I remember reading a book about writing a while ago in which the author talks about when a writer finds himself writing (or an editor reading) interminable passages to do with mists, fogs, white rooms, blank fields, empty plains, pristine seas. He called it the white room syndrome. A sure sign of an empty mind struggling to fill itself, of a writer with the desire to write, to capture the wild euphoria of ideas sparking further ideas but lacking the initial spark.

The last week has been me pretty much feeling like this.

Ok, I have had a nasty flu, one which wrings me out by 3pm and leaves me without an appetite for food or any activity but reading or watching crap sci-fi/fantasy and i’m ready for it to be over now but it seems that this has started up my latest sci-fi/fantasy reading binge.

For reasons I dont want to go into, I alternate between cycles of reading nothing but non-fiction and feeling engaged and analytical about well everything and periods of burying myself in the SF/F genre during which my brain activity sinks to mollusc level.

So far, in the last week or so, I’ve:

Read the latest Harry Potter which I found really really tedious and would have made me feel like I’d been ripped off if I’d actually bought it instead of stolen it from the web. But the ending was kinda cool and I’m hoping for a dark side HP next go, someone who actually uses spells that do the kind of things that Stephen Erikson’s mages can do and maybe a couple of Arnie-like one liners at some point, as in ‘Draco, you mo-fo’ or ‘Suck my wand, baby’ or well, you get the idea.

Read one of the latest Pratchett’s discworld novels “Going Postal”, a rant about the dubious business practices of monopolistic telecommunication companies, the destruction of venerable government owned postal institutions, the possibilities of renationalising essential infrastructure, the evils of international finance and the corruption but inevitable requirement of government regulation. Pratchett appears to be beginning to resemble the Mike Moore of the genre much as I like Pratchett (and detest Moore).

Read the latest instalment to the severely anti-heroic, very darkly funny and quite nasty but unfortunately somewhat self-indulgent sir apropos of nothing series which ends in a nuclear cloud devastating all of the main characters bar the protagonist (hoorah!). If only he wrote better.

Read a by the numbers gallant knightes, ye olde merrie fantasie kingdome bodice ripper from Luis McMaster Bujold titled Paladin of Souls where everyone is so wholesome and there’s such prime American moral rectitude behind it all that it made me wish for a similar nuclear armageddon ending preferably very close to the author’s home. Gah. There’s a scene where the heroine jerks off a ensorceled sleeping hero or I think she jerks him off but is written so tastefully that it’s like reading about your Aunt Martha dunking her arnott’s biscuit in tepid tea.

But almost all is forgiven because I am currently reading the fantastic “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell” by Susanna Clarke. It’s like Charles Dickens or Jane Austen has discovered the neverland of faeries and mages. What has been sucked totally dry by too much modern fantasy is now invigorated by great witty writing and well-turned characters with better turned names. And it’s her first novel!

So, it seems that this binge will go on a little longer.


i just finished John Hirst’s piece in the Quarterly Essay titled ‘kangaroo court’ about the Family Court system. I’m not usually a person who gets worked up when reading polemics, there’s way too many of them around and I often wonder about the use of selective examples and emotional language and the independence and bias of the author.

Put it this way, if a writer is attempting to get to my heart and not my head, I get automatically suspicious. It’s one of the reasons why writers like Naomi Wolf leave me pretty cold whereas stats heavy authors like Lomborg engage my interest even if the stats themselves can be (and often is) abused.

My reaction generally to sad stories in polemics is, sure there’s one case of the system failing, but give me a well-sampled indepedently run study on actual overall indicators (with caveats and criticisms on sampling/research method). I find a lot more punch in an overall falling trend in adulthood literacy than in any single sad story of a child being kept away from school due to evil exploitative landowners (or whatever).

Nonetheless, John Hirst’s polemic complete with selective heart-tugging personal stories and an utter lack of statistical backup, got through enough of my defences that I found myself grinding my teeth at the sheer injustice of it all.

Fortunately, there are some reforms being put through now but the predictable stoush is on between men’s and women’s groups in what appears to be merely a larger scale version of what happens in custodial disputes all over the country.


The Smashing Machine is a documentary about Mark Kerr, a professional fighter in the pay per view mixed martial arts (MMA) industry. Mark Kerr himself is a great subject. He weighs in at 105 kg, stands around 6’2″ and for a sport that has more than its fair share of brutish and brutal looking men, outbrutes most of them in appearence and physique. However, he is also intelligent, articulate and expresses himself in such a way that in some scenes, as he has quite a high voice, if you close your eyes you’d think it was Woody Allen on screen.

However, it’s pretty clear very early on that Mark, no matter how nice and sensitive a guy he is in real-life, he is something else entirely in the ring. The documentary showed quite a lot of footage of earlier days minimal rules MMA bouts when head butting, wound and eye gouging and other such techniques were allowed. Mark was very proficient in these techniques. At the end of those bouts, his opponent’s faces often looked like they’d been through a meat-grinder.

I watched Modify earlier that week. It was a film with graphic surgical procedures, lots of blood and a fair amount of footage of people being cut, branded and sliced. A little difficult to sit through but nowhere near as difficult or as confronting as I found many of the fights in The Smashing Machine.

The rules these days for many MMA organisations have been changed so that the early ground-and-pound fighters like Mark Kerr no longer have as much of an advantage. (those interested may want to have a look at the Mixed Martial Arts entry in Wiki). It’s hard to say how much of the rules change resulted in Mark Kerr’s later losses and how much of it was due to his drug, relationship and attendent fitness problems.

But it is still the closest thing to a modern day gladiatorial bloodsport that we have. I’ve always liked the fighting sports and it annoys me that we get so little of it broadcasted during the olympics or whatever other games are around. I find MMA fights having minimal rules as the most compelling of all competitive combat sports. Not just because it allows a large variety of techniques to be used but because having stripped away most of the rules that permit safety and hence style and art to enter the ring, MMA comes closest to what battle really is – an ugly and violent affair.

But surprisingly enough, given my libertarian beliefs and my interests both in combat sports and other more fringe practices, having seen the Smashing Machine I now have ethical reservations on minimal rules combat.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with a couple of adults, trained and experienced in their sport, competing in as safe as possible an environment for prize money. It’s not that big a deal that the sport is risky (as mountain climbing or base jumping is) or that one or both of them will get hurt. The two in the ring know the risks, have taken punishment in the past and probably have a close relationship to violence which might otherwise be expressed somewhere else in not quite as sane, safe or consensual an environment. OK, maybe a MMA fighter getting his face beaten in isnt quite as consenting as a submissive getting a nail hammered through his penis, but it is part of the deal, part of the scene so to speak.

So, why these new scruples?

It is because the documentary, in potraying the lows as well as the highs of the sport, shows the raw fear and doubt on the MMA fighters’ faces before they get in the ring, it shows the injuries they sustain, the grief, self-doubt and emotional trauma defeat brings which, being so violent a defeat rather more resembles assault-victim shock than tennis star runnerup tantrums.

And also, the documentary shows that for even the most successful of them, while fame and glory are rewarding, it is primarily the money that pushes them into the ring.

Mark Coleman, who was 36 when he was trying to make a comeback in the documentary puts it pretty clearly “I’m doing it because I have four mouths to feed.”


Miyazaki’s films generally have the following elements: a very fully realised girl either prepubescent or just after, an even more fully realised world with a keen sense of the natural environment, various forms of flying, various types of monsters and no villains but definately antagonists.

The documentary I just saw had an interview with a japanese psychologist who has a keen interest in Miyazaki. He made a couple of comments about how he felt Miyazaki’s monsters are projected elements of himself, perhaps elements of himself that he is not comfortable with but which his protoganists, often those very young girls, have an instinctive trust for. He cites the scene in Totoro where Mei, a four year old, discovers a shed sized monster (ok, it resembles a large soft toy) in a tree and promptly leaps onto its tummy and falls asleep. The editor follows this interview with sketches of Chihiro in Spirited Away taking off her top.


Not if you know his work.

In his films, the girls are not objectified, as a viewer you inhabit the viewpoint, you know their feelings from the inside. His characterisations of the girls are complex and emotionally deep. My particular reading is that Miyazaki’s female protaganists are true extensions of his persona as opposed to those monsters which I believe tend to be his ideas, fears and wishes of external uncontrolable forces in the world that he wishes were benevelont. The reason why he chooses girls, I think, is for the simple reason that men in the Japanese culture have less freedom to demonstrate weakness and doubt, to express sadness and grief and hence are less flexible characters if one is interested, as Miyazaki is, in films about growth and struggle. It is no accident I think that most of his male characters tend to be variants of stoic fellas with a very limited emotional range and who, I find, tend to quite boring in comparison to his female characters.


As a film that brings a new look to the screen that integrates computer effects so well into its substance and feel, Sin City is worth watching.

But as a film that brings beauty and style to violence ala beat takeshi, john woo, akira kurozawa, sergio leone, coppola and tarantino, it has very little that is original or interesting. Rather it hammers away, upping the ante with more graphic gore, more special effects blood and less substance as the film continues.

Sadly, it doesnt make it as a noir film either even though it has the required cast of hard men and femme fatales and the rain drenched perpetual night-time backdrop. But it’s all window dressing. Overburdened with uninspired dialogue, endless voiceovers, the Sin City characters do not live. In every scene, they are pinned to a single interpretation. Noir lives in the ambiguity of silence and morality and in spite of the numerous killings and tortures, there is no ambiquity in this film. Or humour or any sense of irony and self-awareness. Purely on the plot and dialogue level, it is like listening to a semi-literate redneck describe a pitbull fight down to the last drop of blood.

Does anyone remember Dick Tracy, that 1990 movie starring Warren Beatty and Madonna? Reviewers marvelled at its dayglo look and its grotesque cast. I doubt many can remember much more about it now or that it sits in many people’s must view again list. Sin City will likely go the same way.