Monday, 28 February 2011

Outcasts, episode 6

As always, spoilers ahead.

After the tantalising end of episode 5, when Berger was revealed to be in contact with another space vessel and clearly shown to be aiming at the removal of Tate from power, episode 6 decided to ignore that almost completely.

A trio of XPs never before mentioned or seen had gone missing. One returned, wounded, and stated that the ACs had attacked her. However, there was something creepy about her, and she ended up being detained.

Meanwhile, a pair of ACs ordered by Rudi, their leader, to take out XP commander Jack “precisely” adopted a unique and challenging definition of that word. They began by killing a power station worker and then switching off Forthaven’s power, which rather alerted everyone to the presence of intruders. After this, they managed to miss Jack and kill another XP, rather predictably.

The power loss somehow opened the secure door to the female XP’s cell, and she strode off, found her kids and wandered out of the front door of the colony.

However, a rather more human version of the missing female XP appeared, prompting much confusion. Fortunately, the kids ended up safe.

The dialogue still needs sorting out. The story was reasonably coherent, but the doppelganger was not explained, beyond the suggestion of alien influence. It’s a bit irksome, because there are a number of potentially good storylines but they all seem to lack excitement or a satisfying conclusion. Mitchell was great, but got shot in episode 1, the terribly deadly whiteout led to the death of Token Gay Guy, and the clone was unexplained in the most recent episode.

Oh well. I shall persevere, and it’s worth recalling that sometimes the first series can be ropey (Blackadder, for example).


Sunday, 27 February 2011

The gunpowder question

Technology is more associated with sci-fi, which is understandable as it often has exciting fictional toys such as teleporters, faster than light travel, and cyborgs.

However, it’s also a matter for fantasy. Given that many stories take place in an essentially medieval English setting there are crossbows and longbows and mangonels. Gunpowder is either not used at all or just being discovered.

There is some scope for going down a different path, without having more advanced technology.

In the conquests of Alexander, the battle weapons used were relatively simple. Spears, swords and shields were the order of the day. The difference came with siege warfare. Alexander, benefiting from a corps of damned clever Hellenistic engineers, was able to utilise their expertise and the manpower he had available to devastating effect in sieges.

Alexander the Great had absolutely massive battering rams, and regularly built siege towers that were staggering in size. Aided by his position as king, commander-in-chief and the lack of human rights laws, he used his own army and any nearby peasants to commit huge acts of manual labour. In his epic taking of Tyre (a walled island city) he had a mole more than a half a mile long built out to sea, enabling his artillery to get into range of the walls.

The Byzantines used, for a time, a brilliant concoction known as Greek fire. This was an oil-based substance which saved the city on numerous occasions by (almost literally) setting fire to the sea. Other nations were ignorant of its ingredients and terrified of the flames, which floated on the water (as it was oil-based) and often devastated enemy fleets.

Although not based on technology, Hannibal came up with some interesting tactics. After the Second Punic War, he worked for Rome’s enemies, and in a naval battle came up with an innovative idea. He had snakes collected and put into clay pots. These were then hurled onto enemy ships. The clay shattered, the snakes escaped, and the Romans were distracted and terrified by the sudden appearance of slithering reptiles on the deck.

The Romans themselves used (as seen in the opening battle of Gladiator) clay pots as siege ammunition. They were effectively huge petrol bombs, with the outside lit and the inside filled with combustible material. When the pots were fired, they landed, broke apart and burst into flame.

Technology does not necessarily improve over time. It usually does, but not always. Consider Concorde. Faster than any commercial passenger plane today, yet in a museum.


Friday, 25 February 2011

Book progress

My as-yet-untitled book continues to be written at a reasonable pace. I had a vague idea of 20 chapters in mind, though it looks like it may end up being briefer. Presently, I’m up to chapter 13 (4 pages into it).

I’m not one of those authors who draft a pretty thorough and methodical chapter-by-chapter plan before they start writing. That’d be quite helpful, but I veer too much off into tangents to be that constrained (not that tangents are necessarily bad; they offer opportunities for light relief, character development and so forth).

Before starting, I spent quite a lot of time creating a background for the story. Its mostly within a city (Highford), so I spent my time on the specifics of that location and only wrote a fuzzy background of the nearby nations (Kuhrland, Felaria, Denland). Having an idea of the social hierarchy (armed groups, mages, nobility and so forth) makes it easier later on to write fluently and consistently.

All the main characters have been introduced, from the haughty mages to the cold Dame Hélène and the self-interested Captain Urquhart. There are a few secondary characters too, such as the captain’s two lieutenants, and the preening chevaliers.

Writing’s been a shade slower than usual over the last few days, mostly because a rather sombre scene has occurred and I tend to find these especially grave scenes more troubling to write than light-hearted ones.

I’ve got a few specific plot twists/scenes in mind, one of which isn’t all that far away and I’m rather looking forward to it. The central plot’s climax is something I’ve got pretty sharply defined, although the aftermath is a little bit looser. (I’m a believer in not trying to pin everything down and writing organically rather than methodically).

The tone of the book is actually substantially different in some respects to my favourite modern authors (Abercrombie, Martin, Hobb). I’m pretty pleased with dialogue so far, which is light on swearing and old-fashioned (not 15th century, it’s perfectly understandable). There is blood and gore and death, but it’s not quite so prevalent as in the books of the authors listed above. It’s also peppered with little comical lines and scenes, often involving Captain Urquhart (he’s a bit like a cross between Odo from DS9 and Edmund Blackadder).

Anyway, that’s how things are progressing.


Thursday, 24 February 2011

Originality and realism

Sci-fi and fantasy often get put together in categories because, although one tends to be forward looking and technology-focused and the other is often backward-looking and magic-focused, they’ve both got great scope for imagination and stretching the bounds of possibility.

There’s a natural challenge in writing fantasy or sci-fi. If you’re aiming to have a world highly similar to reality or its past then you can write I, Claudius in space, if you wish. But if you’re going for something dramatically different there’s a tension between writing something realistic in a fantasy-based context and something which is so unorthodox and strange as to be ridiculous.

Magic’s a good example. There’s no natural boundary on magic because it doesn’t exist. So, what’s to stop an evil sorcerer snapped his fingers and brainwashing everybody into serfdom? Or a good sorcerer wiggling his ears and turning all evildoers into garden gnomes? Hence, the author needs to create a limit.

Another potential downfall is one which affects all types of writing. Making heroes too virtuous and villains too vile just makes them two-dimensional caricatures. When writing my own stuff, I’ve modelled the mages (who play a significant role) as a light version of the Greek gods. They’re arrogant, generally, and don’t mind abusing their powers somewhat when they feel like it. After all, if you could click your fingers and unclasp a woman’s bra, wouldn’t you?

A good example of balancing a very unearthly fantasy world and the natural frailties and strengths people possess is the Night Angel Trilogy, by Brent Weeks (I’ve read books 1 and 2, but not yet 3). There are differing schools of magic, a powerful criminal underworld, a number of distinctly different nations and fantastically strange creatures which I won’t spoil.

I think this is a problem Star Trek: TNG suffers from, unlike DS9. I cannot believe that we will ever get rid of money, or that hunger will ever be abolished or that the world will become everyone’s oyster. People just aren’t that good. In DS9, some interesting issues were tackled, such as treachery and insurrection/terrorism.

People will suspend their disbelief for magic and warp speed, but not for everything.


Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Phalanx Versus Legion

In the ancient world, in Europe, two schools of military thought dominated a certain era of history. One was the phalanx, which was a Hellenistic (Greece, Macedon, Epirus) creation and tool. The other was the Roman legion, which cunningly copied a few of their enemies’ ideas (the Samnite shield and the Iberian sword, for example).

The phalanx involved a number of hoplites dressed in armour and equipped with a spear and a big round shield that protected their body and part of the chap on the left. So, if you were on the right hand side, you had less protection (but more pay for the extra danger).

Spears were of a reasonable length (something like 8’) in most of the Hellenistic world, but when Philip II (father of Alexander the Great) assumed the throne of Macedon he put the army through a revolution of innovation and genius. The spear was lengthened, and named the sarissa (some say 21’, but this might have been an unwieldy size used by Pyrrhic forces. 16’ is also possible. Suffice to say, the sarissa was substantially lengthier than a typical spear). Because the spear was so much longer, it was wielded with both hands, and a kind of gauntlet/shield was bound to the left arm.

Philip also used cavalry to great effect. The phalanx was a powerful force but difficult to manoeuvre because of the length of spear and the fact that its strength lay in a dense formation. So, when the phalanx had an enemy pinned down, the cavalry could assail his flanks and rear and they’d be cut to pieces.

Using his father’s army, Alexander conquered a vast territory, from Albania to Egypt to Afghanistan. All that turned him back was the Macedonian desire to see their families again. Alexander died on the way, and the vast territory lasted only a few years in a united empire.

The legion was fundamentally different, both in arms and tactics. The Romans had a short, sharp stabbing sword, the gladius, and a curved, rectangular shield big enough to protect themselves. They sorted themselves into three ranks, with the principes or hastati (it switched a few times) in the first two ranks and the triarii (veterans) last. The unit of the legion around the time of the Second Punic War was the maniple, of two centuries each. Between the maniples were intervals, through which the rank behind could advance if the rank before grew too tired/bloodied.

Roman cavalry did exist, and was notable for being worse than almost every other branch of cavalry in the world. The legions, lacking a lengthy weapon and a skilled horse contingent, therefore adopted a different approach to the phalanx. The Romans had a blessedly simple idea of warfare. Find the enemy, form ranks, march towards the enemy and then stab everything in the way until it stopped moving.

Its worth remarking that the legions (even when commanded by the mediocre or the outright inept) were very, very resilient. At Cannae, when Hannibal literally slaughtered the Romans, thousands of them actually survived through disciplined and fearless valour.

The problem with comparing the two systems is that they never met on equal terms. I firmly believe that if Alexander had lived and decided to head west, he would’ve crushed Rome. But, he didn’t.

Pyrrhus did head west, but he was capable only of tactical, not strategic, victories. He was a skilled commander (and beat the Romans twice out of three times, although this was partly due to his elephants).

Hannibal beat the Romans many times, but he had a diverse force (briefly including elephants, but also a brilliant contingent of Numidian cavalry as well as Iberians, Gauls and Libyans).

Assessing which was the better system is nigh on impossible, but it’s an interesting question to ask nevertheless. Given the choice, I imagine I’d opt for the legion. The shield’s big enough to protect yourself without relying on a friend, and your weapon is light enough to hold onto when running away (yes, I am filled with heroism).

On an unrelated and sad note, Nicholas Courtney, who played Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart in Dr Who, has passed away. He starred alongside almost all the Doctors as the head of UNIT. RIP


Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Outcasts, episode 5

As always, spoilers ahead.

Last week, there was some tension. Although the action scene wasn’t great, the conflict of loyalty Cass felt between Fleur and Tate and the eventual consequences of Elijah’s death was good.

Or was it? Jack has apparently not been punished for killing someone without authority. Fleur appears to have forgotten/forgiven Cass for betraying her and taking a course which led to a mentally unstable man’s death.

Maybe Carpathia has a gas in the atmosphere which causes amnesia?

This week featured Patrick Baxter, a new character. Apparently, the gate isn’t guarded, because he wandered right in. And right out. And when in a gunfight you should always use a pistol or two rather than your rifle, and stand up so that the ACs (who can snipe the first nameless cast member with a single bullet but can’t hit a barn door with a banjo afterwards) get a bigger target. And the sea is so fantastically powerful it can cut (and polish) diamonds, but not erode hominid skeletons.

The chap playing Baxter was quite good. Unfortunately, that sort of thing seems to lead to a character not lasting the episode (see episode 1). After leading Cass and Fleur on a wild goose chase and showing them the ocean, he promptly croaked.

I must admit, I found the episode strangely entertaining despite the numerous flaws pointed out above. The dialogue remains less than stellar. I quite like Tate and Berger, and the last few minutes and preview for the next episode looked interesting.

The show’s moving to Sunday at 10.25pm.

I think I’ll watch it, but it’s a shame that a decent idea has been let down by plodding storylines and wooden dialogue.


Monday, 21 February 2011

Communications technology

I’m not an old man. I don’t wear slippers, I don’t need a walking stick, and I don’t get a free bus pass. But when I was a lad, mobile phones were essentially still the preserve of Star Trek: The Original Series. You’d go into town to meet someone, and if they or you were unable to get there, you’d wait around for a bit and eventually leave.

That’s in the very recent past, but technology really has revolutionised the way we communicate. I still don’t have a mobile (I’m not a fan of phones), but recognise that mobiles, e-mail, blogs, social networks and twitter have fundamentally altered the way people communicate.

This does allow for a lot of inaccurate rumour-mongering and idle gossip. However, it also has been a great leap forward for freedom of expression and has changed forever human behaviour and the possibilities available to organisations and individuals.

We can now, if so minded, read what celebrities or even politicians are thinking on twitter. Not my cup of tea, but twitter was one of the means of communication used during the unsuccessful protests in Iran some time ago and the very recent successful Egyptian ousting of Mubarak.

Information, including music and books, can now be sent from almost anywhere to almost anywhere. The net and similar technologies are used by terrorists, friends, journalists and revolutionaries.

There are problems. As well as gossiping, there’s the rather more serious problem of slanderous and vile smearing of individuals or groups (I had an excellent example in mind, but don’t want to repeat it and spread the filth).

Easy sharing of data files was a problem for the music industry for a long time, and still is to an extent. It remains to be seen whether e-books will prove liberating for authors or simply allow their creations to be stolen and shared without appropriate remuneration.

Interestingly, despite the furious pace of communications technology development, it is not an entirely one way street. Vinyl is the prime example of this. It’s outdated, inefficient and still sought after. In the same way, I think e-books will flourish but real books will survive. I hope so, anyway.

I do intend to get a Kindle at some point. Unfortunately, procrastinating is one of my few real talents. I’m intrigued at the prospect of a screen that’s easy to read, the free (though limited, I think) access to the net and getting books almost instantly.

Twitter and other websites and technologies have played a role in the recent uprisings that have affected, and continue to affect, north Africa and the Middle East. Proof, were it needed, that the pen is still mightier than the sword.


Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Peculiar Kuhrisch

The kingdoms of Denland and Felaria differ slightly in their governance, but such variations are merely superficial. Both are led by kings, both have strong nobles and both have a huge number of inconsequential peasantry.

The Kuhrisch, as with so many things, take a quite different approach. Fealty to a king is unheard of, and they possess no nobility in the civilised sense of the word. They possess no City Watch, no knightly orders and no mages. Indeed, perhaps the most peculiar aspect of a most peculiar people is that they alone in the races of men are so ill-favoured by the Divine as to be incapable of the slightest magic. They consider mages to be unnatural, cursed creatures, and magic to be quite diabolical.

And yet, despite such shortcomings the Kuhrland (and the small foothold of Steinland which borders Felaria and Denland) does not descend into anarchy. Instead of kings and knights the Kuhrisch simply do without for the most part, governing their own lives free from taxes, excessive laws and overbearing nobility. When the law must be resorted to, a handful of men, the Godi, are used as arbitrators.

Steinland governs its own affairs, and, being so small and sparsely populated, a mere quintet of men is sufficient to serve as Godi. The title enables the holder to arbitrate disputes and, in conjunction with his fellows and the agreement of the people, create new laws. A Godi can sell his title, give it away, lose it in a contest or if slain lawfully (a common means of it changing hands). It can be disposed of in a will, and if a Godi dies without making his desire known, the surviving Godi give the title to another man they consider worthy.

They ought not to be confused with kings. In war, every man is expected to fight and the chieftains are those endowed with courage and wolfish cunning. In peacetime, a Godi has no power to try and raise taxes or compel people to work for the public good. As a result, roads are rare in Kuhrland and Steinland (although a handful have been constructed by traders who share the burden of the cost and the advantage of easier travel).

The Kuhrisch are quite barbaric, unrestrained by intelligent laws, ill-educated and rarely able to comprehend anything beyond their own rude tongue. And yet, one cannot but feel envious of their freedom from taxation and the nobility (our own dear Comte Charles naturally excepted). The greatest mistake a man can make is to underestimate them, for they are savage, stronger than their more civilised cousins and unwilling to be reasoned with once enraged.

They are also capable of low cunning, as the Dennish king found to his cost ten years ago.

Frère Jacques, scribe of Highford

Friday, 18 February 2011

The Heroes review

The Heroes is a new stand alone fantasy novel by Joe Abercrombie. This review will have some light(ish) spoilers, but isn’t rife with them.

It’s set in the same world as his previous stuff (First Law Trilogy and Best Served Cold) and features some new characters and quite a lot of old ones.

Unusually for Mr. Abercrombie, it does feature not one but various maps, though these are of a tactical/battlefield rather than national nature.

The Heroes is also unusual in that it has a very large character list for its size, which is quite handy as it enables different parts of the sizeable battlefield to be written about with known characters. The battle takes place over a number of days, and pits the Union against the North (the Union is approximately a civilised medieval(ish) kingdom, the North are more akin to Saxons or Vikings with a looser concept of armies and hierarchy).

The number of characters who end up dead is pretty high, and it’s difficult to tell which side will prevail, and whether the main characters will survive either way. As is expected from the author, it’s well-written and crammed with delightful violence.

There’s no one single protagonist (there are three), and the battle is very much painted as a clash of equals, rather than either an imperialist domineering power or a gang of thuggish, idiotic barbarians tussling with a noble foe.

I enjoyed the book, and liked a number of the characters (particularly Beck), though the battle’s conclusion was not to my taste. It’s a little too melancholy, and could use a spot of light relief. Due to the large number of characters, the ending goes on a little bit, but it’s quite nice to see where certain people end up, and it certainly doesn’t drag like the end of the film version of The Return of the King.

It’s gritty and filled with the futility and capriciousness of war, but I do think it lacks a little bit of focus due to the large number of characters. I thought it better than Best Served Cold, and not as good as the First Law Trilogy.

Would I recommend it? Yes, in a word. I raced through it, and the only significant disappointment was that I’m now, once again, in need of some fantasy to read.


Thursday, 17 February 2011

Ancient authors: Machiavelli

I’ve read two books by Machiavelli: The Prince, which is his best known work, and Discourses on Livy, which isn’t.

The two books have some likenesses but are fundamentally different. The Prince was one of two books which got me started on classical history, it is far briefer than the Discourses and contains a rather different message. I’ve also re-read bits of The Prince many times (and even have an audio book read by the sadly departed Ian Richardson), whereas I’ve only revisited the Discourses once or twice.

The Prince is a strange book, perhaps explained by the specific circumstances that led to its creation. It was begun after the Discourses, when Machiavelli was languishing on the scrapheap of public life. He had been part of the government of the short-lived Florentine republic, the city having previously been and subsequently become the property of the de' Medici family. Machiavelli wrote the book for the de' Medici, beseeching them to help Machiavelli return to public prominence and prosperity.

Because the book was written quickly it is both quite thin and lacks any distracting fripperies and digressions. However, it still manages to contain a wealth of brilliant insights by Machiavelli, concise lessons in classical history, 15th century examples of successful power politics and insights into human psychology. It is not a book with happy theories where people are always good and lawful but takes account of both human frailties and potential, albeit with the assumption that conflict is inevitable.

The book’s primary message is of how a man ought to attain power (and become The Prince), and was written for a powerful man during an era when Italy was split and rudderless as a nation. This was in stark contrast to more powerful and unified nations such as Spain and France, and Machiavelli wanted to rectify this situation.

Machiavellian has become a term used to describe people of an intelligent, devious and amoral nature, but I think that a little unfair.

If The Prince is a manual on acquiring power, the Discourses is an explanation of Machiavelli’s preferred system of government. In it, he (perhaps surprisingly) backs an approximately Roman idea of a republic, with strong democratic elements.

Anybody familiar with Polybius’ descriptions of the Spartan or Roman regimes will recognise many of Machiavelli’s comments in the Discourses. Given the choice, I’d always buy or read The Prince, though it is worth reading the other book as it does flesh out Machiavelli’s political perspective.


Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Outcasts: episodes 3 & 4

As before, big spoilers ahead. I’ve also read that Outcasts will now be on Mondays only, making way for Silk (courtroom drama) on Tuesdays.

I think episode 4 was the first not to be wholly or partly written by the series’ creator. By coincidence, it was also the best episode so far, in my view.

Episode 3 featured a massive whiteout (basically a sandstorm but with winds powerful enough to do serious damage to buildings and anybody out in the open). It slightly built on the burgeoning trust between Rudi (AC leader) and Fleur (PAS officer), and had a rather meaningless death of a character of no importance.

A bit disappointing, to be honest. However, I liked episode 4 more.

The 4th episode featured an AC captured just beyond the wall. He subsequently escaped and involuntarily attacked an innocent women. It turns out the AC in question (Elijah) had undergone traumatic and failed experimentation on the orders of President Tate. Fleur contacted Rudi and wanted to help him leave with Elijah, something Cass was reluctantly going along with until he found Berger trying to use the panic spread with Elijah’s escape and seemingly unknown whereabouts to manipulate Tate. In a botched effort to tranquilise Elijah, the AC ended up dead.

The conflict for loyalty Cass felt between Fleur (fellow PAS officer who he has rather a thing for) and Tate (the president) was nicely done.

Both episodes also saw the rather tedious relationship (such as it is) between Stella and Lily continue, and the slightly more interesting Berger trying to manipulate Tate, Stella, Lily and Jack.

Episode 4 ended with the discovery by Jack of what seemed to be a human jawbone from tens of thousands of years ago, throwing into doubt whether or not the Forthaven people are the first humans on Carpathia.

A bit more conflict would go down nicely.


Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Dragon Age Vs Oblivion

This year sees the release of the new Dragon Age (brilliantly entitled Dragon Age 2) and the new Elder Scrolls game (Skyrim), in early March and November respectively.

I loved both previous instalments, and, superficially, they appear very similar. They’re both approximately medieval, with magic and swords and so forth, and both are RPGs. I’m also very likely to buy both new versions as soon as they come out.

However, they’re actually very different games.

Character Creation

This comes in two parts: visual and statistics. In terms of appearance, Dragon Age offered far fewer options (3 races to Oblivion’s 10, fewer hairstyles, discrete rather than continuous colour options for both skin and hair). But, Dragon Age’s characters looked a lot better than Oblivion’s, and that’s what matters really (in visual terms).

Dragon Age’s had a set class system (3 classes, rogue, warrior, mage) whereas Oblivion did not, enabling any character to develop magic or other skills as they wish. It’s hard to say which way is best, given that one game is a solo endeavour and the other involves managing a party of characters.

Verdict: Dragon Age is the better

Levelling System

Dragon Age’s was pretty simple. Collect a set amount of experience points (XP), level up and add a skill every so often and some talents/spells every level.

Oblivion’s was more complicated, innovative and, from my perspective, a bit of a pain in the arse. Every skill (say, blunt weapons) had an underlying stat (strength, in this case). You would get anything from 0 to +5 in a stat (of which you chose 3 each time you levelled) based on the number of skill increases that had that particular stat underlying. However, several skills had to be selected as ‘levelling skills’, and when 10 of these (whether 10 increases for a single skill or 2 for 5 skills etc) had been increased the level rose.


So, if blunt were a ‘levelling skill’ you could use swords (i.e. sharp weapons), get 10 sword increases and when it came to levelling get +5 for strength despite never using blunt weapons at all. Or, if you increased 5 ‘levelling skills’ twice you’d only get something like +2 for each of the underlying stats.

This, as well as inducing headaches, made it very easy to actually grow progressively weaker as enemies levelled up as well. The Fallout 3 system (similar to Dragon Age’s) was far better, and I hope it’s changed for Skyrim.

Verdict: Dragon Age is nice and simple here

Free-roaming versus Discrete Locations

One of the most striking differences between the two games is the general approach to the world. Oblivion is free-roaming, allowing the player to wander about to various cities, join guilds, commit crimes and visit just about every corner of the map. It’s pretty enjoyable to just plunge into the wilderness and go looking for trouble.

Dragon Age opts for a more discrete approach. There are a set number of major locations (some of which, like Lothering, cannot be returned to after a certain point) and the action occurs. After the introductory period (which is a bit lengthy, I think) there’s plenty of scope for visiting the locations multiple times in whatever order the player wishes, but it clearly lacks the essential freedom of Oblivion.

Verdict: I prefer the Oblivion way here.

Freedom versus Set Storyline

Although there is a limited number of quests available in Oblivion, that number is bloody enormous. There are a number of grouped quests (say, for a certain guild) but also a huge number of individual quests that can be stumbled upon in cities and wilderness both. Not only that, but it’s possibly to be tremendously nice and heroic, or vicious and brutal.

Dragon Age also has a large number of quests, but they are clearly fewer in number than its rival’s. Discounting the central quest, which is not optional (unlike Oblivion where you can ignore it and play the game for 80 hours or more quite happily) there are real grouped quests, and most of those available are pretty simple. However, the Dragon Age storyline (which is far more important than in Oblivion) is far better.

Verdict: For quests, it’s a clear win for Oblivion. For the story, Dragon Age.

Solo versus Party

In Oblivion you can summon various thralls for a limited time and occasionally you’ll fight in a loosely knit group for a short time. It’s also possible, sometimes, to have an underling follow and support you, if you rise high enough in certain organisations. Almost the entire game is spent on your own, however.

Dragon Age is exactly the opposite. A smallish party (4 active members including the player) roams around, mixing up rogue, warrior and mage skills to slay the enemy. A fantastic addition is the fact that your companions will engage in banter between themselves, giving some extra replay value as some companions get on and others really do not.

Verdict: I prefer the party.

Voice Acting

Hmm. Oblivion got some big names (Patrick Stewart, Sean Bean and Terence Stamp) to play some key characters, which was nice. Unfortunately, they then lumbered a small and clearly recognisable number of voice actors with doing everybody else. God knows how many hours the other voice actors put in, but I dislike the fact that in a world with hundreds of NPCs you can often recognise the voices used from numerous other characters in the game.

Dragon Age does have some big sci-fi names (Claudia Black, Kate Mulgrew etc), but, more importantly, it also has a pretty large cast. Many voice actors have a couple of roles, but it’s a vast improvement on Oblivion. Furthermore, a few actors turn in stellar performances (Loghain, voiced by Simon Templeman, is fantastic) and the overall quality is better than in Oblivion.

Verdict: Dragon Age, by miles.

Longevity/replay value

Oblivion has no set longevity. It does have a main quest, which is pretty brief (maybe 20 hours, at a guess) in total, but the world is such that it can be played for over 100 hours. Replay value is high, given the enormity of the world and the large number of available races.

Dragon Age, played fully, is probably a 30-60 hour game (depending on how quickly you play and whether it’s your first time). Undoubtedly it has less replay value than Oblivion, but I played it quite a few times. There are multiple races, and six separate origin stories, plus you can vary your party quite a bit and make different, and important, decisions throughout the game.

Verdict: Oblivion can be played for months on end.

So, the two games are actually very different, but both are very enjoyable and I’m looking forward to both follow up games.


Monday, 14 February 2011

What was the last good British sci-fi TV series?

I was wondering this the other day. And by ‘good’ I mean ‘properly, trouser-explodingly good’ not ‘adequate’ or ‘ok’.

I watched The Deep for an episode or two, but stopped when the scriptwriters decided that a man could recover from oxygen starvation when told his bit on the side would tell his wife (or suchlike).

Some episodes of Red Dwarf are very good, though when it came back (especially for the Dave special) it had lost its je ne sais quoi.

Doctor Who. Hmm. Is it new, because it’s been around for less than a decade, or old, because it began in 1963? New Who has had some cracking episodes, and some incredibly duff season finales. I’d say it doesn’t count (unless we had to go back to 1963) as new sci-fi, because the basic premise is the same as before.

I watched the first few episodes of Primeval, but couldn’t get into it.

British actors are of great calibre (the most obvious sci-fi example being Patrick Stewart, who was both Captain Picard and Professor Xavier). So why isn’t there a top class, must-see British sci-fi series? Stargate SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica have proven that there are plenty of people willing to watch the genre.

Outcasts episode 3 is on tonight. I’m hoping it’ll be a bit livelier (gunfights, explosions, the odd maiming etc) than the first two episodes. Otherwise it might end up drifting away on a sea of apathy.

I think that’d make the answer Red Dwarf. Anybody have other suggestions?

I’ve just got The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie, and the first three (of six) volumes of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. When I’ve finished them, I’ll put reviews up.


Sunday, 13 February 2011

Should Suetonius be available to 7 year olds?

Suetonius wrote the Twelve Caesars, perhaps the most easily read classical history (of an admittedly small number) I’ve ever read. It’s a little bit gossipy but a nice read and unlike the splendid if lengthy Thucydides he never has a sentence that lasts 8 lines of text.

It does, however, serve as an example of a problem classical history has regarding young people and those of a slightly sensitive disposition. It strolls merrily along recounting early imperial history, and out of nowhere rather despicable acts are reported. I’m not going to dwell on the worst of them, suffice to say that people easily upset will be upset, and I was surprised to be quite so affected by one of the reported actions of Tiberius.

I’m not for one moment suggesting revisionism should take place (I despise the attempt to inflict modern ethics or social norms upon books of their time, such as Mark Twain’s books). Abridged versions are a possibility, though I rather dislike those as well.

There’s plenty of swearing and violence and sex in modern literature (such as the excellent First Law Trilogy I reviewed recently, which also has some torture) but it’s rarer to have explicit references to the kind of inhuman depravity a number of Roman Emperors got up to.

Should an age limitation be set on certain books, whether recommended or binding? It’s rather hard to say. I like classical history, but have difficulty reconciling the availability (indeed, the literally free availability via Kindle and other eReaders of some electronic versions) of books with the fact that many of them contain pretty horrific episodes in human history.

Now I come to think of it, are booksellers permitted to refuse to sell a book to someone based on age alone? Should they be?

I imagine they would if a kid wanted to buy a modern book of a blatantly sexual nature, but what if they wanted to buy classical history covering the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula?

An age classification system would perhaps work, yet it just feels wrong, somehow.


Friday, 11 February 2011

Modern authors: Joe Abercrombie

I have quite a few favourite authors, some ancient and some more recent. One of my favourites is a pretty new fellow (he prowls stealthily on the SFF Chronicles forum linked on the right hand side of this blog, though he posts only rarely, alas).

So far, he’s written the First Law Trilogy and two stand-alone books: Best Served Cold and The Heroes. I’ve ordered the last of these, and read the others.

All his books take place in the same world. Some of the minor characters in the trilogy crop up in Best Served Cold, and I imagine the same happens in The Heroes.

There won’t be many spoilers below, though obviously this means I’ll be a bit fuzzier regarding the characters and plots involved.

The First Law Trilogy begins quite slowly. Personally, I didn’t mind the fact that most of the first book was scene-setting, as it was very well-written and most of the characters were nice and three-dimensional. One, in particular, was quite fantastic. There were a few clichés here and there, but nothing grating in that regard.

Mr. Abercrombie excels in the sphere of moral ambiguity and sadistic endeavour, perhaps unsurprising given the evil beard he sports. [NB: I’ve just had a brilliant idea. What about Joe Abercrombie as the next Master in Doctor Who?] And there is quite a lot of torture and general horridness in the trilogy, as well as some sex and a lot of political conniving.

Interestingly, given when he started to write it (The Blade Itself, the first book, was released in 2006) banks are included as a powerful influence.

Something I heartily approve of is the real character development that occurs throughout the three books, with each of the central characters (there is no single protagonist) changing drastically in one regard or other. Another part of Mr. Abercrombie’s style I entirely approve of is the killing off of significant characters. He’s not quite at George RR Martin levels of rampant slaughter, but there’s always the delightful threat of sudden death.

What are the bad points, you may ask. For some, the absence of a map may rankle. Fantasy often has maps (sometimes many, many maps) and the absence of one can annoy some people. It doesn’t annoy me, personally. As I mentioned above, the first book is a little slow and has the requisite scene-setting, but I still liked it a lot.

I raced through these books, and would give the First Law Trilogy 9/10. If you like George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and don’t mind something not quite on the same sprawling scale, this should appeal to you. There is, as I said, plenty of violence, sex and naughty words, so don’t buy it for a nephew who’s just finished reading the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time.

Best Served Cold features a number of minor characters from the First Law Trilogy, though the protagonist is entirely new. I liked it, but it was not on a par with the trilogy. Moral ambiguity is something I typically enjoy, but the protagonist felt a little soulless and would (in my humble opinion) have been better with just a spark of morality.

Minor spoilers follow.

The protagonist has a not-so-merry band of followers, and roams around Styria (a bit like Greece but with city-states in a medieval world) assassinating certain people for entirely justified personal reasons.

Naturally, there’s lots of violence, swearing and sex, and although the characters are generally good there is not anyone who stands out especially (unlike in The First Law Trilogy).

I’d give it 7/10. It suffers by comparison with the First Law Trilogy, which is fantastic.

The Heroes should arrive on Monday.

I hope that Mr. Abercrombie keeps up the pretty swift writing rate, and pens some more trilogies as well as stand-alone books. Given that A Song of Ice and Fire has a TV series and two games (RPG and strategy, I think) in development, it’d be great if The First Law Trilogy had a similar treatment.


Thursday, 10 February 2011

Biopsychology: rare conditions

There are certain psychological conditions which are well-known and often used in sci-fi or fantasy, such as psychopathology or claustrophobia. Psychopaths tend to make excellent leaders (and/or criminals), after all.

However, there are a number of altogether rarer psychological conditions. I was staggered to read about some of them, so hopefully you’ll find this post quite interesting. For those after more information, I strongly recommend Biological Psychology: A Concise Introduction, by Andrew Wickens and Biological Psychology: An Introduction to Behavioral* and Cognitive Neuroscience by Rosenzweig et al.

*Apologies for the American spelling, but despite that it’s a fantastically interesting and rather hefty book.

Lots of people wear glasses, usually because they’re long- or short-sighted (I’m short-sighted). There are a few other problems that can diminish sight, but these tend to be confined to a flaw with the eye itself. Blindsight is quite different. Someone with blindsight has the physical ability to see, but the brain is, for some reason, unable to make sense of the visual information.

In short, a blindsight sufferer can see but does not believe they can. However, there’s a twist. If you were a rotter and threw a ball at them from their blind side they’d reflexively duck or catch the ball. This is because a reflex action is involved. There’s no real cognitive process (if you see a ball heading towards you, you don’t stop and have a think about what to do, it just happens). Even more bizarrely, people with blindsight may be able to point at things that they cannot see, when asked to. They have vision but without the awareness of possessing it. [This is mentioned by Wickens.]

An even more extreme and thankfully very rare condition is fatal familial insomnia. Everybody sleeps. There can be huge variety between sleeping patterns, longevity and how we fare when we skip a night or two, but sleep is literally essential. Fatal familial insomnia strikes the unfortunate sufferer when they’re well into adulthood. It’s a bit of a Ronseal disease: it does exactly what it says on the tin.

Anybody who has gone without sleep for, say, 24 hours knows that it has a pretty serious impact and can affect your behaviour. Prolonged lack of sleep goes far beyond that. After a certain length of time (7-24 months from onset) sufferers die. [This is mentioned by Rosenzweig et al.]

There’s also an interesting distinction between the genders. Women are more susceptible to both stress and depression (the two biggest causes of insomnia), whereas men are far likelier than women to be psychopaths. Anorexia is, of course, predominantly a female condition but there are rising numbers of men (particularly homosexual men) who have it.

It’s very good that there’s a lot more openness about psychological disorders and conditions. I do hope, however, that we don’t end up trying to pathologise every personality quirk and eccentricity.


Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Outcasts, episodes 1 & 2

I’ve got pretty mixed feelings about this new sci-fi series. Obviously, there’ll be some spoilers below for those who intend to watch it but haven’t yet.

The Bad

I was a bit annoyed that the best character in the show got shot and killed so early on.

Dialogue could generally be a bit sharper.

It took me a while to think of what the first two episodes were missing, and then it came to me: not enough action. I don’t mind slow and steady plots and building up to a point, but there should be more gunfights, explosions and so on.

Subtlety, mystery and intrigue are great, but there’s no need for almost everyone to have a mysterious past, or for there to be a conspiracy behind every door.

The Good

I like the chap who plays President Tate, and the banter between Jack and Cass.

Although I’d’ve preferred someone else to be killed, I do like the fact that main cast members might end up dead.

The storylines so far are decent enough, albeit a little lacking in fiery explosive death.

So, what next?

Well, there is plenty of scope for improvement but I thought the first episodes were ok and will definitely watch the next. A little less mystery and a little more murdering would go down nicely. It’s a bit lacklustre, and in need of a big dose of excitement.


Tuesday, 8 February 2011

How Ming Campbell helps me write

In some ways, (most of which involve horridness and murdering), I think I’m a decent writer. In others, I definitely need to improve.

Names often confound me. It’s important to try and borrow or invent good names and I often spend ages agonising over them, whether they’re for a city or person or chapter heading.

Another area which can be difficult, though less so, is dialogue vocabulary. Fantasy can have anything from modern to Shakespearian English. Completely modern dialogue can grate with me slightly, but 16th century stuff is a bit too far in the other direction.

So, what’s the answer to this? Step forward, Ming Campbell MP (for those unaware, he’s a Liberal Democrat MP in the UK).

He’s an elderly, slightly dull and sober politician, and very helpful. When unsure whether some dialogue’s too modern or too old-fashioned, I simply ask myself “Can I imagine Ming Campbell saying this?” and, if so, it stays. (It must be said that for scenes involving sex, or murder, or sexy murdering, this test is not very useful).

Another guide I try and use is something Cicero said about Julius Caesar, praising the latter’s use of vocabulary by selecting words almost everyone knew but rarely used. In short, people should be able to understand easily what you’re writing whilst being treated to a creative use of language.

On the plus side, I’m reasonable at writing regularly and rarely suffer proper writer’s block. Sometimes motivation/fatigue can be troublesome, and I think it’s usually best to not bother writing if you’re half-asleep.

NB: I was going to review Outcasts, episode 1, today but given episode 2 is this evening I’ll review them both tomorrow instead.


Monday, 7 February 2011

Earthshock Review

Earthshock is a four part Dr Who serial with Peter Davison as the Doctor. Naturally, the review is crammed with spoilers.

I’ve since given them all away for reasons entirely to do with benevolence and not at all because I needed the shelf space, but I used to have a reasonable number of Dr Who books, including Earthshock. I last read it a long time ago though and certain parts of the plot were a surprise for me.

The serial sees the Doctor visit Earth with a rather large crowd of companions (three, namely Adric, Nyssa and Tegan). The first episode sees them encounter a troop of soldiers on Earth, investigating the sudden death of some scientists in a tunnel system.

It soon transpires that the deaths are due to a pair of androids, and the soldiers (equipped with fantastically awful special effects-emitting weaponry) manage to best them. The killer robots were controlled by the cybermen, who have planted a huge bomb on Earth to destroy the planet and a conference there intended to form an anti-cyberman alliance.

Naturally, the Doctor foils this plot, and traces the bomb’s activation to a freighter where the Cyberleader and his underlings are hidden. Once the freighter gets clearance to head for heavily protected Earth the cybermen emerge and seize control of the ship, which they intend to use as a flying bomb.

On the bridge, the Doctor and the Cyberleader have an interesting conversation about the weakness or strength of emotions, during which the Cyberleader demonstrates that the Doctor’s fondness for Tegan (whom he briefly threatens with death) places the Time Lord at a disadvantage.

The freighter is rigged on autopilot, and the Cyberleader orders the Doctor to take him away on the TARDIS. Those trapped on the freighter (some crew and Adric) are able to escape, but at the last minute Adric returns to the bridge to try and stop the autopilot.

Adric fails to fully disengage the lock the cybermen have set up, but does manage to do so partially and sends the ship back in time by 65 million years. The ship becomes the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, leaving the Cyberleader looking rather daft.

Using a star of gold that belonged to Adric, the Doctor kills the Cyberleader [cybermen, of course, being allergic to gold], and regains control of the TARDIS.

On the whole, I enjoyed this quite a lot. There are too many companions, and Beryl Reid was not well cast as Captain Briggs. However, the cybermen were fantastic. The voices are excellent, and the huge number of errors they make (presumably the cyber-helmets, into which they had to be screwed, offered scant vision) are amusing rather than off-putting.

The plot has a number of good twists in it (er, unless you read this post, in which case it only has one undisclosed) and the DVD has tons of good extras. I’d probably give it 8 out of 10 overall.

I hope the Mondas cybermen come back in New Who.


Sunday, 6 February 2011

Killing off main characters

‘Main characters’ refers not only to the protagonist and antagonist, but to other important characters.

In fiction, the method of death and the manner in which it is received can define a character. The heroic sacrifice, the cowardly slaughter, the sudden vanquishing of all hope can make an impact like no other event. History furnishes us with some great examples: the defiance at Thermopylae, the sudden end of Alexander, the tragic heroism of Constantine XI. Death can be used to reveal a person’s true self, stripping away the image they like to portray and betraying their weakness, or highlighting their strength.

The end of Spock in Wrath of Khan and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi stand out as examples of deaths in fiction (albeit temporary in one case) that are well done.

Of course, there is a downside. Death tends to be a one-way street. With fantasy and sci-fi, you do get to break the traffic laws if you want to, but doing so excessively cheapens and dilutes the nature of death.

I must admit, I love a good death, whether it’s the wicked murdering the helpless or the vengeful hand of justice slaying an evildoer. Two of my favourite modern authors (George RR Martin and Joe Abercrombie) enjoy quite a lot of cast-culling. Indeed, I suspect Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (as yet unfinished) probably has killed off more characters than some series ever include.

It can be overdone, though. A certain number of core characters, whether villains or heroes, are needed to provide continuity. A good example of this is Livia in the brilliant TV series, I, Claudius. Played by Siân Phillips, she lasts longer than almost any character (second only to Claudius himself and her son Tiberius, I think) in a series rife with murder and covering a period of many decades.

So, what are my intentions with deaths, when I write? I try to have a reasonable number of secondary characters, as this helps me to paint a better picture of the city. There are a number of mages, the ruling aristocrat, the corrupt captain and a charming criminal given the splendid name of Thaddeus. This also means there’s plenty of room for having characters end up dead (which is in line with the central plot). I’m not going to be quite so friendly with the Grim Reaper as the excellent Mr. Martin, but the character list will be noticeably shorter when I’ve finished than when I began.


Saturday, 5 February 2011

Forthcoming TV sci-fi

There are two BBC sci-fi progs coming in the near future, one on Monday and one later in the year. The former is the new show Outcasts (I did read somewhere or other they don’t like it being referred to as ‘sci-fi’ but given that it is sci-fi, that’s how I’ll describe it).

The programme is set on the world of Carpathia, in the settlement of Forthaven where a small group of humans have made their home, having fled Earth. There are 8 episodes (unlike America, the UK doesn’t seem a fan of massive 20-24 episode seasons) and the first is on Monday at 9pm, BBC1.

Ben Richards, the writer, has said that Outcasts is about the possibility of redemption and refuting the idea that humans are bound to be bad. I subscribe somewhat to the tabula rasa (blank slate) view of humanity, so that seems fair enough to me.

Hard to say how good or bad it’ll be, given it’s entirely new, but the cast seems decent enough. If I do a review, it’ll be on Tuesday.

The other programme is Doctor Who, which returns in the Spring. I’ve got a bit of a love-hate relationship with New Who. Some bits have been excellent (the entire Blink episode, for example) but some have been abysmal (the Master). The new series sees the return of River Song (not a fan of her), and both companions.

Here’s my Doctor Who wish list:

  1. When the Master comes back, he must have an evil beard
  2. Killing robots/cyborgs with emotions is a cop-out, stop it
  3. No gaping plot holes, please
  4. Return of the Mondas cybermen
  5. Sort out the Time Lords. The daleks have been brought back properly, the same will eventually happen for the Time Lords, so get on with it

For the first time ever, it’s been shot on location in America. I wonder if they’ll mess about with cowboys and Indians, or suchlike.

Neil Gaiman, famous fantasy author, has written one of the episodes but I don’t have any details of what’s written.

Incidentally, I think Matt Smith is signed up for at least this year and the next, which is good. I rather like his sarcastic utterances. Not sure about companions (I’d quite like an alien, or someone from the past, as the next one).

For those with Sky, Game of Thrones (the television version of George RR Martin’s fantastic first part of A Song of Ice and Fire) will also come out later in the year. Damned shame I won’t be able to watch it, but there we are.


Friday, 4 February 2011

If you’re not interested, why the hell would anyone else be?

Sometimes, in both blogging and story-writing, the words almost write themselves (such as yesterday when I happened to finish Byzantium: The Decline and Fall). At other times, writing can be much harder.

I started writing today’s blog a few times and deleted what I’d written within a few lines. Brilliantly, this actually gave me something worth writing about.

In an older, unpublished, story I wrote there are two pieces that stand out for me for very different reasons. My eyes go fuzzy if I try editing on-screen, so I always print the pages, play with highlighters and then amend the chapters afterwards. Anyway, I was reading a section where some characters were travelling towards their home country and remember being a little surprised and displeased by just how bloody dull it was.

The piece was not meant to be thrilling, there was no sudden murder or exploding eyeballs or the protagonist being transmogrified into a cabbage. It was, however, meant to be interesting, with snippets of character building and fleshing out the secondary cast members. Instead it was disappointing, and the boredom I’d felt when writing it was clear.

The second piece was the introduction of a character (perhaps my favourite). I try to make most of my characters three-dimensional, but often have one or two exceptions for comic effect, or because it’s more interesting to have a raving lunatic than someone only slightly mad. This character was sly, arrogant, vicious and overtly sadistic. I loved writing the piece and I was surprised how enjoyable reading it back was. Not sure what it reveals of my psyche that murder, torture and cannibalism interest me more than deep and meaningful conversations (it could explain why I’m single…), but the difference was plain to see.

Passion is tremendously important in writing. After all, if you’re not interested, why the hell would anyone else be?

There are other essential ingredients, (cunning plots and deep characters for a start), but if you’re not motivated and you don’t enjoy it then instead of being a labour of love writing becomes a chore.

Getting published is damned hard (even sacrificing goats to Zeus won’t help), but the average author who tries his best and persists will always have a better chance than the hugely talented author who lacks drive and ambition and stops submitting to agents/publishers even though they’ve written a great story.


Thursday, 3 February 2011

Book Review: Byzantium, by John Julius Norwich

This is a review of all three volumes (The Early Centuries, The Apogee, The Decline and Fall) of John Julius Norwich’s history of Byzantium. Some spoilers are unavoidable, but I’ve tried to review the books without giving away more than is necessary. As a result it’s slightly more concise than comprehensive.

Byzantium, also known as Constantinople, was an old Greek city that was adopted by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great as the capital of the Eastern Empire. No especial knowledge of Roman or Greek history is necessary to enjoy Norwich’s work, which is replete with handy footnotes and details of concepts that need a bit of explanation (the unexpected and bizarre Byzantine love of religious quibbling being a prime example).

The history spans over a thousand years, more than 80 emperors and numerous dynasties. As with Rome, there is staggering variation between the emperors, with some fantastically intelligent and heroic, some tyrannical psychopaths or feeble weaklings and most somewhere in between.

It was impossible for me not to feel drawn emotionally into the fate of Byzantium. The book, although intelligently written, is not a slog and can be read quickly. Norwich superbly portrays the triumphs and catastrophes that the city and its people are subjected to over the centuries.

An unexpected pleasure was to read of the powers that fell and grew up around the Eastern Empire, such as the Bulgars and the Serbs. Venice and Genoa, the rival seafaring powers that feature prominently in the final book, are even better examples of this.

Despite its importance and longevity, Byzantium is not nearly as well known as Rome. Reading about the city, a strange mixture of East and West, Greek and Latin, was fascinating and surprising. For example, the emperor’s wife actually had real power, and the emperor himself was considered the Equal of the Apostles.

I think there’s an abbreviated, single volume version of the trilogy available. My firm advice would be to avoid it and instead buy the three volumes. The history is fascinating, the writing excellent and the tragedy captivating. Almost the only flaw with the history is that it has to end and it would be a grave mistake to miss out by purchasing a shorter single volume.


Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Dames de l'Acier

In Denland, the King’s authority is represented by the Hollow Knights and the Law Lords. The former ensure that any troublesome mages meet a swift end and the latter collect taxes (and bribes) and enforce royal law.

However, the Felarian King relies solely upon the Dames de l’Acier. These soulless harridans are one of the few things that unite the diverse city of Highford. Everybody loathes them.

The merchants must pay royal taxes to the Dames, who are utterly impossible to tempt with corruption due to their desire for earthly pleasures being destroyed the moment their souls are ripped from their bodies. The mages despise the over-bearing and vicious steel maidens, and the Comte dislikes the presence of an armed force answerable to the King rather than himself.

For reasons that are hotly contested, it is easier to remove a woman’s soul and have her survive than it is to do likewise to a man. In Denland, they simply kill more men to produce the required number of Hollow Knights, whereas the Felarians opt for female warriors. The process is dangerous and the slightest error is inevitably fatal. Should it prove successful, the person becomes a husk, a hollowed out shell bereft of passion, lust, greed and all other vices and virtues that make a man, or woman, truly human.

It is an empty way of life, but for their sacrifice the Hollow Knight or Dame de l’Acier secures substantial wealth for their families.

As all know, sorcery is the gift of the Divine. The talents which are bred rather than taught do not affect another person directly, it is only when spells or glyphs are used that magic affects a mortal. Thankfully, mages tend to be reclusive sorts who rarely leave their towers. Those who do and inflict harm on their fellows can be a powerful menace, which is why the Dames were created.

By parting the body from the soul, they become immune to arcane assault.

“Trying to kill a Dame de l’Acier with magic is like trying to drown a fish,” as a certain miscreant named Thaddeus rather aptly put it one day.

And so, the Dames are much like barber surgeons. Unpleasant, but necessary.

Frère Jacques, scribe of Highford

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Why medieval England?

I’m English and, even better, a Yorkshireman. I like living in a country with castles and monarchy and a splendid history. However, I do wonder why almost the default setting for fantasy is medieval England.

Feudal monarchies are pretty well-known. The King’s the top chap, then there are a range of powerful nobles, and beneath them the peasantry (possibly with a set of guilds, yeomanry and merchants in between). The familiarity helps ease readers into the world, and means the author doesn’t have quite so much explaining to do.

That’s well and good (and I can’t complain too much because 2/3 of the countries involved in my future eBook are themselves broadly similar). But why not use some other ancient civilisations as the framework for a fantasy country?

Greek city-states had a number of governing styles, with Athens (democracy) and Sparta (diarchy, with some elements of aristocracy and democracy) the best known. Athens had some fun rules, such as wealthy chaps being liable for outfitting a trireme (which was bloody expensive). However, a wealthy fellow could avoid this if someone else had more money but wasn’t paying for a ship. They proved this by offering, publicly, to swap everything they owned with the richer man, and if he did not accept the offer he had to pay for the trireme himself.

Republican Rome had a system that was similar to Sparta. Two consuls (elected annually rather than a pair of kings), a Senate rather than ephors and public ratification of certain measures (such as treaties). To be a Roman politician you had to first serve for years in the army, which was mandatory if you were a citizen anyway.

In Byzantium, the emperor was known as the basileus, and was traditionally selected by the army’s will (although quite often coups and hereditary factors were more important). However, the interesting part of the Byzantine system was that the wife of the emperor had her own palace and substantial authority in her own right. A bit like if the American First Lady got a department to run.

For those interested in this sort of thing, Polybius and Machiavelli both have interesting thoughts on governing nations. There are essentially three good systems, according to them (monarchy, aristocracy and democracy), with three corresponding bad versions (tyranny, oligarchy and anarchy). Given the relative rarity of monarchy in the world today, I wonder what most people would make of the idea that aristocracy or monarchy could be valid and good systems, instead of just democracy.

The third nation referred to in my eBook places more emphasis on a ruler’s obligations to the people, rather than on their servitude to him. This is somewhat similar to the system in Macedon, where the King was not a dictator and the army could and did make its voice heard. Alexander the Great turned back not because he wanted to, but because the army demanded it.

Hmm, that got a bit rambly, but hopefully it didn’t veer off of the Path of Interestingness and tumble down into the Crevice of Woe.