The Tomorrow Trilogy

In 1977, facing first-time parenthood and an absolute lack of enthusiasm for anything like “career,” I found myself dusting off my twelve-year-old’s interest in science fiction. Simultaneously, weird noises were being heard from New York and London. I took Punk to be the detonation of some slow-fused projectile buried deep in society’s flank a decade earlier, and I took it to be, somehow, a sign. And I began, then, to write.

— William Gibson, 2002,


Making playlists on Youtube is as foolish as making sandcastles. It’s an impermanent medium and eventually videos will vanish as the inevitable cold tide of copyright washes in. But  all of human life is impermanent, and so far, we have this moment. And so, before the tides rise over all the world…

About five years ago I started idly searching Youtube and stumbled over a treasure: offbeat 1980s New Wave and synthpop songs. Some from bands you’ve heard of. Some that you may never have seen. Some which stirred faint memories. Some which were completely new to me. So I started collecting them, and then I started blogging a few. Meanwhile, I started putting them into playlists.

The thing about me is that I can’t just jumble music together anyhow. I do what I call ‘concept playlists’: highly structured soundtracks to imaginary movies. I need them to have motion and flow, to rise to a peak and subside, to have a theme and feel like they could be backdrops to an entire world. So I started putting a few of the ones I felt flowed best into a soundtrack loosely based on that terrifying, startling sense of falling headfirst into ‘The Future’ we all felt who lived through that decade.

The songs I was finding spanned multiple genres, and were a musical education for me. All I knew was that they were the sound I loved as a kid and then fell heavily out of fashion in the 90s: spacey, beepy, dreamy, heavy on pure tones and themes of science fiction and technological advance. They spanned Italo-Disco, New Wave / New Romantic /  Post-Punk, Synthpop avant-garde electronic music, and Progressive Rock. These were really separate musical tribes! But they all still had a go at this new ‘technology’ thing, and sometimes the sound stuck and defined the rest of the decade, and sometimes it didn’t.  Sometimes a single artist or band would focus right in on this science fictiony feel. More often there’d be one or two songs, maybe even novelty songs, and then the zeitgeist moved on. By 1986 it was almost kind of over and stadium rock and rap were becoming the new things.

I was particularly fascinated by the emergence of the literary genre of Cyberpunk, and its primary author, William Gibson, in the 2002 quote above, points at Punk and what became New Wave as his immediate inspiration to write. And when you look at Gibson’s Neuromancer stories (kind of a clue in the name that New Romantic was a thing right about then), they’re very heavily inflected by both overt and subliminal references to music. This was, after all,  an era when crazy kids fresh out of art school (or still in high school) were plugging artistic creativity into computers and jacking it all together with literal jackplugs. The street was finding its own use for technology with a vengeance. There was a sense that anything could go anywhere with this weird new symbiosis of human and machine.

And so there were a LOT of songs about machines. If you were born after the 80s, you might not realise how deeply into computers, digital technology and the future we were, way back then! At least briefly. This stuff is 35 years old but it feels so very now in a way it didn’t even quite then. Plugging your head via a pocket supercomputer uplink into the Planetary Mindweb was (in the 1980s) very transgressive and supermodern and science-fictional and now it’s just ugh political Twitter at breakfast again and take that Oculus Rift off your head right now young man you’ll get quite enough pixels at school.

The midpoint year I found most of this music hovered around was 1982. A year that’s always felt particularly special to me. Not just because I was ten years old through most of that year, but because it seemed like the high water point of a sort of digital futurism – equal parts utopian and scared – that turned out to be decades ahead of its time. The world we’re living through now, in 2017, was prefigured in those early years of the 1980s, when Reagan and Thatcher seemed to be tearing down the civilised world (spoiler: they were, and we stand now in the ruins), Russian KGB gangsters were about to invade (spoiler: they did, hand in hand with Reagan and Thatcher – look, it’s a long story, get in the DeLorean and I’ll explain on the way) and radically scientific New Wave music stood as an uncertain rebellion for good and evil but definitely a force to be reckoned with (spoiler: in fact it didn’t accomplish much of anything at all).

That was a couple years ago. So I had a playlist I liked, structured around the 80s future and the fear of nuclear war.

But I kept finding more 80s music I just had to share. So I started blogging some of my finds, but couldn’t find time to research them all.

Then last year I found myself putting together a second playlist, this time more tightly structured thematically on the twin motif of machine intelligence and nuclear war, and musically on arpeggios and an odd ‘dying keyboard’ riff I found originally in Blue Peter’s ‘Radio Silence’ (THE 80s HAD SO MANY SONGS ABOUT RADIO YOU GUYS, it was like a big huge weird obsession, and also computers and old movies and did I mention nuclear war, I may have mentioned it before) which seemed to repeat in odd places, and which I finally tracked back to Kraftwerk. But something about those bright tones of keyboards – like neon and sunsets and the warm stained-glass glow of arcade phosphors – just does it for me. Hits me right in the Mellotron. So that one is a celebration of that. And it tries to be a bit hopeful because, after all, a miracle occurred and we did survive.

Long story short, now I have a third. This one focuses on the theme of ‘revolution’ with a more analog punk feel but still a lot of that beepy mad science goodness.

And so I have a trilogy. Three playlists. 16 tracks each. About an hour each. 48 tracks and three hours of 80s music goodness. Like I have a couple of big names like Ultravox and Alphaville and Martha and the Muffins but some of these bands did one 45, disbanded and then went on to have productive, useful and happy lives either in the music scene or elsewhere doing wonderful things.

So. many. amazing. 80s. bands! The big ones and the little ones but especially the little ones! I can’t tell all their stories here (though I will try and see how far I get), but if you see a song you like, go check out, which is amazing and seems to have every song ever written right now. These playlists are my own, uniquely geeky selection of course. I’ve picked music that personally resonates with me, and it may be an odd take. But there was definitely a spirit here, a spirit of youth and optimism and rapid instanter-than-now change and fresh takes on the future and above all hope. And that last one is something we need right now.

And here they are. I own none of this, I just found it on Youtube thanks to (asbestos salesman voice) algorithms and they may evaporate at any time at the will of inscrutable AI overlords because that’s how our world works in 2017. So listen while you can I guess. For semi-permanence, here are the song lists in ASCII text, so in case they do finally vanish from Youtube our mutant/robot hybrid punkwave children can maybe search through the radioactive rubble for melted vinyl 45s on which to rebuild a newer, stranger society.

(The country is where I figure the bands are from, not always where the songs were recorded. Canada and Scotland had some great stuff!)

Tomorrow (58 minutes)

01. The Monitors – Singing in the 80’s (1980, Australia)
02. Martha and the Muffins – Danseparc (Every Day It’s Tomorrow) (1983, Canada)
03. Klaatu – Around The Universe In Eighty Days (1977, Canada)
04. Christian Bruhn – Captain Future Theme (1980, Germany)
05. Experimental Products – Modern Living (1982, USA)
06. Rational Youth – City of Night (1982, Canada)
07. Astral Sounds – Spectra (1982, England)
08. Simple Minds – New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) (1982, Scotland)
09. The Twins – The Time Lords (1985, Germany)
10. The Expression – With Closed Eyes (1982, Australia)
11. XL Capris – World War 3 (1980, Australia)
12. Planning By Numbers – Lightning Strikes (1982, England)
13. Logic System – XY (1981, Japan)
14. Cast of ‘Annie’ – Tomorrow (1981, USA)
15. Alphaville – Forever Young (1984, Germany)
16. Yvonne Elliman – Edge of the World (end titles from ‘Wargames’) (1983, USA)

Radiant Energy (64 minutes)

01. The Sound – All Fall Down (1982, England)
02. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Radio Waves (1983, England)
03. Martha and the Muffins – Echo Beach (1980, Canada)
04. Spoons – Nova Heart (1982, Canada)
05. Heaven 17 – Lets All Make A Bomb (1981, England)
06. Industry – State of the Nation (1983, USA)
07. Dollar – Videotheque (1982, England)
08. The Electronic Circus – Direct Lines (1981, England)
09. Rational Youth – I Want To See The Light (1982, Canada)
10. Blue Peter – Radio Silence (1980, Canada)
11. Kraftwerk – Radioactivity (1975, Germany)
12. New Musik – All You Need Is Love (Non Beatles) (1982, England)
13. Modern English – After The Snow (1982, England)
14. Missing Persons – Destination Unknown (1982, USA)
15. Ultravox – Astradyne (1980, England)
16. Max Carl – Come And Follow Me (end titles from ‘Short Circuit’) (1986, USA)

Solid State Revolution (55 mins)

01. Helicopters – Solid State Logic (1981, New Zealand)
02. Depeche Mode – New Life (1981, England)
03. Propaganda – p:Machinery (1985, Germany)
04. Fay Ray – Different Morning (1982, Wales)
05. Modern English – Someone’s Calling (1982, England)
06. Anthony Moore – World Service (1981, England)
07. Ann Steel, Roberto Cacciapaglia – Media (1980, Italy)
08. Strange Cargo – Have A Nice Day (1982, England)
09. This Final Frame – Take No Prisoners (1985)
10. The Sound – Resistance (1980, England)
11. Drinking Electricity – Breakout (1982, Scotland)
12. Crown of Thorns – World Radio (1984, England)
13. B-Movie – Remembrance Day (1981, England)
14. The Terminals – Chinatown (1982, USA)
15. The Buggles – Elstree (1980, England)
16. Hi-Techs – Pompeii (1979, USA)

Good luck and stay safe out there, in the future.



Rogue Dreams and the Singularity Curve

No, my father didn’t fight in the wars. He was a navigator on a spice freighter.

That’s what your uncle told you. He didn’t hold with your father’s ideals. Thought he should have stayed here and not gotten involved.

You fought in the Clone Wars?

Yes, I was once a Jedi Knight the same as your father.

I wish I’d known him.

He was the best star-pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior.

The young man thumbs the plasblade’s stud while the old man smiles, his eyes travelling back to a distant time…

The GALACTIC DEMOCRON shines across a million suns, an interlocking nexus of cultures united in representative politics on its shining capital planet. It has stood for 20,000 solar years, an elegant frozen tableau of 1970s-ish American suburbia protected by its enigmatic and vaguely Asian battle-sages, the KNIGHTS OF WUXIA.  It might stand for a hundred thousand more. But dark winds of change are swirling, amid rumours that the dreaded DARK LORDS OF NU-METAL, last faced a thousand years ago, have returned. Their terrible leader, CHAD NYKYLBACK…

Yes, okay, but how does it actually work? This whole galaxy-falls-to-fascism-in-a-generation thing?

Like, is the republic slowly rotting and did the Imperials just give it a last push into crisis? Or was it fully functioning and one and a half Sith (plus a robot exosuit of no known Force alignment) are really just that strong? For that matter, what do the Imperials stand for? What do they believe in? What’s the big attraction? Because presumably people did support them, there must have been a movement at one point. Was the Empire seen as a saviour? A quick fix? A new vision of the future? Was it religious, technological, Millennial, conservative? What might it have felt like, to live through such an era? How might we recognise something similar in our own lives, should it happen?

In light of recent American political events such questions about a fictional universe feel much more urgent and pressing.

The simple answer of course is that the Star Wars universe doesn’t really have a functioning backstory, and can’t be made to have one, in much the same way that “what happens behind a movie set when the actors aren’t there” doesn’t really have a meaning. It’s a fictional world constructed entirely out of surfaces made by jamming together pieces of other sci-fi properties, so that it feels – or felt to a 1970s audience – realistic and familiar and exotic, but not too exotic. Influences that went into the Star Wars hopper include, best as I can tell:

  • Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), for the giant sand planets with a vaguely Middle Eastern vibe and ‘spice’; itself a parable of ecology, drugs, petrodollars and World War I politics
  • Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels (1942-1953) for the general outlines of a Galactic Empire wrestling with an alternate way of structuring society
  • The long shadow of the Fall of the Roman Empire over Western civilisation or rather its many romanticised versions, since the real thing was much longer and much messier and much harder to tell from Business as Usual in the classical era
  • American Western movies, for lone gunslingers in cowboy getup who hang out in desert bars
  • World War II movies, for the feel of fascist Stormtroopers and dogfights and naval-fleets and Dam Busters trench runs
  • Chinese wuxia stories, as filtered through Japanese samurai movies, for the feel of empires in rebellion and martial-arts masters and apprentices; flavoured with 1910s-1940s China and its princesses and warlords and wistful dreams of ancient warrior sects already outmatched by technology
  • 1930s adventure serials, themselves set in that world on the edge of a technological singularity and world war, but with tight focus on the mostly bloodless and thrilling adventures of a few heroes
  • Flash Gordon, especially Alex Raymond’s legendary founding run 1936-1943, a comic that was visually light-years ahead of the competition, in a world of rocket men and rebel princesses fighting against an evil (and depressingly racistly mock-Asian) Emperor
  • The 1970s space and computer age of satellites and solar panels and ‘personal computers’ and lasers and orbital stations and even ESP research with its dream of reducing psychic functioning to a ‘force’
  • And let’s even throw in Jefferson Airplane-nee-Starship’s 1970s album, ‘Blows Against The Empire’, where future hippies steal a starship and… go into space to grow trees and take drugs and have kids, I guess? Because The Man back on uptight city Earth didn’t like or understand any of those, but flying a starship is something kids can work out on the fly?

In short: everything that was cool to a 1970s sci-fi nerd. Real space tech (still pioneering in that decade); robots rising out of their 1950s chunky humanoid shapes into blocky, square configurations; artificial planets;  the shadows of a real world war 30 years earlier; the century-long trials of China’s collapsing empire and revolution; Communist revolutions and capitalist counter-coups in the decades after the world war; nuclear weapons; dreams of the American Frontier, a century earlier.

None of this quite makes a coherent picture. Our world wars – the spectres of Nazism and Communism and British-American gunship diplomacy – came on the up-curve of a world spinning into a technological and population singularity. One on which we’ve perhaps reached a dangerous point: a plateau. Or perhaps even a collapse.

The Western fairytale of Rome, and the wuxia fairytales of China and Japan, also generally are set in worlds going through rapid changes. But there’s more of a technological stasis in the past; the slope of that singularity curve is much flatter.

And for the technology, we love that blocky 1970s look. Anything much later – certainly not the Stanley Kubrickian iPhone tech of the 2001s or 2010s – just doesn’t read as well in silhouette. We want our future to look used; not quite steampunk, but the retro-future equivalent. Nasapunk.

And so we have a contradiction. How did this ancient, technologically 1970s Galaxy persist with rusty droids and tramp freighters and desert space-pilots at flatline tech level for thousands of years, while its troops talk about the release of new spaceship models as if it was 1943 and the Allies are running factories 24/7 under full military production and rationing?

It really doesn’t, is the thing. Star Wars is a sort of a one-off cultural terrarium dreamscape  that we accept because – and again, this is part of the huge social problem we’re facing here in the 2010s – our Western Anglosphere cultural dreams are stuck in the 1970s. Far more than the Matrix’s 1999, that’s our magic moment. A world that, functionally, doesn’t exist anymore; a world that hasn’t existed for many of us since before we were born; but a world that we want desperately to preserve.

The world in 2017 that we actually live in has icecaps melting and coral reefs dying; billionaires sweeping our social safety net into their pockets; automation, which answers to the billionaires (not to us, its mere users), poised to delete millions of jobs at a stroke; and fascist movements are spawning in our cities as if Sith have been fed into a cloning vat, but inconveniently it’s our parents and siblings and co-workers who are the new Stormtroopers.

These are not nicely solvable Star Wars problems, is the problem. That’s because they’re not 1930s problems and not 1850s problems and not even 1970s problems. We’re in a place, as a planet, we’ve not been before. But our stories are about the problems we already solved. World War II and the interwar period, mostly. Those few decades of war and romance when our dreams (film, comics, pulp, noir) were forged.

Our problems today come from the solutions of yesterday. In particular, the solutions to World War II gave us automation, climate change and nuclear weapons. But we keep reliving that moment when it felt like we were on top, we could do anything, we were gods of the planet.

And though it’s fun to punch a Nazi, we’re not sure if we really want to do that full Civil War thing again. Do we want to punch our parents, our brothers? Can you fire missiles at bees to make them come back? Can you shoot a glacier to stop it calving?

The great thing about Star Wars – or, I guess, the WW2 period, because we seem to keep coming back to it in our minds – is that it’s about races uniting to Solve A Big Problem. And I guess WW2 did have that effect on our grandparents. We seem to have lost, at least us Gen-Xers and our Boomer parents lost (will the Millennials save us?) a sense of we: that there are things bigger than any one of us, goals worth pursuing, actual unironic victories to be had.

I mean that WW2 victory sure looks pretty ironic from 2017! Put ’em up in a neat list: DDT, atomic fission, internal combustion engines, Communism, Capitalism and FDR’s New Deal, the CIA, the NSA… so many of the ‘wins’ from that war turn out to have had a Dark Side. Which our parents spent the 60s and 70s deconstructing. But then… somehow managed to reconstruct? I dunno. It all went weird after the 80s. And the engines our grandparents built, and we improved, began to eat the earth.

We desperately need a new pop myth. WW2 was powered by pulp like Superman and Flash Gordon; whatever it is that we’re sleepwalking into, in this terrifying moment in January 2017, is it going to be Star Wars and Indiana Jones that gets us through?

Did the Republic fall or was it pushed by a Sith? Looking back from 2017, it seems like the Republic’s been falling for a long time; that even its biggest victories are now its biggest defeats. For America, for the UK, for Europe, for the world. Have we processed that? Do we grasp what it means? I know I sure don’t.

But man, The Force Awakens’ neo-Nazi First Order just cold straight up out of nowhere blowing up the New Republic’s capital was a whole lot more on the money than I thought when I watched it in the theatre.

So what happens now? What if the X-Wings are destroying the galaxy? And your kids are worshipping Vader. What do you do, try to build a slightly more fuel-efficient X-Wing? Or walk away, like  Luke, to look for a more radical solution?

Star Wars, to me, said three things:

  • Technology can be your friend or your enemy. Choose it well. Get the blueprints. Use them to your advantage.
  • Life is an adventure! There is more out there than you realise. Strangers are worth meeting. Work together. Have fun.
  • There is a bigger world. Minds are not just machines. Be open to spirituality. Its fire has not yet gone out of the galaxy.

And I guess those are all valid lessons. It also said we should shoot a whole bunch of people in the face, as long as they’re strangers, but I’m not actually convinced that part is the way forward.

Knight Rider and Family-Friendly Armageddon

In 1984 I turned thirteen.

It was a year of political lightning, like 2016 though perhaps slightly less crazy. In New Zealand, the three-term National government of Rob Muldoon – considered “right-wing” at the time, but economically leftist and state-interventionist – had fallen in July to the newly reinvented Labour Party: a hybrid left-right alliance of the charismatic young lawyer David Lange, who would ban nuclear ships from New Zealand, decriminalise homosexuality, and begin land reparations for the indigenous Maori – and the right-libertarian Roger Douglas, who aimed to turn New Zealand into a corporate tax-haven paradise with zero state services or welfare.

The political rhetoric unleashed that year was not kind. Government economic management was Stalinism gone mad, going to crush us all. No, the right wing were insane, going to starve us and hurl the poor and elderly into the streets. *

(* 32 years later, the second one turned out to be correct. )

In the United States of America, a Presidential election year was a referendum on both Ronald Reagan’s right-wing economics and his military adventurism; pop culture was full of nuclear despair. And in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative United Kingdom, George Orwell’s namesake book was echoing everywhere, seized on by both left and right as an allegory of state power and the terrifying future we might or might be hurtling toward because of the new-fangled “microchip“.

Our family belonged to a strict conservative church. I was young for my age, with very little media exposure, but a head full of much weirder ideas. My mother had subscribed to an underground Christian conspiracy zine obsessed with End Times theology, predicting the rise of ‘The Beast’, an evil world dictator with supernatural powers and a giant computer, who would stamp a barcode/microchip on our forehead and then damn our souls to eternity. My brother was obsessed with UFOs, the Roswell cover-up, and extraterrestrial alien infiltration of the US military system. (A meme that would burst into pop culture about ten years later, via The X-Files). That was if the Bomb didn’t drop and burn the whole planet to a cinder.

Three apocalypses for the price of one! Yay.

In school, we were just starting to learn about World War 2 and the rise of the Nazis, and Communism. And my bookshelf was full of improving Christian young adult fiction (from right-leaning American publishing houses) about life in Communist Russia: happy stories of gulags, forced confessions, and torture by hallucinogenic drugs and electroshock.

In many ways, you’d call me ‘sheltered’, and you’d be right. Except it didn’t feel much like shelter to lie awake seriously thinking about aliens, hell, the end of the world, and how you should personally react to the rise of a possible fascist dictator with mind-melting superpowers. And how God would judge you for your choices in such a moment, and probably drop you down the chute to damnation if you made the wrong one.

In our house, we didn’t watch TV, except on holidays. And so it was, in the southern hemisphere summer of late 1984, I found myself in a holiday house watching two television programs: a one-man play performing George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four – and the Season 3 opening episode of Knight Rider.

I hadn’t read the book at that point. But I remember the horror of watching Winston’s stay in Room 101. A cage full of rats. O’Brien, an all-powerful shadow man, a humming electrical device clamped to Winston’s head, bending his mind with pain, forcing him to miscount the number of fingers. (A moment Star Trek TNG would later rip wholesale and invert, in 1992’s “Chain of Command”, with Picard giving the audience-pleasing refutation: THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS!!!  )

But George Orwell gave his audience – or me – no such satisfaction. His famous novel was a curse on all possible political houses. The world, he said, will end like this, and there is nothing you or anyone can do about it. You will fight the future, and you will lose, and there will be a boot stepping on a human face, forever.

George Orwell was not, I think, a happy man, in his last years.

Reeling from the terror of this moment, the next show I watched that week was Knight Rider. I’m not even sure if I’d ever seen it before. I think I understood that it was about a talking computer car powered by military defense technology that fought crime, which was basically a list of All My Relevant Interests at that point. And that opening narration…

A shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist… a world of criminals who operate ABOVE the law.

It was a heck of a season opener. Melting transforming radio-robots! Drone cars! Powerful, if decorative, women in shoulder pads! The obligatory San Francisco  stereotypical Chinatown! Secret crime syndicates based out of a university, because that’s totally how universities work! A budget of about $0.01 spent on hallways and background props! A control panel that looks like an AN/FSQ-7 (the Wilhelm Scream of Hollywood computers) but probably isn’t!

And at 22 minutes and 13 seconds, a gratuitous electroshock-torture scene. Because it’s Morning in America.

How do you feel?
Like a guinea pig.
That’s exactly what you are. I’m doing a computerized project on pain, from inception to threshold. Don’t worry. You can abort anytime you choose by stepping on this button…
What am I supposed to do?

Feel the pain.

That scene was all of 2 minutes and 27 seconds long and I imagine it didn’t even register for most viewers, as there are no hits for anyone talking about it. It’s only been this week, thanks to Youtube, that I managed to track it down. It’s pretty cheesy stuff. A tiny disposable moment of ‘establish this guy as the episode villain and/or romantic rival’. It’s never even referred to again and there are no consequences.

But to 13-year-old me, fresh from  historical knowledge of actual Nazi and Soviet torture techniques,  and George Orwell’s essay on mind control reverberating throughout the Western world, it was Kryptonite.

We didn’t have “trigger warnings” in 1984. I noped out of that chair and out of the TV room so fast I just about left burn marks on the carpet.  I had nightmares for weeks.

Or did they ever, in fact, end?

For extra bonus nightmare fuel in so many ways, the opening credits song – presumably not placed there by accident – was the Jackson 5…. ‘Torture’.

It was on a street so evil
So bad that even hell disowned it
Every single step was trouble
For the fool who stumbled on it
Eyes within the dark were watchin’
I felt the sudden chill of danger
Something told me keep on walkin’
Told me I should not have gone there

Baby, ’cause you cut me like a knife
Without your love in my life
Alone I walk in the night
‘Cause I just can’t stop this feeling
It’s torture
It’s torture
It’s torture

The sunny, optimistic, family-friendly Reagan 80s, everyone!


Perhaps that one moment coloured my entire Knight Rider experience, but in all the episodes I’ve watched since I always found a huge disconnect between the premise of that bleak opening and the show’s setup – the dangerous world of a man who does not exist – and the actual content: David Hasselhoff jokes, and smiles at a pretty woman, and punches some cartoon crooks, Devon sips tea and eats big dinners,  Bonny fixes stuff, and KITT saves the day. It’s a happy cowboy show! Where the horse is a car! With an evil twin! And billionaires scheme to privatize the police!

When you think about it for a moment. Knight Rider is a show steeped in what TV Tropes calls Fridge Horror (terribly sorry to link you there; I’ll send in a rescue team if you haven’t escaped after ten years):

  • A secret foundation funded by a defense industry tycoons is quietly building a private police force. FLAG is basically a civilian Blackwater, funded by the Koch Brothers.
  • For whatever dark reasons of his own – set up at length in the pilot and then never explained at all – Wilton Knight chooses a Vietnam War veteran, no doubt filled with PTSD – and gives him complete facial plastic surgery and a new identity, because transparency and honesty about the members of your private police force is for the little guys.
  • You’d think all this billionaire-funded secrecy would mean that “Michael Knight”, The Man Who Does Not Exist, would be forever hiding, on the run, unable to show his face, and yet you’d be wrong. He drives around in the flashiest car imaginable and chats up every girl he sees. Obviously this is going to have horrible consequences one day.
  • Fully sentient Artificial Intelligence has happened in 1982, and is small enough to put into a car. And this is just a spinoff from defense technology .One would have to assume that Knight Industries isn’t the only one with this stuff, and that there are much larger, more powerful, thinking machines in every major corporation, probably running the world.
  • The precursor to KITT of course went evil, so the hit rate for AI in 1982 Knight Rider Universe is around 50/50 on the ‘kill all humans’ scale. So maybe 50% of those huge corporate AIs no doubt running companies are probably already plotting our demise.
  • America circa 1982 is absolutely crawling with rich, politically connected criminals with a talent for high technology. It would be reasonable to assume that they’re either just competing defense corporation / private police force foundations, or actually just disposable human agents for those evil AIs. Or, much more likely, both.
  • And strangest of all, and never commented on: the actual police, justice, and government systems just flat plain don’t work. When trouble happens, it’s a man and his talking car out on the LA highways, and you might meet an elite art critic in shoulder pads and a rocket launcher drinking wine out of her private helicopter, or a rogue university professor stealing a satellite via remote control hacking, and this is just normal everyday life. It doesn’t attract any police attention for two cars to get into a fight with assault weapons and small missiles; you probably won’t even have any curious onlookers. It’s just a little traffic delay.

A logical conclusion is that Knight Rider – perhaps parallel to the original Mad Max (1979) takes place in a world where law, justice and government have completely disintegrated. Where all city services have been privatized, corporations controlled by 50%-evil AIs run everything, and violent fugitives from justice can get all their records wiped (by the feuding AIs, one guesses) within seconds. Between the cities – mysteriously pockets of suburban normality, obviously deep in AI-assisted denial – are only empty highways, possibly running through the radioactive deserts of Damnation Alley or The Day After .

There’s a reason for this disconnect, of course. Knight Rider is a Western at heart – just an updated one, set literally in the American West of 1982 – and deep in the Western genes is the belief that every man (because they are mostly male fantasies) is alone; that cities are small, self-running concerns, with haunted wasteland between; that government doesn’t exist or is so corrupt it doesn’t work; that justice comes out of a gun, from private action on the desolate streets. That, ultimately, there’s no-one to trust but yourself, but that’s fine, because deep down you’re a badass, a winner, the ultimate survivor.

It’s a fantasy that wasn’t even true in 1882, and was visibly ridiculous in 1982, but it’s also a fantasy that got Ronald Reagan elected.

(It’s also the flipside of George Orwell’s nightmare: that you are tiny and nothing and the cruel world will crush you. Both dreams assume that the individual is everything and relationships count for nothing. But America didn’t live through the bombs of World War 2 the way Great Britain did.)

And in 2016? We’re seeing this fantasy appear again, through the dominance of superhero stories. Batman is of course the prime example of the genre; but even Arrow and Flash live in similar Western-hero bottle cities with one police officer and a couple of CEOs. Supergirl, a little, though she escapes the trap in many ways; you are not alone, you can and must rely on workmates, family and friends is a deep theme of that show; and, I think a much healthier one.

I love Knight Rider, and I love superhero stories! But I would really, really love to see shows that combine these kind of sci-fi elements with the web of lives that, like the Force, surround and bind us. That acknowledge what 12-year-old me didn’t understand – that the world is not a one-man play. That we’re not being tested, alone in the dark, by a faceless judge, on an arbitrary moral scale; but that we live in a world of connection, and all our acts have causes and consequences, both good and bad, that ripple both in and out to tens, hundreds, millions and billions of people.

That we’re not, and never have been, alone.

On the Theme of Star Wars

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has opened. Initial indications are that it’s what we suspected it would be: a JJ Abrams film.  In other words – to put it somewhat bluntly – a festival of glorious visual storytelling without, in fact, much of a story underneath to tell. This does not surprise me, since ‘Made by JJ Abrams’ is exactly what the label said on the can. I will hold off further critical comment on the specifics until I’ve actually seen the film. But I have some comment on the generalities.

Abrams isn’t alone in being a modern, high-profile 2010s director whose creative output is synonymous with ‘style over substance’.   I’d argue that from the 1990s – from Quentin Tarantino,  in fact –  directors of my generation (Gen X) have  focused largely on recreating the look and feel of films they liked. Without, it feels, understanding how the underlying stories worked, and particularly how they were structured in terms of theme rather than mere plot or even drama.

The films of the 1970s-80s, in other words, aren’t just about what happen – or even how much you care about what happens – but about a deep sense that things in this filmic universe happen for a reason.

While there have been some startling moments (George Lucas’ prequel trilogy and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus among them) where 1970s-80s directors, making films in the 2000s-10s,  have fallen prey to the same problems as younger directors – on the whole those directors weren’t just trying to make spectacle or to echo previous films. They were  quite serious about the nature of film as art; they were attempting to ‘say something’, not just repeat and remix.

George Lucas was definitely saying something with Star Wars in 1977. But – exactly because that film has been so successful – it might not be obvious to audiences today what that was.

Lucas’ first movie was THX-1138 (1971), which itself was an extension of a film school short piece. It’s a very bleak dystopia modeled somewhat on both 1984 and Brave New World; a nominally capitalist (though with overtones of the USSR) dystopia where workers have completely lost their personal identity to a production-oriented space age society that controls their every thought with computers and mandatory drug. (A ‘drug offense’ in this society is refusing to take your medication). The hero, after his individuality is awakened by forbidden love, escapes the underground city in a tense vehicle chase. At the last moment, when it seems all is lost,  capitalism itself proves the system’s undoing: a ‘cost to recover asset’ counter clicks over on a computer board somewhere, and the robot police are called off. THX-1138 escapes to the surface, seeing a sunrise for the first time.

THX-1138 didn’t do very well commercially. His second movie, American Graffiti (1973), was a complete reversal: an intimate, semi-autobiographical nostalgia portrait of small-town Americana in 1962. A group of high school leavers and street racing fans hang out, race, and sort out their personal lives and futures in that liminal moment between childhood and adulthood; between the America of the 1950s and the one yet to be born after the 1960s. American Graffiti touched a nerve somewhere in the zeitgeist; it sold really well, kick-started Harrison Ford’s career, and allowed Lucas the space to work on his dream project, an adaptation of the space-themed comic books he’d loved (he owned a comic store and – a little like Tarantino, later, with film – was a huge fan). He wanted to do a straight adaptation of Flash Gordon, but couldn’t get the rights, so painstakingly created his own.

There was a nostalgic component to this dream – and to his next successful project, the revival of ‘Saturday afternoon serials’ with Indiana Jones. But I think he wasn’t just doing this for nostalgia, but from the sense that something important to humanity had been genuinely lost. What Lucas was after was nothing less than a new mythology for the space age. And I believe that – like most of the idealistic media students of his generation – he wanted that mythology not for its own sake, but as a machine to generate social and spiritual change.

Lucas wasn’t alone in this quest. The 1970s was a philosophical decade. There were huge debates on campus and off about the future of society. There was a sense that American – and by extension all modern, Western – culture was deeply flawed and in crisis. A popular source of blame was the technocratic elite of the military-scientific-corporate-educational establishment – the faceless ‘organization men’ in suits who had created terrifying space-based weapons of mass destruction, and huge centralised computers which were feared as a cold, depersonalising force.

Alongside this deep fear of technology, there was a surge of counterculture interest in both the ‘hippie’ interests of extra-sensory perception (ESP),  psychedelics and consciousness expansion, and a new thing being called ‘personal computing’ which promised to help turn the tide of technological centralisation.

Within the rationalist technological establishment, there were already defectors; people arguing that the soul or spirit might really exist, that telepathy and telekinesis might exist, could be studied and developed. Hal Puthoff and Dean Radin, for instance, became vocal advocates for a new generation of parapsychology with their pioneering ‘remote viewing’ research (a whole another subject, but it’s important to remember that ESP – and both hope and fear around its potential weaponisation – was a huge factor in the intellectual life of the 1970s, and directly inspired Star Wars’ ‘force’).

There were also technologists arguing that although centralisation was a big problem, technology could be tamed, that it didn’t have to strip our identity away and reduce us to numbers. The machine could work for us. Stewart Brand, for example, promoted the concept of technology as a liberating, mind-expanding tool for political decentralisation with his ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ (and later the pioneering online service, ‘The WELL’). Ted Nelson’s ‘Computer Lib / Dream Machines’ (1974) also advocated the concept of ‘hypertext’ for personal thought liberation. Both of these ideas would go on to deeply influence the 1990s World Wide Web.

In Star Wars, while the Empire has vast, faceless, centralised technology, the robots and X-Wings represent technology ‘repurposed’ by individuals – themselves empowered by a wider, more spiritual, more creative  worldview – for subversion of the wider system.  This concept of ‘turning the Empire’s tools against it’ shows up throughout the 70s and 80s – for example, it’s a central theme and preoccupation of the rock music movement.

from Jefferson Starship’s ‘Blows Against the Empire (1970)

You know – a starship circlin in the sky – it ought to be ready by 1990
They’ll be buildin it up in the air even since 1980
People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty

to Roger Waters’ ‘The Tide Is Turning’  (1987).

I’m not saying that the battle is won
But on Saturday night all those kids in the sun
Wrested technology’s sword from the hand of the war lords

So all these threads were in academia and the youth and counterculture of the 1970s, and Lucas wove them with his love for 1930s Flash Gordon comics and movie serials to create a story. But not just a story. I would argue that Star Wars resonates so deeply because it is a story about stories – a story about the conflict between reason and myth. This wasn’t an accident. Lucas, like other media students of his generation, was consciously trying to ‘overthrow the Empire from within’.

The fundamental theme of Star Wars is a cold world of empty ‘rationality’ overthrown by primal, mythic intuitive creativity. And a key element of that creative ‘force’ Lucas was trying to summon is storytelling itself: the will to believe, the drive to make myth.

To that end, the universe of Star Wars is consciously constructed from found media. The very texture of the galaxy is built from preexisting components of cinema. C3PO is a gender-swapped Maria from Metropolis, the very first science fiction movie. From westerns come the sands and Mexican-themed cantinas of Tattooine. From the samurai films of Kurosawa, the empire and the robed swordfighting monks. World War II films, with the Nazis as the machinelike villains, hold the whole construct together. NASA footage and the groundbreaking space visuals pioneered by ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ lend a sharp, super-scientific visual feel. The TIE fighters take some of their shape from satellite solar panels, and R2-D2’s dome reflects the design of Telstar, the first TV satellite. Even Luke’s lightsaber handle is a flashbulb grip. That’s why Star Wars feels at once exciting and exotic yet also familiar, lived-in, like we already know how its universe works – because we do.

Star Wars’ prime conflict, of rationality vs intuition, is not new. It’s the same theme as Kubrick told in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But where Kubrick’s gaze was icy and abstract, reducing astronauts exploring the universe to to space monkeys pounding on an alien black box they could never understand, Lucas (with the help of his close scriptwriting friends) gave his new mythology a warm, beating human heart of friendship. We could learn to understand ourselves and the universe, it suggested. We might come through this okay. This was a radical concept for the 1970s, which was majoring on either grim  dystopia, or ‘back to the land’ mysticism right then.

Star Wars came along at just the right time when American society, troubled by Vietnam and Watergate, and frightened by the rise of space technology and computer processing. was ready to hear ‘believe’. Believe in yourself, believe that you are more than a machine, believe in a more spiritual, a more natural, a wider world than you’ve been taught. But you don’t need to abandon technological society entirely. Take charge of it; believe that the machine can be your tool and your friend; that the robot can work for you and help you hack the system. ‘Machines of loving grace’ as Richard Brautigan wrote in 1967.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that Star Wars’ release coincided with the home computer ‘trinity of 1977’: Apple II, TRS-80, Commodore PET. They both were products of the same rebel technoculture.

‘The Jedi are extinct’, mocks Grand Moff Tarkin. ‘Their fire has gone out of the universe’.  The Empire – at least in that first movie – is a sort of heat-death of technological culture, where machines have replaced emotions – literally, for Darth Vader, with his body driven by machine implants. Ben Kenobi, on the contrary tells Luke: ‘Reach out with your feelings’ To succeed – as in 2001 – Luke, as an authentic human, must turn off his computer and trust to instinct. But even at that point, the droid R2-D2 –  though he can’t possibly understand the ways of the Force – remains Luke’s friend.

Everything in the plot of that first Star Wars is in service of this twin theme of intuition/creativity and a warm reappraisal of technology. So it wasn’t just a fun story. It was a deeply felt and deeply thought manifesto about the relation of man, machine and art.

It was also, incidentally, a perfect weapon for selling lots and lots of toys. But they would never have sold without the instinctive love for the movie that came from a young human being responding, at a core emotional level, to its deep thematic structure.

Could we make a movie that resonates like Star Wars, today? I think so. But, so far, we haven’t. And we won’t get there just by copying the surface detail of the stories of our childhood. We need to first sit down and ask ourselves why those stories work; what deep questions they ask, what fears they confront, and what hope they offer. And ask ourselves if those questions, fears and hopes are the same as they were for our parents’ generation.

I’m pretty sure they aren’t, because we’re in a different cultural moment. To give one example: when we have young, rebellious, self-made Internet billionaires telling us to ‘do what you love’ but nevertheless building giant central machines of control and surveillance….  on which we happily share cat pictures, until we make one ‘Like’ too many and ….  we’re not in the 70s anymore. We’re now facing a sort of weird fusion of Empire and Rebellion, of hyper-individualism for some and conformity for most, that’s still oppressive. A world where we rolled back ‘big government’, but got drones, climate change, and the Donald Trump. A world literally drowning in myth but parched for truth. A galaxy where Luke Skywalker won – but it all still got worse.

And that – and far more importantly, how we fix that – is the blockbuster story we need to tell ourselves right now.

Boytronic: Red Chips (1983, Germany)

We crossed the oceans of megabyte
When the diskettes start to burn like candles

I usually think of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) as the prototypical Cyberpunk work, but of course it wasn’t even Gibson’s first story set in the Sprawl  (1981’s Johnny Mnemonic) or the first one featuring his videogame-like Cyberspace (1982’s Burning Chrome).

Meanwhile, Vernor Vinge’s 1981 cyberpunk novella True Names featured a slightly different take on the ultimate computer user interface; one that ‘evoked’ images in a person’s mind rather than a visual field of pixels, and was conceptualised in terms of magic. Of the two writers, Vinge was the only one working as an actual computer scientist at the time, and would have experienced first-hand the pseudo-anonymity of computer chat forums that we now take for granted as ‘the Internet’.

Finally, in 1982, Disney released the movie Tron, taking place inside a computer from the viewpoint of programs, and giving a third popular fictional impression of ‘cyberspace’ based on mythology and analogies to videogames. Wikipedia suggests that development of Tron began as early as 1976, as a response to the popularity of Atari’s 1972 hit videogame Pong.

(It’s fascinating to think how long it takes for technology to migrate to popular culture: in the case of Pong to Tron, about 10 years. So the seeds of cyberpunk, even in its earliest fictional form, would likewise go back to the early 70s. What’s being sown now, in the years after Snowden, I wonder?)

On the music front, in Germany, Kraftwerk had also been doing weird things to synthesizers since the very early 70s – their breakthrough album Autobahn came out in 1974 – so it’s not surprising, I guess, that by 1982 Germany had a strong synthpop / New Wave / dance scene.

The German band Boytronic was also, and much more creatively, known as ‘Bryllyant Berger and the Tronic Twins‘ which has to be a pretty good cyberpunk name right there.  To be honest their music, like much of the era, is mostly dance and doesn’t do much for me.

(Their initial 1983 hit You demonstrates why the 80s New Wave synthpop period was so short-lived: keyboards and dancing do not go together. You have to love the ‘expensive electronic hardware in burned-out urban wasteland’ vibe of the set though.)

But it’s one track from their followup 1983 album The Working Model, which intrigues me. It’s still just a dance track, wearing out its welcome after about a minute and a half. But for theme it  goes right for the cyberpunk lingo mixes elements from Burning Chrome/ Johnny Mnemonic, True Names and Tron in a way I’ve not seen anywhere else, in English language, quite so early. Computer interface as knights and dragons, the story told from a program’s perspective, and the whole thing catching fire. Is there more cyberpunk than that? No. None more cyberpunk.

Okay they ARE pronouncing megabyte as ‘meegabyte’, but a megabyte was still a mythological figure for most consumers in 1983, something reserved for mainframes or minicomputers. The IBM PC/XT, with its 10MB hard drive, would only ship in August of that year (in America, that is; in New Zealand, hard drive machines would remain unaffordably expensive for several more years, and things were probably similar in the UK and Europe).

Red chips – burning, burning…

We crossed the oceans of megabyte
When the diskettes start to burn like candles
The data enter shows the warning light
“This program is to hot to handle”

Red chips – burning, burning…

We beat the knights of interface
And crushed the dragons of both poles
But our program lost the trace
I hope our user saved our souls