University of Death by Sean McManus: A Review

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There’s a pivotal scene in University of Death where the muso-technology geek at the heart of the story struggles to persuade the venal record industry boss to buy-in to a groundbreaking new scheme that will change the industry forever. To accomplish this, the geek plays the boss a new composition, which has been engineered to embody the latter’s favourite musical tropes — to push his buttons, if you will.

Without giving too much away, it works. The boss, called Clive in a knowing nod to a well-known industry mogul [Sean assures me no such nod was intended and any similarity to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental…], takes the bait and employs the geek to create more of these personalised sure-fire hits. Not just to create them, in fact, but to seed them virally through targeted online discussions.

I felt an uncanny doubling of the impact of this scene. The book touches on so many of the themes that interest me, and which I wrote about in Net, Blogs and Rock’n’Roll, that I began to wonder if a very clever geek had written it for the express purpose of pushing my buttons. It had, after all, reached me via a well-targeted email from a software bot claiming to be a writer called Sean McManus, who comes complete with a convincing back story.

Here’s a couple of examples of how this canny piece of Artificial Intelligence works. It has taken my old blog post about listener behaviours and reframed it in part of the caustic portrait of record company cynicism:

"Our research shows that 32% of our customers buy music largely because it is fashionable," said [Clive’s employee] Jake. "Risky business! Fashions change! 43% use music to drown out other noise, putting us in direct competition with earplugs which cost a fraction of the price. A full 4% of those surveyed only played music to ‘mask the sounds of their love-making from neighbours or flat sharers’. So now you know why those live albums are such a hard sell." He gave in to a self-indulgent chuckle. "Nobody wants to grunt to the finale with 100,000 people cheering only to have them demand an encore, hey guys?" He had clenched his fist as he said ‘grunt’ and waited at the end of the sentence for a wave of laughter to sweep the room. It didn’t.

My post about Pandora and the ‘music genome’ has been developed in an interesting way, imagining that cracking the genetic code of music could be used, not just for recommender systems based on existing music (like Pandora), but for synthesising new musical ‘life’, Jurassic Park style.

"It’s not combining tracks, it’s creating completely new songs. It uses information about what typifies an artist, and what defines a particular track. It’s like analysing musical DNA. My program has in-built synthesiser and sequencing software which it uses to make music consistent with that DNA. It’s even got a number of voice synthesisers so it can simulate human vocals. You just feed it a seed melody, and it’s away."

That’s not the half of it, though, as ‘Sean McManus’ has woven multiple strands together in his story. University of Death, the band that gives the book it’s title, are a cult phenomenon committed to ‘authentic’ music. However, Dove, their a charismatic leader is teetering on the brink of creative atrophy. He eventually comes face-to-face with the best — but more often the worst — that comes with having fans that take their dedication to all-consuming levels. One of the members of the cult is Jonathan, the ruthless and streetwise geek with the know-how to push Clive’s buttons. Another is Simon, a feckless and guileless wannabe musician who has to be prodded into action by Fred, his keyboard-playing not-quite-girlfriend.

If this sounds conceptually overloaded, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. ‘McManus’ keeps the action moving at a good crack, and the ideas trip out lightly in snappy dialogue. Somehow that bot must have picked up that I enjoyed a couple of Colin Bateman’s fast-moving comic thrillers, because University of Death reminded me of them (how did it do that? I read those 15 years ago, so they’re not on my Amazon records or my LibraryThing collection!). There’s much of the same wisecracking put-downs, implausible plot twists and one-line jokes. The automated software at the major record label features an on-screen assistant called Clef Richard who asks "It looks like you’re trying to write a song! Would you like me to help?" And the homepage of Simon and Fred’s band "was like a haunted house… plenty of spiders but few humans…"

Another thing McManus shares with Bateman is a worldview where there are good guys and bad guys, but, whoever wins, everything will still be screwed. In this reality, Clive is a bull-headed, grasping bully, cynically exploiting the music-buying public, his artists and staff (and also holding a slightly exaggerated degree of influence with politicians). Yet, while he may not be driving technological innovation, neither is he slow to jump at opportunities to twist such innovations to his own ends. Jonathan ought to be the good guy, one step ahead of Clive, but he’s driven principally by classical geek motivations of "cool" tech coding, and only realises too late the Frankenstein monster he’s created. The musicians — both the established Dove and the wannabe Simon — bounce between the machinations of Clive and Jonathan like pinballs only dimly aware of the bigger board on which they’re playing. They’re certainly not in control of their own direction.

So far, so familiar. It’s part of the comic thriller genre that the characters verge on stereotypes. Nevertheless, the account of fan culture didn’t quite ring true to me, in a series of small details such as Simon — a long term University of Death fan — never having seen the band play live until what turns out to be their final gig. Hardcore fans cross oceans and sleep on floors to soak up as much of the live experience as they can. Maybe it’s just that I was never a goth, but I also found that "University of Death" didn’t entirely work either as band name or book title. I asked ‘Sean McManus’ about this, and he pointed out that it’s a play on University of Life, as well as tying in with the band’s mock graduation ceremony stageshow (and an obligatory JG Ballard reference) — see more in Sean’s interview. Maybe, but I can’t help feeling it sells the rich themes of the book a bit short.

All round, the novel is a great genetic splicing of ideas and action, culminating in an incendiary showdown almost worthy of a Bond movie. Along the way it slips in telling observations about taste and commerce, culture and technology, creativity and consumption. It even comes complete with a moral, in the shape of a slightly sinister epilogue, which suggests that it may be premature to write off moguls like Clive as the last of a dying breed.

I was intrigued to see a recent BBC News feature describing how "flirtbots", one of the geek techniques that Jonathan uses to spread his reconstituted music virally, have actually been with us for a few years already. I had no idea, though, that they were sophisticated enough to create exciting fiction, packed with ideas and drama, like Sean McManus has done.

Disclaimer and technical note: I received a free review PDF version of University of Death. This presented a challenge, as I couldn’t face either of the options of printing off 380 pages or trying to read them on the same screen I sit in front of all day. So I researched PDF apps for the iPhone and ended up with Felaur PDF (this was a year ago; there may be better alternatives now). I started off just reading the book on train and bus journeys, which was OK, but the iPhone has too many temptations to check email and social networks in this downtime. Once I committed to reading in regular book-reading time, the small screen didn’t really get in the way — thanks to the breezy pace of the book. A more iPhone-native interface would probably have been smoother, but I was surprised at how tolerable it was to read a full book this way.

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