2017年10月18日 星期三

"Permutation City" by Greg Egan (1994)

"And in the meantime?  The privileged class of Copies will grow larger, more powerful - and more threatening to the vast majority of people, who still won't be able to join them.  The costs will come down, but not drastically - just enough to meet some of the explosion in demand from the executive class, once they throw off their qualms, en masse.  Even in secular Europe, there's a deeply ingrained prejudice that says dying is the responsible, the moral thing to do.  There's a Death Ethic - and the first substantial segment of the population abandoning it will trigger a huge backlash."

How "hard" do you like your science fiction?  Do you prefer sword and sorcery with a dash of laser guns?  Or books so conceptually deep that they threaten to split your head open?  Ursula K. Le Guin or Stanislaw Lem?  Starship Troopers or the V.A.L.I.S. trilogy?  Straight-to-film, or unfilmable?  If your answer in each instance is the latter, then you'll love Greg Egan.

Egan is a science fiction writer and computer programmer.  He also has a degree in Mathematics (and it shows).  According to Egan, there are NO pictures of him to be found on the Internet, though you are, of course, welcome to search.  Maybe, just maybe, some of those you find will be the real Egan?

Permutation City is one of his earlier novels.  He's written a lot of them, many with catchy titles like "Dark Integers," "Mitochondrial Eve," and "The Moral Virologist."  Still looking for those laser guns and rocket ships?  Abandon all hope, all ye who enter Egan's bibliography.

So what's this book about, you ask?  Well, the simple answer is virtual reality.  The more complex answer is the nature of virtual reality, and how the virtual might be more "real" than we think.  

Or something.  I'm not sure.  It gets very deep, my friend.  It gets very, very deep.  Along the way Egan also speculates on the nature of consciousness, the conditions necessary for the creation of life, and the nature of sanity in relation to a ever-shifting, possibly illusory world.

Long story short (not that this book is that long), Permutation City will FUCK YOUR MIND, and I mean that in the most complimentary way.  If you like books that ask big questions, if you like authors that talk up to you instead of down, then you'll freaking love this one.  It is, I think, the most difficult science fiction novel I've ever read (and I've read a few whoppers), but for those who enjoy thinking (and reflecting) on their science fiction, this one's a winner.  Just don't expect Egan to go gentle.  He'll be hitting you over the head with existential quandaries before the end of the introduction.

If You Liked This Book, You Might Also Like:

"The Eden Cycle" by Raymond Z. Gallun

"The Information" by James Gleick

...and You'll Probably Despise:

"Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline

P.S. Egan gets a lot of flack for the "Dust Theory" of consciousness presented in this book.  Some people on the Internet like to think they're VERY clever, and in their oversimplified mode of thinking this theory is easy to tear apart.  There are, however, certain allowances in quantum mechanics for this theory - it's just that Egan doesn't include these allowances in the book.  Given our current understanding of both quantum indeterminacy and entanglement, the Dust Theory does make a certain kind of sense.

Many critics also fail to take into account he sheer volume of information available within the observable universe (In the book, a character mentions that "dark matter" has been fully accounted for, and that the approximate date of a "Big Crunch" can be predicted.)

P.P.S. There is a criticism that runs "Egan only writes for his main audience, which is Egan."  I see some validity to this argument.  While I think Permutation City is fairly accessible (especially if you already have an interest in scientific topics), some of his other stuff is so obscure that one wonders why he bothered to write it in the first place.

2017年10月13日 星期五

"The Oregon Trail" by Rinker Buck (2015)

"I woke up at three in the morning, couldn't get back to sleep, and sat brooding with my legs hanging over the the end boards of the wagon, smoking my pipe.  I could see the outline of the Granites and stars flickered beside Split Rock.  The desert to the west was vast and black, with just a few far-off lights shining weakly from the ranches.  My dread hour lasted until dawn and my flagellant impulses carried me in every direction - Nick was losing confidence in me, Beck would run off, we would deplete our water tomorrow before we reached a ranch or creek."

There are several books titled "The Oregon Trail" - this is the one subtitled "A New American Journey."  But I think there's little doubt that this is - and will remain - the most popular book about the Trail for some time.  When I was in the The States last summer I saw it everywhere, from Seattle clear on down to Utah.

In this version of "The Oregon Trail," two guys from back East engage in a covered wagon trip over what remains of the Trail in 2011.  Their journey begins in Missouri, and ends both several months and several thousand miles away in eastern Oregon.  Along the way they encounter hardship and privation, and the author also muses upon several facets of western U.S. history.

I'll go ahead right now and say that I loved it.  If you grew up in "the West" like I did, if you identify with that region and have learned to love its history you will, too.  It's a long, sprawling trip across several states and back through time, and I'm only sorry that both the book and the expedition it details weren't longer.

Which isn't to say that this book is perfect.  My complaints, however, are small.  For one thing, this book could have used more maps.  Given that the wagon passes through some REMOTE areas, it's often difficult to tell where they are using conventional maps.  

It could have also used less reflections on the author's relationship with his father.  I realize that the publisher was pushing this angle, but the relationship between the author and his brother would have been a more fitting centerpiece of the book, and could have been accomplished without removing the narrative to "back East" quite as often.  Towards the end of this book the fatherly digressions seem somewhat manipulative, and I began to wish the author would just get back to the Trail, and to his story.

An additional complaint - which isn't really about the book itself but rather the route they followed - is why stop in Baker City, Oregon?  Most of the pioneers would have pressed on to the other side of the Cascades, if not Oregon City or Astoria.  Yes, Baker City marked their arrival in the former Oregon Territory, but none of the pioneers searching for new pasturage would have stopped in that area for long.  "Oregon or Bust" meant more than just stepping over an imaginary line.  It meant establishing oneself in the fertile lands nearer the Pacific.

But again, these are small complaints.  On the whole, The Oregon Trail is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it.

Related Entry:

"Historic America: The Northwest" by Jim Kaplan (2002)

Some Other Movies From 1982

Saw all of the movies below recently.  For those wondering how I came upon them, I hereby refer you to the "1982 in Film" article on Wikipedia.

Some Good Ones

1. Gandhi

Is it a great movie?  Of course.  Is it a timely movie?  Always.  With all of this nonsense going on around the world, more people need to see Gandhi.  I realize that this movie's LONG, but the man was the message, and the message was the man, and it's never too late to hear what he was trying to say.

2. The Slumber Party Massacre

Most of this movie qualifies as softcore porn, but it was written and directed by women.  It's aged surprisingly well, and it's definitely a lot better than it has any right to be.  Definitely NOT a horror masterpiece, but still pretty good.  Fun Fact: the director of this movie turned down a job editing Steven Spielberg's E.T. for the chance to do Slumber Party Massacre.

3. Tootsie

Definitely one of the best comedies of that year.  Dustin Hoffman stars as an actor who turns to cross-dressing to advance his career, with Bill Murray (!) co-starring as his best friend.  Given the ongoing preoccupation with gender identity, it's not surprising how relevant this movie still is.

4. Creepshow

Anyone else remember this one?  I watched it many, many times when I was a kid.  It's still one of the best horror anthology movies ever, with memorable performances from the likes of Hal Holbrook, Stephen King (!), Ted Danson, and Leslie Nielson.  Makes me wish Romero hadn't been quite so fixated on zombies.

5. Honkytonk Man

One of Clint Eastwood's less celebrated films.  Erroneously described as a comedy, this drama about a musician headed to the Grand Old Opry is like a less nihilistic version of Leaving Las Vegas.  Very good in an understated way.

6. Night Shift

Not laugh-out-loud funny, but still good after all these years.  Back then Hollywood was probably banking on Henry Winkler and Shelley Long, but more than THREE DECADES LATER Michael Keaton is the biggest star in the cast.  Not as much sex as you'd expect from a movie about pimps posing as morgue workers, but then again it was directed by Ron Howard.

7. An Officer and a Gentleman

I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for this movie.  Not only was it ALWAYS on HBO when I was a kid, but a lot of it was filmed around the Puget Sound, where I grew up.  Between 1978's Days of Heaven, 1980's American Gigolo, and this movie, in 1982, Richard Gere had a nice little run of movies, even if he wouldn't star in anything memorable again until 1990's Pretty Woman.  The director, Taylor Hackford, has also done a lot of good films.  

Fun Fact: Richard Gere is descended on both his mother's and father's sides from the pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower.

Some Bad Ones

1. 48 Hrs.

Hey it's the 80s!  We can say "fuck" now!  Fuck, fuck, fuck!  Pussy, pussy, pussy!  And let's throw in a lot of male bonding for good measure!  I hate you, man!  Fuck you!  Let's fight!  And now that's we had our fight... let's be friends!  Fuck yeah, it's the 80s!  Buddy cops for life!*

At least 48 Hrs. is better than Beverly Hills Cop.  It has slightly more story, and even though he's boring in this movie, Nick Nolte's still a better actor than anyone in Beverly Hills Cop.

One of the best movies of 1982?  Wikipedia says it was, but I'm not seeing it.  Maybe a lot of critics are letting their nostalgia for this movie obscure its mediocrity.

2. Forced Vengeance

Is there such a thing as unforced vengeance?  Passive vengeance?  Dumb title aside, Chuck ("the Truck") Norris** gets into some Hong Kong gangster shit after they kill his boss.  This movie features bad dubbing, terrible fight choreography, and (strangely) one of the most disturbing rape scenes ever.  

Fun (Non)Fact: Chuck Norris' tears can cure cancer.  Too bad he's never cried...

3. Victor/Victoria

Whereas Dustin Hoffman plays a man pretending to be a woman in Tootsie, Julie Andrews plays a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman in Victor/Victoria.  I know the critics loved it, but movies that seem too much like plays are a pet peeve of mine.  The dialogue feels like something I would have been forced to read in drama class, and I never once felt like the actors weren't on a set.

4. Liquid Sky

If it was the early 80s, and you had all your New York art school friends over for the weekend, and you said to them, "Hey, let's make a movie!", the result would be something like Liquid Sky.  I'm inclined to put it in the "so bad it's good" category below, but the soundtrack is headache-inducing.  The "music" used is like John Carpenter on the wrong kind of drugs.

5. Cat People

Nastassja Kinski looked great naked, but this whole movie was just an excuse to show her nude.  There's a certain transgressive element that made this movie seem cool in the early 80s, but the characters do inexplicable things, and Cat People is, for the most part, very boring.  American Werewolf in London it definitely isn't.

6. Porky's

Judged solely against other 80s teen sex comedies, Porky's is fairly disappointing.  It's too talky, the "funny parts" aren't nearly as funny as the actors involved seem to think they are, and I'd be hard-pressed to remember any of the character's names or what they had to do with the plot.  

In it's favor there's a brief scene of Kim Cattrall's perfect ass, an even shorter shower scene, and a scene with some run-down looking strippers in a backwoods club.  Neither a good movie nor enough to masturbate over.

7. Zapped!

Boobies!  And weed!  And Scatman Crothers!  But sadly not enough of any of those to make this movie about a telekinetic high school student interesting.  The bit at his school prom could have been a great send-up of Carrie.

Some That Are So Bad They're Good

1. The Beastmaster

Fucking Beastmaster, dude.  For every Saving Private Ryan there's a Windtalkers, and for every Conan the Barbarian there's a Beastmaster.

Hey look, there's Rip Torn.  And hey look, there's Tanya Roberts (from A View to a Kill, the worst James Bond movie).  So bad it's great!

2. Basket Case

Gotta love Basket Case.  An emotionally disturbed young man brings his deformed, telepathic, homicidal, previously conjoined twin to New York in a basket.  Yes, you read that right.  It probably says more about me than I'd like, but I loved this movie when I was little.

Related Entries:

Some Other Movies From 1980
Roller Disco, Man!
Ten Good Bad Movies
The 10 Most Classic (American) Gangster Movies

*48 Hrs is often referred to as "the first buddy cop movie."  I feel the need to point out, however, that Eddie Murphy isn't a cop in this one.  He's a convict who sometimes impersonates a cop.  I think a lot of people get his roles in 48 Hrs and Beverly Hills Cop confused.

**If you don't get the reference you really should see Foot Fist Way.  That movie's hilarious.

2017年9月29日 星期五

"The Children of the Company" by Kage Baker (2005)

"But my mother's savior was about the usual business of the immortals who work for their Company, which is to walk among mortals and preserve fine and rare things that would otherwise be destroyed by them."

Kage Baker is another author that I was introduced to in The Year's Best Science Fiction collections.  Her "The Hotel and Harlan's Landing" in the 2002 collection was pretty dumb, though "Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst" in the 2003 collection was slightly better.  She is best known for her "Company novels," of which The Children of the Company is a more recent example.

The plot?  There's not much of one to speak of.  The Children of the Company is more a collection of stories set throughout human history, all featuring a race of immortal cyborgs sent back in time (?) by The Company to influence major events and/or preserve our heritage for some kind of singularity in the distant future.

I'm assuming the author explains all of this time travelling and cybernetic wizardry in another novel, because I sure didn't get much in the way of explanation from The Children of the Company.  I suppose this is more a stylistic choice, but for those who like reasons this novel will be a source of frustration.  In some ways it resembles something Anne Rice might have written, with cyborgs and time travel taking the place of vampires and erotic reflections on history.

Is it good?  Well, it's certainly well written.  Compared to most contemporary science fiction authors, Baker's command of the English language is remarkable.  Where other authors pare their sentences down to the barest minimum, Baker's prose is a more self-conscious affair.  It's as if the nineteenth century were reasserting itself through her prose, in an attempt to come to grips with modern innovations.  It's only too bad that there wasn't more of an overarching story to hang her verbal gymnastics upon.

I will say, however, that The Children of the Company has caused me to reassess this author.  Whereas I previously thought of her as more a writer of silly stories, I now feel more willing to take her seriously.  I'm not saying that I'm a fan, exactly, but I wouldn't mind reading another novel in the series (perhaps the first one), and giving her another chance.

2017年9月25日 星期一

Some Other Movies From 1980

Saw all of the movies below recently.  I got bored, looked up "1980 in Film" on Wikipedia, and worked my way through some of the movies I hadn't already seen.

Some Good Ones

1. Private Benjamin

Goldie Hawn stars as a woman who joins the military after the death of her husband.  It has a lot to say about living life on your own terms, and about freeing yourself from destructive relationships.

2. Ordinary People

Robert Redford directed Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore in this story about a family trying to cope with the loss of a loved one.  The cast is great, and that scene of Moore in her bedroom is some of the best acting ever.  Redford deserved the Oscar he won that year.

3. Altered States (?)

I put a question mark next to this one because I'm still not sure if it's simply good, or so bad it's good.  A lot of the dialogue is ridiculous, but that's a given in any Paddy Chayefsky film.  William Hurt does a great mad scientist, and Blair Brown is his suitably overwrought wife.

4. Heaven's Gate

It's fashionable to hate on this movie, especially considering the fact that it's one of the biggest box office bombs of all time, but I think there's a lot to like about the Criterion version.  Sure, it's slow-moving, and no, it's not cool to blow horses up with dynamite, but it's full of great performances and the cinematography is first-rate.  If you liked Days of Heaven, you'll find a lot to appreciate in Heaven's Gate.

5. Atlantic City

This movie was nominated for all the big Academy Awards - and won none of them.  Susan Sarandon stars as a woman trying to disentangle herself from a manipulative husband, and Burt Lancaster stars as a small-time crook who stumbles across a big score.  Very French in its way, without being annoyingly arty.

6. The Jazz Singer

Like Heaven's Gate, another box office bomb that has some redeeming features.  Definitely super cheesy with a generous helping of plot holes, but it's one of those movies that inhabits a gray area between "good," "bad," and "so bad it's good."  Dude, that song "America" will get you PUMPED.

Some Bad Ones

1. Xanadu

I had a hell of a time finishing this movie.  There's almost no plot, and some of the dialogue ranks as the worst ever.  Olivia Newton-John was bearable in Grease, but in Xanadu she's unbearable.

2. Smokey and the Bandit Part II

I freaking loved the first Smokey and the Bandit, but the sequel is BAD.  It also makes you feel sorry for Sally Field, who won the Best Actress Oscar the year before for Norma Rae.  Apparently this movie and Cannonball Run (below) were filmed at the same time.

3. 9 to 5

This movie was (of course) a huge success in 1980, dealing as it does with gender roles in the workplace.  My trouble with it is that it's a comedy, and that it's just not funny anymore.  I think movies like Mr. Mom and Tootsie did a MUCH better job with similar subject matter, and they're still funny.

4. Melvin and Howard

I believe this was Jonathan Demme's first big success.  Mary Steenburgen won the Oscar for her role as Melvin's wife, and it received a lot of praise at the time.  But as with 9 to 5, its humor hasn't aged well and the characters are hard to relate to.

5. Stir Crazy

The first half of this movie is funny, but after that it gets bogged down in a prison escape subplot.  Who cares how they escape the prison rodeo?  Isn't this supposed to be a comedy?

6. The Unseen

To be fair, Barbara Bach had a great ass, and there's a long, lingering shot of it in the beginning of this movie.  Stephen Furst was also a genuinely creepy "monster," but the rest of this movie is strictly B-grade horror.  You can, by the way, see the whole thing on YouTube.

7. Gloria

As much as I loved A Woman Under the Influence, I just couldn't get into this movie.  Some of the plot elements are incredibly unrealistic, and the kid Gena Rowlands rescues is the worst actor ever - so bad that his performance brings you right out of the movie.  "I am the man!  I am the man!"  Argh.  Gloria and Atlantic City might have been neck and neck at the 1980 Academy Awards, but Atlantic City is a much better movie all around.

Some That Are So Bad They're Good

1. Can't Stop the Music

The movie that helped kill disco and also end many movie careers.  Valerie Perrine stars as a model, Steve Guttenberg costars as a DJ, and the Village People provide a reason for this movie's existence.  People are really to hard on this movie, but it never took itself that seriously anyway.

2. Cannonball Run

Roger Moore is the best part of this movie, but there's enough silliness to make all of the characters endearing.  Is it an enduring piece of film history?  Hell no.  But if you feel nostalgic for the 80s this is the movie you want to see.

3. The Exterminator

A Vietnam vet vs. evil marijuana growers in California!  It's chock full of bad acting, nonsensical plot points, and super low-budget special effects.

2017年9月21日 星期四

"Steal Across the Sky" by Nancy Kress (2009)

"Silence on the other side of the commlink.  Lucca heard his own tone, lingering in the air like miasma.  Finally Cam said, 'Well excuse me for not having a college education.  And you're taking all this way too personally, Lucca.  I thought anthropologists were supposed to be objective."

Nancy Kress has written a whole heapin' lot of books, and won a whole heapin' lot of awards.  Before reading Steal Across the Sky, I came across a couple of her short stories in The Year's Best Science Fiction collections.  Her story "Ej-es" was one of the best entries in the 21st edition.

In Steal Across the Sky, a group of extraterrestrials called The Atoners make first contact with the human race in the near future.  They claim to have "committed a great sin" against our species, and as a way of righting former wrongs they recruit several people (the "Witnesses") to observe branches of humanity removed to a distant planet at some point in our ancient history.

It sounds kind of silly, right?  And yes, if you stop to think about the physics of intergalactic travel, it doesn't quite work, but then again you could say the same about almost any novel involving intergalactic travel.  "By the time X got back to Y, everyone he or she knew would be dead" runs a common refrain, but in this instance the mechanics of travel to distant stars isn't too central to the plot, and for this reason I was able to overlook it.

What's more, the characterization in Steal Across the Sky is a vast improvement over the last novel I read, Vernor Vinge's Across Realtime.  The people in Steal Across the Sky feel like living, breathing people as opposed to plot devices.  Their emotional reactions their experiences are believable, and their motivations are clear.  To be sure, this novel is heavy on the fiction and light on the science, but it's still a much better story than anything found in Across Realtime.  I found myself caring about the people Steal Across the Sky, and I wanted them to prosper.

With this said, I could see how Steal Across the Sky might rub more "scientifically oriented" readers the wrong way.  Parts of it border on the supernatural, even though most of the characters strive to maintain a scientific worldview.  I don't want to give too much away here, but what the Witnesses see off-planet shakes their understanding of human nature to its very foundations, and calls into question some aspects of the current trend toward Atheism in relation to scientific inquiry.  It's not a leap that most science fiction writers would make, and I admire the author for having the guts to do it.

Yet allowing for the supernatural, there's a gaping plot hole at the center of this book.  And no, it has nothing to do with intergalactic travel or genetics.  It's something a lot more obvious than that.

Why does everyone on Earth believe what the Witnesses have to say about their experiences?  The Witnesses return to Earth with NO evidence, and despite this small complication everyone - right down to governments and the world's leading scientists - believes everything they have to say.  Given the technological disparity between the Atoners and Earth's civilization, the Witnesses might as well have hidden in a room for the duration of their stay on the moon, or been placed inside of a virtual reality simulation.  How does anyone know that it wasn't some kind of hoax?  How does anyone know that the "Witnesses" weren't the subjects of some elaborate mind control experiment?  There are people who still can't believe that the moon landing happened, so why would anyone take the Witnesses' word it?

Steal Across the Sky really should have addressed this problem, but I have the feeling that Nancy Kress was, by that point, on to writing her next of many novels.  She couldn't be bothered to add that chapter.  And this is unfortunate, because such a chapter would have elevated the book to another level.  It would have made Steal Across the Sky feel so much more real, and so much more immediate.

It's a good book, and I'd be happy to read more of Nancy Kress's output in the future.  I just wish she had taken a bit more time with this one.  A greater attention to detail would have made the difference between a simply good book and one that's definitely great.