Counterpart — Review

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A still from the preposterous 1974 cold war movie, Who?

~spoilers~

One of the most haunting films I ever saw was Who?, which was a Cold War movie about a scientist who was injured in a car accident and abducted by the East Germans. Later, he is returned to the West, but has undergone such extensive surgery that the Americans don’t believe he is their abducted scientist. It’s not just that he’s had plastic surgery: his whole head is encased in a metal mask. It was a somewhat over the top and ridiculous way to tell a story about identity, but it stuck with me, even though I haven’t seen it since the 70s.

Kim Philby’s first wife, Litzi Friedman, was a communist agent, operating in Vienna when he met and fell for her. That Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge spies, was married to a known communist from 1934 till their divorce in 1946, did not seem to affect the decision to put  him in charge of a section of Soviet Counterintelligence and later head of the SIS Turkish station and then chief British Intelligence representative in Washington.

I say all this as a preamble to my review of Counterpart, which is the best TV show on an obscure network you’re ever likely to find. Fittingly, given the show’s themes, you’ll only be able to access it in the UK from the 28th of this month, via the Starzplay Network, which in turn you’ll only be able to access through Amazon Prime Video. It’ll be an additional subscription on top of your Amazon subscription. Wheels within wheels, worlds within worlds.

*Or, you could get it off the back of a truck.

That there is a prominent intelligence operative who is compromised by his wife, who is an infiltrator from the “other side”, should not be surprising in an espionage show, which is what Counterpart is.

It’s set in Berlin, whereto an international cast of characters have descended because Berlin is the hub, the interface between rival factions, as it was during the Cold War. As in all espionage texts, you find yourself in a wilderness of mirrors, unsure who is who, who can be trusted, or whether anyone’s motivations are really pure.

J K Simmons plays an office drone, who has been engaged for nigh on 30 years in mundane drudge work for an organisation he little understands. He carries sealed papers into a locked room and reads out codes to someone on the other side of the glass. He ticks boxes. He applies for promotions, doesn’t get them, then goes home, shoulders slumped, his breathing out of rhythm. He meets a friend by the river and plays Go, the Chinese strategy game in which you try to box-in your rival’s tiles with your own. He visits his wife, who is in a coma, in hospital, and reads poetry to her.

On the other side of the glass, it turns out, is not another country in the East/West Berlin sense, but another world. This other world was created just a few decades ago, a mirror of the original, and until that point identical. But then, once it was created, slight changes began to appear, events unfolded differently, and 30 years later it’s a very different place indeed.

How would powerful people react if there was a duplicate of this world at the other end of a tunnel? Think about the greed and venality that they already exhibit. What if you knew that there was a recently discovered oilfield you could exploit? Or a cure for a disease that had no cure in your reality? What if you could somehow weaken or destroy the other side so you could just step through and take what you wanted?

To prevent and control this kind of thing, strict rules are put in place. To cross over, you have to be issued with a visa; you’re photographed against a backdrop on the way in and on the way back, as a way of checking that you are the same person. You enter a code and wait for the green light.

Office drone Howard Silk is called into the office, not for a promotion, but because someone has come over from the other side and will only speak to him: it’s the other Howard, who believes he can only trust himself.

Counterpart_EW_Image[1].JPGThis Howard is different. He moves, breathes, and speaks differently. He’s an experienced operative, knows how and who to kill, and he knows what’s going on in a way that our Howard never has. An assassin has infiltrated this side of the tunnel, and is targeting individuals on a kill list. Operative Howard needs more time to track the assassin down, so suggests that he and Drone Howard swap places.

Such is the set up, but there is so much more. The season-long story arc is gripping and tense, as the various plots unfold, leading to an episode 9 climax that brings these worlds to the brink. What happened to make the worlds diverge? Why does one side harbour resentment and suspicion against the other? There are also individual episodes and moments along the way that are devastating. One of the key questions concerns the two Howards: why are they so different? What happened along the way that meant one became a stone cold killer and the other lived anonymously in the shadows? And if they swap lives, do they become each other? Unmissable.

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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.

The end of civilisation, reality TV style

1480638381-trump-tie-tapeThinking about the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, which involved at least one person who thought she was participating in a TV prank show, it struck me that our civilisation has been in the process of being laid low by our consumption of trashy media.

For sure, we live in the platinum age of TV drama, which is a surprise to me. A few years ago, when ITV shares were a few pence each (9th March 2009: 17.5 pence per share), it felt as if scripted TV drama was going to be a thing of the past, as advertising revenues collapsed and the BBC was chipped away by the neolibs and their tame newspapers.

But enter Netflix, and enter Amazon, and enter HBO, and it turns out that scripted drama has never been better. Left to the likes of Fox/Sky, the US networks, and even the BBC, it would not be so healthy. We’d have wall-to-wall procedurals, and the stuff the BBC makes these days, which seems calculated not to frighten the Daily Mail horses and attract as little attention as possible.

No, when I talk about trashy media, I mean three things, in the main:

  • 24 hour news
  • Talent shows
  • So-called Reality TV

Unlike a lot of my fellow Media Studies professionals, I could never bear to even watch a single minute of reality TV, so I kind of pretended the topic didn’t exist. But I know for a certainty that if I was looking at so-called Western civilisation from the outside, I would see reality TV and talent shows as a sign of the degradation and decadence of liberal democracies, and the wealth and fame heaped upon individuals with little or no talent as emblematic of our debased values.

That Donald Trump, a stupid man who fell into a heap of inherited wealth, who doesn’t know what a tie clip is, could become a household name is something you’d point to as evidence of a degenerate culture. Add to that the fame and wealth of Simon Cowell, a person who wears v-necked t-shirts, and yet was still given a job as an arbiter of taste in music, and you’ve got enough evidence to damn a whole civilisation.

And then there’s the 24-hour news cycle, which, turns out, didn’t mean more news or more depth of coverage or more analysis, but less and less and less, until journalists are churning out a dozen ore more clickbait stories a day and political coverage is reduced to whether someone can eat a bacon sandwich or bow his head at the correct angle when showing respect to the war dead.

Looking at all this from the outside, of course you’d hatch an assassination plot in which you’d dupe somebody into thinking they’re participating in a TV prank show. It’s Art of War 101, right? You’re using the enemy’s own decadence as a weapon.

What North Korea does on a small scale to deal with its own domestic issues, Russia (very much not a liberal democracy) is doing on a much larger scale, having apparently exploited the stupidity and venality of a range of assets in a very long game in order to undermine the ability of the US to oppose it. The game is Smileyesque in its complexity, but it appears to have involved Wikileaks, various online hate groups, and a reality TV star who was able to exploit the inability of news organisations to do their job* and win an election. What Smiley did to snare Karla, Putin has done to snare a whole nation.

Back when Twitter was new, when Facebook was new, some of us naively thought that these new platforms would be for us, that we’d be able to organise and resist using these agile new tools. Cynical voices pointed out that these platforms were owned by corporations, but we thought we knew better. Of course, it turns out that these platforms were far more effectively exploited from the right than they ever were from the left. Because the one thing the left can never stop doing is squabbling amongst its various selves.

And then this week, just when you think that something is up, when the new President is denouncing the media like a newly minted North Korean dictator; just when you think the Western media might start doing their job*, even if it’s too little too late; just then, there’s an explosion of news (and social network coverage) of an event so fucking trivial and unimportant that you can’t believe anyone would be taken in by it for even a single second.

Yes, I’m talking about the Oscars, an awards ceremony in which a small, self-selecting coterie of previous winners votes for a new set of winners in their own image, usually in order to promote a few films that hardly anybody saw. And yet, when someone cocked up and handed the wrong envelope to a presenter so facelifted he probably couldn’t open his eyes wide enough to read the small print on the card, we not only got the immediate reaction, but ongoing coverage of the incident, including Zapruder-like frame-by-frame analysis, as if this was 1972, and this was a break-in at the Watergate hotel.

It was almost as if the media were waiting for something they could switch their attention to, so that they didn’t have to keep reminding people that they’d elected a tie-sellotaping  Russian stooge to high office.

*SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre – Review

a-spy-among-friends-lst133169Kim Philby was the Charles Foster Kane of spies: a labyrinth without a centre, a simulacrum of a human being, all reflection and no original.

You’d think there was nothing new to be said about all this, but this book (and linked documentary) has a fair crack at it. As time goes by, more and more of the once-too-secret stuff is revealed. It was only in the 80s that Thatch revealed Blunt as the 4th Man in the Cambridge spy ring, and back then none of the damage Philby did was really in the public domain. Make no mistake: Philby arranged for lots of people to be killed, hundreds of them. So is there anything new to add?

In this case, there’s a recording of the time Philby was “braced” by his friend Nicholas Elliott in a Beirut hotel room. The game was up, the gaff was blown, and a few days later, Philby faded away to Moscow. From the base of this recorded conversation, and the long-term friendship it ended, Macintyre retells the story of Philby. In this version, Burgess and Maclean are peripheral characters, Blunt barely registers, and the fifth man makes no appearance. But there are familiar characters: Otto (Arnold Deutsch), the recruiter; Theo Maly, the agent runner (who was summoned back to Moscow to be purged, knew it, and still went); Litzi Friedmann, the first Mrs Philby, and so on.

The Profumo affair of 1963, the Chatterly Trial, the Beatles’ first LP, all that, are our familiar landmarks on the road to the destruction of the British establishment—but for sheer embarrassment, there is nothing like the head of Soviet counterintelligence turning out to be a Soviet spy. And how did he get away with it? Because he went to a posh school and a top university, Philby was considered to be above reproach (as were Burgess and Maclean). Even when Maclean (Homer) was exposed, and escorted to Moscow by Burgess who just a few days before had been staying with Philby in Washington, DC, — even then, Philby was able to stammer through the interrogations and convince the other chaps in the Service that he was innocent. “I know his people.”

MI5 are characterised here as chippy professional types (“players” in cricketing terms) as opposed to the “gentlemen” of MI6. MI5 were convinced of Philby’s guilt, seeing through his clubbable façade, but were thwarted at every turn by the Sixers, even up to the end. Whereas Five wanted to nail him and put him on trial (surely he would have hanged for seeing to the deaths of so many), Six were more inclined to offer him a deal and then let him escape, by conspicuously not watching him or his Beirut flat, even after he had confessed.

(Theory: if Elliott had handed Philby a loaded pistol, with an admonition to “do the right thing,” suspect Philby would have shot Elliott.)

How serious was all this? Thanks to Philby, the Soviets were able to round up and execute all of the non-communist anti-Nazi networks in Eastern Germany. This meant that the potential opposition to communist rule in Germany was filleted. Anti-Soviet fighters sent, Bay-of-Pigs style, into other Communist bloc countries such as Albania were immediately caught, and their friends and families rounded up and executed. The post-war history of Europe was shaped by these events, and the anti-Soviet resistance was fatally weakened. Philby passed on everything. His friendship with James Jesus Angleton of the CIA gave him access to American secrets and operational details. Angleton became so paranoid after Philby was exposed that he did untold damage to the inner culture of the CIA.

The damage done to the British establishment was also fatal. They lost their legitimacy, they lost the respect of the public, and at the end of the 60s, Murdoch moved in for the kill. Of course, they’re still there, in their hollowed-out way, the red-faced public school Oxbridge boys (mostly boys), but they’re mere hand puppets for the corporations, aren’t they? And they no longer feel that their privilege and upbringing makes them destined for public service: they’re in it for the money. It’s a fine difference, the difference between seeing yourself at the top but still part of a society and the difference between seeing yourself at the top and not connected to society.

The key message of the Philby affair should be that the British people have nothing to lose by getting rid of these people. They’re not smarter, they’re not better, they don’t deserve to be and cannot be trusted to be in charge of anything. And as to all that secrecy, it turns out that most of it was kept secret simply to avoid embarrassment. No threat to national security (which was already damaged): just red faces all round, so let’s avoid a scandal.

The book has a couple of extra goodies: an Afterword by John Le Carré, which is a lot more than just a paragraph or two – it’s a quite detailed transcription of Le Carré’s own conversations with Elliott; and a collection of fascinating photographs. There’s nothing quite like staring into the eyes of people who were involved in significant historic events. One person you don’t see pictured, however, is Konstantin Volkov, the Soviet diplomat defector who, along with his wife, was betrayed by Philby, spirited back to Moscow wrapped in bandages, and erased from history (along with his family and that of his wife).