Saturday, December 09, 2006

Thank you, Jehova's Witnesses

A father and son team of Jehova's Witnesses came to my door this morning, asking if they could speak to me. I held my tongue, and politely said "I'm sorry, I'm not interested."

But at least they gave me the opportunity to think about saying, "By all means, please come in. Could you give me a hand in the basement? I'm about to sacrifice two virgins and they're squiriming something awful."

And even though I have no intention of sacrificing virgins or offending the devout (in person at least, I'm sure I've honked someone off with this missive), the glee about the chaos I could have caused is fun enough.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Three Days to Never, Tim Powers

I've been a big fan of Powers' work for a long time (more than my wife -- she couldn't make it through Expiration Date), and I have to say with this book and especially Declare, his previous offering, Tim Powers owns the Supernatural Spy Thriller sub-genre. OK, there aren't a lot of other people writing in that niche, perhaps Brian Lumley's Necroscope series, although that's more horrific than just supernatural, and perhaps a few of Koontz's early works... hmm... pair this with Lightning, perhaps, for a reading double feature?

TDTN deals with a hidden legacy of Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin movies, a supernatural branch of Israel's Mossad, a talking head in a box, a blind woman who sees through others' eyes and a thoroughly engaging story.

But it seems he's gone back to the same well a couple too many times. A lot of this book seems to rehash things he's written before: the legacy of a scientist and encounters with ghosts (Expiration Date), the whole middle-eastern spy stuff (Declare), time travel (Anubis Gates). But this is good. Really good. It's just that Declare was magnificent. The weaving of demonic forces, spies, bits of now and bits of then just worked so much better there than here.

If I had to pick two Powers books, I'd say Declare and Last Call, the others are all worth reading too (although Epitaph in Rust and The Scies Discrowned are an expensive two-pack hardcover for what were originally -- though now rare -- cheap paperbacks).

OK, now *READ* Nightwatch Tonight

I finished the paperback of the translated Nightwatch by Sergei Lukyanenko, on which the movie (look down) was based. The link goes to Froogle by the way -- I don't shill for anyone.

The movie was a non-stop WOW -- heavy duty action, flash, and outright weirdness. The book is a little more mundane, more talky, but still full of wonder.
A big difference is that the book makes it pretty obvious the author is a role-playing game fan -- "levels" of sorcery, references to Jedi, and such, but that's not a problem, certainly.

The movie covers only the first part of the book, although there are some major differences in how things are set up, and the relationships between Anton (the lead), Egor (the young boy) and Svetlana (the woman under a curse) -- I won't spoil it, but the resolution in the movie is actually a little stronger, although it burns some of the later stories in the book. Some of the things are explained a little better: Licensing vampires to hunt has a balance -- the Light are permitted to heal, to help to cure. Everything is perfectly balanced in the Truce between light and dark. The morality of this -- why can't light just do good? -- is the primary struggle for Anton.

A few of the scenes from the movie are straight out of the book and make a bit more sense: Zabulon/Zavulon sitting in the apartment where the Light are trying to figure out what to do about Svetlana's curse is nearly letter-for-letter, and makes more sense when they describe that the Daywatch is always permitted to have an observer when the Nightwatch has a field operation. Anton's sad, exhausted mood is very well captured from book to movie.

It's an entertaining read, good beach/plane reading. I'm looking forward to the second volume (due translated in January), and the second movie (which has been out since the first of the year in Russia, no word on the subtitled version for us here).

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Glasshouse, Charles Stross

So, another book review.

Darn good book. Set apparently in the same universe as Accelerando, but not so much as you'd have to read that first, it covers the life of Robin, recently recovering from memory editing and deciding to take place in a psychological experiment/LARP in a 'dark ages' (our time) simulation.

The book has suggestions of Phillip K Dick-ian "am I real?" psychoses (if your memory has been edited, how do you know what is real and what isn't), plus it gives a nice reflection of our Antivirus-dependent computing society (Consider it an update of the network situation of Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep). There's some good laughs at what the future "us" thinks might have been going on in the century from 1950 forward (nuclear families, gender segregation of jobs and household), and some great tech concepts, such as: if you have instantaneous wormhole teleportation, a blaster can be nothing more than a gateway to a star's surface.

I've come lately into Stross' work (having read Accelerando free online), and he and John Scalzi (Old Man's War) got robbed at the Hugos this year. This book has a great chance at next year's Rocketship-shaped award, if Scalzi's Ghost Brigades don't beat him to it.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Carpet Makers, Andreas Eschbach

My wife bought me this book on several reccommendations, including Orson Scot Card's introduction.

This is an interesting book, translated from the German, but not what I would call great SF. First off, the novel is a series of connected chapters, with no character appearing in more than two or three chapters, chasing down the mystery of the "hair carpets" across galaxies of a recently-fallen empire.

I can see how Card would enjoy it: it has a lot of the tragic irony for which Card is famous (particularly his earlier books such as Songmaster, Planet Called Treason, etc.).

But what I found this resonating with is Somtow Sucharichtul's High Inquestor series, especially The Utopia Hunters: A far-flung empire, amazing powers of longevity and technology, and a series of Kipling-like just-so stories.

Ultimately, the mystery is resolved (unlike pretty much anything by Robert Charles Wilson), but without characters in which we've invested anything in, the book feels cold and disconnected.

Luckily I've got a stack of books recently released to wade through: Dzur by Steven Brust, Night watch by Sergei Lukyanenko (the basis for the outstanding movie of the same name), Glasshouse by Charles Stross, and Three Days to Never by Tim Powers. So expect more reviews soon.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Another tasty appetizer: Raul Midon

Caught Joe Jackson at the Vic last night (same venue as the Ditty Bops/Nickel Creek I blogged on a few months ago -- one of the best houses in Chicago for music).

I don't know where Joe finds his opening acts, probably just some agent somewhere, but I'm hoping he's active on the NYC music scene. A previous show he brought Mary Lee's Corvette, a folkish rocker, and this time Raul Midon (sorry, I'm too lazy for accents). A blind jazz-blues-pop guitar god with a playing style I've never seen before -- I'm glad I saw him, because I'd never believe that his act is solo if I just heard it. His slap/pluck/strum style of playing makes it sound like several instruments, plus his vocal trumpeting (can't describe it, gotta hear it) is amazing. Bought the CD at the show -- gotta give these small acts some green.

Joe was having a bit of an off night, flubbed a few lines and just seemed not quite there. I've been catching him almost every tour since 1979, and he's certainly changed. Ten years ago, he'd have been fuming and swearing (like he did over a malfunctioning synth at the Park West), last night he just laughed it off. I will admit that even I would have a tough time singing Zappa's "Dirty Love" with a straight face, but he just wasn't "on". Still, a great time. The Joe Jackson Trio is the original band, less guitar. Graham Maby is still the best bassist alive, and Dave Houghton, for being off the scene for 20 years, can sure kick up the rhythm on the drums -- all electronic pads this time instead of a standard kit.

Highlights: A rollicking boogie piano version of "Dirty Martini", the above "Dirty Love", "On Your Radio" and probably the most album-like version of "Steppin' Out" he's done since Night and Day was issued.

Raul Midon :: The Official Site :: Welcome!
Joe Jackson

Books by John Scalzi: The Ghost Brigades

I didn't realize that I hadn't posted since the last Scalzi book I read. Of course I've read other stuff in between (it's been a good month: 3 Repairman Jack books, Varley's "Red Lightning" (meh)... I'm on a tear.

Anyway, "Ghost Brigades"...
Excellent follow-on to "Old Man's War" but you don't need to read one for the other. Some carryover characters, but no John Perry.
My only gripe is that he is a little too clear that he's standing on the shoulders of giants. OMW was described as a modern take on "Starship Troopers" and "Forever War" and that certainly fit.
In GB, he name-checks several SF writers, both in character names (a group of Ghost Brigade troops took names after writers), and in one character's research into artificial beings, from Frankenstein's monster on up through Asimov's robots and Heinlein's Friday. He specifically mentions "uplift" a concept coined by David Brin. It gets a little tiring to see things that obvious, but it's only his third novel... he'll get better and better.

GB talks a lot about the ethics of artificial beings and imposing memories on another head, but missed some of what I consider exemplars on the subject: Brin's "Kil'n People" -- those people are temporaries, and there's no compunction in killing off duplicates, as you can re-incorporate their knowledge. C.J. Cherry's Azi in the Alliance/Union stories, especially "Cyteen" are probably the closest equivalent: The Azi are generally interchangable slaves, tape-trained. Cyteen's main character has some of the same characteristics as Scalzi's Jared Dirac: designed to be -- or become -- someone else, where does one person's individuality and rights come from?

There are some nice unexplored concepts that could be part of another book, or just round-table discussion: Where do the Special Forces personalities come from? They are 'born' fully formed, with software serving as a crutch for developing conciousness and self. Some are lazy, some sarcastic, some enthusiastic about blowing stuff up... Is it genetic, or subtle interactions -- we're back to nature vs nurture. Some of the smae came up in another recent book whose name I've forgotten, where one of the major characters is of the "Russ" geneline, thousands of introverted expert security officers, with common genetics, but each raised from childhood individually (but at a Russ school).

One other cross-book concept: The "integration" of Special Forces soldiers, through their "BrainPal" computer links, brings back Haldeman: "Forever Peace" posited that if you get in anothers' head, you'll empathize enough that war is impossible. That's not the case in GB -- although integration is key to the function and efficiency of the Special Forces -- but it's interesting that the first in this series touched Haldeman's "War" and this touched "Peace".

Read "Ghost Brigades" then go read some more stuff.
Books by John Scalzi: The Ghost Brigades

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Old Man's War

I just finished John Scalzi's Old Man's War, Hugo nominee, blah blah blah. Great book, buy it, read it. Now I gotta get a copy of the next book in the universe, "The Ghost Brigades."

There's a lot of interesting stuff there, ethics of war, cloning, fighting, etc.
Usually, it's compared to Heinlein's Starship Troopers but that's a simplistic view. Occasionally, Joe Haldeman's Forever War is invoked, but that's a bit of a stretch.

If you liked this book, please read:
  • Cyteen, by C.J. Cherryh -- a long-term war, colonies against each other, and one side using cloned troops. OMW's cloning is different, and similar, and gives a nice alternate view. Cyteen is a core book in Cherry's Merchanter/Alliance universe, including great books such as Merchanter's Luck, 40,000 in Gehenna, and many more.
  • The Retief books by Keith Laumer and the Uplift books by David Brin. Only in that they deal with lots of strange aliens who don't think like we do.
  • On that note, Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card, for how we deal with aliens that we can not comprehend, what OSC calls the varelse.
  • Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke. I'm not a big fan of Clarke's writing, which is long on travelogue, and short on plot, but this does a great job of showing us that our minds are not recognizable to our parents, and our children's are not recognizable to us. There's some great moments in OMW between John and Jane that made me think of this.

Scalzi's relatively new to fiction... let's hope he keeps up this level of quality.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

It's the VCR (uh, pronounced Viccar)

Yeah, lame title, old Monty Python joke, or possibly Babylon 5.

My old Sony VCR is dying. It'll play, it'll record, but it won't keep timer settings for longer than a day, it seems.

So... you can get a progressive-scan, digital audio, DVD player that plays ever disc type ever made for $30... or a mono VCR for $45 at Wal-Mart. The cheapest Hi-Fi VCR I can find is $70, on sale at Sears Appliances.

And why do I need this sucker? Stoopid networks, scheduling all the good stuff at once. Veronica Mars + House + The Unit + Scrubs tonight. One for the TiVo, one for live watching, one for a VCR and I'll still miss something, and languish through crap the rest of the week. Sometimes its only two things on at once, but I'd like to have a relaxing night out somewhere not tied to my glass teat.

The cable nets (USA, FX, HBO, etc) have got it right: They run "The Shield", "Dead Zone" and "Sopranos" (not respectively) several times throughout the week, I can time shift it to whenever I care, and never miss an episode. And in fact, sometimes the main networks get it right, but only long enough to get you hooked: Fox used to run 24 on FX the same week as the first showing, and even recently NBC ran Heist's first ep on USA and Bravo... then cut the cord.

Yes, if I'm timeshifting, I'm more likely to fast-forward or 30-second-skip my TiVo... but I'm timeshifting everything typically anyway.

Hmmm... I need a rant soon on commercials worth watching.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Watch Nightwatch Tonight

What a movie!

I haven't been this thrilled watching a movie in ages. From the start, I'm hooked.

Don't believe the hype machine, this isn't this year's Matrix -- The Matrix was a sterile, popcorn movie with one philosophical gimmick about whether the world is real. And dull acting by Keanu.
This is a messy, chaotic whirlwind where it looks like nothing is under control, but it all just hangs together perfectly. The hero is not the one and only hope, he's just another gifted Other -- people with special abilities, either on the Light or Dark side of the eternal struggle, now in a long-term uneasy truce. OK, like Matrix, it makes it possible that you could have another life, a different world out there (this will spawn roleplaying games, video games, etc. almost guaranteed), and that's going to be a big draw for the young moviegoing audience.

This movie is as rich as one of Hayao Miyazaki's fantasies such as Spirited Away, and draws on myths as well as Neil Gaiman, with nods to pop culture (a video game played by one of the villains is intercut into the climax to great effect, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is shown on the TV), and respect for the viewer -- you never feel cheated anywhere.

Little touches: the spider-legged doll, the rose in the crystal ball gearshift knob, a pop diva wearing a dress that seems to defy structural engineering, the psychic surgery methods used by the Light's healer... and did I mention the subtitles?

Yup, it's in Russian, subtitled in English, which adds a dimension to the film rather than just a distraction. A vampire's seduction which manifests in her voice appearing in floating wisps of blood morphs into Come to me..., subtitles during conversations with characters moving through a room may have the words come out from behind the wall the character passes by, and data read by a character off a screen scrolls on like an old computer terminal.

Kudos to Fox Searchlight for bringing this to the US, daring to take Russia's biggest film series (now in their second of three, Daywatch), and not dubbing it with Hollywood stars. The subtitling shows respect for the film - it fits, it works and it entertains.

You're still reading this? Click the link and find where it's playing by you. Take your friends.
And no, they're not paying me for this.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Spanish flu wasn't from Spain

WHO warns on bird flu pandemic risk - Yahoo! News

Now that it looks like the Bird Flu could actually break out... it needs a more formal name. H5N1 sounds like a chess move.

And really it's obvious:

Turkey Flu

It keeps the bird moniker, and the location moniker.
Even if it doesn't come from turkeys, and doesn't break out from Turkey, we need this name.