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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘fantasy’

Books I Haven't Read (part the tenth, maybe)

In which we criticise a Great Writer, at least by volume

With such a big pile of books each for Christmas, there was bound to be something that I wouldn’t be able to make it through. The ironic thing, though, is that this Book I Haven’t Read is probably, in one sense, the easiest read on the pile. Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett.

Back when I was a teenager, I read an awful lot of Pratchett. I must have read every Discworld book at some point by now, and I’ve got copies still of most. The Parents, being unusually observant, picked up on this: and at some stage they started buying me a copy of his latest book every Christmas. As he’s kept on producing books, this kept on happening.

Now, at one time, I did enjoy Pratchett’s books. Back when I was a teenager. He’d published about ten, fifteen or so; so there were plenty to get through without it seeming too daunting. Moreover, he hadn’t run out of ideas, and the Discworld series hadn’t started to reach critical mass. Back then, Pratchett didn’t worry too much about making his world consistant, and presumably his readers didn’t worry about it too much either.

It’s something to do with that sort of fan, though, the sort that tends to be a fan of Pratchett, that they crave consistancy and reliability. They want the world to be as solidly-built as our own, even when the fraying at the edges is fairly obvious; even when its development over time is extremely obvious.* Even if the author doesn’t worry about tying up loose edges and gluing bits of geography together, assiduous and energetic readers will start doing it for him. And they did. A lot of effort started to be put into making the whole thing “make sense” in some way, to the extent that Pratchett ended up writing entire books apparently just to make incoherency a coherent part of his universe.** That should, really, be the point where you realise that a good idea’s been taken too far.***

All of that, though, is by-the-by compared to why I didn’t manage to read this specific book. I gave up on Unseen Academicals because, well, it generally isn’t very good. It’s not a book that gave me any sort of urge to keep reading at all. The characters are rather flat and lifeless, and the Deliberate Air Of Mystery surrounding the Mysterious Characters seems, well, all too deliberate, as if someone had written it all according to the How To Write A Discworld Novel manual. If I was a fan, I might have managed to finish it. Not being, I didn’t.

All novels, as you know, like to have review quotes in their blurb. For writers starting out, it may well be from a better-known writer who has taken a shine to this novel. For better-known writers, it will be an impressive quote from a review in a Top Newspaper. You can tell a writer who’s gone too far, though. They have what Unseen Academicals has: a quote from the writer themselves, about how great their own book is.**** It’s not a good sign, when you think you’re your own biggest fan.

* Note for non-Discworld readers: the Discworld started off as a parody of swords-and-sorcery fantasy. With the sixth book it started to expand to cover parodies of other literature, and by now has covered just about every aspect of Real Life of the past 200 years or so. As a result, it’s not actually a “fantasy” world any more, apart from magic used for comedic effect.

** Well, at least one. I’ve read it, and it does read like it’s largely filler./p>

*** And, yes, I know I complain about consistancy in Doctor Who. But the annoyance there is more the selective consistancy; the have-your-cake-and-eat-it grab-stuff-from-anywhere approach that Russell T Davies tended to take with the programme’s backstory.

**** Douglas Adams, I have to admit, did manage to get away with this once, by not sounding serious about it.

Being Humane

In which we watched Being Human

After the post last week, I felt we really should watch Being Human, the new BBC3 series set largely in Totterdown. We were, I have to say, pleasantly surprised.

I’m not going to summarise the plot here, other than to say: it’s a fantasy version of the classic sitcom plot. Three oddball characters who are stuck with each other – a vampire and a werewolf who are trying to appear human, and have managed to rent a haunted house.* If it is a sitcom, though, it’s the sort I’d like to write myself: the sort without very many jokes in.**

Some things were a little overused – the heavy heartbeat when Mitchell The Vampire’s blood-lust attacks came on; and the post-production effect used to make skies look darker and more interesting. Some of the mechanics of the worldbuilding don’t quite make sense, either.*** But, overall, the series was remarkably subtle and realistic, at least as far as something involving almost-immortal beasts can be, of course. Moreover, unlike the trailer, the characters, not the backdrop, were its main focus. It might have obviously-recognisable locations – the Totterdown house, the General Hospital, St Nick’s Market**** – and it might have bit-part actors with local accents; but so far, it could have been set anywhere. It didn’t rely on the location for anything.

I can guess how the series is going to go from here. The real test, I suppose, comes with: just how well the minor characters are treated. Will Herrick, or Lauren, become just as full a character as Mitchell? What about Annie’s fiance?***** We’ll watch it, because we’ll be intrigued to find out. And, of course, just in case, we spot anyone we know lurking in the background of a shot.

* go back to the post linked in the first paragraph to find out more about it.

** This is a good thing; we noted that Being Human was made by the BBC’s Cardiff drama section, and not by the people responsible for the awful laugh-tracked sitcoms that pass for entertainment on BBC3.

*** Actually, Vampire Civil Wars are an interesting argument to overcome the usual objection to vampires: if they’re immortal, and all their victims became vampires, then why didn’t we get to an I Am Legend-type situation about three weeks after they first evolved? Not being up on vampire-based literature, I don’t know if anyone else has ever covered it. They must have, at some point.

**** We did both shout out “Pie shop!” when George The Werewolf ran through the market and past the Pieminister stall

***** It confirms something I’ve thought for a long time, incidentally: ghost stories really can be the saddest stories in the world.

Last Resort

In which we can't remember the name of something

We’re stuck.

Twenty years or so ago, there was a series on the telly. It was on ITV, and was probably made by Yorkshire. It was written by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall – they who did Billy Liar, and the TV adaptation of Worzel Gummidge – and it was about Lilliputians living in Victorian England – two men and one woman. There were books based on the same characters, too, and somewhere in the house I have copies still. They were hidden by children – I remember one scene from the telly where the children’s father took up photography, and one from the book where he got his hands on an experimental vacuum cleaner.

But we’ve completely forgotten what it was called. And the internet is being no help at all – Waterhouse and Hall are just too prolific, and the books of the series don’t seem to be listed anywhere. Does anyone have an idea?

Update: feather boa left a comment on the original, comment-enabled version of this post, to say:

Argh. I feel like it was called something like The Voyage of the…

Ah, here it is The Return of the Antelope. Yay.

Hurrah!

Richard Richard Mayhew Dick

In which we’re both impressed and disappointed by the BBC

Classic mid-90s fantasy series Neverwhere has recently been released on DVD. As I hadn’t seen it since it was first shown, of course, I had to buy a copy.

I’ve read the book a few times since, most recently last summer, so I was familiar with the plot, the characters, the occasional slight fantasy cliché in the writing.* What I’d forgotten, though, was just what a ten-year-old BBC drama series looked like. I’d forgotten all about the shot-on-video look and the slightly strange sets.** It didn’t detract from the story at all – and, in many ways, it was a very innovative series – but, as a nostalgia trip, it just goes to prove how much TV production has changed in the past ten years, compared to the thirty before that.

* Such as the fantasy character not understanding real-world idioms, particularly someone introducing themselves with both their full name and a nickname, the fantasy character thinking that this is their full literal name. As in the title of this post.

** In particular, Neverwhere has one startling yet absolutely typical BBC studio-production set. The entrance room in the Portico family house: a bare white space, so that no walls are visible, just white background, with pictures of the other rooms of the house suspended at random positions and angles. As a set, it is as close to “typical BBC fantasy” as you can get; you can imagine it being created at any time in the past fifty years.

Life in front of the telly

In which we get a bit pedantic

I was expecting to be disappointed by the ending of Life On Mars, and, of course, I was. There was no way, to my mind, that they could wrap everything up and leave everyone happy, because too many contradictory things had gone before.* The ending I had in my head was, to my mind, a better one, but that of course is because it’s the sort of ending I like.

Still, at least, the ending was a lot braver than many that could have been written – braver for the BBC to produce, I mean, not necessarily braver for the writers to write. And the “it was all in his head all along” resolution is a handy get-out clause for all the little anachronistic niggles that pedants like me notice – there’s no way a Victorian stonemason would have used nicknames like “Sam” and “Vic” on a tombstone; the game of noughts and crosses on the TV test card was wrong; and those maroon railway vans were 10 years out of date for ’73, they should have been blue to match the engine.** Like I said with Doctor Who the other week: it’s all entertainment, and we shouldn’t try to read to much into it. There’s no point searching for hidden messages, Baconian-style, when the writer is here to tell us there aren’t any.

* specifically, episode one of series two, where the audience is at least led to believe that Sam’s behaviour in “1973” can radically alter the present day.

** which was, at least, pretty much correct for the period, albeit not entirely

The fog

In which it’s the season of the new year

The fog is thick all over the country at the moment, but it’s only now it is affecting The South that it makes it into the news. Up here in The Forest we’ve had thick fog all week, but it hasn’t troubled the press at all. I’ve been driving the Town route home rather than the normal Country route,* because a fog-bump at 30mph is a lot safer, to my mind, than one at 70.

I’ve recently been rereading The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper, for the nth time. And with the weather gripping the country, I couldn’t help thinking about that book. It’s set at this time of year, between Yuletide and Epiphany, and as the great force of evil, the Dark, rises and attacks the land, it brings on a great freeze and blizzards, stopping anyone from leaving their home. A great freeze is rather more dramatic than all-consuming freezing fog, but the fog has the same effect, muffling us all and slowing us to a standstill.

But now it’s the 21st of December, the time the festive season really starts. The solstice is tomorrow, I believe, and the year will have turned over. The solstice is the proper new year – it’s not an arbitrary date, it’s a measurable point in the turning sky. From tonight, everything will get lighter and brighter and on its way into spring. This is the time of year for flame and warmth and remembering that sunlight will come back into our lives.

* which is longer but a lot quicker

Just another office conversation

In which a colleague scares me

Last Wednesday, in the office kitchen, making a cup of tea. A random colleague with a history of attention-seeking pops her head round the door: “I had a dream about you last night.”

“Oh yes?”

“Yeah.” They looked around quickly, to see if anyone was within earshot. “I was naked, and tied up like this” – they mimed a hands-above-head position – “and you were whipping me!”

“Riiight.” Run away! I was thinking. Run away! “Um, better go and do some work. See you later.”