Monday, 29 December 2008

Halting State

I got this book for Christmas (along with a few others which will be popping up in reviews over the next few weeks) and it was top of the pile in order of the things that I wanted to read. A bank robbery in an online game sparks a series or murders, which might be at the heart of an act of international espionage and terrorism... And how does this fit with a set of ARGs (alternate reality games) related to spying?

Charles Stross' novels are usually a whirlwind of ideas, and Halting State is no exception; set only ten years from now, it shows an incredible array of technology freely available to the public and providing swathes of information at the blink of an eye. Augmented reality glasses are on the drawing board now, and it is by no means inconceivable that they could be used for the purposes outlined in the novel - even though it might take a science fiction writer to come up with those uses. The story moves along fairly quickly, and at times it's not easy to see where things are going (or where they've come from). It's a very enjoyable read, but at the end of it I couldn't help but wonder if the amazing ideas didn't make up the greater part of the enjoyment than the plot.

Halting State is a good novel, a science fiction airport thriller that doesn't put style over substance and has a great streak of humour running through it. The ideas are big, but they show a world that could only be a few years away... Lets hope that we don't see the kinds of ARGs that pop up in this world though.

At the end of the novel there's a great interview with Charles Stross; one answer in particular jumped out, and gave me a little hope for my own future writing.

Q: Do the ideas just keep on coming?
A: Yes. And here's the weird thing; ideas breed. They multiply in dark corners when I'm not looking. I learn something new and trivial and the next thing I know, it's jumped a hoary old cliché and they're enthusiastically breeding a new master-race of cockroach-like plot tropes that scurry off and hide behind the wainscoting of a novel! (I am very grateful for this, incidentally.)

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Ooops! 28 and 33

As they currently stand, things 28 and 33 are essentially the same thing! How could I have overlooked that? How could I have done that, not only eight months ago, but how could I have not noticed???

At the moment:
28. Make a short animated film.
33. Make an animated short.

*raises eyebrow*

I will have to think about what 33 is now going to be. Something creative. But what?

Sunday, 21 December 2008


Dorothy Gael is an unhappy orphan living with her aunt and abusive uncle in Kansas in the 1880s; Frank Baum is a wandering actor, working as a teacher for a week or two he is inspired by the young girl in his class... Year later, Frances Gumm (better known as Judy Garland) is working on the film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz; the film goes on to become a major success, and a huge part of the life of Jonathan, an actor dying from AIDS in the later 1980s. He searches for signs of the "real" Dorothy, spending his final days and hours searching for her home in Kansas.

Was is a beautiful story; it's quite dark in places, but some of the descriptions, particularly of Jonathan and his deterioration as his condition worsesns and the visons that he experiences as a result are heartbreaking. There are very few novels that I have read which have really hit me emotionally as I have sat there reading them (The Lord of the Rings, Flowers For Algernon, The Time Traveller's Wife) and had I not been on a train as I finished it this afternoon I am sure that I would have cried reading about Jonathan's final hours.

In the past I have wondered about a story where the character knows that their life is almost up, how they would approach it, what they would be thinking, how they would face it. I might write something in that vein one day, but I will think long and hard before I do; in Was, Geoff Ryman has written a beautiful and dreamlike story, and while some parts - particularly some aspects of Dorothy's life - have a difficult subject matter, it is never anything other than a terrific and compelling read.

The Atrocity Archives

I've read a few things by Charles Stross before (Glasshouse, Accelerando) and have really enjoyed his brand of genre fiction - big ideas, hard sci-fi, cool characters - so when I saw The Atrocity Archives on the library shelf I decided to give it a go. I knew from the blurb that it wasn't sci fi per se, but it seemed pretty interesting. It would be tempting to call it a supernatural spy thriller, except supernatural doesn't seem quite right, and it has a lot of pure horror overtones. And the supernatural aspects are explained as a deeper understanding of maths and physics, connections with other dimensions and parallel universes - and not just explained in a hand-wavy kind of way either, especially when we get on to things like Ragnarok's Ice Giants, come to put the world in eternal winter...

While it might be difficult for me to tell you exactly what genre The Atrocity Archives falls into, I have no troubles in telling you that it is a great read, a real page turner. The lead's mix of intelligence, humour, and theoretical knowledge with limited experience in the arena that the story is set make him a really engaging character, and the plot is in the best tradition of noir and spy thrillers, dangling lots of loose ends and plot strands that you know must connect somehow, a jigsaw whose picture you can't see until the final chapters. If you see it on your library shelf or in your local bookshop, I'd recommend you give it a go.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

George's Marvellous Medicine

After watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a few weeks ago I really felt in the mood for some Roald Dahl. Now, I know I'm nearly 28 years of age, and maybe these would be more suited for someone twenty years my junior, but re-reading George's Marvellous Medicine was a breath of fresh air after reading Stranger in a Strange Land. Perhaps it would not be released today; perhaps it was simply because of the other's publishing record - don't mistake me, the story is short, sweet and great, but the subject matter (young boy decides to mix household products to make 'medicine' for his grandmother, with surprising results) would earn it disapproving looks from parents and teachers everywhere one would suspect.

A great little treat to read; I'm currently reading The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, but will next be reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Flash Fiction: The Bacon Bush

The Bacon Bush
by Nathan Ryder

Things never just happen in science. All those happy accidents that lead to 'miraculous' breakthroughs are never that at all. I'm serious. The guy who invented non-carcinogenic cigarettes? He just wanted smoking to be cool again.
Take Mike Brewster's discovery, the one that got him the Nobel in 2017: you might think that there was some noble goal there, maybe wanting to feed the starving masses, giving them more than just grain, giving away cheap, easily available protein. What a great humanitarian, an innovator in the area of agricultural genetics.
Nothing of the sort.
Brewster overheard the woes of one of his post docs, did some thinking of his own (the realisation of how profitable it could be pushed him along a bit probably), and arrived at a solution.
Not the one that his post doc was going for, but a solution nonetheless.
That post doc – my friend, Adam Harris – didn't have a noble goal in mind either.
He just wanted to impress his vegetarian girlfriend.

“I just want to impress Helen!” he said, after a pint or four in the local.
“You can't give up meat,” I said. I was slurring a little I think, a little bored too, but you support your mates when they're having relationship problems. “You don't give a crap about poor little Chicken Licken or Porky Pig, she knows that!”
“I know, but I really want this to work...”
“Look mate, you tried before, but that textured soybean stuff she buys just isn't the same,” I said, draining my glass. I set it down and stood up, my turn to get the round in. “It's not like meat grows on trees, is it?”

Back in the labs some weeks later, Adam was trying to explain the problem he was having in getting the right proteins to knit together. I was just amazed that he was getting anything from the adapted soybean plants.
“I'm getting chunks from the first strain,” he said, as Brewster popped his head around the door, “The amino recombination is almost there, it really is!”
“But not quite,” I said, frowning and looking at the sequence that he was proposing for a future culture. It was out of my area, but I could understand enough of what he was doing to offer an opinion.
“Strains three through seven are producing something that looks like mince but tastes like crap,” he said, nodding a hello as he realised his supervisor was there.
Brewster cracked a joke about Adam knowing what craps taste like. We laughed dutifully, and a few seconds later Brewster walked away. Six months later I realised the importance of that moment, Brewster's eyes hungrily taking in the diagrams of protein chains and enzyme mappings that were strewn across the wall.
We should have remembered the allegations that had been made against Brewster a year earlier. Questions had been raised about his conduct whilst he had been supervising a visiting student (and Brewster's subsequent filing of patents) but nothing had ever come of it.
And we should have remembered that he has a photographic memory.

Six months passed and Adam cracked it.
He and Helen had split up by then, had done so two months earlier when she called in at the lab and saw that strain thirty-seven had produced a curly little tail. But it didn't matter. Adam had done it. We trimmed a few 'fruits' off, slapped them in a pan and fried them. Served on toasted white bread, no butter, it was pretty good. Thin trim of fat at the edge, a little too pink maybe, but a good texture and the taste was spot on.
Officially he was going to call it Glycine Max Modified Strain 53.
Between us we had taken to calling it the Bacon Bush.

One week later, he was almost ready to present his research. A hundred little seedlings, four mature plants, and even a new variant that produced rashers of streaky bacon. I had just stopped by to see how the press statement was coming along, when a group of geeks from the seventh floor burst in.
“Mike Brewster is giving a press conference in the main lecture theatre!”
“It's a major advance apparently!”
“He's on the midday news now!”
We put the feed through to the wall screen. Brewster was ten minutes in to his spiel and we tune in to the moment that said it all: Adam's last six months of work and his failed relationship were all for nothing.
Brewster beamed for the cameras and pulled the screen aside; you could almost hear the biotech firms scrambling over each other to put an offer to him.
Broad green leaves, main mass of the plant two feet high, thick vines supported like tomato plants with inch thick slabs of red meat hanging down from. Not a soybean plant base, that much was certain, but too much of a coincidence.
Adam let out a howl as he turned away and stormed out of the room. Meanwhile flashbulbs went off again and again as Brewster said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the Steak Plant!”

Creative Commons License
This short story is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works License. Feel free to repost and share it with others, so long as you credit me (Nathan Ryder, 2008) as the original author and link back to this page. It would also be nice if you dropped me a comment!

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Stranger in a Strange Land

I just finished reading Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, and I've been left a bit bemused by it all I have to say. It starts off pretty good, but about half way through it goes off in a very weird direction, and I'm not sure that it was enjoyable by the end - I'd just gotten so far in to it that I had to finish the story.

Mike Smith is the first human raised by Martians; brought back to Earth in his twenties, he becomes involved in the strange future human society that has flourished, first trying to get to grips with an alien world, and then showing his new "water brothers" what his Martian family have taught him. He inherits a fortune, works in the circus and founds a church... And the book could really be about half the size it is. I was reading the unabridged version, and I can't help but wonder what the originally published version was like, and whether it was a better read.

Heinlein's politics always make for an interesting read, and the subject matter is pretty good, but overall it's bloated, extremely dialogue heavy and there are times when it feels like some of the supporting characters are essentially interchangeable. Some of the scenes and situations do stand out as better than the rest of the novel in general, but I think that if you're looking for interesting 60s sci fi you should go for something by Philip K. Dick, maybe or Martian Time Slip or A Scanner Darkly.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008


When I first heard of Changeling it really didn't seem like my sort of film. The synopsis - missing son returns, but his mother believes that the police have brought the wrong child - has a lot of possibility, but it just never grabbed me. The film, or what I had heard about it until about two weeks ago, just really didn't feel like it was something that I would want to see.

But then I heard that the subject of the film wasn't quite the synopsis that I had heard. And so I took a chance and went to see a film about corruption, about murder, about loss... Angelina Jolie gives a great performance - quite different from anything else I've seen her in - but for my money the real acting highlights are the people who are opposite her, particularly Jeffrey Donovan, John Malkovich and Jason Butler Harner, all of who give brilliant performances. If I was giving out an award I would find it difficult to pick between the three of them.

My friend who I went to see it with was flabbergasted when I told him that I didn't think I had seen a film directed by Clint Eastwood before (since then I think I might have identified one of his films with the orangutan as one I've seen); on the strength and control displayed in Changeling I will definitely be filling out my list of classic films with entries from his body of work.

Waltz With Bashir

Q. An animated documentary? How does that work exactly?
A. Pretty well actually.

Waltz With Bashir is a documentary about Israeli soldiers who fought in the 1982 conflict with Lebanon. At this point, you may or may not be like I was about six weeks ago: "there was a 1982 conflict between Lebanon and Israel?" I had never heard of this before I heard about the film and started to read more about it. The director of the film had started to think about his military service in the early 80s, and realised that there were things that he could not remember about it. And when he started to have memories of things after talking to other people who had served in the army at the time he started to wonder whether or not they were real memories, or whether they were just things that his brain had constructed.

So he set about interviewing people he knew who had served at the time, and who were present in his memories of the time, to see if they could remember if what he remembered was correct. In doing so, a picture is painted of the conflict, in particular a portrait of an atrocity, a massacre that happened seemingly because everybody knew it was taking place or going to take place but nobody wanted to take any responsibility.

I've used a lot of artistic words in the previous paragraph, and as I said at the outset, Waltz With Bashir is an animated documentary. Rather than simply present things as a series of talking heads with some recreations of events, the director, Ari Folman, has animated everything. This gives a great sense of continuity, we see his interviewees at different points of their lives and it's great that it feels like it's the same person: we don't have to stretch as we might with a straight reconstruction.

Animation also allows for some really breathtaking shots and backgrounds as well; the style sometimes threatens to take things over a bit, and in some ways the audience is left wondering what the point of it all was. I guess with documentaries I often feel like the director has an agenda or a message that they want to get across, and I felt like I didn't really understand what Folman's was. It's definitely a very personal project for him, but I couldn't help but wonder what his intention for the viewer was ("What am I supposed to think about this?" - whether I agree or not).

It is a great film though, one that should be on any film fan's list of films to see as soon as possible. It made me aware of a conflict that I never knew about, and also gave a profound insight into the minds of people who fight in wars and how it affects them for the rest of their lives.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Over For Another Year

Another November, another NaNoWriMo...

Learned a lot from it this year; especially that when I'm writing the novel isn't the only thing that you get out of it. Or it doesn't have to be at least. This year, out of the last three years, I've probably had the least successful novel in terms of doing stuff that I wanted to do with it, but it's given me so much more in terms of ideas and things that I think I would take away in to other writing projects.

It's also been great because I've met some really cool people who have been going through the same thing of writing a novel; we're going to start our own little writers group to encourage each other in writing - a writer is for life, not just for November (or something)! Hopefully start to pick up the pace when it comes to writing flash fictions.

Anyways, will be back on to blogging more regularly over the next few days. First up will be some thoughts on two films I've seen recently, Waltz With Bashir and Changeling.

Take care, more soon.