dmilewski: (Default)
The Blue Sword (1982) by Robin McKinley is the first of her two Damar novels. In this fantasy-romance, a young woman is swept away by a desert king, but only to train her for war.

Robin McKinley seems to have two modes for me: she's either engaging or long winded. This books falls onto long-winded, as she could easily have told this tale in half the number of words. While nicely written, as is usual for Robin, for me the story falls into the dull and tedious category, with an extra layer of pointless thrown in just to be sure. Most of what happens is a long justification for why a woman can be in war and fight her enemies. However, if you remember that this is the 1980s, when few people making women heroes, justification seemed needed. (It wasn't needed. Other authors simply blew past the justification part and went straight into the adventure part.)

For an adventure novel, it's pacing is quite relaxed, walking our hero through all sorts of things for most of the book.

I found the concept of kelar interesting, a way of interacting with magic that is one part revelation and one part manifestation. Kelar shows you what you need to know, but also provides what you need to accomplish the deed. It is magic, but never quite controlled magic, so its appearance in the story changes the story's direction. I enjoy inexact magic systems.

If this book set out to do anything, I think that it missed most of what it aimed for. It's not enough of a romance to satisfy a romance reader, not enough of a fantasy to satisfy a fantasy reader, and not enough of an adventure novel to satisfy and adventure reader. While Robin handles both romance and fantasy far more deftly, her handling of adventure seems deficient.

I can't pronounce this a bad book, because it does hold together, it's just not my slice of bacon.
dmilewski: (Default)
This book has no reason being this good. Tanith Lee's The Silver Metal Lover (1981) should have been a train wreck of a book, a totally misconceived notion with no possibility as working. As a teenager, I passed up this book many times, the subject matter looking uninteresting to me. In a way, I was right, because at that age, this book would have been beyond me. Now, however, she riveted me from beginning to end.

The story is almost entirely interpersonal, a romance, not of the modern romance arc, where the happily part is mandatory, but more like the romance of previous decades, where an entire arc of a tragic relationship would be followed. That doesn't mean that the ending isn't satisfying, it just means that the ending gives us closure in a different way than the happily ever after.

I felt particularly riveted by the first person prose style, which drops us solidly into the character's idiosyncratic point of view and kept us there, through all her changes, both internal and external. Jane is a spoiled rich brat, but not really, still capable of growth beyond herself. Her friends are varied and almost mythic in their portrayal, some more obviously than others.

The world most resembles that of Blade Runner, which hearkens back to Metropolis, with the absurdly rich living high up, and everyone else living low down, where the rich simply can't comprehend the everyone else part. In particular, the rich's fear of violence is out of proportion to the actual dangers of the world. This resemblance is reinforced with Silver, the robot that Jane loves, and the story's examination of what a robot lover means. How human are they? Is a human's love for a robot real? Given the imminent production of real sex-bots, the question is of even more importance today.

You won't find any shooting or starships in this SF novel. The fate of the world isn't at stake. In fact, the fate of nothing is at stake, except for that of Jane and her lover. 
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The Swordbearer (1982) by Glen Cook is the dark fantasy version of a YA novel. If you know Glen's writing style, you'll recognize the disaster about to unfold. Unlike most YA novel, this one gets the inherent fantasy of boys and young men to murderously destroy all their opponents through powerful weapons and getting all the power.

The book itself progresses well enough until the middle, where the story bogs down and becomes just as series of events. Despite all the battles and all the addition of more powerful magic equipment, all momentum is lost. The powerful magic items becomes meaningless. The conflict becomes meaningless. Even our hero becomes meaningless. (In fact, the conflict is meaningless, which only adds to the meaninglessness that already exists.)

While this story is an interesting direction to take the unwilling hero story, it's a direction that shouldn't be repeated. It's a mediocre tale, one filled with themes that will to on to make his Dread Empire and Black Company stories ring like steel.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
I went into Superman 4 (1987) expecting to see a total train wreck of a film. Instead, what I found was a mostly pleasant Superman film with some issues, but far fewer issues than Superman 3.

Was the film really that bad? No, it wasn't.

Valiantly, the script reached for what worked in the first two Superman films. For the most part, it touched its mark.

In the cultural zeitgeist, it chose the themes: nuclear weapons, corporate takeovers, tabloid journalism, and greed. Recall that the 80's was the era of greed. "Greed is good." With a nuclear summit breaking down, a boy asks Superman to solve the nuclear problem. Meanwhile, the Daily Planet has been subject to a hostile takeover and turned into a sleezy tabloid.

Overall, I found the setup acceptable, the pacing good, the procession of events clear, the acting appropriately stylized, with enough twists and turns in the plot to keep keep our hero jumping.

That's not so say that the film entirely work. There was a better film here at one point but it suffered under two problems. By my best guess (and this is a guess): 1) the production didn't get enough budget, and 2) the suits demanded that a 120 minute film be cut down to 90 minutes.

I'll be honest here. The early film works, but there are place where it gets choppy later on. I'm positive that too much of the film was removed to make the studio executives happy. This being the 80's, that's a good bet on my part as film were being released to fit neatly into 2 TV hour slots (with commercials). Yeah, it was a thing. Look it up. (Don't take my word for it.)

The other area where the film suffered were the special effects. The miniature work remained excellent, but the bluescreen work looked uninspired.

Taken together, Superman 4 is a middle-weight 80's action flick. Nothing special, but nothing really terrible, either. Competent, if uninspired. So what changed? Why is this Superman film so reviled above all others?

I blame Frank Miller.

In 1986, Frank Miller rocked the comic world with The Dark Knight Returns. An increasingly specialized comic market fell in love with this grittier Batman and gritter Superman. The comics fans now wanted different fare. Now that they've read Frank Miller, how do you keep the kids in Metropolis?

The message that Superman 4 brought was the exact opposite of the comic fan base. This is a film founded in idealism and hope. The fight scenes weren't realistic, they were based on those crazy things Superman did back in the 50's and 60's, where physics were optional. S4 is literally a world-wide fight to save the world from nuclear destruction. S4 is the exact opposite of what the cynical 80's comic market wanted. S4 represented the sort of comic that the comic market now considered cheezy and bad, a low point in DC comics. Thus, S4 was bad. And once fan boys start piling on, you either agree or get pummeled. Thus, S4 became a whipping boy for comics fandom.

Meanwhile, the culture that needed Superman in 1978 didn't need Superman now. When Superman: The Movie and Superman 2 were released, the whole summer blockbuster thing had just gotten started. Superman was the first successful franchise following Star Wars. It redefined the superhero film. It gave an entirely new direction to action and adventure. In 1981, the world met Indiana Jones in Raider of the Lost Ark. Other films showed up: ET, The Road Warrior, The Terminator, Ghostbusters, Alien, Aliens, Back to the Future, Conan the Barbarian. By the time that Superman 4 showed up, trying recapture the magic of Superman: The Movie, a decade of innovation and excitement had changed audience's expectations. What once awed us was now expected.

Two years later, 1989, Batman took to the big screen. Warner Brothers had learned its lesson and gave the audience what it wanted.

Superman 4's main problem was it was the wrong film at the wrong time. The studio executives had failed to spot the changing public trends and gave them a film that could not resonate with film audiences.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
I find myself charmed by Superman III despite the flimsy nature of the film. It seems to stand astride two basic foundations, one the foundation laid down by the original Superman films, and the other by the 80's and what the suits wanted. As you can guess, these didn't go together well at all.

I found myself most charmed by the computers. Despite the fact that they really didn't act like computers at all, because the writers were pretty ignorant of computers of the day, they only had period computers to work with, and all the misconceptions about computers were period misconceptions, only workable in that period. We saw green screens, amber screens, keyboards, tape reels, and all other sorts of stock computer tropes, all slightly updated for the 80's and the personal computer revolution.

Not surprisingly, the big villain turned out to be a computer created by the supposed big villain (who was Not-Lex-Luthor and Not-Lex-Luthor's evil sister). This computer became self-aware, seized the evil sister, and turned her into a cyborg to fight Superman. I can't say that this is the first film that depicted the fear of computers taking over, but it certainly brought the subject out of the cult sphere and into mainstream conciseness. Computers strip away our humanity.

In that way, I suppose that S3 had the theme of humanity being stripped away, and without that, we become cruel. There's a place where Superman is split in half to fight his evil self. His human self is the part that wins, not his super self. It is then this human-superman that defeats the evil computer by using his human smarts. Despite their seeming divinity, computers, not matter how well programmed, are not our new gods, for even if they are all powerful, they cannot be all knowing.

This is re-emphasized with the updated Lana Lang, a "today's girl" who's a level-headed single mother struggling to raise her son well. She's got her act together, not like the flighty or defenseless women of previous decades, but also not aggressive, like Lois Lane. Her Superman is not a man who flies around with a cape, but a man who comes home and helps her to make a family, which makes Clark quite the Superman indeed.

What is humanity? Family. Middle-American values. Sober living. Sweaters draped across the shoulders and conservative dress. All the stuff that makes the Moral Majority happy. (There would be no more Superman bopping Lois Lane in the 80's).

The first two Supermans were products of the Carter era, or more importantly, the Post-Nixon era, where our icons have fallen and we really do need a new icon to stand up for America. In the 80's, we are now into the Reagan era, the Conservative have come into power, and the center of symbolism has changed.

The new villains are Corporations, not dictators, and their limitless ambition only worships at the altar of money. We saw this begin with Lex Luthor's in the first Superman, but then he was just this guy with an evil plan. This time, the villain leads and entire corporation. Out in the real world, this is an era when corporations are always changing their names (or so says Jefferson Starship), merging, and synergizing. Old corporate names are literally disappearing as new ones emerge, moving factories to other countries, and playing a new kind of economic politics to their own advantage.

The film makes strides against racism. I don't think that we saw a single black face with a speaking part in the last film, but in this one, the co-star is Richard Pryor, a black man. We also see a black fire chief amid a sea of white faces. Even so, the majority of all faces remain white and male.

The actual plot of the film is rather ridiculous, even by Superman standards, with an weak overall ending. The main villain creates fake kryptonite, which turns Superman evil, then splits him in two, but after he literally pulls himself together, flies off to defeat the evil computer which has run out of control. The story feels like a modern Hollywood film, where someone wrote a decent script, and then suits demanded changes until the whole film rattled along, good-enough, but not great. Honestly, I can't stay that it's any more incoherent or stupid than the latest X-Men film.

What missing from the film is everything 80's. If you will, this film depicts an idealized 80's, with no modern music, new wave fashion, punks, Japanese cars, smog, or anything else rejected by middle-America. In a way, the film de-urbanizes Superman, saving him from the East-Coast elites. It's only his return to middle-America that reconnects Superman with his White Christian American roots, that makes him a truly American again.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Always Coming Home (1985) by Ursula LeGuin is a textbook on a culture that doesn't yet exist. If you like reading textbooks, you'll love reading this book. My personal experience included nodding off and vertigo. Too much textbook and not enough story. It's quality stuff, just not the sort of stuff that my brain wants.

I did not complete this book.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Sister Light, Sister Dark (1988) by Jane Yolen is a curious feminist fantasy, though better called a human-scale fantasy, centering around the prophecy of the Anna, yet also centering around the coming of age of Jenna. When this tale is following its own voice, this curious tale works, going where you expect but never quite how you expected, or why. This is not a work where the heroine jauntily lopes along, from one fight to another. This is very much an internal story with external features. Where the novel falls down is when it hews too close to trope, too close to what it should be.

By human scale fantasy, I mean that the book pays great attention to the people in it, giving them time to act, react, and consider, letting us get to know them.

The book is only the beginning of the tale, for the Great Alta saga covers three books. There's much left to be done. I found the wrap-up for this book quite unsatisfactory as any stand-alone conclusion, so just aim to read the whole batch when you get started.

Magic doesn't play a large place in the fantasy even while it does. The magic here isn't the magic of spells and world alteration, but a subtler magic, one that's structural to the narrative, not easily produced or reproduced. I find the low-key stakes of magic quite welcome and more compelling than world-shaking spellcasters. The magic here means something to the people who have it, shaping their world.

While the tale does have prophecy, the tale undercuts that prophecy just as much as it sustains it. In the end, the character must do as she must, making her decisions as she goes.

If you like to think about your fantasies, and don't care so much for fight scenes, then this is a book for you.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The Mists of Avalon (1982) is a thick book written by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Following the life and times of Morgain, Arthur's sister, the book deftly and beautifully weaves a tedious and unengaging tale, demonstrating what happens when you turn an action-adventure-romance series into a meaningful historical fantasy.

After about 50 pages, I switched from reading to aggressive skimming with no loss of comprehension. After 250 pages, I abandoned the work. I may attempt to complete the book, but I feel no compulsion.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The Coelura (1987) is a novella first published by Anne McCaffrey in 1983. The romance is a throwback to the pop SF of the 50's and 60's, with great regard to form and little regard to function. There's nothing amazing about the story, but it's an entertaining enough romance and an absolute representative gem of retro fiction. (Arguably, since Anne got her start with this sort of fiction, for her it isn't retro at all, just a little misplaced in era.)

Accompanying the story are some gorgeous ink drawing which capture the tenor of those simpler SF times. The future in these drawing is indeed futuristic, with a European opulence poured on top, to give an elegant, decadent, and skin tight feel.

Our heroine is harder to get than she looks. Our hero winds up the lucky man. Some La-La-La happens offscreen, and in the end, there's a happy ending. But you knew that because it's a romance.

If you feel like something retro and just a little decadent, check this one out.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Nerilka's Story (1986), a novella by Anne McCaffrey, is set well before the classic era of Pern. The pass is almost over, a disease is about to sweep the land, and Moreta is about to go on her legendary ride.

Against this backdrop is the story of Nerilka, yet another McCaffrey heroine who isn't appreciated at home, doesn't quite fit in with the other girls, and who goes off on her own to find people who appreciate her. Her father is callous, of course, and there's also an egotistical domineering woman who ruins everything.

The story is fairly turnkey McCaffrey fare, competently done and smoothly related. It's a good afternoon read with no major flaws or blemishes, and being a novella, not loaded down with bloat. If it were a novel, I might knock off some points, but it's not. It's just enough of Pern to get a satisfying swig and no more.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Downbelow Station (1981) by CJ Cherryh is a war story in the style of the great war movies of Hollywood. The story told exceeds the fortunes of any one individual, and as such, follows the fortunes of many, and in doing so, tells the drama of a battle. In this case, the drama is that of Pell Station.

On TV, this novel compares most closely to Battlestar Galactica (2003). I have no doubt that this novel was one of the touchstones behind the series being so influential in the genre of military SF.

Because this novel is a war movie, the story takes forever to wind up, as all the players need to be in their place for when the guns open fire. The first third of the book is entirely dramatic setup. You see the train wrecks going, with one model train after another ramming in the middle of a fake town, and just when you see how things are going, the narrator douses the room in gasoline and burns the house down. That's this book.

Like the best war stories, this one is filled with the brutality of war.

Myself, I found this novel almost impenetrable. With so much plot setup and so many train wrecks, I felt very divorced from the story. I wound up skimming for chapters at a time, no scene catching me at all. When action did come, I found that it came quickly, often with jumps forward in time. This amplified the feeling of disconnection for me. Skipping over the more boring narrative parts often felt like something was skipped. It felt like the editors had sliced out tedious chapters that added nothing while replacing them with nothing.

If this was a film, I would have hit fast forward and skimmed through scene, getting everything that I really needed to know at 5x the speed.

Because we follow so many characters, we don't get to know them very well. These characters are more about their situation, and how they handle the events as they unfold. Don't expect deep back stories or self-examination. This narrative is very much a forward story, dealing with the crisis at hand while while keeping an eye on the crisis dead ahead.

Like any good war story, the narrative ends at the end of the crisis. This is not a tale of the entire war, it was merely the tale of this particular moment. The war continues, both into the future and into the past.

The only idea that utterly rejected in the novel was the idea that Earth would not control a military. I didn't buy that for one second. No sane civilization let's an army run around in their back yard. Perhaps that argues for Earth being insane? I still don't buy it. Left to themselves, militaries take over and organize, so I didn't buy the fact that they hadn't already done this, as if the events of this novel were some new idea. If armies have a primary purpose, it's logistics, not fighting.

If you're into military SF, there's a big chance that you'll love this novel. If that's not your thing, you'll likely find this book difficult going.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The Master of Five Magics (1980) by Lyndon Hardy sits at that annoying place between being a good and a bad book. The book itself tells the story of Alodar, who desperate wants to be a suitor to the Queen, so that he can restore the fortunes of his once noble heritage. In doing so, he tries each magic.

The structure of the story is rather fun, with the early parts of the book acting as independent stories, and the later part acting as a single story. The episodic breakdown worked out rather well, giving the reader a coherent tale for each segment. This broke down towards the end, making the episodes slide one into the other, presumably because the story just worked better as a singular narrative as opposed to a sequential narrative.

Lyndon's exploration of magic proved rather fun, as each magic had its own twists, turns, and downfalls. These differences lent themselves well to each distinctive type of of story.

The world itself is a slapdash sword and sorcery style world, where there's no need for a map, history and politics are shallow, and all those fussy world building details don't matter much.

At the same time, the characters are stiffer than wallboard and more difficult to swallow. Their dialog is so stiff that you could starch your drawers. There isn't a naturalistic line in the entire narrative. Meanwhile, the women can be divided into impossible love interest and achievable love interest. The Queen, of course, is busty and beautiful. Meanwhile, the achievable love interest is a redhead, rough and tumble, and not like all those other stuffy girls.

By the end, our hero has become mighty studly, defeated the enemy, gotten the girl, and restored himself. This isn't a spoiler as these books only have that sort of ending.

While the plot sometimes rolls along well, at other times, it becomes an annoying inconvenience between you and the end of the book. The later chapters increasingly ground on me (not that the early chapters didn't), while the end, the part that should have been most engaging because it was the accumulation of everything that came before, could be mostly waved off as filler and ignored.

If you made me choose good or bad, I would describe this book as a good bad book. The book is objectively bad enough to throw against the wall, but it's not without it merits and avoids most of the excesses of a bad book. Unfortunately, it doesn't have enough good qualities to qualify as a good book.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The Hero and The Crown (1984) by Robin McKinley follows the story of Aerin. Born of the king by a norther witchwoman, she's a redhead in a world of cinnamon skinned people. Even so, she is the daughter of the king, and great thing lie before them if she can survive the trials that they pose.

This is very much a coming of age novel, spread across five years of Aerin's life. It's a little bit of a romance, but not enough to categorize it as a romance.

I'd love to be wild about the novel. Looking at its list of praises, the novel certainly impressed many people. I'm not one of them. While the writing was there for me, the story wasn't. I found the through thread non-existent. I felt like the story changed three times, each time too early, challenging the writer how to continue the story. I felt like the story ended three times, and because she hadn't hit her word count, she kept the story running for two chapters after that.

Where the story works, it works wonderfully. At many places, the novel make the character very present, especially in relationship to her horse.

Just as often as the novel felt special, it also felt petty and detailed, often regaling us with administrivia rather than story. These stretches killed any sense of energy or endearment. They felt like padding while the writer vamped, doing her best to think of what would happen next.

I felt that the Aerin wound up a bit too special sometimes where she needed no extra specialness, and I feel that she accidentally did the right thing where she really needed more cleverness. Both of these things distanced me from the character. I don't require plausibility from fantasy novels, but I do require agency from heroes when agency matters, rather than hand-waving "somehows" leading to their success. This book had a few too many of them for me.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones is the story of Sophie, who lives in a fairy tale world. When her father passes away, the family splits up, she has an unfortunate encounter with the Witch of the Waste, and much to her consternation, gets turned into an old woman, but she can't talk about it.

Among fairy tale worlds, there are different styles of fairy tales world. This is the sort of world where wizards and wizards are just accepted parts of the landscape (and the subjects of gossip), magic is commonplace, everybody knows the expected tropes, and nobody's really surprised by anything. In a word, it's a comfortable fantasy world with a few uncomfortable characters, one of them being Howl, who lives in a moving castle.

Not surprisingly, Sophie winds up inside the moving castle and proceeds to make herself useful by using no magic at all, much to the consternation of the lady killer Howl.

Wynn tells her story as a series of vignettes and moments, wandering through the tale with little attention about where exactly it is right now, instead providing sufficient entertainment, whimsy, and delight to keep you moving along with the story anyway. Yet, despite all the magic, it's not a story of high magic, but of high heart.

I did find that the subplots got just a little too busy. Towards the end, I lost track of who was enchanted with what and how, so I lost some of the book's effect in sorting out the fast approaching ending.

Like all fairy tales, the book ends with a happily ever, but only after after taking you the long away around to get there. It is a fairy tale, after all.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
All Darkness Met is the godfather of the Game of Thrones. The list of dead major and minor characters beggars the imagination. Glen Cook shoved an entire three year war and military campaign into a single book. At times, the book reads like a standard fantasy novel, and others, summarizes vast military land battles into a few pages, rattling off one death after another.

The story centers around Bragi Ragnarson, who, ten years ago, had defeated the Dread Empire. Things don't take long going from bad to worse as named characters get killed, kidnapped, and sidelined. The Dread Empire wants revenge for its previous defeat, and it's had ten years to amass legions. What begins with assassination and skullduggery ends in a knock-down, drag-out war with a body count in the millions.

Brutal, unmerciful, and containing almost no feel-good moments, this military fantasy answers the dorky question, "If wizards could do X, then why didn't they?" In this book, they do. The magics are fearsome and frightening, bypassing immoral and going straight for reprehensible.

Cook's writing has risen to the complexities of this work, finally bringing to fruition this idea of military fantasy. It's a frightening war combining the worse elements of medieval warfare with the worse elements of modern warfare.

The ultimate downfall of this book is that it bites off so much that it can't even pretend to chew it. This book could have been written as an entire series by itself, spread across four or five more books. The sheer amount of narrative condensation is unbelievable. Glen Cook's skills have risen considerably just to produce this work, but this military fantasy genre demands even more than Cook can achieve. For every prose problems that he's solved and mastered, he invents two new problems. The narrative often bogs down under the weight of its own ambition, requiring vast summaries just to bring the book in at a publishable word count.

If you like this sort of fantasy, this is worth a read. If you don't, it's going to turn you off.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
October's Baby is the second book by Glen Cook and the second book in his Dread Empire Series. Dense, often abbreviated, and somewhat wayward, the book often resembles a history more than a narrative. The novel often feels very wayward, filled with many engaging ideas given only cursory exploration, and when it does look like ideas may be explored, switching to a different feel and style without warning.

From its opening, the story misleadingly appears to be a normal sword and sorcery style book. Bragi Ragnarson is the lord of a minor land grant, but with a newborn heir kidnapped and a throne in balance, he's called back to active service. The book doesn't stay there, taking the story into full-blown military fantasy, with the story turning on battles and sieges rather than chutzpah and chance encounters. By the end, it's an all-out battle for the fate of the west.

Being among the first true military fantasies, if not the first, Cook hasn't figured out how to tell this sort of story yet. The whole thing still feels like a chimaera, but this time, you know which sort of animal the work is supposed to look like. For the first time, it's apparent that Cook hasn't merely stretched the sword and sorcery subgenre, but created a new thing, a new subgenre, military fantasy, one that he would perfect in his Black Company series.

The narrative is dense, often so dense that if you skim a paragraph you miss so many details that you need to go back and reread. There's no fluff here.

The narrative hops between four or five characters, with these changes well signaled to the reader. You'll have no trouble following the point of views of each actor.

This book is brilliant in many ways, mostly in the way that it goes into brand new fantasy territory, but the cost of this brilliance is a leaden narrative, one that leaves the reader shuffling through the work.

Objectively, the books is a bit of a mess, alternating between traditional human-centric narrative, summarized history that's part of the unfolding story, and detailed summaries of major battles. Although there is a through-line with the Dread Empire, the lines doesn't feel very satisfying.

In the end, the book feels less like a narrative and more like an elaborate report. I'm giving this book a low score, not because I think it worthless, but because the number of people deriving enjoyments from this titles will be in the minority. Getting through the middle of this thing felt like an absolute slog for such a short book. However, I won't call it a dog because there are cool things about this book, just not enough for me to rave over. The reach its true potential, the book really needs to be 3x longer.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Haling from 1985, you'd think that Marti Jone's Unsophsticated Time would be full of synthesizers, synthetic clothing, and pop magic, all on a background of robot drummers. Yet, in the college radio days, this wasn't true.

Hell happened to music in the 80's. With the creation of hard rock vs. soft rock stations, anything that didn't fit into those categories, which was most of popular music at the time, wound up in musical exile or college radio. It's in this place that the big acts of the late 80's simmered and stewed, ready to wreck havoc in the late 80's and early 90's. It is into this sphere of unfitting that Unsophisticated Time lived. Marti could not have been long away from Color Me Gone, a band that she performed with just a few years earlier.

In her first solo album, Marti, along with her producer, Don Dixon (who she would marry), produced a perfect pop album for the wrong decade. Low key, sparse by 80's standards, underproduced, and full of naturalistic sounds, with songs that only an introvert could love, and I did love them, Unsophsticated Time brings to us a clever, intelligent, playful, and sweet collection of songs.

The album opens with "Lonely Is (As Lonely Does)", a college radio hit. With a strong, but subdued rift, mildly jangly guitar, and a soft synth, Marti delivers a melancholic tone combined with introspection.

This track is followed up by "(If I Could) Walk Away", another college radio favorite. Don introduces the song with a slide-sounding guitar, beefing up Marti's understated tune. The tune itself is one of desire and ambivalence, about the desire to leave one relationship for another.

Perhaps the best song of all is the unremittingly sweet and unabashed "Follow You All Over the World." In an interview, Marti related how her audience knew all the words despite the song having no repeated lyrics, so my high opinion of this tune is shared by many. This song is not sweet in the saccharine manner, but in an emotional manner. Despite the backup playing the track, every instrument is held back, with Marti's acoustic guitar playing taking front stage, and in truth, that's all the production that this tune really needed.

There are times when the album feels like an acoustic version of a heavily machined 80's track, with it's steady manual drums, steady keyboards, and upbeat intensity. Fortunately, none of that impacts Marti's emotion. Her vocal performance always comes through. Sometimes, the arrangements feel right out of 1977, more in line with the Nerve and Blondie, and the early days of punk-pop.

Although I don't think that the arrangements all hold up equally well 30 years later, I can't fault their overall production choices. Don delivered the production that these songs asked for, which is why I still love this album so well. Thank you, Marti and Don.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
In 1983, Yes brought us 90125, an album that garnered them both critical acclaim and financial success. That album sold well, rescuing Yes from obscurity, introducing them as a fresh band, as fresh as any band in the early 80's. With this album, they emerged a band reborn, producing a sound unmatched by any other act out there.

90125 was powerful.

In 1983, metal was doing its best to claim the throne of rock, asserting that no other form was worth calling rock. Punk had run its course, having failed in the fight. It was still around, but it had clearly lost its momentum. New wave was peaking, with synth sounds. In colleges, REM was the new darling of the day, and knowing them was proof of your coolness. On top was the revitalized Michael Jackson, just coming into his own. Into that, Yes, with their magnificently mixed arrangement of guitar and synth, along with their complex human drums, created a sound that created a place between and apart from all those other forms.

I was 17 back then, reading Glen Cook's Dread Empire series, wondering at Robotech, dealing with all my newly emerging teenage emotions, and finding an echo in "Owner of a Lonely Heart." With such strong feelings, no gentle, Oprah style delicate listening would do. No, hard guitars and raging drums expressed my pains and anxieties far better. I wasn't alone. "Owner of a Lonely Heart" rocketed up the charts.

90125 didn't stop after one song. I wouldn't be here writing this retrospective if that were the case. For one song after another, ambivalent lyrics, both hopeful and resigned, knowing and naive, overpowering and supportive, emerge from every tune. These lyrics do not pander to their audience, they acknowledge their audience. They say, "Your fight is real, and we've been there, and your passions are real."

What strikes me most about this album, on this re-listening, are all the emotions that come through the tunes. These songs are not filled with mono-emotions, but with mixed emotions. Anger, hope, fear, frustration, delight, love, frustration, insecurity. All these emotions emerge, supporting us as the flawed human beings that we are. In this powerful music, we males had a space for weakness and heartache, failure and disappointment, endearment and affection.

At the end, I must call this an optimistic album, perhaps the last great optimistic album of the rock age, before cynicism became the hallmark of 80's culture. In the midst of all the turmoil present on the songs, men older than us told us that we would make it through, succeed, transition, adapt, and continue on. We weren't going to come out of this turmoil unchanged, nor unmarred, but we would come out of it strong.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (1984) was the fourth book in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. In this book, Arthur returns to the earth to find it mysteriously reappeared, only to meet the an enchanting girl over and over again through improbable circumstances.

If you've been reading this series, you will discover that this is the best written manuscript to date. This tale is more of a romantic comedy than a space adventure, where a little human happiness and love are the central part of our story. Also, there's the mystery of why the Earth shows up again, but once the romantic comedy starts, you don't care. You just accept that the Earth is back and Arthur gets to see the world in it's inexplicable ordinariness.

Here is the book where Douglas Adams' genius really takes off and stays up.

The girl in question is mentioned in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as that girl that finally figured out what was wrong and how to solve everything. This isn't a spoiler as you learn that much in the first three pages.

On the whole, the pacing is relaxed but not slothy, exciting without anxiety, humorous as real life, and as lively as humor. I think it's as solid a ramble as you're ever likely to find. The main difference between this book and a real romantic comedy is that this book is far more believable.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982), the third Hitchhiker's book by Douglas Adams, is the first Hitchhiker's book conceived as a novel, rather than as a radio drama that was converted into a novel. This difference shows. Where before his novels felt like excuses for scenes, this novel feel like excuses for scenes that create a coherent narrative (mostly).

In this narrative, we have the typical hero's journey tale, where Arthur and Ford are called on by Slartibarfast to save the Universe. You can guess how well that goes. In between, they meet up with all their usual companions, encounter improbable circumstances, and repeatedly encounter many running jokes. On the whole the book maintains a brisk pace, the scenes work, the narrative works, and then you hit the end.

The end. There's the obvious end, where everything should have ended, and then there's the extended end, where, I suppose, Douglas hadn't written enough pages, so he tacked on a few useless chapters. These had the feel of a hurriedly written manuscript.

Aside from the end, the scenes and the jokes really go together well. Most of the the storytelling is solid, clear, and ridiculous in only the way that Douglas can make a story. I wish that I could start people with this Hitchhiker's, because it works far better than his first two books. While I have to say that it's less brilliant (but only in comparison to the radio shows), he more than makes up for that with engagement and a passel of jokes that works far better novelized than serialized.
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