Book Review: Vulcan 607 by Rowland White

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This summer will be the last time we be able to see the mighty Avro Vulcan in the air. I caught XH558 in passing just a few weeks ago, and a couple of years ago at closer quarters at an airshow, but I have memories of seeing the massive delta wing flying overhead at, or en route to, airshows at RAF Fairford, a mere half dozen miles from my childhood home. I was also lucky enough to witness the frankly staggering sight on an English Electric Lightning performing a vertical take-off as only a Lightning could – but that’s another story.

Anyway, to commemorate the last flying season on Vulcan 558, I’d like to recommend that anyone with an interest in such things tracks down the story of her cousin, Vulcan 607, and her part in the Falklands conflict in 1982. Back then, being so close to prime RAF country, our little village had its own returning war veteran; now, post-Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s nothing unusual, but the Falklands conflict was my first vicarious experience of war as a thing not purely confined to comic books.

Which is kind of weird because the story of Black Buck One, the British military’s first counter-strike following the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, would have fit perfectly on the pages of Battle or Victor. This is a cracking story, a proper boy’s own adventure, only absolutely true.

You only have to look at how far the Falklands are from, say, RAF Fairford, to get an idea of the scale of the undertaking and why it makes for such a good story. The author manages to convey the epic scale of the mission – from hurriedly upgrading the 22 year old aircraft, to the mind-boggling logisitics required to make the 8,000 mile round trip – and mixes the action with little snippets of history about the Vulcan, the air force, the politics and the islands to make a nicely rounded account which, honestly, you couldn’t have made up.

Arguably, the actual effect of this and subsequent Black Buck raids was limited in the larger scheme of things, but as a first response and a way of getting the attention of the aggressors, it seemed to do the job. Vulcan 607, by its nature, tells a somewhat one-sided story, but the contribution made by the Royal Air Force to the conflict is otherwise largely understated, so it is a welcome story for that reason too.

Part Cold War techno-thriller, part history book, Vulcan 607 is a great read, and an easy read for anyone interested in the Royal Air Force, recent military history or aviation in general, and definitely one to pick up if you’re interested in the Falklands conflict following the recent anniversary.


Tuesday Tunes: Top Ten Pluto Songs

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I haven’t done one of these for a while, and although I should indeed be writing, or at least revising, I thought the Pluto fly-by was something I should commemorate in some small way. So I shall be commemorating it through the medium of Spotify, bringing you the Top Ten Pluto Songs, specially selected for you by some Grebulons on the planet Rupert:

10. Bjork – Pluto
It’s Bjork, being weird and Icelandic, singing to us while playing Space Invaders. Or something.

9. Andreas von Herzogenberg – Transneptunian Sitar in Hyperbolic Orbit
Pluto was, of course, the first trans-Neptunian object to be discovered; it is a little publicised fact that the second was a sitar in hyperbolic orbit.

8. Inspiral Carpets – Plutoman
According to Spotify, ‘the third most popular band to emerge from the Madchester scene’. Bit of a back-handed compliment that.

7. R.W. Grace – Pluto
Grace Woodroofe’s ode to the ‘third most popular dwarf planet in the solar system’. Probably.

6. Brainwave Binaural Systems – Dwarf Planet
Ten minutes of pure sleep inducing deep space inspired ambience… Nice.

5. Phill McMurtry – Travelling to the Kuiper Belt
He only had the two arms and the one head and he called himself Phil, but… he could well have been in one of the more narrative-oriented 1970s glam rock bands.

4. Geoffrey Orbegoso – Pluto and its Moons
Really I could have taken any tune from Geoff’s ‘The Kuiper Belt: A Sonic Decription’, but I went with this one. You can find the rest easily enough.

3. Aesop Rock – Bring Back Pluto
The story of Pluto’s demotion in slightly sweary hip-hop form. Seriously, it’s amazing what you can find on Spotify when you should be writing.

2. Flyleaf – New Horizons
Well I couldn’t really ignore the NASA probe that prompted this musical interlude, could I? Or indeed let the chance to put some Flyleaf on the list slip by.

1. Mother’s Day – Clyde Tombaugh
This is so weird and trippy that I think I might have dreamt up this little ditty about the bloke who found Pluto.

So there you go; enjoy the playlist, or at least part of it, I think there’s something in there for most tastes… and hey, if not, you can play along too! Give me your Plutonian playlists if you like…

Listen along

Camp NaNoWriMo: Take Two

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Needless to say, writing targets and other suchlikes have once again fallen victim to ‘real life’, whatever that is, and so June’s main writing task – finishing Bootlesquith Manor – has become my Camp NaNoWriMo project.

Only this time, for reasons which will possibly become slightly more unclear than they currently are, I am determined to actually get the job done. No, really. If it hangs around on my hard drive for much longer it will have missed it’s ideal window. And since I have already failed to get Tyrannosaurus Hex (Bit#1 of The Ambivalence Chronicles) launched in time to cash in on renewed dinofrenzy related to some b-movie or something (I expect they’ll make a sequel though, if it was that good), I would really like to try and get some pop culture relevance behind Bootlesquith Manor.

On the plus side, a recent airing of the BM’s first page got enough positive responses that I might actually be enthused for it this time round – there is a faint hope that somebody might actually read it, and even – gasp – chortle at the appropriate points.

Yes, it transpires that I may have wasted my time writing an Old Testament Space Opera, and should have just kept writing ridiculous Brit-humour instead… ah well, live and learn eh? Besides, Countless as the Stars was a story that had to be written – specifically, that I had to write – and if it didn’t quite take off, well, so be it.

But we weren’t talking about that were we, we were talking about Camp NaNoWriMo, and Bootlesquith Manor, and how, despite everything else that’s going on, I will be attempting to post something here at least once a week over the summer. Progress reports during Camp, maybe the odd excerpt if a passage works especially well, or the usual mix of Red Dwarf, Doctor Who and Spectrum games.

Shorter snippets will be posted as I write/edit them at twitter.com/SPTrowerEsq.

Returning to The Shack

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I’ve been sitting on this one for a little while, because I think The Shack by William Paul Young is worthy of mention here, partly for illustrating what Christian Fiction should be trying to do, and partly for the ‘self-published author done good’ angle. And following the announcement this month that it is finally going to become ‘a major Hollywood movie’, now seems like as good a time as any to make our way back to that old cabin in the woods and remind ourselves what was so good, bad and divisive about it.

The Shack, you may recall, was quite the phenomenon in Christian literature in around 2008-9, and as a result, it has joined Left Behind and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as a fixed point on the horizon of Christian fiction, a standard against which future books will be measured. And like Left Behind, if not the Chronicles of Narnia, it has its fair share of detractors alongside its millions of fans. The fact that among its early detractors was the now… rather less popular than he once was, shall we say, Mark Driscoll, is a fact which I will leave there for you to draw your own conclusions from.

Personally, I happen rather to like The Shack. There you go, it’s out there, feel free to make what you like of that information too.

It’s somewhat harder to say exactly what I like about it; the plot is minimal, the introductory chapters seem over-written and largely superfluous, and the author tries to cram so many issues into the conversations between Mack and the various aspects of God that he cannot hope to cover any in great depth.

But in this case, I believe the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Dissect it and examine it closely, and you can certainly pick holes in it depending on your theological preferences and degree of determination. But that, to me, misses the point somewhat. The Shack is a story – quite a short one at that – not a theological treatise, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’d put much faith in a God who could be thoroughly and accurately described in 250 pages of fiction.

The best a Christian writer can hope to do is shine some light on certain aspects of God. None of us know it all; I went into great depth studying the source material for Countless as the Stars, and while I think I reflected the God of Abraham accurately, I had to use a little artistic licence here and there, and no doubt somebody, somewhere, could take offence at it. (Incidentally, if anyone wants to start that hate campaign, do let me know – after all, there’s no such thing as bad publicity). Arguably, I suppose, fantasy and science-fiction do have an advantage in being set in a different world, where the rules of religion may be slightly different to our own; but take that too far and, of course, you’re no longer writing Christian fiction.

What havok Hollywood will wreak with it, of course, is an entirely different matter… Almost certainly those who thought the book was heretical are unlikely to find the film any less so. Whether the good that others saw in it will be diluted beyond recognition remains to be seen.

Taken as a complete story and not a series of too-short theological discussions, I think The Shack succeeds in highlighting parts of God’s nature. At the very least, it’s a story which, despite its flaws, got people thinking about God, and how they relate to Him (or, indeed, Her).

And that, in this writer’s humble opinion, is what Christian fiction should do; it’s probably what we should pray the film achieves as well.



Re-Dwarf: Holoship

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So, it’s 1992, and Red Dwarf is back for series 5 – and what a comeback it is: from the opening scene of Holoship, Rimmer in particular is on sparkling form, turning his nose up at the ‘blubbery schoolgirl mush’ the crew have compelled him to endure.

Yes folks, this is the love episode, framed around an encounter with the Holoship Enlightenment and its crew of dead geniuses, which Rimmer, in his wisdom, decides to join. Being, well, not a genius, Rimmer goes about this by undergoing an illegal, immoral, and highly dangerous mind patch in order to access a greater intellect than his own. This has the added side effect of allowing Chris Barrie to act as someone other than Rimmer, which is always good to watch.

Shenanigans ensue, Rimmer has recreational sex with Jane Horrocks in an accent (I think she may have been going for Deanna Troi?), she falls in love with him, and gives up her place on the Enlightenment so that Rimmer can live his dream. Only it turns out that his dream was actually sex with Jane Horrocks, and is he can’t have that he’ll stay on the Dwarf thankyouverymuch.

That’s more or less the story anyway; suffice it to say, this is an episode full of great comedy moments, great science fiction moments, and plenty of food for thought.

For instance, in the very first scene, we witness this exchange:

RIMMER: Those kind of films really irritate me. Just not realistic. There isn’t a man in the universe who wouldn’t have taken the job and to hell with the woman. Total baloney.
LISTER: Rimmer, you said that about “King of Kings – the story of Jesus!”
RIMMER: Well, it’s true! A simple carpenter’s son who learns how to do magic tricks like that and doesn’t go into show-business? Do any of us believe that, even for a second?
LISTER: He was supposed to be the Son of God.
RIMMER: And when he was carrying that cross up the hill, any normal realistic bloke would have mule-kicked the guy on the left, clobbered the one on the right, and been over that green hill and far away before you could say “Pontius Pilate.”
LISTER: Why do I feel that somehow you’ve missed the point? I mean, whether you believe that stuff or not, it’s about a dude who sacrifices his life for love.
RIMMER: Not realistic. As if!
LISTER: You’ve got no soul, man. No soul.

I don’t even know where to start with that; there must be at least one sermon there already. It could be argued that this conversation makes the denouement rather predictable, but I don’t even care.

And then there’s the holoship; a ship full of self-confessed superhumans, who have developed beyond love (‘That is a short-term hormonal distraction which interferes with the pure pursuit of personal advancement’), and discarded the concept of “family” when scientists finally proved that all our hang-ups and neuroses are caused by our parents. This, and the fact that holograms cannot get diseases, has led to the creation of the Sex Deck and regulation twice daily sexual congress – a notion which Kryten is alone in finding horribly tacky. I think there’s another sermon right there on the effect that separating love from sex has on our humanity…

Wasn’t it St. Francis of Assisi himself who said, “Never give a sucker an even break?”

And then there’s the one factor that has led us to this point: Rimmer’s dream of being somebody. Rimmer, in his own eyes, is a failure – because he defines himself by his job of Chicken Soup Nozzle Repairman. Lister, of course, takes the view that unclogging vending machines was just a job, and Kryten reminds him that Albert Einstein was not a clerk in a patent office, but the greatest physicist who ever lived. Even though Rimmer himself manages to convince the Holoship Captain that he has been in effective command of Red Dwarf for nearly four years, he still ultimately sees himself as hopeless.

Nirvanah Crane (Jane Horrocks), having taken leave of her senses and fallen in love with Arnie, can see through that though:

Underneath all that neurotic mess is someone nice trying to get out. Someone who deserves a chance to grow. So, you won’t give up, OK?

There follows self-sacrifice (first by Crane, then by Rimmer) to bring us full circle to the carpenter’s son.

And among that carpenter’s son’s magic tricks is the ability to see through our neurotic messes to the someone nice – to the somebody we are deep down. All it took for Rimmer to become somebody was to be loved – loved enough that someone would give up her life for him to achieve his dream. Rimmer grasped that, and gave everything back. He grew, and was a better man.

Red Dwarf was at its peak with this season; Holoship was voted the weakest episode of the series, yet it stands head and shoulders above many that have come before it. There is better to come, but this is a great episode – even the cheesy final line is delivered in a knowingly self-deprecating way.

 



Tuesday Tunes: Music For Films by Brian Eno

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Seems like a while since I did a writing music post, so I’m going to dive back into the back catalogue of Mr Brian Eno, because it is very often so good for writing to.

Never more so, perhaps, than in his Music For Films albums, which were created as possible soundtracks to imaginary films (several pieces later going on to be used in actual soundtracks to real films).

Where Music For Airports, presented longer pieces coming together as a coherent album, Music For Films plays more like a compilation album, consisting of 18 tracks in all, many coming in at under two minutes long, and with no running theme connecting most of them.

As you might expect, there’s a nice selection of mood music to choose from; from the lazy guitar twangs interrupting the ambient synths of From the same Hill, to the eerie Two rapid formations, the downbeat Sparrowfall sequence, the spooky (but largely forgettable) Quartz, and the spacey Alternative 3.

Some of the tracks do share the minimalism of Eno’s previous album, such as in the barely-there opening track Aragon, the pure ambient background sound of Task Force, and the minimal synthesisers of the closing track Final Sunset.

Elsewhere there is more variety to the soundscape, from the melodic synths of Slow Water, to the weird Jaws-esque Patrolling Wire Borders, to the chunkier electronic sound of M386. And Strange Light always reminds me of Gizmo singing in Gremlins.

Because of the varying tone and style of the tracks, Music For Films is not always something I can just put on in the background while I write (although some tracks are certainly ideal for that); rather it has a few tracks that might suit specific moods for something I’m writing at any time.

Stand-out tracks: Well, being mainly a sci-fi kind of writer, the radar blips and general spacey feel of Alternative 3 is probably favourite, but also Sparrowfall and M386 for other kinds of writing.

Oh, and in case any grammar daleks are reading, the inconsistent use of capitals is taken from the CD sleeve.

Get a copy

Linky goodness

brian-eno.net

Book Review: Monster by Frank Peretti

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I will be reviewing something a bit more recent (but not without a sequel already) fairly soon, but until then you’ll just have to make do with another retro review of Mr Peretti.

Now, I like some of Frank’s work. This Present Darkness was the first properly Christian novel I (and probably many others) read, and all the business with angels and demons being characters as real as the humans – in a proper novel for grown-ups – seemed a bit, well, unusual at the time.

I didn’t so much like The Oath, which seemed a bit of a Stephen King wannabe to me. That could be because all I know about smalltown America I learnt from Stephen King novels, but still, I couldn’t help making the comparison. And with Monster, we find Peretti back in Stephen King Lite mode. That doesn’t make it a bad novel, but I did get the feeling that the Christian characters were there for the Peretti market rather than because the story required them.

There was an exception to this, and that has to do with the evils of genetic engineering, and how this suggests that the creationist in the story was right, and evolution cannot possibly happen without going horribly wrong. This appears to be a major theme of the story, which is fair enough, but it does sort of suggest that ‘Creationism’ is a core belief of all Christians – even the science professors – which is hardly representative.

And what is with the maps? At the end of every chapter, a map of the setting is updated for the attention-impared. I paid attention, and there was at least one occasion where the map just did not agree with the words. I ignored them from then on, in case I got thoroughly confused.

Maps aside though, Monster is readable enough, but not what I would consider classic Peretti.




Re-Dwarf: Meltdown

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Meltdown? Let-down more like – this episode did not see series IV out on a high, unfortunately. Admittedly that could be partly due it’s being postponed due to the 1991 Gulf War, and ending up being shown after two of the show’s best episodes.

In its favour, it does introduce the ‘matter paddle’, a sort of teleport device the Kryten repairs, allowing the crew to venture much further afield than was previously possible – in this case to a wax-droid theme park which, following millennia of abandonment, has descended into an idiotic war.

Enter Arnold Rimmer, Risk-nerd turned hardest of Generals, taking command of a motley crew of holymen and pacifists, turning them into an army which he will send on a daylight charge across a minefield towards an enemy led by a Hitler-droid…

I still feel there’s a solution, probably involving triangles.

Although there are a few laughs to be had along the way, a few lines playing on war movies to make a change from the usual sci-fi references, but the episode as a whole comes across as a bit silly – and then Holly shows up at the end, for no reason other than to be on a motorcycle headlamp. The fact that he hasn’t been in the story at all up to that point just makes his single line all the more jarring.

What the episode does do – and perhaps this was more poignant when it was first shown, after the end of the Gulf War – is highlight the utter futility of war: the pointless killing of innocents – in this case Winnie the Pooh. The ruthless (not to mention under-qualified) General willing to sacrifice his own, equally under-qualified, soldiers. The senior officer (Kryten) just following orders.

I’m sorry, sirs, I had no choice. I’m programmed to obey, no matter how psychotic and deranged the human order.

There is a happy ending, of course; General Rimmer brings peace back to Waxworld – by following through a policy of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Lister, as usual, is the voice of reason, raging against Rimmer’s war machine, but to no avail – at least until after the war has wiped everyone else out and he can punish Rimmer in his own inimitable style…

Watch it if you’re a war movie buff, or a fan of the 70s movie Westworld, but don’t expect a classic episode, or for it to say anything new about war.

 



The dog ate my Camp NaNo entry…

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…and other excuses. Not that I have to make excuses, of course, it’s only my writing career that’s failing to get off the starting blocks because of my demanding real-life career, and I’m pretty sure anyone who may have stumbled in here is about as interested in that as I am.

All of which serves to say that the last couple of months have been pretty quiet, writing-wise, but I’ve had chance to take stock now and come up with something like a plan for the rest of 2015, which I would like to present for you now.

June.

First job, finish Bootlesquith Manor, attach its non-working title and prepare it for release into the wild, hopefully later this summer.

July.

It’s Camp NaNoWriMo again; as long as June’s job is running on time, I may use it to write something for the Writers of the Future contest.

Later.

Release Bit #1 of The Ambivalence Chronicles, edit Bits #2 & #3, and start work on Bit #4.
Edit Dark Empathy (a NaNo from a couple of years back) and maybe get it out before November.
By which time it will be November, which as we all know is the centre of the writing year. Well, it is mine anyway.

Blogging.

All of which actual writing means that blogging may continue to be sporadic. I want to try and post twice a week, just to keep the site fresh and give me an excuse to invite folks over, but when it comes down to it, if there’s no books to buy, why invite them over?
And on that bombshell… I should be writing.
 

Book Review: The Firebird Trilogy by Kathy Tyers

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Time for another quick retro review: this time it’s The Firebird Trilogy by Kathy Tyers, from 2004.

The Firebird Trilogy is, in a nutshell, the kind of book I would have liked to have written. It’s like a space opera, with this whole pre-Messianic society thing going on. Knowing that Tyers is a Star Wars novelist in her spare time, of course, it’s hard not to see parallels – you might say the Force is strong in this book. But if you’re prepared to see past what could be seen as derivative, there is a tale of spiritual awakening, inner conflict and a far-reaching destiny, woven into an action packed sci-fi adventure full of ray guns, interstellar conflict and genetic manipulation. And it all comes together brilliantly.

On the downside, it’s loooooooong. The trilogy works well and certainly deserved to be released as one volume, but in this format suffers (as single volume trilogies are apt to do) from a degree of repetition. There seemed to be a lot of re-capping, especially during the first part of Fusion Fire (book 2) – fair enough if you’re reading it, as it is set, eight months after the first book, but I found being reminded of something I read the previous Thursday a bit annoying.

The feeling you’re going to be reading this book forever isn’t helped by the third book, Crown of Fire, getting off to a slow start. However, once it gets going it soon builds to what turned out to be a very satisfying (if slightly Hollywood) conclusion.

Minor drawbacks aside, Firebird is at once entertaining and thought-provoking; it illustrates God and the Christian worldview through a not-obviously-Christian faith; and above all it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.

For an aspiring Christian sf writer like me, Kathy Tyers sets the bar high. I’ve got a lot of work to do…