Archives for category: 80s

I gave a lousy review to Spielberg’s film version of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One at the time of its release*. I’ve recently listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the excellent Wil Wheaton. Yeah, excellent though he is as a voice actor (thumbs up to his narration of John Scalzi’s Lock In), he can’t overcome the problematic material.

One of the problems is the underlying trope’s hyper-masculinity. I know that that’s a buzzword these days, but protagonist Wade’s teenage trans/homophobia is hard to get away from. Especially when the character points out more than once that you don’t know what a person in The Oasis, the story’s virtual world, looks like in real life, with some variation on ‘she could be a 200 pound dude living in his mom’s basement.’

Wade (who goes by the name Parzival in the Oasis, a name which might be significant) is a nerd, but the Comic Store Guy from the Simpsons is Wade’s unnamed analogy for what any possible friendship outside the Oasis looks like and it’s the one thing that seems to truly disgust him. It’s Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura shtick about possibly kissing a trans woman, and it makes most of the story kind of painful to follow. (Eric Molinsky discussed this in some detail in a recent episode of Imaginary Worlds.)

The object of Wade’s affection, Art3mis, falls under the trope of manic pixie dream girl. She’s a little older than Wade, smart, funny, prolific, and out of all of his leagues.

The opponent is Nolan Sorrento, the head of IOI, a classic Evil Corporation ™, but we know from the start that Wade wins. The problem with this is that its history is written by the winners. Wade can justify whatever he did to help his friends and to take out his opponents because his was the righteous cause.

He also has all the cool and all the cultural knowledge that it takes to win. I think the 80s cultural milieus that make for the story’s back drop are its main attraction. Movies and books and video games people of a certain generation (mine) grew up with, even though Ready Player One is set in the future and its heroes are all of a later generation. (The developers of the Oasis, however, are children of the 80s.)

The cultural references don’t make for much of a story, though. They’re a wrapper for something resembling a quest. Hence the sort of significance of Wade’s Oasis handle. As a hero, he’s as flawed as any you’re likely to come across. He’s destined to win because he’s the eternal champion in his youth and his heart is in the right place (name a revolutionary whose heart isn’t, in that one’s own telling, though), and everyone else is inferior in some way, or missing the key white male privilege that he’s got. Cline could have stepped up his game and Spielberg could have done the same, but it’s the same pasty white hero who has to save the day. (Louder for the folks in the back: Not the woman, not either of the Japanese characters, not the one I’m not gonna detail because, spoilers. The white kid.)

In contrast with the other listening and reading I’ve been doing lately, it also fails key tests of relevance. One could say that Cline was writing precisely what he knew and couldn’t do any differently, but the fact is, he could have represented his hero as more heroic, there’s no reason to repeat the fat 30 year old in his mother’s basement line multiple times. One friend of mine pointed out that it’s okay for the protagonist to be unlikeable, but I think the problem here is that he’s unlikeable because his creator didn’t think the character needed to be any different. And perhaps the character is so close to the creator’s heart, that those flaws don’t seem like flaws. I’m not sure.

The real world vs. the virtual still winds up being about schoolyard taunts. The guy living in his mom’s basement is one of two or three that set my teeth on edge. The less said about them, the better.

There’s so much better SF/F out there that doesn’t give the game away from the opening. Because the competition in Ready Player One is based on video games and is (on one level) a quest, the fact that it relies on the quest token trope might be forgivable. Quest tokens are a way fantasy writers have historically gotten their characters from the starting line to the finish. You know the story line: The prophecy states that only the person with the characteristics of our hero who brings these hidden items to the meeting point will prevent ultimate doom. Think of Harry Potter collecting up the various deathly hallows. But it’s a motif that’s played out. Back when Michael Moorcock was getting paid by the word, it was fine. Again, I forgive RP1 this because the video games and tabletop role playing games that are the backdrop for the quest in this story all depend on these.

Looking at the story from the Arthurian quest motif may have some merit. As I said, I don’t want to give Cline too much credit in this department, but the book turns on a sequence in which Wade sacrifices himself in such a way that he might be out of circulation for a very long time, or very dead. While he planned carefully for the move that put him in IOI’s control, knowing that they killed his aunt and uncle and very probably one of his friends, the risk he takes is huge. In the world of Grail quest legends, there’s a pattern of the hero setting off in a rudderless boat in order to leave all in G-d’s hands. A quest can fail because the hero does something to take control of the situation. One could identify Wade setting himself up to be captured by IOI in this way. Was he leaving it all to fate? Not really, but the chances against the plan working were high.

Quest token

From that point forward, I was far more invested in what happened even though I didn’t feel there was any real growth on Wade’s part. It’s not as though everything is handed to him – he grows up in lousy surroundings, raised by people who don’t care for him, and finds his refuge in the Oasis. Where he thrives. The problematic aspect is that he sets his mind to things and generally succeeds. And keeps winning. When he’s behind, he finds a way to win. I never felt invested in his struggle, because there is no struggle. There’s no point at which he’s in true despair (except when Art3mis rejects him).

This combination of jumbled pop culture from a previous generation and detailed social structures that are both two steps ahead of now and two steps from the Middle Ages makes for a compelling setting. And the goal of preserving what’s good and moving it into something better is worthy. Another part of the Arthurian quest motif is bringing back a boon to society. As a knight in pixelated armor, Wade doesn’t start the game with any altruistic motive. He wants to get off planet Earth entirely if he can. It’s not amusing to me that this self-centered, immature use of great wealth is what currently drives Bezos, Musk, and Branson. Three overgrown, too-privileged white boys. As result of Art3mis goading him to think differently, he determines to make good use of the fortune winning will bring him.

On a certain level, the story has merit, but my saying this is like realizing there are songs by the Killers I actually like. I’ve actually looked for a translation of von Eschenbach’s Parzival, which I haven’t read in 30 years. (Interestingly, the freebie found on archive.org is Jessie Weston’s translation. Her volume From Ritual to Romance was one of the key influences on TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ which brings us around to Arthurian legend again.) The fact remains that Ready Player One is pure popcorn and the references to things that aren’t 80s pop culture are as paper thin as those that are. And the relationships are flimsy excuses for how actual humans interact.

Does it fail on its own merit (or lack thereof) or only in comparison with other books I’m reading these days? There’s so much good SF and fantasy coming out these days, that it’s a shame that stuff like this does so well. I had similar things to say when everyone was reading Dan Brown novels. There’s better popcorn and there’s stuff that actually makes you think. I say that it not only fails to live up to what it could have been, I feel somewhat had for the time I’ve spent on it. I wish Cline weren’t so enamored of his own cleverness. The possibility that there’s an emotional depth to his characters, grief and joy that are separate from simply leveling up or failing to, seems lost on the author.


* And I watched it again last weekend, and find it only slightly less troubling than I did a couple of years ago. It’s still fluffy. Spielberg still gave up the opportunity to make it better, but it’s different enough from the novel, that I was amused by it. And the whole Shining section is still mindblowing.

I’ve been reading fantasy and science fiction for over 40 years. Piers Anthony and Robert Heinlein were mainstays through my adolescence as were Stephen Donaldson and Stephen King. In the last couple of years I’ve focused a lot more on writers who aren’t white men. I know that my experience is by no means exhaustive, but fantasy in the last few years seems to have made a real leap in terms of the presentation of sexuality and gender roles.

The dynamics between characters with regards to sexuality, gender, and gender roles have taken a giant leap forward. Consider Star Trek, which was itself a leap forward with a Black woman, an alien (played by the son of East European Jewish immigrants), a Russian, and a Scot holding lead roles alongside the only slightly evolved Wild West White Male hero. In the late 60s there was almost no hint of non-binary sexualities. Gene Roddenberry had advanced a little beyond the rigid gender roles espoused by Robert Heinlein. Consider Stranger in a Strange Land. The titular character a human raised on Mars, whose parents were two of the four crew members of a mission who managed to kill one another out of jealousy (if I recall rightly). He returns to Earth as a messiah of sorts, but all the surrounding characters (including Heinlein’s perennial stand-in Jubal Harshaw) are very much about the heterosexual/dominant male dynamic, more evolved though Heinlein might have preferred them to be.

Fast forward to the early 90s, we get Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu trilogy, which imagines a world with a very queer milieu of traditional humans and this next level hermaphroditic race who become who they are through a kind of vampiric infection. Constantine was writing this at the height of the AIDS epidemic and imagining infections that made one more powerful, better able to heal, and impervious to (rather than suffering an accelerated) mortality. In addition, it’s humans, not the very queer Wraeththu who are on the way out. There’s definitely a revolution in her approach to fantasy, but it’s also a reaction to the time.

Fast forward to now. I have no idea if the writers I’m enjoying today are at all representative, but consider these. In the first book in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, two of our humans fall in love with distinctly different aliens. Captain Pei (an Aeluon – a sort of reptilian biped) and Captain Ashby have a relatively hetero relationship, but at the heart is the fact that extra-species relationships are explicitly taboo for Aeluons. She has to keep her relationship with Ashby secret through the whole series. Chambers has derived these characters from deep considerations of how different species might evolve. When Rosemary and Sissix connect, we’ve already learned that the adult Aandrisks (Sissix’s species) raise families of offspring that they haven’t themselves given birth to. The whole clan structure is discussed before their ship lands on Sissix’s home planet. The fact that she connects with a human, however, is a matter of course and not addressed as strange.

The characters in Neon Yang’s Tensorate Series are born without gender and decide sometime after adolescence which path to take. Our heroes in the first books are twins and one decides for female, the other male. And the male takes up with one who made no transition.

In Charlie Jane Anders’ Victories Greater Than Death, the human characters introduce themselves with their pronouns. Is this heavy-handed? I’m not sure. They’ve got something like a babelfish. When our hero introduces herself to a Chinese character with her pronouns and a whole bunch of hard-to-digest information, she asks if everything made sense. The other says, ‘I’m Wang Yiwei. Your Mandarin is hardcore except the part where you try to use gendered pronouns.’ Anders acknowledges that in a very diverse galaxy, some species might feel differently still.‘Then acting Senior Engineer Yma is a Zyzyian (small, slimy, blows bubbles all the time). It’s a huge insult to use any kind of pronoun to refer to Zyzyians – like, a battle-to-the-death-level insult.’

Also, in addition to the crew of the main ship being aliens from all over, the humans who join are from all over. Tina and Rachael are Americans, Damini is from Mumbai, another is from Brazil.

Nghi Vo introduces a character on page 1 of The Empress of Salt and Fortune ,as ‘they’ as does Nino Cipri in the LitenVerse books (Finna and Defekt, which take place in a very weird version of Ikea).

I think my favourite of this new kind of fantasy is Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. (And it’s really easy to mix up Wayward Children and Wayfarers, I know). The conceit of Wayward Children is that the main characters all end up at a school for kids who have been through doors into what we would call fantasy worlds. McGuire takes the idea of how the kids in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe would actually have interacted with their parents upon return from Narnia, and how very hard they would have been to deal with and what if we could shunt them off to someone who could actually handle all the blather they talk about Narnia and talking lions and fauns and evil witches. So we go to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children. All of our kids have been somewhere else and returned. And long to go back to the Goblin Market (where every trade is based on agreed upon fair value) or the Moors (ruled by a vampire and a mad scientist always in competition) or Confection which is sugar and sweet and nonsense. Kade is trans, Jack and Jill are twin girls (and require a look into their histories to recall what made Jack different. But all of their differences are cherished and the fantasy aspects of their adventures are as normal as the differences in sex and gender.

When Yskander says to Mahit in Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire that she ‘should do something about’ her feelings for Three Seagrass, it’s solely an acknowledgement that love should be attended to. Yskander had had both male and female lovers and acknowledged love as the key to things. (This brings to mind the end of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element in which love is quite literally the key. Beautiful but annoyingly heterocentric, much like Besson’s more recent Valerian.)

I’d love to know what Constantine would think of these modern evocations of love in all its normality. Sadly she passed away earlier this year, having labored in some obscurity for the last couple of decades. I’m finding in my reread of Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit (the first of the Wraeththu books) a sort of normalization of queer love, but it’s very much in opposition to that of humanity (credit in the straight world, as Courtney Love once put it). Non-Wraeththu society still exists in opposition to queerness. Where we are now is (despite the anti-gay battles still being fought) offers a modicum harmony. Even in Constantine’s queer Utopia, one character says that if he hadn’t been elevated to Wraeththu, he’d just be a queer. This might be a reflection of the character’s own self-hatred (which manifests in a number of ways) or it might be that even at the end of humanity, love and desire still evoke senses of shame.

Ongoing radio drama podcast The Strange Case of the Starship Iris deals in much the same realm of sex, gender, and race being aspects of life and makes the embrace of same central to the plot. Populated mostly by humans, and one Dwarnian, the titular starship is a mixed bag of characters. Dwarnians and humanity fought a disastrous war, but the Dwarnian on Iris is engaged to Brian Jeeter who’s trans, and the other humans, male and female are from all over, as are the actors. Liu, Patel, Captain Tripathi. The cast, based on the actors’ names are equally from all over.

My experience of fantasy writing nowadays is very much informed by the fact that I’m focusing on writing by women and trans authors. I have little or no idea how representative these writers are, but Chambers and Martine are nominees (winners?) for major SF awards. It’s not as though these are niche writers at this point.

I spent the second half of 1989 traveling in Europe after finishing up (most of) my BA. I was 22 and after four years in San Francisco, had stowed all my stuff (including a couple hundred CDs, LPs, and tapes) back at my parents’ house in LA before boarding a flight with no music playback device at all. I traveled for six weeks with a friend and after he came back to the US for a job, I really needed some music. I bought a cassette walkman and some tapes. Maybe this blog entry will look back at the dozen or so albums that soundtracked that summer and autumn for me. But, because Cherry Red has graced the world with a 2-CD/1-DVD repackaging of The Stars We Are, I’m going to start there.

The first single, Tears Run Rings, had already been on Live 105’s rotation before I left the states, but I don’t think I’d heard the rest of it. I may have, though, because the interwebs tell me the album came out in 1988. I’m pretty sure I bought my tape of it at a market in Istanbul, but that might be because the song She Took My Soul In Istanbul is so tied up with the week I spent there.

The rockers like the title track, Tears Run Rings, and Bittersweet pull the listener in, but that’s only a part of the skill set Almond brings to the table. We also get some almost cabaret-style pieces (Only the Moment, Your Kisses Burn). To borrow a line from Nina Simone, there are even show tunes for shows that still haven’t been written (Kept Boy, Istanbul).

Aside from Tears Run Rings, what roped me into the album was the macabre knowledge that it contained the result of Nico’s last recording session. I was turned on to the Velvet Underground a few years before and had collected all their albums to that point and started delving into the solo work. Nico’s voice, even when ravaged on late live albums, insinuates itself the way few voices do. And there’s really nothing like the way she slips this between your ears:

I’ll make a fire there in your heart / Made not of love, but only hate
And for the fuel will be your soul / An inferno to consume you whole.

Shudder.

Almond’s cover of Gene Pitney’s hit Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart let the world know that he had the chops. It’s a tossup whether his solo vocal, or the duet with Pitney himself is the better. Initial pressings of the album had the solo version, but it was replaced by the duet which was itself a hit. This deluxe edition relegates the solo version to the CD of remixes.

Almond and Gene Pitney, 1989

Because my first experience of the album was the cassette, I never considered the LP’s closing song She Took My Soul in Istanbul to be the end of the album. Istanbul slides neatly into The Frost Comes Tomorrow (originally the b-side of Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart) and closer Kept Boy.

Kept Boy is something like a demented outtake from Sunset Boulevard in which the male voice admits to being after the riches of the older woman keeping him, until he realizes she’s poisoned him. While not as rich a song as others on the album, it features Agnes Bernelle as the other voice. Bernelle, whose family left Germany in the 30s and settled in London, earned renown during WWII for broadcasts to Germany and to the resistance. After the war, she acted and recorded cabaret songs.

The first CD in the set concludes with three B-sides, Everything I Wanted Love To Be, King of the Fools, and Real Evil. Disc 2 collects the various remixes including three versions of Tears Run Rings and two of Bitter-Sweet. There’s nothing that wasn’t available at the time of release – nothing live or pulled out of the archives or recovered from the cutting room floor. Gorgeous stuff, all of it, but the liner notes mention shows from ‘87 that featured about half of the album’s songs, and a show in ‘86 that featured an entirely different version of the title track. Some of those goodies would definitely have made my heart skip a beat.

After the minor MTV hit that was Mexican Radio, Stan Ridgway left Wall of Voodoo and a couple of years later released his first solo album, 1983’s The Big Heat on IRS Records, the same label that had released Wall of Voodoo’s first three releases. I’m sure I have wonderful things to say about that album. I wore out the grooves on my cassette of it, for certain. In 1989, Ridgway moved to Geffen Records for his second solo album, Mosquitos, a copy of which has found its way to me for the first time in about 20 years. And it holds up. His music always had the feel of the best noir fiction and musically he pulls on the same devices that make up the atmospheres of Dashiell Hammett novels and Bogart movies.

Thematically, Mosquitos works over the same characters, low-lifes with pessimistic outlooks (Can’t Complain) and guys who think the girl is in it for them (Peg and Pete and Me).

In general the whole album is of a piece. Some of it upbeat (Goin’ Southbound, the aforementioned Last Honest Man), some of it more atmospheric (bookends Heat Takes a Walk/Lonely Town and A Mission In Life). 1989 was a weird year, though, for this kind of album. Two years later, he made his last album for the majors, Partyball. Alas, Geffen put out the made-for-Doctor-Demento track I Wanna Be A Boss as the first single. And people who’d followed Ridgway for a few years said, What the hell?

He continues to make great music, but fell off the radar for me at that point. It might be a case of those being the albums I heard when I was that impressionable age. But I absolutely recommend all three of those first solo albums.

While Mosquitos isn’t available on Bandcamp, there’s a veritable scad of Ridgway goodies (including live recordings from the period) available his BC page.

Discogs links: The Big Heat / Mosquitos / Partyball

Released: November, 1982
Lineup: Sioux, Steve Severin (bass), John McGeoch (guitar), Budgie (drums)

Tracklist:
Side 1:
Cascade
Green Fingers
Obsession
She’s a Carnival
Circle

Side 2:
Melt!
Painted Bird
Cocoon
Slowdive

This album has a really strange provenance. In many ways, it’s distinctly not goth at all, and in fact Wikipedia cites its genre as neo-psychedelic, though it has no connection to the west coast neo-psychedelia of the Paisley Underground, for example. There was a lot of tension between the band members themselves as well as their recently fired manager, Nils Stevenson (who the song Obsession might be about). There’s a great interview with Siouxsie that appeared in Uncut about the making of this album.

Lots of drugs, including LSD, but also an insistence that the sound be something new. Roping in real strings and bells to augment the sound rather than using synthesizers. The results are heady and beautiful and unlike anything else in their catalogue.

Lyrically, the songs lean on the emotions of new love, which is not surprising given the newness of Siouxsie’s and Budgie’s relationship. Oh love like liquid falling/Falling in cascades.

Green Fingers seems to be all about someone who can ‘make anything grow / magic in her hands’, but concludes with a repetition of ‘With this ring, I thee wed’. Musically it’s lush and growing and almost slithering out of the speakers.

Obsession, a slow waltz with instrumentation very low in the mix, is indeed about someone’s obsessive behavior, but told almost sympathetically from the point of view of the obsessive, not the object. It bears a strange resemblance to Throbbing Gristle’s Persuasion.

The album picks up speed with She’s A Carnival, which might be my favourite song on the album, except that its swirling mood stops quite suddenly to be replaced in the last minute with a circus organ sort of thing. Those first two and a half minutes are so sweet, though.

Circle is the only song that harkens back to an earlier sound. The minimal repetitive instrumentation with monotonous trap drum as the only percussion backs a song that starts off being about a girl of 16 who gets pregnant and has a baby like her own mother, but as the song progresses, it’s about the repetitions of life and poverty and discipline reflected in the musical repetitions and with references in the middle to the various lines of the London Underground, “Any line you can think of but for the Yellow” (which I’m pretty sure would be the Circle line.

Side two opens with the first of the album’s two singles, Melt!, which had always seemed to be about sex, but the song is also run through with references to death and funerals. But the intertwining of the two is not a new thing.

Painted Bird is another wildly festive song in arrangement, but seems to be about birds who attack their own when they perceive it to be somehow alien. It’s not an obvious point in the song, but the metaphor of society attacking those seen to be different or accused of difference is not hard to miss.

Cocoon is a weird piece of chamber jazz in which the subject wrapped in blankets on a cot imagines herself transforming but isn’t. The arrangement circles around a stand-up bass line and doesn’t (like most of this album) resemble anything they’d previously done. But the evolution it indicates will turn up on Tinderbox and Through The Looking Glass a couple of years later.

And the album concludes with the second single, Slowdive, which should have been a bigger hit given how obviously it is about sex. The slinky violin and viola arrangement draws the listener down into the music.

Sadly, John McGeoch’s excesses where just that much more excessive than those of the rest of the band that he was booted upon the album’s release. Robert Smith joined the band for the following tour and the next Banshees album, Hyaena.

That said, A Kiss in the Dreamhouse is absolutely a five-star album and one I’ve reveled in having on repeat the last couple of weeks.

Next: The Creatures’ Feast.