The future is now

The first time I saw the Pacific Ocean was when I visited San Diego in the early 90s. The morning I arrived, after a long overnight trip on the Greyhound, I dropped my bag at the youth hostel, just a short walk from the beach, and headed down to the shore to wash days of accumulated grime off in the warm sea.

I had travelled all the way from the cold east coast in a couple of gruelling bus journeys, and basking in the warm Californian sun felt like heaven. I ended up staying in San Diego for about a week, mostly just loafing on the beach, recharging my batteries while planning my onward course up the west coast. Wanting to travel a bit lighter, I packed most of my thick clothes in to a parcel which I sent back to the UK, figuring that I wouldn’t need them now that I had reached warmer climes. This was a decision I came to regret when I reached Oregon, and even more so when I got to Seattle, though the heavy plaid shirts I was obliged to purchase there to avoid freezing to death did make nice mementos of the trip.

The hostel in San Diego had a bookshelf with a good selection of pulpy sci-fi, which was perfect for undemanding beach reading. One story in particular caught my mood during those long, laidback days; a trippy tale of aliens from the Andromeda galaxy trying to invade the Milky Way through some kind of telepathic mind-control thing. I didn’t really comprehend all the subtleties of the narrative – the starships were all modelled on playing cards for some reason, meaning the stylised space battles took the form of cosmic games of trumps, and it was never clear which characters had and hadn’t been taken over by the aliens – partly because the volume I had was something like the third in a series of seven, so I had missed all the set-up, mostly because I was pretty baked at the time. It didn’t really detract from my enjoyment though. In the years since I’ve occasionally thought about tracking down that book – I’ve forgotten the title of course – and the rest of the set, so I could finally work out what it was all about, but, wisely I think, I’ve always resisted that impulse, as it would probably spoil what is a very fond, if hazy, memory.

Anyway, I was thinking of this because the one thing that I do remember about that book is its author, Ursula K. Le Guin, who, sadly, passed away last week. I’d read, and loved, her Wizard of Earthsea cycle when I was at school, though I’m not sure that that really prepared me for her more out-there sci-fi. I subsequently got to know more about her political outlook, which was not dissimilar to my own, and appreciate that her stories of the future, like all the best science fiction, were really about how we live now, what we need to change, and, most importantly, that change is not only possible, but inevitable. That’s a message that it’s good to hold on to in these dispiriting times.

Futurama

Here at SLS we’ve tried our hands at prognostication more than a few times in the past, with generally disappointing results; we’ve erroneously assured readers that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in for the Presidency (twice), confidently identified as winners teams in major sporting events who go on to exit at an early stage, advised against investing in dead-end companies like Google and Facebook, and completely misread the political mood of our own home nation. The only thing I can find that we actually got right was forecasting Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney, which didn’t exactly require Nostradamus-level predictive skills.

Still, it’s the start of a new year, so I thought it might be fun to put down a marker on the two big political questions of the day; at the very least, come December, we’ll be able to look back and laugh at our hopeless naivety.

First up: will Donald Trump still be President of the United States at the end of 2018? I think … yes. The reasoning behind this answer rests on a recognition that, while Trump’s behaviour may well provide a legal justification for his removal, by impeachment, or through application of the 25th Amendment, the decision to actually trigger these processes is a political one, and there’s no sign that a sufficiently large section of the Republican Party has the stomach for it. The arithmetic may change after the midterm elections of course, but given that Trump seems to have a solid electoral base who will stick with him no matter the outrage he provokes elsewhere, I just can’t see the numbers adding up. Naturally I hope that I’m wrong about this, and that the kickback seen in Alabama (fuelled by an energised left actually getting its supporters to the polls) becomes a nationwide phenomenon, giving the Democrats the majorities they need in the House and the Senate to carry an impeachment through, while also moving the whole centre of political gravity leftwards.

Next: is there going to be a second Brexit referendum? I think … yes. This is based less on political calculation, and more on gut feeling, particularly the general sentiment that the country is becoming ungovernable, and that the current administration cannot last. It’s possible to imagine a series of events involving a collapsed government, another election, Labour opting to campaign on the issue of giving the population a chance to vote on the final Brexit deal, and a relieved electorate seizing the opportunity to ditch the whole sorry business. There are, admittedly, large elements of wishful thinking in this, but it’s not completely impossible. The timescale is tight though – we won’t have to wait until December to see if I’m wrong about this; if there isn’t an election by the summer the exit process might well prove to be irreversible.

Finally: two bonus predictions – Germany to win the World Cup, and definitive proof of extraterrestrial life to be found before the year is out.

2017: The Year in Review – Part 2: Culture

While posts on this blog have been a little sparse this year, I have managed to keep our Tumblr up to date, providing a handy list of all my cultural experiences over the last 12 months; here are my personal highlights:

Music – I’ve been steadily buying more records every year since I gave up my fixation with physical objects and started downloading albums back in 2014, so picking out my favourites has been getting harder; this is a fairly arbitrary top ten for 2017, in no particular order:

  • Antisocialites – Alvvays
  • Semper Femina – Laura Marling
  • Life Without Sound – Cloud Nothings
  • The Gold String – Devon Sproule
  • American Dream – LCD Soundsystem
  • Modern Kosmology – Jane Weaver
  • Pleasure – Feist
  • Masseduction – St. Vincent
  • MILANO – Daniele Luppi & Parquet Courts
  • Visions Of A Life – Wolf Alice

I managed to go to more concerts than usual this year too; my favourite was probably Cloud Nothings, though the Pixies gig was a fun blast of nostalgia.

Film – most of my cinematic experience this year was watching DVDs of stuff that came out last year; High Rise and The Neon Demon stand out. Of films I saw in an actual cinema easily the best was T2 Trainspotting, perhaps unsurprisingly, since I am exactly the demographic to appreciate it, having aged along with the protagonists, and shared their experience of change and maturity, though rather less dramatically.

Books – I completed another volume of Proust, The Captive, and filled a slightly embarrassing gap by finally reading some Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. My intake of more recent literature wasn’t great, but I did manage last year’s Booker winner The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, which seemed worthy of the prize, though it did run out of steam towards the end. My favourite fiction of year was another old one that I’ve been meaning to read for ages, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, a hard-headed yet inspiring treatment of the challenges facing individuals in a communal society. I read rather less history, science and biography than in years past, Patti Smith’s M Train my pick of the latter category.

So that was 2017, insofar as it is possible to sum any year up in a few hundred words. I do regret not posting more this year, especially about politics; right now I feel resolved to do better in the months ahead, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Anyway, I’ll round off by wishing a Happy New Year to anyone who may be reading this, and hoping it finds you healthy and prosperous.

Red October

Today marks the centenary of the events in Petrograd which would culminate in the foundation of the world’s first workers’ state. Plenty has been written about this subject over the years, and it would be somewhat of an understatement to say that there are a multitude of opinions on the nature and legacy of the October Revolution, from right-wing hostility to the whole project, through the standard liberal view that a Bolshevik coup derailed the progress promised by the bourgeois overthrow of Tsarist feudalism, to the embrace by the left, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, of the vision of communism proclaimed by Lenin and his allies.

I’ve been consciously involved in political activity for more than three decades now, and the arguments about October 1917 haven’t changed much in that time, though perhaps the “Bolshevik coup” theory has become more solidified as accepted wisdom, even among elements of the left.

What is different these days is that the debate doesn’t seem as vital as it once did. While the centenary has exited activity in academic and left political circles, the mainstream media has more or less ignored it, and it would be hard to say that it has impacted on popular consciousness at all.

Of course the degeneration, and eventual demise, of the Soviet Union, along with the general decline of the left in the West, does seem to confirm the idea that the October Revolution is nothing but an episode of distant history, no more relevant to today’s politics than the intrigues of Ancient Rome. On the other hand, the class struggle, which so animated the workers and peasants of Russia at the start of the 20th century, is still with us, and in a form which is not so different from that which was so successfully waged by the Bolsheviks.

Perhaps I’m just an aging revolutionary, clinging to dreams of the past, but I still think that that October 1917 represents the most progressive period in human history, one from which we can learn a great deal. The problems facing the world today, stemming from levels of inequality in wealth and power not seen since the days of the Tsar, call out for an upheaval in social relations on a similar scale. One hundred years on, armed with a knowledge of how things went wrong last time, it’s time the workers took power again.

Guidance from above

I’ve always been quite proud of my navigational skills; while I’ve never exactly been through the wilderness, I have managed to use map and compass to plot a course around fairly remote places like Yosemite and the Cascades without getting more than temporarily lost, and I’ve traversed many a new city with only a glance at the guidebook.

That said, it’s been quite some time since I’ve had any need to utilise this talent, partly because I never go anywhere new these days, but mostly because, like just about everyone else, I carry around a handy gadget that always tells me exactly where I am, and where I should be going. I do like to think that I could manage without it, and orientate myself old-style using features like rivers and railway lines, but still, I’m in no hurry to test that out.

Anyway, I was thinking of this because today marks the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, the event that kick-started the space race, its simple beep the forerunner of the GPS signals that guide us today. Yet another facet of modern life that we owe to the command economy.

Rendezvous with Planet X

We hit our tenth anniversary earlier this year, which is a good run for a blog, if not so long in cosmic terms. Even in that brief spell though we have managed to survive two predicted apocalypses, in 2011 and 2012, and probably a few more that we didn’t hear about.

So I think I can be excused for being fairly relaxed about the forecast that tomorrow will bring the end of the world (or at least the start of the End Times; the details are a little sketchy). My insouciance seems to be fairly widely shared; the overwhelming reaction of even the more credulous sections of the media has been one of amused ridicule, and I haven’t heard any stories of people leaving their families, selling all their possessions, or otherwise acting irrationally in anticipation of the Rapture, as has happened in the past.

I don’t know if this means that the general appetite for doom-mongering has waned, or if we’re all just so numbed by the routine craziness of the world these days that global annihilation doesn’t seem that big a deal. Whatever, I’m still making plans for next week, whether Nibiru shows up or not.

Grant Hart RIP

Sad news about Grant Hart. The one and only time I saw Hüsker Dü play live was more than 30 years ago, just after Candy Apple Grey came out, but I can still remember it clearly. It was in a tiny venue, and I was right at the front, about two feet away from the PA, which probably explains why I couldn’t hear a thing for about a week afterwards. Temporary deafness seemed like a small price to pay to be in the vicinity of genius though.

I’ve subsequently seen Bob Mould play loads of times, solo and with Sugar, but I never managed to catch any of Grant’s later shows, and now I never will. That’s obviously a trivial concern, when we’re talking about a man passing away at a tragically young age, but it’s another reminder that the list of things that I always just assumed would happen some day, but probably, or definitely, won’t, is getting longer all the time, and that perhaps I should pay more attention to the ephemeral nature of life, and how important it is to be in the moment. That sentiment isn’t a million miles away from the themes that Grant touched on in his best work, and I guess that that’s an epitaph that he might have appreciated.

King of the Living Dead

Regular readers will know that we have a bit of a zombie obsession here at SLS, so I was sad to hear of the passing of George Romero, who, more than anyone, defined the undead aesthetic that underlies just about every modern zombie-themed film and video game.

Night of the Living Dead is a groundbreaking classic of course, but, for me, Romero’s masterpiece is Dawn of the Dead, which inserts its shambling horror into the all-too-recognisable mundanity of everyday life to truly terrifying effect. If it has a fault it is that it’s too terrifying; despite it being one of my favourite films I haven’t watched Dawn of the Dead for years, because I know that a viewing will give me vivid nightmares for days afterwards.

Anyway, here’s a link to our very first zombie post from 10 years ago, which I think is still relevant today, and some valuable tips for when the worst happens…

They shoot Youtubers, don’t they?

I may affect indifference towards the fact that, according to the merciless WordPress statistics page, virtually nobody ever comes to visit our little blog any more, but the truth is that I miss the days when we had lots of traffic, and I’d do anything to attract a few more views again.

Well, perhaps not anything; I’d probably draw the line at having my partner shoot live ammunition at my chest in a misguided attempt to capture the attention of the notoriously fickle YouTube demographic. Depressingly this story isn’t an aberration; there are plenty of examples of would-be social media stars abusing their children, leaping from high places, lighting themselves on fire, or doing other stupid stunts in the hope that it will be their ticket to internet fame, and the fabled wealth that comes with it.

The spectacle of the desperate poor demeaning themselves for our entertainment is nothing new; there were dance marathons and other indignities during the Depression, truck-touching contests have a proud history, and as recently as 10 years ago people were dying to win a video game console. Now, in our wonderful modern world of 24/7 digital connection, it’s not even necessary to leave the house to join in; that’s progress I guess.

Ten Years After

Rather remarkably, today is the 10th anniversary of the very first post on this blog, and, while I started out full of enthusiasm, I don’t think I would have predicted that I’d still be churning them out a decade later.

It’s not been a steady stream of course – when I did a retrospective on the occasion of our 5th birthday back in 2012 I had a lot of material to work with; the pickings this time around are somewhat slimmer. There have been a few highlights though; here are my favourites:

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

So there you have it, 16 worthwhile pieces in 5 years. Is that a good enough return to justify keeping this blog going? On balance, I think so, though I guess we can revisit the question in 2022. In the meantime I’ll revive one of our traditions, which had sadly fallen into abeyance, the contrived musical link.