Fiction – Breaking News

Fiction – Breaking News

Here’s a quick story that I threw together in an hour or so the other day. It was my entry into an informal Valentine’s Day-themed prompt night held by Lancaster University Writers’ Society. It’s a little first drafty, but here goes:

 

Live Reactions

   I saw it on the news. In the age of smartphones, dashboard cams and 24-hour rolling news channels, it was inevitable. It was a fireball that caught my attention. Something exploded and the flash of orange drew my eyes up from my monitor screen to the TV on the wall of the office.

We all gathered around the screen, horribly aware that this was all happening just a short subway journey across the city. It wasn’t so close though that we could hear anything through the windows. That felt wrong. We were in the same city, but we couldn’t hear the terrible things happening to our neighbours.

   The ticker scrolled across the bottom of the screen: ‘on standby for launch – Pentagon chiefs meeting with president – Eyewitness reports of mass casualties – Sightings of parahuman intervention unconfirmed – NYC Mayor says’ but our eyes were just fixed on the jerky, blurred, repeatedly looped images. That explosion kept happening. Third time around, I realised that it was a bus.

‘Which way is it going?’ Mitchell from Sales kept asking. ‘Is it coming this way?’ Again and again, he said it, just in case someone, somehow had any new information other than what he was watching with the rest of us.

‘It’s superscience,’ Jeff explained with false authority, when Mina muttered something about the end of the world. ‘It’s some embittered, unhinged professor who’s just lashing out because the government cancelled his defence contract or something.’

‘Where are the Protectors?’ asked Vicky as we watched a terrified cop waving people into the safety of a subway station. The gun in his hand seemed pointless.

‘It says they’re intervening,’ the new girl said.

‘No,’ Jeff said. ‘It said that’s unconfirmed. That means it’s just rumour. Anyway, the president has to officially request the Protectors from the UN. More likely it’d be the Patriots, but I think they’re still cleaning up in Atlanta.’

‘Could be someone else,’ the new girl muttered, and I gave her a supportive nod. I need to learn her name at some point.

‘There’ll be someone out there somewhere,’ I said. ‘This city’s full of independents. There’ll be at least one of them involved.’

Jeff just snorted.

I couldn’t let on to my colleagues that I could feel ice creeping towards my heart. I had to pretend that I was afraid for the same reason they were.

Brian, my team leader, probably understood my true feelings the best. He broke down in tears when the newscaster said something about ‘extensive damage to the Alpha Insurance building’, where his wife works. Vicky and Joanne led him out to the corridor, away from the TV.

A spokeswoman for St Stan’s Hospital was up next, talking over a crackly phone line to the studio about how their ER was overwhelmed, and warning citizens not to come into hospital unless it was for something that absolutely could not wait. She was talking about crush injuries, broken bones, traumatic amputations. When asked about fatalities, she paused. She said she couldn’t confirm numbers, but at St Stan’s alone, it was into double digits.

The newscaster licked his dry lips before continuing, commentating on new camera-phone footage of fighter jets – the air force, he suggested unnecessarily – sweeping across the Hudson River, firing rockets at something unseen off-camera before arcing away.  The unnamed citizen-journalist refocused his camera just in time to see one of the planes torn apart by something black and tentacular.

I whimpered. I couldn’t help it. The new girl put an arm around my shoulder. She was trembling.

‘Did he eject? Did he eject?’ Mitchell was almost weeping.

He hadn’t ejected. The cockpit had been crushed and the plane sheared in two. That had been obvious on screen.

‘They eject. They’ve got ejector seats,’ Mitchell said, his voice hollow. He rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger.

‘There!’ exclaimed the newscaster. ‘Is that…? It is!’

A few of us cheered. In the background of another new sequence, apparently from a documentary-maker who’d been shadowing the New York Fire Department, was the distinct shape of a human silhouette in the sky.

I burst into tears.

‘What are they waiting for?’ someone asked.

‘Who is it?’ someone else said.

‘It’s just a bird,’ Jeff said. ‘Or a plane.’

‘No, it’s not,’ I said, struggling to get the words out.

‘Oh my god,’ the new girl said. ‘Oh my god! It’s Lightning!’

There was a distinctive flash of light and a sonic boom as the flying figure suddenly accelerated from stationary, zipping as a blur into the smoking city.

‘It’s alright,’ the new girl whispered to me, hugging me closer. ‘It’s all going to be alright now. Lightning’s here.’

I forced a smile, tried to look relieved. She was laughing through her own tears.

‘I’m just being informed we’ve got some live… uh, some live images from the ground, from our reporter Amy Callaghan, if we can run those images? We can? Okay. Obviously, this footage may be… may be very upsetting to some viewers. Amy, tell us what you can see…’

There was Lightning, swooping back and forth across Times Square, using electromagnetic repulsion to hurl abandoned vehicles at the rampaging creature. Terrified, dust-plastered civilians ran shrieking from the creature’s flailing tentacles, protected by a wall of EM force projected by the parahuman.

People were cheering around the office. I was silent. I couldn’t even sob any more. I just stood, staring helplessly at the screen as Lightning shot towards the creature.

‘I think we can get closer,’ Amy Callaghan was saying, ‘and get a better view, a close-up, of the climax of this incredible battle.’

She and her cameraman moved quickly, the image bouncing as they dashed from the cover of a burned out taxi cab to an overturned hot dog stand. We all just watched, aghast. Ramon left the room. Shortly afterwards, so did Yvette. I wished I had as well, but I couldn’t.

‘There! There they are. Lightning is going in for the kill on the beast that’s attacked Manhattan today. Zoom in! Zoom in!’

There was a fault with the broadcast. The digital image became pixelated, jerky.

It froze on a shot of Lightning, surrounded by shredded tentacles. There was no mistaking though that the bright white energy crackling around Lightning’s head was enough to destroy anything.

You knew it as well. You loomed over the parahuman. Above your fanged maw, I recognised your all-too-human eyes. You were afraid, I think. I don’t believe you wanted to do what you were doing. It was your curse.

The broadcast cut, obliterated by the electromagnetic blast, just as you were.

I’ll always love you.

 


And the prompt? It was E.L. Hubbard’s quote: “A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”

Featured image by Vanessa Mannee.

Wargaming – Why do all renegade Space Marines turn to Chaos?

Wargaming – Why do all renegade Space Marines turn to Chaos?

Here’s another bit of nerdiness for you. Skip it if the psychology of little plastic posthumans isn’t your thing. (Originally posted on my semi-defunct Tumblr some time ago.)

One of the assumptions that occurs in the Warhammer 40,000 Imperium is that everyone who turns away from the Emperor’s Light automatically falls to Chaos. This is at least partially because the wargame tends to divide human factions down the middle: Imperial and Chaos. If you want little human soldiers on your tabletop, they’re waving banners with the double-headed eagle or the eight-pointed star.

As ever, the setting’s deeper than that. There are many places that an Imperial citizen can go if they don’t want to be a part of Imperial society: Canonically, you’ve got mentions of your xenos-loving Tau sympathisers, you’ve got the various rebel enclaves that exist (even if just until the Imperium gets around to stamping on them) and you’ve got human empires that exist outside the Imperium’s borders, either due to a collapse of Imperial rule in a given area, or because the Imperium’s expansion since the Age of Strife has never actually reached them.

And then there’s Imperial society itself. You don’t have to be a loyal Imperial citizen to live in the Imperium. You don’t have to believe in the divinity of the God-Emperor of Mankind. You’ve just got to look like you do. So long as no one twigs that you don’t give a damn about a dead guy on Terra, and you go to chapel just enough that the preacher doesn’t get suspicious, you can exist as a quiet atheist for your entire life. (c.f. Christianity, heresy, and the casual nature of belief in many areas of medieval Europe, which is, of course, the analogue upon which the Imperium is built.)

Ever wondered where the mercenaries hired by the bad guys to kill an Inquisitor or an Abitrator or other representative of the Emperor come from in a theocratic setting? These are examples of Imperial citizens who don’t actually believe in the God-Emperor, or at least don’t associate it with the Imperial regime in the way that any ‘true’ Imperial citizen would do.

In short, humans are capable of not worshiping the Emperor without automatically embracing the Dark Gods.

Space Marines, though, they’re a different kettle of fish entirely. I think it’s supported in canon, although I can’t remember where it was written, if it is, but they have an inherent vulnerability to Chaos.

But the Adeptus Astartes are the paragons of humanity, the strongest in body and mind, right?

Not really.

Religious conversion tends to come along when everything in your life is falling apart. It’s a way of coping with trauma without going completely insane. This applies to Space Marines as well as it does you or I.

Humans can lose everything, but pick up the pieces and carry on. As already described, they can lose their faith in the Emperor quietly, without it ever affecting the rest of their lifestyle or sense of identity, and without feeling the need to turn to the Dark Gods. Astartes, though, are as inhuman in their minds as they are in their bodies.

They’re programmed from childhood through indoctrination and hypnosis to be obedient, to think of their Chapter, their primarch, their commanders and the Emperor above all other concerns. These are the anchors that hold Space Marines in loyalty to the Imperium.

When a Marine leaves his Chapter, for whatever reason, three of those four anchors are cut free. Only his love for the Emperor is left.

So long as that remains intact, I’d suggest that the renegade Space Marine will stay loyal to Imperial ideals, even if not to the Imperium itself. He will set himself up as a guardian for a remote colony, or set off on a combat-pilgrimage through a wartorn area, or hook up with the Inquisition or another Imperial body, or set himself a specific quest to fulfill his need to serve the Emperor without the usual chain of command to command him and support his emotional needs. (Yes, Marines have emotional needs, just like normal humans. They just tend to be a bit more combat-oriented than the average homo sapiens.) Potentially, entire Space Marine formations could go down this route without ever succumbing to the lure of Chaos. This is supported in canon in at least a couple of Black Library novels.

Most Space Marines don’t worship the Emperor as a god, possibly because their doctrines date back to the time of the atheistic Legions. If a Marine becomes disillusioned with the Imperium, he can blame the petty mortals that have corrupted it from the Emperor’s vision of the Great Crusade, and his loyalty to the Emperor remains intact and all is well and good.

Alternatively, he can blame the Emperor himself and decide that the Man In The Shiny Chair isn’t worthy of his loyalty. Similarly, if the Space Marine is from one of those Chapters that worships the Emperor with a religious devotion, there’s always the chance that, in the face of losing everything else in his life, he will also lose his faith.

Either way, that’s the fourth anchor gone. The Space Marine’s psychology drifts out of its safe harbour and into a storm.

However it happens, with that fourth anchor cut loose, the renegade Space Marine has nothing holding him to his old life within his Chapter. All of a sudden, there’s an emptiness within him that has never been there before. This is an emotional and psychological crisis that a Space Marine should never have to experience, and has no training or experience in how to cope; this is way beyond the scope of any doubts he may have expressed to his chaplains before his exile.

He needs a new anchor, something to keep his sanity in check. Something powerful, something that commands loyalty. Chaos is the most obvious one of those. He’s been trained from recruitment to hate Chaos, to revile the traitor and the heretic as being unworthy of life, and to fear the power that Chaos has over the weak-minded. However, the context of all this hatred is the binary opposition between the goodness of the Emperor and the evil of Chaos. The Emperor’s purity has already been violated in the renegade’s eyes, so how, in that case, can the renegade Marine continue to hate Chaos to quite the same degree as he once did?

It probably won’t happen overnight, it may take a hundred years or more, but that emptiness in the Space Marine’s soul needs filling somehow, and the Dark Gods are always out there, ready to accept his allegiance. His hatred fades to the point where Chaos simply doesn’t seem like the worst option.

And, the joy of this (from the point of view of a Chaos follower) is that it’s not the inherent weakness of humanity that turns Space Marines to Chaos. It’s the Imperium. The Imperium put this need for service and obedience into the Space Marine, and it’s that factor that leads to renegades falling to the dark side.

As is so often the case in Warhammer 40,000, the Imperium is a tragedy. It is its own obsessive need to keep the Astartes under control that spawns new enemies.

Twilight – a live-ish-sort-of blogging (part 2/2)

Twilight – a live-ish-sort-of blogging (part 2/2)

One of my earliest posts on this blog was a repost of a 2014 live-ish-blogging I put up on Facebook as I attempted to read Twilight at work. This was three months ago. Facebook Memories has just reminded me that, three months after the original live-ish-blogging, I finished it off.

Suffer.

———-

The other night, I finally remembered to recharge my Kindle. I had thought I’d finished Twilight and just forgotten the ending, but it turned out that that was just wishful thinking.

I recall now that I got so fed up with its stupidity that, at 60% complete, I went and read the Moomins instead.

However, I was feeling masochistic, so I thought I’d be a sadist as well and share the rest of the awful with you. Does not contain spoilers, because it’s not possible to spoil a turd:

(Sadly, because of Kindle’s inability to understand the centuries-old concept of pages, and it appears I forgot to divide it up by chapters, this might be even more stream-of-consciousness than it actually was.)

  • “It is partially your fault.” [Edward’s] voice was wry. “If you didn’t smell so appallingly luscious, he might not have bothered.” If you get eaten by a vampire, it’s your own fault for being delicious. Ladies, remember this lesson in life.
  • Bella hurls abuse at her dad, Charlie, deliberately picking the same phrasing that her mother used when she walked out on him, and when she suggests that it may have been a little below the belt, everyone says, “No, it’s fine, he’ll forgive you.” How about slapping her around the head and saying, “You awful, terrible, horrible person, Bella Swann. How could you be so cruel, so callous and such a Mary Sue?”
  • They’re racing down a freeway at double the speed limit and the car’s almost silent? Vampires are so awesome, even their cars are awesome. However, and yes, I checked this via Google, the freeway speed limit in Washington State is 70mph. Vampiremobiles are so awesome that they can travel at 140mph in near silence.
  • None of these vampires have personalities. They don’t even have one-note hooks, and even Dan Brown manages that. (Author’s Note: When I wrote this, I hadn’t attempted to read The Lost Symbol, so I was blind to the true depths of awfulness of which Brown was capable.)
  • James the evil vampire speaks to Bella on the phone, telling her what to say so that the McAwesome family assume it’s her mum on the other end of the line. Considering that Bella has spent the last two chapters going into pointless hysterics every time she’s become worried someone she loves it at risk, it’s somewhat inconsistent that now she’s capable of maintaining a perfect poker face. Also, not one of these vampires has good enough super-hearing to listen in on the conversation enough to realise that it’s a bloke talking to her, not a woman. And even if they’re not listening to the voice on the other end of the line, they’re ignoring the fact that Bella’s conversation consists of repeatedly saying ‘yes’, over and over again, in response to James’s evil questions. We’ve already established that they can hear her speaking in a different room; she left to avoid her body language giving her away. “Tell them that you talked your mother out of coming home for the time being.” What, by saying, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, like a monotonic Meg Ryan?
  • “I have your mother, come alone.” Teenage girl who, it has been established, is rubbish at everything physical, is going to essentially let herself be eaten by a three hundred year old vampire with absolutely no guarantee that her mother is going to be released. Why would she be? After all, blood-crazy vampire. It’s a shame she didn’t have any alternative plans like, you know, telling the entire family of vampires that are already trying to hunt down and kill said villain. Stupid Bella.
  • Oh, right, Bella failed to notice that her mother’s voice was actually on a video tape. Because any five-year-old home video ever has sounded similar to how the same person sounds in real life.
  • The villain is giving the most boring, least revelatory villainous gloat ever. “Ah, you see how I did it? I did all these obvious things that a reader with an IQ higher than 85 has already worked out. Oh no, wait, there is a revelation: “You’re simply a human, who unfortunately was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” Finally, a character for whom Bella isn’t the centre of creation! What’s his name again? *checks further up the page* Oh yeah, James-something. I can’t remember if he even has a surname. All I know about him is that he’s EVUL. Bad vampire, naughty vampire. Why can’t you be like Edward?
  • “His pleasant smile slowly widened, grew, till it wasn’t a smile at all but a contortion of teeth, exposed and glistening.” How do teeth contort? Lips can, but teeth are immobile aside from the hinge at the back. The jaw opens and shuts. That’s the full range of movement for teeth. I’m going to ignore the use of ‘till’ rather than ‘until’, as it’s possibly US dialect and is a pretty common usage in English anyway (although even there, it’s only got one ‘l’, and ideally an apostrophe at the start).
  • ‘His toe nudged my broken leg and I heard a piercing scream. With a shock, I realised it was mine.’ That was the shock: that it was you screaming after he nudges your broken leg?
  • Barely two chapters after we’ve had it explained to us that being bitten by a vampire is exceptionally painful due to their venom, Bella gets bitten by a vampire and Edward has to suck the venom out. Convenient foreshadowing. (For us. Not so much for Bella.)
  • Edward on his venom-sucking: “It was impossible… to stop. Impossible. But I did. I must love you.” After sucking out Bella’s venom, he immediately starts blowing his own trumpet.
  • Bella apologises for tasting so good and Edward rolls his eyes (yet again). “What should I apologise for?” she asks. “For nearly taking yourself away from me forever,” he replies. Oh, right. Yeah, that. He’s right, of course, that she’s an idiot, but framing it like that? Possessive, much?
  • “They love you, too, you know.” Does anyone else actually put a comma between ‘you’ and ‘too’?
  • In the epilogue, Bella spends an entire day being dressed up, having her hair done, and Edward turns up in a tuxedo. She has completely failed to notice that it’s prom night and it comes as a surprise to her to discover what the date Edward has set up for her this evening is. I… I don’t… words fail me as to how cataclysmically stupid this character is.

That’s how incredibly stupid this book is.

The entire thing reads like Twilight fan-fic, it’s that bad.

So… I was wondering about doing something similar to this with 50 Shades of Grey, but then I skimmed half a page of 50 Shades Darker that was very briefly on the ‘recycled free stuff’ table at work. No, no. No, definitely not. It’s worse. Somehow, it’s actually worse.

Wargaming – The End of the 41st Millennium?

Wargaming – The End of the 41st Millennium?

(Here’s another thing about me. I also play tabletop wargames and do some roleplaying. I am a nerd. Also, Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol sucks. It’s awful. It’s a truly dreadful book, and you will never, ever get to the end of my chapter-by-chapter critique of it, because I abandoned reading it – something I almost never do – and shoved it back in the recycling box at work for some other poor sap to endure. You may, if I feel cruel, get the notes I did make.)

Dave Kay at the Scent of a Gamer blog posted an article commenting on the current state of play in the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop miniature wargame. In summary, it’s becoming pretty clear that something big’s about to happen with the metaplot and, thusly, the shape of the game itself. Games Workshop, the publishers, did something very similar a few years ago with the Warhammer fantasy version of the game, after its sales kept falling. There’s no indication that that’s been happening with 40k, but there’s been a definite bounce in fantasy sales since it was re-released as Age of Sigmar.

Anyway, I posted an overlong comment on that article, so I figured I may as well post it here as well, for posterity. Here goes:

 

If they’re running a Warhammer-style End Times event (and it’s looking more and more likely, with such stalwarts as Fenris getting popped and the major strategic shift that is the fall of Cadia, plus the constant rumours of primarchs – Magnus never left, so he doesn’t count), I’m torn between what I’d like to see in the rebooted setting.

Both old Warhammer and 40k have beautifully detailed settings, that have been written about and fleshed out over decades. WFRP is my favourite roleplaying game, ahead of even Delta Green, Call of Cthulhu and Unknown Armies, and I’ve bought nearly every book from the 40k RPG ranges without actually running anything other than a few campaigns of Dark Heresy.

But what to expect from the new setting? Will it be an advance in the plotline, or a complete reimagining?

A few thoughts of my own:

1) Advancement in the plot – The Imperium has never been completely static. Even aside from the Horus Heresy, there have been ages of expansion and change: the Age of Apostasy and the crusades of Lord Solar Macharius, for example. If 40k is to emulate the ‘hope’ theme of Age of Sigmar, then it needs to start a new period of expansionism, rather than its current state of slow, but steady, crumbling under relentless assault from all sides and within. Both of the post-Heresy hope spots that I’ve mentioned featured some great hero, Sebastian Thor and Macharius, and I suspect if GW go down this route, that hero will arrive again, essentially as the Emperor reborn in the Sigmar-Valten kind of way (but hopefully without him allegedly being murdered by his own side, and the skaven possibly getting framed for it, as awesomely Warhammer-dark as that was).

2) Revert to the Horus Heresy – This is a massive, radical change, but GW have started taking Forgeworld’s niche idea for running Astartes-heavy games in a historical period for 40k and turned it into plastic. With the two Heresy-era board games, they’ve essentially released multiple plastic kits in their main game range, and even released the first ever models of the Sisters of Silence, and the first Adeptus Custodes since the 1980’s, for a spin-off written and produced by one of their subsidiary companies, which can’t even be used without buying Forgeworld products. We’ve already seen how the Deathwatch and Genestealers got a ‘trial run’ of sorts with Overkill, before the full weight of the GW machine was thrown behind them in full army releases. Yes, I know there’s a long, long lead-in time that overlapped, but sales would still have indicated how much promotional effort it would be worth putting behind the new armies, rather than publicising X other release instead. But it does seem that the Horus Heresy has captured imaginations. It’s the single-longest serialisation of novels that the Black Library have ever done, which then spawned several other ‘in-setting historical’ Black Library series, including the epic Beast series. Space Marines are, and always have been, the most popular single faction within the game, despite being a minuscule portion of the Imperium’s incredible military power. Meanwhile, the Horus Heresy is about a civil war executed largely by, and motivated by the egos, agendas and prejudices of, Space Marines. It’s not impossible to imagine that the next edition of Warhammer 40,000 embraces the power armour love and sets itself back to the 32nd Millennium, where the Imperium was a more optimistic place, and is struggling to maintain that optimism in the face of not only the increasingly-Chaos-tainted enemy, but also its own desperation-induced militarism. Existing Astartes models in Mk VII or VIII armour could be easily hand-waved by rewriting setting so that that style of armour did actually exist back then, but was rare, and not releasing new models in those style of armour. Imperial Guard models could be rolled into the Imperial Army without much difficulty. The Adeptus Mechanicus rolls even more easily into the Mechanicum. The difficulty with a Horus Heresy reset is that, without rewriting large swathes of the non-Imperial side of the setting (which isn’t impossible, of course), certain factions would either cease to exist or be difficult to include. The Eldar would be different, probably something that combines the Craftworld, Dark and other varieties into one faction – something touched upon in the article as being what happened during the Warhammer End Times – even if those different factions had varying ideologies about how to cope with the new horror of Slaanesh’s birth. The orks would continue as normal, and have the Beast to look forwards to as well. Necrons have always been there, and can be rewritten to be waking up then as well. The Tau? A harder sell, but there’s no reason why they can’t be shuffled back in time (metaphorically) and reaching their interstellar expansion era at the same time as the Great Crusade. Tyranids and Genestealers? Grey Knights and Deathwatch? Adepta Sororitas? (Sorry, ladies, but at least you got Celestine for the Time of Ending.) The setting could be rewritten. The Imperial Agents list could well become a proto-Inquisition, set up to deal with the newly-growing threat of Chaos. And Chaos? The Chaos Space Marines are simply late-Heresy rebels who’ve given themselves over to The Eightfold Path.

3) Reboot from scratch – The 40k setting has had its time. Let’s rewrite it from the start. Keep certain elements: the Imperium, possible the immortal God-Emperor (or make it hereditary if we don’t want to remain stagnant?), the threat of Chaos, orks being a thing, eldar as a hangover from a previous great civilisation, but start the rest with a blank slate. What is the Imperium? Fascism was a thing in the 80’s, both as living memory from the war and post-war era and as a satirical swipe at Thatcherism and the National Front. And then the fascism of the Imperium became cartoony, bowdlerised. Compare the Imperium of the Ian Watson Jaq Draco novels with the way it’s presented in today’s Black Library novels: it’s not nice, but it’s filled with great heroes who fight against evil, so it’ll turn out fine.Even the Inquisition are heroic, even if only because Chaos is so much worse. But fascism has gotten itself a bad name these days. (Did I seriously just write that sentence?) Not dipping too deeply into real-world politics, but it may be advisable for GW to edge away from glorifying fascism (even satirically) for a little while, just in case the world does turn into a complete dystopian nightmare over the next few years. My alternative theme for the Imperium? Embody it in the Imperial Guard, who arguably got their name from the era anyway, and model it on the Napoleonic Wars. Expansionism, large armies of lots and lots of infantry models backed by artillery and cavalry (tanks, but also those rough riders that everyone loves but no one fields). Basically, take the aesthetic stylings of the Imperial Navy officers, and put them onto the infantry; remove the 20th-century fascism and replace it with 18-19th-century imperialism. Maybe have the Astartes as Roman-inspired, what with being Legion-inspired anyway. Perhaps get rid of the small Chapters and borrow the Legion-style of Astartes from the Horus Heresy era. Beyond that, I’ve no real thoughts. It’s possible my entire thinking in this direction would be satiated by a single box of Napoleonic Astra Militarum infantry that I’d never actually get around to starting an army of.

Personally, I’d like to see 2) or 3), rather than just a straight continuation – without drastic changes to the setting, it would turn the Time of Ending into just another summer campaign.

But the big change (again, -if- anything changes) is going to have to be the rules. The Warhammer fantasy rules worked pretty well, probably mostly due to the constraints of a regimental game. But 40k’s rules are a shambolic, bloated mess. I’ve ranted about this many times elsewhere (I think including in a comment on Scent of a Gamer), so I’m not going to go into great depth, but every time I pick up an alternate set of modern or near-future, or sometimes even fantasy, wargaming rules, I’m struck by how much better, more simply and with fewer rules in the rulebook, these games manage to replicate the things that the 40k rules also allow. Many of these games even have concepts that 40k has either never tried, or never managed to successfully implement, such as storming buildings, suppressive fire or explosive attacks that don’t need large discs of card or plastic to work out which individual models are hit.

This quote gets posted every year.

This quote gets posted every year.

“The future is inherently a good thing, and we move into it one winter at a time. Things get better one winter at a time. So if you’re going to celebrate something, then have a drink on this: the world is, generally and on balance, a better place to live this year than it was last year.”
– Spider Jerusalem/Warren Ellis, Transmetropolitan

Despite the barely-semi-ironic ‘2016 is the worst year ever’ nonsense we’ve been spewing since Bowie died, and despite certain voting decisions that people have made that I personally disagree with, and despite the bloodshed and carnage of certain parts of our world, Spider Jerusalem hits the nail on the head.

Humans are incredible, and civilisation isn’t a state of existence but a journey.

Sometimes the journey’s unpleasant, but even if as individuals or groups we stumble occasionally, or meander from side to side like drunken idiots, or we falter because we don’t like the look of a particular landmark on the road ahead, or we just turn around and go back towards the places we really should be avoiding, humanity as a whole is still walking in the right direction.

Yes, the destination seems to be forever just over the horizon, a weird, golden glow of world peace and cultural enlightenment and technological harmony that we have a terrible feeling humanity will never reach, or at least that we’ll not live to see humanity reach. Why does it seem unachievable?

It’s because we keep redefining humanity’s end goal and barely even notice that we’ve just passed by where we said we were hoping to reach last year, last decade, last century.

There’s seven billion of us, and most of us are still walking towards that glow on the horizon.

Here’s to 2017.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – some thoughts

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – some thoughts

I went to see Rogue One last night. It rocked

This isn’t so much a review as a bullet-pointed series of thoughts that I had during and after the film.

This list will contain spoilers.

  • Rogue One manages to successfully do a Star Wars film in a mostly different genre to the others. The other seven films have all been adventure films set during a war, but this was definitely a war film that had tropes of adventure films in places. It was darker, more cynical and even grimier than the ‘lived-in future’ (or long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away) of the previous films.
  • Related to the above, it was easily the most violent Star Wars film yet, and that’s including the various lightsaber-severed limbs of the other films. We had good guys murdering people (and not in the Han shooting first sense, but an actual murder of an innocent ally), some intense shoot-outs that were closer to Saving Private Ryan than A New Hope, the execution of a wounded stormtrooper with a head-shot (one of several explicit head-shots in the film), and a pretty nasty bit where a character uses a stormtrooper as a human shield. That human shield gets riddled with quite a few scorch marks.
  • Storm trooper armour proves yet again to be utterly incapable of stopping a blaster bolt or even a baton strike. You can see how those Ewoks took them down so easily.
  • The political machinations behind the Rebellion were expanded upon, without becoming as heavily ladled on as in the prequel trilogy. Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, both serving Imperial senators, are amongst the leadership of the Rebel Alliance. The Rebellion’s goal isn’t to wage war against the Empire, but to bring it down legally, by exposing its crimes to the Imperial Senate, who would then act against Emperor Palpatine. This feels more plausible than the good-versus-evil war implied by the original trilogy. It also feels plausible that there would be factions within the Rebellion that disagreed with the Mothma/Organa strategy, from Saw Gerrera’s terrorist splinter cell to General Draven’s hardline militarist attitude.
  • The involvement of the Senate in plotting against Palpatine also explains why the Senate is dissolved during the events of A New Hope.
  • The Guardians of the Whills (which is a reference to Lucas’s working title for the entire saga) are an interesting addition to canon, being a religious order that worship the Force, despite not being Force-users themselves. I can only imagine that their continued existence at the start of Rogue One is due to them being culturally irrelevant in a post-Jedi era. It also supports the idea that certain citizens of the Empire regard the Jedi and a belief in the Force as being parts of a ‘hokey religion’.
  • The film ends mere hours, or even minutes, before the start of Episode IV: A New Hope, and the finale is that first victory that Episode IV‘s opening crawl tells us about.
  • Speaking of opening crawls, this film doesn’t have one, removing it from the main saga, at least until the plot starts tying back in with the events of Episode IV.
  • Speaking of hope, which is explicitly referred to multiple times during the film, including by Princess Leia in her cameo, it’s already been pointed out by several websites and journalists that, thanks to Rogue One, the title ‘A New Hope’ no longer refers to Luke Skywalker. The new hope for the Rebellion and the galaxy now refers to Jyn Erso and her team’s success at finding the Death Star plans. That shifts the emphasis of Star Wars slightly, from being about badass Jedi solving or causing everyone’s problems, to the little people getting to make a difference as well. This universe is bigger than Luke Skywalker.
  • You know how The Phantom Menace was goddamn awful because it loved its computer-generated characters way too much? Well, Rogue One benefits from its love of CG characters. While Director Krennic has had all the publicity, he wasn’t the villain of the film. He was certainly protagonist Jyn Erso’s personal nemesis, and was integral to the development of the Death Star, but the real bad guy was Governor Tarkin, played by Guy Henry (Brutus’ sidekick Cassius in HBO’s Rome, and the Minister of Magic in Harry Potter) with Peter Cushing’s face superimposed over the top. It wasn’t a perfect effect – in a few scenes, we paid a definite visit to Uncanny Valley – but it was definitely very effective.
  • The presence of Tarkin enhanced Krennic’s character significantly. The feuding between rival officers, and Krennic’s pique over Tarkin’s political manouevrings, lent a certain degree of authenticity to the Empire.
  • As a side note, I’m pretty sure Tarkin was only ever addressed as ‘Governor’ Tarkin, the same title that Leia gave him in A New Hope. If I’m right, that means that the silly ‘Grand Moff’ title has now never been used in the film series. Tarkin’s still credited with that rank on IMDB’s entry for Rogue One, but I can still head-canon it out of existence.
  • The CG characters didn’t stop with Tarkin, or even with the brief appearance by Princess Leia, who was likewise superimposed onto Ingvild Deila, an actor with a very similarly-shaped face to 20-year-old Carrie Fisher. (We only saw Leia’s face for a brief moment, and I don’t think the effect worked as well as it did with Tarkin.) The faces of the X-Wing squadron leaders who don’t manage to penetrate the planetary shield at Scarif have received the same treatment, so that they look like their later appearances alongside Luke Skywalker in the attack on the Death Star.
  • Mon Mothma and Bail Organa are exceptions, being played by the same actors who played them in the prequel trilogy, which makes sense. However, I’m wondering about all the other faces around the table at the Rebel briefings. Pretty much every officer who’s appeared in the original trilogy is there, but are they lookalikes or CG masks?
  • I hope people keep working on virtual actor technology, although it’s a technology that could get creepy if misused. Imagine if the porn industry could afford it (and get around facial licensing laws – maybe claiming parody and the First Amendment)? And what happens when you’re able to put together reasonable virtual actors at home on your PC?
  • Orson Krennic is, insofar as I can recall, the first named Imperial character in any of the films to fire a blaster. Boba Fett is a freelance mercenary, and I don’t think Captain Phasma ever uses that lovely chrome blaster in The Force Awakens, though I’ve not watched that film since I saw it in the cinema. All other named Imperial characters have either been Sith or naval officers. Krennic nearly became the only named Imperial character to be killed with a blaster as well (all others having either been killed by Force powers or exploding spaceships or Death Stars).
  • Speaking of named Imperial characters, we finally get to see how goddamn terrifying it is for mundane combatants to go up against a Force-wielding opponent. Sure, we’ve seen it loads of times, particularly in the prequel trilogy, but only ever from the point of view of the force-users themselves (even dark-Anakin’s rampage was from his perspective). Pro tip: never let yourself be locked in a confined space with a Dark Lord of the Sith.
  • Alan Tudyk seemed to be doing his best Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) impression as K-2SO, which could have been a bad thing, but the very different personalities of those two droids meant that it didn’t feel derivative, but merely consistent, particularly since Goldenrod turns up in person for all of five seconds towards the end of the film.
  • Speaking of cameos, Bum-Chin and Melty-Face from the Mos Eisley cantina appeared in a brief, unnecessary, but not harmful cameo early in the film. I assume they left the planet shortly thereafter. They were every bit as obnoxious as they were in A New Hope.
  • Despite being a two hour film, I don’t think we really got to know any of the ‘Rogue One’ team that well, with the exception of Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso. Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera was underused, and I can’t even remember the names of the blind monk and his heavy blaster-wielding sidekick (although both were entertaining one-note characters). Cassian Andor and Bodhi Rook were pretty good though.
  • Jyn, as is traditional in Star Wars, had a strained family relationship that involves daddy siding with the Empire and building a Death Star. Apparently it’s a thing that happens. Unlike Luke or Leia, who both had good role models as they grew up and so turned out okay, Jyn’s adoptive parent was a terrorist who abandoned her without warning when she was sixteen. This left her a bit cynical (rather like the film, really), and very much in the neutral part of the Light-Dark spectrum. There’s still a bit of heroism in there though, and it comes right to the fore when circumstances require it.
  • Andor’s hardened assassin/spy was a refreshingly gritty character for a Star Wars series, particularly for a Rebel, to the extent that if he was a character in a Knights of the Old Republic video game, he’d have a red background when you looked up his stats. The manner in which he came back towards the Light Side of the Force felt natural as well. After his character-defining moment in the alleyway with the informant, his was a gradual slide back towards redemption as he developed doubts as to the orders he was receiving from General Draven. This culminates in himself leading the Rebel soldiers who decide to follow Jyn to Scarif, and issuing a brief but meaningful monologue about the terrible things that all of them have done in the name of the Rebellion. That’s him casting off of the taint on his soul, right there. Of course, this was motivated by close contact with the film’s protagonist, who was herself undergoing an awakening of heroism, and he sort of went along in her wake. That they avoided an explicit romance between them in exchange for something more comradely helped a lot.
  • Bodhi Rook was an interesting role for a Star Wars film: he was a normal, everyday guy thrust into extraordinary circumstances due to his own inherent goodness. (In KoToR, to continue the analogy I used for Andor, his background colour would be bright blue.) He was continually out of his depth throughout the film, and spent most of the final battle hiding, but when it came down to it, he answered the call (as he did prior to the film’s events, by defecting to the Rebellion) and died a hero.
  • Remember the spoiler warning?
  • Yeah, there’s a good reason why we don’t see most of these characters again in the later films. Alan ‘Wash from Serenity‘ Tudyk managed to set up the ‘anyone can die’ vibe again with K-2SO’s tragic end. Possibly because it was the first, and possibly because K was the comic relief, its ‘death’ had the most emotional impact. It also braced us for further deaths as well.
  • Jyn and Andor’s final scene on the beach worked for me, although I’ve seen others say it was pointless and they should have just done what they did the last time they were shot at by a fully operational battle station, and looked for a ship to steal. Practically, yes, they could have done that, but narratively, no. An escape into the sky would have been meaningless. Andor had completed his character arc by coming away from the Dark Side, while Jyn’s was completed when she finished off her father’s work (hmm, there’s a feminist critique in that…) by getting the Death Star plans to the Rebellion.
  • Still on the subject of character deaths, the minor characters in Rogue One were excellent. Most had no names, a few had a name shouted over gunfire and explosions, others had callsigns. However, lots of them had just enough personality, even if it was just in their faces, to make you care. The casting and acting of the Rebel armsmen in the Darth Vader lightsaber rampage was particularly good – they really conveyed the terror of facing a fallen Jedi in combat, while also being big damn heroes with that data-disk they were transporting. A superb scene.
  • So where did the film go wrong? Not many places, in my opinion. The biggest bit that I noticed was the triple-battle on Jedha. The initial attack by insurgents on an Imperial convoy was brilliant. Confusing, intense and more than a little bit Black Hawk Down or Children of Men. Then, as everyone sits down to get their breath back, more Imperials arrive and another battle starts. Then, as everyone sits down to get their breath back, even  more Imperials arrive and another battle starts. Do none of them ever think about leaving the scene of that loud, explodey terrorist attack?
  • There were also a few moments where the stage directions appeared to say, ‘Enter half a dozen storm troopers, who are cut down by a volley of blaster fire.’ It felt a bit repetitive and forgot that the men (and possibly women, although that may just be a First Order thing) inside those suits were humans. War films are at their best when they portray the German soldiers as being just like the Allies, and too many moments where they’re just cannon fodder for the heroes detracts from that.

With that as the strongest criticism I can give at the moment, I’m awarding Rogue One: A Star Wars Story four Ewoks out of five.

American Horror Story: Hotel (2 of 2)

American Horror Story: Hotel (2 of 2)

A bit back, I wrote my initial thoughts on the first episode of American Horror Story: Hotel, after it appeared on Netflix. After not watching for a month, due to concentrating on NaNoWriMo, I finally got around to seeing the last four or five episodes over the past few nights.

I figured I’d follow up on those initial thoughts with how they panned out.

Beware, there are most likely SPOILERS ahead… but, you know, most fans have already seen this series.

Overall thoughts at the end of the season were that it was a good ensemble piece, probably more-so than Freak Show, although this season’s characters murdered people a lot more readily than any series before. Sure, the Hotel Cortez was built by James Patrick March as a more terrifying murder house than the Murder House and that generally corrupts people, but generally there was some form of motivation or (often tenuous) justification to the killings in previous seasons. In this, aside from the vampires and the actual serial killers, multiple murder is just something to do when you’re dead and bored.

Throat-slashing: an excellently done make-up effect, but it was so overused that it became boring to see. The one time it had any impact was the Countess’s final kill, although maybe that was the point: take the signature murder move of the series and make it meaningful.

The Sarah Paulson Game was pretty much all done by the second episode, but it was a hell of a revelation to realise that Eileen Wuornos was actually played by the gorgeous Lily Rabe. Angela Bassett turns up as well, although never quite materialises as a noteworthy antagonist, since she’s outmanoeuvred at every turn and eventually becomes just ‘one of the guys’ at the hotel. Sadly, no Jessica Lange or Frances Conroy, although there was a nice, if bloody, guest appearance by Gabourey Sidibe as Queenie from Coven, which revealed the big flaw in her witchy superpower. The winner of the Sarah Paulson Game has to be Finn Wittrock (Dandy from Freak Show), who plays not one but two characters in Hotel, one of whom apparently reminds the Countess of the other. That’s not to say that Sarah Paulson herself doesn’t have a good stab at the crown, reprising her minor role from Murder House in the final episode.

This is a good season for crossovers as well, reaffirming that AHS exists in one shared universe, rather than as unrelated parts of an anthology. The only previous crossover I can remember was when Pepper turned up in Freak Show, some years chronologically before her more plot-important appearance in Asylum. This one not only features Queenie, but also confirms that the events of Coven did actually make witchcraft a thing, although possibly only amongst supernatural nerds like the hotel residents. Several characters turn up from Murder House, and it turns out the Countess gave birth there way back in the 1920’s, when it was a backstreet abortion clinic.

What the hell happened to Bartholomew the hideous, unkillable, half-vampire, monster baby anyway?

I wasn’t sure about Liz Taylor to begin with and wondered if the transgender aspect of the character was intended to be just another bit of creepy weirdness for the Hotel Cortez. Thankfully, it turned into a remarkably sensitive portrayal of a transgender character (from this cisgender male’s perspective anyway), while also being a well-developed character in her own right. It probably helps that American Horror Story rarely portrays any but the most callous and sadistic murderers as being bad people; yes, like the rest of the cast, Liz was a cold-blooded murderer.

Denis O’Hare played the role excellently, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of Jeffrey Tambor’s comment during his Emmy acceptance speech for Transparent: “I would not be unhappy if I were the last cisgender man to play a transgender character.”

And I can’t mention Liz Taylor without her incredibly touching friendship with Iris, and the amazing performance in that role by Kathy Bates. They like casting Bates as mother figures that are lacking in confidence, don’t they? Even Coven‘s Madame LaLaurie had wobbly moments when she appeared close to renouncing her horribly racist ways after hanging around with Queenie.

The scenery porn may have calmed down as the audience settled into the hotel, but the sex didn’t. Yet still, besides a pair of buttocks or four, no nudity. It was as if the Countess was actually meant to be wearing black electrical tape during her scenes. As I mentioned last time, despite the liberal attitude towards showing characters having sex on screen, the prudishness about actual nudity feels incredibly at odds with the exceptionally graphic violence in this show, but at least that keeps it focused on being horror.

Oh yeah, the Addiction Demon, to give Sally’s strap-on-wearing stalker its proper name (I’d been referring to it in my head as ‘the rape goblin’, for reasons I can’t quite remember). Rather than being something that Sally has called up and is in hiding from, as seemed to be implied earlier on in the series, it actually turns out to be a manifestation of the evil of the hotel itself (the major theme of the series being addiction, whether to heroin, alcohol, murder, sex or whatever). Not sure if this is the result of an aborted story arc that they didn’t have time to expand on later in the series, but the Addiction Demon just felt unnecessary, particularly in light of its sole reason to appear on camera being to rape people, usually to death. I know that it was a creation under March’s control, and that March himself is shown to sometimes include rape in his killings, but he wasn’t primarily a sex killer. In fact, refreshingly for a TV serial killer, most of the murders we see him performing are both non-sexualised and of men. Yeah, the Addiction Demon felt wrong.

The vaccination storyline went a little haywire, and seemed to exist largely to give Alex Lowe something to do when she wasn’t arguing with John. That said, it was a nice little subplot and a welcome diversion from the vampire’s castle politicking of the Hotel Cortez. I get the feeling that the showrunners wanted to comment on the insane way that school shootings have become normalised in American culture, particularly after their horrifying portrayal of one in Murder House. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook and all those other tragedies, the lockdown scene was chilling, even when the audience knew what was actually killing people.

Oh yes, and vaccinate your children, or they’ll turn into vampires with measles!

I’m looking forward to the next series, Roanoke, appearing on Netflix…

 

 

(Oh cool, WordPress allows you to pick out previous posts when you insert a link! Nice touch.)