A Year Passes Like Nothing

    It’s exactly a year since I last went out to an event.1

    I referred to ‘being out on a cold, virus-infested night’ to see Glen Matlock in Leytonstone, and it seems really weird now that I did it.

    What were we thinking? Gathering together in a small hall, where people were singing and shouting. And not a mask to be seen! Masks? who had masks? How would we have drunk our beer while wearing a mask? You probably wouldn’t have been let in if you had turned up wearing a mask.

    Although I had good social distancing at the start, when I was almost the only one there.

    Memory, eh?

    1. I actually thought it was on the last day of February 2020, which was the 29th, not the 28th, making it hard to hit the exact anniversary, but my blog and calendar both tell me I was wrong. ↩︎

    The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa (Books 2020, 2)

    Translated by Stephen Snyder. I asked for this for Christmas, because I saw it reviewed in The Guardian and it sounded interesting. And it is, but I had some problems with it.

    Let’s look at the blurb:

    Hat ribbon, bird, rose.

    To the people on the island, a disappeared thing no longer has any meaning. It can be burned in the garden, thrown in the river or handed over to the Memory Police. Soon enough, the island forgets it ever existed.

    When a young novelist discovers that her editor is in danger of being taken away by the Memory Police, she desperately wants to save him. For some reason, he doesn’t forget, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hide his memories. Who knows what will vanish next?

    That “[f]or some reason” is where this book doesn’t quite work for me. The setup is fine: a type of item, and the memories, the very idea of that item, disappears. The titular police make sure that all instances of the item — roses, hats, photographs… — are removed. But some people keep their memories and the ideas, and try to keep the things. The Memory Police find them and cart them off.

    The protagonist’s mother was taken in that way when the protagonist was small.1

    Why is it happening? How is it happening? Who are the Memory Police, and what happens to the people they take? Can they be resisted, and how can the islanders get their memories back? These are the sorts of questions you would expect to have answered, were this a science fiction novel. Are the islanders the victims of some sort of mind-control experiment? Are they in a simulation?

    This is not a science fiction novel.

    “For some reason”. Don’t read this expecting to find out what the reason is, or to get answers to any of the other questions.

    All that said, I enjoyed reading it. The sense of danger, of menace, is palpable, but subtle. It’s about people trying to live their lives under these bizarre conditions. It’s just frustrating thinking about it now, about the unanswered questions.

    But maybe I’m reading it wrong. In her essay “SF reading protocols,” Jo Walton writes:

    A reviewer wanted to make the zombies in Kelly Link’s “Zombie Contingency Plans” (in the collection Magic For Beginners) into metaphors. They’re not. They’re actual zombies. They may also be metaphors, but their metaphorical function is secondary to the fact that they’re actual zombies that want to eat your brains. Science fiction may be literalization of metaphor, it may be open to metaphorical, symbolic and even allegorical readings, but what’s real within the story is real within the story, or there’s no there there. I had this problem with one of the translators of my novel Tooth and Claw—he kept emailing me asking what things represented. I had to keep saying no, the characters really were dragons, and if they represented anything that was secondary to the reality of their dragon nature. He kept on and on, and I kept being polite but in the end I bit his head off—metaphorically, of course.

    The essay is largely about how there is a “toolkit” for reading SF — a set of understandings, of tropes — without which some can find the genre difficult to understand. We learn that toolkit, or build it, from early reading of the genre. But she follows the above quote with this:

    When I read literary fiction, I take the story as real on the surface first, and worry about metaphors and representation later, if at all. It’s possible that I may not be getting as much as I can from literary fiction by this method, in the same way that the people who want the zombies and dragons to be metaphorical aren’t getting as much as they could.

    Maybe that’s what went wrong for me with The Memory Police: Ogawa wrote a metaphorical work — about people trying to live their lives under bizarre conditions, as I wrote above. I read it with the expectation that the bizarre conditions would have an explanation, and they don’t, because they are “only” metaphors.

    For, I would have to suppose, a totalitarian state, where the slightest infraction of arcane and obscure laws leads to being carted away by the secret police.

    We also get sections of the novel the protagonist is writing. It is about a woman who loses her voice, and communicates using a typewriter. Then the typewriter is taken away from her. It works as a metaphor for the situation the protagonist lives in: a metaphor within a metaphor.

    And from the Guardian review that started this:

    Why this is happening is unknown; the ideology of totalitarian control and cultural isolation is implied, rather than explicitly outlined, and its intersection with the supernatural strengthens the feeling of allegory.

    So maybe I should have been warned. Calling it “supernatural” suggests something more in the magic realism vein. That might be a better way to approach it. Magic needs — or at least, generally gets — less of an explanation.

    1. Note the lack of names, too: the editor is given an initial, R, but the only character given an actual name is a dog. 

    Stiff Little Memories

    I’ve just had two slightly odd experiences while researching Stiff Little Fingers.

    SLF were the first band I ever saw live, and they had a major effect on my life — which is why I was researching them: I’m writing a longer piece about the effect they had on me.

    So as I was reading the Wikipedia article about them, I became somewhat confused. Because it says they split up in 1983, and reformed in 1987. Now the breakup I’d forgotten about, but it seems right. However, I saw them on the tour in 87. I saw them two days in a row. I had tickets for the Brixton Academy gig, which I think was on a Saturday, and then when Time Out came out that week there was a small advert in the back (I’ve no idea how I came to see it), which said:

    Tin Soldiers
    Belfast’s finest. Shhh: a secret gig!

    Or something very like that. It was on the Friday night at the Mean Fiddler. Which I don’t think I had ever been to at that time, and which was a bastard long way from Tooting. But I wasn’t going to miss the chance to see SLF in a small club.

    What I mainly remember was that the Academy gig the next night was a bit of a letdown after the intensity of seeing them at the Mean Fiddler.

    But anyway, the point of all of this is that as far as I remember things, this all was — or was billed as — their farewell tour. That’s why the t-shirt (which I still have) says “Game Over.”

    Now obviously they’re around again, and I’ve seen them since, and bought albums they’ve released since. But my memory says they broke up in 87 (or it could have been 88, but I think not (though actually March 88 if this setlist site is to be believed)), and then reformed later. But Wikipedia and All Music both say I’m wrong.

    I don’t know. Who would you trust?

    Actually probably not me. I’m becoming more convinced as I look at that setlist site, that I must have seen them several times at the Academy, after moving to London in 87, and the supposed farewell tour must have been later. In which case the Mean Fiddler was a bastard long way from Walthamstow, but that’s still true.

    The second odd experience was that I clicked onto the Wikipedia talk page to see whether the history was disputed at all. It isn’t, but around five sections in there’s a section entitled “the?”, in which someone asks whether they were ever referred to as “the Stiff Little Fingers.”

    And back in 2007 some guy called “Devilgate” answered firmly in the negative.

    Again, Again

    A long time ago — a long, long time ago: I can’t have been more than thirteen, maybe younger — I got an accidental book.

    It was in John Smith’s in Glasgow: St Vincent Street’s glory. I thought it was now long gone, but apparently not. I was there, probably with my Mum — no, undoubtedly, as I didn’t go to Glasgow on my own till I was about sixteen — I’m guessing in about January, to spend Christmas money (often given in the form of Book Tokens in those days, of course).

    I bought a stack of books. I don’t now recall what any of them were, but they were almost certainly mostly or entirely SF.

    As was the freebie that I got by accident. If memory serves I paid at the checkout and gathered up my books, or more likely the assistant put them in a bag for me, and then when I got on to the train back to Balloch, I took them out to have a look.

    And found I had more than I’d bargained for. Worse, more than I’d paid for. There was an extra book in my bag. One that I had never seen before, that I hadn’t chosen. One with an interesting title.

    Again, Dangerous Visions, Book 2, edited by Harlan Ellison.

    My immediate feeling was guilt. I had, effectively, stolen a book. I was a good Catholic boy, and would never have stolen anything.

    Then surprise: how had it got there? Presumably the assistant had mixed it up with the purchases of the person before me. There was probably someone sitting on a train right at that moment, realising that one of their books was missing. Poor them.

    Poor them, but lucky me. I don’t think I told my Mum it had happened. Or if I did, she must have said not to worry, it was too late to do anything; and that doesn’t sound like her. One way or another, we made no attempt to return it.

    But I think among the confusion and excitement of it all, I must have been slightly annoyed that it was the second volume: not much use without that first. And that “Again”: did that mean that the whole thing was some kind of follow-on?

    Obviously I know now that it did. When I went to university a few years later and met a community of fans, when they mentioned the famous Dangerous Visions (non-) trilogy, I had some idea of what they were talking about.

    I’d like to say that it was some kind of formative experience. That reading those legendary short stories changed my approach to the genre, or my understanding of fiction, or what have you. But I can’t really say that it did.

    I eventually read the stories. Not having the earlier volumes of an anthology doesn’t cause any problem. Though I think I took the original, Dangerous Visions out of the library. Some of them were great, but I don’t recall finding any of them particularly memorable (though you never know: some things burrow deep). But one of the titles stuck with me, and is why I started writing this today.

    That was “A Mouse in the Walls of the Global Village,” by Dean Koontz. Though I couldn’t have told you who it was by, and I’m quite surprised to find that it’s Koontz, who I think of as a horror author.

    It came to mind because of something my beloved was saying about this interview between George Osborne and Yuval Noah Harari. She mentioned the “global village” idea, and my mind jumped back to the story and the cascade of memories that go with that book. I downloaded the Kindle version of the book (and the first one) and started writing this.

    As I recall, that global village involved telepathy, and is very much not the one we are living in. But that doesn’t matter. It’s time to reacquaint myself with some old New Wave SF.

    I Upgraded my MacBook

    And it's like having a new machine.

    I have a 13-inch MacBook Pro, mid 2010 model. I bought it in about September or October 2010. Which means it’s getting quite long in the tooth. The MacBooks have come on a long way in what they offer since then. Mine had 4GB of memory and a 320 GB hard drive. Nowadays they have solid-state drives by default and start from 16GB of memory, I think.

    Thing is, it was still fine in most ways, but it was getting very, very slow. It wasn’t too bad once everything was up and running, but waking it from sleep meant I’d be seeing what Ginger out of The Wildhearts called the “spinning fucking rainbow” (and everyone else calls the beachball) for a long time.

    Even when it was up, just switching apps could trigger the slowness. So I was thinking about upgrading. But I figured there was life in the old beast yet. I took inspiration from Jason Snell who writes of upgrading a 2009 model.

    According to Apple, the most memory this model can support is 8GB. But according to Other World Computing, this particular model, though no others from around then, can actually take more – up to 16GB.

    I went to Crucial, which is noted as the best site for Mac upgrades in the UK (OWC is only in the US). Its tool said it could only take 8GB. But I looked around various forums and decided that there was enough evidence that OWC were right. Plus memory is so cheap these days that the difference in price between 8 and 16 was very small.

    So I took a chance and ordered 16GB, plus a 500GB SSD.

    Installing the memory was trivially easy. You don’t need more than a small Phillips screwdriver to open the case, and the memory modules themselves pop out and slot in very easily.

    But with the two 8GB modules in, it wouldn’t boot up. I just got series of three beeps, repeated every few seconds.

    A bit of googling told me that means “bad memory,” essentially.

    I tried taking it out an putting it back in, swapping round which module was in which slot, and so on, but to no avail. I put the old memory back just to check that I hadn’t damaged something, and it started up like before.

    So it looked like OWC were wrong, and I was restricted to 8GB. I was considering sending the memory back to Crucial and hoping I could get I refund. But then I tried one more thing. One of the new 8GB sticks along with one of the old 2GB ones.

    And it booted up, smooth as a cliche.

    Of course I tried swapping out one 8GB stick for the other, to check for the possibility that one of them actually was bad. But both of them worked. So it seems that this MacBook can take more than 8GB, but not as much as 16. Which is strange, but never mind.

    I’d have to say, though, that the difference in performance wasn’t obvious. But I didn’t spend lot of time with it like that, because I still had the SSD to install. That’s very slightly more involved, needing as it does a Torx screwdriver. But it’s very easy.

    Before all that I had made sure my old hard drive was thoroughly backed up, you won’t be surprised to hear.

    I booted up in the new configuration and told the Mac to set itself up as a new installation. It downloaded El Capitan over the air and installed away.

    There was one slight glitch in this process. Something went wrong with the installation and I started getting a kernel panic on bootup. I don’t quite recall the details now, but I just reformatted the SSD and installed again, and it all went fine.

    And the difference… The difference is astonishing. Even with many apps open (I currently have twelve), and a whole stack of tabs in Safari, using it is effortless. Apps switch without the slightest lag. I can start anything up with only a few bounces. I’ve hardly even seen the rainbow.

    Even Lightroom, which is the heaviest-weight app I use on here, starts in under ten seconds.

    In short, this is the way a computer should be.

    Why Devilgate?

    I always expect people to ask me about my use of the handle devilgate, but they almost never do. But an old friend did recently, and I wrote him the answer, and I think it belongs here.

    So sit back and relax, and I’ll fill you in on the whole story.

    You’re familiar with the origin story of the comics character Daredevil, I assume? Well it’s almost exactly like that, except with less radioactive material/eye interaction, blindness and skintight costumes. But with added rock ‘n’ roll.

    So, back around the time I was in primary 4 or 5 (age 9-10), Suzi Quatro, as I’m sure you know, had a song called ‘Devilgate Drive’ (or so I thought for decades; I was telling a colleague at work this story a few years back and we looked for it on Spotify, and couldn’t find it; until we split it into two words: ‘Devil Gate Drive'; somehow much less satisfying). I didn’t actually know the song back then, but some of my classmates did, and started calling me ‘Devilgate’, precisely because I was decidedly non-devilish (or so I assume). I was seen as a bit of a goody-goody, because a) my Mum was a teacher, and b) I was a bit of a goody-goody.

    As nicknames go, it was a lot better than it could have been. I remember once another kid asking me what it meant, and I said, “Devilgate: the gate full of the devil.” Which is kind of embarrassing, but considering how goody-goody I actually was (altar boy, and all that), it’s surprising that I wasn’t more bothered by the diabolical nature. Perhaps further evidence that all children are naturally without belief, until and unless they’re indoctrinated into having some: I probably didn’t really believe in the devil.

    Anyway, spin forward a few years and I got online and was looking for a handle somewhere – Slashdot might have been where I first used it, and I was just trying to find out whether you can find the creation date of your Slashdot user ID, but it seems you can’t. I have a vague feeling, actually, that I used it somewhere else first, but I can’t imagine where that might be.

    Anyway, having established it, it became my go-to handle. Wherever there’s a web service, if there’s a devilgate (or Devilgate: I see that I capitalised it back in the Slashdot days), it’ll almost certainly be me. Except for eBay, where I’m devilgate_real, because some bampot had nicked my name by the time I got there.

    And so when I finally got round to registering my own domain, it was obvious what I’d choose.

    Identity and letdown in The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall (books 2008, 6)

    Eric Sanderson wakes without his memories. In short order he starts receiving messages apparently sent by his former self, is told by his psychiatrist not to read any such messages, and starts reading them - in the wrong order, which leaves him unready for the trouble that is about to assail him.

    He is attacked by a ‘conceptual shark’: a living, sentient creature that is composed of ideas, of thoughts, of words; and that swims in the sea of information that surrounds us. This is the creature that took his memories. It eats such information, and fixates on a victim, and will keep coming back to attack them again and again.

    So the messages from “the first Eric Sanderson” tell him. Fortunately they also give him some tools and techniques to protect himself, and information about someone who might be able to help him.

    So eventually he sets out on a quest to find the mysterious Trey Fidorous. That’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot summary (it covers probably a quarter of the book).

    It’s an interesting idea, that creatures composed of pure information, of ideas, can exist and can do us harm. We’re well into SF territory here, without wanting to hegemonise, and irrespective of the fact that it’s marketed as mainstream literary fiction (why, I’ve often wondered, don’t people talk about “li-fi”, or “cri-fi”, or even “hi-fi”? Why is SF so special that it gets its own disparaging abbreviation?) There was real justification for including this work in the Clarke Awards shortlist (sadly I haven’t read any of the others on the list). We are plunged into a world of infinite strangeness and difference (even though it stands alongside the world we are familiar with). We have to hang on for the ride and pick things up as we go along. These are standard, recognised characteristics of much SF.

    Which may be neither here nor there, really; unless how we classify a work affects how we approach it, how we read it. And I think it’s true that it does: if you approach Iain Banks’s The Bridge, for example, as SF (it’s a ‘non-M’, so it was marketed as mainstream), then you’ll get quite a different effect from the scenes on the bridge, and with the barbarian; at least allowing for the possibility that those events actually happened in some sense, in some reality. As opposed to the assumption that they were ‘only’ the deranged fantasy of a mind in a coma, which is of course the only ‘mainstream’ reading.

    We are in a similar situation here. Eric’s psychiatrist thinks that he might be going into a fugue state; and clearly something has happened to his mind. But Eric has experienced the attack of the Ludovician (the name of the particular type of conceptual fish that attacked him) and he believes throughout that what is happening is real. And all through the quest, and the love story and the fight scenes, he believes it. And so does the author, apparently.

    And so do we.


    Except, except.

    Right on the second last page, Hall undermines it all. After the narrative has finished there are a couple of pages of extra material before the ‘undex’ (the point of which I’m not sure about).

    The first of these pulls the rug out from under us, and dumps us more or less into “he woke up and it was all a dream” territory. Or didn’t wake up. It’s a bit like Sam Tyler at the end of Life on Mars, except there it was more or less clearly stated all the way through that he was in a coma: you just didn’t want it to be so.

    The present work is less honest, in a way, since there really is no suggestion that what Eric is experiencing might not be ‘real’. Sure, it’s always there as a possibility, but I’d have to say,“What’s the point?”, really. Why would you bother to write a story that, in the internal logic of that story, all took place in the head of its protagonist, and didn’t do anything to help the protagonist, or illuminate his life, or help him to come to terms with something?

    As such, this is ultimately disappointing: it’s a great ride, spoiled by the ending.

    Although, a further twist occurs to me, a couple of months after reading it. If the rug-pulling element were not there, you could say, then we would have a fantasy-happy ending, like the fake ending in Brazil. That’s never a good thing, of course, but the difference remains this: in Brazil, the false ending was tacked on (or it would have been if the ‘real’ ending hadn’t superseded it). Here, the ending grows naturally out of all that has gone before. If everything was in his imagination, then fine, so was the ending. But if everything was ‘really’ happening to him, then the ending is legitimate in that context, and the additional material subverts it for no good reason.

    Literary mind loss

    I’ve been having a slightly strange, but not entirely unfamiliar, reading experience recently.  I’m reading Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan. Now, I read the first chapter of this a long time ago, in the dealers’ room at a convention.  I liked it a lot, and wanted to read on, but the hardback was a bit too expensive at the time.

    I decided to keep an eye out for the paperback.  And I did: over the years I often checked the shelves for it, but never found it. As far as I could tell, it never came out in paperback, at least in this country.

    And all of this was before Amazon and so on, so I couldn’t just search for it. By the time web-based sales were here, I guess I had forgotten about it.  Certainly I never thought to do a search for it.

    Then in the summer we were in Hay-on-Wye, town of bookshops, for a day.  I managed to spend less than £30 on books (though obviously I could have spent a lot more). 
    But, among my purchases, there it was: the Gollancz classics re-issue of Mindplayer.  Slightly strange to find that the book has gone from first publication to classic re-issue in my lifetime, but there you go.

    Anyway, it’s been high on my to-read pile since then; and I started reading it a week or so ago; alternating it with Charles Stross‘s Accelerando when my Palm is charged.

    Now, as I read the first chapter, the fact that it was familiar to me was not at all surprising; I read it at the con years ago, right?  But then I got on to chapter two, as you do.   Strangely, that seemed familiar too.  Hmmm.  OK, maybe I’d read more of it at the con than I thought.

    Chapter three: the feeling didn’t go away.  Chapter four. Chapter five.

    Gradually it became apparent that I had, in fact, read the book before.  However, I remembered nothing — absolutely nothing — about the story.  I haven’t finished it yet, and I still have no idea how it ends.

    This is a very strange form of deja vu, it seems.

    But it’s not the first time.  A few years back I read one of Paul McAuley’s novels.  It is perhaps telling that I can’t remember for sure which one, despite having looked over some reviews.  I think it was Eternal Light, but it seems I still can’t remember it.

    In any case, it very gradually became familar to me, and I realised I had read it before.  The copy I was reading at the time came from the library, and I figured out that I had taken it out before.

    In this case, with the Cadigan, I have no idea where I got the copy that I originally read.  Library?  Maybe.  Borrowed a friend’s?  Always possible.  Or did I buy it, and forget? is there a copy filed away in the attic somewhere?  I just have no idea.

    It’s the age, I fear.  Or maybe someone is playing with my mind.