Monday, April 16, 2007

River of Gods, Ian McDonald

If there is one pet peeve I have with science fiction, it is the desire on the part of authors (or maybe their audiences) to deal with some earth shattering, universe crushing, paradigm shifting event.

I was just in the bookstore yesterday, chuckling to myself as the sales pitch on every book I picked up ended with something along the lines of "... the fate of the [universe|earth|humanity]."

At the end of most of these books, one is left wondering, well what exactly just happened, and why should I care.

River Gods suffers from this as well. But, mostly, reading it was a joyous return to the heady days of when I first picked up a William Gibson. It is a cyberpunk romp through a fascinating and complex India of the future, with artificial intelligences, rich and poor, religion and science, humans and post-humans all mixing it up. There are few fully evil or fully pure characters in the book, the character arcs are complex and the characters themselves mostly interesting.

Having not been to India, I can't say if it is as fascinating and complex as India is today, but its a worthy and engaging try. If the ending was a little bit of a let down, well endings almost always are.

Labels: ,

Saturday, March 24, 2007

300 seas of thunder commit hari kari

I came out of the movie 300 feeling more than a little nauseated. It was not because of the blood and guts -- the movie was so stylized that it was bloodless in an odd way. No, it was the intense undertone of the need and desire for war. It was all about staying the course. "Freedom is never free." One can only suppose that the Persian freakish barbarian hordes were stand ins for Al Qaeda, and the red blooded oh-so heterosexual Spartans (not boy loving Athenians) stand-ins for America and the West.

Frank Miller's original book was not so crass. It was just a good story, with some undertones (reason not freedom against superstition and slavery)

The movie's blatently NEOCON tone did, however, occasion me to read a little more about Sparta and to poke around at this legend a little more. The biggest surprise was why Sparta had this amazing military prowess. It turns out they lived their Spartan existence so that they could keep control over their serfs (called Helots). At an earlier time, Spartans had lived a more cultured, luxurious existence, but an uprising of helots had led them to say, "never again!". Spartans were Spartans by birth, a helot could not aspire to joining their ranks. So the Spartans military prowess came from non-stop trainining. Guess who did the rest of their work for them?

Spartans it turns out were also the ridiculed as boy lovers by other Greeks. Oldier soldiers took younger soldiers under their wings so to speak, and it was supposed that those relationships were not strictly martial.

The story of 300 is derived from the works of the historian Heroditus. Who knows how true to facts that was, but Miller embellished the reasons why Leonidas went forth with such a small force, and the movie embellished further, brining in the role of his wife, and added an extra traitor Greek.

But why did they stay and fight to the bitter end? Some historians suggest that 300 was all the Greeks thought they needed to defend the Hot Gates and that Leonidas death was essentially an embarrassed suicide.

Having just read a books on Japanese Admirals in WWII and the author Mishima, it struck me that the Spartans wish to die in glorious battle was much more along the lines of Samurai than American warriors.

Some American commander fighting in the Pacific once said, "Americans fight to live, the Japanese fight to die". American forces, in fact have a grand tradition of retreating to fight another day -- General Washington, and General MacArthur probably being the best examples.

The book Seas of Thunder, is a profile of 4 commanders in the Pacific theater of WWII--2 Japanese, 2 American--leading up to a sea battle off the Phillipines. It is an interesting examination of the warrior ethos, and the how the two cultures differed. Not that it is all so black and white (one Japanese admiral quietly went against the grain and refused to throw his men away, whereas one American captain seemed fully intent and giving it his all).

Had any decent American commander been in charge of the Spartans he would have defended the hot gates while he could, but once betrayed, move back, harrass the enemy, find another spot to fight from.

One might say that the Persion force much more resembled the American style of combat -- bringing overwhelming force to fight the enemy. Ye Olde Shock and Awe. I could even see Al Qaeda recruiters turning this one on its head with a unjudicious translation... the Persians look much more like America with its overwhelming might, and freaks and sexualized nature. Al Aqaedans a small force holding off the hordes of culture.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Van Morrison Live

Liz and I went to see Van Morrison last Friday night. The theater is a non-standard music venue up on Van Ness street, and was mostly standing only, expcept for seats up in the balconey.
I'm always amazed these days that concert venues bother to put up signs: "no cameras". How are they supposed to control that? and why, really, do they even bother?

We were down near the front off to one side, and it was easy to be annoyed by the awful stage setup. Everyone was set a good 10' back from the closest audience, and the front of stage was cluttered with lecterns and most annoyingly for us the organist, and some huge box that sat behind him. Of the 10 persons in the band (1 lead guitarist, 3 backup singers, 1 fiddler, 1 organist, 1 drummer, 3 other bass/guitarists), I could really only see 4 head to toe, and the heads of 3 others. At least the organist was lively.

And hey, it was music, so I didn't really need to see anything, right. As to Van Morrison, I mostly saw his head. He sang beautifully, dressed in a sharp little suit, a loosened bow tie, and a great pork-pie hat. (If he was a character in a Noir book it would read, "He looked his part, a small time gangster, the suit, the hat, and with a small and mean-looking mouth.")

He seemed pretty chill the whole time, not really smiling, just singing, naming the song before he and the band performed it, but little else besides ( aside a quip about a banjo, "here's a song with a banjo. a banjo, why not?" he said). I always wish they would say more really.

I hardly recognized a song until the last few, Gloria, Brown Eyed Girl, and one other that escapes me. The crowd went wild then of course. But through the rest of it, you could see some folks soaking the whole thing up, singing to every song. It was a mostly 40s 50sh crowd I would say, but with a good sprinkling of everything else.

His song de resistance was a number he started with a saxophone, a bitter song about drink and women. It was the only one that his heart and voice seemed completely into, and I think the one that touched everyone there -- I heard others talking about it.

90 minutes no more, no less was what he played. The lights came up killing the chants for encores, and we filed out into the cold night.

Labels: ,