Sunday, 30 June 2013

Reports of my assimilation have been greatly exaggerated

For the first time in a few months, I'm managing more than one-to-two posts a month. Admittedly I'm cutting things rather a teeny bit close given that we're right at the end of June here, but hey-ho. Today is going to be a little bit of a special one. For this post will be my forty-seventh. The number forty-seven is curious. It's cropped up in quite a few places. I first encountered it in the TV show Alias, then again in the Hitman videogame series...mostly on account of the main character being the assassin called 47. But one of the most notable places it appears (and what I wish to discuss today) is the Star Trek universe.

The references to the number forty-seven can be traced back, according this article on Memory Alpha (the Star Trek wiki) to Joe Menosky, writer on both The Next Generation and Voyager. He was part of a society at college that believes mathematical proof exists that all numbers are equal to forty-seven. Thus, Menosky found ways to sneak the number forty-seven into Star Trek episodes as a neat little in-joke.

Anyway, that's reason that I decided I would talk about Star Trek in post forty-seven. In the exceptionally unlikely event that any Star Trek writers read this, I accept your facepalm gestures, rolled eyes, etcetera 'cause after so many years, you're probably sick to the death of the number.

Now then. On with the relevant babbling.

You see, I hold what I believe to be a slightly controversial opinion in the world of Star Trek geekdom. There is an age-old question that reigns among any fandom - which of said fandom incarnations are the best? Which is your favourite? The latter can be quite a damning question in the wrong company. And of the choices presented, I regard Deep Space Nine as my favourite. For the simple reason that more things go boom and the characters...well, the characters are far, far more complex.

So let's pause and digress for a moment, clarify some things. Jean-Luc Picard is undeniably the superior Starfleet captain of all the captains encountered. Both ships commanded by Captain Picard somewhat out-do Benjamin Sisko's small but mighty USS Defiant. But when it comes to the longevity of things, the complexity of storyline and intrigue of characters, Deep Space Nine takes the prize by more than a few country miles.

To back up my argument, a case study - episode nineteen of season six: "In the Pale Moonlight".

First of all, awesome title. Anyone who's watched and enjoyed Tim Burton's Batman can hear Jack Nicholson uttering the line "Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?" A curious, almost delightfully threatening phrase I find. And exceptionally fitting for the episode at the heart of our case study. For those of you not wishing to know anything about this episode, I'd stop reading right about...

We're deep in the Dominion War at this point. The Federation and the Klingon Empire are fighting hard against the Dominion and their Cardassian allies, but in spite of their efforts, the war continues to go badly for them. Every week, a new casualty list is posted by Captain Sisko and every week more friends have died. All the while, thanks to their non-aggression treaty, Dominion forces are to take shortcuts through Romulan space and catch Federation forces unawares. An idle conversation between the officers leads Sisko to a startling realisation - he needs to bring the Romulan Star Empire into the war.

But this is no easy task. The Romulans don't have any reason to join the fighting. The Federation and Romulus have been playing deadly games with each other since the end of the Earth-Romulan War in the 22nd Century. They have been openly hostile towards the Klingon Empire on more than one occasion. If the Dominion were to win the war, two of Romulus' greatest threats would be removed in one fell swoop. So in order to convince them that the Dominion intends to bring Romulus into the fold once it's done with the Federation and the Klingons, Sisko turns to the shadiest dealer on Deep Space Nine - Cardassian tailor and former Obsidian Order operative, Elim Garak.

We digress from the story a moment to talk a little about Garak. He is by far one of the best characters in the series. His past is beyond merely chequered, it's riddled with intentional black holes of ambiguity and secrecy. His past actions with the Cardassian secret police has given him a jaded worldview that is a stark contrast to the bright optimism embodied by the officers of Starfleet and their glorious Federation. And above all, he seems to reward mistrust and paranoia. Earlier in season six, when stranded on a planet and out on patrol with Nog, he calls the young cadet on the fact that Nog will not allow Garak to stand behind him. When the Ferengi explains his reasoning, Garak remarks "Cadet, there may be hope for you yet".

Anyway, skipping ahead, Sisko conspires with Garak to at first discover evidence of Dominion plans to invade Romulus, then forge evidence of aforementioned Dominion plans. Various shady circumstances ensue, pushing Sisko's integrity closer and closer to the edge of the proverbial abyss. Eventually, with their forged evidence, they arrange a clandestine meeting with a prominent Romulan senator, who notably supports the treaty Romulus has with the Dominion. The senator comes aboard DS9, views the evidence, takes it away to examine it for himself and discovers it to be a fake. Outraged, he returns to Romulus, Sisko prepares for the consequences. Then...

...well, Garak outdoes himself. Just before the senator returns to Romulus, his shuttle explodes. Romulan authorities examine the wreckage, the imperfections in the forged evidence dismissed as damage from the explosion. The Romulan Star Empire enters the war.

As soon as he hears of the senator's demise, Sisko knows Garak is responsible. A confrontation ensues, but eventually...well, Sisko realises the most damning thing of all. He can live with it. The lies, the murder. For the sake of the Alpha Quadrant, he can live with it.

As I see it, this episode does something no other Star Trek incarnation ever did or would ever do. It epitomises Deep Space Nine's ability to shine a light on the darkest, most compelling storylines. And for this reason, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is my favourite.

And now for something completely different, I'm ending this blog entry here so I can watch Battlestar Galactica and eat Chinese food. Nom.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Sitting Under the Shade of the Tree: Great North Road

When I was last sitting under the shade of the tree enjoying a good book, I expressed my fear that I was becoming a China MiƩville fanboy. My stated reason was that excepting one book, every time I finished reading one of his I would "review" (I use sarcastic quotation marks on myself because I would hardly regard these as professional reviews) the book. This trend is apparently continuing with Peter F. Hamilton, as with the exception of Mindstar Rising, the first Greg Mandel novel, I've reviewed every book of his I've read. Continuing today with my "review" of his latest offering, the 1086 page tome Great North Road.

Great North Road is the first standalone Peter F. Hamilton book I've read, as he has a habit of writing trilogies it seems. This particular book is set in 2143, kicking off in the not-so-exotic location of Newcastle-upon-Tyne with discovery of the body of a prominent person. Well, sort of. The body belongs to a member of the North family, a family of all-male clones. The body has been stripped of all features that would permit identification, presenting investigating officer Detective Sidney Hurst with the first of many, many mysterious stumbling blocks.

The one identifying trait is the murder weapon/method, which is the same as a murder on the exotic planet of St Libra (linked to Newcastle by a trans-spatial gateway permitting instantaneous travel from one planet to the next) that occurred in 2121. Where the victims were Bartram North, patriarch of one of the three branches of the North family. The second hitch...Angela Tramelo, one of Bartram North's "girlfriends" who survived the massacre on St Libra, was convicted of the crime and has been languishing in Holloway prison all the while.

Things rapidly spiral out of control from there - all through her trial, Tramelo had insisted that she didn't murder Bartram or his alien did. With the implication that this "alien" was involved in a fresh murder in 2143, the Human Defence Alliance descends on the investigation. From there, both Sidney Hurst and Angela Tramelo are dragged into the HDA's hunt for the truth - is there another alien race out to get humanity, or did Tramelo have an accomplice on St Libra?

Now to run away from the plot so I don't post any spoilers and talk about...well, pretty much any damn thing. We'll start with the brief verdict - I thoroughly enjoyed it. There are some damn compelling characters, from the pretty uncomplicated, down-to-earth but incredibly shrewd Detective Sidney Hurst to the incredibly complicated Angela Tramelo. Sprinkled in with the main characters I've mentioned before are some pretty neat supporting characters - HDA officer Colonel Vance Elston, who is convinced Tramelo is hiding the truth behind the events on St Libra, Sidney Hurst's through-and-through Geordie partner Detective Ian Lanagin and the occasional perspective character of surf-shop owner Saul Howard. I could go on, but I might say too much.

So moving over to one of my other favourite topics - setting. I mentioned the gateway concept briefly. In this particular future, Earth is connected to a whole ton of planets by these gateways. We get to "see" a couple of them, but by and large our primary settings are Earth and St Libra. And St Libra is fascinating planet - it has absolutely no indigenous animal life and has what is called "zebra" botany, which are plants that produce both carbon dioxide AND oxygen, making the uninhabited planet a perfectly habitable tropical jungle paradise. St Libra is, if memory serves, slightly bigger than Earth and the star it orbits is younger than our own. All these elements combine to make a strange, unpredictable tropical world...that even has its own rings, akin to those of Saturn's. Though the rocks from these rings have a nasty habit of falling through the atmosphere in an area called "The Fall Zone". But apart from that, the presence of the rings sounds awesome. Especially as St Libra doesn't have any moons. Which is kind of sad. No planet should be without a moon.

I feel should take a moment to talk about the actual writing. You know, style, flow, stuff like that. Now Hamilton is defined, I believe, as Hard Science-Fiction. That means lots of amazing technology (epitomised in Great North Road by the trans-spatial gateways and a funky load of tech called smartcells) and good chunks of description about...well, planets, spaceships, space stations, things like that. And it doesn't detract from a quite gripping narrative. I wouldn't say it's nail-biting, gnaws at you. All those little hints and clues, chewing away at the back of your brain, calling you back to the book so you can find out just what the frak is actually going on. In my eyes, just as good as a book you can't put down. But like I say, fair amounts of description of tech, people and locations. Which is also good, because you get a pretty damn good picture of this twenty-second century world Hamilton has created.

I've reached the point of babbling entropy, so I'm going to wrap things up. Great North Road was pretty damn good, a thoroughly enjoyable yarn. Well worth picking up and devoting a good chunk of time to sitting under that tree and reading it.

Monday, 3 June 2013

The Starks are always right, eventually. Winter is Coming

So it may have, by some curious means of me babbling about it in several posts, come to light that I am something of a fan of the Song of Ice and Fire books by George R.R. Martin. Known in the more common vernacular as Game of Thrones, after the first book in the series. This is largely because the TV series is named such. Thus far, I have only watched two seasons of the series, though I have been told that the impending British broadcast of the third season finale depicts quite a momentous event. I will not speak of such things, of course, but in honour of this series finale, I'm going to be babbling on Song of Ice and Fire lines today.

As a fan of the books, I have, somewhat naturally, developed an affinity for a particular noble house. My allegiance is owed to House Stark and my words are simple. Winter is Coming. And it is for these words that I am writing a whole frak ton of my own today. Many a day I have spent "meditating" of a sort on the deeper meanings of the words of the major noble house of Westeros. For the purposes of this post, I have chosen six of the houses. So, without further ado...

House Stark - "Winter is Coming"

The words of the Starks of Winterfell are quite interesting - it is noted in other sources that their words aren't a threat or a boast...they're an ominous warning. On the surface, it's the ominous warning of the inevitability of winter's arrival. A simple statement of fact, really. But to me, it feels like so much more than that. Winter is Coming is a promise, a declaration of intent. It is the nature of the Starks - no matter what happens, if you mess with the Starks, their friends, their loved ones...they will come for you. Today, tomorrow. Time is of no consequence. Winter is a fact. It is coming and there isn't a damn thing you can do about it.

House Baratheon - "Ours is the Fury"

This one is an obvious threat. Rage. Fury. Vengeance. The Baratheons are a mighty house, historically not ones to be frakked with or take anything lying down. They're warriors, but they're immediate warriors. Their nature is not like the Starks, they're not patient. They don't do sitting around waiting for this to happen. They're energetic, vigorous, they swing their swords and warhammers at anyone or anything that looks at them cross-eyed. The Baratheons do not wait. Cross them and they'll come for you. No grace period, no thinking. Pure, animal fury.

House Lannister - "Hear Me Roar"

On the surface, it's an obvious reference to their sigil, the golden lion. But when you look into the depths of the Lannister soul...well, it's a boast. It's their pride and their vanity. Epitomised, I feel, by the patriarch of their house, Lord Tywin Lannister. Not content to sit on all the gold in Casterly Rock and be the richest man in the Seven Kingdoms, Tywin Lannister needs attention, validation. For a time, he had the power. Hand of the King for twenty years, the balance to Aerys II's considerable madness. The craving for power and recognition is continued with Cersei, highlighted by her relentless scheming and behind-the-scenes backstabbing she perpetrates in King's Landing. Hear Me Roar is not merely a boast. It's a cry for attention.

House Targaryen - "Fire and Blood"

Not a boast, nor a warning or a threat. Fire and Blood are the values of House Targaryen - the blood of the dragon, the blood Old Valyria. Fire is radiant, beautiful. Dangerous if mishandled. Fire burns and yes, it's dangerous. But if you know how to handle it, you meet the other half, Blood. Family is everything to those of House Targaryen. Hurt their Blood, they will spills yours. Fire and Blood is a double-edged sword. They are the dragon blood, Fire runs in their veins and they treasure their kin, their Blood. If you hurt their Blood, they will rain Fire upon you. On the surface it may not sound like a threat...well, Fire does suggest being threatening, but Fire is also a comfort in times of cold, in places of darkness.

House Greyjoy - "We Do Not Sow"

A matter-of-fact statement. House Greyjoy do not ask for things, they do not compromise. They take what they want, what is theirs. There is an edge of warning to their words. Do not expect anything from them, they do not play by your rules. The Greyjoys may be part of the Seven Kingdoms, but they do not play the laws of the rest of Westeros. They continue to be pirates and raiders, only just about keeping the King's Peace. We Do Not Sow. Our ways are our own. We will fight, raid and pillage anyone who means to stamp us under their heel. Like the direwolves of House Stark, the krakens of House Greyjoy are patient. Water connects everything. The kraken moves fast, but it can also move slow. When it strikes...there is no mercy. The kraken takes what it wants, leaves the rest to the sea.

House Martell - "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken"

To wrap my meditations, I present what I consider one of the most intriguing noble houses in Westeros - House Martell, the ruling house of Dorne. In the Seven Kingdoms, Dorne is a curiosity. Ruled not by lords, but princes. Their words, on the surface, may be seen to reflect their history - the only part of the Seven Kingdoms that successfully stood against Aegon the Conqueror's dragons, as well as the retention of the royal style for their rulers. Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken speaks of proud resilience, an unyielding defiance, but the actions of their house speak other words. Some can be shrewd, patient, biding their time. Others, while just as canny thinkers, are hot-tempered, quicker in their need for vengeance. The Martells are unpredictable in terms of when they will strike and how. In a way, it seems that the Martells very easily live up to the surface of their words. But only insofar as they are one of the more...shy? Reserved. They're more reserved. But that does not mean they have yielded. They're just waiting for the right moment to strike.

I suspect my babbling has made...well, not a huge amount of sense. It never really does. Regardless, these have been my meditations on the house words of some of my favourite houses (/those houses that friends of mine hold dear to as well). They make sense to me at least.

And for those of you about to watch Game of Thrones this evening who have not yet read A Storm of Swords...

Enjoy :D