A quick update (and an announcement)

2 April 2014

So now that 1st April is out of the way, I can now officially confirm that I didn’t actually die last week like I was worried I might in my last post.

Believe me, I am very relieved about this fact.

Saying that, however, it was pretty touch and go there for a while. Ever since landing myself a new job three weeks ago, I’ve been overworking myself like a man possessed. Seriously, I’ve barely had time to come up for air what with all the training and stressing out I’ve been doing and all the waking up at the crack of dawn and working 11 hour shifts. I somehow even managed to make myself sick two times in the space of a week… and that’s a pretty big thing to say considering the last time I was ill before that was over two years ago and I can’t even remember the last time I visited the doctor… (Other than this one).

I have no idea what my work colleagues must think of me right now. Barely a day has gone by when I haven’t been sitting around sneezing or coughing up some sort of fluid or other. I’ve stuffed so much medication down my throat my pee practically effervesces. Hopefully they’ll just put it down as just part of my ineffable British charm.

Anyway, I’m all better now but I’m just listing these things here as justification for my extreme silence over the last few weeks. I did manage to finish a new podcast about Shakespeare over on my other blog and write a restaurant review for Wroclaw Uncut, but otherwise March was a very quiet month for me production-wise and for that I can only apologise.

Well, the best way to apologise is by action and luckily, I have a big announcement to make!

I am getting a story published.

LOST_COVER_WEB_DISPLAY

You may remember that a couple of months ago, I posted on here about the Worlds of Power competition being run over on Noiseless Chatter. I submitted three stories to it in total and all three of them were terrible (intentionally so, I should add).

Well anyway, I can now officially announce that one of my stories managed to somehow make it into the final cut and will be included in the final anthology. Which story, I hear you cry? This story!

The full list of entrants can be found below. Remember, all of these stories are ‘novelisations’ of classic NES-era computer games. Let me tell you, as someone who loves playing computer games and getting all nostalgic about the past, I am really looking forward to getting my hands on a copy, even though of the list of games below I have played precisely zero of them.

“Milon’s Secret Castle,” by R J Burgess
“The California Raisins: The Grape Escape,” by Samuel Clementine
“Bad Dudes,” by Ramona Donohue
“Double Dragon Warrior,” by Theodore Geise
“Monster Party,” by Tomm Hulett
“Marble Madness,” by James Lawless
“Yo! Noid,” by Jerod Mackert
“California Games,” by Matthew McKinley
“Battletoads,” by Philip J Reed
“Linus Spacehead’s Cosmic Crusade,” by J. Paul Roe
“Legendary Wings,” by Guy Vollen
“Renegade,” by Jeffrey Zoerner

You can read more about the book and its production here. As soon as it’s available for download I’ll let you know about it here. Apparently the final version will be completely free and will include specially commissioned artwork for each of these stories, so there really is no excuse not to get your grubby hands on a copy when it finally releases.

Let me just take this opportunity to extend my heartfelt thanks to Philip J Reed, his Co-editor James and everyone else over on Noiseless Chatter for choosing one of my stories for this anthology. You’ve made one very happy writer over here, let me tell you.


It’s coming: 28th March 2014

20 March 2014

They were words I would never forget.

Many years ago – half a lifetime ago in truth – I had a dream.

It was a dream unlike any I’d ever had before or any I’ve had since. I’ve heard people talking before about the idea of sleep paralysis. They say you wake up in the middle of the night completely unable to move and that you have the impression there’s something else in the room with you. You’re aware that you must be dreaming and you’re aware that you won’t come to any harm but even so, there’s that unavoidable feeling of terror that comes from waking to find yourself paralyzed. Worse, waking with the feeling that something else is pinning you down.

People have been having waking dreams for centuries but it's still horrible when it happens to you

People have been having waking dreams for centuries but it’s still horrible when it happens to you

It’s one of the most terrifying dreams I’ve ever had.

In my particular version of the dream, it wasn’t just one thing pinning me down but lots of little things. They were tiny little gremlin-like creatures with bright shining red eyes and I remember them chittering to one another as they scampered all over my helpless body, prickling my skin with their razor-sharp claws and gnawing at me with their teeth.

I was terrified. I wanted to knock them away but of course I couldn’t. I wanted to scream for help but my voice was just as paralyzed as my body.

And then, weirdly, I noticed that my laptop was switched on and open on the desk next to my bed. When I looked over at it, I saw that the screen was turned towards me and on it were written four words in stark bold letters:

It’s coming: 28th March

The words seemed to burn into the back of my mind. I couldn’t look away.

I tried to speak. I wanted to ask what the words meant. I wanted to ask what was coming on 28th March. Instead, I found that my voice, just like the rest of my body, was paralyzed. When I tried to force the words out, my voice came as little more than a vague croak barely louder than a whisper and the only word I could manage was, “When?”

The creatures ignored me but an answer still came. Because it was in that moment that I realised there was someone else in the room as well – a man I hadn’t seen until that moment. He came up from behind me so I never got to see his face but I somehow knew with all the crazy logic of the dream world that he was the one behind all these creatures attacking me and the words on my laptop screen.

He knelt down beside me and whispered a single word into my ear:

“2014.”

Then I woke up.

The creatures in my dream looked a bit like Miniblins in the Legend of Zelda except not as cute

The creatures in my dream looked a bit like Miniblins in the Legend of Zelda except not as cute

I’ve thought about that dream a lot since that day. Every year when 28th March rolls around, I wonder if something bad is going to happen to me and I find myself relieved when it inevitably doesn’t.

This year – 2014 – I’m particularly worried.

Sounds crazy doesn’t it? I mean, of course I know it’s just a silly dream and of course I know that it’s all just some stupid figment of my imagination that my teenaged self conjured up half a lifetime ago…

But even so, I’ve never quite been able to shake that nagging doubt in the back of my mind that maybe – just maybe – I’ve somehow been told the date of my own death.

deathclock28th March is very close to us now. I won’t deny, I’m a little nervous about it.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens next…


One year later… Redrafting my novel

4 March 2014

One year ago, I finished the first draft of my magnum opus, the Arkship Ulysses. Despite what you might think, this was not the crowning moment of glory that I was expecting it to be. In fact, it was more akin to that feeling you get when staggering across the finish line in a marathon and realising you don’t have to keep running anymore.

‘Exhausted,’ would be a good word to describe it. But I felt frustrated too.

overflowing-waste-paper-basket

This is pretty much what I look like when I’m writing

You see, by that point I’d been writing the book solidly for well over two years (it was, in fact, the reason I started this blog in the first place). It was a novel I’d had going round my head for almost 15 years before that; a novel I’d been tinkering with on and off for as long as I’d been calling myself a writer.

And yet, despite months of dragging myself through draft after draft towards that ever-elusive end goal, despite days spent shirking my day job so I could sit in a café and tap away at my ever-growing manuscript, I still found myself unhappy with it. The draft I finished last year contained some of the best stuff I’ve ever written, but the story itself felt messy and over-complicated – a confused tangle of ideas and characters that never truly felt as though they were gelling into a cohesive whole.

Let me tell you: it pains me to admit that to you.

I mean, I love this book’s setting. I adore the characters I’ve created. But no matter how hard I tried, I could never seem to get the two things to work together as well as I wanted. I would put these characters which I loved into a setting I adored and I would say to them, “Go! Do things!” only to watch those very same characters kind of amble about aimlessly like a bunch of drunken goldfish swimming round a bowl. (Not that Goldfish come in bunches, of course, but you get what I mean). No matter what I did, I could never seem to get the characters to do anything that was both plausible and interesting and my novel just seemed to flounder along, growing exponentially in size as it struggled to find its purpose.

Time and again I found myself going back to those early chapters, fiddling around with the timeline and shoving characters around just to try to get it to work. But it never did. The plot lines remained oblique; the heart of the story elusive.

The theft of my laptop last December was the final straw. In a fit of pique, I declared the first draft done, handed it over to a couple of people to read and then moved on with my life, ready to marry and learn how to drive and all that other good, wholesome 2013 stuff.

Now, one year later, I think it’s time to go back…

The Initial Idea

The Arkship Ulysses started out as my answer to Star Trek Voyager.

I realise that makes me sound like the biggest dork in the world, but you need to realise what I mean when I say ‘answer’. You see, I’ve been a huge fan of Star Trek for as long as I can remember. I grew up watching it on TV. I collected all the toys. I built ships out of Lego. I filled the margins of my school textbooks with my own homemade star ships. In many ways, it was my first introduction to the world of SF and it was almost exclusively thanks to this that I became the fan of SF that I am today.

I so wanted to like this show

I so wanted to like this show

Star Trek Voyager, however, was different.

I was 12 when it first aired and I remember the build up to its pilot episode as being this almost torturous wait. Here was a Star Trek show that promised to be like no other. It’s premise was fascinating: a ship stranded on the other side of the galaxy, lost in an uncharted realm of space surrounded on all sides by enemies. No back up. No relief. The fractured and demoralised crew would be forced to survive using nothing but their own wits.

So strong was the show’s premise, in fact, that I was almost halfway through season 3 before I realised that I hated it.

The show was terrible. I’m not going to go into exactly why it was so bad here (if you’re interested, there are many great places you can go to find out exactly why it sucked so bad) but for me, the biggest problem was that there were never any consequences to anything that was happening. I was expecting to tune in each week to witness the crew being pushed ever closer to their limits. I was expecting to see the ship break down over time, both in terms of its physical condition but also in terms of the mental well-being of the crew, who would become fractured towards one another over time. I expected to see the formation of distinct cliques: those who agreed with the Captain and her Holier-Than-Thou decision to strand the ship in the Delta quadrant and those who just wanted to go home. Fights would break out between officers during their off-duty hours which would then spill over into their workdays. The crew would constantly be on a knife-edge with each other — forced to work together so they don’t all die but willing to stab each other in the back at the first possible opportunity.

In short, I wanted what Battlestar Galactica would later prove to be.

Ignore these people. None of them matter

Ignore these people. None of them matter

Instead, we got aliens of the week and the occasional diatribe about how much life sucked now the crew couldn’t have unlimited coffee. Every week the ship looked as factory fresh as the week before and despite there only being 150 crew members on board at the start of the series, we still never got to hear about any of them outside the main seven.

I felt robbed. And so my childish mind decided to rectify the situation…

Draft #1 — The Anti-Voyager

One evening, after a particularly bad episode of Voyager (I believe it was the one with the Macroviruses, though I could be wrong), I sat down with an old exercise book and started plotting out my own version of the show.

Straight away, I decided to do away with any idea of my ship ever getting home as I felt it was precisely this lingering promise of an eventual return to Earth that was at the root of so many of Voyager’s problems. Without going into it too much, there were waaaay too many episodes of the show that revolved around the crew discovering some strange Space Phenomena that might bring them home, only to have their hopes dashed at the last second with a single press of that reset button.

This, believe it or not, doesn’t make for gripping TV.

In my version, I decided, there would be none of that. My ship would be huge – a city in space – and it would be stranded much further from home than the piddly Voyager: 500 years instead of just 70. In fact, I decided that our main characters would be the descendants of the original crew meaning they knew nothing of the Federation and the Earth except what their ancestors had told them. Over the years these people had slowly lost sight of their Federation principles. They had become feudal and aggressive towards one another. The very idea of returning to Earth was just a vague fairytale told to children; a fantasy none of them really believed would ever happen. All any of them really cared about was bullying the other alien races in that part of space and ruling over them as kings.

712L The Observers web

I also decided to make my ship spherical, since I could think of almost no examples of round ships in SF apart from the Death Star in Star Wars and everyone knows how cool that ship is

I should probably point out that I’d just finished reading The Savage Stars at around this time, which definitely had an impact on the feel of that early draft. Suffice to say, there was a lot of sex in it… horribly written, adolescent sex that I shudder to read these days.

Anyway, not many ideas survive from that early draft to the present day. The only exception to this is the names of the main characters, which remain the same even now: Michael the Captain, Susan his confident, Brian the chief engineer, and Stuart Leighton the only sane and level-headed man on the entire ship.

Unfortunately, I never got very far with that first draft. I think even back then I realised my story was far too derivative of Star Trek to ever be more than a passing curiosity. For my next draft, I knew, I would need to make my creation a little more unique…

Draft #2 — Exploring the characters

For my second draft, I decided to relocate the action to a space station. Partially, this was because I was a big fan of Deep Space 9 at the time and anything that made my story closer to this and less like that terrible Voyager show, was fine by me. Mainly, though, it was because I wanted to do away with the whole idea of having ‘aliens of the week’ in my novel. I wanted my story to be insular and concerned only with the politics and relationships of the crew rather than what was going on outside the ship. This was, after all, the thing I was most missing from Star Trek Voyager.

Very quickly I decided to create a civil war among the crew, with the space station itself split right down the middle between the loyalist faction who still answered to the Captain and the rebel anarchists who wanted… something else. I never did figure out what separated their ideologies.

Anyway, this was the draft that created the aristocratic House-based system that still exists to this day. Since resources would be extremely limited on a space station, it made sense that those in power would try to hoard the lion’s share for themselves. This, logically, would then create a system of Have vs. Have Not. A class-based society, in short.

It was also this draft that created the Bunks and the Unspoken who lived in them. I realised that unless some sort of draconian birthing system was put into place, the cramped living space available on a space station was going to fill up with new babies very quickly and those babies would need to go somewhere: why not into a labour camp where they could benefit all of those aforementioned Haves?

Writing Update: An Analysis of the Bunks

The Bunks were heavily inspired by what I’d read of WWII concentration camps and Russian Gulags

I’ve talked in detail about this idea before, so check out this article if you’re interested in hearing more about my rationale behind this.

Anyway, I got much further with this second draft than I did the first, reaching well over 30,000 words before ultimately stopping due to a sudden realisation that I had absolutely no idea where the story was going. Also, I was still borrowing far too heavily from Star Trek for my liking and by that point, I was drifting away from Star Trek anyway and into the territory of other things that interested me.

Things stayed that way for many years. I went to university, wrote a couple of other books in the meantime and generally forgot all about the Arkship Ulysses. Then one day, I had an epiphany – an epiphany which set off a chain of niggling ideas in my mind that wouldn’t go away until I had dived back into the book…

Draft #3 & 4 — The Addition of Loss

I’ve already written about those ideas before. It was a simple idea really, inspired by a combination of Warhammer 40,000 fluff and my religious education but it completely changed the way I felt about the book.

The idea was this: remove the aliens completely. Remove the planets. Remove the resources. If my ship is going to be stranded in the middle of nowhere, why not go all out? Space, you might have heard, is pretty damned big. Why not make it empty as well?

My ship would be an island of life floating in a gulf of nothing. Literally all alone and next to no hope for the future. There would be nothing for the crew to look forward to but when they looked back at the past, they would see only the things they had lost. In this way, the crew would exist in a kind of never-ending now. A purgatory between alive and dead.

Through the Ulysses, I planned to show the fragile transient state that we all exist in. Though the Ulysses, I wanted to highlight the importance of keeping one’s faith if only to have something to distract you from the terrors all around. I wanted to show that death is inevitable and that the extinction of our entire species is just a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’. And yet, despite this, we still get out of bed each morning. We still continue to try.

Now that’s a pretty bleak theme to explore right there but it’s an important one too. For the first time, I felt I had an idea of what my book was actually trying to be. I still didn’t know what was going to happen in it, but I sure as hell knew how I wanted the reader to feel while reading it.

For this draft, I changed the focus from the Star Trek model of looking at individual characters, to focussing instead on whole families: a much broader canvas to paint on. Two families quickly rose to the forefront in my mind: the family of Brian the engineer, who was suddenly finding himself on the rise and the family of Stuart Leighton, who had recently lost everything.

By exploring these two families in juxtaposition to one another and their relationship with the puppet Captain supposedly in charge of it all, I realised that I finally had a story to tell.

The only problem is… Well, it turned out I underestimated just how big a book like that would need to be. A story of two families over the course of generations? I mean, we’re talking War and Peace size here and most first time authors are lucky if they can get a book longer than 100,000 words out the door.

It I wanted to see the book published, I would need to cut it short. The logical move was to cut the book into segments, but that of course meant accelerating a couple of plot points in the early part of the story in order for there to be an appropriate dramatic climax at the end of the book. And this need for a climax in turn destabilised the balance of the early chapters and required the addition of new problems that needed to be resolved. And so on.

Every change added months to the writing time. I would be forced to work each change backwards into the novel only to then work forwards once more and find that, again, the final draft was far too long. In its current state, my book comes in at just over 150,000 words, which is good — much better than I ever could have expected — but both too long to get published and also far too short to do its themes justice.

The result is a tangle of plotlines and character arcs that feels both rushed and over-complicated at the same time.

It needs to be simplified.

Draft #5 — Finding my focus

So now we’re up to the present day.

typing

Writing… it’s never as easy as you think it’s going to be

This week is a quiet one for me and so I’ve decided to go back into my novel once more, this time with a vengeance. I will be posting chapters up here on my blog as I write them. Please feel free to read them and give me what feedback you can. I am always happy to hear your ideas, no matter how stupid you might think they are.

Click here to read the Prologue

Only after the entire novel is up here and finished will I take it down from this site, print it all off and then send it off for publication. Hopefully it won’t take two years to do it this time.

Some changes are already clear to me: I’ve decided that I will need to reduce the number of viewpoint characters in order to make the overall experience more focused. The casualty will be Brian’s family, which will be removed from the story altogether. In their place, Stuart Leighton’s plot will be bolstered up instead, making him the narrative focus of the book.

Other changes will also be needed but I’m not sure what they are right now. Suffice to say, I’m sure there will be more than a few stumbling blocks along the way but still, this is something I need to do. This book means a lot to me. It’s been going round my head in one form or another for over half my life now and I owe it to these characters I’ve created (as well as to my own sanity) to get it done and done right this time.

Back to the Arkship Ulysses I go once more. Wish me luck! I’m going to need it…


Game review: Darksiders II

27 February 2014

darksiders_2_wii_u_box_artAs you can probably tell from the sorts of games I rate highly, I’ve never been one to shy away from a game just because it looks childish.

Quite the opposite in fact. I’m a strong believer in the idea that if you take any two games from the same console generation, you’ll often find that it’s the one with the more child-friendly graphics that has better stood the test of time.

Mario 64? Dated but functional. Goldeneye 64? A blocky mess. On the Gamecube, there were two Zelda games released: the cartoony Windwaker and the more realistic Twilight Princess. Despite the fact that the Windwaker was widely criticised at the time of its release for looking so ‘kiddy’, it says a lot about the timelessness of its graphics that it’s this game, rather than the more realistic Twilight Princess, which received an HD makeover last year. A makeover, I might add, that most people said wasn’t needed.

fdge

Games like this will always look good

In fact, there’s so much evidence that good graphics don’t equal a good game that it kind of boggles my mind that developers continue to plough as much money as they do into making their graphics so bleeding edge. Massive draw distances, 1080p textures and millions of polygons seems to be the raison d’etre of developers these days. Go onto any gaming forum and you’ll find literally hundreds of people arguing for hours over the tiniest difference in graphical fidelity rather than, you know, talking about which game is actually the most fun to play.

Maybe it’s the Nintendo upbringing in me, or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve spent the last six years playing exclusively on a Wii, but I can’t help but wonder why developers even bother, especially when the result of such high budget graphical spending is little more than a glitchy, buggy mess of a game, with a frame rate that regularly drops into the single digits, screen tearing all over the place and a disturbing tendency to crash my entire console at least once an hour, requiring a hard reset of the system.

That’s a description of Darksiders II by the way. Suffice to say, I don’t think we’ll be looking back on this game in 10 years time and marveling at its beauty. To be honest, I doubt most people will even remember it exists.

darksiders_ii

Beautiful, yes. But watch it in action and you’ll quickly lose your love for it

A launch title for the Wii U and one of the last releases from THQ before its untimely shutdown last year, Darksiders II is an example of a studio playing it safe. “It’s the next best thing to Zelda!” some random forum member told me a few months ago in a conversation which convinced me to give the game a try. “If you can’t wait for the next installment of Zelda, why not give it a go?” And yes, I have to admit that both games share a lot of similarities. Both have dungeons to explore, for example. Both have giant bosses to kill, items to collect and puzzles to solve.

But that’s where the similarities end. For where a game like Zelda asks you to step back and analyse your enemies before exploiting their weaknesses, Darksiders II plays like a side-scrolling beat ‘em up. Button mashing is the order of business here and dear God is there a lot of it. Literally every button on the Gamepad is used at some point during combat — often in combination with one another and usually to a specific animation-based rhythm. Battles in this game are less about picking your moment than they are trying to remember the correct button combination to activate your special ability.

It gets tedious very quickly and it doesn’t help matters that the game is damned hard. Not so hard that you’re not going to make progress, of course — there are checkpoints all over the place and the game kindly gives you unlimited continues — but hard enough that you’re going to find yourself dying with frustrating frequency and, usually, it’ll be because you forgot how to activate your health potion during the heat of the battle or because you didn’t quite press the right combination of buttons at the exact moment you should have.

Maybe it’s just me and my years of Zelda training but I don’t find that sort of combat fun. It’s certainly not intuitive. There is a steep learning curve involved in this game and even after spending more than 50 hours on the game, I still don’t feel as though I’ve mastered it.

Alright so it’s L2+B for the spin attack, right? Or is it X, X+Y? Oh damn it, I’m dead again

Alright so it’s L2+B for the spin attack, right? Or is it X, X+Y? Oh damn it, I’m dead again

Also different to Zelda is the weapon system. Defeated enemies periodically drop weapons and armour on the ground, which you can swap out instantly for the one you’re currently using. The Gamepad is used to great effect here, as you can instantly switch things around in real-time. Some weapons have the ability to level up, too, giving a nice feeling of choice and progression to proceedings. I particularly like how any change you make to your weapons or armour is reflected on Death’s character model.

However, this system is not without its drawbacks. The problem is that these weapon drops happen with such unrelenting frequency that you quickly find yourself with a maxed out inventory and multiple copies of identical weapons. You find yourself having to drop old weapons on the ground to make room for new ones and it all just makes me wonder (again, this might be the Zelda training in me) why didn’t the designers just give us one example of each type of weapon and then have the enemies drop items which allow us to upgrade them?

The ‘hero’ Death. Not exactly the easiest character to relate to

The ‘hero’ Death. Not exactly the easiest character to relate to

So what about the plot, then? You play as Death — one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse — on his desperate quest to clear his brother War’s name following the events of the first game. Straight away I have to confess that I’ve never played the first game (I’ve always been a one console per generation gamer and my console of choice for the last generation was the Wii) so I’ll freely admit that maybe, if I had played the first game, I might be able to understand more of what’s actually going on in the story.

Because right now, I have to say, I don’t understand any of it.

The way Death goes about clearing his brother’s name has to be one of the most convoluted and nonsensical things I’ve ever seen in a game. It turns out that in order to clear his brother’s name, Death needs to get to a place called the Tree of Life. Unfortunately for him, the road there is blocked by an evil miasma called Corruption. Alright you think, I’ll just have to destroy it then. Right? Well, no. The only way to destroy this Corruption is to first raise one of the giant constructs built thousands of years ago by the Makers and the only way to do that is to first divert a river and then blow up a volcano in order to light the forge that the Makers used to create the Constructs. You’re ten hours into the game before you even reach the bloody Tree of Life and when you finally get there, you’re not in the least bit surprised to find yet another complication immediately thrown in your path that sends you off on another five-hour button mash of a side quest.

It’s just one fetch quest after another with endless combat in between. Find something for someone — make progress. Find something else for someone else — make a bit more progress. There is zero emotional investment in anything that’s happening and, for a game with such a reliance on cut scenes and voice acting, that’s a pretty bad thing.

You certainly won’t run out of things to do in this game. Too bad most of those things are tedious

You certainly won’t run out of things to do in this game. Too bad most of those things are tedious

So what does this game have going for it, I hear you cry? Well, it’s a big game for one thing — much bigger than a typical Zelda game — and there are oodles of dungeons to explore and collectables to find along the way. If you’re the type of gamer who likes going for achievements, you’re going to have a great time here as there seems to be no end to it all.

The bosses are also fantastic. Suffice to say that there’s no such thing as an easy enemy in this game and this applies doubly so for bosses. Bosses truly feel like the leviathans that they are. They fill up the entire screen and are genuinely difficult to take down. Some of the game’s best moments are boss fights where you take on enemies hundreds of times your own size only to grind them into the dust. Its satisfying and it looks cool. They stay with you a long time afterwards.

I also really liked the exploration element to the game. Death runs and jumps around the scenery with a kind of parkour acrobatic grace that outshines Link on almost every level. The puzzles might not be on the same level of complexity as Zelda’s, but there are certainly a lot of them and they are always satisfying to solve.

I just wish there was more of these things and less of the button mashing. I just wish the designers had spent more time on making the plot good, even if it meant making the game shorter, than padding it out with stupid fetch quests that benefit no one. I just wish the graphic designers had spent more time ironing out all the bugs and glitches instead of cramming in all those beautiful HD textures.

With another few months of development, I feel there could have been something really good here. Sadly, in its current state, the words ‘generic’ and ‘lacklustre’ are the first that spring to mind.

Overall – D

urlDarksiders II does a lot of things right: the atmosphere, the graphics and the huge open world are better than almost anything else you’ll find right now on the Wii U. It’s a huge game and, let me tell you, seeing it all running in full HD after six years of playing nothing but Wii games… that was a mind blowing first few hours right there.

But once all the dust has settled and the plot gets underway, you realise that most of the game is made up of little more than mindless button mashing and pointless fetch quests, through a world made up of some of the most glaring graphical glitches I’ve ever seen.

It’s pretty forgettable and it gets samey very quickly. Its few stand out moments are painfully marred by all the flaws in between and, sadly, it’s just not very fun when you get right down to it. Ultimately the game feels like exactly what it is: the swan song of a dying studio rushing to meet a deadline before its doors were closed forever.


Looking back: My first girlfriend

14 February 2014

Bull Terrier CarpetToday is Valentine’s Day, which, according to all the heart-shaped paraphernalia filling up the shops right now, is supposed to be a day of love and romance. To commemorate this special day, I’ve decided to share a little story with you.

It’s the story of my first girlfriend.

Her name was Rachel*. She was a short girl, cute as a button with bright blue eyes and naturally blonde hair which she kept cut short. Not exactly what you would call the most attractive girl in the world, nor the most popular, but in a weird way that only made me like her more. She was simple. Homely. I liked that in a girl.

I was 15 at the time and going through what I can only call the ‘awkward phase’ of my life. At the age of 14 my skin had suddenly and rebelliously decided to break out in the worst case of acne I’ve ever seen and this, coupled with the endless bullying I got as a result of it, had turned me into something of a loner at school.

You know that introverted, geeky kid you always see keeping to himself in the corner of the playground? Yeah, that was me.

Fast forward to age 15 and I was quickly finding myself the only one of my friends who had never had a girlfriend. I had managed to kiss a girl once, back in my pre-acne days, but that was three years ago by this point and I’d long burned up all the street cred I’d gained from that.

I was desperate to change this situation and Rachel, I decided, was the perfect means to change it.

She ticked every box on my list of desirable features. She was clever but not in a show-offy way. She was friendly but not extroverted. She was a girl with obvious depth to her and I was sure that if I could just get her to open up to me, we’d get on like a house on fire.

The only problem was… she was one of those girls who always seems to have a crowd of friends following her around wherever she goes and those friends were not exactly on speaking terms with me. Her best friend, Saida,  had recently broken up with my best friend, Barry, while her other best friend, Hannah, was the aforementioned girl I’d once managed to kiss, so talking to her was out of the question.

Extracting Rachel from those two was difficult enough. Actually getting her to talk to you once you were alone was next to impossible.

Fortunately, I had a plan.

It was my friend Nick who came up with the plan. You see, he’d noticed that Rachel lived quite close to him and that she always walked home from school.

“I sometimes see her when I’m cycling back,” he explained to me once day over lunch. “She’s always on her own. You should come with me one day and maybe you can talk with her then.”

It was a plan so simple it bordered on the genius. I would walk home with Nick one day, ‘accidentally’ bump into Rachel and then, break the ice.

“Hey Rachel!” I would say, false amazement stitched onto my face. “Oh my God! Fancy seeing you here! I didn’t know you walked this way home! Mind if I join you?”

At which point she would of course say yes and we would then be afforded 10 whole luxurious friend-free minutes with each other.

I planned my moment carefully.

My uncle had recently passed away and I was due to head up to Birmingham for the funeral. For some God unknown reason, I decided that this was the perfect time to ask her out. If I told her about my uncle, this would really give me the sympathetic angle I needed to get into her good books. Pull at her heart strings, that sort of thing.

Have I mentioned yet that I was an idiot back then? It’s kind of an important detail.

So anyway, at first everything went swimmingly. On the allotted day, my friend Nick and I hung back after class until we were sure that Rachel was on her way home. We gave her a 2 minute head start before following her, and then made sure to keep her in sight the whole way.

At a pre-determined spot, Nick wished me good luck before cycling on ahead. Meanwhile, I crossed the road and hurried to catch up with Rachel.

It was at this point that things started to go wrong…

You see, I’d spent so long planning how to get Rachel on her own that, now the moment was here, I realised I had absolutely no idea what to say to her. Suddenly, every idea I could think of sounded forced and contrived. “Hey Rachel!” sounded too casual. “Oh my God, it’s you!” too aggressive. “Fancy seeing you here!” too cheesy. If I sidled up to her and said, “Mind if I walk with you?” she would know that I’d been following her and that would be bad because then she’d think I was some sort of weird stalker rather than the sweet romantic guy I really was.

In retrospect, I totally over-thought the situation.

During the whole time I was catching up with her, I kept telling myself that now was the moment to call out to her. First she was 50 meters away from me.

Do it now!

No it’s too far away.

Then 20.

Now!

No, I’m not ready.

Then just 10.

Now you idiot!

But the words wouldn’t come… My heart was hammering in my throat so hard it physically hurt to breath. Every time I opened my mouth, it seemed to be full of sandpaper.

Until, suddenly, I realised it was too late. I was walking so close to Rachel by now that she would have to have been deaf not to know I was there. If I called out to her now, it would seem really weird. So, to my endless chagrin, I found myself slowing down and walking the whole way home lock-stepped five metres behind her, my eyes on the ground and my heart pounding in my ears.

I felt sick. I’d missed my chance. Never again would I have another opportunity to stumble upon her ‘by chance’. I was an idiot.

But, just as I was chastising myself, I suddenly saw Rachel disappear off down a nearby side street. Out the corner of my eye I saw her open the door to a house on the corner and enter.

“A-ha,” I thought. “So that’s where she lives!”

I stuttered to a halt. I stared up at the house she had just entered. Right there in that moment, a brilliant idea entered my 15-year-old head.

“I’ll write her a letter!” I thought to myself. “I know where she lives now! If I write a letter, I’ll be able to say everything I’ve always wanted to without fear of her friends getting in the way or me bottling it at the last second! She’ll find it romantic, of course — girls love that sappy stuff. I’ll finally be able to ask her out on my own terms!”

So I set down my bag, got out my organiser and wrote down the name of the street we were on. Then I looked up at the house she had entered and wrote down the number.

I prided myself on my cunning.

Nick, of course, was less impressed. “You should have just spoken to her,” he chastised me when I met up with him on the next street and told him what had happened. “That’s what I would have done.”

“Yeah but you’ve never had a girlfriend,” I pointed out to him. “So you’ll forgive me if I don’t take your advice.”

Yeah, I was kind of a dick back then too.

Anyway, the next day I wasn’t in school because I had to go to my uncle’s funeral as I’ve already said. I went up to Birmingham for the funeral and then came back the same day.

To my surprise, however, there was a letter waiting for me upon my return. A hand-delivered letter, no less, signed by my friends Barry and Nick.

Straight away, the alarm bells started ringing. Neither of my friends lived anywhere near my house — the nearest lived 30 minutes away by foot – and I could think of no reason why either of them would go so far out of their way unless it was for something bad.

This is what the letter said:

Rob, we have some bad news for you. I’m really sorry to tell you this on the day of your uncle’s funeral, but Rachel knows you were following her! Today, in science, Miss Logan noticed you weren’t here and asked where you were. I was going to explain but suddenly Saida suddenly shouted out, “Rob stalked Rachel last night!” in front of the whole class! Well, you know how Ms Logan is, she always loves to gossip and she wouldn’t let it go until Saida had told everyone everything that had happened! Apparently Rachel she saw you writing something down outside her house. But don’t worry, Nick and I did our best to calm the situation. We said you always walk that way home and it was nothing more than a coincidence but I don’t know if Ms Logan was convinced. Anyway, I thought you should know so you’re not surprised when you come in to school tomorrow. I think there are going to be a lot of questions waiting for you.

Shock and anger were my friends that night. I spent a sleepless night staring up at my bedroom ceiling telling myself over and over how stupid I was.

To my surprise, however, there were no questions at school the next day. There were certainly a lot of pointed looks: a raised eyebrow from Ms Logan and a red face from Barry, who couldn’t hide a secret if his life depended on it. For her part, Rachel disappeared completely into the midst of her friends and wasn’t seen on her own again for well over a month.

And me? Well, I just buried myself in my school work, surrounded by equal parts anger and shame at my inability to talk to a girl. I never tried talking to Rachel about the situation, though. Anything I tried saying to her at that point would only make things worse.

I never wrote that love letter to her.

I never walked that way home again.

But fear not because that’s not the end of the story. As I’ve already said, this is the story of my first girlfriend and, eventually, Rachel did become my girlfriend.

One year later, aged 16, Nick and I were walking home from school one day with one of Rachel’s friends, Hannah. As I’ve already mentioned, Hannah and I had a pretty strained relationship since we’d kissed each other during the first year of school and neither of us really knew what to make of the situation now that we were older. She was a cool girl though.

Anyway, she joined Nick and I on our walk home that day because she wanted to talk to us about Barry. In particular, she wanted to talk to us about Barry and Saida, the girl he’d been having an on-again off-again relationship with for the last 3 years.

“What’s the deal with those two?” she asked us and we just rolled our eyes in reply.

“You know how Barry is,” we said. “It’s complicated with him.”

‘Complicated’ was a good word to use. ‘Gay’, would have been better.

Anyway, this topic led to us talking about each other. And that led us to talking about Rachel. To my amazement, Hannah confessed that Rachel had, at one point in time, had a bit of a crush on me “before all that weird stuff happened last year.”

Well, then it was like the flood gates had been opened. I found myself telling Hannah everything. I told her about my plan and about my would-be love letter. I told her how crazy I was about Rachel.

Hannah waited patiently until I was finished talking. Then she burst out in laughter.

“Just try talking to her next time,” she said between laughs. “You’re not living in the 19th century anymore.”

“That’s what I keep telling him but he won’t listen,” said Nick.

“God, you two are as bad as each other. Here!” she said as she scribbled down Rachel’s number and handed it over. “Call her. I promise she won’t bite.”

Like I said, Hannah was a pretty cool girl.

So anyway, I called Rachel up. It took me the better part of a day to muster the courage and I needed to write everything down in advance so I wouldn’t fluff my lines but eventually I did it.

I called the number. I asked her out. And Rachel, to my surprise, didn’t hang up on me or tell me to get lost. Instead, she said she would think about it.

And then she said yes. “Yes.” It was such a simple word and yet, I swear that until the moment I heard it, I’d never known pure joy.

We agreed to meet at the cinema for a movie the next day. She said we should meet at 11.

10.30 and I was already standing outside the cinema, nervous as all hell. I waited for Rachel to show.

And I waited.

And I waited some more…

At 1 o’clock, I finally admitted that maybe she wasn’t coming.

Those two and a half hours will forever be stamped into my brain as some of the worst I’ve ever known. They were two and a half hours of paranoia and worry. Two and a half hours of me craning my neck at the distance at every person I saw. Every blonde-haired girl that walked by — was that her? Every car that pulled up in front of the cinema – maybe she was getting a lift?

I swear, even the cinema staff must have thought me some sort of weird stalker by the end.

Now, before you start calling me an idiot, remember that this was back in the days before everyone had a mobile phone. All I had was Rachel’s home phone number but, in order to call it, I would have to use the phone booth across the street and that would mean leaving the cinema and our designated meeting spot! Well, what if she came while I was gone? She would think I hadn’t showed up!

Anyway, when I finally admitted that she wasn’t coming and trudged home, I immediately called Rachel to find out why she hadn’t showed. She told me she’d had a party the night before. She told me she didn’t feel well.

Why hadn’t she called me to postpone our meeting? Why hadn’t she invited me to this party of hers?

“Sorry,” she said. “I lost your number.”

These days, I’m pretty sure I would have taken the hint but back then I was stupid. I asked if she was feeling better now. “Maybe I can come over?”

She agreed.

What followed was one of the most awkward, stilted dates in the history of human courtship. She got me a drink and showed me around. We played with her pet rat for a while, then watched an episode of Daria that just happened to be on TV. I had no idea what to say to her now that I was finally with her. I’d been fantasising after her for so long and now suddenly I was here, with her, inside her house! It was all too much for me. I was as sweaty and nervous as a man facing his first job interview.

I was polite and stiff. Not at all relaxed. When Rachel tried leaning against me while we were watching Daria, I honestly had no idea what I was supposed to do. It was about five minutes before I thought of putting my arm around her and even then I wasn’t sure how close I should be. If I moved too fast she might be angry with me. But how fast was too fast? I had no idea – this was literally my first date ever and, to be honest, I was still a little pissed off about the whole no-show at the cinema thing.

My mind was split between equal parts blind terror and pure elation. “Finally!” that part of me screamed over and over. “A girlfriend. A girl I had somehow asked out and won over, through absolutely no skill whatsoever.”

I wanted to pour my heart out to her. I wanted to sweep her up in my arms and smother her with kisses. My heart swelled with passion and teenage love for this girl I was with. We were completely alone in the house together. She and I – boyfriend and girlfriend.

But I had no idea how to express myself and so I just sat there, stiff-backed with a glassy smile stitched onto my face and together we sat in silence.

When I left a few hours later, she pecked me on the lips goodbye. My first kiss in four years and yet somehow, I couldn’t help but feel I’d blown it.

I was right.

On Monday morning, there was another letter waiting for me. Hannah gave it to me with an apologetic shrug at lunchtime. “Rachel’s too shy to hand it over herself,” she said in a way that held an undercurrent of contempt.

I don’t have that letter anymore but to be honest, I don’t need to. It was as predictable as it was short and it came with not a word of explanation why.

I was dumped. She didn’t want me. Goodbye.

Nick and Barry consoled me the best they could but in truth I was heartbroken. I simply couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong. I’d tried so hard, surely that was all that mattered? Sure, I’d made mistakes, but my heart was in the right place. I’d only wanted to make her happy, even though I had no idea how.

A few months later, she then had the audacity to ask out my best friend Barry on a date. She asked him out. And in a moment that almost cost me his friendship, Barry said yes to her. They dated each other for the better part of four months — by far the longest relationship any of my circle of friends had had up to that point. Every lunchtime I was forced to watch them swapping spit together in the school corridors and every night he walked home with her and kissed her goodnight outside the house on the spot where I had once written down her address.

I tried to put on a brave face for the sake of my friendship. I smiled to their faces and wished them all the best but inside I felt like someone had stabbed me. I felt like I were swallowing glass.

In my leaving book at the end of the school year, Rachel wrote the following message to me:

We had a lot of good times together. Sometimes they were scary, sometimes they were bad but mostly they were a lot of fun. I know I won’t forget you.

And I won’t forget you either, Rachel. For all of two days, you were my girlfriend and for that you will always be special to me. You were a girl I chased after for the better part of 2 years. You were a girl I almost lost my best friend over. A girl who broke up with me in a letter.

Happy Valentine, wherever you are. I hope you know that you were kind of a bitch.

*That’s not her real name of course. I’ll be changing everyone’s names in this to protect their identities.


Obscure books: The Savage Stars by Richard Reinsmith

8 February 2014

Welcome to a new series on this blog in which I’ll be periodically looking at obscure examples of SF and, basically, pulling them apart for your amusement. First up we have a book that’s very close to my heart for sentimental reasons, The Savage Stars by Richard Reinsmith. Never heard of it? Don’t worry; no one has.

The book was published by Stoneshire Books in 1983 – the same year I was born. To be honest, I haven’t been able to find out much about Stoneshire Books but Reinsmith appears to have been a semi-prolific writer back in the day. In the early 80′s, he churned out a load of pulp books under various pseudonyms only to disappear from the scene just as quickly as he arrived.

I was 12 years old when I first stumbled upon this book in my school’s library. I was going through something of an SF phase at the time and I would systematically read my way through any book which had the word ‘space’ in the title, just because I loved the subject so much. To be honest, a lot of what I read was complete dreck but I remember how, even among that sea of terrible books, this one stood out.

I mean, just look at it!

Just look at it! If I could summarise the entire 80's in one picture, it would look something like this

They say you should never judge a book by its cover but in this case, you really should

The front cover depicts a topless, muscled barbarian taking on a green alien monster in a fight to the death. “That looks amazing!” my 12-year-old self instantly said. “Why, it’s like Kirk vs. Gorn all over again, only better because this one has a scantily clad woman with 80’s hair on it!” (Admittedly, I was very easily impressed back then, especially by scantily clad women with 80′s hair).

gorn_051

This is what I expected the book to be about…

The back blurb also looked intriguing:

blurb

I’ve got to admit, I kind of like blurbs that are straight to the point like this. No random quotes from authors you’ve never heard of. No grand-sounding words like “in the tradition of [insert author name here]“. Just a simple description of the plot and big purple letters.

Too bad, then, that the actual story has next to nothing to do with this blurb.

Oh don’t get me wrong — these events do happen in the book, but they all take place in the book’s back story, hundreds of years before the story opens. Of aliens and spaceships, this book has none. Of war and survival, it has very little.

So what is this book about, then? Glad you asked.

It’s about sex.

...And this was what it was actually like.

…And this was what it was actually like.

Lots and lots of sex.

Our story opens with our hero Eric, a big, burly product of the 80′s who appears to be made up of nothing more than muscle and manly testosterone. At the start of the book, we find him staring up at the tower where all the women are kept captive as he reminisces about his recent visit to the beautiful Alicia…

For the price of 10 tiger skins, the Guiders had allowed [Eric] one weekend with Alicia. It had seemed months ago, yet every detail was startlingly clear in his mind. She had sung to him. She had fed him until he felt sated. Then, in the darkness of the night when he was half asleep, she had pressed against him, and he had learned the ultimate joys a woman can give. She was beautiful. She was perfect. She was ecstasy. (page 6)

She was a prostitute.

It turns out that in this world, women are surprisingly rare commodities. So rare, in fact, that the few women who do exist as all kept well away from the men. The men are then able to buy themselves time with a women in exchange for doing good deeds for the community such as hunting meat, gathering herbs and making tools. It kind of makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense, however, is how Eric reacts to seeing Alicia for the first time. Considering that Alicia is literally the first woman Eric has ever laid eyes on, you might be expecting him to be a bit like a five-year-old during a game of “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine”.

Like this

Just like this

You’d expect there to be a lot of giggling and questions such as “why don’t you have a penis?” “what happened to all your muscles?” and “what the hell are boobies?” I mean, let’s face it, Mr 80’s Testosterone here grew up in a society composed only of burly, muscular men killing tigers for a living. Are we honestly expected to believe that hunting is the only thing he got up to in his spare time?

Well anyway, regardless of Eric’s sexual history, this single weekend spent with Alicia (AKA the first woman he has ever met) was apparently enough for him to fall maddeningly in lust with her. So much so, in fact, that he now plans to storm the tower and kidnap her so she will be exclusively his forever!

It’s a plan so audacious that the punishment for it is death. He confides his plan to his mentor, the Tree Father, expecting the wise old man to talk him out of it. Apparently the Tree Father is a bit of a horn dog, however, because he’s completely up for the idea.

“Do you think I’m crazy?” Eric asked.
The Tree Father laughed. “No. [...] To want to steal a woman is a natural ambition. Many young men have come to me and confessed similar desires. [...] My body is too old for strong desires for women.” He raised a wrinkled hand. “Although I must admit I would enjoy the constant company of one. It would be a thing of the mind. I like to see their long hair and soft skin. I enjoy their gentle ways and senseless chatter.”
“Then I shall steal one for you too,” Eric joked. (page 8)

Yep: long hair and senseless chatter. Those are exactly the words I would use to describe a woman.

Anyway, as you can probably already tell, the characters in this book are not exactly what you would call ‘likable’. I guess it kind of makes sense that they would talk so degradingly about women, especially when you consider that women are so rare in this society that all the men have been brought up thinking of them as little more than prizes to be won.

But does our hero really need to be such a reprehensible jerk about it?

“I have chosen a place in the forest called the Valley of the Tigers. None of your people go there because they are afraid. I have room in a tree there. She won’t be able to escape. She will also be afraid of the tigers.” (page 9)

Good to see you’ve covered all the bases there, Eric. For a minute I was worried you were only thinking with your dick.

Now, just in case you’re wondering, “Wait a second: what if this woman doesn’t want to be kidnapped and taken to a tiger-infested part of the jungle to have sex with a barbarian?”, fear not! Reinsmith has you covered:

It would be Alicia’s choice. Come with him willingly and hang on to him. Otherwise, he would tie her wrists and take her forcefully. (page 38)

What a great role-model for a 12-year-old to stumble upon in a school library! That’s your tax money at work there, people. Hope you’re happy about it.

In between each chapter we get small snippets of the back story that was already spoiled in the blurb. In short, the crew of the USS Corsair crash landed on a mysterious planet filled with lots of deadly animals and plants. The crew at the time consisted of 300 male soldiers and just 3 women, so the captain quickly hides the women away in a tower, presumably so they won’t all get molested every five minutes. However, it isn’t long before the Captain is whoring these poor women out to the soldiers in exchange for good work and it isn’t much longer before it’s become an established part of their society.

When you stop and think about it for a minute, this means that everyone on this planet is descended from three women. I’ve got to admit: no wonder everyone’s so messed up.

These days, there is one city on the whole planet, which is called Homebase. This city only has room for the cleverest and most technically minded men as well as all the women. Everyone else lives in the jungle outside.

Important point to remember: Reinsmith =/= Tolkein

Important point to remember: Reinsmith =/= Tolkein

So, OK it’s no Middle Earth, but as far as world building goes, I can kind of accept it. The status quo here is believable, albeit horrible, and the implications of a male-heavy society are actually pretty well thought through in this early part of the book.

To be honest, if Reinsmith had chosen to show us more of the plight of these women, there might have been a good book here. For example, maybe (and I know this might be shocking to hear but bear with me) maybe Alicia doesn’t like being a prostitute. Maybe when Eric kidnaps her, she finally decides she’s had enough. Maybe she uses this opportunity to show Eric how women are actually more than just walking vaginas. She could impress him with her resourcefulness and strength and, hey, maybe he could eventually fall in love with her for real. Through Alicia, Eric would have his eyes opened about how poorly women are treated in this world. This would then serve as Eric’s motivation for mounting a full-scale rebellion against their society. The book would actually have some sort of meaning to it then. A message. A character arc for our hero.

Instead we get this:

[Eric] pushed past [Alicia] and closed the door.
“Will you hand onto me or will I have to tie your wrists?” he blurted.

Her eyes widened in alarm. She was trembling. Her lips moved soundlessly awhile and then formed the word, “What?”
“Will you…” Eric caught himself, blushed when he realized how idiotic the question had sounded. […] “I want you to come with me,” he said hastily.
[…]
During her indecision, he came to her and placed his arms around her. Gently, very gently, he lowered his head and pressed his lips against hers in the kissing motion she had taught him. […]
When the kiss ended at last, she said weakly, “I’ll go with you.” (page 54)

Well of course the woman falls instantly and totally in love with the hero! Why wouldn’t she? He has muscles!

Who wouldn't fall in love with this?

Who wouldn’t fall in love with this?

Anyway with that, Eric and Alicia are on the run and the book now turns into an action-packed dash away from Homebase with metal dogs on their tail and vicious animals all around them.

Unfortunately, the people in charge of Homebase appear to be a bunch of inbred retards (which I guess makes sense since that’s exactly what they are). As expected, they send a load of metal dogs after Eric to kill him. When Eric manages to kill these dogs, the people at Homebase seem to just throw their hands up in the air and scream, “Oh my God the people are rebelling against us!”

So they then send out more metal dogs to try to subdue the tree people from their non-existent rebellion. Unsurprisingly, the tree people don’t much care for being subdued for no reason so they all just turn to each other and say, “Fuck this. Let’s rebel against the system!”

At which point a full-scale rebellion ensues.

My God it's troy all over again

It’s like Troy all over again!

While I would applaud Reinsmith for this very Helen of Troy-inspired approach to warfare, unfortunately we never get to see much of the ensuing rebellion. In fact, we see none of it. Not one battle. Not one death. The entire rebellion against Homebase happens completely off-screen.

The reason for why is very simple: Reinsmith chose the wrong character to be the hero. Seriously. Sure, Eric’s kidnap of Alicia proved to be the catalyst for the rebellion, but Eric himself has almost nothing to do with it. He cares nothing for the rebellion, nothing for the war, nothing for the tree people who are out there killing each other because of him.

All he cares about is sex…

Part of his mind said to be gentle because he didn’t want to hurt her [...], but the lustful animal in his nature wanted to be savage, brutal, pound away until she cried out in a mixture of pain and joy. (page 103)

Horrible, awkward sex…

Once more he had the feeling there was nothing better, nothing more pleasurable, than the mating of a man and woman. (page 105)

Anyway, it’s at about this point in the book that you realise that Eric, as well as being a disgusting example of a human being, is actually something of a Marty Sue. The guy can basically do no wrong as far as Reinsmith is concerned. He’s stronger than anyone else. He’s better looking than anyone else. But most importantly, despite being a complete virgin at the start of the book, he is an absolute demon in the sack.

You quickly grow frustrated with the guy. As already stated, Eric is a poor POV hero because all he ever does is react to what’s happening around him. His entire motivation and reason for existing in the story revolves around him kidnapping Alicia — which is fine — but it’s a goal he manages to achieve within the first 100 pages. After this, his character arc is pretty much over. There is nothing more for him to do in the story besides have sex, kill a few monsters and spout exposition about this glorious rebellion happening off-screen.

To be honest, I get the impression that even Reinsmith gave up on the guy, because it’s at this point that the narrative suddenly, and jarringly, jumps to some completely new viewpoint characters.

One of these characters is the President of Homebase himself, Glen Bromfield. Sounds good, right? You’ve got to ask yourself what the President will be doing during this time of upheaval and rebellion. Is he mounting a counter-attack? Is he conducting negotiations with the aggressors?

Jennifer and Dawn followed him eagerly [into the next room]. Soundlessly the girls and Glenn repeated a sensuous contact they had originated a few weeks previously, a physical relationship in which they remained nude, standing together, arms around each other, kissing, touching, caressing, sliding body against body, hands moving with greater and greater passion until the three-way union became a form of group masturbation. (page 87)

No, he’s having sex. Awkward masturbatory sex with two girls who are both 15 years old. It’s a pointless scene that goes absolutely nowhere and has no impact on the story whatsoever.

The other viewpoint character we get is Florence and in a way, her chapters are even worse. Florence is dispatched from Homebase to investigate what happened to the robot dogs who were killed by Eric. Unfortunately, she is then captured by the rebelling tree people.

No prizes for guessing what they plan to do with her.

“We’re going to play a game. It’s called ‘testing our accuracy at greater and greater distances.’ Keep your eyes open and you’ll see how the game is played.”
[...]
The Archer shot an arrow into the target an inch from her shoulder. He took some paces further away and the next arrow landed half an inch from her hip.
“I don’t quite understand this game,” Florence said.
“You will in a minute.” Searle moved further from his human target and [...] the next arrow landed thunk in the meaty section of her left thigh. (page 130)

Why, they shoot arrows at her of course! And then, after this, they torture her. They brand her breasts with a red-hot poker and then use an electronic device on her which leaves her nervous system completely messed up. And then…

“What happens now?” Florence asked.
“Guess.”
“I’m placed in solitary confinement until the next session?”
He nodded negatively.
“I’ll be placed in a cell with Joan so we’ll be able to chit-chat?”
“Not today.”
“I’m going to be raped.”
Springer nodded affirmatively.

Hey, at least Reinsmith has the decency to call it what it is this time.

Unfortunately, in what I can only assume is a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome on poor Florence’s part, she actually… *shudder* likes it.

She almost cried out with pleasure when he entered her, it felt so good. He was very passionate and climaxed quickly. (page 149)

And…

The questioning had exhausted her and, although she had been careful to hide her response, she had experienced multiple orgasms during his lovemaking. (page 150)

I honestly felt sick reading this scene. From start to finish, it’s pure titilation on the part of the writer.

Talking of which, if you’re wondering what our so-called hero Eric is doing during this period of off-screen warfare and on-screen rape then you clearly haven’t been following very closely. He’s been having sex of course! After being attacked in the jungle by a couple of giant snakes, he and Alicia are rescued by a secret society of people who have been working for generations on trying to repair a spaceship to get humanity back into space again.

This group is led by a very beautiful (of course!) woman and it isn’t long before Eric is cheating on Alicia with this new girl.

Alicia promptly finds out, runs away and is then killed off one-chapter later. Killed off off-screen, I might add. I wish I was joking. Her death comes completely out of the left field and leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth all through the book’s final, anti-climactic final chapters.

At the end of the novel, the spaceship is repaired, homebase is in the hands of the tree people and Eric has a new girl to have sex with.

And then the book just ends.

The impression you’re left with is a confused jumble of plotlines and characters. Nothing is satisfactorily resolved. No one grows or develops during the story. I can’t help but feel that Reinsmith just ran out of ideas and time halfway through writing the book and just thought, “Sod it, that’ll do. No one will ever read this far anyway.”

The weird thing is, I remember really enjoying this book when I first read it. As already said, I was very easily impressed at the time and this was the first time I’d ever read so openly about sex. Now, however, I see the book for exactly what it is: a morally devoid piece of trash that ran out of plot half-way through and was forced to fill up the void with scenes of group masturbation, torture and rape.

As I said, there could have been a good book here if some actual character development had taken place. Hell, there could have been a good book here if Reinsmith had just given the main character something to do. As it is though, it’s just pure garbage.

I’ll end this review with this final observation. On the inside front cover is the book’s dedication:

To Sue, my little girl.

That’s right, Reinsmith dedicated this book to his daughter. A book full of rape, torture and the subjugation of women and it’s been dedicated to a child.

I’m sure she’s just thrilled about that fact.


Looking back on five years of teaching

5 February 2014

I never set out to be an English teacher.

I grew up in a house full of teachers so I saw first-hand just how frustrating and thankless a career it can be. The early starts, the piles of marking, the endless pressure to perform in front of a group of strangers: they were warning signs flashing at me throughout my childhood and I’d long promised myself to stay far away.

Which is why it’s so strange to think that it’s now over five years since I taught my first English lesson.

It’s been a strange ride.

Everything about this picture is a lie

Everything about this picture is a lie!

The truth is, I never really had much of an idea what I wanted to be when I finished university. Of course, the dream was always to be a writer but I was realistic enough to know that writing alone wasn’t going to pay the bills. But what could I do instead? Work in journalism? Maybe administration or HR? Perhaps I could be one of those people who designed magazines?

I literally had no idea.

I flitted my way through my early 20′s in a haze of confused indecision. I worked for restaurants and shops. I worked at a school as an administration assistant, and then at a housing firm as a filing clerk. I worked in customer services for a botanical garden, and then completed internships at several publishing companies, which convinced me for a time that I was going to get into publishing. I worked at a cinema. I volunteered for a charity. I even spent one dull summer stuffing envelopes for a legal firm.

Finally I landed a job in a bank just in time for the financial crisis to come along and make me redundant. And from that, it was only a short hop, skip and a jump to joining up with a finance website where I helped to establish their in-house magazine.

It was a chaotic time – and not a very fun one. I kept wondering when I was finally going to start feeling like a grown up.

Then I met my wife.

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It really doesn’t work this way

I’ve heard people talk about love at first sight. They speak about this kind of magic electricity that seems to flow between two people like you’re in some kind of sparkly Twilight fanfic. But with Amélie it wasn’t like that.

It was better.

By the time I met Amélie, I was in a pretty bad state. I’d spent the last two years of my life bouncing around from job to job with little to no goal in my mind. I’d been single for so long, that by that point I was prepared to date just about anything with a vagina. Both of these things made me come across as desperate and socially awkward and it was no surprise to anyone that when I finally mustered up the courage to ask Amélie out, she immediately said ‘no’.

Fortunately, my wife is a very happy-go-lucky kind of girl and so, after being subjected to another month of daily badgering, she finally agreed to go on a date with me.

I think she only did it so I would stop bothering her about it.

To our mutual surprise, however, the relationship worked! Believe me, no one was more surprised than me. From the very beginning, our lives just kind of slotted into each other’s like two jigsaw pieces coming together. There were no questions. No doubts. Just instant and total satisfaction with each other.

In the space of just a few weeks, we were spending more evenings together than apart.

In the space of just a few months, I was already making plans to move to Poland.

Poland: it's a pretty awesome place

Poland: it’s a pretty awesome place

Amélie was an intern at the company I was working for at the time, so she insisted on keeping our relationship a secret from our work colleagues. In a way, I think that was a wise decision. It forced me to keep my distance from her instead of being clingy, like I can sometimes be. It forced us to approach each other as mature adults and friends, rather than jumping down each other’s throats like a couple of horny teenagers.

Even so, it’s really weird now that I look back on it to see how quickly everything happened.

You see, from the moment Amélie and I got together we knew we were on a ticking clock. Amélie’s internship at our company was coming to a close. Soon she would have to go back to France to finish her degree and then she would be looking for full-time work. If we had any hope of staying together (and I really, really wanted us to stay together), we only had two choices: either I move to France to live with her or she move to England to live with me…

Or we could choose hidden option number three: both of us move to a completely new place, thus guaranteeing a fresh start for us both!

Choosing isn't always as hard as you might think

Choosing what to do in life isn’t always as hard as you might think

I honestly don’t remember even needing to think about it. It was a choice so natural it felt practically pre-ordained. Amélie spoke Polish and I was learning Polish. Amélie had a grandmother living in Poland… Let’s live in Poland

Having chosen Poland, however, I then needed to find something to do over there and that’s where the idea of teaching English first raised its little head. I mean, I spoke a little Polish at the time but not nearly enough to work in a Polish company. What I really needed was a job in which I could speak English all the time… Preferably a job in which my vast knowledge of the English language would somehow benefit me…

Teaching!

Teaching!

So I enrolled in an evening course and spent the tail-end of 2008 learning how to teach English. At the end of 2008, Amélie left to go back to France. In March 2009, I handed in my notice to my employer at about the same time as she moved to Poland to settle into our new place. On 1st April 2009, I moved out to join her. At the time I only thought we’d be in Poland for maybe a year or two at most. I was excited by the possibilities of the future and eager to prove myself in this new phase of my life.

And remember: I’d only known Amélie for four months by this point. I swear, if I had a son who was thinking of making a similar decision, I’d clip him around the ear and tell him to stop being so Goddamned stupid! Maybe that’s why I’m not a father yet.

Still, apparently I took to teaching pretty well. I won’t ever say I’m the best teacher of all time (I’m not nearly organised enough in my planning to rank among the truly top-tier English teachers), but I do know that I was popular. Students would often ask to have lessons specifically with me. If I ever covered a couple of classes for another teacher, the students would often ask that I stay on. They would complain if I was taken away from them. They would try to go to me for private lessons.

I won’t lie, it’s flattering to get such lovely feedback. As much as I hated the 5am starts and 8pm finishes, just hearing how much better you are as a teacher than anyone else is enough to put a smile on your face all day. Of course there were some students who I liked more than others. With some of my students, I genuinely felt like we could have been friends if it weren’t for the professional distance I insisted on keeping between us. With others, however, it was like pulling teeth and I loathed every hour I was forced to sit through with them.

I’m a professional guy. I persevered. I got better, more confident in myself, more aware of my abilities. I got a little lazy too, I won’t lie, but that’s part and parcel of knowing any job inside out. I developed my own materials and posted some of them online. I got a promotion to Director of Studies and helped my school organise its methodology.

What is it that makes me such a good teacher?

Honestly, I’m not 100% sure, but if I had to guess, I would say it boils down to my attitude. I tend to approach my classes with equal parts professionalism and equal parts relaxation. I’m professional in the sense that I am always on time. I never cancel classes. I am always prepared and I always make a point of being showered and well-dressed regardless of how unsocial the teaching hour might be. These might sound like little things, but you would be amazed how important appearances can be in this industry. After all, when you’re locked in a room with a total stranger for 90 minutes, it always helps if that stranger at least has the decency to put on some deodorant first, if you know what I mean.

By relaxed, I mean that I’ve always been happy to let the student take the lead. I already know I have a strong knowledge of the English language and a good ear for hearing mistakes and it’s just a case of trusting that ability and allowing the lesson to shape itself. Armed with these tools alone (as well as balls of steel confidence in my own abilities), I’ve learned how to teach pretty much anyone with surprisingly little prep time. The phrase used in the industry is ‘the dogme method’ i.e. going into a classroom with little more than a blank piece of paper and a smile on your face and somehow still teaching a lesson that isn’t a complete waste of the students’ time.

It took me a long time to get my head around the idea. I remember when I first started teaching, I wanted every lesson to be perfect. I would over-plan every little detail. I would get butterflies in my stomach before every class and walk into the classroom with stacks of photocopied materials and a lesson plan marked out in individual minutes.

It took me all this time to realise how pointless that all is. Teaching, at the end of the day, is very personal thing. It’s about establishing a personal connection — a bond of trust between two people that you will help guide that person through the learning process. It’s about knowing what you can and can’t do and recognising in the student their own strengths and weaknesses. It’s not easy and it took me a long time to become the teacher I am today but after five years of practice, I can now safely say that I am very good at my job.

However… I also know when to call it quits. Over the last year, I’ve found it increasingly hard to stay motivated in my teaching. I’ve stopped developing. I’ve stopped trying new things. I feel like I’ve burned out.

Teaching is a young man’s game and the sad fact is that after five years, I feel like I’ve reached the limits of where I can go.

Once again, two paths lie in front of me. On the one side is the path to stay in teaching. I open up my own language school and go down the business route. I go back to college and get a DELTA, which then opens up doors to all sorts of new opportunities. On the other side is the path in which I leave teaching altogether. On this path, I change careers to something I can care about again. On this path, I go back to what I was doing before and work in a place where I’ll be guaranteed a future.

I’m a married man now. I’m a man with a wife and a family in his future. Will teaching English take care of that family? Can I really imagine myself doing this same job when I’m in my 60s?

Sadly, no.

newjobFinally, we come to the crux of the article. You see, an opportunity has emerged — a job at an international company doing pretty much exactly the same thing I was doing in London. The job is in English. The salary is better than what I’m on now. The work is something I know I can do.

I’ve decided to go for it.

I got into teaching with very little thought, and now, I find it needs very little thought to get out. I will always think fondly of my time in teaching and I don’t regret my decision to get into it for a second. But that phase of my life is over now.

It’s time to try something new.


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