In the Time of Godlike Egos

I always wondered what it would be like to be a Roman in the time of Caesar; to live during a time of such incredible disruption, coping with the loss of some massive and wonderful institutions and looking forward to a new kind of future, all in the proximity of a man who, by the end, believed himself a god.
Well, I think now I know. It’s a state of thinking, “oh my god oh my god I need to read a book and listen to some relaxing music because oh god I literally can’t even.”Or something to that effect. The shrill, continuous din of dire political news has gone from apocalyptically terrifying to merely irritating in the space of a year.
Fascinating times.
Incidentally I am currently reading Dictator by Robert Harris and it’s really extremely great, although all very close to the bone right now. The first two in the series were, for me, a rather beautiful wander through the final days of the Roman Republic. Cicero (narrated by his secretary, Tiro), being at the centre of all sorts of controversy, led me a rather gritty path, but still, it all felt like a dangerous holiday. Perhaps Dictator would feel like that too, if it weren’t for the fact that, as of 2017, the USA seems determined to relive the more idiotic failures of Rome.
I suspect not though. It’s an altogether more maudlin story, as you might imagine if you are aware of Cicero’s end (spoiler alert, the guy who has been dead for over 2000 years dies). There’s real threat in Caesar, and real uncertainty after his death. It’s all hit an un-nerving chord with me, considering, as I have said, America might be dealing with its own Dictator.
I wonder what stories will be being written about this time, 2000 years hence. Are we entering an age of marbled glory and god-like achievement? Are we looking downwards into our own decline? History suggests that both simultaneously is most probable.
I’m an optimist, however. The Romans never fell; they changed and dissipated. The essence of their civilisation pervades our own, as ours will pervade unrecognisable civilisations ahead of us in time. Those civilisations will not be called America or Britannia or The West, but they will know of us, and they will know much of what they owe us.

A Man with Two Holmes

deerstalker-01I have had a Sherlock Holmes start to the year. Not in a solving murders with wordplay sort of a way, but in an experiencing lots of Sherlock Holmes sort of a way. After watching the first episode of the fourth series of Sherlock on the BBC, (and thoroughly enjoying it), I was inspired to pick up a book my wife had bought me a while back: The Hound of the Baskervilles. 

I have to admit to being an Arthur Conan Doyle philistine. I vaguely recall trying to read Sherlock Holmes as a kid, but can’t remember much. I remember finding it a bit dense; to be honest I think I was simply too young.

I have, however, been a huge fan of Sherlock since it started, finding the characters, scripting and atmosphere extremely appealing. It was freewheeling, both very light and very heavy. It drew you into the friendship between Holmes and Watson in a way that reminded me very much of Kirk, Spock and McCoy; a genuine, affectionate camaraderie which invited you in as a thrilled fly on the wall.

I had been presuming along the way, that these features were the more modern aspects of the story, brought in to engage a 21st century audience. I suppose I had always imagined the storytelling and characterisation by Arthur Conan Doyle to have been stiff, stoic, dense or slow. It was with very pleasant surprise, therefore, that I found the same swiftness, humour and humanity in The Hound of the Baskervilles that had so appealed to me in Sherlock. I found myself smiling, thinking, ‘this sounds exactly like Sherlock and Watson in Sherlock!’, realising immediately that what I was really expressing was admiration for how faithfully Thompson, Moffat and Gatiss had scripted the characters. I was able to quite clearly hear Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes in 19th/turn of 20th century form alongside Freeman’s Watson.

Even some of the snarkier nuances, the kind which really smack of 21st century playful cynicism, such as Holmes’ penchant for affecting a deeply incredible insight through superhumanly complicated reasoning when in fact he has deduced from some obvious, salient clue; that’s all in there, back there at the dawn of our current era. Without exaggeration, reading The Hound of the Baskervilles was joyous not simply because of the grim fun of the story, but how recognisable it all was. Holmes’ 21st century texting stands in for his heavy use of telegraph in the 19th century. His relationship with Watson and his handling of others is unchanged. And of course the format, a written report by Dr Watson, is now translated, naturally into a blog, the Watsonian perspective maintained.

It is an interesting and scintillating experience, looking at human perspectives on the past, through fact or fiction. What so often shines through is not the differences, but the similarities.

And it is with this new familiarity of the foundation of Holmes’ mythology (I now need to go on to read the rest), that I saw the strength of the method of Sherlock. If the creators of the new, extremely 21st century Holmes had not fit so excellently with the works of Doyle, the audacities, scope and more modern adaptive characterisation simply wouldn’t work. It is a weakness of the Guy Ritchie films that, despite affecting a haughty Victorian English accent, wielding a pipe and solving crimes, the essential verve of Doyle is lost. The stories lacked grounding. With Sherlock so aware of its history, and so willing to use it as a firm foundation for a modern towering narrative superstructure, it embraces the best of both worlds.

As I say, I’ve still to read the rest, and I look forward to it – perhaps all the rest that I have accredited to Sherlock is present in Doyle’s works too.

On a closing note, I’m excited by the direction of this latest series. The second episode, The Lying Detective, was particularly unnerving and genuinely heart breaking. Again, very well written and directed, but so much credit has to be sent to way of the central cast, all of whom were on absolutely top form. That closing revelation too. Wow.

I’m a late convert, but I understand now the magic of these characters and why they endure with such vigour. It’s not because of what they can become; it’s because of what, in the right hands, they can always be: an affectionate and incisive reflection of universal complexities, truths and humanity that will always be present in an ever-changing world.

Post-Truth is a Lie


Every so often in human history, the fight for truth becomes extremely important, and often in a shockingly short period of time. Populism throughout the West is threatening to undermine a lot of what we citizens hold dear: a life lived without fear, hope for a future inclusive for all humanity, and the ability to come to understanding of the world. Many people will seek to block these hopes and values through obfuscation, trickery and out-and-out lying (now re-branded “post-truth”).

Humanity has proven before that we will not let them.

Star Trek Beyond (spoilers, obviously)


Ahem. Sorry about that. But seriously. This is my favourite experience of Star Trek for years. Since seeing the first trailer for the 2009 Star Trek reboot, I had a huge buzz, an anticipation of the sorts of feelings Star Trek gave me when I was a kid and a teenager. The hope and excitement of seeing people I could relate to in such fantastical and quite literally awesome circumstances made me look to the future and back to humanity with positivity and wonder which has shaped my outlook through to adult life. It widened my scope of view to the entire universe. The horizon of exploration and endevour became infinite.

Now: 2009’s Star Trek was an exceptional film. I enjoy very much, to the point of it being one of my favourite films. The casting, aesthetic and story were fantastically well handled, and it brought Star Trek to a wider audience than I’d ever seen it reach. However, it left certain things to be desired, such as weirdness, the awe of the new and the philosophical moral centre of the best of Star Trek. These are not necessarily criticisms of the film. It did a fantastic job of setting up a universe of possibility whilst grounding it in a raw humanity often absent from the television series.

Similarly with Into Darkness. Whilst it was still an exciting, fun film, I was still left wanting regarding exploration and weirdness. There were promising allusions to all that: at one point Scotty does exclaim, “I thought we were explorers”, when he discovers the aggressive nature of their mission. Still though, still very much based around Earth, still all about human problems.

It was with absolute delight, then, that I watched Beyond. From the absolute outset we are given the new, the alien, the… well, the crazy. And all that with a lightness of humane humour. A good beginning.

There were several wow-inducing sequences, such as the entry into then subsequently the exit from the enormous and complex Yorktown space-station, home to millions. The recklessly imaginative destruction of the Enterprise. The mind-blowingly, edge-of-your-seat rollercoaster madness of the escape in the Franklin. It was just… just amazing.

But my glee didn’t arise simply from spectacle. More than its two predecessors, this story felt so wonderfully grounded in Star Trek lore. There are numerous nods and direct references to previous series and films, including the first non-Enterprise reference to the Xindi war. It might not have been the greatest story-arc in Trek history, but it was nice to hear it being talked about. Also good grief the character-work in this film is marvelous. This is by far the best use of this new cast and, if I’m honest, any Star Trek cast in film. The scripting is flighty and interactive – very little talking-headery here. Every character gets a moment, too, and not just a super-power moment. Yes, Scotty gets his exceptional engineer moments, but he also gets a few lovely human instances of compassion. Similarly, McCoy gets to be a superb doctor whilst also very prominently being a friend and confidant for Spock and Kirk in a way last shown to this extent in The Undiscovered Country. As I said, all characters get this treatment, the result of which is not just simply increasing your investment in them; I was left with a much greater sense of reality and possibility for growth, both story-wise and character-wise.

Talking of characters, the way Leonard Nimoy’s death was handled was just wonderful and extremely moving. As you might imagine, it’s dealt with in universe as the death of Spock Prime with Kelvin Spock acting as the audience-surrogate, a task handled with genuine aplomb by Quinto. The moment when he receives Spock’s belongings, and opens the photo of the original, Prime Enterprise crew… sent a shiver down my spine. Absolutely beautiful moment.

Overall, this was just a great film, and perhaps more importantly for me right now, a great Star Trek film, which left me really extremely excited about the franchise’s future, especially in the light of the recent announcement of Star Trek: Discovery. Now go and watch it hundreds of thousands of times so they make more films. Thank  you.

Review: Vacuum Diagrams – Stephen Baxter

I wish I could do justice to this book by writing it as beautiful review as it deserves, but I’m exhausted and feeling terrible after a bout of food poisoning from a terrible burger bought at three in the morning in Leeds at the end of a friend’s stag do over the weekend.

So apologies to Mr Baxter. I read Vacuum Diagrams during my honeymoon a couple of weeks ago and didn’t want to wait any longer to write happy words about it.

This is a wonderful book, exploring celestial history, from the universe’s birth to its premature death in four million years time. It’s effectively a collection of short stories, bound together by a framing narrative set in the sixth millennium; a bit of a history-through-characters sort of a thing. Frankly, I found the ideas more engaging than the characters for the most part, with a few major exceptions, and I was happy to immerse myself in the world-building, to the extent that one or two of the character-based stories rather felt like they got in the way.

Go buy it, it’s lovely.

The world-building though, good grief. It was an absolute delight being led through Baxter’s infinite universe(s), endlessly inhabited, endlessly textured. Some of the ideas put forward are genuinely stunning: alien civilisations in the first microseconds of the universe, before physics as we know it have come into being, humans living at the extremities of collapsed stars, planets folded into themselves through further dimensions… That’s not even the weirdest or most shocking stuff in there. Despite the horror and dread of the xeelee and the photino birds, it’s a universe I’d love to spend exploring forever in a spaceship, but I’ll have to make do with exploring it on paper.

I read this book before the main body of the Xeelee sequence on recommendation, so I’ve got all that to come. Awesome times!

So read this book. I’m sorry this review wasn’t more elegant, (apologies again to Stephen Baxter). Read the book. Read it. I love it. You will too.

Now I’m off to fall asleep on the couch. Goodnight.