Sunday, 27 December 2009

Thoughts on Part 1

Well Part 1 has been up for a while now and while I'm working on Part 2 I figured I might share some thoughts about this first installment.

The reality is, I don't like it very much. However, I knew that if I waited for something I liked I would never have posted anything. Ever.

I put a lot of hours into it and am very grateful to Neil Wile, a friend of mine in publishing, for his help and feedback which brought it to the point that at least allowed me to post it. Some of you may be thinking that I'm putting too much investment into what is, essentially, fan fiction. However, I wanted to write something that was of a more professional standard than a lot of the fan fiction I've read. Something that payed attention to story structure, language, punctuation and some of the do's and don't's of storytelling.

I've realised a couple of things in this process, first of all it has occured to me that posting the story in parts takes away from the flow of the story and might well make it harder for you, the reader, to get into it. This is why I'm considering getting parts 2 and 3 ready to be posted in quick succession. The only problem is when I think about how long part 1 took me to get to a standard I could live with, I worry that in the time it will take me to get the next two parts done any interest that may have existed will be lost. In retrospect in might have been smarter to post the story in two halves rather than, approximately, 6 parts of around 1500 words per part.

One of the things that Neil, in his infinite wisdom, was telling me was the difference between telling and showing in a story. I have tried to implement it in the work you see below but I recognise that future installments need to be more about showing and less about telling the reader what's happening and why. About showing you my characters and their story rather than explaining to the reader what's what. I hope to improve upon that in the parts to come.

Another thing that has really bothered me and has, perhaps, become apparent to you is that I have yet to describe my protagonist! I have a very clear picture in my mind of what he looks like and his life story and personality but have not yet found the place to put it in there in a way that feels natural. I know how I'm going to get his description into part 2 (a teensy bit cliched) and from reading other stories (a lot!) I also know that this is something I can get away with. I hope. What I'm not certain of is how much of his background is relevant to the story and perhaps might best be saved for future adventures. This story is, I think, meant to be part action, part character portrait and his background will come as a surprise to many. I don't want to give too much away about where the story is going but suffice it to say that the many options for moving it forward are slowing me down. I need to make some decisions and get on with it. I can always change my mind in the rewrites.

I know that the story as it stands has not attracted much in the way of readers or feedback for that matter but for the moment I am content to continue while the process challenges and inspires me. I hope that for the few that have read it there remains a curiosity about what happens next...I'll try not to keep you waiting too long. Thanks for reading.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Book Review: Cadian Blood by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

"Cadian Blood" is Aaron's* first novel for Black Library and to my eyes a truly exceptional piece of work that's going to be hard for him to follow. The story centres around the Cadian 88th Mechanised Infantry Regiment and their efforts to liberate the Imperial Shrine world of Kathur from the Chaos spawned 'Plague of Unbelief' and the many plague-touched (read Zombies) it has created.

The story is set during Abbadon's 13th Black Crusade and takes place on a revered shrine world that is some distance away from Cadia where the main action is taking place. This makes the presence of the plague, a feature of the battle around Cadia, a mystery and one which sits at the heart of this story.

Aaron's protagonist Warden-Captain Thade is a finely crafted character who very quickly establishes his bona fides as an experienced soldier and a reluctant hero, a symbol of hope in a situation that has little. His supporting cast are equally compelling and Aaron's ability to set the scene grabs you from the very first page and doesn't let go until you turn the last (At 3am in my case, with work...later that morning).

The story itself flows well, with each character viewpoint, Imperium and otherwise, adding immensely to the dark atmosphere that characterises a good 40K novel. His battle scenes build a very clear picture of the action in a way that never leaves you behind wandering what the hell just happened and the twists and turns of the plot are surprising and keep you wondering what will happen next.

Some stories destroy what suspense there is by leaving you in no doubt that the protagonist and co. will survive. Not so here. Who survives and how is not clear until the last pages and one is left with the feeling that while Aaron clearly likes his characters he's unwilling to sacrifice suspense on the altar of their survival.

I have tried to nit pick as, I believe, is expected from a review. I can't. It's a riveting read, driven by strong characters in a well thought out and suspenseful plot. For a first or for that matter a fifth novel it is tremendously readable and points to a real talent that I look forward to reading more from.

By the by it is also an excellent introduction to the 40K universe for first time readers. 40K atmosphere drips from every page but you won't need more background knowledge than the author provides to enjoy it.

SciFi fans! Read it now, thank me later.

*Please note: I have not used the author's first name to imply any kind of personal familiarity, for none exists. I have used it because his mouthful of a double-barreled surname doesn't really lend itself to snappy prose (some would argue that my writing style can hardly be called snappy and to them I stick my tongue out in defiance :)

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Lone Wolf, a Warhammer 40,000 short story. (In parts)

Lone Wolf

An Imperial Guard Story

by Phillip Sobel

Part 1

Sergeant Reid Salinas dropped behind the wall as the lasbolt struck, showering him and the other men in cover with brick dust. He quickly peered over the wall and ducked as the movement brought a flurry of las and solid slug fire. The hot dusty air caught in his throat and, not for the first time, he cursed this Emperor forsaken planet.

It was the hot season on Pyrranis IV and his hefty flak jacket and pads, essential for survival in an urban combat zone were as much a curse as a blessing in the heat. They were pinned by enemy fire and all the while trying to stave off dehydration. They had to move forward, clear out the enemy and secure some shelter. Then the Armour, and the supplies they brought, would be able to advance and they could push the traitorous bastards back far enough to take the city.

In the heat Reid found his mind drifting back to his briefing on the Guard troopship en route to Pyrranis IV. This had been one of the most productive manufactory worlds in the sector until the planetary governor, Lord FarboĆ«r, had fallen to the worship of Chaos and led most of the world’s Planetary Defence Force and many citizen-workers into corruption with him. Eight months ago, in a night of unbridled bloodlust, he had led them in rebellion against the Imperium they had once served. Thus began a planet-wide war that had already claimed the lives of millions.

'We need to advance!' he said, angrily snapping back from his brief reverie. He looked each of his nine men in the eye. Some young and new to the squad and some veterans like himself. They were all filthy, covered in a paste made of dust and sweat, but this was their kind of war; they were the Athonian 107th, ‘The City Fighters’. Specialists in urban warfare, the most brutal and unforgiving of theatres, you got good fast or you died faster.

His men were tired, strained and dehydrated but they’d fight if he could point them at the enemy. 'Corporal Quala' He said turning to a stocky brute of a man with a face like thunder and the fighting spirit to match. 'Take trooper Zane, go through the ruins on the left flank and try to get up high. We need to know what we’re facing.'

'Yes Sir!' he replied, each word clipped and precise, and silently signalled to Zane. Watching their rapid and sure-footed departure Reid was struck by how fortunate he was to have Darle Quala as his corporal. They’d joined the guard at the same time and had served together since. The man was a real soldier’s soldier. Not charismatic enough for the officer corps but a fierce fighter who commanded respect.

Confident that his corporal would find a good position he tapped the Commbead in his right ear and reported to the platoon leader. 'Lieutenant Korba. Salinas, second squad. We’re pinned down amongst the ruins around the main square. I’ve sent Corporal Quala to scope out the enemy disposition. Is there any air support available?' His call was greeted with silence. He waited a few more seconds. 'Lieutenant Korba, Sergeant Salinas. My squad are pinned in the main square, request air support to dislodge the traitors.' Static hissed in response.

'Seems we’re on our own' he said, almost to himself 'we need to move.'

He gestured to the rest of the squad to follow him and led them, crouching, along the damaged wall towards a collapsed building to their right. Half the squad, covered by their fellow guardsmen, made the dash to the cover of the nearby ruins and then in turn covered the Sergeant and the remaining members of the squad as they ran to join them. Reid’s Commbead suddenly came to life.

'Sergeant Salinas, Quala.'

'Go ahead'

'I can see around forty of them in the temple with a variety of weapons, all traitor PDF.'

'Aren’t they calling themselves ‘Cult of The Blood’?' Salinas asked.

'Chaos loving scum can call themselves what they like sir, won’t stop me sending them screaming into hell!'

Salinas grinned savagely. 'No corporal I didn’t think it would.'

'I think they’re trying to lure us all forward, not sure why. The fire we’ve been taking is a fraction of what they have and I suspect there’s more I can’t see.'

'Good work. I’ve moved the squad right of our original position to another ruin. Don’t join us yet, you and Zane keep an eye on the bastards for me. I want to get the Lieutenant on the vox and see if we can’t rustle up some Vultures to blast them out and give us cover for an assault.'

Just as he was about to try the vox again, his earpiece crackled and a garbled transmission that he couldn’t make out, rang uncomfortably loud in his ear. 'Say again.' he responded, wincing.

'Second……confirm…position!' Korba’s frustration at the radio problems was evident in his voice.

'In the ruins south of the Ecclesiarchy temple in the main square, there are around forty Blood Cultists in the ruins of the temple possibly more. They have us pinned, we need air support' At last, he had his commander on the vox, perhaps now they could take the square and bring up the Armour. 'Quala! Get to my position fast!'

Moments later Korba’s voice crackled on the vox, 'Second squad, air power is on the way. They’ll make their run east to west, two minutes on the chronometer. Prepare to advance and link up with the rest of the platoon moving in from the east. The Emperor protects!' Reid smiled at that, indeed He does.

Quala and Zane ran up to the squad, bent low. Reid nodded his thanks to Quala and quickly outlined his plan. 'When the Vultures drop their ordnance we dash across the road to the ruins northeast of us. I want to charge them from the flank once the Vultures are clear, understood?' His question was answered with a chorus of affirmatives. With the practised ease of the well drilled they checked over their Athonian pattern wire stocked Lascarbines many of them muttering litanies of true firing to the weapon’s machine spirit. Reid watched the countdown on his chron. He motioned the corporal over. 'Flank charge’s the only way Darle. They look pretty well dug in.'

'Yes Sir, Vultures might not keep their heads down while we make a hundred metre dash across open ground. Flank charge through the collapsed east wall will make for a shorter run but we’re going to have to get into position fast before they can rally.'

Salinas smiled to himself, reassured that the corporal shared his assessment. 'We’re ‘The City Fighters’, fast is what we do.'

The corners of Quala’s mouth moved up in, what was for him, as close to a smile as he usually got. Salinas nodded his thanks and glanced again at his chron. 'Ten seconds!' he shouted. Already the distant roar of jet engines was getting closer fast. Suddenly, streaking in from his right two Vultures began their attack run. With their shoulder mounted wings, powerful engine and angular cockpit canopy they always reminded Salinas of a fast, viciously barbed insect he had encountered while fighting on Cruoris, a Jungle death world. Rockets streamed from underwing pods peppering the outside of the temple in explosions. Some of the rockets passed through the shattered window frames, some through gaping holes in the walls detonating within the already wrecked structure. And as fast as they’d arrived they were gone.

'Now! Go go go!' he bellowed at his men to shake the few that seemed frozen from the shock and awe of the airstrike. Quala echoed his order and through the billowing dust clouds thrown up by the violence of the strike the squad ran for the ruins. Once there Reid immediately led a rapid advance through the rubble of the buildings taking advantage of the cover where they could. This was how the ‘The City Fighters’ worked, he thought with pride. Through wreck and rubble to the throat of the enemy! Within half a minute they were poised to strike at the flank. As he was about to sound the assault into the temple movement to the right brought the whole squads’ guns to bear.

'Hold your fire!' a voice shouted 'Friendlies!', Sergeant Artino, a lean wiry man with close cropped blond hair, caked with dust and grime stalked forward at the head of first squad. His laspistol held firmly in one hand his sword in the other.

'Ready to fight?' Reid asked Artino hurriedly.

'For Athonos and the Emperor!' Artino answered with feeling.

They both turned to their squads and sounded the charge; their voices hoarse from the strains of the last few hours of fighting, they nonetheless got the blood of their men boiling. They rushed out of the ruins and into the smoke and fire with bayonets fixed.

To Be Continued…

Sunday, 13 December 2009

eBook Review (and related rant): "Dominant Species" by Michael E. Marks

I came across this book while trying to decide whether or not to buy a Kindle. I had outlined in an earlier post that the dearth of good books and more particularly a dearth of my usual reading fodder made it of little use to me. However, once I started writing I was advised that if I wanted to write I had to read. Not just the usual, I had to expand my horizons. Where better to search for and read books of many genres without futher cluttering my rapidly disappearing room than the Kindle store? ...It's amazing what you can justify when you really really want to buy something. What can I say? ...I am weak. Some of my points in that earlier post still stand but having invested in one I will now wait patiently to see how it develops.

Which leads neatly on to the reason I started to write this post in the first place. The book itself. Most of the books in the Kindle store have been 'converted' from their original print versions, however, Michael Mark's book "Dominant Species" only exists in the digital realm. I think this is the beginning of a trend that may be the future of SciFi. The argument that SciFi as a printed genre is dying is an old hat that has been argued on the "world wide" for a while now. It was recently revived on the blog of an author I've come to admire and many big names in SciFi writing joined in a spirited debate that extended to two futher blog posts. Do check out the posts and subsequent discussions, it really is a fascinating read. In the discussion I cited this book as a future model for the dissemination and futher development of SciFi in a publishing world that must cater to popular tastes to survive.

And what an entry to that model it is! The book tells the story of a top secret elite Marine unit trapped deep underground in a mysterious spaceship and their battle for survival against a mysterious and powerful enemy.The sub-genre of this book is military scifi which, while known for action and adventure, is not generally famous for the depth of its characters. However, the characters in this book display remarkable depth without losing the pace and action that makes this genre what it is.

In addition one of the arguments made in the above discussion is that we live in a world where Science Fiction is fast becoming Science Fact. It was suggested that this removes the sense of wonder experienced by the readers of early scifi with its exploration of the possible technologies of the future. Michael Marks seems to have embraced that reality and woven into the centre of his tale some of the technologies and ideas that NASA and DARPA are working on right now and in so doing has, for me, recaptured that sense of wonder at what the future holds. The fact that the future may not be so far off only serves to highten that wonder.

He often goes into almost Clancy-esque detail about the nature of the armour and weapons of the marines but for me the details never become burdensome and only serve to heighten the depth of the picture in my mind. His combat scenes are well crafted and take you to the very heart of the action in a way that almost has you ducking when the bullets start to fly. In combination with the twists of the story, the slowly uncovered mysteries and the very real characters he has a formula that will keep you gripped right up to the last page. The only irritating part of the book are the formatting errors throughout the text. They mar what is an otherwise fantastic book.

All in all I can't recommend this book highly enough to those of you with a Kindle and a taste for Military Science Fiction and even for those of you who have never really been drawn to this genre. Tense and action packed, it really is a terrific read.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Fleshing out the story...while battling with my mind.

Been sitting at my computer for a while with my pad and scratchy pencil writing away like there's no tomorrow. I'm still torn between writing a novel and writing a short story. I want a short story but the quantity of detail pouring out of my head lends itself to the length of a novel. Though some concepts in writing are common to both they are distinctly different exercises. Besides which I can hardly post a novel on my blog!

My main character is starting to take shape. I quite like the man. Which, I'm told, is a prerequisite to writing a story about him. I've even made some headway in developing the world upon which he is fighting and the enemy he's fighting against. I really feel that I'm getting bogged down in details that there is no room for in a short story but I just can't ignore all the little details! I forget, or fail to trust, that my readers will likely fill in the gaps from their imagination if I provide a clear enough picture of the now. A clear enough picture of a human being in conflict. Bring them into the action where it's life and death and the little details become of secondary importance...I think. That's been my experience of reading the beginning of a story where things aren't clear yet. Particularly when the author has chosen to thrust you into the action with little or no background beyond what you already know of the genre.

Which brings me to another challenge. I'm writing this story in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Who am I writing for? Am I writing for people who are already fans? Yes most certainly but I'm also hoping to appeal to a wider audience with the hope of drawing them into a fictional world that has entertained and inspired me for seventeen years! This seems like an almost impossible task. I must choose between one or the other. But how am I going to set the scene so that the unfamiliar reader can know enough to enjoy the story without my resorting to "infodump"? The inaccessibility of tie-in fiction to the general reading public is an issue that better minds continue to struggle with. Am I starting with too big a challenge? Should I just post my stories on the forums dedicated to the world in which I'm writing where everyone is generally on the 'same page'?

The above are a few of the many things I am really battling with to get this story down on paper in a way that grabs my audience by the throat and doesn't let go. I know I'm asking too much of myself at the beginning and that's one more thing to struggle with but I want to write something that I'm at least able to post without thinking, "that's just crap!"

If you, dear reader (writer or otherwise), have any answers or advice please do share them with me in the comments. I would appreciate any guidance I can get.

Monday, 30 November 2009

This writing lark is hard!

It isn't that I thought it was easy. I always knew that writing creatively was hard, but I never knew just how hard until I started. I'm no less committed to the process than I was when I was giddy with inspiration and enthusiasm but that enthusiasm has now been tempered by a little experience. I think that this is a part of the journey. The realities of getting a story from the confines of my twisted mind onto paper in a way that captures the mind of my reader are quite harsh. The information the reader needs to appreciate the story (exposition) must be decided with some clarity and must come across naturally rather than my current style of, what my friends politely call, infodump. Brevity is something that happens to writers. I also need to flesh out my protagonist more in my own mind before I can bring him to life on paper.

These along with a host of other challenges can seem overwhelming at first, particularly when I think I've got a really cool story that I desperately want to tell. If I could only find the words to tell it well. I'm also trying to be as original as I can and am resisting the temptation to blatantly thieve the storytelling tools of my many betters. For example, Dan Abnett, storyteller supreme has been known to preface a chapter with an excerpt of faux history to help set the scene. Gosh what a clever little device! If I use it am I being hopelessly unoriginal or am I simply learning my lessons and not trying to reinvent the wheel? I'm not sure.

Looking over my first aborted piece I also came to realise that what I wanted was a short story but the way I was writing made it clear that I was really undecided between a short story and a novel. It is in my nature to start with a big picture which, when down to brass tacks, becomes a plethora of small details that I get lost in, never to be found. The name of the planet on which our intrepid hero is fighting the forces of evil...what kind of planet...where did the evil originate and how did it this part of a sector wide conflict or local to this world only? And so on until I'm so thoroughly knotted that I can't see the proverbial wood for the trees.

Last night I though of an idea that I suspect would be truly elementary to the most inexperienced writer. I went to bed with a notebook (oh behave!) and jotted down as much of the above questions as I could and as many answers as I could find until I could no longer keep my eyes open. This was in the hope that by putting it on paper it would get out of my head and leave some space to think about the other elements of the story and its characters. It seems to have worked...mostly. I think there's going to be many more sessions of scratchy pencil writing before I put hand to keyboard again and methinks this is a good thing.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Why I Love Penny Arcade.

There are two guys out there on the interwebs who have become rather important to me over the last few years. Tonight, for reasons that I'll make clear, felt like the time to write about it so here I sit tapping away at my keyboard in the hope that I can find the words to express why these guys mean so much to me. To millions of fans all over the World Wide Web they are affectionately know as Tycho and Gabe or, in the real world, as Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik. They are the creators of Penny Arcade, a comic/news site about computer games and gaming culture in general.

I found my way to their hallowed website after a good friend said something along the lines of "dude! Check out these Penny Arcade dudes, they're awesome!"...Okay so it wasn't quite so "fratboy" but that's how I've chosen to remember it!

To my mind they started out as two guys who just wanted to see if there were others out there who shared their perspective on what is good, bad or ugly about computer games and the companies that spawn them and have evolved into a force that fights injustice and keeps the industry honest. Their PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) conventions brings in 60,000 gamers annually which makes the industry sit up and take notice and their home made charity "Child's Play" which purchases toys for long term child hospital patients, has raised over five million dollars since it's inception in 2003!

I realise that the "fights injustice" phrase makes it seem like I'm fitting them for capes...and I am...but I'm actually making a real point here. Barely a week passes by without some hysterical media type/politician tolling the bell for the "evil" gaming industry and its army of borderline psychopaths, Gamers! We are often portrayed as being one very small step from going "postal" and killing innocents in some game fuelled rampage. This is often inspired by a, tragic, news story in which some deeply disturbed individual who has gone on said rampage is shown to have gaming links. We and our hobby are then all roundly condemned, as if we're all the same! As if we are all one dimensional lunatics!

What Penny Arcade has done is to challenge this nonsense with wit, charm and tremendous patience in the face of popularist hysteria. They really do lend a powerful voice to those who feel they have none and have shown the world that gamers are three dimensional people, with all that that implies, and not dangerous stereotypes on the edge of meltdown.

But is this why I love them? Well...yes...and no. I've finally figured out what it is. It's because they make me laugh. Time and again. Whether it's Jerry's extraordinary prose or Mike's "in-your-face" yet paradoxically subtle artwork they make me laugh and laugh again. Their jokes are, more often than not, in-jokes but I'm in the club that gets them and it's a wonderful place to be.

So, just one more thing to clear up. What made me write this tonight? They recently started airing their own reality show about their lives and creative processes and I watched the first episode tonight. For me it really brought to life all the impressions of them I had already picked up from their work and I was surprised at how moved I was by seeing them in the flesh and in the world. It highlighted something I didn't realise I already knew and brought it to coruscating life. These are two really special guys.

If you're the one or two gamers out there who haven't already heard of them head on over to their site and have a look see. Allow yourself to be taken in by Jerry's wit and eloquence and Mike's amazing visual style and gags and in so doing add a new dimension to your gaming.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Writing Experience.

So where did the story go? Well, I deleted it. Not totally of course but having gotten some really useful feedback from some very talented friends I decided I wanted a do-over.

Hi everyone, I'm Phil and I'm a perfectionist...Hi Phil!

I joke but it's a real problem. Once I recognised what they were telling me I was no longer comfortable leaving it up there. I tried to tell myself that it was my first attempt and should bear witness to my sitting down and getting on with it at last. That idea lasted all of thirty to forty minutes. I got this knot in my stomach and after a moments contemplation I realised why. There for all the...two or three of you that had seen it were my many and varied mistakes and I needed to do better! The pace of the story was far too slow, I tried to cram too much information into too small a space without really moving the story forward and the lengthy descriptions really didn't help build a picture for the reader.

I want to do it better, I need to do it better. It will never be perfect, that's both a part of the human condition and one of the real buggers about being a perfectionist. It is unattainable.

What really surprised me about the writing experience was how all my own issues were brought to the fore by the writing process. It shouldn't have surprised me that doing something creative, a deeply personal experience, would reveal some of the values/issues at the very heart of who I am. And yet surprised I was.

Fantastic! It now lends this new endeavor a broader context. Not only am I working to realise a fledgling talent that I've wanted to express for years. In the process I will have a chance to wrestle with some personal demons and maybe, just maybe, I'll win one for a change.

Like I said, watch this space...

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Inspiration, Wil Wheaton style!

For anyone that reads my blog and remains unaware. Wil Wheaton is an actor, writer, blogger, a lover and a fighter and an all round great guy. His most recent blog post, "Get Excited and Make Things" seems to have lit the fires of creativity under a few thousand people and inspired them to..well..get really excited and make things. It does exactly what it says on the tin! A rarity in this day and age.

Though I started this blog before the above post it was his blog, amongst others, that inspired me to get mine started. I have wanted to write creatively for so long that I can't remember a time when I didn't and though I have no idea if anyone is even reading what I write, I'm enjoying the process nonetheless. So, what inspiration do I take from Wil's post? Well, when I was a wee nipper I used to get great pleasure from writing stories and yet, though the thought has occurred to me a thousand times I have never put my butt in the chair and started to write. I think about my favourite authors, Dan Abnett chief amongst them, and the stories that they pen with such fascinating characters & attention to detail...and I become so intimidated by their genius that whatever creativity I possess dries right up.

However, Wil of clan Wheaton has galvanised me to stop moaning, get excited and write things! The story will be set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, a Gothic scifi setting of such colour, depth and complexity that it has held me enthralled for years. I will likely post the story on this very blog (in parts?) and I will be relying on you, dear reader, to give me feedback so I can grow as a writer and produce something that earns your precious time. If, by some miracle, the work becomes of any interest I may well separate it off into its own blog to keep it apart from my more random musings. It ain't going to be a quick process but I intend to start tonight.

Watch this space...

Monday, 16 November 2009

Kindle 2, the future of reading? Not for me!

I'll try and keep this brief. I really want to buy a Kindle 2...but I can't. Why? Well it goes like this, I mostly read rather niche science fiction but even when I expand my horizons to look for books that might interest me I still can't find anything in the Kindle store that would begin to justify the expense. Not only that but the Kindle seems to be for our American friends and we Brits have been added as an afterthought. Not encouraging when being asked to part with just over £200!

So why isn't this the end of the conversation? The product clearly isn't up to the task so I should keep my money and be on my merry, however, I haven't seen my floor in a long time and this is because it is covered in books. The thought of a sleek ebook reader that might reacquaint me with my floor is both practical and appeals to my inner ubergeek! I love the look of the thing and want to buy one but with no ebooks of interest what use is it? Amazon claim that their vision is to have every book in print available on it. An admirable aim but is it really achievable? Even now certain books are only available in the States because they are licensed on a country by country basis. Clearly publishers, keen to protect their intellectual property rights, remain unconvinced by this technological marvel.

I'm left with the conclusion that the Kindle 2 is a technology whose time hasn't yet come. It seems my floor and I must be kept apart for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Afghanistan, Britain's Vietnam?

Before I blather about this topic let me be clear about one thing. I have enormous respect for the men and women of Britain's armed forces and believe that they do an exceptional job of which we should be very proud. What I wish to explore is the motives and thinking of the government that has sent our troops out there in apparent defiance of the powerful historical precedents.

I realise even as I sit down to write that this is a very complex topic. I don't really expect to open your eyes to its true depths because, frankly, I don't understand them myself. I just want to ask one question that has been growing in my mind for some time. Is Afghanistan in serious danger of becoming Britain's very own Vietnam? A long war of attrition against an entrenched enemy with a powerful ideology that has seen them defeat one seemingly almighty invader already.

Vietnam had a lengthy history of foreign dominion before the Americans put their oar in and sure enough, as in every previous occasion, the American invaders were eventually seen off but only after a brutal ten year conflict that scarred both countries forever more. We seem to be heading down the same path.

The Russians entered Afghanistan at the request of the home grown communist government and began what turned out to be a vicious nine year war. Foreign invaders seeking to trample their ideology is not news to the Taliban and I suspect that they and many Afghans see their current leaders as a corrupt puppet government who will soon be out on their ear.

With the historical context and current realities I cannot see a way out. I cannot see how it is possible to defeat a highly experienced and religiously/ideologically inspired guerrilla army with conventional forces. Exactly like Vietnam! Taliban or Viet Cong the parallels are plentiful and very worrying.

Several times a week now we hear of the tragic deaths of our soldiers and the equipment shortages that they, and notably some of their senior officers, feel are making a dangerous job into a near suicidal one. They continue road patrols because it is felt (and perhaps correctly so) that a presence on the ground is essential for victory, but no one has made at all clear what that victory would look like! The total destruction of the Taliban would seem to me to be the only way forward and yet history has taught us again and again, you cannot kill an idea. These men believe that they are fighting for the survival of their faith and traditions. A version of Islam shared by thousands if not millions over the world.

Are we sending our troops over there to die in a war with no hope of victory? Will we eventually be forced to withdraw in disgrace and in so doing make a mockery of the sacrifice of so many soldiers? If history is any indication the answer seems to be yes.

And yet, I am also aware that the government and more importantly the commanders in the field and at home are very aware of the historical precedents and still seem to feel that things are, largely, going according to plan. However, the reasons for our being there seem to have changed from when we first got involved. This leads me to one of two conclusions, either they have a clear plan that they believe will lead to a victory within parameters that aren't clear to us or they believe that a long war of attrition with no hope of any victory is still better than an alternative they fear but we know nothing of.

The latter explanation seems distressingly plausible and leaves me with grave misgivings about this war. In my mind's eye I can already see a panicked withdrawal ten years from now with nothing to show for our efforts. The psychological scars this will leave on our nation are significant if America's experience is anything to go by. In fact the scars are already starting to show.

Is there an honourable way out? Or having committed ourselves must we soldier on in the face of a seemingly hopeless task?

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Webseries, introducing a personal favourite.

During the recent summer break whilst enjoying some much needed downtime I came across a webseries that really opened my eyes to the potential of the internet as a resource for serious comedy...okay a teensy oxymoron there but I soldier on. For many of you I suspect that your first thought is "where have you been?!" but it was news to me and so I am led to think there may be others who are living in darkness and can be brought into the light.

There are many webseries out there and many worthy of mention but the one that has really grabbed me is The Guild. Created and written by Felicia Day the mother of all geek icons, it tells the story of a group of gamers who play together in an MMORPG that bears a striking and deliberate resemblance to the much loved World of Warcraft.

Focusing on their interactions in real life as well as some in-game moments it brings to life the stereotypical socially awkward gaming archetypes with, as they say, hilarious results. For me the laughs are to be found in the exaggerated yet eerily accurate portrayals of the socially inept at play and the variety of neuroses on display is as comprehensive as it is laugh out loud funny. From creepy yet lovable stalker 'Zaboo' played by the brilliant Sandeep Parikh to the deadpan insanity of 'Vork' brought to side splitting life by the inspired Jeff Lewis not to mention all the others that make up this extraordinary cast of comic geniuses.

And yet as a gamer I also see some of myself in the characters. The part of me that recognises the far less threatening opportunities for relationship and challenge in a virtual world rather than facing an ever more difficult real one. Is that part of the appeal of this series for me? A chance to laugh at the absurdities of my gaming life in a way that feels affectionate for all its irreverence? Yes, I think it is a part of it but I really don't want to get too far away from just how good this series is in its own right. Though it has appealed to me from the start it is now in its 3rd season and the writing and production values have sharpened up exponentially as the series has progressed and the characters have been developed in a way that is believable in the context while still surprising and delighting in equal measure.

I have great hopes for this series and look forward to seeing how Miss Day futher develops the characters and the storyline. Have a look at the series yourself whether you're a gamer or not, start at the beginning and get on through. Each episode averages out at around 5 minutes so it shouldn't take long to catch up. I challenge you not to love the characters as I have come to and maybe even to see gamers and gaming in a new light.

"They're human after all, who knew?" - We did.