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Posts Tagged ‘scifi’

I’ve been playing tabletop Call of Cthulhu roleplaying (RPG) games for 13 years. Played in my case by web forum postings, meaning I can post when I’m able to, and play with people all around the world. The online asynchronous forum method of playing has been very practical for me with my neurological illness which would rule out face to face gaming or anything requiring longer periods of attention at a time. In the main games I’ve played we work through adventures and scenarios that combine Doctor Who with Lovecraftian horror. Tabletop roleplaying is a sort of communal improvisation / shared storytelling / puzzle solving experience. Each character takes on a different character, and acts out that role, responding to the situations posed to them by the Keeper who runs the game. It’s a somewhat difficult process to describe, but a fun pastime, and a dynamic form of storytelling and game playing. Past scenarios in our linked campaign have included battling ghouls in the 1930s British Museum, aliens on future Pluto, encountering fishy folk in 1980s Dunwich in Suffolk, exploring late republican Rome, and now the latest installment set in Blitz-hit wartime London.

I love playing these games, and have got a lot of pleasure out of them. Our Keeper, who runs the games, has written and designed some excellent scenarios which are great fun to play through. The game is a combination of description, player decisions and chance. The latter is usually handled with dice rolls, normally digital in our case, and we have had some shocking luck along the way. Which can upend plots spectacularly, but makes the game unpredictable and exciting to play.

My character is a schoolteacher from 1950s Scotland, and one of the original characters in the series of linked Doctor Who games. She’s a companion of the Time Lord character, and so travelled to all these times and places. It’s amazing that she survived some of the things she ran into, not least given how bad her dice rolls have often been, but it’s been a marvellous journey.

Sadly it is soon coming to an end, although exactly how I will leave is not yet finalised. I have significant dementia like problems from my progressive neurological disease primary cerebral vasculitis, and these have worsened over the last few years, even while the disease has been more stable in other ways. I simply can’t keep up with game plots any more, not having a clue what has happened before plot-wise, either recently, or further back. I forget things constantly day to day, even hour to hour, and frequently minute to minute. It poses enough of a challenge when trying to follow plots in books, never mind trying to follow the plot in a long-running RPG game. I’ve tried to keep on playing, knowing that I am one of the few original players left in the game now, but it’s simply not viable.

So yes, sad to leave, but many happy memories, at least those I can just about recall. All the games are currently still online for me to reread, and enjoy again, marvelling at everything I’ve forgotten since.

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I keep track of my reading in Goodreads and last year finished 84 books. Looking back on them there are a number of patterns that emerge, and I thought it might be interesting to blog about overall trends and some specific titles that I particularly enjoyed. Note these 84 titles are just those books I read from cover to cover. I also dip in and out of a lot of academic books – usually it is rarely necessary to read those cover to cover for what I need as an academic historian. But the 84 books were read fully.

Unsurprisingly a high portion, over a sixth, of the books finished were Doctor Who ones. Yes I’m a big fan. Most were fiction, including some of the fairly recent new Target novelisations of Tenth and Twelfth Doctor stories. But I also read older books, both more recent Who full length novels, 1990s ones like Paul Cornell’s Human Nature, and some pre-1989 Targets. A particular highlight among the Who books was the new novel Scratchman, based on a movie script idea by Tom Baker and Ian Marter, and turned into a novel more recently by James Goss with Tom Baker’s help. This was completely bonkers, and a delight from start to end. It also made some fun creative decisions writing-wise, in a similar way to the experimentation that Steven Moffat did with his new Target novelisation of his 50th anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor. Most of my Doctor Who reads were fiction, but I also read some Obverse Books Black Archive books, which analyse individual Doctor Who stories, and are always fun.

After Doctor Who the next biggest chunk of books were classic literature. Non-English titles (read in translation) were Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (which I insisted throughout on referring to as the Muskehounds), Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. All fantastic reads, but the first and third particularly so. From 19th century English literature I read Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (not a single likeable character in there I think!), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (that one superbly done), and reread my favourite Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend. From slightly later was EM Forster’s A Room With a View. And I read and enjoyed Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, though more for the adventure and scene setting than the hefty romance novel elements.

I made a deliberate effort to read some Scottish books this year, including Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song which I had never read. I really enjoyed that, though more for the sense of place and impressive presentation of language. Another Scottish book read set in a similar era was Donald S. Murray’s As the women lay dreaming about the Iolaire disaster. And I read and enjoyed David Greig’s play Dunsinane, a sequel of sorts to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Another Scottish author read was Iain Banks – the scifi “Iain M Banks” version of him! – with his The Player of Games, the first of his Culture novels that I’d read, and an inventive plot based around game playing. Another scifi book read was Michael Moorcock’s steampunk The Warlord of the Air, a theme that continued with a reread of Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine. Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars was a fun scifi alternative history of the early days of space flight. And from the Worldcon scifi convention in Dublin’s panel on Irish fantasy and scifi I learned about 19th century Belfast writer Robert Cromie, and read his The Crack of Doom.

Another recommendation that I picked up from the Dubin Worldcon was Jane Gilheaney Barry’s Cailleach about witchcraft and a family in rural Ireland. Many other fantasy books were read over the year, including Ben Aaronovitch’s first Rivers of London, Diana Wynne Jones Deep Secret, Charles Stross The Nightmare Stacks, Ekaterina Sedia’s The Secret History of Moscow, and Andrew David Barker’s The Electric – that last an unexpected joy, a love letter to old films and the magic of cinema.

I’ve mentioned a number of 2019 rereads already. There were others, including Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows, Mary Stewart’s The Hollow Hills (part 2 of her Merlin trilogy), Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch (part 3 of her Dark is Rising fantasy series), Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, and my annual pre-Halloween reread of Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October. For that last one, a Lovecraftian delight, I even treated myself to a first edition copy of the book. I reread it every year, without fail.

I finished many non fiction books. Some were related to my academic research, including Murray Pittock’s Enlightenment in a Smart City and Martha McGill’s Ghosts in Enlightenment Scotland. Others were read purely for fun. I greatly enjoyed Mary Beard’s SQPR, a history of the Roman empire. Also Chris Lintott’s The Crowd and the Cosmos, about the Zooniverse project, which was arguably more interesting for its discussions about issues of handling big data and crowd participation than the astronomy content. Other Tolkien books read included Ian Brodie’s The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook about the films (highly recommended) and two Tolkien books bought in a Palgrave sale, The Keys of Middle Earth (excellent introduction to Old English and Norse etc. studied through Tolkien’s reuse of themes/topics) and the less successful The Riddles of the Hobbit. I also read graphic novels, including Doctor Who actress Jessica Martin’s excellent Life Drawing, and a British Museum manga exhibition book.

Crime novels were also a presence in my reading, ranging from classic crime (including the first Campion and an Agatha Christie) through more modern works (including a Hamish Macbeth and the first Ellis Peters Brother Cadfael – the latter yet another reread), and my first read of Donna Leon’s Venice set crime novels, read just after we came back from a trip to the city. I’m less interested in real life crime or anything too gory, but like books that have a good sense of place and plot. I lean towards older crime novels.

Just three computing books show up on my 2019 list. A fun, quick read was Steven Howlett’s A Diary of an 80s Computer Geek, which recalled 1980s British home computing, albeit with a heavy leaning towards the ZX Spectrum. Far less successful was Cara Ellison’s Embed with Games, which promised interesting insights into game developers, but ended up being far too much about the author’s own life and travails. Far better for me was Jason Schreier’s Blood, Sweat and Pixels, which gave an often agonising behind the scenes account of the development of a good number of computer games, both small-scale indie ones with a single developer, and huge large studio projects. It did not always end well, but was a riveting read.

Other than this there were some other scattered books. I particularly enjoyed another Obverse Books publication, Paul Magrs’ festive Bowie tale Stardust and Snow. Recommended reading, especially for any David Bowie fan. Another highlight was the reprinted edition of the Usborne World of the Unknown Ghosts book. This book captivated many children back in the 1970s and 1980s, but somehow passed me by. Now rectified!

So it’s been a good year of reading for me. Almost all read on my Kindle with a gigantic font (think the youngest children learning to read book style, including some Ladybird books) that helps me overcome significant reading problems from neurological disease. Next year I think I’ll continue trying to read more word literature books, and already have some lined up waiting on my Kindle. But beyond that who knows! Looking forward to it anyway.

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Yesterday was the third day of the Worldcon, but my second day there, and indeed my last day. Because of my MS-like illness I need to pace myself very carefully, resting before and after big days. So once the programme of events was confirmed I decided to attend on Thursday and Saturday only. My husband however is attending on all days.

First impressions on our return to the convention were that there were more staff and volunteers visible, something I’d voiced concerns about in my last blog post. Security staff were checking that everyone coming in to the events was a paid-up Worldcon member. And there were more volunteers and helpers, including an access lady who was standing by the lift on Level 3, and gave us our proper access ribbons (to be visible for extra help mobility-wise, for me, and husband as my plus 1) to replace the temporary versions we got on Thursday. We also noticed more cosplayers i.e. fans in costume e.g. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Lara Croft, Link from Zelda, and many others. And there were more people generally.

That last point caused some problems. In particular a number of rooms were overcrowded in terms of people wanting to get in, but were turned away. In addition I think some panels had been placed in too small venues, including the Doctor Who panel I attended, which was filling up rapidly half an hour before start time, and in the end was standing room only, despite rules introduced that said people without seats shouldn’t stay – at least more fans got to experience the talk, but it should have been in a larger room. Other people on Twitter commented about this in other panels.

My first panel of the day was at 10am, a retrospective looking at 1938 in scifi and fantasy, picking up on 1938 being the Retro Hugos year at this Worldcon. The panelists, including Jo Walton and John Clute, really knew their stuff, and gave a fascinating insight into the time. I particularly liked their analysis of differences between what scifi fandom then and now would perceive to have been the best works of 1938, based partly on what we are familiar with, including earlier and later years, but also based on how a 2014 audience defines scifi compared with a 1938 one. For example the panelists thought it unlikely that massively selling pulp magazine “Weird Tales” would have been perceived as scifi, and likewise both “The Sword in the Stone” – which won this year’s Retro Hugo award for best novel in 1938 – and “Out of the Silent Planet” were at the time viewed as respectively a children’s book and a literary work. As someone who voted in the Retro Hugo awards this year I found Jo Walton’s observations on the difficulties voters faced echoed many of my feelings. I only felt confident enough to vote in the Best Novel and Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form categories, and even then I had not read or listened to all of the works, but was confident enough in my assessment that my choices “The Sword in the Stone” and Orson Welles’s radio version of “The War of the Worlds” were outstanding, and I should vote for them anyway. Both won the Retro Hugo, which the panel agreed with, albeit with the caveat that the book would not have been even shortlisted. But I felt quite unable to vote in the short story or other categories, and this is largely because I’m not familiar with the pulp magazines of the time, and the Retro Voting Packet did not include the material. As a book historian I found some of the statistics for the pulps astonishing: circulation figures of hundreds of thousands in North America, which meant that they were the main way many people encountered sci fi, far more so than in published books. A fascinating panel anyway, and remarkably well attended – a packed room – for 10am on a Saturday morning, as one panelist observed.

After that we explored the dealers’ hall again. I was particularly keen to get back to the PS Publishing stall, a UK publisher I’ve bought a lot from in the past. This time I wanted to look through their reprints of 1950s horror comics, which I’d considered buying previously, but being able to flick through them and choose just the ones I wanted was much better. I found out later I got a real bargain: both paperback books for £8 each at the Worldcon stall, versus £14.99 each if bought normally. After that we looked at some more of the displays, and especially those about the history of Worldcons and scifi fandom in the UK. I photographed a bit of a poster about the history of Leeds fandom – Leeds apparently held the world’s first scifi convention in 1937! – and emailed it to my Yorkshire-born Dad, whose Dad was born in Leeds.

Horror comic reprints bought

Then we had early lunch at the Cornish pasty shop further along the boulevard on Level 1. My husband’s paternal ancestry is Cornish, and indeed our surname is Cornish, so it hadn’t taken him long to find that stall the day before and try it out! Tasty lunch, and convenient and quick. And best of all, as we were sitting munching, my husband spotted my former university classmate and friend walking by, and called him over. It was wonderful to see him again. We don’t live too far apart in Scotland, and keep meaning to arrange to meet, but with my fluctuating health it’s difficult. But we were students together, graduating in computer science 20 years ago, and the only two single honours students in our year which had a tiny class size. So we were able to catch up, and had a lovely chat. I also met his academic mother (St Andrews has a system pairing new undergraduates with more senior students – their “academic parents”) which was nice.

After this we headed towards my second panel of the day, the Doctor Who Restoration Team. As I said earlier I think this was put into far too small a venue. Fortunately though we got there early, and I was able to nab a good wheelchair space. I twittered about how packed the room was, which gave another friend warning to leave his panel early and come round promptly to be sure of a seat! And I was able to meet someone I’ve only corresponded with online before. The panel was good, though let down a bit by the panelists being out of sight for most of the audience, too low down. Also it was a little too talky, at least at the start, but improved as it went on, and the various panelists got into the nitty gritty of how they do the restoration. This wasn’t just about restoring the visual images, but also how they restore problems with the audio tracks, as guru Mark Ayres explained. We also learned how old material is still being thrown away even now, which was thoroughly depressing. The panel included a number of clips from “Out of the Unknown” which the team has been working on recently. There was also a fascinating question and answer session at the end, including one lady – Scottish no less! – who had worked at the BBC in the 1970s, and had probably created some of the video recordings which the team were now trying to restore. All in all very enjoyable, and very glad that I got to this event in particular.

After this my husband and I explored the fan village for the first time. We saw the TARDIS model on display, though the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones had been removed by now. I also picked up some material for the proposed bid for a Worldcon in Dublin in 2019. I’d love to go to that, as someone with a Dublin-born great granny. We even got a Dublin 2019 badge ribbon to add to our growing collection. And then because we were both so thirsty we plumped for cider. Really strong cider! My husband is from Somerset, and he was rather bowled over by it. After that there was time to browse some of the free leaflets, before we headed back to our hotel.

As I said it was the last day of the con for me, but I’m delighted I came. I enjoyed all the panels I went to, had great fun in the dealers’ room and displays, and had a great chance to meet friends old and new. Generally I’ve been impressed by the organisation, which has, by and large, run very smoothly. I like the venue used, and as a wheelchair user while here found it easy to get around. I also found all the fans I enountered friendly, smart and cheerful, and a very good advert for scifi and fantasy fandom in general. And yes, if it comes back to this rough part of the world in 2019, I will be back!

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I’m currently attending the Worldcon sci fi convention, which this year is being held at London, at the ExCeL convention centre on the Docklands. I last went to a Worldcon in 2005, for a day flying visit when it was held in Glasgow. I vowed then that if it came back to the UK again I would attend properly, including travelling if need be to stay in a nearby hotel. And I am.

Because of a progressive MS-like illness I have to use a wheelchair for some of the time, especially on longer more intensive days. And this meant that I could apply to the con organisers for suitable accessible hotel accommodation, which for mobility challenged people was largely in the Aloft London ExCeL hotel, right by the convention centre. So that’s where my husband and I are staying. We have a wheelchair accessible room, and being so close to the con has had an unexpected benefit. I’ve been able to return from the con to lie down in the day several times: great when I’m starting to feel really wobbly, and would be impossible if our hotel was further away.

The con runs over five days, from Thursday through to Monday, 14th to 18th August 2014. The queues for registration on the morning of Thursday were massive, causing some problems. But because of my wheelchair we were told to skip the queues, go straight to the access team, and were registered with their help very quickly. This left us time to explore before our first panel, and we explored the various eateries in the convention centre. On the downside the dealers’ room would not open on the first day until 1pm – quite late given that people were queuing for registration from 9am. So this caused us to rejig our plans a little, and switch to a different first panel, to allow us time after to explore all the goodies on sale, as well as the artworks and other displays in the same room.

There are over a dozen panels on simultaneously at any given time, with many hundreds of scheduled events over the five days. This makes it quite a challenge to pick what to attend: often you find there are multiple things you want to go to at the same time. But it’s nice to be spoilt with choice, and there is some freedom for people to nip in and out of panels as needed. But being prepared helps, and my husband and I both spent some time before the convention, studying the programme carefully and marking up those panels that might be of interest to us. Even then there were some difficult decisions to make!

Our first Thursday panel was at noon, an astronomy one, with Professor Tim Horbury talking about the ESA Solar Orbiter mission, which he is actively involved with. My husband’s day job is space technology research, and I studied astronomy for two years at university, so have an active interest in it too. And this was an excellent talk, well judged time and content-wise, with excellent visuals. I found it particularly interesting to get an insight into what it is like to be a principal investigator on a research project like this, which also gave us an idea of what it must be like for my husband’s boss day to day! There was also a lively question and answer section at the end. I asked firstly a double question about how long it would take the orbiter to reach the Sun once launched, and how quickly it would start sending results and how fast they would come back. And then when the answer brought up the issue of results going online I had to ask in what data format – former computer scientist coming out in me there! Anyway that was answered well, as were the other questions.

One nice thing about the con is that speakers are given warning about when to stop, and are encouraged to wrap up about 15 minutes before the end of the panel, allowing time for this panel’s audience to leave the room, and for the next panel’s audience to come in promptly. On the downside it seemed – and this may be a misimpression on my part – that there was a shortage of con volunteers around at times. For example there was a blind con goer in our second panel, using just his white stick, who really could have done with a volunteer accompanying him, or at least being in the room and noticing when he needed help. My husband gave him some assistance, but was unable to spot any con helpers outside to take over after.

After our first panel we explored the dealers’ stalls, which by now had opened. Much to see, but I was able to resist most temptations. Though I did give in and buy – as expected! – a second beeblebear for our household: a two-headed, three-pawed teddy bear with eyepatch sold by the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy appreciation society, ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha. Normally these are only for sale to members of the society – and I am a member – but today anyone could buy them. And I got a free badge for him (“Don’t Panic!”) and had a good chat with the ZZ9 stallholders.

New beeblebear

We also took the chance to look at many of the displays and artworks on show. The artworks were generally very impressive, though I thought some artists missed a chance by not having a business card or leaflet with their name people could take away with them. Many of the artworks are being sold over the next few days, and there are some gorgeous pieces available. Likewise there are many displays of items of interest, including a large number of astronomy-related ones, which appealed to us both. And my husband took part in an ongoing experiment where people breathe out to see if they are a methane emitter or not, which provided some amusement!

After this we nipped back briefly to the hotel for me to have a lie down – braving the biblical downpour and thunder and lightning outside. Then we were back for the 4.30pm Tolkien Society talk. This is another literary society I’m a member of, and they are sponsoring a number of events at the Worldcon. This one saw David Brawn of HarperCollins, the man responsible for looking after Tolkien publishing for 20 years, reflect on the last 20 years, and how things have evolved, including their links with the Peter Jackson movies.

This was a fascinating talk for me, as an academic book historian. The audience was gifted to an eye-opening insight into the publishing world, including some of the difficult decisions they have to make, and the delicate balancing act of respecting the wishes of the Tolkien Estate. I took masses of notes during the talk, noting some of the statistics cited, as well as anecdotes. And it was particularly impressive that the speaker spoke in a very informal ad lib way, working from a minimal set of notes. On the downside he spoke for a little too long, which reduced the time for questions. But what he said was so very interesting, that I don’t think anyone in the audience minded. I asked the first of the three or so questions answered, curious to know more about the Tolkien Estate’s attitude to ebooks, saying for example that I would love to read Christopher Tolkien’s “The History of Middle Earth” series of books in an ebook form. I was rather expecting to hear that the family is not very keen on ebooks, but was delighted to learn that they have adopted them eagerly, though not as early adopters, preferring to allow the technology to settle down, and viewing them primarily as a way of supporting the reading experience. And there are problems with publishing “History” in this format, partly because of how best to handle the extensive linked notes, but more critically because of many strange characters used, which in the past ereaders did not support well. But innovations since mean that it should just be a matter of time before “History” is available in this format, alongside all the other Tolkien books, though probably after the publisher has finished dealing with all the publications linked to the current Hobbit trilogy of films.

That was our final panel of the day, and afterwards we met friends for cocktails in our hotel bar, and a good chat, which was lovely. Then dinner, and a fairly early night, after a very long, but rewarding day. I will be resting tomorrow, but my husband will be attending the con while I sleep. I will be back there with him on Saturday, for more eagerly-anticipated panels.

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