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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You can’t park here: the big electric lie

£72,000 to you

We’re surrounded by liars and charlatans at the moment, so you almost don’t know where to start really. The Guardian has recently changed its style guide, and is now referring to “climate crisis” and “climate breakdown” rather than “climate change”. This seems sensible, as I believe it was someone in the Bush administration who came up with “climate change” as a way of dismissing the anthropogenic nature of global warming, which the Guardian is now calling “global heating”.

Words are important, of course, and maybe the thinking is beginning to be a bit joined up. But not all the way.

Unfortunately, newspapers need to sell advertising, and in order to do that they need to generate clicks. One of the ways the Guardian does this, believe it or not, is to review new cars (and sometimes bicycles) in its Lifestyle section. Now, your traditional image of a Guardian reader is probably a school teacher or sociology professor in a chunky jumper, someone with a cupboard full of different olive oils and some mouldering bags of brown rice.

Recent cars reviewed in the Wheels section of the Guardian include the Citroen C5 Aircross (£23,000, quite reasonable); the Bentley Continental GT (um, £159,000 – that’s an expensive Volkswagen); the Seat Cupra Ateca (£36,000 – another expensive VW); and the Honda CRV (£28,000, no VW parts involved). So three crossover/SUVs and a luxury coupé. And today: The Jaguar I-Pace, £58,000 worth of electric SUV.

Reviews like this aren’t aimed at Dr Chunky Jumper or Professor Brown Rice. They’re designed to garner page views on the interwebs, with comments often disabled because they’re all essentially the same comment anyway.

But there we are: an electric vehicle, in the same class as a Tesla, or the forthcoming expensive offerings from Audi and Mercedes. Electric vehicles for wealthy people. You might see the odd one around, in addition to the smaller and slightly cheaper offerings from Renault, Nissan, and so on.

But here’s what has been vexing me lately. I was imagining a scenario in which I had an electric vehicle with a range of, say, 280 miles, like that Jaguar. So my regular trips to France, a 560-mile journey, could theoretically be managed on two full charges, but it’s not that simple. First of all, is that 280 mile range with a driver and no passengers and no luggage? What about, say, three passengers, and their luggage? What about three passengers and their luggage in December, in the middle of the night? And let’s also take into account the fact that the last 20% of a charge takes much longer than the first 80%, so that most electric car drivers are going to be managing about 200 miles, then needing to stop for 40-60 minutes to top it up to 80%. A Nissan Leaf, by the way, can manage about 150 miles.

Which means my 560-mile drive to France is going to need two lengthy stops at high speed charging stations.

Fine. That would work, in a world in which I am one of the few people wealthy enough to own an EV with a 280-mile range. Because I could, say, drive to the Channel Tunnel, park in a charging bay for an hour before boarding, then stop again around Reims for another boost. Another 40 minute stop just before leaving the motorway network near Langres, and I could probably be home and dry with charge to spare. And we’ve added a couple of hours to an 11-hour journey, bearable: unless you’re the cat.

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.[1]

What Kant meant by this, if I may, is that you could only consider an action ethical if it would be okay for everybody to do the same thing.

There are around 100,000 electric vehicles on the road in the UK. But there are about 31 million cars (source). If you go to a shopping centre or the channel tunnel terminal or a motorway service station, you might find 6-12 high speed charging bays. To charge that Jaguar up to 80% in 40 minutes, you need a 100kW point. Let’s say that up to 12 Eurotunnel customers can currently be driving one of these high-end cars.

There’s a reason they’re high end: because it would not be okay, and would not be feasible or practical for too many more people to be driving them. This, for me, violates Kant’s categorical imperative.

The National Grid estimates that EVs will generate an additional 18GW of demand by 2050 (source). That’s 18 billion watts. Or 180,000 cars using 100kW charging bays. Obviously, you could have more cars using, say, domestic supply and charging slowly overnight, but those figures don’t seem to suggest that 31 million electric cars will eventually replace the 31 million internal combustion engine cars on the road. And I wonder who’s going to install all the infrastructure, and then how it will be paid for. Because half of UK households have to park their cars on the street.

At the moment, electric car ownership is subsidised by the taxpayer. So those Jaguar I-Pace and Tesla owners get £3,500 off the taxpayer towards their £60,000 cars, and they get convenient charging bays in prime locations: you know, like disabled people do. I don’t know about you, but that gives me a warm feeling inside.

Can you imagine what happens when “the rest of us” want to drive electric? First of all, the welfare-for-the-rich £3,500 subsidy will disappear. Then the price of charging will go up, to pay for the additional infrastructure, and also there will be a queue. Your long journey will involve several 40-minute charging sessions and several 40-minute waits for a free charging bay. The cat/dog/ferret will absolutely love it.

Can you imagine the rage sessions when people who have been waiting 40-minutes for a bay are gazumped by a recent arrival with a Mercedes EQC and an overdeveloped sense of entitlement?

All of which leads me to the conclusion that this electric car revolution is not going to be a thing. Unless you can afford a £58,000 car.

The water diviner

My brother-in-law has bought some land near to us here in France, and this is not his first rodeo. One of the things he did with his first house, built eighteen years ago in the village down the hill, was put in a geothermal heating system. Back then, there was almost no information about how to do this, and very little expertise, so he relied heavily on his own engineering genius, and succeeded in putting in a system that heats his home (with underfloor heating, natch) for a fraction of the price of a conventional boiler.

Nowadays, French building regulations have caught up with him, and everybody needs to build to a certain level of energy efficiency.

One of the things you need for a geothermal heating system is a source of water. 

When you have a plot of land and you want to know where to dig for water, you need a water diviner.

This guy, the guy we’re talking about, doesn’t use a switch of willow or dowsing rods. He uses his hands.

Before he became a water diviner, he was working for one of the large employers around here, and it came to pass that he got a new position with a new office. He moved into the office and started his new job, but he didn’t feel happy. He started to get depressed. Really depressed. It was something to do with the office, he thought, a bad vibe.

It turned out that the two previous occupants of that same office had also got depressed. And both of them had committed suicide.

The guy who would become a water diviner rearranged the furniture in the office, and things seemed to improve. The bad vibe was less present, but it didn’t go entirely away. So he quit, and decided to, ahem, try his hand at water divining.

So he came around to my brother-in-law’s new bit of land the other day, and suggested two places to dig. He’d brought his son with him. Just for fun, he got his son to see if he could work out where water was. The son said, “I feel something here, and I feel something stronger over here.”

He said it in French, obviously.

The water diviner suggested two places to dig. He said one was about eight meters down, and the other was deeper. He charges fees based on how far you have to dig. And if you find nothing, you just pay his expenses.

So we’ll see if he’s right about where to dig, but I’ve got a feeling in my own water that he almost certainly was.

The End

I have a few additional thoughts on Game of Thrones and its ending.

I think it was good. It was probably really good, but it will be hard to tell that until all the poison has left the system.

Episode 1 of Season 1

By poison, of course, I mean all the commentary and opinions from the never-satisfied armchair and other critics. We’ve spoken in the past about the modern phenomenon of the social media pile-on, the pitchfork wielding mob that resembles nothing so much as Orwell’s Two Minute Hate from Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Honestly, who would be a creator these days? I once posted a video to YouTube of me making pizza in a not-very-good back garden pizza oven (the Uuni), and some complete stranger took time out of their doubtless busy day to post a negative comment about my pizza dough. On a video that had been seen by about five people, including the commenter.

I’m perfectly at ease with my own shouting into the void. If this was a blog that attracted, god forbid, regular comments from strangers, I’d restrict them even more than I do now. As it is, I allow comments on this blog for 14 days on each post, and then turn them off. It’s not that I don’t want to hear from people. It’s that I generally don’t, and if I do it’s someone I kinda know. The rest are either spam, or they’re from that guy, in which case I don’t approve them.

I’m not saying don’t post. I’m not saying don’t comment. I’m just wondering why you would bother to try to ruin someone’s day like that. Someone you don’t know, will never know, will never meet, will never (certainly not now) befriend online in any way whatsoever. It’s the conundrum of our times, a question that now goes back 30 years and more: what, exactly, do you get out of being that guy?

(And, really: don’t comment. Unless you have a pre-existing and cordial relationship, and certainly if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. That may sound anodyne, but it’s the golden fucking rule, isn’t it?)

They’ve had many names, these people. Trolls. At a basic level, someone who deliberately sets out to start an online argument is a troll. Most women with social media accounts are also familiar with the Reply Guy, the well, actually guy, the mainsplainer, the drooling flaccid cock of online harassment and attention seeking.

What’s the problem, really? Partly, its an over-developed sense of entitlement, of ownership, and a complete lack of self-awareness. As I titled the book of this blog’s archives: Nobody cares what you think.

Nobody.

I mean. If you read a review of something, a film say, in a mainstream newspaper, and it’s a film you’re looking forward to, a film you think you might love, and the review is negative: do you care? Will it stop you going to see it? Will you feel moved to post a comment below the line, directed at the reviewer, explaining why they’re wrong?

Take Bruce Springsteen. He’s releasing a new record this summer. I’ll probably buy it. I probably will like two or three songs on it, which is the usual rate. And some geezer in the Guardian will review it and give it three or four stars. And whether I agree or disagree, nobody will care what I think. And nobody really cares what the geezer in the Guardian thinks. He could give it two stars, hoping to provoke some comments below the line. That is what the Guardian does. They do it with Apple news and reviews. They do it with Game of Thrones. They generate clicks and hits and ad loads, and that’s how modern newspapers circle the drain.

When I was 18, Springsteen released The River, which (I’m about to controversially suggest) was his last unequivocally great album. And journalist Julie Burchill, writing then for the New Musical Express, wrote a sarcastic and biting review of it, highlighting the repetitively similar girls’ names (Julie, Mary, Wendy etc.), and sneering at all the songs about cars and trucks. It was less a review of The River and more of a not-buying-it critique of the Springsteen act and mythos. It upset me a lot at the time. I mean, I hated everything Julie Burchill wrote, but this hatchet job felt unnecessary and wide of the mark. 

Springsteen has since admitted that he wrote a lot of those songs about cars and leaving town whilst not being able to drive himself, and as someone who still lives within spitting distance of his home town. So, in a way, Burchill was probably picking up on something she felt was inauthentic. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. The point was, I was wrong to care. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the record, and 39 years later, it still doesn’t. She might have been right, she might have been wrong, but the point then was that was exactly the kind of thing the NME did: deliberately give an album to someone who would hate it, and then sit back with the popcorn, knowing that their Letters page the following week would be full of Springsteen defenders.

These days, we call it trolling.

And people still argue about authenticity in music, and I suppose they always will. Personally, I stopped caring about that years ago, have reached the higher state of consciousness that means I’ve accepted the existence of the fictional character called Bob Dylan.

Anyway, Game of Thrones. It was good. I had an experience in the car today that meant I couldn’t listen to music or podcasts as I drove. Which is fatal, because the last thing I want to to when I’m driving long distances is focus on the distances. There’s a danger, when I’m driving through the night and everyone’s asleep that I start obsessing about the kilometre markers in the centre of French motorways, which count off every one hundred meters, so you can precisely locate yourself in an emergency. Literally: kilometer 288, kilometre 288.1, kilometre 288.2, etc.

And if you’re me and you start looking at those markers, you enter a fugue state in which time passes but you never get any closer to where you’re going, like something out of a dream. So I had to do something to occupy my brain in the absence of podcasts and songs, and for some reason I imagined myself in a situation where I was explaining the plot of Game of Thrones to my best friend.

It started something like this:

There’s this fictional world, made up of continents, countries, and seas. And at some point in the past there was a great civilisation, which has now fallen. All that remains of this lost civilisation are a few ruins, book fragments, and some remaining weapons: swords and blades made with some kind of amazing metallurgy that creates a special steel sharper and harder than any other steel. But nobody knows or remembers how it was done. So there are these swords, and these knives, leftovers from a vanished civilisation, and nobody knows how to make new ones. Anyway, that’s all background. You don’t know that at first, it’s just part of the world-building, the history of this place, which we first encounter long after this civilisation fell. And what remains is a rough and brutal mediaeval world. In particular, we’re in Westeros, a continent of seven kingdoms, which have been in an uneasy peace since a few years before the story begins. But again, we don’t know all this. When we first enter this world, it’s beyond the borders of Westeros, in the far North, where we see a patrol out in the bleak and cold country which lies North of this great wall of ice. What? Oh yes, there’s this amazing wall of ice which was built by the denizens of the lost civilisation to keep out some kind of threat, but again, nobody really knows what the threat is. Anyway, there’s this organisation called the Night Watch, and they man the Wall, and defend Westeros from this unknown threat, which they think is something to do with the people who live North of the Wall, who call themselves the Free Folk, but who are pejoratively called Wildlings. The Free Folk just want to live away from the mediaeval feudal system that exists South of the Wall. Anyway, the Night Watch isn’t what you’d call a force of highly professional trained fighting men. They’re people who have been sent there as punishment, as an alternative to a death penalty. Most of them. There are a few more decent types, who have self-exiled, but most of the Night Watch are murderers and cowards and thieves. Anyway, they’re out on patrol, and they come across something completely horrific…

And that’s just the background and introduction to the first five minutes of the first episode of Game of Thrones. The first five minutes of over four thousand minutes. It has been an extraordinary achievement in world building and television making, a global phenomenon of incredible storytelling, and visceral, action-packed, character-led entertainment. And it just ended in a way that is completely in keeping with the way it begins.

And the only thing that spoiled it?

The inter fucking net. And that guy. People who wanted to see messages tied to raven’s feet and people packing their bags in the last episode because otherwise it looks like a plot hole, but only if you think a plot should include all the boring bits as well as the exciting bits (and exciting tits and butts, it has to be said).

So in years to come, I hope to watch again without the madness of the social commentary that became, in the end, an industry in its own right. And they saw the end coming and lost their fucking shit because all their parasitical recaps and blogs and podcasts would be over. Luckily, my own blog, this one, has never just been about one thing, so I carry on regardless.

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.

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.