May 25, 2015

Recent Science Fiction Stand-Out: Claire North's "The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August"

Recently, I have been trying to read as much science fiction as possible, because I think I’ll like it. Overall though, it seems to me that most of the canonical writers were more focused on setting up cool scenarios than creating characters that were interesting and giving them something to do. I read Haldeman, Clarke, and Heinlein and ended up disappointed in all three. Basically I want everyone to be Douglas Adams or Vonnegut, but they set very high bars.

So when I came across this book, and I read it, I was pleased. I read it strongly and deeply. I enjoyed the premise: There are a few people who remember their past lives when they die. The thing is that they get put back in the same life when they are reborn. It seemed novel to me. The only thing that was similar was the movie Groundhog Day, but that’s only one day and as far as we know, only one person. This set  up allows you to live life over and over and learn as much as possible. Harry was a doctor and then a scientist and then a mathematician. I liked the set up so much, I was somewhat disappointed when the conflict started being introduced. There’s another like Harry who doesn’t want to play by the rules they have set up -- he wants to bring the future as far forward to his time as possible to learn more about the world. Living the same life over and over means that your potential death is pretty set by biology. The bad guy through his efforts creates what would be now current technology in the early 70s.

I liked it so much that it wasn’t until about 300 pages in, and after North has a couple of characters talk about time travel paradoxes, that I thought there was a flaw in the premise. I don’t know if others might see it or if it is idiosyncratic to me, but it lowered my enjoyment of the book - which I would still recommend. So here’s the thing, it’s like the “fixed points in time” thing that feels like a big hand-wave in the Whovian universe. Even though the people relive their lives over and over, they don’t become big names. In fact, the things that are big events are said to usually happen, in a sort of off-hand manner. In fact, if I recall correctly, Harry is able to use the date of the Chernobyl meltdown as a way to get in touch with others of his kind. To me, though, it seems as if they should be travelling on multiple timelines, especially since there are people repeating lives all throughout time. But they remember each other and seem to live on the same time line. It doesn’t seem like much, and I can’t explain it well, but it felt like a hole. It feels that way because the bad guy is more or less threatening to end the world, but it seems to me like it should be only on one timeline the world is ending. The repeating lives should mean multiple timelines and thus less is at stake if the world is ending on one branch. That was all it took to take me out of the created reality, and it lessened my tension as a reader. I will still be looking forward to North’s future books, however.

Empty Worlds: Haldeman's "The Forever War"

I think the most compelling thing about this book is that Haldeman tried to get his science right in telling his story. In fact, it is the key driving point of the book. Time dilation at near light speeds means that travelling at those speeds means that time passes slower relative to people not speeding along at those speeds. This means that if near light speed is possible, then people will be able to time travel to the future, but the past is left behind.

The least compelling thing about the book was the main character. I didn’t really care what happened to him as he stumbled through the war and the centuries. That he ended up alive at the end, so that he would live amongst a more evolved version of humans than he left is one of the more interesting possibilities of the plot, but even that wasn’t developed enough. It was as if Haldeman was so focused on getting the science right as possible that he forgot to make a character to root for.

S-L-O-W Science Fiction: Arthur C. Clarke's "Rendezvous With Rama"

Maybe I’m missing something obvious.

Man has colonized the solar system, but there are no extraterrestrials. Rama, which is first though to be a comet or asteroid is too perfect to be either. It looks designed.

Some generic scientists (but they are progressive, one guy has two wives on different planets) go explore it. It must be weeks they’re exploring. It turns out to be a spaceship. There are creatures in it, but they don’t seem sentence. Some stuff happens. The people who live on Mercury try to blow it up. It gets some power from the sun and then goes away.

Is it just me, or was this a boring book? Maybe I don’t get science fiction at all, and this is supposed to be some sort of philosophical meditation on something. Whatever it is, it is a really slow book where it feels like not much happens. It might work as a set up for a deeper series, but it looks like the continuation books of the series are poorly reviewed. I don’t care about the characters, but I did want to know more about Rama. It is obvious Clarke thought deeply about the construction of the ship, I just wish he thought more about what to do with it.

Starship Troopers: The Movie's Better

This weekend, I watched a movie where I had read the book first - and I was disappointed in it, where it dealt differently with some situations, and totally changed the ending. It was the movie adapted from the French novel known as “Blue is the Warmest Colour” in English. I think I had a right to be mad, as changing the source material may broaden your potential audience at the expense of people who liked the original stuff.

I have no compunction complaining about that. With  the book for Starship Troopers, I didn’t like it, but I didn’t like it because it diverged so much from the movie. I knew that the movie from the 90s wasn’t true to the source, but it was a fun postmodern romp. The book here is this boring procedural thing told in the first person that really doesn’t have much tension. A good bit of it is the sort of soldiers in training thing that could be really well done like in “Full Metal Jacket” or in the books of James Jones. It’s weird, since the plot of the book is that they are fighting a war against aliens who have wiped out an city on Earth. I think that maybe the first person view is a distraction, because I never gained any sympathy for Rico but it limits what can be told about the whole situation of the war.

The strange thing is that the action sequences are more just narrated in a way that is matter-of-fact except for the opening chapter. The book starts in the middle of things and then flashes back. That opening chapter is a good hook, but the rest of the book doesn’t live up to the promise that part introduces. It’s a shame, too. The movie was so good, and there are very few instances where the book isn’t better than the movie. This is one of those times.

May 21, 2015

New Toy: Gretsch G5440LS Electromatic Hollow Body Long Scale Bass Guitar - Orange

Cat Not to Scale
I just unpacked this, a little present to myself for my new promotion. I went downstairs and plugged in and played a little Slayer. This really isn’t a Slayer axe, but there’s no better break-in music.

First impressions:
I like it. Which is good. I spent a bit of money on it. It looks nice, but I am a fan of the hollow-body shape and the open sound holes. It is a bit bigger than I thought it would be. The body is pretty much the size of an acoustic guitar, and almost as deep.

First, a bit of where I’m coming from. I have only been playing bass a couple of years. I started out with a Squire P-Bass, but I traded that in to another P-Bass, but this one is a Fender Blacktop. It has the same double humbucker pick-up setup as this one does, but the bridge pick-up is closer to the bridge. The neck pick up is further from the neck. When I play that one with a pick or my fingers, I usually anchor my striking hand with my thumb on the neck pick up.
What that means is that I tried to replicate that same motion with this machine. The problem was that the strings even in standard tuning had too much slack for me, and I was finding myself playing with my hand anchored down on the bridge pick up instead. That’s not an issue but it shifted my conception of where my fret hand was. I thought I was on the ninth fret, but I looked left and I was on the twelfth fret, It was a mental block, but I think I got the hang of it.

New factors:
This is not a solid body bass. It has that sort of bluesy soul and not really the rock vibe, but it works.
The hollow body means that there is some resonance, and I will be able to practice without plugging it in. I bet that excites my pets. The body is bigger than my Blacktop. Where the Fender machine ends, here there is more bass. That’s not bad, it just means that I need a longer strap.
The strings on this are further away from the body of the machine. That means nothing for finger-style, but I found that my standard style of pick playing didn’t work, I can’t anchor my thumb on a pick-up and play. It seems as if the best playing style with a pick is a floating hand, but I need some work with that (I know, I know, you never use a pick. But “Raining Blood” has some power-chords.).
The biggest drawback is that there is some neck-dive. My Fenders have been well-balanced, so I never really knew what people were talking about when they said this phrase. Now I know. I found myself having to give some support to the neck with my fret hand, which was a new experience.

Overall, I’m very pleased, but it is easy to feel that way right out of the box. Should it break tomorrow, I’ll come and update this.

May 7, 2015

On "Hooligans United" - a Rancid Tribute

It was about time for a Rancid Tribute album.
I preordered this pretty much as soon as I heard about it, in the “Please Take My Money” sort of way.
It is a double album chock full of songs that were originally performed by Rancid.
So a couple of things I learned listening through this several times:

11)      Part of what makes Rancid so distinctive is Tim and Matt’s singing voices. I’m a big Anti-Flag fan, and they get the first song on the first record. They do a straight-forward cover, but it feels a little thin – Justin and Chris can’t quite match it.
22)      Tim, who released a solo album under the title “A Poet’s Life,” really is a poet. His songs work well even when singers who enunciate sing his songs.
33)      The most interesting covers are the ones that take the songs in an entirely different direction than the one you’re used to singing along in.

Overall, it is an interesting record for the Rancid fan, but I’m not sure how heavy of a play it will earn on turntables.