Tuesday 28 July 2015

Prisoner of an A.I. God: What on Earth are we to make of Philip K. Dick's VALIS?

Philip Dick was arguably the most important Science Fiction writer of the 1960s. He came to prominence at the same time that SF's New Wave movement was gathering strength, when writers like Ballard, Moorcock, Ellison and Le Guin were rejecting SF's previous dependence on straightforward prose and scientific realism, and replacing it with something more fluid, political, experimental and self-consciously literary. Dick fitted in well with this - his imagined world couldn't be more different from the leading lights of the previous generation. For writers like Clarke and Asimov the universe ran according to clean and logical laws, and was explored by clean and competent people: even the greatest mysteries were just puzzles we hadn't yet had time to figure out. For Dick, the universe was an impenetrable mess, explored by characters barely equipped to figure out the most basic facts.

Reality in Dick's novels is rubbery, untrustworthy. In A Scanner Darkly, a drug-addled police officer fails to realise that he is running surveillance on himself, and that the drug dealers and rehabilitation services are a scam controlled by the same company. In The Man in the High Castle, a man manufactures fake American antiques to sell to Japanese businessmen, the reality-blurring nature of his work mirrored by the reality-blurring nature of the setting, an alternate-history which the characters seem to realise is an impossible lie. In Ubik, no one can work out if everyone is dead, and whether this matters; in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, no one can work out if there's a difference between a real or an artificial human, or whether this matters. Dick's novels are constantly searching for the difference between what is actually there and what is a hallucination, between an original and a copy, between truth and a manipulated image, and they are constantly concluding that it's impossible for anyone to discover what counts as reality.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Freeze the Wine

Some fiction from April 2013. A weird one this. Turns out that if you want to write three science fiction stories, linked obliquely by a bunch of visual and thematic resonances, you probably need more than 4000 words to do it. Looking back on it now, this seems vague, rushed, and full of graceless infodumps. Also, goodness, I was obviously reading a lot of Philip Dick in 2013. But there's some passages and ideas I'm proud of, and it was certainly an ambitious thing to try and pull off: it's a mess, but probably a worthwhile one.

On the day that humanity damned itself forever, Spain's second-best pianist was unknowingly persuading Jen not to fall in love with the man sitting next to her. You'd think if people could agree on one thing, she thought, it would be Mozart. But despite the magnificence of the concert, Paul shuffled like a frightened rat, fighting sleep with every inch of his body.

If time had run as time was meant to run, this would have been the year that Jen discovered a love of Sushi and Descartes. She would have finally beaten her insomnia and worked out how to play that bastard piece of Bach. It would have been a good year.

But the explosion tore her to atoms, just as it did Paul, the Spanish Pianist, and most of the inhabitants of the provincial town in which they lived.


Under the red sun, he tries to speak, but he has no breath left. He licks his lips, but he has no spittle left. His throat burns.

His vision darkens and insect-bites ravage his skin. He does not yet long for death.

Sunday 5 July 2015

Folk Weekend: Oxford

A festival review from April 2014, written for Music in Oxford. Originally published at http://www.musicinoxford.co.uk/2015/04/23/folk-weekend-oxford-2015-various-venues-oxford-17-190415/

The first night of 2015’s Folk Weekend Oxford must have been horrendous for its organisers. The Randolph Hotel was burning, and by the time the number of fire engines had reached double figures, it had been decided that the festival’s box office and main stage were too close to the blaze: the Friday night headline acts were cancelled and the box office was stuffed unceremoniously into a local church. But it’s a testament to the excellence of the weekend that that this barely caused a dent in the enthusiasm of the crowds. It’s hackneyed to use a phoenix-from-the-ashes metaphor, but it’s also appropriate.

Folk Weekend Oxford isn’t just a series of gigs, it’s a colonisation of the city centre. The first things anyone notices are the gangs of Morris dancers, holding court in Gloucester Green and making Cornmarket even weirder than usual. Look a little closer, and you’ll find groups of musicians gathered together in pubs, blasting out tunes on mandolins and hurdy-gurdys for their own entertainment, the regular drinkers a mixture of entertained and baffled. Folk music doesn’t just become omnipresent, it does everything it can to pull the public towards it: the Old Fire Station were putting on a seemingly endless stream of free concerts, there was a ‘Relaxed Performance’, aimed at creating a space accessible to people with special needs, there was a vast array of events put on specifically for families, and most of the acts I saw had a sizeable contingent of children in their audience. This was the precise opposite of elitism: joyously and enthusiastically inclusive, throwing music and dance out across the city with as much energy as possible.

Four Scenes from the Major Arcana

Fiction from May 2014 - several friends were writing Tarot stories for a potential musical project at the time. And I’ve been obsessed with the literary archetypes of the Fool and the Hanged Man for years. 

The Fool
The Year of Our Lord 1100, New Year's Day. Good Christian men carousing in quiet streets, rats lapping up their spilled wine. Between the empty buildings and deserted squares, I pass mercenaries playing dice in the doorways of impromptu taverns. I watch holy men swatting away a pickpocket while bartering bright jewels for food. I ignore the soft whisperings of a drunken prostitute.

I had been warned in Antioch, but listening to warnings had never been my strongest suit. Six months after the siege, when the Franks took Jerusalem with steel in their hands and God in their hearts, the rot and rubble have filled this city with more vibrancy than we pilgrims ever could. My small white dog (acquired when we were both starving and shivering on the outskirts of Constantinople) still whines and retches at the stench of the long-dead. I've grown used to it.

Oxford Circus, Saturday 21st December 1996

Some fiction from January 2014. Written as promotional material for a play that some of my friends were directing.

So I'm out of breath and doubled over, and I haven't run like that in years. And I'm laughing hard, so hard I think I might throw up, and there's a streak of english mustard on my bright white shirt, but in the heat of the platform I can't be arsed to cover it with my coat, and besides there's no one else around.

I hope that the train isn't showing up immediately, because at the moment I just want to revel in my own dangerously high blood-alcohol levels and bellow obscenities into the echoing tunnels. I do this, but it doesn't take very long to get old, and I find myself staggering, so I collapse onto a bench and think about whether the hangover will be gone by Christmas. I giggle at my own wit.

And then I wonder why there's no one else here.

I blink, because I must have missed something. It's midnight, and this is an underground station in central London, and there should be swarms of people rushing to get the last train, but there's no one else at all. As far as I know this is unprecedented, impossible. But I'm drunk, so there's probably a basic and vital and entirely reasonable detail that I've overlooked. I think, and think hard.

I had been running. I try to remember why. Was it from something? To something? And I had been laughing, hard. Was there a joke somewhere? Was it just relief?

The Sloe

From June 2015. Written at 2am, in a mood of intense excitement after having just jammed through a bunch of folk tunes with a musical hero.

Some years ago I had a dream that I was asked to play drums for Yes. Now, Yes were the first band I was ever properly obsessed with, the first gig I ever saw, and there's still a sizeable chunk of my head which reckons that they're the pinnacle of human musical achievement. But in life, as in this dream, I've never touched a drumkit, and my subconscious brain had generated a vast baying crowd, waiting for me to replicate Bruford's hyper-complex, hyper-subtle rhythms.

I also once had a dream where Jay-Z and Beyonce asked me to be present to rap at the birth of their first child.

Both of these dreams were unpleasant.

Tonight, in actual real life, John Spiers (Bellowhead's melodeon player and one of its founder-members) was present at the Bastard English Session at the Isis Tavern. Now I'm not at all exaggerating when I say that Bellowhead changed my life. I'd probably have got into folk without them, but not with the same intensity, and my attitude towards folk music and therefore culture and therefore probably maybe life is pretty heavily based on what they've done to English tradition.

Happy Songs for the End of the World

From January 2015

Last night I remembered my enthusiasm for 1950s American pop music about the Cold War. This stuff is fantastically creepy. Nothing feels more like discovering a warped parallel universe than hearing bouncing, cheerful, formulaic songs haunted by the imminent fiery death of the whole planet. 

Much of it is bafflingly tasteless. A group of actual US Airforce officers, known as The Cuff Links sang ‘Guided Missiles’ () a doo-wop song in which they croon that their lover is sending “guided missiles, aimed at my heart”: I’m sure we can all agree that nothing is more romantic than a bunch of military men telling you that “now I know that the enemy is you” and that “those same guided missiles will get you in the end.” With pretty much the same metaphor, there’s Wanda Jackson with “Fujiyama Mama” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztFHvNwRb6Q), upbeat rockabilly which doesn’t seem to have a problem with using the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to discuss how badass Wanda Jackson is. Then you’ve got oceans of novelty pop ephemera. Skip Stanley’s “Satellite Baby” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAO77QLxRVw) is an example of this, mashing up meaningless scientific phrases with unsubtle come-ons: it begins to get disturbing when the atomic weaponry shows up: “Nuclear baby, don’t fission out on me”, he sings, “We’re going to rock it in a guided missile every night”. Sex and death have never sounded so jaunty together.

The 50 Best Songs of 2014

From January 2015. Don't know if the youtube links are still active

Massive thanks to everyone who introduced me to these songs: there is a ridiculously large number of you, and you are all great. Usual rules apply: no more than one song per artist, the songs get better as you go down the list, and no songs by anyone I know personally, as it would be weird to try and rank them against each other. But if I was including stuff by people I knew, then you'd probably see appearances from:
  • Threepenny Bit, who are a magnificently tight, inventive and exuberant instrumental folk band, and who released a blindingly good album this year. The best track is “Cabbage” (http://threepennybit.bandcamp.com/track/cabbage), a galumphing speeding bullet of a tune, which never quite twists off in the direction you expect it to, but always twists off in the best direction possible.
  • Ben Parker, whose song Broke as Hell (http://benparkerofficial.bandcamp.com/track/broke-as-hell) is in the grand tradition of mashing together upbeat pop songwriting with ragged punkery: it's an excellently boozy celebration of irresponsibility
Anyway, on with the festivities. The spotify playlist containing 49 of these 50 songs is here: http://open.spotify.com/user/mulac/playlist/5uIuM3ElNzysZhWoHZNea3

Why I Play Folk Music

From October 2014. I’m particularly proud of this one.

Manifestos are a bad idea. If you decide you should only make art for certain reasons, or in certain ways, it ends up limiting what you do. So this is not a manifesto. This is not a set of instructions for an ideal way of doing things. This is just an attempt to explain why I make the music that I make.

I'm a classically trained violinist. For a long time, the way I played music was exclusively about discipline, precision and repetition. I learned how to play pieces by staring at the individual notes, learning by rote the minute movements required to generate highly specific sounds. Each bar was a puzzle to be solved.

I got pretty good at this.

When I left for university, and stopped having lessons, my abilities degraded fast. I played in orchestras, but rarely practised more than once a week, and none of them stretched me (or if they did, I didn't work up the energy to do anything other than play badly). My focus and discipline were used up elsewhere. I missed playing the violin, but I knew it would take a huge amount of time and work and effort to get back to where I was.

Which was when I discovered The Bastard English Session*. There's a pub in Oxford called the Isis Tavern, which you can't reach by road. It's a lengthy walk down by a canal, and at night it's mostly lit by candles and fairy-lights. Once a month, the Isis Tavern holds a folk session where (although you're certain to encounter some magnificently skilled musicians) the primary mood is one of raucous, joyous, anarchic silliness, where traditional English tunes and songs are held cheek-by-jowl with fiddle-heavy renditions of Queen, Lady Gaga and AC/DC. It's basically the best thing ever, and I soon as I encountered it, I knew that it was something I desperately wanted to do.

Ten Books

From September 2014.

I like these “Ten books that influenced me” things floating around the internet. It seems a nice way to put together something approaching an autobiography. With that in mind, and in chronological order of me discovering them:

The Last Battle, CS Lewis
I'll start the list with a book that I couldn't stand. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Horse and his Boy were all huge formative influences on me (as I imagine they were on almost every kid from my background with a bookcase), but I bounced hard off The Last Battle's blunt-edged moralising and weirdly unappealing visions of paradise. I was about six, and this was the first time I remember disagreeing with the ideas in a book, or thinking that an author wasn't playing fairly; the stuff I got pissed off with here hasn't stopped pissing me off since.

Macbeth, William Shakespeare
There was a lot (books, films, music) that got censored from me when I was a child, which was fair enough, because I was prone to asking awkward questions and terrified of everything. But when you are eight or nine, no one's going to stop you reading Shakespeare, which was how I ended up with a minor childhood Macbeth obsession. It was gallumphingly entertaining medieval fantasy of the kind that anyone with a TV was used to, but it was also complicatedly, threateningly adult and linguistically impenetrable; it was nothing like anything I was getting from anywhere else. I still sometimes feel that the best thing about Shakespeare plays (and books in general, and people) is that they're confusing: at first, everything seems to fit into archetypes, but then characters start working in ways you can't expect or understand, and you can only hope that looking hard enough will help you know why.

The 50 Best Songs of 2013

From January 2014. I don’t know if the Youtube links are still active.

Almost all of the songs below can be found in the spotify playlist here: http://open.spotify.com/user/mulac/playlist/5nqDSM2ex6Ddv8ECDNbcgQ

50. Richard Thompson – Good Things Happen to Bad People
A snakepit of coiled muscle and bile. Quintessentially English blues which, for all its mid-tempo gentility, drips with the leering threat of violence. “You cried the day I walked you down the aisle/ and I know you've been bad from the way you smile”.

49. They Might Be Giants – Call You Mom
They Might Be Giants are always at their best when their witty pop turns sour and dank. This is 2013's best openly oedipal singalong.

48. Steve Mason – A Lot of Love
Shimmering miserablism in a Scottish accent. Steve Mason (formally of the Beta Band) reaches in vain for some sort of fragile conclusion, assisted by the pale ache of the piano.

Fifteen Mostly Unconnected Points about Django Unchained

From March 2013, when I was trying to make my criticism more explicitly political. Also, despite what me-from-2013 wrote below, it is no longer out of character for me to listen to Kanye West albums on repeat.

  1. The Cowley Road Ultimate Picture Palace was the right place to see this. The warm, scratchy, faintly scuzzy, you-can-actually-drink-beer-there, obviously-film-obsessed building fits Taratino's aesthetic with rabid perfection.
  2. The film is Great.
  3. Obvious political problems first. This isn't a racist film. But turning the messy, unresolved historical atrocity of slavery into pulp entertainment (and this is without doubt pulp entertainment) is problematic.
  4. Also problematic is the way that the crux of the plot involves simplistically heroic anti-racists smashing up simplistically villainous racists – for a film ostensibly about race, this shuts down any conversation about racism or prevailing racist attitudes in contemporary culture: an audience can uncomplicatedly relate with the heroes and unite against the villains. Whatever unpleasant assumptions exist in their heads remains unexamined – while watching this film, we can assure ourselves that our culture contains nothing rotten because we are not Leonardo di Caprio. Similarly, we can assure ourselves that the darkest corners of Western history can be safely ignored as hero vs villain conflicts where we are the hero. The film comforts. It cannot unsettle.
  5. Swap “slavery” for “the holocaust”, and Inglourious Basterds left exactly the same sour taste for exactly the same reasons.

The 50 Best Songs of 2012

As you would imagine, this one is from January 2013. I don’t know if the Youtube links are still active. And I seriously underrated Kan and Lau in this list.

Spotify playlist at http://open.spotify.com/user/mulac/playlist/0DS7TEK7ysoJGQNTBRfv8q.

50. Drop Electric – Empire Trashed
Given that this year's Sigur Ros album was such a disappointment (more on that later), it seemed important to find other bands who were playing the same tricks (the cinematic slow build, the fiery release, the warm precise arrangements) without retreading old ground. Drop Electric does all this, as an excitable drummer slowly drags the song into catharsis. A song capable of providing all activities with very mild cosmic significance.

49. The Gaslight Anthem - “45”
Silly, slight, hypercommercial rockfluff. But silly, slight hypercommercial rockfluff that I listened to about seven times on the day it was released. Look, The Gaslight Anthem have probably never written an interesting or original bar of music in their lives, but their joyous determination to clatter into every known classic-rock cliché is charming, and they bellow them out with sufficient sincerity that one usually gets pulled along for the ride.

48. Exitmusic – Passage
Exitmusic were the second band to fill this year's Sigur Ros-shaped hole, and they're a lot more interesting than Drop Electric. This is late-night, dark-room music – like the lullaby of a beautiful robot. But the lullaby of a beautiful robot who occasionally explodes and starts shouting at you.

The Garden of Doctor Krast

Some fiction from August 2012. I’ve written better.

"Do you know why they call this flower wise-man's-tears?" asked the apothecary, holding the wilting bundle of petals up to the light.

"Because... because it cannot die?" The boy twitched, avoiding the old man's eyes.

"So say the societies of readers", said the apothecary. "In their own way, they are quite right. But nothing really dies, does it Thomas?"

"No, master."

Thomas stared at the petals, fluttering in the breeze of the open window. Glints of yellow and purple played like electricity across their grey surfaces.

"Wise-man's-tears are so called because they avoid the presence of death. You will see in Riverstone that they climb every rooftop and choke every tree, save those that border the graveyard and the butcher's shop. It is said that before the Bone March they swarmed through the woods at Theel, now they may not be seen for leagues around. They have the property of abhorring dead flesh."

"Yes master". Outside, the birds were calling busying themselves with their morning fanfare.

The Problem with Videogames

From January 2011. What’s weird about this one is how quickly it has dated: when writing it I genuinely couldn’t conceive of a world which contained (off the top of my head) Dear Esther, Gone Home, Papers Please, 30 Flights of Loving, The Walking Dead, Her Story, Kentucky Route Zero…

The videogame landscape is in a much better place than it was in 2010. But even if I’ve been proved wrong in general, I think there’s still some arguments of worth here.

In the last few days, I've mostly been travelling across the Galaxy and murdering everything that moves, but I've been trying to be as lovely as possible.

Normally, when I play RPGs, I either act like a paragon of virtue or a devious, scheming bastard. But in Mass Effect 2 (which has been taking up an embarrassing amount of my time over the last couple of days), I've been trying to act in every situation as I would in real life. Which means facing political problems with vague, well-meaning idealism, and facing interpersonal problems by trying to be nice to everyone and hoping everything will work itself out in the end. Unfortunately, these kind of problems only constitute about 10% of the decisions that the game asks you to make. The other 90% involve deciding whether to shoot the man on the left with the rocket launcher or the man behind the wall with the sniper rifle. Facing *that* kind of decision in real life, I would always take the “run away screaming and crying” option, which doesn't exactly lead to mission success.


Another April 2010 film review.

Here's my first reaction to Up: Bloody Hell.

Pixar films seem to be rooted in death. Nemo's entire family dies in the first few minutes of his film. Wall-E starts with Earth empty and barren. The Incredibles' narrative is powered by an attempted suicide and a mostly successful murder-spree.

They aren't morbid. The characters in these films are surrounded by the grimy, vicious facts of life (the pressures of commercialism and control of social norms in Ratatouille, the necessity of change and ageing in the Toy Story films), and death is one of those facts. It's the nasty grittiness of being human that constitutes the real enemy in these films. But the films show that it can be defeated with love and imagination. And they wrap up their ugliness in bright colours: talking fish, happy robots, and bouncing superheroes mean that all the grot of reality is never thrust in your face. Everything is packaged comfortably (but not tritely) for a family audience.

Synecdoche New York

Another film review from April 2010. Looking back on it, I think the film got under my skin and made me uncomfortable more than I’d care to admit, and so I was ruder about it than I needed to be.

Proof that there can be a fine line between profound and viciously irritating.

Here's the high concept: a theatre director discovers an infinite warehouse in New York. He builds a full sized model of New York in it, and hires thousands of actors to use it to create a piece of theatre. But this scale model of New York contains another infinite warehouse with another scale model of New York in it, and the identities of the actors are becoming confused with the identities of their real-life counterparts.

Its much, much weirder than that: there's a woman who has lived in a burning house for three decades, an artist who makes microscopic paintings, and a hyperviolent and critically acclaimed novel about the Ku Klux Klan written by a six year old boy. And all of this heady surrealism is grounded by a cynical little story of a frail man who lives through two divorces, watches the death of his parents, and cannot prevent the sexual abuse of his daughter by her bohemian guardian.

Prince Caspian

A film review from April 2010. I could make a lot of very similar points about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy.

I can't possibly give this an objective review. When I was young – really very young, now I think about it – the Narnia books basically built the inside of my head. There were books I read more times, and books I liked more. But, “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” is the first novel I have any real memories of reading. “The Last Battle” was the first time I remember disagreeing with the ideas in a book. The wish fulfilment fantasies that Narnia provided (and they provided a hell of a lot more than wish fulfilment fantasies) were precisely the same fantasies that my young brain was producing. These books plugged themselves pretty deep in my subconscious, and I don't think they ever left.

Which means that watching Prince Caspian was more of a heady rush of nostalgia than it was a traditional film-watching experience. I enjoyed it. I can't deny that.

But it's not a good film in any traditional sense. It drags: huge sections could be removed without any detriment to the plot. The acting feels wooden. The spectacle feels hollow, the design second-rate. Beyond what the source material gives it, there's a serious dearth of imagination here.

Rage Against the Machine and the War That Wasn't There

From December 2009, when people got sufficiently annoyed about the X-Factor winner getting Christmas number one every year that Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” was sent into the charts as a protest.

I didn't buy “Killing in the Name” last week. This was simply a matter of laziness and absent-mindedness: the truth is that I was genuinely excited by the whole affair. Last week felt like a glorious battleground, with talent and imagination on one side, and unthinking mediocrity on the other. Pretty much the first thing I did after returning home on Sunday night was to check the internet and see whether the forces of good had been victorious. To see if Art had beaten Commerce, if passion had taken down background noise.

And then Rage Against the Machine won. And I felt incredibly stupid.

Of course, everyone knows by now that unsettling the charts hasn't produced any practical results. Cowell hasn't suffered, still selling an astonishingly large number of singles. The sales-driven nature of the music industry hasn't suffered, given that both Joe McElderry and Rage Against the Machine are signed to Sony. And I can't honestly believe that the campaign really changed anyone's mind about what counted as “good” or “worthwhile” music. The best you can say about the series of events is that it was an amusing practical joke that raised money for charity.

On the Facial Hair of the Great Writers

From June 2009. This is what I was doing instead of revising for my first year university exams. I'd learned my lesson by the time finals came around.

For too long has literary criticism focused on the actual work that writers have produced. Such an approach is infuriatingly subjective, and has lead to unnecessary confusion and debate. A bold new method for judging a writer's work is required. One that does not require anything so complex or time-consuming as actually reading books.

Such a method has finally arrived

Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to judge writers by the quality of their facial hair in the pictures of them on wikipedia.

The following list contains all the bearded writers that I have studied this year. The beards have been scored out of five using a rigorously scientific system. And yes, I do realise the irony of doing this with a beard as rubbish as mine.

Charles Dickens (2/5)
There's certainly a lot of hair there, but it does look like someone planted a tree on his chin. This is the beard of a man who couldn't be bothered to shave.