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 poison 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 her 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. 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.

Review: The Marriage of Kim K

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am in no way unbiased towards this production. I am friends with most of the cast and crew, although I should note I was a fan of their work before I knew most of them personally. I also had a minor role in it, helping out with marketing in the run up to its first performance, and I sat in on roughly two weeks’ worth of rehearsals. As such, while I will strive be objective in my criticism, there’s no way I can actually write about this show objectively. Consider this review a biased opinion from someone involved, and I advise you check out some other reviews from less biased sources.

The Marriage of Kim K might be best described as Channel Surfing: The Musical. Mashing up the stories of Kim Kardashian, The Marriage of Figaro, and a couple arguing about which of the two to watch on television, fledgeling company leoe&hyde have produced a witty and engaging piece of theatre. Its clever structure, vigorous performances, and ambitious music make this a play well worth catching, even if the elaborate technical challenges sometimes threaten to overwhelm the team.

The play tells three overlapping stories which interact and comment on each other as the show progresses. We open with Amelia and Stephen, a lovely if slightly passive aggressive couple chilling out in front of the television. We are then introduced to Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, in a condensed version of their infamously failed 2011 marriage. Finally, we have the Count and Countess from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. Amelia wants to watch Kim. Stephen wants to watch Mozart. Arguments, inevitably, ensue.

As Stephen and Amelia bicker, we switch back and forth between them and the shows they are watching. The effect, while jarring at first, is the baseline from which the show pulls several clever tricks, and the music makes the most of this juxtaposition. The live band switches between electronica and classical music at the drop of a powdered wig, and there’s some fun to be had spotting the show’s many quotes from contemporary pop songs.

But these quotations are still in service of the larger show. They create dramatic irony, such as when Amelia sings about her unhappy marriage to a sample of ‘Happy’, or hint at the world beyond the stage, like when ‘N****s in Paris’ is used to signal the approach of Kanye West. This is a show about the detritus of culture, both high and pop, but while the juxtapositions are all terribly clever, the script can feel a little bit timid.

It takes the best part of twenty minutes for all three narrative tracks to get up and running, which feels like quite a slow run up to the play’s real premise. Similarly, the decision to give every cast member a solo does not do wonders for the show’s pacing. The Count and Countess’s in particular feel underwhelming, and audio problems are a frequent occurence. The performance I saw had some real trouble with microphones, including a particularly nasty bit of feedback during Kim’s solo. There was also a real problem with audio levels, as the band frequently threatened to drown out the singing.

This is not a knock on the performers, however, who are good across the board. Stephen Hyde and Amelia Gabriel are impeccable as themselves, full of warmth and humanity, while effectively conveying their respective flaws of egotism and control freakery. [I should stress here that I am referring to the characters’ egotism and control freakery]. Yasemin Mireille is a classic diva as Kim K, while James Edge is pure id as Kris Humphries, his wild gyrating and asides to the audience almost taking him into panto territory. Nathan Bellis and Emily Burnett are similarly impressive as the Count and Countess, their skilled opera tones a marked contrast with the high-pitched pop antics of Kim’n’Kris.

The Marriage of Kim K is a sprawling, ridiculous contraption of a show, but at a mere 72 minutes it also manages to be energetic and concise. While it occasionally threatens to collapse under its own ambition, on its own merits it’s a funny, heartwarming, and downright clever piece of work, whose finer touches you will still be realising several days later.

Oh, and it has possibly the greatest title drop in the history of theatre.


The Marriage of Kim K is in London until 29 July, and the Edinburgh Festival in August. Tickets are available to buy here.


Trolling the Grim Reaper: a Tale of Two Everymen

A few months ago, I opened Medieval Drama: An Anthology. It was uncomfortably close to my final exams, and I had decided to familiarise myself with Everyman. Everyman is a play from the 1510s, about a hapless dope at the mercy of forces beyond his control, who, after gradually abandoning his normal life, calmly faces the solemn ritual of his own demise. My study, as ever, was semi-autobiographical. Or so I flattered myself.

After that, some stuff happened.

Yesterday, I opened Everyman: a new adaptation by Carol Ann Duffy. The passage of the aforementioned stuff meant I was now free to read as I saw fit, and in between the cover letters and the CV-polishing, I decided to see if Duffy’s version lived up to the original.

Everyman, for those unfamiliar, is a play about death. But it’s also about some other things, including Catholic doctrine, family dynamics, environmental destruction, and the music of Meghan Trainor. In both versions, it is not interested in beginnings. Only in endings.

But let’s make one thing absolutely clear: Everyman in no way ‘needed’ this adaptation. Dr Liv Robinson has talked about the paratext for Duffy’s 2015 National Theatre production, and its irritating tendency to treat Duffy as somehow ‘rescuing’ the play from its original context. Duffy’s script is indeed impressive, and by mounting such a high profile production she undoubtedly gave the play some much-needed attention. But the original Everyman is an astounding work of art on its own terms. That its own terms are not those of twenty-first century theatre (or of overpriced paperbacks from Faber & Faber) is not the fault of the text itself.

The original Everyman is melancholic atmosphere; Duffy’s is melancholic freak weather. The original is didactic, but its content is curiously benign. Greg Walker points out that, unlike most medieval moralities, Everyman has no vice figures, “nor is there, strictly speaking, any real dramatic tension”. This is not a world of epic conflict, but quiet acceptance and well-meaning abandonment. The play’s most moving moment comes when Everyman simply states:

How sholde I be mery or gladde?

For fayre promyses men to me make,

But whan I have moost nede they me forsake.

I am decyved; that maketh me sadde.

But for all that sadness, the play is full of odd humour (or odd to this modern reader, at least). Such as when Everyman asks:

EVERYMAN: My Cosyn, wyll you not with me go?

COSYN: No, by Our Lady! I have the crampe in my to!

Everyman is a play about accepting death, specifically within a Christian worldview. Everyman must scourge himself (“In the name of the Holy Trynyte,/ My body sore punyshed shall be”), and then seek absolution from a priest who remains offstage. The action is static, austere, funereal, concluding with Everyman simply laying down and dying, still delivering the play’s Message:

Take example, all ye that this do here or se,

How they that I loved best do forsake me

Excepte my Good Dedes, that bydeth truly.

It’s an attitude, if not alien to modern sensibilities, at least considerably removed from them. That a recent production of its acceptance of punishment, followed by death, resonated so strongly with the students of Oxford University, is left as an exercise for the reader.

Duffy’s version understandably ditches the sermonising, though she retains a surprising amount of the original plot, and updates the pithy humour of the original. My favourite moment comes when Everyman (or ‘Ev’ to his friends) tries to explain his problems to his sister:

EVERYMAN: I met death.

SISTER: Name-dropper. Last year it was George Clooney.

Duffy’s other updates are largely positive. We first meet Everyman drunk at a party, vomiting into a bucket held by a female cleaner, who turns out to be God herself. This adds a pleasing class-consciousness, particularly given Everyman’s portrayal as nouveau riche playboy.

Several of Duffy’s additions are hard to judge on the page; the rapping prologue reads cringily, but could well have been effective on stage. The use of pop music (including ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and ‘All About That Bass’) is similarly difficult to judge without seeing the performance, though the “storm scene” towards the end, cued by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s ‘Stormy Weather’ is pleasingly reminiscent of Derek Jarman’s film of The Tempest.

The film’s final image feels curiously apt: a young man, exhausted, slumped in a chair. His friends departing. His magic expended. But still the old potential for escape. The right words in the wrong order. That guy is dead now.

Duffy’s main divergence, of course, is the ending. Absent the explicitly Christian worldview, her Everyman achieves peace through more personal, less grandiose means.

He says thank you.

Thank you, thank you,

for the sweet, sour, ugly, beautiful, the cool, the crap,

for discord and harmony, rough, smooth,

for the fragrant or foul, the fucking lot of it.

My whole life all I’ve ever wanted

was to be alive; awaken

to the light and air of here.

This is his redemption. Not confession, but confessional. But these are not quite his last words. His final utterance comes in conversation.

DEATH: My work is done,

but let me tell you, son,

I’ve loved the hunt.

EVERYMAN: Can I tell you something?

You’re a cunt.

He then slips gently into that good night. The play’s final image is Death, alone on stage, finally realising the insult:

Help me out here –

did my feckin ears deceive me

or did your man call me a cunt?

This is a total affront.

Where’s the respect?

I’m to pick up my scythe

and exit stage left?

This is Duffy’s answer to Everyman’s dilemma. We cannot outrun death. But we may be able, in a purely rhetorical sense, to get the better of it. To shame, bamboozle, and troll it. The last enemy that shall be DESTROYED is Death.

I’m coming towards the end now. A personal essay is like an English degree; the good ones always know just when to stop.

Listen: I’ve got something to say.

Never mind.

Review: Baker’s End — The King of Cats

In a year marked by celebrity death after celebrity death, it’s hard not to look at Tom Baker’s latest project — a trilogy of audio dramas about the death of Tom Baker — without going ‘yes, of course’. It’s not just a matter of being in tune with the zeitgeist. Tom Baker has displayed a morbid sense of humour before now, and he’s worked on audio projects with Paul Magrs since 2009. But while Baker’s End follows from what’s come before, this first episode, The King of Cats, crackles with a strange energy of its own. Magrs takes a constant delight in wrong-footing the listener, and Baker plays along gleefully; whatever one might expect from the premise, you can be sure you won’t quite be getting it.

Our story centres on actress Suzy Goshawk, played by the wonderful Katy Manning, who we meet on the train to Tom’s funeral in the quiet village of Happenstance. This is Manning’s show as much as Baker’s, and she’s pure charm; the plot throws tarot readings, sinister villagers, dancing dragons and twerking pensioners at her, and she sells them all with conviction and wit. She makes an excellent straight woman to the bizarre plot, as well as to Tom Baker himself, who makes his grand re-entrance at the halfway mark. Baker plays the whole thing with a darkly manic glee, relishing the wordplay of Magrs’ script, and generally overacting the hell out of everything. He’s clearly having the time of his life, and for all the sombre background the script never lets him become melancholy.

Baker’s star power is formidable, but the rest of the cast are great fun too. David Benson is delightful as a nervous stereotype of a vicar, and Susan Jameson is effectively sinister as Tom’s disgruntled housekeeper. Simon Barnard’s production is subtly creepy, solidifying the slight wrongness of the whole thing, even if the musical cues get a bit repetitive. The plot structure, typically of Magrs, is shambolic; things take a while to get going, and the conclusion feels awfully rushed. But that leisurely pace also gives the performers plenty of space to breathe, and lends the audio a pleasingly introspective feel. Magrs gets in some lovely jokes, including several pitched firmly at the Doctor Who crowd, but they all carry subtly dark undertones. The scenes of Tom Baker trashing a celebrity cooking show and falling off a rooftop in the nude are grimly whimsical, and the audio presents a strange melange of images that never quite sit comfortably. The conclusion naturally sees the baddies defeated, but the tone is one of menace as much as celebration. There’s a finality to this audio, a sense of bedding down for the winter, even with the promise of further adventures.

We all know why this is, of course. It’s there in the title. Despite the cast of Bafflegab and Big Finish veterans, the work Baker’s End most closely resembles is Blackstar; a closing note with all the energy of what came before. A refusal to go out quietly. But where Blackstar was intense and enigmatic, Baker’s End is playful and generous. It invites us to share in its twisted joy, even as it wilfully refuses to explain itself. Paul Magrs delivers a funny, beautiful, and deeply touching play on that shared knowledge, and Tom Baker throws himself into it with aplomb. This audio could only have come from their unique creative partnership, and it will be interesting to see where the series goes from here. Wherever it is, we can be sure it won’t be boring.

Baker’s End— The King of Cats is available from Bafflegab Productions, for £9.99 on CD or £6.99 as a download. 

Review: Shakespeare’s First Folio by Emma Smith

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 21 July 2016.

Emma Smith’s study of Shakespeare’s First Folio sets out with the aim “to contextualise the material Shakespeare”. As such, it’s less a book about the material of Shakespeare than the material around Shakespeare, less about the text itself than about note-taking, performing, and doodling in the margins. Smith presents a thorough, cogent, and highly readable history of this landmark publication, and while her sense of structure is occasionally idiosyncratic, this is a definitive work of Shakespeare bibliography. It’s also a refreshingly materialist piece in a year of gaudy Shakespeare pageantry.

The book is organised into five chapters: ‘Owning’, ‘Reading’, ‘Decoding’, ‘Performing’, and ‘Perfecting’. The history is organised thematically rather than chronologically, and this is true even within the individual chapters. At first this can be a bit disorientating, as the first chapter lurches from eighteenth century book collectors, to the use of the Folio in the first ever National Lottery broadcast, then back to book collecting in the twentieth century. But once the reader has found their sea-legs it makes for quite an appealing style, governed by associative logic rather than strict chronology. It allows Smith to play the raconteur – she is ultimately less interested in Shakespeare’s Folio than the stories surrounding it, and the anecdotal approach brings them vividly to life. Colourful characters, bizarre misreadings, and facetious marginalia abound – an effective conversation-starter might be to ask readers what their favourite stories are.

Some of the best sections concern the efforts of librarians to get their hands on the Folio. Smith relays the story of the Bodleian Library’s first ever fundraising campaign, an attempt to purchase the First Folio from a student (the gloriously named Gladwyn Turbutt) in 1905. The observation that “the wheels of the university ground very slowly” in securing funds hits close to home, and the details of the 2012 ‘Sprint for Shakespeare‘ Campaign to preserve and digitise the Folio are a fascinating case of history repeating itself. But my favourite story is the tale of the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, the only public library to own a copy of the First Folio. Smith notes that “the dominant ownership mark… is the purple library stamp of the Birmingham Free Libraries Reference Department on several of its pages” as well as the charming detail of “the faint tread of a cat’s paws across a page of Henry VI Part 1″. Smith’s prose is clear and measured, but she takes a clear delight in relaying these minute observations, resulting in a book that feels richly detailed and slyly playful.

But while the stories told are many and varied, certain themes recur throughout. The spectre of capitalism haunts the First Folio, as the book is almost always a prop for the rich. The introduction details the first recorded purchase, by up-and-coming nobleman Sir Edward Dering, and from there we see the rise and fall of English aristocratic ownership, before American hyper-capitalists (most notably Edward Folger) move in, a battle Smith refers to as the “squirearchy” vs. the “squillionaires”. This commodity-fetishism repeatedly crops up, as do the book’s own inadequacies – printing errors abound, and Smith documents the various owners’ attempts to correct them. Smith also touches on female ownership – she points out that “attested female readers of Shakespeare’s First Folio seem more numerous than for many other early modern books” – but the theme feels a tad under-developed. One gets the feeling that the search for a “Feminist Folio” would be worth a book in its own right.

Smith’s prose is crisp and clear, but retains some of the annoyances of academic writing. Almost every chapter begins with Smith baldly telling us that ‘this chapter will explore x’, instead of getting on with exploring it already. There are also occasional typos and a variable layout design, with easily-missed slithers of the main text appearing beneath large photos, which interrupts the natural flow of the prose.

Nitpicks aside, Shakespeare’s First Folio is a marvellous bit of scholarship. Detailed without being dry, playful without being silly, it’s a well-researched, thoroughly balanced account of this ‘iconic’ book, and one which remains aware of its flaws. The Folio is riddled with typos, mistakes, dirt and marginalia. And that’s OK – more than that, it’s what makes it worth documenting. Smith concludes with the sobering reminder that “it is quite possible to over-value this most valuable of books”, and it’s a fitting message for this Year of Shakespeare. It’s the plays themselves that we love, and they are worth far more than the paper they are printed on.

‘Shakespeare’s First Folio’ is available to buy from Oxford University Press, RRP £19.99.

Pripyat – A Review

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 11 May 2016.

This play begins with an apology. It’s the sort of metatheatrical student show styling it would be easy to snort at, were it not for the confidence and self-deprecating humour with which it was presented. “It’s probably quite self-indulgent, this whole exercise. But then, so is most theatre.” Raw, honest, and self-conscious to a fault, Pripyat feels like a hugely important piece of theatre, whose intimate and personal nature justifies some of its weirder experiments.

The play proper opens with two women in bed. One of them sits up and says “I’m dead.” These are Percy and Veronica, the same-sex couple around whom the play revolves. Percy is suffering from mental illness, and the play unfolds in a dreamlike, non-linear fashion as we learn more about Percy’s illness and the occasionally tragic, frequently hilarious history of their relationship.

A two-hander like this requires a strong pair of performers, and our two leads certainly deliver. Anushka Chakravarti is superb as Percy, melancholy and despairing for most of the play, but funny and engaging with it, subtly altering her performance as the character shifts through different time periods and mental states. Imo Allen is brilliant as her long-suffering partner Veronica, dry and understated in the comedic scenes, and absolutely devastating in the play’s more tragic moments. The two of them share an awkward, yet familiar chemistry, and together they firmly establish the play’s emotional through-line.

The subject of mental illness is handled with deftness and maturity, even if a few scenes feel a bit overwritten. Verity Bell’s script does the impossible and actually manages to do something interesting with audience interaction, as the play’s opening monologue/apology involves audience members giving each other the phone number for the Samaritans. That kind of trusting vulnerability is characteristic of the play overall, as it weaves a complex and engaging psychological portrait, even if the play feels a bit baggy at an hour and ten minutes long. The lighting and staging are also top-notch, although the use of video projection feels a bit gimmicky.

Pripyat is a messy, emotional play, and as such it’s not entirely without flaw. But those flaws are ultimately worth it for the sheer power of its narrative, and the skill with which the characters are portrayed. With UK mental healthcare severely under-funded, and with Oxford’s own welfare services in a sorry state, we desperately need this sort of play. Plus it features the single cleverest use of an onstage desk lamp I’ve ever seen.


Review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 6 May 2016.

If I were to tell you that Carry On is the story of a boy wizard named Simon Snow, and his adventures at a secretive school for magicians, you would likely feel a strong sense of déjà vu. Carry On is an exercise in metafictional commentary and pastiche, and in that regard it’s a typical Rainbow Rowell novel. Best known for the critically acclaimed ‘Young Adult’ novel Eleanor and Park, much of Rowell’s career has been defined by taking cliché-ridden genres, from the teenage love story to the time-travel comedy, and re-invigorating them with a dose of wit and self-awareness. Carry On sees her tackling the YA fantasy sub-genre, specifically Harry Potter. Rowell treats her teenage audience as intelligently as ever, even if the novel’s referential nature makes it a tough sell for those not already familiar with her work.

This is unquestionably a book for fans, of Rowell’s work as well as Rowling’s, and positions itself in terms of modern fan discourse, with which Rowell’s teenaged fan base will almost certainly be familiar. The pop culture that shaped this book works right down to the characters’ origins. Simon and his love interest, the initially villainous vampire Baz, first appeared in Rowell’s 2013 novel Fangirl, where they featured in a piece of slash fanfiction written by the main character. There they functioned as an obvious stand-in for the popular romantic pairing of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy in fan-created media, so the act of giving them their own novel feels cheekily subversive, flying as it does in the face of Rowling’s original (particularly given her recent comments about Harry’s love life). The story begins with Simon entering his final year of study at the Watford School of Magicks, and continuing his battle with the ever-present menace known as the Insidious Humdrum. But when a ghost delivers Simon a cryptic message meant for Baz, the two must form an uneasy truce, and investigate a conspiracy which implicates the entire magical world, even the school’s headmaster, the Great Mage himself. And, of course, fulfill the promises of that original slash fiction.

If all of that sounds terribly derivative, that’s largely because it is. But it’s self-aware enough to get away with it. The novel requires a certain amount of trope-savviness from its reader, as well as an awareness of the online communities which have formed around works like Harry Potter and Twilight. Several jokes hinge on references to pop cultural terms, including the Bechdel Test and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. While these references may prove alienating for those unfamiliar with TV Tropes, they form a key part of a novel which criticizes its source material as much as it pays tribute to it.

This criticism feels particularly relevant in the wake of the controversy surrounding Rowling’s recent ‘History of Magic in North America’. Some have accused Rowling of cack-handedness in her treatment of Native American people, as well as in her attempts to diversify elsewhere. The casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione, for example, while welcome, has been viewed as an indication of the original work’s unconscious racial bias. Carry On is clearly written with these faults in mind, and addresses a few specific criticisms of Potter, chiefly by having the main characters’ same-sex relationship be an explicit part of the narrative rather than mentioned after the fact. Rowell also nicely skewers the franchise’s reflexive embrace of the Great Man theory of history through its endorsement of the ‘chosen one’ narrative. As Baz puts it, “Simon Snow is the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen”.

This kind of critique is valuable, but only when it does not drown out the novel’s quality as a work of fiction. Luckily, Carry On is up to Rowell’s usual high standard – this may well be her funniest book yet. Her narrative voice is lively and affable, filled with careful introspection and witty asides – each chapter is narrated by a different character, and Rowell manages to make each one feel unique while maintaining a coherent style. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny. A third of the way into the novel, Simon speculates: ‘Everyone’s still gossiping about where he’s been. The most popular rumours are “dark coming-of-age ceremony that left him too marked up to be in public” and “Ibiza.”’ This is witty and well-done, and comfortably within Rowell’s usual wheelhouse. Rowell’s weakness is her less idiosyncratic plot dynamics: the second half of the novel gradually peels back the layers of a conspiracy, but the series of revelations feels muddy and confused. It’s the one area in which Rowell fails to get the better of her predecessors.

On its own merits, Carry On is a fun and worthwhile read. But in the context of the time and culture from which it originates it feels absolutely crucial. It’s refreshing to read something that’s both fond and critical of the work it’s based on, and which is invested in real human relationships rather than exploiting a lucrative brand name. Compared to that awful-looking Eddie Redmayne film and the prospect of watching a play about a middle-aged Potter filing his tax returns, it’s clear which ‘franchise’ at this point has the more spark, the more charm, and, ultimately, the more magic. I’m with Simon every time.

‘Carry On’ is available to buy from the author’s website.

Review: Romeo and Juliet: star-crossed or cross-eyed?

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 6 October 2015.

Another year, another Shakespeare play at the Crucible. But while in recent years these plays have sometimes struggled with odd set dressing and middling performances, this year up-and-coming director Jonathan Humphreys has managed to deliver an absolute belter.

This play’s version of Verona is decidedly grungier than the ones we’re used to seeing. A minimalist set of chipboard and corrugated iron combines with the deliberately downmarket nature of the costumes to create an aesthetic we do not usually associate with Shakespeare. The contrast is compelling, with the play’s lush poetry and the set’s rough utilitarianism reinforcing each other beautifully. While deliberately unflashy, the sets are very inventively used, with highlights including cold iron folding away to reveal a tacky bar and holes in the floor opening up to form Jacuzzis. The instability of Verona is embodied in the instability of the scenery.

But it’s the performances which really stand out. Freddie Fox makes an excellent Romeo, brimming with angst and charisma, and he manages particularly well when he’s at his least courageous; Fox is never afraid to make Romeo a pathetic figure. Morfydd Clark is raw class as Juliet, with her soliloquy at the start of the second half standing out as particularly moving, and the two share a phenomenal chemistry.

But the dirty secret of Romeo and Juliet is that the supporting cast is always more interesting than the leads, a fact that this production understands perfectly. Rachel Lumberg steals the show as the Nurse, delivering the requisite comic relief as well as a genuinely moving performance which frankly outclasses most of her fellow performers, especially when paired with the hilarious Joshua Miles as Peter. Robin Kingsland is also a treat as Juliet’s father, taking one of the play’s least iconic roles and turning it into a real highlight, his unnatural delivery and facial tics making him a chillingly memorable presence.

The weak link, sadly, is Charlie Bate as the Friar. Her comic timing is strong, and the decision to reimagine her character as a mild-mannered CofE vicar is interesting, but she simply doesn’t display the range necessary to pull off the play’s most interesting character. Mind you, the scene of her and Lumberg both shouting at Romeo to get over himself after killing Tybalt is the best scene in the play.

Superbly acted, compellingly staged and impeccably paced, this is everything a Shakespeare production should be, faithful to the spirit of the play while finding brand new territory to explore. While there are a few bum notes here and there, this is a production as visceral, raw and exciting as its original text. Plus it features the single best use of an onstage leaf-blower that I’ve ever seen.


Weird Kitties Review: Frankenstein by The Mechanisms

Last year, Elizabeth Sandifer announced a project called the Weird Kitties, where she solicited short reviews from her readers of SF works they considered Hugo Award-worthy, so people could take them into consideration when voting for the 2015 Hugos. The project sadly didn’t last very long, but I managed to get in there with three reviews of SF stories I loved last year, the first of which was this. I had gotten really into The Mechanisms after reviewing them a month of so earlier, so I was keen to share that love in this review of their latest song. I’m quite proud of these reviews, and it was an honour to have my writing on such a brilliant site as Eruditorum Press. This article first appeared there on 13 September 2015.

If you’ve ever thought that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would have been better as a prog rock ballad, this new song from the UK-based steampunk folk band The Mechanisms looks to have you covered. Retelling the classic gothic tale as a ten-minute song about a rogue AI, Frankenstein, while perhaps the least grandiose of the Mechanisms’ projects to date, is still a wonderful piece of work, and crackles with the same energy as their lengthier albums.

The story is told in one long song, with linking narration putting one in mind of a geekier version of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. The tale concerns a far-future world where a scientist named Victoria Frankenstein creates a revolutionary AI, and… honestly, you know how the story goes from there.

Initially it might seem a bit of a disappointment, after three albums of giddy textual play in established musical genres and mythical traditions, to see the Mechanisms doing a straight pastiche of a specific text. But the band, to their credit, seem to realise the dangers of this approach, and turn them to their advantage. At ten minutes long the song is tight and focused, avoiding the slightly slipshod nature of their longer and more complex albums, and dialling back a bit on the usual self-indulgence. There’s also a genuinely clever twist at the end, which manages to convey a sense of shock as well as ironic inevitability.

But what really sells it is the technical side of things, which is excellent. The singing and instrumentation are both top-notch, with the shifts in tone handled deftly by the introduction of new musical techniques as the song goes on. As ever, the Mechanisms manage to turn what could easily have been a one-gag premise into magnificent entertainment by sheer skill and chutzpah.

This is a song which has clearly had a lot of thought put into it, as well as an awful lot of effort and talent And it’s that sense of passion which makes this song such a worthwhile piece of storytelling. These a clearly a group of people who care deeply about what they do, and long may they continue to do it.

Review: Sticky Biscuits

This review first appeared on the Ed Fringe Review website on 22 August 2015.


Whoever it was that said German comedy is no laughing matter has clearly never seen Sticky Biscuits on stage. Berlin duo Naomi Fern and Marc Seestaedt have put together a rock solid comedy act, a lean, witty and hugely entertaining forty-five minutes of music, which frankly deserves a much larger audience than its small Cowgate venue is likely to allow for. The show’s billing as a set of nerdy and naughty songs is not inaccurate, but rather undersells the sheer charm of these two performers and their skill at playing a crowd.

Both musicians sing while Fern plays the ukulele (that most clichéd of comedy instruments) and Seestadaedt plays an assortment of Casio and Yamaha novelty toys. This outfit looks a bit tacky and silly to start with, but the pair demonstrate a genuine creativity and cleverness which means they’re able to create genuinely brilliant comedy out of such a basic setup.

The songs themselves are generally lovely, quirky and filthy in equal measure. Few performers could transition smoothly from a song about a zombie apocalypse/messy breakup to a song about fisting, employing the whimsical analogy of a sock puppet. It’s this willingness to combine the sweet and the smutty which makes Sticky Biscuits such a unique act, with particular highlights including songs about gentrification and unrequited love, and a song detailing the Sad Reasons People Get Into Particle Physics. This is hugely witty, shocking stuff, but the pair carry it all with such grace that what could have been simply crass and horrible becomes charming and almost genteel.

It’s not a flawless show; the songs are all very similar in tone and style, and there are places where the show feels at risk of feeling pretty samey. There were a few technical shortcomings as well, with sometimes lengthy periods of faffing about between songs as Seestaedt swaps between plastic novelty instruments. The act sometimes feels a bit disorganised, with the closing of the doors being an odd stumbling block at the beginning of the show.

But these are nit-picks in what is otherwise an utterly charming little show. At about forty-five minutes this is a lean and efficient show which brings a few nice ideas to the table and doesn’t outstay its welcome. A solid little show of the free fringe, Sticky Biscuits are a cheeky comedy act with a wonderfully dirty streak. Well worth a watch.