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Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

Category: Books (page 1 of 2)

S. Alexander Reed – Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music

There’s an old line that goes, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (The origin of the phrase is, apparently, a subject of considerable debate.) We’re going to take a brief break from writing about music, this week, and instead write about writing about music.

Okay, I’m done with that riff now.

Growing up, I was pretty much a child of the pop music scene, with a bit of dinosaur rock in my upbringing. i knew of bands like Skinny Puppy and Nitzer Ebb and Front 242 but they weren’t part of my musical awareness other than “bands whose names appear on binder covers and studded leather jackets around school,” really. Later on, Nine Inch Nails hit and I heard somewhere that they were “Industrial,” whatever that was. I heard Depeche Mode tagged as such a few times as well.

Cut to a few years ago. A couple of folks I met on Twitter pointed me toward bands like VNV Nation and Apoptygma Berzerk, and I bounced off of terms like “EBM” and heard that “Industrial” tag again. I never had, at any point, much of a sense of what Industrial was supposed to be.

Mind you, with all the people who have claimed not to be involved with Industrial who have been “tarred” with that brush, getting a clear picture of what (if anything) the genre really encompasses can be quite a challenge.

Tying this all together, now, is a book by S. Alexander Reed wherein the philosophies, personalities, styles, stories, and contradictions wrapped up in the term “Industrial music” are collated, analyzed, compared, and rationalized. Assimilate is a dense, challenging, scholarly read chock-full of annotations, citations, and footnotes. That’s not to say it’s entirely dry stuff. Humor abounds, and the anecdotes and quotations make for compelling and interesting reading. The meat of the thing, however, is the thorough background and analysis of the environments, philosophies, and other underpinnings of what became the first wave of Industrial acts followed by the permutations and revisions that came later.

Before even detailing the origins of the first acknowledged Industrial acts, Reed gives us a primer on things like Futurism, revolutionary politics, William S Burroughs, and “cut-up” culture. Later chapters alternate between history and sociology, detailing what happened and following with what those happenings meant to the scene. No kid gloves here, as the triumphs are shown alongside the glaring missteps. (If you dress up in fascist garb to make a point, but the scene kids miss the message while glomming onto the presentation, how badly did you miscalculate?) And as technology marches on, production methods change, and the nigh-inevitable urge by some to mix message with profit means that folks are accused of “selling out” at many stages along the journey.

Assimilate stays on task throughout the book, questioning and analyzing the inspirations, results, and effects of each new warp and ripple added to the oddly-shaped body of music over the years. Key individuals are highlighted, and generally treated with a very even hand. One might have expected Trent Reznor to take a lot more flak, for instance, than he does in this work. The book isn’t concerned with demonizing or lionizing. The point is always, always to talk about causes and effects above all else. Nine Inch Nails had an effect. Skinny Puppy had an effect. The rise and fall of WaxTrax! Records had all kinds of effects. And so on.

What’s astonishing is that, at the end of it all, Reed ties the current state of things right back to one of the key concepts at the beginning, offering a way forward for a movement that may seem to have monetized and synthesized itself entirely out of relevance. And he does so by choosing neither the “noise for noise’s sake” or the “noise for music’s sake” path but a third blended option entirely.

Not sure what I mean? Well, if you’re at all intrigued, I recommend picking up a copy of Assimilate to find out. It fascinated me, and it added a slew of new artists to my list of music-to-look-into. (Mind you, I’m also now more aware of bands I won’t want to check out, but that has value as well.)

It’s the sort of carefully detailed dance about architecture I never imagined could exist.

The Great Way trilogy – by Harry Connolly

Chalk this one up to word-of-mouth (well, social-media mostly-Twitter) marketing, but I purchased an entire trilogy from this fellow Harry Connolly, someone I’d not heard of before, over the past couple weeks. I saw the series billed as “fantasy adventure without the dull bits” and “non-grimdark” and at that point I perked right up because, lemme tell ya, I’m more than done with the grimdark in current fantasy novels nowadays.

(Joe Abercrombie’s first trilogy was “hurled with great force,” in the Dorothy Parker parlance.)

So. “The Way Into Chaos,” “The Way Into Magic,” and “The Way Into Darkness” make up a single, self-contained, it-begins-and-it-ends story. No plot hooks dangle for interminable sequels, what you read is what you get. It’s not that Mr. Connolly couldn’t write more in this world, but there’s no sense of urgency to have this happen. And I’m okay with that. It’s nice to get a complete story with no dangly bits hanging on at the end. Continue reading

Dragonsinger

I wondered what it would take to kick me in the ass enough to bring me back here again.

When I was thirteen, Mom gave Sis & I to a nice couple from church named Ken and Virginia Savage for the duration of a summer or so. They lived in Soap Lake, WA and made annual road-trip pilgrimages back to Kansas City and to Omaha for the purpose of visiting relatives and important church sites. It was right around the time of that year’s trip when, while we were at the grocery store, I spotted a book cover near the checkout counters and decided that I really wanted that book.

Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

That little story, read out-of-sequence from the rest of its series, helped ruin me for lesser books. If it doesn’t involve friendship, wonder, perseverance against the odds and the bad opinion of people who shouldn’t matter, risk, reward, at least one proper brawl, and considerable doses of humor… then what’s the point of your book, I ask. I read the hell out of that book, and it survived up until just a few years ago… so I replaced it with another from the same printing.

I love quite a few books, but Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonsinger” will always hold a peculiar and special place in my heart. Only a few others share a similar prominence: Raymond E. Feist’s “Magician” volume, for instance, and Julian May’s “Intervention.”

Folks might look at a guy funny for listing McCaffrey as one of his favorite writers, but I can live with that. And, true, there are things about some of her books (parts of the Pern series in particular) that it doesn’t pay to examine too closely. In later years, I think she lost a bit of her storytelling verve and took to treating bad guys and good guys alike a bit too much with kid gloves; consequences became gentler than one might expect. That was her choice to make, of course, and it’s my choice to leave off the reading of certain novels.

Today’s a sad one, for today we all learned that Anne McCaffrey is no longer with us. This avid reader, at least, is largely so because of her talent and because of a very nice couple who indulged a spoiled little boy all those years ago in Soap Lake.

Iain M. Banks’ “Consider Phlebas”

One of the names I keep bumping into when I read recommendations about what author to check into next is that of Iain M. Banks. Since I was at one of the awesome Powells Books locations in town a couple of weeks ago, and what seems to be the first of the “Culture” books was available for a reasonable price, I decided to check it out. Or, rather, purchase it since I wasn’t in a library.

Ha, ha. That’s what passes for humor today, folks.

Let’s start with the good stuff, which is considerable: There are many good and interesting and clever ideas in this book. As science fiction goes, it certainly qualifies as good speculative material, and less twee than a number of writers’ efforts I’ve seen in the past decade. (Note that “Phlebas” first saw print in the late 1980s.) Charles Stross, by comparison, is a clever fellow with a number of interesting ideas, but sometimes his writing comes off as being a bit taken with its own cleverness. Banks doesn’t give me that impression; in fact, he may have gone too far in the other direction. Some of the meaty speculative stuff sits apart from the main narrative, pulling you out of the story to bury you in concepts and navel-gazing. Interesting navel-gazing, sure, but still.

I’m impressed that our erstwhile protagonist is clearly opposed to the Culture society that Banks makes no bones about casting as the smarter, more valuable faction in the interstellar war portrayed in the book. At no point does he back down from his stance that the Culture is a path down which humanity should not further tread, and he’s not a raving lunatic or delusional or anything so trite: He holds well-reasoned beliefs that place him on the opposing side. It’s an interesting and effective way to frame the conflict.

But. And you knew there had to be one.

One of the big problems I have with the idea of writing a novel is that I’m lousy when it comes time to provide descriptive detail. Well, this book set my mind at ease… somewhat. It turns out that you could probably tell a better story if you leave out, say, two-thirds to three-quarters of the descriptive detail that Banks puts into “Phlebas.” Much of the fight choreography is… exceedingly precise, more often than not, for instance. I found myself skimming entire large paragraphs throughout most of the back half of the book, and I couldn’t honestly tell you precisely how the various combatants on Schar’s World end up getting from where they start to where they lay at the end. A lot was going on, and I was expected to track every aspect of it all. Never mind figuring out what happened at the Megaship, earlier in the story.

Maybe I’m just not smart enough, but you know, I’d rather expend my brainpower on absorbing the high-concept stuff. Call me crazy.

A story can win or lose me on the ending, however, and “Consider Phlebas” bears quite an ending. Lots of endings, in fact.

(Look, this book’s older than my kids. So here’s all the spoiler warning you get. Thpppt.)

I don’t mean “lots of endings” in the “Return of the King movie version” sort of way. No, I mean that pretty much everybody dies. Actually, everybody does die. Maybe not in the story proper, but what we’re given after the story is a bunch of, “And here’s what happens to the survivors, years later. So and so? Went into cold sleep, revived, then killed themselves. This other person? Dead. Everyone else who got through this? Dead. Oh, the Machine Mind survived, that’s good, right?”

Why tell me this?

The story could’ve ended at the last chapter. I’d have been saddened but moderately satisfied, as the mission was complete and the couple of sadder-but-wiser protagonists who made it out could… I don’t know, go on with their lives, and so on. But no. We get appendices and epilogues, including an entire chunk of detail about how the galaxy-spanning war which provides the backdrop and impetus for the story ends, decades later, for reasons which have nothing to do with the events I’ve just spent hours reading about.

What?!?

What was the point? Our erstwhile hero manages to nearly complete his dangerous mission, and not only does he die at the point of completion but his efforts amounted to a hill of beans. Righto, then.

Is it a good book? Arguably. Is it a good read? Only if you don’t care about a good ending, and if you don’t mind sometimes-obsessive levels of detail. Am I going to seek out more of Banks’ books…?

Probably not.

Stranger In A Strange Land

Once again, the “classics” are leaving me cold.

I’m not done with what is arguably Heinlein’s best-known work, and I’m not sure I’ll finish. Oh, the first two parts are interesting enough. V. M. Smith and his interactions with the people of Earth hold one’s attention well enough, covering a lot of the ground that the C.J. Cherryh “Foreigner” series would later examine in excruciating detail: “Aliens and humans don’t think alike!” Yep. We established that, alright. And let’s be honest, there’s vast and fertile storytelling ground in that concept.

Too bad we’ve spent half the book so far centered on one word: Grok.

All of these clever humans Michael ends up surrounded by, and they can’t find the words in English (or presumably any other language) to approximate this Martian term… that Heinlein conveyed moderately well several times in that same stretch of the book. In, you know, English. Ahem. Well, we wouldn’t want the characters to be as clever as the author, would we? Hey, let’s hit the readers over the head with “grok” a few more times! Some of the conversations late in the second section are interesting, but most are absurd from overuse of grok this, grok that, grok you.

But that’s not where the book has lost me. I can roll my eyes and get past all of that, especially for the sake of the solid sociopolitical theater in the Jubal arc, but I’m perplexed at the Digby And Foster Show. I’m barely into the book’s third section and… all of a sudden, after all of Jubal’s ranting and railing about religion, now we’re peeking into the Heavenly Bureaucracy? For laughs? And the crazy love grokbirds have taken on a tattooed evangelist, and that’s going to be played seriously? Um.

It was the second appearance of Digby And Foster: Angels In Heaven that pulled me out of the book completely. I looked at the time (a bit later than I should’ve been awake, but not too late), firmly closed the book and turned out the light.

I don’t know if I’m going to finish this thing. So, dear readers, I ask you: Is it worth it?

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

I was handed a stack of Ian Fleming novels a couple of weeks ago, and I finally got around to reading through one of them.

“From Russia With Love” is the story of a well-planned, well-executed trap, one into which Secret Agent James Bond walks blindly, right up until the jaws are snapping shut. It’s a gentleman’s travelogue with occasional violence and one instance of sex. The book’s more interested in the meals and cigarettes than with setting and story, let alone characterization. The most meaningful relationship in the book isn’t between James Bond and Tatiana Romanova, but between James and his Turkish friend, Darko Kerim.

In short, it’s not at all what I expected. Bond’s hardly the supercool hero who has everything figured out from the start. For one thing, he’s a bit squeamish about cold-blooded killing. Perhaps this is because it’s ungentlemanly… as is smelling of rat tunnels. He makes an entire series of strategic blunders throughout, and in fact only survives through a combination of dumb luck, some preparation from Q Branch, and a suddenly stupid and self-absorbed opponent. Even then, at the very end of the book, he botches things again and is left for… well, not quite dead, but he’s in bad shape.

I mean, what?

It’s a very odd book, and certainly not timeless. A bit of research after-the-fact tells me that this is one of the best-regarded selections from the series. I think that’s my cue not to pursue Ian Fleming’s books further, don’t you?

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