Archive for April, 2014

Language barriers

Posted: April 30, 2014 in Random wifflings

Having English as your mother tongue is a great boon. You can go virtually anywhere in the world and someone will be able to understand you. More than that, people practically fall over themselves to chat, because they want to try out their English. It’s the international language of entertainment, trade, government, science etc etc etc.

It’s also a massive pain in the arse when you’re trying to learn other languages. Open your mouth, trot out your few faltering phrases of your newly acquired lingo, and the chances are the other party will smile at you and answer in English.

We Brits have a reputation of somehow being congenitally unable to learn other tongues. This is nonsense, obviously, we’ve got the same basic equipment as a Frenchmen or a German, but it is true that Brits struggle with foreign speech. We’re generally monolingual, the majority of people in the world are bilingual I read somewhere.

For a start, we don’t learn until too late (although this is changing in British schools), so we don’t develop the mental habits needed to acquire foreign languages. More than once in classes, I’ve seen British people attempt X language with a French accent, because that’s “foreign” to us. More importantly, we are not exposed on a daily basis to foreign languages, unlike pretty much everyone else who get to hear English day in, day out. Thirdly, we don’t have to try, for the reasons stated at the head of this piece. We are too shy, terrified of making mistakes, and it’s too easy not to try. Shamefully, this was my attitude too. I was an all round lazy shit in school, to be fair. In French and German lessons I’d think “What’s the point? I’m English.” I’d love to wallop my younger self, I really would.

Because of these factors, English has developed a reputation as “easy”, which is not objectively true. All languages are complex in their own way, and indeed the day-to-day “Lingua Anglica” is different to the form spoken by true English native speakers – speaking a language is very different to mastering it. There’s a blog post in that somewhere.

It wasn’t until later in life that I discovered my interest in languages. I did a Dutch course when I was at University for six months in Amsterdam. I got a high mark, then promptly never used it. The Dutch were incredibly critical, spoke English at me, and then complained, six months later, that I couldn’t speak Dutch. Really, I should have been braver and ignored the sniggers. It wasn’t just me, not one student out of the thirty on the course ever used their Dutch.

Now when I’m really serious about learning foreign lingo and I’m abroad, I pretend I can’t speak English.

A couple of years later, pursuing a doomed love affair, I found myself living with a Polish family in Szczecin who spoke no English, this being not long after the fall of Communism, so I did learn to speak Polish. A few years ago, I learned Swedish (because I’m married to a half-Swede, remember?)

Trouble is, I’ve begun to forget; it’s that lack of exposure again. I’ve been a bit alarmed that my attempts to speak with the Polish immigrants I’ve met have been stilted, so I’ve started refreshing my languages. I’m reading my old Polish textbooks that I taught myself from way back when, and trying to read a couple of newspaper articles a week from Gazeta Wyborcza. My Polish wasn’t fluent, but I could speak fluidly and got to a high enough level for it to ingrain itself. I’ve retained a good grasp of the grammar, so my refresh is going more easily than I feared. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this − I went for some lessons a few years ago, but they were of limited use. I hope this is more effective, early indications are good. Reading the words at my own pace, the meanings are coming back without too much encouragement.

I’m doing similar for my Swedish. I get at least get to listen to this occasionally, as the Mrs and I watch Swedish telly imports every so often, and she sometimes speaks Swedish (usually when she’s being bitching about someone, talking to the dog, or swearing). Swedish is the easiest language for English speakers I’ve attempted to learn (again, linguistic easiness is entirely relative to the speaker and the circumstances, not an inherent characteristic to the language itself). It’s close enough to English in basic grammar and root vocabulary, and the Scandinavian mindset isn’t a million miles away from ours, so speaking Swedish doesn’t require a massive cognitive step-change. Furthermore, the Swedes, bless ’em, respond in Swedish when addressed in their own language which really, really helps. In this case, I’m more continuing to learn, rather than trying to remember or relearn. Svenska Dagbladet is my online paper of choice here.

I don’t want to give the impression of being some kind of wizardy polyglot, (unlike my frighteningly intelligent friend and White Dwarf staffer Matt Keefe, who genuinely is). My Swedish is probably GCSE grade, my Polish all over the scale. But in both languages I can manage a conversation. I can get by in French and German, survive in Spanish. And I can still read Dutch a little. I think it’s important to be able to speak other languages. It protects your brain against ageing, for one thing, never mind the obvious benefits of being able to communicate with more people, and I love that moment when people’s faces light up when they realise you’re giving their language a go. Being forced to think in a different way by a language is a refreshing exercise for the old brain. But that English problem hangs over my head. Natural language acquisition is driven by exposure. As I said before, non-English speakers are exposed to English a lot − that is why English is “easy”. If I want similar exposure, I have to work at it.

And then pretend I can’t speak English.



A review of the DVD of the remake (phew!) from Death Ray #18.


Director: Paul W.S. Anderson

Writer: Paul W.S. Anderson

Starring: Jason Statham, Jason Allen, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson


Paul Anderson pulls out another solid three-star affair. If he keeps this up, we might grow to like him.

Paul Anderson attracts fire from geeks in about the same measure that a bright pink tank on a battlefield might. I’ve had a pop at his films before, so in summation: Anderson at his worst exhibits all of SF’s greatest flaws, at his best he’s at least a competent action man.

Death Race is a revamp of Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 (the millennial year was a way off when the film was made in 1975). Unlike Corman’s film, which depicted a cross-country marathon where contestants got points for mowing down pedestrians, Anderson’s has a predictable plot of a framed man in the clink engaged in gladiatorial auto-combat. Jensen Aimes (Statham) is convicted of murdering his wife, and is sent to a corporate-run jail where the inmates are forced to take part in the Death Race. This sport makes a tidy sum for Evil-O-Corp, and the jail’s warden wants Aimes to replace fan favourite (and dead) driver Frankenstein. Aimes must survive and wreak vengeance with help from Ian McShane (in for antiques forgery and profanity in 19th century Dakota). There are fisticuffs, fit birds, rippling torsos and fast-cut races. Which is what you’d expect.

The cult original is one of the worst films ever made. It may lack the “satire” (I use the word loosely), but Anderson’s film is far superior to Corman’s silly motor rally, and boasts great live-action stunts (the film nobly eschews CGI). We’ll give it to Anderson that he is not a bad director, he’s not even a bad storyteller, but he is a lousy ideas man, with a world view about as complex and misguidedly self-assured as that of a 14 year-old. The story is the expected Anderson confection of borrowed cliché and violence, but it entertains more than many other B-pictures.

Extras: A 20 minute making of, where we find Statham had to eat nothing but vegetables while filming to keep his super-lean physique, another about the stunts, and a commentary with Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt.

From Death Ray #18.

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Writer: John Ajvide Lindqvist (based on his novel)

Starring: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar, Henrik Dahl

Swedish horror movie takes teen revenge out of the realms of imagination and into the playground. Beware, minor spoilers as well as vampires lie ahead.

Vampires are not a prime component of the native Swedish mythological line-up, even today. Sure, you can argue that they’re a Romanian export wherever you find them, but there’s something about the Nordic countries that makes such out of town horrors unnecessary. Scandinavian stories of trolls, gnomes, hidden people and sundry other supernatural critters seem somewhat more immediate when you’re out in the forest or locked in the lightless depths of winter, than similar home-grown bogies feel in our over-crowded Britain. And then there’s the slightly uneasy feeling that our northern kin never quite got the veneration of the old gods beaten out of them by Christianity. There’s real mystery innate to this last wilderness of Western Europe, hangovers of Stone and Iron Age fears. Something, perhaps, to do with the quality of the light, or the yearly absence of it. It doesn’t need the vampire to make it more thrilling. (more…)

Review: Alif the Unseen

Posted: April 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

Alif the Unseen
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Inspired by the Arab Spring, Alif the Unseen concerns Alif, a hacker jilted by his posh girlfriend and caught up in a struggle for the Thousand and One Days, a book ripe with forbidden knowledge that could spell revolution. It is, of course, a magical book, dictated by genies, and so Alif, a master of unseen cyberspace, is thrust into another unseen world, one inhabited by the creatures of Arabian myth.

Wilson is an American convert to Islam who has lived in Egypt for many years, and her experiences inform much of the book, although it would be interesting to see what a Muslim born and bred to the Middle East would make of it. Wilson herself seems to be a person caught between two worlds, berating both West and East for their foibles and failings in the book’s forays into philosophy. There are times when she appears to be criticising her adopted civilisation for not understanding its own culture properly. Is this a valid point, or a glimmer of Western condescension?

Either way, Alif the Unseen deserves extra points simply for being different to the usual urban fantasy fare. It’s at its best when detailing the cramped streets of its unnamed city, or depicting the jinn and their ambivalent relationship with mankind, at its weakest when blending mythology and computer science. It’s fascinating, but ever so slightly hollow, as the magic she strives so hard to capture remains somewhat elusive.

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Star Fleet!

Posted: April 28, 2014 in Archive posts, Journalism, Reviews

I loved this show when I was a child. It kept my brothers and I very entertained when we were living in temporary accomodation after our house was badly damaged in a fire (see the “Did you know?” for AN UNCANNY COINCIDENCE!!! Or not).  It’s still available on DVD, if you’re interested.

This review originally appeared in Death Ray #18.

1980 (Japan) 1983 (UK)


Director: Louis Elman (UK)

Writers: Go Nagai, Keiseke Fujikawa, Michael Sloan (UK) and Peter Marinker (UK)

Starring: Peter Marinker, Jay Benedict, Constantine Gregory, Mark Rolston, Liza Ross, John Baddeley

Another trip down memory lane for the children of the 80s as X-Bomber takes to the skies to protect the mysterious F-01. All done with puppets.

Ah, Alien Raiders just past Gemini, as Brian May once famously sang. It’s 2999 and Earth is under threat from the Imperial Alliance, a strange empire of weird cyborgs nutter that rules all the galaxy except our own, dear Solar system. An Imperial Battleleet commanded by Commander Makara rocks up at Pluto, wipes out humanity’s first line of defence and demands Earth hand over the F-01, or there’ll be trouble. As no-one has any idea what the F-01 is, trouble duly ensues and the Earth Defence Force have to press the untested X-Bomber into service to protect the human race.

Screened in the UK in 1983, Starfleet was originally broadcast as X-Bomber in Japan in 1980. Created by Manga legend Go Nagai, the series is, to all intents and purposes,very similar to many anime – half hour episodes, involved plot, tons of action, and ace machines. You get the idea.

Unusually, X-Bomber was made with puppets in a manner inspired by Gerry Anderson’s work. (The puppets are rod operated like the Terrahawks rather than being marionettes). But, like Anderson’s work, it’s the machines that captivate. Each episode has some kind of space battle, and if we’re lucky we get to see the Dai-X, a huge red robot formed from three smaller spaceships doing its destructive thing.

Star Fleet lacks the polish of Anderson’s best efforts. A lot of the backgrounds are painted, and obviously so, and the show relies on repeated FX. Some parts are out and out laughable – Lamia, the radar operator that dresses like Princess Di attending a ball, her guardian Kirara, who looks like a gonk and grunts like your dad pretending to be a caveman are good examples. There are illogicalities in the story, like having the youthful crew hamfistedly repairing the X-Bomber after its first, nearly disastrous engagement rather than getting the trained technicians that built it to sort it out. This is probably down to the lack of puppets (there is a very small supporting cast, and no extras). And, hang on, why get a trio of untested pilots fresh out of the academy to fly the thing anyway? But this is not the kind of hard questioning Star Fleet had to put up with when I last watched it, and it’s probably unfair to subject it to such interrogation now.

Back in the ’80s Star Fleet was the highlight of Saturday morning TV, and there’s still something about it.

The lazy sci-fi language and tropes that come thick and fast in the first episodes (everything is either ‘laser’, ‘Hyper’ or ‘quantum’ in the English translation) belie the Homeric quest the story turns into, one garlanded with weird little bits of telly glamour.

Approach it as the SF fairytale that it is, with its foundling, princesses, dark lords and quest. If your head is full of fond memories of the show, a viewing now won’t disappoint, Star Fleet is not one of those series that unfortunately turns out to be a turd dipped in the chocolate of nostalgia. There’s less in Star Fleet for those who have never seen it, but if you loved it as a nipper, are mad keen on Japanese SF or if you have kids yourself, I’d rush out and buy it.

Extras: Stills galleries, character profiles, machine profiles, character biographies, synopses, a 56-page comic book, 16-page episode guide, six postcards, double-sided poster, notes from the producer, series background and a making of documentary where British producer/director Louis Elman seems remarkably proprietorial, and Japanese creator Go Nagai basically says he loves it and would like to remake it. All good stuff, apart from the naff, slow-moving animated menus.

Did you know…?

The show was provided to the UK as a picture and bad literal translation, nothing more, so a new script was written by Michael Sloan. Peter Marinker, who voiced Doctor Ben, rewrote the dialogue to fit the mouth movements, and in fact ended up directing the end of the series, taking over from producer Louis Elman. In the main Star Fleet follows the original story, though the show was reshaped by the British team to give it ‘more pace’ (X-Bomber was originally 25 episodes long, Star Fleet comprises 24 parts). All of the music is unique to the UK version, and was written by Paul Bliss (the closing song being famously covered by Brian May). Go Nagai wanted to make a second series, but never really got anywhere with it. Though British funding would have been forthcoming, by the time a UK proposal was mooted all the puppets had been destroyed in a fire.

Review: Existence

Posted: April 27, 2014 in Uncategorized

Existence by David Brin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Brin’s back with another story exploring the Fermi Paradox (short version – Where are all the aliens?), a theme he’s returned to time and again in his work.

When an alien artefact is snagged in Earth orbit, and a similar one is uncovered in the submerged ruins of a Chinese mansion, it looks like the age-old question of whether we’re alone or not is answered. And then things get bad.

In some ways Existence could be read as a prequel to Brin’s Uplift stories (it’s not explicitly stated), with the human race still planet-bound but possibly about to take that great leap into space. Brin’s backdrop here is a neurotic near-future bereft of privacy, where everyone is online all the time. Technological advance and globalisation have led to the decline of democracy and the reassertion of aristocratic privilege, and the twitchy populace see an apocalypse around every corner.

If anything this is the book’s strongest and weakest aspect. Brin’s way of presenting his future is via a tsunami of data. He socks every last detail to you hard, and that extends from how micro-economics work to his character’s mannerisms. It’s too much, and makes reading a slog. His usage of faux neologisms containing the letters “AI” goes from playful to annoying quickly, while the overall tone is irksomely didactic. Thankfully, things become quicker once we’re into alien invasion territory.

Overall, this is a good SF novel. For some readers, it will be a brilliant one.

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