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18th December 2014

7:19am: A Very Happy 75th Birthday To...
... Michael Moorcock!

14th December 2014

8:22am: Seen: Yusuf Islam, Masonic Auditorium, San Francisco, 2014.12.12
The Artist Formerly Known As Cat Stevens played the penultimate show of his "Tell 'Em I'm Gone" tour Friday night at the Masonic Auditorium, delighting those who have been waiting, literally, decades for the chance to see him perform.

The stage set was charming: the backdrop was an old train station, with the main stage as Platform One. The conceit of the show was that we are all here to ride the Peace Train.

Islam's band is tight and professional, if not spectacular in the technical sense. Three guitarists (plus Islam himself), bass, drums, and keyboards supported his voice, which was as strong as it is on album. During a two-hour set he played a large number of his old hits, a few new songs, and a wide variety of cover tunes, from Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" (the train theme again) to Jimmy Reed's "Big Boss Man" (actually written by Luther Dixon and Al Smith) - which surprised me, but shouldn't have; after all, two of his biggest hits ("Morning Has Broken" and "Another Saturday Night") are cover tunes.

A few of the hits were slightly modified to suit his religious sensibilities. As he said before playing "Another Saturday Night," "I don't search for chicks anymore," and he rephrased the song topically as the woes of an unsuccessful job seeker.

He played all the songs I personally wanted to hear ("Lisa Lisa"; "Where Do the Children Play?"; and "Father and Son"). The last of these was the main set closer, and after the tribal ritual of screaming for the encore, he came out and played three more songs: a new song, "Peace Train" (of course), and "Morning Has Broken."

In the end, he left the audience both satisfied and hungry for more, a difficult trick that is the mark of the consummate performer.

13th December 2014

8:14pm: Read: James Tiptree, Jr. (The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon) by Julie Phillips (2014-64)
Alice Sheldon is in danger of becoming a "lost" science fiction writer. As James Tiptree, she carried on for nearly ten years a career that included Hugo and Nebula awards, correspondences with many of the most important writers and editors on the SF scene at the time, and, of course, a number of really powerful stories - never once letting on that she was a woman. When she was "outed" it sent a shockwave through the SF world, shaking up many folks' assumptions about what men and women could and couldn't do as SF.

Ten years after that, she killed her husband and herself as part of a suicide pact of which he was not an entirely willing partner.

This is the story of a life that runs from the teens to the eighties of the twentieth century, featuring a childhood that ranged from upper-class Chicago to colonial Africa; service as a WAC in WWI; an interlude as a CIA analyst; a Ph.D. in psychology; and twenty years as a science fiction writer.

All of which doesn't even scratch the surface.

Alice Sheldon was a fascinating character in her own right, a product of her times and her family, who suffered from crippling depressions and a combined fear of death/fear of aging/death wish for many years; from unrequited (and basically suppressed for much of her life) lesbianism; and, very much, from the position of women in the world of her time. When second-wave feminism arose, she had a very complex relationship with it, regarding it as, basically, a good thing but doomed.

All of this and much more is detailed and analyzed in Phillips' book. It's a textbook example (so to speak) of how to write a biography: deeply and carefully researched, detailed without trivializing, and without imposing the writer's own agenda on the subject. Also, it is well written.

5th December 2014

11:18am: Fun Fun Fun
As a Type II diabetic, I rely heavily on my blood glucose meter to tell me when and how much carbs I can eat. So I was disturbed on Monday that it wasn't with me. I got home and it wasn't in my purse, wasn't on the table, wasn't anywhere.

Tuesday I worked from home so had to do without it.

Wednesday I returned to the office and it wasn't there either.

I had no idea how much the damn things cost, as I had gotten the first one free from my health care provider. I was shocked by the final price: $19.99 at CVS. Wow. I understand now - they make their money off the test strips...

* * * * *

And we just received word that our tickets for Yusuf "Cat Stevens" Islam have been shipped. Concert next Friday ... not one of my favorite artists, but absolutely one of S's favorites, and I admit I'm kind of looking forward to it.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, TicketBastard promises that they'll tell me about tickets for another event I'm interested in ... "Your wait time is approximately 15 minutes or more." I see they're really interested in this sale. Fuck them...

1st December 2014

8:52am: A very happy 50th birthday to...
...Jo Walton!

30th November 2014

5:54pm: Read: Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez (2014-63)
I am, at this point, convinced that Daniel Suarez is the premier writer of techno-thrillers in the US today. He's a better writer than Crichton ever was, and without the misogyny; and he lacks the bloat and jingoism of Tom Clancy. Plus, his technological mcguffins are, generally, believable to this science-fiction geek.

The mcguffin in this book is autonomous killer drones, running on a swarming matrix patterned after weaver ants - the most vicious insects in the world; they take down marabunta and pretty much anything that invades their turf. Our primary heroine is Linda McKinney, a myrmecologist who has modeled the weaver ants' behavior: it is her algorithm that has been jacked for the drones.

When a drone attacks her hut (she's in the field studying the ants), she is rescued by a team of top-secret military operatives led by code name Odin, a man who uses ravens (yes, Hunnin and Muginn) as spotters. She is quickly dragged into an life where nobody but your team is to be trusted, where someone in the US Government is out to kill you, and where reality is defined by social media.

I've already given away a bit too much of the plot. Let me just make a few general comments: the novel starts a little slowly, with some characters who don't really matter to the plot, and who die quickly; but once it gets rolling it's as unstoppable as, well, something really unstoppable. I read the last hundred pages at a single sitting and annoyed my wife who wanted me to do something else, but who understood because she'd already read it.

The only real flaw is that the characters are a little flat and static. McKinney is forced into some changes, but other than that the only person who seems to evolve as a character is pretty minor to the story. The rest, and especially Odin and his team, seem to have no room for change.

That's pretty minor though, because a thriller isn't a novel of character. Overall, this is as good as Suarez gets, and that's pretty damn good.

25th November 2014

7:23am: Happy birthday to ...

23rd November 2014

7:42am: Read: The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi (2014-61)
Quite extraordinary, like its predecessor The Quantum Thief.

Rajaniemi has more wild ideas per chapter than any writer since I don't know when. His prose glitters with them.

Jean Le Flambeur, gentleman-thief, despite being out of prison, is still not free. He must serve the pelligrini responsible for his physical freedom, who is fighting for her life amongst the Sobornost - "gods" who have uploaded their minds and who create copies ("gogols") of those minds for their own purposes. The pelligrini seeks leverage against the chen, the top Sobornost, and to this purpose, Le Flambeur must infiltrate Earth and steal the innocence of the chen.

Or, rather, what Earth has become. In Sirr, the fallen orbital city, the people eke out a living by harvesting jinni (loose minds, "lost souls") from the wildcode desert and putting them to work or selling them to the Sobornost. Tawwaddud, daughter of one of the five great families of Sirr, is put to work helping a Sobornost delegate investigate the murder of the head of another great family. This will lead her into danger, clashes with her family, and a chance at freedom.

The novel is structured as two intertwining stories, Jean's and Tawwaddud's, which come together two thirds of the way into the book in a way I had not forseen. In addition, there are stories within the stories, and stories are the key to controlling the jinn and the wildcode and much else. It is very much a story about stories, though it never gets meta.

Damn if this isn't _better_ than The Quantum Thief... which, for the middle book of a trilogy, is something of an accomplishment.
7:41am: The Century of the Quiet Sun
Wilson "Bob" Tucker would have been 100 years old today...

21st November 2014

7:30am: Catcerto?
A Lithuanian conductor, who obviously has too much time on his hands, took some "Nora the Piano Cat" videos and wrote a symphonic score around them.
7:02am: A very happy 90th Birthday to ...
Christopher Tolkien.

17th November 2014

7:20am: Seen: Big Hero 6 (2014)
With Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and now this, Disney seems to be on a roll. (Breathe it gently lest we get another Pocahontas or Black Cauldron!)

The story is set in "San Fransokyo," a city that rather successfully blends two cities-by-bays. (The Japanese takes on the Golden Gate Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid are quite nicely done.) But the real setting of Big Hero 6 is a near-future Marvel Universe.

Our hero is Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter), a fourteen-year-old genius who doesn't have anything better to do with his life than "bot fights," backstreet battles between small robots, which are not technically illegal - but betting on them is. After his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) - incidentally, the two don't look particularly Japanese - rescues Hiro from angry people he's sharked, he takes him to his college, the San Fransokyo Technology Institute, where he meets a number of Tadashi's fellow students, working on amazing projects, and Tadashi's teacher, Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell), who encourages him to apply for Callaghan's robotics lab. He also meets Baymax, Tadashi's robotics project, an inflatable "personal medical assistant."

Applying for the lab consists of showing off what you can do at a robotics show, and Hiro comes up with a tech called "microbots," which can do amazing things and which are just believable enough to work. Callaghan's nemesis, Alister Krei (Alan Tudyk), a technology gazillionaire, tries to buy the microbots on the spot, but Hiro chooses to join Callaghan's lab.

Then, after the brothers leave, the building blows up and Tadashi is killed trying to save Callaghan. No survivors are found, and Hiro spends the next few weeks (minutes of film time) moping and not going to class. Tadashi's friends/labmates keep trying to reach him, but nothing touches him until he accidentally activates Baymax, and the adventure is on. Having given Baymax a foolish command, Hiro winds up following him into a seemingly-abandoned warehouse, where a masked man is manufacturing ... aw, you guessed it. Microbots. Aaaaand tries to kill them.

Tadashi's friends rally 'round Hiro and they all become superheroes to fight the masked man, who turns out to be ... why should I tell you that? That would be a huge spoiler.

But the point here is that the movie has real heart. It's also got some pretty scary and sad moments, too much for very small children in my opinion. It definitely deserves the PG rating it got; I wouldn't object to it being rerated PG-13.

One other thing. While I haven't gone into the details of Hiro's sidekicks, they are all very well individualized, and one (Fred, voiced by T.J. Miller) is a very clever meta character who doesn't exactly know that they're in a movie, but is quite aware from the beginning that he's in a comic book plot.

Accompanying Big Hero 6 is a short called "Feast," a kind of response to "Paperman." It's the story of a dog and his man, told from the dog's point of view, with special emphasis on food.
7:07am: Read: Creative Mythology, by Joseph Campbell (2014-60)
The Masks of God, volume 4 (of 4)

In this conclusion to Campbell's exhaustive (and exhausting) study of mythic patterns and the actual myths which reify those patterns, he covers, basically, the West since the fall of Rome. Special attention (meaning a great deal of detail) is paid to the medieval tales of Tristan and Parsifal, and (somewhat less detail) to James Joyce and Thomas Mann.

Campbell begins from the assumption that the "Levantine" religions (Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are no longer viable for moderns, that those of us still practicing these religions are clinging to "dead" myths. Were he alive, I might write him a letter disputing this idea.

But anyway.

His conclusion seems to be that, where formerly myths arose from the people en masse, modern myths are the product of individual artists, and that a "great" artist (like Mann or Joyce) has a responsibility to his work. Well, and I think _any_ artist has a responsibility to her (or his) work, and also to his (or her) audience, so I can't dispute that. What he seems to mean by that, though, is conscious use of the mythic patterns - and I can't help but think that, in the hands of anyone but a genius like Joyce, that is likely to lead to works of art far deader than the Levantine religions.

7th November 2014

7:58am: Today...
...is the 100th birthday of R(aphael) A(loysius) Lafferty, author of much good stuff.

It is also the 60th birthday of Guy Gavriel Kay, author of a bunch of stuff I haven't read but probably should.

29th October 2014

10:35am: Annoying spam
I keep getting spammails asking me to explain my comment on Blogspot.

To the best of my knowledge, I have never commented on anything on Blogspot...

27th October 2014

11:32am: Read: The Atlantis World, by A.G. Riddle (2014-59)
The third book of the "Origin Mystery" trilogy seems to start about a week after the second ended. After the Plague is stopped, the Orchid nations seek to restore order, but the Immari organization is more, well, _organized_ and starts seizing food and power sources, paralyzing already-stressed governments.

Ares, the true head of the Immari at this point, unleashes mass destruction, melting the Antarctic ice and raising sea levels drastically.

Kate and David, our heroes, in an emergency escape, head for "the Beacon" left behind by the Atlantean visitors millenia ago, and from there into interstellar space. Dorian pursues them, hoping to kill them and end their "interference" with the Immari plan.

That's kind of the beginning. There are more sudden left turns in this book than in the first two put together, and more revelations than you can shake a reasonably-sized stick at. Unfortunately, these revelations come, as they must, in the form of massive expository lumps (though dramatized as "memory" flashbacks), slowing down the "current time" action and losing some of the tension, which should be huge at this point. I mean, we're only talking about the fate of the entire human race on and off Earth, right?

It isn't that the revelations aren't interesting; they are (though I found them a little improbable once or twice). They're even exciting in their own right. They're huge, the sort of thing you might expect from a major science fiction writer at his peak. But because of the way they're deployed, they slow the main story down - not fatally, but significantly.

It isn't a bad book by any means. But with a bit more attention to pacing, it could have been so much better...
8:08am: A Very Happy 75th Birthday To...
...John Cleese!

25th October 2014

9:42am: Read: Inversions, by Iain M. Banks (2014-58)
The death of Iain (M.) Banks last year was the loss of a Scottish national treasure, a truly amazing writer of both SF and bizarre mainstream novels. This is the first of his books I have read since he passed, and I have quite a few to go, I'm happy to say - though most of them are the Iain Banks, not-SF books.

This particular book is mooted as being of the Culture sequence, though you can (and I did) read the entire book and not know that; indeed, it could _almost_ be a medieval-ish fantasy novel.

Set on a backwards world, it tells two stories that never quite intertwine.

One is the story of DeWar, the bodyguard of the Protector. The Empire of this world recently fell, leaving a bunch of squabbling kings, dukes, claimants to the Imperial title, and UrLeyn the Protector, a warlord who refuses royal trappings. DeWar constantly seeks (and finds) threats to UrLeyn's life; he describes himself as "an assassin of assassins."

The other story tells of Vossil, the Doctor to the King of a not-quite-neighboring kingdom. Her tale is told by Oelph, her apprentice, who is also spying on her for a Master whose identity is kept secret until the end. She has the resentment of not only the male Doctors of the kingdom, but also the King's closest advisors, who feel she has too much of his ear.

Their tales have two things in common.

The first is that both of them are from Somewhere Else, somewhere far away enough that their _bona fides_ are hard to check on.

The second is that their tales are full of secrets, betrayals, and violence.

It isn't saying too much to say that, while their tales never meet, one tale has an influence on the outcome of the other.

As always with Banks, the stories are well-written, full of twists and surprises, and fun to read. The denouements are satisfying and fall naturally out of what has gone before. All in all, another Banks winner.

19th October 2014

4:00pm: Seen: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
A slasher film ... sort of. It's almost more a film about slasher films, or about why slasher films happen.

Five college kids go to a Cabin in the Woods. A creepy old man semi-warns them about going. They read an old text in a cellar full of weird things, and the Bad Things start coming for them, picking them off one by one.

There are some pretty gross moments. There is also a wild backstory. I'll put some spoilers behind the clickythingy. Clickythingy.Collapse )

I didn't want my hour and a half back or anything, but it isn't my favorite Joss Whedon project.

Oh. Did I forget to mention that it was a Joss Whedon project? Well, it is, and his hand and humor are everywhere. And if you've ever seen a slasher picture, or twenty, you can spot references literally everywhere. If you haven't ... you probably won't enjoy this anyway.
3:34pm: Read: Three-Fisted Tales of "Bob" ed. by Rev. Ivan Stang (2014-57)
I bought a copy of this book when it first came out in 1990, and _it never made it home with me_. I never saw a copy again until I thought to look online recently and found a copy. To my amazement, it arrived in good shape and lasted long enough for me to read it. Indeed, it still sits beside me, gazing balefully at me through the Dobbshead on the back cover.

For those who don't know, J.R. "Bob" Dobbs is the Salesman of Slack, the great profit and founder of the Church of the SubGenius. The Reverend Ivan Stang is the Sacred Scribe, and the authors represented in this book have all participated in the truth of Slack in some way.

There are some who ask, How can one continue to take seriously a religion that predicted the end of the world by the arrival of the Xists in 1998? To which I answer, first, that the Christian Church has predicted the imminent end of the world since it started, and people still take it seriously; and second, that _How do you know that the world DIDN'T end on X-Day, July 5, 1998?_

Well, anyway, this book collects a bunch of stories and ravings about (some of them very loosely about) "Bob." A couple of them only mention him. Selah. Some of them are a bit disjoint, others are about dat joint. Not that anyone smokes joints in these stories; like true SubGenii, they smoke 'Frop.

Fortunately, the longest stories tend to be the best and the jointiest. Rev. Stang's own "The Third Fist" is a three-fisted adventure indeed, in which the innocent Li Li-jing finds himself travelling through time with Dobbs himself to visit the "Bobs" of other eras and, hopefully, defeat the Slack-less Anti"Bob." Paul Mavrides presents selections from his (still unpublished) novel _World without Slack_, depicting the activities of "Bob"'s Church after the horrors of X-Day. Waves Forest presents "'Bob' and the Oxygen Wars," possibly the single best thing in the book despite that it consists almost completely of expository conversation.

Of the shorter pieces, well worth your time are "1996199719998" by John Shirley; "The Horrow on Howth Hill" by Robert Anton Wilson; and the strangely appealing "What I Know (Excerpts)" by Mark Mothersbaugh (yes, the guy from DEVO).

Only one or two of the very shortest pieces are absolute duds, and when I say shortest I mean two to four pages short, and so easily tolerated or skipped.

Why is this out of print? Only the Conspiracy knows............

18th October 2014

8:48am: A happy 50th birthday
to that young man, Charlie Stross

17th October 2014

7:20am: An interesting day
Today is the 100th birthday of Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman.

Today is also the 80th birthday of Alan Garner, who, unlike Siegel, is still alive.

It is also the 200th anniversary of the Great Beer Flood in London.

And I think something happened in the Bay Area 25 years ago, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

12th October 2014

8:42pm: Read: Occidental Mythology, by Joseph Campbell (2014-56)
The Masks of God, volume 3.

Campbell turns his eye to the Western portion of the Old World, to Classical, Celtic, Norse, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian and Islamic mythologies. (If I have just called your religion a mythology, (a) it's him, not me, and (b) I've also called my own one.) In this volume it becomes increasingly clear that Campbell has an axe to grind with the Abrahamic religions, but never does the sound of that axe being ground drown out the healthy dollops of real scholarship.

Perhaps my biggest gripe comes from his assumption that the basis of my religion is largely fictitious because it resembles other religions. Well ... duh. Most-if-not-all religions have a great deal in common; indeed, I have a certain sympathy (though I do not ultimately agree) with the bromiad that states that they are all valid paths to the same place. (Indeed, one of the things Campbell does well is show how very different are the places to which some mythologies lead!)

Still, many of his points are well-taken, and I'd be a fool to claim that the sacred authors of my faith were not ... influenced ... by what came before, in how they shaped what they set down. I mean: of course they were. How could they not be? They were drenched in it.

Campbell takes the story from the earliest historical days of the various Western regions he discusses, up to the dawn of the "Reformation." He tells in clear terms how the orthodoxies of Christianity and Islam came to be as they are, and explains well the differences between the two or three main branches of Islam (depending on whether you count Sufism). He shows how empires and their beliefs rise and fall. He gives an interesting account, with which I was not previously familiar, of how the nature of the Catholic Church - in particular the nature of its clergy - led to its own undoing, first in the Albigensian crisis, then in the Reformation.

Like its predecessors, it is an exhausting read, but well worth the time and effort it took, and I look forward - after reading a few lighter books! - to the fourth and final volume.

4th October 2014

11:35am: Seen: The Art of the Steal (2014)
Kurt Russell is convincing as Dennis "Crunch" Calhoun, an art thief - specifically, the driver - betrayed by his brother Nicky (Matt Dillon) to seven years (five and a half for good behavior) in a Polish prison. Getting out, he takes up a not-terribly-successful career as a stunt motorcyclist. When he's held at gunpoint by someone else Nicky betrayed, Crunch decides to "get the band back together."

As you can probably guess, there are layers of betrayal and counter-betrayal going on here, and it's hard to tell you what goes down without giving away _something_. Suffice it to say that it becomes clear early on that someone is going to get the shitty end of the stick, and that it's going to be handed to him by Interpol Agent Bick (Jason Jones), who has been after Nicky for some time. Bick is aided by Samuel Winter (Terence Stamp) as an aging art thief who's working off his parole. The Calhouns, in turn, are aided by "Uncle" Paddy MacCarthy (Kenneth Welsh), a lovable old scoundrel; Guy de Cornet (Chris Diamantopoulos), a master forger; and Francie Tobin (Jay Baruchel), Crunch's apprentice.

I don't think that I'm giving anything away here by saying that crucial information is withheld from the audience at various points. Rather more important, once or twice we see something that only happens in the imagination of someone being conned, which I think is somewhat of a cheat.

Despite this, the plots, counterplots, and counter-counterplots all add up to a good, fun ride for the audience and an excellent final reveal, and there are interesting things said about honor, trust, and the bonds of brotherhood. I give the movie a B+.

1st October 2014

7:25am: Buy the liverwurst!
Today is October First.
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