Saturday, 9 November 2013

Blue Remembered Earth

It's been a while, but I'm finally back to Alastair Reynolds. And, once again, he's pulled a new universe out of ... well, out of wherever it is that he pulls his imagined futures from. Unusually, this one, Blue Remembered Earth, is explicitly labelled as the start of a new sequence of novels. Bar the first outings of his Revelation Space series, Reynolds has gotten into the (good) habit of standalone novels - even when they are still set within his favoured future - so this is a bit of a change. But a change for good or ill?

It's the 2160s. Climate change is largely resolved (Kilimanjaro has snow once again), the developing nations of the early 21st century are now its new technological titans, humans are both augmented and peppered throughout the solar system, and Africa still - miraculously - has elephants. Opening with the studies of the latter by its chief protagonist, Geoffrey, the novel quickly establishes his "black sheep" status, a shirker-scientist within a powerful family. But the mysterious death of his reclusive explorer grandmother, Eunice, on her private space station changes everything, ultimately sending him on a journey across the solar system. Along the way he engages the help of his sister, Sunday, who also lives in semi-exile from their family in a libertarian, anti-surveillance commune on the Moon. Between them, they slowly piece together their grandmother's renegade life from clues she appears to have deliberately left for them to find. Clues which point to a radically different biography for Eunice, new physics that will transform life in the solar system, and distant secrets around other stars.

Another curate's egg this one. On the positive side, Reynolds does a good job (again) of building an interesting new universe, and populating it with striking concepts, not all of which rely on outer space thrills. So we have, among other gems, augmented elephants, their miniaturised lunar cousins, an AI Eunice as a self-aware art project, and artificially evolved Martian robots. But Reynolds sacrifices most of these to the expediencies of a fast-moving plot, particularly deleteriously in the case of the augmented elephants, where an emotionally interesting subplot concerning interspecies murder gets pretty rudimentary treatment. More disappointing, however, is this fast-moving plot itself, which gradually reveals itself as a succession of MacGuffins that simply serve to move Geoffrey and Sunday from point A to point B to point C. That they have all been carefully put in place by a secretive Eunice gives them a veneer of intrigue, but ultimately they boil down to a chain of cryptic breadcrumbs that the grandchildren can follow without thinking too hard along the way. As such, the novel's ostensible twists and turns feel far too canalised, and, as a reader, I was less thinking about what was to come, and more just wading through to the next breadcrumb.

So, overall, not a particularly satisfying read. Lots to like, but strung together in something less than the sum of its parts. That it's a planned series of novels seems unfortunate - like that of another favourite author read recently. But Reynolds has form in working imaginatively within a series, so I won't write the series off yet. We'll see.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Gods Without Men

The formation and dissolution of a UFO cult; a British rockstar slowly losing it; war games for an displaced Iraqi teenager; and the disappearance, then the reappearance, of a young autistic child. All taking place in the Californian desert near a strange rock formation known as the Pinnacles.

And that's about as close as I got to understanding things. I really enjoyed reading this extremely well-written novel, but I haven't really the faintest idea what it all meant. Though the stories are all connected by a location, and by occasional random intersections, if there was a deep explanation for their co-occurrence within the same pages, I completely missed it. But, strangely enough, even in the end I wasn't too bothered. I enjoyed the individual tales enough without being able to discern what Hari Kunzru was doing here in Gods Without Men. The tale involving Jaz, Lisa and the wayward Raj, in particular, really gripped me, even when its resolution teetered on the supernatural (or space alien).

Anyway, if anyone ever finds out what it's really all about, do let me know!

The Honey Guide

Next up, The Honey Guide by former BBC journalist turned novelist, Richard Crompton.

Set during the run up to, and the bloody aftermath of, the 2007 elections in Kenya, this novel takes what seems a common path these days of placing a social or political commentary within the reader-friendly confines of a crime novel. Centre to the action is a Maasai detective, Mollel, a widower following the 1998 bombing of Nairobi's US Embassy, with a young son that he struggles to engage with. Though he is only passing through Nairobi, the discovery of the body of a young Maasai woman, initially lazily presumed a prostitute, leads to Mollel's assignment to the case, accompanied by a cocky local detective, Kiunga. Against the backdrop of the preparations for the election, and for the trouble expected in its wake, Mollel and Kiunga gradually trace the origin of the dead woman and uncover the circumstances leading up to her death. But their investigation takes them into the path of powerful interests, both political and religious, threatening both their jobs and their lives.

A bit of a curate's egg this one. Taken as a whole, it's a fairly good read, and very interesting for someone like me who knows only vaguely of Kenya's political problems. Crompton does a creditable job introducing the reader to the country and its people, and it feels thorough without coming across as a dry history lesson. As ever, using the police procedural format allows the novel to go to places that are exotic, but within a reassuringly familiar framework. So though one isn't quite sure which facet of Kenyan society will next present itself as a hurdle for the policemen, their goals and methods are comfortably recognisable. And the twists and turns of Crompton's tale do weave in genuinely interesting details of Kenya's struggle with corruption and, at times, tribal politics.

Given all this, it seems rude to be critical, but Crompton also misses a few tricks along the way. One somewhat confusing aspect is that, though billed as a "Mollel mystery", Kiunga steadily competes for the reader's time - and affections; he's a lot more chipper than Mollel - as the novel progresses. For readers like me, raised on novels with a central detective that's named on their covers, this is a little distracting. Worse is the rapid unspooling of both plot and character details late in the book, which rather undoes some quite careful set up. For instance, after stalling the investigation, several pivotal characters are suddenly altogether too quick to resolve things as the novel's pages start to run out. And the hinted backstory of Mollel - but also that of Kiunga - is rushed out in a rather contrived scene that finds both spilling their guts during an extended ascent up the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, where the election results are being collated and corrupted. These aspects sap the novel's credibility somewhat, making it feel a little like Crompton was rushing to meet a publisher's deadline.

But for a first novel - and one that's already labelled up as being the start of a series - it's a good start by Crompton. And it's not as if that other famous detective, John Rebus, had a solid first outing!

Saturday, 26 October 2013


It's time again to clear out the pile of finished books from the side of the bed. Let's see if I can do this quickly-and-concisely rather than ponderously-and-never ...

First up, Eater by one of my favourite science fiction writers from the 1990s, Gregory Benford. By way of summary: astronomers are surprised to detect what turns out to be a small black hole entering the solar system, but even more surprised when it communicates a desire for conversation with the Earth. But dreams of a scientific bonanza from this ancient galactic traveller quickly turn sour as its requests for information turn into demands for much more.

What to say? Well, a great premise ruined by clumsy execution and an excruciatingly bad ménage à trois. Though borrowing liberally from Fred Hoyle's classic novel The Black Cloud (a previous read), it heads off in its own interesting directions before becoming bogged down in some painfully bad "relationship" nonsense between the central astronomer characters. As the novel progresses it also relegates the Eater, which was shaping up to be the most interesting character by a country mile, into a cartoon villain whose hinted subtleties get completely lost in a ridiculous plot where humanity, well on its way to getting humbled by the cosmos, inexplicably and implausibly turns the tables. The only interesting bits are those where the Eater philosophises away, but this is but a faint echo of Benford's alien intelligences from his Galactic Center Saga. There, he did a creditable job of making believable the thoughts of beings on a scale epically removed from humans. Here, his efforts to do the same are simply wasted when interspersed by the thoughts of beings that seem cribbed from a bad "young adult" novel.

Disappointing from someone such as Benford.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Earth Abides

What would it be like to be the last person alive on Earth? This theme is one that's drawn so many writers and film directors that it's now very - possibly overly - familiar to readers and viewers of science fiction. But how does one of the classic novels that explores it, 1949's Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, fare against the oversupply of post-apocalyptic genre fare?

It's the middle of the 20th century. Isherwood Williams - Ish - is a graduate student doing ecology field work in Black Creek in backwoods California. Bitten by a rattlesnake, and many miles from any help, he holes up in his spartan cabin until he is well enough to return to civilisation. However, driving out of the sticks, he finds - at first gradually, but later transparently - that it has apparently vanished from the face of the Earth. In his absence, a measles-like disease has struck the world, leaving humanity's works with no hand at the tiller.

As his initial shock wears off, Ish decides to travel America to investigate whether anything, or anyone, has survived the plague. Travelling east, he gradually finds pockets of humanity, some making ends in this new world, some descending into sedate insanity. But it becomes clear that civilisation is at an end, and Ish returns west to his hometown where, dispassionately, he studies how the natural world responds to the absence of its previously most-fêted offspring. Inbetween his efforts to make a comfortable life for himself, he watches the cyclical rise and fall of populations of animals freed of human control, as well as the gradual fall into disrepair and dysfunction of the human-built world. Unexpectedly, he discovers Em, a woman living nearby, similarly scraping a post-civilisation living. In short order they become a couple, and then a nucleus for a small group of survivors - and their children - to condense around.

As the years pass, Ish begins to grow concerned that all of humanity's learning and knowledge will be lost, and he vainly attempts to spark an interest in the next generation. Instead, Generation Post-Apocalypse gradually adopts less sophisticated, but more sustainable, ways of making a hunter-gather living, while simultaneously receding into superstition and mythology. In time, through triumphs and tragedies, this new way of life prevails as Ish's generation gradually fades away, and Ish himself becomes "the Last American", his memory and awareness dimmed by great age. At the end of his life, Ish comes to accept the passing of the old world he knew and sees the new world as just as transitory. In a moment of clarity, he observes that "Men go and come, but earth abides".

The short answer to the question posed in the opening paragraph is that Earth Abides stacks up extremely well against other novels and films (and videogames!) that tackle the end of civilisation. The above outline doesn't really do justice to the detail that Stewart has invested in his vision for the world. Particularly the effort that he puts into imagining the changes - biological and infrastructural - that follow from the loss of humans. In sending Ish across the country, and in playing out across the full length of his life, Stewart covers the full range of changes, from those that would happen immediately, through to those that would only happen gradually over years.

But leaving aside the breadth and depth of Stewart's playing out of the future, what was more impressive to me was the journey that he sends Ish on. Many end-of-the-world tales conjure up a convincingly human-free future, but few transition to mulling-over the limitations of our lives quite so well. While the narrative at first steers the conventional way that would ordinarily lead to the protagonist rebuilding civilisation, Stewart instead gradually makes the utter enormity of the task facing Ish and Em clear. And unlike similarly-themed novels such as The Road or Oryx and Crake, where hope of civilisation's restoration is wholly (or largely) absent from the narrative, here it's first dangled in front of the reader, before being steadily revealed as an impossible mirage. The future faced by the characters in Earth Abides is a sheer cliff of impersonal difficulty that simply cannot be scaled by them.

Beneath the novel's surface interests in civilisation and ecology, there's clearly more going on. It's difficult to miss the prevalent use of biblical themes and names (the novel's title, for instance), but Stewart also threads the novels with a series of philosophical strands. Some of which I picked up on, some of which only dawned on me when I read the novel's Wikipedia entry! As a more personal aside, I came to interpret Ish's struggle with the future of humanity, and then his acceptance of his passing role in steering it, as being a thinly veiled parable of the struggle that we all face in our own lives. At first, when young, the world seems malleable to us, but as time passes we gradually perceive that its course is far more circumscribed by history, inertia and the opposing wishes of others. Stewart, who was in his 50s when he wrote Earth Abides, was perhaps weaving us more than a simple story to divert us from our daily lives.

The novel does, however, have its, well, quirks. Chief among these are a series of anachronistic slip-ups down somewhat politically-incorrect avenues. For instance, early in the novel, Ish runs into an African-American family eking out a modest existence on a farm. His brief report of their quietly dignified stand against the calamity was possibly quite enlightened for its time in pre-civil rights USA, but it certainly raised my 21st century eyebrows. More troubling is the novel's treatment of the character of Evie, a young woman with either congenital or post-calamity mental health issues. Here the characters come across as the worst sort of eugenicists, at first contemplating euthanasia before finally settling on a pact to categorically prevent her from having children. While one can see the logic in the characters' concerns, they contemplate a semi-Nazi "final solution" for altogether too long to my mind. Such issues often arise in novels from the early- or middle-20th century, and, in context of their times, were probably actually liberal positions, but they certainly give the modern reader pause. Of course, in another 50 years, perhaps some of our forward-thinking attitudes will seem similarly neanderthal (to use what is almost certainly an example of this).

Notwithstanding the preceding, it's difficult not to recommend the novel. It does such a good job of the "empty Earth" trope, that it's a must-read for science fiction fans. And its depths reward readers prepared to wade into them. Though, as I've now spoiled for new readers above, the existential irrelevance of humanity and human lives perhaps makes Earth Abides not for the faint-hearted.

Monday, 26 August 2013

American Gods

As Carole's book group is (inexplicably) doing this novel tomorrow, I thought that (finally) I'd better get my thoughts down so that I can chip in in absentia.

American Gods by the British writer Neil Gaiman, is centred on Shadow, an ex-con released back into the world just as his waiting wife is killed in a car wreck. Bereft, he quickly finds himself bodyguard to a mysterious stranger, Mr. Wednesday, who involves Shadow in a series of cons as they journey across contemporary America. These travels include meetings with a succession of otherworldly characters that Wednesday is trying to persuade to join him, seemingly on a crusade. As events unfold, it becomes clear that Wednesday is actually a latter-day incarnation of the Norse god Odin, and that his various contacts are similarly disenfranchised old gods, at sea in a modern world where the new gods of television, the internet and the media have displaced them. Touching a raw nerve with these proud, supernatural has-beens, Wednesday intends to lead them into battle to restore some of the power and grip on humanity's imagination that they once enjoyed. But Wednesday's scheme is not quite what it seems, and there are other, deeper plots that even he is not aware of. Initially seeing himself as an outsider to this war, Shadow comes to realise that he has a pivotal role in deciding its outcome.

First the good. American Gods is easily one of the most imaginative novels I've read in quite some time (but see later, or here). Gaiman's central idea of old gods as isolated, largely powerless shadows of their former selves, cut adrift in modern America is simply brilliant. And he milks humanity's back-catalogue of dead religions, European and otherwise, to create a fantastic array of outlandish characters, all scraping precarious or anonymous livings in a society that no longer has any need for them. It's quite a feat making the reader, especially this reader, more than a little moved by the plight of once mighty gods kicked to the kerb by the materialism of the present-day and the gods that this has spawned. And the novel's main story arc is enjoyably twisty too, with a nice final act (or almost final act, see later) realisation of the gods, old and new, of what's really going on.

But, unfortunately, it's not all good. While I did enjoy the novel at the time, and am enjoying it even more in retrospect, it's frequently a bit of a chore to read. The downside of Gaiman's imagination is that he's not reined it in, and has stuffed the novel to the rafters with material that, while clever and fun to read, ultimately simply distracts. What's actually a relatively slight - but good! - plot becomes buried by just too much ancillary "stuff", to the point that I frequently lost track of why what was happening was happening. (And the novel's over-long coda involving a malevolent old god is definitely a stretch too far.) Even when a novel is full of imagination - perhaps especially then - it needs not to lose focus, lest the reader be overwhelmed. I did manage to claw my way back by the end, but I still needed to read Wikipedia's potted summary to get the whole thing straight in my head. Which is something of a shame for an otherwise masterpiece of imagination.

My other criticism is one that I've made before in another review of a fantasy novel, one that - I would argue - applies more widely to fantasy as a genre. Namely,

... that the underlying rules to which the novel is working are either flexible or completely absent. Characters die but can be brought back; inescapable situations suddenly have secret backdoors; mundane objects are revealed as powerful table-turners. Essentially, deus ex machina is the defining feature of the genre. After a certain point, the fun drains away when you realise that the corner into which the author has just painted his characters is probably something that can be (will be) got around with a few deft strokes of the pen. And, conversely, it can create situations where the reader might not unreasonably expect a reversal that never actually comes.
American Gods is no different in this regard. Which I don't really hold against it - since this comes with the genre - but it ultimately diminishes such novels for me. I simply can't engage with their characters in quite the same way as I would with a normal novel, where there are some things that you simply cannot come back from. Of course, my favourite genre - science fiction - also has more than its fair share of "gods from the machinery", but I'd argue that it tries to play a little more fairly within its own rules. True, gods do sometimes still appear, but SF novels - the good ones anyway - will retrospectively bend over backwards to explain where they came from. Fantasy novels are quite happy to flip Gandalf from Grey to White with nary a second glance.

So, in summary, a great - if completely sprawling - read. I'd more or less wholly recommend it, even for skeptics of the fantastical, but I'd encourage both paying close attention and making sure that one takes a good run at it. A solid 7 / 10.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Existence (or something like it)

More than 20 years ago, David Brin wrote his gargantuan, world-encompassing novel, Earth. Similarly to John Brunner's classic novel, Stand On Zanzibar, its central plot was revealed only gradually, built up step-by-step from the perspective of dozens of characters, each with a different view of the world they live in. It took on just about every environmental theme going from climate change to overpopulation to extinction, then threw in space stations, errant micro black holes and the Tunguska event, and a smattering of technological forecasts, including a then-prescient treatment of the world wide web. Epically long, it was also epic in its scale and ambition, and it more or less worked, culminating in an genuinely impressive climax in which the Gaia hypothesis was made flesh.

Flash forward to today, and Brin has written Existence, which is easily as large, and again builds its world from the bottom-up, fragmenting its narrative across a cast that includes - among others - an elderly astronaut now on orbital clean-up detail, a mischievous science fiction writer, a climate-displaced Chinese scavenger and a trust-fund baby with a penchant for illegal space flight. This time, while environmental matters still hover at the edges, the main focus lies with humanity's lonely position in the cosmos. This apparent loneliness doesn't last many pages into the novel, when an unexpected find in Earth orbit answers the question "are we alone?" firmly in the negative. Or seemingly so, at any rate. But the answer comes with caveats, and as the novel progresses it becomes clear that the answer is also plural.

As I was refreshing my memory and writing the above, I was struck how much the two novels share - at least in summary. What they don't share is that while Earth's epic page-count makes it an engrossing page-turner, Existence's comparable length makes it a gruelling chore. In part, I think one of the reasons is that all of Earth's scattered narratives serve the whole: an all-encompassing treatment of environmentalism. By contrast, Existence is much less coherent, and serves up amateur rocketry, (virtual) space aliens, muddled extropian thinking, uplifting animals and settings or situations that, while interesting on their own, read as disconnected in the novel. For instance, the wealth contrast between the scavenging lifestyle of Bin and the super-entitled, playboy adventures of Hacker makes sense at first in world-building, but Brin really doesn't do anything with it. And, by the end, this sort of detail has been completely left behind.

As a result, while Existence is sporadically interesting and enjoyable, it is ultimately a tedious read. Were it about half its length - a feat of editing that wouldn't be as difficult to achieve as one might imagine - its sins would be much more forgiveable. As it stands, Existence is only intermittently clever, and while it has some interesting ideas, it spaces them widely within a plodding millstone of a book. If I turn to Brin again, it will only be when his page count drops to the vicinity of 300.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Familiar recollection

It's interesting that it happens so often across narrative forms of art, but I'm not sure why so many works start so vivaciously but fizzle out so disappointingly by the end. Presumably it's simply easier to come up with a hook than it is to turn it into a convincing story? Or perhaps publishers and their ilk just don't care how something finishes up once they've got you intrigued enough to dip into your wallet? Either way, it seems to occur pretty regularly across books, films and even videogames.

And so it is with Gareth Powell's 2011 novel, The Recollection. It's very far from a total bust - in fact, it's absolutely fine until the closing chapters - but it's always a bit of a let-down when something enjoyable is wrapped up by the author in a manner that's suggestive of a publishing deadline. Still, the good: a neat set-up that has mysterious "portals" appearing across the world in the present-day, and an engrossing journey as they're plumbed by a man somewhat guiltily seeking out his missing journalist brother. The not-quite-so-good: a parallel far-future story that's never quite as well-realised - most of the time you're simply waiting for the reveal that unveils the connection with the present-day story. The bad: a truly lame ending that inflates - and then super-quickly deflates - a by-the-numbers "ancient evil".

I'd say it largely comes down to the pacing here - the set-up's done at the right speed, the third act's done in an unseemly rush. To be fair, the book's sufficiently short that - although it ends unsatisfyingly - it doesn't undo all of the good work by the time it's done. I've read plenty of longer books that take so long coming off the rails that one really begrudges them by the end. This isn't one of them, and there's still just about enough in there to make things interesting, but I just wish authors (and film-makers and game creators ...) would just take the time to ensure that they don't undo all of their good work as they race for the finish line.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

When I died for the 1000th time

Among my friends, I have a justifiable reputation for playing a lot of videogames. But while it’s certainly true that I play games a lot, I don’t actually play a lot of different games. In fact, most years I only get through 4 or 5 titles, and some years a single title can suck up almost all of my gaming hours (yes, I’m looking right at you Fallout 3).

So it’s perhaps not too surprising that the whole warfare genre typified by the likes of the Call of Duty and Medal of Honour series has almost completely passed me by. Particularly so given my penchant for sci-fi-esque titles that broadly eschew the gritty realism that such titles purport to represent in order to favour high-power lasers or gravity guns.

However, my innocence is all over now. As just one of a succession of (fabulous) birthday presents from C, I received Call of Duty: Black Ops II, the latest in that game series, and apparently one of the headline titles for the games industry for Christmas 2012 (and, by coincidence, the same game that I bought my brother for his Christmas). Clearly she knows me far too well.

So, what’s it all about, and how did I get on?

To answer the first, the setup is an interesting mash-up of infamous CIA interventions from the 1980s, with near-future cyber-terrorism from 2025. The common thread is Raul Menendez, leader of a family drug cartel during the Cold War, and professional kill-the-rich rabble-rouser in a future world that pits China et al. against the US in a new cold war.

In the past, you (generally) play as Alex Mason on a series of missions, the black ops of the title, in Africa, Afghanistan and Central America. In the future, you play as his orphaned son, David Mason, through a series of high-tech assaults in exotic, usually Asian locales. But in both time zones, Menendez is the accomplished antagonist against whom the Masons, both father and son, are pitted. Along the way, periodic cut scenes involving Alex Mason’s comrade, Frank Woods, shed a flickering light for David on Menendez’s history and what his ostensibly nefarious plans are.

To begin to answer the second, I would direct the reader to the title of this post. The thing that sticks most prominently in my mind about Black Ops II is how often I died. Initially, this was just down to me having to get used to new controls, and developing a new “situational awareness”. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that, for me at least, the game was pretty fiendishly difficult. Of course, because of my long history and vast experience of shooting the heads off of virtual enemies, I did choose to play on one of the harder skill levels, but I suspect I’d have still gotten seriously nailed regardless of the skill level.

In large part, my repeated deaths and reincarnations were just down to Black Ops II simply being so much more frenetic than what I'm used to. No sooner has one arrived in a new combat zone than you’re being shot at from every direction by a veritable army of people with a much better grip on the situation than you do, and it just doesn’t let up. Normally, I play titles where I've either got a more limited set of foes to deal with, or stealthily taking bad guys out one-by-one is more of an option. Not so here.

Instead, the game is a roller-coaster of running and gunning from one hidey-hole to another (at least as I played it!), all the time trying one’s hardest not to miss shooting all of the many assailants put in place to stop you. You do get a lot of help from friendlies (including some semi-immortal close colleagues), but in the heat of battle I frequently found myself gunning these red shirts down because I was so paranoid about getting wasted by an errant enemy that I’d somehow missed blowing away.

But is it any good?

The short answer is that I'm probably not the best person to ask. As this type of game is a whole new world for me, overall it was a pretty fresh experience. Sure, I've run around and shot NPCs for years (actually, as of now, they've probably shot me more on balance), but I can now appreciate that warfare games are (or can be) more than just doing the same as usual but in combat fatigues carrying realistically-modelled weapons.

On the plus side, it's a solid piece of enjoyable action. It looks and sounds great, has a pretty engaging (if short) story, and has enough variety in setting and combat to never become boring. And I particularly liked the way that the game shoved actual historical figures (or references to them - the U.S.S. Obama!) into the storyline. The worryingly-plausible robot weapons were pretty fun too.

On the down side, getting killed so often can get a tad frustrating - especially when respawning puts you immediately back in harms way. The game's health system is also a little bit ludicrous - you can basically replace half your body weight with enemy bullets so long as you take the precaution of letting this happen gradually. And for all of the interesting places that you visit, the relentless pace pretty much kills careful exploration dead. Finally, the much vaunted system of "choices" and "multiple endings" is really quite lame compared to other titles I've played - until I consulted Wikipedia after finishing, I hadn't realised that I'd actually made choices.

That said, and stepping back a bit, I'd also have to add that - for me at least - the game really captures something of the whole "fog of war" experience. While I eventually found my nerve, I did spend a large fraction of my time effectively panicking on the battlefield and making all kinds of misjudgements. More than in any other game I've played, Black Ops II makes it easy to see how quickly confusion can set in, and why mistakes get made on battlefields. I was responsible for more than my fair share of friendly fire incidents.

Another aspect that pleasantly surprised me a little was that, though it's all rather gung-ho, the game is unexpectedly ambiguous about the black hat / white hat distinction. "Unexpectedly" for a game that is - that the CIA doesn't wear a white hat is hardly news. But Black Ops II is really (again - for a game) quite nuanced in its treatment of Menendez. He does bad things, but he has both personal and social reasons for doing them. As I got more and more of his backstory, I even began to wonder if the game might offer a side-switching choice for David Mason.

So, overall, I really enjoyed myself, despite the game's short length and my low battlefield half-life. I won't be switching over to games like this, but it was definitely fun. How it stacks up against its rivals is, however, something I can't answer. Yet, anyway.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Number 4

WP_001226 by Dr Yool

WP_001226, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.
My post-Christmas stash ... every last calorie must go!

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Number 3

WP_001215 by Dr Yool
WP_001215, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.
C's last Christmas mince pie ... shortly before its demise.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Number 2

DSC06708 by Dr Yool
DSC06708, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.
A rather glorious Southampton sunrise.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

A new project

WP_001191 by Dr Yool
WP_001191, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.
Prompted by a friend who previously had a go herself, I've begun a new photography project: 365 days of photographs. They're quite a common pursuit on Flickr, and while I've thought about it before, it's tended to be a week or two after January 1st when, somehow, it feels like I've missed the boat. Anyway, my January 1st is shown above - appropriately the spent top of a champagne bottle. Here goes nothing!

Click here: 365, 2013