Monday, December 30, 2013

Alive in 2013

Being alive in 2013 has meant embracing the worst case scenario. To be honest, on the grand scale, this year didn't have a lot to recommend it. Politically this country seems to have slipped a gear. Yeah, I know that this isn't the first time the government's been shut down or certainly the first time when our two ridiculous political parties couldn't agree on anything. But for a year beginning with such minimal hopes, seeing them crushed again and again and again was dispiriting. In the process of writing these few year-end posts I looked back over my posts this year, especially the ones post-Newtown. Boy did I get that wrong. I figured worst-case scenario there would be some token expansion of the back-ground checks and a renewal of the assault weapon ban. And then it was just the background checks and then it was the NRA dancing in the streets. What an absolute failure.

I get a weird twinge of jealousy whenever I see reports of the Chinese space program sending a probe into space or making plans for a space station. Why can't that be us? Why is this country so screwed up that we can't even get anything done anymore? Is that all we are, a country of people content to watch movies about space disasters instead of funding actual exploration?

So, I spent the year reading a lot of fantasy, a lot of science fiction and watching a lot of Star Trek. Honestly, other than the original series and TNG, I never really watched the other shows back in the day. I don't read the expanded universe fiction. I don't have a Star Fleet uniform. And yet, increasingly I could hear myself talking about this one show again and again. My friends' eyes glaze over, my dog wanders into the other room when he hears the opening theme, my cats sit in silent contempt.

But I can't stop. There's something about this show that I want to believe in this year. I need to believe in a ship, a family, out there in the stars, exploring the unknown. I want to think that beyond of this back and forth between politics, job, and all the rest that there's something better waiting. We just have to wake up and change things.

Even as I stay the same. Everyday I'm at my desk, writing a few hundred words, sending out stories when I think they're as good as I can make them right now. Getting my first story published was a tremendous lift to me this year. I've got another one coming out at some point this next year on a science fiction story a day website. I've been sketching out a few details for another novel. Every draft I discover another tiny little trick, or another mistake I never noticed before. If something is important you keep working on it. You keep doing it.

I'm grateful for my friends and my family. I'm happy to have a house to slowly, steadily improve each year. I'm grateful for my wife, my best friend, and another year together trying to make things better, one small step at a time.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

What I read in 2013

I had a kind of mission this year to read at least five books written in 2013. I nearly made it. I'm embarrassed to say I haven't had a chance to pick up the wonderful conclusion of Chris Holm's Collector series, "The Big Reap," which is why is not included below in my five favorites of this year. But, seriously, don't wait on my opinion, pick up the book if you haven't already and read it. Chris is a great story-teller with one hell of an awesome concept in the Big Reap.

Science fiction and fantasy. That's what occupied most of my reading time. And when I say science fiction what I really mean is Kim Stanley Robinson. Green and Blue Mars, 2312, and this year's Shaman, and I've barely scratched the surface on this guy's writing. I can't praise him enough for his ideas and character development and simple inspiring spirit. In a year I rewatched most of Star Trek, this was the fitting literary counter-part. Robinson portrays imperfect, realistically harsh worlds always on the brink of freeing themselves, not with guns or bombs but with the power of ideas and selfless courage.

Fantasy was taken up by the twin Scotts: R Scott Bakker and Scott Lynch. I ran across Bakker in a 'what do I read after Song of Ice and Fire' search. Dark, twisted, steeped in history, these books are fantastic re-imaginings of the Crusades. He doesn't quite pull away from the "Big Bad" motif, there's a dark, sinister, ancient force coming back into the world, but this is a background concern in the first two books of the series and no one comes off as gratingly noble or heroic. 

Scott Lynch also writes about rogues and scoundrels. "Lies of Locke Lamora," is filled with them, as well as great action set-pieces, memorably strange settings, and a pleasingly wry take on the human condition. Locke Lamora is not a nice person. A Robin Hood figure, his schemes cause significant collateral damage to everyone around him, and nearly lead to the death of an entire city. "Lies of Locke Lamora," is a heist tale, basically, but one unafraid to look at the larger damage caused by criminal machinations.

Here are my picks for novels this year.

5) Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Green Mars, just like the first book in the Martian Trilogy is a novel of ideas and characters in precisely that order. Now the ideas are grand: long discussions of the process of turning a dead, frozen dust ball into a breathing, green tundra world; debates on forming a better society around principles of democracy and social justice; revolutions effecting positive changes rather than more ruin and death. This book suffers from the middle child syndrome, neither starting at the right place or avoiding a cliff-hanger, but it's still sharply focused, avoiding the leisurely entropy of its sequel, Blue Mars.

4) R Scott Bakker: The Darkness that Comes Before. Bakker's worlds are meticulous, with echoes of real historical events and personages, mixed with his own elaborate invention. The appendix for The Darkness that Comes before extends for pages, explaining cultures, languages, and ancient events creating a dense fantasy book for history buffs and text annotators. The stories in the book are fantastic, filled with believably greedy, self-absorbed, disturbing individuals that possess unique perspectives and obviously detailed histories. All of the books demand attention, Bakker's prose is difficult and full of poetry. Monsters appear, they're vivid and appalling, but the terror he invests in simple human conversation is what really makes this book special.

3) Scott Lynch: Lies of Locke Lamora. Caper tales depend on two things: one) intricate yet plausible schemes invented by two) amoral yet sympathetic schemers. Locke Lamora is a great character, devious, charming, arrogant, brutal, and yet ultimately human. The world of Camorr City reminds the reader of Renaissance Venice or Naples, albeit ones shadowed by crystal towers created through ancient alchemy. The magic here is very subtle, less fire-balls and conjured demons, and more potions and hypnosis. This fits the themes of the story perfectly, Locke Lamora's elaborate plans take chapters to reach fruition and having spells and wizards everywhere would cheapen that. Keeping a tight rein on overtly supernatural elements gives the ones who do appear more punch, underlining the most audacious magic trick of all, conjuring up a human soul in the heart of a thief.

2) Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman is a genre all to himself. His reliance on fairy tale logic and supernatural contrivances can seem a little cute at times, but not his weary appraisal of human misery. Here a small boy accompanies a friend on trek through 'orange skies,' and cat tail fields to confront an ancient pest, a 'flea,' in the words of the 'youngest' Hempstock, Lettie. Inevitable human weakness causes a chain reaction of threat and menace. Each of the characters are sharply drawn and yet mysterious. The plot of the story is simple, essentially a chase story that could be read in one sitting if the implications of Gaiman's various metaphysics didn't disturb and provoke. It's that disconnect that Gaiman points out, between the lucid dreams of childhood and the somnulent consciousness of adults that really rams the point home. Gaiman's ancient deities are perfectly happy to talk about the 'creation of the moon,' and particle physics, but ultimately it's the simple act of seeing and remembering that brings understanding to individuals. That and the grace of three women in a farmhouse unwilling to let every mistake meet its punishment.

1) Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson. Yeah, I liked this book a lot. For one thing, a realistic look at life in the Upper Paleolithic, complete with spear-throwers, cave-art, and interactions with Neanderthals is going to get my attention. Great gulfs of time stretch between when our modern species evolved and the first written records five and half millennia ago. Entire civilizations of nomads and hunters that we know almost nothing about. What were they like? What did they dream about? And as my students sometimes ask, why didn't they just settle down and start making technology if they were just like us? Shaman isn't really about answering those questions. It's a coming-of-age story, following a young boy in the Wolf Pack as he passes a rite of manhood, and gradually comes to fulfill the role of shaman. Probably my favorite part of this book is that the society of these stone age hunters and gathered is not depicted as being static, but rather a dynamic reaction to the pressures around them. At one point, the pack's old Shaman, Thorn, laments that with his passing all that he knows will pass into the wind, lost except for the stories he's made Loon memorize. It's an incredibly poignant moment, filled with the essential tragedy of our species' early existence, people just like you and I who lacked the means to preserve their discoveries for the next generation. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

What I saw in 2013

Few of the movies I saw this year, except for Gravity and Captain Philips are going to make the Oscar Best Film list. Most of what I saw were science fiction, horror, or comic book movies. I enjoyed them, but they were not what I'd even call 'great cinema.' They were pop artifacts from a year filled with explosions, fist fights, and space ship battles. Still, any year where I got to watch a rocket powered fist slam into an unsuspecting Cthulhu beast probably has something going for it.

In any normal year I would be able to get to just about all of the science fiction movies except for one or two. In recent years this has not been even remotely possible. We are definitely living through a kind of bubble economy for science fiction and comic books. When it crashes I'll be sad, but for the moment it seems like every hair-brain scheme gets some kind of financial backing: Ender's Game? Sure, here's some cash. Giant robots fight kaiju? Absolutely, here's your money. Unfilmable quasi-documentary on zombies, we just have a change or two and you're good to go...

5) Europa Report. This movie is sneaky. At first glance it's a found-footage horror film, not all that different from 2011's Apollo 18. But that's just the window dressing I'm sure they used to win funding. At its heart it's a hard sci-fi space opera like Gravity and 2001. The only creature appears late in the final reel and it doesn't seem malicious as much as very territorial. So for the rest of the movie we have a realistic look at a manned mission to the Jovian system, complete with discussions of gravity and extraterrestrial life, classed up with monologue from Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It was not all that hard to imagine this privately funded mission being something similar to a manned exploration of Mars. The characters and story are fairly rote but I'm giving this movie a nod just for the way it hacks existing movie tropes to talk about something more interesting.

4) Pacific Rim. Highly entertaining. I want to see more of the world this movie created and I'm sorry that it wraps up in a such a self-contained way because I definitely think this movie could've benefited from a more open-ended approach, not a neat and snug conclusion. Again, the plot of this story is conventional but the details are what makes this movie for me work. Each of the giant robots is a fully realized product of its parent culture. Each of the various Kaiju seems to have a story of its own. The idea of the 'drift' could've been a movie all on its own. If Marvel can convince someone to spin-off its movie franchise into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., can't Del Toro get someone to back a police procedural in San Francisco tracking down black market operatives in Kaiju parts? 

3) Captain Philips. Every time I thought I was going to the theater to watch this movie, something else would distract me. Eventually I had to wait until a lull period where there was literally nothing else my wife and I could agree to watch together except for this movie. And I loved it. Tom Hanks is amazing. The story, while not without controversy, is compelling. It also has one of my favorite moments in movies this year, the Somali pirates' look of bewilderment as a SEAL commando rattles off their names, families, and friends. I love that the moment is not exactly reassuring; the pirates are shocked and Captain Philips looks disturbed. In a year where Snowden showed us just what the NSA is capable of, it's instructive to see how information the US military has access to. Sure, these were unsympathetic pirates, but they were living on the other side of the world, on a veritable island in the net. How much do you think the government knows about you and I?

2) The Conjuring. James Wan reminds me of the Ramones. Not because of he wears leather jackets or has a questionable haircut, but in overall philosophy. The Ramones set out to do something very simple - strip away all the parts of rock n' roll that were boring and just make a song out of the cool stuff. The Conjuring is a horror movie that strips away all of the boring useless clutter in the average horror movie to get right down to business. How do you scare someone? I mean, really, scare someone. Wan is quickly making a career of this notion. The first Insidious movie was clever, but The Conjuring is nearly a perfect example of how to use atmospheric details, lighting, staging, and camera work to create a sense of dread. Everyone knows that the creepy dark basement is going to be haunted, but the trick is make the entity in the basement unique, to have it get under your skin. One way is to suggest far more than can be seen on the screen. Most of the horror in this movie happens just off screen or deep within impenetrable shadow. Not very ground-breaking to be sure, but damned effective. In a movie crafted with this much skill, I'm willing to overlook the questionable parts of the story - the problematic source material and attitude towards Wiccans. Other than Del Toro, Wan would be my pick to do a Lovecraft adaptation.

1) Gravity. In the final moments of the film, Sandra Bullock's Chinese re-entry module crash-lands in a lake, bursts into flames and starts filling with water. It was about then my wife cried out, 'oh, come on, not again!' This is a movie that puts you through the ringer. Very little of the movie is wasted motion, or free of tension. And I think that's its biggest success - telling a simple story simply. Now that simple story involves next-level special effects and top-notch acting from Bullock and Clooney, but none of that detracts from the point of the film, which is how does someone survive an impossible situation? I'm sure that had a lot to do with its box office success but is this film really just 'To Build a Fire" in space? A woman vs. nature conflict? I'm not sure. Parts of the movie, the constant use of fetal imagery, the metaphors of birth and evolution, seem to suggest a deeper significance. It was almost as if 2001 was rolled into a tight little ball and pulled inside-out, the same meditation on man's place in a cold and pitiless universe minus monoliths.

Honorable Mention: Upstream Color, Shane Carruth made a name for himself with "Primer," which is still my favorite time-travel movie. Here he pulls back into a haze of identity questions and impressionistic cinematography. The effect is no less disturbing or thought-provoking.

Dishonorable Mention: Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. You had one job, Peter Jackson, one job. Tell the story of Bilbo Baggins and a Dragon called Smaug. Why couldn't we have a movie that did that?

Friday, December 27, 2013

What I heard in 2013

This will be the first in a series of year-end posts about what I'll remember this year for. I'll start today with music, and work my way through books, movies (and television shows), and overall experiences. As far as music goes, I have to say this was an unusual year for me. For the past few years I've mainly just bought the latest album from my favorites, picked up whatever the new critical favorite was and left it at that. I still remember when I could count the number of albums I had on my fingers, and how I would listen to each of those CDs obsessively, pouring over the lyrics. I've more music now than I'll ever be able to listen to fully, every really appreciate. So the music that makes a year for me is the stuff that won't be denied, that cuts above the clutter and leaves a mark.

What I wanted this year was to hear a particular sound. I'm not sure where this sound came from. But early in the year I realized I didn't have any music that really expressed what I was feeling.

The best I could come up with was the soundtrack to Blade Runner, that haunting, silver and neon menacing pulse. So I looked for it. I heard it in My Bloody Valentine's long, long-delayed follow-up to 1991's Loveless MBV but buried under the gauze. I heard it here and there in movie soundtracks this year: Gravity, Upstream Color, and then most clearly on the 2011 movie Drive. After I heard it there, I started to see if anyone was producing it in contemporary music. I wasn't looking for electronica, precisely but that was often where I heard it most clearly. What makes my choice for the album of the year is that it does the best job capturing that sound that I had in my head, and even going beyond it in certain respects.

So the results of this quest are below. You'll notice that some of the songs I've put on my list don't quite fit what I just described above but that's okay, music is what moves you, regardless of whether you want to hear it or not.

5) Teeth of the Seas Master: This was one of my first big finds this year. I didn't know anything about this band before I read some buzz for it's Master album, but I liked the cover and the previews sounded epic and futuristic. I should be clear, the sound I was looking for isn't quite this, but there are enough tracks that sound like a demented Acela, off-the-rails, barreling through a barrage of laser fire, that I don't care. Stand-out track: "Reaper."

4) Boards of Canada Tomorrow's Harvest. I've heard the expression, 'like the soundtrack to a movie that never came out,' enough that I suspect it's a cliche, but nevermind - this is actually like the soundtrack that never came out and one one that I'd really like to have seen. It even starts out with this little moog squiggle suggesting one of the title cards for a sixties sci fi movie. In sound, it doesn't really resemble much of what's going on in today's music, reminding me more of the desolate synth washes of Eduard Artemiev's soundtrack for Tarkovsky's Solaris. Not exactly gripping but I wish I had stumbled onto it earlier in the year, it would've been the backdrop for a number of stories this year.

3) My Bloody Valentine m b v. The miracle isn't that My Bloody Valentine finally came out with a follow-up, it's that it's any good. And m b v is very good. I listened to it so much this past spring I didn't bother buying any music until summer. Each track seems to build on the next, weaving this huge towering tapestry of sound. But it's not brutal, it's soft. It's not loud, it's layered. Twenty years on and no one has really captured what makes MBV so amazing, which is an accomplishment in itself, I suppose.

2) Laura Marling Once I Was an Eagle. Like I said, not everything I listened to sounds like a sci-fi soundtrack. Marling is a relatively new folk artist from England and I'm really surprised she didn't explode more this year. Still there's whatever sequel she comes up with, her talents are astonishing, a clear taunt soulful voice that can dance, leap, soar, and stalk. For me, she was the Adele of 2013. Her songwriting is ambitious, the first four tracks of Once I Was forming a kind of tone poem, the same Zeppelinesque guitar riff stitching together her opaque meditations on lost love and shattered illusions. Stand-out song: "Master Hunter" which is more metal than anything on an acoustic guitar has any right to be.

1) Nils Frahm Spaces. A weird one in many respects. This was the sound of the year for me because of one song: "Says," which is the second track on this semi-live album, a seven-minute absolutely perfectly calibrated emotional roller-coaster. From a simple soft electronic beat, like the click of a watch, composer Nils Frahm carefully zooms out until an entire billowing universe stands revealed. Apparently Frahm suffered a broken hand last year and was forced to scale back his playing to a John Cage level minimalism. Now healed, his playing sounds like that scene in Amadeus when Mozart cuts loose on a harpsichord, letting a simple melody pile on top of itself in ever more intricate, filigreed patterns. Some of the pieces here are very spare, almost too drama-free for my taste, but never simple. Frahm always manages to find some complication in rhythm or tone that registers.