Monday, May 30, 2005

Star Trek: The Next Generation Digs It

posted by Todd T @ 3:51 PM

Speaking if space opera,

We bought a set of DVDs of one of the seasons of the original Star Trek. Kind of fun to watch, though of course all of the plot holes gape wider than ever before for us, the acting is of its era, and sure enough you can see the puppet strings, and etc. etc. it's not up to today's standards but one forgives, to a point.

What is most fun is watching Tory get turned on to it. Her critical senses are nascent, but she is really interested in the stories, asks a lot of questions about the social issues that sometimes got explored a bit, and mainlines the sensawonder. To my astonishment she predicted the climax of one episode, despite it's hinging on the fairly adult concept of a starship captain sacrificing himself to atone for his earlier fatal misjudgments. This sort of personal crisis does not occur on Doctor Doolittle or The Saddle Club. She's 11, older than I when I caught the Trek bug but not old enough to be cynical about it. I feel like we are initiating her into the secret mysteries. She went with us to Balticon this weekend and the the indoctrination may be too far along now to reverse.

I am surprised by how much I like the soundtracks (-treks?). Although each episode has its own score, they also pretty much had five or six tracks that they pulled out at predictable moments. After a few episodes, you can start humming the right one for the moment even before the music actually kicks in. But it's good stuff. A tad on the melodramatic side, sure, like the show - in fact I submit that if it weren't, it would be lost in the background rather than feeding the moods the show wants to evoke. It's not super-sophisticated or anything, but I find it very effective. No boring washes or low pulses. Instead, unexpected but fitting melodies and cascades of notes. The tense tracks are indeed quite tense. The pleasant social gathering track evokes that mood quite nicely.

I notice that there were several composers involved: Sol Kaplan, Alexander Courage, Gerald Fried. I don't know who did what, but I bet it can be found on the web somewhere. Never heard of any of them myself, but then I'm not a soundtrack enthusiast generally.

I have no idea what the world thinks of this. Perhaps the music is considered as quaint as the show. But I do like it.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Fafhrd and Fritz

posted by Tim Walters @ 10:08 PM

The Second Book Of Fritz Leiber. A bit of an outtakes collection, but well worth it for the essay "Fafhrd And Me", which outlines the history of Leiber's collaboration with Harry Fisher, and throws in all kinds of entertaining stories along the way. There's also a very interesting essay on tides (did you know that there are places on Earth with no tides at all, and some where there's only one tide a day? I sure didn't), and a couple of decent stories (but nowhere near his best).

TFDSFU NFTTBHFT

posted by Tim Walters @ 10:03 PM

Butler & Keeney, Secret Messages. Feather-light, anecdotal history of secret messages (with an emphasis on those that are "hidden in plain sight", like the cues given by members of mentalist acts to each other). Pleasant reading, not much to remark on, except the cover (a clear orange dust jacket which, when removed, reveals a complex of yellow text, including the words "BUY ME").

Brother, Can You Paradigm?

posted by Tim Walters @ 9:43 PM

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Interesting to finally read this after years of hearing about it. A lot of his detractors seem to be responding to a caricature of his position; there's no discussion here of old fogeys cruelly sabotaging the career of young upstarts, for example. But while he claims not to be a relativist, he admits at one point that he doesn't believe any scientific theories are closer to truth than any others. Here I have to go with his rival Popper. Falsification may not be as tidy as Popper makes it seem, but it nevertheless gives us genuine knowledge.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Too Much Soda

posted by Tim Walters @ 10:58 PM

Charles Stross, Singularity Sky. A disappointment. I enjoyed Toast, his short story collection (thanks, Todd!), and since it felt like a grab bag, I was hoping that his novels would be even better. This one, at least, is not. Stross's good-natured humor is spread quite thin as, along with the smart, sexy cyber-libertarian protagonists, we follow a bunch of straw-man technophobes to their long-foreseen demise. And, aside from some fun surrealistic interludes, that's pretty much it. It's perfectly readable, just kind of meh. John Clute nails it.

Given that I thought Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space flat-out sucked (characters who change arbitrarily to drive the plot, insane amounts of padding), and that Ken MacLeod's The Cassini Division was bogged down with tedious and cliched political didactica, I'm only batting .250 on the much bally-hooed Scottish hard-SF renaissance; hence my title for this post. That hit, though, is Iain Add-M-To-Taste Banks, which I would score as a home run.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

I believe it's "DUN-suh-nee"

posted by Tim Walters @ 8:57 PM

Lord Dunsany, Time And The Gods. This book in the Fantasy Masterworks series corrals six volumes of rather short stories into one fairly massive tome. The result takes a while to work through, but is extremely impressive, and makes a strong case for Dunsany's being the first modern fantasy writer. Compared to Dunsany, Macdonald and Morris seem hopelessly Victorian, much less deft, and much less directly influential. I can see bits of Macdonald in C.S. Lewis, and bits of Morris in Eddison, but I can see bits (and often more than bits) of Dunsany in Cabell, Vance, Clark Ashton Smith, Pratt, John Collier, Leiber, and all the descendants of the above. Even Tolkien shows Dunsany's influence, although he eschewed his irony.

Taken all together, the stories do blur a bit; there are many retellings of Ozymandias, many variations on the perversity of Fate, Chance, and the gods, many scoundrels who get just a bit too greedy. But there are also straight heroic tales, or nearly so; many of the often-reprinted stories like "The Sword Of Welleran" and "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth" fall into this category.

And man, he can write. Between him and Max Beerbohm, I'm beginning to think that Thomas M. Disch may be right when he claims that the Edwardian period was the high-water mark for English prose. Dunsany manages effortlessly the exotic-but-clear quality that Morris tries much too hard for, and never loses his fresh, slightly cheeky quality.

"The Gibbelins eat, as is well known, nothing less good than man." You betcha.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

De-Animator

posted by Todd T @ 10:14 AM

Here's a fun time waster. Note: each variety will mutilate you in its own distinctive style.

http://artscool.cfa.cmu.edu/~lee/deanimator.html

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Planet themes

posted by Todd T @ 6:13 PM

Following up on a previous thread about solar system travelogue sf, I am copying this in from the Locus site:

Bova, Ben : Mercury(Tor 0-765-30412-0, $24.95, 319pp, hardcover, May 2005, jacket art John Harris) First US edition (UK: Hodder & Stoughton, February 2005)
Latest on Bova's ongoing series about human exploration of the solar system (following novels about Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn), concerning an ambitious scheme to build a staging area on Mercury for lauching ships into deep space, with a love triangle and a revenge plot adding human interest. • The new work page on Bova's site quotes a passage from the book. • Amazon has reviews from PW and from Booklist's Roland Green, who concludes "this superior entry in one of the classic hard-sf sagas going is pretty much a guaranteed crowd-pleaser."

I've never read much Bova, and had not realized he was doing this. One could count on it at least being technically accurate, I would think.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

A+

posted by Tim Walters @ 7:09 PM

I was trying to remember something from Lore Sjoberg's Book Of Ratings, so I pulled it off the shelf, and... you can guess the rest. I won't review it, because you can go to the web site and get the full experience. Don't read it at work unless (1) you don't need to get anything done and (2) guffaws coming out of your office are acceptable to your boss and co-workers.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Earthlight Sonata

posted by Tim Walters @ 8:29 PM

I'm coming to the conclusion that the Golden Age writer I feel the most affection for is Arthur C. Clarke. Asimov had the galaxy-spanning vision, but his prose was leaden, his dialog was risible, and he never lost his fundamentally adolescent sensibility. Heinlein started out way ahead--in the early Forties, he had the best ideas and the best chops in SF by a large margin--but developed a fatal addiction to bluster. Van Vogt is, well, Van Vogt. A pretty good thing to be, but would you let him marry your sister?

Clarke wouldn't want to marry your sister, of course, and I wonder if that gave him a slight leg up. Arguably, the worst feature of SF of that period is the way it deals with women--and Clarke simply didn't do it. In fact, all his characters and relationships are mere sketches, but they're good sketches, especially his depiction of scientists at work. The old cliche about SF resembling a Chinese landscape painting, with tiny humans in the foreground for scale, was truest of Clarke, and he made it work. His descriptive prose is genuinely tasty, and his dialog, while never ambitious, is always credible.

Earthlight is a case in point. Although it contains a rare (for Clarke) battle sequence, most of the book tells the story of an accountant drafted as a spy trying to find an information leak at the Lunar Observatory. Not once does he have a gun pulled on him, or engage in any action sequence. Instead, he's the viewpoint for a you-are-there tour of the lunar colony on the brink of war. That should be dull, but it isn't at all; Clarke doesn't need galaxy-spanning action to give you sensawunda. He can do it with a short trip across the Lunar surface, by caterpillar or monorail.

And yes, there's a scene where guys cross between spaceships with no suits. I'm not sure why he was so obsessed with that.

It's not Against the Fall of Night or Childhood's End. But I can now state with confidence that minor Clarke is just fine with me.

Catching Up

posted by Matt @ 9:59 AM

I'm about 175 pages into Mick Farren's Darklost, the second in a series of vampire novels he's written. I first became aware of Mick Farren back in the early '80s; he used to have a column in Trouser Press magazine, which I remember as being very amusing--and so articulate for a punk rocker! He later published a number of gritty science fiction novels which might loosely be considered "cyberpunk", and continues to record and perform music with a group called The Deviants (I saw them perform at Terrastock West 6 or 7 years ago--beat poetry with loud guitars, more or less).

There's a good deal more humor and satire in his vampire world than in the more popular novels of Anne Rice (whom he parodies as "Charlotte Mayze") and her ilk. These are no suffering Romantic heroes; Farren's nosferatu are closer kin to the Illuminati-esque bloodsuckers of Wesley Snipes' Blade films than to the paradoxically bloodless whiners popularized by Rice, Hamilton, Yarbro, et al.

In short, I'm enjoying it even though there are flaws : the first 50 or so pages read as though they were written by Colonel Exposition, and sometimes Farren's understanding of historical events is defective, but what the hell--it's entertaining. Characters like Brandon Wales, based on Marlon Brando (the surname seems a reference to Brando's expanding waistline) and Marcus De Reske (i.e. Robert de Grimston, of the Process Church of the Final Judgment) just add to the wicked fun.

It certainly beats the hell out of Philip Jose Farmer's Blown, which I read just previous. I had high hopes for this one; The Image of the Beast was a decent enough beginning to what might become an emetic classic of perversity and grossness, but alas, it just doesn't deliver. Farmer seems to have gone through a period of near-psychosis and produced a number of extremely strange books, among them his Tarzan pastiche (which answers the unasked question : what if William S., and not Edgar Rice, Burroughs had been the author of the Tarzan books?). He just doesn't seem to have been as inspired here. Ah well; it was short, anyway.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Messer Marco Polo (Donn Byrne)

posted by Tim Walters @ 7:51 PM

A re-read, although I barely remembered anything about it. And now I know why--there's not a lot to remember. Very little actually happens in this short book--you could summarize the plot in a paragraph without omitting anything important--and there isn't much exploration of character or setting, either.

What there is a lot of is, for lack of a better word, blarney. This is clearly intentional--the story is told orally by an Irishman, and for once a book using that conceit actually seems like a transcription. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. He doesn't shy away from the level of repetition involved in oral storytelling, so I got a bit tired of hearing the characters address each other by name practically every sentence.

More seriously, the characters are quite passive--what little happens, happens to them, rather than happening as a result of their actions. This gives it a fatalistic quality, but unfortunately a rather insubstantial one, and one not really appropriate to an adventure story.

But some of the blarney is quite pleasant, and it's by no means a total loss. I liked it about as much as The Crock Of Gold, so calibrate accordingly.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Capturing Sound (Mark Katz)

posted by Tim Walters @ 10:49 AM

Subtitle: "How Technology Has Changed Music." Starts with a certain master-of-the-obvious quality--he describes the idea that recording has "profoundly transformed modern musical life" as "counterintuitive", whereas I would describe it as "no shit, Sherlock"--but when he gets into specifics, things get interesting. We learn, for example, that recording gave rise to modern violin vibrato, and that the instrumentation and style of early jazz changed quite a bit to adapt to acoustic recording technology. There's a very interesting chapter on Grammaphonmusik, an early attempt to use recording in a non-literal way (with a long-lost example by Paul Hindemith on the accompanying CD). Oddly, Katz skips over the development of the modern recording studio entirely, and jumps straight from the 1930s to DJ battles, sampling and MP3s. His description of DJ battles is interesting, and the recording of a championship routine found on the CD is freaking amazing (especially when he breaks down exactly what's going on).

So, there's not much of a coherent thesis, but there's plenty to chew on.

The Tooth Fairy (Graham Joyce)

posted by Tim Walters @ 10:36 AM

Holy crap, this is good.

I love the way that humor and horror are thoroughly mixed, with only the occasional pure moment of either to serve as highlight or shadow.

I love the way that haunting is portrayed as a relationship as complex and ambiguous as any other.

I love the relentless avoidance of cliches, especially at the ending.

I love the characters, setting, and prose.

In short: holy crap, this is good--an instant addition to my must-read list. Thanks, Todd! What's the best of his books to get next?