2017年12月29日 星期五

"Home Below Hell's Canyon" by Grace Jordan (1954)

"Suddenly the canyon opened for a constricted ranch with weathered buildings, but the bit of field above the rocky terrace was lush with green.  Grandpa pointed to the field.  'The winters here are mild,' he said contentedly.  'In the main, of course.  Mild winters, no roads reaching in.  That's why it's a great stock country.'"

Grace Jordan and her family moved to a ranch near Hell's Canyon in the midst of the Great Depression.  Apparently they were coming from eastern Oregon (near Enterprise), and their move to an isolated sheep ranch on the Snake River was a gamble.

Aside from the above, there's really not much to say about this book.  Mrs. Jordan arrives at the ranch with her three children, and they then set about making a life in one of the most remote parts of the continental U.S.  They install plumbing, various children get sick, and Grace's husband Len takes sheep up into the hills.  They have no TV, no reliable phone connection, no refrigerator, and the nearest road is a day's ride away.

There's also no real conclusion to Mrs. Jordan's story.  At the end of the book they simply move to the nearest town, and do so for no identifiable reason other than a concern for their children's schooling.  Some readers might find this lack of an overarching message or conclusion frustrating, but I think that it lends the book an authenticity it wouldn't have otherwise had.  It's just life - hour by hour, day by day - and things just tend to happen.

If you're interested in the history of Idaho, Oregon, or the Pacific Northwest I would recommend this book.  It's an easy read, and it's interesting to learn about how people survive the 19th century while (ostensibly) living in the 20th.

Related Entries:

"Crow Killer" by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker (1969)
"Astoria" by Peter Stark (2015)
"The Oregon Trail" by Rinker Buck (2015)
"Historic America: The Northwest" by Jim Kaplan (2002)

2017年12月18日 星期一

"House of Suns" by Alastair Reynolds (2008)

"With that, Jynx climbed into his craft and sped away in a flicker of mechanical wings.  The flier lifted from the platform and headed in the same general direction, back to the city, where it would wait until the break of day.  Purslane and I stood together and watched the two dots diminish until they were no longer distinguishable from the sky"

Alastair Reynolds has a PhD in Astronomy, lives in the Netherlands, and has written many science fiction novels.  House of Suns is the first of his books I've read, but I've also read some of his short stories in The Year's Best Science Fiction collections.

In this novel, a pair of clones travel across the galaxy, eventually uncovering a secret that shakes their society to its very foundations.  Various worlds are visited, robots scheme and plot revenge, and occasionally (very occasionally) something interesting happens.

In-between those interesting moments the characters talk, and talk, and talk, and talk, and between events of actual significance there are strange interludes where daily chores are described in detail, and where characters of secondary importance are given more emphasis than they ought to have.  Add to this the most convoluted, nonsensical, and altogether mystifying torture scene* I've ever come across, in any book or movie anywhere, and that pretty much sums of House of Suns.  And while it might not be as tedious as Eon, another book previously reviewed here, it's definitely tedious, and moreover tedious from beginning to end.

One of the most irritating things about this book is its inability (or unwillingness) to speculate upon the technologies it introduces.    The author's use of scientific concepts is certainly consistent, but he dumbs-down the science for the sake of the narrative, and the result is something that manages to make even Star Wars look like "hard sci-fi."

Another shortcoming is the completely arbitrary way in which the plot unfolds.  Things just happen, without any regard for previous developments or "rules" set up in earlier parts of the novel.  It's a lot like hearing a seven year old make up a story: "Oh, and then, and then, the robots aren't really our friends, ok?  Because a long time ago this other thing happens, and what they really want to do is..."  

You get the picture.  And of course the result of all this arbitrariness is that the characters lose any consistency built up beforehand.  We're left with a menagerie of overly polite, somewhat British, cardboard cut-outs discussing seemingly important events that we never "witness," all leading to some kind of conclusion that few will find engaging.

Alastair Reynolds?  This is the first of his books I've read, and it will, most likely, be the last.

*That torture scene?  They take panes of a transparent material and section the person being interrogated.  Even though separated into thousands of sections by this material, the person being interrogated continues to function normally, without any real sense of discomfort.  It's a lot like that scene with the horse in the 2000 movie The Cell, but that scene was, of course, a dream in the killer's mind.

Some Other Movies From 1988

Saw all of the movies below recently.  Not sure what's going on with 1988, but I had trouble finding movies that I hadn't seen and/or wanted to see.  Either I've seen most of the movies from that year, or it wasn't a good year for movies - I'm not sure which.  

The films that follow were discovered via Wikipedia's "1988 in Film" article.

Some Good Ones

1. A Cry in the Dark (a.k.a. Evil Angels)

Meryl Streep and Sam Neill star as an Australian couple tried in the court of public opinion after the death of their infant daughter.  It's a very overlooked film, and the courtroom scenes near the end are excellent.  Based on a true story.

2. Frantic

Harrison Ford stars as an American doctor searching for his missing wife in Paris.  Roman Polanski directed.  It's still a great, atmospheric film, and Emmanuelle Seigner gives a memorable performance as a drug courier.  That woman was beautiful.

3. The Seventh Sign

Still an entertaining movie, even if the characters often do inexplicable things.  Demi Moore plays a mother-to-be obsessed with the apocalypse, and Michael Biehn is her useless husband.  Not the Exorcist by any stretch of the imagination, but not bad.

4. The Dead Pool

Clint Eastwood stars as "Dirty" Harry Callahan in the fifth and final installment in that series.  The highlight is probably a brief but memorable performance by Jim Carrey, who lip syncs "Welcome to the Jungle."  You can even see members of Guns N' Roses on the boat where Liam Neeson, playing a director, is filming.

I like the radio-controlled-car-as-bomb idea.  It's just too bad they employ this idea so late in the movie.

5. Patty Hearst

Natasha Richardson, Ving Rhames, and William Forsythe star in this movie about the famous heiress's abduction by the counterculture.  Paul Schrader put his heart and soul into this film, and Ving Rhames is particularly memorable as the leader of the Symbionese Liberation Army.  Like A Cry in the Dark, also a very overlooked movie.

6. The Accused

Jodie Foster deserved the Academy Award she won for this film.  It's still one of the most heart-wrenching depictions of rape and its psychological impact, and also a solid courtroom drama.  Certainly one of the best movies of 1988.

7. The Accidental Tourist

William Hurt plays a travel writer trying to cope with the death of his son.  It sounds really depressing, but it has a lot of lighter moments that make the movie more watchable.  Far less depressing than Hurt's earlier film, Children of a Lesser God.

Some Bad Ones

1. Permanent Record

It says a lot about how bad a movie is when the lead character kills himself, halfway through, and you STILL don't care.  Keanu Reeves appears in this film, and the only good thing I can say about it is that it was filmed at several locations along the Oregon coast, an area I have a special fondness for.

2. Cocktail

Tom Cruise stars as an embarrassingly poetic bartender.  If they'd just stayed in Jamaica it might have been light-hearted fun, but instead they go back to New York, and then it gets all broody and dark.  Is this the worst Tom Cruise movie?  Yes, I believe it is!

3. Arthur 2: On the Rocks

God damn, this movie's painful.  Two hours of listening to Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli laugh at their own jokes, and on top of that the adoption subplot makes absolutely no sense.  Alcoholism, homelessness, and mental illness are funny!  HA HA HA HA HA.  Why aren't you laughing?  Come on, this shit is hysterical!

I have vague memories of watching the first Arthur on HBO when I was a kid.  However good or bad the first film was, it must of been better than this.

4. Vibes

Jeff Goldblum and Cyndi Lauper (!) star as a pair of psychics hunting for an Incan city of gold.  Lauper's not a bad actress, but this movie just isn't funny.  I think they were going for "Ghostbusters," but Goldblum can't make unfunny lines funny the way Bill Murray could.

5. High Spirits

It might have been filmed in Ireland, but this is still the most "American" movie Neil Jordan ever made.  Peter O'Toole, Steve Guttenberg, and Beverly D'Angelo star as tourists trapped in a haunted castle  It's a real chore to sit through.  

Fun Fact: Jennifer Tilly, who also appears in this movie, is now a world class poker player.

6. Some Girls

This movie is DUMB.  A young man visits his girlfriend's eccentric/annoying family during Christmas.  The funny parts aren't funny, and the events leading up to these "funny" parts feel very contrived.  Even if you just wanted to see Jennifer Connelly in her underwear there are better movies.

Some That Are So Bad They're Good

1. Bloodsport

Watching Jean Claude Van Damme and Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds play Karate Champ is about as 80s as you can get.  And hey, isn't that Forest Whitaker?  Yes, I believe it is...  

JCVD was a bad actor in 1988, but as we later learned he had hidden talents.  He also had the background to play Frank Dux, the real-life (?) tough guy upon whom Bloodsport was based.  It's a solidly put together action film, and at times delightfully cheesy.  

Fun Fact #1: Director Newt Arnold was Assistant Director on The Godfather Part II.  

Fun Fact #2: Frank Dux's claims of Kumite glory might be complete bullshit.  Several people, including the co-writer of Bloodsport, have stated that his martial arts background is completely false, and that: "the organization that allegedly staged the Kumite had the same address as Dux's house."

2. Mac and Me

Terrible, right from the opening credits.  In the face of any reasonable understanding of astrophysics, or even general scientific concepts, a family of aliens is accidentally transported to Earth.  The nonsensical plot, the not-so-special effects, and the star's acting (dis)ability all combine to make a delightfully bad film.  

Fun Fact: This triumph of cross-promotion lost out on a lot of the "worst of" awards to Tom Cruise's Cocktail, and while yes, Cocktail is indisputably bad, Mac and Me is probably worse.

Related Entries:

Some Other Movies from 1986
A Review of Every DC Movie from 2005 to the Present (Revised as of November 16, 2017)
Justice League!
The FoX-men No More?  FoxTastic No Longer?

*Hell yes, Michael Biehn!

2017年12月10日 星期日

"Neuromancer" by William Gibson (1984)

"'Autonomy, that's the bugaboo, where your AI's are concerned.  My guess, Case, you're going in there to cut the hardwired shackles that keep this baby from getting any smarter."

William Gibson is a Canadian-American author, best known for pioneering the cyberpunk genre and inventing the term "cyberspace."  He's written many books, and his writing career stretches back to the late 70s.

In Neuromancer, a hacker down on his luck is sent on a mission by a form of artificial intelligence.  Along the way he crosses paths with clones, space Rastafarians, and cybernetically enhanced ninjas.

And that's about it really.  It's a short book.  It's also Gibson's first novel, and I've got to say that as first novels go, it blows most other first novels out of the water.  It's lean, it's action-packed, and gets straight to the point in a rather poetic fashion.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it's easy to see its influence over subsequent books, movies, and even music.

Strange to say, and despite my decades reading science fiction, this is the first of Gibson's novels I've read.  I look forward to reading more soon, and I think it'll be interesting to compare this, his earliest effort, to more recent works by the same author.

If You Liked This Book, You Might Also Like:

"Permutation City" by Greg Egan
"The Information" by James Gleick

2017年12月4日 星期一

Some Other Movies from 1986

Saw all of the movies below recently.  For those wondering how I came upon them, I hereby refer you to the "1986 in Film" article on Wikipedia.

Some Good Ones

1. Youngblood

Rob Lowe penetrates (or is he penetrated by?) the world of Canadian hockey.  Patrick Swayze costars, and if you squint real hard you'll see Keanu Reeves in his first big movie.*  Definitely not great, but watchable.  This movie is extremely homoerotic at times.

2. Pretty in Pink

This movie is so 80s it wears a Thriller jacket.  It also knows the words to every song by Duran Duran.  

And by the way, was there any 80s movie that Harry Dean Stanton wasn't in?  Damn, the guy was in everything!  

Pretty in Pink is still good, still a big influence on Spider-Man: Homecoming, and if it doesn't give you high school flashbacks I'd be surprised.  For the record, and in all honesty, I didn't go to my high school prom, and no, it's never kept me up nights.

3. The Manhattan Project

John Lithgow plays a nuclear physicist trying to clean up the mess created by a "boy genius" who builds an atomic bomb using stolen uranium.  The young protagonist is one of the stupidest smart people ever, and the security in that plutonium enrichment facility is a joke.  Reminded me a lot of 1983's WarGames, though not nearly as good.

4. Lucas

Ah, Kerri Green.  Once upon a time, I was madly in love with Kerri Green.  Of course I wasn't much younger than Corey Haim was when he filmed this movie, so I suppose it's excusable.  Kerri Green, where are you now?

Lucas is the story of a socially awkward boy (Haim) who's in love with his high school classmate (Green).  But Green's in love with Charlie Sheen, so you can guess how that goes.  Pretty in Pink is a more stylized version of high school, whereas Lucas is probably more like how it really was.

5. At Close Range

Still a great movie.  Two brothers (Sean and Chris Penn) get into trouble after reuniting with their father (Christopher Walken).  It's an interesting portrait of crime in small town America.

Damn, Sean Penn was jacked back in the day.

6. Black Moon Rising

Tommy Lee Jones stars as an ex-burglar working for the government.  Linda Hamilton costars as a car thief who stumbles across the "Black Moon," a supercar with a jet engine.  It doesn't suck, but it feels a lot like a TV movie.

And here's the thing: Why does Tommy Lee Jones think it's a good idea to hide the tape inside the experimental car?  He must have passed a thousand hiding places between the office and the gas station - why pick the experimental car?

7. Children of a Lesser God

William Hurt stars as a teacher in a school for the deaf.  Marlee Matlin, in an Oscar-winning performance, stars as the young woman he tries to help and ultimately falls in love with.  The "synth wash" soundtrack wears out its welcome, but it's still an excellent movie.

8. Crossroads

Director Walter Hill channeled his love of the blues into this film about a young New Yorker seeking fame as a guitar player, and an old man looking for redemption.  I have a strong dislike for the macho bullshit present in Hill's 48 Hrs. and Streets of Fire, but in Crossroads he was at his best.  It probably helped a lot that Hill didn't write the script.

Can you imagine how hard it was for Steve Vai to mess up that solo?  He must have wanted to be in this movie real bad.

9. Hoosiers

You see?  White guys can play basketball!  Gene Hackman stars with Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper in this story about an Indiana high school basketball team that takes it all the way to the state finals.  The scenes with Hackman and Hopper together are the best parts of the movie.

10. Quicksilver

Quicksilver's like a more adult version of Rad (see below).  Kevin Bacon stars as a stock broker turned bike messenger, with a brief appearance by a much younger Larry (Laurence) Fishburne.  It ain't The Godfather, but it's not bad.  It should be noted that even though this came out only two years after Footloose, Bacon has referred to Quicksilver as "the absolute lowest point in my career."

11. Mona Lisa

Whatever happened to Bob Hoskins?  Did Who Framed Roger Rabbit kill his career so completely?  Whatever the case, he's on much firmer footing in Mona Lisa, a movie about an ex-convict attempting to re-unite with his daughter after a long stretch in prison.  It's Neil Jordan's third film, and shares many themes with his later smash success, The Crying Game.

12. Manhunter

Years before The Silence of the Lambs, Michael Mann directed this film adaptation of Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon.  I have the feeling that it was a little too "police procedural" for audiences back in 1986 (i.e. it's pretty slow), but it's still a good movie with some interesting twists.

Some Bad Ones

1. Power

Despite having Sidney Lumet as director, this story of a campaign consultant's daily life is like watching paint dry.  Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington give memorable performances, but it's not enough to make this movie interesting.  For a much better movie that covers similar territory, I recommend 1972's The Candidate.

2. The Clan of the Cave Bear

God damn Neanderthals!  Raping our women!  Or wait - if Daryl Hannah is a Cro Magnon, is she really one of "our women?" 

The intricacies of human evolution aside, this movie is just boring.  I get the argument that the archaeological record wasn't the point, but even for 1986 it looks cheaply done, and the story is badly executed.  I have the feeling that the book was much better.

3. Ruthless People

Rolling Stones theme song.  I f*&king HATE 80s Rolling Stones.  And you know what I hate even more than 80s Rolling Stones?  Judge Reinhold.  Something about that guy makes my skin crawl.

This movie was a big hit in 86, but I've never understood its appeal.  The acting is completely over the top, and none of the characters are sympathetic and/or interesting.  Some of the scenes are still funny, but the plot's too convoluted for its own good.

4. Rad

Perhaps one of the whitest movies ever made, this one's about a small town paperboy with BMX dreams.  The pacing (or lack thereof) is a mess, and it gets pretty slow in places.  Some scenes border on "so bad it's good" territory (especially the "bike dance" part), but others are just BAD.  Fun Fact: Hal Needham, the director of this movie, also did Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run.

5. Howard the Duck

If this movie had just been FUNNY, all would have been forgiven.  As it is, it's striking how few laughs one finds in a movie about an anthropomorphic duck from another planet.  Tim Robbins probably wishes he could forget about this one, even if he's the best thing in it.

And Leah Thompson.  That great degenerate of Western cinema!  Not only does she attempt to have sex with her own son in Back to the Future, but in Howard the Duck she attempts the deed most fowl!  Sure, she looks amazing in her underwear, but let us refrain from bestiality!

I wonder what James Gunn would do with Howard the Duck.  I'm not a big fan of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but it's interesting to speculate upon how he might have made the same material into an entertaining movie.

One That's So Bad It's Good

1. Never Too Young to Die

John "Full House" Stamos, George "007" Lazenby, Vanity (!), and Gene "Kiss" Simmons as Ragnar the Hermaphrodite.  Need I say more?  Stamos plays a low-grade James Bond, and there are a whole heap o' motorcycles.  Wait - if Lazenby plays a spy in this movie does that make it... canon?  Does Ragnar the Hermaphrodite inhabit the same cinematic universe as James Bond?!?!**

Related Entries:

A Review of Every DC Movie from 2005 to the Present (Revised as of November 16, 2017)
Justice League!
The FoX-men No More?  FoxTastic No Longer?
Some Other Movies From 1984

*It's actually his second movie, but who's bothered to watch "One Step Away" recently?  It doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry!

**In case you're confused, Lazenby was the star of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" in 1969.  He was the "interim Bond," and only appeared in that one Bond film before Connery returned in 1970.

2017年12月3日 星期日

"Eon" by Greg Bear (1985)

"The glob dropped and fleshed out like a vampire in an old horror movie to form a masculine body, clothed in loose white shirt and forest-green pants.  The figure seemed to solidify."

Greg Bear is highly regarded among certain aficionados of "hard sci-fi."  He's written dozens of books, and his bibliography stretches back to the late 70s.  This novel, Eon, is the first of four books in his "The Way" series.

In the early 2000s, a massive object called The Stone appears near the Earth.  Several teams of scientists investigate this object, and after many years they uncover both the startling secret of The Stone's origin and its connections to worlds (and realities) far beyond their wildest imaginings.

In tone the earliest chapters of Eon reminded me a lot of Larry Niven's Ringworld, in that a cast of decidedly "diverse" individuals study of an object that defies our present understanding of physics, only to discover that a shadowy race of "engineers" is lurking behind the scenes.  You could also compare Eon to Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 series, which also features a mysterious object(s) lying at the edge of our exploratory capacity, followed by revelations concerning its creators and their "message from the stars."

Yet I think Ringworld is the more apt comparison, given that Eon shares the same flaws.  Despite the "hard science" on display, both novels fail to adequately think through the implications of the ideas presented, and instead attempt to overwhelm our critical instincts with concepts that were cutting-edge at the time.  Both books also feature paper-thin characterizations, and tend to wander more than they ought to.  The chief difference being that Ringworld is much shorter, and as a result much more readable.

I wanted very much to like Eon - I'd heard great things about it - but I found it less brilliant that its reputation would suggest.  I felt like there were glimmers of better novels in its pages, but the whole was much less than the individual parts.

P.S. It may be that I'm being overly hard on this one.  After reading Greg Egan's Permutation City, Eon might be a victim of my newer, higher expectations.  Whatever the case, Eon definitely ISN'T in the same league as Egan's book.