Games Day Australia 2011

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I shall not even attempt to reconstruct a coherent narrative for the maniacal, exhausting blur that was Games Day Oz 2011.  It wouldn’t work.  Instead, I’ll try to bring back and record some impressions in more or less the chronological order that they happened.

(Yes, I know that Twitter is excellent for doing this sort of thing as it happens.  While I am on Twitter now  – @FullyNocturnal, if you’re minded to seek me out there – I don’t have a smartphone and wasn’t updating for a while.  I even got a reminder email from Twitter pointing that fact out.)

Anyway.

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Cultureburst: Peon, Cloning the Tasmanian Tiger and the Knights of the Spatchcock

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Here I come crawling out of deadline hell to tell you about some interesting stuff I managed to take in just before I sank into deadline hell, in chronological order as far as I can remember.

Peon, at Smiths Bookshop

The excellent indie bookshop Smiths is navigating the bookselling crunch by being not only an indie bookseller, but by turning itself into a hub for the sorts of cool stuff that the patrons of indie booksellers like to get out of the house and go and do. They have a coffee bar and outside tables, they do markets and readings, they’re getting a license so they can serve wine in the evenings. And they’ve got a setup in the main part of the shop that lets them rearrange the shelves and displays so that they can deploy some couches and turn the shop into a little performance space. The performers a couple of Saturdays ago were Melbourne percussion duo Peon.

I have no idea how to set about labelling the sort of music these guys do so I’ll just describe it instead. The core of the performance is a pair of drumkits, supplemented by a synthesiser, a couple of separate percussion instruments that I didn’t recognise (I asked the names of one or two of them on the night but didn’t write them down) and a laptop running a sound-mixing program. They co-operate on building up rhythms and patterns of sound on all the various instruments around them, and periodically pass control of the sound from one to the other so that at any point one of them will be concentrating on the drumming and the other will have eased off the drumming and will be using a free hand and some of their attention to add in synth notes or sound effects, and to balance the overall mix.


At first I thought that the synthesiser elements were pre-recorded, and that they built the rest of the set around a framework of sound that they’d laid down in advance, but when I got chatting to them at the interval they told me that nothing about it was ever pre-done; every single performance they do is improvised from the ground up, in every detail, every time. That put a whole new complexion on what I had thought I was seeing, and I began to really appreciate how seamlessly the two of them work together. They create a sound that rises and falls, sometimes offering up catchy rhythms that the audience were tapping their feet to, sometimes just combining their drumming to create chaotic tides of sound, and sometimes easing off to just tap out a gentle counterpoint to a sound like wind or water coming from the synth. They were joined for part of the evening by some musicians, I think locals, who added in some extra percussion and jazz trumpet to create another layer in turn.

I’ll be honest that at first I didn’t find Peon very accessible – for the first ten minutes or so I wasn’t sure what I was listening to or how much I was going to stay for. Once I’d relaxed into it and engaged with it, though, I found the sound fascinating and full of layers and patterns and changes to unpack and listen for. Not exactly mosh-pit material, but just the sort of stuff to sit back, let your eyes close and be in the moment with the sound.

Peon have a Facebook page.

Cloning the Tasmanian Tiger, at the Front Cafe

The Front is another cool little venue in Canberra’s inner north. Free wifi, couches, gallery next door, you know the sort of deal. They have a schedule of readings and launches and similar things, and the similar thing we went to recently was a gig affiliated with National Science Week called “Cloning the Tasmanian Tiger”.

The event was pretty damn interesting, but we arrived there in a slightly harassed mood on account of it being scheduled right in the middle of the homeward-bound traffic out of Civic and Barton. We got there just in time for the last minute of the jazz combo (which was a shame, what little we heard of them sounded very good) but were in time for a nifty hip-hop intro by Fenella “MC Feline” Edwards and some awesome beatboxing by Mal Webb. The main presentation was from zoologist Professor Marilyn Renfree, and was not quite about cloning the Tasmanian Tiger in that we’re not about to see packs of vat-grown Thylacines loping about the Tasmanian countryside any time soon. Which would be awesome, but will have to wait a while. The presentation talked about the extinction of the Thylacine, about its biology and what’s known about its life cycle, and went on to the way that the Professor found a foetal specimen that had had the good luck to be pickled in alcohol, not formaldehyde. (Formaldehyde apparently trashes genetic information in tissues whereas alcohol doesn’t.) They’re a long way off doing anything with the complete Thylacine genome but there was a fascinating series of slides showing how they had picked a gene out of the foetus that controlled collagen formation (collagen is a precursor to skeletal growth and is apparently a good basic gene to work with). They attached some sort of marker to it so that the gene became not only a thylacine collagen-generation gene, but a thylacine coloured-collagen generation gene, and then spliced it into a mouse embryo. And then showed pictures of said embryo with its skeleton laid out in dark blue from the dark-coloured thylacine collagen, next to a sibling embryo that had that weird translucent look that they have. Proof that they could take a Thylacine gene, put it in a new organism and actually have it activated, living and working.

The spoken presentation alternated with excerpts from a Catalyst documentary about the Professor’s work, which now involves research teams in Europe as well as here. I think she needs to get sponsorship from Cascade beer – imagine what having an actual live Thylacine as their mascot would do for them!

Ovum, the debut EP from Knights of the Spatchcock

Full disclosure: several members of the Knights of the Spatchcock are acquaintances, work colleagues, and some time training partners, and in fact I bought my CD at the desk of Brendan the guitarist. They’re all friends with each other, too, and I’m told that that’s how the band started: as a fun project by some folks who loved jamming together and one day thought “hey, you know what we should do…”

The sense of fun comes across in the band’s, well, everything. The CD art, band photos and notes are all relaxed and playful, with an integral part of the band charter being the promise never to take what they’re doing too seriously. They present a very skilful and professional CD but balance it with a lot of earthy humour directed squarely at each other: their website devotes rather more attention to reporting on one another’s bowels than is usual for a band’s PR material. I haven’t yet been to a live gig of theirs (their recent appearance coincided with the nadir of the aforementioned deadline hell) but apparently the music is supplemented by bright gold pants and a blow-up doll.


So, then, the music. A while ago I was friends with someone who was into a lot of wiccan/pagan/earth mother style of things and would fetch out the Spindlewood CDs to play at parties. The Knights put me in mind of some of that (or at least of my decade-plus-old memories of it), with a kind of olde-worlde folkish vibe given extra heft with a core of tough guitar. On a second listen, I think it’s mainly the singing style that evokes those bands for me, while the guitars have the sort of big power-it-to-the-rafters feel that I associate with The Cult. The lyrics continue the feel, particularly “In Winter’s Wake” which brings a lot of wild druidical imagery of forests and snow and the turning of the seasons.

The singing is good, the instrumentals are outstanding, and the songwriting avoids the traps of some other indie EPs I’ve heard lately which end up sounding very samey. The Knights’ songs are distinct and characterful, powerful without being pompous, and in the case of “1800 Maxx”, jocular and humourous without being twee. That one actually had me out of my chair and bopping about the flat waving a half-eaten slice of pizza in the air.

You can check out the Knights here; if I can make it to a gig I’ll be sure to report.

Alright, done for the night. Gonna try and blog up some recent reading in the next little while – well, I have to, now I’ve announced it here, haven’t I?

Slither and Skate, or, the Revenge of the Red-Bellied Blackhearts

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“This seat’s taken, sorry.” “No, someone’s sitting there.” “Sorry, I’m waiting for some people, this is their spot.” “Hi, no, that space is taken.” “Excuse me, no, all these spaces are for my friends.” “No, sorry, I’m holding this spot for some people.”

I have got to see about getting to these bouts earlier.

But you’re not interested in my trials and tribulations of trying to get a seat in the bleachers, are you, you callous bunch? You just want the bout report, right?  So my search engine and link stats seem to be telling me, anyway. Right then.

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The Book of Judgement

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At the start of this year Fantasy Flight Games paid me the compliment of inviting me onto the team for Book of Judgement, the Adeptus Arbites book for the Dark Heresy roleplaying game.  I got the invitation just in time to take a pile of game-books to the FWOR retreat in Oberon and work on my section of the book there.  Getting my head around the different approach meant a slow start, but once I was inside the project and picking up on the cool stuff littered about the Calixis sector it was a lot of fun to help build on it.  I got to contribute more detail about the operation of Arbites arms like Verispex, Detectives, Cyber-Mastiffs and Grapplehawks, get into the troubled history of the Calixian Arbites, and detail how they were getting to grips with their enemies such as the Beast House or the mysterious and sinister criminal operation known only as “Two-and-Mirror”.

 

You can read more about the book here.  It’s coming out in the final quarter of this year.  Fantasy Flight create gorgeous books and I can’t wait to get my hands on the final product.

Colin Harvey

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According to my Facebook’s “This day in 2009” feature, it’s two years to the day since I got back from a visit to Montreal for that year’s WorldCon.  That was the year of the Angry Robot Books launch party, and the year I met Colin Harvey.  We got to talking about the cover art for his novel Winter Song, and I remember we propped up one of the doors in the AR party suite and had a liesurely, rambling conversation about… hell, who can remember all the details, there was story stuff and technology and terraforming and writing chat and what-all.  I remember hanging out with him at his signing table later in the con and carrying the conversation right on.

The following year we met up with Colin again in the UK, over a French tapas dinner and a bit of wine on a quiet evening in Bath.  Colin, Donna, James and I talked business, writing, teaching, study, the state of the world, and of course food; we were lucky enough to catch up with him again in Bristol at the William Gibson talk, where we hung out beforehand, drank beers and heard about his latest writing and editing projects.

Colin suffered a massive stroke on Monday, and earlier this evening our time we got the news he had died in hospital, apparently without ever regaining consciousness.  Our thoughts go out to those close to him.  Colin was a smart, thoughtful, switched-on, amiable and just simply decent man.  What a loss.

People who knew Colin are sharing memories of him over here on the AR site.

Rest in peace, Colin, I’m glad I got the chance to meet you.

New to the Blogroll

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When I first got hold of the old second-edition Warhammer 40,000 box and started poring over the rulebooks I already knew a little bit about the setting from the White Dwarf magazines my friends and I had been buying for the Blood Bowl articles.  But when my journey into the 40Kverse got properly under way two influences really helped flesh out the setting for me: John Blanche’s fever-dream artwork, and the punchy little two-page narratives interspersed through all three books, by William King.

Griznak at the bridge, plotting the next assault on the Blood Angel defences and trying to ignore the uneasy instinct that Waaagh-Ghazghkull is starting to falter around him.  Sergeant Raphael musing on the nature of humans and Astartes.  Inquisitor Kruger unearthing what’s really going on in the hives of Gehenna – but possibly too late.  Karlsen of the Thousand Sons undergoing the Dark Communion and reliving ten millennia of war against the Golden Throne.  On the fantasy side of things Bill created the iconic pair of fantasy adventurers Gotrek Gurnisson and Felix Jaeger, and chronicled their adventures for many years before Nathan Long took the helm.  Bill has also written several original-IP novels and even created another game-setting of his own, the cyberpunk/Mad Max Waste World.  He’s now back writing for Black Library with an upcoming trilogy about Lord Macharius, one of the giant figures in Imperial military history.

I also have to say that one of the high points of writing Legacy was to find myself writing about the Navis Nobilite at the same time as Bill was, and corresponding with him on getting our references and approaches dovetailed.  The first time it properly hit me that name on the stories that had fired my imagination into the setting in the first place was now showing up on mails in my inbox I couldn’t stop grinning.

Most excellently, he has a new website and a blog now, which you can find here.  There are some great thoughts on the craft and day-to-day business of writing, and speaking as someone who regularly beats himself up over word counts achieved (or not), I was very taken with the post on the importance of setting your sights low.  You might have noticed I no longer do those monthly proposal/acquittal posts for this blog, and one of the reasons was that the acquittal posts had turned, as this post says, into a demoralising head-to-brick-wall exercise that was having the opposite effect to the one I wanted.  I’ve been pondering whether to bring that exercise back in some form, but if I do it will be useful to remember that sometimes all that white-knuckled type-A achiever hype can be counterproductive.  We’ll see.

I’m also adding in the writing blog of Donna Maree Hanson, an author, long-time member of the CSFG, publisher, editor and tireless organiser and convention-runner, who also happens to be my partner.  As well as working on her own writing she’s currently putting together the 2013 Conflux convention and has been working as a reader on the Angry Robot open submission period from earlier in the year.  Her posts on the insights from such an intensive reading of submissions and manuscripts are well worth reading.

Off to chase some of my own writing for the evening.  Take it easy.

The Four-Wheeled Winter of our Discontent

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And so it came to pass that we took ourselves to the Australian Institute of Sport last Saturday night, to watch the all-star Canberra Derby team the Vice City Rollers take on their northern counterparts the Sun State Roller Girl Fancy Pants, the second at-home interstate bout the Rollers have played this season.

The first of those at-home matches was to the Victorian Roller Derby League Allstars, who beat the VCRs by… well, a fair margin.  I wrote up that bout elsewhere on this blog, and commented that skater on skater the teams seemed evenly matched, but put those skaters into teams and one was very obviously more than the sum of its parts.

There were definitely some changes in the CRDL’s tactics and teamwork after the Melbourne game, which was cool to see, and when the Rollers headed off for their away games they handed out a series of stunningly one-sided defeats to some of the other regional teams.  I was ready to see them take it right to the Fancy Pants and get on track for the rematch with Victoria, whenever that should occur.

Well, to get to the point, the SSRG won the bout 181-48.  The regular pattern was for the Sun Staters to shut out the Rollers from scoring while putting in a solid scoring pass or two themselves – they were adept at keeping the opposing Jammers hammered flat and/or calling the jam off completely any time the Rollers’ Jammer made it out and was coming up on the pack to try and get some points.  Their general strategy was different to the Victorian one: the latter made heavy use of trapping an opposing player and slowing the jam right down to get the edge.  The Sun Staters, while they often hung back at the starting whistle to let their Jammer blast through a slow-to-stationary pack, tended to conduct the jam at reasonable speed and made lethally effective use of “waterfalling”, heavy sequential blocks on an opposing skater to knock her ever further off course, off balance and off the track.

There were some moments of sheer brilliance from the CRDL skaters that got the crowd roaring (my throat was still tender on the Monday morning).  Bambi von Smash’er racked up the first scores for the Rollers in the first half, and then Shaggle Frock, brought out as a surprise weapon in the second half, set the track on fire with an incredible multi-lap jam that just for a moment looked like it could have been a tipping point, before the Fancy Pants got wise to who they were up against and crunched her with their blockers in subsequent jams.  Speaking of crunches, Short Stop’s reputation clearly preceded her – she spent a lot of time on the track but the SSRG laid into her with a ferocity that brought regular groans of dismay from the crowd.  At one point rounding the third corner she got hammered simultaneously by two big SSRG blockers and I’m sure her feet flew something like a foot off the ground before she landed, hard.  I honestly was wondering if she’d even be able to continue, and the hit was showing in her movements, but she was up and skating again and by hell she finished the jam and the bout.

The CRDL got in some hits of their own, and Aunty Aggro earned a lot of crowd applause when she decided in one late jam that she’d had enough, and bulldozed her way through the SSRG pack knocking opponents away left and right.  But here’s the thing: each time I talk about something cool happening for the CRDL I find I’m talking about an individual skater’s star moment, not a fantastic team play.  The SSRG worked together.  When they picked a target on the opposing team, blocker or jammer, they seemed able to throw their entire pack at it at a moment’s notice.  Throwing a block at another skater usually seems to put you out of position so you’ve got to adjust before you do it again, but when the SSRG used their waterfall the first blocker would hit the target Roller, then straight away the second blocker would be there to hit her again, then before she could recover the third blocker would already be closing in.  I saw the Rollers helping each other out with acceleration and turns but too often they seemed to be skating as individuals, with no way to form up around their Jammer or break up the precision plays that the SSRG were pulling off.

I’m given to understand that Victoria and Queensland are at the top of the Roller Derby tree in Australia, and I can understand why after seeing their form taking on a team like the Vice City Rollers.  Don’t let the downbeat talk above fool you, the Rollers are a tough, experienced team with some amazing skaters who’ve handed quite a few other regional teams their frilly, fishnetted behinds.  There’ll be a day when Canberra fight their way up to the top of that tree as well, and I’ll be cheering for them when they do.  And it was great to see that even copping the short end of a score like that one, the crowd was still hyped, the skaters were having a great time and the good cheer and energy were barely dented*.

Next match is at the end of the month, Red-Bellied Blackhearts vs Surly Griffins.  Looking forward to it already.

*Well, okay, my good cheer was, slightly.  But I’m better now.

Addendum:  Hello to all the people coming here from the Queensland Derby forums!  I’ve added the poster graphic and cleaned up some typos and run-on sentences (I typed the original post up rather late at night), so you’re getting the deluxe version of my blogging now.

Double-Barrelled Derby, or, Two Nights on the Suicide Line

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For anyone who stumbled on that title and came in looking for a sombre discussion of mental health communication issues, sorry, this is about Roller Derby.  For the person who came in a couple of days ago Googling for “electronic score board jammers”, welcome back but I’m really not good enough with electronics to be able to help you.  For everyone else, bout-report time.

Way, way late, I know.  One thing and another got in the way.  One thing and many others.  I haven’t been frittering away all my time playing with chainpikes and looking at photoshopped webcomics of Keanu Reeves eating a My Little Pony, some of it, take my word for it, has been cool stuff that I look forward to telling you about.  In the meantime, those quick and impressionistic reports I promised you, so I can clear the decks for the Canberra-Brisbane bout and then maybe talk about some other stuff.

For the last two local matches we missed my preferred spot right up high in the bleachers, ending up toward the back of the suicide seating at the corners of the track.  For those of you just tuning in, the Suicide Seating is the Derby term for the stretch of floor between the bottom bleacher and the actual skating area.  It’s called that, and restricted to over-eighteens because it’s close enough to the track for the people sitting there to become inadvertant participants in the bout if the skating gets really hard and fast.  There was at least one close call in the Griffs/Belters bout, with one skater (a Griffin, from memory) going down right on the suicide line, and a spectacular example the next match when one of the Blackhearts came right off the track and ploughed a couple of metres into the crowd.

Apart from the thrill of risking death by helmeted, fishnetted human projectile, the floor seats offer plenty of excitement: down on a level with the skaters you can see the speeds they attain and the power of the blocks they throw, hear them shouting to each other as they roar past, and feel the rumble and grind of the skates coming up through the floor as they take the corners.  Every time the pack came around to that third corner I found myself surging up and forward onto my knees with a shot of vicarious adrenaline.  (At least until my legs started cramping and siezing up.  I have to take a cushion if I’m going to sit down there again.)

On the downside, it’s harder to get the sort of overview of the developing match that the high seats give.  My bout report has to be made up of snippets and glimpses.  The Brindabelters had come back meaning business, and I remember thinking a clear sign of their new focus was that so few of them were getting sin-binned.  The previous match against the Blackhearts had seen a heavy toll of ‘Belters binned for a string of offences, one of which I’m sure I remember as being “insubordination”, which I took to mean talking back to the officials or some such.  This time they were tight and focused and in control, and the binnings were next to non-existent.  Shaggle Frock was the star of the show again but shared some of the spotlight with Freudian Slit, a very talented Jammer who got the crowd going very nicely.  While there were some committed Griffins fans in the audience…

…most of the crowd seemed to be on the side of the ‘Belters, particularly the gentleman behind us who broke into loud, hoarse shouts of “send ‘er the fuck off!” every time a Griffin managed to score any points.

In the end, the night belonged to the Brindabelters, who came back from a very tough loss to the Red-Bellied Blackhearts to take this bout in 137-131.

[I’ve been looking and looking and I can’t for the life of me find bloggable copies of the bout posters that I was going to use for mastheads.  If you know where I can find some, let me know.]

Loaded in the other barrel we’ve got the Red v Blue bout: the first-ever meeting of the Red-Bellied Blackhearts and the Black’n’Blue Belles.  A difficult match to dress for for someone who owns fan garments for both teams, but a great one to watch, and one which brought on the much-anticipated duel between two of the League’s most high-profile Jammers: Bambi von Smash’er of the Blackhearts and Short Stop of the Belles.

Bambi von Smash'er flies the flag for the Blackhearts

Except that what’s cool about the CRDL now is that the talent pool is deep enough that it’s much tougher for the star players to have it all their own way.  The two big names got the biggest audience roars, but I’m also recalling at least one massive power jam by King Cam of the Belles, and a breathtaking high-speed double-scoring-pass jam from Fauna Cat of the Blackhearts, who’s always one to watch when she’s on the track.  And the packwork from these teams just gets better with every single match, making the Jammers fight for every pass and constantly working to outwit and out-hit their counterpart pack.  I remember seeing Bambi cornering past us to catch up with the pack for her scoring run, seeing the tight wall of Belles in front of her and simply call the jam off right there, presumably to try and reboot the pack to get a better position.

The night, in the end, belonged to the Belles, and the Jammer duel to Short Stop, whose agility and technique allowed her to get through the red pack time after time (and even taking the track for two consecutive jams, which I think is the first time I’ve ever seen a Jammer do that).  While a lot of the jams were hard-fought, the Belles were able to push out to an early lead that the Blackhearts were never able to close and the final score was 160-109 to the Black’n’Blue Belles.

The Belles form up before the match.

(Oh, and I have to mention the half-time entertainment, which this time was Knight Hammer, “Canberra’s premiere [sic] medieval-Viking-lyrical-themed-fusion-80’s-metal-prog-rock-parody band”.  A straight band set seems to be settling in as the preferred halftime act, and these guys certainly look the most at home at a Derby bout out of the ones I’ve seen.)

That brings us up to the weekend just gone, and the match against the Sun State Roller Girls.  More about that next post.