2019: Ups, downs and in between

2019: Ups, downs and in between

This was the year I celebrated my fifth anniversary as a full-time writer and journalist.  On the day itself – 20th August – I was a guest of Adam Rosser on his Game On show for BBC Radio 5 Live to discuss Cyberpunk 2020, including the forthcoming video game adaptation.  Pay attention – Cyberpunk will feature a lot.

I continued writing for Computer Weekly, where I started the year discussing how predictive analytics in law enforcement.  I even managed to squeeze in a quote from Person of Interest’s opening narration.  After years of dropping in quotes from various science fiction films, which were subsequently edited out, I was finally allowed to keep this one.

As well as covering the latest security issues and legislation, I also wrote about the age-verification systems that the government had been proposed – and now since dropped – as part of the Digital Economy Act.  This saw me interviewing a variety of people, including Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group, the obscenity lawyer Myles Jackman, and sex blogger Girl on the Net.

I took part in the 30th anniversary celebration of Nine Inch Nails, whereby a series of authors wrote a retrospective blog post on different aspects of the band.  I chose to write about their album Year Zero, where I discussed the themes of surveillance and censorship that were explored in the album.

I finished the year writing for a new client; the tabletop-gaming website Dicebreaker.  Although my articles have yet to go online, I enjoyed the opportunity to write about gaming, as it has had such a massive influence upon my life.

To keep up to date with the latest in gaming, my credit card survived a trip to the UK Games Expo.  This is the UK’s largest tabletop gaming event, where I chatted with Onyx Path games developer Matthew Dawkins, and interviewed Tomas Härenstam of Free League Publishing about their Alien: The Roleplaying Game.  The UK Games Expo is always a fun event to attend, due to the great atmosphere and the number of friends I meet there.

I finally returned to Sci Fi Weekender on Halloween, after a three-year hiatus, where I was able to interview actress Emily Booth and Dark Room creator John Robertson.  I have always enjoyed this science fiction festival, as it is fun to cover and the only event of its kind in the UK.

Finally, I was saddened to hear of the passing of Jake Black of the Alabama 3. Jake was the first person I ever interviewed, and I will always be grateful for him taking the time to speak to me about his music, as well as kickstarting my writing career.

Interviewing Jake Black at the Nottingham Rescue Rooms in 2009

Life, the universe and something

This start of the year was not the most auspicious for me, as I was admitted to hospital for a week.  Caelia and the kiddies were wonderful, but I was disappointed that I missed taking my daughter to her last primary school disco.  After managing to tangle a cannula in my hair, I was finally discharged from hospital…

A month later, as a break from the cold and as a treat for us all after my hospitalisation, we went to Centerparcs for a long weekend holiday.  It was wonderful to relax and just spend time together as a family.  However, I did take advantage of their spa with its dozen different saunas – absolute bliss!

Living in rural Derbyshire is usually calm and peaceful, but one night we were woken by the sounds of someone being chased by the police and trying to escape through our garden. However, it is impossible to run though our garden in the dark. There are several scooters, the toy tractor, the swing frame, a slide and not forgetting the hen run.  Hence the crashing, the swearing and the arresting.

During the summer holidays I picked up a theatrical coffin with the intention of converting it into a bookcase for my collection of horror novels.  However, this plan has since been scuppered by having to convert the room that was the library into a bedroom for our youngest. We are now left with the question of what to do with the coffin and where to put all our books.

Towards the end of the summer holidays, my eldest son took advantage of Caelia’s telescope to watch the Lunar eclipse.  We also saw Saturn’s rings for the first time.  Although the image of Saturn was fairly small, we could still discern the rings, which was an amazing experience.

My daughter started secondary school in September.  Despite a few administrative hiccups at the start, she has settled in well.  During her second month there, she attended her first after-school club. It was a “games club” that’s “something to do with Warhammer” – I was so proud!

Finally, on a rare date night, I introduced Caelia to escape rooms.  It was Make Your Escape’s Spellbound room, which is based on local folklore.  Although we did not escape, it was a fantastic challenge and we hope to do more escape rooms together again.

Walking the red carpet on Halloween at the Sci Fi Weekender

Read, watched and recommended

As always, the presence of children makes going to a cinema a rare experience.  However, I was able to catch Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker with my gaming friends.  Rise of Skywalker was a great film; not perfect by any stretch, as the first half was rushed and felt like there were two films, but still a lot of fun to watch.  I almost want to see what the director JJ Abrams would have done with The Last Jedi.

I have a lot of love for the classic wuxia film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, as it is the perfect blend of kung fu and writing.  So, when I learned that the sequel Sword of Destiny was finally available, I jumped at the chance to see it.  Whilst it lacked the elegance of the original, Sword of Destiny was nonetheless a worthy successor to one of the finest films ever made.

On the subject of kung fu, I watched the final season of Into the Badlands.  With the end date in place, it seemed like the gloves had come off the creative team. Although the quality of the writing fluctuated throughout the life of the series, Into the Badlands remains one of the most original pieces of television in recent years.

This was also the year that The Man in the High Castle ended.  Roughly based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, this series was a study on the nature of evil, both of the individual and of organisations.  The storyline of Helen and John Smith was absolutely gripping, due in part to the portrayal of John’s helplessness and Helen’s growing horror at what they have become.

One show that was nearly cancelled, before it was saved by Amazon, was The Expanse.  This has become one of my favourite television shows. It has an absolutely gripping storyline that is filled with fantastic characters and is set in a wonderfully realised universe that is actually scientifically believable.

Having watched all of The Big Bang Theory, Caelia and I started watching The Good Place and quickly became hooked.  The idea is genius; what if someone wakes up in Heaven and is not meant to be there?  In a moment of revelatory insight, I realised the show is actually a treatise on ethics and the nature of morality, disguised as a snappy sitcom.

The South Korean historical-fantasy/horror series Kingdom was a television show that took me by surprise.  Set in the Korea’s Joseon period, the crown prince becomes embroiled in a political conspiracy and investigates an undead plague that has beset the current emperor and the southern provinces.  What makes this such a watchable series is the Machiavellian politics taking advantage of the chaos caused by the undead.

In a year that was filled with great television, such as Stranger Things and The Purge, the stand-out show had to be Good Omens, based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.  It is always a moment of trepidation when a favourite novel is adapted, but Good Omens was a pitch perfect example of how it should be done.  The show remained faithful to the original material but took advantage of the new medium.

On the subject of Neil Gaiman, I read his Norse Mythology. Unfortunately, I had recently watched The Almighty Johnsons and all I could think about is Anders (the incarnation of Bragi) saying to Axel (as the recently reincarnated Odin) “Any chance you could put your pants on and be a pants-on God?”  That said, Norse Mythology was a modern yet faithful retelling of the classic Norse tales with Gaiman’s captivating prose.

My daughter also read – to my three-year old – Neil Gaiman’s children’s book Instructions, a beautifully whimsical tale of advice for navigating dreams and fairy tales.

Charles Stross has become one of my favourite authors in recent years, so I relished the chance to read The Labyrinth Index, the latest book in his Laundry Files series.  The core premise of the series pits trans-dimensional horrors against the might of British bureaucracy.  Having previously worked in the public sector, I found the nods to the endless forms and regulations to be eminently on point.

Peter F Hamilton is another of my favourite authors, so it was with joy that I read the epic conclusion to his Void trilogy, with The Evolutionary Void.  This was a fantastic finale to what are an amazing series of books, which succeeds in tying up all the loose ends. but left me wanting more.

It was Richard Morgan’s debut novel Altered Carbon that got me back into science fiction again.  Therefore, I always make a point of reading his books whene they are released.  In this case it was Thin Air, his first science fiction novel since his dark-fantasy trilogy.  Set in the same world of his previous Black Man book, Thin Air was a fantastic SF-noir that had me gripped from start to finish.

I played a few video games this year, such as Vampyr and Star Wars: Battlefront 2, but none grabbed as much as Julian Gollop’s Phoenix Point.  Although only recently released, Phoenix Point is the game I have been waiting for the most.  Julian Gollop created the turn-based tactical squad-combat genre in the eighties with games like Rebelstar Raiders and Laser Squad, and in his latest game he has taken everything he has learned to create an entirely new experience.

I continued to play Star Wars: Force and Destiny with my gaming group, an ongoing roleplaying game that we have been playing for nearly three years.  We also gave the Call of Cthulhu starter set a try, which was a fantastic introduction to this new edition.

Starter sets have become a popular method for introducing gaming to new players.  A friend picked up the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit at GenCon for me.  Whilst it remains recognisably Cyberpunk 2020, it addresses some of the problems with the original game and advances the setting so that we are no longer playing in modern day.  Needless to say, I cannot wait to see what the core rulebook is like when it is released next year.

After learning that a Beginner Set of Legend of the Five Rings had been released, I had to pick it up.  This is a game in which I adored the feudal-Japan-inspired setting, but disliked the rules system, as it was too similar to the D20 mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons.  This new edition by Fantasy Flight Games (who also developed the Star Wars RPG) works much better, whilst still being in keeping with the core ideas of the game.

This seemed to be a year of developers finally getting roleplaying games right, as The Onyx Path also released the second edition of Scion.  The first edition by White Wolf had a fantastic premise, in that players take on the role of incarnations of the gods, but it was mechanically broken, to the point of being unplayable.  This new edition has kept the same excellent setting and premise, but used a completely new system.  This new system was more in keeping with the game’s core themes and reflected the mythic in the mundane aspects of the game.

During the holidays, I introduced Caelia to Mansions of Madness, a cooperative boardgame that uses an app to manage most of the mechanics.  Essentially, it plays like a boardgame version of the classic Lovecraftian roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu.  We finished this first scenario with comparative ease, and were doing really well in the second scenario (Escape from Innsmouth), until within the space of ten minutes our characters had both gone insane and then died.

I recently woke up to find I had been sent a complete set of Alien: The Roleplaying Game to be reviewed.  Needless to say, as a fan of the setting, and of their rules-light approach, I love the game and cannot wait to try it out with my gaming group.

Finally, I started listening to the Mongolian rock band The Hu.  Although I cannot speak – or sing – Mongolian, they are still a great band.  They have a unique sound as they use traditional Mongolian instruments.

Back to the future

It has to be a good sign that next year will be 2020, the year when Cyberpunk is set.  This is especially auspicious, as the first of my articles for Dicebreaker will be published on 1st January 2020.

Commissions are already lined up for next year, including one with a new client, which will see me heading over to Sheffield for the day.

Finally, as well as my annual pilgrimage to the UK Games Expo, I have been invited back to Sci-Fi Weekender in April, with the intent of taking on more active role in interviewing guests.

For now, it is the Christmas holidays, where I am able set my keyboard aside for a little while. This is mostly because the kiddies are back from school…

In this calm moment before the storm of New Year’s Eve, I would like to wish all of my readers a very happy new year and to thank you all for taking the time to read my articles.