While driving in to KSQD recently to host On Being with Krista Tippet followed by my show, Narrative Species, I was listening to The Dream Journal, a program in which co-hosts Katherine Bell and Carol Malady discuss dreams with both guest specialists and call-in listeners. It’s a fantastic show, very smart, with nary a namby or pamby in sight. When I tuned in, Carol was talking about a recent dream.
Without my permission, the music I wanted to hear to accompany the conversation started to play in my mind. When I arrived at KSQD, I pitched the hosts an idea; I’d show up with them next time around and add some ambience from a few odd boxes. Mostly during the dream parts.
The following week I was there, with the Elektron Digitone, the Haaken ContinuuMini, and the Akai MPX-16, wired in a kludgey manner so I could hear them and add sound as inspired, which is to say, sparsely and at a very low volume. Below is a link to three pieces extracted from the recording. I am very grateful for the opportunity to do this, and hope to do so again. This is up on SoundCloud.
Largo Moorden’s life in Lower Proszawa is prosaically familiar and utterly strange. He’s 21 years old, a bike courier with a decent place in a bad part of town and a lovely girlfriend. But he pedals past monstrous robots (known as “Maras”) and garbage-eating “eugenics” who keep the streets if not clean, at least less filthy. It quickly becomes clear that Lower Proszawa is not our past or future, but rather the present revised by the precise and joyous imagination of Richard Kadrey. It is nowhere we know, and everything we are.
Kadrey’s urban creation knows no boundaries of genre. He crafts his world with the precise language of science fiction and the wild abandon of modern fantasy. Keeping it tightly focused and ever-immersive are his carefully crafted characters. Read a page or so of this book, and you won’t be thinking of genre. Instead, you’ll start to worry for and with Largo. He’s no naïve kid from the sticks. He’s a scrappy, yet caring underdog from a bad part of town with no plans to return.
Largo’s girl, Remy is a talented beauty who works as an actress (of sorts) at The Theater of the Grand Darkness, a theatre that takes more than a cue card from the Grand Guignol. The Grand Darkness, and Lower Proszawa remain in the shadow of War. One has just concluded in a mixed victory and another looms. Iron Dandies, the disfigured veterans, walk the street in steel helmets to mask their disfigurement. Even though Largo is getting by, and a promotion, what looks weird and not good proves to be much worse than readers might guess. It’s compelling as Hell itself might be, were you to have the chance to glance inside.
Kadrey’s world is built without effort. His prose is stripped down and spare, musical in the manner of The Sex Pistols or Radiohead. He’s a master at revelatory plotting, showing us precisely what we need to know to ask the next question that he’s going to answer. His page-turning world is both delightfully imaginative and uncannily reminiscent of ours. Alas, it seems that creeping fascism is a universal thing, especially when it is creeping towards a state of endless war.
For all the here-and-now that lies just underneath Lower Proszawa, The Grand Dark is a creation of striking and very engaging originality. It’s a world you will want to return to, a world that you come to understand lies just beneath ours. At the core, storytelling is both the means and the end. The bloody horrors of The Grand Darkness are eerily mirrored in Largo’s life. Looking up from The Grand Dark, you’ll find unfortunate answers to the questions it asks in your world, enough to make you hope for a return trip for more hopeful answers to the question s you’ve yet to ask.
Here’s a link to your plunge into darkness with Richard Kadrey. The light you save will be your own.
In my luxurious free time, I’ve been broadcasting Electronic Listening Music on KSQD.org/-Squid 90.7 FM Santa Cruz Community Radio, streaming live every Sunday from 9-10 PM. For this show, I have a generous definition of so-called ambient, or Electronic Listening Music, which might be better categorized under “things I like that generally don’t have words or lyrics so as to make a better background for reading, conversations, studying or, as it were, zoning.”
Usually synthesizers are involved, not always, though. But it took me a while to figure out how I wanted to podcast this material. I limit my own yakking during the show to before-and-after tracklist announcements, to keep the show as word-free as possible. It seemed a shame to podcast it larded it up with broadcast-oriented announcements. Those are necessary for RayJoe, but as a podcast it would defeat the purpose to offer up instrumental music that includes my distracting yakking.
The solution was to create a voiceless version of my show, careful tracklists, then apply my announcements on a second version. I did not do this for the first few shows, so too bad. Ask me if you like and I will edit them for podcast. That said, the last five shows all have ready-to-podcast versions hanging out. Now you can hear them; links to each show and tracklist are below, six hours of e-music just for you.
A note, I’m “Trashotron,” which is to say the interstitial bits are composed and recorded by YT. If you see “Monterey Bay Electronic Ensemble,” or MBEE, that includes Dana Massie playing Linnstrument and Logic, and Matt Isaacson on Guitar, Logic and drums. There are likely bits with Billy C. Reed on Guitar, Bass and effects as well. More on all this later, as the material provides itself. I’m still catching up. Here’s the music, enjoy! Contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or via whatever method works best for you.
Richard “Dodge” Forthrast –last seen in REAMDE – is puttering through the beginning of another day-after-tomorrow in the early 21st century. It’s an intimate, engaging scene that stands on its own, which is to say that Fall is a follow-on to REAMDE, not a sequel. In short order, he dies, and before readers have belted themselves in, the pages and plot acquire super-sonic speed, hurtling one into a gripping, unsettling and prescient makeover of today as tomorrow. Stephenson does not slow down, and those 880 pages seem more like 320 even as you achieve escape velocity and are hurtled from a visionary science fiction story into an equally visionary fantasy novel.
Stephenson is firing on all cylinders in Fall, handing family tensions, international intrigue, and unfettered imagination with equal ease. Starting with the basics, he demonstrates his power with prose in the opening, where he conjures a palpable nostalgia for the present. It’s a nice way to open a science fiction novel, especially since Dodge’s death requires that his body be preserved for resurrection in some unknowable future. The path to that future is lined with a truly terrifying extrapolation of the dangers of the dissolution of consensus reality. As truth becomes personal, divorced from the measurable and external, marketing and promotion become weapons of mass destruction. Without a doubt, this will be for many the most powerful section of the novel. Don’t read it in the vicinity of the news. It won’t end well for you.
When next we meet Dodge, he’s Egdod, a nascent intelligence in a world unformed, until he takes a look around. Stephenson lets us slip into his online fantasy novel as Egdod lets there be light, sound, a mixmaster of human mythos, and wildly fantastic action that manages to break boundaries in post-Tolkien fantasy fiction. And while Stephenson’s afterlife is a deep dip into our religious human tapestry, complete with Miltonesque verses, its plot takes a page from 20th-century anti-religious philosophy; hell is, indeed, other people.
The joy of Stephenson’s fantasy novel-within-a-novel is that it is informed by and intercut with a toe-tapping tale of near-future intrigue. Every coin in the fantasy world has two sides as characters from the supposed real world (assuming we are not a simulation), find themselves reborn in a world that manages to be weirder than ours. Stephenson uses the fantastic not just to externalize our world into his near-future, he uses his fantasy to externalize the characters in his novel. It’s an economical means for him to entertain the hell out of us (you’re ignoring the so-called real world when you’re immersed in this tense-in-all-worlds narrative) while providing a great dose of exploding-head thought experimentation. Fall, or Dodge in Hell wallops your brain while it whips you into a future that is all to reminiscent of today.
You can follow this link to a conversation via Skype with Neal Stephenson’s excellent voice avatar:
Follow this link to hear my conversation with Neal Stephenson’s meatworld incarnation.
Hearts and minds are not generally changed by externalities. Belief and understanding, for all that they are concerned with the world round us, are not a part of that world. They are internal phenomena; change comes from within. Present us with new experiences, new facts, new perspectives, and we may change. The stories we tell ourselves are the only ones that will persuade us.
With the first sentence of The Plot to Destroy Democracy: How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the West, Malcolm Nance offers a terrifying scenario: “On November 8, 2016, Vladimir Putin became the first Russian President of the United States.” The bulk of what follows looks at the last 100 years of Russian espionage as well as current events. Nance is a brilliant orchestrator and analyst of history. The facts speak for themselves, and the author lets readers draw their own conclusions. By the time events get close to current, readers, engrossed in a page-turning look at dirty deeds done in the dark will have made their own internal arguments. We are natural pattern matchers, looking at the fall of Crimea during a long weird Washington summer.
Nance keeps us focused on the import of today by showing us the results of yesterday, and that today’s hot new trend is yesteryear’s reheated leftover from the previous generation. For example, “fake news” is all the rage, and it seems as if it might be impossible without the leg up offered by a ubiquitous Internet and omnipresent social media. But the Soviets were, back in the day (the 1970’s), busy sending trained Russian nationals to India as reporters, to plant stories with the hope (sometimes realized) in smaller, more easily-reached Indian papers, with the hopes that they would be picked up by AP and disseminated to the wider world. (Some were.) In the stream of a gripping run-up from Soviet times to today’s oligarchy, it’s a nice detail that itself makes no argument. It needs no argument. Just look around, and the patterns match whether you want them to or not.
Nance knows how to strip down to the basics, and rips through recent history and the current catastrophe with grace and a sure eye for economic storytelling. By the time he arrives in the present, readers are just the right bit ahead of him. The Plot to Destroy Democracy is tense and gripping, even if we think we know what’s going on. Nance never pulls his punches, and he has a knack for finding the details that bind together disparate strands of events to transform apparent chaos into unpleasant order. You will not read this book with the intention of change. And by the time you finish, you may not feel changed. But it’s quite likely you’ll want to see change, early and often.
The innate appeal of the political thriller, or memoir, is that the machinations of plot are revelations of character. With The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, Ben Rhodes proves that a memoir can be a political thriller. Seamlessly combining non-fiction and novelistic narrative techniques, The World As It Is tells the story of ten years of author Ben Rhodes’ life. Beginning with his invitation to join the Barack Obama presidential campaign and finishing with the turnover of the American government to Donald Trump, Rhodes’ plot is as exciting as the headlines. But his quiet insight into the motivations that drove him and those around him reveal a conflict behind the turmoil. The World As It Is happens when young but experienced idealists meet and try to change the human machines that enmesh them.
Rhodes’ perspective is throughout the book feels like that of an outsider even though he is in many ways, the ultimate insider. Because he eventually becomes part of Obama’s foreign affairs arm, Rhodes is not generally concerned with the immediate domestic crises created by the toxic Republican reaction to Obama’s election. Instead, he shows his work to be that of a busy firefighter, as he’s asked to solve one problem in a manner that creates more. National (in)security keeps him incredibly busy, essentially sweeping the sand back into the sea.
Be that as it may, we also see a group of men and women who believe that the machineries of government can accomplish lots of good for lots of people. Moreover, they’re good at integrating idealism and action. After years of frustration, we see Rhodes lead the effort to open up Cuba. It’s a lot of grunt work, meetings with Raul Castro to prepare the path and then the actual steps down the path. Baby steps, to be sure, but certain and difficult to un-create.
Irony arrives early and often, as when Rhodes celebrates the success of how Obama dealt with Libya. One key moment of accomplishment from within the perspective of the Obama administration was that they prevented Gaddafi’s promised razing of Benghazi. For all the lives they saved, they had no idea of the repercussions of that word in the years to follow. Unhappily, we see this play out as well. And yes, eventually Ben Rhodes becomes a villain for Fox News. Credit Rhodes’ writing expertise with the fact that in his narrative, this bit of recorded history seems surprising, as indeed anyone’s own vilification might seem surprising to them.
Rhodes’ prose is a big part of the real pleasure of reading The World As It Is. It feels raw and poignant, polished but prosaic. As a character, he feels a bit uncertain about his place in this world, but he’s willing to forgo or postpone personal life for the necessities of political action. And there are actions, plenty of them, positive things done by forward-looking humans here. Change is possible but never easy. Government is a human construct, easily broken by those who wish to, but fixable by those who care to. And in The World As It Is, we spend ten sweet years with those who care to and can selflessly change things for the better.
Humans are excellent homogenizers of the world around them. We are given to think that the entire planet, with a few spectacular exceptions, looks pretty much like whatever is currently in view. We live in an eternal present, and assume that it’s the same for everybody else. With The Third Bank of the River: Power and Survival in the Twenty-First-Century Amazon, Chris Feliciano Arnold offers not a travelogue to an exotic exception, but rather, an impressive feat of world-building. In a layered, page-turning portrait, he crafts a vision of blocks of unchanged early-twentieth century blight dropped into vistas of prehistoric rain forest. Apparently, we don’t need arrow-flinging heroines. We can catch a plane to dystopia.
The Third Bank of the River unfolds in three beautifully wrought layers from the last decade or so. Everything is contiguous to something different, and the lines are changing constantly. We first meet the author as a callow post-grad. He’s an orphan from Brazil who grew up as a typical kid in the US; he wants to see the city of his birth. But the more he wants to immerse himself in the “authentic” lives around him, the more he finds himself wanting. As a character in his own book, he does himself no favors, which has the unexpected benefit of making his writerly vision feel gritty and realistic.
The vision, as it unfolds, is fascinating. We see – he sees – the inexorable incursion of the 20th-century West into a pristine wilderness populated by both un-contacted and “in-touch” indigenous tribes. “In touch” in this case means merely 7 miles from the nearest road of any kind. Drive down a highway. To the left: green inferno.” To the right: brutalist architecture for factories. Misquoting William Gibson, in Brazil, the present isn’t distributed evenly. Imagine your world, dropped a block at a time into trackless, unforgiving jungle. Nobody wins. Dystopia marches on.
Chris Felicino Arnold builds up his world with a well-edited combination of first-person experience and history. He knows how to wrap story in story, past and present; how to temper his vision so the readers slowly realize that the turned pages are leading us elsewhere. He unhomogenizes the world. The question we find ourselves asking is not a happy thought. Are we looking at our past – or our future? As Chris Feliciano Arnold explores The Third Bank of the River, we realize that the two may directly overlay one another. It adds up to dystopia, but it is not too late to change paths. First, we need to stop worrying about the future, and understand that by the time it arrives, we think it is already the past.
The author will be appearing at local bookstores:
Tuesday, June 19, 2018, 7:30 PM Green Apple Books 1231 9th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94122
Tuesday, June 26, 2018, 7:00 PM Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera, CA 94925
Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King Reviewed, plus in-depth and lightning-round interviews.
Readers will not be surprised to find Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell sharp and smart, even in an adventure titled Island of the Mad. Prospects might seem dire as the novel begins. An aunt of one of Mary’s friend has gone missing from Bedlam, the infamous madhouse that conjures of hellish visions informed by Hieronymus Bosch. With terror in our hearts, we know that Russell will pose as a madwoman herself. Dire does not begin to describe the peril.
But Laurie R. King excels at eluding our expectations, and as a mystery and novel, Island of the Mad zigs when we’re expecting a zag and evokes smiles alongside (and often in place of) shivers. Firmly grounded in a vividly wrought historical setting, the latest Russell and Holmes offers sly satire and lots of witty repartee between Holmes and Russell as they encounter fascists in Italy and Britain. Fascism segues into opportunism, and profit becomes a seemingly legitimate goal for the might makes right set. While Mary checks into the madhouse, Holmes spends time with Mycroft. Paths cross then converge. And every time Holmes and Russell have a meeting of the minds, readers can be reminded of King’s ability to craft superbly entertaining dialogue.
King expertly weaves the strands of a toe-tapping historical mystery with understated, indeed, often-unstated observations that may or may not feel contemporary. Island of the Mad is fun and tense, but not irrelevant. What King does most expertly is to leave readers room to enjoy all the mental gymnastics in which they wish to engage. The story is compelling, the characters are charming, unless they’re awful, and King has plenty of room to twist the plot when we least expect it. The travelogue aspects are gorgeous; King evokes Venice in all its sunken, decrepit glory, and finds even more surprising destinations for Mary and Sherlock. This is perfect summer fun, and chock-a-block with enough thought-provoking needles and actual history to pleasantly fill our minds. Mary Russell’s travels in the past manage to not just entertain the present. They illuminate it.
Here’s a link to my in-depth interview with Laurie R. King as we discuss Island of the Mad.
Here’s a link to my lightning-round interview with Laurie R. King about Island of the Mad.
Our memories flow as does water. The moments are fluid; they can be touched, but not held. They are never the same, yet lie in wait to drown us. For young Anna, the day with her father at Manhattan Beach is a memory that beckons, complicated feelings and emotions, not well understood in the moment, and less so in reflection. In Jennifer Egan’s powerful and utterly engaging novel Manhattan Beach, water flows through the narrative, transporting us, surrounding us, uncontrollable.
Egan’s story unfolds in New York during the Second World War, where an older Anna now works for the war effort. The memory of that day at the beach haunts her. Her father has since disappeared. But now, as a nascent adult, Anna once again meets the man her father met that day. He owns a nightclub, and she’s given to understand he’s a gangster, though he’s kind to her. Perhaps he might know what happened to her father. Anna begins to ask questions as she pushes herself into a naval diving program. Shadows haunt the harbor. Violence is all too easy to find.
Manhattan Beach is a compelling historical noir, with an intricately built setting and complicated characters enmeshed in a social machine beyond their ken or control. The intense plotting is finely enmeshed in seamlessly experienced history and achingly real characters. Egan’s prose is masterful and understated, beautiful but never showy. It flows, and we are transported, until, yes, like the characters, we are ultimately changed. Egan crafts a ripping yarn, with sea stories and shootouts caught in a current of melancholy. Dark nights and lonely streets; we are ever alone.
Economics my be “the dismal science,” but it is a human experience that is fraught with very mixed emotions, no matter where you fit in the financial spectrum. It’s vitally important to understand how we feel about our place in the economy, but easily lost in seas of statistics, calculations and predictions. Awash in facts, feelings get the short shrift. Edoardo Nesi and Guido Maria Brera were friends in Italy before the fall of 2008; Nesi was the heir to a centuries-old textile business, while Brera was a stock trader. As the world fell apart around them, with all the power of an over-wrought opera, they talked. And wrote.
That conversation is captured in Everything Is Broken Up and Dances: The Crushing of the Middle Class, an outstanding and powerful story of just how expertly and easily we can bring ourselves to the brink of economic apocalypse. All those soft and fluffy numbers prove to have some rather sharp and hard edges when they escape from pages of prediction into the real world. Theory be damned – economics can make us miserable, no matter what we “earn.”
Everything Is Broken Up and Dances re-creates our emotional arc as a world, seen through the refracting mirrors of Nesi and Brera. In short, lyrical chapters, we voyage from the false highs after the turn of the century to the very real depths as one member of the EU after another teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. Nesi, a prize-winning novelist must sell the family business. Brera watches the wider economic world crumble. While both understand the facts driving the forces at work, they also experience, and write beautifully, in sparse prose, about the socio-cultural feelings of those behind the wheel.
The result is a perverse joy to read, gorgeous prose to tell a riveting human story of our emotional experience of economic science as it brings us to the precipice of annihilation. Nesi and Brera capture the abject terror of seeing your nation, your home brought low in the eyes and esteem of others. The real power of this book is to remind us just how thin the veneer of numbers is. We are not numbers. But neither are we free men and women. We are the captives of our own creation, so long as it remains invisible to us. Everything Is Broken Up and Dances resets our sensibilities. Facts are real, but no more so than the feelings they engender.