Tuesday, 26 May 2015

TrailerParkLife : Blur's THE MAGIC WHIP as a soundtrack to THE PERIPHERAL

I've been enjoying the new William Gibson novel, The Peripheral.

Blur's THE MAGIC WHIP, starts like a Blur Album, but isn't.
The first four track, Street", "New World Towers", "Go Out" and "Ice Cream Man" are playfull and fun - like a good lost Gorillaz album with Graham Coxon adding some  previously missing gravitas.
It has the tragic playfulness of trailerParklife in Clanton 2030.

From the Bowie-esque "Thought I Was a Spaceman"  however the mood changes into
something more resembling the latter Blur of Albarn James and Rowntree, but with quite a bit more pomp, power and effect.

"I Broadcast"  "My Terracotta Heart", "There Are Too Many of Us", "Ghost Ship", "Pyongyang" are all 3D tunes of late 21st C melancholy.
Magic Whip ends like a Blur album but isn't - it is a sequel to Albarn's The Good The Bad and the Queen but with added Blur.
It neatly fits the mournful doom of London 2100.

Monday, 25 May 2015

William Gibson's new time travel novel is his best since NEUROMANCER


2030 America is one large trailer park in which the poor are paid  to be mercenaries in online games.  The money economy is based on 'builders' who create designer narcotics, tolerated by 'Homes' a corrupt security apparatus which has evolved from Homeland Security. A girl, Flynn, takes over one odd merc game job from her brother (one of many actual war vets recruited by gamers after their service). This merc game is a new one, a security/surveillance game in a strange environment - in which she inconveniently witnesses a murder.
We, and Flynn, then find that it is not a game, and the interface she is using is actually rich elites from 70 years in the future, hiring cheap disposable labour from the past to control their drones, and their living, breathing 2100s equivalent, called 'Peripherals'.

2100 London is mostly a Victorian theme park, re-greened after a world wide catastrophic event called 'The Jackpot'. Dotted with "Shards" which have an environmental as well as accommodation function, and cosplay zones, in which tourists can interact with Victorian recreations from the past. It is inhabited by the surviving super rich and their families, most of the activity is artful reconstruction of the past for tourism and education purposes. London's lost rivers have recovered as 90% of the human population has died off. Politically the city is run in a feudal fashion by Guilds from the City of London.

After a decade or so writing contemporary (if wierd) spy ficition  William Gibson returns to science fiction with a time travel novel, and it is probably as good as anything  he's written since his hugely influential first novel Neuromancer,  which actually coined the modern use of the word 'cyber' in 1984.

Gibson's version time travel seems to work like this - the super rich in the 2100s can create a 'stub' back to a version of the 2030s which allows them to communicate but not travel. Once established the stub runs concurrent time at both ends of the link (you can't jump forward or backward within it) and creates a separate time stream which does not create paradoxes. They do seriously affect the later development of history within that reality but the 'Klepts' - the descendants of Russian mafia that seem to run London 2100 just don't care. Some in fact run the stubs like live strategy games, purely sadistically, for fun.

This is a great and topical idea and quite a believable extension of current economics - perhaps a logical extension of outsourcing. Why should 'job creators' even have to pay subsistence wages in their own timeline when they can pay resource from another era to do it? Plenty of businesses right now would run call centers using switchboard operators from the  1930s if they had the means to to so.

In the reading this book just flashes by and I found myself slowing down and pacing myself just to enjoy it. Previously "unputdownable" isn't a phrase you would normally apply to William Gibson. His novels are not written as thrillers, Gibson's attention to detail is more Bret Easton Ellis than Tom Clancy.
Often they are (Spook Country) much better on second reading.

I've started and given up on reading about four or five novels in a row  (starting with a Thomas Pynchon last year) but I burned through this,  to the extent that it wormed it's way into lunch and things to do in the evening.Very short chapters helps, and he's a great writer.

Gibson's grasp of characters gets better and better - the slightly cardboard cartoons of his first beloved novels are now fully fleshed rounded and quite tragic characters. The defunct rock band of Pattern Recognition and Zero History is replaced by a trailerpark full of young crippled veterans and their families in mid 21st century, balanced against the quirks of an even more distant future London society post Jackpot.

Like the recent Bigend trilogy, he spends time building entertaining characters and once he gets to play with them the results are often very funny. When American girl from trailer park 2030 operates a living Peripheral in 2100 to identify the murder suspect she has to be fitted with a module that spouts the pretentious society bullshit of the 2100s to fit in.

Aside from the scifi, and the general pleasure of reading Gibson in top form this is the most sympathetic portrayal of an unclass environment world I've come across for some time. There is no sneering at Flynn's trailer park world, and the pity reserved for the war vets is mixed with respect. The forced bonds which develop into friendship between the underclass of 2030 and the high class semi magical world of 2100 are perhaps the highlight of a great read.

When the explanation for the Jackpot arrives this it is a horribly believable idea;  that the mass die-off at the end of the century is not from one cause but an accumulation of environmental, social and economic horrors that have been building for some time until eventually human civilisation 'hits the jackpot' of mass unmanageable disaster. Flynn asks when it started and is told it has been in progress long before her own time of the 2030s.

As usual with Gibson the fantastic is convincing particularly with regard to the future tech and its relationships with society. Gibson admits in an afterword that creating a world of 2100 we can relate to in any way , and even a language to describe it,  was the most difficult part of the writing. The 2100 world of 'assemblers' is very hard to grasp early on, and yet  I have just spent weeks visiting London's Hampstead of the 2015 and the London of 2100, with its greenery full of Russians and underground car parks full of giant German luxury trucks really seems only fantastic in the detail.

This is further examples of how Gibson, - a native of Vancouver - gets the wider world in general and London in particular. The Big Smoke features heavily in the Bigend books, obviously in The Difference Engine, and even the last of the initial scifi Sprawl trilogy, Mona Lisna Overdrive. This Pacific Northwester's thing for London is something I regret I never got to ask him at his recent BFI visit.

A warning, The Perpheral has a steep learning curve and is tough to start. Readers are dumped right in at the deep end of both future environments and there is minimum background and explanatory detail, the Jackpot for example is not explained until the final 100 pages. Very short micro-chapters chapters help. Just let the detail flow over and allow comprehension to slowly sink in.

In an Afterword, Wilf Netherton and the Facebook of Dreams, Gibson talks about the tension between writing a narrative and making an environment comprehensible, alluding to Arthur C. Clarke's quote that
"any sufficiently advanced organisation with be indistinguishable from magic"
In his 2100 people tweet in their dreams (and have their dreams tapped by the security forces). The stubs which allow contact with previous eras are enabled by a mysterious Chinese server which is presumed beyond the understanding of anyone outside China.

"There is a working tension, in this sort of fiction between naturalistic narrative and technical exploitation. My own tendency is towards narrative, both as reader and writer. I'm content with Clarke's magic, and The Peripheral, with it's unknown, Chinese 'server' enabling the entire narrative is no doubt an extreme example of this"

Pyongyang is my favourite track on Blur's new album MAGIC WHIP, which has made a good soundtrack to the reading of this novel.

Pics are from my Sunday morning walk to Canary Wharf along the Regents Canal. About two hours listening to a typically fantastic Tom Ravenscroft 6 music show (Lapulax)

Saturday, 23 May 2015

FX's THE AMERICANS : One Black Widow after another

A glimpse at the red on Natalia Romanova's ledger in all it's harrowing detail.

FX's THE AMERICANS is destined to be a classic in retrospect. With all due respect to MAD MEN, in terms of domestic thriller it is really the closest current equivalent to THE SOPRANOS. I really envy those who will be able to watch this one day end to end without interruption.

I  watched the pilot last summer, couldn't believe how little attention it had got, showed it to someone else, and we then burned through two series in the next seven days.  As good as any classic cold war spy tv I've ever seen, including THE SANDBAGGERS and the BBC Le Carre adaptations, and at the same time a brilliant period drama (Reagan America) that rivals MAD MEN for capturing the real mood of the time the period. I bought 3 boxed sets of this show for friends last Christmas.

The pilot sets up the premise with KGB efficiency.  Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), are two KGB sleeper agents in early 1980s Washington, forced to live in an arranged marriage for twenty years who suddenly find that after having a family together - and quite a lot of other stuff they have in common - they've grown to actually love each other for real. The tragedy is they must make this and their family work in a world in which they both constantly lie, seduce and murder in the service of a ruthless foreign power. By the time the first series ends creepily to the tune of Peter Gabriel's 'Games Without Frontiers' (scariest music ever written about a BBC light entertainment show?), this show is totally addictive and really gets in the way of doing anything else

It has the best depiction of the period, early 1980s America, I've ever seen on the small screen. Most 1980s set dramas rely on the same John Hughes box of cliches - bright colours and teen angst. This show really recaptures the decade that was one faulty command decision away from the extinction of the human race. It is shot like gritty like grey sandpaper, so toned down colour pallet is virtually black and white. Alec Guinness's George smiley could walk in from the BBC version at at moment withut a shocking change in lighting or clarity. This is why they don't use stills as promo shots - this is the era we associate with DALLAS, but shot like CALLAN. It is Spielberg in negative.

So it is just a spy show in the 80s? No. Like TRUE LIES - but taken seriously  - this brings the  Cold War paranoia right into the domestic environment. Sometimes in THE AMERICANS the Iron Curtain cuts right across the dinner table. The 3rd Season particularly invades the home of the characters, as the domestic front starts to crumble when KGB Central asks the couple to recruit their own daughter to the cause.

The obvious advantage would be that a second generation KGB agent would be liable for high security defense jobs in the Pentagon. The obvious disadvantage is of course that the girl, played with incredible confidence and grace for a teenager by Holly Taylor, has not been through the Red Room process (or it's real world equivalent), and in total ignorance of her parents real identities has discovered religion via college.

How they expect to train what has become a young committed Christian to perform the acts required of Phillip and Elizabeth would be worthy of entire comedy series all on it's own - if we hadn't seen the shocking first attempt to recruit a second generation  spy at the climax of Season 2 (Spoiler : it didn't go well). The sheer impossibility of this is apparent to her parents, who are blinded both by love for their children and the unflinching Stalingrad like devotion to the cause.

A British version of this would stray into comedy at virtually every turn. The brilliant capacity for un-sneering sincerity in US drama is really shown in the sub-plot with Martha, Philips other wife. Martha is a lonely female employee at the FBI duped into marrying and spying for someone she thinks is working for FBI internal investigations. By the time she realises the truth she is in too deep emotionally and professionally to escape.

In a British show Martha would be a sad joke, but here, played with heartbreaking engagement by Alison Wright, she is almost the centre of the human tragedy taking place. The scene in which she thinks she marries her husband (known to her as Clark) while Clark/Philip's real wife Elizabeth is forced to attend as his "sister" is quite emotionally brutal all round - especially when it it revealed that as part of the KGB selection process, which led to a twenty year marriage with two kids, Elizabeth and Phillip never had a marriage ceremony themselves.

As a 'Black Widow' played for real, Keri Russell is terrifying, and  as hard as nails discovered in a tin at an abandoned camp during the Siberian winter. Infinitely more convincing a product of The Red Room as anything in the world of Marvel, you would hope writers working on any further iterations of The Black Widow in AGENT CARTER or the movies storyline are watching 'Elizabeth Jennings' religiously.

Good as the actresses are in this, it would probably be unwatchable without the restraint and humanity of Matthew Rhys who is the heart of the show. He has the seemingly impossible task of of engaging audience sympathy in a family of KGB murderers and with their mission. Core credit must of course go to the writers lead by showrunner Joe Weisberg - who virtually every episode prompts the thought "How the hell will they get out of this - and why do I care so much?".

One of the left field shocks is Richard Thomas, still best known to British viewers from The WALTONS, playing reptilian FBI supervisor Frank Gaad as if he had just walked off the set of the V alien invasion mini-series briefly popular at the time.

A constant pleasure is the almost Scorsese-like eye for brilliant period music. None of it obvious, a lot of it is British - such as Peter Gabriel, Fleetwood Mac. One whole episode is devoted to the release of a Yazoo album!

Rhys and Russell are a real world couple now apparently, and I can't say I'm surprised. The chemistry between the two is immediately evident in the pilot. You wonder if the meta levels of role playing and acting in the THE AMERICANS make it easier for the performers to lift themselves out of the roles and get the downtime they deserve. Is this an actors dream - playing virtually every scene as a different character? Russell comes off worst here as most of her roles are utterly ruthless manipulating vamps that even HYDRA would think twice about employing.

Those Marvel fans who want an idea of the Black Widow's 'ledger' of previous crimes teased in Captain America : Winter Soldier and ignored in Age of Ultron? should watch "Elizabeth Jennings" at work in THE AMERICANS. It would be fascinating to watch how a character as committed to the cause as this, to be able to commit acts of that, ultimately chooses to retire to hang around with the likes of Tony Stark. I can just about imagine respect for Steve Rogers getting under the skin of Keri Russell's monster, or Banner, for obvious reasons, but likely she'd gut, skin and mount Stark first chance she got (though probably in  a different order).

So if it is so good why is THE AMERICANS so unknown in the UK?  Right now you can't even get to the official website from this country.
ITV bought it up. 
ITV showed two seasons of THE AMERICANS and dropped it like a stone. Those X Factor repeats are so much easier to sell when your overall share of the UK viewing audience drops by 5% every year. Maybe ITV would be more comfortable remaking THE AMERICANS themselves with Ant and Dec playing the Elizabeth and Philip?

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Will Scottish votes tip Britain out of the EU?

If Britain voting to leave the EU triggers another vote for Scottish independence - what incentive do the Scottish Nationalists have for voting to keep Britain in the EU?

Surely it makes sense for them to vote en mass for Brexit - and then get another vote to the leave the UK as a 'material change' in the Union will have taken place.

General Election 2015: Could the threat of Brexit trigger a second Scottish independence referendum?

For those keen on Scotland leaving the Union and England leaving the EU, consider the 'benefits' when we have an open land border with an enthusiastic EU member like post independence Scotland. How much control will there be over England's borders then?

What next then? Full border controls and a fence accross the north? Say hello to your English/Scottish nationalist future

Pic of fortified Scottish border from Neil Marshall's disappointing DOOMSDAY

Monday, 11 May 2015

30 years since Bradford Stadium fire

30 years ago it was a boring Saturday and I was half watching World of Sport.
Suddenly it cut to live footage straight from Bradford City's Valley Parade ground, which was surprising  as very rarely would you see live footage from a football stadium at 4pm on a Saturday.

Crowd trouble they said.

"Oh god not again" I thought
There did look to be some trouble and I remember the weary resignation in the voice of the announcer. Quickly they went back to normal programming.

A few minutes later they cut back to Bradford, to say that apparently there was some sort of fire. Yeah  - there was some sort of fire.

Camera closed in on a policeman dragging a fan across the pitch, fans clothes were on fire.
What shocked me to the core however was not the fan but the policeman, who was without his helmet, and seemed completely unaware that his own hair was on fire.
World of Sport soon cut away.

I've just had to look this is up to confirm it wasn't some horrible nightmare, and the fact that this is the first time I've felt the need is evidence of how shocking it was. My spine is tingling now looking at the picture here.

There were of course several football disasters at this time, Heysel and Hillsborough chief among them, but you will notice Bradford often gets forgotten and is talked about quite differently. There is none of the anger or recrimination of those incidents because simply this incident is just too horrifying to revisit. Everyone just wanted to move on and not think about it.

Perhaps this is the reason it has taken 30 years for people to realise the history of fires at businesses owned by the Bradford City chairman Stafford Heginbotham. Eight fires in the 18 years before Bradford, many catastrophic, and many leading to large insurance payouts.

As detailed in Martin Fletchers; Fifty-Six: The Story of the Bradford Fire:

"The club at the time took no actual responsibility for its actions and nobody has ever really been held accountable for the level of negligence which took place. It was appalling that public money was given to the club while it was still owned by the same shareholders under whose direction the fire had happened. I do not include the people currently running the club, who have always displayed a great, sensitive duty to the memory of those who died."

BBC Radio4's Today show this morning played the live audio of the local radio reporter covering the match and it is quite shocking. That horror of fire and people being within it is immediately reminiscent of another more famous piece of live audio recorded in 1937 at the destruction of the German airship Hindenburg.

Rather different outcomes though from those two incidents.

1937 - 36 people die in the Hindenburg disaster.
Result : a whole distinct form of passenger transport - the airship - is scrapped

1985 - 56 people die at a football match in Bradford.
Result : Inquiry concludes - it is just ...one of those things

Two weeks ago our tutor on my CyberSec course wondered what would happen if terrorists attacked a football crowd.
"Depends what they attacked them with.." said one of the students
"..If they burnt the stadium down maybe there wouldn't be any blame attributed at all. That's what happened in Bradford"

Friday, 8 May 2015

UK Election Meltdown 2015 a result of historic coffee and muffin disagreement (UPDATED)

Danny Alexander (looks and sounds like a Gilbert and Sullivan character - became Chief Secretary to the Treasury)
and  Ed Balls (looks and sounds like a character from Revenge of the Pink Panther - became Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer)
who couldn't get on over coffee during the failed Labour/Liberal Coalition negotiations in 2010, have now both lost their seats in last nights election meltdown.

The background is all in here, Film4's COALITION

2010 - After Britain's first televised leadership debate all sides rush to agree with new political star Nick Clegg, who goes onto lead his minority Liberal Democrat party into the hung parliament after the 2010 election. The Liberal Democrats, a more fresh faced and naive bunch of political meerkats you'll never find, reject the chance to form a government with natural left of centre allies Labour and instead form a government with the Conservatives, mainly because Danny Alexander and Ed Balls didn't get on during negotiations over coffee and muffins.
(Coalition is great UK political drama that bears comparison with HBO's RECOUNT and GAME CHANGE, I particularly liked Mark Gatiss as Prince of Darkness spin doctor Peter Mandelsson.)

Since the events depicted in Coalition the hard nosed Conservatives and their friends in the media have rammed through a very conservative agenda and generally have played the Lib Dems like a fiddle.

Meanwhile the equally amateurish Labour Party have been gutted by support for Scottish nationalists, perhaps because they are led by a man who managed to exceed expectations in the campaign only because the expectations were so rock bottom.

"The Right Wing Press destroyed Ed Milliband!" they will say
The Labour Party needs to take a very long hard look at it's selection process, as in this case the Progressive cause has been led for the last five years by a man who makes Micheal Foot look like John F Kennedy. Whatever Labour party workshop of work-shy policy wonks and self serving trade unionists engineered a leadership election where the choice was between two equally clueless looking brothers (the other Miliband is just as convincing) needs to take a long hard look at themselves.

This is The Guardian's Charlie Brooker on 'inherently comic' Ed Milliband

"The other week he was pictured in Elle magazine wearing the Fawcett Society’s “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt. Last Sunday the Mail claimed those T-shirts are stitched together in a Mauritian sweatshop by women earning 62p an hour. - A T-shirt. He can’t even wear a T-shirt without somehow condemning both himself and any surrounding witnesses to ridicule. What’s going to trip him up next? A doorknob?"

(Ed subsequently tripped leaving the stage after one of the televised leadership debates).

Dear Labour Party
for the rest of the UK politics is not a joke, it is not a hobby, it is not a passtime to brag about in North London dinner parties. Globalisation has taken a vast number of good jobs (for men and women) from this country and likely they won't be coming back. The only future I can see from here is a repeat of the 1870s - minus Scotland.
Look at this picture, one of a series of endless media disasters, taken from the incident alluded to by Charlie Brooker above - does this look like the face of Austerity Britain to you? Or a pair of dozy career politicians advised by dimwits living on Planet London?

Update :
It appears Clegg and Milliband will now resign as a result of yesterdays events.
I type this in the once rock solid Liberal seat of North Devon - Jeremy Thorpe's seat for most of the  Cretaceous Period and since - which is now solid Conservative after unseating Nick Harvey after 23 years in 70% turnout. UKIP vote seems to have collapsed, perhaps as a result of the SNP panic.

Will historians draw a parallel between Netanyahu's recent scare tactics in the Israeli election with that of Cameron's threat of the Scottish Nationalists here? Is 2015 the year of the scare? Will this be a feature of the US election?

To the surprise I'm sure of absolutely no-one in the rest of the UK, Labour has been quite successful in London. Elsewhere we have Scottish nationalists in total control of Scotland and English nationalists in control of nearly everywhere else.
Interesting times ahead.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

More Gerry Anderson Aerospace

After the hybrid air vehicle that looks like Thunderbird 2 in last post, I bring you the new commercial satellite launcher that looks like Fireball XL5

Highlights from Blue Origin's New Shepard space vehicle as it makes its first developmental test flight.