Of Men & Monsters

1. I was ten years old when I first watched Love & Monsters. My memories of it are hazy, and, as it tried to remind me, childhood memories cheat. But I remember absolutely hating it. Of course I did; I was a kid. I had no idea what to do with this band of bizarre misfits, the absence of the Doctor, the idolisation of decades-old pop culture detritus, the grungy industrial sets. I was scared out of my wits by the Abzorbaloff, to the point of being unable to look directly at it on subsequent viewings. For a long time, I thought it was the worst episode of anything ever. But then I grew up, and realised it was all true.

2. A year or so ago, the marketing for Ready Player One was doing the rounds on social media, to a round of predictable guffaws. I haven’t self-identified as a geek for a number of years now (but that’s another story), but I commented at the time that the best story about ‘being a geek’ was still Love & Monsters. Which I stand by. The marketing for Ready Player One seemed to revolve entirely around remembering arcane trivia, but the things we were asked to recognise were… completely mainstream American pop culture artefacts from the last 30 years or so, i.e. stuff most of the film’s audience would recognise with little-to-no effort. Which is so often the paradox of geekhood, or indeed fandom in general; we’re the people so invested in the most popular commodities that we forget their own ubiquity. Perhaps because we must.

3. Fandom discourse around Love & Monsters, at least in my experience, is bizarrely blind to Peter Kay. We’ll talk about his petitioning Davies for the role, the idea he was asked to play Elton, and even (especially) the fact he was a fan of the show. But there’s comparatively little talk of just how weird it is that the biggest comedian in the country ended up on Doctor Who playing a low-rent bully in a comparatively tiny episode. For a better idea of this weird anti-stunt casting, imagine if Michael McIntyre had played Tim Shaw. Or if Adam Sandler had played the Kerblam! Man. At the very least, going from watching Peter Kay’s Car Share to this was… actually a fairly smooth transition. If Elton had been into a wider range of pop music, you can absolutely picture him in that show.

4. ‘Look at your hands!’ The grasping hands of Victor Kennedy are a repeated motif of this episode; he not only reaches out, he snatches, clutches, and at one point grabs directly at the camera before pulling back. Jack Graham and Niki Haringsma have written fascinatingly about Victor Kennedy as the embodiment of Doctor-Who-as-commodity, and Haringsma points out that Victor Kennedy can also represent sexual predators who use fandom as cover. There’s a reason Bliss and Bridget are the first to disappear; why he marks Ursula out as ‘most likely to fight back’. Victor Kennedy is the bad fan, with all the implications of that term, literally sustained by a clenched, silver fist. Given this, it’s notable that breaking the cane also sees that fist unclench; Victor Kennedy can be defeated, but not without taking an entire community down with him. LINDA, I let you go.

5. Except, of course, we don’t quite. The episode’s final speech is, if we’re being honest, a little overplayed in fandom — darker, madder, better, etc. — the ‘hello Stonehenge’ or ‘can you hear them singing’ for a more cynical age. Like both those speeches, the lines themselves are undermined by the episode they appear in; they’re exactly the kind of awkward, fumbling attempts at profundity you would expect from a sermon which begins by quoting Stephen King, delivered by a man whose primary aesthetic influence is Jeff Lynne. And yet, they clearly do move; the joy of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. Personally, my favourite bit of this scene is that Elton has finally got the remote control zoom he said he needed in the opening; I believe the technical term is ‘Character Development’.

6. Besides which, the episode’s most moving moment actually comes a few minutes earlier. It’s just a shame we have to get there via the Doctor standing silently over yet another dead woman; a cynical pop culture trope that Doctor Who really ought to be smarter than, even now. But as Haringsma points out, LINDA is aptly-named; this was always a detective story. The fact that Elton’s mother does not get a single line of dialogue, despite being the emotional lynchpin of the story, would be a contradiction were it not for the already-established tradition of such things. None of which is to disparage the episode; only to contextualise it.

7. Specifically, to contextualise Elton’s mother walking away, leaving the little boy on his own. That fade to white, with the mournful, distorted chant of ‘Please… Turn… Me… Over’ is among the most moving things in Doctor Who history.

The happy contexts of sad memories;

the cynicism in the heart of all optimists;

the loneliness embedded in the popular.

 

 

Niki Haringsma’s Black Archive on Love & Monsters, which I had the pleasure of proof-reading an early draft of, is out now, and is brilliant. You can buy it here.

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Review: Miranda in Milan by Katharine Duckett

PROSPERO: Twelve year since, Miranda, twelve year since,
Thy father was the Duke of Milan and
A prince of power.
MIRANDA: Sir, are not you my father?
PROSPERO: Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and
She said thou wast my daughter.
— The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2

These lines constitute the one and only mention of Miranda’s mother in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As such, they open an intriguing gap: beyond being “a piece of virtue,” who was Miranda’s mother, and what happened to her? Many have tackled this question, with a variety of results. Literary critic Stephen Orgel used it to explore the anxiety around parentage for Shakespeare generally. Filmmaker Julie Taymor viewed it as a screenwriting problem, and solved it by making Prospero Miranda’s mother. Debut novella author Katharine Duckett, meanwhile, uses it as a jumping-off point for a queer Gothic romance, with Miranda’s mother one of many dark secrets at the heart of a Milanese castle. Inventive and dark, yet full of genuine heart, Miranda in Milan turns Shakespeare’s beloved text on its ear, creating something both more macabre and more liberating in the process.

The story picks up a few weeks after Shakespeare leaves off, with Miranda and Prospero’s return to Italy. While Prospero retreats immediately to his isolated study, Miranda finds herself “a monster.” Cut off from both her island home and her fiance Ferdinand, she is forced to hide from the world at large, servants “moving around her as though she were a cockroach,” a veil forced upon her whenever she leaves her chambers. Her only friend is the “Moorish” servant Dorothea, a self-confessed witch, and thus the only person “with nothing to fear from you or your father.” Yet there is very good reason to be afraid of Prospero. The wizard is back at his old tricks; the vow to drown his book has been broken. What else has Prospero lied about? What really happened to Miranda’s mother? And can Miranda escape the influence of the man who has scripted her entire life so far?

As all this implies, Miranda in Milan is an openly revisionist sequel to Shakespeare’s Tempest. Early on, Miranda reminisces about a much more sympathetic Caliban than readers may remember, and Duckett implies that the two were deliberately forced apart by Prospero. Ariel also makes a brief cameo appearance, in an even more ambivalent form than the original, and Duckett offers the intriguing detail that Miranda

“had wanted an Ariel of her own, once, an ethereal slave to do her bidding, like those under her father’s command. But when Prospero found her cultivating one of the small island spirits, he beat her until she was black and blue. Since that day, Miranda had learned to handle her own affairs.”

Prospero himself is the most obvious target of revisions, revealed by Duckett as an outright villain. Dorothea wakes Miranda up to his lifetime of manipulations, as she realises her memories are dotted with “Strange sights, inexplicable visions: and then sleep, a heavy, sudden sleep she never experienced here, on the mainland.” Readers of The Tempest will know that these sleeps were in fact magically-induced trances, meant to shut Miranda up while her father carried out his work, adding a sinister air to once-accepted stagecraft. Miranda ultimately realises that “Her father was a story he had told her himself”; Shakespeare’s version, it seems, was unreliably narrated.

Yet while the novella is intensely critical of Shakespeare’s old wizard, there is also a sense of affection and playfulness. There are nods to several Shakespeare plays, including As You Like It and Titus Andronicus as well as The Tempest. But the most delightful revision comes in Miranda’s relationship with Dorothea, which develops into a full-on lesbian romance. Shakespeare has often rewarded queer readings, and moments like Miranda’s realisation that “she thought she had discovered marvels when first she looked upon the faces of new men. But women: women were another wonder entirely” expand cleverly on the original text while joyously queering it. Particularly memorable is Miranda and Dorothea’s first sexual encounter, which stems from a fantasy-inflected homage to the grand tradition of Shakespearean cross-dressing, and then adds a fantastic gag of its own.

But Shakespeare is not the only literary tradition in play, and Duckett’s crossing it with the Gothic yields strong, if mixed, results. The novel’s mid-section, where we learn the true fate of Miranda’s mother, feels a little over-long, although it packs a real punch towards the end. Though the book resurrects most of the play’s noble characters, a visit from Stephano and Trinculo might have added some variety. And while the book’s final twist is fitting (and its last sentence absolutely gorgeous) the means of getting there is not quite adequately seeded earlier on, which adds a sense of contrivance to an otherwise neat parallel.

But then again, what would the Gothic — or indeed Shakespeare — be without contrivance? Miranda in Milan is a delightful expansion of Shakespeare’s characters, and a critical yet affectionate interrogation of The Tempest. As answers to its central question go, it’s a damn good one, and one that feels precisely calibrated to the needs of 2019.

Miranda in Milan is available for preorder from Macmillan, in ebook and paperback editions.

Review: Borrowed Time by Naomi A. Alderman

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture review on 3 July 2018.

From a career perspective, the middle initial is the would-be sci-fi writer’s greatest asset. Especially if you also hope to maintain a career in the Literary Sphere, a good middle initial can demarcate your science fiction from the ‘real world’ stuff, while still reeling in your inbuilt audience. Hence Iain M. Banks, Jenny T. Colgan, and the subject of today’s review, Naomi A. Alderman. Now world-famous as the author of 2016 bestseller The Power, in 2011 Alderman was “only” a very successful and respected literary novelist, known for titles including Disobedience and The Lessons. Apparently at the request of her younger cousin that she ‘write something for him to read,’ Alderman donned the middle initial to pen a Doctor Who novel featuring Matt Smith’s Doctor for BBC Books. The result, Borrowed Time, is a thoughtful and exciting Doctor Who story about nefarious bankers and alien con merchants, seeing a re-release this month to capitalise on Alderman’s still-rising star. 

Given the commercial reasons behind this re-release, it is perhaps ironic that Borrowed Time concerns itself so heavily with late capitalism. The first chapter follows a day in the life of Andrew Brown, a harassed and overworked junior analyst at Lexington International Bank, as he oversleeps, forgets his sister’s birthday, and turns up late and under-prepared to a meeting. At peak frustration, he is approached by two sinister businessmen, Mr Symington and Mr Blenkinsop, who make him an offer he can’t refuse:

‘Mr Brown, we can loan you time.’
‘That’s right, Mr Brown. We can lend you as much time as you need. As much time as you can handle. As much time as you could ever desire.’”

But of course, this offer comes with a catch: 

“‘Now of course, Mr Brown, that time will have to be paid back.’
‘At what we think you’ll agree,’ muttered Mr Blenkinsop, just a little too fast for Andrew to fully catch, ‘is a very reasonable rate of interest.’

A few months later, the Doctor, Amy and Rory arrive to find strange goings-on at Lexington International Bank. Its employees are almost inhumanly productive, apparently spending more time at work than there are hours in the day, and its new boss, Rebecca Laing-Randall, seems to be hiding something… 

The novel’s basic setting and concerns have aged well. Borrowed Time came out three months before the start of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and the intervening years have seen repeated controversies surrounding bankers’ bonuses, austerity, Corbynism, and even Doctor Who itself explicitly fighting ‘capitalism in space’ in the 2017 episode Oxygen. There’s a maturity to the way Alderman deals with these concepts that feels refreshing for a Doctor Who book, not to mention being ahead of the larger franchise. That said, Borrowed Time is nothing as dull as ‘Doctor Who for Grown-Ups’. Alderman is unashamedly writing an all-ages action adventure with all the requisite monsters and chases (including a rather fun runaround with some giant cockroaches under the Millennium Dome). 

This all-ages remit is hard-wired into Doctor Who. Originally conceived as a family programme, intended to bridge the gap between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury in the BBC One Saturday evening schedule, its original cast consisted of two middle-aged schoolteachers, a teenage girl and an older man — designed to be as demographically diverse and thus broadly appealing as possible (within the limited range of people who could attain starring roles on BBC One in 1963). This family focus, always present to one degree or another in its subsequent 26-year run, meant the show was ripe for a revival in the early 2000s wave of ‘crossover’ children’s fiction marketed to adults. The standard-bearer for this wave was the Harry Potter franchise, and Russell T. Davies repeatedly cited J.K. Rowling as an influence over his 2005 revival of Doctor Who (at one point even speculating about casting her in an episode). This literary tradition was further played up when Steven Moffat took over in 2010, emphasising the show’s ‘fairy tale’ qualities, and it’s broadly this tradition that Alderman writes in here. The ostensibly ‘adult’ setting of the bank is made accessible to children through the familiar figures of the Doctor and his companions, while the abstract threat of financial disaster is made more visceral through the use of monsters. 

Everything about Borrowed Time points to a writer who fundamentally “gets” Doctor Who. The book has twenty chapters of near-uniform length, each containing an interesting set piece, from ‘our heroes are trapped in a confined space with alien crabs’ to ‘the Doctor attempts to blend in at a business meeting and fails utterly’. These keep the action nicely varied while still advancing the main plot, creating a brisk pace that ensures no idea outstays its welcome. It is by no means a revolutionary structure, but it does demonstrate that real thought has gone into shaping the story and making it engaging to younger readers. References to Doctor Who old and new are sprinkled throughout (seeing a Respected Literary Author reference The Masque of Mandragora is a rare joy for the long-term fan) and the basic idea of ‘aliens wreak havoc in contemporary London’ owes a clear debt to the 1970s iteration of the show, as well as its more modern incarnations. There’s even a revival of the show’s educational mandate, with the revelation that the book’s villains are exploiting the human race’s craving for time by lending it to them at impossibly high rates of compound interest, resulting in them owing more time than they could ever repay. This not only turns the novel into a sci-fi retelling of the 2008 financial crisis, it also leads to a pleasantly kid-friendly explanation of how compound interest works, through layers of icing stacked upon a slice of cake:

‘The interest goes up much faster than your actual borrowings. Once an hour, a slice of icing for every hour you’ve borrowed.’
‘That’s a lot of icing.’
‘That’s how compound interest works. Eventually, the icing you have to pay on the icing is thousands of times more than the cake.’
Amy stared at the soft sweet brown mass of icing. She’d never disliked icing before, but she wasn’t sure she ever wanted to eat it again now.

By making the villains’ scheme hinge on a real feature of the financial system, the book manages to highlight the potentially predatory nature of that system without resorting to raw didacticism. In this moment, we are not merely asked to contemplate the possible danger of compound interest — we are made viscerally aware of it, with the knowledge that Amy has herself been borrowing time and now owes thousands of years. By evoking the existing financial system, and subjecting a character we care about to a particularly brutal iteration of it, Alderman demonstrates the unfairness of that system while providing a moment of dramatic horror. 

On top of that, the book has a number of clever riffs on the idea of money in Doctor Who generally, and how the show tends to obscure concrete economics. At one point Rory gives a homeless woman money, musing:

It was funny how, living in the TARDIS and travelling with the Doctor, money began to feel less important, even meaningless. There were seemingly limitless supplies of all kinds of exotic alien currencies piled up in some of the TARDIS’s rooms… but they never found anything much to spend money on, and the things they did and saw couldn’t have been bought at any price. He’d brought loads of money, just in case, but now he only carried his wallet out of habit, and this woman needed its contents more than he did.

This is a clever observation, and one which naturally extends from Rory as a character. Not only is Rory a generally kind person, he’s also someone who notices and comments on the rules governing the world of Doctor Who (in series five, for example, he twigs how the TARDIS works before the Doctor can explain it to him). Amy is similarly well-served by Alderman, with an entire chapter dedicated to her over-borrowing time, neatly demonstrating the seductive power of the villain’s offer. If anything, the Doctor is the one given the least attention in the character department, with relatively little insight into his emotional state as he dispenses jokes and exposition. Mind you, this is far from unusual for the series, and is made up for by a well-developed supporting cast, including three employees of Lexington Bank whom the Doctor and his friends help rebel against their corporate masters. 

Even with its shiny new edition, Borrowed Time is likely to remain a footnote in Alderman’s larger career. But as career footnotes go, it is far more interesting than it has any right to be; an imaginative, intelligently-structured Doctor Who story with lots of jolly anti-capitalism for the kids. Indeed, on the strength of this book, it’s easy to see why Alderman was tapped as one of the first authors to write for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor in prose, with an as-yet unnamed story featuring the Thirteenth Doctor set to drop next March. One can only hope that story will continue in the vein of Borrowed Time; exciting, characterful, and unmistakably Doctor Who. 

Oh, and it also contains the greatest thematic riff ever written on Attack of the Cybermen. 

Borrowed Time is re-released in paperback now. It is available here, RRP £7.99. 

Review: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 26 May 2018.

Earlier this year, The Sun ran a story about a new edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with the headline “FLAKENSTEINS: Snowflake students claim Frankenstein’s monster was ‘misunderstood’ — and is in fact a VICTIM.” The article was mainly a thinly-veiled excuse to sneer at, among other things, the concept of human rights, but the story was also picking up on a similar article in The Times earlier that week: “Frankenstein’s monster? He was stitched up, say millennials.” The Sun piece caused a predictable round of social media guffaws thanks to its reactionary tone and apparent ignorance that reading Frankenstein’s monster sympathetically is common practice.

This mildly amusing social media storm casts an unexpected light on Jonathan Wright’s translation of Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. Also published this year, and shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, one of the themes that Frankenstein in Baghdad explores is the relationship between press sensationalism and the politically complex nature of victimhood. The title ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ itself appears in the novel as a sensationalist media headline, grafted by an unscrupulous editor onto a more sober article by one of the novel’s journalist characters. All the news reports we see are distorted and partisan, and a general atmosphere of confusion and distrust permeates the novel, suitable for the book’s setting between 2003 and 2008. As one character remarks, “We are in the middle of an information war,” and the nature of Baghdad’s ‘Frankenstein’ is one of many contested facts.

The plot is, if not straightforward, at least easy to follow; a Baghdad junk dealer, Hadi, begins collecting the stray limbs and organs of the city’s many bomb victims, stitching them together into a gruesome “Whatsitsname” in the hopes that it might be “respected like other dead people and given a proper burial.” When a hotel guard, Hasib, is vapourised by yet another suicide bomber and his soul is left with nowhere to go, he possesses the Whatitsname and begins pursuing bloody vengeance on the killers of its constituent body parts, attracting the attention of, among others, the Baghdad press, government, and occupation forces.

The book’s large cast means the reader never gets comfortable with a single perspective, and the book’s structure is consistently wrong-footing. Each chapter is broken into five sub-chapters, an appropriately fragmented style which jumbles the chronology and subjectivity of the book’s events. This structure also serves the novel’s absurdist sense of humour, the more outlandish conceits blending in with the surreal detachment from the rest of the war. (A personal favourite moment comes just after the Whatsitsname’s escape: “Hadi went outside and looked up and down the lane for a sign that something strange had happened, but he wasn’t willing to stop any of his neighbours to ask, ‘Excuse me, have you seen a naked corpse walking down the street?’”)

The Whatsitsname himself is a compelling presence, even if the novel’s structure means he’s out of the picture for longer than one might expect. When we do hear from him, it is usually via people who have some professional interest in his existence. His longest section of narration comes via a digital recorder handed to a journalist (the veracity of which is questionable; the possibility that the tape is a hoax is repeatedly brought up). Our experience of the Whatsitsname is deliberately mediated (at one point via a literal medium), and this formal distance prevents the reader from ever trusting or siding with him completely.

What little we do know is continuously warped by rumour, or by simple misinterpretation. At one point the Whatsitsname commits a triple murder in which three homeless men are found dead, having apparently strangled each other. The authorities perceive it as almost artistically perverse (“If Hazem Abboud had seen this and taken a picture, he would have won an international prize”) but the Whatsitsname later explains it was a darkly comic accident. This disconnect is further heightened when the Whatsitsname is profiled in the Baghdad magazine al-Haqiqa (literally ‘the Truth’ in Arabic), and is illustrated by a photo of Robert Deniro from the 1994 film adaptation of Frankenstein. The media, along with almost every other character in the novel, consistently misinterprets and misrepresents the Whatsitsname, contributing to a general sense of unease and distrust around the creature.

In his own telling, the Whatsitsname discovers that, as he takes revenge on the killers of his constituent parts, the avenged parts decay and drop off. To retain a complete body, therefore, necessitates further killings to acquire new parts. At one point he acquires a cult of followers who end up stealing the corpse of a man killed fighting in the streets, forcibly grafting his less innocent organs onto the Whatsitsname’s body, before they themselves are mostly wiped out by infighting. From there, the Whatsitsname begins killing less and less discriminately, even starting to murder innocent people, implicitly because the murderous intent of his new body parts has been incorporated into his personality.

The Whatsitsname’s anxiety over his own makeup is a fascinating tension throughout the novel. Composed of a multitude of people’s remains, from a wide variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, at one point he declares himself “the first true Iraqi citizen.” This mixed identity bleeds into later anxieties about the morality of his actions:

The Whatsitsname was now at a loss for what to do. He knew his mission was essentially to kill, to kill new people every day, but he no longer had a clear idea who should be killed or why. The flesh of the innocents, of which he was initially composed, had been replaced by new flesh, that of his own victims and criminals.

This blurring of victimhood and guilt is one of Saadawi’s clearer inheritances from Shelley, though Saadawi’s setting means that the provenance of the monster’s parts is more central here than in the original. Put simply, it matters who has died, and how, to create Saadawi’s monster. What’s more, the idea of a multitude of parties, combined in one messy, unstable body, whose violence only begets more violence, is a functional metaphor for the war itself. It’s a context far removed from Shelley’s Romantic anxieties, and one possessing a disturbing power of its own.

If the novel has flaws, they mainly come in the last few chapters. The late introduction of the character of “the Writer,” who interviews the rest of the cast and diegetically writes the novel itself, feels a bit too neat for a book so otherwise invested in untrustworthy mediation. Also frustrating is a late twist in Hadi’s own subplot which, while an amusingly sick joke for lovers of the original Frankenstein, feels underdeveloped, blazed past without the space to properly move or horrify.

Overall, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a thoughtful, engaging, and darkly amusing novel. It feels particularly relevant not only post-Iraq War, but in our current age of fake news and cultural warfare. Saadawi’s Whatsitsname, like the original Frankenstein’s Monster, is both victim and villain. The struggle to reconcile the two, and to understand their intersections — a task not helped by hyperbolic, even misleading media portrayals — feels more important than ever.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is available to buy, RRP £12.99. The novel is translated by Jonathan Wright.

Single Review: Foxgluvv, ‘Not Cute’ 

Remember when I used to write about music? Well, too bad, because today I’m reviewing the new single from Foxgluvv, an up-and-coming indie pop singer combining slick electronica with lyrics of personal alienation. She’s been knocking about the indie scene for around a year, with previous singles ‘crush’, a woozy reflection on a drunken fling, and ‘nothing’, a more upbeat take on a wastrel would-be partner. Her sound feels wistfully retro in a way befitting the reflective lyrics, and it probably belongs to some school of prefix-wave I’m just not hip enough to recognise.

Her latest single, ‘Not Cute‘, feels like a natural culmination of the themes of her previous two. Where ‘crush’ and ‘nothing’ were about brief romance and frustration at the lack of it, ‘Not Cute’ sees the narrator being phoned up out of the blue by her not-quite-ex, and gives way to a reflection on their mutual incompatibility. As the chorus goes: “We could have fallen in love, yeah maybe that’s true/ But you’re not cool enough for me/ And I’m not cute enough for you.”

Foxgluvv’s delivery is quiet and regretful, acknowledging mutual blame for the relationship’s failure, even as she refuses to entertain the other person’s bullshit. The lyrics effectively convey her sense of frustration, partly via intelligent use of vocal distortion, as well as some judiciously-chosen details (one particularly deft moment stands out from the first verse: “But you, made me wanna do/ Stupid things when I was with you,/ You made me wanna be/ A stupid girl when you were with me”).

The whole thing is backed by a shiny, yet leisurely beat, cementing the mood of long-buried angst, an almost-breakup old enough it has ceased to hurt, though young enough for the memory to carry its own sting. All told, ‘Not Cute’ is a melancholy and affective piece of indie pop, a third hit for Foxgluvv, and a suggestion of even more exciting things to come.

‘Not Cute’ is available now to stream on Spotify

Review: Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain by David Gerard

Among the myriad pleasures of the IT industry, blockchain hype is one of the most baffling. The amount of time I have spent sifting through white papers, press releases, and industry bafflegab about this technology was inversely proportional to how impressed I was when I finally discovered what it was (a fancy database, basically). But blockchain is more famous as the technology underpinning Bitcoin, which, while surrounded by plenty of its own bafflegab, is rather more entertaining to read about, given that it recently suffered the third horrendous market crash in its brief history. Into all this walks David Gerard, whose self-published book, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, sets out to answer the lay person’s main question about Bitcoin: ‘what the hell is this bullshit anyway?’ Crisp, witty, and refreshingly clear-sighted, it is the single best thing I have read about the Bitcoin/blockchain racket, even if it occasionally assumes a bit more technical knowledge than is perhaps reasonable.

The book opens with a lurid taster of things to come. A strange world of internet-based money made with “frightening firetrap computers” in which someone called “Pirateat40” starts a glorified Ponzi scheme, and “Aggrieved investors eventually manage to convince the authorities not only that these Internet tokens are worth anything, but that they gave them to some guy on an internet forum calling himself “Pirate””. The overriding question is quite simply “How did we get here?”

From there the book launches into a straightforward account of the technology behind Bitcoin, explaining what these coins actually are:

“If you “have” bitcoins, you don’t actually have them as things on your computer. What you’ve got is a Bitcoin address (like a bank account number) and the key to that address (another number, which works like the PIN to the first number). The Bitcoin address is mentioned in transactions on the blockchain; the key is the unique thing you have that makes your bitcoins yours.”

As well as how they are ‘mined’ (or ‘created’, to us lay persons):

“Unprocessed transactions are broadcast across the Bitcoin network. A miner collects together a block of transactions and the hash of the last known block. They add an arbitrary “nonce” value, then calculate the hash of the resulting block. If that hash satisfies the current difficulty criterion, they have mined a block! This successful block is then broadcast to the network, who can quickly verify the block is valid. The miner gets 12.5 BTC plus the transaction fees. If they failed, they pick another nonce value and try again.

Since it’s all but impossible to pick what data will have a particular hash, guessing what value will give a valid block takes many calculations – as of June 2017 the Bitcoin network was running 5,500,000,000,000,000,000 (5.5×1018, or 5.5 quintillion) hashes per second, or 3.3×1021 (3.3 sextillion) per ten minutes.

The 3.3 sextillion calculations are thrown away, because the only point of all this technical rigmarole is to show that you can waste electricity faster than everyone else.”

Gerard’s coverage of the technical basics is succinct and clear, but as the introduction suggests, the book’s real appeal is its Case Studies. There is a perverse pleasure in reading how the flawed technology of Bitcoin goes horrendously wrong in practice, and Gerard is merciless in his skewering of the technology’s more cultish advocates. As well as the aforementioned Pirateat40, there is the tale of bright-eyed idealist Ross Ulbricht, owner/operator of darknet market the Silk Road (‘darknet’, i.e. illegal goods and services being the primary non-speculation use for Bitcoin). Ulbricht not only ended up ordering hits on people he deemed a threat to his operation, he also kept a written record of this and other transgressions on the laptop that was eventually seized by law enforcement. Gerard notes that “This file is commonly referred to as “mycrimes.txt,” but its actual name was “log.txt””.

Gerard is delightfully sarcastic in his treatment of the strange ideologues of the Bitcoin world, and provides a brief account of their roots in American Libertarianism, Austrian economics and gold standard fetishism. The short form is that “Bitcoin failed… because all of this is based in crank ideas that don’t work.” It’s a fine summation, but Gerard is largely content to leave it at that —  the chapter on ‘The Bitcoin Ideology’ is relatively short, and one is left with the feeling that a more in-depth exploration of the overlap between Bitcoin and Austrian economics would be worthwhile in its own right. (A good starting point might be this book’s acknowledged sibling, Neoreaction a Basilisk, which contains an essay on the Austrian school, though does not cover Bitcoin specifically).

But Gerard’s book is a general-audiences primer, not an in-depth history, and as such it’s extremely solid. The style may grate for some readers — Gerard is a former contributor to RationalWiki, and the book’s style owes a fair amount to that site, especially in its eye for slick one-liners. The humour is a needed counter-weight to the self-importance of most Bitcoiners, but at times it can feel a bit Christopher Hitchens. While Gerard takes care to explain the key technical terms (and includes a very good glossary) he also assumes a reader with a baseline level of IT competence, especially when he turns to the ‘respectable’ iteration of Bitcoin hype in the form of business blockchain. As a relative newcomer to the IT industry I confess I ended up googling quite a few terms along the way, but Gerard does a good deal more to keep the reader’s feet on the ground than the average blockchain hype-monger, and the reader is never allowed to get completely lost.

The book’s biggest problem is that it will age fairly quickly. In basing itself so heavily in tales of epic failure, the lack of more recent gaffes is palpable. The book was published too early to document the most recent Bitcoin crash, or the ongoing IBM blockchain hype, or the bizarre spectacle of Kodakcoin. So this review comes with a double recommendation; as well as the book, Gerard also runs an excellent blog version of Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, in which he chronicles both the wacky world of cryptocurrencies and the ongoing efforts of the business community to make blockchain happen (it’s never going to happen).

It’s an idiosyncratic journalistic beat, just as Attack winds up a fairly idiosyncratic book (the final chapter, ‘Case Study: Why you can’t put the music industry on a blockchain’ feels like it’s largely there based on the author’s wider interests, though it does have a spectacular Imogen Heap anecdote). But for all the strangeness of his subject matter, Gerard remains resolutely committed to the common sense aesthetic, and it’s one the world of blockchain sorely needs. While there are probably many more books to be written about the history, technology, and culture behind this stuff, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain is an excellent primer on the foolishness surrounding Bitcoin, and a bracing reminder of just what a bad idea the whole thing was in the first place.

Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain is available on Amazon (UK/US) and Smashwords, RRP £3.99/$5.65.

Review: Neoreaction a Basilisk by Elizabeth Sandifer

The Referendum was over a year ago now, but I still remember June the 24th. The polls had predicted the result for months, so I was unable to share the shock of my social network. I felt only a grim resignation, one I struggled to put into words. Then, around lunchtime, my phone pinged. A book I’d backed over a month ago had finally been delivered. Glad of the distraction, I downloaded the epub.

The first sentence: “Let us assume that we are fucked.”

Ah, yes. That was the stuff.

Specifically, it was Neoreaction a Basilisk, the latest book from blogger and media critic Elizabeth Sandifer. It details the philosophical roots of the Neoreactionary Movement, or the Alt-Right, or the Dark Enlightenment, or whichever name makes them sound most like the villains of a crap cyberpunk novel. They’re essentially a group of ultra hard-rightists, who believe in unchecked capitalism combined with absolute monarchy, with a spoonful of white supremacy to help the medicine go down. They’re a diffuse and largely leaderless group, but they’ve become more visible in the last few years, contributing to the general air of chaos by, among other things, bringing down Hilary Clinton with the power of shitposting, getting appointed to Donald Trump’s cabinet, and leading the white supremacist rally at Charlottesville. They have garnered plenty of mainstream attention, but Sandifer’s book largely eschews their headline-grabbing antics, instead focusing on their philosophical roots, by examining three writers considered foundational to the movement.

First, there’s Eleizer Yudkowsky, an AI researcher and blogger (best known for his epic fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality). Yudkowsky is not himself a neoreactionary, but his blog, LessWrong, dedicated to making sure humanity can be reincarnated on an immortal AI god in the far future, provided an early forum for the movement. Then there’s Mencius Moldbug, A.K.A. Curtis Yarvin, who believes in both absolute monarchy and the reinstitution of slavery, and expresses these views in long-winded blog posts which purport to be political philosophy. And finally there’s Nick Land, an ex-Warwick university researcher who turned hard right and coined the term ‘Dark Enlightenment’.

While Sandifer is open about the factual wrongness of these men, she is far more interested in their existential wrongness, using them as a jumping-off point for discussions about John Milton, China Miéville, and Thomas Ligotti, among others. Sandifer posits that all political philosophy is a response to existential dread — a reaction to the knowledge that we are, indeed, fucked. Whatever problems there are with Sandifer’s methods, she’s certainly in tune with the zeitgeist.

Sandifer’s prose is dense, but accessible, and she’s frequently hilarious in his assessments of Neoreaction. She’s particularly dry in her treatment of Moldbug, the most openly ridiculous of the three, who once seriously argued that Steve Jobs should be crowned King of California, with the aim of maximising the state’s profits. Sandifer notes that “while there are a great many obvious critiques of liberal democracy, “there’s just not enough respect for profit” really doesn’t feel like one of them”. Other highlights include Moldbug’s idea that educational systems make dominant ideologies desirable, to which Sandifer responds “the phrase is not “just as cool as school””, and Moldbug’s maxim on the dangers of democracy, “Cthulhu always swims left.” Sandifer points out that this constitutes a rewrite of “Martin Luther King’s “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” as Lovecraft fanfic”.

This approach can feel ostentatious, especially given the idiocy of the ideas on display, but Sandifer subordinates her quips to more piercing analysis. The key insight is the assessment that we’re fucked from the beginning, which is both depressing and oddly liberating. The book builds ruthlessly from ridiculous blog posts to the fundamental horror of western civilisation, what Nick Land calls “the great black hole that is hidden at the dead center of modern political possibility”. This is the horror embraced by neoreactionaries, and this death-drive is part of what makes them so perverse. In embracing the horror of this view, Sandifer runs the risk of siding with Neoreaction’s outlook, and Land is certainly the most intellectually credible of the book’s unholy trinity. But Sandifer is clear that this view, while intriguing, is one which threatens as much as it enlightens (darkly or otherwise).

While Neoreaction is one half of the title, the other half — the Basilisk — refers to an idea of Yudkowsky’s, which didn’t so much ‘get away from him’ as ‘turn around and bite him in the arse’. Roko’s Basilisk was an idea posed by a commenter on LessWrong, who “used the peculiarities of Yudkowskian thought to posit a future AI that would effectively torture everyone from the present who had ever imagined it for all eternity if they subsequently failed in any way to do whatever they could to bring about its existence”. The result was “a frankly hilarious community meltdown in which people lost their shit as ideas they’d studiously internalized threatened to torture them for all eternity”. Needless to say, “it was not the sort of incident from which one’s school of thought recovers its intellectual respectability.” But ridiculous as it is, the basilisk remains a menacing presence throughout Sandifer’s book. The fear that our ideas could think for themselves, that consciousness itself might be the enemy, is a key part of the assessment that we are fucked.

The slogan ‘take back control’ echoed throughout my reading of the book. It was a fatuous claim when Vote Leave made it, but it might be outright impossible given the reality, not only of global capitalism, but of human thought in general. Neoreaction a Basilisk is frequently a tough read, but as dives into the abyss go, it’s well worth taking. Given the state of global politics — Brexit, President Trump, the looming threat of human extinction — this book feels like essential reading. Just be aware that, when you gaze into the abyss, it may gaze back in the form of shitty blog posts. Oh, to be eaten by a more intelligent monster.

Neoreaction a Basilisk is available from Amazon UK and US, price £4.49/$6.01.