Monthly Archives: October 2006

You couldn’t make it up

Now I’ve been on trains when they break down. I won’t go into the six hour journey from hell[1], or other random delays and overcrowding. I won’t go into details, because they all pale into insignificance compared with this Virgin trains horror story. It seems that one of their fancy tilting west coast trains developed a fault in its windscreen wiper. This would make driving it a wee bit risky in heavy rain, so it needed to be repaired. So naturally, the trained crew broke out their repair kit, sorted it out and the train went on its way, only slightly delayed. Well, no. Apparently the Virgin Trains procedure for situations like this is to ask the passengers to fix it.

One passenger had some cable ties and superglue[2], but the bit that alarmed me was:

Another passenger, who was a former Network Rail engineer, climbed on to the front of the engine and tried to fix the loose windscreen wiper blades but was unsuccessful.

What?!? I have this sneaking suspicion that somebody’s insurance company would be a wee bit concerned about that. I’m sure there’s some petty regulation or other about members of the public not climbing on the front of trains…

Now the question that I have to ask is this:

Does this creative repair policy apply to other Virgin companies? Like Virgin Atlantic? Or the one with the stunningly grandiose name, Virgin Galactic? :eek2:

[1] It involved a train not moving for over two hours with no air conditioning in hot weather. Nasty.
[2] At least it wasn’t a bit of string…

Galactic North – Alastair Reynolds

Now this is a Good Thing. I’ve mentioned Alastair Reynolds once or twice before, so you might have gathered that I’m a fan of his work. While I’ve enjoyed all his books so far, I’m particularly keen on the future history setting of Revelation Space, its sequels and associated books. I knew he’d written some shorter stories, and I was meaning to dig through my huge pile of back numbers of Interzone, as I’m sure one or two of them are in there somewhere. One of them is definitely in one of my “Best SF of the Year” books, and sooner or later I’d have got round to that, too. But Reynolds has saved me the trouble by collecting all the published stories in this excellent book, which is currently available in hardback from Amazon at a price that would be a bargain for a paperback. He’s arranged the stories in order on his mostly worked out time line rather than publication order, which works for me.

Anyway, Reynolds’ created universe is one that plays by a few rules. Well, laws of physics. There’s no faster than light travel – the best you can hope for is a form of suspended animation and a lot of time dilation as ships accelerate to a speed that’s a high percentage of lightspeed. In the future, humanity divides into various factions. There are the Conjoiners, who use brain implants and genetic engineering to meld into a hive mind. Then there are Demarchists, who use implants, but keep their minds separate from each other. And the starships are crewed by Ultras, who of necessity augment their bodies.

The stories here range from the relatively near future setting of Great Wall of Mars through to the huge range of time spanned by Galactic North, and along the way provide a lot of background material to the novels – including the first appearances of key characters such as Nevil Clavain.

As anyone who’s read Reynolds before might expect, several of the stories are as much mysteries or thrillers as hard sf, which is something he does very well. All very good stuff, and highly recommended.

The book closes with a very personal afterword, in which Reynolds talks about the some of the inspirations for his future history, and his moderately relaxed attitude to consistency between stories. He also hints that he has ideas for more, which is definitely a Good Thing.

And finally, he pays tribute to David Pringle, founding editor of Interzone, thanking him for buying his early stories and giving his now successful career a start. The book is dedicated to Pringle, which is a nice touch.

Bad timing

Mutter. I’ve got the week off, and I was planning to get out and about a bit with the camera. When I got up this morning, it was nice and sunny, and I was feeling fine. But a few hours later, just as I was getting myself into the right frame of mind to go somewhere[1], the lurgy struck!

Nothing really serious, but quite suddenly, the initial symptoms of a cold appeared: that icky feeling in the roof of my mouth, and my sinuses felt like they were trying to occupy a space the size of a very large thing that has been extended.

That stage seems to have passed now, so I should be more able to get out and about tomorrow, though I’ll probably have a runny nose. :eek2:

[1] I was going to go to the Spank the Monkey exhibition at the Baltic

Torchwood Declassified

More Torchwood-related stuff for you. Rather in the manner of the excellent Doctor Who Confidential, there are short documentaries accompanying each episode of Torchwood – interviews, behind the scenes stuff and all that kind of thing. I think BBC Three is showing them late at night, but you can find them on the BBC website. If you go to the slightly annoying Flash version, you’ll have to dig around a bit. At the time of writing, one of the links there is pointing to the wrong clip, which is a bit silly.

For best results, go straight to the Autopsy Room page of the HTML site, which is altogether easier to use.

Torchwood – Wow!

I’m going to be kind to anyone who hasn’t just seen Torchwood by not giving anything away until after the BBC Two showing on Wednesday, but I just have to say wooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!

Excellent episode with a guest appearance from Gareth Thomas – yes, he of Blakes Seven fame. And unless my brain is overloading, I do believe a Blake reference was slipped into the script, which is a very Cool Thing indeed.

And the trailer for next week’s episiode suggests that things are going to get even more interesting.

Torchwood – Day One

Now we’ve got the introductions out of the way, we can get on with the show properly. The action opens with Gwen and her boyfriend having a meal in a city restaurant. It’s the day before Gwen is due to start work at Torchwood, so naturally something happens. The something appears to be a reasonably large meteorite. Moments after it falls to earth, Gwen is summoned to work by text message.

Torchwood arrive at the impact site only to find that the army (or “the amateurs”) have arrived first. Jack sends them packing, and the team get to work. The “meteorite” seems to be a little unusual. And when Gwen fumbles throwing a tool at Owen, a strange glowing gas escapes and moves away.

Gwen is mortified at her mistake, but doesn’t think it can be all that bad, as it was “just gas”. But it turns out to be remarkably bad. The gas, clearly some kind of intelligent life form, takes over the body of a teenage girl outside a nightclub. She goes in, and in the words of Billy Bragg[1], love gets dangerous. The alien feeds off sexual energy with ever so slightly lethal consequences for the men involved, who tend to be reduced to a small pile of powder.

All this leads to lots of fun and games for the Torchwood team as they search for the girl before the body (or powder) count gets too high.

If you haven’t been watching Torchwood so far, you’re missing some good stuff. It’s almost worth watching just for the aerial photography[2], which is as BBC Wales reports is a deliberate effort by Russell T Davies to show off Cardiff at its best.

[1] There’s a Bragg review coming soon…
[2] Helicopter budget: high. Though I have seen some shots reused already, so maybe it wasn’t that high.

Nasa to decide Hubble’s fate

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Nasa to decide Hubble’s fate

Hmmm. The Hubble Space Telescope, once its initial optical problems were fixed, turned out to be a superb scientific tool. It’s also produced some incredibly beautiful images of deep-sky objects which anyone can appreciate without needing to understand the actual science involved.

But a decision has to be made on its future. If work is not done, Hubble will effectively “die” in a couple of years. If repairs and upgrades can be done, its life could be extended by a further five years – perhaps more. The problem is that the only way to get to Hubble is in the Space Shuttle. And because of the complexities of orbits, if an Orbiter goes to Hubble, it won’t be able to dock at the International Space Station if something goes wrong[1].

NASA obviously has concerns about safety, but I hope they can manage to keep Hubble going. Perhaps the decision should ultimately be left to the people who would fly the repair mission…

Hubble image gallery

[1] Real life isn’t a lot like Star Trek…

Torchwood – Everything Changes

OK, I’ve talked in general terms about the opening episodes of Torchwood, but now it’s time to go into a wee bit more detail. I’ve been dithering about how to approach this review, so bear with me if I digress a bit.


The Torchwood Institute was founded by Queen Victoria after the werewolf incident. Having met the Doctor, she realises that there are greater dangers to the Empire than anyone could have guessed. Torchwood’s mission is to deal with alien threats and to seize and adapt alien technology for the defence of Britain, and perhaps the rest of the world.

Over the years, Torchwood grew in power and was able to construct the Canary Wharf tower as its headquarters. And it was able to deploy a devastating weapon against the Sycrorax. But the headquarters was destroyed in the battle with the Cybermen and the Daleks. That much we know. But it seems there is a lot to learn.

Captain Jack is back

In much the same way that we were reintroduced to the Doctor through the eyes of Rose Tyler, we meet the Torchwood team through Gwen Cooper (played by Eve Myles, who appeared in the 2005 series of Doctor Who in another role), a young Cardiff police officer. When the forensic team and the rest of the police are ordered away from a murder scene because Torchwood are coming (Who? Special ops, she’s told), Gwen runs to the top of a nearby car park to see what’s going on.

Torchwood arrive in a modified Range Rover and led by a tall man in an old-style military coat, surround the dead man. We all recognise the man as Captain Jack Harkness, who we last saw on a space station in the far future, when he’d just been brought back to life by Rose Tyler after being exterminated by the Daleks. Quite how he got to 21st Century Cardiff, and more to the point, how he got his coat back, remains to be seen.

Gwen sees the strangers seem to bring the murder victim back to life and question him. Frustrated by the lack of useful information from the dead man, Jack looks up at Gwen and asks what she thinks. Gwen, stunned at what she sees, flees into the night. She returns to her normal life, but while in hospital after getting knocked on the head while trying to break up a bar fight, she sees a familiar figure running up the stairs. But when she gets to the top, she finds a floor sealed off, and nobody in sight. And nobody seems to know who did the sealing. She walks along the deserted corridor and sees a figure emerge…

And from there, the fun really begins. Gwen finds out where Torchwood is based[1], and attempts to trick her way in, only to find she’s expected. Jack introduces her to the team: Owen Harper – a doctor, Toshiko Sato – computer specialist, Ianto Jones – backup and transport and Suzie Costello – second in command. He also introduces her to an alien. On the way out, Jack takes her up the secret lift which comes up in front of the water sculpture (visible here). Anyone standing on the lift is invisible to passers-by. Jack explains this with some technobabble which reminds anyone who’s been paying attention that he’s been here before. He explains Torchwood’s mission and that the Cardiff base is Torchwood Three. Torchwood One was the Canary Wharf base, Torchwood Two is a man in Glasgow, and Torchwood Four is, well, somewhere. Obviously they can’t have people knowing all this stuff, so Jack slips Gwen an amnesia drug…

Back at work, Gwen sees a reconstruction of the weapon used in a number of recent murders. And it starts to trigger her memory. Going back to Cardiff Bay, she bumps into Suzie Costello. Gwen knows that she knows Suzie, but doesn’t know how. Suzie also seems confused, and pulls a knife – identical to the reconstruction. Suzie explains that she needed fresh bodies to test the alien glove Torchwood have been using to raise the dead. Suzie has clearly lost the plot and is about to run away, but first she needs to clear up some lose ends. Producing a gun, she’s just about to shoot Gwen when Jack rises up on the secret lift. Suzie isn’t fooled by the “perception field” and shoots Jack through the head. She turns to shoot Gwen, just as Jack stands up. We see the bullet wound disappear, which is all a bit too much for Suzie, who kills herself.

Gwen is overwhelmed by what she’s seen. Jack tells her that he can’t die because “something happened” to him. He doesn’t really understand it, but says

One day I’ll find a Doctor – the right kind of Doctor….

And so Gwen is recruited to join Torchwood.

First episodes are always a bit tricky. You’ve got to set up your characters and situations, make it interesting enough to make people want to come back for the next one and still try to tell a story. I think this opening episode did all that very nicely. OK, it is a bit, well, traditional – outsider joins existing organisation after investigating it, lots of silly technology[2], and an almost excessively cool hero. But it all fits together nicely, and it’s visually stunning.

We’re left with one key line from Captain Jack, which gives us some idea of why he’s where he is, and when he is:

The twenty-first century is when it all changes – you’ve got to be ready

And that is what it’s all about. Lots of fun, and lots of little details that may or may not prove to be significant.

[1] Cardiff Bay. Nice location, which seems to have changed a bit since my last visit
[2] The “invisible lift” is just there because it looks cool…

Best. Cake. Ever.

I’ve mentioned my appreciation of the works of Terry Pratchett once or twice before. But it seems some Pratchett fans are prepared to go further than most. This incredible cake is possibly the most extreme example I’ve seen. Seriously impressive.

Reports of this and much more from the excellent Discworld Monthly.

Robin Hood – Parent Hood

I had a bit of a moan about last week’s episode of Robin Hood, but tonight’s was a lot better.

Roy, one of the outlaws, has an idea. He lures a mob of Guy of Gisbourne’s men into a trap, where Robin and the others relieve them of their horses. Stopping in a clearing, they find an abandoned baby just before realising that they’ve been tricked. The horses have marked shoes which have allowed Gisbourne to track them down.

Cue a nicely silly fight scene, with Robin hitting the villains while holding the baby[1]. Just for once, things don’t go the outlaws’ way. Roy is knocked out and captured by Gisbourne, who rides off with his men, leaving Robin holding the baby.

While the outlaws plan to raid the castle to free Roy, the Sheriff employs some more of his nasty side[2]. He offers Roy a choice: either he kills Robin, or his mother will be hanged. Just as the outlaws approach the castle, Roy seems to escape, and they all ride back into the forest.

There’s a nice sub-plot where Marian defies the Sheriff and takes food to a village that has been kept in quarantine long after an unspecified plague has passed. This leads to some silliness with Robin shooting bread into the village.

But things take a darker turn when Roy tries to kill Robin. The outlaws overpower him, and he confesses. They all head to Nottingham in time to save Roy’s mother and the mother of the baby[3]. This leads to the usual fight in the castle courtyard, but this time things go wrong. Just as Robin is about to leave, Roy is caught again. The Sheriff holds a knife to his throat, knowing that Robin won’t kill anyone…

It looks like there’s going to be another fight, but Roy takes things into his own hands and fights off the Sheriff, only to be killed by the soldiers. But the diversion lets the others escape. Now I wasn’t expecting that[4]. There was a nice bit of friction between Roy and Much, which added a bit of interest, and he certainly seemed like a permanent part of the gang.

But life goes on. Mother and baby are reunited, and Marian arranges for a new home for them.

Good episode – we saw more of the other outlaws showing signs of individual personality, the interplay between Robin and Marian was more interesting, and it all moved along nicely. And some good lines. As he sees his mother on the gallows, Roy shouts at the Sheriff

You’ll rot in hell for this!

To which the Sheriff replies

Really? Just for this?


[1] Which I’m sure was, err, borrowed from some movie or other, but I can’t quite remember which
[2] Not that he has a nice side, as such…
[3] The father, it turns out, is none other than the delightful Gisbourne, who told the mother that the baby had been taken to be brought up at an abbey, rather than left to die in the forest.
[4] Thought it does explain why there was one outlaw whose name wasn’t one of the well-known traditional ones :tongue: