Unsticking the landing

Drogon

So, Game of Thrones, then. Opinions are like arseholes etc.

The internet is both the best and worst thing to happen to television. I remember years ago rabidly reading the TV.com and similar recaps of shows like Buffy, and even being willing to spoil the show for myself by reading ahead of where I was in my viewing. There are an awful lot of words written on the internet about television. Here are mine.

There are also an awful lot of podcasts about television: people who have created a kind of living for themselves by recording their Skype calls to their similarly obsessed friends and posting them online. I listen to a lot of them, and I’m always glad to be a listener and not a participant because I think I would find it tiresome to be obliged to come up with an opinion, each week, to order.

Sometimes you just don’t care.

Which is why the internet is also the worst thing to happen to television because people who feel obliged to have opinions are impossible to please. And people who regularly write and talk about TV will feel obliged, however great the show, to adopt a skeptical tone, to become hypercritical, to think they know better. And, opinions being cheap, everyone starts to weigh in. I’ve often wondered about those Guardian threads with thousands of comments. Shouting down a hole.

There has been some interesting stuff out there this week about the outrage being expressed. First of all, outrage: it’s a TV show. Second of all, some people have succinctly explained how the early seasons, based on GRRM’s published books, were character-based, because GRRM writes about characters; whereas the last couple of seasons have been plot-based, because show runners who need to end a show will have beats to hit and people to see. So time has accelerated, and everything has been happening (too) fast (for some).

I’m still enjoying it. I feel like we’re getting pay-offs for plots started in episode one of season one, and if it comes as a shock, you’re probably not paying attention. And if a character you’ve been rooting for ‘suddenly’ turns into a murderous tyrant, maybe you were rooting for the wrong person. It’s possible to be wrong. You know, those people in Kings Landing probably voted for Trump and deserved everything they got.

The books have stopped coming out maybe because the meandering multi-threaded character-driven storylines are too hard to pull together. Maybe it takes a writers’ room to ruthlessly prune the characters and sub-plots down to the essentials. And it’s a shame, but it turns out that the first five seasons of the show were probably the first half of a ten-season show, and we’re only getting seven (with the last season split, as with Mad Men and Breaking Bad before it). Which means that whole sections of the plot and characters from the novels that were in the show for the first five seasons have been jettisoned.

If you could go back in time and kind of excise the Iron Islanders and the Sand Snakes, there’d have been more space for organic acceleration. But it is what it is.

One of the other problems created by the internet is fandom. The fan community. And when showrunners pay too much attention to fans (so-called fan service), you get a lot of dissatisfaction being expressed because fanatics are impossible to please, so why bother? So, for example, the small Mormont girl is supposed to be in one scene, but then (fan service) gets more screen time and then (fan service) kills a giant and then all the fans moan that the episode was too hard to see, meh meh meh.

Meanwhile, HBO’s new show, Chernobyl got mixed reviews but is definitely worth a watch. I find it so interesting that the Challenger and the Chernobyl disasters happened within a few short months, and in many ways have similar elements. Both are concerned with narrative. On the one hand, the Challenger disaster happened because the engineers had the wrong narrative about cold weather launches. Essentially, they failed to realise that all of the O-ring problems they’d been having had been during cold weather, and instead thought the O-ring issues were kind of random. And at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, the belief that, because something hadn’t ever happened before, it couldn’t have happened was the narrative that delayed decisive action for too many hours. Furthermore, because they couldn’t tell a story about how the reactor core had exploded, they weren’t believed when they said (correctly) that the core had exploded. When people get stuck in a narrative, they get well and truly stuck.

So, to circle back to the Game of Thrones, a lot of people are stuck in a narrative about it that is being challenged by the last few episodes. They thought it was going to end a certain way, I suppose? But they were wrong.

It happens.

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BBC Sounds: Error 404

Now, I know I’m not the target market so my opinions are irrelevant, but christ: have you heard the state of Forest 404 on the iPlayer? (Yes, you can get it on the BBC Radio iPlayer, so you don’t need to suffer the Sounds interface. Yet. But they’re coming for you.)

The BBC. Who the fuck is in charge these days? Clearly there’s a little bit of existential panic going on. The core audience is dying off and the replenishers aren’t arriving in sufficient numbers. There’s a proper demographic dip in the numbers of 18-24 year olds at the moment, I’m given to understand. Because if these people don’t start making use of the BBC, they’ll shrug their shoulders when the Murdochs and the Mails come for it. And how do you persuade a generation who have easy access to digitised versions of almost everything all of the time to listen to the radio?

Forest 404 is somebody’s idea of how to do that. And it’s worth unpacking to understand what a complete shitshow it is. But again: I’m not the target market, so emoji shrug or something.

Let’s start with the killer irony of how I heard about it. The only two BBC podcasts I listen to are In Our Time, hosted by the 108-year-old Melvyn Bragg; and Fortunately, co-hosted by Jane Garvey and Fi Glover, who are 108 years old collectively. So the BBC is promoting this patronising radio dreck at 108 year old listeners like myself. Which raises the question: are they really trying to attract a younger audience, or do they just want to be seen to be trying to do so? Is it, in other words, a box-ticking exercise? The answer to that question, reader, will probably not surprise you.

So what is Forest 404? Welp. It’s a “soundscape”, it’s a “drama”, it’s a “documentary”. It caters for the short attention span by having short episodes (the first is 25 minutes, the second 22, the third 19, so it goes); and it caters to the assumed/perceived ignorance of its listeners by interspersing episodes with exposition (designated with a T, which presumably stands for Thickoes), which patronisingly explain the background/premise and with “uninterrupted” sounds from the episodes (designated S for Seriously?). These mini-documentaries and soundscape excerpts are short (5-10 minutes) and remind me of the bits of filler at the end of David Attenborough documentaries, where they explain how they faked captured footage of snakes giving birth to polar bears or whatever.

I put scare quotes around “uninterrupted” above because, seriously? Because of course each chunk of audio gives the BBC a chance to put in some branding, “BBC Sounds…” and a patronising voice over explaining what it is you’re about to hear. 

Even more hilariously, the voice for “BBC Sounds” is different to the one you hear at the beginning of everything else from BBC Radio these days. It’s hard to explain how fucking stupid this is, but here goes. When you start an episode of, say, In Our Time, you hear an obviously young, female voice, which says, “BBC Sounds. Music, radio, podcasts.” Clearly the voice of a Bright Young Thing, probably someone younger than me would know who it is. Anyway, this is BBC Marketing at its best worst, because of course it’s just sonic wallpaper, and I literally just now had to start an episode of Fortunately so I could hear the exact words she says. Because although I’ve already heard it and been irritated by it 150 times, I couldn’t have told you the actual content of the message. Noise.

So that’s stupid level number one, the typical kind of thing you’d expect from the marketing monkeys. But. Forest 404 is meant to be “dark” and “edgy”, and so they use a different, young, female voice to say those exact same words. If the first voice sounds like a nice girl from the Home Counties who went to Oxford and that, the Forest voice sounds, ahem, more “urban”, and most definitely sounds actually fucking bored with the words she’s saying. So, um, like, yah, we know this is shit, yah, and completely cheese on toast, but, like, hey, we’ve got to do it, right, so we do it, but we’re really, like, yah, subversive about it, and make it obvious, yah, that we know it’s, like, complete shit.

Fuck.

So then you get into the actual, you know, content, and what is it? It’s another one of those, excuse me, *emoji yawn*, dark dystopian visions of, ya know, how horrible the world might be if the horrible world we live in got a little bit worse than it is now, as if that were even possible. So it’s an all-urban, high-rise, “fast times” future in which knowledge of the world as it used to be (“Slow times”) has been deliberately forgotten in order to keep the population anaesthetised and compliant.

Honestly, the doublethink going on here. (Talking of dystopias.) Because the marketing monkeys are all about “fast times” aren’t they? With their unironic rebranding of the slow times “Radio” as “Sounds”, and the insistence of repeating the anodyne, meaningless, marketing message at the beginning and end of every fucking programme. And then you’re trying to sell me on a terrifying future vision of dystopian Britain where people have their minds wiped if they display curiosity? All the while ignoring the real threat we face, which is that if there are no rain forests left, there are no people to left to live in an urban dystopia.

And behind all this, behind all this wank, is the true commitment of the BBC to this kind of youth marketing. It’s a box-ticker, sure enough. Because the edgy dystopian drama has a cast of precisely two. And all the other characters are merely referred to using reported speech. So you’ve got a little bit of sound mixing going on, and two voices telling a story. And then the whole lot gets padded out with explainers because – and you may have to back up here, possibly go up into orbit so you can see the size of it from space – the contempt for the target audience is so huge that they feel the need to offer a commentary after every episode because they don’t think we have the intelligence to understand what’s going on.

An absolute triumph. You can hear them, in the future, when the licence fee is being abolished: “Well, we tried.”

Year’s Best Science Fiction, 7th Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois

Yes: 30-year-old science fiction.

I’ve been pondering lately the future of the Year’s Best collections, as published by St Martin’s Press and edited by Gardner Dozois for 35 years until his death last year. Will they continue? I think the answer is probably not. By now, you would usually be able to pre-order the latest edition, and there’s no sign of it. Dozois would be hard to replace, anyway. The monumental achievement of maintaining consistently high quality over the best part of four decades of changing fashions in science fiction was all due to his experience and expertise; I can’t imagine anyone wanting to step into those shoes, to perhaps be the one to kill the franchise.

Meanwhile, what will replace it in my summer reading virtual pile? One likely candidate doesn’t even get a Kindle edition. Others mix fantasy with science fiction, and I’ve a low tolerance for fantasy, so I’d feel like I was wasting half my money.

Yesterday, I had one of those reading emergencies. I’ve had a couple of duff downloads, books I gave up on because they weren’t grabbing me, and I was casting about desperately for something to read. In this situation, pre-Kindle, I would usually end up in Fnac looking at their paltry selection of overpriced books in English. Because I can instead just download something from Amazon, I ended up, after a long and uninspiring browsing session, buying a 30-year-old edition of the Year’s Best, volume 7, which I think I haven’t already got (there were a few early in the run that I didn’t have and I’ve been slowly catching up with them through digital versions).

A couple of things about this choice. First, the uninspired browsing session is largely the result of the current fashion in SF publishing. I’m just not that into the stuff coming out at the moment. Even with a willingness to buy, I’m just not finding books I love to read. Part of the problem, too, is that there is so much dross on the Kindle store, thanks to self-published authors like myself. Mind you, my two duff downloads were both well-reviewed, properly published, nominated for awards etc., but still didn’t speak to me. Jade City by Fonda Lee was an urban fantasy in a Hong Kong like city in which the magical properties of Jade give crime families superpowers. And I just didn’t care. Meanwhile, Claire North’s 84K is a kind of 1984 de nos jours, just stretching the Tory mania for austerity and privatisation a little further into a nasty dystopian vision of Britain. My problem with it is the same as the one I had with Ricky Gervais’ The Office. I didn’t find that show funny because my then-boss was exactly like that, and I was living The Office every day, depressed and feeling bullied at the same time. So I couldn’t enjoy 84K because I already feel as if I live in a nasty dystopian version of Britain. Another issue I have with current publishing is the trend to put hyperbolic marketing messages and blurb into the book title on Amazon. It smacks of that terrible trend on YouTube for people to hype videos with such titles as, “The Most Incredible Version of this Song Ever”. It’s all part of the dystopia we live in.

Meanwhile, what is 30 year old science fiction like? Because SF is always about the here-and-now, of course, and the human condition under what if…? conditions. Which is why it has always been my favourite genre, and why I’d rather read science fiction than mediocre lit-fic by the likes of Ian McEwan whose appalling comments about SF in an interview gave lots of people the rage this week.

So, the second thing about my download choice is this: what were SF writers obsessed with in 1989? I’ve only read the first four stories so far. As you might expect, Gardner Dozois’ selections are superb, but I’m still noticing stuff. Cast your mind back to 1989. I mean, it’s recognisably the modern era, post-PC, post-space shuttle, early days of the internet and so on. But mobile phones haven’t become ubiquitous, climate change hasn’t become an obsession, and we’d only experienced 10 years of neoliberal economics.

The first story in the collection, by Judith Moffett, is ‘Tiny Tango’, a novella about the AIDS epidemic, genes, cross-dressing, indifferent alien visitors, and nuclear meltdown. It covers a hell of a lot of ground, but the thing that surprised me the most was the attempt to lay out the possible future of how HIV/AIDS would develop. It was a shock to remember how terribly urgent and present the disease was back then. The other interesting trope was the visiting aliens who, it turned out, didn’t seem all that interested in humans and their problems. Watch this space for that theme and what it might mean.

Charles Sheffield’s ‘Out of Copyright’, on the other hand, could have been written yesterday. He merges the idea that humans can be cloned with issues of intellectual property, and suggests that 75 years after someone’s death they might be cloned by anyone willing to bid for the rights. So who would get cloned and why, and how much would corporations be willing to pay? A brilliant story that still seems fresh. The identity of ‘Al’, the narrator, is the punchline.

Mike Resnick’s ‘For I Have Touched the Sky’ was probably a bit controversial even in 1989, but if published now might face accusations of cultural appropriation or similar. Resnick imagines a space habitat constructed for a throwback Kenyan tribal culture, a society deliberately harking back to a pre-contact state of innocent primitivism. There’s even mention of female circumcision, which these days gets called FGM and is extremely problematic.

Which brings us to Gregory Benford’s ‘Alphas’, which is the human nickname for another group of indifferent alien visitors, who arrive in the solar system and start messing with Venus using technology so advanced it looks like magic. In 1989, Benford was at his peak, having published the groundbreaking novel Timescape, which I remember reading and re-reading shortly before going to university. It still holds up as a ‘difficult’ hard science text, using concepts that come straight out of the research labs of top universities.

That’s it so far. So what about these indifferent aliens? What was happening, culturally, in the late 1980s to cause science fiction writers to imagine that they might not care about us very much? In the 50s and 60s, the aliens had been all about stepping in to steer or guide humanity in some way. In the 70s, they wanted to eat us. Probably. But by the end of the 80s, they just didn’t care. I wonder: was this the result of the Thatcher/Reagan years? A general feeling of uncaring individualism, loss of social cohesion, indifference to wider social issues, being content to leave people to their abjection?

And here come the aliens, who are merely, of course, a mirror held up to an uncaring society. They don’t care about our petty problems, our obvious suffering, our urgent need for kind intervention.

Night traveler

I’m not keen on catching sight of my fellow travelers on the channel tunnel. I don’t like to see people in their road clothes, their scuffs, their baggies, their trackies, their onesies. Their pyjamas. I think you should have standards when it comes to presenting yourself in public. And that bombed out roadtrip look upsets me: it reminds me that many other road users are as tired as I am, that we’re all reacting 30% more slowly. You see people parked beneath the signs saying “double-decker” and “single-decker”, trying to work out what it all means. Coming out of a service station that serves both directions on the autoroute and slamming on the brakes: wait, which way?

At the beginning of my continental driving career, back when I could do the whole twelve hour drive and not get out of the car with seized knees and swollen ankles, I tried to arrange crossings so that we could maximise daylight. Like many, I’m not keen on driving at night. My night vision is poor, and I am very afraid of falling asleep at the wheel. We’d cross around six, then make the 6½ hour drive (8 hours with breaks) across France with the sun mostly in the sky. Now the kids are older, or now the kids don’t even come with us sometimes, we sometimes do the drive with just a single, short, stop. It’s brutal, cruel, inhuman. Even worse, we now tend to do it overnight. This came about mainly because we bought Frequent Traveler tickets, and if you want to avoid the surcharge, you end up getting on a train at two o’clock in the morning.

My anxiety before these trips is now almost overwhelming. A hollow feeling in my chest before setting out; a feeling that I don’t even want to go; continual flashbacks to those moments when things have gone wrong. I was especially worried this time that it would rain and I would experience those moments of blind terror when trying to overtake trucks throwing up tsunamis of spray.

The other reason for these night crossings, the channel tunnel shuttle gradually got more and more popular. If you travel at peak times, you encounter long waits, gridlocked access roads, jammed up car parks, interminable waits for passport control.

We were early adopters of the tunnel. It was more expensive than the ferry, but much quicker, and (dealmaker) there was no seasickness on my part. But in those early days, before the rolling stock looked shagged out and before the toilets were totally borked, it was relatively quiet, feeling almost exclusive (except we were there). Then two or three things happened to change that.

The first is pure guesswork, but I suspect the price of the train and the price of the ferry converged. There were a few shaky years for the Tunnel, when the company was being bailed out by banks, when they got aggressive with the fare prices. These days? Not so much, I think, but a lot of people, once they’ve tried it, don’t want to go back.

The second thing that happened was an enormous increase in the number of Eastern Europeans using the service. When you are driving all the way back to Poland to visit relatives at Christmas, then the time-saving presented by the Eurotunnel is significant. I suppose there are equal numbers of people who choose the ferry precisely because you get a couple of hours to shut your eyes? Anyway, there were noticeably more Eastern Europeans on the service once those countries joined the EU, especially if you happened to be in the single-decker train with the vans and the coaches.

The third thing was that, after the initial honeymoon period, traveling with the budget airlines became intolerable for many. We took Easyjet to Basel or the South a couple of times ourselves, to save on the driving. But it’s so horrible, and got worse, which is before you get to the horrorshow of Ryanair, and I think a lot of people opted to drive rather than face the ritual humiliation of those buses in the sky. That accounts for the mix of people you started to see at the increasingly crowded terminal.

There was hardly anybody there. No Eastern Europeans, especially. No skiers.

All of which is a longwinded way of saying that, for the past several years, the channel tunnel terminal has been busy almost round-the-clock. You walk into the building at midnight and it’s crowded, and there are cars snaking around the nightmare of a car park, queueing, often too early and out of turn, for passport control.

Until this time, that is. In what I can only assume is a Brexit-related development, we crossed today from a very quiet terminal, passing straight onto a train with no delays, no waiting, no frustration. There was hardly anybody there. No Eastern Europeans, especially. No skiers.

And the first hundred kilometres on the autoroute were similarly quiet. We passed through the night on cruise control, only rarely overtaking a truck. I sometimes saw a car’s headlights carving through the darkness off in the countryside. It wasn’t until we passed the junction with the A2 from Belgium that we started to see other cars in significant numbers: Belgian cars. Very few Brits. We saw a couple of coachloads of school trippers at the one service station we stopped at, but that was it. So, this time, there I saw nobody in a onesie, no kids in pyjamas. It was a ghost terminal.

Anecdotally, a lot of people seem to have been told it would be unwise to travel at this time. The perfect storm of strikes and gilets jaunes and Brexit, it seems. Perhaps some thought that if they left the UK this weekend, they’d be refused entry after April 12. Who knows? Fear, uncertainty, and doubt stalk the land.

Apple’s TV Service: Has Peak TV Peaked?

Original caption: “It’s taken an eternity but 38-year-old Frank Lampard is finding form in Major League Soccer”

Apple held an event last week in order to announce a bunch of services; notably, a TV service and an Apple-branded credit card, backed by Goldman Sachs — the bank who brought you 2008 Crash: The Fuckening. While watching the cringeworthy presentation of Apple’s TV offering, and as we all gear up for the forthcoming final season of Game of Thrones, it occurred to me that our era of Peak TV might have peaked. A bit.

Because what comes next? None of the attempts to imitate GoT have caught on: The Vikings, and that silly Britannia thing, for example, were pale shadows of the richly textured GoT. But It’s hard to see that HBO have got anything else in the pipeline. Westworld had a stunning first season, but stuttered in S2 and seemed to be running out of ideas (the difference, perhaps, between being based on a book series and being based on a single Michael Crichton screenplay).

Looking elsewhere, Amazon’s American Gods was interesting, but again: we’re talking about a standalone novel adaptation vs. a hugely detailed book series. If you’re stretching things out rather than the opposite, then it all starts to get a bit… stretchy.

Everything else that’s out there at the moment is, at best all right, and at worst appears to fall into the how did this get made? category. I’ve expressed my love of Amazon’s Bosch series before, but I know I’m in a niche, and it’s not a show that even gets consideration on Tim Goodman’s latest musings about great cop shows. Mr Goodman’s expressed desire is for a new great cop show to come along, and that is a real question isn’t it? Southland was superb but got no traction. And The Wire was a long time ago.

“A haven for players on the edge of retirement, who are lured by big money to play one more season.

Looking at Apple’s presentation last week, they were making a lot about a little. Spielberg’s anthology series Amazing Stories might have some interesting episodes, but it’s in the nature of anthology shows that it isn’t going to build up to anything. Apple’s morning TV drama looked like it might want to be The Newsroom, but the Newsroom, while I personally liked it, didn’t set the world on fire, and we didn’t get much of a taste of Apple’s thing to know any different. And the other stuff looked okay, but I’m not sure it would entice me to pay a subscription.

Mostly, I got two impressions. First, that all of these people had been lured by a lot of money, that Apple had been bounced by their desperation to grow their own content into paying too much for too little. I mean, if you look at the best recent shows on television, most of them weren’t star vehicles. GoT has made stars; the main players in The Americans were respectable actors, but not movie stars; and Counterpart had JK Simmons, who is brilliant, but he’s not a bums-on-seats kind of actor. Television doesn’t really work like that, does it? You don’t really tune in for the stars. It’s notable that ER first made a star of George Clooney, and then survived his departure. NYPD Blue made a star of David Caruso, and then thrived when he left (he didn’t). And, news just in, The Good Fight might be even better than The Good Wife, now the titular actor has departed. The Closer was marvellous, but then Major Crimes was just as good.

In short, Apple are backing the wrong kind of horse. The second thing that occurred to me during their presentation was that they were very focused on the United States. Sure, it’s a big market. But Amazon and Netflix are global. Probably the smartest thing Netflix does is content in a wide variety of original languages. Apple are offering us an American TV show about an American TV show. I mean, how far up their own arse do they want to get? And another kind of anthology show telling the stories of immigrants to the USA. I know it’s all part of the political moment, but still: there was too much navel gazing in their launch. The “stories” they want to tell are all US-centric it seems.

In wider television terms, I’m trying to think of anything I’m kind of looking forward to coming back, in the same way I’m looking forward to GoT, and I’m struggling. The Americans is over. Travelers wrapped up. Starz has cancelled Counterpart. Two seasons of that means it will never achieve true greatness. If I’m honest, the only reason I’m looking forward to Game of Thrones is because I’ve invested so much time in it already. Quite a lot of the most recent season was a bit silly. Where is the next great show that enters the cultural conversation going to come from? HBO might be absorbed into Warner, might never be the same again. And, like Netflix, their track record has not been that great lately. More hits than misses, etc., which has always been true of television.

But there are special circumstances in the Peak TV era. Now there are so many showsand so many services, the audience is thoroughly dispersed. The BBC might still get people talking about The Bodyguard and Line of Duty, but there are always a number of caveats. First of all, they’re not as good as they think they are. The Bodyguard started strong and became preposterous quite quickly. Line of Duty has pulled some bold strokes but have we now seen all its tricks? Those long, tense interview scenes are great: but how many variations on that can you spin? Just how many of that small team can turn out to be villains? And: short series, short orders, so cannot hope to obtain the greatness of even a modern season of 10-13 episodes.

Amazon’s forthcoming Lord of the Rings nonsense seems doomed to fail. Or at least I hope it does. Haven’t we had enough of that particular franchise? I suppose you might be appealing to the superfans, but that’s not a growth audience, and it’s a tired old world, the hobbits and the rings.

I can think of a few properties that, if adapted, would get me firing up the credit card instantly. But I’d be truly amazed to see any of them happen. There are so many scripted series now, and the talent pool as well as the audience is very diluted. Watching the Apple event last week, I couldn’t help but note how many of the A-listers were veterans. It reminded me of nothing so much as Major League Soccer. A haven for players on the edge of retirement, who are lured by big money to play one more season. Here: come see all our faded stars who are past their peak. Just like peak TV, perhaps.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie – review

A switch of genre for this most interesting of SF writers, a woman who can weaponise pronouns and shock you into a new way of thinking.

Pronouns feature again, here: this novel is told in the second person. The narrator is, it is gradually revealed, a rock that fell from space and is also a god in a fantasy world filled with minor and local gods. The object of the narration, the you of the sentences, is a transgender soldier who acts as loyal factotum to a princeling, an heir to a throne, who appears to have been cheated out of his inheritance by a wicked uncle. Except not really a prince, not really a throne, because this is Ann Leckie.

So it’s a little bit like Hamlet. Something is rotten in the state city city state overseen by the Raven, a god who lives in the titular tower. A god who incarnates as a raven, but then also speaks through a human who acts as the Raven’s representative. Not a king so much as a minor pope.  And then of course the princeling is not a prince so much as an heir to a minor papacy, except not quite. When the raven incarnate, the bird, dies, the Pope, the Raven’s Lease, is also supposed to die, his sacrifice giving more power to the Raven, who is immediately reborn into an egg. Because it’s a Lease, right, you’re only there for as long as the bird lives.

And then there’s a liminal stage, between incarnations, as the egg waits to hatch. What then? Who’s running the show? What’s that grinding noise coming from below?

Local gods is exactly where I live, part of the title of my PhD thesis. Local gods who lose their power but are still worshipped by some small band of people; local gods who are subsumed and defeated by other, more powerful local gods, and so on.

There are two strands to this narrative. One is the slowly emerging, patiently told story of the rock who fell to earth. The other is the more urgent here-and-now tale of the transgender soldier, his Hamlet-like Leaseling, and the wicked uncle who appears to be up to no good. One narrative is about an immortal (?) being who has all the time in the world; the other is about short-lived, fragile humans who do not. 

Hence the pacing, a slow build so that it that took me some percentage of the novel to get on board. But then it gets more interesting, once you get what’s going on. Like Becky Chambers’ work, these narratives spiral around and come together in a close and common orbit, and they reach the same conclusion, as it were.

As with most fantasy novels, this is left open for a sequel, an immediate divergence from that same conclusion, which is kind of maddening. But then Leckie’s Imperial Radch space opera series was a three book series, and the way the publishing industry operates is on such franchises, so it’s more or less inevitable. Interesting, though, that no sequel has appeared for Provenance, her previous SF novel, which I also enjoyed.

So here we are, at what appears to be the beginning of another series. It’s good. The pronouns here don’t quite have the same sting, but it’s still a patiently built universe with, clearly, many stories to tell. If I’ve a criticism it’s that the second person narration doesn’t provide an inner life for the central (human) character, so we don’t really learn much about him, other than that he’s loyal and brave. Perhaps the second in the series will give us more.

Fantasy Brexit What If…?

I dared to suggest to a friend the other day that this whole Brexit fiasco might be part of some Cunning Plan.

What if, I said, what if you wanted to give the appearance of trying to fulfil the outcome of the referendum whilst at the same time undermining it at every turn? So that in the end, the clock would run down, the options would disappear one by one, and all that would remain would be, um, remain?

What would that look like?

If you were so cunning and so machiavellian that you could drive nails into the coffin of Brexit one by one by appearing to be so incompetent and hapless that everybody thought you were just useless: what would that look like?

Please, Br’er Fox, don’t fling me into that briar patch!

So this is my happy place: it really would have to look like this, wouldn’t it? You couldn’t just cancel Brexit and say the referendum was corrupted by lies and dirty money and bad actors, and anyway people didn’t even know what they were voting for. You couldn’t do that. You’d have to pretend to be going along with it until, whoops, we appear to have totally fucked this up. Let’s revoke, let’s remain, let’s have another vote without Cambridge Analytica, without Russian troll farms, without lies on buses, without dirty billionaire money, without Tony Blair putting people off.

Netshits

When I stand back and take a good look at it, I cannot honestly say that Netflix is worth the money to pay for it full-time. Obviously, there’s enough on the service to keep you busy for a few months, binge-watching the good stuff. But then, what are you missing out on if you unsubscribe after that process?

Netflix’s strategy is to invest heavily in original content so that, even if the back catalogue stuff goes away, there’s still a core of the good stuff. With Warner and Disney about to launch their own streaming services, Netflix had better have its own original content. But is any of it much cop?

At the moment, I mainly watch Star Trek: Discovery on Netflix. In the US, this is on CBS All Access, so it’s not even part of their main market. Now, Disco is excellent, and even the not-great episodes are better than the not-great episodes of, say, Star Trek The Next Generation. But, without this, there really hasn’t been anything new from Netflix that I rate. And since Disco isn’t actually from Netflix, I wonder, really, about their taste, and their commissioning process.

Here’s a list of things I recently rated as thumbs-down, because I was sick of them appearing in my feed (I hoped it would make a difference):

  • After Life (can’t stand Ricky Gervais, never have, never will)
  • The Umbrella Academy (yawn to this whole genre)
  • Turn Up Charlie (nope)
  • The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann (nope)
  • IO (awful, boring, grim)
  • Sex Education (nope)
  • Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (yawn etc.)
  • Pine Gap (terrible tripe from Australia)
  • Nightflyers (horrible tripe)
  • Always a Witch (risible tripe from Columbia)
  • Northern Rescue (boff)
  • Dirty John (even though I listened to the podcast, it’s a hard pass)
  • The Order (sub-Magicians tripe)
  • Love, Death, and Robots (yawn)

Secret City (Another Australian series – watched Season 1, fell into a coma part-way through Season 2 and abandoned)

I could go on. You get the picture. The problem here is not that, now and again, Netflix misses the mark. All of these programmes and films have appeared over the last couple of months. And there has been nothing inbetween to get on the “thumbs up” list. They’re all different varieties of terrible. Some of them are terrible because they’re not to my taste; others are just objectively bad.

Pine Gap loses you halfway through the first episode, when it becomes clear that this show consists of people talking to each other, very seriously, in rooms. It’s also Exposition Central, “As you know.” And (as a final nail in its coffin) any show that involves “computers” is dull from the off. 

Nightflyers, based on a George R R Martin property, is a grim, violent science fictioner that starts with death and viscera and goes on from there. If not exactly Game of Thrones in space, it wishes it was, and so it has all of the gore but none of the lore, as it were. Game of Thrones actually spends time, at the beginning, to introduce you to a cast of characters and make you care about them before it starts killing them off. But Nightflyers was just undiluted nastiness.

I have to conclude that those in charge of commissioning have poor taste. Turn Up Charlie was reviewed badly. Hollywood Reporter said it might almost have had potential, but creative decisions were made to focus on the absolute worst characters. Similarly, the documentary about Madeleine McCann was slated by reviewers for its fundamental tastelessness. And as a Netflix subscriber, you have to watch yourself: because they know who watches, for how long, and how often in a way that no television network before them ever did. So I’m cautious, even, about hate-watching, because what does their algorithm care what emotional state I’m in, as long as I’m watching.

I regret sitting through Bandersnatch, which I hated every moment of, because I’m just one more viewer, albeit one who didn’t explore all the possible permutations.

But the dilemma I face is this. Sure, I could cancel as soon as the latest series of Disco finishes, but then I’d be depriving my kids of the trashy shit they watch on their devices. So I’d feel bad about it: but the question is, how bad?

Personal Top 30 – Final Part: the top 5

So we reach the end, but here’s a summary of the list so far

  • Don’t Change On Me – Alan Jackson
    That’s Life – Frank Sinatra
    Dancing In the Moonlight… – Thin Lizzy
    Not the Only – Sugarland
    The Ceiling – The Wild Feathers
    Rock Me on the Water – Keb’ Mo’
    Jenny of the Roses – Hiss Golden Messenger
    It Makes No Difference – The Band
    No Next Time – Allison Moorer
    24 Frames – Jason Isbell
    Your Bright Baby Blues – Sarah and Sean Watkins
    Six More Days of Rain – Tift Merritt
    Wish Me Away – Chely Wright
    The Weight (feat. The Staples) – The Band
    Weight of the Load – Ashley Monroe
    Wayward and Weary – Tift Merritt
    That’s Where It’s At – Sam Cooke
    Left My Woman – The Wild Feathers
    Sad City – Trick Pony
    On To Something Good – Ashley Monroe
    Jessica – The Allman Brothers Band
    Tell Me Fool – Vince Gill
    V’s of Birds – Dwight Yoakam
    Your Secret’s Safe With Me – Dan Colehour
    The Pretender – Jackson Browne

05. Watching the Wires – Hiss Golden Messenger. Forty years later, and this is the most recent song on this playlist, released just last month. But, to me, it is instantly recognisable and has the same pulse that has been singing in my veins since I discovered Radio Caroline. The pulse, the beat, the drums and the guitars. Give me one good reason, do it for the feeling. I know what you say, but I had to learn the hard way.

04. Stockholm – Jason Isbell. To see Mr Isbell sing this with Amanda Shires is such a joy. This is from his 2013 album Southeastern, and you can feel the optimism shining through from a man who has cleaned up his act, met the love of his life, and is looking forward. Stockholm syndrome: becoming a willing captive. Escaping from one kind of captivity (addiction) into another (love). I love the anthemic feel of this, the shuffling drum beat, the rapidly strummed acoustic guitar, the power chords on the electric guitar. It lifts me. Lock me up tight in these shackles I wear, tied up the keys in the folds of your hair. It’s hard to believe that something this good was ever on television.

03. Learning to Fly (Live) – Tom Petty. I do love the original record of this, but it has to be the live one. How does an artist perform the same songs over and over? It’s the communion with the audience that makes it new again, every time. And Stevie Nicks, honorary Heartbreaker, stands at the back, and lends her voice. How can we go on without Tom Petty?

02. I Won’t Dance (1962) – Frank Sinatra. There are a number of great things about this. First of all, the song, which seems on the surface to be one of those standards, but it’s a little mystery box. It’s like a Schrödinger’s cat of a song, existing in two completely different versions, with only the refrain in common. Written for a flop musical in 1934, it was then rewritten by different songwriters for a completely different musical the following year. Then Fred Astaire performed it in the film version of that musical (Roberta), with Ginger Rogers (who danced backwards in heels). Then there’s the mysterious (second) lyric with its, “For heaven help us, I’m not asbestos” — a reference to a dress the woman spoken to by the song is supposed to be wearing that is so hawt it would set you on fire. Except the rest of the song doesn’t mention any supposed hawt dress, so the line stands alone, like a palimpsest in a mediaeval manuscript.

Then the song turns up, chameleon-like, in two completely different films, apparently able to travel in time, because it’s used to evoke “the 1920s” despite being written in 1934/5. Which means, somehow, that even when it was new it was always-already an oldie, a standard. Instant standard. And then it appears on two separate Frank Sinatra records in two completely different musical arrangements, both marvellous. Because of course Sinatra wanted to be Fred Astaire. The version on the 1957 Nelson Riddle arranged A Swingin’ Affair is my favourite Frank Sinatra song—apart from the version on the 1962 Neil Hefti arranged Sinatra/Basie.

I came to my own accommodation and reconciliation with Sinatra. Although my mum had some good stuff, most of her Sinatra albums were his desperate attempts to remain relevant in the late 60s and early 70s, those pre- and post-“retirement” releases. So I bought my own collection, and added to it over the years, on cassette, vinyl, CD. And then my Dad died and it turned out he’d amassed a load of Sinatra albums on CD, which I inherited. Then, on impulse in Fnac, the French entertainment/technology superstore, I bought a boxed set of Sinatra CDs, more or less completing his Capitol years. And probably the most recent album I purchased (on digital, this time) was Sinatra/Basie, the 1962 “historic musical first”, which takes us back to the beginning again, because it was one of the ones that were in the house when I was growing up. And it was released in the year of my birth, so…

This arrangement by Neil Hefti is genius. And Sinatra’s vocal is also, in spite of its obvious flaws (at one point he comes in after an instrumental interlude a little on the flat side, a little pitchy), brilliant. Perfect because it was not perfect. Always-already both perfect and not perfect and somewhere there’s a cat in a box listening to it. Here’s Sinatra performing it with the Buddy Rich Orchestra in 1982, in his late 60s. Still had it.

01. Blue Sky – The Allman Brothers Band. Oh yes, here’s a song I caught just once, and not even all the way through, on Radio Caroline. A simple little song. Verse, verse, chorus, the best guitar solo Duane Allman ever played. Then the best guitar solo that Dickie Betts ever played. Another verse, another chorus. Five minutes of heaven. Duane Allman died, aged just 24, before this was even released. But what immortality this is, the musical equivalent of that line from Bull Durham about baseball being a simple game. “You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” Music is simple. You write a verse, you write a chorus, you play your instrument.

Personal Top 30 – part 5

Part One; part 2; part 3; part 4

10. Jessica – The Allman Brothers Band. In a sense, this is where it all begins. Even association with Clarkson and Top Gear can’t sully this classic, which I first heard on Radio Caroline and have loved ever since. As a teenager, I more or less considered most of the tracks I heard on Caroline as “oldies”. I mean, I took note of the time they played “Sultans of Swing” because it felt like an incursion of some kind. Wot, modern music? I have a vivid memory of standing in the kitchen at home (a rare moment during the day when I managed to pick up a clear signal) when they once played a Mike Oldfield track called “Guilty”, (here’s a link) an instrumental track from 1979 which utilised some electronic gubbins. Wikipedia states, “It is notable for being Oldfield’s first obvious attempt to capitalise on a current musical trend, in this case disco/dance music.” And I remember the DJ saying something along the lines of, “That’s Mike Oldfield and Guilty. I should say so.” Which I thought was hilarious. So that would have been bang on its release, ’79. But listening to “Jessica” and suchlike, I just assumed they were really old. Brothers and Sisters, the album it came from, was released in 1973. LOL. So at most it was six years old when I first heard it. And now it’s 43 years old and still perfect. An instrumental, something unusual for me to like, but a perfect demonstration of how much you can do with the pentatonic scale. It’s still my jam. But it was quite a few years before I actually bought it. There was a moment I had to give myself permission to buy some of this uncool 70s guitar (dad) rock.

Don’t read the comments.

9. Tell Me Fool – Vince Gill. From his 2011 album Guitar Slinger, this track is now older than Jessica was when I first heard it. My head explodes with feeling old. It’s a lovely example of both Mr Gill’s soulful voice and his unparalleled ability to play lead guitar on a song which is both perfect for the song and which lifts the energy level of the track. There’s a clear before and after on this. Up to about 1:45, when the solo kicks in, it’s a lovely song. I love the groove of it, the rhythm track, and the way the musical arrangements have all the instruments somehow making space for each other in the mix. And then about 30 seconds later, the emotion in the song is heightened. And then comes a breakdown before it all whooshes in for the ending.

8. Vs of Birds – Dwight Yoakam. There are a couple of crucial musical moments in my life. One of them was definitely my discovering of Radio Caroline on 319m on the medium wave dial. The other was when a colleague at work made me a cassette with some mid-80s “New Country” on it. There was some Randy Travis, some Judds, and some Dwight Yoakam. I remember driving back to work that night and slipping the tape into the player in the car. At first, I was underwhelmed, but then came the whiskey night. My best friend, my girlfriend and I stayed up late one night drinking whiskey in the kitchen, and something encouraged us to put Steven’s tape on. That combination of the right kind of booze and the right kind of company was my Road to Damascus.

Dwight Yoakam’s first two albums brought a modern sensibility to California style country (the Bakersfield Sound), and he had a good run. My kids don’t like his yip yip voice, but I think it’s great, and every now and then he hits the spot. This song was written by Anthony Crawford whose own version of it is very good, a sweet high voice and a strummed acoustic guitar cutting against a pad of strings. But Yoakam brings the drums, brings the hard-strummed mandolin and electric guitar, brings the power of his voice, and makes it into a Dwight Yoakam song.

When I hear this I’m on another road, this one running from Auxelles Bas down towards Lachapelle-sous-Chaux, a village of no particular note. But it is downhill all the way, so it’s fun on a fast bike, and you do pass a place that sells firewood. It’s such a brilliant capture of a moment in time. Blue skies, sunshine, but birds flying south and ricks of wood at the side of the road. Winter is coming. Where have I heard that before?

7. Your Secret’s Safe With Me – Dan Colehour. Here’s another artist I heard over the radio one time, bought an album based on that one track. By now, I’ve distilled my consumption of that album down to this one song, which is not the one I first heard. But this: this has possibly my favourite guitar solo on it. It’s a Springsteen-like dance around the fretboard that makes my heart go thump. I’ve no idea who Dan Colehour is or what his deal is, but this is a moment of greatness. And this video has… 8 plays on YouTube. It’s quintessentially that song you hear on the radio that makes you jump out of your car seat or bounce around the kitchen.

6. The Pretender – Jackson Browne. Not a cover this time, but the real deal. Like his contemporary Bruce Springsteen, this man who has probably never had a proper job in his life somehow manages to capture the essence of existential suburban boredom, the imposter syndrome of being a salary man (or woman), of stepping out among your neighbours and being both within and without that peripheral lawn-mowing lifestyle, a denizen of the hedges and flower borders. And the children solemnly wait for the ice-cream van to come as the summer heat gives way to the cool of the evening. Needless to say, this is my theme song.