Monday, January 13, 2020

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Washington, D.C. Hippopotamus in the zoo begging for peanuts. John Ferrell, 1942.

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 93

A great voice over a great sound. Not Ella and Duke, but about as close as we can get nowadays.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Sci Fi round-up

If you are fortunate enough to have a good used bookstore nearby, you may find a section of mass-market sci-fi paperbacks, which in the 60s and 70s seem to have listed at 75 cents or so and often featured tacky or even lurid covers (see below). At Feldman's Books in Menlo Park they now go for around 2 bucks a pop, but that's still a bargain for a good read, no? I recently picked up two by D.G. Compton, whose The Continuous Catherine Mortenhoe I liked a great deal, along with one by Robert Silverberg, whose quite good Dying Inside I read nearly ten years ago now. Each of these is worth discovering for 2 dollars, or the cost of a trip to your local library.

Farewell Earth's Bliss
D.G. Compton
Assuming that Compton was responsible for titling his own books, he was amazingly bad at it, given how good he was as a writer. Title aside, Synthajoy is the real gem here, a paranoid, deeply psychological, and quite modernistic novel, narrated by Thea Cadence, who has been committed to a mental hospital for having murdered (apparently) her husband. The circumstances of the crime revolve around her husband's invention of a kind of virtual reality process for transferring emotional experiences. Thea's "treatment" involves just such a process, aimed at inducing "contrition," according to her nurse, or "guilt," as Thea sees it. The narrative moves backward and forward in time, as Thea attempts to make sense of events and maintain her dignity and agency. First published in 1968, Synthajoy presents what now looks like a plausible near-future dystopia, and another of Compton's riveting and complex female characters.

Farewell Earth's Bliss is a more conventional novel, following a group of new arrivals to a desolate penal colony on Mars. Left to fend for themselves under bleak conditions, the community has evolved a kind of puritanical authoritarianism, whether out of necessity or atavism. Bigotry of various kinds– sexism, racism, homophobia, and religious intolerance– come with the territory (as they do back on good old planet Earth come to think of it– bliss for whom?). The choice facing each member of the ensemble cast is simple: Get along, or take that last chilly walk out into the freezing, airless desert.

Tower of Glass
Robert Silverberg
The androids in Tower of Glass are of the type that is biologically indistinguishable from humans, though produced in vats rather than wombs. Designed to serve humans as slaves, they come in three different castes, but whatever the caste, large numbers of them practice a secret religion that worships their corporate creator-inventor, Simeon Krug, as the incarnation of God. Krug, meanwhile, has undertaken a massive project to build an enormous sort of radio tower, intending to communicate with an alien civilization, whose signals have recently been received on earth. Krug is a familiar type, as is his hubris, and before long you will spot the climax to the plot coming down 5th Avenue, if you haven't guessed it already. Nonetheless, the characters are well drawn, and some of the set pieces are quite convincing and exciting. Worth your 16 bits.

Infinite Detail
Tim Maughan
Laura gave this one to me for Christmas, and it comes with the recommendations of Cory Doctorow and Jeff Vandermeer. How bad could it be? Oh, pretty bad.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Twin study

In Dorothy Baker's 1962 novel Cassandra at the Wedding, the bride is Cassandra's identical twin sister Judith. Cassandra, a brilliant but troubled young woman, is none too pleased to be "losing" her other (better?) half, even if the groom is a damn-near-perfect doctor. As we get to know Cassandra, who narrates the first and third sections of this wonderful story (Judith gets the middle), it seems possible that she might steer the plot toward gentle farce (mistaken identity anyone?), or toward something a good bit darker. It's not giving much away to say that humor and pathos are kept in exquisite balance right up to the end. The dialogue is believable and crisp, the writing both musical and erudite. I was especially taken with the simple moments of intimacy– Cassandra brushing the sand from her twin's bare foot after a swim; Judith squeezing closer to Jack in the front seat of the car, despite the summer heat; a bedside touch. The handful of characters are vividly drawn, and none more so than Cassandra herself. One of the best novels I've read in years.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Yosemite in December

What can you say?

Filet-O-Fish Fail

Have I mentioned that I love the Filet-O-Fish? They generally taste just as good wherever you get one, from Martell to Tokyo. However, flavor is only part of the full aesthetic experience, and occasionally the visual falls flat. Take this example from the Mickey D's in Los Banos, where we stopped for a bite on the way to Yosemite this week. The closeup below shows some serious issues with the bun, including center collapse, creasing, and suspicious pimples running along the left side. The slab of cheese– difficult to see here– was poorly placed. The flavor? Most excellent, as expected.