I watched The Hobbit 2 again last night, along with Mrs Haley. I enjoyed it a lot more this time. The first half of the film is better than the second, but when we get to the shenanigans in Lake Town there is more padding than in a super plush Bombur soft toy and things go downhill.

I noticed a few things this time round. Here they are.

i) The archaic phrase “but for” as in “nobody gets out but for the leave of the king” crops up three times.

ii) In a possible leftover from an earlier draft of the screenplay, Smaug talks of the men of Lake Town and “their long bows and black arrows” – in the book, the black arrow is simply that. There’s no such thing as a “Dwarvish Wind Lance”.

iii) Orcs are getting bigger. In Tolkien’s books, Orcs are generally small, some as small as Hobbits, with “Man-sized” being an adjective for a particularly large specimen. Only the great Uruks and certain earlier breeds of Orc employed by Morgoth in the War of the Jewels are as big as or bigger than men. In the Hobbit films, the smallest are only slightly shorter than men. Bolg and Azog are much bigger, which is fair enough seeing as they are chiefs, but the Orcs of Dol Guldur are enormous.

As Emma says “That all got very silly. I give it a six out of ten.”


I had my very first Horus Heresy meeting yesterday. No, I’m not going to tell you what it was about, or what project it concerns or any of that stuff. Sorry, I just can’t. I can say that it was the coolest meeting I have ever not been to.

I had to attend via Skype. I’ve always been dubious about teleconferencing, most of the times I’ve been involved it’s worked very badly. This time it went like a dream. Not quite as good as being there, but not far off, with the added bonus that I could take my lad Benny to the park at halftime. Yes, despite being a parent for five and a half years, I still managed to agree to a meeting bang in the middle of the Easter holidays. To be fair to me, ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem. Emma’d take some time off and take care of Benny, but she was away up in Yorkshire ahead of our move there (I booked the meeting before the Great Migration North was on the cards, really I did, really!). Credit due to junior Haley that he behaved so well. Good boy.

Although not a week goes by without me reading of how work, powered by the internet, is creeping deeper into personal time, my work/life balance is playing out nicely thanks to digital technology. In my case, it’s a powerful tool to allow me to do things I otherwise couldn’t, like being able to parent and yet still be involved. I suppose I’m one of them there digital artisans cutting edge types write about. Long live the third industrial revolution. Hopefully it’ll benefit everyone eventually, then we can all spend more time mucking about on the swings.

Usually, I would attend a meeting like this, primarily because it’s just nice to get out of the house. Human contact’s low in this line of work, and I need it.  And to sit with giants, in whose mighty company I no longer feel ashamed! Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Gav Thorpe, Nick Kyme, David Annandale, Laurie Goulding, Lindsey Priestley… most of whom I’ve known for years. Even so, I’ve not had very many meetings on shared creative work beyond magazines, especially ones like this where we all have an equal stake (by which I mean I was not in charge). I was a little cautious, partly because I’m still not convinced I’m wholly up to speed on the Horus Heresy, partly because I didn’t really know what to expect, especially from myself. I can suddenly become irritable and defensive, you see, because I’m a terrible misanthrope half the time (and an awful attention tart the rest) who likes to get his own way.

But it was remarkable. The others were very supportive despite my first-timer gaucheness. Ideas were  flying, and not simply good ideas, but ideas that built on each others’ to create something greater than we’d manage on our own. Like a night in the pub full of whimsical storytelling, or a great RPG session, only this time, we’re weaving the universe. Weaving it! Like cosmic Norns man! Far out!

Another aspect of my 50/50 personality is the split between vile cynic and irritating optimist. Mr Cynic lost out, this really was quite something. I can’t wait for the next one, or for you to read what’s going to come out of what happened yesterday. I can honestly say I want to do more work like this. Lots more. Thanks chaps for such a positive experience.

Review: Babylon Steel

Posted: April 17, 2014 in Uncategorized

Babylon Steel
Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the kind of book I could easily hate – sassy broads, were-creatures, lovable prostitutes, first person perspective… These things I am no great fan of. Babylon Steel is vampire chick-lit transported from an urban to a high fantasy setting, minus the bloodsuckers. Good for us then that Sebold has a flair for storytelling. Her world is a cross-planar affair whose main setting is an inter-dimensional crossroads a bit like a grubby version of Moorcock’s Tanelorn with better shops. It might be all sparkly, female wish-fulfilment on the surface − including outrageous Laurell K Hamilton-esque sex − but it has a believable seaminess to it, while its tough lady lead has plenty of good reasons to be the way she is.

When Babylon − an ex-warrior and brothel madame − is asked to look for a missing girl she is drawn into a world of bother. A fun and fast story ensues.

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Review: The Fourth Wall

Posted: April 17, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Fourth Wall
The Fourth Wall by Walter Jon Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Running on an engine of great characterisation and wit, The Fourth Wall mercilessly skewers Hollywood’s star machine.

Sean Makin is a washed up child star with cheating parents, a dirty secret, and a desperate need to be adored. Among his problems is a physical condition that makes him appear somewhat freakish. Condemned to the lowest rung of the star ladder – appearing in reality TV show Celebrity Pit Fighter – when he’s offered the part of extra-dimensional alien Roheen in an international, serialised movie, he leaps at the chance, only to find murder and conspiracy are his wages.

Williams is at his best with Sean’s world. Sean’s an amusing guide to the tragic life cycle of child actors, with desperation cutting his residual arrogance nicely. Williams has a fantastic feel for life of set, and the passages describing the movie business and its impact on people are the book’s most effective parts.

The actual plot, a twisty murder mystery, is fragile, the denouement more so. And it’s not really SF. It depends on your definition, we suppose, but aside from slightly more advanced hardware and software and a couple of passing references to augmented reality, this is contemporary satire, right down the line.

But then, exploring the unrealised potential of existing tech is Williams’ forte. Although The Fourth Wall is not as pertinent as Deep State in this regard, the plot gives a reasonable enough frame to hang a bunch of excellent characters and observations from.

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I grabbed the chance to watch The Desolation of Smaug on Monday night. This is something my demi-Swede would like to see also, but I figured I’d happily watch it again with her. After driving back from Yorkshire I was in need of some telly time, and had been very much looking forward to the movie.

Damn shame to say, I was disappointed. I’ve read several reviews that rate this the better of the two Hobbit films thus far, but I reckon not. There are plenty of story choices I could pick apart here (Thirty orcs invade a city that becomes conveniently deserted for the sake of a fight! Smaug immediately guesses the provenance of Bilbo’s ring! Middle-earth is as easily travelled as it needs to be! The story suddenly shifts to a quest for the Arkenstone! Smaug the Golden has to be actually coated in gold! Repetition of the virtues of Athelas because we need fan-service winks! etc). I don’t want to write up a long screed that sings out “But it was different from the book! That makes it rubbish!” It does not. Cinema is different to literature. And my objections are personal, therefore their legitimacy is at the mercy of your judgment. After all, my dislike stems from one thing: The film Jackson made is not the kind of film I expected The Hobbit to become.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was, on the whole, a meticulous and considered adaptation of the source material for the screen. Tolkien’s message, though much obscured, is still present. There’s an air of painstaking art about the books, and an air of painstaking art about their adaptations. The Hobbit adaptation feels altogether sloppier. Jackson appears to want two things: Firstly, to make an action movie, secondly, to provide a prequel to his Rings films. But The Hobbit, though blessed with action, would better suit an adventure movie not an action movie format, while the presaging of events of The Lord of The Rings − which I agree with in principle − proves clumsy.

As in Jackson’s King Kong remake, there is much to admire − in this case Smaug, the elves and Thranduil in particular were effective − but like the ape epic there’s altogether too much going on, too many ideas fighting for time, too many “wouldn’t it be so frickin’ cool!” sequences. There’s plenty in the book to make two good films, not three. Sadly, even in making three, Jackson eschews the opportunity the extra running time allows for character beats, filling up his minutes with bonus orc chases and people falling off things (like, come on! What is it with you man?). There is a fair bit of material in the second section of the book that didn’t make onto the screen at all, Bilbo’s role in particular is bizarrely sidelined. Odd, given that changes to the material in the first film appropriately gave his actions greater emphasis.

The biggest addition, Tauriel, I expected. Her almost-romance with Legolas I expected. And I was glad to see that actually, she worked rather well as a character. What I didn’t expect was the weirdly reciprocated infatuation Fili had with her, coming to fruition in his surprise sojourn in Laketown (what was that all about other than a way to give key dwarfs more to do?).

It’s a movie crammed with unlikely acts of superheroic acrobatics and clownish pratfalls, whose design − while awe-inspiring in parts − takes Middle-earth nearer to the whimsy of Hogwarts than the majesty of Arda. If I were to hazard a reason for all this filmic flimflammery, it’d be this: The Lord of The Rings series had effects that were groundbreaking. Their mere execution was enough to wow, leaving Jackon’s not inconsiderable talents free to work on other aspects of storytelling. Now such magic is commonplace, Jackson as a showman seeks to bedazzle us with added… Well, added things falling off other things, mainly. Or maybe he simply has the opportunity to do MORE COOL SHIT. Either way, all good ringmasters know three elephants are better than one. A perhaps apt analogy, because, let’s put it like this, this film is Legolas surfing the Mumak over and over again.

It probably needs a second viewing, this initial opinion may mellow, but I’m not so sure that I do want to watch The Desolation of Smaug again. (Sorry Emma).

As a last minor irritation, The Desolation of Smaug really quite unexpectedly

Review: The Science of Avatar

Posted: April 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Science of Avatar
The Science of Avatar by Stephen Baxter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Science fiction authors the world over will be thanking Baxter for this handy tome on the SF of James Cameron’s Avatar. Not specific simply to the film, Baxter’s book covers everything a modern writer of speculative space adventures might need to tell a convincing tale: quantum entanglement, relativity, eco-apocalypse, time dilation, super conductors, military tech, blue shift, red shift… And all in handy, easy-to-digest chunks. Baxter did it, so you didn’t have to type the words into Wikipedia. This is a dense wallop of edification for your research shelf.

The book does tackle those specific parts of Avatar which are not common to SF in general. Particularly engrossing is the exhaustive exploration of Cameron’s fictionalised Alpha Centauri system, from planetary formation right the way down to the way Pandora’s complicated magnetic fields affect its life and weather. It’s here that Baxter becomes coy. Granted full access to cast and crew, he never outright says “well, this is obviously nonsense”, even about flying mountains, although he does drop hints.

For Avatar fans, there is plenty of detail mined from Cameron’s backstory and universe, much of it unseen on screen. Avatar, flaws aside, is more rather than less rooted in actual science; this book reveals just how deeply.

Less engaging is Baxter’s non-fiction style. He’s a tremendous talent when writing stories, Baxter, and to his credit he conveys complicated concepts clearly here, but he lacks journalistic flair, and that just occasionally makes the book stilted.

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