50-Word Review: Space Opera

Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

A new Valente novel, and the second Hitchhiker riff I’ve read this year: humanity’s singing for its life in the galactic version of Eurovision. A meditation on what counts as sentience and the transcendent power of pop music. Fun and fabulous, but a little…slight for Valente.

2017 Roundup

Happy New Year, dear reader!

Let’s hope 2018’s a bit kinder to us all than 2017 was, shall we?

My Favourite Things of 2017

Book: Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. Re-reading my review reminds me how clever I found this novel on my first reading of it, but really it’s here because it’s such a comforting read. I love its gentle narrative arc, the way it takes its heroine on her first tentative, hopeful steps towards a future that’s, once again and exactly, full of potential.

TV: Class: Detained. I am sad that Class has been cancelled: it’s pretty much the only TV show aside from Doctor Who I’ve been watching this year, and pretty much all of its storytelling has been pitch-perfect. Detained probably stands out for me because it really makes its SFnal concept work to support its character development, and its young actors do a fantastic job in making it feel believable and claustrophobic.

Film: MoanaI was apparently terrible at seeing films in 2017, so I don’t have very much to choose from. Moana‘s the best of a bunch I have mixed feelings about: it does have a female POC protagonist with no discernible love interest, and I’m still listening to the songs ten months on.

Misc.: Nine Worlds 2017Next year I’m going to drop the Misc. category, on the basis that the answer will henceforth always be “Nine Worlds”. Because obviously.

2017 Reading Stats

Spreadsheet time!

  • I read 85 books in 2017, absolutely smashing my target of 73.
  • The longest book I read was One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski, which, at 839 pages, was, honestly, kind of tedious. (If that wasn’t enough, it’s also the first volume of 27. Angels and ministers of grace defend us.) The shortest was Martin Rowson’s brilliant graphic novel rendering of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, at just 80 pages. Overall I read 30,893 pages – considerably up from last year’s 26,492.
  • The oldest book I read in 2017 was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a re-read, first published in 1813. The average age of the books I read in 2017 was 44 – up from last year’s 16, probably at least partly because of all the old-school SF I’ve been reading.
  • Genre: As usual the biggest single genre I read in was fantasy – I read 39 fantasy novels (45%), 18 SF novels (21%) and eight lit-fic novels (9%), as well as five each from non-fiction and historical novels, three “classic” novels (which I’ve categorised as such to distinguish them from commercial lit-fic), two “humour” novels and a detective story (The Waste Land, which I suspect actually belongs in “humour”). My reading, in other words, has seen pretty much the same genre split it did last year.
  • I read 10 YA novels (12%) – that’s lower than last year, when YA made up about a quarter of my reading.
  • Just 11% of the books I read this year were re-reads! That’s almost half last year’s 21% – I’m pleased with this.
  • 46% of the books I read in 2017 were by women. That’s disappointing; I thought I’d done better than that.
  • And 18% of the books I read in 2017 were by POCs. I don’t have a target for this one – it’s difficult to know what the baseline should be, and I didn’t count last year – but I’m reasonably pleased with this.

Music Review: Hamilton

This review contains spoilers (for history).

I don’t write about music on this here blog. I’m not good at it, I don’t know enough to say anything useful about it, and I don’t usually end up having long and involved conversations in my brain about it. (That’s not the same as saying I don’t like music: tuneless singing is something I do pretty much every day of my life.)

I’m making an exception for Hamilton – or, rather, the cast recording of the soundtrack of Hamilton, which, given the fair-to-middling difficulty of getting tickets to see the live show (West End tickets are sold out till June), is how most people, including me, first encounter it. Probably I should have waited to write this until I actually did get to see it, but I have no idea when that will be, and I have many and many a thing to say about Hamilton.

Some context may be useful at this point. Hamilton tells the story – or a story – of Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury Secretary of the United States, from his inauspicious beginnings as the illegitimate child of a Scottish nobleman growing up in the Caribbean, through his role in the American Revolution, to his years of political influence. And it does so through the medium of hip-hop and rap.

That’s one of the interesting things about it. Combining the swagger of rap with the emotional theatricality of Broadway show tunes is one of those things that seems so obvious you wonder why nobody else has done it before. (They might have done it before. I am not an expert.) Throughout the album there’s also this fascinating juxtaposition of old and new: a string melody laid against a heavy bass beat, as in “Yorktown”, or shoot-from-the-lip rap layered with an olde-worlde round (“Farmer Refuted”, not a fan favourite but one that always makes me intensely happy), or, thematically, a cabinet meeting in the style of a rap battle. (Abigail Nussbaum detects Aaron Sorkin’s influence here, which feels weirdly right.)

It’s precisely that old-and-new tension that’s at the core of what Hamilton‘s doing. The other thing you might have heard about the musical is its race-bent casting: pretty much all the main roles (apart from the brilliantly loopy King George III) are played by actors of colour. This, and the choice to tell the story of the Founding Fathers in a musical genre associated with black people, is an explicit gesture of reclamation – a rewriting of history to include those who tend to be written out of it. Hamilton‘s intensely aware that it’s doing this, too: all of its characters at least half-know that they’re fictional, that they are performing their own version of history. “Alexander Hamilton/America sings for you,” goes a line in the show’s opening number; this actually feels like Hamilton referencing itself, as it seems (from Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge; my knowledge of US history is limited to a half-remembered GCSE module on the McCarthy era and six-and-a-half series of The West Wing) that the historical Hamilton hasn’t previously attracted much attention. So here is a show that considers itself very much its own thing – one that’s constantly reminding us that history’s really a matter of interpretation. Remember: this is a Broadway musical. A hit Broadway musical. It’s fun and witty and sophisticated and a great joy to listen to and think about.

So, to Hamilton‘s blind spots. Firstly, it believes absolutely and incontestably in the idea of America as the land of the free, “A place where even orphan immigrants/Can leave their fingerprints”; it believes uncomplicatedly that the American Revolution was about people rising up against tyranny (rather than, more prosaically, taxes). Secondly – and this is a common problem for musicals – its need for a tight narrative trajectory, and its consequent slightly myopic focus on Alexander Hamilton, gives some of the complex issues it wants to talk about short shrift.

Despite its avowed progressive politics, and its awareness of how history is whitewashed, Hamilton features no queer representation, or any historically non-white person. Perhaps most problematically, and as a number of commentators have pointed out, its unshakable belief in the myth of America completely erases the Native American populations who were persecuted after the Revolution – by George Washington among others, whom Hamilton sees as unambiguously heroic. (The show also conveniently forgets that Washington was a slaveowner, which slightly undermines Hamilton’s blistering excoriations of Thomas Jefferson for being a slaver while he defends Washington.) “Will the blood we shed begin an endless/Cycle of vengeance and death?” asks Hamilton of the Revolution, apparently blissfully unaware that the cycle’s already begun.

There are a couple of female characters with actual agency, which is nice: Elizabeth Schuyler, Hamilton’s wife, and her sister Angelica both have complicated and evolving relationships with Hamilton himself. But then, in the show’s final number, Eliza sings this:

I stop wasting time on tears.

I live another fifty years.

It’s not enough.

This annoys me every time. Because, let’s be clear, Eliza is more than entitled to her tears. Her husband left her behind repeatedly, refused to go on holiday with her, cheated on her, got her son killed, and, finally, got himself killed. Somewhere in the middle of that she has a brilliant song where she burns Hamilton’s love letters to her: “I’m erasing myself from the narrative” which Hamilton’s constructing to serve as his legacy; and in doing so she’s asserting her personhood, her separateness from him. But, in this last song, she explicitly undoes that: “I put myself back in the narrative”. And she does so to shore up Hamilton’s legacy: “I ask myself what would you do if you had more time?” Essentially, Hamilton denies her right to her own emotional life, and instead gets her to serve her husband’s history.

I don’t really have a good conclusion to all of this – except to note that, real as Hamilton‘s problems are, there aren’t many musicals clever and engaged enough even to raise the questions it provokes. And, after all, it does at least recognise that it is itself only an interpretation of history – only one story among many possible stories – which is far more than, say, Hairspray does. And perhaps it’s unreasonable to ask one single musical to stand against all the horrors of present-day America.

Perhaps it’s enough just to point out its blind spots.

Theatre Review: La Traviata

Spoiler alert, although everyone knows there is no point going to the opera if you haven’t looked up the plot first.

Back in June a friend and I went to see La Traviata in Trafalgar Square.

Sadly it was not quite an open-air performance; it was, instead, a BP Big Screen event, streamed live from the Royal Opera House for the people of London to watch for free among the lion statues. And it was a lovely evening: we had an M&S picnic and the weather was miraculously gorgeous and the top of Nelson’s Column flared red in the sunset.

However. I am not here to rate the middle-class-ness of my evening at the opera. I’d quite like to talk about the opera itself (if it’s all the same to you).

Here is a quick plot summary of La Traviata. Obviously, here be spoilers.

Our Heroine is Violetta, a courtesan who spends her life drinking, attending extravagant parties and enjoying the patronage of rich men. She’s actually pretty awesome: she has an entire aria that’s basically like, “I just want to par-TAY!” And then – she falls in love with a country gentleman called Alfredo, because obviously no woman’s life is complete without romantic love.

End of Act One.

Act Two sees Violetta and Alfredo living together in a big house in the country; Violetta has spent almost all her money supporting their lifestyle. (She won’t ask Alfredo for money. Did I mention that this nineteenth-century woman is awesome?) Alfredo being away on a contrived trip somewhere, his father arrives to ask Violetta to leave him because…he has a sister? The plot seems a bit hazy on this point, and to be honest the motivation isn’t terribly important: what’s important is that Violetta agrees (eventually) to leave him, without telling him why.

Act Three, and Violetta is dying picturesquely of consumption, alone and full of regret. But all is not lost yet! After lots of sad singing, here comes Alfredo, aware now of Violetta’s sacrifice. He arrives just in time for her to die in his arms. Curtain.

Watching this performance being beamed to thousands of people not just in London but all over the country, I found myself wondering: why? Why has this opera survived, and why are we still performing it as one of the greats?

An obvious answer is Verdi’s score, which is rich and complex and has some quite famous passages. I don’t know enough about the history of music, though, to talk about what his score is actually doing, in and of itself; I’m interested, instead, in the semantic meanings the opera ties the music to. La Traviata is pretending to be a story about (heterosexual, romantic) love – the emotion that Western society is perhaps most attached to. Which makes sense: music is above all things an art that conveys and sustains emotion. Except that – and this is the danger of opera and its modern-day descendant, the West End musical – the strong emotion evoked by La Traviata’s rich score conceals the fact that this is not a love story at all, but a hutch to trammel women in.

(It’s surprising – and also not surprising at all – how many romances do this.)

Violetta, the titular fallen woman, is in Act One a threat to the patriarchal order because she’s not married, she’s not particularly interested in marriage, and, though she’s paid by her clients, she refuses to be owned by any single one of them. Her falling in love presents an impossibility: she has so thoroughly rejected the social order that she cannot now join it; and yet, she no longer wants to live outside it. (The opera specifically presents her partying lifestyle as emotionally bankrupt, a waste of a life – that is, the only fulfilling life, for a woman, is to be found in a relationship with a man.) Alfredo’s father makes this abundantly clear to her: she is threatening the social order, Alfredo’s family. Her choice to leave him is thus – perhaps counter-intuitively – a choice to preserve the social order. And, finally, she dies, because the patriarchal social order she’s just saved has, nevertheless, no place for her. She is the fallen woman. Her sacrifice for Alfredo – of her happiness, her love and her good character – is metonymic of her sacrifice for a world that won’t permit her existence – of her spirit and her life.

Why do we keep telling these stories? Is there really anyone over, say, 18 who can relate to a “romantic” relationship that’s so clearly self-destructive and dysfunctional, that so completely denies Alfredo’s ability to make his own decisions? Do we really think that a relationship that’s so full of lies that it literally destroys one of the lovers’ lives is ideal?

I don’t think most of us do, actually. But this is why I don’t have much patience with classical opera (having seen a grand total of two on stage): it curdles and distils unhealthy emotional tropes and presents them as a consummation devoutly to be wished; it hides its reactionary messages beneath the flourishes of brilliant music.

Jesus Christ Superstar in Trafalgar Square, now. That, I’d pay to see.

Film Review: La La Land

This review contains spoilers.

In a rare bit of serendipity for The English Student, La La Land very pointedly did not win the Oscar for Best Picture on Sunday. Although I liked the film, I’m quite glad it didn’t.

Our Heroes are Seb, a jazz musician recently fired from his job as a live pianist in a restaurant for refusing to stick to the setlist, and Mia, an aspiring actor caught in a soul-destroying grind of ever more humiliating auditions while working in a coffee shop.

Both are cliches. So it’s appropriate that, in the most ubiquitous Hollywood cliché of all, they fall in love.

To the film’s credit, it is fully aware of its cliched-ness; in fact, its awareness is chiefly where its very great charm comes from. It’s a deliberate, knowing throwback to Old Hollywood: all nostalgic musical refrains (“City of Stars” gives a good feel for the atmosphere of the film), soft-focus views of Los Angeles, pastel colours, vaguely vintage-y costumes just modern enough to be plausible, all wrapped up in that very special brand of surrealism you only get in old-fashioned musicals, where the world literally stops for the characters.

The one thing that (maybe) elevates the film from merely “charming” to “interesting” is its double ending. Following a long series of difficulties as Seb and Mia pursue their separate artistic paths, the film presents its first ending: a romanticised montage of Seb and Mia’s relationship, set to Seb’s nostalgic piano theme, ending in marriage and children, perfect Hollywood happiness. (Because, do  you see? That’s what success means: not achieving your artistic goals, but getting the girl!) The second ending, though, the one we implicitly understand as the “real” one, sees Mia framed as, basically, a total bitch (her clothes, her posture, the way she clearly hasn’t told her husband about her previous relationship with Seb, all mark her out as a sell-out, a falsehood) for a) marrying someone who is Not Seb, b) being far more successful than Seb, and c) not being Pure of Art, taking whatever jobs come her way.

Anyway. That double ending’s an admission of the artificiality of the film’s own genre, the fictionality of the artistic tradition it’s participating in – a kind of ironising postmodern gaze. Except that it’s also charmingly earnest about that art, claiming the artistic value of its nostalgic aesthetic as more perfect, both more fragile and more enduring, than life.

The film’s not quite committed enough to this double gaze to see it right through: it can’t let Seb and Mia be friends, or even just happy for each other, instead plumping for Hollywood tragedy and manpain in its “realistic” second ending, clinging to art’s false binaries as if the value of love is negated by its ending. (Seb will Never Get Over Mia! Never!)

That’s one of the reasons La La Land didn’t deserve Best Picture. (Or, to be honest, any Oscar; Emma Stone’s performance as Mia is fine but not, I’d say, Best Actress material.) There are others: its appropriation of black culture, the misogynist overtones I’ve hinted at above, its reactionary nostalgia. For me, the key reason is that, for all its undeniable romance, it’s simply not doing anything new or interesting. It has nothing to say that is not about itself.

La La Land is beautifully shot and lovingly directed. It’s a real pleasure to watch, and it makes the world seem a little brighter for a couple of hours (which is no small feat in itself). But it adds nothing to the sum of human cultural achievement – and, to my mind, the Oscars should reward nothing less.

Music Review: Miss Helen’s Weird West Cabaret

Coincidentally, Paul Shapera’s latest offering to the world of music, Miss Helen’s Weird West Cabaret, came out around the time that The Bifrost Incident was made available to Kickstarters, which was a nice seasonal double whammy.

So here we are.

What will the person who brought us A Slender Man Musical have for us next?

Miss Helen’s Weird West Cabaret is set (surprise!) in the Wild West, or at least an analogue of it. The titular cabaret is essentially a low-tech version of a pulp TV show: “Our town’s like an address to an orgy/of tired tropes and pulp stories”. It begins as one of what we assume is a regular parade of pulp stories, as the villain Han-Mi hatches a dastardly plan to unleash a flock of flying zombie babies on the town; but the story quickly breaks down as the various characters (including the titular Miss Helen, who has lost her family to a mysterious carnival; sheriff Hank, who has A Past involving a werewolf lady who died; the aforesaid Han-Mi, who’s in love with Hank; and Henry the Alchemist, who – you know what, let’s talk about Henry the Alchemist a bit later) slowly realise that they are not, as they thought, actors in this cabaret, but rather characters within it, unable to remember anything outside the performance.

Obviously, this picks up on the mythos developed in the New Albion trilogy, and certainly Miss Helen feels more of a descendant of those operas than it is of A Slender Man Musical, and not just because it’s set in the same world.

Do I like it, though?

Musically, I think, Shapera’s really excellent at writing tunes: big, rousing, catchy numbers that do exactly what they need to do, which is capturing a mood, an intense emotion, that makes our grey and stressful lives appear just a little more colourful for a while. He’s not quite so good at plotting, I think, which is where Slender Man and The New Albion Guide to Analogue Consciousness really fall down: they’re difficult to follow unless you’ve listened to them approximately a million times. Miss Helen manages to avoid the plotting pitfall largely due to its cabaret format, as each character delivers their own backstory, each with its own particular mood: it’s a format that works actually particularly well for Shapera, especially given his very Gothic imagination.

The centre of Miss Helen is really Han-Mi, who’s sung by Psyche Chimera of Psyche Corporation: an excellent choice, she brings an amazing, menacing croon to her numbers which soprano Lauren Osborn hasn’t been able to reach in previous work, plus she’s got fantastic attitude. Han-Mi’s probably the most self-aware character here: it’s she who begins sowing the seeds of doubt about the nature of her compatriots’ involvement in the cabaret, as she struggles against the racist implications of the scripts she’s given (dark Eastern magic, hordes of threatening Chinese people, etc., etc.). The album as a whole is very much rooted in the struggle against such tropes, as in the case of the aforesaid Henry the Alchemist, a gay man who turns into a sex monster (effectively) when he’s aroused. (Incidentally, this is the one thing I really don’t like about Miss Helen, and it’s a problem I had with Slender Man too: not the presence of sex, but the way it’s presented, over-literally and seemingly in an effort to shock; it ruins the mood of the music and makes it feel faintly ridiculous.) Han-Mi points out the offensiveness of this plot point, which essentially equates male homosexuality with beasthood; but her deconstruction of the narrative she and Henry live proves futile – she can’t contact the writers to change it, and if she refuses to live it she might vanish, be erased entirely.

The mood of Miss Helen, then, might be said to be a kind of helplessness, a helplessness that feels very topical for 2016: the helplessness of the liberal left, watching all the old hateful tropes come back out of the box, seemingly unable to change them. The writer is a moron, and we can’t contact him.

It’ll be interesting to see what Shapera does with Act 2.

Theatre Review: The Comedy About a Bank Robbery

I went to see The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, from theatre company Mischief Theatre, at the Criterion Theatre in London last Saturday (although actually it was yesterday as I write this; such is the time travel magic of scheduled posting). It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: a Wodehousian farce about a motley gang of crooks of various kinds, led by just-out-of-jail Mitch Ruscitti, trying to break into a 1950s Minneapolis bank to steal a large and very shiny diamond.

Is it funny? Yes; but not unqualifiedly so. Bearing in mind that I am not someone who laughs at a lot of things, there are gags here that are tedious and unfunny, and wordplay about as amusing as the puns that fathers make when they’ve had one or two to drink. Having said that, there are also a couple of set-pieces (one of them involving a fold-up bed and a serial case of mistaken identity) that made me cry with laughter. So, you know, swings and roundabouts.

At the heart of the comedy is something a little more serious, a well-judged vein of sincerity that grounds the cast’s more outrageous antics, especially towards the end of the play. Here we find desperation, and loneliness, and revenge, and a little romance, and some betrayal. All of this registers a vague kind of malaise – the human condition, perhaps – which is too undefined to do anything interesting, but renders the heart of the play slightly…absurdist, I suppose, nihilist in its rejection of stability and meaning.

But comedy’s the most conservative of modes, and despite its refusal to provide some of the consolations of its genre The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is steeped in nostalgia for the fifties, accompanied by self-consciously vintage barbershop melodies sung by the cast which sort of undermine its more deconstructionist gestures. The problem, I think, is that the nostalgic mood this soundtrack generates expresses a yearning for a simpler time – viz., the fifties – when the kind of lines that the play draws between stealing from the rich and murdering the innocent, between petty crooks and dangerous criminals, were somehow more visible and more real.

As is always the case with nostalgia, there never was such a time.

Still, there’s no denying the slickness of the play: it relies heavily on comic timing, on props working properly, on everyone being in the right place on stage at the right time, and it comes together beautifully, a comic dance. Visually and technically, it’s extremely well done (as you might expect from a West End production). Ideologically? Well, your mileage may (and probably will) vary.

Music Review: The Bifrost Incident

I don’t often write about music, because I’m not very good at it.

I’m making an exception for The Bifrost Incident, partly because I don’t actually have anything else to write about, and partly because it is, of course, very good.

The Bifrost Incident is the fourth album from Oxford-based steampunk band The Mechanisms, who perform as a band of immortal space pirates swaggering their way through the universe aboard their starship Aurora.

The Mechanisms tell stories, in a mixture of spoken word and folk-rock-inflected song. Their first album, Once Upon a Time (In Space), riffs on Anglo-American fairytale; Ulysses Dies at Dawn is based on Greek mythology, rendered in noirish jazz; High Noon Over Camelot is a mashup of Arthurian legend with a spaghetti Western sound and narrative aesthetic.

The Bifrost Incident is based on Norse mythology, which I am not familiar with at all. It collides with something more modern later on, but I won’t spoil that.

The framing schtick is a little different this time around: instead of narrating the story, the Mechanisms are acting it, verbatim. The story’s narrator (voiced by the Aurora‘s definitely-first-mate Jonny d’Ville) is Inspector Second Class Leofrisyr Edda (that’s a very rough guess at spelling, by the way, and is probably wrong) of the New Midgard Transport Police, assigned to investigate the mysterious reappearance of a train, the Ratatosk Express, which disappeared eighty years ago with the entire ruling class of Asgard aboard on its maiden voyage through man-made wormhole the Bifrost.

Musically, it’s moved a little away from folk-rock into seventies prog rock: a bit Jethro Tull/Genesis, a bit Led Zeppelin, at least in the musical set-pieces between the narration, which is still counterpointed by rippling piano/violin harmony.

It works best as a piece of storytelling, though, grounding what is by the end of the album genuinely chilling cosmic horror in personal tragedy – both that of the gradually unravelling Edda and that of the doomed lovers Loki and Sigyn (both female in this rendition). The music builds tension throughout the story and then breaks it, perfectly, in “End of the Line” (which made me cry) and “Terminus” (which made me want to put Christmas music on and dance about madly to try and shake off the horror of it. But in a good way).

It’s definitely their most pessimistic album; the first three may have had downbeat endings but there was always a thread of survival, a bit of hope that life would go on. Here, the only survivors are the Mechanisms themselves, the amoral tellers of the tale. The witness-bearers, perhaps. I think there’s something interesting going on with the ways in which Bifrost plays with its various framing devices (parts of the tale are taken from the Ratatosk‘s black box as Edda tries to work out what went on aboard the train) and its multiple levels of narration (Jonny narrating Edda narrating the black box).

All of which, as usual, is a tortuous way of saying: I liked it. You should listen to it. (At least, you should on January 29th, when it’s released to non-Kickstarters.)

Theatre Review: Les Miserables

So I finally went to see Les Miserables live on stage.

Chances are, if you’re an English-speaking Westerner, you know what happens in Les Mis, but just in case: it’s a musical, set in France, that follows an ex-convict, Jean Valjean, as he tries to escape the life of poverty and crime which is the lot of freed prisoners, running from the ultra-dedicated police inspector Javert through a broken parole, a mayoralty, and perhaps most famously a failed revolution (the June Rebellion of 1832, to be precise).

I keep being asked if the production was everything I thought and hoped it would be (being a long-time fan of Les Mis). The answer is complicated, I think: I found it impossible to get away from the preconceptions of already knowing both the story and the music (which are one and the same thing) intimately, anticipating every note and comparing it to what I’ve heard and seen before. I suppose I wasn’t quite expecting to feel like that.

At the same time, though, I think knowing the story so well opened my eyes to what this particular production (at the Queen’s Theatre in London) is highlighting about the base “text”, as it were. Unlike most musicals, which, although a lot of fun, do tend to be rather one-note, Les Mis has a decent amount of depth and nuance to play with; and I think in particular the Queen’s Theatre version brought home to me just how religious the musical is. This is a story in which the answer to the question “Is my immortal soul worth more than the worldly wellbeing of hundreds of workers?” is “Yes”. The doomed June Rebellion forms the heart of the story in many ways – musically and structurally – but ultimately the musical is more interested in Jean Valjean’s arc of religious redemption than in the fate of the students on the barricades. There’s an overwhelming sense of futility to the efforts of the revolutionaries, their defiance becoming no more than an irrelevancy in the face of the grinding forces of poverty; and though their song (“Do You Hear the People Sing?”) is transmuted by the end into a rousing chorus of affirmation, it’s a specifically religious affirmation: “For the wretched of the earth/There is a flame that never dies/Even the darkest night must end and the sun will rise.” Ultimately, salvation for the people “here below” comes only after death, in the form of divine intervention; and all our human efforts are futile.

There’s more I’d like to write and think about here, which is remarkable in itself, that something I’ve known for so long can possibly offer up more meaning. At the moment, though, I’ve got WriMoing to do.

Linkdump 21/11/16

I’m working hard on my novel for NaNoWriMo, as well as trying to complete my reading challenge for 2016 (I’ve got a good 10 books to go before the end of the year, which is…scary), so I’ve not had much time to watch or read new stuff.

So, today, just a linkdump of stuff that’s been distracting me on the Internet lately.

  • Queers in Love at the End of the World – a powerful piece of interactive fiction that I honestly and truly cannot get out of my head. It takes just ten seconds to play, but I’d recommend going around a few times at least. A story about love and affirmation and queerness that made me cry.
  • Angry Chef – “exposing lies, pretension and stupidity in the world of food”. Says it all, really. This is a great blog to read if, like me, you’re bored of endless tales of people around you going on pointless diets when what they really need to be doing is eating a healthy balanced diet.
  • Ferretbrain, one of my perennial sources of procrastination, has been running a very detailed and well-researched series on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, the first of which is here. I am in awe of how people with jobs have the time to do this sort of thing.
  • Strange Horizons has had a facelift! It now no longer looks like it was built in the 1990s. I do like the new look, but I miss the simplicity of the old one – it was much easier to tell with the simpler interface which things I hadn’t read yet. But then I am a grumpy person who does not like change that much.


  • Three Rows of Teeth – Tom Slatter. Described as Genesis meets Doctor Who, which seems pretty near the mark; it sounds like the idealised Doctor Who I have in my mind, the show that’s good at tragedy and adventure and epic stories of loss and time (as opposed to the real Doctor Who, which is frequently sexist and full of stupid ideas and wobbly sets). I particularly like “The Time Traveller Suite” – I am a sucker for prog-rock symphonies of its kind – especially the second song, “Rise Another Leaf”.
  • Crypts and Codes – Psyche Corporation. Gothic cyberpunk that’s full of machines and feminist revenge. Musically, it’s on the electronica side of rock (I think?? Musical terminology is not my thing), although “Lost My Love” almost sounds Tudor. My favourite track at the moment is “Oh”, which is as good an Angry Song as I can think of.
  • Counterpoint – Jason Webley. I have to be careful how much Jason Webley I listen to, because it has a tendency to make me cry. Anyway, Counterpoint, which features “twelve songs in twelve keys”, all sung in Webley’s husky dark-folk style, is catchy and heartbreaking all at once.