Saturday, September 23, 2017

Bow down to Nabiru

So, how 'bout that End Of The World, huh? Pretty impressive, right?
Oh, you missed it?
Well, to recap -- earlier this week The Media briefly carried a story outlining how the huge and mysterious planet Nabiru (or Planet X, if you prefer) had been predicted to slam into Earth and destroy all known life TODAY, Sept. 23, 2017 -- leaving room for an interstellar by-pass route, I assume.
One of our local all-news radio stations even ran a sound-bite of some pseudo-para-archeologist who allegedly calculated "Bible equations" mixed with "something from the Pyramids" and determined that NOW was The Time. They even quoted him saying "Everything I've heard, everything I've read, everything I've learned says that now is the time, that 2017 is a slam-dunk."
So, feel all relieved when you woke up OK this morning? Convinced we're all Past It?
Nemesis will not be mocked.
Of course, The End has been predicted at least twice since 2000 -- and many times before that. Last time I checked, we're all still here. If you're reading this, I think it's safe to assume that you are, too.
Here's the thing -- If Planet X were approaching on its doomsday course, we would, by Ghod, be able to SEE it. Rogue planets move rather slowly on the universal scale, and something allegedly that HUGE would be clearly visible in the daytime -- and block out a helluva lot of stars at night.
Also -- if Nabiru were really approaching, the gravity effects would be incredible -- the huge tides would drown coastal cities, the continents would crack, mountains would be tumbling all over each other....
None of this has happened. Though we HAVE had WAY TOO MANY earthquakes and hurricanes lately. For the folks at the center of those disasters, it really HAS been the end of the world.
But some people will believe ANYTHING. And others seem to WANT us all to panic. What would they gain by that? (I'm not talking about The Big Media here.)
I'll be looking forward to one of my favorite radio programs tonight. They're about half good sense and half pure BS, most of the time. Wonder what they'll say? "Hey, end of the world! It didn't happen, right? Wonder why not? Maybe the calculations were off...? Oh well, maybe next time. On tonight's show, we've got...."
Course we're not out of the woods yet. That joker Kim Jong Un could still lob a nuke at us. His most recent threat is to explode a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean. Been about 60 years since anybody's done that. Don't believe me? Look it up.
And of course Kim can't test too many more nukes under his Special Test Mountain in North Korea. Because he's already radiating his own people. You can look that one up, too.
And it would probably take the end of the world or the malign influence of Planet X to put a single new or coherent thought inside Donald Trump's head.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The latest snooze

I pretty much avoided keeping up with the news over the weekend, and I feel ... pretty good. There's nothing like listening to hours of old R&B hits or a couple of football games over the radio to restore your faith in Mankind ... or at least the future.
A couple of news items did get my attention earlier in the week, however.
Apparently Trump had Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi over to the White House, and over a Chinese-food dinner they all (reportedly) agreed to avoid a government shutdown, work on immigration reform, and put off that silly and expensive Border Wall for awhile.
Of course, the results of the meeting depend on who you ask. Maybe it was the MSG in the food. The White House's press-spokespeople insist that the Border Wall plan was NOT dropped, never will be, etc. etc.
And of course the rank-and-file Republicans are furious. How DARE Trump have sweet and sour chicken with the Democrats! How DARE he try to work out any of the nation's problems without the GOP! Obama tried to work out troubles by inviting the GOP over to the White House for a few beers and some informal chat -- well, by Ghod, it didn't work then and it's not gonna work now, gosh darn it!
Oh, and Kim Jong Un lobbed another missile over Japan earlier in the week. That Kim, whatta joker! And the Japanese get such a kick out of it!
While agreeing to stiffen sanctions against North Korea -- how much tougher can they get? The only person in North Korea with an electric lightbulb and a flush toilet is Kim Jong Un; the common folks have been eating grass and rocks for years now -- the United Nations still refuses to use the one bit of diplomacy that might actually work: Basketball diplomacy!
Send Dennis Rodman back to North Korea! He and KJU are LIKE THIS! Dennis would have things fixed in two shakes: "Kim, dude -- you don't wanna blow up the whole world, right? Cool. Now let's play some ball!" The Rod-man would make it happen. Kim won't listen to anyone else.
And there's no down-side. If KJU decides not to let Rodman come back home -- if he wants to hang onto his playmate forever, so the Supreme Ruler can have impromptu basketball games in a freezing-cold gym at 4 a.m. -- not that many people here will get upset. Everybody wins.
If Hunter S. Thompson were still alive, he'd be eating this stuff up with a spoon.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

RIP Brian W. Aldiss/Eclipse play-list

OK, this isn't going to be an epic. Science fiction writer Brian Aldiss died a couple of days ago. He was 92. Every time I visit Locus, I expect to see obituaries for my heroes Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg -- they're getting up there, but they're both hanging in.
I haven't read that much Aldiss -- only one short story, I think, the surprisingly adult for its time "Poor Little Warrior" -- and a novel, the not-quite-successful but still striking (and definitely involved with current concerns) HARM. But I've read several of his memoirs, and I think his histories of science fiction, BILLION YEAR SPREE (1973) and the updated TRILLION YEAR SPREE (1986), are still the best at tracking the history of the field. Somebody should write the history of the SF field's past 30 years.
But here's why Aldiss's death means a lot to me. His memoirs are often pretty amazing. THE TWINKLING OF AN EYE has some great behind-the-scenes stories about what it was like to be one of the top British SF writers back at the dawn of the "New Wave" in the early 1960's. And it also talks about some emotional problems Aldiss had that he didn't get fixed for YEARS. BURY MY HEART AT W.H. SMITH'S is sort of a first-draft of TWINKLING OF AN EYE. The later book is much longer, and MUCH more personal.
His first book, way back in 1955, was a fictionalized memoir, THE BRIGHTFOUNT DIARIES, about his experiences working in an Oxford bookstore after World War II. I read it in the summer of 2013 -- I'd always wondered what working in a bookstore was like. And after I finished it -- even though not much happened, it wasn't very dramatic, and it certainly wasn't the charming English novel I'd expected -- suddenly a lightbulb went on over my head.
"Hey, even I can write a novel in which nothing happens," I said to myself. And six weeks later I had written a rough draft for my first e-book, GUARANTEED GREAT MUSIC!, about the three years I spent working in a record store. It was like reading Aldiss's book showed me how to do it.
So there's that. So now I need to read some more of Aldiss's many writings. I've been told he wrote some pretty great science fiction, back in the day....

Here's what I was listening to during the eclipse yesterday, my 58th birthday. We enjoyed the change in the color of the sky, the temperature dropping, and the birds and traffic going all quiet, from the safety of home, rather than traveling along with half a million others to the path of totality down in central Oregon:
* Vangelis -- Alpha.
* Happy the Man -- On Time as a Helix of Precious Laughs, Wind-Up Doll Day Wind.
* Mark Knopfler -- Going Home (Theme from LOCAL HERO).
* Pink Floyd -- High Hopes, Bike.
* Steve Tibbetts -- Ur.
* Lyle Mays -- Ascent.
* Deodato -- Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001).
...There was probably a little more, but I can't remember what else. (Alzheimer's, ya know.) And we did NOT play DARK SIDE OF THE MOON....
Was nice to have such a huge astronomical event on my birthday -- I planned it that way, of course. And it wasn't even the end of the world or anything. No major fireworks. Thank goodness.
Later on in the day, The Girlfriend and I went to Tacoma's HI-VOLTAGE RECORDS (free plug) and heard some nice jazz from Art Pepper, rather good though morose early-'60s broken-hearted love ballads by Willie Nelson, and some killer rock and roll from (good Ghod!) Nazareth! RAZAMANAZ, it was. But EVERYthing sounds great on HI-VOLTAGE's sound system....

Friday, August 18, 2017

Welcome back, my friends....

David Weigel's THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS (2017) is a fast, easy-to-read, mostly-well-written history of the rise and fall of progressive rock. I read its almost-300 pages in three days -- pretty fast, for me.
But it's thin. It reads as if it was edited rather tightly from a longer manuscript -- as if the order from the publisher was to get all the story told in less than 300 pages. This is too bad, because the book could have been twice as long. It's cut too tightly -- a sentence here and there gets mangled. It isn't always clear who's being quoted.
The best part of the book recounts prog's early days, when the form and the players were just coming together. There's some excitement and freshness here, and Weigel interviews some folks you don't usually see quoted in histories of this sort -- Robert Wyatt of Soft Machine, Daevid Allen of Soft Machine and Gong, Kevin Ayers of Soft Machine, Pye Hastings and Richard Sinclair of Caravan, Peter Hammill of Van der Graaf Generator, Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues, Peter Banks of Yes....
But unfortunately, this section is too short. The next thing you know, Yes is dropping members, King Crimson is falling apart during their first U.S. tour, and ELP is arguing about what to do after their first album. And the prog-rock story has barely gotten started.
Not long after that, Weigel starts to skim the surface and skirt the edges. It's a "highlights" history, sort of. As happy as I was to see Van der Graaf Generator, Gentle Giant, Egg and Magma mentioned in some detail -- and even the Canadian band FM gets mentioned -- there is so much more Weigel could have done.
Pink Floyd is in here just for DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. Though Floyd's WISH YOU WERE HERE, ANIMALS and THE WALL also sold millions, they're not mentioned. The Moody Blues are in here just for DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED. There's rather too much about Mike Oldfield, though the story about making TUBULAR BELLS is pretty neat. Caravan is mentioned in the early-days section, but that's all. Their career isn't followed. Camel is mentioned in passing, but that's it. There's a lot about Daevid Allen before and after Gong, but nothing about when he led that band/hippy commune....
There's almost too much about Genesis, Yes and ELP, but don't get me started. I think it's helpful if you know a lot about prog history before you read this book.
I was pleased to find a section on Italian prog, and I was happy with the mentions of Caravan, Hatfield and the North, FM and Egg. I just wished there had been more. There's a bit on American prog bands -- Kansas is in here. But not Happy the Man. Or even Styx, though they're pictured. The section on neo-prog and later prog bands (Porcupine Tree, Coheed and Cambria, etc.) will probably mean more to younger fans than it does to me.
The book opens with a trip on a modern-day "Prog Rock Cruise," backtracks to the early days of the genre, and ends with the death of Keith Emerson. There is no discography, or even a "Where are they now?" update of what the acts did after being mentioned in the book. It's also saddening how many of the folks Weigel interviewed have since died. Since the book was published, Greg Lake has passed away. There is a long list of notes and sources, which includes lots of books and websites to track down if you're interested in learning more.
So, a great idea, smoothly written (mostly), but not long or detailed enough. Any chance Weigel might have a sequel in mind, in more depth? Until that happens, Will Romano's MOUNTAINS COME OUT OF THE SKY is still the best place to start for a prog history.

Monday, August 14, 2017

An annoying autobiographical pause

I used to be obsessed with fiction. Now most of the time I'm hung up on what goes on behind the scenes: Who are the people who write this stuff? What did they think they were doing? What are their lives like?
Been reading a lot of old science fiction fanzines lately, thanks to the nice folks at eBay. (This was before I found out you can read a lot of old SF fanzines for free at efanzines.com.) These privately-produced, small magazines -- often published by someone cranking a mysterious printing machine made out of bubble gum, Scotch tape and dead frogs, usually located in someone's dimly-lit basement -- have been part of science fiction since its earliest days. SF fans felt strongly enough about the stuff they were reading that they created their own "magazines," printed them, traded them with other fans, communicated.
I stumbled over fanzines in high school. The first issue I ever read was SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW 15, edited by Richard E. Geis. (More about him in a bit.) I thought his mag was OK -- but on the back-cover was an ad for Bill Bowers' OUTWORLDS. I sent away for some samples -- the first of which turned out to be a hilarious 40-page letter-column ... and then I was hooked!
OUTWORLDS had great, funny writing, gorgeous artwork and graphics, and everybody seemed so friendly ... if not crazy. In a good way. Though SFR had stronger content and harder-hitting opinions, OUTWORLDS was a flashier package.
Found a few more copies of SFR over the years and enjoyed it -- especially the behind-the-scenes peeks into the minds of SF writers, the arguments, the feuds, the horror stories about publishing that most readers never hear.
Thanks to eBay, I've recently piled up a pretty good stack of '70s and '80s fanzines. Along with taking a 40-years-ago look back with LOCUS -- "The newspaper of the science fiction field" -- I've gotten mildly acquainted with "fannish" fanzines, which are more like walking into the middle of a conversation and trying to figure out what the current comments in an issue were commenting ON in the first place....
Some of these little mags are charming, some are just silly. And you never know when a piece of great writing is going to slap you upside the head. In that stack from eBay are articles like one fan describing how she overdosed on anti-depressants FOUR TIMES before her doctors finally got her meds right (from the zine BANANA WINGS); Bruce Gillespie admitting in his METAPHYSICAL REVIEW that he'll have to do a low-budget no-art zine until he can AFFORD to print another issue of his epic zine SF COMMENTARY; former AMAZING/FANTASTIC and HEAVY METAL magazine editor Ted White writing about the months he spent in jail after being arrested for (I assume) pot-possession with intent to sell, and admitting to embezzling money from a well-known SF writer when he got into personal cash-flow problems; Dick Geis on the death of his father; Bruce Gillespie on the unexpected death of a close friend, and a LONG write-up on Philip K. Dick's half-dozen mainstream non-SF novels....
Several of these came from Dick Geis's long-running fanzine SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW/THE ALIEN CRITIC. I think Geis, who died in 2013 at age 85, could star in a book of his own. How this cranky recluse single-handedly put out a small magazine every three months for YEARS and even managed to live on the proceeds is a heckuva story. (It also helped pay the bills that he wrote more than 100 soft-core porn novels -- some of them even got published under his real name.) Maybe this isn't a story everybody would want to read, but still....
Back in the mid-'70s, Geis predicted a massive computer network on which you'd be able to read your daily newspaper -- or his monthly outpourings. He even eventually moved to posting on the Internet, after his accumulating health problems wouldn't let him work 50 hours a week on his magazines anymore.
Geis predicted at least as far back as 1974 that the U.S. economy was going to collapse due to massive debt and over-use of credit. Despite his health problems, Geis kept writing through 2011, but I haven't yet read how he felt about seeing his predictions of massive financial ruin come true....

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

This is more like it....

My assault on the novels of Philip K. Dick continues. A SCANNER DARKLY (1977) was Dick's anti-drug novel, his turnabout on the drug scene after he'd spent years using amphetamines to help him crank out more work faster -- more than 40 novels and 120 short stories in a 30-year career. Despite the subtext (explained in an author's note/dedication at the end), SCANNER DARKLY is my pick for PKD's best novel of those I've read so far. It's even better than my previous pick, THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH (1964) -- because even with Dick's usual plots-within-plots, wheels-within-wheels, nobody-is-who-they-seem-to-be setup, you can clearly follow what's happening all the way to the end and it's well worth the trip. There's even a happy ending. Or at least a hopeful one.
Every character in the book is a drug addict. After a few weird scenes to set the stage, the story turns out to be fairly simple: Narcotics officer and drug addict Bob Arctor is given the impossible job of spying on himself 24/7 for his superiors at the police department -- to determine if Arctor's a bigtime drug-pusher. How he gets forced into this corner is hard to explain -- you'll have to read the book.
Arctor first disassociates himself from the situation, looking at his friends through his role as drug-narc "Agent Fred." Then Arctor starts going schizophrenic, as the stress between his drug intake and having to perform surveillance on himself and all his drug-addict friends is too much for him to deal with.
In one 20-page chapter towards the end, Arctor falls apart -- and the writing is brilliant, some of Dick's best writing ever.
But that's not the end. Remember, this is a PKD novel -- nobody is what they appear to be.
Though the life of every character in the book centers around drugs, there is very little drug TAKING shown. Most of the characters -- including Arctor/Fred -- are addicted to the evil Substance D, which appears to be available everywhere, rots the mind in a ridiculously short time, and seems to be organic. It can be grown by anyone who can set up the right conditions to grow it.
This "secret" leads to an ending that is hopeful, uplifting -- it hints at a way out of the nightmare for all the characters.
Of course, Bob/Fred has had Issues from the start. In one early scene during an anti-drug speech to the ridiculously straight-laced Anaheim Lions Club, Fred catches a look at himself in a mirror while dressed in his police-narc-disguise "scramble suit," and all he can see is "a vague blur." Here's a guy who's already having trouble with Reality, and nothing that happens from that point on helps him much. Things just get weirder.
Because everyone in the book is a druggie, you have to sit through a lot of pretty meaningless dialogue. Watching hours of this on surveillance video is one of the things that drives Bob crazy. But not all of it's meaningless -- and it all works for the story.
Some of the writing and dialogue is pretty crude. And some of it's very clever -- very funny -- even moving, in the end. PKD grows on you, I think. The novels of his that I've read recently have each been progressively better, and they seem to work with each other -- some of the things that happen to Bob here are also mentioned in PKD's later VALIS.
Though PKD does clearly get his anti-drug message through here, the book is anything but a lecture. PKD climbs on the soapbox for just a bit in the afterword -- where he dedicates the book to a dozen friends who died or had their lives ruined from drugs. "These were my comrades," he writes. "There were no better. ... I'm not any of the characters in this novel. I am this novel."
It's the most passionate, most convincing PKD book I've read so far, keeping in mind that it starts -- as all of his do -- in some pretty gritty, down-and-dirty surroundings. The first character we meet spends the whole first chapter pulling aphids out of his hair, off of his body, and out of the carpet in his grungy apartment. If you can get through that, you'll be ready for the rest of the story.
Next up: THE DIVINE INVASION (1981).

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Almost....

My assault on the novels of science-fiction writer and cult hero Philip K. Dick continues. For its first 220 pages, Dick's DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? (1968) is a standout sf novel. Though it starts slowly, once rolling it builds steadily in character and incident, it complicates entertainingly, and the story becomes gripping all the way up to a high point of drama near the end.
All through the book, as I was hooked and got more involved and the reality of Dick's imagined world got more complex, I started saying "THIS is more like it! NOW I see what people were talking about with this guy!"
I got so involved that I read almost the whole book in just a couple of days, staying interested and enjoying it all the way. It wasn't work. SHEEP is much easier to read and get caught up in than PKD's VALIS (reviewed last post). It seems to have a lot more depth.
But as I closed in on the end, I had to take a break and go to work.
I should never have gone to work.
Because when I came back home and picked the story back up, PKD had somehow let the last 25 pages of his novel go pffff....
In the future, a massive nuclear war has virtually finished off Earth. A dark radioactive dust coats most of the planet. Fallout is an ongoing problem. The remaining cities are mostly abandoned, like ghost towns. Though San Francisco has somehow survived, western Oregon has become a desert. Most folks have left Earth for Mars. A few people crawl through life here -- those whose jobs won't let them leave, and those who aren't smart enough to pass the IQ tests to emigrate. Rumor has it the colony planets are in worse shape.
The remaining humans are plagued with guilt over the millions of animal species that have died due to man's stupid wars. Companies manufacture mechanical animals to placate this guilt. A few REAL animals survive, but they are only available at astronomical prices -- the bigger the animal, the higher the price. Real animals have become status symbols like cars or houses.
A sinister talk-show host named Buster Friendly has a 24/7 program on the only TV channel, where his guests are celebrities who are "famous for being famous." A religion called Mercerism seems to unite believers in a sacred shared ordeal similar to Sisyphus rolling his giant boulder up a mountain. And people use various mood-inhancing devices so they won't have to face too much reality.
Against this background, a police bounty-hunter named Rick Deckard tracks down a group of (supposedly evil) androids who've immigrated to Earth from Mars illegally. Deckard is told these androids are smarter and more brutal than humans ... but the androids are mainly just less empathic. Maybe conditions on Mars are even worse than on the dusty, depopulated Earth? We never find out.
Helping Deckard track down the androids is a mysterious woman named Rachel Rosen -- herself apparently an android, or at least a human with little empathy. It turns out one of the androids Deckard must locate and "retire" (kill) is a duplicate of Rachel.
The plot works from here. Much is promised. Much ominous darkness and threat surround Deckard as he proceeds in his mission -- he'll be paid $1,000 for each android he "retires." Then maybe he'll be able to afford a REAL sheep instead of the mechanical one currently pretending to munch grass on the roof of his decrepit old apartment building. Then won't his neighbor be jealous! Then maybe his wife will love him again and not consider him a failure anymore.
Much of the rest becomes a game of who's-real-and-who-isn't, as Deckard tries to take out the androids before they can get him. Which actually becomes fairly exciting. Until Deckard closes in on the last three androids hiding in an abandoned apartment building -- including the Rachel-duplicate and a supposedly evil and powerful android-leader named Roy Baty.
It may sound here like I didn't enjoy the book. Wrong. I liked it a lot. But PKD took the heavily dramatic ending that was staring him in the face and threw it out the window in the last 25 pages. The big expected fight with Roy Baty turns out to be nothing much, and Deckard's confrontation with the Rachel-duplicate is a wasted opportunity for much more ... because by then Deckard has fallen in love with the "real" Rachel.
I was also expecting more to be done with J.R. Isadore, the low-IQ pet-repair messenger who in many ways is the nicest and most genuine person in the whole book. But PKD just lets him slip away.
The last 25 pages are digressions and avoidances of drama. Rachel does sort of get her "revenge" after Deckard murders all of her friends, but even in the context of the book it comes across as a very small thing. After her function in the plot is made clear, she is also dropped.
How could PKD do this? Maybe because to round out this story in a way that seems dramatically obvious, he might have needed 50 more pages -- and maybe that room wasn't available in a Doubleday mid-'60s mid-list sf novel. Just a guess.
I've never seen the movie BLADE RUNNER made from this book, though I will say that the giant Japanese-style (or Times Square-style) neon advertising signs that allegedly made such a big visual impact in that film are NOT from this future. I've read that the movie does at least make the point this book doesn't -- that at the finale Deckard does recognize Roy Baty's humanity in a way that never comes close to happening in this book. About the only real humans here are J.R. Isadore and Deckard's wife, Iran. And we recognize Iran because she's as depressed as any normal person would be in a future world like this. Deckard comes across as just tired.
This is all too bad, because for the first 220 pages this is an excellent novel with action and vivid characters and some philosophical depth, and it deserved the Nebula Award it was nominated for. But PKD never answers any of the questions he brings up. If he had finished the job, this book could maybe have WON that award....

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Another round for The Vague Blur!

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is a phenomenon. Though he's been dead since 1982, his books keep selling, his cult keeps growing, Hollywood keeps making movies of his short stories and novels.
And I'm still trying to figure out why this is so.
True, Dick's novel THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH (1964) is absolutely one of a kind and will turn your mind into a pretzel. A MAZE OF DEATH (1970) has a twisted grimness that is all its own.
PKD has a really good feel for the gritty down-to-earth realities of life. He's also good on those little moments that suddenly become overpoweringly Significant.
But the people he writes about are so average, so dull, that they can be boring to read a whole book about.
Even when Dick's writing about himself.
I've bogged down in half a dozen of his other novels, and there's a couple I've forgotten completely.
VALIS (1981) is one of those where I bogged down after a couple chapters and then forgot about it. I got through it this time in a few days, with no problem. It's definitely different and often interesting, but not exactly stunning. Except maybe in the amount of work PKD had to do to get it written.
It was Dick's attempt to explain the vision (or breakdown) he had in early 1974, when he thought he was contacted by God. Or at least by a Vast Active Living Intelligence System.
Over the next five years, Dick reportedly wrote some 5,000 pages trying to explain what happened to him, what it meant, what he thought it revealed. Among other things, this supposedly alien intelligence identified a life-threatening health problem with PKD's son.
More than 1,100 pages of these writings were published a few years back as PKD's EXEGESIS. It's an amazing pile of work. But awfully tough to get through.
VALIS tries to novelize some of PKD's experience. One problem is, he doesn't show what happened to him until he's 50 pages into the book. And even when he gets to it, he just barely describes it. He finds other, more human ways to lay out his story. But this central experience is underneath everything else. If you don't know about it before starting the book, the story's kind of a mess.
First PKD comes to a personal crisis: His wife leaves him and takes their young son, then two close women friends die even though he tried to help them. First PKD tries to commit suicide. Then the blinding pink light of VALIS touches him and starts pouring vast amounts of information into his brain.
The rest of the book is a search for God, or at least for what VALIS is or means.
PKD, his alter-ego, and a small group of friends eventually find A New Savior living in northern California. She turns out to be a stunningly intelligent, frightfully verbal 2-year-old girl.
The first thing she does is immediately cure PKD's schizophrenia. His alter-ego -- who has been the star of the book and whom PKD has had long conversations with alone and when surrounded by his friends -- immediately disappears.
Then the girl tells them in absolutely Biblical cadences some of what they want to know. She is by far the sharpest person in the book.
Naturally, this divine creature can not be permitted to live -- and she dies in a stupid off-stage accident.
The rest of the book is a search for another Savior. PKD's alter-ego reappears and starts traveling the world searching for the next Messiah -- first in Europe, then Russia, Asia, finally into the Pacific islands. The new Messiah who will heal the world is out there somewhere -- VALIS has told them so.
Twenty pages of PKD's EXEGESIS is tacked onto the end of the book, to lay out the basic thought structure beneath the novel's heavy religious theory.
Most of the people in the novel are nuts. They even discuss this. PKD himself can barely handle the stress of walking out of his own yard. He blacks out during plane flights. Too stressful.
The book will hold your attention, parts of it are kind of drily funny, and it's unlike any other novel you've ever read. It's as direct and basic as PKD could make a complex subject. It's better than staring at the TV for a few hours, I guess, but that doesn't mean it's going to be a pleasant experience. I'll be reading more by PKD, but I'm hoping for a little more entertainment along with his message.
Just make sure you don't pay too much for it.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Second childhood

Been buying old science-fiction magazines cheap on eBay recently, trying to recapture my childhood, get back to the days when I thought being a science fiction writer would be the best job in the world.
Maybe not the best PAYING job. But somehow I wasn't worried about that back then -- ask any of my old girlfriends and the ex-wife who watched me many times buy books and music before I bought food: "It's OK, honey -- we'll live on love...."
I think mainly what I missed from the magazines was the great artwork, but I re-read a few of the stories, the ones I remember best. They're still great. It makes me feel good to re-read them, and just to read those old magazines again, years after I sold half my collection off because I was short on cash....
I still wish I could have pulled it together 40 years earlier and made a more serious run at being a real writer. I mean, I was pretty serious, but I don't think I knew what I was doing. There was a whole lot of living and learning I hadn't done yet. And now that I've done it, I don't really have the energy to obsess about my own fiction writing anymore, most of the time. I was a reporter for too long, and the "just the facts" approach maybe buried my imagination.
A year ago, just for fun, I started writing a music-fantasy set in an after-the-bomb future, starring my usual lineup of old friends. I got about 6,000 words into it without worrying about where it was going or what I was going to do with it.
This was shortly after I met The Girlfriend -- and then spending time with her became much more important than anything else I was doing. It still is. She hasn't kept me from writing creatively -- I haven't really felt like it. Plus I didn't know where this story was going anyway.
I re-read some of it a couple weeks back. To me, it seems pretty good. Might have some potential. Kinda visionary for me, funny in places, I like the setting and I know the characters.
But I don't know where it goes -- unless it starts repeating some of the shocks of real life as my friends lived it, and I'm not sure I want to write about most of that stuff. Or unless I want to dive into pure fantasy. But when you've been a full-time reporter for 20 years, imagination was the first thing you tossed out.
I may post the story here in pieces, but I need to look back through it again, make sure I'm happy with it as it is. I'm hoping maybe it will develop as I post the parts, and maybe I'll figure out where to go with it. Sort of a novel in progress.
A note to my old friends who are out there -- don't worry. I don't think you'll recognize yourselves, though you'll recognize your names. And I think you'll be happy with how I've depicted you. The story's intended as a tribute to those old days 40 years ago, anyway. Certainly those were happy times for me (as I look back) and I want to keep them that way.
You have been warned.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Tilting at windmills?

I'm not a Frank Zappa fan, though I agree he was an interesting personality. If you ARE a fan, you'll probably enjoy Neil Slaven's biography of FZ, ELECTRIC DON QUIXOTE (1996), which is the first book on music that's held my interest all the way through in quite awhile.
There've been other books on Zappa. FZ wrote one himself, THE FRANK ZAPPA BOOK, which I thought was a little silly and scattered, along with skipping whole sections of his life. Barry Miles's ZAPPA, which I read and reviewed here a couple of years ago, wasn't bad -- but it soon bogged down into recapping album-tour-album-tour-album-tour until Frank died. It could have used more detail, more interviews.
But Miles was great at catching Good Stories -- one leads off his book, a story from Frank's early years that maybe explained the direction FZ went for the rest of his life. It's such a great story that Miles repeats it again almost word-for-word a few chapters later.
Slaven -- a producer at Decca/Deram in the early '70s -- maybe doesn't have such a nose for great stories, but he compiles a ton of period quotes from newspaper and magazine articles, and adds a ton more info from interviews he did with Zappa. Slaven also comments in some depth on the music itself, something Miles never did. Slaven gets across some of the obsessiveness that would push a man to record and release more than 60 albums in a nearly-30-year career.
Slaven also picks up some of the sarcasm of his subject. He clearly has his own opinions on how Zappa was treated, which of FZ's albums are worth re-hearing, and how much of Frank's work will continue to be heard.
There's also detailed coverage of FZ's later trips to DC to argue against rock censorship. This section made me think it's too bad FZ and Hunter S. Thompson aren't around today to call "Bullshit!" on so much of what's coming out of DC. Actually, I think FZ and HST woulda made a great ticket for Prez and VP.
But hypocrisy, fascism and greed never die. Musicians do. There's a long chapter on all the work FZ got done while his health was declining.
There's also detail on the many fine musicians who performed as FZ's backing bands -- among them Terry Bozzio, Adrian Belew, Steve Vai, George Duke, Jean-Luc Ponty, Ian and Ruth Underwood, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, Eddie Jobson, Patrick O'Hearn, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Captain Beefheart, the Original Mothers, and many more. Their opinions -- usually very favorable about FZ -- come across strongly.
None of this changes my opinion of FZ's music -- for most of which, I've never been able to get past the stupid, silly, grade-school-level lyrics. They seem too close to the things FZ was trying to make fun of. But maybe I've just heard the wrong stuff. I heard a chunk of HOT RATS while in a Tacoma record store awhile back, and it sounded pretty good. Maybe I need to hear more of that and the WAKA/JAWAKA-GRAND WAZOO period....

I've also been eating up parts of the annual BEST MUSIC WRITING series from DaCapo Books. Each volume I've found so far has something in it worth holding on to -- a long piece about a guy who discovered "numbers stations" on short-wave radio and ended up compiling a four-CD set of what they broadcast, which turned out to be code-messages to spies -- some of this stuff was later used on a Wilco album; a hilarious/disgusting piece on how Warner Brothers Records treats artists who never earn back their advance; a long piece on how Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" still works today, 50 years later; looks back at Phil Ochs, Bettye LaVette, Nina Simone, Anita O'Day and others; meeting The Shaggs; the importance of Big Country; an obituary for great English DJ John Peel; and much more.
Well worth your time if you find a copy at Goodwill.
More eventually....