MicroReviews: Gravity’s Rainbow, Artemis Fowl, Parable of the Sower

Yes, as you can see, I’ve been reading both the highbrow and the low. A little of everything for the win!

To start: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is a pretty fun read. A large mix of history, science, the occult, and Pynchon’s very odd brain, this one took me a bit longer to read through than usual due to its near-800 page length. An interesting jaunt through Europe and elsewhere set largely in the culmination and aftermath of WW2, laced with original songs, intricate descriptions, silly stories, myriad external references, and obscenity to rival Team America, it’s easily one of the best books I’ve ever read. Recommended, but only if you have a strong stomach and aren’t easily offended.

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is an interesting dystopian story that seems a bit like the anti-Anthem (Ayn Rand) to me. Lauren Olamina is a girl gifted with quite a bit of foresight, paranoia, and a special talent which is also an Achilles’ heel of sorts, and she copes with the destruction of her family and everything she’s known. In the course, she comes up with something of a new philosophy/religion aimed at a more communal and earth-friendly existence. Interesting read, pretty violent at points. I’d read other novels by this author, to be sure.

And finally, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl and its sequels are fun reads aimed at kids. They read a bit like tame versions of ground trodden by Jim Butcher and Laurell K. Hamilton (less sex and violence), with more science fiction thrown in. Still amusing if you can get past the technological implausibilities (tracing an MPEG through analysis of radioactive properties??) and focus on the characters. I won’t read them again, but it wasn’t an utter waste of time. Evil child geniuses with a touch of conscience are fun!

MicroReview: Blood Diamond (2006)

Cass and I went to see Blood Diamond this evening. It was a tossup between that and Casino Royale, but when she heard that the former starred Leonardo, she was significantly more excited about that than about seeing a new Bond who has apparently been referred to as “James Bland.” So Blood Diamond it was.

Violence and misery and hopelessness, oh my. While I’m still trying to digest all of the imagery that I just took in, I have to say that it was certainly one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. *cough*gotchokedupeven*cough*. I’ve read enough about African-style civil war and conflict diamonds in the past to have an idea of what to expect, but I found myself simply stunned at points by the sheer brutality of the conflict. All I can say is that we in North America have no idea how soft we actually are. And while I realize that Sierra Leone has been relatively peaceful of late, one can’t say the same for Somalia and the Congo* (DRC) so the film’s core issues are still relevant.

Dramatization though it may be, the film’s central question is a challenging one. How can a man commit these sorts of atrocities against his brother – and by extension, how can we do things like this to anyone in the family that is humanity? I think I’d like to run with a simple idea from the movie, adapted for my own personal use: TIE. We’re born here, we die here – it’s a fucked up place, but maybe one day we’ll prove that we can make something better out of it (and ourselves in the process).

This is Earth.

* Note that cassiterite and coltan (columbite-tantalite) are both used in much the same way as diamonds, being sold illicitly to fund weapons and supplies for ongoing wars. Coltan apparently is used in capacitors and there is suggestion that Western consumer electronics may contain such “conflict goods.” Apparently other things are smuggled as well, such as timber. Still, nothing is so especially galling as diamonds, especially when you can get perfectly good man-made diamonds which are molecularly and chemically indistinguishable from “the real thing” by any means other than their sheer perfection.

MicroReview: Equilibrium

A couple of nights ago I had the opportunity to watch Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium, which has been on my buy/rent/download list for a year now. I wasn’t disappointed. This film definitely goes on my list of favorites both for the amazing action and the stark aesthetic.

Funny enough, I’d actually say this movie has surplanted The Matrix in my list of favorites. Where The Matrix gets almost silly (“We all mentally live in a giant computer!” “Little scorpion tracking bugs will crawl into your stomach!” “You have the power to change reality!”), Equilibrium sticks to a gritty version of reality where the future just means more advanced bullet-firing guns and taking your feel-nothing drug three times a day like a good drone. The aesthetic of the film tracks the protagonist’s journey from cold killer to heart-led rebel and the cool monotone at the start is gradually replaced by warmer color, not the least of which is freshly spilled blood. Rather than altering or withdrawing from reality, Equilibrium proposes going deeper into the one we have.

If you at all liked The Matrix or you are a fan of dystopian stories, you owe it to yourself to see this film. You’ll be wondering by the end why Christian Bale was not cast as Neo instead of Keanu Reeves.

MicroReview: Ian Irvine’s A Shadow On The Glass

I picked up this book recently since I have no major epic fantasy or sci fi series on my reading list at the moment, and thought maybe it would be worth a shot. The short of it? An interesting world, neat quirks and abilities, and such poorly written characterization that the story was painful. It resulted in a lot of stop-and-start reading until I finally took a couple of hours Saturday and finished it.

While I am definitely curious to know what happens to Karan, Llian, and the others, especially given the infuriatingly confusing ending (I read it three times, looked up spoilers online, read it again, and finally had to read the first chapter of the next book to understand what happened), I’m not sure I can sit through more pages of stilted dialogue, wooden characters, and predictable actions for another three novels in the main sequence. My verdict? Save your money, or pick it up at a used bookstore if you ever see it there.

Nate Tranced on MySpace

As I’ve occasionally intimated, I have been dabbling in music of various sorts for quite a few years. Recently I picked up the habit again, making mostly trance-influenced stuff. This evening, I took the leap and made a MySpace profile for a couple of my songs, since they get the joy of providing bandwidth and a media player that generally works cross-browser.

If you’re interested in hearing some home-brewed trance, influenced by the likes of ATB, Armin van Buuren, IIO, Oceanlab, and others (albeit instrumental for now), check out the profile at http://www.myspace.com/trancednate and see what you think. Enjoy!

Microreview: Lacuna Coil’s Karmacode

I’ve been a fan of Lacuna Coil for a couple of years now, but wasn’t hugely impressed with their last album, Comalies. So when Karmacode was released this month, I found myself surprised to be quite addicted. This album has more in common with their earlier work than with Comalies, yet injects some fairly interesting sounds and rhythms that are a little more playful than some of the plodding, measured songs.

The highlight of the album has to be their cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” though. I never liked the original mix much, given that I’m not a fan of the over-reverbed, electronic style of that mix. This one injects some Lacuna Coil metal into it while staying true to the original, so it’s eminently listenable. I’ve been playing that one song more than any other from the album for a few days now.

If you’re new to Lacuna Coil or goth-tinged metal, I’d recommend this album as a good starting point. If your only exposure to this kinda music has been Evanescence, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out that Cristina Scabbia can actually sing without an autotuner. Give it a listen.

Book Review: Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale

I really cringe at buying new books these days, because my attention span is too limited to bother re-reading most novels and therefore whatever I pay is for the one-time experience. It’s not that I’m unwilling to shell out $20 for a book, but rather that I hate to do so for a book I might not read ever again.

Still, occasionally I find myself in a bookstore browsing, and a couple months ago, Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale caught my eye. The cover is in stark red and black, and the silhouettes of a male and female stand beside each other under the jagged title. Eye-catching, to be sure, especially when swimming in a sea of lurid, Darrell Sweet-esque covers in the fantasy/sci-fi section. So caught my eye it did, and I picked it up. The storyline intrigued me: a bunch of students on an island are forced to kill each other. I resisted buying it until this past weekend, when I also failed to resist watching Ice Age 2 (I have a weakness for Scrat the squirrel). But I digress.

In any case, the novel was definitely my type of story. Take 42 junior-high students, toss ’em onto a deserted island, randomly hand out weapons and supplies, and force them to kill each other. Oh, put explosive collars on their necks as motivation and control. Every few hours, parts of the island become off limits, enforced by the collars. Failure to play the game is a sort of no-win prisoner’s dilemma: if no students are killed within 24 hours, everyone dies.

The story largely twists and turns around how the island brings out each student’s inner motivations. From the sociopathic to the psychotic, nihilist to hero, the students all respond to the unimaginable stress in their own unique ways. To say more would spoil the joy of finding these things out for yourself, but the read is worthwhile.

Oh, did I mention that the story is relentlessly gory? If you can’t take a description of a cut throat sounding like a fresh lemon sliced with a very sharp knife, or jelly-like brains exposed from a massive head wound, then this book is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, Happy Tree Friends fills you with glee, then you don’t want to miss this story.

My largest complaint, if there’s really anything to complain about, is that the story is set in an alternate timeline where Asia’s political map is completely different and where the US is some sort of Mecca for rebellious teenagers. I realize that this may indeed be the case for people living outside of North America or Europe, but North America is rapidly descending into the sort of totalitarian, mind-controlled state that the Republic of Greater East Asia is depicted as being in the novel. There is also a small exploration of rock-as-resistance, where the “rebel” characters in the story that distrust the state use their knowledge of rock music as a way to identify each other and to communicate unapproved ideas. It’s cute, but a bit boring.

I think if you overlook the quasi-1984 aspects of the story and treat it purely as entertainment and a character study on a large scale, you’ll find Battle Royale well worth your time. It’s a novel that, for once, I’ll definitely read again.

Movie Review: Mirrormask

I finally had the opportunity and the time to see Neil Gaiman’s Mirrormask this evening. I was rather underwhelmed by Gaiman’s novel American Gods, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect seeing Gaiman on the screen. Still, knowing his graphic novel background, I was hoping for better screen translation of his imagination than I got with that novel.

First, I’d say this movie gets a 4/5 on the strength of the visuals alone. It’s just stunning. I’m sure that people have commented on how surreal it seems at times, and with good reason. There’s a lot of allusion to fairy tale in the story, but everything is couched in imagery that could have jumped out of a painting. It’s breathtaking. If you appreciate visuals, you will love it.

The soundtrack is a weird cabaret/trip-hop fusion; I suppose this is what happens when you try to fuse circus atmosphere with the darkness that pervades the story and imagery. Funny enough, it works really well, although my girlfriend in the other room asked me if I was watching porn when she heard the soundtrack without knowing that I was watching the movie.

The biggest failing, in my opinion, was the lack of innovation with the story line. You can predict everything that happens in this movie ten minutes in advance, and there isn’t really any moment where you feel real fear or suspense. Still, the visuals are lush enough to keep you watching just to find out what you’ll see in the next scene.

The bottom line is that if you like visually stunning films, you’ll like this one. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth your time.