Monday, 28 May 2012

No feet of clay

Finally caught up with another of my long-term musical heroes last night. Previously I've seen R.E.M. and David Byrne (ex- of Talking Heads), and this time it was the turn of Suzanne Vega.


I've been following her since I first got a taste back in 1992 while I was working out at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She released her album 99.9F° in early autumn that year, but in the run-up to this a couple of tracks made it onto the rotation of KROQ, our lab's favoured radio station that summer. Now, an alarming 20 years later - but only 3 more albums later - I finally got a chance to hear what she's like live.

On which point, I have to say that, going in, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. She's a bit of an odd artist in that she comes out of a somewhat folky place, but has also at times embraced - after being embraced by - an almost industrial aesthetic. I arrived on the scene when she first took the plunge with a more production-heavy style, so have always quite liked it. But I'm also aware that she still tends to folky, and has even begun a project in the last couple of years to re-record many of her songs in more pared-back arrangements. As such, I did wonder how songs that I've loved for years might turn out.


Fortunately, I needn't have worried in the least. Though she performed with only a single accompanying musician, and occasionally did numbers solo, she still managed to pull a pretty impressive range from her songs. In the main, the arrangements were unsurprisingly pared down, but they didn't suffer for it in the least. Even my (probably) favourite song, the infectiously upbeat if surprisingly short When Heroes Go Down, came off brilliantly. Only one or two songs suffered from being (to my mind) pared back a bit too much, and even then it was still enjoyable to hear new interpretations. And with one song, Blood Makes Noise, the arrangement was actually amped-up (via a pedal-based sequencer?) to something almost more industrial than the original.

On this point about arrangements, one particularly interesting choice was how Vega chose to handle one of her most famous songs, Tom's Diner. This was originally an a cappella song when it was recorded back in the early 1980s, but it's probably more famous now for a 1990s remix that reworked it almost into a dance track. I've even got a cover version of the song by R.E.M. that covers this remix rather than the original. Anyway, last night Vega herself travelled this same route, and performed the song in its remix flavour rather than in its more stripped-back original flavour. I guess that she now prefers this version too, or must at least prefer performing it this way - certainly it went down well with the audience.

Leaving aside her old familiars, Vega introduced a number of new (to me) songs. Most were actually from a play that she co-wrote recently on the life of the US writer Carson McCullers. When she introduced these, my first reaction was to get rather apprehensive because of this stage source, but, again, I needn't have gotten concerned. They were a little too, well, factual compared to her usual, more everyman-ish work, but they were still really good. And quite funny too. Curiously, she mentioned an imminent and wholly new album in passing, but I don't think we got anything from it. That'll have to wait.

Anyway, overall another personal icon survives intact. I should be getting used to this by now, but I can't seem to get over an instinctive "shields-up" response to ward off potential - but unfulfilled - disappointment. What was also pleasing was Vega's manner and her chatting with the crowd. She was easy, amusing and even apologised mid-song when she got a lyric wrong at one point (we'd never have noticed - it was Blood Makes Noise!). So it was nice to have my 20 year crush validated. ;-)

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Richard Parker

Thanks to a tip from a former colleague, we caught a great little play last night just over the road at Peartree Church Hall. The play was titled "Richard Parker" and drew on the story of (surprise, surprise) Richard Parker, a cabin boy who was cannibalised by fellow crew after a shipwreck off the coast of South Africa. More specifically, as this unfortunate sailor shared both the name and fate of a character in a novel by Edgar Allan Poe published several decades earlier, the play dealt with the phenomenon of coincidences, and spun this out in a two actor, two act play.

We weren't quite sure what to expect given the rather curious premise of the play and its extremely local venue, but it turned out to be a real treat. As well as touching on the coincidental fate of both Richard Parkers, fictitious character and real cabin boy, the play drew on quite a few other compelling stories of famous (and less famous) coincidences, including the purported parallels between the lives and deaths of US Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. And it did so really well, extracting a lot of dark comedy from these usually fatal coincidences, and ultimately spun all of this into a nice twist directly affecting the play's two characters (and Richard Parkers).

The play certainly seemed to go down well with the Peartree audience, and its humour was particularly appreciated - especially when it veered into an extended diatribe against "shitting seagulls". The only qualification I'd make - and it's one that applies to everything I've ever seen on stage - is that is was a little, well, stage-y. For all the visceral fun of seeing something live, I never get absorbed into it in quite the way I find with cinema, and never entirely forget the obvious fact that I'm watching actors on a stage. Anyway, hopefully the evening will have raised a good bit of cash to help the play's writer and cast travel to the Hollywood Fringe festival. The play has already done the rounds at UK festivals, but they're hoping that it gets some wider attention stateside. So good luck to them.

Warwick reunion (with added cricket)

After a heavy funding meeting in a small, subterranean dungeon at the Royal Society, I had the good fortune of a Friday night out with some of the EAMG crowd. Our get-together was triggered by a rare(-ish) visit from St. Ben of Cooper to viva a thesis in Brother John's group (though not one of his students, fortunately).

Because the evening began with the same group engaged in a cricketing deathmatch against hated institutional enemies (social scientists of all things), we arranged to meet in the "sports section" of Regents Park, and I planned to finish reading my book while they knocked chunks out of each other. Unexpectedly, however, John's team was down a player, so I wound up taking to the field for my first proper game of cricket ever. They even had shin pads and gloves! Anyway, while I was only able to contribute a handful of runs (4, I think), I did manage to bowl out one of the rival batters. Embarrassingly, it was his first game too, and I put him out immediately - not very sporting of me. However, it was a necessary breech in the "have a go" spirit, and led - in a small way - to the defeat of John's hated rivals. Hurrah.

Anyway, we finished the evening off in a good nearby pub, broaching traditional topics of conversation such as "yes, you could see them from behind" and "what, you voted for Boris?". Happy days.

About to take the stump

Glowering, but not blinking

Wishing Chris were here

Fresh from a triumphant viva

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Departure ... from form

Back to Asher-land. This time with the first entry in a wholly new series of novels based around a character who appears in several of his short stories, The Owner. No sign of the Polity this time round ...

On an increasingly overcrowded and resource-strapped Earth, the ruling world government, the Committee, is planning a "final solution" to stabilise the planet. In orbit, a massive satellite network has been built that will allow its tyrannical controllers to exterminate the viciously oppressed majority judged surplus to requirements by the Committee. Meanwhile, an ignored Martian colony is informed by the Committee that it is to be mothballed until events on Earth have stabilised and that it, too, is at the limit of its resources, and that only a managed depopulation will save it.

In the build-up to the planned events on Earth, Alan Saul, a rogue scientist, awakes in Calais on a conveyor belt feeding him into the town's incineration plant. Escaping from his immediate predicament with help from Janus, an internet-bound artificial intelligence that mirrors his own mind, Saul quickly and deliberately becomes a fly in the ointment for the Committee. After tracking down an old colleague and girlfriend, Hannah, Saul seeks out the black market and the technology that will allow him to fuse his organic mind with that of Janus to massively enhance his powers. Suitably "powered up", he travels to Minsk to hijack a spaceplane to, in turn, commandeer Argus Station, the hub of the Committee's satellite network. The latter proves a substantial challenge, and Saul's ruthless determination to succeed whatever the cost, as well as his ambiguous fusion with Janus, lead Hannah to question what he has become.

While I've never been entirely won over by Asher's charms, I've always found his novels and stories to be at least enjoyably trashy reads (even for science fiction!). Every so often he's surprised me with something more substantial, but even when he hasn't, I've always left satisfied with a baroque slice of sub-Banks adventure.

Here, not so much. Which is doubly unfortunate since he's actually tried something new here. Leaving his Culture-esque Polity universe, he's struck out on a completely new course, albeit one that's previously been touched upon in some brief short stories. We don't actually reach the point in time that these stories dealt with, by the climax of The Departure firmly establishes Saul as The Owner.

So what went wrong? Better to start with what didn't go wrong - since it's the smaller list. What's still good here - if a little overdone - is Asher's robustly violent science fiction action. Particularly so when Saul co-opts Argus Station's legion of repair robots as an impromptu army capable of some inventive, non-repair-related mischief. While he does revel in it too much for my liking, he does write his action scenes well.

Where Asher first goes wrong for me is in his presentation of the Committee. While it sits not uncomfortably within the well-worn trope of oppressive authoritarian regimes that populate dystopias, Asher can't help but use it as a stand-in for the EU, like some demented UKIP demagogue. For all is many flaws, the EU is nothing like the Committee in terms of action or outlook, but whenever he can, Asher squeaks in some sort of parallel. Admittedly, UKIP-ophobe that I am, perhaps I'm a little over-sensitive, but it's difficult not to get annoyed by Asher's stream of miscued political asides.

I was also a little miffed at how he handled his Martian subplot. At first it seemed like this would assume equal prominence to the events playing out on Earth and in low Earth orbit. But Asher only devotes a small fraction of the novel to this, and it's a pretty dull fraction at that - largely just a much smaller and much less significant insurrection on a limply imagined Mars. Worse, Asher commits something of a science fiction cardinal sin for me by having the uprising on Mars led by Saul's sister. Did he learn nothing from Star Wars pivoting galactic-scale events around a single dysfunctional family?

More seriously, he also makes something of a mistake with his central character, Alan Saul. Asher's narrators, even the white hats, are often rather gruff characters who're not entirely sympathetic (and he even has a habit of rehabilitating his ostensible black hats). But here he goes off at the deep end with a "hero" who's entirely unsympathetic. While arguably the closest thing to a "good guy" here, Saul is pretty much an Objectivist tyrant, concerned far more with his own ambiguous need for self-determination than anything else. Asher was probably aiming for a conflicted grey hat, and - to be fair - he does imbue Saul with occasional self-consciousness and second thoughts, but to me the novel played out as a battle between a faceless collective despotism and an ugly individualist despot.

All that said, this is seemingly the first novel in a planned trilogy. It may well be that Asher's treatment of Saul here is simply setting the stage for subsequent developments in character. But that's awfully hopeful of Asher given that characterisation has never been his strong suit. Still, I will almost certainly be continuing to read the saga of The Owner when these latter titles appear. I may leave this somewhat disappointed, but The Departure is still a lot less of a disappointment than my last science fiction read.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

The Fear Index

A new novelist and new sub-genre this time: an airport novel. Actually, that's probably more than a little bit rude, but I'm pretty sure that The Fear Index, by the British author Robert Harris, has probably sold a lot of copies at Heathrow. Hang onto your hats, we're in techno-thriller territory now ...

Set over 24 hours in Geneva in the cross-over world between high energy physics and high risk finance, the centre of the novel is Dr. Alex Hoffman. An ex-physicist now running a hedge fund, his company's success is driven by VIXAL, an "algorithm" that Alex designed to profit from fear in the market. The novel opens with a night time break-in at the luxury home that Alex shares with his wife, and incipient artist, Gabby. Defying seemingly impregnable security, the intruder appears set to murder the couple before he is disturbed by Alex, escaping into the night after knocking Alex out. This opening event is just the first in a succession of unexpected setbacks that begin to assail the life and career of this Master of the Universe. The next day sees the intersection of a new infusion of cash to his hedge fund from unscrupulous magnates, Gabby's first exhibition of work, and an incipient market crash. But Alex is unable to focus on any of these pivotal events as an unseen and unknown assailant continues to needle him from afar. Worse, a nervous breakdown from his past at CERN is brought to the attention of his friends and the police, fostering doubts that the conspiracy that he claims is enveloping him exists outside his own mind. But as financial meltdown threatens the world's markets, while VIXAL coldly plots a perilous series of trades, Alex begins to discern an underlying cause for his life's sudden reversal.

The Fear Index is not going to win any prizes from the literary establishment, but this is a proper page-turner, very efficiently written and pushing a number of zeitgeisty buttons. Harris sets off at a great pace and never really lets up as Alex is drawn into the bottomless rabbit-hole of a seeming conspiracy that amplifies his paranoia and threatens his sanity.

It's difficult to really care about the central character, Alex, as he is clearly "on the spectrum", and very much at the belligerent, self-entitled end. While VIXAL began as an academic project in artificial intelligence, it's clear that Alex's already narrow interests have narrowed further to see only its skill as a golden goose. Actually, his focus and lack of consideration for others is unlikeable to the extent that one questions the realism of the relationship with his wife.

But such matters of characterisation are quickly swept out of consideration by the blisteringly-paced plot that unfurls in more or less a single day. Of which, Harris does a great job rolling out more and more mysterious hurdles for Alex to clear. Along the way, Harris does a serviceable job at introducing the reader to some concepts from hedge funds, and while he never makes the banker characters worse than amoral, it's difficult to come away with a positive impression of the "trade". He also briefly touches on CERN, does a good job with Gabby's art, and even spends some time on the distorting impact of banking on Geneva's housing market.

There are a few plot strands that aren't entirely resolved [*], but there's enough going on that one doesn't mind to much - or actually notice too much until the final page is reached. It's one of those stories where mysterious events ramp-up the reader's apprehension extremely efficiently, but which don't actually quite stack-up once the curtains are pulled back. But Harris tells his story so well that it's only now that I'm reading a new book that some of the "holes" are obvious to me.

While some aspects of the novel's close were a little unexpected, I did particularly like the closing accommodation that Alex's business partner comes to with VIXAL. He clearly arrives at an appreciation for what it actually is, and accepts its violations and intrusions because of its power and its skill at making obscene amounts of money, regardless of the human cost. It's difficult not to read this as a wider statement about how bankers view the systems and schemes that make them money. But - nicely - Harris trusts the reader enough not to bludgeon them with any explicit socio-economic sniping.

Overall, a lightweight but very enjoyable yarn. It's not wholly without substance, but its observations about the questionable value of banking are clearly second in line to entertainment for Harris. Which is absolutely fine. And while it doesn't need them, it gets bonus points from me for some long-distance flirting with a favoured science fiction theme, but this shouldn't put anyone averse to that genre off this book. Definitely worth a look up if you're in the mood for a palate-cleanser between more weighty literary dishes.

[*] SPOILER! For example, as the novel opens with Alex harbouring not the slightest of slight suspicions, it's not obvious why VIXAL targets him. If Alex was already wondering about its behaviour, perhaps discussing this via e-mails that it then reads, this could have been a jumping off point. Instead, VIXAL pretty much kicks-off a series of events that ultimately lead to harm (albeit quite limited harm) to itself. For something whose main strength lies in predicting, this seems a little daft. But, as I mention above, Harris' novel is sufficiently skilful that this only really occurred to me long after it actually mattered.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Dear Douglas and Whit ...

At the moment, my reading material is Player One by lapsed-favourite Douglas Coupland. Today, I saw the film Damsels in Distress by the inveterately infrequent director Whit Stillman. I've loved the work of both in the past, particularly Coupland's Microserfs and Stillman's Barcelona. And while both of these two recent titles by Coupland and Stillman still have plenty to like about them, both also seems to suffer in comparison to earlier work in quite a similar way. Basically, they seem to have forgotten all about plot.

Not plot in terms of a densely but carefully constructed narrative, nor plot in terms of an enjoyable pot-boiler, but plot in terms of something that does more than intersect with reality at a tangent. In previous works, both Coupland and Stillman coupled their (respectively) philosophical and whimsical sides to narratives that bore more than a fantasy relationship with reality. But here, while both have pleasingly held true to the styles and tropes that first got me hooked, both have abandoned any pretence that the worlds they build and populate have more than a passing correlation with our own.

True, that's laying it on a bit thick, but what was wrong with sticking to situations and characters that touched base with the real at least once in a while?