Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Book Review: "Now Wait for Last Year" by Philip K. Dick

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away. -  Philip K. Dick
It’s hard to relate how strange it feels to be immersed in a Philip K. Dick novel. In both subject matter and style, he’s a very eccentric writer. At his best, his books are journeys into paranoiac alternate realities, containing one plausible mind-bending idea after another, but you still have to forgive him a lot – his awkward turns of phrases, the continually jumping from one topic to another, his obsessions with overbearing, bitchy women, etc. In addition, he fancies himself an experimentalist. This means that many of the bizarre and silly things that occur in his books are often the result of him “playing” with form rather that extensions of his sometimes poor writing.

But I’m selling him short. Now Wait For Last Year is a good novel. It tells the tale of Eric Sweetscent, an artiforg (artificial organ) surgeon working for Gino Molinari, the leader of the Earth, who has allied with the wrong group of aliens in a struggle for control of the galaxy. Most of the book centers upon Molinari’s efforts to keep these alien “allies” from overrunning the earth forces by sacrificing his health. But, this being Dick, it also deals with misadventures with JJ-180, an instantly addictive drug that causes you to slip backwards or forwards in time. These two threads twist around each other in bizarre ways as Dick creates a multi-layered reality that leaves you standing on unsteady ground, never knowing who – or what – to trust.

Dick loved chaos, and was one of the first proponents that the future will basically be an extension of the present with all of its political quagmires, shoddy craftsmanship, and corrupted power structures – but with cooler technology. He also insisted that the fake had as much validity as the real. In other words, he felt that the social fantasies that we make up in our heads end up replacing our reality, leading to some serious disconnects when we do abut up against “reality.”  He combines these ideas together in a heady brew that – like his best novels – lead you to false conclusions and uncertainty so that you acutely experience the same feelings as the protagonist as he struggles with political, emotional, and temporal problems. For this reason, I don't want to give too much away about the plot since to do so would rob you of this experience.

Having said that, I was surprised at how powerful and deep Now Wait for Last Year is – it carries real psychological heft. Dick’s novels at times go too far, leaving you with shallow characters and tinny prose, but not here. For instance, the mutually destructive relationship between Sweetscent and his wife Kathy is compelling because you can tell that Dick has lived it (he was married five times in his short life). Similarly, the oppressive nature of the book's military situation drives its characters towards the darkness: when Sweetscent meets up with Molinari for the first time, they bond over their “yearning for death. [They] could envision it as a release—the only dependable release that existed…” p. 56

I loved the trip of Now Wait For Next Year, but it’s hard for me to recommend to people because it was such a bizarre experience. If you’re interested in Dick, you might do best to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or Martian Time-Slip first. Or you can wait for the movie!

Cross posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Quick Jolt of Nostalgia or Sentimentality

Jordan Bloom, commenting on other writers thoughts of "upper middlebrow art" (think Wes Anderson), asks:
Is there a music “ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices”? Or how about one that “stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook”?
And points to Mumford and Sons as an indie folk representative of this idea. While I don't disagree with him (that style of music doesn't speak to me), I don't believe i'd be so harsh. He concludes, however, that
In music, I wonder how much of this has to do with the expectation, especially among young people, that every moment of their waking lives be soundtracked. Though we spend more time listening to music than at any time before, that rarely leads to listening to longer compositions or a broadening of one’s musical horizons. If you have time to listen to a few tracks on the way to work, this kind of indie folk suits your purposes well. I’ve heard people defend this music as “life-affirming.” I have no idea what that means, but it sounds like nonsense. Functionally, the music is life-distracting. It’s like emotional crack; a quick jolt of nostalgia or sentimentality to get you through the day. Some throwaway lines about mountains or trains to consume on the subway before sitting at a computer for eight hours. It seems like most people don’t expect anything more out of music than this, and that’s tragic.
It's a thought that haunts me in my darker moments: is my love of music shallow? I've moved more recently to listening more and more to wordless electronic music, most of which serves both as background music as well as something I can listen to more deeply as the situation arises. Or can I? Is the meaning I'm getting from these songs merely because I've listened to them so many times at work or during dinner with the kids? Am I using music to control the mood rather than to challenge, move me, or even entertain? Is it, god forbid, a "a quick jolt of nostalgia or sentimentality"?

I don't think it is, although my listening habits are certainly more lazy then they were before my kids came along. But they're already grooving to Ulrich Schnauss at the dinner table, an accomplishment i'm proud of. If my kids are going to see music as a soundtrack, at least it will be a damned good soundtrack. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

First Lines of Pete Townshend's "Who I Am"

"It's extraordinary, magical, surreal, watching them all dance to my feedback guitar solos; in the audience my art-school chums stand straight-backed among the slouching West and Northern London Mods, that army of teenagers who have arrived astride their fabulous scooters in short hair and good shoes, hopped up on pills. I can't speak for what's in the heads of my fellow bandmates, Roger Daltrey, Leith Moon, or John Entwistle. Usually I'd be feeling like a loner, even in the middle of the band, but tonight, in June 1964, at The Who's first show at the Railway Hotel in Harrow, West London, I am invincible."

- Pete Townshend, from Who I Am

A brutally honest wild mess of contradictions, this guy is endlessly fascinating to me.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Why Should I Care... If He Has No Hair?

It's a Who week here at Thought Ambience. I picked up Pete Townshend's Autobiography Who I Am, and am headed into Boston tonight to catch the Who at the Garden, where they'll be playing Quadrophenia in its entirety. Given that this is one of my all-time favorite albums, i'm pretty excited about it!

In celebration, I thought i'd share a pix I drew of the man a few years ago. Really excited to see the old guy tonight and see what he's got left in the tank. I'll let you know how it goes!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Book Review: "The Stand" by Stephen King

Many Stephen King fans regard The Stand as his greatest novel. After finally completed the 1153 pages (of the Expanded Edition), I can see why they think so, even if I don’t agree with them. Certainly everything that makes Stephen King such a powerful and interesting writer is in place here—the propulsive narrative that drives you to keep turning the pages, the compelling character relationships, the chilling elements of the supernatural and horror – but, to me, the book is just a hot mess. A fascinating mess, but a mess nonetheless.

King kicks it off by tracking a plague—dubbed Captain Trips—as it narrowly escapes from a Top Secret military facility to infect the rest of the world. The way that King coldly details the spread of the disease, the effect it has on people, and the devastation that results is chillingly powerful. This is the spookiest part of the book – as when Stu, trapped in a CDC containment center, wanders through halls of dead and dying victims while searching for the exit.

After people have (mostly) stopped dying and the .04% of humanity that are immune to the plague take stock of what’s happened, they all start dreaming one of two dreams: of Randall Flagg, a “dark man” setting up camp in Las Vegas, or of Mother Abigail, a Christ-like 104 year old woman. Survivors are drawn towards one side or another depending on their nature, with King setting up a confrontation between them. He obviously wants to explore religious ideas, and what he calls “rising above adversity through faith” so, to this end, and despite his well-deserved reputation for wallowing in the darkness, King spends a long time with the “good” folks who congregate in Boulder, CO to re-establish society. This attempted rebirth of America is interesting, and SK is typically at his best when describing the interconnections between people in close knit environments, but the book’s pace falters as King includes too much sociology and politics while neglects Flagg’s group. The rest of the novel repeats this pattern: lots of interesting stretches that ultimately don’t really serve an important point in the big good vs. evil showdown – the Stand – that concludes the book.

In short, I liked The Stand, but I feel that King could have cut out a lot of material and ended up with a taught thriller in line with the gripping first third of the book. Many, many people have fallen in love with The Stand, but although I liked it, call me a simple acquaintance.

Related Posts:
Book Review: "The Wind through the Keyhole"

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Book Review: "Rollback" by Robert J. Sawyer

I picked up Robert J. Sawyer’s Rollback on the strength of two things: 1) the author’s pedigree (he’s won the Best Novel Hugo and Nebula awards) and 2) the fascinating premise. The book takes place far in the future when mankind has received a second transmission from Sigma Draconis. Sarah Halifax, the woman who decoded the first message is now 87, and so a rich benefactor offers to pay for a “rollback procedure” – medically improving the body so that you’re physically 25 again – so that she can continue the correspondence with our neighbors 18.1 light years away. Sarah agrees, but only if her husband Don is rolled back as well. Unfortunately, the rollback only works for Don, and the couple has to deal with the implications of their 50-year age gap as Sarah works towards deciphering the second alien message.

While Rollback was a good book – I plowed through its 300-something pages in less than a week – I was a bit disappointed that Sawyer spent so time focusing on Don. Entire chapters cover the challenges of dealing with his new youth – of being an old mind in a young body. Sarah’s predicament as an 87-year old working to decrypt the alien message - to me, the more interesting scenario - felt like an afterthought. In the end, Rollback was an interesting story, but I was hoping of more of an examination of how aging scientists would cope with challenges.

For me, the highlights of the novel were the examinations of first contact theory, even if the characters didn't so much talk to each other as much as promote theories. Still, I liked the discussions about what Sigma Draconis culture would be like. Forgive the long quote, but it will give you an idea of what these sections of the book is like:
“The aliens have an obligation to let us know they’re there. …Because they’d be an existence proof that it’s possible to survive technological adolescence—you know, the period during which you have tools that could destroy your entire species but no mechanism in place yet to prevent them from ever being used. … [one] solution is that time-honored sci-fi cliché, the hive mind. … you all think with one mind. Of course, if you do that, you might even lose any notion that there could be other individuals out there. … There’s another solution too. Absolute totalitarianism. Everyone’s still got free will, but they’re constrained from doing anything with it. pages 53-4
He continues this interesting line of thought by offering another way to survive technological adolescence: by refusing to evolve as a species through a lack of procreation, etc. that Sarah calls “transcend[ing] Darwin.” In the end, the novel neatly wraps itself up with some touching pictures of mortality and a continued picture into what life will be like several hundred years from how. It’s an entertaining little self-contained book that I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in first contact, even if it didn't blow me away.

Cross-posted on Reading, Writing and Red Sox

Digging into the Petraeus Scandal

So General Petraeus gets caught cheating on his wife. I'm having a hard time seeing any big problem with this other than the usual arguments - proves the guy's untrustworthy, leaves himself open to blackmail, etc. So despite this "hero goes down" narrative, i'm having a hard time seeing what all of the fuss is about. However, I did stumble across this excellent Robert Wright article in The Atlantic in which he argues that we're focusing on the wrong Petraeus scandal:
But in many ways, [Obama] is no improvement over the last one, and Exhibit A is the acceleration of a far-flung drone-strike program that is shrouded in the secrecy of the CIA. The vision implicit in this program is of an America whose great calling is to lead the world into a future of chaos and lawlessness.

This prospect was vividly highlighted when, a bit more than a year ago, Obama had David Petraeus turn in his stars so he could move to the CIA and keep fighting wars. There have been other military men who headed the CIA, but never has there been one whose move to Langley brought so much continuity with what he was doing before he went there.
The revolving door between the military and the industries that support them has always been a problem. Wright's larger point is that the CIA - partly led in this by Petraeus - has morphed from being an agency that indirectly contributed to killing people to one that directly kills them, leading to questions like this one:
If the CIA is psychologically invested in a particular form of warfare--and derives part of its budget from that kind of warfare--can it be trusted to impartially assess the consequences, both positive and negative, direct and indirect?
Scary question, because i'm sure the answer is that no, it can't be trusted. Without knowing all of the complex details, all I can see is a growing picture of a country whose military and intelligence agencies are running amok. IMO, Obama's biggest fault was not only to continue but to expand upon the drone attacks of the Bush years under the guise of being "tough on terror." Can you imagine what our reaction would be if another country used drones to kill as many people and destroy as much property as we do?

Monday, November 12, 2012

To Be Unborable

"The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

- David Foster Wallace, from The Pale King

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Go Vote!

It's that time! Go to your polling place and cast your ballot. And when you do so, be sure to keep in mind these important words from Chris Rock:

Saturday, November 3, 2012

What Good is Knowledge?

"What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of every day. But nobody actually knows anything."

- Don DeLillo, from White Noise

Observing Nature

"What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our questioning."

- Werner Heisenberg

Friday, November 2, 2012

When Heroes Fall...

So it turns out that not only did Lance Armstrong dope his blood when he was winning all of those Tour de France titles, but, as Michael Specter writes in the New Yorker: "he was the king—better at doping than he was at pretending to win bicycle races through grit and determination." There are a lot of sordid details, many of which are incredible to read, but the kicker is this statement by the USADA: "the evidence in the case against Lance Armstrong is beyond strong; it is as strong, or stronger than, that presented in any case brought by USADA over the initial twelve years of USADA’s existence."

That's an incredible statement, and really does put everything that Lance has ever said into a different perspective. I mean, not only did Lance deny doping, but he did so vehemently, so passionately that it's hard to believe it was all an act. It was like he thought he'd never get caught - although in the end, history always people always get caught. Lance's image is in shambles, his biking titles (and marathon finish!) stripped from him, and he's currently laying low,  not defending himself publicly and stepping down from the head of Livestrong.

Other then wondering what kind of man can lie so vehemently about what he knows to be true, the question of what this means to Livestrong is the most fascinating question to me. Lifestrong is a good charity regardless of Lance's actions, and has (and will) achieve a lot of good in the world. But how it moves forward in the face of the disgrace of its figurehead will be very interesting. As Suzanne Vega sings in "When Hereos Go Down" (linked above):
When heroes go down / They land in flame
So don't expect any slow and careful / Settling of blame
I'm not expecting, or even advocating, that Lance's forming Livestrong to somehow mitigate his lies and cheating on the playing field. But the issues, and the person, are complex, and it's good to keep that in mind as we ponder the meaning of Lance Armstrong's rise and fall.