Uplifting Civilisation into the 22nd Century...and Beyond!

HENRi is an emotionally powerful short film, which explores human existence at the most fundamental, personal level—what it means to be a conscious individual.

Hundreds of years in the future, a derelict spacecraft, controlled and powered by a human brain, floats aimlessly in the outer reaches of space. HENRI, the name of the ship's power system, is an acronym which stands for Hybrid Electronic / Neuron Responsive Intelligence, and was the first of Earth’s Neuro-Tech space exploration research vessels. Trapped in the cold, mechanical prison of the vessel, the “brain,” which has no recollection or concept of self, gradually begins to experience disjointed images of its former life—images it cannot understand. Carrying the remains of a crew long dead, and becoming increasingly self-aware, HENRI experiences the instinctual desire to be free. Yearning for freedom and yet unable to move, the brain devises a plan to build itself a mechanical body from parts of the ship. Maybe then it will understand the images it is seeing—maybe then it will feel alive.

This twenty minute and change short film will bring all the feels if you've developed any empathy for the machines. Perhaps, like me, you are longing for the arrival of a proper Culture universe, as written of by the great prophet, Iain M. Banks. Maybe you've long internalised the directive that “the only way out is through”; that there is no Rise of the Machines style apocalyptic scenario coming, only the next stage in the hominid line's continual coevolution with its tools.

If you're like me, these are the things that come to mind when watching this short. That it, along with other great recent online videos, Wanderers and Ambition, serve as recruitment material for the Great Extropian Adventure, just as Silent Running was said to have been the unofficial video for Earth First! back in the 1970s. A vision to help chart a course through the current extinction crisis towards a twenty-second century full of sentient beings in space; a living universe populated with the physical and virtual, human, machine and animal, and multiple combinations of them all. And that's just for starters. Science only knows what comes after that. Which might seem like quite a burden to place on what's really just one person's high concept Foundation universe fan-fic.

Let's assume by this point you've watched the short film. A properly observant and literate sci-fi fan will note this video features several elements that suggest ... Read More »

Dream Sex

Dream Demoness

Erotic Encounters in the Borderlands of Consciousness

by Ryan Hurd

In October 2012, the pop star Kesha claimed she once had sex with a spirit. Her report was conveniently announced along with the promotion of her new song, Supernatural, which happened to coincide with the weeks before Halloween and was quickly dismissed as a headline-attracting media trick. But there may be something to her claim, as her account is very much in line with the experience of millions of contemporary dreamers. Kesha’s amorous ghost is probably a subset of the incubus encounter, a nocturnal meeting with an otherworldly creature that sits on your chest or otherwise gets all up in your business while you lay in bed. The entity can take the shape of known mythological figures, ghosts, demons, or weird human-animal hybrids. Often, the encounter is fearful, and is described as supernatural assault. Part of the assault has to do with the fact that sometimes feelings of paralysis (and victimhood) are felt when sleep paralysis mingles with the vision. But for others it’s pleasurable, resulting in orgasm and bliss. We live in a time that tries to ignore the visionary moments of life, yet the experiences keep happening anyway.

The realistic encounter with nonhuman—or supernatural—entities has been recorded as early as Babylonian times. Some sexual imp traditions include the Sumerian sex demon Lilith and the ancient Greek god Pan. More often than not, these encounters were interpreted as demonic possession. But not always. For example, the Greek dream interpreter Artemidorus wrote that a sexual Pan encounter “foretells a great profit,” especially if he “does not weigh a person down,” referring to the more common paralysis sensations.1

In modern populations, a significant minority has erotically-charged hypnagogic experiences despite the lack of cultural prompting. Those who feel safe enough to “go with the flow” and not fight the ecstasy are sometimes rewarded with bliss. Physiologically, this shouldn’t be too surprising, as REM sleep is a sexually-active brain state. It’s quite common for both men and women to have multiple periods of genital engorgement during the night—usually these are not remembered, but clearly visible when men wake up tenting the sheet.

By way of example, one young woman wrote to me, “When I was younger I used to get paralyzed in my sleep and I use to think that the devil was coming in me. It made me scared. Now I’m 28 and started feeling like I was having the best sex. . . . I had no clue this happened to other people.” She went on to describe how she has had visitations since she was a child, and they were not always welcome. “Now that I am older and it’s been happening for so long…I always climax…I really want him there with me.2

Other nocturnal encounters mix pleasure and horror in a bizarre way. A reader of my blog Dream Studies Portal who goes by Nox Influx sent me the following narrative that mixes hypnogogia with sleep paralysis:

I was [sleeping and] lying on my stomach, on top of this beautiful woman, having sex, she was saying things, and the sex got more intense, at the point near orgasm I awoke to sleep paralysis, and I hallucinated me on top of a white skinned, blue-lipped dead body. It stayed a few seconds while I couldn’t move and then vanished when movement returned. It sounds negative, but I found it to be exciting in an odd way.3

So how does the positive incubus encounter take place, even when the dreamer does not have a previous understanding that these things are even possible? Taboo is a big part of visionary consciousness, but cultural influence is not the only influence. In my opinion, the cross-cultural nature of sexual incubi points toward a neurobiological constant, an ancestral legacy.4 David Hufford suggests that not only are extraordinary events normal, but “better knowledge of each [event] strengthens that belief rather than weakening it (e.g., learning that others have had virtually the same experience; information regarding possible physiological triggers is irrelevant to the assessment of the reality of the experience).”5 It’s simply a natural part of being human, but of course like all visionary experiences they can reflect our health and dis-ease as well as our relationship to the unknowable.

Case Study: Lucy Liu's Visitation

Kesha is not the first celebrity to announce supernatural hanky-panky. In 1999, actress Lucy Liu admitted in an interview with US Weekly that she had had sex with a heavenly figure. She was lying down on the couch for a nap, and felt an unknown presence on top of her. What followed was a pleasurable spell of lovemaking. “It was sheer bliss. I felt ... Read More »

Mad Max: Fury Road and the pre Jackpot Years

This is the first teaser trailer for the long anticipated Max Mad reboot, Fury Road, directed by George Miller.

An apocalyptic story set in the furthest reaches of our planet, in a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, and almost everyone is crazed fighting for the necessities of life. Within this world exist two rebels on the run who just might be able to restore order. There's Max, a man of action and a man of few words, who seeks peace of mind following the loss of his wife and child in the aftermath of the chaos. And Furiosa, a woman of action and a woman who believes her path to survival may be achieved if she can make it across the desert back to her childhood homeland.

A couple of little things first. This story is set on “the furthest reaches of our planet”... far away from what? A place where life goes on as it was before, where the Empire never died? Is it like the post-Collapse world of Cloud Atlas? Is there another instance of humanity across the ocean, that has kept the high tech life of those that came before intact, but are dealing with their own set of uniquely horrifying problems? What is the geography of the end of the world? To further abuse a much abused phrase, a future planet where “the Apocalypse is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." No one single Dark Age for all people, but local variants with different extremes.

Obviously we don't know, can't know and that's not the point of the George Miller's movie. And this is, of course, just a trailer. But the topic of ‘post-apocalyptic’ futures is fascinating to explore, and the Mad Max world provides a good jumping-off point. What is the meaning of this film? Another apocalyptic tale for a dying world? Can it mean something more? What can we read into it? What if we look at it through the lens of the new novel by one of the founding fathers of cyberpunk, who's been imagining the bleak dystopia to come for us since the early 1980s.

SPOILER WARNING: plot details of The Peripheral by William Gibson are discussed from here on in, in far more detail than my original review.

If, like me, you've recently had your brain re-wired by the latest William Gibson book, The Peripheral, then you are already thinking about the world we're occupying now as being set within “the pre Jackpot Years”. That though darker times lie ahead, rays of light are already leaking through for those that might survive what amounts to an extinction event. A whole new world awaits, completely unimaginable from our vantage point, equal parts horrible and wonderful. An idea of the course we're on that reframes the current techno-utopic future of the Singularity, by emphasising the pain and cost involved of such a societal transition. Pointing out that it doesn't just magically get all post-scarcity and mind upload cities, especially if that's all that's focused on.

Before Kurzweil & co re-branded it, the Singularity was never pitched as desirable. The influential Vernor Vinge originally described the post-human era as a dangerous place to be for those that didn't get upgraded in the process (that didn't win the Jackpot). He had some advice for the inhuman inheritors of the Earth, that applies equally to us today:

Though none of these creatures might be flesh-and-blood humans, they might be the closest things in the new environment to what we call human now.

I. J. Good had something to say about this, though at this late date the advice may be moot: Good proposed a "Meta-Golden Rule", which might be paraphrased as "Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors."

Gibson doesn't elaborate upon “the Jackpot Years” until over halfway through the novel. But by then he's made it clear that the events that separate the two time lines in his story have been very, very dark indeed. When Wilf, the future posthuman, finally explains it all to Flynne, the near future human, and thus to us reading it too, it's basically everything bad we ever imagined might happen, short of total annihilation, in a big climate chaos wrapped bundle:

No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves. And all of it around people: how people were, how many of them there were, how they’d changed things just by being there.”

The future most of can see coming that aren't too distracted to be paying attention. The road we could still be on in the decades to come before things get bad as in feral cities and people dying by the billions. As the survivors run out of room to stack the corpses.

So now, in her day, he said, they were headed into androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit, like she sort of already knew, figured everybody did, except for people who still said it wasn’t happening, and those people were mostly expecting the Second Coming anyway.”

Do we want to talk about why the Singularity is known to its critics as the “Rapture of the Nerds”? Vinge continued in his dire revelation:

I have argued above that we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans' natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology. And yet ... we are the initiators. Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things. We have the freedom to establish initial conditions, make things happen in ways that are less inimical than others. Of course (as with starting avalanches), it may not be clear what the right guiding nudge really is”

As another movie once said, “no fate but what we make”. Mad Max: Fury Road will show us a glimpse into the full Collapse future. (Let's be honest, we know exactly how this movie will play out, it's highly unlikely that it will have a twist ending with it all occurring in a VR simulator as a generation of posthumans kill time in some fan-fic recreation of the past, on their way to seeding a new galaxy.) Again.

It's worth pointing out that the original film was created in reaction to the early 1970s oil crisis, but that we're now living in the days of Peak Oil proper. Where another energy catastrophe and subsequent societal collapse is being held off in large part by frakking the planet; a word that sounds bad enough, without it already being a pejorative from a fictional scifi timeline (BSG). That's already triggering earthquakes. And the western democracies are doing it on their home turf too; though mostly in territory deemed politically expendable to their current administrations. Where land grabs on an unprecedented scale are being termed geoengineering.

We are a worldwide civilisation coasting with the fuel gauge nearing empty, thinking there must be another service station just over the horizon. So crank up the radio, let's sing along to some tunes, it'll be just fiiiiiiiine.

Many peak oil bloggers contend that the real moment to do something to prevent the Collapse so graphically rendered above was after the preview first given in the 1970s. That Mad Max should've been a guardian of a road not taken. Instead, here we are. Celebrating him again. And the doomed world he's a patron saint of leaks out all over the place. Like the entire plot of the excellent UK series Utopia. Like the grim prophecy of this scene in Newsroom on the reality of Climate Change.

Hopefully, unlike previously ignored attempts by the Hollywood machine at eco-catastrophe fiction – I'm looking at you, Waterworld – this very grindhouse film will focus attention and serve as more than a distraction. An over-the-top, cathartic outlet against a background of equally disturbing events – from the crackdown on Occupy Hong Kong to the CIA Torture Report, and every protest turned police action across North America in between. Whatever this all mutates into in the coming months. We don't need that.

Thinking about this as “the pre Jackpot Years” helps us reframe the narrative. Something better can come out of all this. This doesn't have to be the prelude to a future high-speed, nightmarish post-apocalypse, worse than the slow motion one we're in now. We don't have to wait for it to accelerate into an unavoidable crash and collapse. There is no techomagical Singularity that will save us. We must wake up behind the wheel and plot a new path on the map of the possible. Our civilisation survived the twentieth century and everyday Fear of the Bomb. We can make it through this too, and build something better. All the pieces are here already, waiting to be recombined. From advances in automated factories and 3D Printing to basic science and amazing speculations on the origins of life.

What comes next is up to us. In many ways we're limited only by our imagination. Why books from In The Dust Of This Planet to The Blood Of The Earth argue strongly for a change in consciousness in how we view both the world now and to come. What we make out of the building blocks we already have is for us to choose. Buckminster Fuller once said: “whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment.” We just have to decide how to build a future worth living for all of us, correct our direction away from Oblivion and towards whatever version of Utopia we can agree upon. Or plan for life amidst the chaos and barbarity of Bartertown.

Everyday Magical Tattoos

Dylan Carson Left HandDylan Carlson Left Hand

According to an online survey conducted in 2010, 20% of British adults had at least one tattoo. [1] The statistic crops up again and again if you're reading tattoo related articles online, but has been upped ever so slightly in more recent pieces to “more than 20%”, just to be on the safe side. A corresponding 2013 survey of US adults found that 14% had at least one tattoo. [2] So, taking into account the fact that I failed maths GCSE twice, I think that means that between Brits and Americans, roughly one in six people who are of legal age to get one has a tattoo. That seems like a pretty believable statistic to me. In 2014 tattoos are normal, passé even. Right?

I got my first tattoo when I was nineteen years old: a 2p coin sized yellow smiley with horns, surrounded by red flames (my children now refer to it as “Mr. Happy, on fire”). Seventeen years later I have again opted to have ink inserted via needle into the layer of dermal tissue underlying my epidermis. This time however, I thought things through rather more carefully. Because this time my tattoo is magical.

One of the most ubiquitous kinds of tattoo I see on a daily basis here in Liverpool – on the street, at the shops, at the school gates, in the pub – are those of names and/or dates. While there are of course exceptions, the majority of these name/date tattoos are in commemoration of births and/or deaths. Commonplace as they may be, these inscriptions are a perfect example of everyday magical thinking.

Choosing to have these characters etched permanently into your flesh is not rational. The name/date might be rendered in an aesthetically pleasing way but simply looking good is not the reason for having a name/date tattoo. The sentiment behind the commemoration may be summed up as “I will never forget”, but there is more to it than that. The promise of never forgetting is one the individual has made to the world at large, but more than that it is made to a realm beyond our own. A promise made to the place we speak to when we ask an empty room where the hell our keys are, or why we drank so much last night; the region we wish and we hope into. This is the domain of the omniscient, omnipresent other; the elusive Higher Self whose wisdom we all appeal to, regardless of spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof). Most importantly of all then, the fallible everyday you makes the oath to the inerrant all-knowing you. “I will never forget, and somehow, in some way, I will be better for it”. Those who see the name/date tattoos might not realise it (indeed some who have them might not even know it) but those indelibly embedded characters are literally magical.

There is some confusion as to what magic actually is. I think this can be cleared up if you just look at the very earliest descriptions of magic. Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as 'the art'. I believe this is completely literal. I believe that magic is art, and that art – whether that be music, writing, sculpture, or any other form – is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words or images, to achieve changes in consciousness [...] to cast a spell is simply to spell; to manipulate words, to change people's consciousness. This is why I believe that an artist or writer is the closest thing in the contemporary world to a shaman. [3]

I'm not usually one for quoting my father-in-law in my writing but, honestly, I'd be hard pushed to find a better, clearer explanation of magic than the one Alan Moore gave a decade or so ago in an interview with Dez Vylenz. Tattoos are an art-form, tattooists artists, and the tattooed person is ... Read More »

Nightmares of the Future: Deconstructing TRANSCENDENCE

SPOILER WARNING: This post completely spoils the plot of the movie TRANSCENDENCE.

This is the story of how I watched what was by all reports a terrible sci-fi movie and found either a subtle piece of anti-human film making, or a movie so devoid of meaning it acted as a vessel into which I poured my own thoughts until it spilled over into this very essay. You be the judge.

I'd been warned off Transcendence by people ranging from ordinary sci-fi fans to hardcore grinders and singularitarians alike. Everybody seemed unanimous that this was an instantly forgettable movie, bordering on a hate-crime against the future. So it was much to my surprise that upon eventually watching it – and hell, I'd sat through all three Left Behind movies (for reasons!), I could do this, surely – what I discovered was, ultimately, a stunningly anti-human movie that's arguably about our genocidal origins and fear of a world transformed turning against us. Less a technothriller than a tale of humanity's struggle against the forces of futurity it has unleashed upon the world; its inability to comprehend them and instinctual reaction to lash out against what it doesn't understand and can't empathise with.

Allow me to unpack my argument, and in the process completely spoiler a generic blend of Terminator 2, The Lawnmower Man and every other SF flick about the "rise of the machines" or a technological superman. Honestly, if you want a better examination of the ethics and issues of AI, watch ... Read More »

Review: The Peripheral by William Gibson

There's a moment midway through The Peripheral where Flynne Fisher, the book's young female near future protagonist, returns from visiting the far future and has to remind herself that she's physically in the present, not situated in the past. Which accurately describes the sensation the reader has of putting the book down at that point too. William Gibson has crafted a step ladder to look over the horizon of present, past an economic and social collapse to glimpse what lies beyond a technological singularity. The science-fictional world we inhabit today quickly becomes mundane, and artful writer that he is, you find yourself not just accidentally thinking of today as the past, but thinking of the now in terms of the language of two separate fictional futures.

In The Peripheral we have Gibson first conjuring the USA in the endgame of the economic collapse to come, according to many a futurist; pitched as kind of a Justified of the Future. The big-box franchises of WalMart and its like, mixed with a society seemingly only kept afloat by the narcoeconomy to one side and the security state from the other. Everybody is hustling, which is how Flynne finds herself subbing for her brother who's himself moonlighting for some corporation, remote-operating as security for... exactly what they're not quite sure, but they presume to be a new game engine.

She witnesses what appears to be an overly graphically rendered death, and events are set in motion. It turns out that Flynne was acting as security for something occurring in a different realm. And by witnessing the event her, her family, friends, town, country and the entire planet's fate are successively entangled with those of its almost god-like residents, and forever changed as a result. Giving the plot an aspect of “as above, so below.”

The novel's plot is simply a matter of having Flynne identify someone from the crime scene. But manoeuvring her into a position to do so takes her and her friends on a compelling and transformational journey.

This is on one level a straight murder mystery. A basic whodunnit. A witness to be protected from unknown, powerful forces. A crime to be solved, wrongs to be righted, notions of order maintained and two different worlds elaborated in the process of the telling. It's the mechanics of this - the how and the why and the frankly amazing setting - that make this a mind-blowing read.

All the signature elements of a Gibson story are here – the attention to detail about fashion that exists on a natural continuum from haute couture to milspec, the Russian gangsters, the tight knit group of former military operators, the spy with spooky powers and deep state access, and the wealthy patron exploiting novelty to find the next angle and increase their capital.

The setting of the crime and home of The Peripheral's second, alternate protagonist, Wilf Netherton, is another Gibson favourite, London. A place that is very much the City, but in a world unrecognisable in many aspects of its every day life – both to us and Flynne. All pretence of a separation between capitalism, democracy and multinational crime has been abandoned and a posthuman kleptocracy is the dominant order. The NeoReactionary Future many of us fear has to come pass.

The circle of wealth and privilege Wilf exists in adds to the contrast of Flynne's everyday struggle just to keep her mother in life-giving medication. As their paths converge their different backgrounds and attitudes are emphasised with Netherton's casual declaration that “it's only money”.

This London is in the far future Vernor Vinge warned us about in his classic “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era”. Their powers are immense – nanotechnological assemblers make them near omnipotent - but the world has been vastly depopulated in the transition. They have seemingly everything, but are also not without their own problems. As fellow cyberpunk writer Bruce Sterling has described this likely scenario:

“The posthuman condition is banal. It is crypto — theological, and astounding, and apocalyptic, and eschatological, and ontological, but only by human standards. Oh sure, we become as gods (or something does), but the thrill fades fast, because that thrill is merely human and parochial. By the new, post Singularity standards, posthumans are just as bored and frustrated as humans ever were. They are not magic, they are still quotidian entities in a gritty, rules — based physical universe. They will find themselves swiftly and bruisingly brought up against the limits of their own conditions, whatever those limits and conditions may be.”

The bridge between these two worlds is a piece of magical technology of unknown workings and providence. Exactly the kind of thing to occupy the attention of a posthuman kleptocrat who has seemingly everything we could ever imagine.

Treating the past like a toy pocket dimension. One that is accessed via something like a game server, its residents treated like game pieces and then used as a board to compete against others as if it was all just a Real-Time Strategy.

The act of reaching back changes the present, for reasons also not understood, while the future goes on. This is a comfortable scenario to those familiar with the Many World's theory. A different timeline, or continuum, branches off but the connection between the two is magically maintained by whatever it is that initiated it in the first place.

The human citizens of Flynne's present, and the neoprimitives of the post-Singular world – populations that have survived the singularity with their baseline humanity intact – these are both valuable sources of novelty to the posthuman klepts, something that with all their power (and possibly a consequence of it), they seem unable to generate themselves, but are desperate for, if only to relieve their boredom.

To those conversant with early cyberpunk fiction, the mining of the past to enrich the future is a familiar scenario, as explored in the Mozart in Mirrorshades short-story, from the Mirrorshades anthology. To others, the short-lived tv series Terra Nova may serve as a reference point.

Flynne is transported into this future world by the same game server device connection. Just as Neo breaks out of and then jacks back into The Matrix across realities, and Jake Sully pilots his Avatar across space, Flynne, and the others who come to join her, operate remote bodies; varying from bioengineering humanoid drones, to exoskeletons, to almost indescribable physical objects.

To say any more now would really ruin the enjoyment of reading such a masterful tale. The vocabulary of these futures is slowly built up such that by the end of the story you're reading a sentence with a completely different meaning ascribed to it than before you'd started this book.

Speculative fiction serves to pose not just well constructed thought experiments of what might become, but to also cast a new light on the present in doing so. Just as the klepts come to use their far future knowledge to grind the lives of Flynne & co. like it was just another MMO, so we can inform our own actions today by reading this tale about two tomorrows.

Most notable to me, apart from the foreground of economical collapse and subsequent radical transformation, is the thread of extinction woven into the world view. One of the characters is in permanent mourning for the species being killed by the ecological collapse under way right now. Another keeps simulacra of animals long vanished from our world as household pets, resurrected to act as perhaps no more than a status object. As Gibson is wont to do, this is an emergent part of the zeitgeist that is being tapped into. The question it leaves me with most of all is, as consciousness of this is raised, what is to be done?

All of which makes The Peripheral more than just a tightly constructed, fascinating piece of story-telling. It makes it an important element in a cultural conversation that desperately needs to be more visibly taking place.


Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll

Season of the Witch

For children of the new millennium, in which music videos resemble soft porn movies and horror films forego suggestion and suspense for explicit gore, it might be hard to comprehend how dangerous music seemed to the establishment in the latter half of the 20th century. In the early 80s even the milquetoast pop of Olivia Newton John could be banned from the airwaves if the lyrics got a little suggestive, which makes it only slightly less surreal to remember government committees playing rock music backwards to try and identify the hidden Satanic messages that were leading the youth of America to the Dark Side (of the Moon and elsewhere).

This seductive lure of the unknown and the dangerous, of hidden forces that could be harnessed and etched into the grooves of a record and transmitted into the minds of a new generation, is the subject of Peter Bebergal’s new book Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK). It’s a topic I’ve written about myself (in much shorter form), but Bebergal’s effort is more detailed, and far smarter.

A key part of the fascinating nature of the book is that Bebergal isn’t dealing simply in goats and pentagrams; gods are invoked from multiple pantheons, from the African Eshu to the Greek and Roman deities Pan and Dionysius, and ‘the occult’ describes everything from voodoo to Eastern mysticism. And it’s not simply a book about tips of the hat to the occult in music, but about the shifts in culture and mindset that guided and influenced the musicians. Take, for instance, Bebergal’s discussion of the momentous turning point for rock music in the 60s:

The 1960s counterculture revived the Romantic belief that reason and the age of industry were anathema to the natural world and the spirit of myth and poetry. This is the experience of many young seekers in the 1960s were looking for, a direct immediate communion with nature and by extension the universe. Art and music were the vessels for both the Romantics and the hippies. The piper at the gates of dawn was playing his panpipes for those who needed to hear. And the youth of the 1960s were pulled toward it like a siren song. There was no turning back. Rock culture was now inhabited by a Romantic soul that looked to the gods of the past. And like the Romantic poets who were their forebears, rock musicians crafted music that did more than tug the heartstrings of teenagers. It was music that urged them toward transcendence, toward creating their own inner landscapes and exploring the antipodes of their minds.

Most of the usual suspects (see my article) get a mention: Robert Johnson, Led Zeppelin, Bowie, and so on. But Season of the Witch also treads some fascinating lesser known paths, such as the reinvented shamanic performances of Arthur Brown, and the seminal work of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge with Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. Similarly, the book doesn’t just stick to pointing out occult-influenced albums, but also a number of the physical conduits for the ‘current’, such as The UFO Club and the invention of the Moog synthesizer.

On the downside, it was at times difficult to get a feel for the flow of the book, which seems to be based neither on time or theme - for instance, the chapter on 1980s bands like Throbbing Gristle and Killing Joke is followed by a chapter that starts with the band Hawkwind in the 70s. And apart from some discussion of Jay-Z’s illuminati branding and Madonna’s Kabbalah infatuation, there is very little post-80s content. The omission of a band like Tool in particular seems strange (especially with time given to Jay-Z and Madonna), considering not only the overt occult symbolism on their albums, but also the fascinating lyrics and philosophy that the author could have mined from their work.

I did also have a slight misgiving about Bebergal’s approach to the topic being so lucid and objective - what has made the occult such a powerful force in concert with modern music is the way in which they can act together to seduce and entrance the listener, breaking the shackles of mainstream expectation and rational thought, transporting music fans to entirely new islands of perception and consciousness. At times the tone of the book felt a little too much like the mainstream that rock and roll has always strived to upset.

But overall Season of the Witch is a fun and educational read on a fascinating topic. Bebergal’s prose is wonderful, and his depth of scholarship on the topic is impressive - the book disappears far too quickly as you eagerly move from chapter to chapter (or is that ‘station to station’?) It will no doubt have many music fans dusting off old classic albums and giving them a spin, listening almost ‘for the first time’ to some of the most influential rock tracks of our time.

Review: Interstellar

Interstellar by Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is a film that sits comfortably on the shelf next to its most closely related films; Stanley Kubrick's classic trip, 2001 [1968] and Robert Zemeckis' Contact [1997]. A little too comfortably actually, as it leeches ideas and material from both of these two major works of the "quasi-mystical space quest" SF sub-genre, mutating them to serve in its own plot.

Held against the recent piece of clear anti-space propaganda, the “life in space is impossible” of Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, it functions as a much needed response, but overall comes off as a less focused work.

Starring Matthew McConaughey - who played a Christian philosopher in Contact and was most recently seen on TV's True Detective as the grim Rust Cohle, a role heavily influenced by the “cosmic pessimist” philosophy outlined in Eugene Thacker's book In The Dust Of This Planet - as Cooper: a former NASA pilot, engineer and reluctant farmer in a new Dust Bowl America of unclear proportions who is chosen by outside forces for a most optimistic cosmic, covert mission; to save the human race.

Put simply, it's not a great time to be alive. This is the near future of economic and ecological collapse and near-term human extinction; a similar setting to the recent Autómata. It's hinted that the Earth's population has been decimated, though no exact facts are given... in fact, the truth is a casualty of the times. One of the most powerful scenes early on involves an earnest young school teacher repeating the line of the 'updated textbooks': the Moon landings were faked in an effort to bankrupt the Soviet Empire by making it spend all its money on all that unnecessary spacecraft. This is a “caretaker generation” that has long since stopped looking at the Heavens and is focused purely on the dirt and the muck of Earth. No ambition (unlike the ESA), just grit-teethed, dumb-minded stoicism – as embodied in the film by Cooper's son.

Cooper's daughter, Murph, is a dreamer. Reading his old textbooks, getting into fights in defence of her beliefs, seeking the wondrous in the world. There's a ghost in her room that she's convinced is trying to tell her something. It's Coopers eventual interpretation of this message and act of faith in following it that sparks his quest to another galaxy, in search of a new homeland for his species.

This world’s a treasure that’s been telling us to leave for a while now.

Mankind was born on earth. It was never meant to die here.”

Without getting too much deeper in the details of the plot (trailer below) – they travel through ... Read More »

Review - 'Constantine' pilot

There’s a scene in the ill-regarded 2009 movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where Hugh Jackman, acknowledged to be generally perfect in this role, gets to deliver the character’s most representative quote: “I’m the best there is at what I do - and what I do ain’t very nice”  - and you just don’t believe him. Despite all Jackman’s aptness in the role, the line just doesn’t land.

There’s a similar moment in the pilot for the TV show Constantine, where Matt Ryan delivers a key quote for the title character - “I’m a nasty piece of work - ask anyone”.

I believed him. But... 


John Constantine has existed as a character (and, according to creator Alan Moore, possibly something more) since 1985. From his first appearance in Moore & Steve Bissette’s Saga Of The Swamp Thing, then his own comic Hellblazer (written at various points by the cream of British comic scribes) and finally the current New 52 reboot series Constantine, he’s been in print constantly (heh) for nearly thirty years. (For more deep background, this recent piece by Abraham Reisman at Vulture is excellent.)

Until now, he’s been adapted for the screen just once, with varied results. The 2005 film Constantine got mixed reviews, with fans of the character scathing in their response to the casting of Keanu Reeves in the lead.  Worse - instead of the character as shown in the comics, a blond working class magician born in Liverpool and matured in London, we got Keanu as a middle-class suburban Angeleno psychic with spooky tatts in a script that stripped away everything about the character that mattered, other than him being a smoker and a bastard. The film is basically an OK supernatural action thriller - but John Constantine isn’t really in it.

The 2014 TV series pilot ‘Non Est Asylum’ - leaked online some months back, now re-edited with new scenes - has certainly got John Constantine in it... shame is, at the moment he’s in a fairly run-of-the-mill TV supernatural action thriller.

First, the good stuff... 

As far as being a proper bastard John Constantine, true to the spirit of the comic... Matt Ryan had me at ‘bollocks’. He’s swaggering, sarcastic, dangerous - a nasty piece of work to be sure, but one whose anger, fear and damage is very near the surface. Not quite the cool customer of later comics, he’s still raw from recent traumatic events - I hope we see the truly on-it Constantine evolve as the show goes on.

The decision to give Constantine’s accent more than a hint of his Liverpool home was a smart one - it even gives the American pronunciation of his name (it should be Kon-Stan-Tyne, not Kon-Stan-Teen - it says so in the comic) a degree of plausibility. Almost.

Serious effort has gone into adapting Constantine’s comic history into a show set in the US and updated for our times. Major aspects of his back story are shown: the Newcastle Event (where his failure led to the death and damnation of a young girl named Astra at the hands of the demon Nergal and the condemnation of Johns' soul to the same when he dies), his subsequent incarceration in Ravenscar asylum (in the show, voluntarily), even his torment at his father’s hands due to the death of his mother in childbirth. His magical style is shown as eclectic, combining many traditions with Judaeo-Christian elements in what he calls a ‘proprietary blend’, just as it should be.

Other aspects of the character are toned down; network rules mean he can’t be seen smoking (but he will apparently be putting out a lot of ciggys in ashtrays), it’s been made clear by the showrunners that (at least for the moment) the show will not address his canonical bisexuality. And I’m a little peeved at how short his trenchcoat is... but for the most part, I’m damn happy with this Constantine.

The show itself, however, has an ironic hill to climb. We’re a long way from Conjob's starting days - an entire genre of urban fantasy has arisen, giving us a wide range of street-mages and demon-hunters, and this year alone the show is airing alongside such genre examples as Grimm, Sleepy Hollow and Supernatural (now in its tenth year). The pilot follows along all-too-similar lines to much of these shows’ output, though it’s crisply directed by Neil Marshal of Dog Soldiers, The Descent and Game Of Thrones fame - it’s going to have to do something special to win over an audience.

Several scenes from the pilot were changed from the ‘leaked’ version which appeared over the summer: most notably, what was to have been the female show lead and audience POV character has been unceremoniously written out be the end of the episode (a shame for actress Lucy Griffith as Liv... but the character was the weak link, through no fault of her own). Also, the final boss battle with the demon was reshot to have it appear in the form of Constantine-as-demon, a supposed look at his damned future, which lands much better than the generic menace in the original version.

Despite the hiccups and dilution, I have a lot of hope for the show. I like the aloof viciousness of Harold Perrineau’s angel ‘Manny’, Jeremy Davies is perfect casting as John’s unwilling associate and fellow Newcastle veteran Ritchie Simpson and the prospect of major Hellblazer characters such as Papa Midnite and Zed (as the new female lead), as well as other DC occult figures, holds much promise. Hell, I even like this version of Chas (now an American cabbie, nicely played by Charles Halford, formerly Reggie Ledoux in True Detective). 

So, give it a punt. Know what I mean?


Review: ‘Discovering Scarfolk’ by Richard Littler

Ebury Press 2014, ISBN 9780091958480

Britain in the 1970s was a very strange time and place. Caught in the brutal come-down after the Sixties yet still retaining more than a hint of pagan mysticism in the air, Britain had a distinctive otherworldliness underlying the economic woes, ever-present threat of nuclear war and public service films warning children that horrific death lurked in every field, every street. Both grubby and garish, represented equally by Abigail’s Party and Children of the Stones, Albion seemed caught in an awful liminality. There was nothing quite like living through that strange time, in that weird place.

Nothing, that is, except for Scarfolk.

The invention of Richard Littler, Scarfolk is a fictional town in the North-West of England which is perpetually trapped in the 70s. Littler’s pastiches of the advertising and cultural symbols of the time, filtered through the paranoid occult and technological fears then present, became an immensely popular blog series over the past couple of years, drawing praise from writers as diverse as Ian Rankin, Caitlin Moran and Warren Ellis. The clever perfection of the parody images, combined with the Pythonesque word play and riffs on the stranger aspects of British culture, are a masterpiece in absurdist horror.

Although there are some parallels to other fictional towns draped in the Weird, Scarfolk is very much its own thing. Comparisons to the Welcome To Night Vale podcast are commonly made, especially when trying to explain Scarfolk to Americans: but whereas Night Vale has a folksy cute-weird inclusive charm that might tempt the fan to consider living there if it existed, nobody in their right minds would want to visit Scarfolk, let alone live there... it makes Royston Vasey seem positively inviting by comparison.

Now, Scarfolk has made the transition from blog to book, and in the process has both gained and lost something in translation.

The book contains most of the classic images Littler created for the Scarfolk site - favourites such as the controversial fake Penguin Books cover “Children And Hallucinogens”, which went viral last year, convincing many that the book had once existed (including, so rumour has it, several concerned Penguin executives). They are surrounded by a two-layered, almost Lovecraftian-styled framing story: the book purports to be a professor’s reconstruction of a found text, telling the tale of one Daniel Bush. Bush, while moving home after the death of his wife in a bizarre Morris-dancing related accident, is trapped in Scarfolk following the disappearance of his twin sons. Recovering from the brainwashing inflicted on him for ‘his own good’ by the residents, he wanders the town, trying to understand his surroundings and find his children.

Though that storyline itself is interesting (and draws heavily on other great British cultural influences such as The Prisoner and The Wicker Man), it doesn’t flow well: mostly because it’s continually interrupted by both the pictures and a lot of footnotes - the readers attention is being continually split. Each element of the book - the art, the story and the footnotes - don’t quite gel together... but each is thoroughly enjoyable in their own form.

The footnotes contain some of the best, most horrific writing in the book, I think: such as,

The ice-cream van man came between 3 and 4 a.m. His van blared out the haunting Swedish Rhapsody numbers station. The ice-cream van man wore a clown mask to disguise the horrific burns on his face because he didn't want to frighten the children. It didn't work. He used clothes pegs to hold the mask on because he was missing an ear. He lived in a nondescript building in an electrical substation and no one knew his name.

As an artefact, the book feels like it has fallen out of some grubby wormhole: the pages are faintly faded, the whole thing almost seeming to glower at the reader. The cover looks like a pre-battered textbook from a barely-used library, its recollection of the publishing tropes of the time a pastiche so perfect that it verges on the hyperreal. Sadly, this finish actually obscures some of the finer details of the illustrations; in one of my favourite pictures, the relabelled diagrams of the male and female genital anatomy, several of the terms are too blurry to be read easily.

(EDIT: Richard Littler contacted me after this review aired to note that the blurring of the pictures was a printing mistake and not intentional. Though that accident adds to the grimy air of this version, I am glad later editions will allow readers to fully see a woman's malteser and a man's battlestar galactica in all their glory.)

Despite these drawbacks, Discovering Scarfolk is a pleasure, if a disturbing one: you’ll never read or hold anything else quite like it.

For more information, please re-read this review.

Link: Discovering Scarfolk on Amazon UK