February 16, 2015

Solid in the Right Places: Michael Sullivan's "Hollow World"

I am usually a SF skeptic. I have read so many famous SF writers that are famous in the genre, but after reading some of the stuff, I am turned away – I’ve had this with Herbert, Asimov, Stephenson, Heinlein, and Doctorow. I think I like SF in theory, but it may turn out I’m just a big fan of Douglas Adams or Gaiman when he writes a Doctor Who episode.
                The problem, as I see it, is that there are three distinct elements that have to come together in a SF work. The characters have to matter, the setting has to make sense, and the plot has to be interesting. So many works fail on at least one of those. Stephenson builds beautiful worlds, and he can write action, but his people are not believable as people. Asimov sets the plots in motion, but even his best work is dated. In the Foundation Trilogy, people are still smoking way in the future, along with other sexist and racist things going on. The stories are often a reflection of the time and the author’s politics. That’s why future fascism in Heinlein is no fun for me.
                But here’s the thing. Hollow World hits on all three things. The characters are developed and they change through the book. The world is fully realized without a heavy info dump or too much hand waving. The plot, though it takes a while to develop the conflict, moves organically from the setting and the characters. It is a really good book in these terms, not just good for SF. I’m glad I was able to be transported to it for a while. One thing though, there was a love-story –esque part that came to fruition after the resolution of the main conflict. It seemed tacked on and unnecessary to everything that came before it. So you can’t have everything, but this book comes very close to perfect.

There is a certain difficulty to modernism: Djuna Barnes and "Nightwood"

I think it started as a response to the impressionists. New technologies made the way stories could be told replicable by other media. Art had to move on.  I have liked a lot of modernism. I followed Joyce from the moocow to Stately, Plump through Yes. I tried to follow him all along the riverrun, but I failed multiple times. It was where he went from storytelling with a stylistic verve to just style – period. It didn’t work for me, but maybe since it has been years since my last effort I should try again.
All that is preface to build whatever ethos about what comes next: I did not like Nightwood.  It is short, and beautifully written, but the whole thing is written around the main character. She has no agency of her own and seems to exist as a character in the stories of other characters. And there’s the eternal student’s lament -- nothing happens. Even the Sapphic element, something of a angle for certain readers, feels downplayed. The lovers the main characters take on just happen to have multiple genders. Not hot at all. Maybe it was for the time, what do I know?
Basically, it was good enough that I wanted to keep reading to see if anything happened, but not good enough so that I wasn’t thumbing through the pages as I approached the end with anticipation of having finished the book. What I think it needs is one of those Cambridge Companion to Literature versions, where the text is just part of the whole and you have various academics writing around the text to help shape the context in which you read the book. There is introductory material, but it is too laudatory to really help the reader. At least it was for me. I’m just glad I’m not writing a paper on this book , because that would mean that I would have to flip right back to the start to see if I missed anything. It wasn’t good enough for that.

February 14, 2015

Sophomore Slump: Patton Oswalt's "Silver Screen Fiend"

I like the idea of Patton Oswalt.
He can be funny and snide and smart.
It is just that sometimes he may try too hard. I think that is the case here. He like movies and he went and watched a lot of movies. But the book tries to put a narrative arc and significance to some of the movies just where it doesn’t fit. I liked his previous book, but that seemed to have more form and structure in an organic manner.
Not to say that this book does not have its good parts that made me laugh. It does. It just felt less necessary than his other book and his stand up.
He is self-aware though, and I can respect that. He writes of a time he was opening for Louie CK, when he was younger and “My ideas were simpler and less startling than I cared to admit, so I masked that with a lot of unnecessarily ornate vocabulary an dense cultural references” (134). Maybe he’s still there. Heck, this book isn’t all about movies then, I guess.
And then, after all that, it’s too short! It is only 220 pages with larger font and margin, and that’s padded out with 40 pages of the movies he saw during the time period he’s talking about.  I was let down in the end, but only because it didn’t meet my high expectations.

February 7, 2015

Sick of It All: Yours Truly Ten Years On

There was another album released recently, with this title. They are very different works.
For my money, though, this is the best Sick of It All Album,
It has nothing to do with the fact that this was the album that they were out touring to support when I first saw them live. They were touring with the Dropkick Murphys, at the time one of my favorite bands. They stole the show from Dropkick. I was in the pit and did the wall of death and was too worn out to really pay attention to the Murphy’s set.
I bought the shirt at the merch table and went and bough the album and listened to it a bunch. I started buying the other albums, but this was the best one. It was more melodic, and better produced than some of the earlier records – a black mark for some fans, but it worked for me.
                I don’t know what happened, but music slipped out of my life for a while, until I started learning how to play bass and guitar a couple of years ago. It was even later when I heard that Sick of It All was back on tour with a new album. The new album is good, but I wanted to relive my past. Sadly, I have no idea what happened with my old version of this album, so I had to buy it again. It had been ten years or so, and I remembered the words and the breakdowns. From start to finish, it still holds up, with some great songs that make you want to punch the floor. Except for that last track, it just doesn’t fit.

Phillip K. Dick's Ubik: What a Ride. Read. Repeat.

Here's the thing about Phillip K. Dick.

He was the guy that everyone else was ripping off for their stuff to seem original. But for whatever reason he was never mainstream. But he made sci-fi craziness so that he could be mediated through hacks and made safe.

So, when reading Ubik, don't think of the bad predecessors that had more money and recognition than Dick. Ignore all the matrices that exist.

Buy the ticket, take the ride.

Stories to Treasure, and a Book to Pass Along: Neil Gaiman's Trigger Warning

First off, I am a big fan of Neil Gaiman. So I’m just going to call him Neil from here on out.

Neil is one of those writers, that if they were dead, you would say, “Man, I wish he were still alive”. I feel that way about Orwell and Camus. Thankfully, Neil is still alive and making art. We are lucky for that.

This collection is a continuance of Neil’s awesomeness. I have read his other two collections – both Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things – and loved them. Fragile things was one of the first presents I got for my wife when we were first dating. I waited for her to finish then I asked to borrow it. It is now part of our combined collection. Thanks, Neil.

That said, I have a quibble. The title of this collection sounds too de mode. It is brought of current discourse in the left. In 20 years, the title will have to be explained to new fans. “Oh, a Trigger Warning was a way of saying…”. Other than that, these stories are awesome. Neil has a way of creating an atmosphere that is just creepy, but in a good way. There’s no exposition dump, or if there is it doesn’t stand out. That’s good, because the format is made for immediacy, and quick intimacy. You have to know who the character are, and live in them right away.

The problem with short stories by Neil is that they are too short. I want a new book by  Neil, I want to fully live in a world that he creates. Thankfully, some of the stories are long enough for you to stretch out your legs in, and you’re not confined by the page count. There is a nice selection here – the good long stories are Lovecraftian, Grimmish, and Whovian. The best, most haunting story is just a few pages.

Somewhere Neil once said that adults need fairy tales too. Thankfully he’s still giving them to us. I’ll now hand this book to my wife, glad that I had a chance to read it first when she wants to talk about the stories.