Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Algebraist

The grandiloquent Iain M Banks is a science fiction sensation in the UK. His is the kind of space opera that picks up where Frank Herbert left off, with the brand of byzantine politics done so well in the Dune series. Banks' latest, published three years ago, has so far not grabbed me, not like his earlier work, Feersum Endjinn. He has a poetic style that reminds me of my friend Jeff Overstreet's style, only here tasked to a galactic scale. The flights of language are wonderful, but where Jeff's plotting is easy and satisfying to follow, with Banks I am struggling to comprehend what exactly is going on.

Thursday, December 20, 2007



Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Hanging Garden

Doesn't everybody love the Cure at some point in their life? 1995: listening to Pornography every day, "What does it matter if we all die?" My cheeks were stained with tears of boiling pitch.
Which really has not much at all to do with the popular Rebus series, by Ian Rankin, other than the title of the latest I'm reading and perhaps a bit of the angsty pop soul of the author.
Everything revolves around Edinburgh in these books, and I think that's a huge part of their appeal. Works for me. Back in 2003, during my brief visit, the tight closes and corners of the city seemed a perfect setting for what is commonly regarded as the local genre, Tartan Noir.
The intrepid John Rebus is the other common thread. I don't he ever listens to the Cure (unless he does in this book and I've not gotten to that part); he's a Stones and Zep fan.


Mr Samuel Beckett, personal secretary to James Joyce during the late years of that great author's life, has a raft of novels that were not discovered until the success of Waiting for Godot. Like Joyce, he displays unholy adoration for minutiae, a literary styling that would later be termed "hysterical realism" when it reached full flower with David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. There is much to be amused by here, as we enter the short unhappy life of a manservant in Dublin. Watt considers endlessly the causal relations between possibilities and things, leading to such excursions as a five-page unbroken paragraph exploring one Irish family, the Lynches, and the various diseases and malformations that each of the more than two dozen members suffer from. Strangely enlightening.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Brothers Miser

My friend Katy Shaw has the coolest Christmas ornaments on the planet: the Miser brothers from "A Year Without Santa Claus"!

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath

Even as a teenager, this passage terrified me, the image especially that Lovecraft paints, of shuffling, chaos-gnawing collossi ranging behind the mountains in a red-tinted, non-euclidean gloom; a totally absurd passage (monsters wearing mitres?) made all the more frightening by its absurdity and the shattering silence in which the tableau is beheld:

Carter did not lose consciousness or even scream aloud, for he was an old dreamer; but he looked behind him in horror and shuddered when he saw that there were other monstrous heads silhouetted above the level of the peak, bobbing along stealthily behind the first one. And straight in the rear were three of the mighty mountain shapes seen full against the southern stars, tiptoeing wolflike and lumberingly, their tall mitres nodding thousands of feet in the air. The carven mountains, then, had not stayed squatting in that rigid semicircle north of Inquanok, with right hands uplifted. They had duties to perform, and were not remiss. But it was horrible, that they never spoke, and never even made a sound in walking.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cat's Cradle

In Kurt Vonnegut Jr's seminal novel of WASP SF (the ivy league version of Star Trek), many new phrases and words are introduced to the English language, not least among them:
A union of two souls achieved by placing the soles of two people's feet together. It is a Bokononist ritual that is taboo and forbidden on the island of San Lorenzo, referred to as "footplay".
Isn't that beautiful? What follows are more pertinent entries, all relevant to Vonnegut Jr's invented religion, Bokononism, which is really humanism-in-a-leotard:
The sun.
The moon.
A karass made of two persons. "A true duprass can't be invaded, not even by children born of such a union." Members of a duprass usually die within one week of each other, as shown in the book Cat's Cradle.
"Harmless untruths" (e.g., "Prosperity is just around the corner"). Bokonon describes his own religion as foma, created for the purpose of bringing comfort to the people of Bokonon's island. The people of San Lorenzo live under a poverty-stricken Third World dictatorship, but thanks to the comforting untruths of Bokonon's foma, they are better equipped to face reality (following Vonnegut's early theories about the true usefulness of religion).
A false karass. People who identify themselves by state or country of origin or in other various ways to form a group, when in reality such people may have very little in common or even turn out to be enemies or ideological opposites. There is much granfalloonery in the world. To quote the book, "If you wish to study a granfalloon, just remove the skin of a toy balloon."
The instrument which brings you to your karass.
A group of people who, unbeknownst to them, are collectively doing God's will in carrying out a specific, common, task. A karass is driven forward in time and space by tension within the karass.
Tendrils of life that intertwine with other Karass member's tendrils.
A person who wants all of somebody's love. Bokononists believe love should be freely shared.
The force that first pushes a person in the direction of accepting Bokononism
An object which is the focus of a karass; that is, the lives of many otherwise unrelated people are centered on a wampeter (e.g., a piece of ice-nine in Cat's Cradle). A karass will always have exactly two wampeters: one waxing, one waning. The term first appears on p. 52 of Cat's Cradle (in the 1998 printing by Dell Publishing). It is analogous to a MacGuffin.
"A person who steers people away from a line of speculation by reducing that line, with the example of the wrang-wrang's own life, to an absurdity." In the book, the protagonist begins to speculate that everything may be meaningless and take the first steps toward a belief in nihilism. But he encounters a nihilistic wrang-wrang who commits actions so repulsive and horrific to him that he subsequently wants nothing to do with nihilism.
"Fate - inevitable destiny."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Coenenberg Film

Last night finally got around to see No Country for Old Men -I say "finally" because this has been in theatres far too long (two weeks, at least) unseen by me, a dyed-in-the-wool maniac for film just like this. Plus I read the book and heard this was a good adaptation, maybe even better than Silence of the Lambs.

There is a visual nod to Silence. Did you catch it?

I also saw what I thought was an homage to Warhol, to his Elvis print specifically, the one where the King is duded up in cowboy gear and brandishing a pistol. It's the shot in the film where Ed Tom Bell is looking into the hotel room where (no spoiler) was killed, headlights behind him casting a double shadow on the blood-splattered wall.

Lots of blood gets splattered in this film.

I don't think it's a better adaptation than Silence -a film that captures the source novel to perfection- mostly due to choices by the Coen Brothers. They want so very much to be making a David Cronenberg film that it creates a weird style melange onscreen; the cold clinical Cronenberg imported for scenes of brutal body horror. These scenes are not native to the Coens, and they put them to excellent use.

Nevertheless I had this nagging feeling that I'd seen this film before. It wasn't until morning that I realized what had been bugging me, that in many ways No Country is not only an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel but it also seeks to transmute Cronenberg's A History of Violence.

Laudable, to be sure, but distracting.

My highest praise for the film is the very effective "capture" of being in a McCarthy story, of being in his universe, as it were. Environment is paramount to everything in his work. The apocalyptic imagery (burning cars, corpse-strewn roads) and great sweeping cosmic emptiness found there is translated brilliantly by the Coens, to such effect that you feel the author's entire philosophy of art and existence coming across.

Chigurh choking on candy is a very nice and totally genuine Coens' touch.

And Stephen Root! A man born for the Coens, and one of my favorite actors working today.

And I love the dog chasing Llewelyn down the river, a scene which I alone in the crowded auditorium found worthy of an outloud laugh. So it was.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Written in 1960, Cordwainer Smith's charming (and only) SF novel, Norstrilia, might contain the first usage of "Instant Messaging". Wouldn't surprise me. There's so much in the book, amidst the cat people, thousand-ton sheep and assassin kookaburra, that is out of step with the times -stepping forward from the times- that the author pulls off a very convincing performance as prestidigitator.
He coins instant messages as "instantaneous, interplanetary communications," which is sort of similar to what we have on the 'net today. Not yet between planets, but instant nonetheless. They are mentioned twice, hardly a major plot point.
Prognostications aside, I do recommend the book to fans of the serious-minded SF, for elements of future politics and economies. While not aspiring to space opera, like Asimov or Herbert, elements of galactic adventure are plentiful. Mostly it's a tale of a boy who buys the planet Earth and his encounters with colorful characters who would be at home in a romp, Douglas Adams-style.

Friday, December 07, 2007

International Sister Celebration Day

This morning I woke up and decided that today I was going to celebrate International Sister Celebration Day, whether today is actually that day or not (or even if such a day exists, and if it doesn't, it should). Let the world join together as one and join me in celebrating she who is the one I call... sister.

"So, you have a twin sister..."

"Sorry to interrupt, Darth, but actually um no, she's not my twin, not technically at least, but I love her anyway."

One of the things I really appreciate about Rachel, she who is my one sibling, my one copatriot, is every time she leaves a voicemail, it always starts with a quote from that 1984 scifi cheesefest The Hidden; she asks, "Yo, hippy, what kind of dude are you?"

Well, Rachel, I googled that question and here's the first thing I got:
That's just the kind of dude I am, I guess. Here's to you, sister!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Nextgen Vince Guaraldi?

As my friend Jonathan Marzinke points out, there's a contender for best yuletide soundtrack. I have to agree; this multidisc offering from Sufjan Stevens is essential.

Book Update

Changed the title from "Total Mass Retain" to...


Doesn't that sound more marketable?

How I Know I'm a Yankee

We United States folk have our identity tied up in so many different beautiful things. At the yuletide season, one of these beauties in particular stands out, something without which the season would be barren: the music of Vince Guaraldi.

I've never asked any of my friends abroad if they listen to Guaraldi during this time of year, though I feel like the answer is that they do not. After all, why would they buy into the idea that piano jazz is the best music for winter solstice; accompanied by a children's choir, no less? Add in that the music is soundtrack music for an animated television special and you have a uniquely "new world" concoction.

Listening to the ever-optimistic Guaraldi might be the nearest to a patriotic sensation I feel this year.

Monday, December 03, 2007

History of the Thirteen

Honore de Balzac is said to have died from drinking too much coffee. Perhaps there is a lesson in that for all of us. He had only recently married his lover, to perish five months later.
His working style was unique. Balzac ate a light meal in the early evening, retired until midnight, then rose to write for periods of up to fifteen hours straight. He kept this routine for most of his life, and we can see the benefit in his epic catalog.
The Balzac legacy is intimidating; over a hundred works compose his study of Parisian life, La Comédie Humaine. The author, no stranger to ambition, proclaimed that in fact all of his writings could be lumped under the banner of the Human Comedy. Without Balzac, it is arguable that Marcel Proust, no stranger to cathedral-like prose, would have lacked the necessary precedent in literature.
Balzac was influential in various institutions, not least among them philosophy. Frederich Engels said of him, "I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together."
The last person to see him alive was Victor Hugo, another promethean of letters, though it is not extant whether Hugo shared Balzac's taste for the bean.
As a former barista, I suppose it's only fitting that I read this author. If I start keeping weird hours, you'll know why.

Hallowe'en in the Golden State

Here is Charlie as "Pirate Muzzeel Garden", quite the fierce buccaneer. He impressed me by knowing his Hallowe'en limit: with candy bag barely a quarter full, the hook-handed avenger of the high seas said he was done for the night and wanted to go home. "Other kids need candy, too," he explained, showing himself to be that rare pirate with a heart of gold.

Here's Papa D and Celia, with a strange wafer-like object that is often seen affixed to the end of a camera lens. Thought this was a sweet image.

And below we can see a mustachioed Anna, who had us all in stitches with her poker-face and greek sailor's cap; for the record, her original intent was to be Donnie Brasco; she was somehow waylaid down by the docks and ended up portraying a Trotskyite stevedore. In escort we find perhaps the true inspiration for Anna's lip rug, her father, and someone dressed as Spider Man who perhaps hasn't seen the films or read the comics; otherwise he might know that Spidey usually travels sans trunks.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

God Bless You Mr Rosewater

The other day I found a slip of paper crammed into an old paperback and on it was a reading list from over a decade ago. Besides being impressed by how many books I had read over the summer of 1997, it struck me that such an artifact served a purpose. It was fun to revisit what might have passed as a legitimate pursuit of serious reading. Whether or not I am still capable of such seriousness is up for debate.
In the spirit of that wayward scrap of personal history, I thought why not start up a fresh list and once again track my reading. After all, I'm still an avid bibliophile, though perhaps not with the same fervor as former days. Who knows: in the wake of a breakup and working on an odd schedule for the holiday season, I may be planting my nose in more books than ever before.
A lot of my friends were rabid for Vonnegut when I was in college; he seems to have that particular sardonic voice that suits life in the early twenties. I'll never know if it suited mine, however, having come to him very late. Maybe this will serve as some kind of "second spring" and rejuvenate halcyon dreams as once were so rampant in my head.

Those Magnificent Dalrymples

I'm way overdue posting this: at the end of October it was my great pleasure to visit the pride of California, my dear friends Doug&Anna, and their kids Charlie and Celia, otherwise known as "those magnificent Dalrymples." They live in Campbell, just outside San Jose. It was a balmy 75 degrees outside when I arrived. Coming from the Pacific Northwest, this was a welcome change in climate.
Ostensibly the reason for my visit was to celebrate Hallowe'en and to see my family (mom and sis live in nearby Palo Alto). Since I was down for a week, I had ample opportunities to also go exploring with those magnificent Dalrymples. A highlight was the Rosicrucian Gardens.
A little background: there was a time in life when I dabbled with Rosicrucianism. It was a brief dalliance that didn't stick. Nevertheless, it came as something of a shock to learn of the existence of the Rosicrucian Gardens. How had I missed learning of the existence of this incredible landmark? As soon as Doug suggested we visit, I leapt at the chance.
The first impression, especially on a balmy autumn afternoon so endemic of central California, was of an idyllic zone in the midst of exurban density. You can't see it in these images: the Gardens (and Egyptian museum and planetarium (the latter of which was closed, much to our collective dismay)), which take up a city block, are hemmed on four sides by tight residential plots and a high school. Still, not a bad addition to the neighborhood.
Charlie, who is nearly five, rambled and romped all around the gardens, ranging across the ample verdant lawns and casting fusillades of fallen leaves into the air. Sister C in the meantime exhibited a predilection for roaming
in the direction of whatever might be most dangerous for a two-and-a-half year old: the "ancient pool of reflection," for instance. Either way, Anna and Doug were on the move and watching out nearly constantly.

Childhood looks a lot different from the other end of the telescope. In memory, I am hard-pressed to recall an image of mom chasing after me when I was a toddler, though I'm certain she must have. One of the hidden benefits of parenthood is definitely cardiovascular in nature.
Papa D, in between episodes of pursuit, managed to capture some great snaps, some of which you can see here. Though he is far too humble to say so himself, Doug is a very talented shutterbug; by God, but I've been an avid fan since we were in college together.
This was one of the best days of my weeklong visit, and a fine flashback to days of spiritual exploration. Even better was Hallowe'en itself, more of which later.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Procrastination Breakdown Blues

Five days early, this draft of the book is finished. From somebody better known for being a procrastinatin' fool... the cover might look like this (but probably not):In case you didn't know, the title of the novel comes from one of my favorite bands, Yes. The title is a line from their song, "Siberian Khartru", on the Close to the Edge album. Apparently, they also recorded a B-side using the line as a title (aren't they cool-looking dudes?):
Here's a potential backcover blurb for the book, if you're curious at all what it's about:

Luna is a motherlode of Helium-3, the galaxy's most precious fuel source. Terra and the InnerPlanet settlements, greedy to control this resource, are going to war -again.
Enter Sally Parker and a mysterious guest from Jupiter, leading a survey team to the moon. That's when the trouble starts, for Luna has a secret that could very well destroy them all.
From Seattle to Axum, this globe- and galaxy-spanning science fiction thriller delivers shocks and
soul-wrenching suspense from one of the industry's most promising new writers.

"This dude knows how to spell!" -Humberto Mindshaftgap, author of That's Not Pizza

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Creed

Things are looking good with the book. If I keep at my current pace, I'll finish a week earlier than planned. This is very exciting not only for me but for people I know, since it means I can actually come out from under and be social again.

The plan is to finish this draft by month's end and show it to readers for feedback and take a short spell away from production at least until Yuletide, during which time I'll tinker around on other pieces I've neglected and do some much-needed research for particular points on interest in the book.

Contemplating the time when the book is actually for real done, I hearken the words of Harold J Berman, a law professor who recently spoke of finishing another book before he died: "It's up to God -if God wants to read it or not." Amen!

Now, before I give the false impression of having any kind of discipline when it comes to work, let me get you in on a little secret: I've been playing way way way too much Assassin's Creed!
Set in the year 1191, in the midst of the Third Crusade, Creed plants you smack in the middle of Jerusalem and allows you to parkour (think the opening action sequence of Casino Royale, or just consider yourself Spider Man in antiquity) up and over and around every building or temple you see. Think of that! I've clambered over the spires of the Holy Sepulchre and leapt from the roof of the Temple of the Mount. Absolutely glorious!

Thursday, November 15, 2007


I cannot listen to enough of Denmark's Under Byen (pronouced "Oon-der Boon"). Since I find it only distracting and never of much help to actually try and describe musics, a medium more felt than heard, let me simply urge you to listen to their latest release, Samme Stof Som Stof.

It's the most affecting album I've experienced since 1995, when I heard Portishead "Wandering Star" for the first time.

There is also a strong design element to the band, reminiscent of Stereolab:

If you are itching to hear them RIGHT NOW, go here.


There are fifteen days remaining me to finish... THE BOOK.

And all I want to do is curl up in a papasan and read Howard the Duck!

All right, enough griping, back to work...

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Cayetano Ferrer

Chicago's Cayetano Ferrer is doing urban styles that play with our pre-accepted notions of transparency.

Comedy Essence

That old scene-stealer Jason Bateman doing some career defining work here in Smokin Aces:

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

a snip here, a snip there

You are looking at someone's thumb. The SNPs -better known as snips- on the genome derived from a person's thumb, to be precise. SNPs are sites on the phenotypic data where a single unit of DNA is changed.

Breakthroughs in scientific exploration are never more fascinating than when they cull wonders from the basic, fairy-dust substance of the human genome. There's even a website at the center of the genome revolution that is free to the public and definitely worth checking out. It is unobtrusive and wonky, but also it provides us the chance to put our own thumbs on the pulse of human endeavor the ramifications of which -positive or negative, I am optimistic- will not be fully understood for decades to come.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

1st (of Seven)

"1st (of Seven)" sounds like a Borg, doesn't it? Worry not, dear reader, this is not the case; this blogbit intends you no ill.

My "favorite" movie is actually seven movies: Midnight Run, Viridiana, Children of Men, Young Frankenstein, Le Double Vie De Veronique, and John Carpenter's The Thing. And (thanks, Andy!), let's not forget the finest of the fine, Tron.

The same for musics: Chaos Theory (Amon Tobin), Small Change (Tom Waits), Passion (Peter Gabriel), Tabula Rasa (Arvo Part), Guero (Beck), Rock it to the Moon (Electrelane), and Rhythm Science (DJ Spooky).

Finally, my "first" book is an octopus: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (PK Dick), The Unvanquished (William Faulkner), Heretics of Dune (Frank Herbert), Gargantua&Pantagruel (Dr Rabelais), A Personal Matter (Kenzaburo Oe), The Road (Cormac McCarthy), Anti-Oedipus (Deleuze&Guattari), and of course the immortal Don Quijote (Cervantes).

(And can I just say, it was fun looking up the links for these! I hope you enjoy them, too.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Polly Jean

Yes the queen of rock n roll n gospel blues is back with a new album.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Max Roach

Obituary: Max Roach / Innovative jazz drummer

Jan. 10, 1924 -- Aug. 16, 2007

By Matt Schudel, The Washington Post

Max Roach, dazzling drummer who helped create the rhythmic language of modern jazz while expanding the expressive possibilities of the drums, has died.

Bloomberg News reported that he died early yesterday at a care facility in New York City. He was 83 and had been ill for several years.

Mr. Roach was a founding architect of bebop, the high-speed, harmonically advanced music of the 1940s that helped elevate jazz from dance-hall entertainment to concert-stage art.

In dozens of landmark recordings with such musical giants as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk -- including a 1953 performance that has entered legend as "the greatest jazz concert ever" -- Mr. Roach pioneered an approach to jazz drumming that remains the standard to this day.

An influential force in music for 60 years, Mr. Roach expanded the borders of improvised music by incorporating elements of other artistic traditions, including African and Asian music, dance, poetry and hip-hop. He led performances with as many as 100 percussion instruments on stage, but he also played minimalist solos using only the high-hat, a pair of cymbals mounted on a metal stand and worked with a pedal.

"Nobody else ever had the nerve to come out on stage with a cymbal under his arm and say, 'This is art,' " jazz critic Gary Giddins told the Los Angeles Times in 1991.

He later became a strong voice for racial equality through his compositions and his recordings with singer Abbey Lincoln, to whom he was married for several years. In 1988, he was among the first jazz musicians to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, or so-called "genius grant."

Mr. Roach's most significant innovations came in the 1940s, when he and another jazz drummer, Pittsburgh's Kenny "Klook" Clarke, devised a new concept of musical time. By playing the beat-by-beat pulse of standard 4/4 time on the "ride" cymbal instead of on the thudding bass drum, Mr. Roach and Mr. Clarke, who died in 1985, developed a flexible, flowing rhythmic pattern that allowed soloists to play freely.

By matching his rhythmic attack with a tune's melody, Mr. Roach brought a newfound subtlety of expression to his instrument. He often shifted the dynamic emphasis from one part of his drum kit to another within a single phrase, creating a sense of tonal color and rhythmic surprise.

Virtually every jazz drummer plays in that manner today, but when Mr. Clarke and Mr. Roach introduced the style in the 1940s, it was revolutionary.

Mr. Roach played briefly with Duke Ellington's orchestra when he was 16 and studied at the Manhattan School of Music, but his real education came in the all-night clubs of Harlem.

In 1944, Mr. Roach played drums with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins on Mr. Gillespie's "Woody 'n' You," widely acknowledged to be the first true bebop record.

Mr. Roach worked off and on with Mr. Parker until 1953 and for a time acquired Parker's taste for narcotics. Mr. Roach overcame his addiction and in the 1950s helped trumpeter Miles Davis kick his own heroin habit.

In 1949, Mr. Roach appeared on pianist Bud Powell's groundbreaking "Tempus Fugit" and "Un Poco Loco," then turned up on the influential 1949-50 sessions led by Mr. Davis and Gerry Mulligan called "Birth of the Cool." In 1951, he was the drummer on "Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 2," an important work by pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.

Taken together, these recordings defined the vibrant language of bebop, which remains the dominant form of modern jazz. In the view of many fans, bebop reached its zenith on May 15, 1953, when Mr. Roach joined Mr. Parker, Mr. Gillespie, Mr. Powell and bassist Charles Mingus in Toronto for "the greatest jazz concert ever." It was captured on the album "Live at Massey Hall," released on the Debut record label, founded by Mr. Mingus and Mr. Roach.

In California in 1954, Mr. Roach and trumpeter Clifford Brown formed a widely admired quintet that came to include saxophonist Sonny Rollins. They created a sensation with their earthy but elegant music, which became the foundation of the jazz style known as hard bop.

Friday, August 17, 2007


Everybody knows I'm a sucker for that special genre of video game known as the First Person Shooter. The most imaginative and satisfying experience to be found in all the myriad of gamerealms is the FPS. HalfLife 2 is the standard by which all other FPS are to be judged, and Painkiller comes pretty darn close to achieving that standard. Now there is a new FPS that looks very promising: Bioshock.
My housemate owns an Xbox360 and was thoughtful enough the other day to show me the Bioshock demo. I was immediately blown away by the Art Deco aesthetic that pervades the game. The story involves an Ayn Randian utopia built at the bottom of the sea where something has gone terribly wrong. It looks like your standard inmates-take-over-the-asylum scenario, one into which you have to navigate your way with a nice array of weapons and talents.
But the scenery-! The city is absolutely dazzling for anyone with even a passing interest in the Art Deco style. It harkens to a mythical fifties, in which all the B-movie SciFi tropes are true: scientists have succeeded in improving humanity through genetic experiments, and the resulting "better world" is awash in tuxedoes and martinis and Gotham-style architecture. Think Dark City-meets-Atlantis.
This could be the next greatest FPS of all time, and hopefully will inspire a sequel, in which events go back to an even earlier era, the Belle Epoque.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Phil & Bill

The twentieth century produced a lot of great literature from around the world. Being a reader in English, I'm inclined to favor authors from the States, two of whom in my opinion define what made for the best and most definitive writing of the century past. Philip K Dick and William Faulkner are not commonly thought of as belonging in the same sentence. Nevertheless, I believe that not only do they deserve mention in the same breath but in the same weight class of powerhouse literature.

Philip Dick's midperiod novel Ubik was published in 1969 and for me represents his peak as an author of speculative fiction. It also typifies what makes his works so great. The themes are fantastic but grounded in rich characters, and he uses the story to sound out serious questions about spirituality and what's real. Dick has a preoccupation with spiritual existence and the basic human need to experience faith. In his thorough and arguably profound exploration of this need, he comes to define what makes literature in the second half of the century important.

What stands in the way of spiritual enlightenment is nothing less than the world itself, or to put it more simply, consensual reality. A passage from Ubik elucidates this problem in a concise and humorous fashion, as is characteristic of Dick's writing:

The door refused to open. It said, "Five cents, please."
He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. "I'll pay you tomorrow," he told the door. Again he tried the knob. Again it remained locked tight. "What I pay you," he informed it, "is in the nature of gratuity; I don't have to pay you."
"I think otherwise," the door said. "Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt."
In his desk drawer he found the contract; since signing it he had found it necessary to refer to the document many times. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip.
"You discover I'm right," the door said. It sounded smug.

William Faulkner, on the other hand, represents a keen understanding of human society, as represented in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. He is preoccupied not so much with the spirit as with the moral girding of people in the cruel and feckless world. Nowhere in his vast and epic catalog is this better illustrated than in what I feel is his finest hour, the novel Light in August. Unlike Dick, who uses fantastic situations to point the reader to home truths, Faulkner brings us down to earth and lets us taste of its grand and fickle bounty. He represents what was most important to the first half of the twentieth century, a time of world wars and vast economic hardships.

His lens fixes less on the human relationship to a cruel and unrelenting reality (as Dick does) and more on the interstices of emotional causality between people and the consequences of tangles and misapprehensions therein. A passage from the novel:

He changed completely. They planned to be married. He knew now that he had seen all the while that desperate calculation in her eyes. 'Perhaps they were right in putting love into books,' he thought quietly. 'Perhaps it could not live anywhere else.' The desperation was still in them, but now there were definite plans, a day set, it was quieter, mostly calculation. They talked now of his ordination, of how he could get Jefferson as his call. "We'd better go to work right away," she said. He told her that he had been working for that since he was four years old; perhaps he was being humorous, whimsical. She brushed it aside with that passionate and leashed humorlessness, almost inattention, talking as though to herself of men, names, to see, to grovel or threaten, outlining to him a campaign of abasement and plotting. He listened. Even the faint smile, whimsical, quizzical, perhaps of despair, did not leave his face. He said, "Yes. Yes. I see. I understand," as she talked. It was if he were saying Yes. I see. I see now. That's how they do such, gain such. That's the rule. I see now

Naturally I am only scratching the surface with these brief glimpses, but having been in a reading frenzy of late and experiencing these authors anew (was it Samuel Delany who said you never read the same book twice?), it has been brought home that their combined contribution to literature of the last century is without price and brings timeless gain.

Friday, August 10, 2007

lyrical darkness

The most beautiful book I have read in the last decade is Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It is a somber meditation on love during a time of apocalypse, as a father and son trek the ashen byways of a dead world. Even as he illumines the tragedy of human instinct, there is a diamond hardness that glitters in the debris. It breathes life to deep feeling within the reader and causes your breath to stop, as dark implications stir and aching love is roused:

In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He'd carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.

Guilty Pleasure

I've always found the idea of having a guilty pleasure to be highly suspect. It strikes me as a way to keep other people from noticing your poor taste, be it in books, fashion styles, or what-have-you. Usually when somebody else points out a guilty pleasure, it is something truly awful. Then again, it wouldn't involve guilt if it was sublime, would it?

My own poor taste is clearly evident. One has to look no further than my dvd collection (which admittedly is quite small) to see an irrefutable example. I recently added to it one of the worst movies ever committed to celluloid: Black Belt Jones.

Long days back we used to rent this movie almost weekly, and I thought we had found the blue sapphire diamond of blaxploitation flicks. You could hear laughter in the house late into the night, orchestrated by corny dialogue and lo-fi karate explosions. That was years ago, and recently I got to thinking how long it had been. What would it be like to revisit BB and friends? I decided to find out, located a cheap copy on ebay and purchased it.

Sitting down to watch this gem from 1972, I found myself laughing, yes, just like old times. Yet it was laughter borne more of pain than joy: Black Belt Jones had not aged well. It may very well be the worst movie I have ever seen. It is like a home movie that should have stayed in the vault. It is bad -and I don't mean baaaadaaaassss, I mean BAD bad. Look up the word "bad" in Webster's and it cites BB.

Here's an example of the grade school dialogue. BB has been called in by his government superior -he's some kind of agent for an unnamed group that appears to part of the FBI. His superior (inevitably white) tells BB that he has to go into the ghetto and help break up a criminal scheme. BB refuses, saying, "You ought to write comedies for television."

His superior replies, "But can it be done?"

To which BB says, "Don't believe the myth that all (black people) are invisible."

When BB leaves the room, his superior starts chomping on a cigar and tells his partner, "He'll do it." Apparently BB has worked out some kind of code with his minders that the audience isn't privy to, because to me it sounded like they just spewed a bunch of gibberish. But I guess I don't know how to write good movie dialogue, do I?

BB has to help a friend called Pop save his karate school from a bad guy named "Pinky". Pop is ostensibly a teacher of kung fu, but apparently nobody told that little bit of information to the actor who portrays him, the seventies icon with the seventies icon name, Scatman Crothers. The scenes in which Scatman uses his "skills" to defeat thugs are so laughable that they go beyond the laugh horizon into a dark, lonely void of despair. Not since Margot Kidder's drug-addled turn as Lois Lane in Superman II (where she is visibly intoxicated most of the time) has a noted actor been so humiliated onscreen.

Fortunately Pop doesn't last long in the movie. Enter the daughter: Sydney.

When Sydney enters the scene, she delivers the most memorable dialogue and action in the movie. She is clearly a product of her times. The early seventies were not only the age of Gloria Steinem but Angela Davis too: feminism combined with black revolution. Sydney all but personifies the Black Panther movement, and she takes guff from no man, woman or pimp, a kind of third-rate Foxy Brown. BB quickly finds his hands full when Sydney shows up to preserve her father's school.

When BB receives a hot tip, Sydney offers to come along. BB replies by telling her, "Why don't you go do the dishes or something?" He points to the sink, where we can see a pile of dirty plates and mugs.

Sydney pulls out a revolver and shoots up the entire sink, reducing the dishes to powder. "They're done," she says.

You just don't mess with Sydney.

Later, on the beach, BB propositions her and she rejects him. "My cookie would kill you," she tells him.

There are many other citable instances of why Black Belt Jones is the worst movie ever made. Pinky's "rap" for instance, burned in my memory forever but to which I will not expose my tender readers' hearts and minds.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Men Without Hats

One of the sweetest memories from my adolescent years is dancing around the bedroom and singing in front of the mirror while playing Men Without Hats' seminal album, Rhythm of Youth. That was in the early eighties and much water has passed under the proverbial bridge since those halcyon days. Recently, though, I found the cassette buried amidst some old things and popped it in the player (yes, I still have a tape cartridge in my stereo) and found myself dancing "like an imbecile."

That lyric comes from the band's smash hit and signature song of the eighties decade, The Safety Dance. Another memorable line from the still-catchy tune gives the listener permission to "dance like you're from out of this world". Surely these are words to live by.

In my teenaged years I was a big fan of Men Without Hats. I even saw them perform live and found the experience to be very strange (and therefore, in teenage terms, "totally rad"). The lead singer and mastermind behind the band, Ivan Doroschuk, was given to talking at great length between songs and providing weird and esoteric explanations for what his lyrics "really" meant. I remember the rest of the band sort of milling around, hands laid idly on their instruments, waiting until they were needed to play again, usually after a five-to-ten minute interlude. Needless to say, it was a memorable and long night.

It's important to note that no one was wearing hats at the show, not on stage or in the audience. This is of interest beyond just the obvious homage to the band's sobriquet. Originally formed by Ivan and two of his brothers in the late seventies in the cold climes of Montreal, the band in its nascent form was known as Men WITH Hats. This was soon changed, however, since the band always threw off their hats at the end of each show. Thus Men Without Hats was born into legend.

Now, it's fine and good to have a hit pop tune instruct the listener to "act like an imbecile". Who doesn't hold that freedom as dear? I wonder, though, if Ivan didn't take this axiom to mean that he could also write lyrics like an imbecile. As evidenced in other tracks on Rhythm of Youth, there is a cause to wonder.

One of the joys of listening to pop songs -from the eighties in particular- is their regular penchant for celebrating self-evident truths. Pop songs let us in on the heretofore secret knowledge that girls just want to have fun (Cyndi Lauper) , and that one thing can lead to another (The Fixx). In keeping with the times, Men Without Hats also provide precious insight into the hidden corners of existence.

In the song Things in My Life, while thinking that he's walking in a rainy Scottish forest, Ivan sings the words, "There are things you can buy in the drugstore/There are things you can hang on your wall/There are things you can read in the paper/There are things that do nothing at all". The reek of Ultimate Truth is all over this quartet. Lending even greater weight is the song's chorus: "We can never remember the things we always forget". If this stuff was alcohol, I'd be on a bender dawn to dusk.

My love for Men Without Hats is undeterred, even so, because in hearing again the continuous keyboard chartings that provide the skeleton of every track, I am transported to the end of the rainbow, where not only is Truth plain to see, it's danceable. Safety dance, indeed.

And that is what I think Ivan and his band want to do: give the world a reason to dance. In one of two tracks exclusive to the cassette version of Rhythm of Youth ("not included on the LP"), Ivan asks the nation of China if it wants to dance. The response is a lusty wave of applause. We can safely interpret that to mean, "Yes, Ivan, we wants to dance."

In another song, Ivan sings, "I have done a good thing/You're really dancing/Everybody's happy."

Since I saw them perform only the once, I cannot say if Ivan perfected his ability get crowds dancing. I remember people were dancing at my show, but only in spurts. Maybe if he had talked less-! But that was early in their career and for a number of years after the band did go on to have a couple more hit songs. Who can forget Pop Goes The World? Therefore it is entirely possible that he finally did remember what he had always forgot.

Friday, July 27, 2007

JK Rowling Eat Your Heart Out!

Four out of five readers agree: "Auralia's Colors" by Jeff Overstreet is the best fantasy novel of 2007... and the fifth is starting to change her mind!

Auralia's Colors

This is a huge day for Jeff Overstreet. This is a postively ginormous day for him ("ginormous" is an actual word, incidentally; you can find it in Webster's). Today he has in his hands the physical fact that is his first published novel, Auralia's Colors. It arrived in boxes yesterday and Jeff had a small gathering of friends to celebrate and undoubtedly felt the warmth of congratulation. Most important, though, is what he holds in his hands, because what is now in his shall soon (September 15th!) be in many others. This is a book that will go far!

I had the unique pleasure of reading the book in manuscript form. Though I know the book has been passed through the hands of editors and back into Jeff's for revision, the impression left on me even in nascent form is sufficient to know that this is a great book. I look forward to reading it and spending more time in the beautiful and harrowing vision Jeff has created.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Devil is a Dinosaur

Jack Kirby is widely recognised as the "King of Comics" and rightfully so. For pure imaginative power and bold design, he is unequalled, and his fingerprints can be seen on nearly every major character created by Marvel Comics in the sixties and seventies. He created the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and the Hulk in 1963 (Stan Lee wrote the books and Kirby illustrated them),
characters that have become household words around the world. Looking at Kirby's long career spanning several decades, you can see the many phases that he went through as an artist. The seventies decade saw what is arguably his biggest and most creative phase, certainly his boldest. Even so, some of his creations have not aged quite as well as Mister Fantastic and the Human Torch.

In 1978 Jack Kirby introduced a slew of titles at Marvel Comics, notable among them... DEVIL DINOSAUR! At first flush a book that looks silly and seems to be the particularly harsh consequences of experimenting with horse tranquilisers, further study reveals a sublime pleasure. "In an age when GIANTS walked the world -HE was the mightiest of them all!" This tagline contains within it one the most immediate pleasures, to imagine that the age of dinosaurs was not only brutal and bloody but that it also had its own version of what amounts to a superheroic lizard. Things only get better from there.

Inside the third issue of the series, Devil Dinosaur is being scolded by his humanoid companion, the loquacious Moon Boy. "How can one find sleep when the valley resounds with fearful screams?!" Moon Boy sends Devil Dinosaur to find the source of the racket. Take a moment to think about that: Devil Dinosaur, the mightiest dinosaur of them all (and you know that is mighty indeed), takes orders from a little hairy creature called Moon Boy, when he can tear up pterodactyls like they were made of paper? Not only takes orders but lets the runt ride on his back like he was a horse? My friend, this is the stuff of legend! Let the song in our hearts be heard!

The series, woefully cancelled after only nine issues, is basically one battle after another, as Devil Dinosaur takes on progressively stronger and more fearsome monsters. In essence, he is revealed to be Godzilla's red-hided stepchild -but with the crucial distinction of having his very own Moon Boy telling him what to do.

Nevertheless, Jack Kirby shows us why he is the king, even with this title which admittedly pales by comparison with most of his other creations. Only a royally descended artist could have brought us Devil Dinosaur.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Free Hugs

You could do worse than read these

The best comics to hit the rack in recent years have their biscuits and eat them too, simultaneously sending up familiar spandex tropes while telling fine and hilarious yarns. An indirect pathos is also experienced, especially in the case of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All Star Superman. But mostly they are hilarious.

Marvel Zombies cashes in on the recent zombie frenzy and renders some of our favorite heroes into flesheating monsters. While I was initially reluctant to read this mini-series, it hooked me almost as soon as I opened the first issue. Peter Parker's lament about eating Aunt May and Mary Jane alone is worth the cover price -and the series only gets funnier from there. It appeals mainly to comic geeks who know these characters and Marvel Comics history, but I think there are probably pleasures for the uninitiated too.
Pathos rating: 9 (out of 10)
There is great satirical value to be had from characters that have been around so long and are so burdened by decades of continuity that the most interesting thing they can do now is eat each other. It's tragic because it's true and stirs tears from those of us who adored these guys when we were tots -mostly tears of laughter, though.

All Star Superman is the closest thing to mythmaking you will see in comics today. Grant Morrison and his brilliantly gifted illustrator Frank Quitely (both live in Glasgow, Scotland) have condensed everything that is grand and epic about the Superman icon. The result is an inspired amalgamation of highlights from Big Blue's long and historic career (he is the first four-color superhero after all). For anybody interested in pure powerhouse storytelling in sequential art: seek no further than this book.
Pathos rating: 3
Since this series depends so much on reconstituting what has gone before, it is not too pathetic. It is so glorious and unfettered that one can truly appreciate the lasting vitality of the Superman mythos here by seeing it remixed and remastered. One notable encounter we've never seen before is when Supes has to vie for the hand of Lois Lane after gifting her with superpowers for a day. As soon as a woman of her stature (however temporary) is available, heroes from other epochs show up to woo her away. Seeing Samson and Atlas enter into contests of strength with Superman is uniquely entertaining and very clever to boot!

Finally we come to Nextwave, the greatest comic book of all time. The prolific and witty Warren Ellis writes and Stuart Immonen renders in a panacea of illustrative styles this comic book to end all comic books. Truly, this is the apocalypse of sequential art -and I could not more wholeheartedly embrace it. This ragtag bunch of "Agents of H.A.T.E." are taken from one insane battle to another, all the while parodying and transforming the entire concept of superheroes. Nothing will ever be the same after Nextwave, and rightly so. If all comics made me laugh this hard, I would have perished before puberty.
Pathos rating: 10
Everything that is absurd in comic books is thrust rudely into the spotlight here, making it the most pathetic display of spandex and hyperbole imaginable by man and dog. What makes the motor hum in this book is also what underscores its tragedy: superheroes only really work anymore if you make fun of them. And when fun is poked with such vim and whimsy as this, it makes you almost glad that the age of capes and cowls has come to an end.