Tag Archives: review

Bring me a dream…


I had heard over the proverbial grapevine that The Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman (writer of the films Stardust and Coraline) was an excellent graphic novel, so on one of my regular visits to the fantastic geek-Mecca that is Forbidden Planet on Shaftsbury Avenue I picked up the first volume, then the second on my next visit, and then the third.

Then I just gave up trying to space them out and bought the whole remainder of the series from Amazon, and devoured them within a few days.

It’s one of the most astonishing, wonderful, imaginative, collection of tales I have ever read. To (probably mis)quote one of the introductions, “If this isn’t literature, nothing is.”

The central figure (I would say protagonist, but often he isn’t) is Dream, Lord of the Dreaming, Prince of stories; the very personification of the act of dreaming itself. The idea of dreams is at the very heart of The Sandman – the tales are often fantastical and nonsensical, but at the same time have a truth to them, a resonance that’s undeniable. There’s horror and humour, profundity and absurdity.

Neil Gaiman is the kind of person whose writing both simultaneously makes me want and not want to become a writer; his tales are so fantastic that it makes you fall in love with story-telling, but simultaneously despair that you would never be able to arrange words as wonderfully and as eloquently as he, or touch on so many themes, or make such excellent historical and mythological illusions, or have so many dazzling ideas.

The story has an overall arc and theme, summarised by Gaiman himself as: “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” Twisted alongside that main tale are squabbles with his family the Endless, his brother and sister personifications, e.g. his older brother Destiny, older sister Death, and the particularly antagonistic Desire, who is simultaneously male and female and the tales of the lesser beings who come into contact with Dream and the rest of the Endless, like the cat who dreams and learns that once cats ruled the world before the dreams of men revised history, or the man in the Middle Ages who learns how to live forever, and meets Dream once a century for a drink in the same pub, or the Roman emperor Augustus who is told to pretend to be a marketplace beggar once a year.

The writing I literally could not have more effusive praise for; it is utterly magnificent. However, this being a graphic novel, writing is only half the story, which is part of the wonderful richness of the medium; there’s the art.

Sandman _50 Ramadan Gaiman Klein Russell This being a very long series there are a number of different artists who’ve worked on this series, so there might well be some you enjoy, some you won’t. There are some incredibly standouts; the work of P. Craig Russel in the story “Ramadan” is breathtakingly wonderful, for instance. Overall, they do a really good job of embodying the strange world of Dream.

I really couldn’t recommend The Sandman highly enough. Anybody who knows me can ask and I’ll lend you the first volume. Or second or third, and the stand-alone set of stories, Endless Nights; alas, that’s all I have with me.

All that remains to be said is that I really, really want Neil Gaiman to write an episode of Doctor Who. He’s British, he’s a fantastic writer, it needs to happen.

Reading: Part 3 – Slaughterhouse-Five

I must make a confession: I read this book in one go from start to finish, and I’m fairly convinced that it’s a triumph. So I’m making a note here. Great success? </lameportaljoke>

The novel follows Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist and former (well, sort of, you’ll see) prisoner of war who has become unstuck in time. His consciousness flicks about through his life, from his experiences being captured at the Battle of the Bulge through to the firebombing of Dresden, his abduction by aliens, the moment of his death, and every moment in-between.

It’s also semi-autobiographical, as Vonnegut makes a point of mentioning that he was also present during the war, and many of the details of Billy’s life match the author’s own biography.

The book is a meditation on death, time, war, of the correlations between moments “stuck in amber”. It’s such a great book that I feel inadequate to be reviewing it, because I don’t have the tools to fully appreciate what has been done.

The little touches are incredible – the book follows the story of Billy Pilgrim’s experience in the war, interrupted by the random splinters of the rest of his life, and it’s filled with echoes of other moments, phrases repeated, evocative symmetries.

Every time someone dies, or death is mentioned, the phrase “so it goes” is repeated, focusing your mind on the death itself. The book enumerates the cruelties of the war, men glorifying and justifying the firebombing, or soap and candles made from the fat of dead Jews and gays and gypsies.

It is at once a condemnation of war and an admission that war is inevitable, that death will be dealt by natural causes, or an act of revenge, by atomic bomb or by firebomb, but that death will always be there, waiting at the end of our allotted years, our single thread spun out across eternity; we just have to think of the nice parts of the thread.

I feel almost compelled to compare this book with Illium; partly because they are at least nominally in the same genre. There is honestly no comparison. Illium wears its literary pretensions on its sleeve as a badge of honour; Slaughterhouse-Five is a work of literature in its own right, not a trashy space-opera with illusions of grandeur.

Reading: Part 1 – Illium

Absolutely ages ago I picked up a copy of Dan Simmonds’ Illium and I’ve finally actually read the thing.

I’ve previously read two other books by the same author, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion so by this point I’ve rather thoroughly clocked the tics that he, like all writers, possesses.

For instance, it’s likely that Charlie Brooker will swear his way through a Guardian article, or Arthur C. Clarke is going to have plausible science, or Richard Dawkins will probably decry the evils of religion while simultaneously demonstrating the intellectual advantages of evolution. They’ve all got  their thing.

For Simmonds, his peculiar tic is to be absolutely obsessed with other writers. The Hyperion books were basically one massive hard-on for the works of Keats, and for poetry in general, to the point at which it started to get ridiculous. One character was, indeed, essentially a cyborg reincarnation of Keats himself; I shit you not.  This didn’t sit terribly well with me in general, because personally I think Keats is kind of a twat; saying Newton had destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by explaining it is one of the most utterly backward things I can imagine. The structure of the first book also liberally borrowed from The Canterbury Tales. At times it feels less than science fiction and more like a literary love-in.

I digress somewhat. The point is that these same tics form almost the very structure of Illium. The plot falls into multiple threads; one the story of a “scholic” observer, in service to the Muse, of what appears to be the Trojan war at the time of the Illiad. Another has a group of sentient robots from the moons of Jupiter sent on a mission to Mars, and another has a group of far-future humans on a quest for truth in their strangely altered Earth society.

The tics reappear fairly immediately; the “scholic” thread consists of a hi-tech twist on scenes from the Iliad, with the gods explained as beings equipped with high technology. Scene after scene of this is incredibly reminiscent of what it’s like to read the Illiad, a thousand different ways of saying “X killed Y with spear”. The sentient robots (called “moravecs” after Hans Moravec) fill their time on the way to Mars engaged in discussions of literary criticism, comparing and contrasting the works of Shakespeare (especially his sonnets) and the work of Marcel Proust, including quotations from À la recherche du temps perdu. This is before it’s then implied, in another classic trick, that Internet became self-aware and decided to call itself Prospero. It’s all really very silly, but it’s taken very seriously.

The other major fault he has is that despite Illium being a really very thick book, it is very consciously only half the story. I mean half in a very literal sense, all the plot threads are left dangling, and there is hardly any proper resolution. This is a fault it shares very strongly with Hyperion.

This isn’t to say it’s a bad book, necessarily. It’s well written, and it’s curiously imaginative, and you keep on reading and reading. Well, maybe I do, but then I even persevered to finish the Dan Brown abortion Angels & Demons, so maybe I can bring myself to finish anything. I’m just not sure that Dan Simmonds’ brand of literary space opera is really worth committing one’s time to a book of such length, especially when you’re lucky if the plot makes even a lick of sense, even before it’s arbitrarily truncated. This is a book in which it would make barely any difference if the explanations used the word “magic” instead of “quantum” or “nano” because they’re stripped of their ordinary meanings by being associated with nonsense.

It stands as a striking contrast to a book like The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke, which manages to pull lovely human stories of love and loss and jealousy out of a plausible scientific scenario; a single, clear idea, beautifully elucidated. It’s also a much thinner book, but I managed to draw a lot more enjoyment and refreshment from it than from Illium.

In a couple of days (hopefully) I aim to return with Part 2 – Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian and then, if I’m really lucky and the wind is blowing the right way, Part 3 – Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, which I actually haven’t read yet.

Distributed Version Control: A Review

This post is all about stuff that’s only interesting if you’re into programming. Read at your own risk!

Next year as part of my degree I’m working with a partner to create some software that’ll simulate cold, dense plasmas (the physics kind, not the blood-is-made-from kind) and the thought of working on this by emailing files to each other and the like just seems utterly beyond tedious, so I’ve started investigating various types of source control, which will make it a lot easier to work together and keep in sync without getting rapidly into a horrible mess.

Continue reading Distributed Version Control: A Review

We Will Rock You

Wow, almost completely forgot to write about this. I really would have thought that by now I’d be getting good at this blogging lark. Really not so much.

On Wednesday last week, my Mom and sister came down to London, and together we went to see the musical We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre near Tottenham Court Road, where it debuted in 2002.

As you may or may not know, it’s one of the recent-ish trend of making a musical where all the songs are drawn from the back catalogue of some musical act, e.g. ABBA with Mamma Mia, and in this case, the music of Queen. As such, the plot is mostly an elaborate attempt to string these songs together into something approximating logical consistency. I say ‘approximating’, because some of the terrible convolutions necessary to make these things fit together are pretty extreme.

A basic outline of the plot is that it’s half past the future and for some reason (something to do with creating a bland cultural conformity) all non-computer-generated music has been banned. A rag-tag band of rebels, the Bohemians, are seeking out the Dreamer, someone who can (for some unexplained reason) hear rock music in his head. It is prophesised that the Dreamer will find the last remaining electric guitar and use it to rock out and save the world (“Planet Mall”) from the evil clutches of Globosoft and their evil CEO, Killer Queen.

If that sounds terrible, that’s because it is. To say that the whole experience gave me flashbacks to Christmas Panto at the Birmingham Hippodrome would be insulting to panto – the acting was pretty bad, the jokes fell amazingly flat, some of the costumes (for instance women wearing what were essentially leather bikinis) felt just out-of-place and exploitative, and the whole production just gave off an overwhelming stench of camp crap. The amount of Queen hero-worship was also utterly cringe-worthy. Sure, they were a good band, but you can’t spend an entire show making them sound messianic without looking completely ridiculous.

Furthermore, the amount of fourth-wall stretching references to contemporary music and events just helps to reinforce the impression of bad panto. No, we don’t need characters called “Lilly Allen” or “Britney Spears”, however funny that may initially appear.

What I did find extremely odd was the response of some of the rest of the audience, who loved bits I found just terribly akward. Some of them actually stood up to applaud at the end, which was utterly unnecessary.

There’s also a terrible irony in complaining about the soulless commercialism of modern music by creating something as utterly crass as this to wring money out of the Queen back catalogue. I do wonder if the huge piles of money that this show must be generating help Dr May et al. sleep better at night.

If you’re contemplating watching We Will Rock You, don’t. Spend your money on a Queen album or three instead. The only commendable portion of this production were the songs, and frankly your money is spent a lot better listening to the originals.