running the campaign but rather than “Castalia” or “Arkhaven”, the group listed was “Redacted Press” based in “San Francisco, United States”. A second oddity was that the campaign was only accessible via a direct link. A search for the campaign on Indiegogo’s platform for either ‘Junior Classics’ or ‘Redacted Press’ do not lead to the campaign. The only way to get to it was via a link provided by Day. Why? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Day has two chapters on the issue in the book and curiosity got the better of me. The first of the two (Chapter 8) gave the background and the story that I already knew up to the start of an arbitration process. The next chapter, entitled Chapter 9: Indiegogo Case Study: The Arbitration Process and Outcome offered the missing section. However the contents of the chapter read:

“[REDACTED UNTIL OCTOBER 11, 2021] The parties to the arbitrations have come to a resolution on the matter. The arbitrations have been terminated. We will not be making any further statement about it. Please do not ask questions or probe for details about the resolution of the matter.”

Well, I guess the joke is on me and I must concede that I got played.

In the end even the new bit in the book was nothing new.

Review: Numbercaste by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

Sri-Lankan author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s debut novel Numbercaste is a fascinating work of science fiction. While it deals with the very current 21st century concern of the ethics of big tech companies and their social influence, stylistically it has a strong feel of old-school science fiction. While there is an interesting set of characters, the foreground plot is the development of the technology and the company behind it. At times I was reminded of Asimov or Clarke’s approach to mapping out a future history.

The narrative style of the book is that of the kind of business of technology confessional. A person who was ‘there’ when a big company became a big company and knows that their audience is primarily interested in the inner workings of a famous business. In the near future, the central character, Patrick Udo, starts the narrative as a young man who falls almost by accident into an influential job at the mysterious tech company called NumberCorp.

Behind the scenes the visionary leader of the company, Julius Common, has been creating and selling a kind of social-credit rating service to business and companies based on an earlier development of worldwide personal ID system. The book goes on to chart how the company by fair means and some decidedly foul means leverages it’s control over rating people into an alternative social order for the world.

Does the narrative bear close examination. No, probably not but I think that is always the case with trying to realistically extrapolate technological advances with social change. Attempting to fill in every gap or make every event ironclad makes for a dull story and ignores how often social or political change is itself implausible (waving my hand at picture of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump). What Wijerante does do is keep the sequence of events plausible and interesting, charting set backs and external conflicts in a way that feels realistic.

The central character manages to sit in that sweet spot of being passive enough to go along with plans that initially have disturbing ethical implications while being proactive enough to be a valuable employee. Udo strives to please his superiors and to fit in with the company’s goals, often avoiding thinking too much about some of the worse excesses of the company. By the time he is involved in overtly evil acts, he is far too deeply implicated to refuse.

While it fits with the style of a kind of personal biography of a company by an insider, I feel the de-emphasis of secondary interpersonal character conflict and development makes the actual narrative less compelling. I can see why the author made the choices he did but we really only get some deeper insights in Julius Common’s character (the Steve Job’s like CEO) in the final chapters (as a kind of mini-biography). Udo’s immediate boss/colleague Wurth is shown eventually to have their own fascinating story which feels underdeveloped.

The other massive writing challenge for the novel is how to end it. The story is about the rise of not just a company but a new world system, one where social credit is catalogued and monitored and shapes everybody’s lives. It’s both a dystopian and utopian perspective, a kind of prelude to how a 21st century take on Aldiss Huxley’s Brave New World could come about. However, that kind of open ended result, is very tricky to have as a narrative conclusion.

In total this is a cleverly constructed novel that feels like a historical artefact from a future that could be. It broadens what science fiction is capable with the tools it has to inquiry and speculate. I’ll certainly be looking out for Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s future work.

Review: She-Ra Season 4

She-Ra is hardly the first kids cartoon in recent years to find a way to capture the brightly-coloured essence of cartoon adventures and deliver some genuinely engaging plots but it is currently a shining example.

As with the previous seasons a lot of time is devoted to charming and silly sub-plots, occasional sea shanties and simple humour. It is a show that not only will not apologise for the source material but delights in the absurdity of the original 1980s cartoon while adopting its own visual style.

However through the previous three seasons (sort of more like two seasons with one split in half) there has been a broader story arc connecting the characters and the planet on which they live, Etheria. Season 3 increased the pace of the story arc finishing with an emotionally powerful finale and some substantial consequences for all of the major characters.

If the standard theme of a She-Ra episode is the power of friendship, the broader arc’s theme is betrayal. Throughout season 4 characters deal with the idea of betrayal in multiple ways. There are simple instances with evil characters up to no good, including the new addition to the baddies of the shape shifting Double Trouble. Yet it is the more complex idea of feeling betrayed by friends when your interests or actions diverge that takes centre stage.

That theme of friends becoming enemies has always been central to the tensions between Adora (aka She-Ra) and Catra. Raised together to be soldiers of The Horde, Catra’s feelings of abandonment have driven her further into seeking power over others. However, it is Catra’s relationship with the naive Scorpia that shapes events in Season 4. Not all friends are good friends and sometimes you have to walk away from people who do not treat you with the respect that friends should give each other, is a powerful message in a kid’s cartoon but it is also an excellent basis for an engaging character driven plot.

But there are other deeper betrayals going on. One in particular is a major twist in the whole premise of the show and hence I won’t reveal it. It fuels a series of events that make episodes 9 to 13 particularly stand out if you want to watch a frankly excellent science-fantasy story that coincidentally is set in a rainbow hued kid’s cartoon world with a flying unicorn horse.

There is a lot of talk about the current golden age of television but looking back I can see how from the 1990’s forward there was a deep and continuing shift in children’s television. Not every show, obviously, but multiple shows for over thirty years now that pulled at the conventions of television and did weird and wonderful things with them. Where kid’s TV has an advantage over many prestige television shows is that it avoids self-indulgence and self-importance. Shows like She-Ra get that their core audience will be unmoved by critical accolades (although parental gatekeepers might be) but also that their audience can have both simple and complex interests simultaneously.

Review: “See” episode 1 – Apple+

The latest giant to enter the subscription streaming channel is Apple. While they can’t bring the vast back catalogue that Disney are brining to their new service, Apple at least has the advantage of already being a major player in the world of internet based media services.

However, content matters more than technology and exclusive original series are what makes a streaming service a must-see versus an also-ran. Apple+ has a range of new shows and more on its way. Of those two appear to be genre. For All Mankind is an alternate history that imagines the world if the space-race had never ended (I haven’t watched any of it yet). The other genre show is See.

Apple is offering a free trial and as the software was already there sitting on my phone I decided to give episode 1 a go. The premise is quickly summed up on a card in the opening titles. Sometime in our near-future a devastating plague kills off most of humanity. The people who survive are left blind and (apparently) that blindness is passed on to their children.

The opening titles are great, by the way, glimpses of strings or fibres that coalesces into human and animal shapes. Strings and ropes are a key part of the future society that we get to see once we get into the episode.

Hundreds of years in the future we meet a village of people led by Jason Momoa in full-on Jason Momoa form as ‘Baba Voss’. They live high on a mountain in a functional society that is geared to defend itself from raiders and brigands. There is an implication of psychic powers and/or heightened senses, although whether this is meant to indicate that the villagers are superstitious or to frame the story more overtly as fantasy I couldn’t say from one episode.

However, trouble is on its way in the form of ‘witch finders’ and a small army belonging to some sort of major kingdom. We see later that this is led by a mysterious queen living in the remains of a hydroelectric damn who has a passionate hatred of heresy.

And what’s the heresy? In a cave in the village is Baba Voss’s wife, who is busy giving birth to twins. She herself was a stranger who arrived months earlier already pregnant. Rumours point to the father of her about to be born children being a mysterious heretic who murdered the Queen’s sister. The heresy in question being vision.

That’s the set up. A world full of blind people in which being able to see is effectively a super power and an oppressive kingdom determined to suppress the idea.

Is it good? No. There is a wealth of ideas that you want to work but which don’t really come together: Jason Momoa leads his village warriors in a Haka like chant; people exchange messages in the form of quipu like knotted strings; a queen listens to Lou Reed in crumbling remains of civilisation; the views of Canadian mountains are suitably stunning. But…the dialogue is wooden and the initial story seems shallow (caveat: I only watched the one episode and I’ve seen reviews that suggest episode 3 is better).

The fight scenes are impressive, including a pitched battle in a forest that must have taken meticulous planning to create a sense of a brutal fight between people who cannot see each other. I think it is best to say that there is a plausibility to how the show depicts a world without sight. It doesn’t necessarily stand up to close examination but I’ll grant it some latitude.

As a positive depiction of blind people, as far as I am aware the cast are all sighted. Having said that the premise suggests that being blind would not doom humanity and that people would find practical solutions and prosper about as well as any other post-apocalyptic peoples in fiction. More worrying is the wider premise that implies that show will end up pitching the big bad guys as fanatically committed to being blind and the heroes as championing the benefits of being able to see. Which, gets less great as an idea the more you think of it and falls into the sub-genre of SFF where the premise attempts to reverse social markers of oppression or disadvantage.

Good? I already said no but is it Bad Bad or is it Good Bad? Potentially, this show has a lot of stuff I look for that helps me ignore weak dialogue or overwrought plots. If it was a cheaper production that you stumbled across, it would have a lot of kitschy appeal. The high production values and often beautiful filming imply a more solid show than episode one delivered. Instead, we get a great big mess of ideas and an eventual set-up for the rest of the series that suggests a permanent chase.

So, potentially slightly dodgy, campy self-serious show with wacky ideas that might end up being fun. Episode 1 was notably self contained as a story, so it wasn’t clear what a ‘normal’ episode would be like. I didn’t hate but nor did I take any steps to watch episode 2. Your mileage may vary.