Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jerry's sci-fi reading list:

Philip K. Dick: VALIS (1981), Radio Free Albemuth, etc.

Dick's stories are the basis for the movies "Blade Runner", "Total Recall", and "Minority Report".

Dick is the Sun Ra of science fiction: prolific, original, influential, but also sort of sloppy. Dick is a master of plots that subvert reality. In "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" a policeman chases renegade androids who are indistinguishable from real people. In "Total Recall" characters buy artificially implanted memories of dream vacations instead of the real thing.

Much of his best writing is in his short stories, but the VALIS trilogy is his greatest accomplishment. In these novels an alien satellite orbiting Earth transmits signals to an Orange County science fiction writer in an attempt to awaken and free humanity from the illusory, Nixonian dictatorship in which we are all trapped. These books have autobiographical elements - Dick once experienced a near mental breakdown during which he learned that his son had a painful undiagnosed medical condition that was later confirmed by doctors. The revelation he experiences is rooted in early Christian gnosticism, and Dick makes this subject fascinating.

Vernor Vinge:
A Fire Upon the Deep (Hugo winner), Marooned in Realtime, etc.

Vernor Vinge has been around forever. His short story "Bookworm, Run" was published in 1966. I read it in an Analog SciFi anthology I bought at Interlochen while attending All State Intermediate Band Camp in the summer of 1971. It's about a chimpanzee named Norman who's given a computer interface in a secret military lab in an abandoned copper mine in Michigan's UP. He memorizes all the information on the military computer network then flees, fearing punishment.

Vinge's novels "A Fire Upon the Deep" and "A Deepness in the Sky" are space operas first and foremost, very enjoyable to read, with heroes, villains, spaceships, exotic aliens, and lots of drama. He's an old master.

William Gibson: Neuromancer (Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick award winner), Count Zero, Virtual Light, etc.

This 1984 book is considered the first major cyberpunk novel. Cyberpunk is the SciFi school whose writers invest the virtual reality of cyberspace with the cynicism and criminal attitude of noir detective novels. Gibson is quite the prose stylist and is well known for namedropping trademarks from the computer tech, media, and fashion worlds into his near future world to add realism.

In Gibson's near future transnational companies and machine intelligences employ computer cowboy internet hackers and secret agent ninjas in ruthless corporate conflict. His main characters are drifting freelance consultants combining the skills of computer hackers, spies, and special forces operatives or they are castoffs from the lower rungs of society trying to cope with the rapidly changing world.

In his later books Gibson is a bit the victim of his own success - his plots get a little thin and his writing style a little precious, but he's still really good and his influence is enormous.

Jack Womack: Random Acts of Senseless Violence, Heathern, Ambient, Terraplane, Elvissey, and Going, Going, Gone

Jack Womack's fiction is highly influenced by the works of Charles Fort, the early 20th century researcher of paranormal phenomena. The above six novels comprise the "Dryco" series, in which a sinister corporation takes over a chaotic, violent America after a financial crash in the early 2000s. Researchers for the corporation travel to an alternate Earth and a 1950s United States that is a grimly racist and fascist version of ours.

His focus is on the depiction of bent societies, his characters' attempts to cope, and their unique languages. These are consistently dark and violent books.

Womack invents systems of slang rather as Anthony Burgess did in "A Clockwork Orange". In "Random Acts" the language evolves from schoolgirl diary confession to ghetto gangster slang as a New York City family's life collapses. In "Terraplane" a clipped, condensed conversational shorthand is infused with Russian slang. In "Ambient" the language of a community of underground mutants in New York is super Goth, Byronesque.

Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, etc.

Snow Crash (1992) is widely considered the most influential SciFi novel since Neuromancer. Originally conceived as a graphic novel, it's the story of a virus that spreads simultaneously as a drug in the real world and as a computer virus in cyberspace. The main characters are a high-tech skateboard riding courier and a computer hacker/ninja. The setting is a near future LA that is fragmented into balkanized communities. As the real world becomes more and more hostile, people spend more of their time immersed in the networked virtual reality of the MetaVerse. As Stephenson says, in the near future the only things Americans excel at are pop music, computer code, and delivering a pizza in 30 minutes.

Stephenson's "The Diamond Age" is even better, I think. It's about a young girl from a broken family in the near future who is raised and educated by a subversive interactive children's book that molds her into the leader of a social revolution.

"Cryptonomicon" is very impressive in a different way. It's a massive novel with two parallel story lines, one about a theoretical mathematician's adventures in crypography and special ops during World War II, and the other about his grandson, a California computer guy involved in the search for World War II gold caches in the Philippines.

Charles Stross: Iron Sunrise, Accelerando, Singularity Sky, etc.

Stross is Scottish. I first read Stross on Infinity Plus, a UK SciFi website.

He's contemporary and prolific. He has a nice webpage at Charlie's Place.

His prose reads clean and fast. It's spontaneous and humorous. It's also dense - he doesn't explain passing references much so you're skating on thin ice sometimes as far as knowing what he's talking about goes. That doesn't bother me, I like Thomas Pynchon too.

A lot of his fiction is based in the next hundred years, but he anticipates enormous change in everyday life as people interface ever more seamlessly with computer networks. He's dystopian in that Vernor Vinge's "Singularity" theory shapes his concept of the future. This is the idea that machine intelligence and capabilities could soon outrun human understanding, rendering humanity obsolete.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Friday happy hour, as a snow storm engulfed Ann Arbor, I performed with Orange Door Hinge at the Old Heidelberg. ODH is a 10 piece horn and rhythm band playing 70s cop show themes, disco and funk instrumentals. Among the selections we performed was Frank Zappa's "Sofa", as arranged by Ed Palermo, who was nice enough to email us his charts as performed on his album T.E.P.B.B.P.T.M.O.F.Z.. Here is a low rent mp3 rip of Sofa #1, from my rather chewed up copy of the Zappa/Mothers 1977 album "Zappa in New York". Actually this is the whole LP side including the "Black Page" medley, in a 19 meg MP3 file.

Terry Bozzio - drums
Patrick O'Hearn - bass
Eddie Jobson - keyboards
Ray White - rhythm guitar, vocals
Ruth Underwood - percussion
David Samuels - percussion
Randy Brecker - trumpet
Mike Brecker - tenor sax, flute
Lou Marini - alto sax, flute
Ronnie Cuber - baritone sax, clarinet
Tom Malone - trombone, trumpet, piccolo

John Bergamo - percussion overdubs
Ed Mann - percussion overdubs