Review time: Chernobyl, The Calculating Stars, Kindred

Many column inches have been expended on Chernobyl, the HBO/Sky mini series that concluded this week, so you don’t really need me to tell you it’s good. But it was remarkable for a number of reasons. First of all, for such a grim subject, it was surprisingly easy to watch. Grim TV usually gives me the hives, unless it has something exceptional about it. Chernobyl had both incredible attention to detail and uncannily accurate (by all accounts) reproductions of 80s-era Soviet Union settings, along with understatedly convincing performances from the largely British cast.

Americans like to fete the heroism of the firefighters who went up the stairs in the burning towers on 11th September 2001. Chernobyl produced thousands of such heroes, who shortened their lives in order to save the rest of us from disaster. 90 seconds on a rooftop clearing debris in radiation so intense it burned out the electronics of a police robot in seconds.

On the frivolous side of history, it’s nice sometimes to think about the contribution made by smuggled Western rock music on X-ray films, Levi’s jeans, and Bruce Springsteen’s performance in East Berlin to the eventual collapse of the Soviet bloc. While Springsteen certainly helped kick the Berlin Wall down, it was the cancer at the heart of the Soviet Union that eventually led to its collapse, a deflating soufflé of lies and corruption and hunger and reckless, cost-cutting incompetence. It had been growing for years and in Chernobyl it finally exploded and became visible. As one character says in the final episode, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth.”

For me, the most remarkable thing about the Chernobyl mini-series is that it came with a podcast in which Peter Sagel interviewed the show’s writer and creator Craig Mazin. Lots of shows have podcasts. Lots of shows have official podcasts. But this is the first show I think that consisted not just of five one-hour TV episodes but a parallel five hours of audio that made the show more rewarding to watch. So effective was the podcast that I enjoyed it both ways around: listening first and then watching; watching first and then listening. It was quietly innovative television. Not the kind of gimmick Netflix tried with Bandersnatch, but an acknowledgement that a podcast can be a kind of director’s commentary. The Good Place has already done something like this, with different participants interviewed for each episode. But the Chernobyl podcast was just a sit down with the writer, who has also, generously, made the scripts available for download. As a resource into how the television sausage is made, I think this is fairly unprecedented.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal won the Nebula Award for Best Novel 2019 and had been on my wish list for a long time. So, having heard some of my podcast friends sing its praises, I downloaded it. Around the same time, I read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which is now acknowledged as a masterpiece but at the time seemed to be ignored by the science fiction award panels. The winner of the 1980 Nebula was Timescape, by Gregory Benford: hard science fiction dealing with theoretical physics. I suppose it at least shows some progress that a woman writer is winning in 2019, but it was probably unfortunate that I read The Calculating Stars just after finishing Kindred.

Kowal’s book concerned an alternative time-line in which, following a meteorite strike and an impending climate disaster, the space programme is accelerated and women are allowed to train as astronauts. Meticulously researched, it takes you into the patronising and horrifically sexist milieu of 1950s America, in which astronaut trainees are also expected to pose in bikinis and look sexy in space suits.  It’s a stark portrait of the proverbial backwards, in heels.

The novel’s okay, but it dragged a little for me. There was an awful lot about the anxiety of one of the main characters: sure, exactly the kind of extra that a woman would have to be dealing with in a world that has always made her feel she’s not good enough. But in the end, it all felt a lot like false jeopardy. Did I ever believe our protagonist wasn’t going to succeed?

What most certainly doesn’t drag is Kindred. There was no excess in this lean and mean 1979 plot machine. An African-American writer from 1976 finds herself thrown back in time to a Southern slave state in the early 19th Century. The jeopardy she faces is harrowing, visceral and unsentimental. The reader is forced to confront the daily reality of slavery and its brutal inhumanity. The plot motors along from first chapter to last, with so much to tell, told so economically, that it feels like a masterclass in composition.  This is no mere page-turner, but a book that leaves a lasting impression as a powerful metaphor for the untold damage slavery did to the American psyche.

The cancer that ate the Soviet Union was laid bare by the disaster at Chernobyl, but the cancer eating America is still being denied by a large percentage of the population.

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