Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 17:57 on 30-03-2012, Andy G
Oh dear. I just watched the Being Human season finale, and it was one of the worst offenders on the use of prophecy in a fantasy/sci-fi story I have ever seen.
Basically, there is a prophecy that the newborn child that the heroes are looking after is the saviour for humanity who they have to protect from the vampires. But it turns out that the complete prophecy actually says that the child has to die for humanity to survive, otherwise humanity will be complacent waiting for their saviour and the vampires will win. The main character agonises about killing the baby, but then heroically decides to blow up herself, the baby and the villains so that humanity can survive. Because, you know, prophecy.
at 12:36 on 30-03-2012, Ibmiller
To be upfront, I really don't enjoy the Hunger Games series or concept that much - they're readable, but not terribly engaging to me. So I actually enjoyed the film more than the book, primarily because they moved away from the not-terribly-believable first-person-present-tense narrative. I think the weaknesses of the ending are simply things they didn't mess with from the book (especially in this post-Potter age of slavish fidelity - and oh, how it hurts me to say that, since I adore fidelity).

I do agree that the Hunger aspect of the books is rather absent (particularly in the nicely well-fed look of all the leads - the director seems to think that making everything desaturated and gray makes it sufficiently grim) - but to me, the worldbuilding aspect is one of the least satisfying elements of the series, so I wasn't too bothered.

Somewhat irrelevant, but I was quite pleased with the music - especially after the last two scores I've heard from James Newton Howard (Green Lantern and Green Hornet), which were both on the awful side of mediocre.
at 12:15 on 30-03-2012, Arthur B
@Shimmin: Much obliged, but the Genevieve Warhams stuff post-Drachenfels sapped me of my enthusiasm for the character. :)
at 11:54 on 30-03-2012, Shim
@Arthur: if you're interested in a quick look, my copy's up for grabs.
at 11:43 on 30-03-2012, Arthur B
One of my gripes with the book was that Newman had set up this “vampire taint” theme with the book, with vampirism bringing madness, animalistic traits and a strange disease; and then broke it completely with the bloodlines thing, which seems to exist only so that Genevieve can avoid having any of those unappealing disadvantages.

Which is particularly odd because in the Warhams stories about her she's regularly wrestling with primal urges.

Other thoughts:

- Newman also did the "Genevieve is tangentially involved in the hunt for a serial killer in a bustling metropolis" thing in Beasts In Velvet, one of the Warhams novels featuring her (see review here).

- Newman also attempted to shoehorn a quasi-tolerated vampire subculture into a society which it really, really didn't fit into in his Warhams books - I know Warhammer Fantasy canon has evolved since then but even back in the day the idea of there being a pub which is a hub for the undead community in Altdorf which the Altdorf authorities are vaguely aware of but do nothing about was absurd and didn't fit the premises of the setting at all. Genevieve as a vampire who is just about considered acceptable in polite society due to obvious heroism in the past was a stretch but just about worked, injecting an entire community of the undead into the Imperial capital who exist as an open secret is barmy on the level of having an Ork Embassy on Earth in the 40K universe.

Basically it seems Newman is very very interested in writing novels about a world where vampires are an accepted part of society but isn't interested in doing the worldbuilding required to have that be the case from time immemorial - which I think you need if you want the opposition to the vampires to be as feeble as it is in his lesser Warhams stories (that being everything which isn't Drachenfels, which is great) and as it sounds like it is in Anno Dracula.
at 11:30 on 30-03-2012, Shim
@Alasdair: fair enough, I think it’s partly a matter of just completely different literary preferences. I haven’t actually read that much Warhams or Newman myself but I happen to have read about three of his Warhams books.

Genevieve actually originates in Newman’s Warhammer fiction, but he’s apparently started writing her into other series too. One of my gripes with the book was that Newman had set up this “vampire taint” theme with the book, with vampirism bringing madness, animalistic traits and a strange disease; and then broke it completely with the bloodlines thing, which seems to exist only so that Genevieve can avoid having any of those unappealing disadvantages. Dracula (and everyone else) has a nasty, corrupt Eastern European bloodline with all those problems, whereas Genevieve has a nice, clean bloodline from a French vampire that has no problems of any kind whatsoever, and indeed very few disadvantages. So she can be young, beautiful, strong, wise, clever, healthy and also immortal and powerful. I had no problem with Genevieve in the Warhams books, I just thought she was clumsily shoehorned in here.

Now to be fair I was expecting a somewhat tongue-in-cheek adventure story tied into vampire literature and with a Victorian novel feel. In my defence, that was based on the book’s premise and its blurb. As it turned out, it doesn’t really read much like a vampire novel to me, and the city didn’t feel much like Victorian London to me, even Dickensian dark gritty London; it just felt like a Warhammer city dressed up as London.

I have to say I found the portrayal of how vampirism was accepted deeply unconvincing, which was part of the problem. I really couldn’t see Victorian society, with all its firebrands and moralising, placidly accepting vampirism in such a short time and with so few problems. Newman explains it by having all the objectors killed or locked away, but that just moves the problem aside – why did they accept the sudden dictatorship and oppression by foreign soldiers? I don’t buy the upper classes accepting the vampires at all, let alone going for vampirism – they had their own ideological and religious views. And especially not if they’re going to make the place all squalid and disgusting. Similarly the sudden imposition of impaling as a punishment – no.

Jack Seward, as you say, was all right. The detective bloke was not especially interesting and I couldn’t see any reason why Gene would go for him (which seems to be a pattern in Gene stories).

Also for some reason it really cheesed me off that he mischaracterised Raffles :) No way would he join an evil cabal, let alone go vamp.
at 04:58 on 30-03-2012, Melissa G.
I thought they rather missed some opportunities.

I very much agree with this. My roommate is still bemoaning the fact that they never pulled out to give us a full shot of Katniss' dress, and that is just a small example of how ball was dropped a bit on visual things.

I haven't yet read the books so I suspect a lot of my enjoyment came from the exposure to the story. I do think though that the movie being able to move away from a first person narrative was likely helpful.
at 02:49 on 30-03-2012, Alasdair Czyrnyj
Oh all the things I ever thought I'd see paired together in fan art...this wasn't one of them.

(Don't worry, it's clean, just...unexpected.)
at 00:09 on 30-03-2012, Andy G
Leaping back ages to what Melissa said, but I have now seen the Hunger Games movie ... and had a rather cliched "not as good as the book" reaction. Generally decent, but I thought they rather missed some opportunities. I thought what worked very well on film was how they were able to literally recreate the reality TV aspect, and how they used the TV commentators rather than clunky voicovers to replace the first-person narration of the book. But especially towards the end, this aspect almost completely vanished and there was a less clear sense than in the book of the way that the characters' performance to an audience mattered (we had been *told* it mattered early on, but it was never really *shown*). And it would have been nice to have had more reality TV-style countdowns of how many players were left in the game. So it seemed like the film wasn't entirely playing to its potential strengths. Also, for a film called the Hunger Games, I thought they could have done a little bit more to bring out the survival aspect of things - nobody ever seemed to be particularly struggling with shelter, food or water, which were all very visceral in the book.
at 23:24 on 29-03-2012, Alasdair Czyrnyj
@Shimmin: I don't think I could get a full review up (mainly becuase I'm trying to start some other projects right now), but I can summarize what I liked briefly.

This is actually the first book by Newman I've read, so I naturally came to it without any experience of his Warhammer work. Just on its own, I liked how it sketched out a social transformation that none of the parties entirely comprehend or are able to control (i.e. the dissemination of vampirism into the general British public) as well as how deeply uncomfortable the relationship between vampires and humans can get in a civilized context. Common themes, true, but Newman manages to elevate them to squirm-inducing levels at points, which is what you want in a story where the antagonists are symbols of corruption.

I also rather liked most of the characters. I didn't mind Genévieve, and I felt she did keep the vampires as a whole from being completely irredeemable. I kind of wish we'd got more time with dorky journaliste extraordinaire Kate Reed, but hopefully the next book will take care of that. I was also rather taken with Jack Seward, who Newman turned into a horrific serial killer but managed to built into such a self-tortured ball of misery that I was hoping he would die just so he could finally be free of all the pain. (I also thought it was rather clever that Newman managed to slyly suggest that even organizing a vampire-hunting posse is a pretty fucked-up thing to do if you live in a world where vampires supposedly don't exist.) Also, I was disappointed that Mina Harker only made a cameo, but then I suppose everyone else was. Finally, I loved Lord Ruthvern's Byronic bitchery, and I was disappointed that the cop Mackenzie was killed, since I sorely wanted him and Kostaki to team up and become PIs or something.

As for the ending, to reiterate I don't read Warhammer, and most of my own reading tends to shy away from hyperbole and grand guginol, so my reaction to
eveything that goes on in the chapter was something along the lines of "Holy fuck, Dracula is filming Caligula in Buckingham Palace!

Now I did have some problems. The plot is ostensibly about finding Jack the Ripper, but it is rather unfocused, there seem to be more unconscious timeskips in the narrative than I'm comfortable with, and the ending seemed too pat for my taste. The references didn't bother me that much, but only because I was already familiar with the ones that were really important. Overall, I thought it was fun, and I'm definitely getting The Bloody Red Baron, though I'm probably going to stop after finishing it.
at 22:35 on 29-03-2012, Arthur B
I honestly find pomo metafictional references to be pretty much the weakest tool in Newman's kit, which is a shame because he's more or less addicted to using them.
at 22:18 on 29-03-2012, Shim
@Alasdair: really? I bought the sequel purely on the strength of the premise (Biggles vs. Dracula), then decided I should read Anno Dracula first, and... well, honestly I didn't think much of it. It's just far too much like his Warhammer fiction for me (specifically Beasts in Velvet), and also far too in love with Genevieve. The last chapter had at least one cool moment but could have been transplanted directly into a Slaaneshi brothel scene. I read it through to see what'd happen, but it's not something I'd recommend, and both books are now in my Oxfam pile. Would you feel like writing a review? I'd be interested to see what it did for you.
at 22:01 on 29-03-2012, Alasdair Czyrnyj
In unrelated news, I just finished Kim Newman's Anno Dracula. It was awesome. In fact, I'd say it's the only "what if vampires were real"/pomo metafictional reference party novel you'll ever need. (Mind you, I say this before having read Brian Stableford's The Empire of Fear which deals entirely in the former, so this opinion may be revised.)

And that final chapter...holy fuck.
at 20:19 on 29-03-2012, Axiomatic
I love KSR, but I have to admit that yes, he does have a tendency to gush about Martian geography to an unreasonable degree.

Or Antarctic geography, if he's set the story there.
at 10:17 on 29-03-2012, valse de la lune
I read The Years of Rice and Salt about halfway through and gave up, remembering nothing about it except that it was really very incredibly ploddy and not especially good. Which is sad, because I thought the premise sounded awesome.
at 05:48 on 29-03-2012, Alasdair Czyrnyj
Has Kim Stanley Robinson's prose improved any since the Mars trilogy? Because those were very zzzz-worthy. As was Antarctica.

The Years of Rice and Salt was the book where KSR got experimental. The basic premise of the book is that the Black Death managed to drive the human race in Europe to extinction, from the Atlantic to the Urals. The book itself is the story of how the world evolved without Europe, from the years 1400 to about 2050, as a series of ten novelettes, each dealing with some significant event and place. The stories are unified by having a troupe of characters who are reincarnated again and again in the Buddhist fashion and who tend to wander through each other's lives. The ones we get to see the most of are "K", the Revolutionary, "B", the Pious Conciliator, and "I", the Scientist. They change gender and race over and over, but they stick with each other and remain true to their respective archetype. KSR also tries to ape the literatures of the particular place and period for whatever novella he's writing, which I can't really comment on since I last read YRS back in high school (and even now my knowledge of non-Western literature is rudimentary), but it did get across the idea of eras changing, from material that happily mixed the material and spiritual world and had authors telling the story as an anecdote to modern material that reads as if it came out of a creative writing seminar.

Which is kind of the big conceptual problem with the book, really.

I mean, it has a wide range, and does try to thoughtfully consider what exactly drives history and how man fits into it, but once you step back and just look at the broad sweep of events, YRS is really just a copy of our world, even in places where it really shouldn't be. Technology advances at about the same pace, the Americas end up becoming the center of a major colonization effort only a century after it did in our world (though it does end with a Iroquois nation maintaining its independence). Industrialization starts at about the same time it did in our world, and modernization mostly proceeds in the same directions. There even expys of people from European history floating around, performing the same roles in different contexts (It's been a long-standing joke of mine that the most impressive part of YRS is that KSR was able to get a major publisher to buy his Civ III fanfic.)

Also, and this is probably more a personal taste, but I was disappointed that KSR decided to have the plague chew up everyone in the Slavic heartlands. I mean, you want to write a book that talks about how the world evolves without Europe, and you decide to kill off Russia, the society that has the most neurotic relationship with Europe of any society on the planet, the society whose history is always framed in Western schools and universities as the eternal struggle over becoming "more" or "less" European? You could write an entire book just on how Russia would evolve without Europe to use/obsess over as a model. (An interesting bit of speculation about this matter popped up in Robert Silverberg's The Gate of Worlds, which has Europe is damaged enough by the plague that it spent the rest of the millenium as an Ottoman backwater. Without a European model, Russia ends up displacing the Mongols as the hegemons of Asia, and the Emperor of China is a minister of the Tsar.)

Is it worth reading? Well, I liked it in high school, but even than I did feel it dragged in places. You can probably read it as a collection of stories in a shared universe and come off none the worse for wear. Some of them are actually pretty fun, particularly "The Age of Great Progress", which features an Indian prince seizing control of Constantinople with a two-pronged attack with ironclads on the Black Sea and a flotilla of bomb-throwing hot-air balloons, and "War of the Asuras", which is set in the middle of a 60-year long world war in the middle of the 20th century between Islam and the rest of the planet along a front line that bisects Central Asia, and features the adventures of two Chinese soldiers who try to figure out if they actually died halfway through the story. (Oh, and according to the little timeline in the beginning of the book, the war starts in year 1333 of the Islamic calendar, which translates into the Christian calendar as circa. 1914, because no man can escape the First World War, dammit.)
at 05:26 on 29-03-2012, Bjoern
Has Kim Stanley Robinson's prose improved any since the Mars trilogy? Because those were very zzzz-worthy. As was Antarctica.

No, it hasn't. It's a brick of a novel written in Robinson's typical prose, including deviations into explaining why a natural feature looks gorgeous by painstakingly describing its molecular make-up. I've really tried to finish that one, because I like the idea, but it's far too much work and far too little fun to be worth it.

(By the way, I thought that Red Mars actually was a really good book, but after that his novels became ever longer and ever more boring. Finishing Blue Mars was a chore and the great ideas there - e.g. how to colonize Mercury - I could have read on Wikipedia and would have been better off for it.)
at 03:26 on 29-03-2012, Michal
But wait! I have more to say:

It is icky, though I guess there'd be a risk that giving Native Americans magical mystical powers could go icky in another direction.

I'd say the "other species" route is more icky on the ickiness scale. The magical Native American stereotype in colonial literature was tied to the whole dying Indian thing by making them "closer to the primal" & increasing their otherness. Whereas, say, having practical magic and thriving cultures/civilizations able to effectively challenge European incursions would be a great deal different. I could still see so many ways to screw that up, however.

One of the (many, many) problems I had with Seventh Son was that, while magic presumably exists, settlement on the eastern coast hasn't been stymied in any way whatsoever. I would assume that healing magic would've helped with smallpox? But apparently not.
at 00:28 on 29-03-2012, Michal
Now ask me about The Years of Rice and Salt!

Has Kim Stanley Robinson's prose improved any since the Mars trilogy? Because those were very zzzz-worthy. As was Antarctica.

I found Guns, Germs & Steel extremely reductive and was generally annoyed by how much it ignored. I also really don't like geographic determinism, for something like Alasdair's reasons.

I also firmly believe that indigenous Americans would have done fine in terms of resistance against the initial wave of Europeans if it wasn't for disease (Think about how long it took before Europeans were able to carve up Africa). Cortes was driven out from the Aztec capital, after all, and Pizarro would not have been able to do much against a united Inca Empire (his success came from exploiting a civil war...which was caused by the previous emperor dying of smallpox). We're also fairly certain the the Native Americans drove out the Vikings from their initial Vinland settlement, though the technological gap was a bit narrower then, and the actual reasons for the settlement's abandonment are unclear.
at 23:06 on 28-03-2012, Alasdair Czyrnyj
@Sunny: Ironically, magical pharmacology would probably be the best way to go. Most of the Americas didn't have many of the type of environments that favors rapid disease evolution and hardy immune systems (i.e. large groups of settled people living in close contact with one another and with animals), and in a lot of areas the population density was so low that if a community was hit by a terrible disease, they would just die out completely and the disease would be unable to be transmitted. There's also the problem that getting a variant of smallpox or influenza from 500 AD would probably not be much help, given how fast bacteria and viruses evolve.

@Arthur: I'd buy that premise. Not quite sure what you could do with gunpowder if you didn't have a good understanding of metalworking, though. I'm thinking rockets. Lots and lots of rockets.

Also, this discussion if reminding me of a short story Paul Melko wrote called "The Teosinte War" which involved a academic trying to figure out how to put the Americas and Europe on an equal footing by 1500 by generating actual parallel Earths and teleporting in seed stocks, horses, what have you. It was a "man must not play god" fable, so everything ended in tears, with the final Earth being an initial success, only for tragedy to strike when the disease banks of both sides are exchanged and drive the entire species to the brink of extinction. There was also a cute pocket Earth whose Americas were initially developing in a promising direction, only for the Jin Dynasty to get interested. By around 1400, all of the Americas ended up as a tributary of China, and there was a long-term project to convert most of South America into farmland by slash-and-burning the entire Amazon rainforest. Even for the society that built the Great Wall, that's pretty damn impressive.
at 23:06 on 28-03-2012, Arthur B
That could work. They hold off the Europeans long enough to recover from all the plagues, now with better immunity, so even of the Europeans start trying to invent heir own firearms (and it might take a while to work out all the kinks), they'll still be fighting on more equal terms.

Plus once they suss out the connection between those plagues breaking out and the arrival of European ships the Aztecs are going to be researching long-range cannon to sink any of those damn plague ships before they make landfall...
at 22:57 on 28-03-2012, Sunnyskywalker
That could work. They hold off the Europeans long enough to recover from all the plagues, now with better immunity, so even of the Europeans start trying to invent heir own firearms (and it might take a while to work out all the kinks), they'll still be fighting on more equal terms.

On the magic front, I recently read Kate Elliott's Cold Magic and Cold Fire, which have some similar features to this book but took them in a different direction. There are both cold mages and fire mages; Europe is dominated by cold mages (being, um, cold, especially since the ice age is lasting a lot longer there than in our world), and they find when they get to the alt-Caribbean that cold magic is weaker as you get further away from the poles and the American fire mages can kick their asses. The reliance on cold magic has also acted as an alternate technology in Europe, plus the cold mages are opposed to fire-based technologies because they threaten the mage houses' dominance, so guns are still new-fangled in the 19th century, iirc illegal, and anyway they fail if a cold mage looks at them funny. So technologically, they're on a more equal footing. Also, the Taino at least have also figured out how to use fire magic to kill the teeny little creatures which cause disease (handy when those pesky Europeans bring a zombie plague over with them), which further evens the playing field. This world also introduces a second sentient species indigenous to the Americas (who are dinosaurs! with feathers! and law firms!), but they aren't the factor which keeps the Europeans at bey (they're just there to be Way Cool, I think). The human fire mages do that. So, magic makes the difference, without making it a special mystical woo thing only for people In Touch With The Earth or however else you want to phrase the usual excuse.
at 22:24 on 28-03-2012, Arthur B
It is icky, though I guess there'd be a risk that giving Native Americans magical mystical powers could go icky in another direction.

Hmm. ISTR that South America has an abundant source of the chemicals you need to make gunpowder. Proposal for alt history: South American cultures discover gunpowder fairly early on, Genghis Khan dies earlier than he did in our history, limiting the extent of the Mongol conquests to such an extent that the Mongol invasion of Europe - which went a long way to drawing Europeans' attention to gunpowder as a weapon of war - didn't happen.

End result: Spanish arrive and are blown out of the water by the Aztecs, who have superior dakka.
at 22:15 on 28-03-2012, Sunnyskywalker
I certainly wouldn't want to try to domesticate a moose...

Slower (and different) does seem to be the key (as opposed to "impossible") since, as you point out, they did get some fairly complex civilizations going in the Americas. The conquistadors were impressed by Tenochtitlan, eg. (No sewage flooding the streets, imagine!) Plus, adapting crops north/south is harder, but they did get corn all the way up to New England - it just takes a while.

But introducing a magical/alien species and slapping a name from the sagas on them just seems out of left field. Why not have a few fishing boats from Europe blow waaaay off course, bringing smallpox and influenza with them (say the boat has the last two sick survivors of the original crew, whatever), about a thousand years early, giving more time to build up resistances to at least a couple of the big diseases? Or if you're going to bring magic into it, why can't the human inhabitants of the Americas have the awesome magic? It's like the author is saying the indigenous inhabitants just weren't going to be able to protect themselves any better, not even with magic pharmacology awakening special powers, like it's some kind of preordained doom totally separate from circumstances. (Seriously, there is no way to imagine a magic pharmacology which could provide some protection against new diseases? Or at least invent a European-specific bioweapon to even the odds? Nothing?) No, they need magic saviors. That... sounds kind of icky.