Pandemic and the Limits of Entrepreneurial Government

Once again the government has used a high-profile announcement of an apparent technological breakthrough (the “game-changer” this time is the promise of ninety-minute diagnostic tests) to try to distract from their general failure to effectively address the pandemic (and, in this particular case, to grab front pages from the embarrassing story of a former minister being accused of sexual assault/rape). This raises a number of points. One of them is the persistent failure of journalism during this crisis to meaningfully question repeated and obviously spurious government claims about “magic bullet” technologies – indeed they’ve repeatedly played the part of loud, credulous cheerleaders. I’m going to come back to that one day soon. But what I want to focus on here is why these initiatives have, so far, all failed – spectacularly and often expensively.

The reason is simple. Despite the loudly-stated enthusiasm of key figures in this government (most notably their éminence grise Dominic Cummings, but also from ministers such as Raab, Gove and Hancock) for the language and trappings of “disruptive capitalism” their understanding of how this system works appears limited to a fascination with the glossy hagiographies of tech bro billionaires and little grasp of how disruptive capitalism works as a system and as part of a wider economy.

The government’s attachment to an ideology of disruptive capitalism goes beyond a traditional Conservative preference for private sector provision of public services and embraces a belief that the creative destruction of existing economic relationships is inherently good. It is not enough that businesses do the work of government – through the contracting out of services, for example. The revolution must go further and deeper. Existing patterns of thinking, ways of working and relationships must be broken down and rebuilt. All sectors of industry and government will be made more effective and efficient by bulldozing existing safeguards and embracing the buccaneering, free-for-all approach of their idealised vision of Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism. It is an approach that, typically, lionises a handful of high profile (if not, always, high-profit) companies and a tiny number of billionaires.

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BOOK REVIEW: ESCAPOLOGY BY REN WAROM

Escapology by Ren Warom (Titan Books, 2016)

If I reveal that the characters in Escapology, Ren Warom’s first novel, have names such as Amiga, Shock, Twist and Deuce then some of you will immediately deduce a great deal more about the book. You’ll intuit that this is an everyday story of hacker folk. You may guess that these down-at-heel types live in a world of improbably lurid crime bosses. Or that the events take place amidst a mulched-together mish-mash of far Eastern cultures. You’ll almost certainly be able to predict that the plot revolves around an improbable heist and semi-mystical technology.

Escapology cover

Escapology crams all the familiar cyberpunk set-dressing between its covers with a completeness that feels almost like compulsion. From an unlikely virtual reality realm in which hacking requires solving Crystal Maze style puzzles to neon-splashed, rain-sluiced streets filled with ramen bars – all the unmistakable elements are formed with cookie cutter neatness and tidily stacked. Whether this is taken as an opportunity to revel in nostalgia or as a tedious rehashing of a worn-out future will, I suppose, depend upon the reader. I found the whole thing a slightly dispiriting experience. It’s not that Escapology doesn’t have nice moments – there’s a car chase escape in the final quarter that is a well-handled action sequence and some of the dialogue was sharp enough to make me laugh out loud. However, the whole thing is so firmly fixed on familiar rails that I frequently struggled to find any motivation to return to the book.

Escapology is too long. There’s a subplot about giant paddle-wheel-driven moving islands whose purpose I still haven’t fathomed. Other events drag on at extraordinary length and forward momentum is thrown away as viewpoint characters pause to muse on history and sociology or indulge in amateur psychological analysis of their own motivations. There is a leaner, more enjoyable, 300 page novel struggling to free itself from the 450 pages presented here and an editor should have found it.

Cyberpunk has always had a problematic relationship with “The East” – smothering it with love even as it alienates us from the object of its desire. Even at its best the subgenre has tended to use Eastern cultural references as lazy exoticism. During cyberpunk’s first-flowering the appropriation of Eastern cultural elements at least served a purpose – unsettling Western readers’ comfortable assumptions about what the future should look like. Even then, though, it was often a problematic technique. Four decades on, this seam has been worked to exhaustion and the descent into over familiarity and cliché has undermined any usefulness in the tropes.

It’s never clear to me what purpose the Korean, Chinese and Japanese cultural paraphernalia serves in Escapology or why this range of cultures are mushed together except, perhaps, that it provides the characters something interesting to eat (it feels as though there’s a lot of food in the novel.) Some of the characters are identified as Asian but everyone speaks and thinks in the same sardonic, Californian-inflected internal monologue that is another trope of soft-boiled cyberpunk. In mannerism, voice and thought the main characters are, too often, indistinguishable and all cultural diversity feels skin deep.

Ironically, had Warom set her story amongst the chippies and curry houses of the Midlands (where her biography says she lives) instead of an imagined Occident then Escapology’s cyber-noir stylings might have felt stranger, fresher and more interesting.

One curious element of Escapology is the treatment of the central character Shock’s (a hacker, obviously) transgender status. Warom is clearly sympathetic but the denouement – in which Shock is forced to accept a part of him (an avatar in the form of an octopus) that is apparently innately and resolutely feminine despite his painful rejection of that identity – is uncomfortable. I believe Warom is trying to give the character a sense of peace after a (literally, in places) tortuous character arc – but the best one can say about it is that it feels confusing.

Some readers will revel in Escapology – glad to back in this kind of place with these kinds of people. I can see that appeal. But this familiarity also edges the book too close to pastiche and is its greatest weakness. There were moments when I did enjoy the book. And there were moments which I genuinely enjoyed. But I’ve been down these neon-lit streets and surfed these virtual landscapes too often. I won’t be returning for the sequel, Virology, which is already on sale.

A slightly shorter version of this review originally appeared in The BSFA Review (No. 10, Spring 2020).

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IT IS STILL BOLLOCKS TO BREXIT – LEFT OR RIGHT

The way in which Corbyn and his mates have been using the issue of Brexit as a weapon in their desperate attempts to retain control of the Labour Party is, I think, revealing. The most common criticism of the Labour Party they inherited was that it wasn’t ideologically pure enough. That it was too concerned with “triangulation” and compromise in its policies – too weak in chasing the lowest common denominator (on immigration or business, for example) to be true to Labour’s roots. So it’s odd, then, to see the attack on “centrist remainers” in the cabinet (by which they mean, I presume, Starmer and Thornbury, not McDonnell. But who knows the inner workings of the politburo?) framed entirely in terms of the fact that it cost Labour votes. That we should have adopted a strong leave position because it would have preserved our position on the “red wall” – it would have won us more seats.

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Arthur C Clarke by Gary Westfahl

Arthur C Clarke by Gary Westfahl (The University of Illinois Press, 2018)

Gary Westfahl has been a bit unlucky. After reading his Arthur C Clarke – an instalment in the “Modern Masters of Science Fiction” series from The University of Illinois Press – and while I was trying to work out what to say in this review, I picked up two books. The first was No Laughing Matter, Anthony Cronin’s fine biography of Irish humourist Flann O’Brien. The second was Working by Robert A Caro, in which America’s greatest living biographer (probably, he’s certainly its most thorough) discusses how he gets to grip with his subjects. Both helped me crystallise the sense of frustration that  kept growing in me as I was reading Westfahl’s book. Continue reading

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Dennis Etchison

About fifteen years ago I was given a book to review by the then editor of Vector – it was Fine Cuts, by Dennis Etchison. It was the first book I’d read by him, but in a (too brief – he didn’t write enough) binge I immediately tore through the rest of them. There was something about his slightly sly, slightly sparse style that really appealed to me. Since he’s passed away today, I thought I’d dig out that old review and put it up.

Fine Cuts by Dennis Etchison (PS Publishing, 2004)

I have never been to the USA, yet through television, film and books I have the idea that I know many of its cities intimately. They’re not communities or centres of commerce, they’re movie stars – no more substantial and no less the fruits of conscientious image manipulation. And, like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood they may appear in different stories, they may get cast in different roles, but they always play themselves.

Fine Cuts book cover

I have a soft spot for New York, that I imagine as a braggart that blusters and boasts to disguise a sentimental core. Washington’s capitol might shine like a beacon but it can’t disguise the fact that its foundations are in the swamp. Las Vegas would fiddle while Rome burned if it wasn’t busy looting everything not nailed down.

But, of all the American cities, Los Angeles has the firmest grip on my imagination. It shines like a jewel in the films of Michael Mann (Heat and Collateral) but, like a dame in a Chandler story, it’s really as dangerous and duplicitous as Jake Gittes’s Chinatown. Los Angeles burns through natural resources (oil on its freeways, water on verdant desert lawns, human talent in its business) with a reckless disregard for renewal while poverty and racial tension gnaw at its foundations.

It’s a terrible city and yet it is also irresistible.

In story after story throughout Fine Cuts, Dennis Etchison captures this weird, scary but compulsively fascinating place perfectly.

I must confess that I was completely unaware of Dennis Etchison before receiving this book to review so I should point that many of you may already be familiar with the stories contained here. Fine Cuts contains no new work by an author whose output falls some way short of prolific. The twelve stories included in this volume by PS Publishing first appeared between 1973 and 2001 and most (perhaps all) have previously been collected elsewhere.

Still, as a jumping on point for new readers, this volume is very rewarding and I think even those familiar with Etchison’s work may find the decision to group these particular stories – all of which share Hollywood and the associated media industry as a setting or theme – rewarding.

There is nothing gothic about Etchison’s writing style – his prose is spare, almost invisible but his stories have a knack for getting under your skin, upsetting your equilibrium and re-emerging from your subconscious days later in disturbing and unexpected ways. Perhaps my favourite of all these stories is “The Dog Park” which, on the surface, is simply about a man returning to a park to look for his lost pooch, but Etchison invests it with a powerful sense of loss and desperation.

That idea of having lost something – missed opportunities, wasted talent, vanished innocence – and being unable to escape the consequences of that loss permeates these stories. In “Deadspace”, “When They Gave Us Memory”, “Inside the Cackle Factory”, “The Spot” and “Deathtracks” the characters become trapped in relationships or patterns of living from which they cannot drag themselves free. In “Calling All Monsters” and “The Late Shift” Etchison traps his characters in their own bodies, to quite chilling effect. This is a landscape where no one wins, even those that have made it big – like the former child-star in “The Last Reel”, the actress in “I Can Hear The Dark” or the game show host in “Gotta Kill ‘Em All” – soon come to realise that success is fleeting and that it is without substance or worth.

Like the sun-bleached skull of a steer in the Californian desert, Etchison’s characters are stripped bare, their pretensions torn away, their hopes shredded until all that’s left is a brittle shell. But these aren’t dour stories. I found that I read most of them with a grin on my face – Etchison has a sardonic wit that surfaces (albeit sometimes quite nastily) in almost every tale.

The humour is one key factor in leavening what might otherwise be a rather stodgy collection. The other is that no matter how much Etchison highlights the soul-sucking banality and insincerity of Los Angeles, he returns again and again to describe in intimate detail the city and its people. He is clearly, in his own way, in love with this city and seems no more capable of escaping Los Angeles than the characters in his stories.

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REVIEW: VIRTUES OF WAR AND GHOSTS OF WAR BY BENNETT R COLES

The latest issue of The BSFA Review (no.4, Summer 2018) has been published. It contains two of my reviews.  The first one – of a pair of military sf novels by Bennet R Coles – is below. The second will follow shortly.

Bennett R Coles is a former Canadian naval officer. His first two novels (of a promised trilogy) are part of that military science fiction tradition that values “authenticity”. What that means, in this case, seems to be a fondness for three letter acronyms, recounting the petty frustrations of military life and detailed portrayals of brutal violence.

These books are set in a future where humanity has spread to planets around nearby stars and Earth is struggling to assert control over fractious colonies. In the first book a Terran task force, deployed as a show of strength in the Sirius star system, becomes the trigger for the start of a widespread rebellion and must fight its way home through enemy territory. Virtues of War follows the adventures of four core characters. Lieutenant Katja Emmes is the leader of a “strike team” of marines and scion of a military family who feels she has something to prove. Lieutenant Commander Thomas Kane is the ambitious but weak commander of her ship, The Rapier. Lieutenant Charity Brisebois is The Rapier’s communication officer, but she is also a ruthless, driven, intelligence officer with a nastily Machiavellian streak. Finally, Sublieutenant Jack Mallory is a puppyish pilot trained in stealth warfare and, handily for the plot, a savant in advanced, exotic physics. In Ghosts of War, this cast of characters find themselves back on Earth, some struggling to cope with what they’ve been through, and discovering that their distant war has followed them home. Continue reading

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REVIEW: AURORA RISING/THE PREFECT BY ALASTAIR REYNOLDS

The latest issue (no. 3) of the BSFA Review is out, and it contains my review of Alastair Reynolds’ Aurora Rising (previously released as The Prefect). This is a slightly extended version.

I jumped into the ebook of Alastair Reynolds’ Aurora Rising without glancing at the cover or paying any attention to any publicity or even the blurb on the back. I then spent the first fifty or sixty pages with a steadily growing concern that this was all a bit familiar. So, it was a relief, when I finally checked, to realise that Aurora Rising isn’t a new book, it’s a new edition of The Prefect (first published in 2007). It has been re-released ahead of a sequel, Elysium Fire, which is coming in 2018. To be fair to the publisher (and author) this is made clear on the cover, so this confusion was not their fault, it was mine.

However, despite feeling a bit foolish, it was interesting to return to a book I first read ten years ago. I remember quite clearly looking forward to the release of The Prefect. It marked a return by Reynolds to the universe created in Revelation Space for the first time since 2003’s Absolution Gap. Reynolds’ first four novels remain, for me, one of the most impressive achievements of British space opera and while I’d liked the two novels Reynolds had published in between (Pushing Ice and Century Rain) I was, fannishly, keen to return to the familiar. Continue reading

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REVIEW: CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY BY THOMAS PIKETTY

I was just reminded of this after a random comment on Twitter (hi @redrichie). I wrote this review back in 2014 for an editor who, in the end, never used it. The row over inequality hasn’t moved on much and, reading it back, I think some of the things I said are still relevant – we are certainly no closer to a political response to growing inequality and mainstream economics seems to have slipped back into its comfortable irrelevance.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital In The Twenty-First Century is a number of things. It is, most obviously, a forceful argument in favour of putting inequality – a subject long plagued by “an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact” – back at the heart of intellectual and political debate. In addition, and almost as importantly, it is giant single-fingered salute to economics as it is most commonly done. Capital is a trenchant criticism of the way in which the study of economics has become dislocated from history and reality, focussed instead on abstract models and “laws” that seek to universalise the particular and the specific. Piketty’s theory is based on carefully collected data and lived human experience – a book that seems to spend as much time considering what can be learned from the novels of Austen and de Balzac as from the theories of other economists. And Capital is also – and this is not something to be lightly dismissed – a social sensation. A seven-hundred-plus-page economic thesis has become an international bestseller and the subject of near endless debate, attracting praise and opprobrium in about equal measure. Continue reading

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GENRE HIGHLIGHT OF 2017 – OCCUPY AVENGERS #8

The BSFA’s Vector Review of 2017 was delivered today, which includes a piece I wrote on the bit of genre reading that stuck in my mind most clearly in the past year. I chose a few panels from a crossover comic book. The piece got a bit mangled in the production process (some repeated text and confusion) so this is the definitive version.

OCCUPY AVENGERS #8: THE QUIET MURDER OF A BLACK SUPERHERO

My genre highlight of 2017 is really just a handful panels from a comic book. It’s from Occupy Avengers #8 (June 2017), written by David F. Walker and drawn by Martin Morazzo and Jorge Coelho. The story is a tie-in to the Secret Empire crossover that dominated Marvel’s line of books in the middle of 2017 and, at a casual reading, the panels are easy to overlook.

The story features those resisting the authoritarian rule of Hydra (led by the briefly evil Captain America) which has taken control of the American government. In one panel a black man is being shot. He seems to be standing in front of a group of black men, trying to protect them. In the second panel the unidentified man lies dying on the ground and the people he was trying to protect are being gunned down by white men in Hydra uniforms. Seven pages later, briefly and a bit obliquely, we learn that the man we saw being shot was an out-of-costume superhero, Nighthawk. Continue reading

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SOME REASONS TO BE SCEPTICAL OF THE HYPE ABOUT CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA (PART ONE)

Like lots of people, I’ve been thinking about the current row about Cambridge Analytica and their supposed influencing of the US election and Brexit and possibly other elections around the world.

I understand people’s anger and I understand the degree of fear that comes with the idea that we (or, more usually, some other group: “them”) are being manipulated to undermine democracy. But there are good reasons to be sceptical over the claims made for and by Cambridge Analytica (CA).

The basic story is that CA scraped user data off Facebook. Some people equate this with stealing data or an elaborate hack of Facebook, but what they actually did was take information that users left lying around about themselves because they couldn’t/didn’t want to/didn’t know how to make it private. It wasn’t particularly clever, if my interactions with people studying social media are anything to go by then there are probably quite a few academics standing around with their hands in their pockets trying not to look guilty as the current row rumbles on. What sets CA apart is the claims they make for what they did with this information. Developing psychographic profiles of millions of individuals which, they say, they used to create online advertising that was uniquely persuasive and effective. They’ve also claimed, in the Channel 4 videos, to “seed” viral information around the web and to indulge in various types of dirty politics.

I’ll come back some of the other stuff in another post, but first I want to talk about online advertising and why I consider it an unlikely tool for manipulating “the masses”. If your goal is to persuade anyone of anything you could hardly choose a worse weapon than the online display advert. Continue reading

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