Saturday, November 29, 2008

Together in electric dreams

Oddly enough, I didn't read much science fiction as a child. I'm sure I looked and dressed as if I did; and plenty of my friends were the sort of high-functioning sociophobes who devoured the oeuvres of Isaac Asimov and Stanislaw Lem and L. Sprague du Camp and Dean Koontz. (Incidentally, I've long believed that all the birth names of actors that are rejected as marquee-inappropriate - names such as Issur Danielovich Demsky and Spangler Arlington Brugh and Herbert Kuchacevich zu Schluderpacheru and Diana Fluck - are redistributed to SF authors whose monickers are deemed to be too ordinary.)

I loved Dr Who, of course, and must have had about 40 of the Target novelisations, but that wasn't *proper* SF, any more than Star Wars was. I think I dabbled with a bit of HG Wells and John Wyndham, and I know I read Fahrenheit 451. But one book that has stuck in my memory is Ben Bova's The Dueling Machine, which I remember borrowing from Leigh Park library at least three times.

So when I picked up a second-hand copy a few weeks ago, it was more than a potential read or even a re-read; it was a matter of revisiting my own younger self. What was it that grabbed my eight-year-old imagination so fiercely?

The eponymous machine is a device that allows people to settle disputes without bloodshed, in a virtual arena; problems arise when combatants actually start dying. The obvious comparison is with the Dr Who story The Deadly Assassin, written by Robert Holmes, which would have been transmitted at around the time I first read Bova's book. Passably interestingly, the conceptual battleground in which the Doctor takes on Chancellor Goth is called The Matrix, and if we leap forwards a further 20-odd years, there are also clear similarities between ideas in Bova's and Holmes's works and the notions that underpin the Wachowski franchise (although that's really only a remake of Tron, but with better clothes and worse acting).

Not only does Bova get his head round the concept of virtual reality over three decades before Second Life, he also second-guesses both how the Web would work, and the uses to which it would be put:

The order was scanned and routed automatically and finally beamed to the Star Watch unit commandant in charge of the area closest to the Acquataine Cluster, on the sixth planet circling the star Perseus Alpha. Here again the order was processed automatically and routed through the local headquarters to the personnel files. The automated files selected three microcard dossiers that matched the requirements of the order...

The personnel officer selected the third man, routed his dossier and Sir Harold's order back into the automatic processing system, and returned to the film of primitive dancing girls that he had been watching before this matter of decision had arrived at his desk...

When I first read The Dueling Machine it was a fantasy; now it seems almost spookily perceptive (although the gender roles underpinning the entirely superfluous love story must have looked pretty outmoded even in 1969) . Back then, I missed his nods to Marshall McLuhan and Vance Packard, which may even have extended to the Situationist appreciation for the subversive power of the decontextualised slogan. The hero and villain are fighting in a TV editing suite, and one of them falls onto a row of switches:

"LOOKING FOR THE IDEAL VACATION PARADISE?" a voice boomed at them. From behind Odal's shoulder a girl in a see-through spacesuit did a free-fall somersault. Hector blinked at her, and Odal looked over his shoulder, momentarily amazed. the voice blared on, "JOIN THE FUN CROWD AT ORBIT HOUSE, ACQUATAINIA'S NEWEST ZERO-GRAVITY RESORT..."

Through his mind flashed another maxim from his old instructor: "Whenever possible, divert your opponent's attention. Create confusion. Feint, maneuver!"

Hector rolled off the desk top and ran along the master control unit, pounding every switch in sight.

"TIRED OF BEING CALLED SHORTY?" A disgruntled young man, standing on tiptoes next to a gorgeous, statuesque redhead, appeared beside Odal...

Of course, it's only when they're out of context that these texts and images make us feel truly uneasy. Under normal circumstances, they're designed to lull us into a dream state, as much a replacement for reality as the dueling machine itself; even if they create insecurity, the solution is inevitably in the next paragraph. And when the prescribed solution to a financial crisis caused by injudicious consumption is for people to go out and buy stuff, sometimes with fatal consequences, you know the slogan-makers have won the war.

Which is why I find the newest purported mental dysfunction on the block so unconvincing. People afflicted with Truman Show syndrome apparently believe they are unwitting performers in some kind of reality TV show, and their only desire is for some omnipotent director to call "cut!"

But surely that's not a psychiatric disorder. Rather, it's the most sensible coping mechanism for modern existence, and I suspect everyone in the developed world does it to some extent. When I was a child, when I first read The Dueling Machine, I would sometimes create a fantasy life, and believe it to be reality. Now, I tend to look at reality, and wish it were a fantasy.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

What price now for a shallow piece of dignity?

I'd hate to give the impression that the works of Douglas Coupland are essentially a string of vaguely connected smartarseries. On the other hand, this is from Life After God:

"One day I came home from the library, where I had spent the afternoon trying to make people feel middle class by scowling at them."

(And in response to all your kind messages, fine thanks, unless or until I need to go anywhere.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

From despair to somewhere

Richey Edwards, lyricist, ideologue, stylist and half-assed guitarist for the Manic Street Preachers has finally been declared dead, nearly 14 years after his disappearance; as such, he warrants an obituary in the Daily Telegraph. I can't help but think that, had his body been found in 1995, he wouldn't have earned such a niche among the war heroes and Tory MPs. So essentially he's being honoured for his post mortem achievements, and the hotly debated Cult of Richey; we are encouraged to remember the myth and the mystery rather than the man.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Abuse your delusion

So have you got yours yet? Your copy of Chinese Democracy, of course, the long awaited Guns N' Roses album that's been long awaited by everyone who makes a habit of waiting a long time for long-awaited Guns N' Roses albums...

More eagerly anticipated guitar heroics, and Nabokov and Jerry Lewis, here.

Wot no chameleon circuit?

From the background notes for Dr Who, in the BBC archive, to which James Blue Cat so kindly directed us:

"Therefore, we do not see the machine at all; or rather it is visible only as an absence of visibility, a shape of nothingness..."

Production meetings in those days were clearly spun off from Cambridge philosophy tutorials. It amazes me that the show ever made it to the screen.

Lust in translation

I always wonder whether a word's impact is down to its form or its function. I mean, would George Carlin's Seven Dirty Words be as dangerous if they were rendered as Plop, Widdle, Rumpy-Pumpy, Quim, Nosh, Physical Manifestation of the Oedipal Narrative and Funbags?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

...makes the tart grow fonder

A few days ago, I was sampling lots of nice food for free and wondering whether 'restaurant reviewer' should be added to my list of the only jobs that are really worth doing.

One of the dishes was an orange and absinthe sorbet, which led to a discussion with the nice restaurant PR lady about la fée verte and its various cultural connotations. She knew that the stuff had been banned in many European countries for much of the 20th century, and that Kylie Minogue had played its spectral manifestation in Moulin Rouge; but not, apparently, that its renaissance in Britain was partly due to the efforts of someone who'd once been the drummer in The Jesus and Mary Chain.

And we talked about 1915, the year in which France prohibited the production of absinthe, and the resulting invention of pastis; literally a pastiche of absinthe, a half-hearted impersonation, a fuzzy photocopy of the real thing. And it was only then that I realised that a drink such as Pernod was, for much of its existence, a perfect simulacrum; a copy of something that didn't exist.

But I didn't say anything; I refrained from pontificating about Baudrillard and Deleuze and The Matrix to someone who really just wanted me to write nice things about her restaurant. Maybe I don't need to see Baudrillard in everything, like someone finding the name of God in an aubergine; maybe, as with my bubblewrap moment, it's a sign that I'm finally joining the human race. Although I still shared it with you, I suppose. Maybe that's different.

We moved on to the paprika-smoked Ahi tuna, and jolly nice it was too.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Marks will be awarded for showing your working

I've been catching up with Are You An Egghead? In many ways, it's something of which I approve, a consciously difficult quiz show (there's no quantitative way to measure these things, but I reckon the level of the questions is rather tougher than those on Mastermind or University Challenge), presented as mainstream tea-time entertainment. Moreover, it's real Revenge of the Nerds stuff: those of us who never got the girl, and always wore the wrong trainers, can only gloat at the elevation of geeky brainboxes to the role of tea-time sex symbols. One of the most glorious moments so far was when one bubbly contestant from Coventry selected the diffident polymath Kevin Ashman (second from the right in the picture) to join her team, because she fancied him. For those of us who always got picked last for football, it was something special.

One quibble, however; the contestants are encouraged to explain how they negotiate the multiple-choice brainteasers. I suppose this is laudable, making the retainment and regurgitation of arcane knowledge more accessible to the casual viewer; rather than just sucking it all in as gloriously incoherent combat, a sort of cerebral version of the sumo coverage Channel 4 used to offer in the good old days, the punter may actually learn something.

But for those of us whose sole talent is knowing a tiny bit more than most people about Jacobean tragedy or soul music or the birthplaces of England cricket captains (Ted Dexter? Milan!) will understand it isn't as straightforward as that. Very often, as Alistair remarked in a response to my previous post, with reference to sell-out 80s Goth combo the March Violets, "I Just Know That". I've got no idea whether I picked it up from a book, or a geography lesson when I was 13, or an explanatory sign in the V&A, or even from watching a TV quiz show. I Just Know. And watching people who also Just Know desperately trying to concoct a plausible post-hoc justification for why they've decided that the answer's Borneo, rather than Viscount Palmerston or the square root of π, is a little bit tiresome; for a start, it requires self-examination, and that's one thing we botched and bungled geeks really don't like doing in public. (There's a similar tendency in Mastermind, when Humphrys has his little chats before the general knowledge rounds; fair enough if you want to talk about the specialised subject, but the "so, you're a policeman, do you get annoyed with all the form-filling?" delving can make for pretty uncomfortable viewing.)

So, respect to Olav Bjortomt, one of the few contestants with the cojones to say "I know this one", and leave it at that. I'm all for opening up the world of pointless trivia to as wide an audience as possible; but let's retain a little mystery, OK?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Let's plow...

You know when you're dreaming, and something in the dream startles you so much that you wake up?

Well, there I was, back at school, as I so often am in my dreams; I'm sure many of you do the same thing. Specifically, I was on the path between the art block and the science labs, the one that led past the Goodfield block (named in honour of a headmaster who'd dropped dead on the tennis court, if I remember correctly). And, because life in dreamland is really just one big movie, there was a soundtrack; a not-desperately-good, defiantly 1980s cover version of the Stones' 'Miss Amanda Jones'.

And (maybe I should have realised I was dreaming at this point) I was dancing. Dancing madly to the music on the soundtrack, dancing up the path to the labs. I was still dancing as I went into the lower biology lab, vaguely remembering that it was also my form room when I was in the third year. There were some people in the lab, and they seemed to appreciate my moves.

"Go for it, Duckie!" called one girl. "Keep dancing."

And I caught my reflection in the mirror that seemed to be provided for the purpose, and realised I was dressed in a garish thrift-store outfit, quiff, jacket sleeves rolled up, that could only exist within the confines of a John Hughes movie. And yes, I was Duckie, lovelorn geek hero of Pretty in Pink. But...

"Bollocks," I thought. "The jangly version of 'Miss Amanda Jones' wasn't in Pretty in Pink. It was in Some Kind of Wonderful."

And that's when I woke up. Roused from my slumbers, not by subconscious fear or embarrassment, as a normal person would be, but by my own pedantry.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

"Trapped in the same lie": Artifice and absence in the last episode of The Wire

(And now for the inevitable anticlimax, goaded out of me by Realdoc and others. Just be grateful that I've trimmed most of the Baudrillard and all the Barthes from it - at one point, it was about twice the length, not including footnotes. I did think a SPOILER ALERT might be appropriate here, but since The Wire is officially the greatest show you've never seen, and probably never will, there's not much point. Unless this provokes one or two of you to join the club, of course.)

The Wire is lauded for its realism; but of course, it is not real. We know the names of the actors who pretend to be cops and gangsters, teachers and students, politicians and journalists and dockers and priests and junkies and hookers; we know the names of the writers who put words in their mouths, and the directors and the producers too. The true obsessives know the cameramen and the editors and the stunt performers and all the musicians who recorded the various versions of the Tom Waits song and the person who crafted Brother Mouzone's bowtie.

But that's not what realism means, of course. Realism at its best means the art of lulling the viewer into two parallel states of consciousness: deep down, they know it's not real; but at the same time, they care as if it is real. The fun is in the tension between the two states. By the last episode of the last season, the makers had grown confident enough to play metafictional games with the audience, dancing in the spaces between The Wire's universe and ours, without severing that emotional, unironic bond.

It's in similar territory to Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt: deliberately alerting the audience to the artificiality of the drama to remind them that the big themes are more important than the imaginary characters. But David Simon (the most appropriate candidate for the role of 'author' here, if such a job title still exists) goes one better; he downplays the reality of Wireworld by allowing real Baltimore to intrude. Entangle yourself with the hyperreality of Omar and Kima and Carcetti; just remember that there's something approaching reality (that's real reality) going on at the same time.

Think of the relationship between the actors and the roles they play. Many characters take their names from real individuals in Baltimore; Sgt Jay Landsman for example, who appears both as a character (played by Delaney Williams) and as an actor (playing Dennis Mello). Journalist Bill Zorzi and convicted killer Felicia 'Snoop' Phelps, meanwhile, play themselves, or at least characters who share their names. Elsewhere, the producers cast from the headlines: reformed drug dealer Melvin Williams (who was arrested by David Simon's colleage Ed Burns) plays the Deacon; disgraced police commissioner Ed Norris plays a cop called, uh, Ed Norris, And sometimes it's just a matter of settling scores: Simon named a loathesome police lieutenant 'Marimow' to get back at one of his bêtes noires from his days on the Baltimore Sun. That's the real Baltimore Sun, by the way, not the fictional one on screen...

Ah, the paper. Which brings us to the last season, and the last episode, and the title screams its intentions. "-30-" is journalese to signify the end of a piece of copy. Not only is our attention drawn to the fact that this is the last episode; it also labels The Wire as a piece of journalism, something purporting to be true. Except that, as Scott Templeton's concoctions spiral out of control, and his paymasters turn a blind eye, we know that any claim that journalism may once have had on the truth is long gone.

Not that anyone else has clean hands, of course. As Norman Wilson says at the beginning of the episode: "Everyone's getting what they need behind some make-believe." Mayor Carcetti has just realised that his ascent to the Governorship may be derailed because the serial killer that he used as a way to lambast the State for lack of funding doesn't actually exist. He's a politician, so he's used to lying; what throws him is the fact that this time he thought he was telling the truth. Similarly, Templeton is a journalist, and well used to embroidering the truth; but on this story, he's unaware that his embroidery is decorating an invention. It's empty and, as his colleague Alma discovers, so is the notebook he wields as a badge of his journalistic integrity.

This emptiness, this absence, becomes a central theme when McNulty finds himself confronted by a classic simulacrum - a copycat of a killer that doesn't exist. "The lie's so big," he declares, channeling Goebbels, "people can't live with it." But they can, and they do, as the (conveniently insane) copycat is blamed for the other killings and Carcetti gets his photo-op.

But there's one more absence, one more lie to deal with. In the past, policemen who died have had wakes staged for them; this has also been a handy way for the makers to acknowledge the passing of cast members (both Foerster and Cole were honoured thus when the actors who played them died). These were fictional funerals to mark real deaths; McNulty now receives a wake when he (the character) isn't even dead. Except that this is the last episode, and as far as the viewer's concerned, he may as well have taken a bullet; Landsman's eulogy is for The Wire itself. -30-. It's all make-believe after all; the only difference is, the make-believe in The Wire won no prizes, unlike Templeton's Pulitzer-worthy creations.

In the end, only two characters break free from the cycle of mendacity, although they both express their moral purity in unlikely ways. Daniels, unwilling to help the new mayor by producing statistical bullshit, leaves the force entirely and becomes a defence lawyer, in which role, presumably, he lies for a living; but at least he and everyone else knows it's an act. And Marlo, encouraged by Levy to reinvent himself as a legitimate businessman, slips away from the posh party, knowing that his true self can only exist on the street. By acknowledging himself as irredeemably evil, he achieves a sort of nobility through self-knowledge; a sort of truth.

Thursday, November 13, 2008 c'est la même chose

3:am magazine is gracious enough to direct us to Reality Studio, a Burroughs site that has the complete archive of My Own Mag, the mid-60s publication created by artist, poet and all-round provocateur Jeff Nuttall.

Now, I never really found myself on the same wavelength as Nuttall. I first heard of him in the late 1980s, when I was growing increasingly exasperated with the dayglo floristry that constituted the 1960s revival of the time, which glossed over the social and political upheavals - Vietnam, Black Power, gay and women's rights, Powellism - in favour of footage of dollybirds dancing in parks (the sort of thing I described here).

But by the time I got to Nuttall's seminal work, Bomb Culture (thanks, Murph), I'd read equivalent volumes by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Guy Debord and Richard Neville, and Nuttall's opinions on how to stick it to The Man gave me a distinct feeling of déjà lu.

Now, though, looking through the scrawls and doodles of his earlier stuff, you see the urgency, the need to communicate, that informs the best of blogging. OK, the mechanics of production and transmission are different, and you don't get the same sense of conversation (© Patroclus), although I'm sure the magazines provoked plenty of it.

And I bet there was some 1960s equivalent of bloody Andrew Keen to sneer about how amateurish the whole project was.

And just to prove the decade could indeed be dangerous and subversive and unexpected, not just jolly and tuneful, here's Jimi Hendrix and chums giving Lulu's producers psychedelic kittens. RIP Mitch Mitchell.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Another one bites the cyberdust

Patroclus has dropped her heaviest hint yet that she's going to knock this blogging malarkey on the head. I should respect her decision; or take a big-picture, Zen view of the whole thing, and accept that shit happens; or even play reverse psychology games and say that I never liked her poxy site, with its Pictish cryptograms and nerdy crushes on Steven Johnson and Cornish babies and two felt pens and all that, and good riddance, and neerrrrr.

But I'm just going to sulk, and occasionally kick the leg of this desk.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Big words

So I finally worked out how to post a word cloud, but then the chapter had to undergo some last-minute revisions, and then I forgot all about it and blah-di-blah. Whatever, as my niece Lily says, and she really shouldn't, but it's very funny when she does, 'cos she's only five.

Anyway, here's the text of the chapter I've contributed to the forthcoming title Radiohead and Philosophy, to be published by Open Court some time early next year. Click to make it larger. I can't imagine that any of the predominant words will surprise anyone, although I do use "profound" rather too much, don't I?

(Image from

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

When I get older, losing my hair

(I suppose I should post something about Obama but, really, what is there to say? The sheriff is near...)

The other day, I had an Ayurvedic fusion massage. It was work, not play: I was reviewing the spa facilities at a big posh hotel. This isn't my usual sort of gig, I should stress. I tend to cover restaurants, shops and the like; activities where you keep your mind on the job, and most of your clothes on. As I submitted to the expert fingers of my therapist, I wondered how one is supposed to review such an experience; how can you keep your critical faculties intact when the whole point of the experience is to drift off into a sort of blissful half-sleep? Like the Sixties, if you remember it, you weren't there.

At one point, she proferred a tub of some fragrant unguent, laced with ginger, aloe and apricot, explaining that it would strengthen my hair roots. As she rubbed it into my scalp, I wondered whether such claims would stand up to the rigours of the Advertising Standards Authority. I do remember that purveyors of hair products are forbidden from saying that such-and-such can give you healthy hair, because all visible hair is essentially dead; the best you can hope for is "healthy-looking hair". But what does that mean? If something can't in reality be healthy, how can it look healthy? Could you have a healthy-looking rock, or a healthy-looking chair?

The fact that my mind was meandering along such a pointless, meaningless trajectory is, I suppose a tribute to the care-kneading properties of the spa. Maybe I should just type 1000 words of stream-of-consciousness bollocks and say there, that's how good this place is.

On the way home on the train, still slightly spaced out, I found my battered copy of Douglas Coupland's The Gum Thief tangled up with various press releases at the bottom of my bag, and realised that three weeks ago, I'd got to within 20 pages of the end and then forgotten about it. Which may say something about Coupland's ability to write compelling prose, or my ability to finish what I'd started, or both. Or, of course, neither.

But I won't review the book, except to say that it feels like an uneasy synthesis of Coupland's self-consciously post-modernly smartarse works (Generation X, Microserfs, JPod - the ones where it sometimes feels as if the plot is just an excuse for a barrage of one-liners) and the more heartfelt ones about dysfunctional families and suburban loneliness (All Families Are Psychotic, Eleanor Rigby).

I'll just offer this short extract:

By twenty-five you know you're never going to be a rock star, by thirty you know you're never going to be a dentist, and by forty there are maybe three things left that you can still possibly be -- and even then, that's only if you run as fast as you possibly can to try to catch the train.

Which links, however tangentially, with two events of the weekend; my bubblewrap-related midlife crisis and seeing Nick and Barney for the first time in Dawkins knows how long. Because, with all due respect to the many fine, upstanding, dedicated, talented firefighters and brain surgeons and teachers and fishmongers and actuaries and Sudoku compilers and lumberjacks and bank clerks and hod carriers and psychiatric social workers and morticians and spivs and dilettantes and flâneurs and hotel spa reviewers out there, I've come to the conclusion that there are only two jobs worth doing: editing the Guinness Book of Records; and being a Dalek. And between us, we cracked them both. Before we were forty.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Wrapper's delight

There were a couple of largeish sheets of bubblewrap on the bedroom floor. I picked them up and put them in the bin, without experiencing the slightest desire to pop them.

I think I've finally grown up.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

One of us

Yesterday saw a delightful evening with my old chums Nick and Barney, who are such erudite polymaths (books, paintings, songs, plays and more) that it seems rather reductive to describe them as Dalek operators, but I suspect that's what will appear on their gravestones. Sadly, none of their Dr Who gossip is fit to repeat in the public sphere, but by the end of the evening we had decided that this

should be remade starring these guys:

Which leads, I suppose, to a meme of sorts: pick a film to be reimagined (as is now the preferred terminology) and the band you'd like to see populating it.

Or, if you prefer, just make up something sordid about Dr Who.