Monday, January 20, 2020

Dune Messiah

A while back I felt ambitious about reading a bunch of classic sci-fi series.  I bought Rendezvous with Rama and Rama II, I bought all of the Foundation series, and I bought 3 sequels to Dune.  I have slowly been making my way through these because I find that I have to separate them out from my normal reading sequence. While I have really enjoyed the first books in each of these series, I have not been enamored enough of any of the sequels to delve further into their worlds. 
When I picked up Dune Messiah, I figured that I would see the continuation of Maud'Dib's rule and hoped that I would get a bit more backstory to the mythology that Frank Herbert exposes his reader to in Dune.  One thing that I liked about Dune, and something that I also found frustrating, is that he offers up a rich world with a built-in mythology that he only barely explains.  He lets the reader pick up bits and pieces of the various cultures and religions the figure heavily throughout the novel.  On one hand, I like an author who trusts his audience enough to be able to put together enough to get through a novel without laying everything out for them.  I am also a patient enough reader that I am happy to piece things together and to let things go until/unless the author comes back to them.  I don't need every single novel to be overly plotted and planned and have everything tied up neatly.  A shaggy dog here or there never killed anyone.
But Dune Messiah isn't interested in delving anymore into these aspects of Dune that I found fascinating.  Herbert also doesn't seem all that interested in continuing the action of Dune.  To some extent, this is okay because Paul Atreides has won his Jihad and reigns.  This novel is about intrigue and the difficulties of maintaining power won.  But there is a lot of talk, and a lot of it is very repetitious. 
I don't want to get too much into plot here because it is both a simple plot and convoluted.  It is simple in the sense that the parties are introduced quickly or are already known from the previous novel and the conflict is rather straightforward.  But it is convoluted in the approach.  Herbert must find a way for his characters to deceive and trick a character with the power of prescience, or the ability to see multiple potential future timelines.  The way that Herbert pulls this off is rather clever and exposes Paul's fatal flaw.  It is the more clever because of the way that it places Paul in a company of mythic figures whose hubris leads to an eventual downfall.  This all fits well into the archetypal hero's journey.
The read is quick and it is satisfying in its return to known quantities but I didn't get as much out of it as the original novel.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Expanse, pt. 1: Leviathan Wakes

James S.A. Corey's Leviathan Wakes is a big book that is a part of a big series.  The scope of the novel is equally big.  There is a lot about this author (a pseudonym for two authors working together) and the series (that is currently being adapted into the series The Expanse by Amazon) that merit attention, but I am just interested in this novel so far.
It must have been a few years ago when I started dedicating a lot more time to reading and writing about sci-fi that I started seeing these books.  Initially, I thought that this was an old series because there were so many of them.  Each of the book covers features similar cover art and the same lettering style.  It looks a lot like a reissue of a recovered series.
But this novel, the first in the series was just published in 2011 and the books have been coming out nearly every year with the total up to 8 and a new novella just announced.  So, I had missed the boat a bit until now.
The book opens with a prologue that narrates a terrifying scene of a woman trapped in a storage locker aboard the spaceship Scopuli after it had been forcibly boarded by a hostile raiding party.  Julie, the woman trapped in the locker, will become the center of a shaggy-dog detective narrative around which the sci-fi narrative is wrapped.
The novel's two main characters, Holden and Miller (a disgraced naval officer and disgraced police detective, respectively), carry two separate narrative strands that eventually merge as the case of the missing girl evolves from a wandering daughter case to massive, interplanetary political upheaval.
The exact details of the plot dissolve into the background as the story unfolds.  There is an ancient alien virus, tribal conflict between humans of different colonial origins, and futuristic hardware.  The world built in the novel is one that is familiar to fans of contemporary sci-fi.  That is, a world that is similar to our own in its lived-in qualities.  This is not the glossy world of Star Trek where everything is military-grade and state of the art.  The ships and gear range from the bleeding edge of technology to patched-together, aging industrial haulers.
There is a lot going on in this novel, too much to cover here, but I will say that this was an enjoyable read.  Corey's matter-of-fact description of inter-faction conflict is reminiscent of Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  In the world of this novel, colonialism travels into space along with humanity as people living in space stations in the and outside of the asteroid belt, on Mars, the Moon, and back on Earth compete for resources and jockey for political power.  The descriptions of the bodies of human that are born and live in different gravities echoes the work of Kim Stanley Robinson, who so frequently muses on the effects that deep space will have on human evolution.
When my recently pared-down sci-fi book group decided to read this novel, I went and bought a box set of the first three novels.  I look forward to continuing this series and seeing what the authors can do with the world they have created.  I am a little torn about whether I want to begin watching the series just yet.  I may hold out until I get further into the books.

Monday, January 6, 2020

This Boy's Life

In the final pages of Tobias Wolff's memoir This Boy's Life, he writes:  "When we are green, still half-created, we believe that our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to at in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters.  We live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever."
This memoir is filled with entertaining stories and some insight.  This post is just to recommend the book to anyone interested. 

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 in review

2019 was a pretty good year for literacy for me.  I need to remind myself of this from time to time.  I didn't read quite as much as I wanted, but I read a lot of great books and had a lot of good discussion about them with friends.  This is something that I want to continue to do and do more of in 2020.
This year I compiled the index for a friend's book, Cavaliers and Economists, and published two essays on - one about Jack London's dystopian novel The Iron Heel, and the other about Isaac Asimov's use of encyclopedism in Foundation.  I posted a bunch here, as well.  Finally, I started working on some fiction writing projects.  I don't have anything ready to go public yet, but it feels good to work o this, as well.

Looking forward, I want to continue to get involved in the local writers' community and continue to get my work out to a reading audience.  I think next steps really are about making connections with other writers and finding ways to make use of my experience and training in education.  

Monday, December 23, 2019

Dies the Fire

I picked up this book thinking that it was something else.  I had heard about S.M. Stirling's novels of the Change and thought that Dies the Fire was the first book in the series.  The book I wanted is Island in the Sea of Time, which is about an island on the eastern seaboard that it transported from the late twentieth-century to the seventeenth and the inhabitants are forced to figure out how to survive.  Cool sf premise.
This novel is the first in a spin-off series that narrates what happens to a different part of the United States.  An EMP has knocked out all of the world's electronics, forcing the inhabitants of this world to re-invent means of survival and re-discover many technologies and society.  As governments and civil order collapse, people coalesce into factions with competing drives.
The novel opens with Mike Havel flying a charter plane into rough Idaho backwoods.  He must land his now non-functional plane and hike the family in his charge our of the wilderness.  Havel is a capable ex-marine with a talent for bringing out others' skills.  Mike and this family make up the core of the first group in the novel.
The second main group is Clan Mackenzie, headed by Juniper Mackenzie, formerly a musician and high priestess of her coven.  Both groups gradually build their populations and adapt to their new world.  They re-discovery skills in archery and sword craft.
The two groups end up forming an alliance to fight against the Protector, a self-styled feudal lord who has taken over a nearby city.  All through the novel, the groups are in constant danger from roving bands of raiders, the Protector's army, other groups hungry for resources, and starvation as they figure out how to marshall the resources that they have and become more efficient in farming without powered equipment.
Stirling's skill lies in descriptions of combat.  The novel is littered with fight scenes and imaginative battle plans.  The novel is also notable in a certain lack of exposition.  Stirling does not let the reader know more than the characters do.  We see the perspectives of other groups, but we don't know what is going on outside of that.  Stirling doesn't reveal the true cause of the Change, nor does he reveal more of the outside world, aside from the gossip and speculation of characters in the novel.
The novel was enjoyable to read but I am not terribly interested in reading more in this spin-off series.  It runs a little closer to swords and magic fantasy (without the magic, of course), than I normally like.  I will likely check out the first novel of the Change in the main series, however.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Visual Kindred

While reading Octavia Butler's Kindred, I learned that it had been adapted into a graphic novel.  After searching this out online and seeing some of the artwork, I decided that I needed to have this version of the book as well.  After getting it home, I paged through it, glancing at the representations of the book that I was currently reading, but I decided that I wanted to shelve it for a while before reading it.  I wanted to come back to it with a fresher perspective rather than, essentially, reading it twice in a row.
I recently did pick this up and was very happy with this adaptation.  I really enjoyed Butler's novel and I think that this work really does it justice.  The artwork is very careful to show the passage of time on Dana and Kevin.  Their faces and forms change of the course of the narrative to reflect the trials that they endure.
Need Okorafor write in the introduction that this graphic novel serves both as a way into Butler's work for the uninitiated and as a new way to read this novel.  I definitely found this to be the case.  The visual aspect of this book represented both the horror of the novel and the moments of compassion that Dana is able to find with others.  This is definitely a book to pick up.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Devil Master/Where Angels Rot/Hammr/Subtype Zero

Growing up near Cleveland, I went to a lot of small and local punk shows, but last night was the first time I took the opportunity to see a smaller metal show.  Over the last few years I have gotten to see a lot of bigger acts in big venues and it felt good to be in a smaller crowd, closer to the actual band.
Now That's Class is a small club nestled in between Cleveland proper and Lakewood.  They frequently host local and regional punk, indie, and metal shows and have a skateboard ramp inside of an old double storefront.  Walking in, the place reminded me of countless dive punk bars I've been to in the past to see shows.  My buddy paid $5 for our two beers, and it felt like home.  The walls were covered in stickers and graffiti and one shelf behind the bar was a veritable shrine to Rodney Dangerfield, complete with something that looked like a cookie jar shaped like Rodney's head, a vinyl copy of "Rappin' Rodney" and the No Respect board game.  The first band was just performing their sound check as we entered.

Where Angels Rot tended to have good energy and played black/death metal to a handful of people.  They were young and the drummer had a very big kit that he seemed a little lost behind.  They were at their best when playing the slower, almost dirge-like interludes that peppered most of their songs.  But when they kicked into faster tempos the double bass drums tended to muddy and lag.  They played well individually but need more time together to gel as a group.  The guitarist stood out as the talent in the group, taking on both lead and rhythm duties in the four-piece.

The second band, Subtype Zero, played incredibly well together and were a lot of fun to watch.  They played a thrashier, shreddier metal that had hints of Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies groove to it.  The two guitarists traded leads, the bassist added harmonics to the composition, and the drummer was much more at home behind his set. 

Hammr is a 3-piece grind metal group.  The members are a bit older and fit well into their roles.  Their brand of metal isn't one that I normally listen to, but it was a lot of fun to watch live.  The highlight of their set for me was watching the singer switch out his bass for a guitar after the first song.  He had initially strapped on the bass and played through their opener but then set it on top of his stack, I thought to change a string or tune.  But then he grabbed a gig bag as though he had forgotten it and got out another guitar.  The band played the rest of the set with the bass atop the amp and playing two guitars.

The headliner for the night, Devil Master from Philly, put on a great show beginning with setting up.  My buddy and I had been watching a dude in a long leather duster through the whole show because he looked like someone from '80s goth metal band Christian Death.  I missed the beginning of the set up because I had gone to use the restroom and buy a beer, but when I got back I saw Christian Death stringing artificial cobweb from a nail on the wall to the microphone in the center of the stage.  The band packed the tiny stage with its 6 members, the largest band of the night.  The band played a punk-infused black metal, a crossover I had not heard much of before.  Among other highlights of the show was the keyboard player who made no facial expressions and barely moved the entire show.  For many of the songs, his hands were placed atop his keyboard, fingers draped over the front of it.  It was a strong performance choice, but fun as hell to watch amid the frenetic dancing and gesturing of the rest of the band.

The show was great and here it is, nearly 12 hours later and my ears are still ringing.  All four bands reminded me of what I loved about going to shows in Cleveland when I was young.  The small venue started out rather sparsely attended but was packed by the time the headliner wrapped.  A few people moshed just in front of the stage and a few feet in front of where I stood and there was an overwhelmingly open and welcoming atmosphere.  This is a place I want to go back to see more shows.