Monday, August 24, 2015

Read It, August 2015, Progress Report 1

It is kind of late in the month to be writing my first progress report post. Today is Monday, August 24th. But I am happy to report that I finished Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel Aurora. I have continued to work long hours this month, so my reading time has been very limited, but as we hammer a huge initial pile of work into a software release, we are gradually emerging from crunch mode into something resembling a more sustainable work schedule.

I won't spoil it too much for you, but Aurora is a story of interstellar travel in a generation starship. Robinson's world is one without magical breakthroughs; the speed of light is still the law of the land. The biggest single extrapolation is the development of the book's intriguing narrator. This is an adventure story that is also at its heart a work of philosophy, a work about human values and the nature of intelligence and loyalty. The author asks us to consider the real nature of our relationship to the rest of the universe, beyond our home planet. Are we really destined to colonize the universe? Is it even possible?

As the best science fiction always is, KSR's new book is very profoundly about the present and our present relationship to those questions, while playing off his earlier work in a playful way. It's not exactly clear how they all fit together, but Robinson appears to be building a sort of ad hoc multiverse, in which different versions of his future history overlap , but do not quite recount a single, coherent history. I found this intriguing; it is almost as if Robinson's view of the future has evolved as he becomes older and the range and depth of his thought deepens, and our relationship with our own home planet is widely recognized as a relationship in profound crisis. Just like that, in fact.

I am not sure this is his finest work. For me that will probably always be his Mars trilogy. This future, because it is on a sort of parallel track, doesn't seem to refute that one, as much as suggest an alternative that makes, perhaps, more sense in 2015, with a different feeling about our future than we had back then. Which one is more realistic? I don't know, but I have my suspicions, and you may, too.

I have just started to read something lighter, Harry Harrison's original 1961 novel The Stainless Steel Rat. I have been curious about this book for a while, especially after reading and enjoying Bill, the Galactic Hero (and, unfortunately, failing to enjoy the sequels). I have only read the first few pages, but it is entertaining so far.

I always find older science fiction interesting -- it is often a bizarre combination of new technology that predicts the future, and old technology that the author somehow imagined would still be around. The result is often bizarre in retrospect. So, for example, we have the protagonist who pulls off a heist and gets on a spaceship to throw the authorities off his tail, but is carrying with him a suitcase full of cash, because money hundreds of years in the future looks very much like money in 1961. He can exceed the speed of light, but he gets his news from printed newspapers, delivered by pneumatic tube. But, perhaps this is not so unrealistic. After all, we were told to expect flying cars, but even the world of Blade Runner never included wi-fi, GPS, or cell phones -- instead, Deckard calls Rachael on a video pay phone. Harrison is not one to take himself too seriously, though, so it's quite possible, if not likely, that these anachronisms were entirely intentional.

I'll have an update after the end of the month. Until then, happy reading!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Read It, July 2015 (and More about Lexx)

Well, this is my worst showing yet. In July I finished only a single book for my own enjoyment. The book was David Mitchell's Black Swan Green.

This is a lovely novel. It captures the author's life (roughly) at age 13, with all his insecurities, both internal and external, and the very honest brutality of his classmates, in a way that is moving, precisely because it is lacking in mawkish sentimentality. The characters are archetypes, to some extent, and sometimes fill specific roles in this bildungsroman, but they are quite convincing. It all fits together in a neat artistic bow at the end, but I think that's OK. The narrator grows as a person, over the course of a year, and winds up impressing the reader.

The narrator has a stammer, which hit home for me because several of my children have speech impediments, to some degree, and we have not been able to get them any assistance (that's another long story). The cruelty of the various adults and children in his life regarding the stammer is not surprising. It reinforces my belief that my own children are better off home-schooled -- although homeschooling can have its own pitfalls, such as the toll it takes on the sanity of the parents.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time mourning my poor showing this month, or trying to justify it. But the biggest reason is simply that I've continued to put in long hours at a new job, sometimes fifteen or sixteen hours a day. Many days this past month when I left work, I had every intention of eating a quick meal and reading for a bit before I went to sleep, but many evenings my eyes and my brain were just too fried, so I'd often start to read a page or two, realize I was not getting anywhere, and just go to sleep. I had somewhat better luck reading a chapter first thing in the morning, and that's how I finished Black Swan Green, but it was slow progress.

On those evenings where I've been two fried to read properly, but too wired to go to bed, I've been watching some videos. I finished season one of Mad Men, and started season two. The show is very impressive, but you know that already.

I've also been working my way through the rest of Lexx. I'm not entirely sure why. Masochism, maybe? Lexx is very frustrating. Some of the bigger-picture setup is just beautiful, and deserved much better storytelling, It has brilliant moments and occasionally really stunning sets and visuals, despite the relatively low budget. Episodes such as "Brigadoom" really redeem the show for me and make me smile. But for the most part, the individual shows are just painful to watch. They are hour-long episodes, but contain barely enough script for a half-hour show, so everything is terribly padded. I sometimes find myself just skipping ahead a minute or two at a time with the fast-forward button to get through interminable, redundant scenes. The episode entitled "Girltown" is a good example of the show's endless, painful sexism, and how it keeps sinking back into the insulting portrayals it is (apparently) trying, but failing, to satirize.

Where the show manages to do some specific satire, parody, or homage, it can be quite entertaining. But it really feels like the creators just couldn't, for the most part, come up with any ideas to drive the plot of the individual episodes other than the endlessly tedious rehash of "Stan and Xev want to get laid, but Xev doesn't want Stan; Xev likes Kai, but Kai is dead; 790 loves Xev, but 790 is just a robot head." They just play out this same set of flat, adolescent motives over and over again, in slightly different settings. That's about 3/4 of Lexx. But there's about 1/4 of it that is funny, or surreal, or thought-provoking, or actually successfully erotic.

So why do I keep watching? I am watching for those occasional flashes of interest, because when they do show up, they seem to almost make the slog worthwhile. I am a big fan of writing or video that takes artistic risks. Most of the things that are superficially "risky" about Lexx -- the nudity, the horny characters, the body horror, etc. -- are not really risky at all. They're your basic pandering to the lowest common denominator "Cormanesque" science fiction/horror tropes. But the show does some things occasionally that actually risk artistic failure. In "Brigadoom" we suddenly have one of the major character's back-story explicated as an honest-to-god musical, with Kai singing his life story and Xev joining him on a stage, and it's amazing. Not just amazingly weird, although it is that, but beautiful.

That's a project I'd like to work on with someone -- to watch Lexx in depth. I believe there are things to be learned from artistic failures. A podcast format might be suitable here -- perhaps one show per episode? But that's probably too much; it might work better to condense some episodes into one podcast, while others get more detailed treatment. For example, the two-parter "The Web" and "The Net" should get a single podcast; they comprise one of the more interesting shows. Would anyone like to collaborate on this? It's easy to just criticize a work like this; there is a lot to criticize. But I think Lexx is weird enough and, occasionally, risky enough to be worth talking about.

UPDATE: I've discovered this podcast, but not listened to it yet, and it doesn't look like it got very far into the show. There's also this one, which looks like it covers more episodes. I'll have to give these a listen; it's possible they already did what I would like to do. But we'll see.