Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mara Aranda y Solatge: Dèria

This one's a bit of a find.

I first ran across "Mara Aranda y Solatge" in the form of a single track, "Romanç De La Porquerola", on a freebie CD with a magazine. This caught my attention enough that I eventually, recently, purchased the whole album it was from, Dèria, in MP3 form.That was a good move.

The album is, as I understand it, a set of modern treatments of 16th century Aragonese Spanish songs in some kind of Sephardic tradition. That probably sounds terribly academic, and to be honest, there are times listening to this stuff when a combination of nasal Spanish vocals and the buzzing of what I think are Galician bagpipes gets a bit ... worthily unprepossessing. Likewise, the harp solos can be a trifle obvious in their emotional effects.  But then some extra layers of instrumentation cut in, or the quasi-flamenco rhythms shift into higher gear, and I'll forgive them pretty much anything.

"Romanç De La Porquerola" is probably still my favourite song here, in fact; a 6+ minute track that, for the first third, sounds like a melancholy medieval lament for bagpipes and voice. Then the rhythm section kicks in with a vengeance, and Aranda begins an intricate duet with the stringed instruments... I still don't have the faintest idea what she's singing about, but it still sends shivers down my spine for the next four minutes.

"Els Contrabandistes" hits high gear faster, whereas "Quatre Traginers" stays slow and probably tragic, while "Bolero De Guadassuar" has a lovely double-bass-driven opening... Oh heck, I'm attempting vague descriptions of stuff which I like but can't claim to understand. I like it, okay? It's evoking a culture where I probably wouldn't want to live even if I could speak the language, but if this is what their music sounds like, I'm happy to go visit.

(There seem to be some pretty good clips of the group playing live available on YouTube, incidentally. Worth a look.)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cheap Domestic Irony

Yesterday, I wanted to buy a particular CD online, so I dipped into a price comparison site, then decided to pay very slightly more so as not to give my money to Amazon. Later in the day, I found myself explaining why to Angela, who hadn't seen the relevant news stories. She then pointed out that I'd found myself deliberately shopping at Tesco in defense of the rights of producers and as a protest against multinational capitalist exploitation.

Amazon really have bought themselves a PR problem, haven't they?

Theatre (sort of): Nation

National Theatre, London, transmitted to the Arts Cinema, Cambridge, 30/1/2010

The trick of taking operas and plays from major venues and transmitting them live to substantial cinemas via high-definition channels and appropriately competent display technology is a nice one, and this is the latest instance I've caught at the Arts in Cambridge; the National's Christmas show, an adaptation of Terry Pratchett's younger-readers alternate-world story by Mark Ravenhill. It seemed to be using more cameras and camera angles than previous transmissions of this type that I've seen, sometimes showing the projecting-stage performance from close up or even, bizarrely, from above. However, it was still a stage performance, using stage effects (puppets, cast members moving in and out of the spotlight, a model ship on yards of rippling fabric to represent the sea), rather than a movie with fancy CGI. For the first ten minutes or so, I found this a bit disconcerting, even silly, but the human brain can adjust to things; it came to work.

This was, as it proved, a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel, even preserving Pratchett's slightly cumbersome outer framework - although the first scene of chapter 1 was moved to late in the play (which I thought was a small mistake). A stage production couldn't convey the apocalyptic sense of the early scenes, of course, and the wildly (excessively?) dramatic flight from the great cave was necessarily lost; come to that, at a few times, the mime depiction of grand actions looked a bit silly. But - so far as I could recall, not having read the book for a year or so - pretty much everything seemed to be in there. The most substantial change was to the nature of Cox, the major villain of the piece, who was transformed from one of Pratchett's quasi-motivelessly malign psychopaths to someone with a personal connection to Daphne, the heroine; I guess that this gave the plot a bit more sharpness and focus, but it did have something of the loathsome Hollywood/kung fu movie habit of making every conflict personal.

Anyhow - on its own terms, the play worked pretty well, playing out Pratchett's intricate dance of ideals and ideologies, complete with lapses into mysticism despite the general humanist-materialist tenor of the argument. I get the impression that people who didn't know the book have been a bit confused by this thing, and to be honest, the book isn't one of Pratchett's best; both book and play may be a bit too schematic, really. It was well cast, though, I thought; Gary Carr and Emily Taaffe made attractive young leads, while Jason Thorpe had a gift of a role as Milton the parrot (no, really). The visual effects and puppet-work were great, too, helping to transport the audience into this strange tale. I wonder if the audience in London had a big advantage in being in the same room as all this stuff, or whether those of us watching the transmission, with all those multiple angles and close-in shots actually did better?

Whatever. An entertaining afternoon, and a good use of promising technology. Hey, if they just doubled the bandwidth, they could do this stuff in 3D...

Friday, February 12, 2010

Recent Reading: Oceanic

by Greg Egan

I have a considerable fondness for Greg Egan's work, dating back to fairly soon after he started selling to Interzone, but it sometimes seems that his flavour of hard SF is like rock and roll; it works best in short form. He needs to just punch you in the face and then stop. Sprawling concept albums may have a certain technical interest value, but they're not the point of the exercise.

So when Oceanic appeared, it went on my wish list (despite the fact that it contained a number of stories I'd already read), and duly showed up in my Christmas stocking. It took me a little while to get through it, thanks to various distractions (but then, one can easily forgive oneself that with a short story collection), and yes, it's taken me a while to get around to blogging about it, but anyway...

An obvious thing about Egan's stories is that a lot of them feature a generic Egan narrator/protagonist: intelligent, humanistic, highly ethical, maybe deracinated, arguably a bit chilly, sometimes romantically engaged but not exactly demonstrative about it - as much of a standardised construct as H.P.Lovecraft's similarly intellectual protagonists, but younger and (of course) more optimistic. There are a few of them in this book, but fortunately for its variety, there are some other character types in lead roles too. I've already commented on the first story, "Lost Continent", elsewhere after its earliest appearance, and I'm afraid that it still doesn't quite work for me, but it still shows a hugely admirable sympathy for the underdog (motivated by Egan's own work for good causes), and by taking the much-mauled underdog as its lead character, it avoids the sense of trad-hard-SF competent man nonsense that can become so tiresome after a little while. Likewise, the last story in the collection, "Oceanic", may feature a highly competent scientist as its protagonist-narrator, and may be rather schematic in its extended critique of religion, but at least it gives that scientist a serious and difficult journey by way of a plot. One gets the feeling that, while Egan still has no time for superstition, he is developing a little more sympathy for the emotional and social complications that take people there.

Between those two, there are ups, downs, and oddities. "Dark Integers" is an oddity in that it's a sequel to one of Egan's best past exercises ("Luminous", to be found in the like-titled collection), but I rather wish it wasn't, because that's what makes it into a down; it isn't actually bad in its sketch of unwanted responsibilities and duelling universes, but in its details, it sucks most of the beauty out of the earlier story. "Luminous" had a computer built of light, and beings of uncanny power and unknowable personality living in the shimmers of a breeze and the twist of a cloud, on Earth but also on the far side of a flaw in mathematics; in "Dark Integers", the technology is less wondrous, and it turns out that those beings are a lot like us, can talk like (and to) us and play politics like us, and the other reality where they live is just a sort of parallel universe with its own planets and suchlike. When the meeting between two worlds ends on a slightly but not overly downbeat note, less seems to have been lost than might have been the case.

"Crystal Nights", which I'd seen before in Interzone, begins with a peculiar dummy, as one of Egan's standard lead figures comes in for a few pages and promptly refuses to play any further part in the story, because it's largely about the ethics of creation, and she's too ethical. It makes a point, I guess, but not too well. (I'm not sure that beginning a story with "More caviar?" to establish someone's levels of wealth is too slick, either.) After that, well, it's a pretty good Egan story, although as so often, Egan is worrying at ethical questions that only (currently) exist in his fictional world. The line about how rival billionaire transhumanists might end up, "throwing grey goo around like monkeys throwing turds", is funny, though, and the story has a certain left-field optimism to it.

"Steve Fever", on the other hand, shows a kind of posthumanist breakthrough gone badly awry, without collapsing into total catastrophe - a sort of Blood Music where the microscopic brains have less smarts but more built-in ethics. The question of where desperation and the survival instinct might lead with a sufficiently advanced science is certainly interesting. "Induction", on the other hand, is in danger of being a bit dull, if only because it features one of Egan's simpler optimistic futures, short of either sensawunda or conflict - having been written for a special issue of the academic journal Foundation, and hence for free, may or may not be a consideration here.

"Singleton" is another one I remember from Interzone, and here we are definitely back with one of those Egan protagonists - someone who can get worked up about existential problems arising from quantum physics. The vague possibility that our hero may actually be mad as a fish doesn't slow the plot down, and the plot eventually expands from near-future plausibility to transhuman wildness, spilling off a character who then, very oddly, shows up again in the next story.

This is "Oracle", which has the look of a tale dreamed up after reading too many biographies of a couple of 20th century figures - with those figures renamed for arcane reasons (and placed in an alternate history). I don't know enough about these people to judge all the details properly, but I'm not sure that Egan quite catches the tone of mid-century English discourse or the manners of the mid-century British intelligence community right. The not-Alan Turing certainly looks a bit too much like another stock Egan hero; maybe I shouldn't have expected Derek Jacobi, but the Turing of Breaking the Code would probably have been more interesting. I feel even less qualified to comment on the not-C.S.Lewis, but he has me somewhat convinced most of the time; however, I really can't see a Lewis-analogue, having sought to engage an opponent in public debate on a crucial matter of moral philosophy, first choosing to make the debated question something rather tangential  to his great concern, and second, basing the thrust of his argument on something like Godel's Incompleteness Theorem.

Incidentally, can anyone identify who the "dark-haired young man" who coaches not-Lewis on Godel is meant to be? I assume that one should be able to guess, but I haven't a clue.

"Border Guards", the next story in the book, is yet another Interzone story, featuring an imaginary game that may appeal to physics geeks, set in a universe that's been made more hospitable to humanity than mere quotidian reality. It's interesting in a way, but it's minor key stuff. "Riding the Crocodile", on the other hand, is set in a Utopian future of our galaxy which also features in Egan's most recent novel, and raises questions in a prequel-ish fashion. However, its problem is its unconvincing depiction of a society of immortals. Years, decades, centuries pass while a couple of people sit around in the ultratech equivalent of a tiny cottage, doing some rather limited academic research, with no apparent sign of needing broader cultural inputs or other company, no emotional evolution, like a couple of postgrads locking themselves up for a week to crack a thorny calculus problem. Perhaps they've adjusted themselves or just gradually adapted to this sort of life, but if so, the setting is far more dehumanised than I think Egan wants it to seem. It's a problem that his Utopian futures do suffer from; I fear that the idea of depicting a believable culture of well-rounded immortals in convincing depth would seem to him like a crass distraction from the really cool physics, so we may be stuck with these pale cyphers.

Last off, "Glory" and "Hot Rock" are set in the same future, the galaxy of the "Amalgam", but feature visits to less-developed planets where locals have stuff of interest to Amalgam society. (The first visit is accomplished by a display of technology so egregiously sophisticated and refined that it tips over into silliness.) Both involve discoveries of potentially galactic significance, but both are actually interesting because they feature exercises in the imagination and depiction of alien worlds. Not surprisingly, Egan turns out to be pretty good at this, even if the worlds may seem a bit sparse and schematic. I was sometimes made rather unhappy when his plots dragged my attention back from his aliens. Very old-school skiffy of me, I fear.

So - not prime Egan, then. But even sub-prime Egan is more Egan than anything else. Still, perhaps he needs to take a break from the benign, enervated, post-human futures that aren't going to convince any of the unconverted, and allow himself a bit more of the moral passion that features in "Lost Continent", the ambiguity of "Steve Fever", or the world-building of "Hot Rock". Egan has the more-than-potential to be one of the greats, but he may need to hold back on the (atheist) preaching and actually allow himself to be a little bit more of a science fiction storyteller.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Expand, Contract (21)

One is anything to do with me only in the sense that I'm now the line editor for the line of which it's the foundation-stone, and the other was a very small editing exercise for me (any long-past work inside aside) and is being given away free, but anyway:

Transhuman Space Classic is now available from e23.

So is a snazzy PDF version of part of the hopefully-only-semi-forgotten Teralogos News (for the Transhuman Space line, I should say). Yes, the rest of it will follow in due course.

(Oh, and my comp copies of Le Jeu de Role du Disque-Monde arrived a little while back, I forgot to mention. So I can now waste time trying to work out if it says what I can't remember if I wrote ten years ago. My French is almost up to that.)