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in the present, nothing lasts

“True Detective” series 2: Everyone says it’s weaker than the first one. Everyone is wrong.

It has everything that was good about series 1, to be sure: the cinematography, production values and atmosphere of weird underlying menace are perfect, the leads are all brilliant in their roles, and the general sense of Place (both in terms of magnificently shot scenery porn, and in feeling as though this world is alive, and its characters are actually adrift among its modern troubles, rather than just being pieces in a narrative of convenience), though that Place is the California valleys and the interplay of dying industries and new high-speed rail, rather than Louisiana wetlands where everything is simply rotting.

But, unlike the first series it actually has a plot. Things happen (for a reason!), and while our characters ooze overwrought melancholy in every scene, there is more going on than character studies in grizzled manpain. S1 had lots of good things about it but also some huge flaws: it was one of those shows which tries to be Art through deliberate obscurity, and ends up as a chore to watch (while failing to come anywhere close to the actual artistic high water mark of HBO drama, The Wire); its overriding theme was “masculinity”, which, yeah, just read the Iliad instead, nothing has changed; its plot didn’t matter, and its final twist didn’t actually make any goddamn sense. The plot was there to service the manly grimaces, not the other way round.

Here it’s the right way round, and although it starts a little weakly and ends a little predictably, it’s a wonderful example of the density of plot, character and detail you can force into a show while still having a pace that is resolutely unhurried. The fare is a bit more commonplace (political crooks, gangsters and PMCs rather than sisterfucking bayou satanists) and the hardboiled stereotypes are more modern but just as broad (crooked cop with custody issues, hard-as-nails lady cop with one of Those backstories, closeted veteran caught between who he is and his sense of who he needs to be, gangster kingpin learning that nobody really leaves the game); but it winds its threads around each other with great skill and concentration, and succeeds in its real goal – which is having the audience take it seriously, though perhaps not quite as seriously as it takes itself.

the death of the ball turret gunner

“A ball turret was a Plexiglas sphere set into the belly of a B-17 or B-24, and inhabited by two .50 caliber machine guns and one man, a short small man. When this gunner tracked with his machine guns a fighter attacking his bomber from below, he revolved with the turret; hunched upside-down in his little sphere, he looked like the fetus in the womb. The fighters which attacked him were armed with cannon firing explosive shells. The hose was a steam hose.”

past the square, past the bridge, past the mills, past the stacks

A very cool thought which occasionally occurs to me: in a world which contains both the Channel Tunnel and the Trans-Siberian Railway, I can hop on a train on any station in Britain and, eventually, find myself in any other station in Europe and Asia, without ever leaving the railway network. And Railhead, the forthcoming book from the explosively talented Philip Reeve, is that thought writ on an enormous scale, where you can get on a train and find yourself on the other side of the galaxy.

It’s a return to more grown-up books for Mr Reeve, whose work over the last few years has been aimed at younger readers, with the jolly good (if snot-focused) Goblins series and the even younger, wonderfully illustrated collaborations with Sarah McIntyre (Oliver and the Seawigs: recommended even if you aren’t 8). Mortal Engines, which came out a bit before either the “YA” or the “steampunk” trends really took off, has been retroactively pigeonholed into both of them; arguing about genre is the dumbest thing ever and I won’t do it, but Railhead is Proper Sci-Fi by anyone’s definition (and presumably to be marketed as YA, because there’s murder but not sex), set in the future with spaceships and robots and stuff. A lot of modern science fiction trying to set space opera in The Future has been caught slightly flat-footed by how, between various bits of microtechnology and the internet, the modern world has basically become science fiction, and so needs to make up alternative histories to keep things analogue enough to force Star Wars into – but Railhead deftly builds on what we have now (drones and miniaturised terminals, the Datasea and its “spam-sharks that would hack your mind and fill your dreams with adverts”) without letting it get in the way of being a great big space opera where things explode excitingly and the right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.

There’s a great cast of major and minor characters: our hero, Zen Starling, a thief trying to be tough but who really doesn’t mean badly; the magnificently named Threnody Noon, a thoroughly sympathetic spoilt-heiress type who develops hugely over the story; Flex, a gender-fluid graffiti artist who reminds me of Tim Maughan’s fantastic very-near-future science fiction; terrifying killer trains (you read that right), burned-out cops, monks made of insects, nuanced aristocrats, a man in black looking to pick a fight with the gods themselves. And the sense of detail and texture is superb: every concept has an underlying story, every glum little failed economy sits on a well-told history of how it ended up that way. This is (thankfully) not one of those books which has capital-T Themes, but touches quickly and convincingly on lots of them – automation and androids destroying jobs and livelihoods; great economic forces washing over worlds and societies, chewing through them and abandoning them; a power vacuum and the subsequent politicking between factions, shot through with the uneasy relationship between civil legitimacy and military force. Which makes it believable, because even when it’s about galactic emperors and hyper-intelligent close-to-goddesses, you can see echoes of the real world underneath.

And it’s full of great little Reeve-isms, double meanings and references to books and old bands and everything else. Robots are called Motorik, which sounds good in its own right, has a lovely double meaning if you know what it means in German, and an even better triple meaning if you know far too much Krautrock-related terminology. (Or Google it, as I did.) That sort of namedropping often comes off as a bit smug and trying-too-hard-to-be-clever in books (and especially games), but here, like in Mortal Engines (with “is this your first time on a harvester?” and an airship called Idiot Wind) it all fits seamlessly into the worldbuilding and adds texture and detail despite being a reference. A logo consisting of a pair of rails crossed by a lightning bolt carries a joke that will sadly be lost on non-Brits, but is still a perfectly good symbol for a future police force patrolling the rails. What I’m getting at is that this is a universe where trains are the most important form of transport, ruled by someone nicknamed the Fat Controller, and it’s a good nickname and gives the reader something even if they didn’t catch the joke.

 

I won’t spoil the plot (any more than the above vague allusions already have) but it’s very satisfying, twisting and turning without losing momentum, and culminating in the best sort of climax, a great explosive set-piece of resolutions and revelations where you can’t be sure, from page to page, who will come out on top – or who you really want to.

It’s due to arrive for real in October. I hope there’s another one along soon.

the trees can’t grow without the sun in their eyes

Finally watched Elysium. Ambivalent about it. Aesthetically, it’s perfect: almost every shot feels like a classic sci-fi novel cover, shining primary colours and blocky-but-detailed buildings and spaceships with big numbers on them, but all realised in lovely modern HD and with odd bits of characterful South African flair rather than the usual American boilerplate. (And the guns were great, which is always a plus.) There was a definite feeling of fanfic-y wish fulfilment underlying it (“so now Sharlto Copley the grizzled mercenary villain with the regenerating beard is dramatically leaping, katana drawn, over a precarious walkway in the underfloor refinery district of a giant space station. Reckon we can shoehorn in some drifting cherry blossoms? Also, combat droids with tacky golden bling”), but that’s fine when coupled with a decent imagination and production values (see: why Jupiter Ascending was not a completely worthless film.)

But the worldbuilding is just a bit too OTT and silly, and it all ultimately falls flat, because taking a Hot Button Issue, dressing it up in loads of sci-fi and turning all parties involved into absurd caricatures of themselves doesn’t actually count as “commentary”, even less so with a panacea ending. District 9 had the same problem, but halfway through it gave up on the documentary premise and the “aliens are here, but they’re really shit and we have no idea what to do with them” social metaphor to turn into a brainless but solid action flick with an Afrikaner twist. This… doesn’t manage it, not because the action is weak, but because space is a lot less compellingly new and weird to the Western moviegoer than Johannesburg.

Also, it’s an obnoxiously Tumblr look-how-right-on-I-am thing to say, but why would you write your Spanish-speaking working-class-hero, who was raised by Mexican nuns, who represents Mexico in the agonisingly obvious metaphor (“undocumented spaceships”, really?), whose pals (including the cute one from Y Tu Mama Tambien) are all Hispanic gangsters… and then cast Matt Damon, the most generically Aryan man ever?

“…some radiant joy will gaily flash past.”

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I love cities at night, and St Petersburg is as magical as any of them – the vast palaces and government buildings floodlit under the moody clouds, Petropavlovsk’s walls picked out with an illuminated strip, the golden spires above the Admiralty and Cathedral of Peter & Paul shining bright as daytime. St Isaac’s muted and half in shadow, the streets around it filled with young women on horses offering rides to tourists and boy racers in black Jaguars weaving through traffic like they’re in a Bond movie and accelerating like they’re in a MiG-25. Nevsky Prospekt shines with ten thousand points of night. On a Friday night in summer, warm and slightly muggy, the streets are full of nightclub spillover: drunks tripping over fences and flirting loudly in several languages, pouty young people swaggering as if they’re the most beautiful things ever made. Passing the roadside bars, holding anyone’s gaze feels uncomfortable; the girls look at you like they’re about to name a price and the boys look at you like they’re about to shout “davai, cyka” and shank you. Club music and flavoured spirits pollute the air.

The many bridges of the Neva, low and flat like those of the Thames or the Seine, have a secret which is not obvious to the casual observer: they lift up, Tower Bridge-style (but without any of the magnificent yet structurally superfluous Victorian bling.) Not as and when boats arrive – as if they’d disrupt traffic to let any old tramp freighter mess up the view of the Winter Palace – but all together, in a nightly sequence which is apparently worth celebrating all on its own, when all the freighters stacked up outside are allowed to come through and head up towards Lake Ladoga.

The waterfront by the Hermitage at 0130 hours is a more local, more authentic-feeling scene than the clubs, which could be literally anywhere in Europe: numbers of the more sober(ly dressed) tourists, trios of Russian men pouring vodka into three cups and chatting seriously, the entire riverbank flashing yellow with the hazard lights of people pretending they’re not parked illegally. The mighty bascules of Trinity Bridge lift up, red lights shining at their tips, and a vast fleet of riverboats streams through, gunwales crowded with partying Russians, filling the Neva with running lights and diesel smoke. Someone lets off some fireworks, Chinese lanterns drift into the air, and the boats actually big enough to need the bridge lifted, a string of hefty Baltic coasters straight out of Tintin, grumble from bridge to bridge in line astern.

We wandered there for a while, just enjoying the activity: a group of Russians having a sing-along, street-sellers flogging candy-floss and boiled corn, couples dancing energetically by the roadside, a band of boys in wifebeaters with electric guitars rocking out under the sightless eyes of the statues on the Winter Palace.

 

 

St Petersburg 2015

Border crossing, monuments by night – Downtown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery Museum – Nevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian Museum – Central Naval Museum, Icebreaker Krasin – Neva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt

he who has an army has one hand; he who has a navy has both

(Click on the images for full-sized versions. I’m trying something new with a gallery for the Krasin pics, too…)

 

Peter the Great, without whom “Russian Navy” would mean as much as “Mongolian Coast Guard”.

The Central Naval Museum in St Petersburg is, in the Russian style, the largest naval museum in the world. It plays the same cheeky shit regarding “Tickets: 400 ru! билеты 150p” and then not having any signs in English; but thanks to Misha the first wasn’t an issue, and thanks to Dr Boff, there is nothing which floats and kills whose function and history I can’t at least make a decent guess at.

These, for instance, are model ships.

The galleries were mainly ruled by model ships, some as big as minibuses, crowded around the fringes by one-in-the-world historical artefacts: massive two-headed eagles, a showcase full of undersea telegraph gauges, stout brass Gatling guns, kayak-sized midget submarines. They had an actual spar torpedo, a model of a ship designed to use them, and a painting of one in use – I had a lot of fun explaining the utter insanity of spar torpedoes to Misha and Olga.* Rather than the comely lasses with big bare knockers Britain favoured, Russian figureheads seem mainly to be large hairy men with holy books and phallic weapons. Draw your own conclusions.

All I know about Russian naval history is the endless violent tragedies and disasters, and the museum was brilliant for filling in the rest – especially Russia’s Baltic struggle with the Swedes. But there were plenty of disasters too; the Russo-Japanese War display was particularly good, one room for the ships that got bottled up and wasted at Port Arthur and Vladivostok (with sad poignant paintings of dozens of masts and funnels poking up from the bottom of a bay) and another room for the ships they sent to rescue them, which got slaughtered at Tsushima, with lurid propaganda posters of exploding pre-dreadnoughts.** There was a spiral staircase off the battleship Potemkin (namedrop!) with some shell holes, and an entire gallery of Aurora memorabilia.

The Potemkin Steps. No, not those Potemkin Steps. The other ones.

We had some borscht and sandwiches in the cafe, then drove west down Vasilievsky Island’s southern embankment. This part of St Petersburg has a genuinely nautical character rather than just happening to be a city on the sea; the cruise ships like to moor here, the western horizon is crowded with immense forests of dockyard cranes, and on the far shore, immense flo-flo mobile dockyards and dismembered sections of submarines sit gently rusting. With limited time, we had to pick how to round off our navy day: the submarine S-189 or the icebreaker Krasin.

Note the weird ice-humping hull shape and unbelievably strong hull.

The  Krasin has been everywhere and done everything. Her original hull was built in Newcastle, as the Svyatogor; her most expensive refit was in the USA during WW2, and most of her superstructure and modern fittings are East German postwar reparations, but most of her life has been in Russian service crushing Russian ice. She was jacked by the Royal Navy to fight the Bolsheviks during the Revolution, scuttled to blockade Arkhangelsk, then raised again and, on His Majesty’s service, used to crush submarine barriers around Scapa Flow. Handed back to the Russians in a deal negotiated by one Leonid Krasin, the Svyatogor was renamed after him in the twenties. In one of the true adventure-novel moments of the twentieth century, she rescued a lost Italian polar expedition when their airship crashed, and at another point rescued another icebreaker which wasn’t icebreaky enough. She’s been about as close to both poles as it’s possible for a surface ship to be; during the war she took a trip across the entire US for refit and gave the Panama Canal a rare sight of an icebreaker, on her way to armed convoy duty in the Arctic circle. In declining years, as the new generations of nuclear icebreakers replaced her and changes in the world meant ice just didn’t need as much breaking, reducing her at one point to hauling used cars; she was only saved from the breaker’s yard by Russian historic nostalgia. But she’s been refitted magnificently, all polished brass and lovely wooden panelling, and is apparently now back to working order. Not a fitting end; a fitting continuation.

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* It’s seriously just a massive bomb on the end of a stick. Many larger, more heavily armoured ships of the period were designed to simply ram instead – no guns, just armour and engine. Mid-late 19th century naval tech was weird.

** Fun fact! A significant proportion the ships on both sides of the Russo-Japanese War were built in Britain. You really can’t trust perfidious Albion.

 

 

St Petersburg 2015

Border crossing, monuments by nightDowntown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery MuseumNevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian Museum – Central Naval Museum, Icebreaker Krasin – Neva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt