Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Helen Dunmore, Jim Crace and a biography of Syd Barrett.

Helen Dunmore, The Betrayal

Jane Shilling in the Telegraph describes Helen Dunmore's sequel to The Siege as a "lovely, thoughtful novel", which acts for readers of the novels precursor as chance to discover "the fates of the surviving members of the Levin family - Anna, her husband, Andrei, and younger brother, Kolya". She finds that "Dunmore's lyric gift is at its best when describing the domestic minutiae that seem so unspeakably precious in the absence of security", and that "Only when the horrors become real does Dunmore's power to disturb weaken."

For Lucy Daniel in the Sunday Telegraph, this novel is "not just an impressive, enthralling sequel but part of an ongoing saga of ordinary people struggling against a city's beautiful indifference, and clinging on for dear life", and an exercise in "personalising a collective experience of momentous times". Katy Guest in the Independent on Sunday describes Dunmore's prose as "sensuous, physical and almost synaesthetic ... also sparse and elegant when needs be", while her skill as a novelist is "brave, tender and with a unique gift for immersing the reader in the taste, smell and fear of a story." For Scarlett Thomas in the Financial Times, "This is such a page-turner, and is in places so gruesome, that reading it becomes more visceral than intellectual".

Jim Crace, All that Follows

Adam Lively in the Sunday Times describes Crace's new novel as "a book that for all its stylistic precision and intelligence is, as a whole, curiously half-hearted and out of kilter". Lively identifies the influence of other writers on this novel about an ageing jazz musician: Hari Kunzru, and "The real spectre that haunts the pages of All That Follows, however, is not a ghost from the past but Philip Roth. His influence is everywhere", so the novel "suffers from the sense of treading well-worn paths." Lively also finds that "the politics and the futuristic setting remain sketchy in the extreme."

By contrast, Giles Foden in the Guardian writes that "Crace has some satirical fun with this invented but not unlikely landscape", but he agrees that the novel is influenced by predecessors: "Crace isn't just nodding at Ian McEwan's Saturday. At other moments it is Don DeLillo who comes to mind, another writer who has been influenced by jazz and who has written about hostage-taking". He concludes that "Part of the book's attraction is its modesty, the way it gets big ideas down to a small domestic canvas on which individual emotions and family dynamics are authentically realised", and that "All That Follows is both thought-provoking and a delight to read." Ian Thomson in the Financial Times praises Crace's "spare but resonant prose", but finds it "more conventional" than his previous efforts.

Rob Chapman, Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head

Lynn Barber in the Sunday Times writes that "This is a book of two halves, one memorable, one not"; she elaborates: "It is the second half of the book, about the life of Roger Barrett, that is interesting, because we don't often read the life of a recluse." Barber suggests that this may be because writer "Rob Chapman had full co-operation from Barrett's sister Rosemary and other family members, whereas the Floyds refused to talk."

Sean O'Hagan in the Observer describes the book as a "fitfully illuminating biography", finding that "Chapman has unravelled the skeins of rumour, exaggeration and anecdote that have been wound so tightly around Barrett", although he agrees that the book "inevitably suffers from his absence - and that of Pink Floyd, all of whom declined to be interviewed for the book". He concludes: "If Chapman overstates the case for Barrett's songwriting genius and sometimes writes from the point of view of an obsessive on a mission to rehabilitate his hero, A Very Irregular Head is a consistently illuminating, and often surprising, read."


Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.