Friday, January 22, 2016

Review: Songs of Earth and Power, by Greg Bear

[Songs of Earth and Power is a combined edition of Greg Bear's two novels, The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage, "substantially rewritten" so that they hang together better as a single story.  Recommended by my music instructor.]

Talented musicians, they say, can reach an elevated state of focus, where extraneous thought turns off and the moment is fully attained.  It's as if they become a conduit for the music itself, channeling some pure entity that exists apart from the instrument, apart from the player, the written notes, the composer, or the audience.  Parts click in place, improvisation becomes inspired, and the notes seem to find themselves.  (So I've heard, anyway.)  My man Switters has written about how the debut of The Rite of Spring all but broke polite society a hundred years ago, a piece clearly intended to convey music's connection to this more primitive source.  It's hard for me to imagine that a tightly written score is really the best way to get across that kind of pagan and improvisational sound, and I don't see how it could be played worth a damn without an orchestra full of crack musicians all deep in the zone.  But even a blues riff is light years beyond any notes you could put on a page. 

What is the zone?  Athletes and writers talk about it sometimes too, as do theoreticians.  Is it (in music) the result of extensive practice, where muscle and ear memory team up to satisfy or confound biological expectations of tone and rhythm?  Is it being good enough to express our intuitions about the modes and patterns we've been conditioned to since birth?  Alert enough to make subtle adjustments--right when our inductive brain functions are going full-fire--to connect nuances of tone to similarly subtle emotions?  Or skilled enough that the hands finally respond at the speed of thought?  Is it a non-language conversation between fluent players who are sharing similar ideas?   Are body resources are being siphoned away from cognitive centers (or are brain chemicals being flooded in) to produce a sensation of euphoria?  Maybe!  Or maybe there's a simpler and more appealing explanation.  Maybe it's magic.

Greg Bear couldn't have come up with a better conceit for Songs than this, where music is not just magic, but the Deep Magic, the stuff that worlds themselves are made from.  (Which, to be fair, has often been a song.)  The mystery is introduced in the story when elderly composer Arno Waltiri befriends unassuming youth Michael Perrin at a suburban Los Angeles party.  Michael aspires to be a poet, and Arno forms a bond with the teen over that, and we learn before long that back in the 40s, the old man had gone full Stravinsky on the LA crowd, not just scandalizing them, but literally transporting listeners away to some other plane.  Before he passes away, Waltiri leaves Michael some instructions on how to make the same trip over the hedge by foot, where he finds a small community of lost listeners and other artsy types who inadvertantly got themselves a little too close to the source.  As it turns out, the native fairy folk haven't been governing them especially well.

The first two thirds of The Infinity Concerto read like a certain 1980s-vintage urban fantasy (kind of like these), which shows a contemporary person reacting somewhat realistically to a strange and unexpected  world, not necessarily with high stakes.  Throughout the book, Michael remains fairly calm given his circumstances, and he's even somewhat genre aware.  (I might argue that his reasoned temperament is the only real constant through the story.)  He is not mean-spirited, but he is not gifted with great empathy either (which may seem strange for a poet, but is not for a 16-year-old).  In fact, one of his magic tricks is to bundle up and discard parts of his essential self, and the first thing he sloughs away is guilt, self-recrimination, or anything else that might make him whine.  As his role morphs from confused interloper, to unwitting tool, to full-on Chosen One, we are spared a young man's agonizing about the sacrifices required to save the world.  There are points where I'd expect the kid to offer up a little more understanding for the people he's hurt, but if this story must turn into another Hero's Journey, then it's nice to make the trip with someone who's a little more rational about getting on with it.

The realm of the Sidhe, where Michael ends up, is an interesting place to visit--its vaguely archetypical geography (decaying manor house, border town, wasteland, forest), sudden boundaries, unclear sense of time and distance, spooky inhabitants, and subjective magic combine to give it a sort of half-baked fantasyland feel.  Intentionally so.  The Realm is a world that's a little less real than ours, richer in possibilities because it was not as well glued together by its creators.  It's worked as a home for the Sidhe since they walked out of Earth a couple dozen millennia ago, but the human settlement is one of the cracks that have recently appeared in its winsome fairy-ness, along with (or maybe because of) a rogue half-human mage named Clarkham, who has been busy annoying both worlds for a couple centuries now.  After a long opening stint in town, Michael finally makes it out into the larger Realm, and eventually confronts Clarkham at a broadly telegraphed replica ("all should cry, Beware! Beware!") of Coleridge's Xanadu, where we are reminded that Michael is a poet.  By the time we get to The Serpent Mage, the tired gods have really let the Realm go, and now the Sidhe are emigrating by any possible means, as the whole construct starts to splinter away into the void.  Michael is now faced with how universes are created anyway, and how anyone is going to deal with merging the two of them, if it can be done at all.  Let's hope he knows some crack musicians back on Earth.

I don't have any reason to think that Bear was getting creatively meta with these novels, but the Realm is not a bad metaphor for the books themselves.  They are occasionally lovely or delightfully bizarre, but the story doesn't hold together well enough for its inhabitants to last in it.  It is really inconsistent in focus and scope.  A full two hundred pages are spent in the human and mixed-race refugee camps, and none of those relationships had a convincing impact on the later plot.  Bear's fabulous premise gets diluted to encompass any creative art (hiding a small world in the taste of a fine wine is cute, and while oenology can be inspired to the level of art, I was not convinced that it creates the same elemental thrill as music), and when it's finally about the music again, as it was at points in the second book, I'd kind of forgotten about it.  Here, after long neglect, are a group of players literally rocking worlds as they perform Waltiri's and (why not) Gustav Mahler's lost concertos (didn't they feel anything all the hours they practiced it?).  And there, at the end of things, comes along Mahler himself, along with the likes of Homer, Mozart, and (why not) Hillel--anyone who was anyone in human history--who were totally not long dead, but had been chilling in elfin purgatory, available at just the moment Michael needs a song of power to be improvised on the spot.  As a series of related episodes, these sorts of things are sometimes fun, but I lost faith in anything like a coherent arc, and when the author would go on about the core mythology that bound all the threads together--something about mages and makers of many different races--I didn't find those parts especially compelling.

But here's for putting the creativity back in Creation.  Songs of Earth and Power maybe didn't amount, in itself, to the grand symphony it sensed behind all things, but it had a few nice tunes, and that's fine with me.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

At Gun Points

It's hard to ignore the national argument about guns these days.  Between the president's recent executive efforts, the ravings of lunatic acquaintances on Facebook, and actual conversations with those old friends I am required to accept as sane, it's hard for me to resist formulating some kind of internal statement of principles in response to all the unsolicited opinions.  (I know I coughed up something along these lines a couple years ago; I recall it was one of my more obnoxious posts.)  As I probably mentioned then, I don't have any particular issues with gun ownership, collecting, or sports, and I recognize firearms as occasionally useful tools of land stewardship.  It's not my bag, but hey, if you like the things, then more power to ya.  And as far as hunting goes, I feel similarly about that as I do about smoking in bars, other people's backyard parties, or leaf blowers.  Which is to say, I would greatly prefer the public space to accommodate my activities more than those of some orange-jacketed yahoo who might accidentally put lead in me, but I accept that some kind of compromise is probably appropriate here.

I don't reflexively hate the things, but I've arrived at a few considered points in my internal process that I can't work past, and which I've never seen adequately refuted in the public conversation.  And, well, here they are. 

  • Owning a gun is one thing, but carrying a gun, on the other hand, makes you a dangerous asshole.  You are dangerous because you're carrying a gun.  And you are an asshole because you feel the need to be dangerous in my company.  
  • Any reading of the second amendment that gets around the "well regulated militia" part is incredibly tendentious.  For something held so proudly forth as an unassailable totem of gun rights, it's front-loaded with weasel words.
  • Gun manufacturers (and their lobbyists) don't necessarily have citizens' best interests at heart.  Their goal is to sell guns, which may well be inimical to the well-being of the people, considering you can sell more guns when groups of locals are inspired to point them at one another.  I won't address exporting them into conflict-rich zones (I don't know enough to comment), but let's take the NRA formulations as stated: the bad guys with guns, the world where only outlaws have guns.  They didn't mysteriously appear in their hands of all these scary people.  They bought arms that you, the gun companies, manufactured and sold to them.  Are you seriously using the threat of the people you've already armed to sell even more guns to the rest of us?  Fuck you, the NRA.
  • It's not your imagination: mass shootings in the U.S have gone up in the last 15 years, according to the FBI.  Meanwhile, our murder rate is higher than other developed countries, and guns make up the majority (like 60%) of those homicides.  Guns are reported to increase the risk of suicide, at least among young people.  I'm aware that statistics can be massaged, but these seem as reliable sources as anyone's going to find.  I'm aware that overall, violent crime is down here, as it is in many parts of the world.  But it's not too adventurous a hypothesis to propose that what gun access does is to change the nature of violence.  They're death-enabling.  Would-be murderers are empowered to take dozens of victims along with them.  People down a rough path can have them right there when they're feeling their most desperate.  Maybe this isn't for the best.
  • You're almost never going to get the jump on a prepared armed person.  Any self- or home defense scenario which requires you to grab a hidden pistol from your person, or fish it out of your possessions, you've already lost.  Seriously, playing cat-and-mouse through your sleepy house, standing off a mugger, preemptively intimidating a violent display, it all presumes you've identified the offender and his intentions (not to mention established the safety of everyone in your dangerous path) before he's had a chance to perpetrate his crime.  Good luck with that.  It also presumes your threat identification skills are top-notch, and let's be honest here...

    In order to ever put the odds of these kinds of scenarios in your favor, you have to be constantly prepared.  There are situations where this level of perpetual adrenalized vigilance is warranted, but it is very stressful.  Usually it's limited to people whose job it is (cops, soldiers, gang enforcers), and because it demands abnormally high commitment, they get paid for it. 

    It's true that sectors of normal life can also come under such routine threat as to require hyper-awareness, but when the social contract has broken down to such a degree as that, the equation changes.  There are marginalized enough people in this country, sadly, but promotion of American gun rights has almost always been from a position of social privilege.  I realize that I've been lucky, world-citizen-wise (as have the president, those Facebook loonies, and my friends).  I'm not really at much risk getting wasted in the path of some neighborhood strongman or some aggressively deranged bastard, and I think obsessing about them is kind of chickenshit under the circumstances.  I'm currently much more worried about drunk drivers, cancer, house fires, and botulism--you know, the perfectly rational stuff--none of which can be deterred with firearms.

Undoubtedly, the number one perk of civil society--arguably the definition of civil society--is that walking out the door isn't an invitation for death.  A few legal hurdles don't sound too onerous to reserve guns for those who want them for nonviolent ends.  The people who feel otherwise, I just wish to hell they'd make the honest argument that they feel the tradeoffs are worth it to them.  If the increased risk of horrible violence (for someone) is worth the security/enjoyment/empowerment a gun provides (to you), then demonstrate your steel-eyed toughness and say so.