2021; Well, it was better than 2020…

2021; Well, it was better than 2020…

There were high hopes that 2021 might compensate for the disappointment that was 2020.  Unfortunately, the continuing Covid restrictions meant that caution was still needed.  That is not to say this year was a complete washout, just that we had hoped for better.

I started the year writing for Country Smallholding magazine, recounting our many tales of building stables on a budget and the fun/challenges (delete as appropriate) of combining field management with family life.  NME was another new client, for whom I wrote an article about video games developers’ ongoing fascination with Chernobyl.  I also started writing for the new sci-fi website The Companion, where I was able to indulge my love of classic science fiction by writing about Farscape, The Expanse and Stargate: Universe.

Interviewing Denis Lawson

I continued covering security legislation for Computer Weekly, with the Online Safety Bill and Telecommunications (Security) Bill, as well as GCHQ’s use of AI.  I wrote about commercially viable fusion reactors for the BBC.  For Dicebreaker I continued researching the psychological benefits of roleplaying games, which was based on my talk for Unrelated Stories last year.  I also returned to IT Pro, writing about the security risks of reply-all emails.

It is almost eight years since I started writing for Geek Pride.  I now co-host their weekly podcast and play in the livestream D&D campaign.  Some of our podcast guests this year included authors Gareth L Powell, Sophie Sparham and CC Adams, as well as HEMA instructor Fran Lacuata and RPG developer Matthew Dawkins.

As Covid restrictions lifted during the summer, I was able to attend physical events.  My first was the UK Games Expo, and whilst we were still masked up, it was great to see everyone again. I also attended FantasyCon for the first time in ten years, where I met many of my author friends.  I returned to Wales Comic Con, where I interviewed Denis Lawson (Wedge Antilles in the Star Wars films).

After using an increasingly underpowered laptop, I upgraded to Asus Zenbook.  I admit to taking an unorthodox approach to benchmarking new laptops, by stress-testing them using the Cyberpunk 2077 videogame.

I finished the year by expanding my services into copywriting, after I was recommended by the editor-in-chief of Computer Weekly.  I have written for Computer Weekly for seven years, so it was flattering to see their high regard for me.

An unexpected consequence of writing for Computer Weekly is the amount of time I am now expected to spend resolving my family’s various IT problems.  I recently fixed my mother-in-law’s printer and advised another relative on which laptop to buy.  When my teenage daughter’s ICT teacher failed to set any work for the class during lockdown, I signed her up to the Open University’s Cyber Security course.

Life, the universe and something

It was not the best start of the year, as a tyre burst on my car just as we were pulling out of our driveway.  This was a sign of things to come.

A month later I was admitted to hospital in March due to complications with my health.  I was discharged a few days later, after all the student nurses had been brought in to see me for a “Here is an interesting case” talk.  Unfortunately, I was readmitted a couple of days later when symptoms recurred.  I was finally discharged a second time, after the doctors could not work out what to do with me.  However, everything now seems to be back to normal.  Or as normal as they get for me.

Despite having physio for a frozen shoulder, which is slowly healing, I continued cycling whenever health and weather permit.  I also returned to martial arts after finding a local Kung Fu school.  It is great to be learning Kung Fu again, as it is a martial art I love.  I recently earned my yellow belt, allowing me to do weapons training.  My next lesson was stick fighting, and I swear I was not making lightsaber sound effects.

As restrictions slowly eased, we were able to get out more.  Caelia and I explored Lea Bridge’s industrial heritage for our anniversary in March.  In April, we took the children to try out paddleboarding with some friends.  In the summer I was able to meet up with friends I had not seen for a long time at an open-air party.

Trying on accessories at the UK Games Expo

The kiddies continued to be amazing despite these incredibly ‘interesting times’ (in the Chinese proverb sense of the phrase).  My daughter is now a teenager, which frankly terrifies me.  My eldest son remained his cheerful self, despite being forced to self-isolate on his birthday due to a potential Covid contact.

The lessening of restrictions meant that we were able to finally go on holiday.  After our holidays were cancelled last year, it was great for us all to spend a week together visiting Scarborough and exploring the area.

The ongoing pandemic and associated walks in the countryside led us to discovering the joys of foraging, especially after finding out how tasty wild garlic is.  Unfortunately, on one foraging trip we accidentally used a bag that had a hole in a pocket… and lost the door keys.  Learning how to break into a house (in this case our own) is definitely not the career path I had anticipated after covering security.

We also had to deal with the oven not working, which required a repair specialist coming to replace the heating element.  This necessitated switching off the oven, whilst they replaced the part, and switching it back on again.  This latter part proved challenging, as the child-lock was on.  Luckily my teenage daughter figured out how to unlock it.

I finally visited London for a security conference in Convent Gardens.  After paying £5 for an orange juice (thus proving I was in London), I entered the conference and the first thing anyone said to me was a compliment about my hair!  Midway through a discussion on non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and the future of cybersecurity, we were asked if any of us read Charles Stross.  I said that I have had beers with him…

Read, watched and recommended

As you have guessed, I am a huge fan of Charles Stross’s writing, so it was great to read his latest novel, Dead Lies Dreaming.  Set in his Laundry Files universe, this story contains a multitude of references to the KLF, which made me laugh out loud.

John Higgs is an author whom I only recently discovered.  I finally read his book KLF; Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned A Million Pounds, which was just as insightfully insane as the KLF were.  I also read his book The Future Starts Here, which was – despite the ongoing economic, political and sociological issues around us – an incredibly optimistic outlook on the coming century.

A similarly optimistic book, despite the massive challenges he faced, was J Michael Straczynski’s autobiography Becoming Superman. I have enjoyed Straczynski’s writing ever since I watched Babylon 5, back in the mid-nineties.  Learning about his harrowing childhood made me respect his writing even more.

I continued filling the gaps in my William Gibson collection, with his latest novel, Agency. This was a story that combined rival parallel-reality servers, weaponised virtual assistants and haptic recon combat drones, with Gibson’s sharply sparse prose, into a story like no other.

I read many graphic novels this year, however none stood out quite like Exorsisters.  This was an urban-fantasy tale about a pair of demon-hunting twin-sisters and has a unique twist at the end.  The urban-fantasy genre rarely interests me, but in this case the razor-sharp dialogue was bitingly wonderful.

As part of the research for my articles on The Expanse, I rewatched the series, just in time for the sixth and final season, as well reading the books the series is based on.  Unfortunately, Caelia does not enjoy the series as much as I do, mostly because the science is too accurate to play “Spot the errors.”

Into The Night continued to be an excellent series that Caelia and I enjoyed.  Although the second season suffered from overused tropes, such as “soldiers are evil”, it was still an absolutely fascinating series that made for compulsive viewing.

Shadow and Bone had an interesting premise (a magical no-mans-land created in a steampunk setting).  I suspect that there were two different writing teams.  Although Alina and Mal were the main characters, we were far more interested in following the Kaz and Inej storylines.  Whilst all of the protagonists came together in the finale, Kaz and his crew were far more fun and interesting – especially the incorrigible gunfighter Jesper.

I watched The Great Hack, which explored how deep the Cambridge Analytica scandal went.  This was as much journalistic research as it was personal curiosity, but it swiftly became unsettling viewing.  I could only watch it in half-hour bites, as the documentary did not make for relaxing viewing just before bed.

I listen to podcasts a lot, whether I am driving, shopping or just hanging up the washing.  One of the best I listened to this year is The Missing Crypto Queen, which is a documentary series about Ruja Ignatova and the OneCoin scam.  It was incredibly well produced and included fantastic insight into how people were exploited on such a large scale.

I continued watching the Marvel films with my eldest kiddies.  Black Widow was fun, but suffered from being five years too late.  Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was excellent however.  It respectfully combined Chinese culture with Marvel storytelling, to create a unique tale with some fantastic choreography.  I particularly appreciated Shang Chi’s training in Kung Fu being his initial ‘super power’.

The Purge films concluded with the Forever Purge.  This latest film brought the series to its natural conclusion, with extremist supporters demanding the purge to continue; to ‘purge’ everyone who was ‘unamerican’.  There was an excellent use of American iconography (cowboys and trucks), along with some fantastic dialogue, such as “Listen to the rhythm; homegrown music from the American heartland right there.  That’s American music right there…”

One film that surprised me, regarding how good it was, is The Matrix: Resurrections.  Caelia and I adore The Matrix, but the first two sequels lacked the bite of the original.  It would be fair to say reactions to Resurrections have been mixed, but as I explained in my review; The Matrix: Resurrections has a very specific audience in mind; those that first watched The Matrix in 1999 and were inspired by the subsequent shift in the cultural zeitgeist, but have now settled into modern life.  Needless to say, The Matrix: Resurrections spoke to us at a fundamental level.

A video game that I enjoyed was Star Wars: Jedi – Fallen Order.  The gameplay shared many similarities with the Dark Souls fantasy video games, such as respawning enemies and difficulty spikes, but it was an amazing game that recreated lightsaber combat and had a fantastic storyline. Despite the annoying difficulty spikes, solved by reducing the difficulty settings at certain moments, this game was a joy to play.

Another game I played was Cyberpunk 2077.  The Night City setting was fantastically realised in bright neon, which made a welcome contrast with other dimly-lit dark future settings.  The story was amazingly written and voice-acted, with some incredible moments that pulled at the heart strings.

I also picked up Cyberpunk RED, the latest edition of the Cyberpunk tabletop roleplaying game.  Whilst broadly similar to the prior Cyberpunk 2020 (we will forget the dismal Cyberpunk v3), Cyberpunk RED streamlined the system and advanced the setting to 2040, thirty years before the videogame, whilst retaining the street-level technology curve.

Symbaroum was an interesting roleplaying game, which tied the magic system into its setting, creating a unique dark-fantasy universe.  This was a game where the players needed to avoid reading the metaplot too much, as much of the fun playing this game comes from uncovering the mysteries of the dark forest.

Finally, I was saddened to learn that after 25+ years, Huey Morgan left the Fun Lovin’ Criminals.  They are a band I have followed since 1996, when I listened to their debut album Come Find Yourself.  Although Fast and Uncle Frank will continue as the Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Huey was very much the face, and voice, of the band.

Back to the future

I concluded the year with a new commission from Computer Weekly about cybersecurity for children; a subject of particular interest to me.  I will also continue the copywriting side of my business.

In February I will (hopefully) be attending another security conference in London.  April is already looking pretty busy, with Wales Comic Con (where I plan to interview Bruce Campbell), as well as covering Sci-Fi Weekender for Geek Pride.

On the personal side, we have already booked our summer holiday by the sea.  My eldest is going on a skiing holiday in February (Covid permitting), and, if the boys have a sleepover at Grandma’s, Caelia and I might have night out together for the first time in over two years.  Stranger things have happened!

For now, I am enjoying some much-needed time relaxing with the family (whilst guilt-tripping my daughter for seeing Spider-Man: No Way Home without us) and looking forward to a fun-filled new year.

Peter Ray Allison, December 2021
Somewhere in the vicinity of Derby

On holiday with Caelia in Scarbrough