Thursday, 28 November 2013

The HP TC4200: Your Grandfather's Tablet

It is often said that mankind fails to learn from history. I believe that this is not true. The real problem is that we learn too well. Rather than facing each new problem with fresh eyes and an open mind, we dig through the past and dig up the same old solutions; we meet new problems with the same old violence, the same injustice. We work the same old game, and grow fat as the world struggles to bear our weight.

I have often wondered how The Future will remember us, how history books yet unwritten will describe the present day. I surmise that the internet will ensure that writers of The Future will have no shortage of facts, and so there will be none of the blank spaces that litter the histories of ancient Egypt, and the unrecorded histories of the Polynesians, and of cultures that left no written material behind. The Future will have no shortage of facts. It will have a superfluity of facts, a clashing mass of big data, and perhaps this will be just as much a barrier to understanding as the alternative. How will historians assemble these facts into a coherent narrative, one that reflects the world as it was, rather than an equally-plausible narrative that never happened? The broad outline of history will probably remain intact, but with such a wealth of data historians of The Future will be tempted, probably compelled to fine-tune their portrait of the past; to create a microscopically detailed recording of events that history would once have smoothed out, like pebbles on a riverbed. The result will be like staring at white noise, it will have detail but no meaning.

The distant past of 1993. Will styluses take off? No.

It is redundant to say that nothing is ever forgotten. The things we truly forget become unknown unknowns; we do not know that we have forgotten them. But in an interconnected world there is usually a record of a thing's passing, if not the thing itself, and the great churn of events occasionally brings long-lost artefacts to the surface. I am reminded of all the lost motion pictures from the early days of cinema that eventually turned up in a dusty attic or abandoned monastery; fragments of novels, fragments of symphonies discovered in abandoned notebooks, lost paintings conjured from beneath the surface of new paint with X-rays.

Today we're going to have a look at tablets. But not modern iPad-style tablets, except in passing; I'm going to talk about the PC-based tablets that predated them. It's hard to remember nowadays, but there was a time when tablets were a dead end. Nobody wanted them, they were a solution in search of a problem. At first they were a well-meaning but misguided attempt by technological visionaries to capture a future that never happened, and then they were just a cynical attempt to jazz up a declining laptop market.

One such relic of the distant past - a Hewlett-Packard HPTC4200 from 2005 - fell into my hands recently, and I was curious to see how it compared with my Asus Transformer. Hence this post.

A HP TC4200, powered by a 2.13ghz Pentium M, running Windows XP Tablet Edition. It's a convertible laptop with a rotating screen.
Performance-wise it's a mirror-image of modern tablets. The graphics subsystem is rubbish, and so it's useless for games, but even an elderly Pentium M can hold its own against modern tablet CPUs, so for browsing the internet or number crunching it's just as fast as a tablet.
But it's hobbled by the 1024x768 resolution. The graphics card can output 2048x1536 on an external monitor - ironically the same resolution as a retina iPad - but this defeats the point of a portable tablet.

In the 1990s and 2000s PC tablets were often called pen computers, slates, or sometimes convertibles. Journalists didn't want people to confuse them with digitising tablets, which were something else entirely. PC tablets emerged from the pages of science fiction into the real world in the early 1990s, and are still with us - the Microsoft Surface Pro is essentially their modern heir - but there's a melancholy air of failure about them.

And in time the terminal replaced libraries.

For decades tablets were the next big thing. Punch cards and printouts were replaced in the 1960s with keyboards and monitors, and then mice in the 1970s; and text-driven interfaces had given way to graphical desktops, which were not necessarily ubiquitous even by the early 1990s. PC gamers, for example, were still accustomed to using DOS for the serious stuff such as Mechwarrior II until well into the Windows 95 age. The next logical step - or so it seemed - was the pen-driven portable computer, with some kind of interconnected online operating system that would recognise handwriting (and probably speech), so that businessmen could schedule meetings simply by jotting mtng John next Tue re: Fisher account 15:30 and then John would get a message to say that he was due to have a meeting and perhaps one day meetings could be held digitally and where would it end, eh? Eventually the computers would arrange all the meetings and then they would learn to talk to each other and human beings would become HELPLESS SPECTATORS to their fate, as in The Forbin Project.

I can just remember the period. The 1990s, that is, not the future of The Forbin Project. Tablets were the next big thing in the same way that quantum computing is the next big thing today, e.g. they were exciting but no-one expected them to actually exist for some time. How would the computers talk to each other? How was this supposed to work on an aeroplane? Who was going to pay for all this new hardware, and would the handwriting work? What use was a pen-based interface for editing spreadsheets? Were people expected to enter Lotus 123 formulas with a pen? Isn't that a disaster waiting to happen? And so forth.

And then, in the early 1990s tablets became the hottest thing ever, with developer conferences and endless articles in the popular press, but people got sick of them almost overnight and they became something of a joke. IBM's pioneering ThinkPad 700T had such a minimal impact on the real world that, by 2005, the writers of PC Magazine had completely forgotten that it existed:

In reality the X41T was the first ThinkPad tablet for twelve years, but not the first ThinkPad tablet ever; the very first ThinkPad (1992) was a tablet, and it was followed by the 750P convertible in 1993 and the 360P convertible PC in 1994 (as well as several direct successors). Notice the use of "convertible" and "slate PC" and the $1,900 price. Contrary to the review, the TC4200 doesn't have a built-in DVD/RW drive.

Contemporary hardware from GRiD Computing and Toshiba also died a death, to the extent that GRiD is forgotten nowadays. Toshiba still makes tablets but nobody cares about them. For almost a decade tablets languished in obscurity until Microsoft decided to revive the concept in the early 2000s, but tablets were no longer The Future by then. CNET's contemporary report on the launch of XP Tablet Edition has a subdued tone and points out that the tablet PCs of the period were conservative designs, expensive, and with limited support. Microsoft was simultaneously hedging its bets with Pocket PC, a kind of less ambitious successor to the Windows CE-based palmtops that had failed to set the world alight in the late 1990s, and it's a testament to Microsoft's hugeness that it could afford to fail and fail again. The industry's final attempts to push the PC tablet, in 2005 and 2006 (with the "ultra-mobile PC"), were met with a resounding shrug from one and all. When I think of the failed 2005 tablet boom-that-wasn't I automatically think of this image, which puts me off my food.

And yet the idea of reviving interest in laptop sales with a new form factor was fundamentally sound. A couple of years after XP Tablet Edition flopped for the last time Asus invented the Netbook, which sold in great quantities and kept the PC market (and indeed XP) afloat for a couple of years. Netbook sales thrived while tablet sales dived because netbooks jibed with the PC market's drive for a small, cheap computer that could connect to the internet; tablets were bulky and expens-IVE, and that didn't JIVE. The public simply didn't GUYVE a damn about them because they didn't help people to LIE-V... oh, it's no use.

Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess disappointed me, but I'll review it in the next post. Here we see an early prototype of the iPad.

The Purpose and the Price

For years there was a fundamental question as to whether Future Tablet would be a new device or a rehash of existing technology. It would of course have to be portable, which was a challenge in itself in the early 1990s. Laptop PCs had only recently evolved into their modern form. And there was the OS. The ThinkPad 700T and GRiDPad had the option to use GO's PenPoint OS, or DOS plus a pen-driven version of Windows 3.1 ("Windows for Pen Computing") but it seemed silly to graft a pen interface onto such an unpromising foundation as Windows 3.1.

The hardware requirements for DOS and Windows support were challenging in a mobile context, even for conventional laptops, and the compatibility benefits were very slight for tablet use. My recollection of Windows 3.1 is of using it simply as a launcher for Word and Excel, and the Windows version of Fractint. It managed memory and printers and so forth with slightly less fuss than DOS, but there was nothing particularly pen-ny about it. You didn't even need a mouse to use it, you could use keyboard shortcuts for almost everything.

PenWindows was originally devised as Windows/H, and was intended for Windows 3.0. It was eventually launched as Windows for Pen Computing. It was a commercial non-entity, but had the effect of deflecting attention from PenPoint; GO went bust, Microsoft did not, and in that respect Windows for Pen Computing was a roaring success.
Presumably Microsoft assumed that if PenPoint had been a success in pen tablets it would not have been a stretch to port it to conventional laptops and eventually desktops as well, at which point it would be a threat to DOS and Windows.

Short of an expensive Total Pen-Driven Office and Communication Suite(tm), in the early 1990s the pen interface came across as a gimmick in the PC context. For graphics applications it made more sense to buy a separate digitising tablet, and a larger monitor, and of course neither of these things were portable. It seemed therefore that pen computing was an opportunity for a fresh new start using new hardware, a new architecture, a whole new interface paradigm. Apple decided to take this route with their Newton MessagePad, which drew nothing from the existing Mac OS or Macintosh hardware. It ran a wholly new pen-based operating system on chips from ARM, at that time a minor player in the computing world.

But although the MessagePad attracted an enormous amount of press attention, the marketing blitz didn't translate into huge sales. The machine helped to found the PDA market, but didn't even dominate that, because it was simply too expensive; prices started at $800 for the launch models but that didn't include the optional fax modem, without which the MessagePad was a very expensive filofax. In 1993 $800 was cheap for a laptop, but the MessagePad was far from being a laptop replacement, and for the genuinely practical uses anticipated in the LA Times' contemporary report it was overkill.

Apple had the right idea in starting from scratch with a new OS, but made the same mistake that a lot of innovators make when entering new territory; they were too ambitious. The company seemed to recognise this - the MessagePad's original prototype was larger and envisaged to cost thousands of dollars - but even so the end result was simply too elaborate for the intended market, who for the most part opted for a newer generation of small laptops. The Newton became a novelty for the wealthy, and novelties date badly.

The next big thing in PDAs was the Psion Series 3, a clever little clamshell device that was prized by journalists for its tiny but functional keyboard, and the next big thing after the Series 3 was the Palm Pilot, which sold for about $300 in 1996 and was marketed as a simple electronic organiser that you could hook up to your desktop PC. It's notable that the original press release goes out of its way to avoid any mention of handwriting recognition (Graffiti, the Pilot's text entry system, is buried quite far down the page). In retrospect the industry's emphasis on handwriting recognition seems a terrible mistake, and although the magazines and columnists were convinced that the idea had merit, I can't remember a single person in real life who wanted to interface with their computer with writing, even if the handwriting recognition worked 100% perfectly. Which it didn't. There's the separate issue of using a pen at all, rather than fingers, but having used both formats I'm in two minds as to the relative merits of each; the average Joe clearly enjoys touch-sensitive screens, but stylus input is very precise on smaller screens and works surprisingly well as a mouse replacement on a laptop.

I can understand why the industry became fixated on handwriting recognition. Human beings have been storing and communicating information by scratching marks on a surface for thousands of years. But typewriters had largely displaced handwriting as a means of business communication by the 20th century, and it's as if the inventors of pen computers had forgotten this. Handwriting recognition never became the dominant interface form in any context and is nowadays moribund. Modern tablets - including PC tablets - use finger-and-thumb-driven touchscreen interfaces and onscreen keyboards that you press with your fingers, and the applications and OS are built to cater for this.

The problem is that lengthy writing is awkward with a pen, and smaller memos are almost as fast to write by pressing virtual keys. Reviews of the MessagePad tend to predict that handwriting recognition would be fixed in time for the next MessagePad, so that you would never have to amend your input. But even if the problem had been solved, the need to search the internet for non-English words and names defies natural language recognition. A glance at the Google search history I generated whilst writing this article throws up looney toad quack / loonytoad quack / tsang tsz-kwan* / gilead share price / pilot 1000 / windows/h penwindows / jerrold name / cortex a5 dhrystone, and what would a perfect handwriting recognition system make of that jumble of nonsense? Besides, I find it hard to recognise some people's handwriting and I'm a human being and can understand the context of the words. I suspect that truly effective handwriting and speech recognition would require a computer capable of passing the Turing Test, because written and verbal communication are so peculiar to the human experience.

* She reads Braille with her lips; I was thinking about unusual input methods.

The dedicated PDA eventually died off. Mobile phones assumed the same functionality, with the added and crucial bonus of not having to connect them to a separate wireless unit. The last survivor of the PDA age was the Blackberry, which had emerged from the world of text pagers. Unlike the MessagePad, the Blackberry 950 email PDA did one simple thing well, in this case send and receive email wirelessly. It had a little keyboard. At roughly the same time SMS texts were taking off, and it seemed that overnight everybody under the age of 25 was capable of rattling off semi-coherent text messages just by waggling their thumbs like so (waggles thumbs). As the saying goes, "the street finds its own use for things", and texting was massive in the UK in the early 2000s. The market wanted to push handwriting recognition; the street wanted texting, and the street won.

The fact that people took to such an odd, unintuitive interface as multi-tap SMS whilst spurning handwriting recognition perhaps says something about how misguided handwriting recognition had been. It was an example of technologists using the lessons of the last war to fight the next one; the world had moved on, and as I write these words handwriting itself is a dying form. My own handwriting skills have atrophied to an extent that I now dread having to fill out forms in case I make a mistake. For Christmas cards I simply draw little triangles and squares and hope that my family understand. If God had intended for man to communicate with his fingers, he would have put mouths onto our fingertips so that we could talk with them. Or he would have invented the typewriter, which he did. I like to think that up in heaven László Bíró rests in peace, knowing that his invention was the ultimate evolution of the writing implement and will never be surpassed or replaced, because it was the end. There are few objects more symbolic of the 20th Century than the plastic ballpoint pen. A device that used modern mass-production methods and modern materials to facilitate the recording and communication of information at a price affordable to all; it was the purpose and the price that mattered, not the method.

In fact it almost seems as if voice communication is a dying medium, not necessarily a bad thing if you ever have to share space with a noisy commuter on the train or, horrible thought, in a packed airliner. Voice recognition was another obvious but misguided technological side-street that exercised the minds of technological evangelists for years; despite the success of Siri and its imitators, it suffers from the same problems as handwriting recognition, but magnified because speech is even less formal than a dashed-off note. I find it hard to understand the young people of today when they talk about twerking and looney-toad quack, and I'm a person myself. Not young, but I can remember being young. I remember that I was young.


Ultimately the modern tablet market is the result of two different evolutionary paths that have met almost in the middle. The PC tablet was an attempt to graft a touchscreen interface to the relatively powerful hardware of an IBM PC, in a form factor that was easily portable and ran for hours on batteries, preferably without needing a cooling fan. The iPad-style tablet was an attempt to improve the speed and power of a smartphone platform in a form factor that was large enough to browse the internet comfortably on. The two platforms faced strong technical challenges and in practice the smartphone route won, although it was a tight race.

With the Windows CE palmtops and Pocket PC and latterly the UMPC Microsoft had the right idea, and it's ironic that Microsoft is nowadays written out of tablet history. The problem is that although Microsoft had the right idea, the company's efforts were diffuse and peripheral to its core business, whereas Apple had laser-like focus, and the company has learned painfully that failures hurt and can kill. And, it has to be said, there is a probability that Microsoft's efforts in the tablet market were really designed to kill GO and latterly Palm and Handspring, and that the tablets were simply a means to achieve that end.

Scroll down and you get Steve Jobs when he was overweight and had a proper beard. The analyst's implication that Apple needed a sub-$1,000 computer wasn't as odd as it sounds today - the original iMac launched at $999 and for a time the iMac was Apple's salvation.
This was when Jobs was interim CEO. "He's not the man for the long term", says Chip Colby. "Part of what you need from a CEO and a chairman is someone with a better grasp of running a business". Which is uncanny; Jobs only lasted for another twelve years at Apple, during which the company's share price CRASHED from $7-8 a share in January 1998 to a rubbish $545 as I write these words.

In the 1990s Apple spread its efforts far too thinly, and was in danger of becoming an irrelevance; Steve Jobs brought focus back to the company. Whereas Microsoft had the money to launch a string of products without caring much whether they flopped or not, Jobs recognised that Apple did not have the resources to fail as hard or as often and was only a flop or two from going under. In his first period at Apple he had direct experience of the Apple III and the Lisa, which wasted a lot of the money that the Apple II was bringing in; the slow uptake of the original Macintosh led directly to Jobs being sidelined and then forced out of the company. By the time of the iPad the company had some breathing room, but I doubt that Jobs or anyone at Apple was prepared to launch it half-heartedly.

Meanwhile the PC tablet remains in a state of chaos. In the early days the fate of PC tablets was wedded to the PC laptop, and it's worth bearing in mind that truly practical, portable PC laptops that could run for a whole working day (plus commute) are a relatively recent phenomenon; and laptops that you could hold and use in one hand are very recent indeed. Although a few low-power x86 chips were tried out in the early 2000s - Transmeta's Crusoe attracted the most attention, powering the clever HP TC1000 of 2002 - none of them were particularly satisfactory until the Core Duo age, and it was not until relatively recently, with the falling cost of components and the rise of affordable SSDs, that the hardware problem was cracked.

PC tablets still exist, and indeed Lenovo's ThinkPad tablets are a direct descendent of the earliest pen PCs. But Microsoft has caused no end of confusion by using the desktop version of Windows for some of its tablets - the expensive ones - and an entirely new and incompatible operating system for the rest of its tablets - the cheap, supposedly mass-market ones - and a third and again incompatible OS for its phones. Rather than develop for three separate operating systems, app developers have stuck with iOS instead.

But what about the Hewlett-Packard TC4200? I've actually run out of space on the introduction so I'll deal with it in the next post. Yes, this is the internet and I can make this article a million words long if I want, but you'd get bored. Here, have a cup of coffee, with brandy in it. Sit down, have a scone. The TC4200 was part of the 2005 tablet "boom" and attracted moderately favourable reviews. Hardware-wise it was essentially a HP NC4200 laptop with a rotating screen. At 2kg it was really a non-starter as a tablet, and I surmise that HP had a very limited budget and perhaps there was a contractual obligation to Microsoft to launch a tablet, any tablet, in order to qualify for cheap Windows XP licences (say). But more about its hardware in the next post.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A Brief History of Ambient Vols 1-4

1993, 1993, 1994, and 1994 in that order.

Landfill Indie, it's a brilliant phrase, concise and evocative. Coined by Andrew Harrison of The Word in order to describe a glut of bands from the mid-2000s who seemed to have grown up with mid-1990s Britpop. The children of Super Furry Animals, Teenage Fanclub, The Bluetones. They performed the soundtrack of the happy years, the boom time. A period in which your parents planned to sell their house and use the money to buy another house that they would rent out, and a house in Spain so that they could retire.

I've spent the last few minutes trying to come up with a pithy summary of the period - "Pierce Brosnan was James Bond, and Tony Blair was Prime Minister" - except that Pierce Brosnan had ceased to be James Bond by the height of the happy time. Was there a defining characteristic of Britain in the mid to late 2000s? Did Britain even exist any more? A country of supposedly nationalistic Daily Mail readers who nonetheless planned to jump ship to Spain at the first chance they had; a country where the government was pathetically grateful to Russians for keeping the capital city's property prices afloat.

Let us travel back to the early 1990s, skipping past landfill television talent competition shows and landfill boybands and landfill Britpop, and just before landfill drum and bass, but stopping before we reach landfill acid house or indeed landfill indie (of the C96 variety). The economy was just beginning to recover from a brief recession, but the crashing prices of music technology and the sudden rise of DJ culture created a boom in electronic music. Bomb the Bass demonstrated that chart success was within reach of anybody with an Atari ST, a knock-off copy of Cubase, some decks and an Akai - not cheap, but within reach if you really wanted it - breathe in and bags of talent as well, although if you had no talent there were formulas you could copy, patterns you could crib. As dance music mutated at a staggering pace there was room on the edges for something more esoteric, something that pushed the boundaries of what might be considered dance music, or indeed music. Or for that matter embroidery. Booms always seem bad in retrospect, but the influx of money creates an environment where the unusual can reach the masses, if only briefly.

And so in that little gap between The Shamen and Suede there was landfill ambient, an unlikely popular movement. A New Prog that appealed to young and old alike, and attracted the same audience as Old Prog. The curious; the brave; the eclectic; stoner hippies. It was dance music for people who were fed up with dancing and wanted to be bored instead. I say this without meaning to sound cruel. There is a world of difference between The Pigeon Detectives* and System 7. And it's really not the fault of the bands. Once a new trend emerges the record labels leap on it and go on a spending spree, and after the tide recedes there is flotsam on the beach, and a small group of youngish people who had a record out a few years ago, and now they're working for an insurance company and sometimes they DJ. I've always felt sorry for the b-list, the c-list of these landfill movements. They don't earn nearly enough to retire - they probably end up out of pocket - and then they have the rest of their lives to think about how they fulfilled their dream, but it was all wrong and nothing came of it.

* A guitar band from the mid-2000s. Here's a graph that shows how well their albums did - if you're old enough to remember Britpop it's a familiar-looking curve (viz The Bluetones, Echobelly, Cast):

Rewind forward to the fourth paragraph, in which I get to the point. I've started to absorb the style of Brief History's liner notes, because I'm an unusually receptive person. Circa 1992 the stars aligned and The Orb's U F Orb reached number one in the UK album charts. Unlike the US, which has dozens of different charts, the UK traditionally has just one album chart - with a separate one for compilations - and it is a major achievement if you can top it. This was the chart that The Orb topped. The same chart that The Beatles had topped thirty years earlier. In 1992 it was the chart of Simply Red and Annie Lennox.

The Orb's first LP, Meet The Orb, had sold well, and it seemed as if The Kids wanted music that they could dance to very slowly, or not at all. Like ballet, but with samples. Except that you can dance to ballet, 'cause it's ballet. Landfill ambient was never as huge as landfill indie. Global Communication's 76:14 sold in modest quantities, and - surprisingly - William Orbit failed to chart with any of his Strange Cargo albums ("Water from a Vine Leaf" reached #59). Nonetheless a bunch of artists who would otherwise have sold a few thousand records over a period of several years were suddenly on the front of Billboard magazine, viz:

The magazine suggests that ambient was popular because modern youth was suffering from stress. In 1994 Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Vol II and Eat Static's Implant reached number 11, Future Sound of London got to number 6 with Lifeforms, and The Orb again hit the top ten with the (frankly dreadful) Pomme Fritz, their very own Magical Mystery Tour.

But in the same year Massive Attack reached number four with Protection, and a year later Goldie reached number seven with Timeless, which both pointed to the direction that ambient would take. They were soundtracks of an urban environment, combining the reflection of ambient with a grit and humanity often absent from the genre. For most listeners in the UK - in Hay-on-Wye and Cromer and Berwick-on-Tweed - it was an urban environment that seemed like the far side of the moon, and I suspect that even in Tower Hamlets and Brixton the environment of Timeless was just as much a fantasy. But it felt real and alive and contemporary in a way that Lifeforms did not.

Protection pointed towards a post-ambient future, of trip-hop and downtempo that would quickly displace pure ambient, but therein lies the problem of writing about "ambient". The term is almost meaningless. By the 1990s it had been formalised into a modern revival of space-rock, and had become more of an ingredient than a main course. It latched on to downtempo breakbeat and begat trip-hop; it attached itself to dance music and produced trance; it swallowed indie rock and spat out all those bands that Pitchfork likes. And it's wrong to write about ambient music purely in the context of chart success. It was as much a culture of festivals and smoke-filled student bedsits and bulletin board systems.

I've got this far without really defining ambient. History records that modern ambient was devised by Brian Eno in the 1970s, but that's poppycock. The father of modern ambient is Irv Teibel, whose 1969 record Environments was a computer-enhanced recording of seashore noises intended to be used as a soothing background sound. "The music of the future isn't music", that was his slogan. His next record, Environments 2 (1970), was a sixty-minute recording of computer-generated bell noises that predated Brian Eno's Neroli by two decades. Roxy Music's first album came out two years later and Brian Eno didn't release Discreet Music until 1975, by which time case closed.

Ambient was originally intended as music to complement an environment, a kind of aural perpetuum mobile with more edge and more taste than New Age. The form hardened and mutated until by the 1990s it was shorthand for a kind of dubby, amorphous, sample-based electronic thing that sounded nice or sometimes terrifying but never crass. In the hands of The Orb and Future Sound of London it became a collage of samples and effects; the Aphex Twin and Global Crossing emphasised evolving textures. The parallels with Prog were obvious, although on a musical level it was hard to see the influence. The Orb may have had a stuffed sheep flying over a power station on the cover of Live '93 but the album's music had nothing in common with Animals. A few ambient musicians flirted with classical, but it was the modern classical of Philip Glass and Gavin Bryars rather than the traditional classical of Mussorgsky. The top ambient acts had nothing to do with the twiddly-diddly jazz of Hatfield & The North or the lumpy-pumpy bombast of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Mike Oldfield, perhaps, but then only in terms of structure.

Ambient existed before and after the early-1990s, of course, but it never had the same popular appeal outside that period. The kids were fickle and moved on, and so did I. But I still have the CDs, and the best of the ambient boom has held up. I prefer Lifeforms now than I did when it was new. At the time it seemed pompous and self-indulgent whereas The Orb never took themselves too seriously. 76:14 is almost a great lost masterpiece of the period, although it's not exactly obscure. Still, in some cases landfill ambient has aged heartbreakingly well, in the sense that there was something there that people turned their back on. It's odd to talk of substance when the genre prized amorphousness, but there is a substance to Lifeforms, a combination of accessibility and complexity achieved with equipment that nowadays seems very limited and clumsy. There is nothing quite like it in the charts today, the mainstream is no longer exposed to this kind of music, which bodes ill for the future.


Which brings me to the subject of this article. Virgin Records' Brief History of Ambient series. Four double-CD compilations of ambient tracks, initially drawn from Virgin's broad but dusty vaults, and then briefly from further afield. The four compilations kicked off a loosely-linked series of records that encompassed some more compilations and a couple of original albums. The series came across as a more accessible, less daunting modern heir of Brian Eno's Obscure series, but with an emphasis on electronic music rather than modern classical. The first and last of the Brief History albums are the best, the middle two could be raided to produce one good album. Cheerio!

(long pause)

The problem is that for the first three albums the compilers were restricted to artists who were distributed by Virgin Records, and in fact the liner notes of Volume Two apologise for this. A Brief History of Ambient Volume 1: 152 Minutes 33 Seconds, to give it its full name, has a short essay by Virgin Records' Simon Hopkins that does a good job of hyping up the ambient boom, but it suffers badly from overselling the goods. After talking about the works of Eric Satie, Terry Riley, and John Cage - after whose "Four Minutes Thirty-Three Seconds" the album draws half of its title - the record itself delves no further into the past than an excerpt from Tangerine Dream's Phaedra (1974) and of course it has nothing from Warp Records' Artificial Intelligence series, for example. Curiously, despite being mentioned twice in the essay, Sven Vath doesn't appear on any of the compilations. Who was Sven Vath? I have no idea.

BOXOUT: Lighting a Candle
Re-reading this article I probably sound harsher than I feel. I'm fond of the Brief History series because I listened to it at an impressionable age, but it's no Nuggets. Still, they say you should light a candle instead of cursing the dark, so imagine that it's 1993 and I have an unlimited budget to produce a two-disc "brief history of ambient" record. What would it be like?

I want to entertain and surprise the listener, illustrate the breadth and amorphousness of the ambient label, fill the listener with dreams (most important), and also sell records and have some fun. I would be tempted to put stuff that would surprise a mainstream listener on disc one and put all the pop hits on disc two - The Orb, FSOL, System 7, something from Bowie's Berlin Period, plus Brian Eno and Robert Fripp etc, and I would end it with John Cage's 4:33 as a means of demonstrating that ambient music is all around us. Thus a double-LP - it has to be an LP - that is interesting and can also have a FEATURING THE ORB sticker on the front.

You can compile disc two. This is what I came up with for disc one:

00:00 Thunderstorm, Zambia
02:43 John Taverner: Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas (excerpt)
06:38 Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel (excerpt)
09:53 Erik Satie: Gnossienne No.1
13:14 Babatunde Olatunji: Oya (excerpt)
18:42 Camille Saint-Saëns: L'Assassinat du duc de Guise: Third Movement (excerpt)
20:50 Wendy Carlos: Winter (excerpt)
25:54 Hamza El Din: The Water Wheel (excerpt)
27:59 Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach: Knee Play 5
33:28 Frank Sinatra: In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning
36:24 Sydney Baynes: Destiny (excerpt)
38:12 Joe Meek: Glob Waterfall (excerpt)
39:42 Miles Davis: Moon Dreams


On the positive side the compilers had access to Brian Eno, The Future Sound of London, Tangerine Dream, Harold Budd, and a clutch old old Krautrock bands. This was shortly before Julian Cope's Krautrocksampler made people take notice of Krautrock again, and I remember first discovering Faust and Ash Ra Tempel from Brief History rather than Cope's book. But on the other hand the compilers didn't have access to anything from before 1972 - which rules out the real pioneers of ambient sound and most of the artists I chose for my own compilation above - and none of Tangerine Dream's pre-Virgin records such as Zeit or Alpha Centauri, or anything by the Aphex Twin or The Orb, although they managed to circumvent this by including an Orb remix of a track by Virgin Records' The Grid on volume two.

In this respect A Brief etc is simply not fit for purpose as a history of ambient, because it's really just a label sampler. As a historical document it's vastly inferior to OHM: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music, a fantastic three-CD compilation that came out in 2000 and filled in a lot of the gaps in my musical education. But as a mixed collection of interesting music that the average listener would probably not have found in the local record shop it's a lot more successful, and I remember listening to it all the time in 1993. Judging by Youtube's comments it's remembered fondly as a gateway drug to greater things. It segues from the obvious (Brian Eno's "An Ending", Tangerine Dream's "Phaedra") to surprising gems such as an obscure and excellent dub remix of Killing Joke's "Requiem" by Thrash. William Orbit's "Monkey King" is surprisingly tasteful, and the lovely "Home" by David Sylvain ends disc one on a happy note. Disc two tends to the New Age, which is unfortunate, and I remember playing disc one far more often. There's a surprising dearth of dub, too, which popped up more often on the later volumes.

Brief itself was released as a twin-CD set with all of the tracks mixed together. It was never released on vinyl. The liner notes for Volume 4 try to justify this on account of CD's "capacity for duration and spatial awareness", but c'mon. This is stoner spliff music for bedroom DJs. It begs for vinyl, they just didn't have the budget for it. Some of the tracks on Brief are edited, and although the mixing is neatly done you are probably better off using the track listing to create a Youtube playlist than listening to the actual album nowadays.

I have no idea how well it sold. I remember first hearing about it in an early issue of Future Music, and it seems to be fondly-remembered amongst people of a certain age. Nuggets and the Pebbles compilations famously helped to revive interest in garage punk at a time when the average kid would have found it almost impossible to get hold of good old records; Metal for Muthas and the NME's C96 tape had a similar part to play in the UK in the 1980s. But within a few years of the Brief History albums the average kid had the internet, which could download essentially every song ever recorded for free - whilst at the same time making it much easier to order obscure records from far afield* - and so I surmise that the series' influence could never have matched that of its ancestors. Furthermore the general free rave / acid house idiom from which the series sprang was quickly obliterated by Britpop, which eschewed dope and cider in favour of lager and fighting and cocaine.

* I remember the first record I ordered, rather than simply bought from a shop. It was Kraftwerk's The Man Machine, but I didn't order it online; I ordered it from the counter of my local Our Price. In the past, you had to order things from the people behind the counter. Imagine that! The first album I ordered online came from a place called PastelBlue, which is so old it predates the internet archive. It changed its name to Cheap or What! CDs in 1997 or so and no longer exists. The record was Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass. It was 1995, and I remember thinking that CDs made sense in an online context, because they could fit through the letterbox and they were all the same. "Why", I thought to myself, "ten years from now HMV will dominate the internet, it just has to write an internet front-end for its shop ordering system and then close all of its shops and lay off most of the staff = profit".

What became of the artists? The Future Sound of London went on to even greater commercial heights after the Brief albums. Their high water mark was 1997, when they came tantalisingly close to Chemical Brothers-esque mainstream success. The back catalogues of the Krautrock acts that appear on the early discs were given a boost by Krautrocksampler, although only Faust reformed and reestablished their career. Robert Fripp, David Sylvian, Jah Wobble all remained within the ruts which they will inhabit until they die.

Along with The Designer's Republic, Mr Riphead - real name Mark - was one of the key record inlay artists of the electronic 1990s, my generation's Barney Bubbles. Electronic artists of the period prided themselves on facelessness, but human beings are visual animals, and Riphead provided FSOL's fans with something to look at.

Brian Eno casts a huge shadow over the series. He appears more often than any other artist, both solo and as part of an ensemble, and is the figure most often credited with devising modern ambient music, or at least giving it a name and bringing it to the attention of a mainstream audience. As far as I know he had no formal association with the series, and he doesn't write any of the inlay essays. Eno had been a presence in the music scene since the 1970s, but although his work in both the ambient and rock fields was very influential he didn't really become a mainstream figure until around the time of Brief History. Nowadays he remains Britain's most visible and recognisable modern electronic ambient boffin, and one of the few record producers that most people could name, but he is more famous for his collaborations and past works than the albums he releases today, which tend to get grudgingly positive reviews in the music press although no-one buys them.

His early ambient releases, Discreet Music (1975) and Music for Airports (1978) were originally intended as site-specific aural sculptures, which raises the issue of site-specificality. They preceded the Sony Walkman, which transformed the way that people listened to music. The impact of the Walkman on ambient music deserves a separate essay of its own. It allowed people to shut off the natural ambient sonic environment wherever they went, and replace it with an environment of their own choice - while simultaneously the distinctive tick-a-tick-a sound of Walkman headphones altered the ambient environment for anyone nearby. Histories of the Walkman tend to have a common anecdote, in which the storyteller puts the headphones on for the first time and is suddenly made aware of a disconnection between the world outside and a new, interior world of the self. On a personal level I did not realise that I was a human being until I first heard the music of Duran Duran through a set of Walkman headphones; it suddenly struck me that I was a spirit floating in space, surrounded by empty blackness, and as a consequence I am forever grateful to Now That's What I Call Music volume whatever for opening my mind.

The Walkman isolated us in worlds of our own creation. Was the 1980s a decade of disconnection? I wasn't there, I can't tell. The isolation of the Walkman age was replaced in the 1990s and 2000s by the connection of the mobile phone, but the ease of modern telecommunications has devalued social contact, to a point where interaction no longer has any weight. People Tweet from their parents' funerals, they post links on their Facebook wall as a means of impressing strangers they will never meet. But perhaps it was ever thus. Vanity and shallowness are not unique to the modern age. Let's talk about Virgin's Brief History of Ambient records again, before they go cold.

Mike Oldfield doesn't appear at all anywhere on the records in any shape or form. Oldfield's Tubular Bells was famously Virgin's first LP and also a monster hit, and along with follow-up albums Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn it was a big influence on the late-80s ambient rave scene. But Oldfield grew to hate Virgin's indifference to his career and in 1992 he signed with Warners, and immediately released the popular Tubular Bells II, so I surmise either that he was persona non grata at Virgin or that he had forbidden the label from using any of his music.

If I had written this article in 2000 I would probably now talk about Moby, whose 1999 album Play was a huge hit for Virgin's V2 records. It was one of the best-selling albums in the UK at the turn of the millennium. Any of the tracks on Moby's 1993 album Ambient would have fit into the Brief History records, but of course he wasn't on Virgin in 1993. I mention Play because it feels almost like the last final fling of the mainstream ambient pop genre. It was a target of scorn for its overuse in television commercials, but has there been anything like it since 2000, or at least anything like it that also sold millions of records?

Volume 2 was subtitled Imaginary Landscapes. It was essentially a watered-down continuation of the first record. It had many of the same names, including David Sylvian, Tangerine Dream, Robert Fripp, and Brian Eno, who appears no less than six times. Admittedly two of the Eno tracks are from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Music for Airports, landmarks in their respective fields that should have been included on the first album. Disc two flirts with the mainstream, with tracks from The Verve (in their early psychedelic guise: boring) and a rare solo number by U2's The Edge, which is surprisingly good.

The only real hidden gem is "Arrival" by Voyager, and it's obvious that the compilers were starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel. Bassomatic's "Attack of the 50 Foot Drum Demon" isn't ambient at all, it's a dull lightweight dance track. To the untrained ear a lot of the music on the Brief History albums sound as if the artist was feeding random samples through an effects box; Klaus Shulze's "Nachtmusik Schattenhaft" appears to be just this, but crucially it's boring rather than mesmerising. It sounds amateurish and unfinished. As I write these words I'm listening to my copy of Global Communications' 76:14, which pounds "Nachtmusik Schattenhaft" into the dust.

The Grid appear for the second time, with a song remixed by The Orb, presumably so that the compilers could get The Orb onto the record. Volume Two was released a few months before The Grid had their one big hit with "Swamp Thing", so I assume the compilers must have sincerely liked them. Nobody remembers The Grid or "Swamp Thing" today.

Volume 3: The Music of Changes is essentially more of the same so it should really have been called Volume 3: The Music of Staying the Same because it didn't change do you see. It has Brian Eno five times instead of six, Robert Fripp four times, FSOL twice, David Sylvian four times. FSOL's Cascade is an excellent summary of the band's art during the Lifeforms era and along with the Wobble / Czukay / Liebezeit track "Mystery RPS" it dominates the second disc. 3 feels less barrel-scrapey than 2, if only because it's consistently listenable and doesn't have Bassomatic. In my opinion the compilers should have simple folded the best of 2 and 3 together and called it a day, but presumably the series sold well enough to justify extending it to four albums, which is a good thing because the fourth album was a cracker.

Ambient 4: Isolationism is the odd one out. The compilers were allowed to licence tracks from other labels, although they seem to have been restricted to exclusives, and so the record has 23 songs not available elsewhere. As a consequence the record was quite valuable on the used market for a time - if only for Aphex Twin's "Aphex Airlines", which is basically a throwaway novelty - although of course it's now available on the internet for nothing. The overall tone is much darker than the first three albums and as a coherent whole it's the most effective of the bunch. It has a theme, a thesis. The liner essay was written by a chap called Kevin Martin, a well-connected figure on the periphery of modern music. Martin appeared on Volume 2 under the alias God. His side projects Ice and Techno Animal appear on Isolationism, which suggests either that the compilers found it hard to fill the albums with original music or that Kevin Martin was a bit forward in promoting himself.

There's something quite melancholic about Ambient 4. Twenty years ago the likes of Jim O'Rourke and Thomas Köner - no less than three of the artists on the album have umlauts in their names, four if you count the sideways umlauts of :zoviet*france: - seemed to be on the cutting edge of something, the vanguard of something, some great underground movement of unsmiling young men who wore sunglasses indoors and participated in Berlin-based arts festivals.

A great something that never arrived, because twenty years later what did they amount to? What became of them? Nothing, for the most part. Their music did not change the world and was not the future, and unlike the shrewder, more commercially-minded, and generally better Aphex Twin they didn't even sell a few tracks to film soundtracks and advertisers. Disco Inferno ran out of money; the other artists seem to have struggled into the early 2000s before giving up. You have to wonder about the economics of working as a cutting edge underground electronic musician, having to earn £700 a month to pay the rent plus a few hundred pounds to pay for your hobby; presumably all of these people had day jobs that eventually took up most of their time. Paul Schütze's 1995 album Apart is lovely, bleak, but what did it lead to? If it led to just more underground artists begatting each other, what was the point?

It was the holier-than-thou attitude that I hated at the time. The indoors-sunglasses attitude; the fact that these people were essentially posers. Perhaps Schütze and his contemporaries realised that they needed to sell themselves with an image and an attitude, because human beings are visual animals, but in my opinion they went about it the wrong way. They ghettoised themselves. They wedged themselves into a niche. The nailed themselves to the past.

What's the album like, though? As a coherent listening experience it works generally well, with a lengthy build-up to the dubby "Dredger", followed by a come-down to the bleak, funereal "Self Strangulation". Unfortunately Paul Schütze's "Hallucinations" is uncharacteristically dreadful - it sounds like the music that plays in a quiz show when there is a countdown - but the record then picks up with a dubby track from Scorn. I find it hard to listen to Disco Inferno without thinking about the band's sad fate. Non-musicians generally assume that bands magicalise money out of thin air, or that they're happy to be poor, or they all club together to help out, but the reality is that musicians have to pay rent and hire vans just like everybody else, and even bands with a record deal can be poor; and they still have to pay the rent. I mention this twice because it's of fundamental importance. £700 a month, fuck you, pay me. That reality is always there, and musicians are for the most part bitches who love it when their competition fails.

And even if the rent is within reach, what then? If the band tours, who pays for the hotel bills? The record label doesn't. Who pays for travel, and for equipment hire? And if the end result is £50 profit a week to share between four people, what happens when you grow old? Disco Inferno released three excellent albums of experimental pop music that could easily have been used in television adverts; they are the kind of band that might have collaborated with Damon Albarn or written the soundtrack for a lottery-funded arts experience or some kind of New Labour New Media initiative. There was potential for them to make a living wage, and they're one of the few acts on Isolationism that could potentially have turned into a straightforward rock band. But their equipment was stolen while they were on tour, and they never managed to recover from the financial blow, and then they retired, defeated.

Side one of Isolationism ends with "Once Again I Cast Myself into the Flames of Atonement" by a band called Nijiumu. It sounds like a parody of horror film music, with clanking chains and howling cries of torment. I'll quote from George Starostin's review of Current 93's second album:
    "Put two fingers in a horizontal position, make a hideous face, and say "BOOO!" to a child sitting a couple of feet away. He'll be scared shitless, the little wimp. Now do that one more time. And again, and again, and again. Keep going, old man, as if you were an old scratched record. Eventually, the kid will either start laughing at ya or, more probable, he'll just get bored and go on eating his cereals or whatever."

That's the impression I get from "Once Again I Cast Myself Etc". It's just silly. I'm still listening to 76:14 and although it wasn't intended as a dark ambient record, it has a coldness to it at times that makes "Once Again Etc" seem as scary and cheap as a Jess Franco film.

Disc two opens with Aphex Twin's "Aphex Airlines", which must by a homage to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. In a neat piece of sequencing the second track begins with abrupt quiet, so the overall effect is of being released from torture. There is more dub and then "Little Sister" by Talk Talk offshoot O'Rang, which isn't dark at all. It sounds like a more upbeat version of Talk Talk's extraordinary later albums. It's one of the few tracks on Isolationism that makes me feel sad that the band never went anywhere. O'Rang released two albums that are by all accounts excellent, but it wasn't enough. Talk Talk had rotten luck in the UK charts, where they were dwarfed by even The Smiths, and it seems that there was a curse on them and all the people who sailed with them.

From that point onwards the album turns into drone music. I'm not sure how to critically evaluate drone music, but it complemented my mood and I was not averse to it. The final track, by Thomas Köner, sounds like the traces of an atmosphere being pumped through gigantic fans on the exterior of an enormous industrial complex on the surface of a metal moon. It smells like soot and processed air, like a waystation on a train line to the end of the universe. It's a shame that Isolationism was the last in the series; just as the compilers were getting into a groove, they stopped.

Postscript: Moods
The Brief History series wasn't Virgin's only ambient compilation series. In 1991 the company released Moods: A Contemporary Soundtrack, a collection of what would then have been called Easy Listening tracks. I think of it as folk ambient, in the sense that it had all the characteristics of an ambient record - background music designed to accompany a living room, or the interior of a car whilst commuting to work - but it was naff, so it didn't count. Moods was advertised on TV and was aimed at a general mainstream audience. The track listing included Enigma's "Sadeness", Jan Hammer's "Crockett's Theme", and songs from Vangelis and Kenny G etc. Covers of the same pieces of music often appeared in Synthesiser Spectacular-esque compilation albums, but here they were presented in their original versions, because Virgin had a bigger budget (in fact the compilers seem to have had a bigger budget than the people who put together the Brief History records, because Enya (for example) was on Virgin's arch-rival Warners).

Moods can be used to illustrate the ranking system that existed in the world of ambient music. At the naffest level there was Elton John's "Song for Guy" and anything by Enya; at a slightly higher level there was the quasi-ambient, quasi-world music, quasi weak techno of Enigma, Deep Forest, and Transglobal Underground, who were still naff, and higher than them - by quite a jump - there was The Orb, Future Sound of London, Aphex Twin in that order, with Aphex Twin at the top. The irony is that only levels one and two were really used as an ambient accompaniment for something else; as an unconscious background music that people put on while they were doing the ironing or reading the newspaper. FSOL wanted you to listen intently to their music with headphones, and in that sense they weren't really ambient at all. You'll note that for my own compilation I have chosen artists who belong in the highest rank, or who exist above it, because I have superior taste. I always had the impression that ambient musicians felt themselves inferior to jazz composers such as Miles Davis and modern classical musicians such as Gavin Bryars, but that is again a whole new essay. Perhaps it was simply because they were younger.

By the time of Brief History the Moods series had mutated into Pure Moods, which was slightly edgier, in the sense that Chris De Burgh is a slightly edgier Barry Manilow. But then again "Copacabana" is basically The Sopranos but with a melancholy postscript, and "A Spaceman Came Travelling" implies that Christians can call down artillery strikes from space on their enemies, so who is edgier? Volume one had Jan Hammer and Kenny G again, but it also had Brian Eno ("Another Green World", which was also used as the theme to the TV arts show Arena), plus Ryuichi Sakamoto and The Orb. Later volumes included Sheila Chandra, who also appeared on the first Brief History record, plus Massive Attack and the Afro-Celt Soul System. Although Pure Moods bought pleasure to many people I am of the opinion that it was a failure on an artistic level. Recontextualising The Orb and Brian Eno as easy listening acts does not elevate easy listening, it diminishes The Orb and Brian Eno, and after reading Wikipedia's surprisingly detailed summary of the Pure Moods series I'm left with a new-found appreciation for the Brief History albums. It must have been tempting to include a few tracks by Enigma, who were on the Virgin label, but the compilers resisted. They had a certain amount of class.


And that is that for the Brief History records. Virgin continued to use the AMBT catalogue number for a loosely-linked series of ambient albums, most of which were compilations, although there were original records from Paul Schütze and Techno Animal amongst a few others. Later entries tied in with David Toop's Ocean of Sound multimedia project, and Toop seems to have played a major role in compiling the post-Brief History instalments.

The series came to an end in 1997, the year of Radiohead's OK Computer and Spiritualised's Ladies and Gentlemen we are Floating in Space, and Bjork's Homogenic, Reprazent's New Forms, Photek's debut album, all of which were popular or award-winning or both. It's tempting to conclude that the series had done its job, although I suspect that this overstates its influence. The Brief History albums have a huge blind spot when it comes to drum'n'bass - there are a few drum'n'bass artists, but no real drum'n'bass tracks - and my recollection of the period was that drum'n'bass was far more fashionable than ambient. But was drum'n'bass a parallel evolution of ambient, or a closely-related and less uptight twin? I can't tell, I was only young at the time.

As a mainstream genre "ambient" died a death by the 2000s, but the widespread availability of new music, combined with the crashing prices of portable computers, the popularity of music applications, the rise and rise of digital home recording, the ease with which VST instruments can replace expensive physical synthesisers and so forth mean that each man and woman now has the means to create their own ambient soundtrack and broadcast it to the world. The grand cathedrals of the past have given way to the bazaars of the present.

But is this a good thing? When I think of a bazaar I think of government troops pouring through it, smashing the shops and arresting the shopkeepers; I think of bulldozers crushing it at the behest of the church and government. Individually the shopkeepers are weak, and together they are weak. Like rats or insects they rise again to rebuild the bazaar, but it will always be a lot of scruffy shops. It will always be weak, trapped by idealism and a simple lack of resources. It lives to be crushed.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Gravity: Spin Spin Sugar

Off to the cinema, to see Gravity, a new film starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who play a pair of astronauts trapped in orbit. On one level it's a space adventure in the mould of Project Moonbase or Riders to the Stars crossed with the realism of Apollo 13 and the physics engine of Garry's Mod; on a deeper level it's a surprisingly ambiguous feminist parable of a spinster who brings meaning to her bleak life by learning to achieve sexual fulfilment with a fire extinguisher.

As a sci-fi adventure Gravity is a throwback, essentially a technically state-of-the-art update of a typical trapped-in-orbit sci-fi short from the pages of Astounding Science Fiction and its contemporaries. Off the top of my head it reminded me of Isaac Asimov's Marooned Off Vesta (1939), Tom Godwin's The Cold Equations (1954), Arthur C Clarke's Maelstrom II (1962), etc - but this is easily forgiven when you consider just how rare proper science fiction is in mainstream Hollywood. With the exception of 2001 and its sequel 2010, perhaps Moon, there have been very few good contemporary science fiction films that used near-contemporary space exploration as more than just a backdrop for a soap opera or action film. I say good in order to rule out Mission to Mars, which aspired to the seriousness of Gravity but failed dismally, utterly, totally.

There were a few attempts to make serious space science fiction at the very dawn of the space age, most famously George Pal's Destination Moon (1950), but it seems that once real-life spaceflight was routinely featured on television it was no longer an adventure. Gravity is released at a time when the space industry has become an indispensable part of everyday life, with telecommunications and GPS relying on satellites in orbit, and NASA has kept itself in the public eye with a series of impressive robotic missions to Mars, but human space exploration - long considered the real thing, with everything else an unglamorous side-show - seems to have had its day. There's Mars, of course, but short of a series of economic miracles Mars will be decades hence, assuming we ever go.

The Frame Store is a special effects house based in London - I've walked past it, and this is what it looked like back when Gravity was new.

And if we go, will we stay? Gravity doesn't really concern itself with NASA's long-term manned space strategy, it's essentially a claustrophobic thriller with a degree in Newtonian physics. There's a certain amount of character development, but it's on the level of a soap opera, and feels like almost bolted-on, for the most part compartmentalised into one scene. Nonetheless the film has a powerful subtext. At the outset Sandra Bullock plays an unmarried woman whose only child died several years before, and there's an implication that she is frigid and men spurn her. The only other male characters in the film who make an impression are George Clooney, who is essentially a father figure, and a second astronaut whose name I didn't catch. He has a juvenile temperament and is quickly killed off. The other characters are either corpses for most of the film, or voices on the radio (with Ed Harris very briefly as mission control).

The rest of the film is essentially a voyage of awakening in which Sandra Bullock's character learns to abandon her erotic fixation on her father and transfer this to a fire extinguisher, thus accepting an independent life without men, as a spinster. Bullock's sexual awakening is portrayed in a sequence where she straddles and attempts to control the aforementioned firefighting implement as it propels her erratically through space. In terms of plot it's a clever way for Bullock's character to transfer from a Soyuz capsule to a Chinese space station, but as always with works of art the plot can be read on several levels. On a deeper level the events of Gravity are a thematic framework for one woman's psychosexual awakening, and the space hardware is essentially a series of metaphors.

Very attractive metaphors, too. Even when everything is being blasted to smithereens, the film has a stately beauty that will look fantastic on 4K televisions. The 3D works exceptionally well, at times emphasising the characters' isolation in the vastness of space, at other times making us feel the claustrophobia of a pressurised environment. The film has a lot of padding - the third act is essentially a repeat of the second act, shots are extended beyond all reason, even allowing for the rhythms of orbit - but it never quite crosses the line into tedium. And at least the padding advances the plot, if only incrementally. It would have been tempting to have flashbacks to the characters' lives on Earth, or cuts to mission control, or a comedy sequence with a comedy cosmonaut on the ISS, but director Alfonso Cuarón keeps the camera on our heroes at all times. In fact, with the exception of a few point-of-view shots and space exteriors Sandra Bullock is on-screen for the entire film. Whole minutes consist of tight close-ups of her face, and if you study her eyes you can see the audience of the 86th Academy Awards reflected in them.

Bullock is the main event. Clooney delivers a typically laid-back, commanding performance as a laid-back mission commander, but doesn't really bring anything more than his natural charm. He never seems to be stretching himself, although it's not really his fault, because the script gives him very little to work with. He's essentially a caricature of an Apollo-era astronaut, complete with a twangy country and western soundtrack. Apparently Clooney and Bullock were late choices for the film; originally it would have starred Robert Downey Jr and Angelina Jolie, which would probably have coloured the central metaphor with incestuous undertones. Bullock herself is spunky and affecting, and has enormous reserves of natural charm. Which is fortunate because her character is called upon to continually panic and (literally) hyperventilate. Some actresses would have been infuriatingly unsympathetic in the role but Bullock's natural charisma is such that I wanted her to pull through rather than wanting to tell her to get on with it. The cold lighting and tight, wide-angle close-ups - accentuated by a NASA skullcap that obscures her hair - give her face an alien quality.

The film uses bold, sometimes crude symbolism to illustrate Bullock's plight. After narrowly escaping death she retreats to the womb of the International Space Station, and assumes a foetal position as if to hammer the metaphor home. At the climax of the film, when she has finally learned to be an independent woman, she's photographed from below, as it she was a colossus striding a primeval Earth. As if she was Woman. It would be tempting to draw parallels with the story of Adam and Eve, but Gravity is smarter than that. There's absolutely no hint of sexual tension between Clooney and Bullock, who instead have a father-daughter relationship - Clooney occasionally has a tendency to address his female co-stars as if they were children, and it surfaces here. In real life Bullock and Clooney are almost the same age, and I have to say that Sandra Bullock has worn well. In their constraining space suits, tethered together with straps and harnesses, their relationship could easily have been played as dom/sub in space, but again the film avoids this.

I learn from the internet that most of the spacesuit sequences are actually CGI, with only the actors' faces being live action. Instead of hanging from wires or drifting in a floatation tank, or getting to ride NASA's vomit comet, the stars spent most of their schedule sitting in a box with a camera filming their face, which must have been disappointing. As with all CGI-heavy films I'm struck by the realisation that somewhere there's a detailed 3D model of George Clooney's body, wearing a spacesuit, presumably encrypted and held in a vault in case he ever appears in the sequel. Gravity has been a huge and unexpected financial success. The studio sat on the idea for years but must have realised that they were on to a winner, because it has been heavily promoted. A sequel seems unlikely, and George Clooney's character (spoiler) dies, but money is powerfully alluring. I can imagine a direct-to-video Gravity II in which Bullock's replacement realises that she has landed on Earth in the future! or there are pirates, or something.

Eventually the womb of the ISS is rendered uninhabitable by fire, one of the very few moments that echoes Armageddon, and I have to assume that the writers tried very hard not to remind the audience of that film. The obliteration of the station by high-speed debris is the film's visual highlight, an astonishing metal ballet that must have sorely taxed the CGI team's physics engine. In a daring touch the destruction takes places in the background, in near-silence, while our attention is focused on a character wrestling with some cables in the foreground, and almost imperceptibly the screen seems to fill with twirling debris. On a sonic level the film aims for veracity. Vacuum is shown to be silent, and sounds are only transmitted to the characters when they're in physical contact with a conducting object. The musical soundtrack is very spartan and basically redundant, and I wonder if the director originally planned to have no soundtrack at all, but was overruled by the producers.

The ISS sequence illustrates one of the film's narrative flaws, which is that the plotting is extremely mechanistic. With the exception of a scene in which Sandra Bullock barks like a dog and then tries to kill herself - the Oscar scene - the film's plot is essentially a very tight flowchart. Bullock arrives; hell breaks loose; she escapes; repeat. It has the effect of making Bullock's character seem like an avatar of destruction who brings chaos wherever so goes. When the Chinese space station realises that she's on her way, it decides to give up and commit suicide rather than fight the inevitable. But whereas Bullock's character overcomes her own urge to end it all - with the help of George Clooney's ghost, who pops in for a chat, in a sequence that could easily have been unintentionally funny but works surprisingly well - the Chinese... the Chinese...

I'm sorry, I've forgotten how this sentence began. (re-reads) urge to end it all, the poor Chinese station has no such reprieve. I actually felt sorry for it. Unlike the ISS, it seemed to be in fairly good condition, and it did no-one any harm, at least not while it was in orbit. The burning atmospheric wreckage of the station serves a crucial narrative role as a final metaphorical send-off for Clooney's character, and also for Bullock's formerly up-tight sexuality. As the film ends she strides off over a swampy, primeval, quite blatantly sexual landscape, no doubt off to teach other women how to cherish themselves.

The film should really have been called Momentum, after the tendency of a body to keep moving in the absence of a countervailing force. Bullock's character constantly finds herself struggling with momentum, and in a wider sense her life has built up a momentum that takes a lethal cataclysm to overcome. Although gravity eventually brings her down to Earth, most of her problems stem from an inability to stop or change direction. I hesitate to give it a star rating; if it was a David Bowie album it would be Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. Ten out of six.

Part of a late-70s space station concept - the "Austere Modular Space Station (AMSS)" from Rockwell

Boxout: Science
The film has been simultaneously praised and damned for its science. It reminds me of Space: 1999, in the sense that it aspires to accuracy but opts for dramatic licence whenever science and plot diverge. Whereas Space: 1999 was written by a bunch of cop show and soap opera hacks pressed into service as sci-fi writers - I imagine Gerry Anderson threw them a bundle of Eagle comics and some tickets to see Planet of the Apes and 2001 and asked them to come up with stories that had at least one spaceship crash and an explosion - Gravity has enough veracity to suggest that the writers were aware of the film's inaccuracies, and decided not to care about them for our entertainment.

For example, Bullock's character reaches the Chinese space station by pointing her Soyuz capsule directly at it and firing off the thrusters. In reality, the physics of orbit would have sent her into a higher and thus slower orbit; she would have needed to fire the thrusters away from the Chinese station to lower her orbit, and then she would need to ascend to the same orbit as the station once she had caught up. This is counter-intuitive and would have been difficult to explain in the film's limited screen time, and for what? If we accept that the film exists on the level of metaphor rather than literal reality, we can accept that the orbital manoeuvres are essentially placeholders, the equivalent of Star Trek's "insert technical solution here" script notes.

On a more obvious level, the film shows the shuttle, the ISS, and the Chinese station all sharing the same orbit - and at the beginning of the film the Shuttle is working in the Hubble space telescope. In reality the Hubble orbits much higher than the ISS, and it would have been impossible for George Clooney's backpack to transfer him to the lower orbit. The debris field that causes all the trouble could theoretically be at the same altitude as the Hubble, although in reality space debris tends to be tiny and too fast to see, whereas in the film there are visible chunks. The debris field itself is a hypothetical possibility - the "Kessler Cascade" - although it would take longer than a few seconds to coalesce.

Shuttle missions were numbered, from STS-1 (the first) to STS-135, the 135th and final mission, although the numbers in between were often jiggled about. In the pre-Challenger period NASA used a numbering system based on the fiscal year, and all but the first few missions were numbered in schedule order, which meant that delays could throw the sequence out. The film shows STS-157, which would have launched five or six years from now, so we have to assume that it's set in an alternative future that was kinder to manned space exploration (the existence of a large-scale Chinese station suggests this). The film doesn't touch on the ramifications of the disaster, although it would surely cause a financial cataclysm and would knock sat-nav stone dead, assuming the field affected the GPS / GLONASS / whatever-the-ESA-would-have-constellation. This is a boxout and so it ends abruptly. Look, I didn't sit in the cinema pointing out the science mistakes; I was caught up in the film. It's like making love, you know? Only afterwards do you point out the mistakes, and post them on the internet so that other people know about it.