Recent Readings & Stuff, Late August, September & October ’07

Books

  1. The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker may not blow away people with some real familiarity with the sorry state of affairs in the human sciences — like a friend who shall remain nameless (unless she wishes to comment here) and who said that the criticisms made in the book were not uncommon among grad students in her department. But in that it encapsulates the argument in a way really easily parsed by nonspecialists, frames it in terms of the harmful effects of Blank Slate-ist denial of inherent human nature, and movingly retaliates against the scummiest of Blank Slate-ists who, in their self-righteous crusade have resorted to almost everything to discredit people who believe that any inherent human nature exists, it is an important book. Having read it, I am now much less patient with the kind of obviously misguided academic silliness that pretends socialization is everything, that genetics have nothing to do with what kind of person one is or what kind of creatures we humans all are, and so on. I also really hope someone brings all this insight to bear on literary academia, because after decades of pretending Freud was science, they’re still doing it when they want the cred, and then turning around and doing the whole postmodernist/anti-science thing when it suits them. Typing such silliness on computers only possible because of the very science they are railing against.Worthwhile book for a look at how even scientists can be misled by their assumptions, but also how, in science, the truth finally does unavoidably, unstoppably bubble up to the surface.
  2. When it was first published in Japan, Kappa by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (my copy translated by Geoffrey Bownas) was first received with puzzlement. Some thought it was trenchant socialcriticism, and others thought it was a kids’ book. What it is, of course, is probably several things at once. It is also quite bloody weird. Japanese fantasy set in a land where creatures called kappa live, the story is a bit like a satirical version of More’s Utopia, where the narrator outlines all the details of Kappa society and life. “As we do in Japan…” is a common phrase, which flags that, yes, this book is really about Japan at Ryunosuke’s time. I felt I should read something by a Japanese writer while in Japan, and this book, which I picked up in Sapporo, turned out to be a great choice.
  3. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi was a huge success in a lot of ways, but I’m an odd person, I think. I’m not really that into military fiction, and I think I’m somewhere closer to the hard-SF spectrum so that I kept being jolted out of the book by the kinds of things that my other SF-reading friends just take for granted as genre tropes. Things like planets other than earth that are habitable to humans without any modification by humans, or unnecessarily wasteful tactics and use of soldiers that seemed highly wasteful, by a military claiming to use people to the bare minimum. (Because believe me, there would be much less wasteful ways to make use of those soldiers’ minds and knowledge. And you’d only need a few thousand of them.) I know, it’s not military SF if there aren’t battles, especially on battlefields, but it was hard for me to suspend my disbelief for some of them. Some of the aliens, too, seemed just a little too human-like (in cultures, traditions, or whatever) for my taste, though I enjoyed some of them. All that said, it was a very quick read, mostly solid (a few infodumpy lectures aside, but hey, it’s a first novel, right?) and fun enough that I’m going to keep reading Scalzi’s stuff. But definitely military SF isn’t my thing, and I know now that I’m one of those people who, when he knows for sure the plausibility is clunky, hears it like a wrong note in a symphony.
  4. Love as a Foreign Language (Vol 1 & 2) by J. Torres and Eric Kim was unusual for me. I read almost nothing in a single sitting, but I got through both volumes of this comic in a couple of hours, in one sitting. They were a great glimpse of what life in Korea is like for many foreign men here… though the main character, Joel, had a little stronger aversion to Korean food than most guys I know here. While there’s room to argue that the book somewhat supports the notion that a lot of white men end up here because they don’t know how to understand Western women, and that across the culture gap, it’s just easier because both parties know that they have no idea what the other is thinking. Hana’s a little shallowly-depicted — she’s mostly a love interest, and doesn’t get to say or do much that deepens her beyond being the perfect female Korean love interest character — but then, this is really Joel’s story more than hers. Sensitivity, a sense of humor, and the obvious touch of someone with experience living in Korea as an outsider all shine through. Great fun. I think I may use it in a class sometime.
  5. Journey of Joenes by Robert Sheckley was a weird little book, one I apparently picked up in Montreal at some point, though I seem to remember reading it in Saskatoon (and found an old, half-remembered coupon from a Saskatoon Dairy Queen for a free blizzard in it, oddly enough). It’s really a kind satirical religion-origins story focused on the end of Western civilization and this guy, Joenes, a Polynesian who happens to be in America to witness it. Sheckley lampoons academia, government, law-enforcement and the justice system, the military, and even religion itself in this imaginative text, though it’s certainly of its time. (A book like this seems essentially unwritable now, let alone the question of whether it would see publication.) I did get a kick out of it, but since it’s essentially an expanded novella, and reads like a collection of little short stories sewn together, I found myself putting it down for a while and then coming back to it.
  6. The Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick is the first PKD book I have disliked so strongly that I couldn’t make myself finish it. It’s basically V.A.L.I.S., but even more focused on Dick’s wacky religious conspiracy theories, and with less of the interesting semi-autobiography in it. There’s other books by the man far more worth reading, in my opinion.
  7. Asimov’s Science Fiction, April/May 2007 was the first magazine I grabbed when I decided to do a little catching up on my subscriptions. It was a thick double-issue with all kinds of fiction. The pieces I liked best were “End Game” by Nancy Kress (hardish SF about bugs, design features, and brain upgrades), “Lilyanna” by Lisa Goldstein (ghosts and libraries, I like), a life-extension fantasy titled “Always” by Karen Joy Fowler, Lucius Shepard’s “Dead Money” (a voodoo fantasy with forgivably paper-thin science, weird kinks, and bad-assed card sharping), and Jack McDevitt’s interesting, though somewhat flat (and I would say, applaudably anti-Intelligent-Design) tale called “Fifth Day.”
  8. Parecon: Life After Capitalism by Michael Albert is a very dry book, but hey, it’s economic theory, so that could be forgivable if it weren’t also unmistakably holey. Holey like swiss cheese. It’s not that I don’t agree with him about the wastefulness and the unfairness we see in capitalist economics, which seems somehow less mitigated against in those countries like my home country of Canada or in Korea, where a mixture of socialist and capitalist systems are used. The thing is, I love the idea of participatory involvement in economic life by those who are affected by it. Yet I also love the idea of participatory involvement in political life by those who are affected by it, and we don’t even have that in societies where it is recognized as a fundamental right (and/or responsibility) of citizenship. I could go on about my sense that people would rather not be too involved in all the decision-making, but I think the fundamental flaw is one that Albert himself raises in his “critique” of his theory, and then dismisses without anything more than a dismissive wave of his hand, and that is, “Human Nature.” He says we know nothing of it, at least not now, and blames human greed, laziness, and the rest of the human traits that threaten to destabilize his utopian vision as being caused (rather conveniently) by social forces. Mr. Albert is in dire need of a little study on the sciences of human nature, and it would do him no end of good to rethink his ideas in the light of that fact that an inherent human nature does exist. The apparently widespread human assumption that a dominant leader must exist, that objects of perceived value can and should be competed for and fought over and hoarded, that humans outside of one’s “group” (whatever it is) are of less immediate concern and subject to different rules — some of them shockingly different — all suggest challenges that his system in its present form cannot hope to address. He is one of those members of the left who is well-meaning but has studiously ignored the emerging picture of human nature that science is giving us, and unfortunately, as long as he does so, his work will be of relatively limited value.
  9. The Coming Anarchy by Robert Kaplan is an interesting but ultimately, to me, disappointing book. It’s disappointing because, for its few good moments, the “realism” seems to be a rather brute and sad one. Again, the text I read long ago titled The End of Utopia resonates against it: realism, for Kaplan, seems to be a kind of brutal America-first policy that is willing to make and justify horrific sacrifices of other people for the good of the USA. I can see the roots of an apologist approach to the American mess in Iraq in this book, though that said, Kaplan maybe would not approve of it. He does slam some of the right people, castigating both poll-based-policy on the left and not-getting-it-about-funding-stuff on the Right. (And points out that, cruising as they are for a reformulation of human nature through governance, the American Religious Right are not at all conservatives in the political sense.)The book offers a lot to sympathetic American readers perhaps, but it also paints a picture too willing to dismiss the masses of the earth to horror and poverty because of their poverty and vulnerabilities. There has to be a more sensible, sane way to think about the world.
  10. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk is a novel you’d think I’d have read, since I saw the film ages ago and really enjoyed it. But it took me until September to pick it up off the shelf and start to read it. Then it became difficult to put down. It’s a very quick read, not only because it’s short, but because it’s very flowing — it has this distinct style, exactly the kind of textual style that I don’t have and which I’m trying to get back into working on, because that texty, crafted style was something that I really worked hard at long ago. It’s a brutal, hard, grungy, discomfiting book, but also an excellent one.
  11. Though I’m dreadfully behind on all my subscriptions — some of my issues of F&SF have been waiting since the middle of last semester for me to pick them up — I decided to start my catch-up effort by reading the Asimov’s SF October/November 2007 double-issue, and I was pleasantly rewarded for this decision.Highlights are easy to guess for those who know me: I basically enjoy almost anything Greg Egan does, though his “Dark Integers” was surprisingly sedate. It didn’t really have an OMFG moment, because this story was a sequel to a long-ago short story by Egan called “Luminous” (which blew me away). Still, it was great to see a further expansion of that story and its wonderful ideas.

    I also found Robert Reed’s Night Calls, an homage to Isaac Asimov’s Night Falls, a strong piece. Reading “Night Falls” alongside it helped me to appreciate Reed’s retreatment of Asimov’s original tale, which surprised me for how infodumpy it was in places.

    It probably sounds silly to praise Susan Forest’s “Paid in Full” as “fun and gross,” but it was indeed both, and I liked it. Likewise, Carol Emshwiller’s “Sixes and Sevens,” which somehow won me over thought I’m usually not interested in witch-stories. And for what my opinion is worth, I liked Chris Butler’s “The Turn” but could have done with more story — it was a small glimpse of a very interesting, odd world and I wanted to see more somehow.

For those who care, I am still reading The Octopus by Frank Norris (on the recommendation of Vernor Vinge, who suggested I read it before revising a story of my own) and Sheri S. Tepper’s Sideshow, though the latter is tentative. I made it about halfway through a previous book by Tepper (The Gate To Women’s Country) before I had to throw it across the room, and this one may or may not make it that far. After that, Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (both of these for the purposes of reading precedent works in areas I’ll be straying into with my fiction revisions in the next few months) and the novella anthology One Million A.D. (edited by Gardener Dozois) are up, along with a few more forays into The Dark: New Ghost Stories (edited by Ellen Datlow), a book which for some reason I’m reading one story at a time, with long breaks (of many weeks) between each story. Also, I’m trying to catch up on my subscriptions. I have way too many issues of Interzone, F&SF, Asimov’s SF, Fantasy, and Subterranean to go before I am caught up and can proceed to the ancient issues of SF Eye that I picked up in Yokohama.

Music

  1. Wednesday and [I have no idea how to translate this second title] by Steps are a couple of CD-singles I picked up in front of Ikebukuro station, Tokyo, where the band, Steps, was busking the on the second-last night I was in Tokyo. I wasn’t in the mood to go out and didn’t feel like hiding in my hotel room, but while strolling, I noticed several bands playing in front of the station. Most sucked, but Steps was this great, lively, obviously passionate, and somehow also obviously nice duo playing folk-pop that Yae Rim has commented sounds like 1980s folk-pop did in Korea. The closest comparison among Korean bands is Plastic People, but these guys were weirder; they sang with these funny high-pitched voices, and their songs were obviously funny at times. (One was , from what I could tell, praising their favorite “combini” — convenience store, that is.) Mostly just guitars, voices, and the occasional harmonic riff. Great stuff. They had no albums, but I picked up a couple of singles, and I’ll be emailing them to see if I can get a CD sent over here.
  2. InuGaku by The Dog Chamber Orchestra is something like Japanese klezmer, which if you know John Zorn and expect anything like that, is not what you’d expect. It’s really just more unlike anything I’ve heard before… there are parts that feel flamenco, and there’s a clear jazz influence, but there’s other stuff going on. The trio is violin, saxophones, and keyboards — mostly piano, but also other oddball things with keyboards on them. There’s a kind of infectious classiness and intensity in their music which makes it really fun to listen to.
  3. Abyss by Chihiro Yamanaka brings to mind a concert at which my father commented about some musician or other — I think a young female percussionist — the following: “That young lady has got the beat.” I’m sure many a guy walking through a record store stopped and listened to this CD at the listening station just because of her looks, which are not hidden on the front cover — though, again, other Japanese jazzwomen show off much more, a sax player whose name I forget beyond that it contained “Saori” being a prime example) but when you actually listen to the thing, there are moments where Yamanaka’s playing is somewhere between an assault on your sense of what jazz is, and you’re reminded why you liked Don Pullen’s aggressive, loud playing in the first place. I don’t know how big a deal she is in Japan, but I’m impressed.
  4. You’d Prefer an Astronaut, Electra 2000, and Downward is Heavenward by Hum are probably albums that a lot of people who know me would expect me not to like. It’s not quite metal, though it cribs from metal a fair bit, and is very loud/noisy at times. I had them going in my headphones in Japan a lot, on trains and such. You’d Prefer an Astronaut was the only album that actually got transferred onto the MP3 player, though after the trip, I immediately ordered all three CDs. I may be a few years too late, but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy them just as much.
  5. 불가능한작전 is, I believe, the second album by �?�?밴드 (Pipi Band), a bizarre Korean group from the mid-90s. While they seem to have been widely referred to here as “punk,” it doesn’t seem that this was as much a musical descriptor as a label applied to their approach, attitude, and aesthetic. The lyrics are mostly sung in this really odd, high-pitched female voice, and the accompaniment ranges from electronic oddity to normal(-ish) rock. It sounds to me like an early predecessor of the Hwang Sin Hae Band, and thus I love it. Lime ordered this CD for me along with three collections of folk music, which I have yet to get into.
  6. Björk’s new Volta. Damned fine stuff. Must find a copy.

Movies & TV Programs

  1. Heroes, most of Season 1, was something I intended to watch while on trains and buses in Japan. It probably is a good thing that the encoding was screwed up and I couldn’t watch anything beyond episode 12, since I got a lot of editing done on those same buses and train — I proofread and got editing notes done for four whole pieces — some of them quite long — while in transit. But after I got home, I decided to watch the rest of the series. I haven’t quite reached the end of Season 1, though — for some reason, no burning desire to do so has yet struck me. Maybe I’m just busy.It certainly got better as it went along. I’ve heard that Heroes was created by someone who’d never seen a superhero film, never read a comic book, something like that. This sounds, to me, like a snobbish way of saying he was untainted by that “pop culture crap” and he was going to bring super hero narratives to a whole new level. Which is akin to an SF filmmaker thinking the genre is crap in both dramatic and written form, announcing he’d never written a book, and then trying to bring the genre to a whole new level… without ever having read any of the greats or having any idea what the cream of the genre crop — leaving aside meta-commentary and genre criticism as dramatized in Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, what about the best of the mainstream superhero comics? — had achieved.This certainly is what the series started out like, and when I saw the pilot, I thought to myself, “Ah, it’s like Aberrant, but a TV show.” Aberrant being a short-lived White Wolf RPG in which a bunch of people suddenly and inexplicably develop super-powers, and what follows. The show got better, but I have to say, I think its popularity is really inversely related to its intelligence. If it were really doing something new and interesting with superheroes, it’d probably be above the heads of most viewers, and be pulled from the air quickly, the way shows like Dead Like Me (new things with grim reapers!) and Carnivale (new things with the Great Depression and magic and cosmic battles between good and evil!) were.So anyway, I’ll probably finish the season, but I do find it kind of sad how I heard a ton of people gave up on Lost to watch Heroes. Whatever problems one has with Lost are understandable, but the show is still, in my opinion, a good bushel of brains smarter than Heroes has been (so far as I’ve seen).
  2. An episode of the original Star Trek series, dubbed in Japanese… yes, I know, one would hardly mention this except it was a very odd thing. It was the episode where Sulu — played by George Takei — is strapped down to some kind of sacrificial altar with his shirt off and struggles. It showed on TV in Yokohama the day before the Hugo Awards ceremony, for which Takei served as one of the co-hosts. Very, very amusing. And George was very fit as a young man, I should add: he had quite enviable pectorals, suggesting he was working out at the time. Would that I were working out at this time.
  3. Bunshinsaba was a Korean horror flick about possession, reincarnation, the evil that exclusivity in small villages can do, and why you should never play with necromantic divinatory devices, or if you do, why you should bloody well follow the rules you just told everyone else to follow. Honestly, I was disappointed by it, not because of effects but because the plot was highly convoluted, and because a lot of the supporting acting struck me as surprisingly wooden.
  4. Weeds, Seasons 1, 2, and part of 3. An online review of Weeds (which not longer is available for me to link to) made me curious and I decided to check out the show. Well, there you are: I very quickly got addicted to it, and am one episode behind the rest of the world. Funny stuff, neat cast of characters, and it brings to mind the advice of a long-ago pulp author to aspiring writers, about how you need to shovel the grief onto your protagonist. The shoveling here is both clever and entertaining. Personally, I find the show in, more than anything, about the fundamentally constructed nature of almost every aspect of American life: the absolutely constructed significance of various controlled and legal substances is only a starting point, and the more general sniping at suburbia (as a wholly constructed front for the total human weirdness that extends, yes, even into the world of middle-class white America) is really only a starting point. From the beginning, the show also has lampooned all kinds of completely constructed elements of American life that many seem to just take for granted: the “meaning” or significance of ethnicity or race as constructed in America; the construction of childhood and young adulthood (the teenaged boys’ lives involve sex and sexuality, drugs and entertainment, hustling for both safety and hierarchic position in their social circles in ways very comparable to the adults); the absolute sham that is governmental authority and wisdom (surely the joke that is the Agrestic City Council stands for more than just the fact local governments are often shams; surely there’s some gesture towards Washington here in the childish fights and lies that we witness in Agrestic’s municipal government).Just about every episode, and scenario, and even most of the relationships in the show, highlight this. As the original reviewer pointed out, there’s no hesitation to be blunt about the problems that “diversity” advocates like to ignore, such as Sanjay’s parents’ homophobia, the incredible silliness of Heylia’s Nation of Islam-following boyfriend’s beliefs and behaviour (as discussed by her daughter); the head-in-the-shit ignorance of characters like Doug who, likeable as they might be, are realistically a good indication of how humanity’s going to extinct itself. Straddling the inanity and existential crisis (of a more interesting kind that the one in American Beauty) is the character Celia Hodes, who has perhaps also become once again local jerk #1 in Agrestic. Another of the reviewer’s comparisons rang true for me: this was like American Beauty but with more savvy, more guts, more conviction in something (anything!), less self-aggrandizement, and a real sense of humor. Also, it’s neat to see Mary-Louise Parker, who plays the drug-dealing mom Nancy in this show, playing a likeable character — I absolutely hated the character she played in The West Wing, Amy Gardner… in fact, the only other major character I absolutely hated as much as (in fact, more than Gardner) was the whining, griping, tantrum-throwing First Lady. But in this show, Parker’s drug-dealing widow is much more sympathetic that any lobbyist could ever be. Funny stuff.
  5. Zodiac was talked about so much that I expected something more compelling. It was fine, but definitely one of those films where the publicity and the word of mouth raises expectations to a point where the film can’t meet them.
  6. Girl With the Pearl Earring is a DVD I signed out from the office collection at work a few weeks ago, since nobody was likely to watch it or use it in classes. I finally got around to seeing this movie, which provides a glimpse into the world of 17th-century Ducth artist Johannes Vermeer and a fictional explanation for the mysterious identity of the model for one of his most famous paintings. But it’s really a story about passion, beauty, obsession, physicality, family, and society.
  7. King Kong is a hard film to talk about. When I saw it, the first half or so seemed to be really, well, interesting in a lot of ways. After all, it was about the inequity (sexism, explicitly, and later on also the racism) and exploitation of entertainment in American culture, the insanity of trying to make that system work in one’s favor. Then it was a kind of Lost-Island daikaiju horror about giant critters, including an enormous gorilla to whom women were sacrificed occasionally by horrifying-looking and decidedly swarthy natives. Then it was a tentative but ultimately bizarre and only slightly moving romance between a big, reputedly sexually-powerful black slave who broke free of his chains captive giant gorilla who broke free from his chains and a white woman, a romance ultimately thwarted by his insistence on keeping the woman, by his desire to fight back or get even, and of course by his very nature — a free black man giant gorilla could never actually get away in 1940s America, right?Yet at the same time, the film is somewhat different from the original, which was wholly absent of any mitigating depictions. I know from experience that throwing in a single admirable character of an ethnic group that is otherwise depicted almost comlpetely as evil, demented, dangerous, or villainous does little to remove the sense one had of a film being racist or not. Still, the one black character we do encounter is explicitly literate (he knows what Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is really about), intelligent, the reminders of his bravery cannot be more hammered into our heads, and he even dies a heroic death. While some viewers think a black actor was a “token” inclusion — and there’s room to agree — I think it does the actor, Evan Parke, a great disservice, as his was one of the most likeable characters, and his screen presence was enormous — something that could not have been an accident. (By comparison, the sensibly stereotypical Chinese character dies without a twinge of concern for most viewers, since he was less a character than a cardboard cutout of a crew member.)Then there’s the natives. Yes, they were “blacked up.” Now, there’s nothing saying that this wasn’t a group of Negrito people — folks like those living in New Guinea or the aboriginal people of Australia — but in a film where animalism is such a metonym for race, it’s a bit heavy-handed. However, I don’t think their insanity and general freakiness is really necessarily a racist thing. They’re people living with essentially stone-aged technology on an island covered in dinosaurs and giant bugs, with a gigantic gorilla to appease on a regular basis. The stress of surviving in such a hostile environment would, I think, reduce people of any ethnic background (mine included) to paranoid, borderline psychotic appearance and behaviour. I just have my doubts that people with stone-aged tech could actually survive such a hostile environment at all.
    Anyway, the weird thing is that Kong (presumably) ate or killed any previous human female sacrifices, but once he found himself with a white-skinned, blonde woman in his mitt, he fell in love with her “beauty.” Okay, he also was chucking white, blond women aside in New York, so there’s room to say he fell in love with on particular white woman’s beauty, and not with the white race — but there was a particularly Birth of a Nation echo in it for me, when he ran off with her into the jungle. The thing that happened in King Kong that never happened in that other film, though, was that Kong was humanized. Hell, though he was quite clearly an ape, Kong was humanized more than any of the human blackface characters in Birth of a Nation.

    Anyway, I have two main criticisms, which is that the one guy who should have been arrested, had his ass whupped, or otherwise been faced with consequences for his actions was Denham. The film could have been a much smarter, more interesting retelling of the original tale in which Kong is emblematic of wild nature, where Ann Darrow was the only human nice to Kong — a scientist studying him — and that’s why he fell in love with, and kidnapped, her. By the logic of that film, Denham would have actually mattered at the end as the instigator of the whole mess of the end — yet even in the film as it was shot, he should have had to pay for dearly for what he did. All he did was mutter a stock ending line and wander away! So wrong.

    Secondly, the film was waaaaaaay long. It’s hard for me to say what should have been cut, since I like the beginning, and the end felt rushed to me, but I have a feeling some of the gigantic critter stuff in the middle could have been shortened. The battle between Kong and the pair of dinosaurs, and the battle between the men from the ship and the insects in the canyon (or whatever it was) certainly dragged on. But since it was Peter Jackson, and this was on the tail of Lord of the Rings, it seems nobody had the guts to stand up and say it… or else, maybe everyone really did think the movie wasn’t at all long, I don’t know.

    All I can say is, if he can go this long with King Kong, he could at least have had something more from the real ending of The Return of the King, where the hobbits discover that the Shire is a political mess and the battle against evil infestation is not (is never) quite finished. That ending was what salvaged the whole trilogy for me, coming home from saving the world to find one uncle locked in a basement prison, a few relatives dead, and the area mulched down and turned into horrid hellfire-lit factories and sweatshops! Again, an opportunity to do more with the story was lost.

  8. BBC’s Exposed (episodes 1-4): A fun series of documentaries about human psychology and human nature. There are episodes on Liars, Heartbreak, Persuaders, and City Life. I think I’ll request the University buy one, when they become available, as it’d be very useful in class. Maybe the one on liars, since it was so interesting. Or maybe on heartbreak, since it has some useful insights.
  9. Pushing Daisies: A funny and odd new TV show. I don’t know that it’ll build enough momentum for a second season, but it has the kind of quirk that I’ve come to love in work by some writers I know, and I’m enjoying it for now.
  10. Journeyman: This is much more pedestrian TV: a show about a time-traveler who cannot control his trips. There are some interesting twists, but this is not the most imaginative show. Frankly, I feel like it was done, but more interestingly, in Quantum Leap. I am not particularly interested in whether his relationship survives — nor am I even rooting for it.
  11. I saw a couple of episodes of Tripping the Rift. What can I say? It’s Futurama for grown-ups with bad attitudes, but it still didn’t blow me away. I much more have been enjoying…
  12. Afro-Samurai, which is good only for a short hit, once in a while, but it is fun.
  13. The Sopranos (Season 2). I really liked this. Enough to want to get Season 3, but I won’t for a while. After all, I just got me a copy of Rome, Season 2. That should keep me busy for now.

This might seem like a lot of media, books, and music, but on the other hand, I’m including everything since late August, and it’s now November 8th! In fact, I’ve been so busy with work, submission deadlines for stories (I have three and a half more this year — the extra half, because the fourth one is somewhat self-imposed), personal stuff, and extra work –namely a constant stream of editing work — that I haven’t been reading much at all! I don’t remember the last time I sat down and just read for fun, prior to the last couple of days when I decided I had to or I’d go nuts.

Hopefully things will calm somewhat, because I want to get some more reading done, and I also have those deadlines I mentioned.

14 thoughts on “Recent Readings & Stuff, Late August, September & October ’07

  1. I hated King Kong. My whole family walked out of that movie extremely pissed off. It was ridiculous and the scene with the island natives was just wrong.

    I lost interest in Journeyman after the second episode and I love Pushing Daisies. It’s by the same guy who created the series Dead Like Me, Bryan Fulller. He was also a no-name guy who sent in a script to Paramount for ST Deep Space 9 and the producers loved it so much that they ended up giving him a full time writing role on the Voyager series. Anyway, I love his writing.

  2. “Divine Invasion” gets much more classical Phildickian towards the end, with a nice example of the usual sorts of Ubik-style pop-epistemology popping up at that point. That’s the part I enjoyed the most, along, I guess, with the idea of a world where the Communist Party had formally merged with the Roman Catholic Church as a single all-powerful bureaucratic entity with a “Scientific Legate” and a “Spritual Legate”, which is just hilarious. That said, I’d certainly agree it’s not by any means his strongest book.

    I’m not sure it does reflect his real-world theological speculations quite the same way as Valis did. The interesting thing about Valis was that, while he was certainly taking it all seriously–it was deeply, painfully autobiographical–he was also making fun of himself in the caricatured form of “Horselover Fat.” It seemed like one of the big messages of Valis was “hey, I might be crazy, but at least I’m sane enough to *know* that I’m crazy.” Interpreted that way, I can’t help wondering how seriously to take Divine Invasion.

    The most interesting suggestion on this point I’ve ever seen was from Emmanuel Carrere in his PKD biography, “I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick.” Since the three boks of the “Valis trilogy” share no events or characters in common, in what sense are they a trilogy? Carrere’s idea is that, remembering the Phil Dick/Horselover Fat split personality in Valis, we should read “Valis” as the book that Phil and Fat co-wrote, “Divine Invasion” as Fat’s book and “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer” as Phil’s book. Whether or not that has anything to do with Dick’s intentions, that does capture a lot of the difference between in feel between the books.

  3. Thanks for the plug! I don’t know if Weeds is trying to make a larger point about national politics. The general rule of thumb is the smaller the stakes, the more petty, vicious, and corrupt the players tend to be. I’ve done work for federal and civic elections, and was on the periphery of some University of Manitoba Student Union elections. The student union crowd (generally speaking) tended to be the worst. Weeds stays true to form on that front. It makes for funnier comedy – Bush’s misadventures in Iraq has less of an effect on me than the decisions that get made by city counselors, and I’m surprised people haven’t tried to exploit it in a sitcom before.

  4. Stephanie,

    Yeah, it doesn’t surprise me you hated Kong. I mean… yeah. But I didn’t know you’re into Dead Like Me. Such fun, that. And Pushing Daisies… I’ll a little less enthusiastic, but I like it anyway.

    Ben,

    You’ve mentioned that interpretation of TDI before. Yeah, I just couldn’t finish the book. It was starting to be a chore, actually. I’m about to give up on The Octopus too, for a similar reason, though at least the good part has arrived. I was at page 120 in TDI and still waiting for the good part, when I decided, to hell with this. But as you say, there are moments. I quite liked parts of the beginning. Though I was thinking about how badly it needed editing from about page 10 onward.

    Mark,

    This may differ frm place to place. I’m sure extreme corruption and pettiness is great in local government and as well in student government. I’ve seen it in my own schools. Hell, the people I’ve known who aspired to student government tended to be the people who ought least to be making decisions for others.

    I don’t know if I buy the inverse relation between stakes and petty, vicious corruption. I just think that in the grown-up world (which University really isn’t) the most devotedly corrupt, vicious f*cks go straight into business, where the more idealistic people try for government and end up being slowly corrupted by the corrosive environment. Corruption and greed are attracted by high stakes, but the monetary payoff (which is accompanied by status) is a bigger attractor than status alone for most people. Thus Enron, Halliburton, but also all kinds of other companies… I suspect that Bushco and Ahnuld’s friendliness with the Enron BOD and Halliburton and the misadventure in Iraq will have direct, long-term effects on you, but most of them haven’t trickled all the way from the superelite toilet into your drinking water… not quite yet. (Though you may have had a chance to get a taste if you’d been in California during the rolling blackouts.)

    That said, local government corruption is a big deal, and it’s great that it’s being critiqued in a smart, funny way on such a smart, funny show. More Kudos.

  5. Idealistic maybe, but with a few exceptions, those “idealistic student activists” were some of the most petty, mean-spirited, vicious, people I’d ever met. The student union was frequently a training ground for aspiring politicians in Manitoba. Most of the people involved with it, at least in my day, have gone on to political careers.

    MBA’s? I didn’t meet a lot of those while in college.

  6. Hi there I am from the Korea Herald newspaper. I am interested in talking with you about writing a column for the newspaper.

    Please e-mail me if you might be interested.

    Best regards,
    Matt

    Matthew Lamers
    The Korea Herald
    010-2740-1967
    [email protected]

  7. Gord,

    Well, we are talking about a guy who used to live off fistfulls of speed downed by milkshakes for weeks at a time while he just wrote wrote wrote. I mean, I’m a die-hard PKD fan, but I don’t get the sense that editing took up a big part of his time even when it comes to his very best stuff. But sure, I agree TDI was far from being his best stuff. I think the general consensus is that there’s something a bit unsatisfying about it, especially considering how much better he had done with the same material elsewhere.

  8. Mark,

    No problem, thanks for the shoutout. BTW whenever you link me I get notified — the trackback shows up on my dashboard in WordPress.

    By the way, I misstated myself. By “more idealistic” I don’t know that I meant actually idealistic, just perhaps less straightforwardly craven and avaricious.

    Ben,

    Yes, that’s why I know PKD needed an editor. :) I think the thing that turned me off was how conversations ceaselessly morphed into, well, very “written”-sounding dialogues. Sort of like Socratic dialogues on very hard drugs. The rest I could have handled, but I just got tired of reading the five pages of theological conspiracy theory to get to the paragraph of plot. :)

    Which just makes me feel a hankering for some good PKD, now that I think about it.

    Milkshakes, huh? Heh. It’s the little details, you know?

  9. Hi Gord,

    too much to talk about. Interesting as always, but to be honest I wish you’d split the post into 3 more easily digestible ones. But no big deal.

    Just my quick 5 cents on a few of the things you mention:

    1) You sold me on “The Blank Slate” instantly, and I’ll try to buy it from Whatthebook this weekend.

    I have “The Language Instinct” by Stephen Pinker already, and I personally place it in my self-made category of “if you can only have one book on each subject in the world, then THIS is the one you need” in this case for language. Ineloquent, but you get the idea. Another example, if you’re interested, is Carl Sagan’s “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” on the subject of evolution.

    2. I have seen Fight Club about 10 times, and read the book about 10 times as well. It was one of my favorite movies for a while, but as I’ve developed into the kind of man railed against in the movie then naturally I can begin to see its extremes. The style of the book is very distinctive and flowing…would a non-literally person like myself be correct in calling it “stream of consciousness”?…which I really liked, and so on that basis I bought “Choke,” but I didn’t like it at all. In hindsight, I think its the strength of the message, in this case an anti-consumerist one, that sustains the narrative style, but without one, like in Choke, it just falls flat.

    3) I’ve only ever read “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick, the brilliance of which might naturally have given me the wrong impression of his other works. I’m just curious as to if you’ve read that one…required reading for alternative history freaks like me after all.

    4) I got quite a shock while watching Hong Kong when I got to the theater scence. Until that moment I had no idea who the director was and thought that most of it had been shot, or generated on a computer at least, in North America…but then I suddenly recognised the theatre which I worked as an usher in in Auckland, NZ as a student, and still remembered the numbers of the seats as King Kong began to fling them around. That theatre was part of a big complex of 5 or 6 theatre halls and cinemas called “The Edge” in downtown Auckland, and was one of the best jobs I ever had, being PAID to see sometimes extremely expensive plays, shows and movies and all. Actually I had the job until I came to Korea, and it was one of the few things I really regretted giving up at the time.

  10. James,

    Probably divvying it up would make sense. I’ll try it next time.

    1. Yeah, The Blank Slate rocks. Read it! Then we can have a beer and talk about it. Somewhere. Somehow.

    2. I really enjoyed the film when I first saw it. Now it seems like it gets the diagnosis somewhat right — the horrid vapid emptiness of everything we’re “supposed” to do, and the necessity for change — but the prescription is just poison.

    I suppose one could call the style “stream of consciousness” for the twisted consciousness of the narrator, but it’s a little different from traditional stream of consciousness, where you get a sort of stylized romp of free associations in filtered through the mind and personality of a character. What I think makes you think of that approach is stuff like how he threads recurring motifs and interweaves two or three different storylines or reportage of two or three different scenes or narrations into a single, seemingly-jumbled mess. Except it’s not jumbled at all: those bits are very tightly controlled, very crafted. Very tricksy stuff, and one of the tricks I am working on learning at the moment.

    I haven’t read anything else by Palahniuk yet. I think there may be a youthful exuberance to it, maybe as he was writing it with the anger and the desire to shock and disgust readers. (Since earlier novel manuscripts were rejected for being too shocking, he figured he’d outdo himself.)

    3. The Man in the High Castle remains my favorite PKD book, though UBIK, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, A Scanner Darkly, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Elecritc Sheep, and probably a few others I’ve forgotten are all great too. But yeah, I love the alt-history masterpiece that The Man in the High Castle is. It kindled my strong interest in alternate history, and now at least two of the four novel projects bouncing around in my head are alternate histories. (One with aliens and a communist technocracy, one that could best be called “Rudyard Kipling’s Worst Nightmare” plus “Roots,” focusing on the family secret that binds a British slave in an alternate China and his great-granddaughter.)

    By the way, tell me you’ve read The Years of Rice and Salt. I’m told significant bits of history and culture in India were flat-out wrong, but it’s still masterfully written, and beautiful.

    4. Hong Kong meaning King Kong, right? :) I’ll change it for you if you like… that job sounds excellent. I used to live by the best little Anglo repertory cinema in Montreal, and even now I still miss walking two blocks to go see Israeli, recent Chinese or German movies, or even just a Hal Hartley film. Even bittorrent doesn’t compare.

  11. I did like your observations re: Enron and local politics mirroring the national political scene, and might use it in future Weeds posts I write (if I can keep the tone light) with a hat-tip to your blog, of course.

  12. I think they were a little bit. They all also sounded quite similar to me, like there was maybe 3 or 4 guys doing the voices of 10 male characters. And Uhura’s voice was TOO high-pitched. :)

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