Book Talk: Nightflyers And Other Stories (George R.R. Martin, 1973-1981)

night-1I had been aware that George R.R. Martin had written other things besides the epic A Song Of Ice And Fire series but until now, I hadn’t looked into them. Fortunately I have long since cleared my reading backlog and now find myself back in that lovely position of having nothing to read. It means that I can actually browse the books in shops again and pick out stuff at random, hopefully broadening my literary horizons a little more. Nightflyers And Other Stories is one such purchase. I picked it up for £4.50 (half RRP) and decided it was time to see if Martin’s other work can match the bloody and treacherous exploits of Daenarys and co.

Well, it doesn’t but I wasn’t too surprised about that. A Song Of Ice And Fire is one of those rare series of books that is near-impossible to go toe-to-toe with and that’s okay. Besides, the six short stories collated in this book were written well before Martin gave us A Game of Thrones so a direct comparison would be cruel anyway. The stories within this book feature a different sort of tone too; yes there are fantasy elements but sci-fi is the dominant genre – sci-fi that explores wondrous futures and the dark recesses of the human mind.

Headlining the book is Nightflyers, a space sci-fi/horror story that was turned into a Netflix TV series (Syfy for America) in 2018. This is the expanded version from 1981 that features an extra 7,000 words over the original 1980 version printed in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Nightflyers is set on a starship chartered by Karoly d’Brannin, a scientist chasing the mysterious Volcryn alien race of which he is obsessed with meeting. D’Brannin brings a hand-picked crew with him for the mission consisting of telepaths, linguists and computer experts – people he hopes will aid him in communicating with the enigmatic Volcryn. Very quickly, the story’s focus moves away from the crew’s mission and turns instead to the ship’s resident master, the mysterious Royd Eris, a character who claims he is controlling the ship from his sealed chamber. He won’t meet them and nobody can get into his quarters to see him. He communicates via intercom and asks that the crew trust him.

Naturally, rampant paranoia and suspicion sweeps the ship, not helped by the resident Class One telepath, Thale Lassamer sensing impending danger. Who is Royd Eris? Why are they not allowed to meet him in person? Why is he watching and listening in at all times? The innocent explanation is that Eris lives a lonely life, sealed in his quarters for health reasons and as such, he is fascinated by the people on his ship and how they act. It doesn’t wash with everybody though.

“Who is this Royd Eris, really?” the xenobiologist Rojan Christopheris, complained one night when four of them were playing cards. “Why doesn’t he come out? What’s the purpose of keeping himself sealed off from the rest of us?”

“Ask him” suggested Dannel, the male linguist.

“What if he’s a criminal of some sort?” Christopheris said. “Do we know anything about him? No, of course not. D’Brannin engaged him and d’Brannin is a senile old fool, we all know that”

“It’s your play” Lommie Thorne said.

Christopheris snapped down a card. “Setback” he declared, “you’ll have to draw again.” He grinned. “As for this Eris, who knows that he isn’t planning to kill us all.”

As if the xenobiologist was a telepath himself and capable of predicting the future, people start dying one-by one in tragic accidents. I can’t go much further without spoiling the story but the “accidents” are all plausible and explained calmly by Royd Eris who shifts the blame back to the crew and their attempts to reach him against his wishes. At the same time, there is the obvious suspicion that Eris is behind the deaths. Martin is uncompromising in his descriptions of the deaths themselves (something that would carry over to Ice And Fire) and so Nightflyers becomes a sci-fi and gory horror in space. It keeps you guessing at who or what is really responsible and there is a twist near the story’s endgame. Nightflyers is clearly the best story in this collection and while it took a some time to get going – not helped by the strange character names – I eventually fell into that zone where I couldn’t put it down.

The other stories don’t quite live up to Nightflyers but the interesting thing is that they all take place in the same fictional “Thousand Worlds” universe. There are no direct links between the stories but the same planets and races are often referenced, letting you know that there is a loose continuinity behind the scenes.

Override is a story set on the planet of Grotto where Corpse Handlers mine precious stones using crews of ‘deadmen’, deceased human beings reanimated and managed with the Handlers’ control box devices. Override was my least favourite of the stories in this collection. The others that follow Nightflyers explored morality, religion and philosophy. Here we have the enforced enslavement of the deceased and a fairly nonplussed attitude towards the practice which is a pretty grim future indeed but it felt like a more straightforward tale.

Weekend in a Warzone was much more interesting. In the future, there are no wars so to satiate man’s primal bloodlust so multiple fighting clubs will take your money and drop you into a warzone for a specified length of time. You will fight against “soldiers” from a rival fighting club. The war and the death is real but the chilling aspect to this story is that people choose to sign up for it; war and killing for the entertainment value and thrills. Man’s appetite for violence contained on artificial battlefields and packaged as a weekend away from ordinary life.

The Concom guns are molded from greenish plastic, but otherwise they’re the same. Of course. The weapons have to be the same, or the war wouldn’t be fair. Underneath, there’s a serial number, and a legend that says PROPERTY OF CONSOLIDATED COMBAT, INC.

You pays your money and you takes your choice. Fight in the mountains, Maneuver against Consolidated Combat! Try and jungle war, General Warfare versus Battlemaster! Slug it out in the streets of the city, Tactical League against Risk, Ltd. There are thirty-four war zones and ten fighting clubs. You pays your money and you takes your choice. But all the choices are the same.

Weekend in a Warzone is a short story but a very good one. It paints another unsavoury future where war has become trivialised and a sport rather than the result of two sides fighting for deeper causes. And it struck me as the kind of future that could actually exist if wars and conflict were ever to be completely eradicated. As I said, chilling stuff.

The next story is And Seven Times Never Kill A Man. This one takes place on the world of Corlos where the Steel Angels have established a colony and are systematically wiping out the native Jaenshi with brutal force. There are some religious themes running through this story as the Steel Angels worship their God, Bakkalon, and everything they do is driven by their zealous belief system. Outsider Arik neKrol is a trader and as such can move between both races. He views the Steel Angels as evil and plots to arm the passive Jaenshi in order to fight back. I didn’t really enjoy the conclusion of this story and found myself wondering whether I’d overlooked an underlying message or subtle detail. Nevertheless, it was detailed, enjoyable and made me want to know how it would all end.

Nor The Many-Colored Fires Of A Star Ring is a mouthful of a title. It’s also possibly the most sci-fi of all the stories in this collection. In the future, enormous ring-shaped structures called Star Rings surround nullspace vortexes and use them to open up dimensional warps, allowing for fast travel across the cosmos. There’s definitely a Star Trek vibe to this story, especially with the descriptions of the control panels and Star Ring itself. But the main focus of the story is the character of Kerin daVittio and his growing obsession with the infinite, utter darkness of unexpanded space lying outside of their particular Star Ring.

But on the far side of the Hole to Nowhere was the darkest realm of all. Here blackness rules, immense and empty. There are no stars. There are no planets. There are no galaxies. No light races through this void; no matter marks its perfection. As far as man can see, as far as his machines can sense, in all directions; only nothingness and vaccuum. Infinite and silent and more terrible than anything Kerin had ever known.

You aren’t ever certain whether Kerin fears the darkness or can’t get enough of it. Or both. The story makes you think philosophically and realise how small and insignificant we are as a race compared to the unfeeling blackness of space which goes on forever.

The final story is A Song For Lya. Two telepaths – Lyanna and Robb – arrive on an alien planet where a human civilisation butts up against that of the native Shkeen, an ancient, peaceful race that don’t mind co-habiting with the humans. But the Shkeen all follow a singular religion whereby they ‘join’ with a jelly-like organism known as a Greeshka before proceeding with the Final Union between the ages of forty and fifty. Humans are converting to the Shkeen’s religion and slowly deserting the colony and so Lyanna and Robb are brought in to try and read the minds of the Joined and work out why seemingly healthy humans are giving up everything for the Shkeen religion. Final Union involves being willingly sacrificed to the Greeshka and so the religion has become viewed as a worrying suicide cult by the human administration. There was a lot going on in this story including religious themes and the romantic relationship between Lyanna and Robb and how it is affected by what they learn from ‘feeling’ the emotions of pure love from those who are Joined in Shkeentown. It is a very good story and like the proceeding one, it did make me stop and think once I’d reached the end.

Overall, I enjoyed dipping into sci-fi, a genre that I rarely flirt with. All of the stories in this collection were worth the entry fee even if some were better than others. Nightflyers, Weekend In A Warzone and A Song For Lya were my personal favourites but I wouldn’t say that that there were any weak links. Override stands out as the story I got the least out of but even then, I still enjoyed it for what it was. As with the books in the Ice And Fire series, it’s Martin’s descriptive powers and ability to create believable fantasy worlds out of alien ideas and futures that makes this book. If you are into classic sci-fi or enjoyed A Song Of Ice And Fire then you should also enjoy Nightflyers And Other Stories.

Bullshit News Special: Clickbait Digest Vol.1

Sometimes I see some seriously bad “news” on the internet that has me questioning humanity and what we feel the need to read about. I want to rip these excuses for journalism a new one but don’t think I could put together full-fat posts. Here then is Vol.1 of Clickbait Digest, a new (potentially) regular spot on Unfiltered Opinion where I sell my soul to the ad revenue machine, click on attention-seeking stories and review them for the masochistic fun of it all.

“What to do if your boss is an algorithm”

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[Link to original story HERE]

BBC News prides itself on being a respectable, global leader in news and journalism but it can’t help joining in the clickbait party and invariably comes up trumps. Here is a headline that promises some real HAL 9000 shit and shows what appears to be a still taken directly from Terminator 5: Rise of the Cash-Cow Sequel. The video I am taken to also features an intriguing blurb: “Digital sociologist Karen Gregory on how to cope when your boss isn’t actually human“. So it’s a disappointment then to see that the video is just talking about employees working to for computer AI and automated data systems in workplaces. Worse still, the video serves up some bleak predictions of 20% of the UK workforce being displaced by computers and only the privileged and wealthy – with access to higher levels of learning – being able to succeed and move up the ladder in this environment. The video offers no realistic solutions other than vaguely saying that workers need to band together and come up with their own organisational solutions to prevent becoming displaced. Thanks for that. 10/10 for clickbait though.

“Circumcision: I’m scared of my own penis”

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[Link to original story HERE]

This one did at least turn out to be more of a “real” story, concerning the horror stories of male circumcision and the condition known as phimosis. Unlike most of this crap cluttering up the news sites, I did actually learn something here. I just wish a large news broadcaster like the BBC could use a more conventional title for the story other than “I’m scared of my own penis”. It’s unnecessary baiting and almost – almost – makes a joke out of genuine issues. The article begins by recounting somebody’s suicide FFS. Get it together, BBC.

“My son died after fellow pupil threw cheese at him”

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[Link to original video HERE]

If you aren’t familiar with it, we have a daytime TV show here in the UK called “This Morning”. I suppose it’s classed as a “magazine” show. It runs for several hours and features guests talking about real life issues, advice segments, fashion and phone-in competitions to win holidays – all that sort of crap. It’s the kind of ‘informative’ daytime TV that should only real appeal to gossips or the retired. It certainly encourages you to get off your arse and get a job if you’re stuck at home with this tripe all morning. Speaking as a man, the only reason to pay any attention at all is presenter Holly Willoughby but even then, is it worth it if having a perv also means suffering crap like this? Unfortunately, This Morning’s Youtube channel is one of the clickbaitiest things I have ever seen on Youtube’s home page and makes a mockery of truly tragic stories. This story is a case in point: a schoolboy died from anaphylactic shock after a piece of cheese was thrown at him and made contact with the back of his neck.

The tone of interview is understandably sombre but you can’t help but feel that the producers of This Morning only care about twisting a freak tragedy and a mother’s grief into a clickbait headline and carefully selected thumbnail in order to grab the views. This kind of stuff really pisses me off and makes me feel increasingly disgusted with the world we live in. The headline of “MY SON DIED AFTER FELLOW PUPIL THREW CHEESE AT HIM” is also plastered along the bottom of the screen for the OMG factor while the poor woman is relating her story.

I took a look at the suggested videos also from This Morning and it was a series of clickbait titles that seemed to be making light of pretty serious stuff, inviting people in to gawp as if it were a zoo exhibition.

“Our daughter died after eating a Pret a Manger aguette”

“Teacher who was viciously assaulted breaks down”

“Strangers think my girlfriend in my nurse”

“My husband cheated on me with our daughter’s friend”

“I married a homeless man living under a bush”

It’s the kind of sensationalist stuff that makes you want to run the fuck AWAY from our society and go live in a shed atop a mountain. The blend of “dramatic” I-can’t-believe-that-would-ever-happen stories sharing space with genuinely horrible recountings of abuse and death is just very bad in my opinion. And these segments on the show will be immediately followed-up with a competition to win a car!

And that’s about all I can deal with for Vol.1 of Clickbait Digest. Join me next time for more of the internet’s sewage. Maybe.

 

Bullshit News: Jeremy Corbyn’s £10 per hour bribe

It’s been a while since I delved into some Bullshit News but the truth is, I actively avoid the news as much as possible these days – taking a proactive approach to not allowing more negativity than necessary into my already-poisoned chalice. Unfortunately, the news is a goldmine for that rich, potent BS that makes for fun writing and scathing analysis pieces.

So it is with a mixture of regret and eagerness that I have returned to the world of clickbait and twisted facts for this latest entry in Bullshit News. This time, it’s because Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is banging the £10-per-hour drum again, vowing to end the Minimum Wage boundaries here in the UK and ensure that workers below the age of 18 receive the same wage as their older colleagues. This follows a previous promise to increase the National Living Wage for workers over 25 to £10-per-hour.

If he and his party are elected in next year’s general election of course.

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[Source]
For those outside of the UK who have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a quick lowdown. We have a National Minimum Wage; a legally-binding hourly rate that employers must pay to their employees at a bare minimum. This was originally introduced to prevent unscrupulous employers from paying people peanuts or hiring cheap, foreign labour at the expense of British workers. The Minimum Wage isn’t a one-size-fits-all however. 16-17 year-olds receive £4.35 p/h, 18-20: £6.35, 21-24: £7.70 and 25+ get £8.21.

Obviously there are many flaws to this system. Disgruntled younger workers being paid less for doing the same job for instance thus affecting motivation and sparking much anger over equality. On the flipside, you must factor in lack of experience and effectiveness in a job role which would make a reasonable argument for established employees receiving a higher wage in the first place. You can’t expect the ladder to have only one rung after all. But the counter to the counter comes along when you have new blood in a company eager to impress and working hard while their older counterpart – on a higher rate of pay – does the bare minimum and slacks off, taking home more money for performing the same role…even though their output may be worse.

Another problem is that businesses have gotten around having to pay higher wages by simply employing people for less hours on part-time contracts. In a lot of businesses here in the UK, this gives the employer a bonus secondary benefit because employees don’t necessary receive the same contractual benefits unless they are classed as “full time”. It also gives them greater control over moving employees’ shifts around to benefit the business, meaning that people desperate for work will end up having to take crappy, unsociable shifts with inconsistent hours.

So in short, the National Minimum Wage was a well-meaning idea but like most legalities, businesses will always find loopholes and ways to work the system to their advantage, not the supposed beneficiaries – the workforce. And as is usual, the government are far too slow and ponderous when it comes to closing said loopholes and keeping pace with the wily tactics of large businesses.

So you would think that a £10-per-hour wage would at least be some sort of consolation for being an employee trapped in The System. It really isn’t though and Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to deliver this is equally as ineffective in combatting the problems facing the UK’s working-class people.

Yes, companies will be required to pay their employees £10 p/h and in doing so will be adhering to the law of the land and going about their business with (mostly) clean hands. But you’d better believe that they will subsidise that cost somehow, ultimately leading to worse working conditions for those very same employees reaping the “benefits” of an increased pay packet. To use a first-hand example, the company I work for suspended quarterly bonuses one year in order to cover the cost of raising the workforce’s Minimum Wage mid-financial year – a cost that hadn’t been foreseen in the financial planning for the year.

An increased minimum wage will also result in an increase of part-time contracts (weighted in the employer’s favour) and – more depressingly – greater cost-cutting. The fatcats at the top don’t want their large salaries to be affected by the grunts at the bottom receiving their (comparitively minor) wage top-up. They want to continue driving around in company BMWs, sitting in offices drinking coffee and making decisions based on no hands-on experience of what it’s like for those doing the actual work that keeps their wallets bulging.

The solution is to reduce investment and hack away at employee perks until all that is left is the bare minimum required by law (and they will push the boundaries even thenbelieve me). It means an end to subsidised staff canteens and vending machines. It means cutting jobs and not replacing those who jump ship thus piling greater pressure on the remaining employees who are expected to deliver the same results with diminishing resources. It means reducing investment into the likes of facility maintenance and equipment purchases. Ultimately it means a harder life for the working man.

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[Source]
But the thing that earns Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge a free admission into the Bullshit News segment of my blog is the fact that his words are a mere bribe. He and his Labour party have a history of telling the younger generation what they want to hear in order to win their votes. They know that the UK’s youth is a politically dormant vein waiting to be tapped. Instead of gold or crude oil, that vein will yield votes – important votes. You see, many young people in this country take no interest in politics and don’t exercise their right to vote and it’s completely understandable. They see old people in positions of power that they can’t relate to. They see politicians making decisions that benefit the rich and established, not them or their aspirations. They see the lies, U-turns and constantly-swelling landfill site that needs ever more space to accomodate all of those false promises and undelivered pledges.

So nobody can blame Corbyn and Labour for trying to win the vote of this age group because they know that they feel ignored or disadvantaged by the current status quo. We can debate these points and the rights/wrongs all day long but what I’m saying is that it’s important to remember that the £10 p/h promise is just a bribe – the same as being offered £50 in exchange for voting Labour in the next election. There’s no guarantee that the wage increase and an end to a scale system will actually happen.

But it makes for a good, attention-grabbing headline that will make young people take notice and that’s what politics is all about. It’s about talking big and shouting loudly on volatile subjects. It’s about telling people what they want to hear. It’s about making voters believe that their interests are actually at heart – not the power games at Westminster and the battle for the Iron Throne keys to No.10, Downing Street.

If you need any further evidence of undelivered promises, attention-grabbing soundbites and ideas that sound great without looking into the actual implementation(s) and knock-on effects/consequences then look no further than the appalling embarassment to our nation that is Brexit. If you, valued reader, live outside of the UK and laugh at us then I genuinely can’t fault you for doing so. It’s some shitshow alright.

The bottom line is that it’s the businesses and corporations that actually control our lives, not the governments. Corbyn’s promise is great on paper but it is ultimately just another bribe and workplace life will suffer as a result once the big employers start making their cost-cutting measures to fund not only a wage increase but also a wage scale dissolution that would shake up everything.

I’m not saying that it’s all bad or that you – as a younger voter – shouldn’t want to vote for more money and fairness. I’m saying don’t take such promises at face value without digging deeper or being prepared to take the rough with the smooth.

Car Talk: Bangle’s BMW’s Revisited

*Yawn*

What’s that? Oh, sorry – I was just feeling a little sleepy there. Probably as a result of seeing the new BMW 3-Series.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m not exactly a fan of BMW and their car design. I USED to be but it’s difficult to get passionate about the cautious evolution of the likes of the 3 and 5-Series models. Don’t even get me started on their range of gargantuan, obnoxious drug-dealer ‘X’ SUV’s. This is the way it has been for some time now and while there have been some attractive BMW’s in recent times – the F82 M4 and F06 Gran Coupe 6-Series – the majority of the Bavarian firm’s designs are “smart”, “safe” and “uniform” – solid descriptives but not descriptives that set the pulse racing.

BMW3-1
Solid and unoffensive but certainly not sexy. [Source]
It wasn’t always this way though. Look at the design evolution between the E30, E36 and E46 3-Series models. All three generations are attractive cars that share similar design cues but – crucially – manage to stand apart from one another. The latest 3-Series doesn’t look massively different to the last one which in itself was just a sharper refinement of its predecessor’s silhouette.

And this is why I want to take a look back at that brief moment in time when BMW entrusted the design of their cars to one Chris Bangle. His designs proved intensely controversial and were rather wild and unconventional after years of conservative car design at BMW. At the time, many resented these weird new BMWs (myself included) but I can’t help but look back at this era now and mourn the time when a heavyweight car manufacturer of BMW’s caliber allowed a designer to rewrite the rules and gave him their backing when the critics were aghast at what they were seeing.

So I thought it would be fun to revisit Bangle’s BMW output with fresh eyes and revitalise our imaginations – stunted by the all-consuming blandness of modern car design.

[Note: Chris Bangle was at BMW for a long time and involved in the design of many cars whether in a hands-on fashion or as an overseer. I don’t want to talk about every single car that was released during Bangle’s tenure at BMW so I’m only going to look back at the cars he had the most involvement with, making a special exception for the original Z4.]

5-Series (E60/E61)

BMW5-1
[Source]
This is the biggie for me because after the graceful E39 5-Series, the E60 arrived looking nothing like what had come before. I remember first seeing these on the roads and absolutely detesting them. The headlights stretching up into the wings took a lot of getting used to as did the pointy rear lights. The E60 is three generations old now and I have to say that my opinion of it has changed completely. I think it still looks incredibly sharp and imposing – making a true statement despite the fact that there are still enough on the roads to make them a common daily sight. Critics and the public were unsure of the E60’s looks back in 2003 but it’s those same looks and that daring design in general that make the car so appealing today when the current 5-Series is really nothing to get emotional about.

The M5 model is a true monster with a 5.0 naturally aspirated, F1-inspired V10 powerplant that stirs the soul and represents the end of an era – the culmination of an arms race that went off in a different, turbo-charged direction thereafter. They also made a Touring version (E61) which is utterly bonkers and surely the best way to haul some crap down to the dump. Alpina editions are dangerously sexy.

Personally, the E60 has matured like a fine wine and I would honestly say that a decent spec example with a manual ‘box (a rarity unfortunately) and M-Sport equipment is one of my most highly desired cars. That’s high praise coming from a staunch follower of everything JDM.

Z4 (E85/E86)

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[Source]
The E85 Z4 is the work of Anders Warming but I’m including it here since I keep seeing references to the fact that Chris Bangle had some sort of input on the design. I’m not 100% sure about that but in any case, the Z4 was certainly a major departure from the Z3. As with the E60 5-Series, I hated this car on release and wondered what on earth was happening at BMW. The front end in particular always struck me as brutish and rhino-like. Today however, the design has matured and is certainly preferable to the nondescript, folding tin-top E89 that followed in the E85’s wake.

My father has the coupe version (E86) and it really is a nice car. The long bonnet and squat, muscular proportions go so well with the swooping fastback shape that gives the car an almost classic sports car look. His isn’t the fire-breathing, ultra desirable Z4M variant but you’d better believe that the 3.0 N52B30 straight-six under that huge bonnet can deliver a massive shove…as well as a big grin on the driver’s face.

7-Series (E65)

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[Source]
The E65 was one of the more shocking designs to emerge from Bangle’s reign at BMW’s design offices. It was a car that looked nothing at all like its conservative predecessor and in that sense, it achieved the BMW board’s wishes to move the design direction of its cars into the future. The controversy was real however, especially at the rear end of the car where the strange (shocking even, for 2001) elongated boot horrified many, leading critics to label it the “Bangle Butt”. As with the E60 5-Series, I too did not like this car when it first launched. The design was just so different and in-your-face. I couldn’t stand the car.

But as with the E60, that bold design philosophy is exactly what has made the E65 7-Series age fantastically in my opinion. I don’t look twice at the current 7-Series or the model it replaced but when I see an E65 cruising by, I can’t help but look. I hated it in period but the current, ultra-safe design direction at BMW has given me newfound appreciation for cars like the E65 and made me realise how lucky we really were to witness these risks being taken. Sometimes though, you can’t appreciate what you have until you lose it.

6-Series (E63/E64)

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[Source]
Another radical design that sported a “Bangle Butt”, the E63 6-Series was as different as you could possibly get from the original, much-loved 6-Series (E24). Big, beefy and with a bruiser persona, the E63 was another controversial design that – again – I felt enormously turned-off by back in 2004. Like the 7-Series, I could only look at it and think “what the hell are they doing?“. It was fugly and struck me as a mish-mash of design elements colliding in the worst possible way.

Surprise, surprise, the E63 has the polar opposite effect on me today in 2019. It turns me on like modern BMWs simply can’t. As I mentioned in the intro to this article, I do like the Gran Coupe (F06) body style of the more recent 6-Series but nothing is a dramatic and statement-making as the E63, especially in M6 mode – a true monster with planet-sized alloys and that masterpiece that is the 5.0 S85B50 V10 engine. Will we ever see such a radical design again? Never say never but I feel that it’s unlikely which is a shame.

Overall Thoughts

To quote myself from this very post:

“Sometimes though, you can’t appreciate what you have until you lose it.”

I feel that this is the best way I can sum up the Bangle years at BMW. Obviously, I am very much aware of the concepts of maturity, rose-tinted vision and older stuff looking a lot better in light of newer offerings but despite that, I’m still fascinated by how horrible these cars seemed to many of us in their day and how fantastic they look NOW. Looking at the German automotive industry today, it’s almost unthinkable to imagine that a giant like BMW – that values consistency and inoffensive design language – would have once permitted a man to wipe the slate and trade in Evolution for Revolution in such a blunt manner. I’m glad that they did though because the cars I’ve covered here have aged superbly in my opinion and make highly tempting purchases on the second-hand market.

What do you think? Have you always hated the Bangle era? Did you appreciate it from the very beginning, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up? Or were you like me and changed your stance over time?

Black Widows

No, I’m not talking about…

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…and I’m not talking about…

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…but a fusion of the two…of sorts. What the fuck am I talking about here? Well, I’m not sure that I know myself but I will try to explain.

This post is inspired by one of my work colleagues, specifically an unnerving experience he’s been having with a lady. To simplify the story, he met this girl and friended her on Facebook. What followed was no actual date or even a period of simply exchanging messages/chatter before choosing to meet up in real life. No, this woman decided to jump straight to calling him. Now I know that some of you are probably like, “What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with getting straight to the point and speaking properly? Are you a pussy or something?” and that’s fine but I would personally be wary of things going from zero to lengthy phone calls just like that.

But if that sounds acceptable to some of you out there, how about immediately revealing that you want to have babies within the next year? Or how about requesting a video chat to jump straight to some dirty stuff? In my eyes, the latter just makes the woman a cheap, easy slut and while I freely admit that I would be tempted by easy sex handed to me on a plate, it still isn’t an attractive way of behaving. But it’s actually the former that’s more worrying. If you haven’t even been on a single date with a guy, why in the world of fuck are you telling him that you’ll be wanting kids within the next twelve months? I’m no romance guru but I stand by the advice I gave this colleague in question: run the fuck away.

Women like this are Black Widows and men should avoid them like they’d avoid the spider their persona is based on.

From National Geographic:

The animals most at risk from the black widow’s bite are insects—and male black widow spiders. Females sometimes kill and eat their counterparts after mating in a macabre behavior that gave the insect its name. Black widows are solitary year-round except during this violent mating ritual.

A Black Widow in human female form won’t physically devour you after sex but they will still feast if you are foolish enough to fall in too deep, too easily. Their diet consists of a man’s self-respect, dignity and – in material terms – money. Now I’m not saying that there isn’t a remote outside chance that a Black Widow might turn out to be a good ‘un in the long run but the odds of that happening are extremely long. It’s far safer to simply spot the warning signs and stay away. Fortunately for my work colleague, he was already in the process of ignoring this overly-keen woman’s calls and increasingly weird messages.

Whether consciously or acting out of instinct, she had been attempting to beckon him into her sticky web with all the enticing sexy stuff. As I said, MAYBE it didn’t have to turn into a car crash but from everything he was telling us, I’m fairly certain that she was only after his sperm. If he was lucky, he’d be able to get away from her but he would never have truly escaped once she’d been impregnated. The responsibility towards the child would always be there and he’d be forced to maintain contact with her as well as see his finances sucked away by Child Maintenance (the correct thing to do of course, morally speaking).

You might consider me a woman-hater at this point but that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m just aware of the women out there who are looking to snare a man for their resources, money, social position or potent semen. Obviously, it is in a woman’s DNA to seek a suitable male partner for those very things just as it is in biological make-up of us men to stick our penises into as many attractive members of the opposite sex as possible. Thing is, we as a species have evolved to need more than that. Love and a meaningful relationship for instance. I keep coming back to the concept of Balance in these random, incohesive posts and that’s exactly what we need. Existing as a modern man or woman is all about understanding and not forcibly suppressing our inherent biological motivators but at the same time, striving to maintain equal relationships with respect for one another.

BW-4
Conversely, I love femme fatales in books, movies and videogames. [Source]
Black Widows aren’t interested in balance or equality and I’ve seen it happen with men finding their balls trapped in a vice; their woman using them for their credit card, to drive them about or to enable them to live an easy work-free life. These women will lure you in with sex and an unspoken promise of something fantastic but all they are doing are exerting their power over men to get what they want/need. For some years now, there has been a growing feminist movement pushing back against perceived male control. The interesting thing however is that most men show their control through either physical force or obvious character traits. Women are far more subtle however and don’t need to show their hand in order to flex their control. Think about the Trojan War in ancient Greek mythology – ten years of siege and thousands slain…all over a woman (Helen of Troy). In this case, Helen wasn’t even necessary inciting war herself but the power of her beauty was enough to start one.

I don’t believe in any of this “Alpha Male” self-improvement bullshit that I’ve seen around the internet but there are some elements of truth that a man can take from it. I want sex and a relationship as much as the next guy for example but I won’t jump through hoops for it or sell myself out in order to satisfy a woman. You can never truly be happy like that.

So beware the bite of the Black Widow.

Book Talk: The Girl With A Clock For A Heart (Peter Swanson, 2014)

TGWACFAH“What if your college sweetheart, the girl of your dreams, suddenly disappeared? Twenty years later she’s back, she’s in trouble and she says you are the only one who can help her…”

That’s the blurb from the back cover of Peter Swanson’s The Girl With A Clock For A Heart and I will openly admit that it didn’t necessarily grab me by the throat. After all, years of consuming books, movies and videogames have probably desensitised me to most blurbs. Nevertheless, that same veteran imagination had been pleasantly surprised by the excellent The Kind Worth Killing so I had already decided to work through the rest of Swanson’s back catalogue, beginning here.

Straight out of the gates, I will say that I didn’t think this book was quite as enthralling as The Kind Worth Killing but that’s saying a lot when that book was sooooo good. This one is still a real page-turner. George Foss is just your average guy living a predictable, unexciting life; a fact that he is very much aware of and has come to terms with. Routine is turned on its head however when he chances upon his old college flame, Liana Decter. What should be a pleasant encounter is thrown into question however because Liana had pulled a vanishing act twenty years ago after involving George in a tangled web of deceit that concluded with George discovering that his girlfriend had likely killed on more than one occasion. George should stay the hell away from Liana – this he knows – but she represents a time in George’s life when he felt alive and the future hadn’t seemed so mundane. Not to mention the fact that Liana is incredibly beautiful and bewitching or that George has been searching for her on and off ever since, having never really gotten over what they’d had.

Against better judgment, George makes contact with Liana and finds himself once again embroiled in a dangerous, cryptic game of Liana’s doing. George is torn between preserving his own life – by rejecting Liana and the trouble she brings – and helping her, fuelled by the naive hope that she might just stick around this time. George has always been hurt, emotionally and physically, by Liana and her accompanying drama but at the same time, he finds himself powerless to refuse her. She is a sweet poison that he can’t fully expel from his life and part of him doesn’t want to.

“While she paid the check, Liana walked past again. This time George could stare at her retreating figure, that familiar walk. She had grown into her body too. George thought she’d been his ideal in college, but if anything she looked better now: long tapering legs and exaggerated curves, the kind of body that only genetics, not exercise, will ever get you. The backs of her arms were pale as milk”

The book hooks the reader by keeping them guessing and providing endless questions. What did Liana do in the past that was so bad? Why has she used multiple aliases throughout her life? What happened to her relationship with George? Most importantly, what does she truly want this time? Is she all she seems? The answers are drip-fed as the book alternates between past and present, neither timeline giving everything up until the parallel stories begin to explain one another and current events make greater sense in light of revelations from the past. I really enjoyed this structure and couldn’t put the book down as I simply had to find out what happened next. The opening prologue is pretty clever too because it actually forms part of the book’s finale (and you will see a good chunk of it repeated there to bring the book full-circle). At the outset however, it makes little sense other than acting as one of several hooks to snag a reader.

As with The Kind Worth Killing, Swanson shows his affection for the femme fatale. Liana is beautiful, slippery and masterfully manipulative. She gets what she wants and is rarely as she seems. Whenever George thinks he has her figured out or second-guessed, she surprises him again…and again and again. She is aware of her power over him but is she consciously abusing that power without harbouring any sort of romantic feelings towards George? Was what they had in college real? Does she love George at all in spite of how she moves him about like a chess piece?

I personally love the femme fatale archtype whether it’s calculating, manipulative women like Liana Decter, cold wet-work experts or mentally shaky psychopaths. I gave The Girl With A Clock For A Heart and Swanson extra points for another fascinating, mystery-shrouded female that you would want to ward off while you lusted after them.

“There was still some part of George that wanted to believe that Liana was innocent, that she was not behind the robbery and the murder. He wanted to believe this not because he thought she wasn’t capable of such crimes, but because he hoped she wasn’t capable of using him for those purposes. Just as George had always stayed a little bit in love with Liana, he hoped that she had always stayed a little bit in love with him”

My only criticism of the book is that the ending doesn’t quite live up to the twisty nature of the book as a whole. It feels as if the book blows its load a little too prematurely; not so early as to spoil the fun but a little sooner than I would have liked. The puzzle pieces are mostly all in place at a little over three-quarters distance and after a dramatic endgame for the main characters, the final explanations are delivered in a fairly flat fashion that somehow makes the unpredictable events seem obvious and no longer so wild. The conclusion also appears to set up for a potential sequel but I’m not convinced that a follow-up would work or is at all necessary for that matter.

That said however, I did enjoy The Girl With A Clock For A Heart and it certainly sustained my interest in Peter Swanson’s books. If you enjoy thrillers that go for a modern day noir feel with relatable characters, constant suspense and a sexy femme fatale then you will be well-served here. This was an addictive read that was difficult for me to put down and that’s usually all I need to recommend a book.

The Great British political disillusion

[Side note 1: it feels like forever since I last posted here. Things have been shit and motivation to write has been M.I.A. To anybody who cares, I’m back (I think)]

[Side note 2: the title of this post may be a mouthful but the second-rate hack of a writer in me wasn’t happy with the rather vague “Political Apathy” or overly-blunt “British politics is bullshit”. The latter is 100% accurate though]

So…we have just had our local council elections here in the UK. For those living outside of Britain, the locals aren’t the big elections that decide our MPs (Members of Parliament) or governance of the country itself but the vote to decide on the political make-up of local councils. For example, having a majority of Labour councillers in your local council just means that they will have the majority and therefore a greater influence on deciding what goes down in your district.

As you might have guessed – we citizens are SUPPOSED to vote in these local council elections based on issues in our local area(s) and the pledges/previous work of those standing for election. Unfortunately, the colossal shit show that is Brexit has overshadowed the whole thing and people have voted based on national events to make a statement about the ineptitude of the two largest parties – Conservatives and Labour. The glaring problem with this is that local councillers have no input into national events. They have no influence on Brexit. Yet, councillers either lost or gained ground in their local area because of the party they are a member of, not for anything that they have done or promised to do. I’m no fan of BBC news (aside from when they provide me with perfect blog post fodder in the form of bullshit “news” and biased, agenda-driven narratives) but this quote from their coverage of the election results did sum things up neatly:

“The elephant stalking the voting halls is Brexit”

The summary of the results is this: the Conservatives lost a massive 1000+ council seats while the other “main” party, Labour, didn’t lose nearly as many but still lost a lot and – more importantly – failed once again to capitalise on the impotence and general lack of public faith in the ruling Conservative government and their piss-poor handling of Brexit. The winners were the previously-obliterated Liberal Democrats (who rose from the ashes to claim hundreds of council positions), Greens and independents. Interestingly, even the mis-management of Brexit and (apparently) large anti-EU sentiment couldn’t prevent UKIP (UK Independence Party) from losing ground – again.

I didn’t even cast a vote in this election. The first reason was that I had had a huge day at work and by the time I was released from my prison, I was too exhausted and fed up to do anything other than go home, eat and sleep. I can’t deny that it’s a terrible, grossly lazy reason for waiving my opportunity to vote but I completely accept that, as a result, I also waived my right to bitch and moan about the election result.

The second reason is more relevant to the title of this post and that is my general disillusion with politics here in Britain at the moment. On a national scale, the two main parties (the only two with a realistic chance of getting into power) are an embarassment. The ruling Conservatives are constantly on the ropes and led by a Prime Minister who seems to be clinging on by her fingernails, fighting for survival on a daily basis. Their largest rival, Labour, are unable to take advantage of the situation and gain any more public support – shocking given how the current Conservative government is the weakest in years. Both parties are constantly rocked by scandals and resignations that have completely destroyed any credibility in the eyes of many.

On a local scale, the candidates spam our letterboxes with their promise-laden flyers but every year, they are the same promises to tackle the same issues. In short, nothing actually happens between elections or else the councillers wouldn’t still be promising to solve the same problems. The big issues round here are potholes, traffic problems, countryside-consuming housing overdevelopment and crime but reading the pledges on these issues from the candidates gave me a major sense of deja vu. What is the point in voting for people based on promises when the exact same promises haven’t been fulfilled in the time since the previous council elections?

And the flyers they shove through our letterboxes are hilarious. I have to give credit to the Conservative candidate (who did actually win) for sending several letters with pretty candid content that actually criticised his own party for how they have let the country down. The others though? The flyer for Labour’s candidate featured a horrendously pixellated photograph on the front that looked like it had been blown up from a 100×150 JPEG. UKIP’s on the other hand contained spelling errors, the bloke’s mobile phone number scrubbed out with marker pen (but still readable through the dried ink…) and a photograph of the town’s council offices photoshopped to look purple/yellow – the UKIP colours.

UKIP is a populist party as far as I am concerned and the party that people vote for when they feel like casting a protest vote in order to give the establishment their middle finger. They are nowhere near as unsavoury as the far-right BNP (British National Party) but are still difficult to take seriously. Oh and their logo looks like it belongs on the front of a bargain-bin “pound shop” store – always makes me smile.

Poundland-UKIP

Completing my disillusionment is the simple fact that local councillers can promise anything and everything but at the end of the day, if funding from central government isn’t available (which it isn’t these days thanks to never-ending cuts) then there’s nothing that they can do to deliver on their vows to increase spending in specific areas. So even though you are supposed to be voting on local issues and not the national stuff in the news, everything is still ultimately controlled by national budgets.

In conclusion, there is a definite lack of trust in our politics here in Britain and it feels standard to assume that all politicians are self-serving liars, unfairly tarring the decent ones with the same brush. At the same time, we don’t like to rock the boat too much and so the same two parties will continually trade power no matter how poor their performances are. What it adds up to is a glum resignation to the fact that whoever you vote for, nothing will ever change. Anybody offering radical change or a break from the status quo are dismissed as “nutters” and only ever manage to secure a few seats.

TL;DR: British politics suck and if you are laughing at us from the outside, I honestly can’t blame you.