Book Review: Apes and Angels

Warning – spoilers ahead

I browsed through the library haphazardly, not really intent on any specific author, or genre, or title, or length. Ben Bova’s Apes and Angels was displayed on the endcap, quite prominently, and I recognized the name. Plus above it I see “Six-time Hugo Award Winner”, so I think, hmm, he’s a good writer, let’s see what this has to say.

On the dust jacket inside I read about Predecessors and humanity traveling 200 light years to another planet to save them from some death wave of gamma radiation. Intrigued enough, I picked up the book and took it home.

Instantly I found it a quick read. I got to at least page 100 in the first hour or so, which was a relative oddity among what I’ve read recently. I attribute this to what seems rather simplistic writing – much of what happens is rather straight-forward description of action. People talk, then they walk somewhere, they make food and eat it, they have internal dialogue. I feel like the author wasn’t asking me to think too much, as he was spelling everything out, which allowed me to almost skim without worrying that I was missing something. Ultimately this means the pages just sped along. I finished this morning with about the last 180 pages in <2 hours.

The plot? Well, there were things that happened. Brad MacDaniels, the protagonist, does some various things, struggles against the emotional residue from the loss of his family, goes against his superiors time and again with always positive results (unrealistic), and ultimately saves the day. I would have liked to see more actual action, though. There was only one scene, during a flood on Mithra Gamma, in which I felt some tension, some fear for this guy that you’ve spend 300 pages building up in my mind. I wanted more of that, more danger, more real consequence for error. Plus, with a 5-year timeline for the spaceship in orbit, any “deadlines” always seemed rather nebulous and rather unimposing. Perhaps this could be better accentuated with some more pressing demands that ultimately impose greater stakes for the characters.

The characters – are rather shallow, all of them. Brad is the naive, impetuous, internal-demon-battling young adventurer. Felicia is his companion then wife, herself drawn seemingly to simply accentuate him, rather than to provide a full person in her own right, without any kinds of desires or ambition other than for Brad and his body. Kosoff, the scientific research captain, is the big bad wolf, always scheming, always plotting to turn Brad’s discoveries either against Brad or for his own benefit. Even the humanoids of planet Gamma are stock figures,  “intelligent but subservient to religion” that has been done many, many times before. I think Bova missed an opportunity here for greater depth, for character arcs, that would have shown some changes and, ultimately, humanity rather than roboticism.

The premise: Here is where I find the biggest failures of the book. Early on, Brad recognizes that the master computer, Emcee (MC), and the humans have become symbiotes. Neither can exist without the other. Unfortunately, the symbiosis between the predatory beasts of planet Beta and the prey humanoids on planet Gamma is left unidentified. Also left unexplored and unexplained is the parallelism between the Predecessors and the Sky Masters. Predecessors came to Earth, created New Earth and populated it with humanity, and gave those resultant humans vastly advanced technology. Sky Masters came to Mithra system’s Alpha, Beta, and Gamma planets, made vast changes therein (perhaps even so much as radically reorienting their biological systems), and then departed too. Are the Sky Masters the same as the Predecessors? Are either group completely benign, or simply manipulating the Earth system and the Mithra system for their own benefits? And what about the parallels between the interventions of hundreds of thousands of years ago and those that the Earthlings are doing on Alpha, Beta, and Gamma? So many potentials for true sci-fi understanding left unexplored.

Side note – I think that the distractions of the action on planet Alpha are less than helpful. They take up real estate on the page that would be better used to consider the debates listed above, and they don’t really add anything to any characterization or plot elements. Plus, the fact that the humans “save” the planet from destruction that is a million years off is rather flimsy. I think that it would have been better to just presume Alpha was uninhabited an therefore unimportant, devoting those hundred pages or so to the important intellectual debate only touched on above.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book. It drew me on, it entertained me, it got me thinking (a little bit), but I was left unsatisfied. Like a moderate make-out session that just doesn’t get to the sex part. That’s it? I want more! You tease…

If this were Amazon.com, I’d give it 3 stars. A fun way to pass a few hours, but nothing I’d want to read again. 

For examples of good, intelligent sci-fi I do want to read again, think The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doris Russell, or the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons. Both of those treat interaction by humans and non-humans in a much more comprehensive, intellectually stimulating way.

The Deepest Cuts are the Worst

I entered a contest run by the Barefoot Writer (a monthly publication for copywriters). The assignment was to respond to the following prompt: “If a holiday were to take place in your honor, what would it be called and why?”

I first answered with about 975 words in this essay:

The following was discovered in 16-year-old Zane’s journal, by his snooping sister and posted on Instagram:

January 2

“All right, everybody!” My dad shouted. It’s his holiday. “Get your asses into the kitchen! It’s time for nicknames!”

“That’s your one!” My mom shouted back. “No more swear words for you tonight!”

He muttered something under his breath. “What?” I asked.

“I said, ass isn’t a swear word.”

“Well, it is, you said so yourself last year,” Mom replied. “Now you have to take the Ceremonial First Drink!”

He shook his head. “Fine.” He held out a hand. By this time there were at least a dozen of us crowded around in the small kitchen. You never celebrate Nick Name Night with just a few people – always a big group.

My sister put a glass into his hand, and then everyone poured a little bit of their own drinks in – one had egg nog, my little brother dumped in orange juice. Dad called this a “tornado” when he did it at the soft drink machine. Nowadays it’s a penalty for anyone who swears twice in the night.

He sniffed it and shuddered. Everyone laughed. Finally he swallowed it all in one big gulp, wiped his mustache with the back of his hand, and slammed the glass on the table. We all applauded.

“Now,” he said, “Let’s get down to business. It’s Nick Name Night, and I, for one, am ready to hear what you all have in store for us.” He pointed at Katie. “Katie, youngest first. You’re up!” He lifted her up onto the counter and she giggled.

“No, daddy, I can’t go first. I went first last year. You said we have to do things different each time.”

“When will I ever learn not to take my rules from Calvinball?” He smiled. “Okay, then, how do you want to do it?”

She said, “Race around the house! Last one back here has to go first.” So we stomped outside in the 2 inches of snow for a quick run.

I lost. Sort of on purpose, but also so Katie would feel good. Making others happy is what this night is about. Back inside I hopped up on the counter for my “Naming Ceremony”.

Dad said he got this idea because he’d had so many nicknames in his life. Like, 10 before he got out of college. And he liked that. Because it reminded him he was always changing. Always getting better. I suggested “Baldy” last year, but he used his veto.

Anyway – everyone goes around and gives you a new trial nickname that might be yours for the year. Last year mine was “Specs”, because I got new glasses. That wasn’t so bad, but I was looking forward to a new one.

Dad started. “Slim,” he said. I’d grown about three inches but weighed the same as last year. Mom went next. “Hot stuff,” she said, and I blushed. Everyone laughed. “What?” She said. “I think he’s a very handsome boy.” I just shook my head and held my tongue.

They went around the group. “WC”, from Tyler, who knew I had gotten really into Warcraft. “Stupid”, from Katie, which was so obviously bad that I didn’t have to worry about it. A few others, and finally my aunt, who suggested “Z-man”. “Because you’re becoming a real man.” I liked that.

I used my veto on Hot Stuff. I just couldn’t take the chance of either of my sisters calling me that when a girl came over, or of hearing my mom say it at the dinner table. When the final vote was counted my family finally came through. Z-man it would be, and I would have a whole month to decide whether I liked it or not.

Then we went around the rest of the group, everyone giving each other potential new nicknames. Dad ended up actually getting “Baldy” this year, because he used his veto on “Fatty McGee”. Mom is going to be “Speedy”, after three tickets. Katie is “K-K”, Tyler is “Cupid”, and so on.

Anyway, we finished it off each round with a toast of our favorite beverages, and a lot of laughter. I can’t wait for next year. I plan to have a job and be saving up for my own car. I wonder if I can convince Katie to suggest “Moneybags” for me?

***

Unfortunately, that was waaaaaay over the contest’s 500-word limit. So I had to start cutting. I got down to 800 words, then 700. Finally, after taking out a bunch of stuff I really liked, I ended up at 498. See for yourself how it just loses the character it had before.

Zane’s snooping sister discovered the following in his journal:

January 2

“All right, everybody!” my dad shouted. “Get your asses into the kitchen! It’s time for nicknames!”

“That’s your one!” Mom said. “No more swear words for you tonight!”

“Ass isn’t a swear word.”

“Well, last year you said it is!” she replied. “Now you have to Suffer the Double Swear Penalty!”

“Fine.” By this time there were at least a dozen of us crammed in the small kitchen. You always celebrate Nick Name Night with a crowd.

My sister put a glass into his hand, and then everyone poured a little bit of their own drinks in – egg nog, orange juice, beer. Dad called this a “tornado” when he did it at the soft drink machine.

He sniffed it and shuddered. Finally he swallowed it all in one big gulp, wiped his mustache with the back of his hand, and slammed the glass on the table. We all applauded.

“Now,” he said, “Let’s get down to business. It’s Nick Name Night, and I, for one, am ready to hear what you all have in store for us.” He pointed at Katie. “Katie, youngest first. You’re up!” He lifted her up on the counter and she giggled.

“No, Daddy, I can’t go first. That was last year. You said we have to do things different, like Calvinball.”

“Okay, then, how do you want to do it?”

She said, “Race around the house! Last one back here has to go first.”

I lost. On purpose, so Katie would feel good.

Dad said he invented this holiday because he’d had 10 nicknames before he got out of college. And he liked that. It reminded him he was always changing. Always getting better.

Everyone goes around and gives you a new trial nickname, then we all vote.

Dad started. “Slim,” he said. I’d grown about three inches but weighed the same as last year. Mom went next. “Hot stuff,” she said, and I blushed. Everyone laughed. “What?” she said. “I think he’s a very handsome boy.” I bit my tongue.

They went around the group. “WC”, from Tyler, who knew I had gotten into Warcraft. “Stupid”, from Katie. A few others, and finally my aunt, who suggested “Z-man”. “Because a driver’s license makes you a real man.”

I used my veto on Hot Stuff. I just couldn’t take the chance of either of my sisters calling me that when a girl came over, or of hearing my mom say it at the dinner table. In the vote my family finally came through. Z-man it would be.

Then we went around the rest of the group, everyone giving each other new nicknames. Dad ended up getting “Baldy” this year, because he used his veto on “Fatty McGee”. Mom is going to be “Jeff Gordon”, after three tickets. Katie is “K-K”, Tyler is “Cupid”. See?

We finished off each round with a toast of our favorite beverages. I can’t wait for next year.

***

This version, while meeting the maximum word requirement, feels rather stilted and tense. It’s as if someone is just reading the story to us, rather than experiencing, which was the feel I got when writing it the first time.

I would really like to align these in 2 columns, to be able to have you visually see what I mean, but WordPress isn’t playing nice. If I could, you’d see just how much has to be cut in order to meet the limit.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is Write the story however long it needs to be. After this, I’ll probably not try the same thing again. If I have to meet a word guideline, I’ll try to pick something that has less in it to make sure I don’t have to cut so deep. This one ended up sacrificing too much.

Music Review – Breathing in the Moment

In the past this blog has been solely for writing about fiction, the process, and personal reflections. This post is one of many to come about a wide variety of topics – whatever I wish to write about.

I have always loved solo piano music, and New Age music (incorporating synthesizers and more instruments, only sometimes with vocals) as well. Beginning with Deep Breakfast by Ray Lynch, I have lost myself more times than I can count in rhythm, flow, countermelody, and just general peace. So I decided to write a review of some albums in my music library, to see if I can make sense of why I feel the way I do and whether I can convince you, the reader, I know what I’m talking about.

The following is a review of Breathing in the Moment by Michelle McLaughlin, released in 2012. Why this one? Because I would show myself quite amateurish reviewing the masters like George Winston or Yiruma without practice first.

***

By 2012, when Breathing in the Moment was released, Michelle McLaughlin had been recording and performing for over a decade. Because of this, her fans and fans of modern solo piano in general have come to recognize (or maybe demand?) many hallmarks of such music: rhythmic left hand progressing through individual notes of major chords, right hand playfulness and trills, usually at least one (or two) shifts in tone within any one piece. Breathing is no exception.

I categorize the pieces on this album into two general types: playful or peaceful. An example of each is analyzed below.

[A quick note on production, I would have preferred a longer quiet time between songs. The current timing is only about 1 second of silence before the next song begins. I would prefer another 2 seconds. This would give me enough time to take a deep breath and “cleanse my listening palette”, so to speak, before the next song starts.]

Peaceful: This is the standard of modern solo piano. It sounds like someone trying to play you to sleep, so the left hand is generally very regular in tempo while the right hand will move up and down, but generally not too fast or too loud. An example of this is the title track Breathing in the Moment. This is a measured, rhythmical piece. It is concentrated in the middle of the keyboard, and there is constant application of the sustain pedal. Keeping the pedal on like this all the time  mutes the impact of the sound and tends to blend notes together to dampen their punch. This is fairly typical of music written and performed in this style since the middle-1980s.

Over half of the pieces on Breathing are of this type. Breathing in the Moment, The Beauty Within, Cheryl’s Hope, Into the Sunset, The Life Cycle, Finding Balance, Trilogy, Nostalgia, The Lunar Effect. Nothing spectacular, but no tragedies either.

Playful:  This is still New Age music, but in these kinds of pieces you’ll find more movement in the right hand, more trills and runs, and even some rests between notes occasionally for a change of pace. Stargazing is the best at this and it is my favorite piece of the album. I liked it because I could hear her skill with the intricate trills, adding beauty and flair that just don’t come out in a Peaceful piece.

Stargazing, Sisters, The Joy of Childhood, Breaking Free, Wonderment, Rejoice (Reprise) are of the Playful type, and I think these are more enjoyable to listen to. Sisters, especially, let me imagine two girls at play in a field, running and jumping, only to collapse satisfied and exhausted at the end.

Overall, Breathing is a fairly standard new age solo piano album. I did get surprised by Breaking Free, though, as this one had a bit of a sinister tone to it. It was up-tempo but still not “happy”, which added to the impression. Having some space between the notes enhanced that feel, and this ended up my second-favorite piece on the album. But to have a whole release of this type would be overwhelming, so McLaughlin is good to limit these. 

Current fans will not find anything to object in this album, and new audiences may be attracted by the divergence on Stargaing and Breaking Free. There seems to be something for many, but probably not all, and that’s okay. The heavy use of the sustain pedal makes this, like many contemporaries, less of an exhibition of piano or composition skill and more like covering the audience in a wide, warm, soft blanket of sound.

Lose Control

During writing practice for today, I lost control. My prompt was “I smell…”

>>I smell potato soup and antiseptic. The soup was in the now-empty bowl on my table, and is now inside my stomach. I smell its remnants as I belch.>>

Simple enough. Just getting started. Not really invested, or passionate. Nothing to write home about, really. 

>> I smell friendship, in the form of multiple people at multiple tables, sitting and sipping coffee, as they pass a few more inconsequential moments of their lives. Once again they have nothing meaningful to occupy their time, so they while away their hours in this deli, bitching about missed opportunities,a bout poor decisions their children and grandchildren are making, about how their soup is a little too spicy today – “>>

I critique the tables of older patrons near me. I criticize their simplicity, their familiarity, their unwillingness to take risks, and I realize I am projecting those fears I currently hold onto them.

And then I start to let go. To lose control. To feel like I’m not writing about them any longer, but I’m writing about myself. I’ve stopped thinking, I’ve stopped being logical. 

>> I smell jealousy and condemnation and judgment rising from my breast as I impute my own failed life goals onto them, twenty years on. Failed – projecting – that’s what I’m doing. If I am still here in that time, will I consider it failure? How could I not?”

After another page of self-pity, I stop concentrating on staying on the lines or in the margins. 

>> What do I lose by staying? Me.

What do I lose by moving on? Moving forward? Stretching myself? Nothing. Nothing. I lose NOTHING.

AND I GAIN.>>

Here something snaps. Something breaks free, and I loose the bounds controlling my mind, my pen, my heart. And it flows.

>> AND I GAIN
AND I GAIN OPPORTUNITY.


Reading back, I cannot tell what was written there. And that is a good thing. That is losing control. That is going for the jugular. That is intensity. That is passion. That is how the best experiences, the most satisfying writing sessions, develop and complete. This is what continues to bring me back time and again, searching for this release, this high, this uncontrollable flow.


In the end, I was completely powerless over what happened. I wrote, but it was not conscious. I was aware of a drawing force, something inside that I had released. A base, animal instinct to pursue, to hunt down this feeling and capture it, that I tapped into. It drew my hand faster and faster across the page, to the bottom and back to the top, three or four or ten times, I don’t remember.

But when I reached the end, I felt a release, an emission, an eruption of energy from from my body, like a sexual climax, like a void-filling expansion, an explosion of power and quarks and nuclear energy, and I dropped my pen, the electricity resonating through my shoulders, my fingers, inside the cavern of my mind, and I gasped, filling my lungs for the first time in what felt like an hour, recovering in just a moment that control I had so willingly given up, consciousness returning, awareness of my surroundings slowly oozing back into my senses.

I stared at my creation, incomprehensible, unfathomable even to myself, and I thought, That, right there, is why I write.

Prove That Dreams Are Not Real

Writing practice 9/29/2017

Postulate – Dreams are not real. Prove it.

Suppose that dreams were real. Then wouldn’t there be an inherent contradiction between dreams and reality? We would have never needed to come up with a new term to describe them if they were real. They would simply be “I lived last night,” instead of “I dreamed we were climbing a mountain wearing orange bicycle shorts, and jaguars carried our packs on their backs, their long, lean tails swish-swishing against the new-fallen snow. We trudged up miles of the mountain, and one time you stopped to take a picture. But what you were holding was a coffee cup, not a camera, so instead of taking a picture you ate the cup.

Then we continued on and the jaguars had become my Aunt Debbie and Uncle Steve, and they didn’t want to carry it any longer, so we had them put down the packs. And when we turned around the mountain was no longer a mountain, but it had transformed into a train station – huge, with soaring ceiling inlaid with stained-glass windows, and at least a dozen platforms and all kinds of people rushing about – people from Victorian England, and feudal Japan, and sub-Saharan Africa in the 5th century AD, and even Julius Caesar was there. He was addressing the crowd – gratefully, thankfully, luckily, I don’t know, he was speaking French. You translated.

You said that he was happy to be there on a momentous occasion. You said he said he was a teapot. Then you said he felt yellow, and that’s when I knew it was time to wake up, so I blinked my eyes twice and I was awake!”

You see? All of that is nonsense. There is no way that could have ever happened. There is no way that “reality”, that “irreality”, that dream theater could ever play out in real life.

So what is real life? Why is it not a dream? Maybe the world in which jaguars transform into relatives is real, and then when those people sleep they dream this world.

Why would they? Escapism – the same reason we dream of them. They must, somehow, find an order, a semblance, a pattern in their lives. Can you imagine, every moment is a contradiction? Every instant you know not whether the thing you are holding at the moment will remain that thing, that object, even that idea, or will transubstantiate into something different – something other – not anything better or worse – but just not what it was before. Can you imagine the toil that would take on a person – on a psyche – living through such experiences?

No wonder they would dream of regularity. No wonder they would invent magical, mystical worlds in which people got up every day at the same time, put on the same clothes, drove to the same building, said the same things, ate the same sandwiches, departed and went back to their same houses, slept in their same bed. Same. Safe. Sound – Regular. Predictable.

Comfortable, because of all those things. Not scary, or intimidating at all. Peaceful. Serene, a rest in a world of chaos. A break form the norm, and a way to reset their mind to be able to handle, to compensate for all the turbulence in their regular world.

So – why are dreams unreal? Because –  I can’t tell who it is that’s having them.

What is love? (Postscript)

So, over the past 10 writing practice sessions I have been exploring what love means to me. So what does it mean? What did I learn? Remember – those sessions were not planned. They were spur of the moment; they were following a thread of emotion or thought. They may not represent reality for me always, but they DO represent what I thought right then. In order to figure that out what it all means, I have taken some time to organize my thoughts.

Well – love is messy. Love is fraught with danger. Love has great potential for risk, great opportunity for reward.

Love is also beautiful – endearing – satisfying like a cool stream in the middle of summer. Love is the comfort of a lover’s hand in yours as you walk. Love is sitting quietly reading a book on the couch while your lover does the same, or does something completely different. Love is trust – trust of another, and trust of yourself. trust in the growth you both are experiencing. Trust in the words that were said, in the feelings that remain hidden.

Love is valuable. Love is a treasure, to be searched for and sought out. Love is a purity, a great price. And it should not be given lightly, and should not be valued as a gaudy, plastic bauble. It should be viewed as a gleaming lamp set upon the highest hill, a beacon calling out to all those who hurt, who fear, who hesitate. It says “come to me, and rest here. It might not be easy, no. It will have heartache. It will have disappointment. It will have highs and lows, higher than you dreamed and lower than you believed you could survive. It will be wonderful and terrible. But it will be worth it. It will be precious, and encouraging, and essential to you. It will lead you on, and on, and on. It won’t be easy. It will be worth it.”

So – Love. What is it?

Love is … worth it.

Love is (10 of 10)

Love is…

Love is growing a garden and being able to do it without saying a thing. Love is a partnership in which one supports another through good times and better. Love expands. It is not restrained by rib cage, or heart cavity, or space, or capacity. I may love one, and yet also love another. Love does not limit itself; it is not bound by the conventions of the physical world. Love is truth encompassing a lie. Love separates in order to build up and reintegrate that which it has once separated.

Love believes in the other – it watches the other to see the small changes that even it did not know were present. Love is caring and concern. Love is causing a tear in your lover’s eye, and kissing it away. Love is causing the next one, and still letting it linger, glistening on the edge, waiting for redemption that does not come. Love is the way we whisper into the ear in an embrace. Love is kissing her under her chin when all you want to do is walk away.

Love is walking away when you want to stay. Love is staying when you want to shout in exasperation. Love is shouting when what is needed is the most gentle touch on a shoulder. Love is a gentle touch when really, what you need is a blindfold, candles, and a towel to catch the mess. Love is a blindfold when you ask for it. Love is a safe word. Love is a dangerous word. Love is an intimidating phrase, love is the destruction of pretense; love is the hope of glory and the glory of hope.

Love is a high culmination of feeling, of emotion, of trust. Love is dangerous. Love is treachery. Love is deception. Love is revelation.

Love has no bounds, no rules, no stigma, no “should”. No Shame. No regret. No fear. No wimpiness. No fear, no doubt, no hazard, no morality, no immorality, no loss, no gain, no win, no pain. Love has a core [illegible] center more precious than diamon – love has a covering more valuable than titanium. Love preserves. Love believes. Love win.