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NOTE: Within seconds of publishing this review, I realised that a new and major update had been released the day before, introducing many of the features people had complained were missing from the game and making significant tweaks that will radically affect game-play. No doubt, by the time I get around to reviewing these changes, it’ll change again, but it is certainly pleasing to see that the changes have been made and it vindicates my faith in Hello Games and their continued commitment to making this great game even better. The Foundation Update notes can be found here.

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No Man’s Sky ended up having a pretty rough landing. Within the space of a week it went from being the most anticipated game in years, to making some of the most successful sales figures on release, to being flamed by users and put in its place by lukewarm reviews. Many players felt greatly disappointed, if not cheated and there has been a flurry of buyers asking for their money back. More recently the developers, Hello Games, were subject to a false advertising probe after claims that the content showcased in the trailer had not materialised in game and that the promotional material was therefore deliberately misleading. Company director and key designer of the game, Sean Murray, has seemingly gone to ground, with some speculating that his lack of communication suggests the independent studio has in fact been abandoned and that there is no intention of fulfilling the promises of further updates and expanded content, though this is unsubstantiated rumour and speculation.

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What lies ahead for No Man’s Sky?

Much of this criticism feels unfair towards a game that, in spite of what it lacks, still offers a great many magical experiences and is an important milestone in procedurally generated game-worlds. It is also pretty rough on the developers, who are a small, niche company without the massive resources that usually underlie such ambitious game developments. Perhaps Sean Murray needs to learn a thing or two about public relations, but, considering the manner in which haters, trolls and flamers on the net make their feelings known, he can hardly be blamed for stepping back while this shitstorm of nastiness runs its course.

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Looks like a shitstorm ahead…

Personally, I think Sean Murray and his colleagues at Hello Games should stand up and take a bow, for No Man’s Sky is a magnificent piece of work. For three weeks I wanted to do nothing more than explore this effectively endless galaxy and had no trouble in clocking up almost a hundred hours before running out of steam. Unfortunately, despite this seeming a worthwhile return from any entertainment product for a mere 50 odd dollars, (consider what you pay for a film at the cinema and how long it lasts) many people assume that the game should go on providing hundreds, if not thousands of hours of gameplay. Arguably such expectations are built into the game’s very premise. A galaxy that is, to all intents and purposes, never-ending, certainly suggests limitless play, but then again, arguably, the game delivers precisely that. Despite there being significant limits to what one can do in the game, there is absolutely nothing stopping players from continuing to explore this universe for decades.

So, where do you draw the line? There are many games which cost the same price and which can be completed in under ten hours. Do people ask for their money back with those titles? It all comes down to expectations, many of which were inflated not merely by Hello Games’ promotional material, but by players’ overzealous imaginings of what might indeed be possible.

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Not good enough?

Having said that, there are many legitimate criticisms of No Man’s Sky’s core promise of seemingly infinite procedurally-generated variety. Reviewers and gamers have complained about the shallow pool of elements which go into generating the planets, their lack of flowing water and the universal climates which prevail, with no distinction between the equatorial zone and the polar regions. Others have complained about the simplicity of space-battles and the absence of the more grandiose encounters hinted at in the promos, along with the general lack of game-play. It is not possible to craft anything beyond upgrades for one’s ship, Exosuit and Multitool, and once these have been taken to a decent enough level, there is little incentive to find resources, except for fuel, survival and trading, which are really just ends in themselves.

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Maxed your equipment? Just relax and enjoy the scenery

No Man’s Sky is, essentially, a survival and trading game, and on both counts, it has its limitations. You will spend much of your time monitoring life-support levels, recharging your shields and equipment and firing your mining laser at crystals, vegetation and ore deposits.

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This sets up an at times tedious loop of resource extraction, finding a place to sell the goods, cleaning out your inventory, and then rinsing and repeating the whole thing over again. Survival in No Man’s Sky is also relatively easy, though this depends on the environment and climate. There’s rarely a shortage of elements to mine to recharge one’s suit and the biggest challenges usually come from the climate and weather. The good news is that it’s really up to the player to choose what level of challenge they are willing to accept. No Man’s Sky can be played slowly and safely on a clement world with mild temperatures and a hospitable atmosphere, where you can walk at your leisure and hardly ever have to charge your suit, or it can be played intensely in hostile environments where you are forced to seek shelter continually from radiation storms and icy blasts that send the thermostat below a hundred minus or up to 400 degrees centigrade.

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Frozen goggles

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328.5 Celsius – ouch

The challenge is also increased depending on the local attitude of the Sentinels. These are basically automated flying cameras with guns, which can be violently hostile on sight, or completely ignore your presence. Upon first landing on a planet, the relative degree of hostility is revealed by a rating, such as “passive”,  “hostile” or “frenzied”.

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Sometimes even looking seems to set them off…

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So much for paradise if you get attacked on sight

Much of the time they will ignore you, but mining too much of a material or destroying too much plant or animal life can really tick them off. There are also particular rare items that can be looted on planets such as Vortex Cubes or Albumen Pearls, and these will set the sentinels off irrespective of their attitude rating. “Frenzied” sentinels are, as the name suggests, cranky mofos and they will attack within five seconds of sighting the player. Either way, the sentinels are disappointingly easy to deal with and are more of an annoyance than anything else. They can also spoil immersion at times with their whirring gears and pulsing power sources intruding into the beautiful atmospherics.

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Don’t scan me, bro

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Careful what you harvest, it may anger the Sentinels

The ease or difficulty of play will inevitably appeal to different temperaments or moods. If you are happy just to wander in a pleasant, immersive environment and enjoy its beauty or bleakness, then the game offers such opportunities in spades. If you long for intensity and danger, it’s pretty easy to find a planet with an extreme environment to up the stakes.

The game begins on a random world, and consequently all players will have a very different starting experience, depending on the climate, environment, etc. The first job is to repair your ship, which offers a brief and not entirely intuitive tutorial-like opening, before moving onto the task of building a hyperdrive to allow you to travel between the stars.

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An early choice in the game, though the decision is by no means irrevocable

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Struggled to find Zinc at first. It’s in the yellow flowers…

Each planet, however, is, well, planet-sized and initially offers a huge range of exploration options. It is entirely possible to remain on the one planet forever and continue exploring, crafting and improving one’s equipment as, it seems, one player famously did in the days immediately after release.

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These pods can be used to purchase Exosuit inventory space

All planets contain a number of alien outposts, scattered about in densities that vary from world to world. These outposts come in a number of different forms; some being small research stations with a couple of shipping-container sized habitations, while others are more complete complexes – observatories, command centres, trading posts and spaceports.

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Space station stock exchange

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These trading interfaces can even be found floating at locations on the surface of a planet

These can be found simply by flying over terrain and looking for signs of structures, using the scanner on one’s ship, or, with the help of an easy-to-craft bypass chip, using the Signal Scanners which are often found at these outposts.

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Some of the larger outposts are occupied by one of the three different alien races in the game: the Gek, Korvax and Vy’keen (shown below, respectively) none of whom are hostile, though they can get pissed off at times.

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The encounters with the aliens are initially intriguing, if somewhat sparse and minimalist in dialogue, yet, limited though it might be, the dialogue is a puzzle in itself. One of the great innovations of No Man’s Sky is the ability to learn three different languages, which gradually improves your capacity to communicate. To begin with, they speak mere gobbledegook, but as you flesh out your vocabulary with key words, learned from Knowledge Stones, databanks, ancient alien sites, electronic encyclopaedias and encounters with other aliens, it becomes possible to make out enough of what they are saying to choose the appropriate response.

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The learned words, should they be used, will appear in English in the dialogue transcript, giving you the chance to decipher the overall meaning. This process is aided by one’s intuition, for the player is offered text-based insights into the actions and possible desires or intentions of the alien interlocutor based on observation of things such as body language or mood. This can at times make it very easy to choose the right response, but certainly not always.

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Say what?

The Alien ruins are attractive structures which allow the player to interact with them and usually face a choice with a chance for a reward. These often contain engaging story elements that can be quite emotive, but they also offer a chance for new equipment, upgrades, language learning and the chance to increase one’s standing with the alien races – a sort of diplomacy level that gives you more options in dialogues.

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These encounters also allow the player to learn new blueprints for technology which can be crafted. Blueprints can be acquired in a number of ways – through aliens, from wrecked machinery, crashed spaceships and various interactive terminals inside alien buildings. The blueprints are essential for improving the capability of your Exosuit, Multi-tool and spaceship, though the number available is disappointingly limited. After a flurry of discovery, you will find yourself constantly being told that the blueprint you discovered is already known.

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The only blueprints that seem almost impossible to find are those for the Atlas Pass 1, 2 and 3. Countless locked doors and containers in the game require one of these passes to open, and even after 100 hours of play, I’ve still only found the first pass, which opens practically nothing.

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By contrast, within only around forty hours of play, I had already maxed out my tech knowledge for the suit, ship and tool, which rather made exploring seem a whole lot less worthwhile. And ultimately, this is the main problem with No Man’s Sky. There is a feeling that sets in rather too early that there is actually almost nothing to do.

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Crashed ships can be claimed and repaired, though they are usually of a lesser quality than your own

There is certainly a lot of repetition in No Man’s Sky and this ultimately occurs in pretty well all aspects of the game. Outside of game-play itself, the terrain certainly has its limitations. The cave interiors on planets are universally built on the same template, with only minor variations in the undergrowth and shape of the mineral outcrops. They might be a great place to find valuable crafting materials, and initially very attractive, but they become all too familiar pretty quickly. Other frequent repetitions are the mushrooms which grow even on planets that are supposed to have no fauna, the large succulents which I call “jazz hands” and the iron ore outcrops, especially the ones that look like big upturned thimbles with shrooms sprouting from them.

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Jazz Hands aplenty

Underwater life is restricted to some very similar designs in flora, fauna and mineral deposits, though this does not in any way detract from the pleasure of swimming through these landscapes.

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Beautiful and smooth; underwater life in the variously coloured oceans

The range of surface temperatures also seems somewhat limited. Nowhere is really ever as cold as Pluto, nor do they get much hotter than a few hundred degrees, and then only during a fire storm.

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Extreme Toxic rain and hostile creatures, best to get off this planet quickly

All these elements are thrown together in different ways on every planet, but once you’ve visited around forty or so planets and moons, most of the terrain, rock formations, flora and fauna will all start to look familiar. And yet, there is no denying that plenty of those combinations are breathtakingly beautiful or astonishingly bleak and planets can be a delight either to walk around or fly over.

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How anyone could not find beauty in this game is beyond me

From space the planets seem majestic and inviting, or daunting, forbidding and mysterious. At times the nature of the surface only really becomes visible on close approach, or even during descent as the terrain resolves itself from the fog of the distant LOD. The first sighting of a world covered with oceans is thrilling, as are the green ones offering abundant life; such welcome and familiar sights.

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Green oceans ahoy!

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Another barren furnace?

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Spoiled for choice

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Breathtaking science fiction vistas abound

The star systems in the game come in different colours, Yellow, Red, Blue, Green which require different types of warp drive to access.

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The more difficult to reach systems offer richer pickings with regard to exotic and rare resources, but might also offer a more hostile welcome. They tend to contain more water worlds, which seem rather prevalent around green Type E stars. I personally had some gripes with the make-up of planetary systems, which are entirely devoid of gas giants.

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Many planets, but always just the one sun

Perhaps it just seemed pointless including planets whose surface could not be visited, though it would have been fun to let us learn the hard way not to fly into the crushing pressure of such beasts. Either way, the game feels less realistic as a consequence. Would it have been that difficult to throw a few into the algorithm, or even allow players to visit asteroids? There are also no binary systems, despite the fact that roughly 85% (yes, that’s correct) of known star systems in the Milky Way are binary or multiple systems. Gravity is also identical on every world and, while I can accept that it might have been no fun at all trying to move around on a planet with gravity ten times that of the Earth, surely this could be rectified with an Exosuit upgrade, and, on the flip side, it would have been a hell of a lot of fun to bounce across the surface of a low-gravity planet. I accept that this is a different galaxy and possibly a different universe, and hence it is up to the designers to choose the physics of this universe, which, are, to say the least, odd, considering the number of floating rocks and minerals to be found on planets. Still, binary worlds would have been a chance for even more beauty in the game, of which there is plenty, and which is never a bad thing.

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Wonderfully bleak

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There is also very limited information about the planets and the arrangement of these systems. Could we not know the distance from their star more readily? This is only really shown when heading towards a planet, and then only with regard to the time it takes to arrive there from your present position. That’s great if you want time to smoke a pipe, but not so great if you would like to know which planets are closest to the sun, something that is not always obvious. Could the ship scanner not provide a map showing their orbital paths relative to each other, as in Mass Effect? And with that in mind, what is the mass of these planets? Their diameter? None of this information is available and it’s disappointing for people such as myself who are obsessed with the dimensions of exo-planets and the many new dwarf planets we keep finding in our own system. Sure, we can see that some planets are much larger than others, but I’d like to know whether I’m on a super-Earth or a Ceres.

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Some pretty super earth-like worlds

The malleability of the terrain on these worlds is impressive and offers a lot of freedom. I’ve gotten utterly lost in underground caves before, unable to find a way to the surface and ended up blasting my way through the cave roof. Your scanner becomes your best friend in such situations, as it also reveals objects that are above you, allowing you to judge roughly how much rock is over your head. If you pick the right spot, you can blow holes in the rock with plasma grenades and, when the sky becomes visible above, simply jetpack out of there and kiss your claustrophobia goodbye.

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No way out? Blow a hole in the roof

Even when there is a lot of rock, you can blast a tunnel as high as your jetpack will allow you to fly, punch a ledge into the side of your shaft, and then get back to the job of blasting the rock above your head until the light breaks through. Now that’s cool. And, this strategy works both ways. Standing on top of a huge deposit, but unable to find an entrance to the cave system? Hey presto, just plasma grenade your way through the ground until you drop into the cave, or blast a tunnel as long as you need through the side of a mountain.

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A tunnel I dug myself, from one cave to the next

Being underground, or even just out of the wind, ensures that any harmful environmental effects are negated and this makes blasting a hole in the rock and hiding in it a great survival strategy in extreme environments.

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As if it wasn’t hot enough already – Radioactive storms!

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Don’t go too far from your ship or shelter on extreme worlds. Even the best protection won’t last long

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Another close call

In such hostile places, particularly when a storm strikes, the thermal protection bar will drop like a stone and you might well be caught in the open, too far from your ship to make it home. Many times I’ve had to run desperately underground, find a shaded windbreak, or blast my way into the rock, or the base of a mineral outcrop to create a sheltered cave. You can also exploit this terrain destructibility to mine safely in extreme environments.

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This used to be a huge Heridium deposit. Time to put in a swimming pool…

If you begin by blasting away the base of a mineral outcrop, you can climb into the hole, stabilise your thermal protection, and fire your laser upwards to mine the wealth overhead. Fortunately, on account of the strange physics in this game, the material never collapses on your head, even when none of it is left touching the ground. It just hangs in the air, as do huge floating hunks of copper and occasional rock platforms on some worlds, reminiscent of the Hallelujah Mountains in Avatar.

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Floating rocks!

As stated earlier, mining resources can become a little tedious after a while and it’s best to mix this up and not become too obsessive. Though mining is strangely compelling, it does get rather boring standing in the one spot and blasting, or “lazing” away at a gleaming chunk of aluminium, for example.

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The Swiss-cheese approach to ore extraction

It is perhaps more exciting to venture into cave systems and head towards the grey treasure chest symbols revealed by the scanner, which indicate the most valuable metals. These cave networks can extend for very long distances and the further one ventures inside, the more one is rewarded with richer deposits, usually found in the green crystalline forms of Gold, Aluminium or Emeril.

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This at least makes the process of ore-harvesting more dynamic. It’s just a pity all the caves look pretty much the same, though they are, in their way, attractive spaces and there is something thrilling about watching the scanner burst like a wave through the tunnels.

Predators can also significantly raise the tension, particularly when trapped in a cave with them. Most of the time hostile animals will seem a mere nuisance, doing little harm and being easy to flee from. Yet, on occasion, when they appear in numbers in an extreme environment with other stresses already upon you, they can prove to be very dangerous.

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This thing was annoyingly bitey

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All those red paw symbols are hostile creatures

Such was the case where, trapped in a cave, hiding from a freezing storm, I was cornered by four scorpion-like creatures who bit the hell out of me before I managed to blow a hole in the wall and climb out of their reach. Of course, you can just kill them, but they take a surprising amount of damage at times and the gun can be frustratingly crap at hitting the target at times.

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Fortunately, he was friendly

All this variation in the intensity of the game-play means that it can be heart-pumpingly challenging at times, and immersively relaxing at others. Yet, after a while, when one has discovered many worlds, fleshed out all the available techs and upgraded equipment sufficiently to overcome all challenges, it begins to seem rather pointless. At present, after a hundred or so hours of play, my Exosuit and Multitool are sufficiently maxed to overcome any challenges and I struggle to see any reason to upgrade my ship, which already has the best possible warp-drive and seems able to win any encounter with hostile spaceships readily enough.

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Sure, I could improve my cargo capacity, but why? It’s easy enough to haul loot back to a space-station, or find a trader on the surface of a planet, which rather makes it an end in itself. This sense of pointlessness is not aided by the fact that it is not possible simply to start the game again. I thought I must be missing some fundamental option on the menus, but Googling this shows that there is no way to start afresh, without going through a relatively complex process of editing files and directories. You could of course just abandon your ship and start again with regards to your equipment, but you would still retain all your skills. The languages, fortunately, seem far more abundant in the number of words that can be learned. This must be a significant reservoir, because even after having learned hundreds if not thousands of words, the aliens still speak nonsense at me more often than not.

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There is certainly a narrative to the game and one is encouraged gradually to find one’s way to the galactic centre, where I imagine some kind of endgame kicks in, but I haven’t made it there yet and refuse to spoil the surprise by reading about it. Your journey there is made possible by visiting the Atlas Interfaces which can be found in some systems. These also offer a chance to learn a large number of words from the glowing balls which occupy the gleaming floor inside the Atlas Interface and to gain Atlas Stones, which are apparently needed when one reaches the galactic centre.

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Another magnificent and slickly rendered interior

Some systems contain Space Anomalies – a kind of space station – all of which contain the same two entities: Priest Entity Nada and Specialist Polo, a Korvax and Gek respectively. These two cheery fellows can set you back on your path to the galactic centre, give you tech blueprints and other rewards based on your achievements so far. For example, having spent five or more days on extreme worlds will open up a reward for your intrepid exploration. The problem is, as always, that you will probably know the tech blueprint offered already. Polo can, however, on first encounter, give you the Atlas Pass blueprint, which literally opens a lot of doors.

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The Milestones and achievements offer some minor incentive to pursue certain targets, yet most of these are merely incidental to what you do and can be racked up easily enough without actively pursuing any of them. Also, as is the case with learning new techs, these Milestones – for things such as distance walked, number of warps between planetary systems, or alien ships destroyed – seem to dry up pretty quickly. There is, all the same, something special about these moments, which are nicely done.

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Yet, either way, the main idea of this game was always to explore and map at least some small part of this vast galaxy with its much vaunted 18 quintillion planets. The developers make it very clear in game that the main story is optional, and its intrusions into the game are minimal to say the least. Exploring, in itself, is great fun and there is a real joy to be found in naming planets, star systems, flora and fauna. After a while, however, this too becomes repetitive and feels a bit like a chore, somewhat akin to that old RPG bugbear – inventory management.

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Much of this sounds rather negative and potentially off-putting, but I would still strongly recommend No Man’s Sky. The initial rush of discovery, the freedom and beauty, the ease and smoothness of it all is intoxicating, at least for a while. The game also looks spectacular. Yes, it’s stylised and not hyper-realism, but the colours, clean lines and aesthetic design make a gorgeous whole. It is also accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack by Sheffield band 65daysofstatic. Minimalist and unobtrusive, the music complements the loneliness and emptiness of this vast galaxy, offering eerie moods and subliminal cues that can set the tone of one’s imaginings. This is important because No Man’s Sky requires some imagination to give one’s actions and travels a sense of purpose outside of the very sparse and optional narrative elements of the game. At times you get as much from this game as you bring to it. There are 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 worlds, which, it has been estimated, would take one player 5 billion years to explore, and then only if they visited for one second, not counting travel times in between. That is, to put it bluntly, an effing big sandbox with a heck of a lot of sand. Even after a hundred hours of play, I still find great pleasure in visiting a planet for the first time, seeing its sights and knowing that no one else has ever been there before.

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Another great aspect of No Man’s Sky is the smoothness with which one can transition from one environment to the next. With an easy, simple flow, it is possible to descend from space, rumbling through the atmosphere, cruise down and land beside an ocean, jump out and plunge straight into the water. The jetpack allows for easy avoidance of obstacles and dangers. It constantly replenishes itself and doesn’t need fuelling, but even with upgrades, the burst is relatively short-lived; enough to scale a height, get across a narrow canyon or break your fall on a long descent. Swimming underwater is also a pleasure, as much in its beauty as it is in the sense of relief from often harsh environments.

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Fancy a dip?

Flying is a breeze; a smooth and elegant ride. You can coast in a sort of crash-proof autopilot, or lean in and speed across the surface. Space has an easy driftiness to it; punch in the engines and zoom towards a planet, float about and pick off asteroids for minerals or even blow a hole in one of the bigger ones and fly straight through it. Space battles are hard at first, but soon become rather routine; yet they remain fun – a bit of sport before you get on with the job of trying to find some meaning in all this.

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Eat your heart out, Dennis

In space you will come across drifting freighters that warp right into one’s locality when you switch off the pulse engine. Occasionally they send distress signals; seeking help in dispensing with pirates. They can even be attacked if you are feeling brave or suicidal enough. Their hulking designs are attractively industrial, like the epic ships pictured in the sci fi books and games I fed on as a child, and it is a pleasure just to fly alongside them for a time.

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Careful where you shoot in a dogfight, as a few stray shots can bring retaliation

Equally the range of designs of individual ships offers some real curiosities. Many of the ships look awkward, asymmetrical  and un-aerodynamic, while others are sleek and streamlined. If you see one you like, in a space port, trading post or space station, it is possible to speak to the pilot and purchase their ship, if you have the vast sum usually required.

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Entering the atmosphere of a planet, one is met with a roaring of wind, a reddening of the screen’s edges and a bumpy ride.

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Atmospheric entry is very atmospheric

If you don’t get the angle right or slow down, you can bounce right off the atmosphere and veer back up into space, though this is easily corrected and hardly hazardous. As you near the surface, the features slowly resolve themselves into focus, often resulting in the vanishing of apparent features that were a mere mirage from the upper atmosphere.

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Lovely lakes? Or is it just a mirage?

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Oceans or clouds?

What one supposed were lakes might dissolve into valleys and canyons as the detail sharpens. This can be an exhilarating ride, swooping over oceans, mountains, forests, grasslands or sandy dunes. Humps of precious metals and geometrical towers of crystal poke from the surface; alien outposts can be spied, and every inch of it is open to visit.

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Flying over the surface of a new world is a great pleasure

Such is the immersion offered by this game that one’s emotions are often affected by the nature of the environments. Hot and dusty places make me anxious and thirsty, the cold and windswept have me longing to turn on the heater, while in lush environments I feel relaxed and happy. The excellent environmental sounds in No Man’s Sky enhance the game’s immersiveness. Rushing winds, pouring rain, haunting echoes and the eerie cries of strange beasts lend the stylised visuals an authenticity that reminded me of The Long Dark. The calls of the wild are even more remarkable for the fact that they are modified according to the randomised throat structure of the procedurally generated creatures.

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Hear the haunting bellows of the Long-finned Punchohat echo across this frozen world

An animal with a long, thin neck, will make a sound akin to such a creature on Earth, making the implausible seem, well, plausible. This is just another fine example of the many things that No Man’s Sky gets right. It really is a clever and beautiful game, slick, smooth, graceful, even sexy in its bold, futuristic colourings. It is one of the most immersive games I’ve ever played – high praise from a hardcore immersionista.

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Already this game has provided me with some of my very favourite science fiction moments. On a world of blue oceans, iron-red rock and dunes, I chased three ships halfway across the surface, hoping they might lead me to a trading post. In that friendly chase we dipped and climbed over land and sea, cruising across mountains, skimming across the surface of the waters; colourful contrails streaking from the jets of this trio of attractive ships. I soon forgot about my overfull inventory and flew half-way around the planet in their wake.

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Had I wanted to, I could have shot them down, but in such a lonely universe, without other players or anyone else who speaks my language, this random moment of bonding, entirely of my own generation, felt palliative.

The sense of loneliness in No Man’s Sky is one of its strengths. Never encountering another of your own kind and spending much of the game in vast, open spaces, venturing into mostly empty buildings, leaves the player with a sense of loss as well as a sense of being lost. In the small, rectangular habitats which are always unoccupied, one can switch the light on and off or swivel the chair and watch as it spins slowly to a halt; actions which become symbolic of a yearning for familiarity, for comfort and company in all the emptiness. The aliens, despite their occasional warmth, merely add to the loneliness with their preoccupied distance.

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Empty chairs and a light for no one. Evidence of habitation abounds, but not a soul to be found

Yet there is much relief to be found in sheer beauty, though this too is tinged with the sadness of experiencing it all alone. On my favourite planet of all, Leura Falls, the most Earth-like yet discovered, I strolled through swathes of shifting green grass, admiring the pink trees and bright blue skies and the vast blue oceans with their sandy shores. With a comfortable temperature of around 8.2 degrees and a benign atmosphere, I could explore for very long periods of time without ever having to charge my life support. Even the frequent freezing storms, which sent the thermometer plummeting to -23, hardly bothered my thermal protection. The shifting colours from dawn to sunset were mesmerising, soothing, awe-inspiring. It was very difficult to leave, and, indeed, I went back there for a while, missing its easy-going mildness and abundant, attractive life. I would love for others to visit this place, yet what are the chances of this happening in such a vast galaxy?

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The strange beasts that inhabit the worlds can also be a delight and a source of comfort. When the creatures are not hostile, it is possible to interact with them and feed them. This makes them happy, as indicated by a floating happy face above them, and they will then lead the player to a reward of some kind – usually a rare isotope or somesuch, but of pretty meagre value.

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The way to his heart is through his stomach

The fauna comes in different densities and some planets can be teeming with abundant life, while others contain a few scattered creatures. The variety of the animals is inevitably limited by the range of options available to the algorithms, but while many similar creatures have appeared, some of them have been wonderfully varied, amusing, and, at times, utterly ridiculous. The numerous species of “Sloppenders” (my name) had me laughing myself silly on first contact.

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Strawberry Sloppender – named after the heavy pillow that was banned from childhood pillow fights

Some players have complained of glitches, crashes, issues with frame-rates locking up and the like, but from the day of release, I’ve had no such issues at all. Indeed, I was greatly impressed on first firing the game up at how seamless it all was. I saved the game frequently to avoid any catastrophes, but soon found this to be unnecessary as the game has never crashed. NOT ONCE. As with any game, there is a learning curve, particularly with regard to crafting and understanding what is worth keeping extracting or looting. You will also likely come out of your first space battle the worse for wear, if you don’t simply get blasted out of the sky, but this is ultimately an extremely smooth game with an elegant flow and ease of movement and play.

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No Man’s Sky is a Milestone in itself

No other game has yet come close to No Man’s Sky in attempting to realise the incomprehensible scale of the galaxy, let alone the universe. No other game allows the exploration of so many fully-rendered environments. Our galaxy alone contains more than two hundred billion stars and an even greater number of planets yet to be discovered. It is unlikely that we will ever be able to explore it so freely as we can in a game, but by simulating such a vast and unexplored space and the wonders it must contain, certainly in geography, almost certainly in other forms of life, it might encourage us to try. Getting through the next hundred years is challenge enough, but if we are still stuck here in that unimaginably distant future when the Earth can no longer support life, then we’ll really be in trouble.

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Future Earth?

If you are content with an open world (galaxy) that allows you to explore extensively, to construct your own narratives, pursue your own goals and to revel in the moments that come at random, rather than necessarily as another complication or climax of the narrative, then you will find a lot of possibility in this game. That one cannot construct a base or space-station or anything else beyond a ship does place some limits on realising your imaginings, though I suspect this is designed to encourage players to continue exploring and not merely bunker down on a single world. Such options, however, have been promised for future updates and the game’s critics may yet be answered with new and significant content. Yet, even without any further updates, the game is still worth playing in its present form. The joy I received across tens of hours was worth every penny and I continue to get pleasure from No Man’s Sky. It might be a flawed masterpiece, but it is, in fact, a masterpiece.

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Naxos, September 22, 2013

There’s a Fleet Foxes song titled “Mykonos” which became a theme song for this trip to Greece in 2013. With its curiously nostalgic and mournful tone, it also expresses a certain hope and liberation accompanied by a sense of loss and acceptance of such. The song seems to be about a journey, about love and rejection and the need for connection, though one can only interpret this as best as possible from the sparse lyrics. It offers more of an impression than explicit clarity, which is perhaps the reason I love it so much. Around two minutes into the song, a change occurs where, in that heartrending harmony so typical of the Fleet Foxes, they sing: “Brother you don’t need to turn me away, I was waiting down at the ancient gate.” And, although this song is titled Mykonos, I’ve always associated this with the standing remains of the door to the temple of Apollo on Naxos.

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Temple of Apollo, Naxos

I first saw this splendid ruin from a ferry in 2001, when travelling between islands on my way back from Santorini. I didn’t alight at Naxos on that occasion, though the ferry docked there and spent some time in the port and I spent the entire time staring at this temple ruin and thinking of all the many wonders across the islands. Years later, when I first heard this song and fell in love with it, all I could think about was this striking, standalone temple gate on Naxos. I suspect the reference is actually to the ruins on the island of Delos, which are most easily visited from Mykonos and a key reason for going to that more lively island, though this is just a guess. Either way, this is one of my favourite songs of all time. Something about the combination of “Mykonos” with the image of the temple, and the idea of perhaps travelling there with my brother in what would be a historic first trip to Europe together, work to create a powerful mood of yearning and nostalgia. When I dream of my ideal paradise, it is always a vision of travelling around the Aegean by ferry.

This may all seem irrelevant in combination with the image presented here, but this shot is in fact taken from that ancient gate, looking the other way towards the old town on the rugged and beautiful island of Naxos. We had been listening to the song repeatedly in preparation for and during our journey, and it was very stirring and emotionally satisfying to find myself standing beneath its giant lintel. It was a windy day and plumes of spray whipped up off the water on one side of the harbour wall, while on the other side, the sea was contrastingly calm. The foreground focus on V in this case and resulting haziness of the backdrop makes this image seem appropriately dream-like and evokes intense nostalgia every time I look at it. It is for these reasons, irrespective of technical and compositional qualities or lack thereof, that this photograph is one of my all-time favourites.

Siem Reap Market, June 28, 2009

Siem Reap Market, June 28, 2009

Food markets the world over are often very similar places. Outside of the more polished, and middle class inner-city farmers’ markets that have become so popular in western cities, the older-style markets can have a very familiar character. They are crowded and busy; practical rather than pretty; no-nonsense, down to earth, and often messy with food scraps littering the grimy floors. No amount of scrubbing and hosing can quite clear the stains nor remove the lingering smells of fish, fruit and vegetables. They are also often dimly-lit places, with bare globes hanging from high warehouse ceilings, or fluorescent lamps suspended over the stalls. And the people who work there are a special breed of trooper – hard-working, early-rising and more often than not, looking like they’ve been through the wars.

Before I was born my father used to work at Paddy’s Markets in Sydney, doing twelve-hour shifts after working as a journalist to earn extra money. His stories of how hard the work was seemed incredible to me at a young age – throwing fifty kilogram crates of pineapples from trucks, slogging it out all night without sleep – and visiting the markets was made more interesting by these accounts. Since then I’ve always felt a respect for market workers, who exuded an admirable roughness and toughness – broken toothed smiles, calloused hands, dirty clothes, pens and cigarettes behind ears. They were friendly and generous to me as a child and formed, in my young mind, a lasting working-class archetype. My dad, being an old-school socialist, always taught me to respect the workers.

This shot was taken in the covered market in Siem Reap, Cambodia and it reminds me of just how exhausting, demanding and tedious this kind of work is. One can hardly blame this lady for taking a well-earned nap in the uncomfortably heat under the sun-baked roof. As much as I enjoyed its colourful shabbiness, I found it difficult to spend much time in here on account of the smell of decomposing seafood which I can still recall with disquieting accuracy; a rich fug of putrescence; sickly sweet, like a warmed and suppurating aquatic durian. I did wonder how the workers could stand it, but in a town with such awful levels of inequality, with the disgusting decadence of the tourist streets right next to the crushing poverty of the less fortunate locals, marginalised by the riches of Angkor Wat, I guess at least these people were luckier than those left on the outside by the tourist economy.

When my brother was down from Brisbane recently we visited my parents and took the opportunity to go through the stuff in the shed. Both of us have, over the years, salvaged most of our treasured childhood loot but we still have many boxes stashed away. From among the school books, stamp collections and “licky-down books” we unearthed a 1979 Rigby Usborne publication entitled: The World of the Future: Future Cities by Kenneth Gatland and David Jefferis. The front page boasts of “Colonies in Space”, “Solar heated houses”, “Amazing sports” and “Wristwatch TV,” while the salient image is of a sizeable city on the moon, housed in three glass domes. This rather optimistic publication proved to be a time capsule in its own right and was great grist to the mill of one of my favourite subjects – past visions of the future.

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This very idea of imagining how things will look in the future is a relatively recent concept. Most medieval Europeans looked more to the past and sighed at their small stature before the glories of Rome, while in East Asia at the same time, despite advanced technical innovation, societies looked inward, more interested in maintaining traditions than imagining a vastly different future. People certainly dreamed of greater prosperity, but this vision was likely just a wealthier version of the present society, without wholly new technologies and innovations.

It is only really since the late Renaissance and the industrial revolution that we have more broadly imagined the idea of a future in which societies were far more advanced technologically. There have long been people who thought up and, in some cases, implemented, radical social shifts, alongside more fantastical, idealistic utopias, but in recent times these ideas have become more wedded to technologies not yet invented or those in a nascent form which promised immense change. Our rate of technical advancement reached such an extreme in the 20th century that, in 1970, Alvin Toffler coined the term “Futureshock” in his book of the same title, which basically posited that humanity was experiencing a psychological condition of culture shock caused by “too much change in too short a period of time.” So accustomed did we become to the whirlwind of advancement and the expectation of radical societal shifts that we were able to imagine an entirely different world emerging within a single generation.

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These past visions of the future are fascinating in the way they reveal our inevitable naivety as much as our impressive ambition. They show us not only the overzealous hopes of our imagination, but also its limitations. How quaint and pathetic seems the idea of wrist-watch TV, compared to the miraculous multifunctionality of contemporary smart devices. Yet, how utterly ludicrous the idea of a city of ten thousand people orbiting the Earth is in contrast to the three astronauts presently occupying the International Space Station. As for solar-heated houses, at least they were right on this score. Though we may not yet live in a world where we all have solar panels on our roofs, it is a well-established technology with increasingly rapid uptake.

This last prediction sits with several other sensible and well-considered ideas, which are probably best illustrated in the double-spread “A House of the Future.”

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This suggests that future houses will rely increasingly on renewables, such as wind and solar; that our communications will increasingly take place via satellite; that we will be driving electric cars and that many home functions might be controlled by a central computer. While electric cars might be slowly arriving, what we now call “the internet of things” – the interconnection of practical electronic devices like fridges, washing machines, dryers, air conditioning – hasn’t really taken off, despite years of talk.

Over the page, the arrival of flat-screen, wall-mounted televisions is rightly predicted, though their date of the late 1980s is now recognisably far-fetched. The clunky “TV telephone,” the enormous home computer unit with its antiquated buttons and the drink-dispensing robot reveal, once again, the limitations of our imagination, most obvious in the total absence of anything like the internet.

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Whereas the “Risto” – a digital watch with unattractive antennae poking out on four sides – is promoted as a “wrist-watch, radio-telephone” that could be used for electronic voting, secure police communication and as a panic-button in emergencies. They also suggest that by “punching out an enquiry number” a lost person could “ask for guidance back to the nearest town.” While the idea that the Risto would rely on something similar to the GPS satellite array is certainly on the money, the inability to conceive of anything as all-encompassing as the internet, makes this all seem rather dull.

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Perhaps inevitably, the most glaring over-optimism in this book lies in our imagined future in space. Just as Bladerunner, made in 1983, expected much of humanity to be living in off-world colonies by 2019, so this book suggests that the 2020 Olympics might take place on the moon. Unfortunately for the dreamers of the past, the Tokyo games will be all too sublunary.

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The authors also posit a skyscraper that stretches all the way into space, with vast tubes up which people might travel in shuttles fired along see-through vacuum tubes; a city of 10, 000 people orbiting Earth in one of the gravitationally neutral Lagrange points; space-shuttle refuelling stations; a huge city on the moon with an already well-established industrial sector firing materials into space to build further orbital cities. It goes without saying that none of this has happened, not even remotely.

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I’ve written elsewhere about how long I expect it will be before any significant human presence is established outside of the Earth – more likely hundreds of years than decades. Sure, a long-desired observatory on the far side of the moon might be possible, and maybe we’ll see five or six people on Mars, but none of this is likely to happen before the second half of the 21st century and, even then, at a stretch. It must be noted however that my projections are based on current levels of investment and the rate of realisation of necessary technologies, whereas, coming off the crest of the Moonshot and Space Race, had the levels of funding that went into the Apollo program been sustained, I suspect we’d at least have several larger space stations orbiting the Earth by now and some sort of minor, token presence on the moon. None of these, however, would be even remotely on the scale proposed in this book.

Probably the most silly idea of all, despite coming initially from Carl Sagan, is that of seeding Venus with bacteria and algae to feed on the carbon dioxide and other poisonous gases that blanket the planet, eventually producing enough oxygen to cause water-rain to fall. “It will not get as far as the surface, boiling to steam before it gets there,” say the authors. “But each time it rains, surface temperatures drop a little.” Eventually, they suggest, increasingly heavy rain will scrub the noxious gases from the atmosphere and allow a more Earth-like climate to develop there. I love this idea, but it seems little more than a pipe-dream, as is evident when taking into account all the other problems we would face in making Venus even remotely habitable. Carl Sagan himself later shot down his own plan, in the wake of a more sophisticated understanding of Venus’ atmosphere.

Finally, though it appears relatively early in the book, there is a double spread which posits two possible futures for the inhabitants of Earth – the “Garden city on a cared-for planet” or the “polluted city of a dying world.”

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I’d like to think that, in the developed world at least, we are moving increasingly towards the garden city idea, but the stubborn persistence in burning fossil fuels, the scale of the human population, the stupidity of post-truth polities who repeatedly elect neo-conservative capitalists intent on burning up the entire planet in the face of an impending environmental catastrophe, makes that future very uncertain indeed. The authors were indeed right about one thing – that it is advancements in technology and increasingly clean and efficient practices which will ensure a better future for us all. I salute their positive vision of a cleaner, greener Earth, which is, in many ways, coming true at a grass-roots level if not at the all-important level of government. Fingers-crossed, the worst-case scenarios of our present visions of the future won’t come to pass, and several decades from now, we’ll be able to chuckle at those pictures of a stifling, suffering world of hunger, conflict and inequality.

Evora, Portugal, August 27, 2007

Evora, Portugal, August 27, 2007

Before going travelling, I always used to say to myself – “Beware Day One.” On the first day of a trip, I was prone to screwing up at least once. This might be something relatively minor, such as forgetting to grab my phone charger on the way out or a bigger inconvenience like messing up a transport connection. The first day was always a hard slog as I’d invariably had an early flight, almost no sleep, and was not yet “travel-fit”. By this I mean that instinctive, hyper-awareness about everything that is a great boon to the experienced traveller. My first and only visit to Evora was one such example of a first-day screw-up, when, after a very long day – flying on no sleep from chilly London into 38 degree Seville heat, wandering for hours, then catching a late afternoon bus to Evora – I didn’t get off at the right stop and sailed on into the next town. By the time I got on another bus going back the other way, an hour had passed and I arrived in Evora well after sunset.

This might all seem rather trivial, but considering I only had time to stay in Evora for one night, I was gutted that I would not be able to photograph the Roman temple and other ruins at sunset. Still, Evora by night was a splendid place. Quiet and empty, except round its elevated centre where people sat at restaurant tables or drank in the piazza. The cobbled streets were clean and warm, radiating all the day’s heat which seemed to come from the dim orange light. The marble columns of the temple were perhaps even more evocative by the light of the full moon which shone so brightly in the clear night sky.

This shot was taken the following morning, when clouds briefly blocked the sun. The lady in this image walked slowly and quietly, looking as a silhouette like some timeless Mediterranean figure. Even as the morning grew, the little town never really seemed to wake up, and this image always reminds me of the calm and ancient nature of the place. As does that beautiful piece of music by Loreena McKennitt Tango to Evora – which, sure, enough, I listened to while walking the streets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I began writing this on the hottest July day that I recall – bear in mind that, in the Southern Hemisphere, this is the middle of winter – whereas today is awash with rain. It is not, however, a cold day, and the air has a springtime humidity and welcome mildness. Usually such conditions only prevail at the end of August, when spring announces itself prematurely before falling back into hibernation. Yet, nothing about the weather will surprise me this year, as, under the reign of El Nino, under the carbon loading of the Anthropocene, temperature records fall around us like flies dying from heat exhaustion.

While every part of the Earth is being affected by climate change in its own way, Australia, with its often very tenuous, marginal ecosystems, has already been particularly hard hit. This year has seen unparalleled forest fires raging through the rainforests of Tasmania; not the rejuvenating, replenishing kind of fires either, but destructive and devastating fires in a land unused to such dry soil and conditions. Along thousands of kilometres of the east coast, the Great Barrier Reef has suffered its worst ever episode of coral bleaching, with the loss of huge swathes of diverse marine life in once thriving areas. Along the north coast of Australia we have witnessed the largest ever die-off of Mangroves, hit hard by drier conditions and warmer ocean temperatures, while off the coast of western Australia, thousands upon thousands of acres of sea-grass forest has been lost to warmer waters. El Nino years, by definition, produce anomalous conditions, yet with the atmosphere so laden with carbon dioxide and the ocean being the Earth’s principal heat sink, the extremity of those conditions has gone far beyond any experienced in the past.

It is said that winter in Australia will be shorter and sharper in the future, and just two weeks ago the winter bit in a cold spell that briefly had the east in its grip. Then, like that, it was gone – replaced by an uncanny, unseasonal mildness. Perhaps the winter has come and gone; already the trees are blooming with fresh shoots. Meanwhile, our government ignores the severity of the issue, the absolute priority of climate change, and cuts funding for research and abatement. It is what Shakespeare would call “a tale told by an idiot.” And all of us are, unfortunately, culpable and complicit as hell. And yet, as always, life goes on – with its grand and petty concerns, with its glorious vanity.

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Modern woman, Sydney, June 29, 2012

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Banana seller, Parharganj, New Delhi, May 5, 2010

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Damnoen Saduak market, Bangkok, July 8, 2009

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Ferry to Naxos, September 22, 2013

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Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand, July 14, 2009

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Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, Bali, March 20, 2009

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Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India, April 8, 2010 – “Charlton Heston”

 

Most of the portraits I take are of people with their eyes elsewhere. Reluctant to intrude or make them feel self-conscious, I try to catch them when they are looking away. Sometimes they are already pre-occupied and make attractive subjects because of their contemplative mood, other times something might have just caught their eye and they are conveniently distracted.

This selection of portraits may have a wide distribution geographically and socio-economically, but all the subjects have one thing in common – their very personal subjectivity. Who can even begin to imagine what thoughts they are thinking? We may attribute some mundane generalities based on context, but whether their minds are on the metaphysical or the sublunary, whether they are in the here and now, or else, in some daydreaming fantasy, only they can know. As wondrous a talent as human empathy might be, we suffer from the flaw of projection wherein our own responses shape our imaginings of the thoughts of others. We are prisoners of our own minds; of the limitations of having only ever been one person.

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