peteg's blog

Greg Egan: Uncanny Valley.

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Kindle. A short riff on what it might be like to be an edited, artificial revival/incarnation of a successful gay man. I don't really know what he was getting at; there were moments of Brunneresque social commentary but not in an imagined future.

Douglas Stuart: Shuggie Bain.

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Kindle. The best thing I've read in an age. Briefly, this is the story of a mother whose addiction to booze costs her her family. It's well constructed and somehow sufficiently familiar with just enough Glasgwegian to sound like a west-coast Irvine Welsh. Early on, at Blackpool, we get a variation on human observation: the woman looks at the brightly-lit world in wonder, while the man looks at the other men looking at his woman. That night, amongst many others, does not end well. I felt he accurately portrayed Scottish literalism, community, coarseness, concern, cliches, etc. His inventive description (like The Godfather) and masterful unfolding of his characters made it cinematic. Kelly Macdonald is a shoo-in for Agnes.

Leah Hager Cohen at the New York Times.

2020-11-20: won the Booker Prize for 2020.

The Zero Effect

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Haven't seen this one for a while. As with Song Kang-ho, you'll enjoy this as much as you enjoy Bill Pullman's rubbery face.

Roger Ebert at the time, and also Janet Maslin.

Ceridwen Dovey: In the Garden of the Fugitives.

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Kindle. The problem with reading on the Kindle is that it's too expensive to throw across the room every time a book gets too irritating. The legions of local reviews fawn over Ms Dovey's prose, but too often I see clanging repetition, contradictions within the same paragraph, and characters celebrating the awesomeness of other characters' observations and unsupported assertions, shading into authorial self praise. Much could be fixed with clearer thinking about what she's trying to say, and pondering if it's, you know, actually worth saying; the hiding behind unreliable narrators does not add layers via self perception, it just needlessly musses up the message. The Remains of the Day this is not.

Structurally this thing is supposed to be an exchange of emails. This almost immediately proves unsustainable and is replaced with the old reliable two-track. The voices, initially somewhat distinct, are entirely flattened, including the dialogue within the dual but not duelling monologues. All I concluded is that you too can go to Harvard (or New York University as the case may be) and come away with an unfurnished mind.

I picked this up because I remember enjoying her inventiveness in Only the Animals. There's none of that here, or any humour. The excess of researched, touristic and psychoanalytic detail is trying, reminding me of that fad from a few years back (Rushdie, Ghosh, ...) that requires a home for every factoid the author encounters. Overall it looks like we're watching Ms Dovey do her South African white guilt therapeutic exercises in public. A cursory scan of the reviews suggests this is easy to see but difficult to engage with.

The Mighty Quinn

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Early-ish Denzel Washington (1989) goes to Jamaica and does not entirely succeed with the accent work. Also his slouching walk is not quite up to the islander standards of louche. He does work as Chief of Police for the most part, largely because the rest of the cast is so supportive and immersive, mostly looking on as some Quiet Americans attempt to recover a cache of $10,000 bills ahead of the locals and the freedom fighters of Central America who were promised the money. But that's not really what this is about: at times it's almost a musical, and at others there's just enough Shaft to make you wonder if it's updating Blaxploitation or doing its own liberated thing.

Roger Ebert dug it at the time. I can't believe Denzel wasn't already a star by then. Mimi Rogers didn't do much for me (blame the rest of the cast). M. Emmet Walsh was solid as the janitor; I hadn't realised he'd been in so many movies (Blade Runner of course, and teasing my memory, Clean and Sober). Vincent Canby suggests it might be just a tourism commercial.

Greg Egan: Incandescence.

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Kindle. I went in cold, forgetting that with Egan the blurb on the back is not an accurate guide to what he has in mind. The afterword tells us that he was playing Raymond Smullyan's didactic game for Einstein's general theory of relativity, and not the promised Star Trek V mystical journey into the centre of the galaxy to meet some isolationists. Being lazy I quickly stopped following the lessons too closely, and I'd say it's not worth reading unless you do try to keep up.

Initially I liked how his universe respected the physics we know, with life (not as we have it) moving around on a galaxy-wide data network with transit delays of millennia, but of course the didacticism gave him no other option. I was less of a fan of the sentients having backups, given his broader conception of consciousness in Permutation City and readiness to lean on quantum encryption. Why should consciousness remain local in such a system? More fatally Egan struggles to keep his epistemics straight: how do the Splinter critters know about the hub, the void and all that when they haven't been outside for generations? Why ever would they expect their local observations to hold universally? Why would they ascribe a speed to light? So much (too much) ontology is taken for granted.

As a story it reminded me of McGahan's posthumous sapient eco disaster. The two-track structure takes the edge off the didacticism, and many explanations are too hurried; more diagrams would have helped, as Egan admits on his companion webpages. Around the mid point I realised that the stories must be very separate in time, which while skilfully suggested made at least one into deterministic history, robbing them both of forward momentum. For all his understanding of science, Egan shows less awareness of and interest in how societies may need to be structured to thrive; it seems likely that some basic empathy, truth telling or goal sharing is necessary for collaboration to arise, and that seems like a prerequisite for technology. He did make me wonder if nature knows about binary search. Oftentimes there's a bit too much science and not enough engineering.

Goodreads has many words spilt on this one. Egan's page suggests this work is insufficiently self contained. He emphasises that (as is usual with physics) almost everything he says are white lies, implying that he is not playing with the right foundational concepts. For all his protestations I didn't feel like the Aloof ever turned up.

Raining in the Mountain

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Yet another choose-your-own-successor movie (that must be on my mind) from 1979, prompted by Glenn Kenny's review of a recent restoration. Hsu Feng gorgeously leads the McGuffin search; I think the writer missed a trick by having it even exist. The martial arts don't take up much screen time; instead there's a lot of running about, and some (now) staid plotting and banal conceptions of wisdom. Fun and quite pretty for what it is.

John Brunner: The Stone That Never Came Down.

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"Inside my head," Malcolm quoted, "a man is trying to ride a dog which is trying to ride a lizard."

Kindle. The best of the thin Brunners in quite a while. The VC total recall virus presented here as the all-saviour is a minor variant of the scepticism/science/rationality/Enlightenment meme-virus that ripped through Europe and later the world quite a while back. Apparently if our memories worked better we'd be able to solve all the problems of humanity. Then again, we might just end up with more movies like Kaufman's latest.

I guess his major failing as a novelist was his inability to construct complex characters. That and his unnuanced criticisms of religion etc.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

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The draw was David Thewlis and Toni Collette, who do their best with the heavily referential material. There's little here if you don't get Kaufman's gestures, which may be erudite but demonstrate little insight on his part. Some of the references are expanded inline — even without reading her I was sure that movie review was Pauline Kael's — so lazily that it reeks of plagiarism. The point may be that we're deep into derivative, attention-deprived culture now, where knowingness is enough; there is no further need for innovation, explanation, the expansion of human thought and experience, for if there were, Kaufman would be doing that. The best parts are probably in the footnotes, or on the cutting room floor, or in the source novel.

Reviews from Michael Wood and A. O. Scott should have warned me off.

Ron Rash: Burning Bright: Stories.

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Kindle. A 2010 collection of shorts from a much-feted writer from the Carolinas and (somehow) more specifically Appalachia. They're well written but thin. None have the kink Carver put in his. Good always beats evil; Southerners are redeemed by not all being Confederates, and no women are helpless but some could use a little help in their twilight. I'd forgotten that previously I'd read his Nothing Gold Can Stay and seen the feeble movie adaptation of Serena. I guess this is more of the same: the meth, the Civil War, the grinding poverty, the ties that bind. Mercifully brief.

Janet Maslin is a fan of the man.

The Godfather: Part III

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Three-and-a-half stars from Roger Ebert, implying that either it's better than Part II or he learnt his lesson in the ensuing 16 years.

After Dark, My Sweet

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One of Roger Ebert's "great movies". He sold it as some kind of neo-noir (it's from 1990) but really it's entirely feeble: the acting is poor (Rachel Ward in particular seems to mostly stand around waiting to deliver her lines). The plot consists of contrivance after contrivance, with nothing following from the characters' reasoning that it's all a bad idea; none are sympathetically drawn. There's excess drinking. It's entirely pointless.

Vincent Canby also saw far more in it than I did.

The Godfather: Part II

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Roger Ebert, at the time. He was less impressed with this than with the first one (only three stars!), and remained so in 2008. Scarface is a better movie? Wow.

The Godfather

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Roger Ebert at the time and in 1997.

John Brunner: The 100th Millennium.

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Kindle. Very thin Brunner. His conceit here is entirely busted: apparently a star is going to swing past the Earth in a few hundred years past the 100th millennium and the solution is to dig deeply into the past. Jarringly Brunner also wants a progressive society, one still hungry for something, and yet cannot imagine the production of new knowledge. He's all too ready to focus on new sources of addiction, all of which lead to decadence.

Goodreads tells me this later got expanded into Catch A Falling Star.


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Another from Big director Penny Marshall. These movies about mental conditions always need to be approached with caution, and it seems likely that this one didn't do great justice to the raw material provided by Oliver Sacks. Even so there is some genuinely funny stuff early on from Robin Williams ("I'm sorry, if you were right, I would agree with you."). Robert De Niro's performance is challenging; whatever it's technical merits, it doesn't really help. Briefly, some long-term catatonic patients are given a new drug in 1969 and transiently return to sapience.

Janet Maslin wasn't impressed. Roger Ebert was.

House of Games

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Roger Ebert claimed this was the best movie of 1987 in his round up of 1988. David Mamet's first outing as a film director, which shows as his lead (and wife of that moment?) Lindsay Crouse delivers her lines in theatrical style. It's something of a modern noir, shot like Scorcese's After Hours amongst others. As with most of what I remember from Mamet it's long on the con and short on pretty much everything else; also there's been too many slicker efforts in the meantime for this to endure. It's always a shame when the Chekhovian device, here introduced very early on, actually goes off and yet doesn't resolve anything. William H. Macy was young once. Joe Mantegna leads the cons before he took his place in The Godfather Part III.

Ebert dug it at the time and again in 1999, which I put it down to them both being big Chicago fish. Vincent Canby got right into it too, but comedy?

John Brunner: Web of Everywhere.

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Kindle. And yet more thin Brunner. Here he toys with the concept of instantaneous matter transportation... again. Something apocalyptic has gone down so there's only three women for every five men. We get a couple of strong characters and a weak plot. There's just nothing there.


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Another entry on Roger Ebert's list of the best movies of 1988. James Woods is angry, restless and high-energy in every scene, with the idea being that if he's moving all the time we won't stop to think about how little we understand the setup. Self-accused feminist/poet/bookshop owner Lesley Ann Warren momentarily lends some ballast to the plot in her first scene. Later ones confuse us by demonstrating her lack of political conviction. It's got the psychological something of Se7en, Silence of the Lambs etc. but nothing like the coherence or success; it's not persuasive and hardly tries to be.

Ebert gave it three stars as a meta-commentary by Woods on the Dirty Harry genre. Janet Maslin is right: the humorous intro featuring a black hep-cat trying to report a murder to the LAPD may have been the high point. It made me think this thing would have a pulse, like To Live and Die in L.A.

John Brunner: The Super Barbarians.

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Kindle. Thin Brunner is inexhaustible but exhausting. This is a retread of the swords-and-starships conceit: feudal, barbarian aliens who have little technology on their home world conquer Earth with superior starships. Conclusion: some other aliens gifted these aliens that technology as some kind of experiment (motivation unknown). Douglas Adams had far more fun with his Vogons. It's a mashup of the Mongols and China, of Arabia, of the Romans and the Greeks, of the bible. It's like Brunner was trying to convince himself that all that study, erudition and drug taking added up to something, or at least could be monetised. With more conviction and fewer coincidences it might have been Dune.