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?

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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.

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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.

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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?)

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Freur: Doot-Doot (1983, Wales)

Look at them fall
Flicker and fade

There’s a line in the genetics of popular music that goes: 1970s disco -> 1980s synthpop -> 1990s club electronica -> whatever it is came next in the 00s and the synthpop revival of the 2010s.

(Of course, that’s an exaggeration; there are many other strands of DNA in the 80s synthpop primordial soup: the musique concrete of the 1950s avant garde, electronic experimentation from the 1960s,  Kraftwerk in the mid-70s with their ‘German electro’ sound which then detonated like an atom bomb around the British scene in the early 80s. And if we want to get truly nerdy (and of course we do) then most of the 1990s in computer gaming  was dominated by synthy sounds otherwise forgotten a decade earlier by the analog ‘MTV unplugged’ mainstream.)

But that line weaving from disco, into synthpop and back into club dance music still intrigues me, mostly because – generally – I’m not hugely into 70s disco, and the 1990s drug-culture club music mostly left me cold. Why? I’m not sure. I think because although I love the pure tones of synthesisers, I also love the poetry of words, and a song doesn’t really register with me unless it combines both. Dance music is music that has its eyes squarely elsewhere: it’s music not intended to be primarily listened to, and it just doesn’t work if you’re not there, live.

A band that seems to exemplify this trend is Freur, who fall neatly into three separate phases. From 1982 to 1986, a Welsh New Wavey synthpop group; reformed as Underworld from 1987 to 1990 as  more mainstream pop-dance-rock; then from 1991 on, a techno/acid house electronic dance band becoming hugely famous with the soundtrack to Trainspotting. Today, Underworld continue to be beyond huge in the British scene; they ran the music for the 2012 London Olympics. That’s pretty much the definition of ‘made it’.

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