Weekly Read – The Great War

Ever just fall down a rabbit hole and disappear into a topic for a while? For the past couple of months I’ve been reading nothing but books on the First World War. I hadn’t been driven to do so during the 100th anniversary observances over the past few years, so what dragged me in? Would you believe me if I said it was an interest in genre fiction?

Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror is exactly what it sounds like – an exploration of how men (mostly) who fought in World War I impacted the development of horror, particularly in the nascent motion picture industry.

Wasteland

Many of the early classic horror films – from Nosferatu through Bride of Frankenstein – have connections that date back to the carnage of World War I. Wasteland does a good job of surveying the various developments in the arts as people began to process the industrial scale of death that the war brought, different in orders of magnitude from anything before. Plus, I had no idea Salvador Dali was such an asshole!

Reading Wasteland made me realize that, aside from some broad brush strokes I picked up in school, I really didn’t know much about World War I, so I decided to dive into some of the history of it. Where better to start than the beginning, right?

On June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist name Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (and his wife), heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Most people know that as the “start” of the war, but the truth is much more complex (and interesting). In fact it was a month before hostilities broke out, a month during which diplomatic wheels were constantly in motion. That month, the “July Crisis,” is the focus of July 1914: Countdown to War, which exhaustively covers the debates, maneuverings, and petty squabbles of parties all over Europe as the continent slouched towards war.

Coutdown

What was most amazing to me (aside from the fact that in a large number of states a hereditary autocrat was actually in charge – 100 year ago!) is how little emotional investment the various players had in Ferdinand’s death. Certain his own father didn’t seem all the broken up, as did most of the power brokers in Austria-Hungary, who saw him as a potential reformer and were happy to be rid of him. Only German Kaiser Wilhelm really seemed broken up about it. So what Ferdinand’s death just a cynical crisis used to give everybody an excuse to go to war? No, the roots of the war date back into the 19th century (who knew the integrity of an independent Belgium was so important?), but what is clear is that everybody involved had a plan if war was coming and once they committed to them, the die was pretty much cast.

Moving on from the start of the war, my next read was A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918.

WorldUndone

Rather than getting bogged down in the details of a particular battle of campaign, the book provides a swift (if lengthy) overview of the war on all fronts. Sometimes it’s a little too much overview. For example, the chapter on Gallipoli mentions how a British force could have taken advantage of something had it moved quickly, but it took four weeks – we never learn why. Unfortunately for me, it spends the first section (of six) on the July Crisis, so it was a little redundant for me. More disappointing, it didn’t deal in similar detail with what happened after the war and during the various peace talks. In between, though, it’s a depressingly fascinating catalog of the various failures of the parties to figure out something to do other than grind millions of people through useless battle after useless battle. You’d think, for example, that generals and politicians could put aside petty personal differences in the face of existential threats to their country (one of the interesting recurring themes is how the propaganda of the war made pursuing peace settlements hard – who wants to make peace with the devil?), but, alas, people are people, even in the middle of the Great War.

Since A World Undone didn’t touch much on what happened after the war I decided that I needed one more book to finish things up. Rather than dive into a book about the peace conferences and treaties (of which the Treaty of Versailles was just one) I went with The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End. Provocative title, no?

Vanquished

The point of The Vanquished is that the war destabilized Europe and the Middle East to such an extent that the “peace” actually constituted a lot of revolutionary violence and civil wars. Most of it was in Eastern Europe (don’t forget that Russia got out of the war once the czar was deposed) and the places that had been carved out of the late Ottoman Empire like new-fangled countries Iraq and Jordan. Of course, Germany didn’t escape unscathed by all this, setting the stage for the rise of Hitler. Even countries on the winning side, like Italy, fell to popular revolution.

On the one hand he First World War wrought huge changes in the world. It swept away the last vestiges of most European monarchies, at least as the people who actually ran their countries. It launched the United States into place as a major international player. And, technologically, it introduced a host or horrible things to modern warfare. But, in a lot of ways, it didn’t change much. Or, more accurately, it left so much unresolved that the Second World War was almost inevitable.

I’ve got a better handle on that now, thanks to all this reading. I can’t say it restored any of my faith in humanity, though. I recommend all these books – but maybe not to read all in one go.

Advertisements

Weekly Read: 1632

I’ve never had so much to say about a book I decided not to finish.

I’d had 1632 on my “to read” list for quite a while. For one thing, it’s got a hell of a setup, an elevator pitch for the ages (more of that later). For another, the way author Eric Flint has let in other authors, and even fans, to help build and flesh out the world he created is a really interesting phenomenon. With that said, the book is clearly not for me, as I could only make it about a quarter of the way through before throwing in the towel.

As for that pitch – Begin with the fictional small town of Grantville, West Virginia, where a wedding reception is underway at the local high school. There is a literal blinding flash of light and, all of a sudden, the town – all the people in it, all its associated real estate and tech – is transported into rural Germany in the middle of the Thirty Years War. An explanation for this (alien art project gone awry!) is given in the prologue,* clearing that off the table. So what happens next?

There could be a struggle to survival and a town torn apart under the strain of such a weird event. Flint doesn’t go there, however. Instead, he focuses on how the Americans interact with their newfound neighbors. Some are hostile, of course – the Americans did land smack dab in the middle one of Europe’s bloodiest religious wars – but many are more than willing to join up with the Americans who are united in the idea to begin the American revolution just a little bit early.

I mention the unanimity because it highlights the biggest problem I had with 1632 – a lack of believable human tension. Put simply, the folks of Grantville, not to mention the folks who were just visiting for a wedding, adjust to their new reality way too easily. I can see not wanting to get bogged down in the nitty gritty of survival and Flint cleverly sidesteps this by allowing Grantville to have most of its modern technology remain workable.

That still leaves a lot of rich ground for drama with the relationships between the various characters, but there’s none of that in 1632. Since there’s very little stress about survival there’s really nothing to expose fissures that would already exist in such a community. I mean, in a rural West Virginia community right now there are people who would gladly persecute their neighbor for worshiping the same God in the wrong way so it’s unbelievable that none of the residents of Grantville succumb to the sectarian madness in which they’re dropped. In Grantville there are no old grudges, no low-level feuds that explode in a new context. People just get along too well. I know it’s a little stilly to complain about realism in a story based on time travel, but the lack of strife in this community just passes my flying snowman point.

The oddly low stakes were confirmed for me in a scene where the town gathers together in the high school to sort of take stock and elect leadership (without any serious challenge, naturally). One of the science folks (a teacher at the high school, IIRC) makes the obvious, but still devastating, point that they’re probably never going home. To this announcement there is pretty much no reaction. Nobody weeps. Nobody storms out, unable to face the truth. Even the few characters who we know came to Grantville from out of town to the wedding don’t seem bothered. This was, like the death of a semi-major character in Saturn Run, a scene that made me wonder why I should care about any of this. Ultimately, I decided that I didn’t.

In an afterward, Flint explains that he was sick of fiction, particularly of the speculative sort, that was negative and focused on the worst of humanity. He wanted to write a positive portrayal of common folk who, if mentioned at all in such stories, tend to get cast as ignorant hicks. I appreciate where he’s coming from and, as a native West Virginian, appreciate the fact that his characters don’t fall into traditional stereotypes about the state (except that lots of them are coal miners). But all that’s still possible while providing some tension and strife amongst the people. Flint swung too far the other way, making his Americans too good, noble, and respectable.

Not every story works for every reader. Flipping through the Goodreads comments on 1632 I see a lot of people who love the book (and its sequels) for the precisely reasons Flint set forth in the afterward. Good for them. But I also see a good number of people who feel about like I do. Such is life; such is art.

1632

* Regardless of my other thoughts on the book, this is a brilliant gambit. Get it out of the way early and make it clear that’s not what the story is really about. It also makes me want to dive into just what genre this is – sci-fi because aliens or fantasy because, well, there’s no real science involved? Just one more thing to think about.

Weekly Read: How to Stop Time

Every time I finish reading a book or watching a movie I have a routine I call “doing my due diligence.” I hop on the Web and read up on what I’ve just finished, looking for critical reviews, viewer feedback, and any interesting interviews/analyses I can find. Rarely do I find a review headline that so completely nailed my feeling about book during this due diligence as I did after I finished How to Stop Time. As the Irish Times put it:

StopTimeHeadline

I mean, it can’t get much better for a writer than for a critic to say “the only thing wrong is there’s not more of it,” right? Always leave them wanting more, as the saying goes.

It’s not quite that clear cut when it comes to How to Stop Time, but it does get pretty close.

The central conceit of the book is a reverse of progeroid syndromes, actual conditions where people age rapidly, usually dying young. The main character here, Tom Hazard, has just the opposite problem – he only ages one year for every 14 that pass. He’s not immortal, but long lived and robustly healthy. Needless to say, it causes issues.

The book bounces back between “now,” where Tom is trying to lead a normal life as a history teacher (makes sense), and various points in his past. Thus we see (in the 16th century) Tom do the one thing that all nearly immortal souls make – falling in love. The scars of that love run deep, reaching into the “now” world as Tom tries to overcome them. Along the way he rubs elbows with some famous folks – works for Shakespeare, sails with Captain Cook, hangs out with Fitzgerald and Zelda – but mostly drifts kind of aimlessly.

Trying to give some structure to things, and help those like Tom stay off the radar (because there are others), is the Albatross Society, so named because the birds have long life spans. Hendrich, the leader of this group of “Albers” who’s been around so long he actually looks old, dictates the parameters of Tom’s life as a mean of protection, he says, although it’s never really clear if there’s much of a threat.

Which is part of the problem with How to Stop Time. While the flashbacks are all interesting and dive deep into Tom’s character, the actual story doesn’t really get going very far until well past the book’s midpoint, at which is careens into motion so fast that it’s hard to keep up. In truth, this seems like about half a book, rather than a full novel. Is the threat Hendrich repeatedly intones real? Could Tom really find love with a regular woman in the modern world? What about his daughter with that long-dead love, a woman who has the same condition as he? So many areas go unexplored as the book barrels to its finish.

So it’s not so much that How to Stop Time is so great from beginning to end that you just want more of the good stuff; it’s more that it feels incomplete. Which is a shame, because the run up is really good and the basic idea is executed really well. Still highly recommended, even if you might wind up saying “is that all?” when you’re done.

HowtoStopTime

Weekly Read: Saturn Run

As I think I’ve said before, one of my least favorite criticism of a book or movie is that it “has no plot.” Unless we’re talking about some really experimental stuff, every story has a plot because in every story SOMETHING happens. It might not be huge, it might not be life changing, but it’s something. What folks mean when they say that, I’ve decided, is not that “nothing happens,” but that “nothing happens that I care about.” In other words, the events of the story just wash over you and leave no residue.

It would be wrong to say nothing happens in Saturn Run, a collaboration between novelist John Sandford and Ctein (the first a long-time writer of thrillers, the second an artist, apparently). Quite a bit happens, given the setup and all, but I can safely say that nothing happens that I cared about, at least until the last quarter of the book or so. By that point, I couldn’t be roused to give much of a shit.

The setup is fairly standard – an alien ship appears in our solar system, is discovered by accident, and we humans head out to make first contact. What Saturn Run adds to the mix is a race to get there run by American and Chinese spacecraft, each taking different routes using different tech to make it to Saturn first. We spend almost all of the first three quarters of the book on the American ship (including its dealings with the American government back here on Earth), which wins the race. It’s reward? Being the first to a kind of interstellar truck stop full of fuel, science, and tech. Actual aliens are nowhere to be found.

The journey to get there is long and shot through with lots of technical data dumps, but precious little of concern actually happens. Partly this is down to the characters, who basically just function as pieces to move around as the plot requires. The closest thing to a main character, Sandy, begins as a skirt-chasing surfer waiting to inherit family money, only for us to learn he’s actually a kick ass solder suffering from PTSD; but he goes back to surfer mode on the trip while acting as the official expedition cinematographer (at which he’s also kick ass). None of this ultimately matters, since he has no motivation and we don’t care why he does anything he does.

In fact, it’s hard to care about anything that happens. For instance, before the American ship (named after Richard Nixon, a clever nod to his dealings with China) leaves Earth orbit there is a test of its system for dealing with excess heat built up by its drive system. The test goes wrong, but there’s no drama in this. The chief engineer explains calmly that this kind of thing happens, it’s why you test first, and it’s just a problem to be solved (and it is). This is a great attitude to have in the real world, but it sucks when it comes to fiction. If every problem gets solved without much consequence, why should I care about them? Same goes for the mysterious failure of half the drive system once they’re underway, which doesn’t matter because the ship already has enough momentum to get to Saturn before the Chinese.

Even when stuff happens to people there isn’t really much to it. The engineer? She dies mid trip due to another accident, just after she and Sandy have started sleeping together. Thanks to spiffy drugs and just the way this book is written this basically has no impact on anybody. It doesn’t even impact the ship in general, as her second chair engineer steps up and does a fine job. That kind of sums up this book in a nutshell to me – if a main character dies and nobody in the book cares, why should I? And don’t even get me started about the cat.

Things improve once the Chinese arrive on the scene, but not enough. For one thing, all of a sudden we begin to get POV scenes from the Chinese involving character’s we’ve never met through the rest of the book. I should care about them why? Kept at a distance they could have been vague bad guys with shady motivations, but we get enough into their heads to know what’s going on without any emotional investment to go along with it. The book builds some goodwill toward the end as it powers to a fairly cynical conclusion, but it weaves at the last moment and destroys that, too.

It’s entirely possible that I’m not the target audience for Saturn Run. It’s hard science fiction in the most literal sense – the space travel and what happens at Saturn are based on extrapolations from known science and are pretty realistic. There are no warp drives or teleporters here. In fact, there’s a half-hour afterword on the audiobook version diving deeply into the science involved. That I skipped it indicates that this book was never for me in the first place.

But there’s no reason why hard sci-fi, focused on known science and clever, plausible problem solving, can’t also be compelling drama. If you only care about the engineering challenges and how they’re met, this is the book for you. If you want characters that matter to you going through situations that have consequences that matter, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.

SaturnRun

Weekly Read: Kings of the Wyld

It’s a fairly standard setup for a fantasy story – a gang of unruly characters get together to journey across the land in order to fulfill some quest. But what if the gang is a band? I mean, what if a group of fantasy mercenaries was treated like a rock and roll band? That’s the great conceit of Kings of the Wyld.

The band, in this case, is called Saga. When the book begins the band has been broken up for a while and Clay is making ends meet as a city watchman, married with daughter. That all changes with Gabriel shows up in desperate need – his own daughter, now a mercenary herself, is stuck in a city besieged by various beasties and baddies on the other side of the world. He needs to get the band back together to save her.

What follows is a pretty fun read, although it comes off a little shallow. Part of the fun is that is that Nicholas Eames really leans into the “group of mercenaries as a band” idea. A lot of the names are references to music in our world – the wizard named Moog, the axe called Syrinx (a Rush reference, I’m guessing), and even Saga itself, which I think is a reference to the Canadian semi-prog band  The characters also play the parts. Moog is the keyboard player stand-in (naturally), weird and aloof and always in flowing robes (not capes? Rick Wakeman weeps somewhere). Gabriel is the nominal front man, the once pretty face up front. Clay plays the bass player roll, holding everything together. The bands also relate to each other like musicians, equal parts jealous of the others’ success and impressed by their prowess. Plus there’s a whole thread about how in Saga’s time bands had to go real feats of heroism, not empty, showy displays in huge stadiums. There’s even sleazy managers! That all works really well.

The actual plot doesn’t fare quite so well. It at times feels like an overgrown Dungeons & Dragons campaign, with the crew moving from one adventure to the next without any real weight to them. Characters change from friend to foe and back again because the plot requires it. At one point a character loses a limb, but then regrows it. There aren’t really any harsh consequences to face. Add to that the fact that the object of the quest – saving Gabriel’s daughter – seems painfully far away for most of the book, until suddenly it isn’t. To be fair, the book wraps up the story and doesn’t leave us hanging, but it comes off as rushed.

But the biggest issue, for me, is that the story sets up as a story of old guys getting back together to relive their former glories, but very few of them act like it. Nobody’s really lost a step when it comes to fighting, everybody heals quickly when needed. It’s a lost opportunity, since aging heroes aren’t often the main course in a fantasy epic.

All that being said, Kings of the Wyld is a fun read. The episodes themselves, while they don’t add up to much, are well done in and of themselves. The dialogue is quick and funny. And Eames manages to work in a staggering array of creatures and beasties for our heroes to interact with. It verges on overload, but it doesn’t cross the line. So if you’re a fantasy fan and want a familiar tale with a twist, this one’s for you. Sometimes it is good to get the band back together.

KingsoftheWyld

Weekly Read: The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist

There’s a long-running thread on one of the writers’ forums where I hang out about “books you’ve thrown across the room with force.” The examples are most books that are badly written, not otherwise infuriating. That being the case, if I actually had a copy of Radley Balko’s The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, rather than the Audible file on my phone, I’d definitely have thrown it across the room a few times while reading it. As it is, I can’t afford the new phone, so I just had to grin and bear it.

From the main title you’d think this book might be one of the nifty mysteries where a pair of mismatched souls find the killer in the end. The subtitle dispels that: “A True Story of Injustice in the American South.” The spine of the book is the story of two men wrongfully convicted of murder in Mississippi and what it took to reclaim their freedom. It’s a story with a pair of clear bad guys, but the lesson of the book is much broader than that.

Said bad guys are the ones mentioned in the title. The “Cadaver King” is Steven Hayne, a medical examiner who at one point was doing 4 out of every 5 autopsies in the state (plus others in Louisiana and some in private cases, too). He did so much work for a couple of reasons. One is that, for decades, the death investigation system in Mississippi was completely fucked up. It was left in the hands of local coroners (elected officials, not necessarily medically trained – the history of the office is fascinating and has little to do with death investigations), who then contracted with actual doctors to do autopsies. The other is that Hayne told prosecutors what they wanted to hear, pushing well past the bounds of what science could say to provide clinching evidence that whatever person the state charged was guilty of the crime.

Bad as Hayne was his sidekick, “Country Dentist” Michael West, was even worse. West started out as the purveyor of a an always sketchy and now debunked field of forensic practice that allowed someone to match bite marks they way others might match fingerprints. With Hayne an expert at finding bites on corpses, even when it made no sense, West could be another link between a suspect and a conviction (why nobody questioned the rise in murders that involved biting is a mystery. As the years went on he developed other skills so that, before his eventually unraveling, he was basically a one-man CSI.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Hayne and West get their comeuppance (West is finally pinned down during a deposition about his magical testimony by an Innocence Project lawyer named – I shit you not – Fabricant) and that two innocent men are freed. But that’s far from a happy ending. There are almost certainly others similarly situated in Mississippi and what makes the book so infuriating is that the entire system is setup to keep them in prison. I’ve had to explain this to clients before – once you’re found guilty, it’s next to impossible to prove otherwise. Finality reigns supreme. The system simply doesn’t care if that might not be the truth and most people don’t want to know (one revealing anecdote is how the Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi got pushback initial because people feared it might suggest some alumni had gotten the wrong people convicted). As Balko puts it in the book, “[w]hat you’re about to read didn’t happen by accident.”

That’s bad enough, of course, but when politics and perverse prosecutorial incentives are thrown into the mix it practically guarantees bad outcomes. That’s mostly because politicians have been so good at weaponizing fear of crime (even as crime rates drop to historic lows) and most prosecutors are elected. You’ll rarely lose an election for being too tough on crime, but go the other way and better start planning for another career. And, as Balko points out, this is a bipartisan problem. When a blue-ribbon federal panel issued a report calling into question large swaths of forensic evidence, the Obama Justice Department dismissed it. Truth is, people rarely care about the details of the criminal justice system unless they or someone they love get caught up in it.

But that only works they way it does because, at bottom, the modern American criminal justice system doesn’t place any priority on determining what actually happened in any particular case. Prosecutors want convictions. Defense attorneys want the best results for their clients, which may be at odds with the actual truth of the situation. Defendants, sometimes facing long potential sentences and no real option of winning in court, plead guilty to things they didn’t do. And, as I said, once that verdict is in, the system is not designed to examine it again.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist is a good read. It’s engaging and compelling, frightening and maddening. “If you’re not outraged,” the saying goes, “you haven’t been paying attention.” Pay attention. Read this book.

CadaverKing

Weekly Read: Quick Hits

Books have been piling up a little bit (metaphorically – most of them are in electronic form) around here the past few weeks, so I wanted to take a brief moment to highlight some of the more interesting ones I’ve finished recently.

House of Penance

House of Penance

A graphic novel with a neat idea – a horror take on the famous Winchester Mystery House (link). Built by Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester of Winchester arms fame, the house is full of odd rooms and corridors. Stories have run rampant about why Winchester built it that way, continually adding onto it apparently without plan for years. House of Penance tells how she was trying to appease the spirits of all those killed by her husband’s guns. Like I said, neat idea, and the artwork is fabulous, but the story is really lacking. So little actually goes on, but the story is intent on remaining some kind of puzzle, that it doesn’t land like it could. Glad I read it, but not essential.

The Fifth Season

The_Fifth_Season_novel

While I don’t always agree with the picks for winners of the Hugo, Nebula, and other awards, I always look at the list of nominees as a good suggestion of books to check out. Among this year’s Hugo nominees is The Stone Sky, final part of a trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. I’d never read any of her stuff before, so I backtracked to the first book, The Fifth Season, only to find it won the Hugo, too. Good sign? Damned good. This is a phenomenal book, full of rich and different world building. Jemisin also had the guts to basically make this book all backstory for the main character, but it works so well you just have to admire it. Can’t wait to get to the next one!

The Enchanted

Enchanted

I’m fairly certain everything that happens in this book is a figment of the narrator’s imagination. He’s an inmate on death row in a very Southern gothic sounding prison (although the locale is never specifically identified). He calls it an “enchanted place” and weaves various tales of the people (and non-people) around him. Since there’s no bright line in it that confirms the book is set in a fantasy world, I can only read it (as an attorney who’s talked to hundreds of people in prison) as the extended coping mechanism of a deeply broken, troubled mind. That doesn’t make the book any less compelling. For all its oddity and “this can’t be real”-ness, it may be the best conception of what being locked in a cage is that I’ve ever read.

Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766

Crucible of War

Who’s up for a dense, thick tome about a war most of you forgot about when you were in high school? I was because the wife and I recently took a side trip to Fort Ligonier outside Pittsburgh while we were on a trip.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2018-3-24,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y

It was in this general area (though not this particular fort) where a young George Washington blundered into a massacre that launched what many consider the first “world war,” sparking conflicts from the Americas to Europe to Africa and India. What AUTHOR is mostly interested here is how the conflict that began in the backwoods of Pennsylvania really jump started the machinery of British Empire and, in the process, laid the foundations for the American Revolution. It’s fascinating stuff, but this is pretty dry, serious history – there aren’t any characters developed as through lines for the book, names and places are flung at you with great depth. It’s also, sadly, a good example of how some things in America never change.

Weekly Listen: Ones and Zeroes: Volume 0

At the end of my review of 3rDegree’s Ones and Zeroes: Volume 1, I wrote:

It’s a mess of awfully good music wrapped around an interesting idea. And the best thing? It’s only the first part!

Now that I’ve gotten familiar with the band’s follow up, I’m not so sure about that anymore.

The “first part” bit, I mean. The enthusiasm was completely warranted. But where does Volume 0 fit in to the chronology? It came second, after all, but it’s hardly a sequel. So it is a prequel? Not really. Is it better to listen to them in order of release or numerical order? I’m going to go out on a limb and say it doesn’t really matter, for a very unexpected reason – Volume 0 doesn’t really have anything to do with Volume 1. Conceptually, at least.

Hear me out.

Volume 1 tells, essentially, a single story about the impact of a fictional (gods, I hope) megacorp, Valhalla Biotech, that peddles various “life extension” technology. There was a through line running from stem to stern of the album, summed up by refrain “tell me what it means to be human.” This was helped along by the sometimes chilling asides from various Valhalla products and spokespersons.

Volume 0, by contrasts, covers a lot of different ground. “Olympia” deals with artificial beings who aren’t content to be submissive. “Perfect Babies” channels Brave New World and Gattaca and their (timely and relevant) fears of designer offspring. The epic “Click Away!” dives into the echo chamber of the Internet. Unlike Volume 1, there’s no connective tissue pulling these all together (the Valhalla announcements are absent, for example).

To put it another way, Volume 1 is a Black Mirror episode; Volume 0 is an entire season.

This isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, it’s probably a good idea not to just do a copy of Volume 1, since it’s hard to bottle lightning twice. Still, aside from the opening overture and a few riffs in the closing “Ones and Zeroes” there isn’t really a link between to the two albums. They’re separate things that stand on their own merits.

And Volume 0 has plenty of merits. Lyrically, the best tracks (“Olympia” and “Logical Conclusion,” in particular) create perfect little worlds, short stories of immediate impact and thougtfulness. The rest throw out interesting ideas and slip in some zingers for good measure (has a meaner chorus ever been sung other than “the future doesn’t need you at all?”).

Musically, 3rDegree continue to refine a sound that doesn’t really resemble anybody else. Bassist Robert James Pashman once told me that 3rDegree was (I’m seriously paraphrasing) “too straight forward for the prog crowd, but too weird for the mainstream.” That’s still true, although they’ve been embraced by the prog world in the past few years (and produced an epic in return!). But they’re at their best when the hooks and melodies come to the fore, to be supported by some interesting backing stuff and arrangements. That’s all backed up by playing that’s intricate and muscular, but rarely flashy. It takes a few listens to really get at what’s going on, which is always a good sign. I particularly dig that there’s lots of bass synth on this album.

One of the reasons I had to keep giving Volume 0 listens is because I had a hard time thinking about what to say about it. Here’s the thing – with each album since they got back together, 3rDegree have been stepping up their game in big ways. Volume 0, though, doesn’t feel like a big step forward. It feels like a consolidation, a restatement of what they’re about. That’s not in any way a bad thing.

What I’m saying is that Volume 0 is a great album. It’s musically and lyrically rich, filled with catchy tunes and great playing. But that’s what we’ve come to expect from 3rDegree at this point, right? They’re a band in top form and cranking out another excellent offering just isn’t a surprise at this point. So why don’t you have your copy yet?

Ones&Zeroes

Weekly Watch: Whiplash

Sometimes I come late to movies and the wait probably colors the experience. When Whiplash came out a few years ago it seemed like a movie I needed to see. It was critically praised, an Oscar winner, and about music. Sounded like it was right up my alley. But it slipped under my radar until, a few weeks ago, it popped up on TV (uncut) and I TiVoed it. After watching it, I kind of wish I’d just completely forgotten about it.

Whiplash, simply put, is one of the most overrated movies I think I’ve ever seen.

Since it’s been a while, there’s no need to avoid spoilers. The movie’s about a kid at a music conservatory, a drummer, who gets plucked from lower division drudgery by a famously abusive, prickly director to be part of his competition band. Lots of yelling and music occurs and our hero is broken down by his would be mentor. The ending is nicely ambiguous, as he either triumphs over this asshole or simply becomes just like him. It’s the best part of the film by far.

That’s because most of the other things that make up a movie – mainly the characters and the story itself – are lacking. Take the main character, who is so dull I can’t even remember his name. He has the charisma of a wet sponge, yet somehow manages a date with Supergirl (he dumps her later in the most on the nose “it’s not you, it’s me” speech ever put to film). His only goal appears to be getting famous, which he’s decided to do in 21st Century American by . . . becoming a jazz drummer. Sure, kid, whatever.

More formidable is his mentor, Fletcher, for which J.K. Simmons won an Oscar. Simmons gets to yell a lot, complete with vulgarities and insults that range from homophobic to anti-Semitic. There are no layers to this guy, no hint as to how he’s come to be the way he is. There’s a hint of a soul, when he finds out that a former student has hung himself, but it’s gone pretty quickly. Oh, and he’s nice to a little girl, but, you know, even Hitler liked dogs. Simmons’s performance at last has life to it.

What’s altogether not clear is why either character has anything to do with music. As one reviewer concluded:

What Whiplash ultimately champions isn’t really musicianship but empty, grandstanding virtuosity. Under Fletcher’s tutelage, Andrew never learns anything about nuance or dynamics; as designated by Chazelle, the measures of his artistic accomplishment are strictly speed and ferocity. The movie ends with Andrew executing one of those horrible, endless jerk-off solos that give jazz a bad name, though it’s presented as the ultimate victory.

Wet sponge only wants to be famous. When challenged about his career choice there’s no mention of love of music or trying to connect with the mysteries of the universe. He has no music background at home, so it’s not as if he’s trying to fulfill someone else’s dream. Just why would he put up with all the shit Fletcher sends his way?

Likewise, it’s never clear why Fletcher went into teaching music rather than, say, being a football coach. Make no mistake, his tactics aren’t about making better musicians or better people, they’re about one thing – winning competitions. I know from my own musical life that winning such things often means cranking up flashy technique at the expense of, you know, the music and that’s certainly true for Fletcher. Again, he’s not into the music itself, only the end goal of winning. More than that, the anecdote that underlies his philosophy of life/teaching isn’t true.

Which is what makes the film’s pivotal point so fucking stupid. The band is set to play at a competition a couple of hours into the hinterlands outside New York City. Fletcher, perfectionist that he is about these shows, doesn’t bother to charter a bus to take the band there. No, it’s every man (and it’s all, or at least mostly, men) for himself, with a helpful hint to leave earlier to beat the traffic. Naturally, wet sponge can’t manage that and manages to walk away to a car wreck to take his place, bleeding on stage. Rather than have the stand in take his place (the band hauls around multiple drummers, but every other spot is just a single – for whatever reason), Fletcher lets him play, which of course he can’t. It’s horribly dumb.

As, really, the whole movie is. Some of the cinematography is nice (sweeps across the horn section, nice lighting, etc.), but it’s service of absolutely nothing. The writer/director, Damien Chazelle, clearly has a thing for jazz (he went on to make La La Land), but he doesn’t seem to enjoy it very much (as this article argues, the movie gets its jazz mythology wrong). As such, Whiplash isn’t much more than a lovingly shot portrait of an abusive relationship where neither party has any real motivation. If there’s anything more pointless than a drum solo, maybe that’s it.

Whiplash

 

Weekly Read: Head On

One of the cool things about writing speculative fiction is building a world out of a neat “what if?” idea and playing around in it. John Scalzi did that with Lock In. Set in a world where a chunk of the population has succumb to Haden’s Syndrome – a disease that leaves them “locked in” their body, unable to move but with functional brains – Lock In used a fairly standard buddy cop storyline to play out the ramifications. The story was secondary to learning how the main character, FBI agent (and intentionally ungendered) Chris Shane, and their fellow Hadens interacted with each other and the rest of the world. I couldn’t even tell you what the central mystery was and still really liked it.

Head On is a sequel to Lock In, but it’s dubbed a “standalone followup.” Having read Lock In certainly helps understand the background of the story, but newbies should be able to jump right in, and maybe they should. With my feet firmly on the ground in the world of Head On right from the jump the story came to the fore and, sadly, it wasn’t that interesting.

The milieu for it is, though. Head On revolves around an ultraviolent sport called hilketa (SP?), in which specially crafted versions of the threeps (aka “3P0” – get it?) batter each other with the objective of ripping a particular player’s head off and using it to score a goal. It’s like rugby or gridiron football without any of the problems with head injuries, since there aren’t actual humans on the field playing the game.

Nonetheless, when one hilketa player dies during a preseason game, it swings Shane and his (non-Haden) partner into action to untangle a convoluted web of deceit and murder. Diving into that mystery allows Scalzi to explore some interesting things. The most mundane may be the impact of big money and expansion in sports, but there’s also more world-specific questions like what “performance enhancing” drugs mean for people who play a sport without their body. Most compelling is how all this is impacted by the United States government’s withdrawal of financial support for Hadens (helped, it’s more than implied, by corporations pushing the edges of the law too far). Also, there’s a cat with an interesting bauble on its collar.

MiBCat

Sort of like this one, but a different color. And friendlier. And without a galaxy ’round its neck. But otherwise . . .

But I find these background things, or sideways highlights of the Hadens world, much more interesting than the actual detective story. Shane and their partner are your typical fictional cops – always pushing boundaries, but always getting the bad person, so it’s OK. This time, particularly, that none of the several lawyers in the book are even decent people, much less competent. I was particularly disappointed that Scalzi reuses the stereotype of the public defender as an out of their depth idiot, rather than a dedicated, smart, hard working advocate stuck in a system that criminal underfunds them. To his credit, the actual solution to the mystery of the hilketa player’s death is sadly plausible for 21st Century America.

Oddly, part of what I think kept me from fully engaging with Head On is that it’s so short. The version I listened to (in keeping with the ungendered main character, there are separate audiobook versions read by Will Wheaton and Amber Benson – I listened to Wheaton’s) was barely seven-and-a-half hours long. The book moves at a brisk pace – the trademark Scalzi smart assess are present in all their glory (a good thing!) – and doesn’t really make room for anything that doesn’t drive the plot along. The decision to “lock in” the point of view on Chris, I think, limits things a bit too much. I think if I’d known more about the other people in this world I’d have cared more about the mystery in which they were wrapped up.

If that sounds negative, I don’t really mean it to be. Head On is a quick, interesting, fun read, but I don’t think it does much to improve on its predecessor. My hope is that in a future book Scalzi breaks from the crime story mold and tells some other stories about Hadens. He could bring Shane along for the ride, although it would probably help if they were knocked down a few pegs (in addition to being an FBI agent Shane is the son of a fabulously wealthy ex-NBA superstar – he’s got power and money, in other words). Regardless, I’ll probably check that one out, too.

HeadOnCover