Wednesday, 27 April 2005

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

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

Monday, 30 June 2003

Transform

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. 8/10. Thanks to Phil for the recommendation.

Friday, 30 May 2003

The Decemberists: Castaways and Cut-outs

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]

Sunday, 25 May 2003

The Matrix: Reloaded – Gothic Production Values

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 chateau 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 uber-cheesy part, followed by an uber-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.

Saturday, 24 May 2003

The Matrix: Reloaded – Fides et Ratio

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.