Alternate Routes by Tim Powers and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers – two reviews

alternate-routes-9781481483407_hrAlternate Routes by Tim Powers

Tim Powers has been writing about the ghosts of Los Angeles since his 1990s Fault Lines series, which started with Last Call in 1992, and finished with Earthquake Weather in 1997. Back then, people were huffing ghosts like drugs, absorbing them, being possessed by them. 

With his LA-set novels, Powers likes to pick a location with some weird history and weave his urban fantasy ideas into it. In the case of Earthquake Weather, he chose the Winchester Mystery House, which was built by the widow of the firearms company founder, and constructed over decades without building plans. In his more recent Medusa’s Web, he took us into Old Hollywood and Bunker Hill, and places that aren’t places populated by people who aren’t who they appear to be. To these locations, Powers links mythology and literature: the Fisher King, Troilus and Cressida, the cult of Dionysus.

The setting for Alternate Routes is the LA 405 freeway, with a side order of Mulholland Drive. This time, the fantasy elements are woven into the eddies and currents created by traffic patterns, and the ghosts are those who died on or near the freeway, and the mysteries concern what happens when you take an exit that isn’t there, or catch a voice from a car radio that you weren’t supposed to hear. The mythology is the labyrinth and the minotaur: Daedalus and Icarus.

Los Angeles is a fascinating sprawl of a city, and Powers clearly finds endless inspiration in its no-place weirdness. But this book, like Medusa’s Web (2016), feels somewhat peremptory and by-the-numbers. As if, one hopes, he’s just getting all these ideas out of his system. As a fan, I still bought this on the day of publication and read it quickly, but this novel does not reach the heights of his best work, Declare, The Stress of Her Regard, and Hide Me Among the Graves, The Drawing of the Dark – all of which have a historical setting away from the West Coast of the USA.

Terrible cover, too. I’ll doubtless come back to it to reassess, but for now I’m disappointed.

32802595Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

This third novel by Becky Chambers, after The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Close and Common Orbit, takes place in the same universe, at more or less the same time as the other novels. This time, the focus is on the human crew of the Exodus Fleet, the refugees from Old Earth, who have been living on the generation ships built to flee the environmental disaster we’re currently creating. To the other alien races they’re a curiosity, sometimes viewed as a charity case, with very little to offer in terms of technological innovation.

There are several focus characters, and the chapters flip between them in a regular rhythm. One is an ethnographer from a different species, who visits one of the ships in order to learn more about the humans who have not left the fleet. Others live and work aboard ship, experiencing day to day life or going through personal crises. There’s a Caretaker, who looks after the dead as their bodies are recycled; an archivist, who is there to record the important events on board; a teenager who is disillusioned with life in the Fleet; and an engineer who faces potential unemployment due to the introduction of outside technology. All of these people lead separate lives, and have individual narratives, which gradually intertwine to become one.

And this is the genius of Becky Chambers. For a while, I was thinking that, like Tim Powers, she was producing work that wasn’t up to her best, not quite as engaging as her debut or its brilliant sequel. But then, towards, the end, I found myself reading through tears as the emotional impact of this story hit home. While A Close and Common Orbit weaves two narratives into one powerful whole, this novel takes thinner threads and delicately entwines them until you are caught in the middle of the quietly devastating web, wiping tears from your eyes.

 

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A couple of book reviews

30312456Cold Welcome by Elizabeth Moon

I picked this one up from the library, confident that, as it was the first in a series, I wouldn’t be lost. I’ve not read any Elizabeth Moon before, and should have twigged that a series called “Vatta’s Peace” comes after a series called “Vatta’s War”. Doh.

So there are characters and situations here, back story etc., that is only filled in sketchily. I scurried off to Wikipedia to fill in some blanks, but on the whole it wasn’t a problem, except in the sense that a lot of the characters are merely sketched here, on the assumption that you know them from before.

Anyway, this is a military science fiction adventure set in a space trading/war universe that reminded me of nothing so much as the old Ambrosia software game Escape Velocity and sequels. Ky Vatta is an admiral in some space fleet on a visit to her home world. Her shuttle is sabotaged, possibly by a rival company, and she ditches in a hostile polar region with some other survivors, not sure who she can trust. My problem, however, is that I don’t really care about these warring companies. There’s an academic point to be made about capitalism and wastefulness, and what happens when corporations become quasi-governmental, sure. But I’m not going to root for one corporation over another, or really care about the people who work in their employ. Perhaps if I’d read the previous six books or whatever.

Overall, this just made me feel tired. Nobody can trust anybody, people are constantly being attacked, or abducted, and for what? Power and profit? Ugh. So you get this atmosphere of heightened paranoia, a constant game of Prisoner’s Dilemma (always betray etc.) which I’m thinking might be a fairly accurate representation of how it feels to be among the super-rich. You want to keep all your stuff, other people are trying to get your stuff, you want their stuff etc. Exhausting.

There’s no proper resolution to the story, which has some interesting elements (a strange and secret installation with a mystery as to who built it), and there’s already one sequel, but I don’t think I’ll be bothering. And here’s the central problem of these multi-volume series: give up at any point, and you’ve wasted your time.

512TBFMt7aL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This novel is a winner of the Arthur C Clarke award, and like Tchaikovsky’s Dogs of War, is an excellent exploration of creatures that have been “uplifted” by biotechnology to the level of intelligence, co-operation and technology. It’s also a novel in the sub-genre(s) of space colonisation, generation ships, and Deep Time.

So humanity is at the peak of its technological development, busily terraforming planets and planting the seeds of life so that arriving colonists might find habitable worlds prepared for them — in one specific case by uplifted smart monkeys. But on the cusp of success, the whole thing falls apart. The monkeys don’t make it and nanovirus designed for them uplifts something else instead.

Centuries later, the dregs of humanity, who have long forgotten the advanced tech of their forebears, arrive in a ship looking for somewhere, anywhere to land.

Such is the set up of this novel, which uses twin narrative threads (with subtle parallels) to tell the stories of what’s happening on the ship, and what’s developing on the planet. And there’s more Prisoner’s Dilemma, so that’s a thing, only this time you care more.

portia-labiata-jumping-spider

Portia Labiata, jumping spider

As with his Dogs of War, it’s a surprisingly easy read, with well-drawn characters and a fascinating portrayal of alien thought, which must result from extensive research. Tchaikovsky is a worthy winner of the Clarke award, and writes accessible science fiction based on the kind of grand concepts that most people just don’t think about, but perhaps should. I mean, the media call this kind of thing a “breakthrough” but rarely pose the moral question: just because you can, does that mean you should?

 

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

51AQy9+uVPL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve never had any time for io9.com, or any of the former Gawker media websites, even under their new ownership, so I’d never heard of Charlie Jane Anders, author of the 2017 Nebula Award winning novel All the Birds in the Sky, before I picked it up to read.

This paperback edition had a cover that communicated nothing to me, apart, perhaps, the publisher’s desire to conceal its genre. Substitute “girls” for “birds” and it looks like a typical front-table-at-Waterstones title. Still, Milton Keynes Library had undermined that game by placing a silly “Sci-Fi/Fantasy” sticker, featuring a dragon, on its spine.

For once, the melding of those two genres is apposite, because this novel is a bold attempt to have it both ways: to write about technology and a fucked climate in a recognisably realistic version of the near future; and to write about magic and witchcraft at the same time. I suppose this is what you might expect from a generation raised on Star Wars and Harry Potter. But I wasn’t, and while I can see the appeal of this, I didn’t really enjoy it. It was an easy read, but at the same time I didn’t find myself lost in it and responding to it in the same way I did for the novels of Becky Winters or Anne Leckie.

Anders’ style is something like Douglas Coupland meets Lemony Snicket, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that this had the tone of a YA novel, but with some age-inappropriate content. Depending on your mood and taste, you might find this an engaging read. But parts of it felt to me like Harry Potter fan fiction, and there was an overall glibness that struck me as smug.

The plot* concerns a pair of misfits (one a witch, one a scientist) who are both trying to save the world from an anthropocentric apocalypse. Both witchcraft and science are left without detail, in a hand-wavy way, so I never really felt that this world was built with depth.

*In fact, the plot is so barely-there that I’d say that this was yet another example of Menippean Satire rather than novel. As a Menippean Satire, I can forgive its lack of narrative drive, but its lack of interesting ideas is more of a problem.

Which leaves me puzzling as to why this won the Nebula award. A cursory check reveals that this has had mixed reviews at best, though a lot of support from within the SF community. My conclusion is that this was seen as an “accessible” genre novel, one that wears its genre clothes lightly and might achieve some cross-over success, like The Time Traveller’s Wife or Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I’m trying to imagine a person who doesn’t really like Fantasy and Science Fiction but who might like this: I guess? As part of a larger picture, there’s a whole generation of adults who were raised on Harry Potter, and I suppose the publishers are trying to draw them in. I’m not one of them.

Some book reviews

616aYU-j2ML._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Eleven books so far, in this summer of reading, including Tim Powers’ Declare, which I’ve read before and will read many times more. Here’s something of a test, then. Can I remember much about the others? Excuse the lack of cover images: on borrowed French wifi, which is painfully, rurally, slow.

Borderline – Mishell Baker

The Borderline of the title refers both to a person with borderline personality disorder and the idea that there’s a world beyond this one, peopled by creatures who come to visit our world in the guise of beautiful people who act as muses for people in the creative industries. Protagonist is a survivor of a recent suicide attempt, who has lost her legs and gets around using prosthetics and/or a wheelchair. She’s also has BPD and is approached by an organisation that manages the relationship between humans and the otherworldly creatures. Why do they approach patients in psychiatric hospitals in particular? Because nobody will believe them if they talk, of course. An interesting premise and protagonist, this award-nominated book is worth a look.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Hard to say what age group this book is aimed at. Slightly younger than YA, probably, but it was knocking around at work and so I added it to the pile. Is this Gaiman’s best book, as the blurb suggests? Probably not, though it was an entertaining enough read about an orphaned child who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Read to me, however, like a collection of scenes rather than a novel. Telling, to me, that Gaiman says he started with the fourth chapter and then went and back-filled. This is not the only novel I’ve read this summer that isn’t really a novel. To be fair, though, it is in the title: it’s not called The Graveyard Novel.

Quite Ugly One Morning – Christopher Brookmyre

I could tell this was supposed to be funny in the vein of Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiasen, but I didn’t crack a smile. An unpleasant story of unpleasant people, with some deeply unpleasant descriptions: avoid reading this while eating. Brookmyre’s an ex-journo, so of course his hero is a journo who is not above a little breaking and entering and is somehow attractive to the opposite sex.

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate – N K Jemisin

This was the big one. I knew this was an award winning slice of fantasy fiction, and I’d read something else by Jemisin, and I’d heard nothing but good things about this series but I deliberately waited till this summer to get The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, knowing that the final part of the trilogy (The Stone Sky) would be published in the middle of August.

It’s so hard to describe what this is. The cover illustrations tell you nothing. You could almost say this was science fiction, since it seems to be set in a far future version of Earth which has become (for reasons) seismically unstable — so much so that no civilisation survives long enough to leave much of a mark when it is inevitably destroyed following a cataclysmic event involving volcanic activity, earthquakes, ashfall, pyroclastic flow, poisonous gases etc. But it probably shades into being fantasy because there are people here with abilities which aren’t really explained except in a hand-wavy way. I’d even allow this as science fiction, because we’ve all read about star drives and time machines which aren’t explained. But then I ask myself, why is it so important to you that this could be science fiction rather than “just” fantasy? I don’t know. Fantasy has uncomfortable associations with those terrible Lord of the Rings movies, but then the best fantasy often gives you great female leads (as here and in Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series) and it’s clearly more popular than science fiction, so.

The Fifth Season has an extraordinary three-stranded narrative which when it resolves makes clear that the rest of the series can continue the plot but not this tour de force of storytelling, which is a shame. In that sense, it reminds me of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, which has a similarly innovative first volume.

So. An unstable planet. A civilisation that barely remembers its past incarnations. People with special abilities who are treated as less-than-human and feared and hated by most people. On one level, this is clearly a racial allegory, which asks questions about why some people need to consider others as less than human? But it’s also a fascinating puzzle and a story of survival and loss. How did the world get this way? Can it be fixed? Is humanity doomed? Do we even deserve to survive?

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien

Speaking of which. A mysterious stranger arrives in a small Irish community and seduces the inhabitants with his spiritualism and alternative therapies. Turns out, he’s definitely not who he pretends to be, and the consequences of his unmasking are grim. The book is really a series of encounters and meditations and doesn’t have much of a narrative plot. So I’d describe this as a Menippean Satire rather than a novel. I didn’t enjoy it, but then it would have been weird to.

Magpie Murders – Anthony Horovitz

This was more of a blast. I picked this up after noticing that it was a novel about a novel, and included the complete manuscript of the novel-within-the-novel. So it’s a whodunnit about a whodunnit, and it’s entertaining enough, though a long way from being a realistic crime novel, if that’s your thing. It’s more of a pastiche of Agatha Christie hiding inside something that wants to be a modern crime novel, something more like the Cormoran Strike series. Anyway. It’s okay. I’d have liked both stories to be more interesting, darker perhaps, but it was entertaining enough and a relatively quick read. Certainly a palate clearer after The Little Red Chairs.

The Other Side of Silence – Philip Kerr

Ted Allbeury wrote a novel with a similar title – a fictionalised account of Kim Philby’s activities. And Philby’s something of an element in this, which is one of a series about anti-hero Bernie Gunther, a German former cop and intelligence officer, who’s trying to leave his past behind. This is set on the Côte d’Azure in 1956, and features Someret Maugham dealing with a blackmail plot involving the KGB and a tape recording of Guy Burgess. It was okay to read. I didn’t like the hero and the outcome was clearly telegraphed. The whole  thing was a little static, not making much use of the location and a bit disappointing after the extraordinary treatment of spying in Declare.

The Hanging Girl* – Jussi Adler Olsen

Easily the worst book I’ve read this summer, I picked this up because it had a lot of pages. *The original (correct) title in Danish is The Boundless, which in itself doesn’t make for a better title, given the contents, but I feel the English title with its use of the noun “girl” is cynical and exploitative – typical of a publishing industry I have little respect for.

I’m not sure if it was the translation or what, but I didn’t like the dialogue in this, nor the exposition, and I didn’t understand who the characters were supposed to be. This is from a series and is obviously not the first, but that’s not always a problem. It wasn’t with Bernie Gunther, for example. The author usually puts enough in to get you up to speed (even copying and pasting expository sections), but not here. I didn’t like or care about the protagonist, and his colleagues were cyphers. At times this seemed both sexist and racist, and there were confusing moments, too, as when a character is called Assad in one sentence and then suddenly becomes Curly in the next. And I couldn’t believe the British publisher didn’t make some corrections to the bizarre explanation of a cricket match.

So this was a cold case story. A cop who’d been obsessed with a hit and run kills himself and the case falls to Department Q, whoever they are. Cold case unit? It’s not explained. Anyway, maverick cop, at loggerheads with his boss, dealing with broken relationships, blah blah blah. Just because it’s Danish it doesn’t mean it’s not clichéd. So it was long, and not very interesting, and as soon as they looked in the garage (early on) and decided not to search it because it looked dusty, you knew it was Chekov’s garage.

The Stone Sky – N K Jemisin 

No sooner had I ploughed despondently to the end of The Girl with the Hanging Girl than the yellow post van showed up with this. This brings the trilogy to a somewhat tragic conclusion, continuing its barely veiled discussion about race, exploitation, the legacy of slavery, justice, and how to go forward with a society when there is barely anything worth saving or preserving. This makes it extremely topical in this current news cycle context of job-lot el cheapo racist statuary erected at the behest of the Ku Klux Klan or anti civil rights elements: sometimes the only solution is to burn everything down and start again.

My one criticism of this trilogy concerns the map at the beginning, and the other repeated elements (glossary, appendix). The map was useful in the first book, because it showed the locations of the main places visited therein. But the same map then appeared in the second and third volumes, when two different maps would have made more sense, since the action does move around somewhat. As it is, you find yourself staring at the map and wondering where the characters you’re reading about are at the moment.

Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler

Hitler and Elvis 1A couple or three things before I get into the review of this book. First, it was originally published as The Total Rush: Drugs In the Third Reich, but for the publication of the English translation was retitled as Blitzed. I don’t like this retitling, possibly because it’s too on-the-nose, though “on-the-nose” is not a phrase I’ve got much time for.

Second, Ohler is a novelist and not an historian, which probably means he’s played up his angle for, you know, the narrative. Which is not to say that he hasn’t somehow come across something that mainstream historians have underplayed.

Third, I don’t like the cover. They obviously wanted a picture of Hitler looking deranged, but to me Hitler looks deranged in every photo of him. Aside from that, I dislike the graphic design aesthetic. I get that the black and red colour scheme is meant to evoke the Third Reich, but I just hate the way the subtitle is placed in relation to the author’s name, and the overall effect is just tacky.

514QN3Fg-2L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_All of which means it’s hard to escape the feeling that you’re in the hands of a marketing department, reading something sensationalist and exploitative, designed to garner headlines and promote sales. Which is of course the job of the marketing department, but my emotional response to all this is pure Generation X. I’m reading this because I’m interested in spite of not because of your attempts to market it to me. To clarify: I heard this mentioned on a podcast, without knowing the title, author’s name, cover design, typography, or anything else about it. So, holding my nose, here goes:

This is fascinating. Not just because it explains how the Nazis were able to roll so quickly into France and Belgium without waiting for logistical support or allowing the troops to rest, but because of the ways in which the secret sauce of doping up combat troops for a fight has clearly been picked up by every fuckhead with a pip on his collar ever since. Short version: German soldiers and Luftwaffe pilots were consuming mind-boggling quantities of methamphetamine, marketed under the name of Pervitin. At first, they were obtaining it privately (Ohler refers to letters home by one soldier, whose ulterior motive for staying in touch with his family seems to have been drug seeking to feed his addiction); but after a while, the pills were being issued.

As a non-historian, I grew interested in the power dynamics at play here. Hitler wasn’t giving the instruction for soldiers to be given crystal meth, although he may have been insisting on otherwise-impossible outcomes, which seems to have been his stock in trade. There were powerful figures in the army who were competing either for his favour or to be seen as the architects of victory. Or maybe they were competing with the Luftwaffe. The culmination of all this was the bizarre halt order which was enough of a pause to allow the British to escape at Dunkirk. Strategic error, or power play, or whatever it was, it meant that the retreat was less of a disaster than it might have been.

The use of performance enhancing drugs by the army, navy, and airforce was widespread and ongoing. Crystal meth helped the Nazis to defeat the French, but it also allowed them to retreat from Moscow, the drugs allowing soldiers who were dead on their feet to keep marching through the snow. Towards the end of the war, when the Germans were wildly experimenting with technologies that allowed them to keep fighting in the face of certain defeat, the navy were trying various drug combinations to keep mini submarine pilots awake for 4 days at a stretch. The ultimate outcome was a dismal failure, but along the way, drugs were tested on concentration camp inmates in typically inhuman ways. Needless to say, I’ll never look at the marketing around Bata Toughees shoes (designed to walk long distances) in the same way again.

Behind all this is the history of drug development in Germany, which is really an incredible thing. Did you know that the scientist who invented aspirin also invented heroin? Eleven days later? The Germans were popping pills like nothing else, and securing supplies of narcotics during the war seems to have been as important as securing supplies of oil. And, after the war, it seems as if the Americans and the Russians (and everybody else, probably) continued to experiment with drugs for military and sporting performance, as well as “truth serums” and psychological experiments, using the same Nazi scientists in many cases. For example, the CIA’s MKUltra programme was a continuation of one of those horrific concentration camp experiments.

Meanwhile, back in his various bunkers, Hitler was being injected with “vitamins”, steroids, pain killers, and anything else that might help him through the day by his personal quack doctor, Theodor Gilbert Morell. I was reminded of nothing so much as Albert Goldman’s exploitative follow-up to his Elvis biography: Elvis: the Last 24 Hours. According to Goldman, Elvis needed drugs to help him wake up in the morning, to help him sleep at night, to help him shit, stop shitting, and so on, all of which were prescribed by his personal quack doctor, George Constantine Nichopoulos, also known as Dr. Nick.

Elvis was constipated, up in the middle of the night trying to take a shit and reading a book about the Turin shroud when he died of heart failure. Like Hitler, he convinced himself that he wasn’t a drug addict because his doctor was his enabler, and these were on prescription. Morell seems to have been dismissed when he ran out of Oxycodone, the opioid marketed in Germany as Eukodal. Ohler suggests that Morell was dosing Hitler with Oxy more or less every other day, especially as the Reich shrieked towards defeat and after the bunker bomb that left Hitler trembling uncontrollably. It’s usually suggested that Hitler’s shaking might have been Parkinson’s, but Ohler more straightforwardly suggests that he was just an addict.

Talking of impossible-to-prove-by-now diagnoses, as someone who has recently been diagnosed with a food intolerance, I couldn’t help thinking as I read that Hitler’s bowel spasms, uncontrollable farting and various other digestive symptoms might have been signs of lactose intolerance, or something. Who knows? Either way, it seems that Hitler couldn’t function without Morell’s injections.

Some historians have reacted against Ohler’s work, saying that it appears to be offering an excuse for Hitler’s actions, but Ohler is clear on that point in the book: Hitler needed drugs because he was a drug addict, and the drugs that enabled him to function were not behind his atrocities but simply gave him the ability to go on committing them.

As repelled as I was by the marketing, I did find this a fascinating read, and Ohler’s research is exhaustively documented. The Hitler section became repetitive, but I guess that’s the nature of addiction.

Anyway, do what I did: borrow from your local library.

 

Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

bdd04d_9e31b247d83045dca8fa43475cbff922While not ever quite reaching the heights of his very best work, RCW has been putting out a book every year or so that is readable, interesting, and entertaining. If you offered me, say, something of the quality of Spin or The Chronoliths every two or three years; or something decent like The Affinities or Burning Paradise  on a more regular basis, I’d have to think hard. Wilson’s stock in trade is the technological sublime: a technology that humans do not quite understand that nevertheless has profound influence on human culture. In Last Year, the technology is The Mirror, a kind of time portal that allows you to visit the past of a world that is similar to your own, but not the same world (so that any changes you introduce do not affect your own time line).

What’s it about?  The attempted assassination of Ulysses S. Grant, transtemporal gun smuggling, horses and helicopters, tasers and tong wars, the luxury resort industry, two Gilded Ages in a violent confrontation, and the nature of time itself.

This allows Wilson to take us into Julian Comstock territory, with a protagonist who is an 1870s drifter, whilst mixing in 21st century types  such as a security chief who is both a US army veteran and a woman; or an Elon Musk (or is it Donald Trump) type leader who seems okay at first but later reveals his true nature.

The City of Futurity appears in the mid-western 1870s, offering locals a tour of the attractions in the world to come (amid tight security preventing actual time travel) and visitors from the 21st century a vacation in the Gilded Age, the post civil war United States, a country on the eve of electricity, the phonograph, radio, and moving pictures. Except, spoilers: anything the 19th Century can produce pales into insignificance next to the wonders on display in Tower Two.

Some locals are hired to work security, including Jesse Cullum, a man on the run from his violent and traumatic past in San Francisco. Cullum inadvertently comes to the attention of his bosses as being especially competent, and he’s given additional duties: tracking down smuggled contraband (Glock handguns, iPhones and solar chargers) and chasing runners: people from the 21st who decide they want to live in the land of no indoor plumbing and no antibiotics.

Jesse is partnered with Elizabeth DePaul, former soldier, single mother, and they explore each other’s worlds, cautiously but earnestly, knowing there’s no future in it. She comes from a different timeline; he’s got a past.

Someone goes missing; someone starts sending messages to downtrodden groups, informing them of the shitty deal they’re about to get from history, and it all kicks off.

Is there a metaphor here? Twin towers representing the future and commerce, aligned against forces of superstition, bigotry and ignorance. Is there hope in the future? Can we overcome our own histories and find a better world?

Probably.

Hard to put down, I finished it too quickly (as usual), and now I guess I’m waiting for something coming out in 2018

The Guardian Problem

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 15.51.55So the Guardian lost £69 million, wiping a huge chunk of its Scott Trust cash cushion in the process. Print ad revenue is down, and so is online ad revenue. The whole enterprise seems to be circling the drain, and would have disappeared but for its £800m nest egg.

It’s a shame, because the UK media needs a voice independent of corporate/billionaire interests – one that’s stronger than the mealy-mouthed BBC – which doesn’t provide in-depth analysis and doesn’t prioritise the truth in the same way that the Guardian could.

But the Guardian doesn’t really act as an independent voice, and that’s its problem. Ideally, it would make enough money to cover its running costs and not have to dip into its capital funds; ideally, it would be supported by people like me, who would happily pay £5 a month to maintain its autonomy. But I won’t, because it isn’t.

Strike one: of course, its trust fund is invested in the money markets and depends on the continuing survival of the current economic model to maintain its value. So it would be against the Guardian’s own interests to argue for anything other than the survival of the current economic model.

Strike two: the whole point of the Trust is the keep the Guardian running along the ‘the same lines and in the same spirit as heretofore.’ In other words, meaningful change is not in the Guardian’s DNA. A lot of Guardian readers mistakenly think that it is a left-wing newspaper, but it’s not. It’s a Liberal newspaper, and socialist ideas generally give it the heebs.

Strike three: strikes one and two are never more starkly illustrated than in the Guardian’s lack of support for Jeremy Corbyn. In fact, in not supporting Corbyn, the Guardian aligns itself with The Dalies Mail, Telegraph, Express, Times, and Sun etc. Why would I, with my vaguely socialist beliefs and natural inclination to support Corbyn’s ideas about workers’ rights and economic reform, want to pay £5 a month to support a newspaper that followed the same line as all the other newspapers? Where is the meaningful difference here?

Strike four: talking of meaningful difference, let’s turn to the rest of its content. In its attempt to maintain its free, ad-supported digital model, the Guardian has gone down the route of publishing articles that attract social media links and clicks. This means that it tends to devolve to the same crap that all the other media outlets publish. This means endless recaps/blogs about trendy television programmes; articles with clickbait-style headlines (key phrases like “How [whatever] is [whatever]” or headlines that ask questions or [x] Reasons [x] will [x]). It also means too many columnists adopting contrarian opinions, providing the kind of ‘hot take’ that gives the internet a bad name. And having seen the damage created by contrarian journalists-turned-politicians (Johnson and Gove), I think, frankly, that this country has had enough of contrarian journalists.

There’s way too much content on the Guardian web site, and most of it is the same old shite you find everywhere else. It was a mistake for any newspaper to give away its content for free, a decision driven by Fear of Missing Out and misplaced concerns about the BBC. By all means, make AP-style news reports free, but keep all the analysis and opinion for the print edition, or stick it behind a members-only paywall. Also, charge memberships for people who want to post comments on articles. Another idea: update the home page just once a day for non-paying visitors, and keep all the breaking and rolling news and regular updates for paying customers only. Any article in any section of the web site leaves you in a grumpy mood as soon as you accidentally read just one of the comments beneath it. And that’s a problem because, man, do I not want to belong to that particular club. Guardian readers appear to be the nastiest people in the world. Why would I pay £5 a month to be lumped in with that lot?

Whatever: without providing a real alternative to the so-called mainstream, without giving me the alternative voice I crave, there’s no point to the Guardian.