To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

This was one of the cultural highlights of the summer for me, a new novella from Becky Chambers, who has previously published three delightful novels (none of which were particularly long) in her Wayfarers series. This one is not from the same series and comes in at about half the length of a standard novel – and at under a fiver I can’t complain.

So, why a novella? A small idea, an itch that needed to be scratched? The introduction of a new Becky Chambers universe with some light worldbuilding? Or a short story run wild?

Hard to say. Anyway, I read this in a day, and it was enjoyable but slim pickings. I’ve been thoroughly engaged by Chambers’ work and wouldn’t call her a “science fiction lightweight” as some do, but this novella, if you wanted to be harsh, could be described as four characters in search of a plot.

The set-up is straightforward, though some heavy suspension of disbelief is required. A crowdfunded space exploration programme sends several missions from Earth to explore different exoplanetary systems, all of which have the potential to harbour life. If a crowdfunded space programme is hard to believe, the strong ethics of the explorers also tests your ability to go along with it. These humans are determined to have as little impact as possible upon the ecosystems they explore. They’re explorers, not colonisers, and their code is hippocratic: first, do no harm. Rather than change their environment, they change themselves, which is a necessarily under-explored aspect of this piece.

The plot, such as it is, follows the four crew of one of the missions as they explore, in turn, four promising worlds in a solar system, all of which have – or might have – water. Comparisons to Goldilocks and the Three Bears are inevitable, given that the zone in which life might potentially exist is named after that fairy tale. Is one planet too cold, another too warm, and another just right? And what of the fourth?

The rule of four: four planets, four crew, four personalities. Are they all too perfect? Chambers’ human characters are generally so caring and considerate and tolerant that the conflict necessary to drive a plot has to come from elsewhere. It’s hard to say here whether she intends people to be sympathetic or deeply irritating. Once character comes across to me as so prickly and difficult that I cannot believe they’d be allowed on such a mission. Are the planets and the people metaphorically linked? It’s worth some thought.

Standard science fiction elements are here: a way of dealing with human lifespans and interstellar distances; a way of dealing with the perils of radiation; some hand waving about fuel and propulsion systems; more handwaving about air, food, and recycling. It’s a novella, so you shouldn’t expect Kim Stanley Robinson level detail. But there’s a lot of handwaving, and someone like KSR would dig into that a little and create some peril out f it. Which is not to say that there isn’t peril here: but it’s served as a side dish rather than the main course.

The story begins with the words “Please read this” and even tempts you to skip to the end in order to find out what “this” is all about, but I didn’t do that. They land, they explore, stuff happens, and then they face a decision, which ought to be high stakes and dramatic, but somehow feels like a cop-out.

So: not an essential Becky Chambers read; certainly an enjoyable way to pass the time while you do read it, though. I’d accept this as the introduction to a new series, but if it turns out to stand alone, it’s inessential.

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Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

It’s lucky, I reckon, that I recently managed to identify three Gardner Dozois anthologies from the 80s and 90s that I had not read. So I have 750,000 words of 80s/90s science fiction to look forward to instead of the dreck being produced in 2019.

Trail of Lightning, I hasten to add, is not dreck, but it is a bit bof. It bears all the hallmarks of fiction published in an era in which everyone is a writer but nobody wants to pay an editor.

It’s a fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic landscape about five minutes from now, after the Big Water and the collapse of so-called civilisation. We’re on what might otherwise be a Southwestern Navajo reservation, and myths and monsters have come to life. It’s an appealing idea, but let down by the execution. Our protagonist is Maggie Hoskie, a monster hunter and anti-hero (I guess) who is given some kind of vaguely expressed job to complete by a Trickster character and then seems to bounce around, pinball-like, until it’s time for the end. All of the twists and turns are telegraphed long in advance, and the Big Revelation is so obvious that you have to conclude that our Maggie is a bit thick.

There are lots of unfamiliar words herein with no clue as to how they’re pronounced or what they mean. This is probably a deliberate alienation technique, but a glossary in the back wouldn’t have hurt, would it? Worst of all, the Kindle couldn’t render a number of the words properly – even though I switched to the Publisher Font, which I was pleased to find embedded.

It’s all set up for the next in the series (The Sixth World), which has soured me on this first book even further because I won’t be bothering. This keeps happening! I cannot emphasise enough how refreshing it would be to pick up a book in this genre that doesn’t come with half a million words of sequels. I am not averse at all to the urban fantasy genre. My favourite book is Tim Powers’ Declare, and much as I would lap up a sequel to that, it stands alone. There’s such an enormous difference between a writer who gives a book an ending and then, maybe, later comes up with further ideas, and one who leaves everything up in the air like an episode of TV.

All this said, a lot of other people have really liked this, so I’m probably just too grumpy for my own good.

Turning off the streaming tap

So, as previously noted, I (re)signed up for a 3-month trial of Apple Music. I was thwarted in my reasons for doing this but kept the trial going because the kid is on a rockandroll roadtrip and probably making use of it. But!

It makes me sad.

I’ve also revisited Spotify, taking them up on a 30-day trial of the Pro level, mainly so I could spam a friend with playlists, but Spotify is even worse.

Let’s stipulate from the outset that I’m predisposed to hate all the algorithmic recommendations. Apple Music’s recs, far from being insanely great, are insanely insane. And Spotify’s are equally offensive. What really bugs me about Spotify though is how badly it works. If I’m building a playlist and want to (+) a song to it from, for example, an album listing, it keeps bouncing me away from the listing so that I have to tap the screen THREE FUCKING TIMES to get back to where I was.

…And other user-hostile behaviours, such as finishing a playlist and then immediately starting to play random shit without so much as a by-your-leave.

But that makes me angry rather than sad, and the source of the sadness is somewhere else.

Always sensitive to my own moods, I went through several stages of grief with this free trial. For the first week or so, I was adding stuff to sample, things I’d normally skank from YouTube or steer clear of. The new McCartney album, for example. I’d normally not muster much interest, but I gave it a listen. Quite good, I thought, for a Paul McCartney album. But as Greil Marcus (?) once said of Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque, it’s good in the way that, say, Elton John is good, and when you’re Paul McCartney/Bob Dylan, that’s simply not good enough. So you give it a listen, and you think, litotically, not bad. And then you think, but will I ever listen to any of it ever again? And you think, no. No I won’t.

So then I stopped adding things, because it made me sad and I was wasting my time, and I felt reluctant to play any of the stuff I had added, because it felt artificial somehow, like I’d been placed in a simulation of my life in which I had access to things I was only vaguely interested in but that all the things I really loved were behind some kind of glass wall, tantalisingly close but unavailable.

It was as if I was thinking, well I’ve got this trial, see, so I’m obligated to ignore you, all my hard-won musical friends, and hang around with these mere acquaintances, just because that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.

As if the music collection I’d painstakingly built up over 40+ years had less value than this free stuff that was streaming like diarrhoea from the arse of a corporation that presumed, using maths, to know better than me what I would like.

Because music should be famine, not feast. Having taste means filtering out all the mediocrity to find the good stuff, not sticking a hose in your mouth and turning on the tap.

So then I stopped playing most of what Apple Music was offering and went back to my own owned and downloaded music. Because the reality is that over the month or so I’ve been on the trial there have been precisely three songs that have appeared that I intend to download/buy when I cancel the trial.

This isn’t just my problem. This is everyone’s problem. I genuinely fear we’re doing something horrible to ourselves with this always-on, everything-available culture. We’re already closely resembling those infantilised fat people living on out in space in the Pixar movie Wall•E. The hosepipe is streaming into our gaping maw and we really should fumble for the tap and turn it off.

The Beatles – All These Years: Volume One: Tune In by Mark Lewisohn

My reaction to the news of this book, back in 2013 when it was first published in hardback, was probably not uncommon: does the world really need another book about The Beatles? I had read so many, from the Hunter Davies authorised biography that was published before they even broke up to the lush hagiography of the Anthology doorstopper. And so I noted this and ignored it, thinking both that I knew it all and that my interest in the subject had been saturated long ago. Furthermore, I was convinced that of all the things about The Beatles, the stuff about them before they were famous was the least interesting. This book only takes us to the end of 1962, and I didn’t think I’d want to know any more about this period.

But Lewisohn’s forthcoming stage show about Abbey Road prompted me to look – and think – again. And now I don’t have to have yet another huge tome creaking on the already overloaded bookshelf, now I can just whack it on the Kindle, I decided to give it a read.

It will not come as a shock to anyone who has read this that I was wrong: the world definitely needed this book about The Beatles. When you read, in other biographies, They grew up in Liverpool; or, Ringo came from one of the rougher parts of town; or, Paul and John met at a church fete, John was impressed that Paul could play “Twenty Flight Rock” – when you read lines like that, you have no idea how much more you could know, not just in terms of trivia, but in terms of a deeper understanding and a greater appreciation of just what The Beatles achieved. As David Hepworth is fond of saying, The Beatles are underrated. And when you read this book, you understand just how profoundly true that is.

I mean, the old line that gets trotted out, that record companies turned them down, saying, “Guitar groups are over”: that’s just something we’ve accepted all these years. But ask yourself: what guitar groups? There were the Shadows, and, um? Look at the pop chart for the end of December 1961, the week before the Beatles’ recording test at Decca. Here is a list: Danny Williams; Frankie Vaughan; Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen; Sandy Nelson; Pat Boone; Acker Bilk; Russ Conway; Bobby Vee; Petula Clark; Neil Sedaka.

Sure, there were no guitar groups, but not because they were “over”: because they had never been. There were solo artists, instrumental groups, even vocal groups, but there were no bands. There were no artists who both played instruments and sang. With harmonies. Who wrote their own songs. Decca turning The Beatles down was akin to the robot in Westworld, programmed to say, “It doesn’t look like anything to me.” It was because The Beatles were so new, so different, perhaps, that the people at Decca couldn’t even see what they were. They were hors categorie.

And so this book. I’m 56, and I’ve been listening to the Beatles almost all my life. One of my earliest memories is of running home from primary school with the guitar riff from “I Feel Fine” running through my head: my first involuntary musical imagery, my first earworm. My favourite Beatles record is still Beatles for Sale, because that was the one that was already in the house when I was growing up. And the first record I ever bought with my own money was The Beatles 1967–1970. What I’m trying to say is, I peaked early with The Beatles. By the time I was 18, I’d listened to so much, from the dodgy Star Club December 1962 recordings onwards, that I was positively steeped in Beatle lore. My clothes stank of The Beatles, like a 40-a-day smoker. And then, just as I turned 18, Lennon was killed, and I dived deeper.

I know the story like you know the story of King Arthur or Robin Hood. It’s part of the founding mythos of these islands, as fundamental to us as Plymouth Rock is to the USA, only with fewer genocides. So it would be impossible for Mark Lewisohn to make me read this book as if I didn’t already know the story, to read it as if it really was touch and go, that they might not make it, that the peril was real.

But I did.

To read this is to be immersed in 1950s Liverpool, Hamburg in the early 60s, to feel the precarious weight of every single event. But Pete’s not a very good drummer: what are they going to do? George Martin really isn’t very impressed and doesn’t like “Love Me Do”: is that it, then? Have they missed their chance?

I can pay no greater compliment to this book than to say – as I read the climactic chapter, the account of the recording of their second single, in their third session (with Ringo) at Abbey Road (and as my daughter played Blonde on Blonde in the room behind me: a marvel that came along less than 4 years later) – as I got to the line I knew was coming, when George Martin flicked the switch on the talkback microphone and said,

‘Gentlemen, you’ve just made your first number 1 record.’

Lewisohn, Mark. The Beatles – All These Years: Volume One: Tune In (p. 808). Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.

that tears sprang spontaneously into my eyes.

So now I join the legions of George RR Martin fans in demanding the immediate publication of the next volume. Will it ever appear? Has he lost the plot? Will he die before it’s finished? What is he doing organising a stage show when he has a bloody book to write? Etc.

Band Made, Part 2

(part 1)

A year or so later, we decided to put out a single, which turned into an EP, which was simply a way of maximising bang-for buck (the budget was £500). You were allowed 6-minutes per side of a 45 rpm vinyl at the pressing plant we used, so we hired an 8-track Fostex machine (which used quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape) and re-recorded four of the songs from our first 14 – which had been put out separately as a cassette release called Mr Mystery/The Proper Stranger, mainly because I couldn’t settle on one title.

The EP was called Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare, mainly because there was a picture of a big lit-up sign saying just that on the cover (there was a reference to the town in one of the songs). The cover was printed by a small firm, but the printing plate had been created by my Dad. It featured the aforementioned picture, and on the back the track listing along with a prose poem written by me that began, This summer night of luscious wind and rain…

We tried to get some interest going in the single. The local newspaper came round and took a photo, and then printed a story full of factual errors. We took copies to the local radio station, which were promptly given away as crap competition prizes (winners complained, I heard). Somehow, a copy made its way to BBC Radio 1, and a DJ called Janice Long played the first track, ‘Is It Any Wonder?’. I learned about this afterwards, because obviously I never listened to Radio 1: someone who knew someone jumped out of their bathtub when they heard it. So that was my three minutes of fame, over.

I was always unhappy with the electronic drum machine on our early recordings, but ironically, twenty years later, as I reached the natural end of my third period of songwriting and recording, I’d come around to the idea, and you can hear similar machine sounds on my last few recordings. My main objection, as I said above, was that I really struggled to play at the machine-generated fixed tempo. I always felt it was a case of putting the cart before the horse. Analogue music has a natural, if slight, variation in tempo, which is totally lost with the rigid programming of beats-per-minute. This is not an original complaint, but while I did get better at playing in time over the years, I wish I’d played less: one chord per bar, or on the off beat only, something like that. As to playing live with a drummer, that was when I really discovered my limitations.

I hated performing, found it horribly nervewracking, and I was never confident playing with the others – had a bad case of imposter syndrome. I couldn’t even hear the drums through my nerves when we were playing live, and I couldn’t improvise when Pete and Curly decided to go off on one. Still, there were some good nights, though it was never destined to come to anything. We were 3/4 of a good band, and I always saw myself as the weakest link, which is a shame, because I don’t think I was that bad, and if I could have shaken off those feelings, we might have gone somewhere. Reading about the early days of the Beatles (without for one second comparing myself to them), it’s clear that Lennon, for example, was often vamping in the early days, and it was only really the 7 million hours on stage in Hamburg that honed their abilities. Even then, nerves might get the better of them, leading to fluffed solos and harmonies. 

Then again, we didn’t have a manager, or someone to carry the burden of booking gigs and doing the marketing part. That might have helped, but who would want to manage us?

Our best gigs were probably in the Vaults bar in Stony Stratford, where we had two or three good nights, having worked up a couple of cover versions as well as my own songs. By this time, I was living in Milton Keynes with my then-girlfriend, a relationship that lasted about five years. But with both her and Jim gone from my life (long story), I made the decision to apply to University, to sell the house (lost money on it, bottom of the market) and move on. For the last few months, alone in the house we’d shared, I ended up with most of Pete’s recording equipment in my back bedroom. By then, there was an 8-track Fostex reel-to-reel recorder, a (16 channel?) mixing desk, and a variety of other things. Between us, Pete and I recorded a few more songs, but we never played them live. The band was quietly retired, and I (briefly) went solo, performing songs as well as short stories when I was asked to do readings.

I did most of the recordings on my own: had grown competent enough with the equipment that I could operate it without help. I didn’t understand most of what I was doing, and didn’t have an inkling for how the mixing desk really worked, but everything was connected up and I knew which buttons to push.

But when the house was sold, the equipment all had to go elsewhere, and when I started at University, I stopped doing music altogether. The catalyst was an open mic night that Roy and I went down to. Roy was a proper musician who had a proper band, and he wanted nothing to do with this open mic crowd, but I thought I’d show my face. I did a song, but decided then and there that I hated the scene and the people, and all the boys who thought they were Jesus with an acoustic guitar.

It goes back to my lack of affect as a singer. I didn’t fit in with all those intense people who took their music so seriously.

And I gave it up for years, till (for professional reasons) I had to learn all about computer recording technology and MIDI, and I rediscovered my love of recording. It started as a way of me getting to grips with the software and its requirements, so I could give the sales team enough knowledge to sell the stuff over the phone. And I eventually became pretty competent in using Pro Tools, and converted my garage to a home studio. It was a neat set up: a few really nice microphones, a small mixing desk, a computer interface, some expensive monitor speakers. And I must have written/recorded 100 or so songs – some cover versions – and they weren’t all bad.

My earliest attempts are incompetent: the drums (now MIDI programmed, triggering sounds from sample collections and virtual instruments) were awful to begin with, and the guitars were fairly crappy, and my arrangements lacked imagination. But over a few intense years I grew more confident and occasionally did something I thought was good. Once I relied less on strumming guitars and thought more about how everything worked together, I did some nice things. Nothing is perfect, and nothing really sounds professional quality, but as I said above, I was overcoming the handicap of having almost zero musical talent.

Occasionally, Pete would drop in to play some bass, just like the old days, but mostly I’d do that kind of stuff myself. A couple of people from work contributed sometimes, but the bits that make me smile the most are the tracks where I’ve overcome my own limitations and played some half-decent guitar, or through serendipity have managed a nice combination of sounds. Painstakingly picking out MIDI notes on a keyboard and creating what sounded like piano: that sort of thing. My favoured mix turns out to be a fairly quiet drum track with a brushed snare, some piano, some tremolo electric guitar, bass — and a slightly emotionless vocal.

Around 2006, I changed careers, and eventually ran out of ideas and time to do the music justice. Software stopped working, hardware got outdated. My freebies stopped being authorised because I was no longer working for a dealer, and my last few recordings really relied on a much limited set of options, which wasn’t a bad thing. But by then the song ideas had stopped coming. I’d exhausted my backlog of memory and emotion: a lot of those songs had been written about all of those days long gone. The system could have gone on working for longer if I’d not updated the software, but it only takes one moment of madness, and you can screw the whole thing. 

There remain two more things to mention. The last time (I think) I saw Jim, I was commuting home to Buckingham from Nottingham, and I passed a petrol station on the A5. Standing by one of the pumps was a biker, in leathers, helmet off, blonde hair. There was a familiarity to his posture, a kind of curvature of the spine and the shoulders that made me certain it was Jim. It was a mere moment, I was passing by at 40, 50 miles per hour.

And it was before that, in the first flurry of social networking, that someone I’d been at school with passed Jim’s work email address to me. It turned out that – more than a decade after he’d returned from a post-divorce trip to Australia full of beans and full of plans to return, to emigrate, as soon as he possibly could – that Jim was still working in the same job he’d had since he left school. In the same period of time, I’d given up my first job, done three university degrees, a host of different temporary jobs, and started a whole new career in a different part of the country.

I think he was just back from the pub, or he’d surely never have entertained an exchange of emails. I was honestly surprised he was still working at the same place, sitting in the same office, getting on for 20 years after he’d started. But he hadn’t changed.

‘I’ve got to get a plan,’ he said, as if the trip back to Australia was still on his mind. I was actually embarrassed for him. It was no skin off my nose if he was still working in the same old job – all jobs are a shitty imposition on our free time, so who fucking cares? But to read him still talking about escaping in the same old way, using the same old words, was disconcerting. Anyway, I’m sure as soon as he sobered up he regretted the conversation, brief as it was.

I think his employer closed down in the end, and I believe (only because it was mentioned in the blurb of a television programme I never watched) he moved on to train as a firefighter at an airport: ever the hero in his own mind, I guess.

My fingers are soft now. I have a really nice Taylor acoustic guitar that my daughters play, but I haven’t picked it up for years. It’s sad, but my current job consumes all my creative energy: sometimes I feel as if I’ve been performing for five hours in a day (because I have). There’s no energy left for making music. Maybe when I retire.

Eels

John Roderick, of several podcasts, has a term for subscriptions. These ongoing payments suck money out of your bank account on a regular basis in return for [services] and if you’re not careful, they’ll suck you dry. Roderick calls them eels. They’re attached to your major arteries and sucking blood. Picture yourself as an Ood from Doctor Who.

I currently subscribe to:

  • The BBC (£150 per year, £12.50 a month)
  • Amazon Prime (£7.99 a month)
  • Netflix* (£8.99 a month)
  • Apple Music† (£14.99 a month for a family plan)
  • NowTV‡ (£99 per year, £8.25 a month)

That’s a grand total of £52.72 a month, £633 a year, for entertainment and free one-day delivery. Which is before we get to the other eels: broadband, phone contract etc.

It’s a lot.

*I thought I’d be smart and do a 6-months-on, 6-months-off thing with Amazon and Netflix. The truth is, as I’ve said recently, that a lot of Netflix’s Original programming is utter shite (especially their films), and I don’t really want to be paying £8.99 a month all year round. So I recently cancelled the subscription and said to the family that we’d go back on when there was a list of 10 things worth watching.

Well, I lasted less than a month, because the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue documentary appeared, and there was no way I was going to wait 6 months to watch it. I considered it the equivalent of paying £8.99 for a one-off iTunes rental, or a cinema ticket, whatever. So I am currently back on Netflix, but not for long. I actually checked out the new Black Mirror and was confirmed in my view that most of what Netflix produces is mediocre at best, and, no, I don’t want to watch no Jennifer Aniston movies, thanks.

†Bob Dylan is also to blame for my temporary subscription to Apple Music. I have no intention of paying the £14.99, which is ridiculously steep for what is essentially an annoyance. I’ve written before about how I was immediately irritated and turned off by Apple Music. You spend ages telling it what you prefer, and then it does nothing but recommend shite. I mean, take a look at this screenshot:

It’s as if someone’s Uncle Jack died and you’re looking through all the CDs he bought from that advert at the back of his Saga magazine.

Now, I have a fair amount of modern country music in my Library, but Apple Music’s “For You” section is stuffed with this crap and I have no more interest in it than I have in, say, Cliff Richard, Max Bygraves, or Nana Miskouri. It’s all stuff you’d flick past while casually browsing at a car boot or a charity shop. Apart from it all being of no interest whatsoever, the list of recommendations is also overwhelmingly based around male vocalists, compounding the industry-wide marginalisation of women artists. Country radio already refuses to play contemporary country by women, but as far as Apple is concerned, it doesn’t even exist. The only thing that might tempt me to subscribe to Apple Music full time is if they had a recommendation engine that would throw up current artists, the likes of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Lori McKenna, talented women who are producing incredible songs. In the absence of a robust music press, the world is crying out for a good music recommendation engine. But no, Music scrapes the barrel of music that was already in the remainder bin 40 years ago.

So, in reality, no, I’m not paying £14.99. I’m on a free trial, and that only because I wanted to hear (just once) the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue boxed set. Except, thwarted: they only offer a 10-track sampler on the streaming side, so bollocks to that.

‡Compared to all the others, NowTV is the best value. Who’d have thought I’d say that? Better value than the BBC, for me, because I watch almost nothing on BBC TV, and listen solely to radio stuff on the iPlayer Radio (definitely not on Sounds). I get both Entertainment and Movies from NowTV for £99. I got it once, for a year. And then when I went to cancel, they offered it to me again. I’ve almost zero interest in watching any movies, but it’s part of the deal. The Entertainment pass gives me stuff like GoT (not full-time, but long enough to watch it) and Westworld, Bob’s Burgers, and various other Sky Atlantic stuff. But it’s touch and go. GoT is definitely worth the money, but Westworld’s second season was shonky, and while I enjoy The Rookie, it’s not worth £8.25 a month. So come renewal time, I’ll have to seriously consider whether this eel will stay attached to my neck.

Which leaves Amazon and the BBC. I can tell you that Amazon’s days are numbered. I spend too much when I’m on Prime. Also, Prime Video has very little stuff I want to watch. When it comes to it, I can’t even be arsed to look at Season 2 of American Gods. I watched Good Omens, but persevered only because it was just 6 episodes. I love Bosch, which is very underrated by critics. And Patriot is good. But once I’m done with those, I mainly use it to watch Seinfeld, which I’ve seen multiple times and even own on DVD. So 6 months-on/off it will be.

I have no choice about the BBC. I’d gladly pay a bit for the (mostly archive!) radio I listen to, but I no longer value it as I once did. The Tories and the right wing press have done for it, and while I’m sad that happened, it happened. I obviously blame the voting public, who, like the proverbial turkeys, have allowed this government of corrupt incompetents to destroy our most valued cultural institution. BBC News is unwatchable, the Today programme is unlistenable, they allowed Simon Mayo and Eddie Mair to walk away, and the only current output I value consists of In Our Time and Fortunately with Garvey and Glover. You can point to odd gems like Killing Eve and Ghosts, and even bought-in stuff like What We Do in the Shadows, but in reality they’re doing no better than Netflix and Amazon when it comes to quality control.

I was about to joke that I’d happily pay £2.50 a month for an iPlayer Radio licence, but having done the actual maths, it turns out that the BBC does spend about 20% of its budget on all its radio services, including local radio etc., so £2.50 as a proportion of that £12.50 is exactly right.

Anyway, my plan is to cut down the eels to a mere £356 per year, and we’ll see how much Apple wants to charge for its forthcoming TV streaming service. As they’re currently gouging people for £14.99 just for music, I don’t hold out much hope in terms of value for money.

Peak TV is hard work.

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.

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.”