Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Best Things I Read (and a Few Things I Watched) in 2016

Today is Thursday, December 22, 2016. We have made it past the shortest day of the year, and the days are getting longer again!

Things are getting busy as the year winds down. We have an offer in on a house in Ypsilanti, it has been accepted by the seller, and we are in the inspection phase of the home-buying process. Nothing deal-breaking has surfaced yet. If all goes well we should close the deal in January. This means we will have two mortgage payments until we can figure out how to sell our existing house. That will make our financial situation challenging for a while, but I feel good about our prospects in 2017. I am hoping that soon I will actually live full-time with my family again. It has been just over 18 months since I started commuting from Saginaw every week and it has been difficult. I have much to be grateful for, but I also will be grateful to see 2016 pass into history.

This evening I will leave for home, and I won’t be back to work until Tuesday, January 3rd. We may be making one or more trips back down to Washtenaw County next week, though — we will be packing, and I might bring more boxes of books down to our storage unit.

The day we drove down to Ypsilanti to look at the house, I managed a quick date with my wife. We had dinner at the Wooden Spoon in Brighton, and went to see movie Arrival, and so I got the chance to see it a second time. Re-watching it, after viewing the ending, helped me notice a few more details in the way the early scenes set up the ending. There weren’t any earth-shattering revelations here, but I’m still going to provide a spoiler warning: you probably shouldn’t read this part if you want to be surprised by everything in the film.

Further Comments on Arrival (Warning: Contains Possible Spoilers!)

I was able to pay closer attention to the aliens themselves, and this time I couldn’t help but notice how much they resembled giant human hands, and forearms. Their bodies even showed “knuckles.” While they are known as “heptapods” in the movie, and they move their seven legs somewhat like tentacles, these legs also sometimes bend very much like fingers. This is especially noticeable during a brief scene where Louise is teaching the aliens the meaning of the word “walk.” The heptapods look like giant seven-fingered hands “walking” on their fingers.

The resemblance to hands and fingers was too striking to be accidental. The people who designed the aliens clearly wanted to convey this similarity. The question, then, is “what did they intend to convey with this?”

They intended, I believe, to suggest that heptapods may not be as alien as they seem. We learn in the movie that the heptapods are on Earth to offer humanity a weapon, or a tool, the heptapod language. They are doing this, they say, because in 3,000 years, humans will help the heptapods. So they are “paying it forwards” — or is it backwards? — ensuring that humanity will have the tool to be able to help them. And that tool, the heptapod language, “unlocks” our perception of time.

But what if the heptapods have not traveled so much in space, but in time? Could they be a distant descendant of contemporary humans?

My wife Grace thought the portrayal of the heptapods as hands was intended to suggest a deus ex machina, that is, powerful or even godlike beings literally reaching into our world, from “above”" the stage, from a godlike perspective freed from linear time. Are the heptapods our future selves, reaching through time to enable their own existence? We see that the heptapods have long, arm-like bodies. What we see of the “heads” at the end of those arms is limited; they appear to just terminate in a featurless rounded end. Our view of them, inside the heptapod’s compartment, is the view that we might have of the arm of a scientist, from inside a glove box.

Wikipedia describes a glove box like so:

A glovebox (or glove box) is a sealed container that is designed to allow one to manipulate objects where a separate atmosphere is desired. Built into the sides of the glovebox are gloves arranged in such a way that the user can place their hands into the gloves and perform tasks inside the box without breaking containment.

Grace noted that when Louise takes her solo trip into the interior of the alien object, we learn that apparently she can breathe the atmosphere in there without harm. It somehow looks denser than air, though, as though she were breathing liquid, and the camera shows us that she is walking on a substance that seems to resemble snow. This suggests that, again, perhaps the “aliens” aren’t as alien as we imagine; the heptapods don’t seem to breathe methane, or something else that is toxic to Louise. Perhaps the sealed window and atmospheric cycling mentioned in the movie are there to protect the heptapods from contaminants in our atmosphere. Perhaps the heptapods are the “gloves,” and their sealed compartment in the alien artifact the “glove box,” the intermediate space where they can interact with us, filled with a safe atmosphere under a positive pressure, acting as an intermediate “buffer zone” between their world and ours.

The only argument against this interpretation that I can think of involves Abbott. When Louise makes her solo return to the ship after the explosion, the single surviving heptapod, “Costello,” tells her that “Abbott is death process.” If Abbott is only a sort of “limb” of a being outside our place and time, why did the explosion kill him? Or, if these “limbs” are separate organisms, that can live and die independently, what sort of larger “body” are they part of?

I don’t think these questions are likely to have definitive answers. I think this was a somewhat subtle, and very beautiful, choice to make the film suggest these possibilities, in a mysterious way, without explaining them.

The Best Things I Read in 2016

I could write more about the home inspection process, about lead paint tests and septic tank inspections and attic insulation and ground fault circuit interruptors, but frankly I’d be boring even myself. Suffice it to say that my head has been filled with spreadsheets and forms and information sheets about easements, water softeners, shingles, sump pumps, and all the dull but very necessary stuff that goes into careful consideration of a home.

At the end of last year, I tallied up all the 54 books I read in 2016, and then on January first, published a blog post listing the dozen best. This year I’m going to plan to be busy packing in the days leading up to the new year, so I’ll list everything I read now, and also just list my favorites, and call it a year.

To the best of my recollection, and referring to my blog posts to refresh my memory, I completed the following books in 2016:

  1. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D. T. Max
  2. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (bedtime story reading, and a re-read for me)
  3. The Magicians by Lev Grossman (a re-read for me)
  4. The Magician King by Lev Grossman (a re-read for me)
  5. The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman (a re-read for me)
  6. The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu (translated by Joel Martinsen)
  7. Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens (unabridged audiobook)
  8. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  9. My Struggle, Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Don Bartlett)
  10. The Last Dark by Stephen R. Donaldson
  11. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (a re-read for me)
  12. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams (bedtime story reading, and a re-read for me)
  13. Light by M. John Harrison
  14. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
  15. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
  16. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling (bedtime story reading, and a re-read for me)
  17. The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross
  18. The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  19. The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  20. The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  21. The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  22. Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
  23. Attempting Normal by Marc Maron
  24. Solaris (the new translation by Bill Johnston, unabridged audiobook)
  25. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
  26. The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
  27. The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridge audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  28. Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
  29. The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge by Harry Harrison
  30. The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World by Harry Harrison
  31. The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You by Harry Harrison
  32. On Blue’s Waters by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  33. On Green’s Jungles by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a partial re-read for me)
  34. Solar Labyrinth by Robert Borski
  35. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling (bedtime reading, and a re-read for me)
  36. Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  37. Lake of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  38. Caldé of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  39. Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe
  40. Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds (a re-read for me)
  41. A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
  42. Exodus from the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (a re-read for me)
  43. Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis (unabridged audiobook)
  44. Perelandra by C. S. Lewis (unabridged audiobook)
  45. That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis (unabridged audiobook)
  46. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (not quite finished today, but I’m confident I’ll finish it by the end of the year; unabridged audiobook)
  47. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett (not quite finished today, but I’m confident I’ll finish it by the end of the year; bedtime story reading)
  48. Last Call by Tim Powers (not quite finished today, but I’m confident I’ll finish it by the end of the year)

Now that I count them up, that’s not a bad number. I feared that I had done very badly compared to last year, but in fact my total count is only down by 6. I will try not to feel too badly about that, especially given that a number of them, such as Return to the Whorl, were challenging, and some, such as The Last Dark and The Dark Forest, were unusually long. I also started receiving the New Yorker magazine again in the fall of 2016, and so some of my reading time has been spent reading magazines instead of books.

I failed to note that I finished listening to the unabridged audiobook version of Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens. Maybe I’ll listen to the 107 essays again in 2017; most of them struck me as worth re-reading. Hitchens also mentions a number of books that inspire me to try reading them myself, such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Thinking about Hitchens again now reminds me that I should get more essays from Hitchens in audiobook form.

I am not sure I finished reading the last few stories in The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, so I’m leaving that off the list. I’ll pick up the book over Christmas break and see where we left off, and perhaps finishing reading the stories, as bedtime stories.

Of the books listed above, my top picks are:

  1. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
  2. The Magician King by Lev Grossman
  3. The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
  4. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
  5. My Struggle, Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Don Bartlett)
  6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  7. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
  8. The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
  9. The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
  10. The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe
  11. The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe
  12. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (translated by Bill Johnston, unfortunately still only available as an audiobook)
  13. Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis
  14. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

That’s a baker’s dozen, not a dozen, but I just couldn’t leave out any more.

While I’m at it, I want to mention a few non-books that I thought were worthy of special note in 2016.

I really enjoyed playing the computer game Human Resource Machine. Since I play so few of them, I don’t feel that I can call it the best computer game, but it must be up there somewhere, specifically in the category of educational games.

I didn’t watch very many TV shows, but my favorite was the BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I also re-read the novel at some point in the last few years, although I don’t seem to have a note in my blog about exactly when I did, so it was probably before 2014.

I want to mention the first season of The Magicians because I think it represents some of the best adapation work, and also some of the worst. I wrote about this more extensively on my blog, especially in early May.

I am still talking about the movie Arrival, so I think it would only be fair to call Arrival my favorite film of 2016. I have not yet seen Rogue One. I will probably see it this weekend. I have no doubt that I will enjoy it, but I don’t think it is likely to haunt my thoughts the way Arrival did.

I want to give a few special dishonorable mentions. The television adapation of Childhood’s End gets “worst adapation.” M. John Harrison is the only author whose book I completely regret reading. If I can get through any more of Viriconium maybe I’ll re-evaluate him, but for now I think of him as, essentially, a fraud, somehow convincing some readers and reviewers that he is a good writer when in fact he is merely an imaginative sadist.

That reminds me — I think this means it’s time to re-read Jeff Noon’s Vurt in 2017, and re-evaluate him as well, since Light reminds me a bit of Vurt.

I should mention the “Most Interesting Book I Totally Failed to Finish Reading and at This Point Don’t Really Care to Try Reading Again” — S by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams.

And finally, my favorite album to listen to this year was Hamilton, the musical, original cast recording, although strictly speaking it was released in 2015. I should pick up a copy of The Hamilton Mixtape to listen to while I’m packing next week.

Have a great Christmas! And may 2017 be a damned sight better than 2016!

Ann Arbor, Michigan December 22, 2016

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Read It, Early December 2016

We are winding down our house search. After viewing hundreds of houses online and maybe 40 in person (I can’t remember for sure), we have made an offer on a house. It’s somewhat small and about 25 minutes from my workplace. This is literally the only house we’ve been able to find in these two whole counties where the home is pretty much ready to move in, the building is attractive and functional, and the lot is attractive and not next to some kind of eyesore or adjacent to a major road, dump, gas plant, electrical plant, or sewage treatment plant. From what I can tell, the only reasons it is affordable is that is because it is too small and too remote to be of interest to real estate flippers, and since it has just been completely renovated there is no money to be made by putting in granite countertops and painting it beige and trying to sell it for $100,000 more.

The property line is actually the Western border of Washtenaw County, so it is literally as far away from Ann Arbor real estate prices as we could get while still being in a county where we qualify for a rural development home loan. The neighbors are cows. I don’t mean they are fat people, I mean they are domesticated ungulates of the sub-family Bovinae, so they shouldn’t complain about the noise, or bother us at all, unless their fence breaks and they come looking for handouts.

If that offer isn’t accepted, we’ll have to go with Plan B. Plan B may involve renting a home somewhere in the area, or it may involve trying to stick with my current work arrangement, commuting from Saginaw, until May or June of 2017, and take our chances again in the Washtenaw County or Livingston County housing markets. However, I don’t expect the real estate market to look better for buyers in six months. I think dramatically higher interest rates are not out of the question.

Renting would be far riskier for our finances — rents are extremely high in these counties. So we might be more inclined to try to continue the commuting arrangement.

I know that a lot of fathers have it worse, commuting even farther and spending even less time with their families in order to meet the material needs of those families. But the fact remains that my wife is stressed, and my children are stressed. For our youngest, I’ve been spending half my weeks away from home for half his life. The others are missing my attention, too. They tend to react by either clinging aggressively to me when I am home, or nearly ignoring me, on the grounds that there isn’t much point in getting to know me because I’m just going to go away again in a few days. I’m not sure which approach is worse.

If we manage to purchase the house in Grass Lake, it will not have room to hold much of our library. There won’t be space for a home office like the one I have now. The finished square footage is less than half of the space in our current home. So as soon as we can, we will try to build some sort of outbuilding; perhaps a garage with extra rooms upstairs. We will only be able to unpack a small portion of the books and other media, so we will have to put some thought into just what portions of the collection we unpack and shelve.

Meanwhile, whether we will be moving to Grass Lake or not, we are planning to move somewhere, so our packing continues. Since I started packing books in September, I’ve moved just over 100 boxes into storage. It’s startling and a little disturbing to stand in our storage unit and see over 100 cubic feet of books, CDs, and DVDs stacked up. I do want to purge some of the books. But I agree with Grace who told me that what we mostly need is a sort of “mission statement” — an actual library collection development policy. We’ve got to think about what our library is actually for. Over the last few years as I’ve acquired media, I’ve had different aims in mind, and some of them are contradictory, or at least divergent.

The Start of a Collection Development Policy

We want to collect, and continue collecting, and refine our collections of:

  • “Classics” (books that are part of the Western canon, or at least associated with the Western canon). These should be “reading copies” (that is, none of the books should be valuable or hard-to-replace artifacts per se).

We should purge from this part of the collection awkward, heavy, hard-to-read, disintegrating, or fragile volumes — basically, books that aren’t actually easy and pleasant to hold and read. Our acquisition of hardcover books from the Library of America, and trade paperback books from the Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions, fit in with this goal.

These books are satisfying to hold and read, not scarce, often available used, and not expensive. Purchasing copies of the Harvard Classics and Brittanica’s Great Books of the Western World series also helps us meet this goal. This part of the collection includes books about these classics, such as How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.

  • “Un-classics” — that is, books that aren’t part of the Western canon, but which seem to me to be significant and important works of literature. These include books like The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye, Stoner by John Williams, The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, novels by Haruki Murakami and stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Many of these are from the NYRB Classics series.

This category also includes older obscurities that I find in used book shops. This part of the collection will continue to undergo a fair amount of “churn” as I add and remove books. The challenge here is to avoid adding works that are odd for the sake of their oddity, and to periodically remove books that don’t look like they are going to have lasting value. I also need to force myself to purge the collection of books by authors I like that don’t represent that author’s best work. For example, I definitely want Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on the shelf. I’ve read it twice, and believe it is a masterpiece. But his later novels Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and 1Q84 never

  • “Pulps” — some of the best and most interesting pulp science fiction and fantasy mass-market paperbacks. This includes well-known novels such as the Dark Tower books by Stephen King, and less well-known novels such as John Brunner’s Born Under Mars, or Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible, which is a significant work by an important writer, but which has been out of print for forty years.

A lot of these aren’t very good, but they are often interesting. Sometimes a book from this “backlist” turns out to be an utterly fascinating work that most definitely deserves to be read, such as Christopher Priest’s Inverted World. Sometimes there is a gem that I think deserves to be better known, and I like to write about these, and advocate for bringing them back into print.

This is tied up with my interest in recording or adapting out-of-copyright work, for example the stories and novels of William Hope Hodgson. The current sad state of copyright law makes this very frustrating; many books that I read as a young child, even those published ten, twenty, thirty or forty years before I was born, may never pass into the public domain in my lifetime. This actually dooms many worthy books to utter obscurity, as they become orphan works https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orphan_works. I want to be an activist and advocate for keeping these works alive.

  • Books about contemporary history and politics. This corner of the collection I am currently downplaying. Collecting these books has led to a lot of books that I read once and then dispose of, or never finish reading. This includes books like Columbine by Dave Cullen, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Hany López. This collection has been problematic for various reasons. One is just that a lot of topical books become less relevant as time goes on and I am unlikely to consult them again. For example, I read Disarming Iraq by Hans Blix, and several books by Scott Ritter, but these aren’t books I was likely to re-read, and so I got rid of them. I think the key to this corner of the library is to keep this part of the collection small, only acquiring copies of books that look like they will be important for reference and that have high “re-readability.”

  • Science fiction and fantasy works by specific authors, such as Gene Wolfe and Greg Egan, in editions that are special in some way: scarce first editions, signed books, limited editions, and uncorrected proofs. This corner of the collection is problematic and I find myself wondering what I’m really trying to achieve here. Will I treat some of these books as investments, and hope to one day sell them for more than I paid? This seems like something I certainly shouldn’t count on, although I might be able to do it with some specific books.

I find that I have warring impulses: on the one hand, I love to collect and keep in fine condition some special copies of books that I love. On the other hand, I believe that fundamentally, all books should be read, and enjoyed, and re-read, and circulated. They should be handled with some care, but ultimately they should be read to death, until they disintegrate from the attention of many hands, not simply die of old age. I am not quite sure how to reconcile these impulses. My current strategy often involves owning both a signed hardcover first edition (of, say, Gene Wolfe’s book Urth of the New Sun), and also owning one or more copies of the trade paperback edition which I read, re-read, and feel comfortable loaning out.

But what to do about fine traditionally bound books such as publications from Subterranean Press? Some of these books have the “collector price” built-in. I’m somewhat opposed to this, but on the other hand, they build books with sturdy covers, nice thick paper, and sewn bindings. It is worth it to me to pay extra for well-made books, but these should be read, not just hoarded. My approach has been to willingly pay more for some very well-made editions, signed or unsigned, but not to pay the large “collector’s price” for the very limited numbered, lettered, leather-bound, or tray-cased versions of the books.

  • Books for my professional library — that is, books about computer science, programming, electronics, mathematics, specific programming languages, and the history of programming languages. This includes books about digital signal processing, Haskell, Scheme, C, Python, Lisp, Lua, etc.

  • Books about logic, technology, puzzles, paradoxes, and the “laws of thought.” This category includes books like Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter, To Mock a Mockingbird and Other Logic Puzzles: Including an Amazing Adventure in Combinatory Logic by Raymond Smullyan,

  • Books specifically for homeschooling. This includes a wide range of books, everything from coloring books and books teaching basic handwriting through books of essays and textbooks about chemistry and algebra.

  • Books that are controversial, extreme, radical, banned, or censored. I collected a lot of books like this in the nineties — books from RE/search Publications, the Apocalypse Culture books by Adam Parfrey, books by the Marquis de Sade and Kathy Acker, films by Pasolini and Bertolucci, comics of R. Crumb, paintings of Robert Williams, and J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (the first edition of this book was actually withdrawn and shredded due to an obscenity challenge).

As an advocate of artistic freedom and the First Amendment, I have long felt that it was my duty to support artists pushing the accepted limits of free expression.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I have lost some of my interest in pushing these limits for the sake of pushing them, and I’ve given away most of this stuff.

This will be only a modest part of our collection. I retain an interest in radical philosophies and controversial works — for example the novels and essays of J. G. Ballard, some of the writings of William S. Burroughs, performances of Lenny Bruce, and works about Dada, the Situationist International movement, the Fluxus movement, and the Futurist movement, because they contain elemements of philosophy and political and cultural critique.

Two of my personal favorite books from this corner of my collection is The Futurist Cookbook by F. T. Martinetti, edited by Lesley Chamberlain and translated by Suzanne Brill, and Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century by Greil Marcus.

For now, most of my books are in storage. In a few more weeks, just about all of them will be there. I’ll keep a handful out — books I’m currently reading and plan to read immediately. The rest aren’t that inaccessible; I could dig out a box if we need it. But it’s going to be strange not to have our whole library on hand, perhaps for quite some time.

Anyway. Onward!

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I’m almost halfway through the unabridged audiobook version of Great Expectations. It’s a good read. Miss Havisham in particular is a delightfully disturbing character. I have also become very fond of Joe.

At about the 1/3 mark, I made some predictions about how the story would end. Then I decided to go ahead and spoil it for myself by reading the plot summary on Wikipedia. It turned out that my predictions were mostly accurate.

Warning: Spoilers About a Novel Published More Thant One Hundred and Sixty Years Ago

Prediction 1: Miss Havisham isn’t Pip’s benefactor. (She did give him the money that allowed him to become an apprentice blacksmith, but she isn’t the one to give him his “expectations.”) Dickens sets up the reader’s expectations, just as Miss Havisham expected to be married, but her expectations were foiled.

Prediction 2: Biddy would eventually marry Joe. This kind of practical marriage doesn’t seem that odd in the context of England in the 1800s.

Prediction 3: Pip would not marry Estella. This is technically true, as they don’t marry before the end of the novel. I discovered that the original ending that Dickens wrote left Estella married and Pip single. Dickens changed this so that the ending suggested that Pip and Estella will marry, but I was interested to note that even in the altered story, their romantic relationship can develop only after Estella has gone through some challenging circumstances that force her to change the way she thinks and feels about other people.

Apparently some critics to this day believe the first ending was more consistent with the way the overall story begins and proceeds, so I don’t feel bad about missing the mark. After I finish it, I’ll have to track down the original ending and see which one I think works better. Some even think that the book would be better if Dickens had just left off either ending. Soon, I shall have my own opinion in this very important matter, and I’ll be sure to convey it to you, dear reader. (All right, I couldn’t’t really keep a straight face writing that last line).

Last Call by Tim Powers

A few years ago I picked up a copy of Earthquake Weather by Tim Powers. I found it interesting and enjoyed the writing style, but I didn’t really become engaged with the story and so I couldn’t finish it. I’ve spoken to some other people who have read more books by Tim Powers and they have told me that Earthquake Weather is far from his best work. They recommended Last Call. So I borrowed my friend’s copy; in fact I’ve been carrying it around in my car for several months. I’ve finally started reading it. It is much more engaging than Earthquake Weather — a dark “weird tale” about gamblers where the stakes are far larger than just piles of money. This work may be classified as “low fantasy” but it seems like it also might be one of the foundational documents of the “urban horror” sub-genre that includes such writers as Jim Butcher, Simon Greene, and Kat Richardson.

Arrival

I usually have dinner on Monday evenings with my friends, the friends who are so kindly providing me a place to sleep a few nights each week. This past Monday they were busy, so after work I grabbed a quick meal at the Uptown Coney Island and then went to a showing of Arrival at the Quality 16 theater on Jackson Road, very close to my office.

I have to confess that I have not read the story this film is based on, a story entitled “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. I have read a couple of Chiang’s other stories, including “Tower of Babylon.” I own his book The Lifecycle of Software Objects and enjoyed it, and I own the collection Stories of Your Life and Others, but I did not finish the story collection, and now it is packed. So it may be a while before I read it. For now I can’t comment about how well the movie adapts the story, but just the movie.

Warning: This Review of Arrival Contains Spoilers

Arrival is a visually striking film right off the bat. In some of the very first scenes, the cinematographer uses lenses that give a very shallow depth of field. This means that if a subject in the foreground is in focus, subjects in the background are quite blurry, and vice-versa. The effect seems to indicate that the characters may not be able to truly see each other clearly, because they don’t quite exist in the same “frame.” This is a hint to the viewer that we must not assume too much about what is going on in these apparent “flashback” scenes, in which the protagonist, Louise Banks, seems to be reminiscing about the short life of her daughter.

Banks is a linguist, and when aliens arrive on earth (in twelve identical stone objects, each silently hovering), she is recruited to try to make sense of the noises they make. Every eighteen hours, a hole opens into the interior of the stone objects, allowing humans to enter. Inside the stone objects, gravity is altered, so that humans can ascend by walking “along” a hallway to a chamber that features a large window. Behind this window, in a chamber filled with mist, are the two “heptapods,” giant beings with seven tentacles that look like a cross between a squid and an elephant. The heptapods arrive for an interview, and Banks must figure out how to communicate with them. The stakes are high, as all the nations are nervously wondering if this arrival portends an invasion or an attack on the earth, and no country wants to be the second to figure out why the aliens are here.

Amy Adams is terrific as Louise Banks. She is courageous but not fearless, if that makes sense — the actress very clearly shows us what her is character is feeling, including the vertigo and fear as she enters the alien object. She is not “fearless” but she is extremely courageous, which is different — Banks gives the aliens her name, which triggers them to use a new mode of communication: spraying a sort of ink or smoke onto the window to create circular symbols. This is a breakthrough in communication between the aliens and humans. In a later scene, she becomes the first person to remove her protective clothing inside the object, so that the aliens can actually see her human form, and communication with the aliens continue to improve.

Things aren’t moving quickly enough to pacify the military running the contact operation, though; tensions are rising around the world, with riots and looting and conspiracy theories spinning out of control all over the media. Meanwhile, Banks and her team are stymied by the confusing nature of the alien glyphs.

This is a slow and philosophical film, about the nature of language and how our language delineates our ability to think. I joked on Facebook that this is “one of the best movies ever made about the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis!” As Banks works with the alien language, she comes to understand that their conception of time does not match our own. They do not seem to experience time in a linear fashion, but to experience every aspect of their lives, and perhaps even events outside their lifespans, in a kind of simultaneous present. Because she has started to think in the Heptapod language, she begins to experience time in this way as well. And in light of this, we as the audience have to reinterpret everything we’ve seen in the “flashback” scenes.

It’s really a brilliant and beautiful movie. The alien visuals are gorgeous and minimalist. The music is beautiful and understated; it reminds me of some of my favorite film scores: the Michael Nyman score of Prospero’s Books, Mark Isham’s music for Mrs. Soffel, and Philip Glass’s score for The Hours. I’m also reminded of Claire Hamill’s 1986 album Voices (although that album has not aged well; I’m thinking more of the technique is employs than the results).

This is “sense of wonder” science fiction; you might also consider it “soft” science fiction. If your experience with the genre is limited to Star Wars, Star Trek, and space operas, you might be disappointed. This film is meditative and slow. It is for fans of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, La Jetée, Solaris, Moon, Primer, and other philosophical science fiction films. Everything is eventually explained, but you’ll have to work a bit to understand it; you’ll have to meet the director halfway. But if you do, I think you’ll be rewarded. If you can, catch this one in the theater; unless you have a truly massive home theater, the film will lose a lot when shrunk to a small screen.

That Hideous Strength

I finished That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis. It didn’t get better. The ending featured, as G-d is my witness, dancing elephants. I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out what, exactly, Lewis was thinking when he wrote this one. Whatever it was, the end result is not actually good. While the book does raise some interesting moral dilemmas and contain some beautiful passages and imagery, whatever it might have achieved is buried under the book’s laughable pot-boiler plot and bloated page count.

Scorecard

Completed since last time:

  • That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis (in unabridged audiobook form)

In progress:

  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (in unabridged audiobook form)
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (bedtime reading for the kids)
  • The Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett (bedtime reading for the kids)
  • An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi and Alejandro Giraldo (bedtime reading for the kids)

Ann Arbor, Michigan
December 6–7, 2016_