The wrong genre – Axis by Robert Charles Wilson

There’s a thing the media (collectively) does, which must annoy many people as much as it does me. They hitch themselves to a narrative, the wrong narrative, and stick to it, no matter how many times they are (collectively) corrected. Nobody wants to be the, “Well, actually…” guy, but for pity’s sake. They’ll call Gen X Millennials, or Millennials something else, or they’ll call going on holiday a Staycation and then have nothing left to call that thing where people actually stay at home and go out on day trips.

I was reading a (YA) book review the other day and saw a novel described as a “dystopia” when from its description it was clearly a post-apocalyptic book. Harder to say and less trippy off the tongue, certainly, but there’s a real difference. One of them I generally dislike as a genre; the other I quite enjoy. The apocalypse or post-apocalypse might sound to some journalists as if it ought to be interchangeable with the dystopia, but they’d be wrong. I mean, if you’re a running dog capitalist lackey who lives up Rupert Murdoch’s arse, then, sure, an apocalypse might seem like a bad thing. But in other hands, the end of capitalism might well lead to the kind of paradise described in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, or even the seductively attractive world of Station Eleven, which might have a few irritations (there’s always a preacher) but seems like it might be a quite pleasant world to live in.

Spin was a post- or slow-apocalypse – what happens when everything about the world changes and a new world appears. Its elegiac tone and first person narrative is a warm bath to sink into. Plenty of things go wrong, but the exciting possibility of real change is always there.

What you want, in a post-Spin, post-scarcity world is for the old agencies and the old politics and the old economic certainties to fade away to be replaced by a new universe of space and possibility.

But of course, these BDO narratives always rub up against the post-scarcity plot problem, which is that with virtually unlimited space and resources there is no need for conflict. Once you have reached the Ringworld, you can disappear into it and live your life however you please. It’s impossible to have a police state in something that size.

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem faced by Robert Charles Wilson when it came to writing a sequel to Spin. The publishers will have obviously wanted a sequel to something that got so many good reviews and which ended up on every critics end-of-year list. But having finished it on an open note, with the promise of the infinite possibilities of the Arch-connected worlds, there was nowhere to go but downhill.

Let’s start, as we must, with the title. Spin was acknowledged within the book itself to be a bad name for the phenomenon it described. And now we have Axis, which is a terrible name for the sequel to the Spin that wasn’t a spin. 

And the genre: we’ve shifted from the post-apocalypse straight into the dystopia. Is it meant to be? Consider the evidence: given a whole new planet (and perhaps more beyond that) to play with, what do humans do? They drill for fossil fuels, build shanty towns, over-fish the oceans, and wreck ships on beaches. In other words, they repeat all the mistakes that meant the Earth was in trouble in the first place/book. It’s all very depressing. Add to this a weak government and shadowy agencies abducting and torturing people, and you have yourself a dystopia.

With this genre shift, I’m already losing interest. For the record: I don’t like reading dystopias because I feel like I live in one. It’s the same reason I couldn’t watch The Office: that was too close to what my job at the time was like.

Quick synopsis: it’s 30 years after the final events of Spin, and we’re on the new world, which is called Equatoria, except not really. I think we’re meant to imagine an Australia-like continent: people clinging to the coasts, with a desert interior. Our protagonist is Lise, who is looking for information about her father, who went missing 12 years before. She hooks up with Turk, a bush pilot, and the story begins when a meteor shower turns into a Pompeii-like fall of cosmic ash, the remains of dead nano-machines. They eventually encounter a community of “fourth age” post-humans, who have created a child who can “hear” the Hypotheticals that created the Spin and the Arch connecting the worlds. 

It’s not a bad story, and RCW can still write, but the text itself doesn’t work well for me. I called Lise the protagonist above, but she’s not the main or only point of view character. Wilson shifts p.o.v. constantly, taking us from Lise’s head into Turk’s, and then into on of the “Fourths” (Sulean) and into the boy Isaac’s head, and elsewhere. It’s not even a question of chapter-by-chapter but sometimes in the space of a couple of paragraphs. Fair enough, you think, it’s up to the author to shift point of view if they want. But I can only call it undisciplined and ultimately repetitive, because we keep encountering the same exposition from different viewpoints.

And here’s the central problem: it starts to feel a bit like either a rushed or a poorly edited sequel. On the one hand, the sense that different sections are written and then linked together without removing redundant narration; on the other, the feeling that the dead hand of a bad editor has insisted that certain plot points are explained over and over again, with the assumption that the reader needs to be constantly reminded.

Finally, I have to complain about the book design. The chapter and section headings are in an ugly letterspaced sans serif, but the text itself is set in Berkeley Old Style, which is a bad choice for readability. It’s too quirky and odd-looking, constantly drawing attention to its Venetian Renaissance credentials, like a historical battle re-enactor wearing a completely authentic costume — and a smart watch. You might think this a silly, minor quibble, but in over 300 pages, I never stopped noticing the font. Kept putting the book down, too, unable to concentrate on it for long stretches.

Anyway, do read Spin, but forget the sequel. Unless you like a dystopia.

There’s always a preacher – Spinning the future

Two years. That’s the distance in time between Steve Jobs’ introduction of the iPhone in 2007 (https://youtu.be/MnrJzXM7a6o) and the publication of Spin by Robert Charles Wilson in 2005. Needless to say, in his near-future speculation, Wilson made free use of the cellphone as a plot device, and suggested at one point some kind of wireless, handheld, networked gadget, but he didn’t dwell on details and didn’t really put the pieces together.

There were smartphones, of course, in 2004/5, but there was nothing like the iPhone; even the iPhone Jobs introduced was nothing like the iPhone of two years later.

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend was published in 1954 and imagined a post-pandemic 1976. The plot device here, one that strands the protagonist out of his house too late in the day, is the forgotten winding of a watch. Only a hardcore of watch nerds has any dealings these days with a watch that you have to wind. I had my first Texas Instruments LED digital watch around 1976. Consider this: the only difference between it and most Apple Watches until very recently was that you had to push a button to see the time.

It’s not that I’m the kind of person who sits watching/reading and complaining about all the things writers get wrong. But I do find the things they get wrong – or right – interesting. The little things. The things that are just two years away.

Consider Star Trek. Lots of Star Trek is just fantasy, but there they were, even Kirk, especially Picard, with iPad-like devices, decades before the real thing.

But I didn’t come here to bury Spin; I came here to praise it. And not with the faint praise of, “The best science fiction novel so far this year,” which is trumpeted on the front cover by the Rocky Mountain News! In fact I’ll tell you right now that Spin is one of the best science fiction novels of the last 20 years, up there with Ancillary Justice, Station Eleven, The Fifth Season and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

While I have reviewed a few RCW novels on here, and I’ve mentioned Spin several times, I never actually posted a review of it. So here, with some spoilers, it goes.

The premise is difficult to place in a nutshell. It begins with the stars going out. Some kind of semi-permeable barrier has been erected around the Earth, putting it in a kind of cosmic quarantine. Outside the barrier, time is passing at a vastly accelerated rate. Probes launched into orbit crash back to Earth immediately, but carry months and months of data. Why? Nobody knows. Who? Nobody knows. How? Hand waving (always a wise move, not to try to explain this stuff). 

The novel is concerned with the question of what happens. To human culture, society, relationships, the economy, you name it. Causes and effects.

But the novel doesn’t really begin with the stars going out. Its strength is that it’s less interested in what gets called the Spin and more interested in the central relationship between the narrator (Tyler Dupree) and his two best friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, the twin children of the wealthy and domineering E.D. Lawton at the Big House next door. Tyler’s mother is their housekeeper. The three are lying together on the lawn when the stars go out, and they remain intertwined forever afterwards, with Tyler playing a walk-on role in both of their lives as they go their separate ways.

The tone is elegiac and the relationships well-drawn. Jason is brilliant, driven, political and finds himself at the centre of the science and engineering that tries to understand the Spin. Diane drifts into religion and a hopeless marriage, in a sect that believes this is the promised apocalypse. Of course, there’s always a preacher in this kind of end-of-the-world narrative, which is kind of depressing, but RCW handles it quite cleverly. There are no cartoon villains here: just sad and confused people – on both the science and religion sides. Tyler (who becomes a GP) fits uncomfortably between them.

The novel is structured around two time-lines. The narrative of the Spin and its aftermath is written by Tyler in the novel’s present, decades later, in the midst of a health crisis as he and Diane look for an exit and a better future.

Spin is in the grand tradition of the BDO (Big Dumb Object) in science fiction, an idea you can trace back to Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Arthur C Clarke’s monolith and Rendezvous with Rama, Bob Shaw’s Dyson sphere. RCW has written several of these himself: he’s very good at them. But the reason I keep going back to Spin lies in the humanity of its characters and the quality of the writing. The two sequels, Axis and Vortex (not necessarily in that order) are disappointing in comparison, so I’d almost recommend you stick with this as a standalone. 

People say I’m crazy, podcasting my life away

While the Guardian runs a weekly column selecting a few podcasts, there really isn’t much else, beyond recommendations from friends, to help you find new things. I’m sure there are hundreds of podcasts I might like to listen to, and I really would like to branch out sometimes. What we need is a Q Magazine for podcasts.

The Market

I was listening to this week’s Fortunately and guest Dan Snow mentioned (complained?) that Apple don’t give podcast producers any demographic information about who is listening. Not like Facebook would/do with other things. The comparison was, facebook would tell you who your listener is, how old they are, what soap powder they use, and so on. An advertiser’s dream, in other words. The great thing about Apple is that Apple isn’t really in the ad business, and so they neither collect nor distribute information. 

This, in case, you were wondering, is why there are so many podcast apps and services out there: from Spotify and Audible to Acast, Stitcher, and even Google Podcasts. Some of them just want your data, and some of them are even more determined to grab you, offering exclusive content via subscription. My opinion is that if you want to protect both your privacy and the free-and-open market in podcasts, you should avoid these like the plague. Stick to the generic Apple podcasts app, and/or get Overcast, which is independent and doesn’t harvest data – at least for now. It also happens to be a really good app.

Terminology

We need now to distinguish between these ‘walled garden’ subscription services (like Spotify) and podcasts you can freely download without needing to sign up for anything. So I think the term we should use now for the podcasts we listen to is follow. It’s not ideal, but at least it doesn’t carry the implication that you’re paying for anything. 

Some new follows then

All About the Girl – I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is yet another podcast about The Beatles – or in this case, “A podcast about the women in the Beatles story.” So, yeah. I subscribed. First episode was a bit of a challenge for me, because it’s about Yoko’s 1973 album Approximately Infinite Universe. I remain unconvinced about Yoko, for reasons I won’t rehearse again here, but this was an education because, well, I didn’t even know this album existed. And of course, it’s coming out around the time Lennon was exiled to L.A. with May Pang, a well-trodden tale which a million male writers have documented so exhaustively and comprehensively that I didn’t know about this record. Worth a listen then, to fill those gaps in your knowledge. Poor sound quality though.

The Harrowing – This is a fiction podcast in the horror genre. Not usually my kind of thing, unless it’s done really, really well. By coincidence (or is it?) I have some points of comparison to this. First of all, The Events at Black Tor, which is an old Radio 4 drama written by Roy Clarke of Last of the Summer Wine fame, and directed by Alan Ayckbourn in 1968. Currently on BBC Sounds. Remote location, satanic cult, etc. Quite good though. There’s more: Aliens in the Mind, a 1977 Radio 4 drama about post-humans on a remote Scottish island starring both Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. So far so Wicker Man. Also on BBC Sounds. Which brings us to The Harrowing, which is about supernatural events on a remote Scottish Island. And it compares quite well to those older classics. A bit too much screaming and roaring towards the end, but quite well done, and at 8 episodes not too much of a slog.

Max and Ivan: Fugitives – From the same stable, much less successful. A comedy espionage thriller which just doesn’t land for me. I’m probably just too old for it (and have heard way more radio drama than its target audience), but the jokes aren’t funny and the thriller plot isn’t thrilling. To be fair, Radio 4 is shit at this kind of thing, too. So maybe this kind of thing is just a really bad idea.

Alfa ONE one year on

It’s been about a year since, with heart-in-mouth, I electronically transferred a wodge of money to a complete stranger and bought my Alfa ONE backyard pizza oven. I’d been thinking about it for a long, long time, and during Lockdown #1, I asked myself, if not now, when? I really wanted to have one in the garden in France, but Brexit has thrown my retirement plans into doubt, and the truth is that Saturday night is pizza night, whichever country I’m in. I tracked my first attempts here and further progress in this post, but now I’ve had it a year, it’s time for a proper review.

I had been considering a slightly larger model, which was reduced in a sale and was therefore about the same price as the ONE. I think that was the Ciao, which can do two pizzas at once and comes on a base with wheels. This was a genuine dilemma, but in the end I doubted whether I’d ever be in a position to cook two pizzas at once. My production line is not quite that efficient, and I don’t have that much space in terms of preparation area. So I went for the ONE, even though I slightly worried that its diminutive size would make it less effective.

What do you get for your money? It weighs 55kg, which is about the weight of a small adult human. It can be lifted, but it’s more of a two person lift. It comes with feet, but any base/surface is going to cost you extra. I bought a small stainless steel table from Amazon, which is fine, though it’s not the outdoor kitchen of my dreams. Other than that, you get the oven, which is stainless steel and comes in an attractive hammered copper finish. It has a stone floor and an insulated domed roof, with a removable chimney and baffle. There’s a lift-off door and a fire grate, and you get a small pizza peel which I’ve not bothered to use. I use the peel I was already using, but I bought a turning/lifting peel, which I’m still mastering. I have not yet managed to get a suitable wire brush to clean the oven floor (I’m improvising). My main problem there is lack of space, so I can’t have anything with too long a handle.

All this previously documented and linked above. Photos on those earlier posts too. The video above shows some of the pizzas being made, though you’ll have to excuse the one-handed pretend dough stretching and pizza turning. I’m really much better at it with two hands. Also, because I was doing it one handed, and close to a naked flame a lot of the time, I did vertical video and then had to crop, which is not ideal.

Apart from the turning peel, the essential items are an infra-red thermometer for measuring the temperature of the oven floor, and a set of sturdy heat proof gloves, such as you use with a woodburning stove. You’ll also need to give some consideration to the wood you use, and learn to plan ahead.

The air temperature in the oven gets very hot very fast. But the floor takes longer. I said in an earlier post that it takes at least 30 minutes, but actually it’s more like 45. It really is worth waiting for the floor temperature to get up because it makes a huge difference to the quality of your bases. It’s also sensible to let the flames die down so that the pizza cooks in the (considerable) residual heat. This might slow down your pizza nights as you add a bit more fuel now and then and wait for the flames to die down. I think this is one of the side effects of the smaller size.

In terms of wood, most of the kiln dried stuff you can buy commercially is, unfortunately, ash. Ash is a bit shit: doesn’t burn very hot. What you want is oak and birch, and you sometimes get this as part of a delivery, but it’s the luck of the draw. I buy my wood from Certainly Wood: it’s kiln dried, so there’s no burning of low quality wet wood around here, because it’s bad for the environment. Certainly Wood offer a couple of products of interest to the back yard cook. You can get a supply for smaller-cut logs, and you can also get apple wood logs for extra flavour. The smaller cut logs save a lot of time with the hand axe. More importantly, they’re much more suitable as kindling for the very efficient Scandinavian woodburning stove we have in the house.

But here’s a tip if you want to get the temperature really high in your oven and you’re struggling with ash: coffee logs. You get 16 of these in a bag, and, once you’ve lit your fire with regular wood, you just need about three of the coffee logs to get the oven hot enough for three pizzas and (if required) a roast chicken. And we’re talking hot. Not to mention the warm feeling you get burning a recycled product of the vast coffee industry.

That’s really the amazing thing about the ONE. Yes, the fire is small, and the space you have to work in within the dome is cramped (getting those coffee logs in can be a bit of a faff), but it’s incredibly fuel efficient. The equivalent of a couple of standard logs – or three coffee logs – is enough for my traditional three family pizzas. And afterwards, you can chuck in a spatchcocked chicken or small roasting joint, and cook it ready for the next day. The chicken I do for 30 minutes in total, turning it around after 15 minutes. It doesn’t burn, but it cooks brilliantly. And then, if you felt so inclined, you could bake some kind of tart or custard in the remaining residual heat. As an alternative to barbecuing, you could fire it up and cook some chicken pieces, or fish, and roast some Mediterranean vegetables. It really uses very little fuel.

Once I learned to be patient with the heating up, my pizza game was lifted up a notch. All I need now is for my grown up daughters to stop living, ridiculously, away from home – or at least to be around on a Saturday night. The old black magic.

Desert Island Hiss pt 2

(Part 1)

5. Sanctuary – from Quietly Blowing It (2021)
The latest Hiss record comes out in June, and this was the first single from it. Listen to the bass: it’s groovy. Perhaps this latest album is going to seem something of a response to these times. Personally, I haven’t found this year particularly hard but this song still feels like balm for the soul — whenever you need it.

Ragged people
Hard times
And the lightning strikes the poorhouse
The rich man cries like a crocodile

6. I Need a Teacher – from Terms of Surrender (2019)
This is from their most recent studio outing. This lead single has a harder, spikier sound than most of the other stuff, and it has a campaigning intent. I believe MC’s wife is a teacher, and it’s only when I think of the parlous situation of public (i.e. state) education in the US that I truly count my blessings that I’m a teacher in the UK, where things are nowhere near as bad, even if they could be better. Americans who can afford it go private (5.8 million students) while the vast majority (47 million) go to schools where the funding is so bad that there are white spaces on the timetable because the program was cut. And of course the arts are cut first.

Love me harder
Cry like a thunder
Kick the floorboards
Paint it a different color
Another year older
Debt slightly deeper
Paycheck smaller
Goddamn I need a teacher

7. Watching the Wires – single (2019)
A similarly harder-edged sound for this stand-alone single. A bit of slide guitar, a groove. Odd that it never showed up on Terms of Surrender, but part of the public service remit of this blog is to bring things like this to your attention. Like so many of MC’s songs, the lyrics are gnomic/enigmatic.

Oh, the running was murder
Baby, they were right
I drew a card that was full of swords
I never said I loved the light
So I did run like a river
Either that or blow my mind
Momma was afraid I would never grow old
I was afraid that I might

8. Happy Day (Sister My Sister) – from Heart Like a Levee (2016)
Finally, all the way back to 5 years and several albums ago — and this gentle gospel number. It’s a warm bath, a walk across sunny fields, freewheeling down a nice hill. It’s pottering around at home. And it’s kind of where I came in, because Tift Merrit is singing backing vocals on it (which is why I’ve chosen the studio version rather than one of the live performances). It was only because Tift Merritt mentioned working on this that I sought out HGM in the first place.

I was listening to an episode of the Sideways podcast the other day, and I was a bit bored with it because it was all about pop songwriting and collaboration. The thesis being that somehow collaboration was the secret sauce behind great pop music. Except it wasn’t. Great, I mean. It was fucking awful. And the only thing you really learned from the programme was that people have terrible taste. ‘Happy Day (Sister My Sister)’ has just over 2,300 views on the ‘Tube, and Matthew Syed is unlikely to record an episode of his podcast about MC’s singular vision any time soon. And I know this stuff is unpopular and unfashionable, and HGM will never fill the O2 – but that’s kind of the point for me. I honestly don’t know how people can listen to that five-songwriters-and-their-dogs on two continents junk and I’m sure most of them couldn’t sit through the five minutes of this without wanting to poke their ears out. But the difference is, I have good taste and they do not.

Sister, my sister
What should I do?
Should I wade in that river?
With so many people living just
Just above the waterline?

Desert Island Hiss

As I was cycling home from work the other day, I almost called out with the sheer joy of it. It wasn’t properly warm, not even March warm, but there was sunshine, and for a few seconds a kestrel was flying parallel with me, then folded its wings and dived into the field below. Most importantly, once I got through town and turned onto the country lanes, I went for a stretch of 10 kilometres where the only other traffic was on foot. And there were plenty of people around, too, walking and running on roads blissfully free of motor traffic. Quite unusually for me, I wasn’t listening to a podcast as I rode, but I had on my Hiss Golden Messenger playlist. And as I approached one junction, passing some dog walkers and feeling the sun on my face, I decided that the next time I’m on Desert Island Discs, all eight records will be Hiss.

But which eight? Here are the first four…

  1. Saturday’s Song – from Lateness of Dancers (2014).
    I first discovered Hiss thanks to a mention by Tift Merrit, who sang some BVs for them at some point, and the first album I bought was their then-current Hallelijah Anyhow, but it wasn’t long before I was filling in the back catalogue. Lateness of Dancers starts a run of albums that are so good that you simply cannot fathom why they aren’t better known. That clip above, for example, had just 1000 views on YouTube on the day of posting this.

When Saturday comes I’m gonna lose myself
When Saturday comes I’m like everybody else
I might get a little crazy
I’m gonna drink some whiskey
Let me be

2. Jenny of the Roses – from Hallelujah Anyhow (2017)
As I started listening to this music, I didn’t pay much attention to what MC was singing. I just loved the sound of it, and this record put me in mind of other great-sounding records in my collection. I posted about this kind of thing before, but there’s a certain kind of record which just sounds so perfect and comforting. Just occasionally, everything is recorded perfectly and blends together like magic.

Yes, “I’ve never been
Afraid of the darkness.
It’s just a different kind of light.”
Were you trying to tell me something?
Didn’t it rain?
Didn’t it thunder?
O’er ribbons of highway
And you were caught under

3. Domino (Time Will Tell) – from Hallelujah Anyhow (2017)
933 on this one, fact fans. Can you believe it? Me neither. Not the first song in the music universe to be called Domino, and nor the last I expect. Means whatever you want it to mean, I suppose. And I know young people these days don’t really dream of being in a band, but this is the kind of band we need in the world. Forget the big stadium and indoor arena stuff, but think about the medium capacity sweaty club with musicians who can really play. Some of the best gigs of my life have been in such settings. Mean Fiddler, Town and Country Club, even a converted chapel in town near me, where Tift Merritt recorded a live album. Dwight Yoakam, Maria McKee, Jonathan Richman, Larkin Poe… Hiss Golden Messenger. This is what live music should be.

Yes, old Lady Luck on the Gulfport side
Beat it from Memphis to Mobile
Running blind
Yes, running rhymes
Domino
Time will tell
I feel like my luck is turning
Yes, Domino
If I fall
Will you bang the drum when I’m burning?

4. Biloxi – from Heart Like a Levee (2016)
Just 299 views on this festival clip. I think this is a great band. Has a little bit of the Tom Petty about it, and has a gift for finding a groove like Fleetwood Mac. I say band. You will notice, watching these clips, that musicians come and go. The only person who you always see is MC. This is something to do with life at the edge of the music business, getting critical acclaim in Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, but then 299 views on the ‘Tube. Hard to categorise, you might say. Country and folk and soul and rock. But actually, country and folk and soul is what rock is, or ought to be. Except people hear the word rock these days and imagine all kinds of noise. Anyway, Hiss self-released two live albums last year, raising money for Durham County Public Schools during the pandemic, helping them feed hungry kids. I’ll post the next four in a day or so.

Say Biloxi
It’s tough all over
Ah, Houston
You scared me sober
But all around my old hometown I was known as a loner
Oh you know I wasn’t lonely, I just liked being alone

A history of tripe: Blake’s 7

“Face painting? Seven shillings and sixpence. Coconut shy is a shilling for three balls.”

In recent years, thanks to the likes of Amazon Prime and BritBox, I’ve rewatched a fair few ‘classic’ TV shows because I can. Old Doctor Who, for example, which I would never have bought on DVD. Turns out, that as much as I loved it when I was a boy, it’s a bit shit. Seinfeld? Holds up. Battlestar Galactica (2004)? Not so much, gets lost in the weeds. The X Files? Diverting, and still great and sometimes really funny. Buffy? Still the greatest TV show ever made. Angel, on the other hand, was another show that lost its way and never quite found the spark it had in its early episodes. Members of the cast with drug problems, producers hitting burnout, and other well-known interpersonal issues.

Which brings me to Blake’s 7. Rule of thumb: any show with an apostrophe in its title is to be avoided. In January 1978, I had just turned 16 and was living in a world fairly starved of science fiction, decent or otherwise. Doctor Who, Tom Baker embarking on his fourth year in the role, was in its sixteenth season – the one with Romana the First. I was losing interest in it by then, and didn’t pay attention until Peter Davidson took over, with his, ahem, rather attractively built crew. The original Star Trek was a long time gone and the Next Generation was nearly a decade away.

This was the Long Silence, the Interregnum, and we fell upon Blake’s 7 like birds on sunflower seeds. We were prepared to overlook the following:

  • Shonky sets;
  • A title sequence that looks like literal needlepoint;
  • Abominable music played on Bontempi keyboards;
  • Incoherently pointless storylines;
  • Scripts dredged up from the bottom of the sea where they had been thrown by their despairing creator in a rare moment of self-awareness;
  • School fête quality face painting;
  • Animated special effects sequences created with paper and scissors;
  • The continual and inexplicable reappearances of the same quarry in Surrey;
  • The fact that this all came from the head of the man who came up with the fucking Daleks, the naffest of all the naff Doctor Who monsters.

We science fiction aficionados loved it in spite of all these shortcomings because the one thing it had was an interesting set of characters, a Scooby Gang thrown together by circumstances and not friendship, people who neither liked each other nor even believed in the same things. Even if they were drawn more with Crayola than painted in oils, we saw the potential in characters whose actions and motivations were unpredictable. Paul Darrow was great as Arvon, the Spock-analogue; Gareth Thomas a bit less convincing as Blake, the Kirk.

Aye, and there’s the rub. Gareth Thomas’ heart clearly wasn’t in it, and he left after two seasons, to be replaced by the slightly less wooden Rumours About Blake. It amazes me now to think that there were 52 episodes; enough, in this modern world, for five Netflix seasons.

But the really amazing thing, for me, is the way that fans of this show have continued to love it, with their cosplay and Wikis and fan conventions, their radio revivals and Big Finish productions. Actually, I suppose radio is a good home for something that looked so cheap and terrible – as long as they did something about the awful music.

Anyway, if you feel like punishing yourself, it’s on Britbox, and it is terrible.

Algorithmic monsters from the id

I was in school the other day and I was showing the class a video (about how to use a home test kit, as it happens) – using my school account, I’m not an idiot. But although I regularly turn off AutoPlay, of course it had come back on again, and so when the instruction video finished, the YouTube algorithm picked another. And here’s a thing: the thing it picked was a clip of The Analogues singing ‘Baby You’re a Rich Man’. This wasn’t exactly embarrassing, but it was irritating, and it also felt like it was a recommendation thrown up by my main account, rather than the school account I was using. So this felt a little like the old horror trope, it’s coming from inside the house. Or that monomyth thing when the monster from the magical world pursues you back into the real world. Monsters from the id. It was a massive invasion of privacy, a mixing of the private and public — and a low stakes, small beans example of what women on the internet have always had to put up with.

But the monsters who pursue women are from the real world, which is the difference. What I’m talking about is the feeling I increasingly have, which is that I’m running scared of the algorithms. I joke with my daughters about them polluting m’ recs when they send me links to stupid memes. But I do it to myself, too. I watch one Lanterne Rouge video after a stage of the Paris-Nice cycling stage race and my YouTube home page looks like an explosion in a lycra warehouse. Or I foolishly click a link to a video from Mars (realising quite quickly that this was an opportunistic posting of old footage by someone unscrupulous enough to misrepresent it in that particular news moment), and now I’ve got planets coming at me like Indiana Jones robbing a grave.

I would like to be mildly interested in things, you know. I’m a little nerdy and a little obsessive, but about a wide range of stuff. I’ll watch a Beatles/Analogue clip. I might watch a bike review or some cycling analysis. Or some cool NASA footage. Someone doing something pizza-related. A bit of Frank Sinatra, or the latest Hiss Golden Messenger video. But Frank Sinatra doesn’t mean also Dean Martin and Perry Como, you know? An interest in The Beatles doesn’t mean I want to see Elton Fucking John or Qufuckingeen. Pizza doesn’t mean I want to see The Most Amazing Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Pizza You Must Watch This The Most Incredible Thing You’ve Ever Seen. The TV YouTube app is even worse, for some reason. Just drops in random shit like Breaking News. Stop trying to make that happen, YouTube. Nobody should be going to your fucking algorithm for news.

Part of the problem is that YouTube is full of bad actors. So much of the content is content-free, dishonest, padded, guff. And I’m sorry, Estate of Tom Petty, but as you pick over his bones and upload all the stuff, I don’t want to see ‘Behind the Scenes’ of anything. As to the people who re-upload stuff from other accounts for the clicks, fuck you very much. I don’t even know where to start with what is wrong with you.

So there’s this podcast I quite like. It’s called We Didn’t Start the Fire and it’s presented by Katie Puckrik and Tom Fordyce. And all they do is take one snippet of lyric from the well-known Billy Joel song and call in an expert to talk about it. It’s an excellent idea and an entertaining listen. I highly recommend it. But here’s the thing. I fucking hate Billy Joel. Right? Nothing whatsoever to recommend him. But I kinda, sorta, just once, want to listen to the song – to remind myself of it. Except I know what would happen if I did. The shitshow that would ensue, whether on YouTube or – even worse – on Apple Music. One thing that absolutely cannot be tainted is my Apple Music (it’s quite bad enough as it is). But for the next 17 years, seeing fucking Billy Joel clips on my YT home page, or on the TV YT app? Christ.

And this is where they have me. We all know that algorithms are controlling our lives. But it’s the fear of how the algorithms would punish me for a mild interest in something that is actually physically restraining me at the moment. Sure, I could do a Private Browsing thing, but do I really believe YouTube/Google is respecting my privacy — when they literally just played an Analogues clip in my school account?

Anyway, all this bothers me. I’ve given up trying to train the algorithm — it’s either not that smart or deliberately ignores you when you tell it you don’t like something and just gives you more of it. So now I’m like that guy at the end of the film who realises he has been dead and in hell all along. Of course I’m being punished. The algorithms are always going to beat me up on the way home from school because I am in hell.

Review: The One (Netflix)

INT. LIVING ROOM - DAY

ROB is sitting on his couch, second-screening and
half paying attention to Episode 4 (or is it 40?) of
the badly-reviewed THE ONE on Netflix, which is on
the TV in the background. A voice on the TV can be 
heard clearly.

              WOMAN'S VOICE
        You see, when ants mate…

                  ROB
        What? I wonder if anyone bothered to
        Google this before they wrote the
        screenplay? 

ROB reaches for his LAPTOP, which is next to him, and
opens the screen. He types on the sticky keyboard for
a few seconds

                  ROB
          (talking while he types)
        Do… ants… mate

ROB hits RETURN enthusiastically on his keyboard. He
reads from the screen while the TV SHOW continues to
play in the background.

                  ROB
        Only the queen ant is capable
        of mating. She stores the sperm
        in a pouch until it is needed…

Yet another TV show which is science-fiction-but-not-really, yet another show about (waves hands), send us your DNA and we’ll find your perfect match.

I’ll start with my position on this whole ‘perfect match’ premise: bunk. Sexual attraction and falling in love are determined by two things: the first is proximity and the second is opportunity. There is no The One, no Platonic ideal. It’s just a bunch of people in a position to look at each others’ arses.

Netflix’s latest show has as its premise the idea that a frankly sociopathic, ambitious woman invents a technology that will help people ‘match’ through their DNA (you know, like ants). I don’t know why she wants to do this, other than to make money. It’s certainly not idealism.

In order to test her software, she steals a DNA database. As many reviewers have noted, the show kind of loses interest in its premise after that and is more or less a police procedural (only with the police even more useless, distracted and inappropriate than usual). It doesn’t quite lose that interest, though. It wants to explore what happens when people match (or don’t) – and there’s the rub. Because if it really was as simple of getting within pheromone range of the person whose DNA ‘matches’ with yours, there’d be no story. It’d be happy-ever-after. So, conflict has to be introduced, and peril, and doubt. And the problem with the show is actually this: every decision made by all the characters in the show is irrational and stupid.

It reminded me a bit of Deep Water, the ITV drama I just watched on Britbox. That Lake District-set show required everybody in it to make a series of seriously stupid decisions for its plot to move forward. In The One, characters tell loads of pointless lies and do all kinds of crazy things but nobody seems to be particularly bothered by it all. And the people who run the company, of course, are all single and lonely. Because if they’d found a ‘match’, they’d presumably be happy and not need to go around stabbing each other in the back and neglecting their work. If this all sounds a bit lost and incoherent, it’s because the show itself is.

One thing I did appreciate though: one of the cops investigating a dead body that turns up in episode one barely does any work on the case and actually phones in sick at one point. This was an exciting dash of realism and a change from all the obsessive must-solve-the-case can’t-sleep-won’t-sleep cops in the genre shows.

Anyway, it’s rubbish.

The Terror: Men Without Women

I read Dan Simmons’ doorstep novel The Terror a few years ago (and its kind-of sibling The Abominable) and enjoyed it. It’s a good holiday read, although I’m never really sure how any book ends up being 944 pages. Anyway, I was keen to watch the AMC TV series, and was delighted to see it turn up on the BBC iPlayer here in the UK.

The premise: in May 1845, two British exploration ships (HMS Terror and HMS Erebus) set out on a voyage to seek the fabled Northwest Passage.  The last time they’re seen by Europeans is in July of that year. By September of the following year, the two ships are trapped in the ice off King William Island and – apart from drifting with the ice – they never move again.

These expeditions knew about scurvy and were prepared to be iced-in for some period of time. They had canned food. They had steam engines. But the cans, it turns out, were sealed with lead solder, and many were (probably) infected with botulism.

Nobody knows what really happened, but Dan Simmons weaves a narrative that combines the probable with the fantastic. As the men slowly die from illness and lose their minds to lead poisoning, there is something else out there on the ice, and it has reason to hate them.

The 10-part series is a good watch, with an excellent cast, but, in the nature of these things, there are few parts for women.

I generally avoid things that ignore 50% of the human race. The Terror has one decent role for a woman (the interesting Greenlandic actor Nive Nielsen) and a couple of peripheral roles for wives and would-be girlfriends left at home. But mostly it’s men, and that’s the way it has to be, right? I mean, YOU CAN’T REWRITE HISTORY.

So of course this got me thinking. There’s Dan Simmons, wanting to write a ripping yarn. But he’s only got 900 pages to work with and that simply isn’t enough space to include many women. You can’t blame him really, and anyway, he has to work with the material that history bequeathes him.

And why is it, do you suppose, that history throws up so many all-boys stories like this? [strokes chin]

And, really, what were these 129 men thinking, disappearing off into the arctic wastes for years on end? Death or glory? Northwest Passage? Not really a thing, is it? And you could almost start believing that the Northwest fucking Passage might just have been a pretext for some men to get as far away from the women in their lives as they possibly could.

I read a Margaret Atwood short story once, which involved women weeping and waving goodbye as men went off to war, and then this process repeated itself over and over again in ever-accelerating cycles. I wish I could remember what it was called (I’m probably garbling it). Anyway, she’s written on this theme a few times I think. The Penelopiad retells The Odyssey from the point of view of the woman who is left at home. By doing this she highlights the absurdity of all these narratives featuring men without women, but also the misogynistic brutality at the heart of the tales.

The story about women sending men off to war is enough to make you wonder if, you know, war is just a fucking pretext for some men to get as far away from the women in their lives as they possibly could. A certain number of men just need to be put through the meat grinder and that’s just the way it has to be. YOU CAN’T REWRITE HISTORY, CAN YOU?

It’s almost as if our whole society is somehow set up to keep men away from women as much as possible. What else is football? And fishing? Don’t get me started.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to the horrible news this week about the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard.

Do you know how old she was, by the way? If only there was some means of finding out. Because the fact is, I simply can’t get interested in this story unless I know her age. I mean, was she a teen, a cougar, a milf, or what? A granny? If she was over 50 I’m not interested, do you know what I mean? I DON’T MAKE THE RULES.

Anyway, Marina Hyde wrote a good thing today. And I’m left to conclude that perhaps more men should involve themselves in a quixotic search for the Northwest Passage.