Thursday, March 03, 2016

A Candidate I Could Have a Beer With, Part IV

To tell the truth, I hadn't really drank in almost eight years. It's true that I felt a little better without all the booze, and I lost a little bit of weight, but the real reason I stopped (and I have never told Jane this) is that after my father-in-law died, I didn't have nearly as much cause to. (I don't know if the old prick had a heart attack at the idea of a black man as president, but it seems possible to me, given the timing. I remember thinking he'd die on the spot if I told him that I actually once met the dude, but I never got the chance.) But overall, things have felt better since then. I'm older than I was, obviously, but not enough to really start feeling it yet. There's a lot of work for a geologist with all the new gas wells everywhere, and if my job remains pretty thankless (and depressing when I think about it), it's still meant more regular hours, better pay, even a better place to live.

Better restaurants too.  But, yeah, Jesus.

It was a couple Saturdays ago, on family night. Jane wanted to try a new place, a real barbecue joint like the people are always going on about on her tv shows.  I guess they're popping up even out here these days. We went there, and they had sawdust on the floor, long wooden tables, and served the food to you on big sheets of paper. It all seemed a little fake to me, or maybe just out of place.  It was too clean in the corners or something, and nothing was worn or busted (and of course it was too expensive to pretend to think of as a dive) but I can't deny the food was delicious. It was as if it was trying to be down-home, but also the kind of place the suits could come in to for a meeting.  And hey, for all I know, that's how they actually do it down south.

The guy who walked in behind us was wearing a suit.   But he didn't wear it like an office guy would, like it was part of the job. Instead, this guy was beaming in it, hands in his pockets, shoulders back, paunch on display.  (Brother, this is why I slouch.)  I think he was proud that he got to wear a suit, like a kid wearing something too big for him. First impressions, right? We all got in line, and he stood really close behind me. I'm not necessarily a hands-off guy, but like most people, I do like a little personal space.

"Howdy, y'all," he said.  Yeah, Texas, I'm pretty sure, even if he didn't seem like the howdy-ing version.  More like the college-Texas accent I come across in the industry sometimes.  Maybe he stopped at this place because he thought it would make him feel at home.

"Nice family you got," he went on, leaning his head toward Jane and Simon. "I can't tell you how good it makes me feel to see real American families doing well in these trying economic times."

He spoke these words slowly, drawing out 'real American families' to the point of discomfort, and grinned a little closed-mouth grin when he was done. I started to ask where he was from, but the line moved forward just then, and there was an awkward moment as my wife and son moved up a step while I stood still. This guy bumped up even closer to me, now physically touching, and the grin didn't change. I moved forward too, determined to ignore him from here on out, but he kept tailing us.

And by the way, I am never eating at one of these places with group seating again.  People piled up along these tables and were almost forced to talk to people they didn't come in with.  I've met interesting strangers in my day, but I don't want to get stuck in a seat I can't move from if the conversation starts getting weird, like this one did.  I was just about to shove my face into my brisket (or whatever it was Jane picked out for me), and this guy plops his suited ass across from us, and now he's all "Excuse me," in a loud and haughty way, like he's really affronted about something. 

"Uh?"

"Excuse me, please!" 

Maybe it's something about the drawl (and to be fair, he had already rubbed me the wrong way), but I could hear both a whine and a threat in his voice.  A couple other people had looked at him the first time, but now the whole restaurant was staring our way.  (Everyone except Simon, who had his head buried in a game.  Why did we ever get him that thing?)  The bench felt hard and narrow all of a sudden.

He pulled his lips back into that smile again, with his teeth just barely showing.  "I think it would be appropriate to thank the Lord for such a fine meal, don't you?"  He spread his arms out, "don't you?"

I think he meant everyone, but he was looking at me.  "I ...guess?"

"Smart people never guess.  Let's begin."  He pulled his hands together and bowed his head with great solemnity, but ruined the effect a little by opening up his eyes at the end and scanning the room with them before starting in.  I was watching more than listening, and that's probably why I was slow to pick up on what happened next.  

"...and Lord, deliver unto this great land a true leader who can steer us away from the false gods of socialism, and protect the unborn from the predations of liberal..."

Oh shit, that's not a good topic to bring up around Jane.  She gripped my leg hard enough to bruise it. 

In the quiet moment between the murmured "amen" and the normal diner sounds resuming, I could hear my wife's teeth grind.  Mr. College-Texas was no longer paying attention though, and was now digging happily into his greens and noisily poking them into his mouth.

"You know," she said coldly, "I had an abortion once.  It saved my life.  And even if it didn't, I am sure I could live with the ...predation."

He looked up, his eyebrows arched and mouth slack.  "Well, you're going to straight to hell then."

I did my best, good husband that I am.  "Hey, who the hell do you think you are?"

"Sir, where did you go to school?"

"What?"

"I am certain that it was no Princeton.  You are clearly no Einstein, no Madison.  Who am I?  Someone who without doubt has an IQ far higher than yours.  Do you really wish to get into an argument with me?"

I am not normally one to lose my cool, such as it is.  All those years listening to Jane's father and I never raised my voice.  But this guy.  "Bent fuck sad potato you!" I yelled.

"I rest my case.  Enjoy life with your harlot."  He dabbed the corners of his mouth with a napkin, let the grin slither across his face one last time, and got up.  As he turned his back, I got up too.  But Jane grabbed my arm.

"Please don't, Bob.  You're not that kind of person."

"I'm not following him, Hon," I said, rapidly deflating.   "I think I'd really like a beer though" 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Review: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I devoured Ready Player One in just a couple sittings, which is a rare thing for me these days.  It certainly went down in a delightful way, but now, a few weeks later, I'm not so sure if that was really because it's a fundamentally delightful novel, or because I am the laser-targeted audience of it.  It does have tons of positive energy--it's probably going to make a fun movie--but I'm aware that even a grouch like me has few defenses against such a focused ray of nostalgia. 

The story is set thirty years in the future, in a joyless, overpopulated world that we don't, thankfully, see much of.  With cheap energy on the way out, populations have been retracting toward what jobs or assistance are left, and middle America has put its own special flair on the ungoverned shantytown, which by the 2040s are basically trailer parks piled up on top of one another.  It's here, nestled behind his aunt's clothes dryer, that we first find Wade Watts, navigating high school, and chasing whatever available escapes from his shit existence.

Fortunately for Wade (not to mention the rest of humanity), online resources have developed quite a bit by these days.  There exists a shared virtual OASIS, which is basically a shared, free-form, customizable online environment, with vast servers and a really spiffy virtual interface, that has grabbed up the entire population.  Everybody uses it.  Like Facebook, it was the right technology at exactly the right time, and it made its developers fabulously rich.  People meet, game, watch TV, go to school, and have business meetings in OASIS, because let's face it, it helps to go somewhere.  In the book universe, the originally developers of the technology were children in the 1980s (just like me!), and the imprint of these old men's dreams is everywhere in the virtuality.  The event that sets the plot in motion is that the company founder, one James Halliday, has died, leaving an elaborate will.  Whoever can find the three Easter eggs he left in his sprawling online galaxy will win his inheritance, and it proves to be more difficult than even obsessive fanboys can work out.  By the time Wade (online handle: Parcival) is lucky enough to figure a piece out, most of the world has long since given up the hunt, but now an egg has been found, and the chase is on. 

The "egg hunt" draws heavily on the 1980s cultural influences that led Halliday to create OASIS in the first place.  It was informed by all the stuff nerds would have liked, before the days when being a nerd was cool.  A hunter culture has grown up that studies and celebrates the culture, and Parcival has (rather conveniently) mastered every potentially relevant facet of 80s dork trivia: from the popular movies, to the bad Japanese tv imports, to prog rock, to Dungeons and Dragons, to the clunky computers, to the arcade games we used to obsess over.  All of these things have some prime niches in the OASIS, and the accelerating race through them is a love-fest to us current fortysomethings.  The first clue, we learn before long, is within a vintage D&D campaign, not found before now because it was hidden in an unlikely place.

It's interesting to me (and it earned Cline a pass for the book's most obvious flaw) that I knew a few savants like Parcival growing up, or at least I knew kids who shared an aspect or two: misfits with freakish game skills, or fan nerds, or kids who could sleuth out computer tidbits, or who obsessed on text-based games.  And maybe I'm a little ashamed about the times I sidled away from these perpetual acquaintances in the vague hopes of finding where the girls were, or what mysteries alcohol might hold for me.  [I am ashamed, to be clear.  And I am sure I would have liked the girls from those original circles better, too.]  In any case, the characters did not seem completely artificial to me.  It's not quite as spot-on as was, say, the world where Freaks and Geeks was, but that (virtual) rec room where Parcival hung out with his buds only needed the spilled sodas and forbidden thrill of HBO movies to match my experience at that age.

And of course these 80s kids are the ones making popular culture now too, cobbled together from the trash of three decades ago.  I realize that I have no useful vantage point to judge it--I honestly can't tell if there was something really original that was sparking to life in those times, or if it's merely the weird sensation of our turn at adulthood now rolling around.  I mean, I want to believe that it was the off-color, under-the-surface, cult fare--the independent scenes--that ended up resulting in anything worth a damn.  I want to argue that illegitimacy, popular scorn, is what lit the creative fires that are burning today.  But that's bullshit, right?  Or at least bullshit here?  Pretty much everything mentioned above (except the MUDs) was successful, and these quaint beloved movies were friggin' blockbusters.  Reminiscing about our shared love of Star Wars is maybe not so controversial.  But there were new things developing then too, and maybe there's an argument that this was the decade where people (Americans anyway) started to turn more toward a shared multimedia escapism that, in the timeline of Ready Player One, eventually coalesced into a population-wide MMORPG.  

So is this novel an objectively good book, or is it rollicking nostalgia service?  I tried to imagine how I might have reacted to it if had been released in 1990 or so.  I think it could have been: its obvious predecessors were there (Neuromancer gave us cyberspace in 1984, and Snow Crash, which is a lot closer in tone, was only a couple years around the corner), and god knows the pop culture references were still fresh.  It might have been both more fun and more insufferable.  (But as for the planned movie, I'm sure the special effects would have sucked back then.)

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.  

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Review: The Windup Girl, by Paulo Bacigalupi

I never realized it before reading this novel, but what the world needs is a dystopia in the style of Graham Greene, where the sadness, secrecy, danger, ubiquity... the altogether oppressiveness of a failed social effort can be written up as the perfect pot to stew the uneasy moral gristle of the characters.  Greene, of course, had a knack for spotting these tired pockets of the real world, but your better science fiction is all about removing constraints like that, and it has a long history of creating sorry futures as a critique of political ideas.  It'd be a great marriage, is what I'm saying.

The Windup Girl is not that novel, for better or worse, but I will admit that I read a good third of it really wanting it to shape up as a new Quiet American.  The setting works: it's in a future southeast Asia, in a region historically resistant to imperialism, yet eternally dealing with the attempt, simmering with potential coups and clogged up with its own webs of loyalty, history, crime and general hardship.  Generations of resource depletion and biological capitalism have left humanity diseased and dependent, and in the Thailand of the story, have put subsistence living toe to toe with modernity.  We are also introduced early on to a character I wanted to read as a reinvented Alden Pyle.  Similarly named, Anderson Lake is likewise more of an interloper than a proper protagonist, who, along with the boozy expats of his acquaintance, doesn't quite jibe with the culture.  He's in truth a powerful political agent, a fact belied by his willingness to risk himself within the intrigues of Thai society.  He takes a possessive interest in a local woman, and, well, even if that's as far as the similarities go, you can at least see why I was rolling with this.

But the cracks start early.  We're in Lake's mind from the beginning of the book, and it doesn't take long for the his schemes to be revealed, in context, as probably malignant.  Nor is there any allegorical love triangle here.  Emiko may be a trophy object but, well, she's not Thai for one thing (not even Japanese, strictly speaking), and more importantly, she is a challenging individual in her own right.  There is overall too much action, too many characters, and not the right kind of internal space to really qualify as a Greene knockoff.  It's not a tenuously drawn inner balance, this novel, it's the usual point-of-view plot mosaic.

Bacigalupi imagines a world where food sources have been monopolized by a handful of "calorie companies," modern-day Monsantos who have long since succeeded in suppressing local agriculture in exchange for imports or rights to grow non-propagating proprietary strains that the companies sell.  (It's the American Midwest extrapolated to a global hellscape.)  It's not spelled out whether the succession of plagues that have further eradicated old species and leveled the human population were intentionally waged by the calorie companies, or whether they were a result of tempting the world's fate with highly engineered monoculture.  In any case, the political arms of the companies actively seek out what biodiversity is left, with an aim to develop it (no doubt with similar results down the line), and keep the business one step ahead of the next pandemic.  Thailand has made it this far by vicious containment measures, and a rumored pet scientist.  The nation has also maintained an old seed vault in the capital that Anderson Lake wants very much to negotiate. 

The detail of this sorry world is very well drawn out, and the author has really done a good job in fleshing out a location for its conflicts, and selecting characters to witness it from different angles.   This Bangkok seethes with people and squirms under the weight of history.  There is a languor to the city that comes from more than the jungle climate, it's heat, fatalism, decay, a struggle that's more necessary than hopeful. The impact of global scourge and dearth of kilowatt-hours is so effectively shown that I kept noticing the times it was told.  (My only mild complaint about this book is that he uses just a hair more neologisms than I felt were necessary.)

Most things are windup in this world.  The earth has been so poorly used that hand-crank power has become the ubiquitous poor-man's alternative to carbon.  However, Emiko (the girl of the title) isn't throwback tech, she's been made to have jerky toy-like motions.  Emiko is an engineered person, a New Person in the book's language, one who has been bred, altered, and conditioned from birth for a role as a high-end courtesan.  Not just with the creepy doll motions, she's genetically predisposed to obey and please, to seek male guidance, and what the hell, that's three novels in a row (not to mention a tv show) now where subservience is governed by sci-fi technicalities, and although it's gotten under my skin, Emiko's arc is quite satisfying in this story, because this is a girl whose mind has a slim chance of conquering her genetic tendencies.  This far from removed the microcosm for which she's been designed, obedience has treated her poorly.  Abandoned by her old patron and forced into a lesser life of prostitution, in an unsuitable physical environment, she wants safety in Anderson Lake, and that is something her world will also probably not allow. 

A spoiler here, but among the many plot whorls, a new disease has been simmering in Lake's business front, an entirely natural one.  It is managed with the scientific tools at hand, but not before it gets Lake.  Emiko (and new people in general) are resistant to it, and, we gradually learn, often have other strengths, provided the bullshit low-status-signifying mods can be weeded out (or gradually bred out, or can somehow provide into an ecological advantage).  It's heavily suggested that these new organisms are the future of the planet, and our true legacy.  The fact that the disease strain evolved from a natural mutation (i.e., not engineered and as a random element to the plot) is significant, and we're offered a question here about the nature of nature.  Is human meddling an affront against nature or is it an aspect of it?  Most of us prefer the anthropocentric answer, that we're the end result of evolution, and that we have some relationship with the biological world.  But the honest answer is that we're part of the process that has no goal, and in the book, all our activity has been the kind of catastrophe that increases speciation (and the earth's had a few).

Sunday, November 22, 2015

AKA Earned Suspension of Disbelief

Several months ago, I put aside a post about the Daredevil series that had recently aired on Netflix.  I couldn't file it down to the narrow point I wanted to make at the time (and I was also conscious that I have one about the Marvel live-action universe still on the page), but last night, I stayed up binge-watching (as the kids do these days) the followup series, Jessica Jones, and I think I want to work a few things out here. 

Daredevil was the only reason I gave in and got a new Netflix subscription early this year.  On the whole (and like most people), I thought it was fantastic.  There are any number of ways to take on the space-aliens-and-superheroes fare and keep it entertaining--god knows that like 90% of these books I read fall neatly in the sci-fi/fantasy basket--but I've always liked the stories best when they keep a strong connection to known reality.  I think this was as important for the oldest hero stories as it is for the new ones: you can't make anyone larger than life if no one around them is life-sized.  Almost always, the believable angle comes as a plausible approximation of human nature in the response to all the craziness (I always love the sane, marginalized characters who point out just how nuts everything around them is, or who can't help lampshading the plot flaws), but what I'm finding so interesting about Marvel's live-action efforts is how they've been very creative about the places the stories touch ground. 

I don't think Iron Man would have worked nearly as well, for example, without a 20-minute cut of Tony Stark's touch-and-go experimentation.  Something in there got the process of innovation some exaggerated flavor of right.  Shit never works too well at the beginning, even when you're a tech genius.  Agent Carter wasn't in the same league as the Netflix dramas, but it was occasionally very strong, and that one was held to earth by the unexpected tethers of institutional bias.  When I write it like that, it sounds like it's been done before, but it's a very different animal here, and the distinction is important.  Peggy isn't smashing her way through the sexist 1940s and punching oppression-themed villains in the eye (not yet anyway), she is more like a well-realized character who is struggling within a confining peacetime reality. 

Daredevil went on to do a whole bunch of things right in this regard too.  The grounding theme of this show was the human consequences of movie-theater violence.  In a stroke of genius, the aftermath of all the skyscraper toppling in The Avengers reverted New York to an old film-school version its corrupt, shabby self.  (Because for anyone who's been there recently, today's Hell's Kitchen is a world of safe boring storefronts, and modern Times Square looks like some unholy lovechild of Disneyland and Tokyo.)  And of course when the hero can get his ass kicked, get ground down, get laid up as painfully as Matt Murdock did, it makes any of his successes feel earned.  Seriously: Daredevil was a great urban Kung Fu story before anyone got in spitting distance of the red suit.  It would have worked every bit as well if he were just an athletic blind guy--the story didn't really need the "abilities."  I bought wholly in to the first ten episodes, even as syndicates of mystical old ninjas were running through the city, and this viewer didn't bat an eye.  Those places where it gave in to its comic self, that's when it stumbled a little. 

(The other way that Daredevil established its emotional stakes--and this is a strength of Jessica Jones as well--was by giving the characters room to act like believable friends.   To get close to someone as likeable but remote as Matt, you'd have to keep ignoring all of his subtle keep-away vibes, and they found a couple sorts of people who could.  It required some decent acting and direction to communicate it.)

So on to Jessica Jones, a character I was only vaguely aware of through the nerdblogs, who came out 15 years after I gave up on comics.  On TV, she is more obviously powered with enhanced strength and (at least some) resilience, and it's terrifying how all of that power means precisely fuck-all when it comes to the emotional challenges of acting like a hero. 

If Daredevil was about the consequences of violence, Jessica Jones is about the consequences of abuse.  Looking back on the binge, I see it mapped on every character thread, but as before, this is the tether to human realism.  David ("Tenth Doctor") Tennant plays the villain Kilgrave, who can make people obey him, who can make people want to obey him (and what good is super strength against that?).  This is an abuser who is additionally enabled by mindfuck powers (and it's not at all clear which came first), and it's damn interesting how often he resorts to conventional abuse too, because that's the kind of person he is.  It's damn interesting how willing the show is to get right in the head of people like this and develop it as a theme (not just Kilgrave, but a number other male and female characters act abusively as well), treating them with empathy, encouraging the viewer to understand their motives and to weigh their charming apologies, without forgiving a damn thing about what they do, and without ever ceding the agency of the victims.  It's a bit of a spoiler, but Kilgrave starts out as casually menacing, and the show gradually recasts his behavior as obsession, and then as petty obsession.  And the truth is, the Purple Man would be nowhere near as scary if he were bent on world domination, or revenge, or any of the standard supervillain schtick.  Nor is Luke Cage (Jones's lover, and total badass) allowed to ride in as a savior, even though if anything he is more powered than she is.  He understands that this is her demon to overcome, and the wannabe good-guy types who feel it is their job?  The ladies don't even let them drive.  It only sounds like a textbook in hindsight, because it's a character drama before anything else, and they do an good job of keeping it real.


Saturday, November 07, 2015

Review: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

I remember the buzz in the science fiction groups when The Sparrow first came out. It populated almost everyone's best list for awhile (and the ones who didn't love it felt that the acclaim came at the expense of the genre's roots, which is silly enough to make me wonder if I am not in fact misremembering things), and among that crowd, it's not hard to see what the appeal was. The book is genial, lightly philosophical, hard-ish on the science, and tends to be empowering of women, introverts, and technical people. But as a plotted novel, Russell kind of botches the delivery, and I suspect that anyone's enjoyment of it is going to depend an awful lot on what they are reading for (even more than is usually the case).

The story is set in the near future (that is, 1996's near future, which is getting very close to the present), and it's set in motion when an astronomer at the Arecibo radio observatory in Puerto Rico picks up an unexpected signal. The politics of the times, the brevity and intermittancy of the message itself, and the protagonists' personal and professional networks, all have plausibly coincided in such a way that the is revelation is confined to a very small team at first, long enough that they can begin the project themselves, under the discreet hand of the Roman Catholic church (Jesuits, so, you know, the good discreet Catholics), before the public really gets wind of it.  The team determines that it's in fact a snippet of an extraterrestial broadcast. Music, Hot Hits from the next star over. Could this be investigated further? Well, the church is genuinely interested, and consider it within the Society's historical context of mission and scholarship.  Our primary character, Father Emilio Sandoz, is a preeminent linguist, and makes a compelling case for a cultural and scientific effort.  Could we actually get there and check it out?  Surprisingly yes: 2019 technology sometimes moves asteroids during mining (chucking mass out the back), and a sealed rock could in fact keep up 1g by doing this for a couple decades.  The team already includes a pilot, an astronomer, and a polymath, and holy shit, this is all really happening. 


The discovery aspects of the book are done pleasantly well.  It reads like sf "competence porn" that for once isn't driven by male ego.  Russell makes a lot out of the collaborative process, doesn't discount luck (enough things have come together that the Catholics, and Emilio particularly, can't help but see it as God's plan), and keeps a group dynamic based on open communication.  So much of the planning and travel--it must be at least half the book--takes place over intelligent dinner party conversations, where people laugh a lot, and reveal themselves over that extra glass of wine.  The individuals are diverse, likeable and interesting enough (Anne Edwards, the middle-aged den mother of the group, appears to be a real Mary Sue character here, the writer herself herding them along), and these kinds of scenes continue even through the voyage to the planet eventually known as Rakhat, where contact with the alien species is first made.

And even if it takes a while to get there, the events on the planet are interesting.  Finally, the long-developed situation starts changing, and it's the best part of the book.  The characters misjudge the nature of Rakhat's intelligent species (who are about as responsible with civilization as humans are, even if they're much better stewards of their planet).  There are two of them, nearly indistinguishable, and of course people always overestimate the Eloi at first.  Russell's understanding of ecological relationships drives the plot here, as well as inevitable cultural ignorance, and it's quite cleverly done. 

It's a perfectly cromulent way to develop the story, but these parts are all told in flashback, and it's explicit from page one that something went terribly wrong on Rakhat.  Emilio Sandoz is the only member of the team to return, and he's disfigured, cynical, sick, and with what little knowledge that's revealed, disgraced.  His illness seems alien or supernatural (it's not, although he's been plenty traumatized), and the investigatory committee is hungry for his side of the story (although they have years worth of reports, and the popular conclusions that they have allowed are fairly ridiculous assumptions--I'll try not to spoil it). 

Sending the mission off the rails and breaking Sandoz's faith would have worked fine as a linear progression, but this extended flashback business was not the right way to manage the contrasts.  In effect, Russell has decided to set up two kinds of novels and make them sit awkwardly side by side.  For a mission that has succeeded on a foundation of open communication within a group, the author is keeping information from the reader here only to delay Emilio's big reveal.  Since none of the church officials we meet really do much to move the plot that way, I didn't really care about any of them, and yet they occupy a substantial chunk of the text.  Russell wants The Sparrow to be a voyage of discovery and a tense character drama at the same time, but in the discovery part, the characters aren't behaving dramatically, and in fact, any sustained personal tension would have been inimical to the kind of story that's working itself out.  Most of them don't even change in any meaningful way.  And the one guy who does have an arc--Sandoz--is also the hardest character for the reader to approach.  He starts off a somewhat enigmatic man--withholding his inner self from others as a sort of self-enforced humility--and keeps this level of remove throughout the story, a trait which grows sort of beatific as his faith deepens.  When he's recovered afterwards, he's closed off for less subtle reasons.  We spend the whole novel revisiting him in his broken state, but it doesn't become meaningful until the end, after all of his relationships are established, and we finally understand what caused it.  Probably Emilio's more genuine opening after the trauma is the point of these sections, but even though it feels good to point him in a direction of recovery or redemption, it's still a tremendous anticlimax, and it would have made a better epilogue than ongoing plot.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: Fledgling, by Octavia E. Butler

[This morning, I upended a mug of coffee all over my grandfather's old desk, splashing my computer, a small stack of books, and all of the usual office detritus.  I mean, usually I reserve that sort of thing for work, where I can dramatically imperil valuable documents instead of 1950s scholastic-grade oak.  But apparently I've grown weird about books, and maybe this was nature's way of telling me to write a couple of those up and put them away.]

Fledgling, in 2005, was published just a little bit ahead of the modern wave of attractive, socialized fictional vampires.  It's similar on its face to all the Twilight clones, but unlike most of the selections from the Paranormal Romance section, this one still feels like an innovative concept, turning a traditionally supernatural relationship into an evolutionary one.  (And unlike I imagine those selections to be, this one is very well written.)  The Ina, as they're called in the book, have been on the earth for as long as humans have, existing in symbiosis with select human individuals.  They live longer than us (and believe themselves wiser), have very low birth rates, and are gifted with more intense strength, dexterity, and senses (especially scent), with the attendant animal-like compulsions to feed, breed and sleep, which, as with their sister sapients, they arrange their society to accomodate and govern.  They're light-sensitive, they require human blood for nourishment, and with proper care, they can heal like Wolverine.  So standard vampires, more or less, except with a more compelling backstory, and a more interesting relationship to people.  Their venom is intoxicating--it feels gooood for us humans to let blood--and it creates dependency, basically mood-altering people into a state of loyalty, contentment, and (not counting the addiction) physical health.  The Ina maintain long-term partnerships with their symbionts, ranging from something rationalized as mutual benefit, to the relationship of an ant to an enslaved aphid.

And now enter the protagonist Shori, a pubescent Ina (looks 12, but is in fact in her fifties) who possesses some genetic advantages due to experimental interbreeding.  Notably, she has dark skin that protects her in the daylight, but she's also improved in her Ina-ness compared to the rest of them--faster, stronger, more desirable scent, more intoxicating saliva, an objectively better specimen. 

You will have perhaps noticed that in a few strokes, Butler has transformed an overused fantasy trope into a complicated question of race, power, sexism, sexuality, consent, agency, and morality. 

It's a highly accessible read, too.  In the opening pages of the book, Shori wakens from a near-death injury, without her memory, amid corpses, ashes, ruins.  What happened to her?  What's her place among her kind?  It's a fairly linear (if somewhat episodic) path to answer those questions, and the prose doesn't wander too far off into the philosophical depths, even though Butler's given herself every opportunity to do so.  Shori herself is a sympathetic outsider, and her personal stakes are high enough to keep the plot chugging.  Focusing on the better people of either species, and pushing the really incorrigible brand of racism onto the snooty vampire elite, dodges a lot of the challenge for readers.  (Or at least for white readers--I'd be very curious to know how this book reads from an African-American perspective.) 

But the thing is, this story would have failed without a strong and nuanced understanding of those big themes, and they provoked a strong emotional reaction in me.  I left it disappointed how the adult Ina couldn't avoid the same traps of prejudice and patriarchy that have ruined so much of human history.  I liked Shori, but I couldn't let go of how damn patronizing she was toward her harem, or how her first symbiont was not a willing addition to it, how his intellectual antipathy toward obedience and revulsion at sexualizing a child's body had no chance against Shori's vampiric love juice.  I was affronted by the idea of people as pets, either abused or loved.  I was mad at the Ina for not creating a better society, and then angry, yet again, at my own damn species for the same reason.  It seems like a small novel to contain such big currents, but then, that's what makes it good.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: Time's Arrow, by Martin Amis


I don't know how I feel that the cover of my copy of Time's Arrow gave the plot away.  Not because it ruins the story so much--we know that this Tod Friendly character's a creep, nursing some nasty past or other--but I wonder how I would have received it if I hadn't known already that the scale of evil reached all the way up to the Nazi death camps, if the escalation would have startled me (more), or if I would have found a different perspective on a re-read.  (Welp, I guess I also just blew the chance for you to go read it and report back to me.  Sorry about that.)

The conceit is that the narrator, whoever that is exactly, is stuck in Tod's body as a traveler, unable to exert his will on it or to see beyond what Tod sees.  He perceives time going in reverse, only able to guess at the demons in his host's past until he actually gets there.  The narrator opens his eyes and gasps in the man's last decrepit breath, as doctors batter him to sensation on the table.  He painfully retraces his backwards way home, slowly getting more vital as he de-ages.  He retains a forward-thinking sense of cause and effect, and Amis wrings comic irony from any number of vignettes told from that point of view.  Beautiful things are lovingly destroyed, food is masticated into form and returned to the store for money, arguments and hurt feelings are suddenly reconciled with insensitivity or violence, and the toilet and the trash are the benevolent wellsprings and motive forces of humanity.  Sometimes the bits are well-written enough that they almost work in either direction, at which point I had to stop and read them again.  Even for a short book, and even with the humor,** it got tiring.

And it's a pretty well-worn shtick by the time we get to the real horrorshow, where Friendly finds himself with a proper German name, working under some fictionalized Mengele.  He relates Auschwitz as the asshole of the world, and can think of no higher praise.  Here, people are nursed from death to health, often with the urgent intervention of the doctor's own hand, and he soars with the good feeling of it.  After the war, his story devolves to anticlimax, as the narrator fades away from consciousness toward the innocence of infancy.  Amis suggests that Tod's a product of his time, that anyone could be corrupted with his empowerment and influences, but I don't buy it--even as a young man before the war, Tod (now Odilo) reads like some kind of sociopath. I don't think people abuse their wives and terrorize their neighbors just because they're allowed to.  Too many of us drift along with the historical tides, but others smile and merrily dig in an oar.

Heavy stuff, and you know what?  Enough already.  I want to say that the problem here is that Time's Arrow either deals with far too weighty a subject for a gimmick book, or it's far too gimmicky and ironic for a Holocaust book. 

Or maybe that's not exactly the right complaint.  This backwards thing** is well-suited to terrifying experience, but, I think, it invites a more existential and universal sort of anxiety, giving us readers a rare alternate angle on these nagging questions of what it means to briefly be thinking meat in an incomprehensibly complex universe.  I mean, you don't need genocide to make that point. 

I found myself fixated on the reality of the narrator.  I don't actually think Amis addresses "the rules" to my satisfaction, but he manages to squirrel away from scrutiny because it's such a short book.  The speaker knows back from forward, and for that matter, he's stuck working in the language and metaphor we know, which is inevitably built on a foundation of causality... so why does he accept the mode of his experience?  (And when he briefly asserts normal time, why doesn't the return to reverse chronology keep bothering him?)  And who the hell is he narrating to?  What is his perception of elapsed time?   Because the continuity of his thought (that is, this short novel) sure makes it seems like he's walking us through a whole backwards life in the space of an hour or two.  I settled in my mind that it was not an alien presence talking to us, but some other projection of Tod/Odilo himself.  That is, another artifact of the same bolted-together biohardware floating there in space-time, one that is merely perceiving things in a different way, because after all, who the fuck knows the hidden depths of how all this works.  And the message here--the holy-shit, make-you-think part that has really kept this novel alive in my mind--is that we can't condemn the widdershins experience for being any more arbitrary and bizarre than this one.  We are only along for the ride on time's forward arrow too.  The best we can really do is comment.




* Speaking of detached humor, and evil, and layers of irony, oh look, Martin Amis wrote the introduction to the copy of Lolita  that I read.  Seems fitting.

** It's not the most common one, but I think it's fair to call it a trope.  I was tearing through my shelves trying to find it, but once again, the internet was the better tool:  the first story I remember reading in this vein was called Divine Madness, by Roger Zelazny (which, I will add, didn't suck).  That one got to the scary and sensitive too, and didn't even require awful people doing unimaginable things.