August 17, 2015

Et in Arcadia Ego?

With potential presidents interviewing in front of whole country, you can hear them lament a falsely-remembered 50's where the manufacturing job was the root of the blue-collar america, what was America in all its greatness. The truth is that the country has manufactured more and more, just with lower labor input through various capital deepening forms like robots.
In fact, the country went through a much more drastic labor shift. At the end of the nineteenth century, fully half of people working were working on farms. Now it's less than two percent of all jobs. Where are the candidates calling for a return to arcadia, where we will once again become a nation of farmers? I want to vote for her.

August 2, 2015

Wool by Hugh Howey: A Novel Story Well Told

The science fiction community leaves me confused. There are literally thousands of reviews for this book on Amazon. And they’re positive. That means that the word of mouth was good, bordering on great. This book is in fact a publishing phenomenon. The writer self-published this thing, without any gate-keepers, and just through the quality of it, he was able to get people to read it and then a traditional publisher came calling. Then Hollywood came calling. These are all the things that you want to happen when you write a book (unless you are the misanthropic sort that sometimes happens to write books about catching and rye).

I say the community is weird because I would not have come across this book unless I was doing what I was doing. What I was doing was making a concerted effort to read some of the more influential science fiction books in the genre that I had not read for whatever reason. This project of mine triggered the recommendation engine to say to me, “You should have a look at this one.” Were it not for that algorithm, I would have never heard of this book.

And heard of this book is something I should have done. There are a lot of aspects that make a book successful in my eyes. You have to have interesting characters, you have to have an interesting world for those characters to live in, and you have to set them at something novel and interesting. This book works on all counts. The three or four main characters have depth and a good back-story, the dystopia Howey places them in is novel (It’s like a giant cruise ship, but buried underground). Then there is a good payoff at the end.

There are a couple of things that detract from the narrative. First is that there is no real back story at the beginning. I like to have some sort of reasoning in realistic sci fi about how the setting and the characters got from where we are at to where they are at during the course of the novel. That’s a bit hinted at during the course of the book, but it is never really explained. I’m a bit hypocritical here, because if they over-explained things, then I get mad at the author for being heavy-handed. Second, reading the book, I had an issue with trying to figure out the scale of the silo in which the characters live. It seems really big, 150 or so stories, and climbing all the way down is a mult-day process, but it seemed a bit flexible in the narrative. There are no schematics in the book, so it is up the inference from the reader.

Finally, I have to just extol the narrative as a whole. I went to grad school for literature, which means that I over-think narratives. I look at the sentence level and just judge everything I come across. I must give the author high praise here. There was only one point in the whole of the 500 pages where I felt that there was a sentence out of place. It was in the last 20% or so of the book, and the author did that thing where a sentence fragment is used as a point of emphasis and not a whole idea itself. That one sentence didn’t work for me. All the others did.

Decent read, but derivative and forgettable: Scalzi's "Old Man's War"

So, the weird thing about this book is that the cover art makes it seem like an older book than it is. The plot owes a lot to the Forever War - so much that it’s hard to believe Scalzi’s claim that he had never read that book before embarking on this one. Maybe he’s right in that had he read the predecessor novel, he might have made some changes.

I’m also reminded of the training sequences of Starship Troopers, where the new recruits learn how to live in their new skin. In Heinlein it is the mechs, but here it is in new bodies. That’s an original twist. Not sure if how the good giys go about making soldiers in this book is how I would go about it if I were running my own war against the bad guys, but it is an option.

There are a bit of characterizations that seem out of place, like Scalzi doesn’t know what it’s like to be an old man and thus doesn’t really feel like he’s capturing someone who has already lived a long life, but overall the book is an easy read. If that’s good or not is up to debate. The problem with being an easy read and somewhat derivative is that it doesn’t stick with you that well, so it wasn’t memorable for me. One thing I have to salute is that he does give some props to his influencers. There are throwaway characters named Gaiman and McKean, so that was a nice nod to the in-group. Overall, I won’t rule out reading more of Scalzi’s work, but I’m not running to it.

August 1, 2015

The Next Best Thing to Being There: Tony Rettman's "NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980-1990"

If you’re old enough, the scene you came up in helped shape who you are - the people you surrounded yourself with and the music you listened to and the drugs you took (or didn’t take). I was shaped by the early 2000s in Morgantown, WV. There were various scenes there, centered on one of the hippie bars, or the 123, which drew some national acts but was filled most nights with local bands. The punks centered on a house on Pearl Street, that burned down under mysterious circumstances. I was part of all this, and the bands and the people went their way, with no real hit on the national consciousness.

Some scenes stick though. One of those was the birth of Hardcore music out the of the refuse of the punk scene in New York in the early 80s. Some of the bands that came out of that scene still have national relevance today, like Agnostic Front and Sick of It All, and it helped shaped other scenes national from Chicago and DC to LA. In NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980-1990, Tony Rettman explores that scene in considerable depth, bringing the reader the memories of the people who were in the scene and in the bands and worked at the clubs and radio stations.

The chapters are structured as brief conversations about certain aspects of the scene, so there are chapters on a band or a club or a record store. It gives the fan who was not there context for the music as it was developed and the people who put it together. There are also a lot of nice visuals from show pictures to flyers to illustrate the total artistic aspect of the Hardcore scene. It is an amazing document, but it does have some weaknesses. It was as if the writer interviewed the participants in depth, but he cut those interviews up to apply directly to the topic that was being covered. I haven’t read much oral history of music, but I am a big fan of the oral history as Studs Terkel did them, allowing the people he interviewed to share their full stories. I think the method here eliminates some depth of the experience.

A second concern is that when people are interviewed, they are identified only on their first appearance. This means that if you don’t recognize how they fit in the broader narrative the author is trying to create, you have to page back and try to figure it out for yourself. There is a listing in the back, but I only found that out after I finished the book.

Overall, I enjoyed it a lot, and I bought a couple of similar titles, hoping that they can deepen my appreciation of the music I listen too. One odd bit that didn’t fit anywhere: Vinnie Stigma comes off as a very flat character. He just loves being Italian and eating Italian food. There’s got to be more to him than that.