All posts by cerandor

The Fringe of the City Beast

I’ve completely let updating this blog slip, haven’t I? I’m not going to pretend it’s not my fault either. I had a big piece planned on revolutions—how they happen and why we might be staring down the barrel of a few of them—but the subject slipped away as I got distracted, and it’s still lurking in my drafts folder, far from finished. It’ll have to lurk there for a while yet, as I’ve not the time to devote to making it worth showing to the masses.*

In the meantime, here’s something more ephemeral but personal for your delectation. After an extended period of joblessness and temporary work, I am once more gainfully employed. (I ensured this would come to pass by such actions as renewing my library card, which I’ll now never use, and taking up time-consuming hobbies like, oh, keeping this blog filled with content.) This job is a bit of a departure for me in one specific way though: after many years of working within walking distance of home and the city centre, I am now out in the wilds. Not quite outside the city of Dublin, but not quite inside it either.

This has wreaked merry hell on my previously relaxed commuting habits. (As opposed to my even more relaxed non-commuting habits of the past few months.) A four-hour walk to work is clearly untenable, a one-hour-plus cycle might work if it didn’t route me through the horror that is Dublin city centre traffic, and a two hour bus trip was only acceptable for the first few weeks. Which means that after years and years of avoiding it, I now have a car.

But it’s not the new experience of driving to and from work, or the multitudinous indignities of trying to get a used car insured, that I’m writing about. No, this post is about the things I’m seeing on that commute, out where the city meets the countryside.

Dublin’s geography is pretty traditional, by and large. The city centre, which clusters around the River Liffey, is surrounded by neighbourhoods that were once towns and villages in their own right, before ravenous Dublin swallowed them up. The further out you go, the larger the spaces between those neighbourhood centres, and into those space have grown suburban sprawls and small industrial estates, served by buses and the occasional tram (if you’re lucky). Beyond those lies the ring of the M50, alternately artery and car park, depending on traffic conditions.

And beyond the M50? Well, that’s where I am now.

This is very much the edge of the city, the place where its tendrils have stretched out but not yet taken over. The new and the old rub shoulders, and green spaces have been marked off for future use but not yet inhabited. I’ve spotted hawks and pheasants around the fields near work, fitting into ever smaller spaces as their living space becomes someone else’s. Country houses with ample space can now see massive warehouses and data centres from their back doors, and ruined and abandoned buildings stand ready for reuse or demolition, as fate or fashion require.

Cities grow not just not just in extent but in time. The collision between a city and the spaces it expands into is a collision between two different eras. All around my new workplace, roads are being ripped up and resurfaced, provided with ample pavements and cycle lanes, as current trends require. Of course, the trend now may not have been the trend during an earlier era, and so those cycleways tend to disappear as the reach the inner, older city. In time, those more interior, older areas may catch up with the fresher outer, but here and now, this is where things are newest.

The idea of cities as living things, growing organisms, whether benevolent or parasitic, is not a new one. There’s a lot of evidence for it, if you look. Imagine hanging a camera high in the sky above Dublin and taking a time-lapse video spanning months and years. Humans would disappear from the city organism, which would itself be seen to expand in pulses. Like a tree, the heart of the city would change little, and instead all the activity would be seen on the edges, as economic factors drive the need to swallow up more space.

Is this a good thing? Cities are necessary to the way the world works now. Population has grown and civilisation has grown complex to the point where a return to rural life is only an option for a few. Even so, the way that cities swallow up the green spaces and quiet villages around them is naturally unsettling. Speed and a lack of planning leaves a sense that the process is out of balance. Dublin’s a particular case in point. A combination of planning restrictions and the presence of major multinational companies have made life in the city unbearably expensive for many, and that expense and those multinationals have pushed that sprawl out further and further.

A pile of tree roots and pieces sits behind a prefab stone and metal fence.
Uprooted hedgerows replaced by prefab fences. Not a better outcome.

I’ve been lucky up to now in not having to confront the results of this. The first few weeks saw me spending four hours a day commuting by bus, into town and out to my new employer, then back in the evening. Getting a car was close to a necessity, as it is for many others, but in doing that I’ve just added to the congestion that strangles routes into, out of, and around the city at different times of the day. In the meantime, the city continues to grow, and I’ll be far from the last to hop on this treadmill.

The living fringe of city isn’t a place I’ve ever worked or lived before, so it’s interesting to see how it works. Whether you count it as growing into or devouring the space around it, it’s a process that’s going to continue. We need to get better at managing it, and at using the space the city already occupies. Both so we can move around them and so we can live in them. The city beast is one we have to live with—it’s up to us whether or not it runs wild.


*By which I mean however many of you actually read these occasional sound bites from my brain.

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Not Quite Star Trek—Discovery and The Orville

These are, in theory, great times to be a Star Trek fan. Sure, the film series is currently on hiatus, its spangly attempt to reboot continuity having had, at best, mixed results. Even so, television (where Trek first found fame) has not one, but two Trek offerings. One is the official Star Trek: Discovery, which has just kicked off its second season. The other is the ersatz Trek, Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, which is several episodes into its own second season.

Both of these series have struggled against a sense that they’re not really Star Trek. It’s an easy accusation to face in the case of The Orville, which was born out of MacFarlane’s love of all things Trek, but despite its often juvenile humour, it regularly harks back to the era of The Next Generation in its storylines and characters. Discovery‘s task as the latest incarnation of official Trek is, if anything, tougher, because treading on fans’ hallowed ground is a sure route to a firing squad at the first sign of deviation from the holy canon. And the first series of Discovery provided plenty of ammunition for those kinds of fans.

But just what is genuine Star Trek anyway? Can there be any such thing for a franchise that’s spread across six main TV series (not counting the animated series) and more than a dozen movies? How do those former offerings inform the Trek and Trek-like shows we’re getting now? Let’s take a look.

The Original Series: Born out of the remnants of 1950s golden-age science fiction and the optimism of the 1960s, Star Trek set the template in a lot of ways. “Its five-year mission, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations,” is still what people think of when they think of Star Trek. But even Star Trek wasn’t Star Trek at first. The pilot famously had a different captain (Pike) and though the core trio of Kirk, Spock, and Bones was in place when the series began, the rest of the multicultural crew took time to fill in. Even so, the sense of exploration and of encountering the strangeness of outer space was always at the heart of the show.

The Movies (Original Cast): Though the original show died after three seasons and 79 episodes, it never really went away. Fan culture grew up around it, and the massive success of Star Wars in the late 1970s made its rebirth a real possibility. Once again though, Star Trek changed over time. The first movie had a lot of the original series’ wonder but lacked any fun and action. The second movie, the much-loved Wrath of Khan, and especially the fourth, The Voyage Home, redefined the template around the original crew, casting them as wisecracking renegades, with heavily emphasis on fan nostalgia. Sometimes it worked wonderfully, but often it didn’t—the rule of even-numbered movies being good and odd ones bad held for a surprisingly long time.

The Next Generation: Born as the original-cast movies were at their height, The Next Generation (TNG) was an attempt to recreate the original series for, well, a new generation. By any measure, it was a massive success, but once again it took time to become itself. Its multicultural crew now included an alien and an android, as well as more than one woman, but it took a step back from the action of the movies at first. Only with the introduction of the Borg as an adversary with real thematic heft did TNG take flight. Likewise, the intellectual Picard was a contrast to the action-hero Kirk of the movies but not quite so far from the curious, emotional Kirk of the original series, showing just how the sense of what Trek was had divided. Moreover, just as the movies were telling an ongoing story, The Next Generation started to move away from single-episode stories towards longer arcs—a trend that would continue in both Star Trek and television series in the wider world.

Deep Space Nine: If TNG was an attempt to recreate the Original Series, Deep Space Nine (DS9) was an attempt to do something different. Different from Star Trek anyway—its resemblance to the contemporaneous series Babylon 5 was widely noted. In this series, humans were almost in a minority, acting as peacekeepers between multiple alien races. Actively political compared to previous series, it still suffered the Star Trek curse of taking time to become itself. Uncomfortably bumpy at the start of its run, it remains deeply loved by its fans, not least because it leaned into its own strangeness, mysticism, and character relations. An ever-increasing focus on long-running story arcs allowed it to develop real depth and the stories it wove to have massive payoffs across its seven seasons.

Voyager: By the time Voyager showed up, Star Trek was suffering from diminishing returns. TNG had just ended, DS9 was still running, and several more movies were released during its run. Like DS9, Voyager had a fascinating concept: a misfit crew flung across the galaxy trying to make their way home. Unlike DS9, Voyager never quite managed to make the most of that concept; unlike earlier Trek series, it never quite became itself. It had its high points, but the possibilities of a long-form story were largely ignored, and the characters remained mostly bland remixes of what had gone before. Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Janeway was easily a match for any prior lead, but her own crew’s voyage never inspired.

The Movies (Next Generation cast): With the original cast aging out of being action heroes, the obvious step was to replace them with the popular TNG crew. And at this stage in its evolution, Star Trek was nothing if not obvious. The Next Generation crew would get four swings at the ball, but only one of those proved to be a strike. Generations was a clumsy handover from the old to the new, giving Kirk an underwhelming death that spin-off media has done its best to retcon ever since. First Contact brought back the Borg in fine style, as well as plenty of the signature Trek optimism that TNG had done so well, delving into Trek history with a time-jumping plot that raised memories of The Voyage Home. Insurrection was mostly forgettable, though it wasn’t as bad as it is remembered, being mostly an expanded Next Generation episode. It was Nemesis that killed the franchise at the movies, flinging too much CGI at the screen and criminally underusing a young Tom Hardy as it stumbled through an action-oriented plot and chickened out of the one interesting character move it made.

Enterprise: At this point, the travails of Voyager and the movies had clearly spooked Star Trek’s guardians, because Enterprise was a weird mishmash of familiar elements, shoehorned into Trek continuity. With Scott Bakula (best known for the Quantum Leap series) at the helm as Captain Archer, the show centred around a previously unmentioned USS Enterprise, from the early days of Trek’s Federation. This put it in the odd position of being a step back from earlier series, as its crew was more homogenous and its world building was largely restricted to “first encounters” with already established bits of Trek lore. In the latter half of its four-season run, Enterprise did push towards becoming itself, rather than warmed-over Trek bits, but it was too little, too late. Enterprise died in a final episode that just reiterated everyone’s affection for other, better Trek series, and with it ended 18 consecutive years of Trek on TV.

The Movies (Kelvin crew): Once again, Trek was resurrected at the movies. This time, under the stewardship of JJ Abrams, the outcome was a reboot rather than a continuation. A new Kirk, Spock, and Bones inhabiting a glittering universe of action and drama, with wisecracks and high-flying action as standard. There was some of the Trek optimism in the new movies but little exploration, and in recreating the original series there was little room for anything new. The presence of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in the first movie just drove that point home, as did the second movie, Into Darkness, a ham-fisted recreation of The Wrath of Khan. While the third film, Beyond, was altogether more joyful and interesting, it still hewed to the action and explosions formula. The three films made plenty of money at the box office but perhaps not enough, because whether or not they’re going to come back again is up in the air at this point.

So we’ve had many different versions of Trek, born from the original series and spinning its ideals of exploration, optimism, and camaraderie in different ways. TNG succeeded in bringing back those values twenty years after the original, and DS9 successfully transplanted them to a very different setting, but every other Trek has had more limited success. Voyager never quite settled on an identity of its own, and that failure likely pushed a subsequent sense that sticking with already known Trek lore is the best idea. That need for familiarity is poison to a franchise that was once about discovery and the new, and Enterprise suffered from a fatal dose, for all its efforts to find its own identity as other Treks had done before it. Then there’s the movies: the blockbuster need for spectacle and action leaves little room for the wonder of the universe, though the one thing that the movies have consistently succeeded at is evoking the camaraderie between the various crews.

So we now have both Discovery and The Orville now on their second seasons, having spent both of their first seasons finding their feet. First-season Discovery took a lot of chances: shoehorning the story into existing Trek lore, set a few years before the original series, gave it little room to manoeuvre. Its season-long story arc was packed full of deceptions, and its sense of discovery was limited to the story of the war it revolved around. For all that, it was entertaining, with interesting characters trying and occasionally succeeding in building relationships as the plot and character revelations overturned things every other episode.

The Orville was a lot more predictable in its first season, using a Trek-like setting to tell Trek-like stories, leavened with Seth MacFarlane’s frat-boy humour and jokes about alien bodily functions. There was no ongoing story to speak of, but the show did make a gradual effort to deepen its characters as it went. Even so, it rarely hit levels that TNG had managed on its off days, and its sense of being Trek-lite was pretty solidly confirmed.

With the arrival of the second season, not much has changed for The Orville. It’s matured to the point where it’s a fun watch, and the juvenile humour has eased to the point where it won’t put off someone who can’t stand that kind of thing. It stands or falls by the strength of its characters though, as there’s no ongoing plot and only a paper-thin universe to inhabit. Luckily the cast is generally appealing, so it’s likely to hang around and maybe become even more Trek-like in its ability to find itself.

Second-season Discovery is a very different beast. The first episode of season two was an exhilarating left turn from the darkness and deceit of season one. With the arrival of Anson Mount’s Captain Pike, transferring across from the USS Enterprise to the USS Discovery, and the provision of a genuine scientific mystery to explore, this feels closer to the core of Trek than any series in years. Yes, it’s still shoehorned into existing Trek lore and filled with CGI and action sequences, but if one episode can be any indication, there’s a real sense that Discovery has figured out what worked about season one and decided to build on that. An increased focus on crew and camaraderie and the joy to be found in exploring the wonders of the galaxy seems to have been transplanted into the heart of the series. Maybe it’s just me, but that seems pretty hopeful.

And isn’t hope what Trek is really all about?

The Not-So Subtle Knife—The Favourite

Do you have a favourite? Not just a best friend, though they can play that role. Perhaps a sibling or a spouse, someone whose judgement you trust, someone who knows you as well as you do yourself. Someone you could rely on so much that they could take over your life. What if the power you gave to this favourite was, effectively, power over an entire nation? What, then, if you found yourself with two potential favourites? What would that reveal about where the true power lay?

The Favourite*, the latest film from Yorgos Lanthimos, sees men play games of war and politics as women wield the real power.

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Memento Mortem—Return of the Obra Din

The best stories in games are those that the player has a part in telling. Usually this role is one of making choices that determine how the story goes. The story in Return of the Obra Dinn (Mac / PC) is of a different kind. Here, the story has long ended, and it’s up to the player to piece it together from scraps of information, building their understanding of what happened, when, and to whom.

Some spoilers for Return of the Obra Dinn below, and if you’re planning on playing it, spoilers are worth avoiding.

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A Life in Comics

I started reading comics far enough back that I’m not sure of the exact age when I began. There have been ups and downs in the decades since then, but I still pop into a comic store every Wednesday to see if there’s something new worth reading. With the western comics industry looking as diverse and healthy as it has ever been, I thought it might be nice exercise to review some of the comics that have stood out for me over the years.

There are loads of comics missed out from the list below, of course, but these are the ones that spring to mind when I try to remember what had the greatest impact on me as a reader and writer. Most of them are still accessible in trade paperback form too, so if you’re looking for something to read, you could do worse.

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Spider-Diversity

Anyone can be Spider-Man. It’s an unusual theme for a superhero movie, where the exceptional nature of the central character is usually the central point. However, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an unusual superhero movie. Animated at a time when live-action superheroes rule at the box office, it’s currently struggling against the live-action Aquaman, but if there’s any justice, it will find success in the long term, because Into the Spider-Verse is a far more interesting movie and a fitting bookend for a superhero year that started with Black Panther.

Spoilers for the movie (which you really ought to go and see) below.

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Aquaman—An Overstuffed Fish Taco

DC/Warner Bros.’s latest superhero movie, Aquaman, manages the impressive trick of being both too long and too short. Before you get to the end of it, you’ll have the feeling that you’ve been tricked into starting an epic series of novels, yet there’s also an ongoing feeling that the amount of story it’s trying to fit in exceeds the amount of minutes it’s prepared to devote to it.

(Spoilers beyond this point, but not too many.)

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