Master of Reality

awesome music criticism book

I decided to pay $15 for all 100 pages of this book in anticipation of Mountain Goat’s front man, John Darnielle’s, first novel, coming out soon. Despite the price, I’m glad I read Master of Reality. It changed my perspective on music criticism, the role of early metal in the formation of teenage identification, and Darnielle’s writing. Truly, it’s great!

This novella is a part of the 33 1/3 series; it’s mostly a work of experimental music criticism. Though fiction, it attempts a rhetorical purpose: that is, destroy what you know about Black Sabbath’s 1971 record, Master of Reality. Because it’s wrong. Or, maybe it’s right but it’s not complicated enough. Rodger will tell you. Rodger Painter is a teenager committed to a group home for troubled youth. He tried to kill himself, so his family sent him to a hospital. The only thing on his mind is getting his Walkman back. The book is divided in half, the first half a notebook journal about why Gary, the youth therapist should give Rodger his tapes back, and the other half a letter written to Gary ten years later when the narrator is 26 expressing his feelings on the outcome of his time in state institution for wayward youth. Thus, the book takes three voices: 1. Why Master of Reality is the best Sabbath album and accordingly the best album of all time; 2. Why anyone who doesn’t like it is wrong and misunderstands it, 3. The people who need this album really need it and who are you to take it from them!

The Sunset Tree is proof that only John Darnielle could have written this book. He understands the voice of a dejected young person totally at odds with their surroundings. Darnielle had an abusive stepfather, did meth in Portland, and eventually became an aide at a mental institution in Texas. It’s easy to read Rodger as a stand-in for Darnielle. While the character shares different circumstances than his writer, they share a similar reflection about music. Darnielle forgoes “hard” facts, traditional to music criticism, instead favoring apocryphal tales a fan might tell or make up. It works good for a novel. The writing also details the affect of the music, i.e. how it makes you feel and the reason someone might want (neigh, need) to listen to it. It makes you feel angry and you need to listen to it if you’re angry, is what it inarticulately breaks down to.

Young Rodger’s sez “If you don’t get it, it’s not for you–but that doesn’t make it stupid.”

After listening to the Master of Reality while reading, I gotta say, I don’t like it. Even the book acknowledges, it’s a mediocre album by album standards–it’s short, there’s no hits, and two of the 9 tracks are short instrumentals. It’s not unpleasant to my ears (but probably to a nun’s), but I don’t think it sounds very heavy either. I would never think it to be the type of record that could capture a person’s passion for music as catharsis. The reason this book is good then is because it makes my opinions all stupid and wrong.

Rodger first analyzes music in a way similar to how I talked about music in high school. If you weren’t good at sports, remember how music was the integral component of your teenage identity? Music felt like the only suitable release for the rush of foreign and uncomfortable feelings I felt all the time–like listening to the music was allowing these gross, pus-esque feelings to pop out of the infected zit that was me.

Naturally, the title Master of Reality is a source of fascination to our narrator. As a teenager, his mind is awakened to the idea that the way you view the world is determines how you see the world. What teenager doesn’t want to master his reality?

“I think the point is to make you say “What is reality?” Which sometimes you might say is a stupid question. But I would say to you then, oh really? If “What is reality” is such a stupid question then what the fuck just happened…”

As an adult, Roger learns–your reality isn’t really determined by you. The things that happen and your reactions to them are really not under your control. Sure, you’ll face the repercussions of them, but the chemicals and drives in your brain are in control. Your ego isn’t. And that’s the problem with being a teenager. Your ego is finally formed–but it’s on overdrive. Everywhere way you turn tries to silence your ego. But those unconscious drives can’t be stopped. going. You’re out of control. Your brain feels like an unwilling passenger on a speeding rocket-ship.

Rodger feels this way, too (I think) so every detail about Black Sabbath, their image and their music, Ozzy’s lyrics and intentions are mulled over. Rodger sees the band Black Sabbath themselves, and Ozzy Osbourne in particular, as average dudes who are easy to identity with. Someone who feels just as stupid and shitty as you do, but for whatever reason can channel all of that energy into a four minute song. Kurt Cobain was this person. To me, Elliott Smith was this person. It’s the essence of what makes a rock god. This is the contact point of why music feels so damn good when you’re angsty. It changes who you are and lets you feel like confidence by mimicking the rock star who’s just like you–but way better..

Basically, Ozzy is Jesus. There’s so many different things happening to a person in a world, most people need a precise and generic operating system to define their course of action. Most people choose Christianity. But Rodger’s teenage rejection of Christianity (and in turn, his idolization of heavy metal) seems to be in direct contradiction with this. It’s not. But the adults in Rodger’s life are unable to see it any other way. Rodger argues that Ozzy’s music is Christian. It’s not godless, just murky. The sounds of industrial shredding will always be a comforting catharsis for angsty 20th century teenagers. But a close analysis of the lyrics shows…

“OK here is the deal. The song is being sung by the Devil. Not that Ozzy’s is the Devil, we all know that is a totally stupid thing to day. But he is pretending to be the Devil and telling ghem that they’re on the wrong track. “Your world was made of you by someone above. But you choose evil ways instead of love, you made me master of the world where you exist, the soul I took from you was not even missed.”

Rodger rediscovers this thought again as an adult rereading his journal.

“Ozzy was one of you guys! He was on your side the whole time, but you wouldn’t even listen to him to find out. I spent hours every day trying to let me listen to some guy sending teh exact same message that Blue Cross was paying you to sell me all day…For this I got my ass locked up in a fucking hospital while my friends were out getting jobs and and cars and girlfriends? What the fuck is wrong with you people?”

Ozzy then becomings a suitable access point to the feelings and isolation of existence, likewise outlined in the story of Jesus Christ. Ozzy was just a stand-in, in part created by marketing to sell to disenfranchised youth, but in equal part embraced by disenfranchised youth. Ozzy Osborne is some kind of a martyr: he does drugs, feels sad, and bites the heads off bats so we don’t have to. He was the Master of a weird, strange, and unlikeable reality. It makes perfect sense that he’s embraced by hulking teenage masses who need someone to scream that things will be ok. But an adult reading of Ozzy shows that the master of reality is your circumstance–you choose what to identify with out of a limited stock of options, and you choose to react to a limited stock of situations you were placed in. At first, being master of your reality sounds awesome especially when everyone’s always telling you what to do, but ultimately it’s not real. There isn’t even a God looking out for you making sure things turns out ok. You’re alone. You master reality simply by being exposed to it.

Thus, a fake kid with a real love of Ozzy shows the insolvable malasie of 20th century maturation. This is a good book. Read it if you like The Mountain Goats, metal, or experiments in music writing.

Ready Player One

an ok sci-fi book

Ernet Cline’s Ready Player One is a page-turning romp through the coolest MMORPG ever imagined. This book caused a publicity storm in 2011 so I feel like I missed something reading it late. The book spawned a social media marketing contest that’s pretty much exactly like the plot of the book. It’s not essential reading, but it’s a page turning adventure that feels like National Treasure and World of Warcraft combined.

The novel’s context is decidedly more grim than its contents. In the early 2000s (so like, right now) America’s growing wealth gap caused the empire to crumble. Concurrently, James Holliday, a video game developer, invented the first true application of virtual reality. Once Holliday released his game, OASIS, everybody retires from real life and spends all their time in virtual space. OASIS plays like all the best part of MMORPGS: you get an avatar; you run around doing quests; you can buy stuff and sell practically anything, with an emphasis on media (so MMORPG + Amazon.com), and form relationships with real people like on social media (MMORPG + Amazon.com + Facebook). It’s pretty much the internet on steroids, but without a real world. You can only be online because the real world is totally ruined. Our protagonist, Wade Wilson, lives in a trailer park skyscraper–basically a big, wobbly, pile of trailers on top of one another–and spends all his time on OASIS. Wade is hunting a legendary Easter Egg that could make him a billionaire.

The book starts in 2044, on the day James Holliday dies. After death, his estate puts into motion an epic contest to find a super-hidden easter egg. He puts out a Youtube video that defines the rules, but the only hints are that clues can be found in 80s nostalgia. Since it’s his only hope to break free of the trailer-park ghetto, Wade starts hunting. Unfortunately, the IOI, a multinational corporation that produces the hardware for virtual reality (though not the OASIS program), also want all the money. With the money, they want to buy the controlling stake in the OASIS computer program! So, it’s a race between Wade and his fellow teenage friends, and an evil looming corporation to see who can find the easter egg first!

Wade finds clues in old 1980s breakfast cereal commercials, original Dungeons & Dragons modules, text adventure games, and Rush lyrics. It’s an adequate nerdgasm. Wade’s avatar, Parzival, also levels up satsifyingly. At the beginning of the book, Wade and his avatar are total wimps, but Cline expertly paces the adventure to feel like Wade really did get strong enough to win. This is a fluffy genre book, but a fun one. There’s no reason not to read it if that’s what you want to read at the moment–but it’s not Kim Stanley Robinson or something. I recommend Ready Player One if you want to relive playing an MMORPG but don’t want to actually spend the time playing one. Or if you have a long flight and crave candy entertainment.

The Miniature Wife

a good short story collection

I picked up Manuel Gonzales The Miniature Wife because my local bookstore (City Lit) compared it favorable to George Saunders. I agree, most of these stories are funny satires digestible in one sitting, but I felt a lot of Borges and Kafka in reading–an ethereal weirdness radiating from them. Gonzales showcases 18 stories ranging from fable-esque absurdities, subversions of action-packed genre forms, and musings on art through unconventional form.

The first three stories in the collection are the best; they take banal slices of life and heighten them to outrageous absurdity. “Pilot, Copilot, Writer” is about a plane that refuses to land, circling the tarmac of Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas literally forever. The plane has magic food that keep the passengers alive for fifty years, flying with perpetual fuel. It might be about inaction caused by fear, or maybe it’s about 9/11. Perhaps it’s merely horrifying. The second story, “The Miniature Wife,” is about a scientist who shrinks his wife to the size of a small action figure (think, original Star Wars size). While he attempts to build her a beautiful dollhouse, the tiny wife quickly loses touch with humanity and becomes something different. Something angry.  “The Sounds of Early Morning” is the most formally challenging story in the collection, endlessly rewarding on re-reads. It imagines a world where sounds are fatal depending on their volume. Gonzales manages to sublimely subvert a sensory perception. A later story in the book, “All of Me” is reminiscent of these gems. Two people fall in love and start an amateur veterinary hospital in a condemned home. These five stories were my favorite, feeling familiar in emotions to favorite writers, but strange and new in writing. I suspect they’re the most recently written stories in the collection.

There’s also a series of clever genre twist stories, which are fine. Two zombie stories manage to inject new life in the convention (pun intentional). “All of Me” explores a zombie who wears makeup and longs for love, while “Escape from the Mall” re-imagines the nameless-character who usually dies right away in the zombie movie. “Wolf!” is an interesting story about family abuse juxtaposed with werewolves. “Life on Capra II” reveals the inner-monologue of a video-game, space marine forced to massacre for infinity. “Cash to a Killing” is flash-fiction comedy-noir that reminds me of Elmore Leonard. “One Horned & Wild Eyed” was a weird tragi-comedy about a poor, rural family that buys a captivating unicorn, like a Raymond Carver story about a really depressing unicorn.

The rest of the collection are meta-commentary on art, reminiscent of Borges. There’s an interview from an archeology scholarly journal, “The Disappearance of the Sebali Tribe”–about a made up tribe of aboriginal people who never existed. But see–the story is made up too, so that’s meta. “Farewell Africa” details a rich-people fundraiser dedicated to Africa sinking. This story mocks the way art “fundraises for Africa” in a clever, meta- way.  “The Artist’s Voice” chronicles a classical composer who feels intense nerve trauma when he has a song in his head, so a meta-commentary on writer’s block? And finally, a collection of two-ish page selections from “… :A Meritorious Life,” short parable biographies about people who live tragic or ironic, or ironically tragic, existances. If you like meta-fiction, this is some.

Overall, I recommend Gonzales first collection if you like short stories that eskew genre experiments, fiction about art, or have a weird strangeness that recontextualizes life’s banalities.

The Half-Made World

an alright book

The Half-Made World

The world in Felix Gilman’s epic fantasy genre mish-mash, The Half-Made World is, ironically, finished. The epic world is one simultaneously familiar and new. It alone is worth the price of admission. It’s so vividly realized that the spectacle is effortless to conjure in the mind’s eye. Unfortunately, the book’s story is only halfway there.

The Half-Made World is a cowboy western set in a world of weird fantasy. The country, similar to America in the 19th century, has pockets of metropolitan buildup in the east next to a western frontier desert. Two dueling factions seek to control this world. There’s the Line–mechanical marvels and cruisader’s for technology’s “inevitable progress,” this imperialist army serves unseen spectral god-creatures embodied in massive trains. And then there’s the Gun–chaos demons who live inside the revolver’s of outlaws, making their mission the constant disruption of civilization. Obviously, a lot of genres are converging together, but Gilman manages to pull off a weird horror fantasy western adventure novel pretty convincingly.

Gilman’s book introduced me to the New Weird, a 2000s genre of sci-fi/fantasy that uses the troupes of many genres (horror, steampunk, Cthuluian mythos) to create something new and satisfying. While Gilman puts all the right pieces in place, the problem with the book is that he never really turns on the engine.

This is in part due to his ability to clearly translate ideas into tangible representations from his mind’s eye. His massive steampunk cities are covered in soot and hot with steam; the battle scenes (of which there are few) are described with a vivid precision; the many religions of the Gun, the Engine, the Smilers and more are all interesting descriptions of this awesome landscape.

Take for example this description of the Station.

The Station itself was perhaps four or five times taller than the highest part of the Academy. Low sheds and warehouses sprawled to the left and right, a mess of tin and concrete and wire. Pistons and windmill-sized gears rose out of the rubble. Chimney stacks vented. Grey blocky towers, some windowless and others bristling with blank eyes, buttressed the Station, whose black iron arches soared up at the severe angles, forming distant peaks….

The characters are fine, yet trite. Creedmoor’s a gritty cowboy outlaw, an agent of the Gun (Cthuluian demons that control their hosts through guns); there’s Laury, an evil, power-hungry general. He’s an agent of the Line (Cthuluian demons that control their hosts through trains). And Liv is our normal protagonist. She’s your average steampunk lady. Everything plays out like a steampunk western until half-way through the book, the setting changes to the distant west, unsettled lands. It’s a horrific dreamscape, a dark fantasy world that amps up the Lovecraft. But one of the defining elements of Gilman’s Weird West is that you tamper with it’s purity by giving it names. So description starts to just feel like, “Everything is weird man!” It’s an interesting stylistic choice, and I think I see what he’s going for–the Lovecraftian idea that the gaps your brain fills in are much more interesting than what’s crudely plucked from the author’s own brain. But his writing seems to favor a world where the weird is beneath a fully-described surface.

The novel ends badly, with the overall plot not getting resolved (and never getting resolved. I read the sequel). Overall, this is a middling entry to the New Weird canon. Lots of interesting parts that never make a cohesive whole.

No Place to Hide

a very good, important book

Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide

Glenn Greenwald’s book is the most lucid examination of NSA surveillance in publication. It’s incredibly compelling. If you want to learn how the US government is spying on its citizens, it’s allies, and pretty much every single person in the entire world (all the time, every small bit of cyber communication) this book is a great first step. Greenwald is the perfect person to write about Edward Snowden’s massive intelligence leak–heck, he’s the one who broke the story in the first place.

The first part of the book describes exactly that: the logistics of how Snowden leaked and published the NSA documents. Greenwald explains his trip to China to meet Snowden and receive the documents. Even though you know the outcome of the story, Greenwald describes it with suspense. Greenwald defends that Snowden risked his life to publish the biggest document leak in the history of America. He was constantly being watched, and could have easily been killed at any second. It’s true to life spy drama. The former intelligence officer ended up contacting Greenwald because of his blog about Bush-era surveillance without a warrant. Snowden came into possession of such documents after a 10 year career building databases of mined data. Snowden had to help Greenwald set up a secure document exchange server, literally building a secret communication channel over encrypted instant message. The true scope of NSA surveillance is demonstrated by how covertly Snowden had to be in contacting Greenwald.

What Greenwald learns in the documents is the subject of the third and fourth chapters. A cursory summary includes the NSA’s monitoring of all electronic communication–”Collect it all” was the mantra of NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander. This phrase should be taken extremely literally. “Electronic communication” includes browser history, calls and texts, photos and documents, metadata about internet use (so, your literal second for second thought process on the net), your voice, your naughty videos, everything. If it is digital, the NSA has access to it. This is true for every US citizen, most every Chinese and Russian citizen, as well as every single government leader in the world. American allies like Germany, France and Britain, all have their government closely surveilled. “Subversives” like Muslim community leaders and civil rights activists are routinely blackmailed with collected data. The NSA hold people prisoner in places like Guantanomo Bay, and routinely bars US citizens from travel (the true terror of the “No Fly” list). This sounds like the annuls of conspiracy theory but it is not. This book presents proof that the NSA uses this data to blackmail combatants. They use data to track who you talk to, where you go, and what you buy; it’s exactly like a Philip K. Dick novel. Spycraft has evolved in the 21st century, and all of us are on the losing end of the fight.

The last two parts of the book detail the media’s reaction to these leaks and Greenwald’s commitment to fighting for digital privacy. Most media outlets covered the leaks. Some, stupidly, deemed Snowden, and even Greenwald, as traitors. Greenwald uses these instances to show, first hand, how the media lies in the hands of corporate interests, which are synonymous with military interests. The media has direct orders not to expose the government–and the government has many opportunities to soften the blow of any type of media oversight. Greenwald thus defends his commitment to releasing the stories, releasing them slowly, and ultimately releasing them in a way unlike practically any other story. Greenwald’s philosophy of journalism is an effective remedy to the white noise of the internet media landscape.

This is an important book. If you want to know what’s going on in the world around you, read it–because the NSA definitely knows what’s going on. As citizens, we probably can’t stop them right away, but learning about the digital privacy intrusion being committed by the US government is the first step toward digital freedom.

5 BEST COMICS! July, 2014

Every month, I’m gonna pick five awesome comics being currently released. On-going monthlies, graphic novels, re-releases, zines, webcomics or whatever else! Read more comix dude!

 

1. Midas Flesh

The amazing Ryan North (of Dinosaur Comics and the Adventure Time comic fame) made his creator owned debut late last year with BOOM Studio’s Midas Flesh. The mini-series proved to be totally freakin’ awesome. North retells the ancient Midas myth (the dude who turns everything he touches to gold) as an inter-galactic space opera. Our crew–two punky girls and a dinosaur–discover an Earth totally frozen in gold. They quickly realize they can use the strange, scientific properties of King Midas as a super-weapon against the evil, Galactic Federation. Two things really stand out to make this story great: the characterization and the scientific speculation. Joey is a total kick-butt, get-stuff-done space captain, Fatima has one of the most developed moral compasses in all of monthly comics right now and Cooper the Utahraptor is so believably real, he could only have been written by a dude who’s written comics starring enthusiastic dinosaurs every day for the last 13 years. What really makes the book shine is the simple question–what if anything touched turned to gold? Would this affect molecules? Would the process be instantaneous? Would it be reversible? Probing deep into questions like these is what makes Midas Flesh a lot of fun. One of my favorite comics this year.

 

2. Southern Bastards

Southern Bastards is country-fried crime reminiscent of Justified and Breaking Bad. It’s my new favorite Image book because it’s violent, dark, and has unforgettable characters. An old man comes back to his tiny, hick town to remember his dead sheriff father. He quickly finds out that the town is riddled in crime, lead the football coach and his high school aged cronies. As his father was beaten to death, he managed to kill a few of the attackers himself with a big stick. So, our protagonist picks up his daddy’s stick and starts going around kickin’ ass! Noir with a country twang, this book is the real deal. I like watching good old boys get the shit kicked out of them for being terrible, so I love this noir with a country-twang.

3. Fatale #24

There’s only one issue left of Brubaker and Phillips latest masterpiece! Thankfully, it seems like the series will be even better on re-read. So much of the plot seems integrally planned from the beginning. Fatale’s had suspense, drama, and a twisted sense of humor. But most of all, it’s appropriated troupes from crime and Lovecraftian horror fiction. In some ways, it’s similar to HBO’s True Detective–but Fatale is more Cthuluian than that show. The characters in this book are all great, albeit totally fucking depressing. I still can’t make my mind up whether or not Joesphine is the ultimate evil, or a sympathetic flawed protagonist who got involved with a cult accidentally. Maybe she is evil incarnate? Regardless, casting the typical noir femme-fatale as a bloodthirsty monster that ruins everything she touches is the perfect explanation for this troupe. This is my favorite Brubaker/Phillips collaboration since Criminal.

 

4. Moon Knight

Moon Knight occupies a strange place in the Marvel U. He’s always been violent/bad-ass, but often he’s confused or underused. We know certainly he’s a dead dude imbued with the spirit of an Egyptian god. However, is he good? Is he bad? Is he a gritty anti-hero a la the Punisher? This all depends on who’s writing him. Charlie Huston’s arc of Moon Knight was a ultra-violent romp through the streets of New York, but Warren Ellis’ run takes a dramatically different approach. Instead of the traditional cloak and spandex, Moon Knight’s been seen wearing a white suit and bag mask. He’s less violent, but makes up for it in being smarter, more cunning, and somehow just as ruthless. Ellis’ characterization reminds me of the investment banker in the limo from DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. While soon to end, Ellis’ arc has experimented not only with the character, but also with visual story telling. Two issues had barely any dialogue and one was a fever dream. Right now, Moon Knight isn’t making much of an impact on the Marvel universe at large (he didn’t even commit any Original Sin [TM]). However, he is making a huge impact on how to write a superhero comic.

question hound

by KC Green

5. Gunshow

This month, I finally read every single Gunshow. I discovered KC Green through the Regular Show comic book. After looking KC up, I learned he’s the progenitor of Dickbutt! Everyone loves dickbutt! His humor ranges from bizarre, to sad, to sheer insanity/violence. A rotating cast of characters continues to make appearances, including two carrot addled bunny rabbits, a cutie fox, and even Jason from Friday the 13th. Green’s comics developed to more than a gag-strip with the two graphic novel length stories with The Anime Club and Graveyard Quest. While funny, these stories are quite emotional and show a keen eye for characterization. Green also has a new comic out called BACK that’s just started to get some steam. Perhaps more than any artist right now, each week I’m most excited to see what Green does next.

   
  • Midas Flesh #2 (of 8)
    $3.19
  • Moon Knight #7
    $3.19
  • Image Firsts Fatale #1 (Current Printing)
    $0.80
  • $3.15
    Southern Bastards #2

 

YAY COMICS
stuff
   
  • $3.59
    Things From Another World
  • $3.19
    Things From Another World
  • $3.59
    Things From Another World
  • $3.59
    Things From Another World
  • $14.99
    Things From Another World
  • $3.59
    Things From Another World
  • $8.99
    Things From Another World
  • $11.99
    Things From Another World
  • $3.19
    Things From Another World
Insert a coupon or deal for your carousel!

End Zone

not a good book

They copy of End Zone I read

I’ve read three Don DeLillo books and liked End Zone the least. It’s the eventual-master’s second novel, so while the novel shows promise of genius, it lacks the precise control of language that DeLillo eventually develops. I became irked in noticing the characters exclaiming “I don’t know the word for…” or “If that’s what that word really means.” The DeLillo I know (and love) would never write these digressions now (or at least not so liberally!). Though it is humbling to see the future-master of words fumbling for character, meaning, and story. I can only recommend this book for one reason: as humbling encouragement that good writing takes years of practice.

In theme, Endzone is about power and control through the lens of football and nuclear warfare. However, the novel’s cumbersome execution prevents it from reaching its full potential–that is, actually saying something interesting about the convergence of football and nuclear war. There’s a few chapters about nuclear war. Mostly, there’s chapters about football. But the similarities are only referenced through juxtaposition.

Part one tries to assert a connection between war and football through a series of cutup sections of nuclear textbooks (which read ok, but felt lazy), rather on-the-nose analogies about war and football (i.e. “Football is war”), and conversations between the players about rank, respect, authority, and hierarchy. But then, right when the reader (me especially) is expecting to see the melding of the two disciplines (nuclear warfare; college football) on the field in the team’s biggest game of the season, the author comes out of the shadows and essentially says, “This is all dumb.”  At the start of part two, we get a a meta-textual digression about how

“The spectator, at this point, is [wondering] whether he must now endure a football game in print–the author’s way of adding his own neat quarter-notch to the scarred bluesteel of combat writing. The game, after all, is known for its assault-technology motif, and numerous commentators have been willing to risk death by analogy in their public discussions of the resemblance between football and war. But this sort of thing is of little interest to the exemplary spectator.”

Perhaps DeLillo wasn’t capable of writing that shows the ideology of war being refracted through football. Or maybe he just didn’t want to? Whatever the case, I went into the book expecting football and nuclear warfare’s eery connections. But by part two, you don’t get that. The novel becomes a simple farce of college football life, focusing on the feelings of our lonely boy protagonist, Gary. Gary is directionless without football. And while he notices that the strange power dynamics in place with the game, he’s unable to accept how similar these hierarchies are to real life. Part three just feels like character sketches, trying to place the characters reason for playing football. This is an interesting question, as to me, football seems painful, stressful, and dumb. But no conclusions are reached. There’s also an old, grey coach acting as a stand-in for a broken Old Testament God at the end (as revealed by the book’s back cover). The novel felt like a clunky forced metaphor. The book ends with the protagonist fainting and going to the hospital–almost becoming fully paralyzed–but this isn’t explained or elaborated on. Merely mentioned in passing of the book’s last sentence. This didn’t feel ambiguous as much as it felt half-baked.

I don’t recommend this book. Whether you like football, nuclear warfare, or Don DeLillo, you’ll likely be disappointed. Perhaps read it if you want to see the early struggles of an eventual master.

Comics Enjoyed Recently

Here’s two comics I read recently and liked.

Duffman One-shot:

 

The origin of Duffman revealed! Oh yeah! Simpsons Comics one-shots give me nostalgia for my first favorite comic. It seems Bongo puts special care into the one-offs. The book has two stories, as well as a cut-out Duffman party mask. The main story shows Duffman’s origin, which is a direct parody of Green Lantern and the Lantern Corps. Instead of power rings, Duffman has beer and a power keg. He is promised that all the universe’s problems can be solved with excessive amounts of drinking–he, and the other Duff protectors (there’s men, women, aliens) are assigned to a sector of the galaxy to promote partying. I wonder if the Duff Corps ever teams up with Slurms Macenzie. The parody fits–the elders are all chill little blue bros, Sinistro becomes Vinostro, a wine swirling dinner-party-lover, and the superhero context allows children to read a story that overtly endorses excessive binge-drinking. The backup is…

 

Manhattan Projects #20: 

Two Einsteins meet after shattering the realms of time and space! Following the events of issue #18 with the death of **Oppenheimer** it was revealed that the true Albert Einstein was the killer! In issue FIND NUMBER WAS IT 3? Albrecht Einstein came to the Manhattan Projects dimension to trade places with Albert Einstein–but the reason was never revealed. We see, however, that Albrescht was escaping the Conan-esque horror that was the magic kingdom. A leader that looks like Oppenheimer tortures Einstein by forcing him to tinker with the dimension gate, and confusing science and magic (thinking alchemy is science and physics mere wizardry!). Eventually, Albert escapes using his genius intellect and becomes a pan-dimensional traveler learning all things. I love Manhattan Projects because of strange, subversive images of Albert Einstein holding Posidon’s trident and riding a hammer-head shark.

 

 

 

 

Little Brother

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother

I read Little Brother because I read boingboing.net, which exposed me to Cory Doctorow. Doctorow is a blogger, a sci-fi writer, and a pioneer of writers writes in the world of digital publishing. He reminds me of a mix between Harlan Ellison and Issac Asimov. Like Ellison, his writing has an inherent distrust of controlling institutions, but like Asimov, his writing maintains a progress zeal in believing science fiction can change the world for the better. These sentiments seem especially true in Little Brother, a dystopian sci-fi/”electronic manifesto” for privacy rights and electronic freedom, disguised as a young adult novel. Also, despite being written in 2008, the plot shares significant similarities to the real life events of Edward Snowden intelligence leak. Coincidence?

Marcus is a high-school student from San Francisco. His parents are liberal computer science professors. He breaks computer security systems for fun, spreading his name as an internet hacker (w1n5t0n). Until one day, while ditching class, Marcus and his friends are caught in the middle of a terrorist attack. After getting injured and asking the military for help, the military inexplicably detains Marcus and his friends for being teen hackers. They’re transported to a secret island prison, much like guantanamo bay. This enrages Marcus and his weirdly libertarian ethos–valuing freedom, civil liberties, and mutual trust. Marcus becomes a digital revolutionary, creating the persona M1k3y, a symbol for a electronic frontier freedom everywhere! Marcus sets to tear down the surveillance establishment of Big Brother and restore some semblance of sense over our civil liberties. And since Little Brother is written in the form of a young adult novel, of course Marcus succeeds.

M1k3y ends up being a lot like Edward Snowden. He goes to a Glen Greedwald-esque journalist, exposes the whole thing, and tries to go into hiding. Despite some more hidden island military prison hyjinx, everything turns out alright. There was, however, constant reminders that things could have gone the way of Chelsea Manning, had all the cards not been in the right place. Notice: this book came out in 2008. Throughout the book, Marcus is even written like a patriot–of the founding father variety. He often evokes the constitution as proof that mass-survalience is wrong. It feels ham-fisted, but none the less true.

After reading this teen book, I noticed more things about my surroundings and the American governments’ violation of digital freedom. I met a man who runs a private server that protects journalists. I see flyers for crypto key exchange parties. People are “waking up” to the fact that their data is valuable and worth protecting. While marketed like a young adult novel, the book reads kind of like a blog: it’s a sundry of thoughts on a broad variety of digital things, deliberately making a point. However, a familiar narrative of spy on the run keeps the book engaging and a great introduction into the labyrinth of digital surveillance for teens and regular people too.

Annihilation

annihilation.JPG

Often, I read while I walk. One day, while reading China Meiville’s The Scar, a canvasser for Green Peace stopped me and asked if I’d heard of Jeff Vandermeer and recommended City of Madmen. Two days later, I went to City Lit books in Logan Square and they’re having a book club for Vandermeer’s newest book, Annihilation. It’s book one in the Southern Reach trilogy, and upon finishing the novel I immediately bought the second trilogy entry. This compelling weird fantasy gets my highest recommendation.

The plot is terse and well told: four explorers are sent on an expedition to explore  a strange landscaped called Area-X. Quickly, the expedition goes awry, and Area-X’s many secrets seem so weird they’re incomprehensible to the human mind! But what exactly is Area-X? In the books acknowledgements, Vandermeer thanks the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida (his state of residence) for preserving the natural world that was the basis for this strange and foreign space. On cursory reading, Area-X does certainly seem like a swamp. But the biodiversity of strangeness mashes seeming untenable boarding landscapes–ocean and bog, tundra and marshland, human civilization and the world’s densest nature. It kinda does remind one of Florida, as well as a dangerous alien planet (ed: what’s the difference!)

Both the novel’s plot and exegesis fall within the bounds of established science fiction tropes. Basically, Area-X is an exacting application of an established form (sci-fi exploration novel) stripped down to the genre’s essentials for the effect of an exhilarating minimalism. We already know how scientists go to weird places and weird things happen (one could even argue, the plot to the novel is that of Alien), so exposition is gladly kept at a minimum. The narrator is left unnamed, as are her three compatriots. Instead, everyone is referred to by their title–biologist, surveyor, psychologist, anthropologist–and each person is as replaceable as any other from previous expedition failures. What drives the plot is the characters’ ability to use hypnosis, as well as be influenced by hypnotic suggestion. This cleverly conceals and reveals character motivation, but it also plays thematically into Area-X’s mind-altering perception. The novel forgoes exposition in sake of description, attempting to pin down this ethereal landscape that seems delightfully inexpressible. Area-X to takes “root” in the reader’s mind as a beautiful and horrible imagined space.

Vandermeer molds the visual vocabulary of H.P. Lovecraft with a distinctly 21th century flavor. Interjecting nods to contemporary science (gene-manipulation, hybrid species), but starting with a post-atomic nihilism Lovecraft couldn’t have been privy to (as he died before the bomb dropped). Our hapless biologist can’t be driven mad from the unknown knowledge of beyond, as she starts the novel with the perspective that humanity is but a meaningless speck in a vast and incomprehensible landscape. Most of all, readers are given privy to the world view of the biologist–her personal history is also tersed out slowly. But, to self-admission, the biologist actively seeks to remove a personality, as do the other scientists she observes. The book reliants more on internal monologue over dialogue, but the true protagonist is Area-X. As we see by the end of the book, Area-X just happens to intersect into the biologist’s life. She can’t stop it; no one can.While reading, I felt Anihilation shows that civilization will eventually destroy itself, but it cannot take the earth along with us. The earth is all life, and all life is unkillable.

My only problem with the novel is a good one to have: it was over too quickly. Of course, it is the first book in a trilogy (by the last quarter, this feels abundantly evident). All the cool stuff is coming, as at the end of the 195 pages, Area-X just starts to take shape. But a book can’t be faulted for being fast paced fast, mysteriously, and fun to read. Plus, you can really feel Vandermeer’s expertise as there’s just enough character development and  to string along a plot about man’s meaningless quest for meaning and nature’s ungraspable vastness.