Hugh Reviews The Maxx by Sam Kieth

“I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?”

The blurred line between dream/fantasy and reality (or madness and sanity) has great cachet as a story foundation, and can elicit a deep and sustained enjoyment on the part of the reader/viewer, but can just as easily lead to bitter disappointment. A lack of imagination on the part of the storyteller is often seen as the reason Hollywood deals poorly with this concept (and others), but imagination is only part of the equation for success here. One of the biggest stumbling blocks in telling a story that relies heavily on the nature of ideas too complex and weird to properly and specifically express is mechanical; how do you successfully communicate an idea that turns to mist when you try to put it into words?

Visual media have an advantage here as images have the ability to circumvent language in communicating their ideas to the viewer. But film has limitations of its own that may serve to partially offset this advantage when telling a story that deals with deep, dark ideas that sometime just need dialogue/monologue. This leaves comics ideally situated to tell this kind of story, blending the strengths of visual media with those of textual communication. And Sam Kieth’s mid ‘90s psychodrama The Maxx is an under-recognised triumph of both the genre and the medium.

To say that The Maxx is about the blurry distinction between dream and reality is to call a toilet-door stick figure an accurate representation of a human being. Ideas of dream vs reality feature strongly in the book, but there is a lot more to it. Accompanying this duality are its close siblings; the distinction between sanity and madness, subjectivity vs objectivity, our inability to experience the real world (stripped of the filter of our own senses and cognitive function), and the change of perception that accompanies aging.

In tandem with these mind-bending philosophical conundrums Mr Kieth examines the human response to abuse, feeling of powerlessness, and the nature of escapism. And all of this is bound together (by a story at once fantastical and utterly banal) in such a way as to make it feel quite real, despite the patently ludicrous nature of the whole thing.

The external and internal lives of four people are intertwined through two story arcs that don’t so much blur as erase the distinction between what happens in the real world and what happens in the mind(s) of one or more characters. Individuals inhabit each other’s personal universes, not just in one character’s mind, but in all of them; making them as real in the subjective world as they are in the objective world. And just like dream logic, none of it every quite makes enough sense. There are random excursions from the main plot that, even in retrospect, don’t really seem to belong, the truth about the characters and events is a malleable thing, and even the explanations require an explanation. It is a beautiful treatment of the bizarre and incomprehensible, as it doesn’t attempt to strip it of the hazy nature that makes it so.

Kieth’s art makes for the perfect accompaniment to / vehicle for the written story, varying from sketchy, almost scribbled, line work to lush, textured watercolour in an organic and story-driven fashion. Some of the pages are just breath-taking, the character design is original and refreshing while giving the subtle fan-boy nod to the entrenched conventions of the genre, and the use, or abandonment, of panels to fit the nature of the narrative is brilliantly done. As noted earlier the visual medium allows for a simplified treatment of some of the surreality of the story and themes, and it’s used to full-effect. All the staples of dream-space feature; real location made weird by the perversion of scale, Jungian metaphor landscapes, the shadowy, repressed memories of childhood. The land of the quilt-fort I find especially poignant.

And although the story doesn’t often really seem to be going anywhere and never the less feels cut short in its prime, the ending provides for both mystery and resolution, and, perhaps more importantly, a poetry of concept.

Verdict: May leave you, at times, scratching your head and wondering why you’re doing this to yourself, but ultimately this story is one of the more honest explorations of the concepts much belaboured above and is a really worthwhile read. 4.5 purple-clad spirit-guides out of 5.

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Hugh Reviews iMaschine (for iPhone/iPod Touch)

The whole nature of electronic music production changed for me when I bought Native Instruments’ Maschine. The accessibility of the interface and raw speed with which ideas could be captured and converted into the skeleton of a song opened up a new way of working in the studio and led to the most prolific stage of my writing in 10 years. (it should be noted that this is still not, by most standards, prolific at all, but it’s all relative, right?) Around the time of this personal renaissance I got an iPhone and began playing on a few music apps of various form. Most of these proved to be amusing musical toys, rather than actual tools, a couple found their way into my creative process from time to time but never as a staple, and always with a degree of workaround that made the whole thing seem a little pointless. Some time after the Maschine made its way into my studio NI released iMaschine, the intersection between these two new tools that promised to raise one to the standard of the other. But does it deliver on that promise?

The interface is simple, useable, and well-presented. All the functionality is intuitive and the possibilities are reduced enough to be manageable on a mobile device, without being so reduced as to render the app completely pointless. Four tracks are available, each of which can be independently switched between a set of 16 pads (a la the Maschine proper), a keyboard, or a built-in recorder. The master section allows basic mixing and provides two master effects which can be applied to any/all channels, though without independent control per channel. There is a (very) basic sample editor, a note-repeat function, and a reasonable array of basic editing controls. It runs smoothly and it’s a simple matter to export projects to your Mac/PC to be further developed in the fully-fledged programme.

So far so good, after all, easy of use is the main strong point of the Maschine, but the app only makes it part-way there. Where this app is seriously let down is in the fiddliness of the loop player/editor and the lack of sounds. If you’re a never-miss-a-beat-kind-of-person the former won’t be much of an issue, but tweaking parts after recording is impossible (it’s a doddle in Maschine), and that can become a bit frustrating after a while. Either way you’ll quickly get sick of the included sounds, all 5 of them, and be driven to the in-app purchase of new sounds (a handful at a time), only use the device for the recorder, go through the rigamarole of loading your own sounds into it, or just give up on it altogether.

I still play with it occasionally, and a couple of projects that I’ve started on my iPhone have actually wound up being complete tracks, but only after significant development on its bigger brother. I’ve toyed with the idea of actively trying to become more invested in it, but at the end of the day it’s hard to see it as more than just another iPhone music toy. Now if they would just bring out an iPad version, with a slightly better feature set…

Verdict: One of the best iPhone music toys I’ve played with, but still just a toy. 2.5 glowing orange buttons out of 5.

Hugh Reviews The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan

I don’t really read fantasy books any more, having overdosed on that particular saccharine pleasure in my youth, but a few years ago one of my favourite speculative fiction authors (in fact one of my favourite authors full-stop) released The Steel Remains, described by Joe Abercrombie as not so much twisting the cliches of fantasy as taking an axe to them and then setting them on fire, which, along with the name-brand recommendation, piqued my interest enough to cough up $25 and the eight-or-so hours it would take to read.

It was… alright. The quote from senior Abercrombie was perhaps a bit generous, what it really did was twist the cliches of fantasy. It did it well, it cannot be denied, but it was really just that; a twist on a tired and flagging genre.  There were a couple of interesting ideas in there and the elder races were definitely a worthy alternative to the usual, but it lacked a lot that all of Morgan’s previous books had.

I didn’t even realise at the time that it was intended to be the first of a trilogy, but in retrospect it’s hard to imagine how I could have been that naive. The sequel came out a few months back and I bought it despite my lukewarm reaction to the first book, because, well, it’s a trilogy, and I’ve started it now, and I’m going to have to finish it no matter how painful that proves, and, hey, maybe the sequel will be better.

It’s not.

The characters are just as interesting as they were the first time around (reasonably so), the ideas are only a little less dark and creepy, and the panache that typified Morgan’s spec-fic works is still absent. This tale could’ve been written by anyone, it’s lacking the Morganness that drew me to his works in the first place. I’m a bit over half-way through at the moment and I get the feeling it’s going to be one of those stories where you spend the whole book waiting for it to actually start. Iain M Banks does this a lot as does the entire Chinese film industry: all beginning, tiny bit of end as an afterthought, no middle. The middle is the meat! This kind of story is like a sandwich with no filling; it’s just two bits of bread! Now maybe the second half of the book is going to blow me away but it seems pretty unlikely.

Perhaps part of the problem with fantasy is that it tends to (but doesn’t necessarily have to) demand a certain story be told, and we’re pretty sick of hearing that story, as a bunch to curmudgeonly responses to Avatar proved, so we try to twist it, generally succeeding only in removing what was good about it in the first place. Morgan’s previous books have told ‘whodunnit’ stories, war stories, and ‘entropic-tumble-from-grace’ stories, all through the filter of futuristic societies and ideas, this was a big part of their success. Even without the cool technologies and the disquieting images of dystopian futures, these stories would have been great stories, you could have read the same story set in the modern day world, and it would have been awesome. The same cannot be said for his fantasy; if you stripped away the Dwenda and the Kiriath and all the other funny names and the subtle magic you would be left with… well, pretty much nothing.

Sadly I am in invested in this now, and it seems likely that when the next sequel comes out I will go and buy it and I will take the time to read it and then I will put it on my bookshelf next to The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands, where they will remain neatly whole but untouched until I feel the need to upset a teenage niece or nephew who’s discovered fantasy writing. My advice to you would be to avoid this whole franchise, go read the Altered Carbon trilogy or Market Forces or Thirteen, and hope, like me that Morgan returns to writing bleeding-edge spec-fic when he’s done with this little misadventure.

Edit: Debrief

Well I finished it the other day, and I need to make an adjustment or two and provide final thoughts. The style really warms up in the last 1/4 of the book, ringing much truer to the Richard Morgan I know, so I’ve adjusted the breakdown accordingly. My main gripe with this book, that the whole book is spent setting up a story that never happens, remains and was in fact reenforced by the latter part of this book. It’s like the first sequel to a film where the second sequel is already written so the first is used purely as a foundation for the plot of the second. Based on this, the wrap up to this trilogy will hopefully have a more interesting plot (a genuine fantasy quest/adventure tale) than the books leading up to it, and perhaps it will be a stronger book for that, but given the performance so far, I’m not holding my breath.

Verdict: Seriously, do not bother. 2 superfluously gay main characters out of 5.

The Breakdown (explanation)

Characters: 3/5
Story: 3/5
Plot: 2/5
Style: 3.5/5
Ideas: 3/5

Hugh Reviews the 30 Day Song Challenge

Firstly, there is not one 30 day song challenge, but many, some offering slightly different categories, I am reviewing this one (30DSC), as it is the one in which I’m taking part. I scanned a few options on Facebook, but this one featured a page profile picture of 3 monkeys getting down to hot grooves, making it clearly superior to all other 30 Day Song Challenges not sporting such images.

I think this first popped up about a year ago, certainly the earliest dated reference I could find in my (admittedly halfhearted) search was March 2011. A friend of mine was posting his selections on Facebook mid last year, but he lost his train halfway through when Mousse T’s “Horny” got stuck in an associatively triggered loop in his head and drove him quickly and thoroughly mad. I narrowly avoided a similar fate when I scanned the page’s wall to see what other people were posting. It probably should have been obvious that that was never going to be a good idea, but we all have our moments.

Such obvious dangers aside there are a number of things to recommend this activity on a personal level.

It pushes you to think actively about the music you do (and don’t) listen to. I probably engage a bit more actively with music than most, but I found the process of slotting music into specific categories provoked a more considered reflection of what a song meant to me, why I liked it, or didn’t, and how a specific selection could be made from dozens of candidates, all seemingly equally qualified. (I eventually gave up on the last point, and just tried to represent a broad cross-section.)

It provides a really good impetus to go through your music collection, potentially reuniting you with some old favourites, or helping you to hear something in a new light. I even went through my CD collection for inspiration on some categories, which had the added benefit of letting me know it really was time to dust again. I extracted a few things to my iTunes library that had been sadly neglected for many years, and listened to a few more for the first time in what felt like a lifetime.

It makes you think about think about your past. A number of the categories address songs that remind you of a particular event, or time, or place, serving as a visceral reminder of how potent a trigger for such things music can be. This is something that’s easy to know intellectually, but actually feeling it in action is a different thing to being aware of it on a abstract level. A number of pretty pleasant memories were pulled up for me by my contemplation of some of my selections, and as a man not really that given to nostalgia, it was fresh and invigorating reflection.

Your friends might learn something about you (and you about them). A while back I tweeted about listening to Led Zeppelin, which is one of my all-time favourite bands, and a friend replied with surprise, apparently under the impression that I only listened to ‘fat beats’. Leaving aside for a minute that beats don’t come much fatter than those supplied by Bonzo and John Paul Jones, it intrigued me how narrow our view of our friends taste can be, simply because we only witness them listening to music in certain situations. I would have little idea what kind of music many of my friends listen to when they are home alone, for obvious reasons. A couple of categories in the 30 Day Song Challenge ask you to share some of the less obvious aspects of your taste, and I know I would probably find that eye opening, coming from a number of people who I think I know.

You might have a conversation on your wall about something non-trivial. This statement may possibly be construed as ‘starting something’ or ‘hating’, but lets be honest with ourselves; most of the conversation that appears on my feed, and yours unless you are exclusively friends with sociopolitical commentators, is banal, trivial, and about as deep as a milk-spill on a bench-top. So why not dive into some music-appreciation. And for those of you tempted to say that a discussion of music is trivial, go jump off something tall.

It provides the opportunity for meta-analysis, after all, what does ‘least favourite’ really mean? The categories in this activity are swarming with questionable classifications, and if nothing else, it provides the jumping-off point for a short exploration (read; rant) on the specificity of the English language. It spurred me also to a couple of moments of ill-advised grammar-pedantry, which is always entertaining, if for no-one else, then at least for me.

It’s not for everybody, as my poor drooling friend, and a wall-full of posts about the Backstreet Boys and Pink can attest, but there is definitely some scope here for some interesting interaction with your music collection, your preconceptions, and your friends.

(I’m about half way through the challenge at the moment (on Facebook) and will begin posting some more in-depth responses on this blog soon.)

Verdict: some of the categories are a bit whack, but I’ve already embarrassed myself with my “guilty pleasure” selections and alienated and offended my friends by dissing their favourite bands, so maybe you should too. 3 1/2 mildly embarrassing favourite songs out of 5.

Hugh Reviews Sid Meier’s Pirates for the iPad

Sid Meier was the king of computer games in the ’90s, an era when the growth in processing power made available a great many improvements over what had come before, but the restrictions were still significant enough to force games to focus on creative and entertaining ideas, as they couldn’t wow you with amazing graphics and all-but-realistic presentations of gratuitous violence. Whether you think modern games are better or worse than ’90s games, it cannot be denied that a different kind of game typifies these periods. Certainly the number of ’90s games being ported to modern mobile devices is testament to their ability to remain popular, decades after their creation.

‘Pirates’ for the iPad is actually a port of a 2004 redesign of the original 1987 game for Commodore 64, which over the following years was ported to a number of platforms common at the time. The 2004 version is available for PC, Xbox, PSP, and Wii. I never played the PC version of ‘Pirates’ (though I did help fund at least one Meier family vacation to the moon), so this review is as much a review of the game itself as the iPad-port.

An introductory cut-scene sets the highly predictable stage; Your family has been captured and dragged off by some evil 17th century douche with a silly wig and you will have to become a pirate and sail to the Caribbean in a quest to rescue them. It’s classic and melodramatic; just as it should be. After all, what’s a pirate story without parrots, revenge, and dicky accents?

Following this you enter a name (as far as I can tell there are no bonus points for stupidity, but maybe I just haven’t tried hard enough yet), sign up as a privateer captain and set sail from a home port that varies according to your national allegiance (which becomes largely academic pretty quickly). There is a tutorial option that I didn’t take, and it may have made some the game mechanics and goals clearer from the outset, but failing to do it doesn’t seriously hamper your ability to figure that all out pretty quickly.

There two layers of goals; the single-iteration, long-term story, to whit; getting your stolen family back, and the not-directly-related quests you do along the way. The game play is fairly repetitive on both goal-layers, a fact that doesn’t necessarily make it any less entertaining. Advancement on both paths can be made fairly quickly, which keeps the game moving, aided by (initially) subtle reminders from your 1st mate that maybe you’re getting a little distracted.

The main stage is a map of the Caribbean that you sail around in your ship (you can maintain a small fleet, but subsequent ships are less involved in the actual mechanical process of the game). From this map you can interact with other ships (sink and/or rob them) and towns/settlements (bombard them, or dock to trade, make repairs, etc). Four nations (Spanish, English, Dutch, French) occupy the backdrop, and your interactions with their ships and towns will colour their attitude toward you, though you are able to actively curry favour with multiple nations simultaneously.

Ship battles involve cannon-exchanges; won through careful maneuvering and judicious application of black-powder, and (sometimes) boarding actions; won through your fencing skills or weight-of-numbers. You have to board a ship if you want to get any loot obviously. (Amassing treasure is, unsurprisingly, a critical activity along the path to your ultimate goals).

Town bombardments are a little simpler, basically involving aiming, and controlling the speed of your ship. Town visits are primarily a set of character-interactions; getting information from bar-keepers, wooing governors’ daughters; all the staples. Some sword-fights are also to be had from time to time.

Everything off the main map is basically a mini-game, and the map is a way of getting between them. These are kept fairly concise, although the tap-tap style dancing game one must play with a seemingly never-ending string of governors’ daughters gets a bit old.

The mechanics of the game are very well suited to the iPad and don’t take too much getting used to. The game-play is just tricky enough to remain entertaining (multiple difficulty levels aid this), but simple enough not to be off-putting. Various aspects of the game combine to create a pretty addictive experience; I’ve only played it a few times, but most of those times have involved at least a couple of hours of play, which for me, on a mobile device, is a long time.

Verdict: Should prove entertaining for gaming enthusiasts and casual players alike. 4 foul-mouthed parrots out 5