Posted in bastards, entertainment, music, musings

Charles “Chuckles” Berry, 1926–2017

To paraphrase Mark Ellen (who was talking about Van Morrison), I would guess there are two kinds of people when it comes to Chuck Berry: those who like his music; and those who have met him. As a black artist whose work had been appropriated, stolen, lifted, plagiarised etc. several times by white artists, Chuck Berry had every right to be a miserable old git. But while Lennon was a very naughty boy when he stole “Here come old flat top”, I’ve always considered it more of a reference/quote/homage than an outright steal, and I don’t think the Beatles thought they were pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. They weren’t trying to pull a Led Zep.

After all, The Beats had already covered both “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music”, and if Chuck Berry had a beef it was with the organised criminals who owned his publishing, notorious as they were for not paying out royalties. Lennon recorded “You Can’t Catch Me” in 1975 for Rock ‘n’ Roll, so Berry was paid back in spades.

Anyway, Berry’s own “Maybelline,” one of the first rock ‘n’ roll records, was heavily based on the song “Ida Red”, which was recorded by Bob Wills in 1938. And “Ida Red” itself included lyrics from F.W. Root’s song “Sunday Night”, written in 1878. In other words, it’s disingenuous of anyone to sue anyone else over copyright, which is really designed to protect artists from exploitation by greedy and unethical corporations and shouldn’t involve artists getting pissed at each other for doing what creative people do.

Great artists steal. (And even that quote is problematic, having been borrowed/stolen, reframed and so on, through multiple iterations. In its current form, it probably owes more to Steve Jobs than Picasso.)

So where does that leave us with Chuck Berry? Watching Springsteen work up and perform “You Never Can Tell” is one of the pleasures of my life; but watching Springsteen stand awkwardly to one side while Berry performs “Johnny B Goode” at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, treating Bruce and the E Street Band like just another one of his cheapskate pickup bands, is simply embarrassing.

Berry was an originator, one of the first to make this thing called rock music, and the first to write literate, intelligent lyrics that stand the test of time.

But he was a miserable old git and impossible to like. Which is before you get to the video cameras he allegedly hid in toilets at various properties he owned; or the 20 months he served for transporting a 14 year old girl across state lines for “immoral purposes”. Now you can point to the latter incident and consider the all-white juries and the different times, as they say on the Simon Mayo programme (it was 1959), but filming women with hidden cameras in the toilet is just nasty.

All of which is before you get to the armed robbery rap.

Monstrous ego, shoddy live performances with badly rehearsed pickup bands, sexual offences, armed robbery… Add to this the crime of “My Ding-a-Ling” and I’m afraid Chuckles is just not my kind of guy.

Posted in entertainment, music

When your heart grows cold and old

I was listening to a (back catalogue episode of) Roderick on the Line today, and he said an interesting thing about music and nostalgia.

We, he said, meaning people in their 40s and 50s, are the first generation who can listen to the music of our parents’ generation as easily as we can listen to our own. Can this be true? I’ll explain.

My parents were born in the 1930s, and the music collection they had when I was growing up came mostly from the 1950s and on. In other words, came from the era that they’d have been in their later teens and twenties. A collection of brittle 78s, a mostly-disappointing collection of vinyl LPs (with the notable exception of Sinatra), and some other stuff from the early 1960s that I’ve always assumed belonged in some sense to my older siblings.

But my father’s father, who was dead long before I was aware of anything: what was his music? No records survived. Even if he was in his 20s in the 1930s, that era of economic hard times, would he have even owned a record player? Or had the luxury of even being into music, in the modern sense? No records survive.

Similarly, I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing any music at my maternal grandmother’s house. My grandad had an old broken reel-to-reel tape recorder, but who knows what it was ever for?

Just now, I could hear my kid upstairs playing Buddy Holly, which is something I passed onto her. It’s interesting to hear her playing (over several days), Jonathan Richman, then the Velvet Underground, then Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers. You can trace the line, you can hear the musical DNA. I listened to Buddy Holly myself because I wanted to know where the Beatles had come from, and because “Words of Love” was on Beatles for Sale, which was the Beatles album in our house.

When I listen to Sinatra, it’s also because there were a load of albums in the house when I was growing up (but, really, only two or three of them were of the right vintage, the rest were from the Reprise era, not the kind of thing I still listen to). So the Sinatra DNA was passed on, but I had to do my own work to obtain/discover the best material. My mother had Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and Come Fly With Me, but I never heard the superior A Swingin’ Affair until much later on.

So the kid upstairs, you might say, represents a third generation, who can listen both to the music of her parents, but also her grandparents. Does she have Sinatra on her iPhone? I think she does. How weird is that?

 

Posted in Books, entertainment, music, Review, Writing

Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run (book)

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Elodie got this for Christmas, but she also got Johnny Marr’s book, so I nabbed this to read quickly. I confess, I’d been looking forward to Elodie receiving it.

Springsteen writes very well – you can hear his voice behind the long sentences, full of detail, full of lists and parataxis. And the story he tells is a fascinating one, full of honesty about his early life, his career, and his battles with depression, which seem to have got harder as he’s got older. He doesn’t mention the incident, but what you read herein puts the 30th birthday cake-into-the-crowd hurling into a new perspective.

The best section is probably the one covering his early life, his extended family which had fallen on hard times, and lived in a crumbling house with just one heater. Springsteen’s often described as ‘blue collar’, but that doesn’t really do justice to the crushing poverty and hardship he experienced. He’s very articulate about his father – the figure who lurks in the background of so many of his songs – whose own mental health battles are so much a part of Springsteen’s formation.

He considers himself lucky to have been born when he was, able to experience rock’s first and second waves directly (Elvis and the Beatles, in shorthand), and then to be part of a vibrant local music scene that was driven and inspired by those waves. And when he finds himself, years later, on stage between Mick Jagger and George Harrison, he reflects on how extraordinary it is that he, just one of thousands of young kids to be inspired to pick up a guitar by the Stones and the Beatles, should end up on that stage.

The early life, the early musical experiences, these are the more interesting parts of this book. He spares us, however, the details of his life on the road, or even too much about the months spent in the studio. He mentions key events, key dates, the well-known difficulties he’s had with capturing the right sound (“stiiiiiiick!”), but he doesn’t dwell too much. He does mention that the hardships of his early life with a road band (cruddy motels etc.) were nothing compared to the cruddy environment he grew up in – it was a step up.

I was looking forward to reading about the times he abandoned (and then re-formed) the E Street Band, though he only hints at the reasons why. It seems clear he grew tired of the ‘Daddy’ role that being The Boss entailed, and it’s even clearer that it was the two members of the band who died young that were the source of greatest pain. The chaotic lives of Danny Federici and ‘C’ (Clarence Clemons) seem to have been ongoing issues. Of the two albums he released on the same day in 1992, the ones that preceded his first non-E-Street tour, he says nothing.

I lost interest a little towards the end. Maybe because I was reading too fast, but I suspect because of the way this book was written. The chapters are short, full of pleasurable passages, but also saltatorial, jumping from point to point, and sometimes repetitive. He says at the end that he originally wrote it out in longhand, over seven years, and it bears the hallmarks of something that has been written as a series of chunks. From about halfway through, there’s less of a narrative, and it becomes more like a memoir than an autobiography. Here’s the time I met Frank Sinatra. Here’s the time I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Here’s the time there was an earthquake. And so on.

But that’s a quibble for someone who likes to read for the plot, and should not detract from the many interesting chapters and sections that the book contains. It’s a great read for the Bruce fan, or for someone interested in the music business, and maybe even for those with an interest in mental health. In his introduction, he hints that the idea of the book is to explain not just how he can get up on stage and play 3+ hour shows every night, but why. And, of course, the why is the more interesting question.

Posted in entertainment, music, musings, Review

Music Downloads of 2016 – part 3

Part 2 is here… and Part 1 is here.

The Weight of these Wings – Miranda Lambert

This is too new and, because it’s a double album, too extensive for me to have anything more than a vague impression so far, but this is Miranda Lambert, so of course it’s on the list. With 24 songs, coming in at an hour and a half plus, this is a monster. A lot of column inches have been expended on the very public breakup of her marriage to Blake Shelton, but I’ve never been interested in all that. Nevertheless, a double album is a statement of some kind. Her previous album, Platinum, had a feeling about it that indicated a loss of patience with an industry – especially radio – that wasn’t willing to give women a fair hearing. Her career has seen an uptick since then, but she’s still the woman who walked out of her first recording session, dissatisfied with the material she was being offered, and she’s now very much in control – and probably the pre-eminent female artist in the industry. Not bad for a third place finisher in the Nashville Star talent show. This set feels edgy and raw, as well as effortlessly confident. Lead single “Vice” sets the tone, while tracks like “Tin Man”, “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Keeper of the Flame” show the breadth and depth of the heartbreak.

Down to My Last Bad Habit – Vince Gill

Still one of the greatest soul singers in Nashville, as well as one of the best guitar players, Vince Gill’s latest set is a welcome collection of emotional songs and tasteful playing. There are a number of collaborations (I think Gill is the collaboratingest artist on the scene) with the likes of Little Big Town (Take Me Down), Cam (I’ll Be Waiting for You) and Chris Botti (One More Mistake I Made), but really he doesn’t need anyone else. Download the title track, plus “Reasons for the Tears I Cry”, “Me and My Girl” and “When It’s Love” and feel the power of that voice.

This is Where I live – William Bell

Best known for a couple of hits back in the day, and for songs like “Born Under a Bad Sign”, which were covered by others, William Bell’s career stretches back to that period between Elvis going into the Army and the Beatles’ first LP. “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till The Well Runs Dry)” came out in 1961, and his career was then interrupted by military service. So it wasn’t till the later 60s that he finally released his debut album, Soul of a Bell. Another near-decade later, he had a hit with “Tryin’ to Love Two”. He was always a man out of synch, his timeless country soul musical style not dependent on passing fads. His new album, This Is Where I Live, is his first in a decade, and it’s a fine collection of classic sounding soul music which could have been released at any time in the past 50 years. It includes a version of his own “Born Under a Bad Sign”, but I also recommend the track above, “The Three of Me”, the title song, and “All The Things You Can’t Remember”.

Posted in entertainment, music, musings, Review

Music Downloads of 2016 – part 2

Part 1 is here

El Rio – Frankie Ballard

Frankie Ballard’s third album builds on the success of his second, with a stronger set of songs, including a Bob Seger cover (You’ll Accomp’ny Me) and a Chris Stapleton song (El Camino) or two (Cigarette). He continues to follow in the footsteps of Keith Urban, though with a stronger voice and less emphasis on lead guitar. He bears an odd resemblance to my best friend from school, lo those many years ago, down to the apple cheeks and the bandana/scarf. The cover art could come from back in the 70s, too: a slightly out of focus portrait, which looks like the kind of scuffed vinyl cover you might find in a second hand record store. Recorded in Texas, this has a slightly different vibe to most mainstream country. Lots of strong tracks but consider downloading the above, plus “L.A. Woman”, “Wasting Time”.

Love and Lovely Lies – Imogen Clark

This release from the Australian singer-songwriter is more of a double EP than an album (like the original Magical Mystery Tour, I guess). A strong voice laid down with fashionably light reverb against largely acoustic instruments, this is a pleasant diversion, with familiar chord sequences. Download: “You’ll Only Break My Heart” and “Drawing Hearts”, “Here Goes Nothing”.

Ripcord – Keith Urban

Keith Urban’s latest seems to have a harder edge than his more recent work, though there are still nods towards the poppy end of the market, with EDM sounds lurking in the background (“Wasted Time”). This is a tight set, no flab, with some of the tracks coming in under 3 minutes. It’s light on lead guitar but strong on musicianship. Seeing him swap lead guitar for bass on “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” was a revelation (and it’s amazing how many ways country artists come up with celebrating the same things). “Blue Ain’t Your Colour”, “Habit of You” and “Boy Gets a Truck” are worth downloading.

Reckless – Martina McBride

Martina McBride is one of the few top female singers of the 90s and early 00s still hanging in there with regular album releases. Yes, I’m looking at you, Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood. While Wynonna’s 2016 outing was disappointing, McBride is still reaching the heights – especially with the tour-de-force vocal on the title track, which might be my favourite song of the year. Worth the price of admission for the title track alone, but also download: “It Ain’t Pretty”, “Diamond” (featuring Keith Urban), and “That’s the Thing About Love”.

Part 3 to follow…

Posted in entertainment, music, Review

Music Downloads of 2016 – Part 1

In alphabetical order:

Cold Snap – Anthony D’Amato

New Jersey Native with some Springsteen influence, D’Amato is a singer-songwriter who paints on a wide canvas. Sounds are a pleasing mix of rock guitars and drums, mandolin, and a young-sounding vocal. Watch the creepy video below for “Rain on a Strange Roof” and also consider downloading: “Oh My Goodness”, “Ballad of the Undecided”, and “I Don’t Know About You”.

Big Day in a Small Town – Brandy Clark

This follow-up to 12 Stories is another strong collection of songs, with slick commercial production that does the songs justice. For me, Clark has a voice with real depth and power that makes Kacey Musgrave seem a little one dimensional in comparison. Her lyrics, too, are more layered and complex. Take away the production and the songs can still punch you in the gut. You’ll see what I mean if you watch the acoustic live performance of ‘You Can Come Over’ below. The whole album is great, but consider these: ‘Soap Opera’, ‘Girl Next Door’, ‘Love Can Go to Hell’, and ‘Daughter’.

Skeletons – Connor (Christian)

Don’t know what it is about Connor Christian, or just Connor, as he’s currently styling himself. Three albums, all in a similar style, but under three different identities/brands. The Southern Gothic, Connor Christian and Southern Gothic, and now this. Rolling piano, acoustic and electric guitars, strong fiddle playing. He’s as good as ever – and deserves a wider audience – but I’m concerned that with such a generic name, he’s hard to find, even if you go looking. The lyric video for “Every Song”, for example, has had (drumroll) 144 views. And only 6 likes (7 now). Consider downloading: ‘Run To’, ‘Georgia Moonshine’ and ‘Say It to Me One More Time’.

Fighter – David Nail

David Nail’s new album sounds instantly familiar, and doesn’t represent much of a progression from his previous outing. But of all the country singers out there singing about trucks and blue jeans, he’s the most acceptable, managing to attract collaborations from the likes of Lori McKenna (‘Home’) and Vince Gill (‘I Won’t Let You Go’), and a surprising tendency towards the ballads. I suspect legions of female fans are enjoying the likes of ‘Champagne Promise’. His pleasant voice is matched with strong melodies and highly competent musicianship. By way of contrast with Connor above, Nail’s video for “Night’s On Fire” has over 8 million views.

Hard Trouble, Ain’t Settled – Donovan Woods

Our third beard in a row, Donovan Woods is the songwriter behind Tim McGraw’s compelling hit ‘Portland, Maine’. His album features his strangely soft and sweet voice accompanied by tightly strummed and muted acoustic guitar and ambient, atmospheric pads. Download: ‘Between Cities’, ‘May 21, 2012’, ‘The First Time’.

Posted in entertainment, Review, Television

The Grand Boor (review)

grand-tour-20I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, as the Top Gear schtick wore thin a long time ago, but I took a look at the first episode of The Grand Tour to see how Amazon had spent my licence fee Prime subscription.

The opening scene features Clarkson leaving Broadcasting House, handing over his lanyard, and walking away through the rain. As soon as my daughter saw this, she said, “This is just narcissism,” which was exactly right. Here’s a bully and a boor, a self-righteous, self-mythologising bore, indulging his own fantasy as the hero of his own narrative. In Clarkson’s hero’s journey he’s not the racist, sexist, apologist for neo-liberal elites whose ego became so inflated with success that he began to behave like a celebrity prima donna who can’t believe people don’t know who he is. No, he’s the poor, put-upon and misunderstood host of a harmless little TV show which gives pleasure to millions and is persecuted by the po-faced PC Brigade.

Of course, $160 Amazon dollars and a year or so later, we have realised that the world we are living in is Trump’s World, Boris’ World, Brexit World, and the power that Clarkson has, as apologist-in-chief, is immense. Only losers are offended by Clarkson. The struggling Guardian, which continues to pretend it is ‘fearless and independent’ publishes as much Clarkson clickbait as it can, because the truth is that – like Trump – there is literally nothing Clarkson can do that will turn his legion of fans off. He can punch, lie, exaggerate, get drunk in airport lounges, and he still has his bully pulpit in The Sun, and he still has his Amazon cash to wave in our faces like a Harry Enfield character come to horrific, warty life.

So to The Grand Tour, with his sniggering foils, and his booming voice and his ridiculous supercars and his sycophantic audience who will boo a Prius to order. It’s every bit as bad and as boring as I thought it would be. God, the sheer tedium of watching a middle-aged white man drive a fast car around and around, up and down, back and forth. The blatant filler, as cynical and contemptuous as Woody Allen’s recent Amazon outing: instead of racing three cars down a track once, why not do it a dozen times? These morons will watch anything.

You feel sorry for the audience, really. You can’t help, in your liberal humanist way, have a degree of sympathy for the brainwashed. You know that the hypnotised never lie. Their function is to go along with the gag, to be convinced that it’s okay to dismiss minorities, or climate change, or wildlife – anyone who is not them – and to cheer a millionaire as he burns rubber and petrol and sneers at the people who facilitate his indulgences. Even Clarkson is just a cog in this machine, his role to be the entertaining front of the hegemony, to show how having horrible opinions is no barrier to success. He’s not much more important than the token black woman, positioned as she was to be visible in the background, over Clarkson’s shoulder, a smiling indulgence to his past racism and misogyny.

But is that some desperation I can detect, underneath the noisy bluster? I think it is. Clarkson’s voice is shot, his instrument broken, sounding permanently as if he is losing it through shouting. As a teacher, I know what that broken voice means. It means you’ve been struggling with your Year 9s, or 10s, your naughty Year 8 group. You’ve been having to raise your voice to be heard, to insist on getting your way. Clarkson’s voice has been broken by his trials. And in the tent/studio, it’s all a little more shouty and stiff and awkward. No more strolling about from point to point: they’re fixed behind a shit table on a shit stage, sitting on shit chairs, and that’s where they stay for the live portion of the show, sharing their angry banter. But it’s clear: there really is no friendship there, and the famous chemistry has not survived the controversies. The tinker-engineer and the local radio DJ are simply there to be foils to the bully and they know it, and we know it, and it’s embarrassing.

If Trump goes after Amazon it will be a sort of poetic justice. You want Amazon’s TV offerings to be as interesting as Netflix’s, but they’re just not. They mostly have a nasty undercurrent, a lack of taste, making Amazon the Microsoft to Netflix’s Apple. And the fact that Amazon have given Clarkson a platform means that they are participating in the oppression of everything decent and kind in our cruel world.

Posted in entertainment, music

Deep Dive into Sam Cooke

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There are certain performers who are best seen as singles artists – The Who, The Jam, or Solomon Burke, for example. This is often because they were recording at a time when the 45 rpm single was the pre-eminent musical format; or it might be because they accumulated a killer 2-hour set over several decades, but never really had the wherewithal to release a sequence of great albums. Some acts, like the Beatles, and even the Stones to an extent, straddle the line. You can make a case for The Beatles as a singles group (plenty of non-album hits to their name), but they’re hard to ignore as an album group.

I always thought Sam Cooke was a singles artist. His career spanned a decade or so at a time when radio singles mattered more than anything, and most music fans would be satisfied with a 20-30 track compilation to cover the major milestones (“Wonderful World”, “Chain Gang”, “Another Saturday Night”, “That’s Where It’s At” etc.).

But then my daughter and I came across a 10-CD boxed set along similar lines to the Frank  Sinatra set I bought a while ago. So here’s an opportunity to dive deeper into the catalogue of a musical pioneer who was the first notable artist to cross-over from a successful Gospel career into Pop, creating a scandal and inventing a new genre called Soul along the way.

But to imagine that Sam Cooke suddenly invented soul music by transposing sentiment and style from music dedicated to a (Christian) liberation theology to a music dedicated to personal salvation through romantic love is to oversimplify. What did it mean, in 1957, to release a pop album? Was Cooke seen as a rock ‘n’ roll artist? The track listing of his first few albums says no. His smooth voice and pleasant melisma lent itself (of course) to the Great American Songbook, and it seems clear that his record company (Keen, an independent based in LA) saw him either as a crooner in the mould of Nat King Cole or Bing Crosby; or perhaps as a more consummate performer and interpreter of song like Sinatra.

His first album, Sam Cooke, opens with the self-penned hit “You Send Me” but also features classic Songbook numbers such as “Ol’ Man River”, “Summertime”, and “Moonlight in Vermont”. It is, in a way, an uncomfortable mixture: “You Send Me” is instantly recognisable as early soul music, the Sam Cooke that we compilation buyers know and love. But the rest of it? It’s pop music – it’s even 1950s pop music – but it ain’t Elvis, Little Richard or Chuck Berry. It’s more like Sinatra, who covered some of the same material on Come Fly With Me the following year.

An so the trend continues, into his second album, Encore. Meanwhile, he’s popping out this hit (soul) singles, including “Only Sixteen” and “For Sentimental Reasons”. It’s almost as if there were two separate audiences: teenagers who bought the ‘modern’ singles with pocket money and adults who bought the more expensive ‘songbook’ albums.

The label put out a compilation of these singles and then Cooke followed up with Tribute to the Lady (Billie Holiday), which is of course a collection of blues/jazz numbers. Wonderful World of Sam Cooke did (finally) include more of the Cooke-penned songs, but still mixed with the Gershwin and Rodgers/Hart type numbers. And then later in 1960 came Cooke’s Tour, which is his version of Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me. 

My Kind of Blues in 1961 is another mixture of Jazz/Blues covers, and so things go on. The first out and out modern pop album he releases is Twistin’ the Night Away in 1962 – a party record, if ever there was one. By this time, Cooke is signed to RCA and has just three more studio albums in him before his untimely death. We’re only lucky that the rate of production in the 50s and early 1960s – before The Beatles changed the rules forever – was so prodigious that there are so many to hear today.

A complex artist, then, who stepped through the threshold from the closeted world of gospel (with The Soul Stirrers) and then continued to occupy a grey area between genres until his career was given an historical perspective.

Having been brought up on Sinatra, I really like his take on the Great American Songbook numbers, but I suspect most people would be content to stick to the compilations, such as Portrait of a Legend, which gives a fairly comprehensive sampling of his singles output.

Cloudbound by Fran Wilde

cloudbound_comp1-1Cloudbound is the sequel to last year’s well-regarded Updraft, a YA fantasy novel that I liked a lot, and which was shortlisted for a number of awards, winning a couple. What I liked about Updraft was its world-building and its pacy style. I always felt as if the author knew much more about this world than she was telling us, and it was fun to work it all out. Unfortunately, all of these elements are missing from the sequel, Cloudbound, which lumbers along in a meandering and repetitive way, with a leaden narrator who is seems wilfully obtuse. The overall effect is as inspiring as reading something like the minutes of a staff meeting at the council housing department.

Updraft was narrated by Kirit – the ambitious daughter of a trader, who is taken by the Singers (monk-like enforcers of the City’s many rules) and initiated into the secrets of their society. She’s lively, curious, rebellious and fun to read. Cloudbound, on the other hand, is narrated by her far less interesting friend, Nat. Now, Nat seems to continually get the wrong end of the stick about everything, trusts everyone he shouldn’t, and needs to constantly stop and remind us about what just happened, what he wants to happen, and why we’re all here in the first place. It says something about Nat as a character that my heart immediately sank when I opened the book and started reading, realising that his was the narrative viewpoint.

The vividly described bone City of Updraft is now sketchy and vague, with unclear geography, and our characters seem to spend an awful lot of time tumbling around, out of control, plummeting towards and into the clouds. Which would be fine—except that in Updraft, dipping below the clouds was certain death, but now is suddenly apparently perfectly safe. Down and down and down they go.

Nat supposedly has loved ones – a wife or partner who is pregnant, apparently – but they’re never around for long, and Nat doesn’t seem to have much passion for his lover or concern for his unborn child. It’s very strange, as if written in short bursts but never actually read through to see if it hangs together.

The plot seems wafer thin, padded out by lots of repetition and by lots of half-baked plans which go wrong immediately. Make your hero suffer, right? Except I cannot root for any so-called hero who is both indecisive and inept— so much so, that he can’t come up with a workable plan, even when surrounded by otherwise competent friends. Down and down they go.

And then you get close to the end, and you realise that there is going to be no final act in which our heroes finally get it together and defeat their enemies. Instead, the narrative just kind of stops, almost mid-sentence, and with dismay you understand that you’re holding in your hands the problematic middle child of a trilogy. Which, obviously, I’m not going to be reading to completion. You end up feeling like you’ve been sitting in a bath that’s slowly emptying. And then it’s over and your skin is cold and you forgot to bring a towel.

If you read Updraft and enjoyed it, I’d stick with that, and not let the experience get sullied by this lukewarm sequel.

Posted in Books, entertainment, Review

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

1260745459712720788Obviously, I knew about this book a while ago, but like any normal human, I was offput by its extreme length. At 850+ pages, this is not for the faint hearted.

Another slightly offputting thing was the idea that this novel included a depiction of humanity approximately 5000 years from now. I’ve read enough science fiction to be wary of that kind of thing. You know, the posthuman, post singularity stuff, featuring gene spliced beings with elaborate, stratified social mores and technology indistinguishable from magic. The kind of thing that was visible in that movie Jupiter Rising. I don’t object to that kind of thing per se, but I do sometimes get impatient with all the made up words and the exhausting process of detective work, trying to ascertain what’s going on.
But then a colleague lent me Seveneves, so I started to read it and was pleasantly surprised.
First of all, the question of style. It’s written in perfectly clear, plain English, and though it does feature extended discussions of orbital mechanics, it does so in a way that makes you, the arts/humanities student, feel like you understand it.
Secondly, my colleague said that the only (major!) problem was that the plot doesn’t start to happen until the final third of the 850 pages. This is true in the sense that it could in fact have been published as the final third, with the reader left to fill in the complicated back story, in that aforementioned offputting way. You could also, effectively, publish the first two thirds as an Appendix to the final third, for those who want to fill in the ins and outs after reading the main story. But I think that would be to do Seveneves a disservice.

Don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens.

The premise is that something destroys the Moon, which in turn has catastrophic consequences for life on Earth. Within two years, some means of surviving off-planet has to be improvised. That’s the exciting first third of the book: exactly what could we do, right now, with the technology and resources we have. I found this section readable and fascinating, and so far from what I expected that I began to feel undaunted by its length.
The next section details the what now? moment, at which point the surviving humans have to decide how to survive and even thrive. Inevitably, they are riven by conflict and disaster. A small group wants to go to Mars. Others want to go into a higher orbit to avoid Moon fragments. A third groups want less of an eggs in one basket solution. The catastrophic end result is that, five years in, just eight people survive, all women, only seven of them able to bear children.
So ends the second third of the novel, with the Seven Eves deciding what to do next.
The final third takes place 5000 years later. There is a thriving, if not united, civilisation in space, and the sterilised Earth has been reseeded with life. There are seven races of humans, with some hybridisation, but in the main we’re supposed to believe that there are seven distinct personality types. Frankly, this is all a bit handwavy, and it is slightly more complex than my description.
The main plot of this last third concerns the discovery of a group of humans who survived by building a space-type habitat under a mountain. But the real reason for reading is to learn about the nuts and bolts of this far-future society.
And here’s the thing. On a human scale, 5000 years is a long time. I think the Great Pyramid was built around 4500 years ago. What the last third of this novel tries to do is summarise the whole story of a civilisation and provide a narrative plot. In narratology terms, this is fascinating. But it doesn’t quite work because as much book as this is, it ends up being not quite enough. You kind of need less of the first two years and more of the end bit. And yet, the setup matters, because that’s where we meet the Seven, and come to understand them as characters.
That this is one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read, I’ve no doubt. It’s though provoking, educational and fascinating. But it’s a flawed masterpiece that probably needed another 200 pages.