askygoneonfire: Red and orange sunset over Hove (Default)

Ever since I can remember, sci-fi has been a staple in my imaginative life.  Whether it be Sunday mornings on the sofa with my eldest brother watching the original series of Star Trek, Tuesday afternoon's after school watching Bucky O'Hare, and later, The Girl from Tomorrow*; or one summer when I got a book called Interstellar Pig out of the library and read it twice in the space of a week, sci-fi has always been there.

While other kids worried about monsters under the bed or bullies in the school yard I quizzed my brothers and my Dad on the likelihood of alien invasion and what a post-nuclear holocaust world would be like (not good.  Actually, my Dad was a policeman and as a result had a place in a nuclear bunker.  He told us he would not take it because he would rather die with us than live in the dystopian nightmare of a post-nuclear world, but I digress...)

I recently bought the Star Trek: The Next Generation movie boxset and have begun a chronological re-watch, it struck me as I watched it just what appeals so much to be about the sci-fi genre.  Primarily, it's about possibility, the possibility of a better civilisation, and of a better way of being human. I think this is particularly appealing to children who, by default, have utopian motivations: what kid hasn't asked "why do we need money, can't we just exchange goods as we need them?" and many sci-fi plots tap directly into this, the most notable example probably being Star Trek. 

Secondly I think the key strength is being able to distance yourself from contemporary society in order to make a critique of it.  This is, in my opinion, most successfully achieved through dystopian futures where the sci-fi element has amplified and taken a contemporary problem to its logical and/or most extreme conclusion.  Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Day After Tomorrow all make direct and clear critique through the bleak realisation of the worst parts of our society in a not-so-distant future or through one catastrophic event.  Frequently this type of narrative is related to us through the perspective of one character who is either the only one to recognise their surroundings as a perversion of all that is good and right, or the only one to find out an inherent truth about the world - such as how it came about or how their government has lied to them in order to maintain order through fear.  The one-on-one interaction between reader/viewer and protagonist heightens the sense of horror or disgust at what the world has/could become. Resurfacing from this sort of fiction, for me at least, usually leaves me with a strong sense of isolation from the world as you feel that, through the lens of the fiction, you alone are seeing the world for what it is and the inherent horror of what is to come if things remain unchanged.  Personally, I find the immersive experience of this most compelling and offering the most absolute opportunity for a shift in one's world view.

We've also got sci-fi where Earth/humanity/the world as we know it is largely blameless and passive in its downfall.  We're talking War of the Worlds, Independence Day, and, at a stretch, 2001: A Space Odyssey (HAL destroys the microcosm of humanity on the ship)  Whilst the film does not make an explicit critique of society in itself, there is usually a lot to be taken from the commentary it gives us of political and social concerns of the time.  Most often there is a conclusion which reasserts the superiority of humanity over the cruel, violent 'other'.  It would be unfair to argue that such sci-fi primarily sures up the patriarchal, well established order of contemporary society because such a conclusion doesn't allow for the nuances in such works, what it commonly does is give cause for positive reflection on the contemporary audience's surroundings and mediates larger concerns about threats of international war, disputes and political uncertainty.

Finally there is transformative sci-fi where an individual, group or the whole of humanity is completely altered after an encounter of some sort, think E.T., Back to the Future, Batteries Not Included, Flight of the Navigator.  This takes the notion of possibility I mentioned at the beginning to it's logical conclusion and provides an often temporary or imperfect utopia behind for those connected to the events.  Much like the sub-genre of humanity being passive in it's demise I mention above I think such works reveal more about the socio-political environment in which they were made than reflecting in any broader sense on humanity.  The films I mention above were made in the '80's and I believe speak both of the over-riding confidence in the organisation and potential of society and also the concern which accompanies rapid social and technological change.  More advanced technologies and races contact humanity and whilst there is fear and misapprehension the end result is positive, even if there are difficulties on the road to resolution.

Overall, what sci-fi offers is the opportunity for a damned good adventure, outside of the day-to-day cares of the audience's contemporary world whilst remaining rooted enough in reality and truth that it can provide either a positive reflection on that which an audience wishes to escape or a solution for the ills of mankind.  For me, it provides a sophisticated commentary on what is, what is not and what could be.  It does not flinch from portraying the very worst aspects of humanity - the very thing which so concerned me in my childhood fantasies of how the world would end.  If the only way to be prepared for the unknown is to imagine every possibility then sci-fi provides the perfect forum for that to happen in.  Imagination is unbidden by technology, politics and social reality.  Even the essential human condition can be altered through the genre.  In short, sci-fi matters because it can speak about everything and make commentary - both positive and negative - without having to engage in the minutiae of how we get from here to there and in so doing it can subtly or overtly provide a new way of viewing that which surrounds us.

So yes, I am a sci-fi geek, but it's ok, because it's intellectual.


* As the only kid in my class who watched/enjoyed The Girl from Tomorrow I would play alone at break time the next day, with my hair band pulled down across my forehead, a la the Transducer.  It will come as no surprise to you that I wasn't terribly popular at school.

askygoneonfire: Red and orange sunset over Hove (November the 8th)
When you have a shit day, when someone craps on your endeavour, when you are too tired to think straight, when your very last nerve has been agitated into oblivion, where do you go?

There's that point, growing up, where you realise you don't need to go to your parents for that reassurance any more.  You begin crafting a way, or multiple ways, to deal with what life is throwing at you.  You learn to do it alone.  You learn to manage that rage/fear/confusion/exhaustion/frustration.

I always believed that shift would be something which remained in flux, it would continue to develop and by my mid twenties I would have an entirely new place to crawl on days like this.

Weirdly, as I sat on the bus, impatient to be home, I could only think of one thing - a cup of tea and sitting with my laptop listening to dark indie music.  I might even, I mused, have a crafty cigarette out of my bedroom window and save myself the chilling experience which is going outside and dragging down a cig whilst standing on the front steps.

Then it struck me - I have been combatting bad days in exactly the same way since I was 15 or 16.  Have I simply found the world's greatest way to unwind or am I hopelessly trapped in teenage introspection?

Is run even the right word in this context? Should I be fleeing the world in order to cleanse myself of the day or should I be confronting it?

It never ceases to surprise me how much of who I am now is directly influenced by who I became as a teenager.  The distinction between adult and teen is perhaps much less well defined than it is generally believed to be.  The question which rears its head at the end of these reflections is this; should I go the whole hog and start drinking cider in the park again?.....!

Not everything means something.
askygoneonfire: 'Love' painted on to four fingers of a hand (love hand)
I plunged head first into the time machine of sound an iPod can offer this afternoon. I'm currently feeling very jolly and singing along to Idlewild's 100 Broken Windows. Like most albums released around 2000 it tails off a bit towards the end but it is firmly - and this is where we get geeky - second wave indie.

First wave indie is the stuff on the fringes of Britpop which frequently gave way to second wave. Compare Blur's Parklife to Think Tank and Embrace's The Good Will Out to If You've Never Been and you'll begin to understand the distinction. It's a distinction which my good friend J and I would debate endlessly throughout University. A debate which alienated a lot more people around us than it drew in, but thems the breaks if you insist on the minutiae of indie music.

For me, second wave is where it's at. Second wave brought the world Elbow's Asleep in the Back, Mull Historical Society's Loss, Idlewild's 100 Broken Windows, Feeder's Echo Park, Tom McRae's Tom McRae and Just Like Blood, British Sea Power's The Decline of British Sea Power, Electric Soft Parade's Holes in the Wall, Easyworld's Better Ways to Self Destruct, Coldplay's Parachutes (an awesome album no matter what you think of their later offerings) and, I think he can just sneak in, Damien Rice's O. This is the music that made me. This and many, many more artists: Aqualung, Athlete, Snow Patrol, The Stereophonics, Starsailor, Travis, Turin Brakes....

There are many other bands on my iPod which I cannot bring myself to listen to again for fear of discovering they were terrible and 1999-2004 was not the golden age I remember it as; namely: Semisonic, Goldrush, Wilt, My Vitriol, Train.

The part where the progression of indie gets confusing is when it went mainstream circa 2004/2005. I remember very clearly the actual change occurring - we had been going to the University Student Union's indie night for over a year, and one week it was really, really busy - not the usual 30 or so people we danced with every week. A few weeks later they moved it to a larger venue. That was when indie went mainstream, and it was as sudden as that.

Mainstream did what mainstream always does and churned out a load of below par bands which all sat somewhere on the spectrum of 'inoffensive enough' to 'I will kill you if you release another single'. You know who I'm talking about: Kaiser Chiefs, Jet, The Zutons, The Strokes, The Kooks, Keane, The Doves, The Killers, The Automatic. The list goes on and on, as a general guide, if they wore matching suits or have 'The' in their name, they are probably the second wave indie hangers-on. [On an unrelated note, I've just found I've got a My Chemical Romance track on my iPod, I honestly don't know how that happened. I'm appalled]

It was around this time that Q magazine completely lost its way and stopped making good recommendations or even caring enough to listen to new bands. Indie going mainstream killed many. And I'm not just talking music press, many bands which had promising first and second album started churning out class A crap, to name but a few: Tom McRae, Snow Patrol, Travis, Coldplay, Feeder [although the downturn in the quality of their music was, in my opinion, largely due to the dynamic being broken by Jon Lee's death], David Gray, Starsailor, Toploader [an unpopular choice, I know, I maintain Onka's Big Moka is a nice little album], Turin Brakes, Stereophonics. Interestingly, at least to me, terrible albums afflicted the less well known as well as the high profile bands. It seems that mainstreaming of a genre filters through all bands collected under that banner. Basically, 2004/2005 saw a pandemic of good bands gone bad. A distressing time for all music lovers; a dark time.

I'm not actually sure where we are in terms of indie now. The resurgence of pop has certainly sidelined indie somewhat. Personally I find it harder to find new bands these days as the majority of new, non-mainstream music promotion seems to happen online and the proliferation of music blogs, myspace music pages, youtube and a thousand other sites leaves me feeling a bit cold. The majority of the music I've come to post the '04/'05 quality-music-massacre has been through recommendations of friends and, slightly shamefully, Amazon. The sad thing, for me at least, is I find it much harder to reel of the names of the 'modern' bands I like. With a struggle, and frequent checks on my iPod I managed to populate the following list: Cary Brothers, Cold War Kids, Beirut, Patrick Wolf, First Aid Kit, Greg Laswell, Josh Ritter, Jacob Golden, Yeasayer and Regina Spektor.

Unfortunately there have been more dead ends than success stories for me with new[er] music. I fell in lust with many bands (Editors, Bloc Party, Rufus Wainwright, Razorlight, Gorillaz, Cherry Ghost, The Magic Numbers) only to eventually find myself sitting alone on my bed, listening to an album or albums devoid of any sort deeper emotional content with which I could truly connect and take them into my heart. They were, if you'll pardon the clumsy simile, merely distracting one night stands on the road to a spinster wasteland of music failure. Oh yes.

In fact, the most rewarding 'new' discoveries I've made since The Death of Second Wave Indie have come from going to bands with huge back catalogues or capsule collections of intensely beautiful, original compositions. We're talking Bright Eyes, Daniel Johnston, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Simon and Garfunkel, Belle and Sebastian, The Beach Boys and many, many more.

The question we will end on is the one that plagues me. Day and night I shake my fists to the sky and implore the gods to tell me: where now for indie?! I am cautiously predicting third wave indie which manages to integrate urban and folk influences and emerges triumphant. There is hope, I'm sure. Just the other day I heard a very nice track by Los Campesinos!; The Sea is a Good Place to Think of the Future. Give it a listen.

Oh, and recommend me some music. Or argue with me about first wave versus second wave. Or...something.

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askygoneonfire: Red and orange sunset over Hove (Default)
a sky gone on fire

June 2017

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