Posts Tagged ‘entertainment’

the martian - andy weirFirst of all this is the book I’m talking about, not the film. I’ve not seen the film yet but I’ve heard it’s very enjoyable. Like all my movie purchases these days though, I’ll wait until I chance across it in a charity shop. Speaking of which that’s where I found the book, a steal for £1.00. I should also say the fact I found it in a charity shop, I mean even before all the hype for the film has died down, in no way detracts from the quality of the story. Sometimes you find a real gem, which is why I like digging around in charity shops.

Anyway, the book is interesting on two fronts, first for the story it tells, and second for the genesis of that story, it being entirely self published. Andy Weir was no novice to writing, but earlier attempts to publish his stories met with disappointment, so The Martian began as a labour of love with no intentions of it doing the usual demoralising rounds of literary agents. Instead it first appeared as a series of blog entries given away online, and from where it garnered a respectable cult following. Fans then asked for the whole thing to be pieced together as an ebook on Amazon. Since you can’t give stuff away on Amazon, Weir set the price to the minimum allowed (about 67p). Thereafter the story caught fire, first of all ending up in the Amazon top seller list, where it caught the eye of an agent who landed a conventional publishing deal and a movie contract. So there we have it: from a blog give-away by an unknown writer, to a movie starring Matt Damon – that’s quite a journey!

So, we have a lone astronaut stranded on Mars – he’s the Martian. His mission was aborted during a cataclysmic storm and his crewmates cleared out, blasted off for home, thinking he was dead. How does he survive? Well, it’s by no means certain he will, but he thinks it all through and blogs it out for posterity as he goes along. And the reason for the book’s success? Was the author just lucky? Well I’m thinking luck played some part in it, and no shame in that, but we can’t get away from the fact that a story has to be readable in the first place for it to take off at all. This is a regular sized novel and I finished  it greedily over a weekend. I couldn’t put it down.

The technology for landing people on Mars exists now. All that’s preventing us is the will and the cost. But given the extraordinarily unforgiving conditions on Mars, could a man survive alone, with existing technology and how would he do it? This is the problem the author set himself the task of solving. The technology, the science,… these things are very much what the book is about. It’s incredibly well researched – the author clearly knows his subject – but the technicalities also benefited from feedback generated by his blog, so in a sense crowd-sourcing expert advice. All of this results in a very plausible backbone for the story. The heroics depicted are triumphs of ingenuity, and all delivered at a page turning pace.

I don’t want to give too much away here, but eventually satellite surveillance of the Mars base reveals the guy is still alive and looks like hanging in there, at least for a little while. This allows a broadening of the story to include the reaction back on earth, and the second big technical challenge of how you go about rescuing someone with existing technology – i.e. no warp drive – and a flight time to Mars of about a year. Again all of this is handled in a well paced, plausible fashion, the story resting firmly on that solid foundation of realistic science and technology.

I think another reason for the story’s success is that it possesses hidden dimensions, that on top of being a good story well told, it provokes a deeper thinking in the reader, and leaves a lingering impression long after we have finished it. For me it was a reminder of the incredible engineering challenge of putting people into space, a thing that seems almost mundane now, with guys and gals regularly whizzing over our heads in the ISS. But it’s hardly without it’s dangers and it’s of great credit to the organisation, the international cooperation, and the sheer technical excellence behind space exploration that more people haven’t been killed doing it. It’s a measure of what we can do when we’re all pulling in the same direction and in the service of a common cause that’s basically altruistic.

The story hasn’t much time for philosophical musing – but towards the end our hero does reflect upon the sheer scale, cost and human involvement that swings behind the effort to bring him home. We’re reminded of the real life Apollo 13 emergency here, and I couldn’t help going off on my own tangent and asking the question what is it that makes saving one life worth the cost and the effort, when thousands of other lives are lost, knowingly, every day because the world is apparently indifferent to less favoured individuals? I guess for me the message was if we think we can save a life we’ll do it, no matter what the cost. But if we’re persuaded we can do nothing, that we’re absolutely powerless, then we’d rather not think about it at all. We shut it out. This is not the same as indifference; it’s a survival mechanism, something to keep us sane. But who is it, or what is it that persuades us in the first place which lives we have a chance of saving and which to discard?

But I digress.

There’s a risk of course that with the undoubted success of the film, the novel on which it’s based will be overshadowed, even forgotten, that in the longer term, most authors, even published ones, risk becoming the unknown seed of other people’s glory. And that’s a pity.

So,.. if you’ve not seen the film yet, do look out for the book.

It’s awesome.

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MYST online 1

Imagine you wake on a mountain peak, a small hut for shelter, and no way down. Other distant peaks pierce a level plane of mist like lone islands in a milky sea. There’s a curious pillar outside your hut – half totem, half chimenea, patterned with strange glyphs. Touching it reveals an inner chamber in which there lies a book. In the book there is a picture of a desert landscape, mostly flat but with a volcanic caldera in the middle. Touch the picture, you fade out, rematerialise in the desert. The desert is vast. You wander, eventually coming upon a lone guy lounging outside his trailer,…

So begins your adventure.

Back in the day when computers were young there was a game called MYST. It was unusual among computer games; there were no guns, no racing cars, and no zombies; it did not depict war, nor indeed any sort of violence. Instead, this was a two dimensional point and click adventure – dull you might think by comparison, except it shone. It was imaginative, immersive – fiendish puzzles at every turn, and though it was basically an animated slide show, it developed a cult following that has continued through various incarnations to the present day.

I didn’t play it in the beginning, I found it too hard, discovered Tomb Raider and Lara Croft instead. I felt MYST would have been more engaging as a 3D walk-through, like the Tomb Raider series, but the machines of the time weren’t up to the scale and the ambition of it. Now is a different story. Now the machines have caught up, and are capaple of handling the sheer polygonal density of it, of rendering it beautiful.

So, you’re in this desert and there’s a guy telling you he knows why you’re there, which is more than you do. He tells you to check out the Cleft.

The Cleft is gash in the earth, accessible by creaky rope ladder and dotted with caves. They look like they’ve been home to ancient natives at some point, but there’s evidence of recent habitation too. There are more glyphs here, and strange machines, some old world, some of an unfamiliar technology. Bewildered, you go back to the trailer guy, he gives you some clues, talks about an imager. You go back down the hole, eventually work out how to fire this imager up, thinking it might explain something. It does. A hologram appears; it’s a girl, telling you a strange tale. You have to find seven glyphs. Do this and the hole at the end the of cleft can be opened. It takes a while, but you find the glyphs. The trailer guy helps some more. You open the hole in the root of a tree and down you go in the world of MYST.

It’s bewildering, ingenious, beautiful, immersive, and, like dreams sometimes are, also a little unsettling, but unlike the world of Tomb Raider, there are no death traps. Pull a lever and there’s no monster behind the door, no trapdoor over a spike filled pit, only a puzzle, another door to somewhere else, and another layer of mystery to add to the layers you already have.

MYST online is a massive download, 1.2Gbytes, but to play also requires a permanent hookup to the internet. I’ve a feeling much of the coming winter will be spent down this rabbit hole.

MYST is so different from any other game. Go wrong, fall off a ledge and into the lava for example, we simply wake back to our mountain hut, unhurt and more thoughtful. No one is torn limb from limb. No one is cut in two or has their head blown off. Get stuck and you can return to the hut any time. And the hut changes, things appear as you make progress through the levels, books appear on the shelf to help you, a more lush vegetation begins to grow. It’s puzzling, enigmatic, seductive.

And the purpose? Well, I’m several hours in and I really don’t know without reading the cheats and walkthroughs, which I don’t want to do at this stage. I’m determined to let the game inform me of its own purpose as I go along. It’s a quest of sorts, to find the glyphs, like the girl said, scattered thorughout the various levels of the world, but the world is vast and it comes at you all at once. This is not a linear adventure – doors open on vast levels, each with doors that open onto others, and somehow link back to one another through books and memory. It is a story, but one you don’t read. You have to live it. There is an intellectual challenge here unlike anything I’ve encountered in a computer game before.

And you are not alone. This is all online, a so called Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game which means there are others in here, though thinly spread throughout the vast dreaminess of the place. You can work with them, or you can go it alone. It’s up to you.

All of this sounds like I’m trying to sell it to you, and I suppose I am – but only because, like any enthusiastic traveller, I want you to see the things I’ve seen. And, remarkably, the journey costs nothing. unlike a regular game, say for a Playstation which costs anything up to £40 these days. But the developers of MYST are giving it away, just asking for donations on the startup screen to help keep the servers running. My machine’s a regular quad-core laptop and manages it smoothly. If your computer was built in the last two or three years, it’ll probably do the same. All you need is your email for an account, a couple of hours for the download, and you’re in.

Lost in MYST

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The summer was quick to bow out this year. Suddenly it’s dark at 8:00 pm and there’s a wild wind throwing the garden furniture about, vehicles splashing through puddles on the road outside my window. I’m thinking back for something to hold onto, some memory of the summer to make me smile and warm me up on this prematurely autumnal eve. We had the Olympic games last year, and the Queen’s jubilee, but this year?

Well, there’s always Glastonbury.

This is arguably the best rock concert in the world, coming back with renewed vigour after a fallow year last year on the host site of Worthy Farm. It’s well featured in the  BBC schedules, always beautifully filmed. And the highlight for me?

The Arctic Monkeys have been around since 2002, a bunch of likeable lads from Sheffield. But you know how it is when you get older, you tend to leave the pop music to kids, and you don’t always pick up on these things, such as the meteoric rise of this unassuming noughties band. Their set took my breath away – the whole concert is still on You Tube at the time of writing and well worth every second. This is them closing the show:

Great songwriters, great musicians, plastic pop this isn’t. Apologies for the risqué lyrics, but this is indy-rock at its best.

Yes, it was a good summer.

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I must have been living inside a bubble these past weeks – either that or it’s a measure of how low the Eurovision Song Contest has sunk in the UK’s collective psyche that I didn’t even know it was on. I caught it by chance on Saturday night with over half the songs already sung and I’d missed the UK’s entry – this year performed by Bonnie Tyler. I was a fan of hers in the 80’s and, at 61 now, I was pleased to see her still singing and still sounding good. I checked the preview out on Youtube and decided we stood a chance of at least ranking among the top ten, so I settled in with wine and crisps for the annual long haul of Eurovision Night.

Here’s Bonnie singing for the UK:

Among the other songs, there was the occasional eccentric entry that made me wonder if they were taking the Mickey, but overall I felt a change in the air this year. The bar had been raised with most entries being of a very high standard, very professional. This was less of your amateur night at the pub and more of an international Eisteddfod. Many countries had thrown their big guns at it, and it showed. Whether we connect with a song or not is entirely a personal thing, but it was soon clear to me the UK was going to struggle in such a strong field, and we did. I liked our entry, love the smokey sound of Bonnie’s voice, but it didn’t raise the hairs on the back of my neck as others did. Out of 26 songs in the final, we came 8th – from the bottom. Bottom ten rather than top.

My only consolation was that the winning Danish entry was among those  I’d tagged as a favourite. The rest of Europe agreed. It stole an early lead during the voting and accelerated into the far distance, uncatchable, taking an easy and well deserved win.  The real surprise for me was Ireland. I really enjoyed their song, tagged that one too for greatness, but it came bottom and must have had the whole of Ireland, as well as me, gurning in disbelief.

Anyway here’s the winning entry from Denmark’s Emile de Forest:

A terrific performance, I thought, and a well deserved win.

But the performance of the night for me was the reappearance of Loreen, during the interval. She was last years winner and delivered once again a stunningly energetic spectacle. It made me wonder if our low ranking was perhaps better deserved than I thought – no disrespect to Bonnie of course – but if we want to beat the likes of Loreen, and Emile, we really need to take this competition more seriously.

Are we really saying there’s not a single professional UK performer/songwriter/producer capable of attaining these heights? Of course not. We produce some of the best music in the world.  So is the problem more perhaps that we hold the competition in such contempt, it’s considered career limiting, or even career suicide, to have anything to do with it?

Sadly, it wasn’t always so. A win at Eurovision was once the launchpad to international fame. Saturday’s spectacular show from Sweden, delivered with a mix of humour, state of the art showmanship and professional polish, was a sign, I think, those days may be returning.

Finally, let me take you back to  Eurovision 1974, and a little known Swedish group who stepped out onto the stage at Brighton’s Dome theatre (UK) and sang this:

Whatever happened to them?

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It’s a Eurozone thing, the Eurovision song contest, also seasonal. You look about you and realise the hawthorns are in blossom, so it must be late May, and there’s another song contest imminent. I must admit to a complete disconnect with popular entertainment these days and that also goes for this perennial songfest, though I used to be quite a fan. Of course my lack of interest may have something to do with the fact that we embattled Brits haven’t won it since Katrina and Waves sang their “Love shine a light” in 1997. There are two simplistic and “popular” views on our lack of success – one being that we’re simply incapable of coming up with a decent song any more, or everybody else in Europe hates our guts and won’t vote for us. In other words we’re no good, and everybody hates us.

For Pete’s sake Britain, get a grip! How childish is that? We’re as good as anyone else, and this is no time for tantrums. We have the Queen’s Jubilee! We have the Olympics, for pity’s sake! Keep your peckers up! This is our year!

I missed the usual pre-contest hype this time, only catching up on the who-ha in the last week or so – something about a seventy six year old crooner being entrusted with the poisoned chalice of our nation’s pride. On the night of the fest, our guy was first up, and my good lady persuaded me to watch, and I thought, flipping heck, that looks a bit like Englebert Humperdink. And so it was, the legendary singer and heartthrob, still going strong.

Now I must admit I’m not the best judge when it comes to musical matters – I’d be hopeless as an X-Factor judge. When all my mates were listening to “cool” bands with obscure names in the seventies and eighties, and so obviously “with it”, I was naively humming along to the Carpenters and ABBA, and I still do. Personally I enjoyed the Hump’s performance and I didn’t think it was a bad song either. I even harboured a glimmer of hope that we might actually do well with it, but then I’m over fifty.

And we came next to last.

In spite of what the cynics and xenophobes tell us, I’m sure it’s not that the rest of Europe hates our guts, or that we can’t write a decent song any more – because I know we can. It’s perhaps more that the Europe we  thought we knew has changed dramatically since 1997, expanded further east than most of us Brits can imagine. It’s young, dynamic, maybe still a little kitsch and naive, but it’s also unsentimental and unsympathetic to any form of overbearing and corrupt authority. And perhaps our lack of success is down to the fact that we simply don’t get it, fielding songs that might have  been more at home in the Europe of yesteryear.

To finish, here’s the well deserved winning entry by Sweden, sung by Loreen:

In my humble opinion, there was no beating that! And to all those pundits who say Britain should pull out of the contest next year because those Johnny Foreigners  wouldn’t vote for us even if we put Robbie Williams up  as our representative, I say look, listen, swallow your sour grapes, and learn.

But well done to the Hump anyway. I really liked that song – still can’t get it out of my head. But Euphoria’s definitely the word. Wow! Go Sweden!

Graeme out.

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