Saturday, April 30, 2011

Oreilles Gauloises (Music Festival Edition) - Less is More...

I realized tonight that it's been over a year since I've last posted an album review on this site...incredible. Not sure how that happened exactly, but it's definitely a habit I have - doing something for a while, and then just stopping without any warning or clear reason. I'll have to cogitate a bit more on that at some later time, and maybe I'll put up a post about my mental ruminations on that topic.

In any case, I'm a year older now (technically, I turned 42 about 11 hours ago, GMT +1), and as my album-listening and live music experiences have drastically decreased over the last year (for a myriad of reasons), I figured that when I feel I have something to say about the musical world, I should just do it without thinking too much about it.

So, in that vein...

I went to Coachella a couple of weeks ago. All three days. I had a great time, and if there was one thing I took out of that experience, it is definitely that the smallest bands tend to make the loudest sounds these days. That very much appeals to me, especially in contrast to the larger outfits with bigger "production" in their records and in their live acts.

So, for example, the bands that made the most impression on me that weekend were the ones that had at most two people in it. In comparison, the biggest disappointments were all bands with at least four members, or musical acts that relied heavily on stadium-style stage productions, with dancers, fireworks, etc.

My favorite act was The Black Keys. Bass, and guitar. Nothing else. Nothing to hide behind. If someone blows clams, you hear it, zero distortion. It's clear then that when they're less-than-on, their show can easily become a disaster. But they were definitely on that day, and they blew everybody else off the stage.

Another example was Death From Above 1979, who recently reunited after breaking up about five years ago. One drummer, and one bass player. Same deal: nowhere to hide. If you suck that evening, you don't have anyone to lean on to prop you up and make you sound a bit better. It's a musical tightrope without a safety net. But just like the Black Keys, DFA 1979 was ON, and the result was impressive. It could easily have gone either way, though, and everyone seemed to know it.

One last example of that concept was Lightning Bolt, a bass/drum duo from Providence RI who's been around since the mid-90's. Probably the loudest thing I've heard since My Bloody Valentine, and definitely one of the most exciting live act I've seen in a long time. But again, just two guys, and despite the wall of sounds from all the effects pedals and voice distortion, you knew that this train could come off the rails at any point. It was exciting to watch and listen to, not the least of which because the danger inherent in the music was palpable.

So, the main lesson for me from that whole weekend was very clear: less is often more, especially if the number of warm bodies on that stage doesn't go above two! So I left Indio CA feeling blown away by The Kills, and completely unsatiated by the likes of the Kings of Leon, or Kanye West and his 12+ dancers/light show/fireworks.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Book Review: Hominids

Robert J. Sawyer
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

In the documentary Wordplay, crossword-puzzle fan Jon Stewart admits that sometimes when he’s in a hotel he will do the USA Today puzzle. But, he says, “I don’t feel good about myself when I do it.”

I felt the same way about this book. It grabbed my attention right away and it read very easily and fast, but when it was done I didn’t feel good about myself for reading it.

Hominids has all the elements of a blockbuster best-seller: uncomplicated characters; carefully-paced rising tension; a crisis, pinch, and climax at precisely the right spots; resolution of conflicts so the good guys win; and a love story sideline. And it has just enough of a scientific veneer to qualify as science fiction.

The book is the first in Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax trilogy and sets up the premise for the whole series, which is that there exists a parallel universe in which Neanderthals became the dominant intelligent species on earth and homo sapiens was the species that died out. In the parallel universe, a couple of Neanderthal physicists conduct an experiment in quantum computing. There is an accident during the experiment causing one of them to get transported to our universe, where he lands in the middle of an experiment being conducted by a human physicist.

The human physicist spirits the Neanderthal physicist away to a doctor friend’s remote country house before the government can get its hands on him. The two humans call in a geneticist to make sure the Neanderthal, whose name is Ponter, is what they think he is and then the four of them hole up in the house to keep the press and the feds away while they figure out where Ponter came from and whether or not they can send him back home.

One of my major issues with the book is that the characters are pretty formulaic. Ponter, for example, is universally beloved in his own universe. He is kind and gentle and understanding at all times. The three humans who befriend him (the physicist, the geneticist, and the doctor) are all super-intelligent, earnest, straightforward, excellent at keeping confidences, and uniformly good-natured. So, also, are Ponter’s Neanderthal man-mate, his woman-mate, and his daughter back home.

Any opportunities for real internal crises are deftly skirted. One of the most troubling is that one of the key characters (the geneticist) is raped at the very beginning of the book. She decides to handle it by not telling anyone and going on as if nothing has happened. And while this clearly isn’t easy, and the memory of the rape comes up over and over again in her mind, she essentially all but recovers during the Neanderthal business (which spans maybe a week) and finds (thank goodness!) that she’s still attracted to men… or at least to beefy, well-endowed Neanderthals.

The other main issue I had was with the science. The New York Times is quoted on the cover of the hardcover first edition of this book saying, “Sawyer is a writer of boundless confidence and bold scientific extrapolation.” I would certainly agree with that, if by “scientific extrapolation” they mean “wild and contrived applications of perfectly decent theory.”

Many reviewers give the book kudos for being so thoroughly researched, and there certainly is a long bibliography at the end. But there’s no anthropologist among the main characters, and the science about Neanderthals that comes up either seems too pat and basic or too fanciful and wacky.

For example, the Neanderthals in the parallel universe have a much more peaceful and progressive culture than ours. They use solar energy, are all secular humanists, are practically crime-free, have intimate relationships with both women and men as a matter of course, never domesticated plants or animals to any great extent and so have hardly any pathogens, and are appalled by our wars and man’s inhumanity to man. It’s definitely a message of “O, what these noble savages could teach us!” Maybe it’s just my cynical homo sapiens nature coming out but it’s hard to believe all that would result from their inherently different biology. It’s also hard to imagine it working on a large scale with hardly any missteps or conflict.

And the explanations for the parallel universes, and for how they are supposedly going to bring Ponter home to the exact right single universe out of all the infinite possibilities, both just seemed silly. Even for a blockbuster best-seller.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Book Review: The Laughing Policeman

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

This book was an enjoyable combination of decent plot, good characters, and great style.

It is a murder mystery set in Stockholm. It sucks you in right away, starting with a pretty gripping description of the shooting of nine people on a double-decker bus late at night in a remote part of the city. Two less-than-enthusiastic patrolmen from the bordering suburb of Solna stumble across the bus first and trample all over the scene, eliminating many of the clues.

To make matters worse, one of the murdered passengers turns out to be an off-duty member of the homicide squad who had no discernable reason for being on that bus.

The case, naturally, becomes a red ball for the Stockholm P.D. and you spend the rest of the book watching the stressed-out detectives solve the crime.

It was neat to read a mystery set in Stockholm. I got to see not only the Swedish police but also a bit of Swedish culture from the inside. Stockholm becomes not a glamorous European destination but a big gritty city. Northern and southern Swedish accents set peers apart, make them feel inferior. Americans even start to look a little bit different.

The team of Stockholm detectives is made up of distinctive, believable characters. You see the story from almost every detective’s point of view and you see how confused and frustrated they all are.

The book was originally written in Swedish but I don’t think it’s the translation to the English that makes the writing style so entertaining. The authors (a husband and wife team) use matter-of-fact, uncomplicated sentences that are just a little bit quirky. This is the description of the patrol route the uninspired Solna patrolmen chose before they ran across the bus – a route designed to avoid running into anything that might actually require policing:
“It was a brilliantly thought-out course, leading through areas which were almost guaranteed empty of people. They met not a single car the whole way and saw only two living creatures, first a cat and then another cat.”
Often what the authors will do is start out with a really short sentence that has only basic information in it. Then they’ll repeat the sentence, making it a little bit longer by elaborating just a little bit. And then they’ll do that again… and again. Until after about five sentences, you have this really long sentence with all kinds of crazy detail in it that is a hundred times more informative than the original sentence. It’s like they’re reluctant to tell the story but can’t help letting it dribble out in spite of themselves.

There were a couple things about the book that were annoying. For one thing, sometimes key pieces of information would be withheld from me and then would be revealed by the policeman I’d been following without me even knowing that he’d been doing any extra investigation. I don’t mind surprises but I like at least knowing that there’s something I don’t know. This felt like my characters were sneaking around behind my back.

And, frankly, the motives of the culprit, some of the victims, and the dead policeman’s girlfriend, all of which were key to the plot, seemed a bit dicey and unrealistic.

But I got over that.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Book Review: Stations of the Tide

Michael Swanwick
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ – – – –

I started out excited to read this book because of the setting. It takes place on a planet called Miranda which has a very long annual cycle lasting several of our years. There is one large dry-land continent (“Continent”) on Miranda and one ocean (“Ocean”) surrounding it. During half of the year, the polar ice caps melt and the tides come in and Ocean rises to cover half of Continent. Any creature living on the land who is not prepared for the annual tides gets swept into Ocean and drowns.

The indigenous animals of Miranda, collectively called the “haunts” by the colonizing humans, have evolved to be able to take either land or water form, as necessary. Miranda’s native mice, for example, change into sort of swimming mini-otters when the tides come in.

Unfortunately, although the setting is cool, the plot is confusing and ill-defined, and the characters are either annoying or just plain boring. I don’t know how William Gibson and Kim Stanley Robinson could have given it the stunning reviews they did.

Basically, the story is about a bureaucrat (“the bureaucrat”) from the governing worlds many light years away. A mysterious Mirandan wizard named Gregorian is rumored to be in possession of proscribed technology, and the bureaucrat is sent to find him and get him to give it back. Along the way the bureaucrat has life-threatening adventures, learns Gregorian’s true identity, experiments with mind-altering drugs, and has pretty kinky, very explicit sex with a witch. It all takes place on the coast in the last days before the tide is scheduled to come rushing in, adding a certain urgency to his task.

My major problem with the book is that Swanwick has a Vernor Vinge-like habit of continually bringing in new ideas and plot lines and technology, and then never carrying them through. From the Mirandan’s somehow restrictive census bracelets to the feverdancers that affect your brain when you’re on drugs to the weird TV drama that everyone is always watching, many of the early details you think hold promise and are going to be explored further are just left vague and hanging. And some elements essential to the ending are brought up for the first time in the last five pages.

In addition, many of the ideas are painfully derivative of better earlier work by other people. For example, one of the characters has to go through a test of strength and character that involves sticking their hand in a pain-box in a scene that could have been copied directly from Dune. Even the dual nature of Miranda’s haunts seems similar to, but not as well developed as, the local fauna and flora in Speaker for the Dead.

Note: I did appreciate the overt homage in which the massive, multi-towered granite government buildings the bureaucrat works in are called “the Mountains of Madness” by the employees.

Swanwick sprinkles references to The Tempest throughout the book, undoubtedly inspired by the ocean forces that hover in the background, threatening inundation at any moment. Celestial bodies are all named for characters in Shakespeare's play – the sun is Prospero, one moon is Caliban and the other is Ariel, and then of course there is the planet Miranda itself.

None of the references are carried through with any meaning, though. He throws them out but feels no need to incorporate any deeper parallels to The Tempest into the story. That would have been quite possible; after all, one of the main characters is a powerful magician, and it takes place on what is essentially an island whose inhabitants feel constrained by their colonial government (although they are also kind of colonizers themselves).

I have to admit, though, I never really liked The Tempest either. I don’t like Shakespeare’s plays about fairies and romances nearly as much as the ones about despotic rulers.

Our lives may be such stuff as dreams are made on, but this book definitely is not.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Book Review: The Eighth Circle

Stanley Ellin
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

The cover of the 1959 paperback edition of this book makes it look like a trashy piece of pulp fiction. It has a drawing of the main character, handsome private detective Murray Kirk, being leaned on by a lovely young lady who is half out of her satin dinner dress and matching heels. A block of text next to the pair describes the book as “a story about the special world of a private detective.”

But it’s actually a perfectly decent detective story.

And, as far as I could tell, Kirk never actually sleeps with any of the ladies he runs across. Not one. Oh, sure, one falls asleep on the rug in front of his fireplace and stays the night there, and he has to help another off with rain-soaked clothes and warm her up in his shower to prevent her from passing out from the cold, and there is certainly a lot of racy talk and innuendo, but no major hanky-panky.

And not only that, but the case doesn’t revolve around a murder; it’s just a book-keeping scandal. And I think only one or two of the bad guys even has a gun.

What happens is that Kirk, who runs a successful detective agency in New York, gets personally involved in a minor case, the arrest of a policeman accused of taking payoffs, because he’s madly in love with the cop’s fiancée. He’s hired by the cop’s lawyer to dig up information that will prove his client’s innocence, but he actually hopes that his client is guilty so the fiancée will call it off and go out with him instead. Of course the case gets extremely complicated and pulls in plenty of characters from both high society and the unsavory underworld.

While it wasn’t fantastic, it was generally a well put-together, mostly page-turning mystery. It definitely stayed true to its genre and vintage; I wouldn’t read this book expecting anything unusual or stereotype-flouting.

For the most part, I liked Kirk. He doesn’t always guess right about clues and certainly has bad days. He’s no-nonsense and savvy but not quite as hard-boiled and gruff as, say, Philip Marlowe. He’s a little slicker than that. He’s also relatively kind to the women in his life (for a 1950s P.I.).

The men, both good and bad, are pretty well developed characters. The women, on the other hand, are completely one-dimensional. Each one is absolutely beautiful and in dire need of his help except for his (naturally) super-efficient, loyal, middle-aged secretary (who used to be absolutely beautiful).

Friday, April 01, 2011

Book Review: Parable of the Talents

Octavia Butler
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

SPOILER ALERT (For Parable of the Sower)

A few years ago I read Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which is a prequel to this book. I liked Sower's premise but much of the time I was pretty irritated with the main character, Lauren Olamina, who narrated the story. I thought she was stubborn and annoying. She had also developed her own religion, “Earthseed,” and spent most of her time proselytizing it all over the place.

So I was hesitant to read Parable of the Talents. But I am glad I did; I liked it much better than Sower. Talents is partly narrated by Lauren Olamina, again, but it is also partly narrated by her daughter, Larkin, who is a breath of fresh air; she thinks her mother is stubborn and annoying and wishes she’d stop always proselytizing her religion all over the place.

The back story (mostly told in Parable of the Sower) is that by the 2030s, for a combination of environmental and political reasons, economic inequality in the US has grown to the point that all middle-class and rich people have to live in iron-walled, guarded sections of cities protected from the chaos and crime and poverty outside. Eventually things outside the walls get so bad that the poor people blast their way in to these citadels; during this revolt, most of the rich and middle-class people are either killed or have to go on the road and scavenge like vagabonds.

Lauren Olamina is one of these people. Most of her family is killed during the invasion of their middle-class home in LA but she escapes and makes her way on foot up the coast, gradually collecting a tribe of people with her who buy into her hippyish Earthseed religion. They settle in northern California on her husband's property, start farming and teaching and having kids and making new lives.

This is roughly where Sower stops and Talents picks up. Just when things are starting to look comparatively rosy for the Earthseeders, a fascist right-wing president gets elected and his minions come and take over the Earthseed compound (claiming that it is a cult, which it sort of is) and steal all their children and adopt them out to nice Christian households. One of these children is Lauren’s daughter Larkin.

Talents is partly the story of Lauren persevering and rebuilding after the demolition of her Earthseed farm; this part was less interesting to me. But it is also partly the story of Larkin growing up in an adoptive household, achieving her own success, and eventually going to find her biological parents. Larkin is understandably a bit ticked off when she finds out how little Lauren did to find her until many, many years had gone by; Earthseed and the compound were clearly more important to her than her lost child.

The Omega Man
The premise of the Parable books is an example of one of my favorite sci-fi sub-genres, in which humanity is all but destroyed by war/disease/rioting/environmental catastrophe and a few survivors are left to band together and make a new civilization while being beset by other humans who want to take what they have and/or control them. There are tons of awesome works of fiction with different takes on this idea (The Stand, The Day of the Triffids, Canticle for Leibowitz, The Omega Man, etc.). One of the best things about science fiction is that you can do this kind of thought experiment and explore the ways people might deal with each other, for good and for ill, when they have next to nothing left.
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