Short story: Four minute warning

29 June 2015

First of all, no this is not the long-promised redraft of the Girl who Cried Glass I told you about over a month ago. I’m still working on that. Just need to deal with writers block and time shortages and all those other little hurdles that life loves to throw at you first.

In the meantime, here’s a very old story I wrote while at university.

Spoiler warning: it’s terrible.

Click here to read Four Minute Warning (PDF)

The inspiration for this masterpiece [sic] comes from two places. One is a short story by Garret Adams called Jumper (read about it here) which I first came across in the book On Writing by Stephen King.

Now let me say straight away that On Writing is an excellent book, full of great insight and wisdom for any budding writer.  However, the short story included inside the book (a story which won the writing competition King ran to coincide with the launch of On Writing no less) never really resonated with me. It felt like little more than a troll fic, a story built around its ham-fisted plot twist, which comes completely out of the left field and leaves you with more questions than it answers.

On Writing by Stephen King: A great book for any new writer

On Writing by Stephen King: A great resource for any new writer

So why did I decide to write a story inspired by this piece of fiction?

Well, suffice to say I was still new to the world of writing at the time and trying to find my own voice. And here was an example of a short story, highlighted by the masterful Stephen King no less, of what he considered to be a great piece of fiction. At the time I hadn’t read many short stories – I certainly hadn’t written many of them – so this random piece of short fiction ended up becoming something of a template for how a short story should look.

  • Hence Four Minute Warning opens with our hero in a very difficult situation – just like in Jumper.
  • The police are looking for him – just like in Jumper.
  • There are no fleshed out characters other than the hero – just like in Jumper.
  • It ends with the main character (*spoiler alert*) becoming a terrorist and killing lots of people – just like in Jumper.

Really, you could just slap the label “Just like Jumper (only worse)” on the strap line of this thing and it would pretty much sum up the whole thing. It would also save you 20 minutes of your precious life.

Does anyone even remember this movie?

Does anyone even remember this movie?

By the way, while we’re on the subject, what sort of a name for a story is Jumper anyway? Any Americans reading this: please stop using the word “jumper” as the title for you fiction. It sounds terrible. No British guy wants to read the epic story about one man and his favourite sweatshirt. Thank you.

Talking of titles, that segues neatly into the second inspiration for this story, namely the timeless piece of pop music entitled Four Minute Warning by ex-Take That member Mark Owen.

This timeless classic of a song (which disappointingly isn’t actually four minutes long) is one of those so-bad-it’s-good songs. My friends and I used to listen to it all the time at university as something of an in-joke among ourselves. I guess it kind of grew on us over time until it pretty much became the soundtrack of our entire university lives.

And now I share it with you. Feel privileged guys. These be rare gems I’m sharing with you today.


My thoughts on E3 2015

22 June 2015
For the second year in a row, Nintendo found a creative way to introduce their show

For the second year in a row, Nintendo found a creative way to introduce their show

There’s a famous horror story called “The Monkey’s Paw” in which a man gains the ability to receive anything he asks for. However, those wishes once granted will always end up tainted.

After watching this year’s Nintendo Digital Event, I can’t help but feel that Nintendo is now my video game equivalent to a Monkey’s Paw.

At this year’s event I got literally everything I asked for: a new Animal Crossing game, a new Metroid, a new Paper Mario, a game that fully utilized Amiibo and a virtual console release of Earthbound. On paper, it should have been a slam dunk for Nintendo. And yet every single one of those wishes turned out to be tainted.

One of my most hyped games, Fire Emblem vs. Shin Megami Tensei has turned in a J-pop weeaboo mess. Starfox is little more than a “re-imagined” reboot of the first game. Animal Crossing is now a party game. Metroid Prime doesn’t even have Samus in it…

According to Nintendo of America COO Reggie Fils-Aime, this year’s E3 was all about transformation. And it shows. What we’re seeing here is Nintendo spinning its wheels, scaling back production on Wii U and 3Ds and turning its attention and resources to next year’s show and the newly announced NX console. What we’re left with at this year’s show are a bunch of games we already knew about and some crap to fill in the gaps in the release schedule. It feels cheap and understandably, the fans are upset.

But what about the games coming out this year? Here I talk briefly about the games I’m most excited for from this year’s E3 showing, as well as the announcements that left me feeling cold.

Things I’m excited for

Super Mario Maker

This is a game I've wanted for over 20 years

This is a game I’ve wanted for over 20 years

OK so I admit it, at last year’s E3 showing I said that Mario Maker looked disappointing. I said it looked limited. I said it was 10 years too late. I said that compared to other creation games like Little Big Planet and Project Spark it looked dated.

I was wrong.

This game has gone through a lot of changes since the last time we saw it. Since last E3 it’s had new skins for Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World added to it. The size of the levels have increased and Nintendo have added the ability to add warp pipes and doors, create 4-course worlds and even mix and match elements from games which previously lacked those assets. New enemies have been added. New items have been incorporated into the level design. It even has genuinely good Amiibo functionality.

I admit, I’m super excited to play this game.I’m already imagining the sorts of courses I want to create and I just know I’m going to spend hours tweaking them before challenging my wife to play through them. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

Xenoblade Chronicles X

WiiU_Xenoblade_scrn01_E3

This feels like deja vu…

Wait a second, wasn’t this game one of my most anticipated games last year too?

Yes. Yes it was. Which just goes to show how bad Nintendo’s E3 showing was this year that one of my most-hyped game is now celebrating its 3rd E3 showing in a row.

This shouldn’t take anything away from the game itself, however. Xenoblade Chronicles X looks like a huge, ambitious game. Expansive environments and thrilling real-time combat are the order of business here. It’s basically a JRPG built around Western sensibilities and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

The game has already been released in Japan and I’m hearing a lot of positive noise about it from there. I am officially excited.

Yoshi’s Wooly World

Yarn! Wool! Cute!

Look me in the eyes and tell me this isn’t the cutest thing you’ve ever seen

My favourite game of all time is Yoshi’s Island on the Super Nintendo.

I’ve waited a loooong time for another game to capture even one-tenth of the creativity and charm as that 16-bit masterpiece. For the longest time it looked as though we would never see another game of its like. Finally, however, Feel Good Games have come along to pick up where Nintendo left off all those years ago. And I’m cautiously optimistic. Whatever magic formula Nintendo cracked back in the 90’s, it looks as though it might just have been cracked once again.

Yoshi’s Wooly World looks excellent. From its beautiful yarn aesthetic to the co-op nature of its game play: everything here screams polish and class. Everything I loved about the Super Nintendo classic is present and correct: transformations, egg throwing, ground pounding, just all with a new HD coat of paint.  And I couldn’t be happier.

Things I was disappointed in

Star Fox Zero

Just what this series needed: another reboot

Just what this series needed: another reboot

Star Fox 64 (or Lylat Wars as I’ve always known it) was one of my favourite games on the Nintendo 64. The cinematic story line, the full voice acting, the branching paths, the amazing multi-player dogfight mode… it was all so epic to play and I loved every minute. To this date, it’s one of the few games that I’ve completed 100%. All gold medals in both easy and hard mode. Hundreds of hours of my life invested into this masterpiece of a game.

And now it’s back. And it looks exactly the same.

The story is the same. The layout of the levels is almost identical. Even the visuals, sadly, don’t look much improved.

What’s different however is what’s missing. There’s no multi-player mode (surely 4-player co-op sounds like a no-brainer in this universe?). There are no branching paths. The cinematic feel is still present but it’s ruined by a clunky control scheme which forces you to stare at a tiny game pad screen in order to do anything worthwhile…

We always knew this game had a rushed development cycle – it was announced at last year’s E3 while in a barely playable Alpha form – but I never thought it would show as badly as this. My inner 14 year old is crying.

Literally everything else…

Here’s the thing about Nintendo’s E3 showing this year: it showed some good games. Some damned good games, in fact.

The problem is, we already knew about these games from last year’s event. And while it’s always good to have new details and trailers to look at, I’m only a few months away from having these games in my possession, so I’m finding it hard to get excited.

Yoshi’s Wooly World, in particular, releases in the EU in less than a week. Did we really need seven minutes of a 50 minute show dedicated to a game so close to release?

The only new games for the Wii U were a party game with the skin of Animal Crossing (a betrayal to all the fans who were eagerly awaiting a full Animal Crossing experience) and a Mario Tennis game that looks workman at best and positively uninspired at worst. There was also Shin Megami Tensei vs. Fire Emblem but the less said about that ugly J-pop anime-fest the better.

Everything else was Amiibo…

Do you like Amiibo? No? Well too bad, that's what you're getting!

Do you like Amiibo? No? Well too bad, that’s what you’re getting!

At this stage, I feel fairly confident in predicting Nintendo’s game plan for the year ahead.

This year’s E3 was designed to showcase the games they have coming in 2015 and the first half of 2016. Nothing more. That means we know literally nothing about what’s coming in late 2016 (except Zelda U). We do, however, know that the NX – Nintendo’s next console – will be unveiled in 2016.

What can we take from this? Well my guess would be that development on the 3DS and Wii U are both being scaled back with Nintendo’s focus switching to its new console. I’m sure that at next year’s E3 we will all be saying they won the show hands down. We’ll have a new console, a playable version of Zelda U, at least one first-party launch title for the NX along the lines of Nintendo Land or Wii Sports, whatever game Retro studios is working on, a new Pokemon game from Game Freak, a full unveiling of the mobile games releasing through DeNa, and a full unveiling of the amusement part rides coming to Universal Studios.

Unfortunately in order to turn next year’s show into the hype-fest Nintendo wants it to be, you first need to have a dull transitional year. And this was it.

As Reggi said, this year was one of transformation for Nintendo. Please understand. We are working on fixing these issues…


Poetry and I

15 June 2015

Poetry anmagnetic-poetryd I have never got along.

That’s not for want of trying either. I’m a writer: Poetry and I share a lot of the same friends. We hang out in the same places. We work on the same street. For some reason though, we’ve never seen eye to eye.

All through my life I’ve tried patching things up between us. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve knocked on Poetry’s door one day, all smiles and pleasantries with a blank notebook in hand, only to have the door slammed in my face. Poetry simply never has time for me.

And I, in turn, have learned to shun it.

At school, whenever I was asked to read a poem, I would find myself feeling nothing but confusion towards the words I was seeing. It was a strange experience for me, considering the instant and visceral impact that other forms of writing have had on me since my early childhood. Theatre and novels I can get behind. But poetry? “In what way is this supposed to be entertaining?” I would ask my teachers and they would simply chastise me in reply for being rude to their friend.

During my A-levels, I struggled through Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon. During my GCSE’s I forced myself to choke down Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage and Ted Hughes – the heavyweights of the modern era. At university I Cliff-noted my way through Keats and Wordsworth, Byron and Shakespeare and more.

So many more… So many poets with so many pages of mind-numbingly cryptic jibber-jabber and all of it dull, dull, dull…

Look at him all smug and pretentiously muse-ful. Damn you John Keats you ruined my teenage years

John Keats: look at him all smug and pretentiously muse-full. Little does he know the sheer hell he will make out of my teenage years

However, that’s not to say I hate everything Poetry has done.

I’ve always enjoyed the Raven by Edgar Alan Poe, for example. I like the rhythm of its sentences. I like the feel of it in your mouth. There’s a relentless beat to the poem which drives the reader on. And yes, there is a plot, which is a nice change of pace from most poetry because it serves to keep you entertained. Ultimately, though, it’s not the plot I like about this poem but rather the feel of it.

Read this now and listen to the natural beat that forms. You’ll see what I mean:

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

It’s the same when I listen to music. I almost never listen to a song for its lyrics – in truth, I rarely even hear the lyrics. For whatever reason, my brain just isn’t wired that way. Instead, when I listen to music, it’s the rhythms and the harmony that my ear focuses on: the chords, the instrumentation and the underlying structure of the song. This is what’s important. The idea of listening to music in order to hear the message of its lyrics… it’s ludicrous to me.

That’s probably another reason why Poetry doesn’t like me very much. I’m kind of rude to its friends.

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun / The frumious Bandersnatch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun / The frumious Bandersnatch!

My second favourite poem of all time is the Jabberwocky by Lewis Carol. I like it because it’s practically a tailor-made example of what I just described above: a poem made up entirely of rhythm and rhyme. The actual meaning of the poem? Well, it is literally nonsense but it sounds as though it means something.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

My third favourite poem is the Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Again it has a rhythm. Again it has rules. And again it feels fantastic in the mouth:

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Call me old fashioned but I’ve always found myself leaning towards poetry that follows a set of rules. Rhyming schemes, a solid and unwavering metre, neat stanzas, a beat: these things are essential for a poem to be a success in my mind. The way I look at it, poetry has existed for as long as humans have been writing. And for 99% of that time, Poetry has followed fixed and defined rules. We lump those rules into categories and put labels on them. “Sonnets,” we call them. “Villanelles”, “Sestinas”, “Haikus”… There are many names but they all come with a long and proud tradition.

Whenever a poet chooses to write one of these poems, they aren’t restricting themselves or stiffing their creativity – far from it! – rather they are adding to a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years. They are entering a dialogue with all of the poets who have come before them, building on what has come before and helping the genre to grow.

I always have the impression that modern poetry has forgotten this fact. I think that’s why I don’t like it very much. When your poetry can take on literally any form it pleases and still be called a poem… well, it’s like calling an unmade bed art.

Some people call this art. Fair play to them but I know I wouldn't want it on my wall

Some people call this art. Fair play to them but I know I wouldn’t want it on my wall

I know most people will disagree with me. I’ve made my peace with that fact. Poetry is a very popular guy round these parts. He has a lot of friends. Nearly everyone I know has rubbed shoulders with him at least once in their life. They invite him over for tea at the weekends. They buy collections of his greatest hits and write down some of his pithy quotes to pin to their office walls. Those people tell me I’m stupid for not understanding their distinguished friend.

Perhaps they are right.

It’s for these reasons that when I created my anthology of short stories a few years ago I named it Metrophobia, the fear of poetry. It was a little in-joke to myself. I don’t understand it, I said, therefore I must fear it.

But never let it be said that I am one to shy from my fears. Today, I thought it might be fun to share with you a few examples of the many times I have attempted to crack poetry over the years. I am well aware that most of these examples are terrible. As I said before, Poetry is not my friend. I lack even the ability to discern good poetry from bad but I know that my poetry is bad because people have told me that it is and I believe them.

1. Haiku

OK so let’s start with a poetic form that everyone knows. A haiku is a form of ultra-short Japanese poetry. It’s made up of three lines composed of 17 syllables. The lines are arranged in a 5-7-5 syllabic structure.

There are certain characteristics which almost all modern haiku share (this list is taken from the Wikipedia article linked above):

  1. A focus on some aspect of nature or the seasons
  2. Division into two asymmetrical sections, usually with a cut at the end of the first or second section, creating a juxtaposition of two subjects – e.g. something large and something small, something natural and something human-made, two unexpectedly similar things, etc.
  3. A contemplative or wistful tone and an impressionistic brevity
  4. Elliptical “telegram style” syntax and no superfluous words
  5. Imagery predominating over ideas and statements, so that meaning is typically suggestive, requiring reader participation
  6. Avoidance of metaphor and similes
  7. Non-rhyming lines

My example:

Concrete office blocks.
A lonely pigeon takes flight
Into a grey sky

2. Villanelle

OK, so a haiku I’m sure you were already familiar with. Consider that one a warm-up for what follows. Now we’re getting into the real poetic forms. A villanelle (you’re probably thinking “what the hell is that?”) is a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five three-line stanzas followed by a four-line stanza at the end.

What makes this form interesting is its use of repetition. There are basically two lines in the poem which repeat over and over again, alternating at the end of each stanza before finally appearing together at the end of the final quatrain to drive home the poem’s point.

Because of this use of repetition, the villanelle is a poetic form that deals very well with themes of obsession.

THE MODERN POET

Formless and pointless, more feeling than thought
He sits in the dark playing word games all day,
If only he could see through his black and white fort.

“Why won’t they read me?” he cries all distraught
“Surely there’s no one who can’t see my way?”
Formless and pointless, more feeling than thought.

He sits and he muses, ‘til ideas are caught,
Scribbles it down before all goes away,
If only he could see through his black and white fort.

He rejects all the old and all that’s been taught,
“I am a genius,” he thinks, “that’s all I will say!”
Formless and pointless more feeling than thought.

His eighteenth rejection is hard to retort,
There must be conspiracies flying his way!
If only he could see through his black and white fort.

He starts once again. “C’est ne pas mort!”
He writes and he dreams, “One day, oh one day!”
If only he could see through his black and white fort:
Formless and pointless, more feeling than thought.

3. Sestina

Here’s another form you’ve probably never heard of. The sestina is one of my favourite poetic forms, mostly because even though no one has ever heard of it, everyone understands it as soon as they see it.

It has six stanzas of six lines each. The thing that makes it special is that the words it uses at the end of each line repeat throughout the poem, rotating around each other in a set pattern.

Like this:

626px-Sestina_system_alt.svg

From the Wikipedia article linked to above: “Because a sestina demands adherence to a strict and arbitrary order, it creates a very interesting effect. Stephen Burt notes that, ‘The sestina has served, historically, as a complaint”, its harsh demands acting as “signs for deprivation or duress’.”

ON MEETING AN EX NOW  BETROTHED TO ANOTHER

I chanced to see that small, begotten ring,
upon her second finger. It was clear
to me that she was gone. And I was pain
inside and burned asunder. She was mine.
If I could but pretend that she was gone,
then all would be okay. But then I’d lie.

We broke apart in truth because she lied,
that I would wait at home for her to ring,
at night, and tell me where it was she’s gone
to stay the night with Jan. “Hon, is that clear?”
“Oh yes,” I said. “Your words aren’t hard to mine.”
And then I’d cry all night, my heart in two with pain.

And as the rain did patter on the pane,
I went into my room to have a lie
down and there I wondered what was mine.
Certainly not that gem encrusted ring
that donned your finger thirty carrots clear.
I saw it, smiled and knew that you were gone.

Gone, gone, gone, gone, gone!
My fragile heart did echo with its pain,
That now this creature that I loved was clear
to leave, to drop, to break and mend and lie,
and never even tell me of that ring,
but left me dark with thoughts: “You should be mine!”

But who am I to say what should be mine,
unworthy fool whose compassion has gone,
to pieces long before I saw that ring,
before me, dealing out its holy pain,
to my wounded, shattered ego. Lies!
It seems my path has never been more clear…

No it has never and now it’s clear
To me what I must do to thee and mine
only. There I’ll find you where you lie,
throttle you in sleep ‘til you are gone
and I am safe from fear and hate and pain.
When I am done you will regret that ring.

It will be clear to me then you are gone
forever. Mine, the cause of all my pain,
will lie upon your coffin. And I shall rule that ring.

4. Free verse

Free verse is my most hated form of poetry. Stripped of all rules or patterns, these poems often serve as a dumping ground for pithy sounding thoughts and little else. This is where there shape of a poem is important. This is where a single word or an exclamation point can somehow be turned into a poem. This is where pretentious strings of vaguely connected words hang out, masquerading as divine-inspired utterances. It’s anarchy turned into poetry and I hate it.

Is this poetry?

Is this poetry? One might argue that in years gone by this sort of thing would have served as the foundation of a poem, not the poem itself

Needless to say when I was asked to write a free verse poem during my second year of university I strongly objected. It was by far my most hated assignment during my entire studies. I am not at all happy with the end result. Still, you’ll notice that even though this poem follows no established rules, I still tried to interject some sort of rhythm and order into it, if only to save my own sanity from the lawless cavalier attitude of the genre.

BORDER RATS

Like vermin we scuttle – Border Rats –
each of us more than the sum of our parts.
Each of us hiding, striving to find someplace else.
And why? There are other ways,
but our destiny stumbles through this black and white haze:
and this world holds no passion from when it was made
and we know
that we don’t want this.

As ghosts we toil – Border Rats –
each of us statements of some other truth.
Each of us trying, dying to make something new.
And why? The system stamps down,
our colleagues they flee in the shadows of doubt
for money they run with no thought to themselves,
but we know
that we don’t want this.

And now starving we die – as Border Rats –
and all that we’ve lived for is shattered and burnt.
Nothing is showing, growing from that void that is us.
And why? The system has won,
our legacies fade in their commercial tune,
is there escape from this musical doom?
Oh dear god,
I don’t want this.

5. Found poetry

And finally we come to the one type of poetry I’m actually good at.

Found poetry is great simply because it turns anything and everything into a poem. Some might argue that this is the same as in free verse, where any random phrase can be called poetry, but I disagree. Found poetry is about imposing order onto disorder. It’s about taking that which already exists and pulling the art from within it.

The idea is simple. You take something that has already been written: a book, an article, even a political speech and you carefully select words from it. In this way you create a poetry that never existed before and yet was lying the whole time beneath the pattern of the words.

Like this:

Below is an example with I made based on a text about grammar which my teacher gave me on my first day of university. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the original document anymore so I can’t show it visually like in the example above. In a way that might be better, though. The original work is gone. All that remains is the poetry.

WORDS

A word can be combined,
Interpreted, replaced.
A word must be the centre of an act.
For voice, for mood, for aspect rather full.
A word is major clauses numerous.
To indicate, to specify: distinct from something else,
A word should preposition a degree
Of denial. Or connect and express on clause content.
A word lies in a phrase misunderstood.

I like this poem because just like in the Jabberwocky, it almost sounds as though it means something. Again there is rhythm. A beat. And your brain tells you the poem must mean something because it’s so consistent in the way it’s written. Here we have “words”, “voices”, “phrases”, “clauses”… it’s all clearly related (and indeed it is, since it all came from the same page about basic grammar) and yet it isn’t.

As such your brain tries to stretch through all the nonsense searching for some shred of meaning buried inside the words and in doing so it somehow places its own meaning onto the poem.

The poem is literally nonsense, I’ve already established that. It was discovered lurking beneath a perfectly normal piece of academic text. And yet by lifting it out, it now serves as a kind of naked template upon which the reader is able to place any meaning they chose.

For me, that is what poetry should be.

Poetry likes it too. For the first time ever, it’s like we’re waving to each other across the other side of a crowded room. I’ll never understand Poetry and he’ll never understand me. But at least I feel I can mingle with him at a party now and not feel like an impostor.


Short story: Abduction

9 June 2015

abductiontolightHere’s a new story I’ve been working on for a while. It’s about one man’s failed attempts to stop himself being abducted by aliens and the complete apathy shown by the world around him towards his struggles.

You can read a sample of it here (PDF).

The full version I will be submitting for potential publication elsewhere.

I first started writing this story after reading some of Kurt Vonnegut’s work recently. Just like the great master’s stories, Abduction doesn’t pretend to treat its subject matter very seriously. It’s designed to be quite tongue in cheek, perhaps even funny in places, although I like to think it holds some fairly weighty issues beneath its comedic surface. Themes such as worth and the value of a human life. Themes such as the lack of empathy society shows towards those who are not considered culturally important. Themes like how easily one can feel left behind or worthless in an ever-changing cultural landscape.

I hope you enjoy it. As always, C&C are welcome.


The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

25 May 2015

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

Try to summarise The Sirens of Titan with any sort of brevity and it always sounds like you’re writing a mad lib.

Here, try it for yourself:

A _____ (adjective) man went to _____ (place) with his _____ (noun) and on the way he _____ (verb) into a _____ (noun).

If you entered the words “rich”, “Mars”, “dog”, “crashed” and “chrono-synclastic infundibulum” into the spaces above then congratulations, you’ve either read this book already or you’re just as bonkers as Vonnegut.

The rich man from the above mad lib is Winston Niles Rumfoord, a well-educated New England gentleman whose collision with the space anomaly known as a chrono-synclastic infundibulum has left him scattered across time and space. To all intents and purposes, he is now immortal and borderline omniscient.

Once a month, when the anomaly lines up with the Earth, he materialises in his old home for one hour. There he brings predictions of the future as well as dire warnings that will, in time, lead to the seeds of a whole new religion.  Predictably, he is a huge celebrity.

“The crowd, having been promised nothing, felt cheated, having received nothing.”

“The crowd, having been promised nothing, felt cheated, having received nothing.”

During one of his visits, Rumfoord asks to speak with Malachi Constant, the richest man in the world. Constant is the exact antithesis of Rumfoord. He is arrogant, lazy, utterly without talent. His father amassed his fortune almost entirely by accident and since his death Constant has done nothing to further his lot in life. Constant is therefore shocked to hear Rumfoord’s prediction that one day not only will he travel to Mars, Mercury and Titan in turn but that he will fall in love with and have a child by Rumfoord’s very own wife before becoming the head of his very own religion.

As you might expect, Constant is horrified by this prediction of the future and so he immediately embarks on a mission to do everything in his power to make sure these predictions don’t come to pass. Naturally, this only serves to guarantee that they do.

Thus begins a whirlwind mad lib of a tale that takes Malachi Constant half way across the solar system. On Mars he is recruited into an army that is planning to invade the Earth. His identity is stripped away from him, he loses his memories and he has an antenna planted in his head that rids him of independent thought. Just as he is starting to rediscover who he is, Mars goes to war with the Earth. Constant travels with the invasion fleet only for his ship to malfunction along the way.

“The only controls available to those on board were two push-buttons on the center post of the cabin -- one labeled on and one labeled off. The on button simply started a flight from Mars. The off button connected to nothing. It was installed at the insistence of the Martian mental-health experts, who said that human beings were always happier with machinery they thought they could turn off.”

“The only controls available to those on board were two push-buttons on the center post of the cabin — one labeled on and one labeled off. The on button simply started a flight from Mars. The off button connected to nothing. It was installed at the insistence of the Martian mental-health experts, who said that human beings were always happier with machinery they thought they could turn off.”

He ends up marooned on Mercury. In the midst of all of this he has (non-consensual) sex with Mrs. Rumfoord and impregnates her. Then he returns to Earth only to find himself the central focus of an entirely new religion built in reaction to his life of hedonism and excess… And on and on it goes for 300 pages.

Quite honestly, trying to explain all of the things that happen in this book in any sort of concise manner is exhausting. It feels like Vonnegut just vomited a bunch of ideas onto the page and then joined the dots between them in a way that vaguely made sense*.

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

The crazy thing, however, is that the book isn’t really about any of those things. Sure, a lot of stuff happens: a war between Mars and Earth; a new religion popping up based on how much God doesn’t care about us; a redemption arc as a man with no memory of who he is tries to reconnect with a family he has never met just to prove his humanity; but the further the book goes, the more unimportant these events seem in the grand scheme of things.

Just like how a mad lib isn’t really about the wacky stories you create but rather the fun you can have coming up with the most nonsensical sentences possible, so the Sirens of Titan isn’t about the events that happen but rather the underlying point of it all. Which is no point. Vonnegut’s universe is a godless one, devoid of meaning and ruled by nothing but anarchy. It’s a typical hallmark of a Vonnegut novel.

That said, the Sirens of Titan lacks the same focus of some of Vonnegut’s more famous works. You don’t find the same personal angle here that you do when reading something like Slaughterhouse 5. Likewise, there isn’t the same ironic humour you get in something like Cat’s Cradle, as of someone recognising how stupid the universe is and just having a good old laugh at its expense. Instead this book hovers somewhere between, like a meandering treaty of Vonnegut’s personal philosophy interjected with moments of gallows humour. It’s fun while you’re reading it but for me personally, it didn’t have the same long-term impact as some of his other classics.

the-hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxy-505742c4e0b71

“Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules — and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress.”

I’ve read a lot of reviews from people who say this book helped inspire Douglas Adams to write the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (one of my favourite books of all time). They say you can really tell this is the case due to the random nature of the plot and the high propensity for funny happenings in both books.

Although I can see where these reviewers are coming from I have to admit I never had this impression while reading it myself. Despite the fact that Douglas Adams was every bit the atheist that Vonnegut was, his books always struck me as approaching the issue from the opposite end. His stories are filled with a sense of childish awe at the universe around him. The crazy events happening to his characters serve as a kind of celebration for how beautifully unpredictable life the universe and everything can be.

Vonnegut, on the other hand, writes to the other extreme. Empty, pointless, depressed, anarchic: The Sirens of Titan feels like a book written by someone who is desperately trying to understand the things he sees around himself and instead finds nothing but white noise and nonsense. He laughs at this fact and points out its absurdity but behind the witty lines is a man whose heart is breaking.

The Sirens of Titan was Vonnegut’s second book and it shows. As much as I wanted to love it, I have to admit I’ve never felt so depressed reading the great man’s work as I did when reading this book. The futility of war, the absence of God, the pointlessness of religion: these are all themes Vonnegut will revisit in other books far more successfully than he does here.

Just like a mad lib that doesn’t quite work, I think Vonnegut needs to go back to the drawing board and have another attempt at filling in those blanks.

MadLibs-cropped

*And, weirdly enough, that’s exactly that he did. According to Vonnegut’s friend, Harvard Crimson, Vonnegut “put together the whole of The Sirens of Titan […] in one night […] He was at a party where someone told him he ought to write another novel. So they went into the next room where he just verbally pieced together this book from the things that were around in his mind.”


Bits and bobs

16 May 2015

No time for a proper post this week so I thought I’d update you all on what’s going on this end.

First of all, I’m in a book!

It's a thing of beauty

It’s a thing of beauty

Not one of my own books sadly but one written by my former director Terence Clark-Ward. It’s called “I can Sing in English“. The aim of the book is to teach young children how to speak English through the use of songs and repetition. Admittedly it’s not a very new idea, but the core concept in this book is that all of the songs are based around just 25 key words. These words, according to research recently conducted by Professor Leslie Rescoria from the Child Study Institute at Bryn Mawr College, USA, are the first 25 words that a child will learn in English if English is their mother tongue. This means that if a Polish child can master these same 25 words, they will have the equivalent vocabulary of an average 2 year old English child. That right there is a very persuasive argument for loosening any parent’s purse strings!

I appear on the CD as one of the lead vocalists. And yes, before you ask, I can sing. In English.

Here's a pic of me in the recording studio looking all singery and professional and stuff.

Here’s a pic of me in the recording studio looking all singery and professional and stuff. This is actually the second book of Terry’s that I have been a part of. The first was Zegnajcie Bledy all the way back in 2010

And finally, an update on the house.

Courtesy of a month of back-breaking labour, our garden is now (finally) weed free and neatly raked over ready for grass seeding.

Not a weed in sight

Not a weed in sight

We also have a vegetable patch complete with strawberries, potatoes, rosemary and onions. We did have some basil planted as well but the slugs attacked and killed it in less than a week. We’ve since swapped the basil out for mint and so far the slugs are leaving it well alone. So at the very least it’s nice to see they are fussy eaters. God knows there isn’t much vegetation left for hungry slugs to choose between in our garden, hence the impenetrable wall of loose stones that we ferreted out from around the garden to keep them at bay. (Un)fortunately our garden has no shortage of stones in its soil.

One day all of this will be in my stomach

One day all of this will be in my stomach

Our upstairs bedrooms now all have floorboards and the beginnings of a skirting board (although this will need neatening up as we are not happy with it at present).

Once all the furniture is in place, this room will look very different

Once all the furniture is in place, this room will look very different

The downstairs bathroom is a complete mess but at least we have a plan for it (more or less).

The bathroom. Minus the bath. And the toilet. And, in fact, anything

The bathroom. Minus the bath. And the toilet. And anything at all for that matter

Next week we’ll be getting a fireplace and exterior blinds. I’ll post pictures of that when I have them.

And finally, a last bit of news. Hard to believe but it’s now been over a year since I’ve been working for Credit Suisse. Yes, strange to say I am no longer the wide-eyed innocent that I was when I first stepped foot within these hallowed hallways. Next week I sign my full-time, non-probationary contract, and that is a very good thing.

That’s all for now. Expect the next proper post any day now.


Game review: Captain Toad Treasure Tracker

8 May 2015

captain_toad_european_box_artSpin offs: they are everywhere these days.

On TV, you have hugely popular shows like Breaking Bad spinning off into Better Call Saul, or award-winning shows like Battlestar Galactica spinning off into the woefully awful and instantly cancelled Caprica. In literature, A Song of Ice and Fire begot the the less popular though equally good Dunk and Egg short stories, while the Harry Potter series has spun off into multiple side books such as Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Creatures and Where to Find Them. In Movies, Star Wars has had so many spin offs by this point it’s hard to keep track of them all.

Almost without exception* these spins offs are rarely anywhere near as popular or iconic as the media that spawned them.

And so, too, is this the case with video games.

Captain Toad Treasure Tracker is a spin off from the extremely popular and award winning Super Mario 3D World. It’s essentially an entire game made up of the small Captain Toad levels found within its parent game. Each of the games 70 worlds is a compact maze-like structure which has you using your brain to track down hidden gems and collect the power star at the end.

The levels in Captain Toad are very small and compact

The levels in Captain Toad are very small and compact

Unlike uncle Mario, Captain Toad is unable to jump meaning he must rely on his puzzle solving wits to get through each level. This change, while sounding relatively minor on paper, has a huge impact on the way the game is structured and its levels designed. Gone are the time limits of the mainline Mario games. Gone are the hub worlds and sweeping 3D vistas. Instead the game focuses on very compact, localized challenges, each of which is over very quickly. It is not designed for long play sessions.

Even if this type of slow puzzle platforming isn’t your cup of tea, you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer quality of level design on display here. This is a very well put together game. The way you manipulate the height of platforms or transform the stage in order to move around reminds me of something out of a Zelda game, only played out on a smaller and more easily manipulated scale. This is definitely a good thing.

The pink blocks in this level can be moved around using the Game pad's touch screen. This adds an extra level of interactivity not usually associated with a Mario game

The pink blocks in this level can be moved around using the Game pad’s touch screen. This adds an extra level of interactivity not usually associated with a Mario game

Not to mention it’s gorgeous. It’s like playing a Pixar movie.

Of particular joy for me is the complete freedom you have over the in-game camera. Gone are the forced camera angles or over-the-shoulder perspectives of other 3D platformers. In this game, the camera points exactly where you want it, whenever you want it, which is a huge help in tracking down some of the trickier gem stones. However, one thing to note is that for some inexplicable reason Nintendo decided to map the camera controls to the game pad’s internal gyroscope, a feature which sadly can’t be deactivated. This can lead to unfortunate moments mid-game where you suddenly die simply because you shifted your grip on the controller slightly and the game interpreted this as you wanting to move the camera.

To say it’s frustrating when this happens is an understatement.

Some of the levels are extremely creative: like this one based on a pinball machine

Some of the levels are extremely creative: like this one based on the inside of a pinball machine

The levels are a bit on the short side, however there is a strong incentive to replay them. Not only are there three hidden gems located inside each level, but there is also an extra bonus challenge which only becomes visible once you’ve play through a level once (although it can still be completed prior to this point). For added challenge, the game is compatible with the Toad Amiibo from the Mario Party line. Tapping the Toad Amiibo to the game pad unlocks a special mode which tasks you with tracking down an 8-bit Toad hidden within each level. For those who enjoy replaying their games, this one certainly gives you a reason to come back for more.

Some of my favourite levels are the ones where you need to toss turnips at enemies from the back of an out of control mine kart

Some of my favourite levels are the ones where you need to toss turnips at enemies from the back of an out of control mine kart

Just like in any good Mario spin off, Captain Toad Treasure Tracker is packed full of items and power ups to help you in your quest. Returning from 3D World is the double cherry, which allows Toad to split off into multiple copies of himself. Also returning from Super Mario Bros. 2 are turnips, which can be plucked from the ground and thrown at enemies to kill them. There are also pick axes, complete with Donkey Kong arcade sound effects, which allow you to smash through blocks standing in your way to access other parts of the level. It’s a lot of fun.

Captain Toad for Smash!

Captain Toad for Smash!

On the other side of the coin, however, is the elephant in the room. The game is very short. Don’t let the glowing praise above fool you: this is a budget title and a spin off and it plays exactly like one would expect from both of these. A dedicated gamer could complete this game in less than 10 hours. There are only two bosses in the whole game and most of the post-game content, although plentiful, is made up of remixed versions of levels found within the main game. Couple this with the rehashed music and assets liberally stolen from Super Mario 3D World and you can see why the game was so stealthily launched by Nintendo over Christmas without any sort of fanfare and one of the softest launch dates I’ve ever seen for a mainline retail release.

Overall – C

cIt’s no secret by now that the Wii U is a struggling console. Nintendo lacks the third party support needed for regular game releases and this has lead to  droughts in the console’s software lineup over the last 2 years. Nintendo has clearly found it hard to make up for that software shortage on its own and so games like Captain Toad Treasure Tracker are developed: cheap and easy to produce budget titles that artificially plump out the release schedule during the vital Christmas months.

It’s not that the game feels rushed exactly (this is Nintendo we are talking about, after all, and there’s a reason they are so renowned in the industry for the polish they put into their games) but it does feel uninspired.

Like I said at the beginning of this review, this game is a spin off and it feels like one. Playing this game for longer than a few minutes just makes me wish I were playing Super Mario 3D World instead. After all, that game is clearly the superior one. And hey, it has Captain Toad levels included in it for free!

If you haven’t bought Super Mario 3D World yet, go get it now. Afterwards, if you are still hungry for more, then – and only then – consider giving Captain Toad a whirl. He might be “Ready for adventure!” but ready for Nintendo AAA treatment he is not.

* That exception being the hit comedy Frazier which was a far better written and more impactful series than its parent show Cheers ever was.


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