The Man From Primrose Lane by James Renner

Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Man From Primrose LaneThe au­thor of this book, James Renner, is a friend of mine.

Reading this book is like watch­ing a freight train bar­rel to­ward you and be­ing un­able to move, while re­mem­ber­ing a time in your past when you watched a freight train bar­rel to­ward you, on­ly to wake up to find out there’s a freight train bar­rel­ing to­ward you.

This is the kind of nov­el that should ap­peal to any­one, and the in­gre­di­ents it con­tains that aren’t to your taste should be more than made up for by the things that are. There are three acts with a few in­ter­ludes, and by the third act, I was so hooked that I read the last 100 pages in a sit­ting.

It is a deeply per­son­al, emo­tion­al­ly-charged mur­der mystery/​thriller about an in­ves­tiga­tive journalist/​writer and his search for a se­r­i­al rapist & mur­der­er of lit­tle red­head­ed girls. Sorta. If Raymond Chandler had writ­ten it, that’s all it would be about. It’s al­so a nov­el about how in­ter­nal dark­ness cre­ates ex­ter­nal demons. Partially. If Stephen King had writ­ten it, that’s what it would be about. But James Renner wrote this, so it’s about those things, and much more; ob­ses­sion, re­demp­tion, fate, phi­los­o­phy, fu­til­i­ty and hope in the face of it. There are al­so plen­ty of east­er eggs for folks who live in or are fa­mil­iar with Northeast Ohio.

This isn’t nor­mal­ly the kind of nov­el that I read, so it took me awhile to get in the groove with the in­tri­cate de­tail and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion sup­plied dur­ing the ini­tial ex­po­si­tion. I found my­self won­der­ing if all this de­tail was tru­ly nec­es­sary (it is), then that ground­work starts pay­ing off over and over again. I had to keep putting the book down to calm down, such was the deeply per­son­al im­pact that the char­ac­ters ac­tions have up­on each oth­er. The struc­ture of the ex­po­si­tion places events that oc­cur at very dif­fer­ent mo­ments in the past and fu­ture con­cur­rent to each oth­er. This re­sults in two things: 1) over­whelm­ing dra­mat­ic irony and 2) the nov­el be­comes some­thing akin to time trav­el, ini­tial­ly sim­i­lar to the way that Gene Wolfe’s Peace is a time trav­el nov­el.

So if you want your heart-strings tuned, some ex­er­cise for your adren­al glands, your tear ducts flushed, your ac­tion packed and your food thought­ful, read this book.

Science Fiction Book Club List: The Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years, 1953 – 2002

Wednesday, 27 April 2005

The Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years, 1953-2002

I finally managed to track down every book on the above list, many are/were unfortunately out of print. But I did it. I've read them all. Mini-Reviews of all 50 are inside.

  1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. TolkienI've babbled on about this book and author far too much. Many people have no desire to read it because so many people go on and on about it. If anything, it belongs at the top of this list simply because its success as a publication showed publishers that money could, in fact, be made from science fiction and fantasy in book form. It wasn't just for the pulps anymore.

    Recommended other reading: The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, Roverandom, On Fairy Stories

  2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac AsimovNearly as impressive as LotR, The Foundation Series and Asimov himself are responsible for adding a new layer of complexity to science fiction, the genre matured from juvenile escapism in the pulps to complex political and historical narratives. The Foundation Series is a prime example of the effective use of speculative fiction as a reflection of our own society.

    Recommended other reading: Caves of Steel, I, Robot

  3. Dune, Frank Herbert

    I read this book my freshman year of high school. I remember not liking it. I probably missed some of the economic importance among all the messianic/prophetic hullabuloo and sandworm riding and nukes making people's eyes melt. I should probably read it again, but I don't particularly have any desire to do so. Lots of people like it and it was made into an awful movie, so I guess it has some worth.
  4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

    One of the must-reads for the sexual revolution in the 1960s, Stranger in a Strange Land seems somewhat simple now that AIDS is everywhere. Nevertheless, the book is still quite powerful on many different levels, nature vs. nuture, sexual proclivities, cannibal taboos, you name it. Throughout the book the reader is challenged to evaluate each aspect of culture by seeing it through strange but similar eyes.

    Recommended other reading: Starship Troopers

  5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin

    Anything written by Ursula K. Le Guin is worth reading. A Wizard of Earthsea is a great, easy-to-read coming of age tale with a non-white protagonist [quite the daring thing to do at the time] that delicately navigates the treacherous waters of adolescence and manages to impart a strong and healthy message without sounding parental.

    Recommended other reading: The Lathe of Heaven, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories

  6. Neuromancer, William Gibson

    I've not read much cyberpunk, so I've not read much Gibson. This was one of the first books I read when I started the list. If I remember correctly, this techno-capitalist society is alot like organized crime, and the main character is a sort of junkie drug-runner equivalent computer hacker, lots of cool tech and cool-like antiheroism.

  7. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke

    Arthur C. Clarke is the go-to guy when it comes to writing stories that turn deep tragedy into brilliant possibility. Childhood's End is probably the best example of this. Transcendent humanity is mixed, inseparably with the destruction of almost everything we know as human. A compelling read.

    My longer reviewof Childhood's End.
    Recommended other reading: Rendezvous with Rama, 2001: A Space Odyssey

  8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick

    Philip K. Dick isn't the best writer, but his creativity is so full of mind-bending psycho-horror that his stories overcome their words. This book was made into the amazing Bladerunner [lots of Dick stories have been made into movies, Minority Report, Total Recall, Paycheck, Second Variety] and problems concerning creation and epistemology are ultimately deemed irrelevant in this existential masterpiece.

    Recommended other reading: Selected Stories

  9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley

    The only strictly feminist book on this list, I didn't like it too much. Of course, I'm not really the audience, but I thought that the women, while puissant-willed, ultimately became the things MZB was opposing. To me they seemed bitchy and manipulative, and while it could be argued that was their only way to have power, it still reinforces stereotypes. Nevertheless, more books with female protagonists would be welcome.

  10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

    This book is standard high school reading list fare, but its worth lasts unto adulthood as well. The repressive society reminds me quite a bit of Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron but Bradbury's tale ends on a slightly more hopeful note. I quite like Bradbury, his writing style hearkens back to science fiction's founding fathers [Jules Verne, H.G.Wells] but he wrestles with timeless concerns and adds another dimension to his storys by doing so. NB: 1984 [searchable online version!] didn't make this list because it was published before 1953.

    Recommended other reading: The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine

  11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe [1, 2]

    I hadn't been too interested in reading Gene Wolfe, for no real reason. I'd been missing a lot. It seems like there are a lot of Catholics writing good science fiction and fantasy, and Gene Wolfe fits that mold. The Book of the New Sun is a four-volume metaphysical masterpiece that goes always in unexpected directions and has a nebulous sense of agency. One of the best books I read on this list.

    My longer review of The Book of the New Sun.

  12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

    I think Einstein said that World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones, and the post-nuclear armageddon world in which Walter M. Miller puts us is a car wreck rubbernecking read that seems to say fear and jealousy will trump good sense as long as humans are humans. There are several morals here, at least one for everybody who reads it.

  13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov

    Where I, Robot mainly focused on the logical conundra of positronic robotics and the Three Laws of Robotics with a secondary focus on interactions with human emotion, The Caves of Steel offers more poignant stories where humans attempt to cope with the distrust and fear associated with creating something superior to them in all ways.

    Recommended other reading: The Foundation Trilogy, I, Robot

  14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras

    This book reads somewhat like any other mid-century childhood adventure book. Except all the kids in this one are supergeniuses and were ostensibly the inspiration for the X-Men. During the Atomic Age radioactive accidents didn't always end horribly. A nice read, if a bit bland at times.

    My longer review of Children of the Atom.

  15. Cities in Flight, James Blish

    This thick book is more a combined series of novellas than anything else. Early on it offers alternatives to the scientific method but as time passes, the mastery of anti-gravitic spindizzies turn humanity into the protectors of the galaxy, eventually even unto sacrificing themselves as new gods. A Magnum Opus indeed.

  16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett

    Finally, a bit of humorous fantasy! Terry Pratchett takes the typical absurdities of life, mixes in heavy doses of humor and enlightening satire and pours this sauce over interesting characters of myriad varieties. The result: Tasty treats of books that entertain and illuminate without and sense of heavyhandedness. There is always something to laugh about.

  17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison

    One of the most ambitious anthologies of all time, this book contains powerful story after powerful story, on all kinds of bizarre and challenging topics. 35 years later the stories might not seem quite so dangerous, but the writing and content still surprise and affect. Ellison introduces each author and each author has a bit of a footnote about the story at the end of each. A must read.

  18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison

    While Dangerous Visions was a masterpiece, this collection of short stories by Ellison didn't do much for me. Each is concerned with humanity's new gods, dark gods for the most part. I didn't enjoy this book nearly as much as I enjoyed Ellison's Strange Wine [and I only enjoyed half of that]. I think Ellison is just too brash for my taste.

    My longer reviewof Deathbird Stories.
    Recommended other reading: Strange Wine

  19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester

    This is a thriller, a journey into the purgatory of the mind and a thoughtful exploration of what telepathy might be capable of. A man with everything determines to commit murder and get away with it. If he does not succeed he will be Demolished. That is, have his personality utterly shattered. Will he succeed? Read the book to find out!

    Recommended other reading: The Stars My Destination

  20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany

    In postmodern science fiction with a hankering toward shock and awe through sexual proclivities, discussions on the nature of art in a world of warping realities, in a city where buildings burn and are not consumed, and projected images seem more real that the gangs who control them, who better to guide you through this than a filthy amnesiac madman who writes poetry in the corners of a found notebook?

    An excerpt from my favorite part of Dhalgren.

  21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey

    Anne McCaffrey has produced nearly innumerable novels about Pern. Dragonflight is the first one, and the only one I've read. As books go this one has some cool time and space warping dragons an interesting example of cultural evolution and a pretty believable female protagonist. It definitely blurs the lines between science fiction and fantasy and is definitely original in idea, if not exactly in style.

  22. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card

    This is more military science fiction, but when it comes to thinking around things Orson Scott Card manages time and again in this book. Ender Wiggin, a genetically bred boy genius is trained to exhaustion in order to save humankind from an incoming alien invasion and certain annihilation. Another classic must read.

  23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson [1, 2, 3]

    When it comes to atypical protagonists, the leprous and cowardly Thomas Covenant takes the cake. While this book could have dealt quite stunningly with the nature of madness and psychic trauma, it takes a different path and spends three books wallowing in its own mistery. Meh.

    My longer review of The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

  24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

    In a sense this is more military science fiction, but it is also hard sci-fi, temporal relativity is the prime mover and cause of more mental anguish [kind of a trend here isn't there? I wonder if it has to do with the time period these books were written in...] as a space soldier spends several years subjective time fighting in different parts of space, while thousands of years pass objectively. Haldeman is excellent.

    Recommended other reading: All My Sins Remembered

  25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl

    Space travel, exploration and misunderstood alien tech are the heartwood of this beginning to Pohl's tales of humanity and the Heechee. This is a danger-filled adventure tale like a walk through dark and strange woodland.

  26. Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, J.K. Rowling

    Despite its almost clichéd status in popular culture, the first book in the Harry Potter series was an unexpected delight for folks of all ages. Just enough humor, just the right mix of familiarity and strangeness and a very British feel to it make this book a quick and enjoyable read.

  27. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

    Everybody should read the Hitchhiker's Guide. Don't Panic, it is more comedy than science fiction, so even if you typically associate sci-fi with Vogon poetry this book is funny enough for you to forgive it for being out of this world.

    Recommended other reading: The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide

  28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson

    Richard Matheson wrote lots of stuff for The Twilight Zone, so if you expect I Am Legend to be like that rockin' series you're both right and wrong. This book was made into a few movies The Omega Man is the one I've seen. Look, it is about the last man on earth when everyone else is a vampire. A great book.

  29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice

    Most folks have probably seen the movie. This is one of the rare cases where I like the movie and the book equally. Anne Rice does an excellent job showing us what life is like when you are a regretful hedonistic vampire.

  30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

    The only reason I can think of that this book is so far down on the list is that Mrs. Le Guin already has a book in the top five. She seems to channel her anthropologist father Al Kroeber in this participant-observer tale of political intrigue in a land where the androgyne inhabitants can take on either male or female sexual characteristics depending on their environment. Like I said, anything she writes is worth a read.

    Recommended other reading: Wizard of Earthsea, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories

  31. Little, Big, John Crowley

    One of the big surprises on this list is Little, Big. It is an ethereal, meandering, mysterious and quite potent meditation on relations between our world and Faery. You can almost pick it up at any place and start reading without missing much. A book to read more than once, for sure.

  32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny

    On a planet where an immortal oligarchy pretends to be the Hindu Pantheon, one god, the Lord of Light is constantly offed and reborn to oppose them. Should we be surprised that he is the Buddha? Not really. I don't think I quite got this book. It was weird. I think I missed the point.

  33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick

    The weakest thing I've read by Dick, lots of people say this is his finest work. It is revisionist history as only sci-fi can do it. What if Japan and Germany had won World War II? That is a pretty cool idea but Phil spends too much time dicking around in mundane events and worries for my taste.

    My longer review of The Man in the High Castle.
    Recommended other reading: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Selected Stories

  34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement

    This is hard science fiction with a main character who is basically a big ole centipede. It is also a sea adventure, albeit on an ovoid planet with the strangest gravity imaginable. All the characters are out for their own best interests which makes for some interesting haggling and interaction.

  35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon

    I really like Theodore Sturgeon. His stories are deceptively simple. He hints at things that you only realize after you put the book down. More than Human is a story about half-wits and half-humans becoming greater than the sum of their parts, ultimately exceeding their humanity, despite or perhaps because of their innocence.

    Recommended other reading: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon [10 volumes]

  36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith

    This book should be much higher on the list. It is a collection of all of Cordwainer Smith's short stories. Mr. Smith is responsible for starting the science fiction careers of more than a few people on this list and his 30,000 year chronicle of humanity's constant struggle toward even it doesn't know what is original from the first page to the last one. A bit more from me on Cordwainer Smith and a review of Norstrilia.

    Recommended other reading: Norstrilia

  37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute

    This book was perhaps the most surprising one that I read on this list. I think it should be much higher. It probably isn't only because it isn't quite as science fictiony as the others. It is a heartwrenchingly brutal contemporary mid-20th century story of post-nuclear annihilation in Australia. Australia hasn't been hit, but the jet stream is slowly bringing the radiation to the continent. Everyone knows they are under a death sentence. It is an amazing and thought-provoking anti-war story that is quite effective at deeply personal level. I need to scrounge up one of the movies [1, 2].

  38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke

    This is more space exploration involving alien technology, only this time the humans are insidea mysterious and vast alien craft that confounds almost all of their attempts to explore it. How do you explore the inside of a sphere? of a cylinder?

    Recommended other reading: Childhood's End, 2001: A Space Odyssey

  39. Ringworld, Larry Niven

    To quote Niven:

    "I myself have dreamed up an intermediate step between Dyson Spheres and planets. Build a ring ninety three million miles in radius—one Earth orbit—which would make it six hundred million miles long. If we make it a million mies wide, we get a thickness of about a thousand meters. The Ringworld would thus be much sturdier than a Dyson sphere.

    "There are other advantages. We can spin it for gravity. A rotation on its axis of seven hundred seventy miles per second would give the Ringworld one gravity outward. We wouldn't even have to have a roof over it. Put walls a thousand miles high at each rim, aim it at the sun, and very little air will leak over the edges.

    "The thing is roomy enough: three million times the area of the Earth. It will be some time before anyone complains of the crowding.

  40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys

    A story of manipulation on multiple levels and in multiple places, Rogue Moon is the story of an explorer who must, by trial and error, find his way through an alien construct. The only problem is, each time he errors, he dies, and the psychological effects of this are just as unknown and incalculable.

  41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien

    The Silmarillion is my favorite work of Tolkien's. It is grand mythopoetic subcreation, with incredibly rich and somewhat archaic language. It is easy to see why this was his life's work and it would be quite interesting to see what it would have eventually become had he not died before completing it.

    Recommended other reading: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Roverandom, On Fairy Stories

  42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut

    Even people who hate science fiction seem to like Vonnegut. Deeply satirical and simultaneously sentimental time-travel must have atavistic appeal to most humans. As anti-war books go, this one is probably one of the top five.

    Recommended other reading: Cat's Cradle, Welcome to the Monkey House

  43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

    Snow Crash is a cyberpunk novel filled with archetypal characters with deliberately odd lives. Contemporary life is extrapolated into a future where sexy 16 year old sk8r grrls wear narcotic vagina dentata, pizza delivery guys who live in U-Stor-Its are gods of the internets, and large Aleutians with glass razors kill people like nothing. It was a good read, but a bit over the top.

  44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner

    This is a deeply personal book, you can really feel John Brunner's soul being poured into it. Concerned with overpopulation, first world complacency, vicarious life through television, and a chronic andacute existential anomie, it ultimately admits its love for all of us, despite our imperfections.

    My longer review of Stand on Zanzibar.

  45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester

    Alfred Bester has two books on this list for a reason, his science fiction is unlike anything you'll ever read. He sort of prognosticates the cyberpunk genre, especially in this work, where a thug named Gully Foyle jaunts around seeking revenge for being abandoned in a derelict spacecraft.

    Recommended other reading: The Demolished Man

  46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein

    I've read this book probably eight or nine times since I first nabbed it on this little quest of mine. It is said to be a rather conservative outlook on a military society, but I think it mixes just the right amount of pizzazz with quite thought-provoking civics lessons to come up with the best use of nationalism possible. This novel is approximately infinitely better than the batshit crazy movie adaptation.

    Recommended other reading: Stranger in a Strange Land

  47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock

    This dark fantasy is driven by a protagonist who is inherently evil, an alien being who is motivated and wracked by shadowy emotions. It is violent, eschatological, and quite short. I didn't particularly enjoy this book because Moorcock is so effective at creating twisted behavior, strange emotion and alienation that I had nothing to hold on to. Just because I didn't enjoy it doesn't mean it sucked though. Moorcock wrote many other books in the Stormbringer series.
  48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks

    This book should not be on the list. It is terrible. The only book I didn't finish on this list. It is so unabashedly a cheap and lame and crummy Tolkien rip-off that I got 200 pages in, realized that plot point for plot point the novel was copying Tolkien and stopped reading. A large number of other science fiction and fantasy books could replace this one. I think it only made it because of its popularity. Even Terry Goodkind would have been a better choice.

  49. Timescape, Gregory Benford

    Hard science fiction with deeply personal characters, this novel deals with the inherent dangers of time travel, but only time travel communication, not physical time travel. There is a lot of physics in this book, but Benford makes it relatively easy to understand. The world is being destroyed due to pollution and a few scientists are trying to speak to the past in order to change the future. The efficacy and after effects of this are somewhat ambiguous, and Benford, like a good scientist, lays out the problem as he sees it, and lets the reader decide.

  50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip José Farmer

    Everyone who is dead wakes up on this Riverworld. No one knows why, or how. The main character seeks to find out why and how. He ends up getting killed, but then discovers that he just wakes up the next day somewhere else on the river. So, playing the odds, he loses any restraint on keeping himself intact and hops from death to death hoping eventually he'll come to the end of the river. Along the way he runs into all kinds of famous people, Nazis, Neanderthals, you name it. A really fun book.

Ten Books I recommend you read from this list [in no particular order]:

  • The Rediscovery of Man
  • Dangerous Visions
  • The Silmarillion
  • Little, Big
  • The Foundation Trilogy
  • Starship Troopers
  • On the Beach
  • The Left Hand of Darkness
  • Dhalgren
  • The Book of the New Sun

Transform

Monday, 30 June 2003

Powerman 5000’s lat­est LP, Transform, marks a tran­si­tion for the band from goth­ic space-rock to a niche be­tween n?-metal and stan­dard hard­core. Its not as good as it used to be, but at least it ain’t Linkin Park or Limp Bizkit.

If it is any­thing, Transform is one of the strangest calls to arms I’ve ever come across. It is a much blunter ex­pli­ca­tion of PM5K’s an­ti-es­tab­lish­ment oeu­vre than they usu­al­ly spit out.

Tonight the Stars Revolt! was a metal­lic bar­rage with a dis­tinc­tive Ziggy Stardust space­man feel. Transform, is lit­er­al­ly more down to earth. Spider One, is de­cide­ly in just about everyone’s face: the gov­ern­ment, cor­po­rate bu­reau­cra­cy, and es­pe­cial­ly sil­i­con breast­ed, boy­band mar­i­onettes who pass them­selves off as artists in­stead of en­ter­tain­ers. At the same time he wants “hands up to mis­fits, the ones that don’t fit.” Granted, not the most elo­quent of verse, but the point is clear enough.

The mis­fit mus­ter­ing songs don’t re­al­ly do much for me lyri­cal­ly, and on the whole, while the blunt­ness is ap­pre­ci­at­ed, and the drool­ing in­vec­tive in songs like “That’s Entertainment” makes me grin and sing along with in­fer­nal de­light, the mu­sic is what makes the al­bum.

Nothing in par­tic­u­lar is out­stand­ing­ly orig­i­nal here ei­ther. The first eight true songs all rock, but the al­bum kin­da ends flat­foot­ed. None of the songs are over­ly long, most are pret­ty catchy, and good to rock out to, but with­out the ‘space-vibe’ it miss­es some­thing. This will def­i­nite­ly be an al­bum I take with me on long car trips. It re­al­ly isn’t some­thing I just want to sit back and lis­ten to, it does not de­mand that much at­ten­tion.

This is a good tran­si­tion al­bum for PM5K. They ef­fec­tive­ly changed their sound, but avoid­ed be­com­ing a n?-metal clich? by ap­peal­ing to ac­tion from their angst-filled de­mo­graph­ic in­stead of com­mis­er­at­ing with pul­ing whine-songs. Hopefully their next al­bum will com­plete the trans­for­ma­tion. Knowing Spider One’s metic­u­lous and de­mand­ing eth­ic to be a dif­fer­ent kind of rock force, this is like­ly to be the case.

Recommended songs: That’s Entertainment, A is for Apathy, Sterotype.
Rated: 6.5÷10.

Thursday, 26 June 2003

Deloused in the Comatorium [DITC], the new se­man­tic ex­pe­ri­ence from The Mars Volta. Read my pompous re­view, but first go buy the al­bum.

When At the Drive In split a while back, my friend Kyle was pret­ty miffed, they were one of his fa­vorite bands. From the splin­ters of this band emerged two new mu­si­cal di­rec­tions: Sparta and The Mars Volta. Unfortunately Sparta seemed to get their act to­geth­er a bit too fast, and in­stead of a new mu­si­cal di­rec­tion, the band’s sound foundered in the seas of medi­oc­rity [at least for me it did]. Their brand of rockin’ was a bit too, um, un­o­rig­i­nal and coo­ki-cut­ter for my tastes. In fact, I couldn’t tell you what one of their songs sound­ed like right now, de­spite hav­ing seen them in con­cert, and lis­tened to their al­bum, and I must not for­get pal Kyle.

The Mars Volta, took con­sid­er­ably longer to pro­duce a full al­bum. Wisely so, if this de­lay has in­creased the qual­i­ty of DITC. Granted, they re­leased the Tremulant EP awhile back, but its three songs, seem to me more of a test bed for their sound, be­fore the full blown ex­pe­ri­ence emerges [and getes paid for].

Tremulant pre­pared lis­ten­ers for the in­ven­tive se­man­tic mum­bo-jum­bo and ex­per­i­men­tal punk [re­dun­dant or just that mar­gin­al?] sound that The Mars Volta had de­fined as their own. Their lyrics are shall I say, in­choate. An ad­mix­ture of var­i­ous lan­guages [eng­lish then span­ish are the heav­i­est thank­ful­ly] and spack­led to­geth­er phonemes and mor­phemes, lis­ten­ers pret­ty much have to re­ly on the singing to get a han­dle for what the songs are about. The lyrics for Eunuch Provocateur off of Tremulant can be found here. [As you will note, one of the lines from this song be­came the ti­tle of the LP].

Stupidly, the lyrics for DITC are go­ing to be avail­able for mailorder pur­chase some­time next month, mak­ing them that much hard­er to ac­cess. You re­al­ly have to want to know what the fuck he is say­ing if you are will­ing to pay for it. Personally, I will wait till some­one does buy them and then sticks them on the ‘net.

The vo­cal pirouttes of Cedric Zavala are what make this al­bum for me. His tenor is crisp and clear and loud, but thank­ful­ly not pierc­ing. Its like wind off of a moun­tain, or if you live in the city, what your clothes smell like af­ter you toss in about eight dry­er sheets with them.

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez can wring some mighty wild sounds out of his axe let me tell you.

DITC be­gins with a steadi­ly grow­ing sound of syn­the­siz­er and dis­tor­tion, and then Cedric comes in with his elec­tron­i­cized voice, and you know some­thing huge is about to hap­pen, then you are teased with some false starts be­fore C re­al­ly lets it rip in­to the first true song ‘in­er­ti­at­ic esp.’ This seems pret­ty straight­for­ward The Mars Volta, the mu­sic is seg­ment­ed in­to sev­er­al modes, usu­al­ly with quick but full stops be­fore launch­ing in­to the next sec­tion. Beware though, The Mars Volta can switch gears seam­less­ly if they want to, and some­times they want to.

‘roulette dares (the haunt of)’ presents a slight­ly more melod­i­cal­ly vari­ant, though smoother, ex­pli­ca­tion of what­ev­er the hell C is singing, it ris­es and val­leys, then peaks and then falls again, some­times precipices lurk right in the mid­dle of things, but the song is quite mel­low and quite cathar­tic at the same time.

‘drunk­ship of lanterns’ bor­rows its end from their Tremulant fin­ish­er ‘Eunuch Provocateur,’ and ‘ci­c­itriz esp’ is al­most just like Tremulant’s ‘Cut That City’ ex­cept quite a bit longer. I don’t feel that they are just re­cy­cling this be­cause they can­not hack it. To me it seems that Tremulant tru­ly was a test­ing bed, and they took what worked from that EP and beefed it up for this al­bum.

This was re­al­ly hard to write, be­cause DITC is so queer. Somehow The Mars Volta has made it pos­si­ble for two ob­jects to ex­ist in the same space at the same time, con­trary to the lit­tle mu­si­cal physics I am ac­quaint­ed with. Songs can be mel­low but un­re­pen­tant­ly cathar­tic from one sec­ond to the next. It works. 810. Thanks to Phil for the rec­om­men­da­tion.

The Decemberists: Castaways and Cut-outs

Friday, 30 May 2003

Hell, I’m al­ways on the look­out for some good new mu­sic. Unfortunately my search of­ten re­sults in less than good new mu­sic. There are far too many bands out there with delu­sions of grandeur, weird gim­micks, and stranger sounds, all of which don’t par­tic­u­lar­ly agree with my con­sti­tu­tion.

Thankfully, The Decemberists al­bum Castaways and Cut-outs does not fit this bill.

[ini­tial­ize pom­pos­i­ty]

They are from some­where in the Pacific Northwest, Washington or Oregon, or some­place. Treehuggers. Their sound on the oth­er hand, seems to draw on in­flu­ences from the world over, merged in­to a very in­die feel. The vo­cals fo Colin Meloy gives the band a very Irish sound, he’s got an Irish name too, but he is from Missoula, Montana. Some of the song con­tent is al­so quite rem­i­nis­cent of rel­a­tive­ly cur­rent events in Ireland. “Leslie Ann Levine” in par­tic­u­lar would fit quite well as a med­i­ta­tion on the rife sub­ject of teenage preg­nan­cy, abor­tion and the Kerry ba­bies case.

The songs are quite seedy in con­tent, and cre­ate with­in me a sense that the en­tire al­bum is a pe­ri­od piece of wharves, docks, and sundry oth­er salty top­ics from a 19th cen­tu­ry sea sto­ry. Petticoats, camisoles, cast­aways, and men at war, all blend to­geth­er to cre­ate a sub­tle and sin­is­ter lyric-scape that is on­ly height­ened by the pep­py mu­sic. You en­joy lis­ten­ing to the songs but then when you think about the lyrics you’re, like, whoa!

“A Cautionary Song” is prob­a­bly the best ex­am­ple of this. Its a song about a moth­er who whores her­self out in or­der to feed the kids. It rol­licks along though, to a concertina/​accordion, in a sea-shan­ty sailor rhythm. You might find yoru­self tap­ping your feet as you hear about how she goes through an en­tire ship in a night.

and the next time she feeds you col­lard greens
re­mem­ber what she does when you’re asleep

A nice zinger to end the song, eh? So sor­ry kids.

Their mu­si­cal abil­i­ties are an amal­gam of coun­try, pop, stan­dard rock, and var­i­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions of form [i.e. the shan­ty] through­out the al­bum. It might end on a note of hope, but it is a bit hard to tell, “California One/​Youth and Beauty Brigade” is the clos­est the Decemberists seem to get to tru­ly mod­ern cook­ie-cut­ter false unity/​alienation, yet the lyrics seem iron­ic, as if join­ing the Youth and Beauty Brigade might not be such a good thing. Perhaps this irony is meant to ex­pose the shal­low­ness of the “Youth of a Nation” vs. “Broken Home” di­choto­my that so much crap mu­sic to­day seems to feed off of.

The Decemberists’ Castaways and Cut-outs should def­i­nite­ly be added to any self-re­spect­ing audiophile’s li­brary.

an­oth­er link

[end pom­pos­i­ty]

The Matrix: Reloaded — Gothic Production Values

Sunday, 25 May 2003

The sec­ond en­try, and then I must needs say no more about ma­tri­ces till November.

As a film, The Matrix [orig­i­nal] was au­then­tic in its raw­ness of mise-en-scene, tight plot, char­ac­ter con­struc­tion and phi­los­o­phy. The Matrix: Reloaded, has the mangy paw of Hollywood over­pro­duc­tion and ov­erengi­neer­ing all over it.

Now that the goth look is main­streamed [hoo­dathunkit?] it is at the same time ex­tremed in the Matrix, Hollywood knows who its de­mo­graph­ics are and plays to them, even putting in vam­pires and ghosts. Every good guy is goth­ic while in the Matrix. Zion even has that re­tard­ed rave/​orgy/​infernal mass­es se­quence, where every­one porks to heavy bass beats. All of the guns from the last flik have been re­placed by a va­ri­ety of weapons [katana, longsword, tri­dent, sai, mace, etc.] that don’t do much good ex­cept look cool. Then, of course, you’ve got the goth­ic château in the moun­tains, the goth­ic retro tech­nol­o­gy [old TVs etc, still cool] and the rust­ed out ships of Zion.

Costuming

The cos­tumes in the orig­i­nal Matrix were in­deed quite cool, but their cool­ness was sec­ondary and the man­i­fes­ta­tions of the mind that wears them. In TM:R the clothes were cool be­cause Hollywood de­cid­ed it must be so, and they fail at it. Keanu in a cas­sock, is a bit pre­pos­ter­ous, Trinity main­tains skintight pleather, and the on­ly no­tice­able dif­fer­ence in the agents and Morpheus is that they’ve got spiffy new shoes. The Zionists can’t man­age to clothe them­selves de­cent­ly [ex­cept for the el­ders] de­spite their abil­i­ty to hew an ex­is­tence near the earth’s core. The bad­dies just wear white or black vari­a­tions in suit themes. Who re­al­ly cares.

Plot

Schizophrenically pol­y­se­mous. Dragged a bit, then had some über-cheesy part, fol­lowed by an über-philo­soph­i­cal part. Rinse, re­peat. This is where I found the con­flict be­tween a smart film, and a Hollywood film to be most preva­lent. The cheese parts [the n Smith fight, rave, the Seraph fight, sex scene, uber­car chase, the oth­er n Smith fight, the you saved me di­a­logue at the end] are Hollywood. The smart parts [Oracle, Merovingian, Architect, back doors, Keymaker] re­mind­ed me most of the orig­i­nal film, de­spite the fact that the Merovingian and the Architect still had some ob­vi­ous dis­trac­tions to them [yesterday’s post]. Although, the Keymaker, when de­scrib­ing how to get in­to the main­frame, re­mind­ed me much of the Old Man From Scene 24 in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There is al­so the whole Keymaster of Gozer thing from Ghost Busters as well.

CG/​Special Effects

They were cut­ting edge last time, but main­stream this time. Bullet time/​slomo adn the spin­ning cam­era moves were the same stuff from the last movie. The CGs were pret­ty ob­vi­ous too, sup­port­ing my the­o­ry that dig­i­tal still has a long way to go be­fore it can ren­der as well as film stock can pick up the minute de­tails of a person’s face. Thus, some­times Neo and Smith look quite CG, be­cause the sub­tle shad­ows and fa­cial ex­pres­sions are not there. Rendering fab­rics is pret­ty damn hard as well. Thus, Neo’s id­i­ot­ic cas­sock goes from be­ing nice and tex­tured to smooth as silk when he is CG. The wire-work le­git­i­mate­ly seemed ripped off from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Sound

Sound ef­fects and Foley work was im­pres­sive, though the mu­sic was most def­i­nite­ly cre­at­ed with the sound­track in mind, and of course con­tained tracks from the most goth­ic sell­out — Rob Zombie. Hell, it even had a track by Dave Mathews. [*pukes*] I did like what Juno Reactor did with many of the songs though — mix­ing stan­dard techno/​trance with the score in many in­stances.

Other

The shot se­lec­tion was al­so a bit schizoid. The OTS shots were so repet­i­tive i could pre­dict what was go­ing to hap­pen next [MS1a, MS2a, MS1b, MS2b, MCU1a, MCU2a, etc.]. At the same time, the dig­i­tal stuff with Morpheus fight on the trail­er, and the mo­tor­cy­cle shots — were pret­ty damn amaz­ing. The washed-out hot­ness of the whites, and the sub­tle lows of the blacks seemed ap­pro­pri­ate­ly goth­ic and al­so helped the CGs fit in­to the the film bet­ter, since so much da­ta was lost by in­ten­tion­al over­ex­po­sure.

Morpheus says the prophe­cy should have come true if Neo reached the source, but Neo did not reach the souce, he went af­ter Trinity, some­thing that I on­ly re­al­ized post fac­to the movie. There is no men­tion of it in the flik it­self.

Wrap

I liked TM:R, don’t get me wrong, I just didn’t like it as well as the first one. I give the 1st an 8 and this one a 6. Mostly be­cause, it is ob­vi­ous Hollywood tried too hard as usu­al, on­ly ap­prox­i­mat­ed what it feels is au­then­tic — rather than go­ing for the re­al thing. Ergo, all the peo­ple are goth­ical­ly se­ri­ous ex­cept for Link who is more a fam­i­ly man thug than any­thing else — and the won­der­ful Merovingian ass­hole. The bad guys are much more in­ter­est­ing than the good guys. It leaves no room for any type of those once plugged in than the goth­ic. Someone should crack a joke or play a prank or per­haps wear com­fort­able clothes that are non­de­script. Right? I think it is too shal­low be­cause it is too pre­ten­tious.

Probably much like this re­view.

The Matrix: Reloaded — Fides et Ratio

Saturday, 24 May 2003

I’ve seen The Matrix: Reloaded twice now. Fittingly I will give it two en­tries, one on phi­los­o­phy and one on its cin­e­mat­ic qual­i­ties. This is the phi­lo one. Most like­ly they will both con­tain spoil­ers.

To start out, those who say that this sec­ond film lacks [in sub­stance and thought pro­vok­ing ma­te­r­i­al] are id­iots.

They must have ig­nored [slept through, dis­missed be­cause they did not un­der­stand] the Oracle, the Merovingian [who is ridicu­lous awe­some], and the Architect. Granted, much of the rest of the film is cot­ton can­dy [to be cov­ered in the next en­try], but the afore­men­tioned seg­ments are any­thing but.

Continuing the de­bate that was ex­humed in the orig­i­nal Matrix, this film deals time and again with the an­tag­o­nism be­tween choice/​free will and causality/​predetermination. Its pret­ty ho hum, and the screen­writ­ers are ei­ther ge­nius­es or stayed up all cram­ming and then re­gur­gi­tat­ed the an­swers. I lean to­ward the bile side my­self, be­cause the Oracle, the Merovingian, and the Architect all con­tra­dict them­selves in their so­lil­o­quys on choice v. causal­i­ty.

The Oracle

An ‘in­tu­itive’ com­put­er pro­gram that cre­at­ed a ver­sion of the Matrix that 99% of test sub­jects ac­cept­ed as long as they were of­fered a choice. Neo looks to her for guid­ance and ques­tions her re­gard­ing choice. If she knows the an­swer to the ques­tions she asks him, what does his choice mat­ter? She tells him that his choic­es have al­ready been made, Neo is now sup­posed to un­der­stand why he made/​making/​will make these choic­es.

But then, ‘we can’t see past the choic­es we don’t un­der­stand.’

All of this time, while dis­cussing choice, the dis­cus­sion has re­al­ly cen­tered on causal­i­ty, the Oracle seems to be hint­ing that choic­es do not mat­ter. At the same time, she tells Neo to makes choic­es.

For her it ap­pears that choice is mere­ly an il­lu­so­ry mech­a­nism of causal­i­ty. But not see­ing past the choic­es we do not un­der­stand gives her the lie, for un­less she un­der­stands all choic­es, how can she see the fu­ture. To me it ap­pears that for causal­i­ty to func­tion is must be con­cerned on­ly with hind­sight. It can on­ly prove its ve­rac­i­ty by show­ing com­plet­ed cause and ef­fect re­la­tions as some­thing in­evitable. It should on­ly be able to pos­tu­late the fu­ture, not pre­dict it.

The Merovingian

This guy is my fa­vorite char­ac­ter in the en­tire film. We’ll just get that out of the way.

This ex­quis­ite­ly con­temptible French pro­gram ap­par­ent­ly touts causal­i­ty as its cham­pi­on. He says choice is an il­lu­sion giv­en by those with pow­er to those with­out it. Ostensibly, as a means of con­trol [see The Architect]. He states the hu­mans run on in­stinct, and proves this by en­chant­i­ng a hot chick with a pro­grammed piece of aphrodit­ic choco­late and mak­ing her all horny. Thus, dou­bly prov­ing his point [if you were even lis­ten­ing to his mono­logue] be­cause most like­ly the au­di­ence watch­ing the film was more in­ter­est­ed in the warm spot in hot chick’s crotch than what the Merovingian was say­ing.

He says that those with pow­er are those who ‘un­der­stand the why’ of things.

To me ‘why’ is a word that deals with choice. To know ‘why’ you do some­thing is to know the rea­sons you made the choice. To un­der­stand ‘what’ is to un­der­stand causal­i­ty. ‘What made you do some­thing’ — this rec­og­nizes that an out­side, pre­de­ter­mined, non-will­ful stim­u­la­tion re­sult­ed in an act. Why is sub­jec­tive, thus con­trol­lable, What is ob­jec­tive, and causal.

When Persephone screws him over, in a beau­ti­ful throw-away re­mark af­ter his re­cent homi­ly, he de­mands to know the rea­son she lets Neo have the Keymaker: she says some­thing about causal­i­ty and re­torts with — Cause? There is no cause for this!

The Architect

Like the Merovingian se­quence, The Architect us­es a shit­load of mon­i­tors show­ing dif­fer­ent things to dis­tract the view­er from the dis­cus­sion.

The Architect ex­plains about the means of con­trol with­in the Matrix, that Neo is an ex­pect­ed anom­aly re­sult­ing from the in­abil­i­ty of the cause/​effect na­ture of pro­gram­ming to ad­e­quate­ly cope with the de­mands of im­per­fect hu­man de­sires and choic­es. The hu­man mind is less­er or, per­haps, not bound by the de­mands of per­fec­tion. To deal with this the ma­chines use life out­side the Matrix, and Zion, an ap­par­ent­ly oft de­stroyed and re­built city, as an­oth­er method of con­trol. Neo is al­so ap­par­ent­ly the sixth anom­aly, so Zion is in its 5th rein­car­na­tion.

Besides all that, The Architect points out the flaws be­tween causal­i­ty and choice. He of­fers Neo a Lady or Tiger choice, choose a door. This is where the philoso­phies get a bit shal­low for me. Cause and ef­fect seem to hang on Neo’s choice. Except, Neo seems to think he on­ly has two choic­es, one door or the oth­er. He has plen­ty of op­tions.

Other

Where is the re­li­gion? TM:R us­es the de­vices of re­li­gion [Morpheus as a prophet, men­tions of prov­i­dence, the need for faith, etc] but nev­er deigns to il­lus­trate the ef­fi­ca­cy of these de­mands, nor to ex­plain what it is peo­ple are to have faith in. Are we to as­sume that faith should be placed in Neo. Who should Neo have faith in then? Only him­self? Morpheus faith seems bound to his ideas about choice and prov­i­dence, but at odd points these eat each oth­er. He says every­thing hap­pens for a rea­son, his prov­i­dence, but he al­so says every­one has a choice. In the di­alec­tic set up with­in the Matrix, these are at cross-pur­pos­es.

They could how­ev­er, be ex­plained in re­gard to faith. Yet, they nev­er are.

Last BS

I think, though I am quite pre­pared to ad­mit that this could very well be wrong, that what the Architect spoke of, that 99% ac­cept the Matrix as long as they are of­fered a choice, hints at a pos­si­ble twist. Perhaps while Neo and Trinity, and Morpheus, et al. think they are out­side of the Matrix, they are ac­tu­al­ly still with­in it. Thus, The Matrix en­com­pass­es both the Zion-world and what we have come to know as the Matrix it­self.

This is ex­plained both through what the Architect says, as well as in Neo’s freaky light­ning abil­i­ties at the end. He can sense the sen­tinels in the ‘re­al world,’ and can EMP-bake them with his hand in the ‘re­al world.’ I think he re­al­ized he was in an­oth­er lev­el of the Matrix, and sent his con­scious­ness forth in­to a high­er state of mind. Yeah, it sounds a bit new-agey.

or, per­haps while he was in the main­frame, he gained a new abil­i­ty, to trans­port him­self di­rect­ly in­to the Matrix, with­out plugs.

Hell, like I know what I’m talk­ing about.