Monday, November 13, 2017

A review about reviews

Jo Walton's WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT (2014) is like sitting around with an old friend, talking about what great books you've read lately. It's 130 posts compiled from a blog she wrote for Tor.com, about re-reading various old science-fiction classics and guilty pleasures.
Walton doesn't pretend to be a "critic" -- she just writes about what struck her upon reading (or re-reading) some books. But she does what all the best book critics do -- enlightens you about what makes a book worth reading. Those flashes of insight are what make her reviews a lot of fun to read.
She hasn't convinced me (yet) to try reading C.J. Cherryh or Lois McMaster Bujold or Steven Brust, but I like and agree with her reviews of Samuel R. Delany's NOVA (a helluva lot going on in that book, it's crammed full of action, thought and detail) and BABEL-17 (flashes of brilliance); and her comments on Roger Zelazny's LORD OF LIGHT and DOORWAYS IN THE SAND.
Maybe even better are her "theme" columns -- Do you skim? What about novel series(es?) that go downhill? (On Frank Herbert's DUNE series: Read the first one. Then stop.)
There are a couple of reviews about books you've never read -- because they never got finished: Robert A. Heinlein's THE STONE PILLOW and Harlan Ellison's THE LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS -- this review (for April Fool's Day) wasn't as funny as it could have been, but if Walton's point was that Real Life is way weirder than fiction, she nailed it.
I also back Walton's idea of re-reading books to see if they're better or different than you remember. Every few years I re-read Peter Straub's IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW, and every time I get something else out of it, almost like it's a new book. The last time, it was like the story was completely new to me. I've also done this with Roger Zelazny's THIS IMMORTAL and ISLE OF THE DEAD, the two Delany novels mentioned above, and some others. Oh, and Robert M. Persig's ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE. I may not be able to read anything NEW, but there are some old friends in the house that I know I won't be wasting my time with.
Walton's book won't waste your time, either.

However, this one might: Will Romano's CLOSE TO THE EDGE: HOW YES'S MASTERPIECE DEFINED PROG ROCK (2017) is the third of Romano's books about progressive rock, and the first to disappoint me. His MOUNTAINS COME OUT OF THE SKY is still the best prog-rock history, and his PROG ROCK FAQ was almost like a sequel, and was nearly as solid.
CLOSE TO THE EDGE recycles a lot of stuff Yes fans likely already know, adds a lot of (to me) unnecessary, extraneous material, adds a list of tour dates, discography, bibliography, a weak index, and ends up almost 300 pages long. You can read the good stuff in an hour.
I was annoyed with this book from the start, with Romano's first-the-earth-cooled history of prog. I know he was trying to set up a context for his story, but. His history of Yes is more solid, and includes some info you may not have read before. But in this book supposedly about one album you get Yes's full career up to CTTE (which was the band's fifth album), plus much about the three albums that followed.
My biggest gripe is that except for a couple of stories, this book doesn't put you into the studio with Yes while they were recording CTTE -- in two- and three-minute segments, with leader Jon Anderson telling the band "If you don't like this tune, YOU come up with something better." There's a book there, about how that band worked ... for awhile.
Romano also takes all this stuff VERY seriously, referring to the title track of CTTE as "a symphony," or at least a sonata. There's a whole chapter on "water imagery" in '70s prog, for chrissakes. It's too much, if you've heard a lot of this stuff.
Romano and Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard could have used a better proofreader. There are words dropped, odd sentence constructions, words misspelled -- it looks like the book was a rush job. The first time Strawbs leader Dave Cousins is mentioned, he is listed with no first name. (The Strawbs is where Yes keyboard-player Rick Wakeman came from.) One more read-through would have helped immeasurably with smoothness, would have avoided jolting me out of the book.
And I'd say Pink Floyd's DARK SIDE OF THE MOON defined in the public's mind what prog was. But there's been enough written about DARK SIDE, right?
Yes drummer Bill Bruford has some less exalted views about working on CTTE. Judging by his AUTOBIOGRAPHY, he could have written an interesting, funny, acid-tinged book about what Yes and those sessions were like. But he wouldn't have bothered.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Tedeschi Trucks 2!

The Tedeschi Trucks Band can apparently play anything. And they do. Which has maybe become a problem when it comes to live shows.
I saw them for the second time on Sunday night at Seattle's beautiful Paramount theater. And I thought they were WAY better when they played a year ago at Seattle's McCaw Hall as part of their LET ME GET BY tour.
Don't get me wrong, here. They sounded great. They played great. Some of the songs -- especially the half-dozen I didn't recognize, which I assume were tryouts of new material -- came across as pretty strong.
But with 12 people on stage, I assume there must be a lot of egos to keep happy in this band. And there was a lot of showing off.
But here's the thing: There was MORE showing off a year ago. But the songs were stronger.
In the review I posted last September, though I thought that McCaw Hall concert was one of the best I'd ever seen, I was already uneasy with some parts of TTB's show. I don't think every song should be an excuse for Derek Trucks to show how loud and high and long he can play that guitar. And he CAN play, no question.
But that was still happening on Sunday night. In almost every song, at some point everybody backed off and opened up space to let Derek take over. Three or four times is OK. But after that it's too much. One of his best solos was on a long, angry piece called either "It Makes You Wonder" or "Shame." In fact, some of TTB's best moments were when they were clearly angry, as on one of their earlier songs, "Get What You Deserve."
Other solos made attendees wonder if TTB were trying to become some sort of blues-pop-jazz-rock-fusion band. I enjoyed some of this -- a drum duel just before intermission finally caught hold of a nice pounding groove (there was actually a lot of pounding in this show), and keyboardist Kofi Burbidge got some wild squawking, bubbling sounds out of the organ later in the show. I liked this -- I thought it was funny.
Their sax player also did a jittery, twitchy, Ornette Coleman-like meltdown early in the show that I thought was hilarious ... but he'd done the same bit a year ago. It's OK to do one clearly overdone meltdown -- that's funny. But one in every song is too much.
There were other spots that I thought were just dead -- where it seemed something was supposed to happen but didn't. This might have been technical -- during intermission, a tech worked on a couple of amps, and the second half of the show had fewer gaps. But some spots seemed to leave members of the band lost or waiting for cues. If things had been right on cue, it would never have occurred to me that there were dead spots.
And then there's the song choices. I still have a fairly long list of stuff I'd like to hear TTB do live -- they did nothing I'd hoped for. They did two songs from LET ME GET BY -- but not the best one, "Anyhow," which they opened powerfully with a year ago. They did B.B. King's "How Blue Can You Get?" and Ray Charles's "Let's Go Get Stoned," both of which came across with passion and power. Susan Tedeschi did a solo spot on Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," but she messed up the first line of the lyric ... and I'm sorry, but her version doesn't beat Peter, Paul and Mary's.
But Susan has a great voice that was strong on the rockers and cut through the big sound. And there's a couple of TTB's backing singers who can keep up with her. Former lead singer Mike Mattison took a few leads and still has a powerful voice. They should use him more often for contrast. He was especially good duetting with Susan on "Get What You Deserve."
TTB didn't talk much. Susan lightened up a bit toward the end and talked more, introduced the band, etc. She and Derek had hardly any interaction on stage.
At least they gave value for the money. The show ran almost three hours (not counting the half-hour intermission), and TTB came back on stage for an encore while we were in the lobby buttoning up coats for the 35-degree night outside. But we were done by then.
I was still disappointed. Maybe they were tired. They've been on the road a LOT the last year or so. The songs I thought were new sounded VERY good, and I'll still look for their next album.
Maybe I wish they would have settled down a bit -- actually been a blues band rather than a blues-pop-jazz-rock-fusion orchestra. Just because you CAN play everything doesn't mean you HAVE TO play everything. Stick with what you do best.

Friday, November 3, 2017

More bad behavior

Want to read 500 pages of selfishness and egomania?
No? Not interested? What if it's really well-written?
Joe Hagan's STICKY FINGERS (2017) updates Robert Draper's excellent ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE: THE UNCENSORED HISTORY (1990), by hooking a biography of RS editor/publisher/founder Jann Wenner around his coming out as a gay man in 1995.
Along with re-telling all of Draper's best stories (some with a little more depth and context), STICKY FINGERS then chronicles who Wenner slept with, how often, how this affected his magazine, etc. Everyone close to Wenner gets the same treatment. His ex-wife Jane, for example. A fascinating psychological study, in a way.
Much of this is riveting reading -- because the stories of RS's early days (Hunter Thompson, Altamont, etc.) are great stories. But it all becomes too much, because the star of this story never for a second drops his selfishness and greed. He forgives himself for everything, and throws everyone else under the bus.
Brilliantly, vividly written. Lots of cameos by John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, etc. But do you really want 500 pages of it?

By the way, if you read Peter Biskind's DOWN AND DIRTY MOVIES (reviewed here awhile back), about the founding of Miramax Pictures back in the 1990's, the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein should have come as a very small surprise. After reading how he abused and terrorized his employees at Miramax, it should be no surprise that he abused and harassed actresses, too. The surprise is it took so long for him to take a beating for it.

COMING SOON: Reviews of Will Romano's CLOSE TO THE EDGE: HOW YES'S MASTERPIECE DEFINED PROG ROCK (disappointing so far, but I'm only 70 pages in) and I AM BRIAN WILSON. And maybe some other stuff, too....
ALSO PLANNED: More live-blogging about Strange Music I've never heard before. Next test-listening session coming soon. Already have the intended victims piled-up and waiting....

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Leftovers

I read a lot more stuff than I usually review here. Some of it doesn't seem worth writing a whole post about. A few examples:
* Barry N. Malzberg -- BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS. The first half of this book is Malzberg's brilliant, anguished THE ENGINES OF THE NIGHT, a 1982 history/critique of the science fiction field that I raved about way back in the early days of this blog. It's still one-of-a-kind. And every one of Malzberg's pessimistic predictions for SF in the '80s came true.
Throughout that earlier book, Malzberg kept threatening to write "The True, Terrible History of Science Fiction." BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS isn't it. There are some great things in it -- "Tripping With the Alchemist" is all about what it was like to work at the twisted Scott Meredith Literary Agency, an SF fan's revenge on the Real World. "Rage, Pain and Alienation" was Malzberg's angry farewell to SF back in 1976, and it's still angry -- not the whiny self-indulgence he now thinks it is.
There are other good pieces on SF writer Robert Silverberg, SF editor John W. Campbell, and mystery writer Cornell Woolrich -- but overall the new stuff is less angry, less outraged. I'd rather read "The True, Terrible History of Science Fiction." Malzberg still has time to write it.
There's one great joke: One of the hot-shot SF writers of the '80s is quoted as saying "Boy, I sure hope I'm not still writing this stuff when I'm 50. That'd be pathetic." Wonder what he thinks now?
There are numerous typographical errors in the Kindle edition.
* John Clute -- STAY. Not enough book reviews from science fiction's best critic since 1993. Included is a long horror "lexicon," THE DARKENING GARDEN. It's interesting, though I'd rather read a Horror encyclopedia that's like Clute's amazing SF ENCYCLOPEDIA. Didn't read the short stories.
* Judith Merril -- THE MERRIL THEORY OF LIT'RY CRITICISM. This collects all of Judith Merril's old book review columns from THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION and her commentaries from the annual best-of collections she assembled back in the '60s. I thought this would be a great read. But apart from columns I'd already read on Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, and the English New Wave scene, I haven't found the great stuff yet. Disappointing.
* 20TH CENTURY SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS. 1,000 pages of biographies and bibliographies on well-known SF writers up through 1990. I'm sure there are later versions, but they've gotta be expensive. I like the critical essays, but there are many typos.
* Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg -- THE BUSINESS OF SCIENCE FICTION WRITING. A series of business-related columns for newer writers, first published in the SFWA Bulletin. Resnick and Malzberg assume the writer can get published repeatedly, regularly, and talk about what happens AFTER that. This came out almost 10 years ago, so discussion about on-line publications is skimped. For me, the best parts were various atrocity stories about publishing -- publishers taking forever to pay writers, writers who took cash advances and never wrote the books, etc.
* D. Scot Appel -- SCIENCE FICTION: AN ORAL HISTORY. Not really a history at all. Instead, a collection of interviews with SF writers. One long, excellent interview with Philip K. Dick. Other interviewees are from an earlier generation -- Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, etc.
* Damien Broderick and Paul DiFillipo -- SF: THE 100 BEST BOOKS. This recommended-reading list picks up from where David Pringle's SCIENCE FICTION: THE 100 BEST NOVELS (1985) left off, so it opens with Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE -- which Atwood continues to proclaim is nothing as low-culture as science fiction. So I'm an old stick in the mud -- I'm not impressed with the list of novels and writers, and there's very little in here that I've read. So take me back to 1977....
* Jonathan Coe -- THE ROTTER'S CLUB (2001). I was sucked into this early-'70s English family saga because some of the teenage boys in it form a progressive-rock band. But the band only lasts for a 15-minute rehearsal, and then they become punk rockers! Also, the book's named after Hatfield and the North's second album -- and one of the characters tells another (who was injured in a terrorist bomb blast) that the Hatfields' album was recorded "for us, somehow." There is a funny, moving story that unwinds through this book, but somehow it wasn't charming enough to carry me along and I started skimming. It could work for you -- I may just be going through another one of my "I can't read fiction anymore" phases....

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).