Monday, 22 October 2012

Guest Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

 This guest review comes courtesy of author Oran Ryan, whose book Ten Short Novels by Arthur Kruger is published by Seven Towers.

Susan Cain’s thesis in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (Penguin Viking, 2012) is a fascinating one. Happily it does not respond well to summarising. It is the type of book one buys and reads and re-reads over a long period to allow the ideas in it to percolate down. Then after absorbing it, one does not lend one’s own copy out. Rather one buys it as a gift for friends. For instance, the copy I am using right now was lent to me by a friend, who had bought a spare copy to lend out. Be warned though: Quiet is hard work at times. But its pleasures far outweigh the effort. (Being a big introvert, you would say that, I hear you say.)

Filled with research from disparate fields, Cain’s book is the product of a lifelong subtle analysis of the place of the introvert (she is clearly an introvert) in a complex, primarily urbanized, heavily populated, technologically advanced, society. This of course excludes many who live in quiet rural places where, if they are introverts, they have ample time to think and reflect on the meaning of things; and if they are extroverts they will be out making connections and forming groups and being as gregarious as their nature dictates. Though this does not hugely affect the thesis of the book, and if we take the premise around Quiet as read, and accept the context in which it is written, then Quiet is unputdownable.

It is filled with theory, with research, and with anecdotes linking the theory with the research. It’s also got great stories about polar-opposite personalities from history who complemented each other (I loved the stories about Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR), neuroscientific analyses of dopamine receptor predisposition in the brains of extroverts and the lesser significance of the same in the brains of introverts; philosophical reflections and positing of moral dilemmas of how and why extroversion became the new western cultural ideal – that we should all be go-getting jolly decent chaps, predisposed to endless teambuilding talks and afternoons at football matches and sporting chitchat and not get too heavy except when we work together in teams on assigned projects. This is an example of how the imposition of teamwork to the detriment of creative solitary work is a blight upon our society and a highly questionable pursuit. Team work then becomes the only way to go and one should never be alone to work out a thorny problem. Cain has a problem with this.

Following on from the ideal of never being alone – our recreational pursuits too, should never be solitary. We should retire to loud bars and clubs filled with music and breezy conversation and bond with our crew and be a ‘decent fellow.’ There’s something wrong, so our cultural values tell us, if we want to be alone. While fully honouring the completely indispensable place of the extrovert as tying so many strands of society together, Cain suggests that this cultural dynamic has mostly excluded the need for long-term solitary quiet and the enormous benefits that the introvert brings not only to culture and art but to science, to business and to psychological typologies of the introvert versus the extrovert. Rather than tell the tragicomic story of Vince Kaminski who as MD of research at Enron, kept telling the Enron top brass they were endangering the company (Page 165), I prefer the cooler, more prophetic story Cain tells a few pages earlier of her years in the 1990’s as a junior associate on Wall Street, analysing a portfolio of subprime mortgage loans – and finding all kinds of alarms going off in her head as she found one irregularity after another in the portfolio. Despite the legal team she was on, summarising their discontent at the company they represented buying the portfolio at whatever cheap price they were offered, their clients went ahead and bought the portfolio. “Yet it was this kind of risk-reward miscalculation that contributed to the failure of many banks during the Great Recession of 2008.” It was. Extroverts take risks. This risk-taking is indispensable for our survival. It needs to be tempered with the reserve and thoughtful long tern thinking an introvert brings to any deal. It’s not a question of IQ. It’s a question of approach.

Cain’s a philosopher at heart and she muses more than anything throughout the book on whether or not temperament determines destiny, and the role of free will in one’s life. In other words: if one’s brain is wired to introversion (or extroversion) can we choose to behave otherwise? What can we freely choose in life? For instance, like her I experience utter dread when facing a crowd, as I have to frequently, but am told by so many friends that they would never for a moment think I am anything other than relaxed and charming onstage. I have learned the techniques of being social, but it depletes me beyond imagining, and I need a long time to regain equilibrium afterwards. Likewise Cain puts herself through public-speaking courses and retreats, and reports back from her alma mater, Harvard Business School’s campus, where everyone’s on a mission and walking with a purpose and talking loudly in bars and clubs and socials about their next extreme sport expedition. Interestingly enough, one of the biggest misconceptions is that extroverts are more social, introverts more antisocial. It’s not how close one is to others emotionally. I am sure we all know of the boisterous, friendly, essentially emotionally distant extrovert. It’s a question of energy-sourcing. It is clear from Cain’s book that both introverts and extroverts need each other; and that all humans need that connection with each other – without which we are mere shells functioning in a vacuum of thought with no direction and no hope.

The final section of the book deals with communication, how introverts and extroverts communicate, the impact of race and ethnicity on the introvert or extrovert ideal whether in marriage or family, socially, in business, how teachers might relate to introverted pupils. The techniques described in these chapters are both clearly explained and replete with anecdotal evidence to bolster an approach which seeks to find a greater strength in complementarities, an acknowledgement, something well-summarised in the conclusion of the book, that though profound differences of approach and style and worldview and philosophies and ways of relating might exist between us, we have the tools to allow equally profound connections to continue between people who might otherwise simply not relate at all.

After finishing this book I wondered how the extrovert bias began in the first place, especially since Cain begins with a discussion around the origins of Dale Carnegie’s books and speeches at the turn of the 20th century. She writes of the rise of the “jolly decent fellow” (something I think that goes further back to the public schoolboy motif and back again to the British Empire’s need for good, decent administrators, but this doesn’t undermine her thesis). She talks too of the cliché of the sporty hail-fellow-well-met who fits right in and is always gunning for the next big thing; the team player, the essentially uncritical thinker who does well and works hard because (s)he does what (s)he is told. To my mind what is being described here is an essentially corporatist psychological type honed to fit into the increasingly internationalised world of big business and global corporations, where thinking is done from the top down and individualism is dangerous to the requirements of the system.

Without becoming Orwellian about it, anyone who has worked within these structures will see that what is being described here and what makes this book so timely and in its own way quite revolutionary, is the depth of the analysis and the fact that it offers real solutions to how this dangerous and destructive trend towards emotional and psychological imbalance might be redressed. This is an important book – and an enjoyable one.
 

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Thursday, 18 October 2012

Guest Post: Going home... to a place called Black Mesa

This guest feature comes courtesy of Ed Allen, writer, gamer and man of taste. His website can be viewed here

Download complete; make sure Source SDK 2007 is installed; launch game; adjust keyboard controls; begin story... ahh yes, another of those infamous Half-Life 2 loading screens...

My eyes open aboard the Black Mesa commuter transport monorail, the electric drone and jerking drumbeat of retro sci-fi music in my ears. I am Gordon Freeman again and I am returning home to relive my past. Everything has changed: old surfaces made new, brighter lights and darker shadows. Everything seems to have been scaled up to larger proportions. I could have sworn this canyon never used to be deep, nor that heavy lifting robot so huge. Scientists in white lab-coats scurry about their work below me - watching screens, tweaking dials. There’s so much to see around the monorail I can barely take it all in. Everything freezes - loading screen...

Black Mesa

 Black Mesa is a contemporary fan’s remake of the original Half Life, a game which redefined expectations of what a first person shooter could do. Instead of simply dropping the player into Level One with a hastily written paragraph of exposition to explain what they were supposed to be shooting at, we were introduced to the setting by being invited to wander around it at our own pace before the action commenced and throughout the game we were steadily introduced to interesting characters who actually spoke to us. Where other shooters focus on visceral combat alone, Half Life was clothed in big ideas and threw puzzles and the occasional bout of platforming into the mix.

The monorail is taking me into an elevator shaft. As I descend further into the earth I notice an accident - two scientists are trapped in a room with a green gaseous substance, one banging on the glass; then they’re gone, obscured by the rock face. More oddities and obscurities pass me by while the monorail carries me to the secret research facility. I don’t remember enjoying the music this much the last time I was here. Everything freezes again - loading screen...

Original Half Life

The trouble with the original is that it’s become virtually unplayable through the passage of time. Low polygon counts, hideously low-res textures, a resolution that’s incompatible with any widescreen monitors - you probably couldn’t pay the young gamers of today to sit through that. That’s why I’m grateful to the developers of Black Mesa (throwing any semblance of impartiality out the window), they’ve taken reinvigorated a 14 year old triumph and made it accessible to the post-Crysis generation. If you have ever enjoyed a first person shooter but never got the chance to play Half Life, or if you still feel a modicum of nostalgia for 1998’s breakout game, then you owe it to yourself to give Black Mesa a try. Oh yeah - did I mention that it’s free? Completely, 100% free to download from their website (although you will need to have Steam installed too) .

The monorail arrives at its destination and a friendly guard escorts me inside. As I wander around I revel in the fresh coat of paint this place has been given since I was last here while the scientists around me chat about work or the weekend. I find my protective hazard suit and arrive late at my test chamber. Under instructions from my colleagues I fire up the whatsit-thingamajig and then everything goes insane.

Compared to AAA titles like Crysis and Battlefield 3, Black Mesa lags behind in its visuals but on most PCs it will still be a beautiful game. The development team have taken the well-aged and reliable Source 2007 engine (TF2, HL2:E2, Left4Dead) and added their own special features, including new lighting effects and a wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack entirely of their own making. The moments where it does show its age come once you’ve traveled a certain distance and the Half Life loading screen pops up for between thirty seconds and a minute - something that happens several times before you even reach the core gameplay - but the environmental physics and NPC animation still rival anything I’ve seen in the latest major releases.

Lights flicker and fires blaze around me as stumble through the wreckage of the lab facility. Colleagues I had spoken to just moments ago were dead - some crushed, others torn limb from limb. I pick up an emergency flare (very thoughtful of someone to leave them here, something else that’s changed from the last time) and press on through the darkness, crawling beneath a jammed door and crouch-jumping over a fallen filing cabinet. Up ahead I can hear the screams of the dying and something else... something alien...

It’s not just the graphics that have been given an overhaul. Black Mesa makes great use of the Source engine’s capabilities to breathe new life into the gameplay, so rather than retreading the exact same puzzles and combat situations featured in Half Life you’re given new physics-based challenges and solutions to the situations you find yourself in. 

Breathless and injured - I find my way to a wall mounted medicine disposer in the nick of time. It’s a good thing I picked up those flares before I found the crowbar or this pistol, I’d never have made it past those zombie-creatures or the headcrabs if I wasn’t able to set a few of them on fire. I can hardly believe they used to be people, colleagues, and now they’re all trying to kill me. I become adept at dodging their lurching attacks, it’s all a matter of timing your movements - step back then rush in to beat them down (and repeat). The path ahead is blocked and there’s no way to escape this corridor except to go back (and that’s never really an option is it?) or crawl into a nearby air vent. I edge my way forward into the conveniently sized crawlspace; it’s dark and the last vent is rife with jumping headcrabs so I move cautiously. Eventually I reach the grille separating me from the next room and smash my way through with the crowbar. There’s nobody around, no noises, no more fires - am I safe at last? A clatter of metal answers me and I spin towards the sound, pistol raised. Oh... it’s a cute yellow dog-looking thing. It bounces around the room, wagging it’s stubby tail. Wait a second - it hasn’t got a head... I’m sure I can remember something about a little yellow dog-like thing. It turned to face me and where there should be a head is something that looks like a huge subwoofer - oh no now I remember - and suddenly the whole world turns to noise.

I’ll freely admit that the nostalgia I have for Half Life helped to make Black Mesa such an enjoyable experience for me, but I’ve tried going back to other games from my youth and it simply hasn’t worked out the same way. The spirit of the original game is strong in the fan remake, but what really makes it so worthwhile for gamers is the effort that the developers have put into making it feel like something new. The soundtrack is absolutely superb, their custom textures and models are up there with the best and somehow it’s free. Give it a try - you’ve got nothing to lose except a few gigabytes of hard drive space and if I haven’t already convinced you then check out the trailer below:

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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Guest Post: Spazzmoids - You, Me, Bob Byrne and Michael Landon

Today We Will Worship Michael Landon by Bob Byrne

This guest feature comes courtesy of Ruairi Conneely, writer and man-about-town from Dublin, as well as contributor to Tastes Like Comics

Those of you who are Dublinese by extraction or immersion might remember, around 2005 or 2006, a free minicomic in full-colour and with a nice weighty glossy paper stock that was left in stacks around the bars and clubs of Temple Bar and beyond (as part of a free ‘papers distribution scheme that is still on-going thankfully).
The Shiznit Bob Byrne

It was The Shiznit, an antic one-man anthology with dick jokes. More than dick jokes: slander and very pointed satire, coming from an openly personal place. You’d put down a copy either giggling or appalled or just smiling darkly to yourself. It was a real strip book, mostly one- or two-pagers, and quite crammed with different skits and stories in varying styles although all evidently formed under one pen, (barring the odd advert). On the strength of The Shiznit I picked up a copy of MBLEH! (hint: the M is silent) which had been staring me in the face on and off for a few weeks in my regular comix-haunt.

I can’t remember what issue it was (I have it somewhere) but it brought the same blend of gut-laughs, at times almost porno-strong vulgarity (almost! Not quite) and a vivid narrative voice, the personal touch which on reflection made it all come together.

Bob Byrne – and his company CLAMNUTS- stayed in my mental “MORE!” file after that but slipped off radar after a while. I remember reading someone’s copy of Mr Amperduke,  his epic ‘silent’ graphic novel, at a comics trade fair but otherwise there were no more free comics among the free papers, no new material from him in the comic shops, at least that I saw.

What I learned recently was that Bob Byrne upped sticks and moved to Spain, leaving behind Dublin (which he was evidently sick of, and had been sick of for a while, judging by the evidence of The Shiznit).

A few months ago, on a midnight whim, I caught up with CLAMNUTS, at a fresh and full-blooded looking new site (clamnuts.com, of course) and discovered that Bob had been putting out a webcomic. 

(I feel weird calling him ‘Bob’ like I know him. I don’t. I’ve never met the man).

I read the whole thing (as far as it had been updated to that point) and settled down to write this. I sketched out four hundred words, went back to clamnuts the next day and… it was gone. Webcomic taken down, site suspended pending a redesign and relaunch. Curses! Hilarity ensued (not really) as I tried to secure access to the strips. Bob was very accommodating and after some communications snafus, I got my hands on a copy of ‘Spazzmoid’:


 Nice title, no? This is the front and back cover. And yes, that’s Bob there on the left.

So there’s been an odd break for me in the middle of writing this piece, as it has gone from being a review of an on-going webcomic to being an article on a published completed work, by sheer happenstance. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine who had bought a copy of Spazzmoid brought it up in conversation and mentioned the author photo in admiring terms. He was slightly flabbergasted at the comic brazenness it must take to put such an unflattering image of yourself out in the world. Anyone might agree, unless they were to read further. One of the things that makes this such a fun book is the wealth of unflinching autobiographical detail.

The whole thing runs on honesty, which will sort the readers from the flinches. You could excuse a person for finding an image too strong but Taste is as much a matter of the context, as of the form. Bob’s content and cartooning style combined make the work confrontational but what’s striking and unusual about Spazzmoid is how cleanly it could work as spoken word (“SPAZZMOID: the Audio Book!”). The stories are anecdotes and reveries; memories dreams and reflections, as the saying goes.
The original webcomic format for the strip, the horizontal template proportioned to read comfortably on a monitor, is sometimes a problem in collected editions like this but here the problem is neatly solved by stacking two strips together on a single printed page. There’s no sense of a break between phases of a story; instead the elements wed to create a dense and substantial comics page. Densely packed pages of text and art make for an absorbing, altogether more leisurely reading, which I often prefer compared to the more expansive filmic storytelling that seems so prevalent these days.
Bob Byrne art panels
This is half a page (the original format) excised to give you an idea of what I mean by dense pages.
The digressional nature of the storytelling – a lengthy childhood anecdote, then a digression that breaks the fourth wall of the page then a story of twenty-something flat-sharing (I loved the running battle with the Scottish rugby lad) then another shift accompanied by, say, a change in colouring – feels fluid and unforced and sets up a rhythm that allows Bob to comfortably include older material from The Shiznit and MBLEH!. Quite by accident, he seems to have created a showcase for his career to date that feels like a whole piece, a balanced presentation.

When asked about his influences (in an interview for Irish Comic News), Byrne names Sergio Aragones and the more obscure Miguel ‘El Gran’ Vazquez Gallego, both of whom combined an overtly ‘cartoony’ style with a humour that alternates between the naturalistic and the absurd. Tellingly perhaps, both are characterised as ‘satrical’ creators. Aragones made his name at MAD magazine and El Gran’s work for Spanish adult funnies place them in a lineage parallel with the more respectfully regarded discipline of newspaper cartoons. 

Bob Byrne DKR pastiche
Bob has a knack for pastiche that doesn’t fracture his established style (if you don’t get the reference you get nil points).

What about that weird title, I hear you ask? Well, I’m not going to tell you. It’s right at the end of the book and I took a sacred oath to never step on another man’s punchline. It’ll add a little pro bono colour to your recollection of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ if you buy the book.

Bob Byrne is based at www.clamnuts.com and has contributed to 2000 AD with his Twisted Tales series. 

He has also written a children’s book ‘Robots Don’t Cry’, published by The O’Brien Press, here’s its page; http://www.obrien.ie/author.cfm?authorid=272  and here’s a sample: http://www.obrien.ie/files/extracts/RobotsDontCry-Sample.pdf

And you can follow the link to buy “Spazzmoid Volume 1: and today we shall worship Michael Landon” here: http://clamnuts.com/spazzmoid-today-we-will-worship-michael-landon/
You’ll thank me when you meet Uncle Spunk Nugget. Oh yes.

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Saturday, 13 October 2012

Beardy And The Geek: Come Visit Pandeia

Emmet interviews Paul Caggegi, by Stephanie Fargher

In this episode, Emmet interviews Paul Caggegi creator of the excellent post-apocalyptic series Pandeia and host of the Process Diary podcast.

The lads discuss the story of Pandeia, the nature of science fiction and some of their own favourite tales about bands of rogues having adventures.




As always you can follow Emmet and Ryan on Twitter - @emmetoc_ and @GeekOfOz, and listen to the podcast on iTunes. We'd love to hear from you.

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Friday, 12 October 2012

Spiral: Season 3 - DVD Review

First let's start with the obvious points of comparison. Spiral aka Engrenages is a procedural crime drama series set in Paris. The accompanying press material describe it as a Gallic take on The Wire. Certainly in its season-long arcs there is some similarity, not to mention the host of characters seemingly lost in a sea of competing power plays and labyrinthine politics.

Who knew that the cities of Baltimore and Paris had so much in common?

But The Wire for all its dramatic excellence remains a cult concern. Spiral with its detectives on the beat faced with macabre horrors on city streets and court-room legal eagles trying to spin gold from piles of misery, also has notes of Dick Wolf's enduring Law And Order franchise. But whereas America has the avuncular Sam Waterston wringing his hands at the frustrations of the law, France's own silver fox is Philippe Duclos, whose 'Juge François Roban' is utterly committed to his duties while at the same time frenetically working to come out on top.

Roban's introduction has him casually inform grieving parents that they are to be charged for negligence relating to the death of their child - and then proceeds to follow their complaint, that the mayoralty has some responsibility for the tragedy. It is this double-edged approach that Roban adopts- unsentimentally exercising the rule of law while at the same time continuing to chase idealistic notions of justice against those in positions of power - that makes him such a compelling character. Duclos is also to be commended for the fervid intelligence he brings to the part, with a wonderful climactic speech in the final episode.

Meanwhile Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) faces her own dilemma when a case that nobody wants involving a dead prostitute escalates into a political football that could well claim her career. With the top brass openly dismissive of her, and her confidence shaken by the announcement of her team-member Gilou that he is departing the section for pastures greener, Berthaud's emotional state becomes increasingly frayed. As more bodies are found, her competence is called into question by members of her own team, while she tries to convince Gilou to stay by bending the rules to cover up his screw-ups.

In between the realms of judges and cops are bright young things Pierre Clément and Joséphine Karlsson, both young ambitious barristers looking to escape their former careers. Pierre abandons the prosecution to attempt to find more meaning in his life, whereas Joséphine is desperate to escape her debts to some very unsavoury characters. Unfortunately for them both, their hopes for future advancement are based too rigidly on superficial understandings of one another. Pierre sees his new colleague as a gateway to excitement, while she is looking for a more stable grounding. When placed in a difficult position, the would-be idealistic former prosecutor immediately throws his principles to the wind and calls on his partner to do what she does best - destroy his accuser.

The novelty of the 'confrontation' in French law, which allows the accused, accuser and witnesses to present their cases, is an additional interesting aspect of this European crime series. It also adds to the drama of the show - with Pierre in a pivotal scene realizing just how much trouble he is in. Roban's debates with a young intern on legal process and the requirement for independent judges is also notable. Despite these cultural differences from English-speaking countries, not to mention it being the third season of the series, Spiral is compelling viewing, with well-drawn characters and an addictive plot-line. It is quite aware of its status as a geographically handicapped rival to American product - a witness demands the cops speed up their investigation by using the patented flash-bang DNA wizardry of CSI at one point - but audiences who take a chance on this Francophone action drama will not be disappointed.

Spiral season three dvd Engrenages

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Monday, 8 October 2012

Guest Review - Combined and Uneven Apocalypse by Evan Calder Williams

This guest review comes courtesy of author Oran Ryan, whose book Ten Short Novels by Arthur Kruger is published by Seven Towers.

Midway through my reading of Evan Calder Williams - Combined and Uneven Apocalypse (2011, Zero publications), the writer mentions how his book found its inspiration in Trotsky’s idea of combined and uneven development, an idea which seeks to throw light on the overall development of societies and economies throughout human history. Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development (changed by Williams to Combined and Uneven Apocalypse after the economic crash of 2008) describes how different societies and economies develop at different speeds and advance - or not - largely independent of each other.

This is not to say that societies exist in a kind of hermetically sealed isolation from each other either. Population growth, economic growth, levels of industrialization, education levels, health of population, natural resources and infrastructure progress in accordance with trade, availability of skills, permeability of borders, diplomacy, credit, and the level of industrialization or technological advance already present or available to a society. Williams’ meditation on our apocalyptic fears, be they zombie movies, post apocalyptic metal head punk landscapes, ruined population centres, and viral ridden brain hungry hordes, centres around the economic crash of 2008. To introduce a little history at this point, in the years before the crash of 2008 an unprecedented level of credit was made available to people to purchase things, primarily property. Most of these turned out to be toxic deals, largely packaged as top level AAA portfolios, and yet in reality far beyond the ability of the basic mortgage holders to repay either the huge mortgage monthly fees or the capital sum in the long term. As this was at the time far more widespread than one could imagine, a plague of defaults brought down a world economy, infecting every aspect of our cultural life. 

To return to Calder’s vision, as a result of 2008 we became the living dead as envisioned in the movies decades before, a comparison addressed at length in this book. We had no money. We needed a bailout, as we were adrift atop the rotting hulk of an undead economy, shifting lifelessly and pointlessly onwards; starving for a consummation of some kind. We have, by our greed and by our addictive buying of stuff that we had been made to believe we could not do without, been dehumanized. For this, Williams speculates in his analysis of the countless apocalyptic movies and literature available to him, was our terror visualised in these movies. We had entered into an unholy bourgeois relation with things we wanted, and desire for thing indicates a lack that desire cannot fill. We had traded the fruits of our labour along with our very essences, entered into a modern world whose primary goal was to consume – and on a higher scale consume other economies in its imperialistic designs, while also on a lesser scale consuming the gifts and the energies and the brains of its peoples in order to continue on. The economic crash of 2008 showed capitalism up as the sham that it is, and these cultural figments, from Dawn of the Dead to Robocop, elucidate with remarkable accuracy various artists’ visions of the hollow heart of a world with no values. ‘No future’ as the cyber punks say, a powerful and engaging moment of apocalyptic irony.

But there is a problem here. Whether one is dealing with a movie about the dead who will not die, or about the living that are infected with a horrific and mutilating virus, or an android cop with a conscience who finds himself the tool of a ruthless multinational corporation clearing the people off the streets, there is a certain circularity in Williams argument which is somewhat occluded in the author’s gripping style of expression that gives no real solution to the difficulties attendant to the problem of the capitalistic model. After 2008 for instance, credit was cut, and a thorough re examination of the mechanisms which caused the crash occurred. There was a certain amount of mea culpas, but the capitalistic model, an essential aspect to the imperialist model, one feeding zombie like off the other, continued on. What is absent from this book, and what is absent from so many other cogent analyses, is the proffering of any real workable alternative, any cutting edge critique of capitalism.

Taking ‘as his basis an analysis re-purposed rubble of salvage punk to undead hordes banging on shopping mall doors, from empty waste zones to teeming plagued cities,’ Williams grapples with the apocalyptic fantasies of late twentieth early twenty first century disaster movies and politics. But will this continue? What is the nature of these fantasies? Does a dream have one or more meaning? Psychoanalysis generally takes the view that a dream/fantasy (the two are alike but not the same) has several interlaced meanings, in the same way as a metaphor has several meanings counterpointing within it, giving it its impact and evocative power. So also each of these movies and books mentioned and analysed by Williams were made during different historical periods and for different reasons and though on the same subject or varying aspects of the same subject, have different points to make. This is not to imply any of the works discussed have a fixed historical meaning, or that a work of art per se has one meaning. It has most certainly many, but to, for instance, draw an overall capitalistic interpretation on these movies and books without equally drawing from the many other wells of meaning within the source material strikes one as something of a rather thin thesis for such a huge project.

This is the difficulty of the speculative and imaginative model proposed by Williams in Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, however compelling it is to read. The link that may or may not exist between the art forms proposed: the apocalyptic scenarios, the living dead, the blasted landscapes, the viral ridden flesh eaten zombies, the ruined cities and the thesis: that this represents in art our apocalyptic fears of the devastation of a meaningless dehumanized post capitalist world, is unproven right up to the end of the book. It hangs on the tenuous link of the writer’s assertions rather than anything we can clearly see in any of the movies he clearly describes. Surely these works of art, these movies and books, these imaginings all have varying aetiologies and meanings running through them, from a fear of total annihilation from nuclear war to a meditation on the feral selves that exist within our urbane sophisticated technologically advanced society, or again to a kind of ventilation of our innate desire for both life and death, not to mention a desire to amuse, entertain and educate, as well as a demonstration of the effects of the capitalistic model that Williams discusses. As a theory of the apocalyptic fantasies of late capitalism shown in cinema and wider cultural, political and economic landscapes, the notion that this particular financial crisis is different and exactly how it is different to other ones is not shown by Williams nor is it unproven.

Here we have the collision of two disciplines: Economics and Literary Theory. Based on my limited knowledge on the subject, the usual model for a rescue package in instances like this one is a combination of financial rectitude, bailouts, and the invasion of resource rich and less developed countries so as to open up new revenue streams and markets and investment opportunities. This is how combined and uneven development occurs. We might have our apocalyptic fears, but they are unrealized. Sadly, this is not a book I can recommend.



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Thursday, 4 October 2012

Octocon 2012 - zombies, aliens and space cowboys, oh my!

Folks I am thrilled to announce that I will be taking part in this year's Octocon 2012 Event at Dublin's Camden Court Hotel on October 13 - 14 as a panelist.

There is still time to register to attend, so I hope to see some of you folks there on the weekend. A full programme for both the Saturday and Sunday events is now available too should you be curious as to what is on offer.


Needless to say it is a huge thrill to be involved, as there is nothing I enjoy more than freewheeling and involving discussions about genre fiction, particularly sf and fantasy (and looking at the programme, horror seems to be a going concern as well, which is also to my taste).

The guest of honour at this year's event is Liz Williams (Empire of Bones, Worldsoul) a widely prolific author who will be taking part in a public interview and presenting a talk on the 'Philosophy of Science' (if A.J. Ayer is mentioned I am likely to become upset...). Williams will also be attending a number of other talks, including the intriguingly titled 'Writing from the Outside Viewpoint', moderated by Peadar Ó Guilín.

Other highlights at the Con include the Sunday afternoon 'Golden Blasters' which is a celebration sf, fantasy and horror films; In Memoriam - Harry Harrison, which offers fans the opportunity to reminisce on the recently departed master; a book launch for Alan Nolan's new title '....And The Blood Flowed Green'; as well as a debate on LGBTQ characters in young adult fiction.

Now I mentioned above that I'd be speaking up a bit as well and I am very thankful to have been invited to sit on several panels, which are as follows -

Brains, Brains, Brains - a discussion of zombies and zombie fiction, and whether it still has legs (or they're about to fall off) with Maura McHugh, Derek Gunn and Lynn Moran, to be moderated by yours truly.

See You Later Space Cowboy
- which takes in every space-faring rogue from Cowboy Bebop's Spike to Firefly's Malcolm Reynolds, touching on the influence of the Western on science fiction with Alan Nolan as moderator, Celine Kiernan and yup, me again.

Lost in translation - discussing foreign genre fiction translated into English and discovering a whole new readership, with moderator Celine Kiernan and myself. I must confess this is the discussion I am most looking forward to.

After the end - the world has ended. Again and again and again! The apocalypse as featured in genre fiction, moderated by moi, and featuring Derek Gunn, John Vaughan the man behind the intriguing Victory recently shown on RTE, John 'JC' Clarke and Lynn Moran




On top of all that I will also be hosting a public recording of The Momus Report Podcast, interviewing Rob Curley and Maura McHugh on their work with Atomic Diner, an excellent Irish indie comics imprint that riffs on the country's mythology and history across a growing line of titles, including The League of Volunteers, Róisín Dubh and The Black Scorpion - all available for purchase here.

So yes, exciting times. If you do happen to be in Dublin, do drop along and say hi. It'd be great to chat about lasers, vampires, mutants and madmen. 

Cheers folks.

PS - as long as this doesn't happen, I'll be happy.



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Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Bane - The Supervillain We Deserve

Needless to say, thar be spoilers here. 

So here is my belated The Dark Knight Rises review. It was incredibly elaborate, there are several sequences which are thrilling and for the most part the cast are excellent. However, I did feel the time pass, I was not terribly engaged by the plot and there was far too much exposition for the third film of a franchise. Characters arrive on camera, dump a load of biographical detail and then the scene ends. This occurs several times I believe. Credit to Joseph Gordon-Levitt for being so effortlessly charming that you do not realize that is exactly what has just happened until his confrontation with Bruce Wayne has ended.

Although it did inspire this parody video, which I am ashamed to say made me laugh like a fool. I love the touch of including a Katie Holmes picture.



Despite my misgivings, on one count Nolan's conclusion to his own Batman epic - and this is very much an individual take on the Bat that eschews many aspects familiar to long-time fans - is an absolute triumph. Tom Hardy's Bane is at once an antagonist with all the hallmarks of the Nolanverse, but at the same time represents the best onscreen interpretation of comic book supervillain melodrama to date.

Hardy delivers his dialogue with the same arch affability as Ian McKellen's Magneto or Gert Fröbe's Auric Goldfinger (compare the line "When Gotham is ashes, you have my permission to die" to "No Mister Bond, I expect you to die"), his every utterance dripping with mockery. It feels significant that Fröbe was actually dubbed by an actor named Michael Collins, as Bane's voice is most likely itself the product of ADR. One of the pivotal scenes, much remarked upon by commentators searching to attach an allegory for the Occupy Movement to the film, has Bane address the city of Gotham and urge them to take their city back. Despite the familiar phrasing, the open sarcasm of his intonation twists the meaning of these words. Bane invites chaos, but also displays contempt for the Gothamite mob - as given his allegiance to the League of Shadows, he sees them as little more than a rabble anyway. Bane does not invite revolution in order to bring about some vaunted principles of freedom - instead he offers the citizens of Gotham freedom from the idea that they are civilized.

This dovetails quite neatly with that other seminal villain of this year's crop of superhero films, Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who also enjoys some badinage with revolutionary rhetoric. There is another point of comparison between the two antagonists as well, which will be addressed below.

Anjin Anhut Occupy Gotham Bruce Wayne Batman
http://anjinanhut.deviantart.com/art/Occupy-Gotham-262240987
This performance by Hardy captures an aspect of comic supervillains that the medium itself has arguably lost perspective on - the cynicism of these destructive megalomaniacs. It is worth remembering that the Golden and Silver Ages in the comics industry still boasted a number of creators who had not only lived through World War II, some had served in the military. The war not only took place on battlefields, on sea and in the air, but it also entered the living room, a form of psychological warfare courtesy of the likes of Lord Haw Haw. Good and evil became confused, even more so with the onset of the Cold War, both sides of the conflict insisting to their populations that they were living the best of all possible lives. So when Doctor Doom takes command of Latveria, his speeches and grandstanding are clearly intended to parallel Soviet-era dictatorships. Magneto's expansionist desires to rule the tiny Republic of San Marco in the original issues of The Uncanny X-Men echoes American fears of neighbouring countries becoming swept up in Communist ideologies. Equally General Zod is little more than a criminal, but he maintains the pretense of being a Kryptonian statesmen. These were villains that cynically manipulated public opinion to work for them, to isolate the heroes and achieve their own selfish ends. Christopher Nolan's Bane is very much a part of this tradition.

The Joker as Ambassador to Iran Death in the Family Jim Starlin Jim Aparo

Much like Alan Rickman's iconic Hans from Die Hard, Bane flirts with the language and methodology of terrorism in order to acquire what he wants, at one point staging an attack on the stock market only so as to cripple Wayne financially. I was also slightly concerned that his elaborate escape from custody on a mid-air flight bore a strong resemblance to Gary Busey's efforts in that classic of the 90s adrenaline junkie genre Drop Zone. It's effectively the same plan, even down to faking the death of a man under witness protection, although Busey just bit the guy's finger off. However, these are just the contrivances of the plot, eventually Bane launches his campaign of terror against Gotham in earnest. What is baffling though, is that in a film that situates Bane clearly as being an example of modern terrorism, instead the chaos that ensues is resolved by a relapse into trench warfare, with two opposing armies of police and League of Shadows supporters outfitted with Wayne-tech clashing in the street. Such an anachronistic scene is telling, as is Commissioner Gordon directly quoting Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities - name-checking the inspiration for the mob-rule inspired by Bane.

At this point the grandiloquent efforts of Hardy begin to feel slightly hollow. His condescending observation of Batman's "theatrics" when they first fight face to face - with Wayne losing badly - shows how aware he is of the importance of projecting fear. When he in turn is revealed to be an instrument of the daughter of Ra's al Ghul - and amusingly Liam Neeson returns to appear as a ghost, having turned down the opportunity to do the same in Revenge of the Sith - he is downgraded from antagonist to loyal vassal. Considering how the threat he poses has been a life-jacket for audiences forced to endure many scenes of dreary exposition, this causes a tangible sense of deflation. 

Thomas Wayne Linus Roache and Ra's al Ghul Liam Neeson

Everything that has occurred in the previous Nolan Bat-films is in fact the fallout from the competing philosophies of two dead men - Linus Roache's benevolent Thomas Wayne and the nihilistic Ra's. As a metaphor for the fascist undertones of the superhero idea - which suggests only a strong-willed man has the right to guide society - it is an interesting sub-theme. However, the execution of these films do not develop this notion organically, with Talia baldly stating her commitment to her dead father's ideals. Wayne in turn has attempted to navigate a path between both his fathers. Bane unfortunately, the powerful, charismatic villain that has turned the life of Gotham's hero upside down, it turns out was only following orders.

Supervillains in comics are often revealed to be weak, or cowardly, or even just demented courtesy of having embraced pure evil - but considering your average villains wakes up each morning, pulls on his togs and goes out to be punched by the likes of Batman, or Captain America every time - there's something oddly compelling about that. Once Bane has served his narrative purpose, delivered Batman to the twist climax of the film, he is summarily dispensed with. It is a perfunctory ending for an excellent character and one which suggests the now de rigueur sleight of hand of Nolan is becoming wearying for even the director himself. Loki, by contrast, is also an instrument of a greater threat, but as such he is revealed to be a tragic character. Some efforts are made to introduce a new take on Bane's own past, but it comes too little too late.

Based on the sum of its parts, The Dark Knight Rises is justifiably an event. However, it ultimately feels like a hollow one, with a blistering performance from Tom Hardy that deserves a bigger canvas.

The Dark Knight Rises

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