Last Week: Upload, Friday Night Dinner, We Are What We Overcome and things I’ve forgotten about

Somewhere, recently, two weeks have been misplaced… I’m pretty sure they happened, but I’m damned if I can tell you what I did that took up a whole fortnight. Oh well, that seems to be the way of things at present. I’ve been working from home for something like seventy-five days, which feels both completely normal and utterly insane. The only bit I’ve got any clear recollection of is the last weekend, and a half-arsed list of things I’ve watched. It’s possible I’ve only played LEGO Star Wars – The Complete Saga on our Wii and then gone to sleep. I’m failing to read, or to concentrate enough to read quickly. It’s frustrating as reading is my most relaxing activity. I’ve abandoned about three novels and picked up The Best of John Wyndham and am slowly, so very very slowly, working my through it. Totally Brewed continue to be my drinktrack (y’know, like a soundtrack, but with drinking!) to the pandemic with their end of the week deliveries. Fine, fine humans. I’ve also been idly flicking through the obscenely large and beautiful Hardware: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss featuring so many science fiction book covers I recognise, especially all those Asmimov and EE Doc Smith covers I still have on my shelves. Seriously, it’s a beast of a tome, and I’ll be browsing it for months to come.

What else? Well, while the world burns (more, I guess), I find I’m just dissolving into anxiety and distraction. I’m not pleased about the return of cold and rain which has driven me out of my garden office either. Still, some good things have definitely happened. I’ve been trying to get lost while cycling in the mornings, with some success. I’ve refused to look at maps of the area around Attenborough Nature Reserve, but it all seems very pretty. On Saturday, my sister invited me to teach a mob of Beavers how to talk like a pirate on Zoom. That was fun! There were some excellent homemade cutlasses and flags. In the evening I played my first ever roleplaying game, which was also great. I’m very grateful to our GM, Diarmuid, who invited me to play along in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, even knowing that I had no idea what was happening and thoroughly bumping me out of my comfort zone of drinking and watching TV; and to my fellow smugglers who were funny and exceedingly patient. Our one-shot game was called Scum, focusing on a gang of misfit smugglers (not intentionally misfit, but geez, once we we were set loose on characters…) with the job of jail-breaking a Hutt. I enjoyed playing a Tusken Raider, named Sahwa-wa, who saw his clan murdered by the rogue Jedi, Anakin Skywalker. My revenge was foiled when all the Jedi disappeared, leaving me seething and unable to do anything about it. I carry a dismembered protocol droid to translate for me, and my bantha lives in / fills my cabin. I blew a general’s head off! We did eventually succeed, and many people died. We had fun!

Watching: Upload season one

This is a curious little TV show, exploring the banal horrors of a digital afterlife. Programmer, Nathan, gets uploaded after being in a rare car accident. Only he’s been talked into it by his overbearing girlfriend, and may not have been about to die at all… Once in the horrendously expensive Lake View – because of course only the truly wealthy can lead the afterlife they really want to – he discovers worrying gaps in his memory about what his job was and that he might have been killed. It’s a funny show, with a rather cynical tone which appealed to me. The scene where they try to download the founder of digital afterlife, with catastrophic results is bloody and hilarious. The tedium of the hotel-based afterlife, the bug-filled digital world, the sometimes awful people Nathan is now stuck with, and a growing relationship with his living customer service rep all contribute to a genuinely delightful nightmare. Nathan’s existence is ultimately controlled by his (living) girlfriend’s whims, dressing him, denying him access to the endless microtransactions, and making his funeral all about her. Lovely brightly coloured dystopia.  

Watching: Friday Night Dinner seasons 3-4

This one might be more a matter of taste… I’ve really enjoyed this sitcom composed of the Friday night meals of a secular Jewish family. The cast is exceptional, featuring Tamsin Greig (who should already be a national treasure), with Paul Ritter, as mum and dad, with Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal. Very keen on slapstick and characters just this side of over the top, the foursome’s constant conflict is a real joy. A supporting cast including Mark Heap (another one who needs national treasure badging) makes this near-perfect. The last couple of seasons have featured a frozen fox, grandma marrying a total cunt, awful old college mates, vicious little blackmailing kids and so much more. “My nipples are boiling,” kinda sums this show up for me. 

Doing: We Are What We Overcome podcast – Mental Health Check-In

We’re still going! Our fortnightly Facebook Live things are becoming a thing in their own right, which is nice. We’re aiming to check in first and foremost, with a theme or discussion topic to focus our current experiences around. Last week we talked about anger, which feels fairly timely, to say the least. It’s a strange feeling, one that can destroy you or push you to achieve and create all sorts of things.  

Doing: MissImp’s Virtual Drop-Ins (double this time)

First up, an amazing introduction to freestyle rap, which makes it almost seem possible…

Followed by the rather wonderful Twinprov and “Re-imagining the Virtual Space: Creativity and Connection Together, Apart

Last Week: The Best of John Wyndham, Artemis Fowl, The Vast of Night, Journal of the Plague Year

The sun has re-emerged over the last weekend, albeit studded with lightning, but it means I’m happily back outside for work and well, whatever. Feels like a steadier week all over, though sleep is still quite patchy. I assume everyone else is drinking more booze during lockdown (please say “yes”) which doesn’t always play well with upping one’s sleeping tablets… There’s a balance to be found there I guess. I certainly had a few days last week where I just could not be fucked to get out of bed early enough to go and do exercise, which of course then makes everything harder. Self-discipline is harder than it should be. That ride out first thing in the morning is proving ridiculously important, not least because it gives me some hope of keeping up with my podcast backlog. No forty minute tootling round Attenborough Nature Reserve can compete with an hour and half daily commute, so I’ve been forced to be brutal with my subscriptions. I don’t feel good about dropping a couple of podcasts, but I’m finding I want to listen to much more of the banter and nonsense of The Weekly Planet than the BBFC Podcast. Once we’re finally back at work I’ll be upping my audio intake again.

In the meantime… Last week had some fun stuff in it. I’ve gotten into reading anthologies for possibly the first time in 25 years, and have cheerfully chewed through a couple in the last week. I’m hoping it’s gonna prime my brain for delving back into much longer fiction, but that also means I need to prise open the book cupboard, and that’s intimidating in all respects. In gaming news, I’m up to 86.6% in LEGO Star Wars – The Complete Saga, so that’s good news. Hit the 4 billion studs ceiling at last… We also ran a full virtual Gorilla Burger last Thursday in the MissImp Facebook group, after testing it out a month ago. It was really fun! But Zoom hosting is exhausting. I slept good and hard after finally chilling down afterwards. 

Reading: The Best of John Wyndham by, um, John Wyndham

This is a great collection of Wyndham’s works, selecting key stories in chronological order. I’m always struck by how damn readable Wyndham is. He’s got such a smooth and friendly writing style that I feel instantly engaged and warm towards it. Some of the stories feel a little dated, but I suspect that’s mostly because the themes and ideas have been explored in much greater depth and length subsequently – he’s still a hell of an innovator. Standouts include Pawley’s Peepholes in which future folks wreak havoc by treating a small town like a reality TV show, and their revenge is very pleasing; the rather stark coverage of racism in Dumb Martian feels very timely, as an human buys a martian bride to while away his time working in isolation in deep space… it does not end well for him; I’m very fond of The Man from Beyond, which features a pretty classic SF timeline twist as an earthman earnestly persuades venusians to avoid all contact with Earth, and the opening story The Lost Machine is a great account of an AI surviving 20th century humanity. Hell, they’re all good, ranging from fun to thought-provoking. What more do you want? Onward to Jizzle I think.   

Reading: Journal of the Plague Year: A Post-Apocalytic Omnibus by C B Harvey, Malcolm Cross and Adrian Tchaikovsky 

Sure, this is the perfect time to read about a pandemic that wipes out 99% of the global population. I thought as much. C B Harvey’s opening story Orbital Decay set on the International Space Station while the pandemic sweeps the globe, including the right wing nutters convinced that it and the space mission are all a hoax, was exactly what I wanted to read: tense, intriguing and has a perfect SF twist at the end. Of course, I’d totally failed to note that this is one of several omnibuses set in the same world of “the Cull” as the people name the disease, but was delighted to find all three stories set at different stages and places across the world. Malcolm Cross’s Dead Kelly covers the exploits of an Australian gangster returning from the bush to assert his authority on the dwindled survivors of a town. It’s pretty punchy, though it wasn’t exactly the “everyone’s dying right now” vibe I apparently sought. The omnibus finishes up with Adrian Tchaikovsky’s The Bloody Deluge shifts the action to survivors in Poland choosing either salvation with tolerant religious groups, or the rabid Nazi religious kind. Tough call! That too, is very tense and typically complex and interesting. It seems this is just stories #13-15 of the Afterblight Chronicles, so there’s plenty more to get into!

Watching: Artemis Fowl

Fucking hell. I know book to film adaptations are tricky, but you don’t have to fuck it up in every possible way. Suffice to say (lest I fall to ranting), this is almost the polar opposite in terms of plot and character for Eoin Colfer’s quite excellent YA adventures (which you should read because they’re lots of fun. I’ll be re-reading them to erase this ghastly brain stain). Instead of Artemis being a wickedly smart evil genius crimelord, his dad’s a criminal (except he’s not, he’s rescuing important artifacts, because why would the story be interesting or good?), and he’s a maudlin teenager directed in staggeringly poor fashion by Kenneth “The Worst Poirot Imaginable” Branagh. Just get fucked. It’s impossibly tedious and generic, failing both its source material and audience with incredible dexterity. From a story about a ruthless criminal mastermind discovering the secret faerie realm, kidnapping one of them and ransoming it to restore his family to its former fortunes, we go to a moody kid who has to find the bullshit object his dad has stolen from the fairies, but it’s in his house already, so there is no adventuring at all and instead of discovery and witty hijinks with the fairies, we get an interminable siege of his house, presided over by Judi Dench in her “Pete Postlethwaite in a condom-lampshade Aeon Flux“ follow up to Cats. I’d almost forgotten about the abysmal framing of the story with Mulch Diggums (the giant dwarf) telling the story while in prison. Its existence suggests they totally lost the plot and desperately reached for a prologue that should have been unnecessary, delivered by Josh Gads desperately straining his voice for deep and gravelly. Fucking hell. Watch the trailer, punch yourself in the face why don’t ya.

Watching: The Vast of Night

Recommended by a friend, this is an extremely low budget and vaguely Lovecraftian-vibed UFO story set around a telephone exchange and local radio station. The dialogue is mile a minute, in incredibly long takes, which is really impressive, and it’s really committed, well-written stuff. With its very low budget there’s not much in the way of aliens, till a nice reveal at the end. The mystery loops around a weird sound breaking into the local DJs music and chat show, noted by the girl working the telephone exchange. The mystery deepens when an ex-military caller recounts his experiences on secret missions where that sound was also present… The film accelerates really nicely, maintaining a general air of increasing tension and that something profoundly weird is happening. Expect no Independence Day action nonsense and you should be pleasantly surprised. There are also a few long and slow gliding shots through the town at near ground level (presumably camera on a bike or drone), which are absurdly tense and interesting. Watch it!  

Watching: Trinkets season one

Continuing our taste for absorbing every teenage coming of age drama on Netflix, Trinkets is exactly that, but with a trio of shoplifters. That’s pretty much it, except they’re very well cast and delivered, even if the material is quite familiar stuff. We liked it a lot, even though I can’t necessarily produce a lot to say about it. If you like this kind of show, you will like this show.

Doing: MissImp’s Virtual Improv Comedy Drop-In with Sophie Owen

Yet another really very good pre-recorded workshop for your enjoyment. This time we’ve got Sophie Owen talking about status; how to use it and some especially useful stuff about recognising it in the world around us.

Last Week: LEGO, Knot Ready, Space Force, Provenance, MissImp, CrazyBricks, Agents of SHIELD, We Are What We Overcome

Wow, the last couple of weeks alternating surging heat and grim weather has thorough melted every bit of my desire to do anything, including remembering the time before the heat haze. Still – we shall prevail! It was a quietish couple of weeks in any case, though did have a couple of cool things in it. Not least that I’ve been able to live outside in my gazebo office, and keep a close eye on our ridiculous cats and their shade seeking antics. We were all sad when the thunder and hailstorms drove us inside… Taking keen note of the foul weather I finally picked up some serious LEGO storage towers and did some reorganising. They don’t take up less space, which is unfortunate, but I can access key bricks sets much more easily!

Last week turned out to be a mini podcast week, so I’ve spent more time talking than usual (taking up precious drinking time, alas). More We Are What We Overcoming, which has become a cornerstone of my fortnightly routine, and really does help me think about how I feel and how I’m behaving in this quarantini time. That’s not the same as actually changing my behaviour, but being aware that I’m doing little but drinking and sighing at the sun is a start… My other half and I were also interviewed for the Knot Ready podcast: a look at marriage from a modern, feminist perspective, since we’re nearly twenty-two years into a non-marriage we have some insight into why folks may not get married, or at least, possibly, why we haven’t. It was a lot of fun to chat about how we got together (half a lifetime ago!) and other stuff. I’ll definitely remember to share when our episode is out, but you should subscribe to the podcast anyway because Lucy is pretty ace and it’s a genuinely interesting subject.

We’ve also seen a few more genuine humans in the meatspace, a thing which makes me feel ever so odd. I suspect that I have been at home for too long… But we had a lovely slow wander around the University Park lake and a bit of the radically altered campus up the back of the Portland Building. Lots of baby birds, and our friends’ new baby of their own.

Building: LEGO Hidden Side’s Newbury Haunted High School #70425

OK, so I built this ages ago, but it’s really pretty. Thing is, in its standard configuration it sprawls a little wide, and is distressingly not quite a modular building. So I fixed it! My goal was for it to fit in with the other modular buildings, but of course it’s four studs wider than a baseplate, so something had to go. In my first attempt I tried to compact the bay windows but made a horrible mess, so dismantled the whole thing and rebuilt it using the instructions and deviating where necessary. Where necessary was a bit of a pain – to keep the play functions I needed to keep the bay windows and the full width of the clock tower. My only viable option was removing the four silver unicorn spires with their supporting arches, and that hasn’t really hurt the build much. I’m not super-happy that the decorative ground floor arches are now somewhat obscured, but I’m chuffed with the overall result. That it gave me a chance to go nuts on a swirly tiling pattern in coral pink was a massive bonus. I’ve kept all the play features, but lost some of the details inside. I may remove all the worn detailing too and just have a lovely school in between the detective’s office and the bank. As was noted in the Brickgeekz Facebook group, its colours do rather resemble the now-exceedingly rare Town Hall which I could never quite afford. Win!

Watching: Space Force

This is certainly quite fun. A show about Trump’s cretinous “space force” which supposedly satirises the idea, but instead gets caught up doing a sort-of sincere NASA knock-off to get Americans back on the Moon. It doesn’t seem to be sure what it’s taking the mickey out of, leaving the comedy unfocused and swaying madly in each episode. The characters are pretty stock fodder: uptight air force general played by Steve Carell, who looks rather lost, desperate to make it funny by crashing in and out of character while relying heavily on clearing his throat to cover all forms of emotion; very smart scientist guy who isn’t that great with people in the remarkable form of John Malkovich, who shows off his comedy chops nicely (largely by staying in character); total arsehole PR guy Ben Schwartz, who is utterly hateable (in a good way) but of course redeems himself, sort of; space force pilot/astronaut Tawny Newsome, desperate to get on the moon and be somebody; the air force general’s neglected daughter who just wants to have some fun / get any attention at all from her dad. The supporting cast do a great job too, but the tone constantly swinging from idiots messing up the mission to “hurray USA” sentiment leaves them all out in the cold. It’s just odd. I did enjoy the show, and it certainly has some splendid moments, mostly as they get towards the moon landing itself, but I’m not going to be racing back for season two. The Chinese are the main rivals in this new space race, and it’s a bit… broad… for 2020.

Doing: We Are What We Overcome

The next of our “lockdown specials”, lovingly recorded by Zoom and broadcast live in Facebook. Didn’t quite work last week, for no clear reason, so we popped it up on Tuesday instead. We talked about the thorny subject of change, which we seem to have to deal with all the damned time! It’s an interesting issue, covering not just what change is and how it feels, but how we learn (or don’t learn) to deal with it. All terribly pertinent and that. We came back yesterday Monday 19th to discuss how we feel about the easing of lockdown (or whatever the fuck this shower of wank called a Tory government are doing): check that one our here: Facebook Live.

Kickstarter Reward: Munchkin Bricks 2

With all the global lunacy I’d quite forgotten these were on the way! The last-but-one project of Guy Himber, aka CrazyBricks. These are pretty silly accessories and things to accompany the equally silly Munchkin card/boardgame. I just thought they were really cute, god knows what I’m going to do with them. Particular favourites for me are the chibi cthulus (some may become gifts for others…) and the splendid octobricks!

You should definitely check out his current project, which is already very well funded and heading for far-reaching stretch goals: Dino Dudes! Yep, it’s just what it sounds like. Go get em! Nicely covered here by the excellent Beyond the Brick channel:

Reading: Provenance by Ann Leckie

My first Leckie, having not yet gotten around to reading the acclaimed Ancillary Justice series, though this one is set in the same universe. It’s perfectly fine small-scope space opera, focusing on a young woman’s attempts to secure her future (by being named as heir to a senior politician – her adopted mother in a society with interesting communal creche arrangements) by breaking a thief out of prison and lording her victory over her brother. The thief has apparently nicked some precious vestiges, Leckie’s intriguing concept of highly-prized mementoes of the past, which might be anything from an actual artifact, eg a bell used in the first summoning of parliament, to a signed bus ticket on a special day. The Hwaean people are obsessed with the things, and it would be a terrible shame if they turned out to be fake… There’s lots of running around with aliens and robots and occasional murder of diplomats and so on, all risking the failure of a super-important peace accord between humans and some potentially terrifying aliens. Provenance is neatly written, though it loses something in having the plot summary on the back cover take only the first chapter or so to resolve, leaving me unsure where it was going after the exciting sounding heist was dealt with so quickly. It never quite recovered for me, which definitely confirms that I should not read the back cover of books I’m about to read. The author’s interest in diversity and multiple genders, modes of address and interesting social set ups are fun and satisfying to read about, so I suspect I’ll enjoy getting properly into the Ancillary Justice vibe; I just shouldn’t have started here.

More LEGO. SCUM: A Star Wars Story

I’ve now built the main cast of our Star Wars RPG! Clockwise from top-left: my Tusken raider with savaged translator droid strapped to my back, Jon’s Twi’lek bounty hunter, Ben’s Nautolan hacker, Diarmuid’s hapless and much abused Imperial officer, Joe’s GH7 medical droid (a real delight to assemble) his Mandalorian bodyguard (played by Charlie). It’s fun! Now I wanna build some of our missions…

Watching: Agents of SHIELD season 4

I’m sure you’re growing weary of this, but Agents of SHIELD is a goddamned delight. Best show on TV? Maybe. (Warning: many spoilers ahead.) This was the last of the seasons that I’d seen before, so was by far the most familiar. And yet, in the style of all their seasons, a MILLION things happen, overwhelming any sense I had of how long any of the events took. To give you some idea of just how wild this season is, we go from introducing Ghost Rider, in a surprisingly coherent way, to another Avengers nightmare of AI coming to life and taking over various characters with robot duplicates (in this case, Ada, built by splendid returning cast member John Hannah), followed by an incredible immersion of the main cast in a vast virtual reality “The Framework” (built by Ada, John Hannah, and Fitz) a terrifying alternate reality where Hydra has won and rules the world, busily oppressing and annihilating inhumans so that Ada can build herself a real body. Jesus Christ, it’s a lot. Add to that a new director of SHIELD, the ongoing friction between SHIELD and the inhumans vs the rest of the world, plus god knows what else that I’ve forgotten, and I’m happily mindblown. Of course, it’s also the doomed FitzSimmons romance show too, as those two get yet another absolute kicking when we see that Fitz is the chief Hydra scientist, experimenting and murdering all sorts of folk, like Simmons… How will they put themselves back together? Who the hell knows because at the end of this season most of the team is abducted and wake up in SPACE! In truth I’m already a good way into season 5 and I could not be happier.

Doing: MissImp’s virtual improv comedy drop-in

I’ll admit, I’m as behind on these as I am on everything else… First up, The Tiny Glass Person with Feña Ortalli:

Followed by the marvellous David Escobedo in Discovering Your Dynamics: