Month: September 2012

Redshirts and Year Zero

I recently finished reading, well, listening, to a couple of fantastic novels on Audible. (I had a lot of car-driving time this last week.) I want to spend a little more on the absolutely amazing, beautiful, crazy novel, Redshirts, so I’ll discuss Year Zero first.

Year Zero is about the wacky hijinks of aliens, and their human copyright lawyer, trying to deal with the recent discovery that they owe the Earth literally the entire universe’s wealth in music licensing fees for all the music they’ve been pirating for the last 40 years. It was written by Rob Reid who is no stranger to the world of music and copyright law. The very, very absurd and ridiculous world of music and copyright law. This farcical and comedic novel is a perfect foil to point up just how comedic (in a black comedy sort of way) the reality of the subject is. In fact, the slowest parts of this fast-paced novel are where copyright law and licensing are discussed. But the thing is, the real subject — the revolving-door lobbying, the absurd legal penalties, the paranoid and spiteful barriers to licensing improvement — is so absurd that it actually doesn’t take away from the farcical fiction of the story.

One of the ups and downs of the book is just how much it tries, tries hard, to emulate Douglas Adams. Maybe not quite a “Hitchhiker’s Guide” novel, but at least a “Dirk Gently” novel. At times Reid handles it quite well and I laughed aloud at the pun or slapstick or wacky description, but much of the time, I listened with a small smirk the occasional eye-roll and groan. The novel bounces around from clever to silly to clever quite a bit, and the number of times aliens are depicted saying, “Well, duh!” got a little tired. …and then, like a Family Guy gag, it was to over-used that it almost became funny again.

In any case, it was a fun read, well written despite the groan-worthy puns. I hate puns!

And then there’s John Scalzi’s Redshirts. This was a huge surprise of a book! John Scalzi is a favorite author of mine, and an inspiration to my own writing. And based on the description of the novel and much of what I’d been hearing about it, I thought this was going to be a purely fun, action-packed, quirky romp. And, indeed, the first two-thirds certainly had a lot of that! But then, starting at the end of the main story and carrying through into the three codas, the book takes a very serious turn that left me both inspired and emotionally wracked. The codas are, from what I’ve read of his, the most sentimental (in the good way, not the sentimentality-bad way) stuff he’s written.

What’s funny (not in the ha-ha way), is that I did read some reviews of the novel before hand, to get an idea of the book before I bought it, trying to not spoil myself. And, I read a lot of comments saying that, “This is a great book! Until the stupid codas. They’re pointless and totally don’t fit.” A lot of those kind of comments. So, I was prepared to enjoy the satirical and fun first two-thirds of the main story, and then just kinda gloss over the rest. Whoa, was I wrong! No… boy are those comments absolutely wrong! See, despite the fact that most of the book is the story of a bunch or “red shirts” on a space shift figuring out newbies on the ship tend to die on away missions and figuring out how to overcome this apparent curse, that’s not the real story. In fact, I see that as the preface for the real story, which is the three codas! The sci-fi action story is a necessary setup for the themes and conflict that are dealt with in the codas which investigate the nature of finding yourself. Discovering who you are, what you want to be and do, and how you deal with the life you’re “given.”

I really can’t say more without spoilering the book. And this is a book that I highly and heavily recommend reading! It’s a short book, and very fast — you could probably read it all in a day and evening. I would recommend listening to the audiobook as Wil Wheaton (also no stranger to star ships and red shirts), does a fine job! Although, I don’t agree with some of his inflection and tone choices. Until He gets to the codas. Then, I can’t imagine anyone else reading it. He’s absolutely brilliant, and I’d recommend anyone listening through the first part in order to hear Wil Wheaton read the codas. He’s an actor, so very possibly the emotion I hear in his voice toward the end of the last coda is acting… but I don’t think so. I think, considering what and how he talks about his own life in his blogs, he’s truly feeling the emotion of that last coda, and it’s bringing tears to my eyes right now as I remember it.

Read Redshirts. Even if you’re not a sci-fi fan, even if you don’t think you’ll get the satire and the in-jokes. That’s okay. Remember, the main action story is just a prelude for some of the best contemporary literary fiction that is the core of the book.


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I just got done seeing the new film, “Looper.” Wow! That’s good cinema! An original film (not a sequel, not a remake — although I do not have anything against remakes) that takes you on a ride both emotionally and viscerally. It’s from the same writer and director who made “Brick,” one of my all-time favorite films. A film that also starred one of my increasingly favorite actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. As I write, briefly, about this film, I will avoid spoilers that aren’t evident from the commercials and trailers.

Now, you certainly know, it is a time travel film. (Huh, Bruce Willis is good in those — see: “Twelve Monkeys.”) And yes, if you’re the kind of person who demands that your time travel films make complete and logical sense without any paradoxes, this film is going to totally P. you O. There are some potential problems with the laws of causality in this film. But, to badly paraphrase one of the characters: “I’m not gonna sit here and discuss time travel paradoxes with you! We’d be here all night and end up diagramming shit with napkins and straws.” This is obviously the filmmaker telling the audience, yes, he’s well aware some stuff doesn’t makes sense, thank you. Deal with it. He’s letting you know that time travel is, in a sense, a narrative macguffin, something you just have to accept as necessary and watch the film for everything that the film ultimately is about.

Now, I do have a fictional theory as how this fictional notion of time travel could work in this fictional world and have the kind of cause and effect it presents, and would be happy to discuss it with anyone curious — but I’m not going to spend time detailing it here, not without risking sounding like a pedantic hypernerd, (in Simpson’s Comic Book Store Guy’s voice) “They clearly established in episode 46, ‘Rise of the Regalitrons,’ that deck 12 only has 20 rooms as the phasematter converter controls are there. So, obviously, there can’t be a ‘room 14’ on that deck, unless it is 30 meters outside the starboard side of the ship. And I think not. Obviously, what would the crew even breathe?! Sheesh.” Sorry… back to “Looper.”

The film has a wonderful balance of dark pathos as well as moments of fun, and necessary, humor. There’s one moment that Gordon-Levitt’s character is seen examining his hairline in the mirror which makes fun of the fact that the prematurely balded Bruce Willis is in his future. There’s also some moments that, without giving much away, is difficult to watch as a parent. So, fair warning. But the script is clever, the acting just great, and the story engaging!

An element I found interesting: most of the film takes place in Kansas City or thereabouts in 2042 — thirty years from now. The world that’s created feels, sadly, extremely believable. There’s rampant poverty in the streets, mentions of “vagrant wars” (or “vagrant riots,” I can’t remember), and realistic appropriation and adaptation of technology, like solar panels everywhere and hydrogen fuel recycling systems fitted to early 21st century trucks. The only bit of tech that had be raising an eyebrow was the jet cycles that had hover capability. Eh, no, not buying that. Oh, and there’s one other major story element that I won’t spoiler because I don’t believe it’s revealed in any trailers, that, for me, is far less believable than time travel paradoxes and had me thinking outside the film a bit much.

It was nice to be able to get out and see a fun, dark, actiony, humorous film. Oh, and I saw a goose-bump-raising trailer for the upcoming film, “The Cloud Atlas.” Can’t wait! And a trailer for some Abraham Lincoln film that oddly had nothing to do with vampires. Pfft. Leave it to Hollywood to toe the line and perpetuate the lie about the truth about Lincoln all these years. *grin*


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The Tea Party returns for another round, and I rejoice!

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No, not that Tea Party. Allow me to be political for a couple sentences as, on this subject, it almost begs for a comment: My mostest favoritest rock band of all time is Canadian trio The Tea Party. They’ve been around since the early 90s. They are so utterly not affiliated in any way with the “political” party, the Tea Party, that when they broke up for a bit, they were thinking of selling, or even giving their Web domain, to Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, or George Soros or Arianna Huffington, with the goal of their critiquing the lies and misinformation put out by the political movement (principally about Canadian healthcare which, like most Canadians, the band The Tea Party love). That aside….

So, not only did The Tea Party come back together last year, but they’ve been doing a reunion tour and recorded their Sydney, Australia concert for a double-size album. They pre-released the album through Pledge Music (with proceeds going to help the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto which does cancer research). I got myself a copy of the album… and I have not listened to an album with as much joy, excitement, air-drum-playing, as I have this one, since I first listened to their second album, Edges of Twilight, in 1995. Allow me to reminisce a bit.

It was the summer of 1994 when I was working at a brand new Hastings entertainment store while getting my BAs. The store hadn’t opened yet, we hired staff were in the process of constructing the displays and stocking the place, and the music department manager was playing CDs for us while we worked. And one of those days, this amazing sound came on the system. It was a melange of Led Zepplin, the Doors, some middle eastern flavor. Hard rock with a splash of mysticism. One could, fairly I’ll admit, make the criticism that they were trying too hard to be a reinvention of Led Zepplin. Even so, the raw, amazing musical talent of this group was certainly not a gimmick. The album was Splendor Solis, and I fell in love with a band like I hadn’t since I discovered Pink Floyd in high school. I believe the very day that Hastings store opened, before I put my employee apron and name tag on, I bought that CD, and if one can wear a CD out, I about did.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait too long for more. Not long after graduating undergrad, we moved to a different town, my wife and I, and settled in to life, and I heard The Tea Party was releasing a second album. Excited, giddy, doesn’t come close to the feeling I had as I waited for release day. When I got the album and brought it home, I made sure everything was right: the stereo settings, the lighting, the drink in hand, and I hit “play.” The experience of listening to that new album for the first time was nearly a religious experience. It did not in any way let down. Every song was as good as from their previous album, with new instant classics that rivaled anything on Splendor Solis, such as “Sister Awake,” “The Bazaar,” and “Inanna.” If asked, at that time, which album was better, I’d be hard pressed to answer.

Then came their third, and nearly equally amazing, album, Transmission. It was an even harder, more techno album, moving a bit away from the blues and middle eastern influences of their first two albums. While not every song is among my favorite, like the previous two albums, it’s still filled with mind-blowing works like “Temptation,” “Transmission,” and the heartbreaking “Release.” You would never see me in a more than 5 minute car trip without that album.

With their next album, Triptych, things started slowing down a bit in my They Can Do No Wrong passion for them. While still a great album with beautiful and technically amazing songs like “Heaven Coming Down” and “Samsara” and “Halcyon Days,” I wasn’t in as much love with each track like I was for everything prior. Then again with the album, Interzone Mantras. There are again songs that alone would make them better than 90% of the bands out there, like “Lullaby” and “Requiem.” But it almost started sounding like they were trying to hard to be mainstream at that point. (In point of fact, come to find out, they indeed were being pressed by their label to indeed become more mainstream.)

This discomfort with what they were starting to sound like extended into their final studio album, Seven Circles. While still a fine album, I have a hard time recalling off the top of my head any particular tracks I love. “Wishing You Would Stay” comes to mind because of how beautiful it is, and also because it’s their only song with a female guest vocalist. And evidently, the label pressure (and, *sigh*, drug issues, of course) came to a head in regards to interpersonal differences among the band’s three members, and singer/guitarist Jeff Martin left for a solo career, breaking the band. (And actually, his first solo Exile and the Kingdom, is really good. It felt like an attempt to return to Tea Party’s pure rock and blues roots. Sadly, his next band, The Armada, album, felt closer to Interzone Mantras.

image from _(Canadian_musician)

And during this time I’d been waiting anxiously for the remaining members, Stuart and the other Jeff, to do something with The Art Decay. Where Jeff Martin is an undeniable guitar god, the reincarnation of the still living Jimmy Page, Stuart Chatwood is a musical genius. His skill and versatility at nearly every instrument he touches (primarily keyboards, bass, middle eastern percussion) is… well, “impressive” is a lame adjective. Alas, they never got anything together. But Stuart went on to do all the music for the Prince of Persia video games at least.

Despite the slow decline of my unholy love for The Tea Party over the last couple albums, when I heard they broke up, I was devastated. My hopes and dreams for hearing That One Next Great Album, or ever seeing them in concert, were dashed. Well, I thought, maybe I could catch Jeff Martin at least… should I ever find myself in Ireland or Australia.

Then, a few years later, the news that would make my heart swell with great, but cautious, joy: Their reunion for a Canadian music festival. The fact that they got back in the same room was pretty amazing–could it last? And, O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! When they declared they were going on a reunion tour, I think I literally jumped for joy! When they later said they’d be working on a new album, well, I think I’m still recovering from palpitations and vapors.

Back to the present, I got the recording of their Sydney reunion concert. I didn’t take as much care setting the mood to listen to it as I had for Edges of Twilight, because I was excited, but still thinking, “Eh, it’s a concert album. I’ve heard it all before.” Boy, was I wrong! They do not simply play copies of their studio performances for their live shows. They freakin’ bring it! Bring. It! “Temptation” becomes even more brain-smyooshingly hard and edgy, they break “Save Me” down and jam in the middle of it like Led Zepplin would’ve, Jeff Martin’s familiarity and banter with the crowd, and letting them sing key passages (like the ending chorus phrases in “The Bazaar”) is intoxicating and exciting!

Well, it’s just an amazing album, and I listened to it the first time in shock and wonder, and a youthful excitement I’d not felt in some time. Over the last several years, I’ve come to love some bands, like Arcade Fire and Silversun Pickups and The Decemberists, and I really enjoy their music. But nothing has ever quite grabbed ahold of me and never let me go like The Tea Party. And no matter how much I greatly enjoy listening to Neon Bible or Picaresque, no experience has ever matched listening to Edges of Twilight that first time, nor Live in Australia this weekend. The Tea Party is back, and life is good!

(PS: The band is hugely active in The White Ribbon Campaign, “the largest effort in the world of men working to end violence against women. In over fifty-five countries, campaigns are led by both men and women, even though the focus is on educating men and boys. In some countries it is a general public education effort focused on ending violence against women.” Yay!)


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