Cannibale Verité

Stories live inside stories. Like Matryoshki dolls, they nest inside each other. The walls are permeable, the delineations indistinct, and viscera moves from one to another to another, and so, osmotically, verisimilitude emerges with reference and resonance. We recognize the truth of stories because they remind. Even when we’ve never heard that particular story before, the lexical and symbolic soup, sometimes called culture, we swim in makes certain elements part and parcel of what we recognize as truth.

Fiction depends on this mantle of story sediment. The better a writer understands the essential reality of the material, the more potent the experience is for the reader. The more we identify with character, connect with setting, and surrender to the flow of the narrative, the more substantive is the story and the truer it feels.

It’s a risky thing for a writer to make the nesting itself part of the story, to show the workings of narrative baldly, like pulling away the curtains on the machinery of the narrative and make it one of the surface elements. Like a magician explaining the trick as it is being performed, the only thing that can save the experience from the failure of banality is if the exposition of form enhances the total experience.

For example, Kea Wilson’s new novel, We Eat Our Own, from the first line exposes its inner workings and makes us complicit in the construction of the experience. The second-person present tense is like a set of instructions. She not only is telling the character what is happening but she is showing us how the inevitable accrues and acquires momentum.

Frightening momentum, in this case.

A young actor, struggling, in 1979, accepts a role in a film being shot in the Columbian rainforest. It’s an Italian horror film, being made by a director with a long list of credits and a certain reputation. This is his first film done on location. Our actor is a last-minute addition because the first American actor they hired would not even get on the plane after reading the script. The director needs an American, preferably an unknown.

In a fine stroke, Wilson keeps the actor’s name from us, eventually referring to him only by his character name. Already we are descending into the caverns of nested narratives. Like Dante who got lost in a dark wood and found his way into Hell, our actor takes the part and gets lost in a dense forest. And because of the way Wilson has chosen to tell her story, not only are we privy to the hell into which he descends, we know how he’s going and are powerless to prevent it.  In fact, we don’t want to prevent it, because we are hungry to know what he does when he realizes where he is.

It’s not all told this way. There are third person stretches, past tense, present tense, and a heady dance of omniscient viewpoint throughout. All of which serves to bring us, layer by layer, into the central theme that carries through the novel like humidity or mosquitoes. Wilson is exploring the way in which we feed on each other. Indeed, how we depend on a kind of food chain of the soul in order to know not only who we are but what we ought to do and where we need to be. For some, those who have a tenuous grasp on self-knowledge to begin with, the cannibalism can take on aspects of gluttony, draped in byzantine rituals designed to keep us blind to our own dysfunctions.

Like our actor, who asked repeatedly to be shown pages, a script, told what his character is supposed to be doing and, most importantly, why—but is repeatedly refused, and in fact looked upon with annoyance because he needs to know. He doesn’t.  But it’s not just his part in this bizarre movie (which involves cannibalism, of course) of which he is ignorant. He has no clue about much of anything.

The assembled production company, cut off from civilization (because a phone line has yet to be run to the town outside of which they’re shooting), stumbles and reels through the whims and impulses of the director, who seems to have a clear idea what he wants but won’t tell anyone what it is. (At one point, during a trial, being asked to defend his film and the risks he took with his people, he demands”Did it frighten you?”)

Into the mix we discover a group of young revolutionaries set up nearby.  They are involved in kidnapping and extortion and have an arrangement with a drug cartel. They need money to fund their grandiose dreams of overthrowing the government and instituting a Marxist state. Maybe.

More layers, more stories, all intersecting, bleeding through each other, fertilizing, polluting, transforming.  Reading Wilson’s prose is like listening to freeform jazz, where everything reaches a point of apparent chaos and then, with startling precision, comes together to create a very precise, rich effect.

Fake deaths, real deaths, soul death, murder, suicide, and the headlong pursuit of a path chosen because, in the end, it seemed like the path available, work hand in glove with the revealed structure of the book to drag us into it in such a way that recognizing an essential aspect of human nature—or our nature—is impossible to avoid.  Wilson shows us the costs of not knowing and the painful necessity of making choices n the face of too little information and too much expectation. Of ourselves and others.

I said this is a new novel.  It is also, impressively, a first novel.  It does not feel like a first novel. It feels like the mature work of someone who understands human nature and sees how the structures we inhabit prompt choices often tragic and surreal.

In the end, that question lingers:  did it frighten you?

It’s about humans on the edge, making art and chaos.

Yes, it did.

Defending Angels

It is arguable that we live in a post-colonial age. We no longer see major powers moving into previously independent places and usurping the land and the people and declaring them to now be part of some empire. Not the way we did in the 18th and 19th centuries. (We wink at smaller-scale examples of roughly the same thing, but while Ukraine may be prey to Russia, we don’t see Russia trying to occupy New Zealand.) The scramble for Africa was the last eruption of such hubris. And there are now plenty of studies indicating that it was never a profitable enterprise anyway, that every power that indulged its imperialist urge did so at great expense that was never recouped, not in the long run. At best, such endeavors paid for the re-formation of both the imperial power and its colonies into more modern forms independent of each other.  At worst, it was pillage that benefited a few individuals and large companies and resulted in short-term wealth-building and long-term grief for everyone involved.

Yet the impulse drove relocations of population, experiments in applied bureaucratic overreach, and an ongoing debate over the ethics of intrusion.  One could argue that the Aztec civilization was a horrible construct with human sacrifice at its aesthetic center and the world is well rid of it.  On the other hand, it is equally true that the Spaniards who toppled it had no right to do so and unleashed a different sort of ugliness on the indigenous populations. Every European power that followed them into the so-called New World bears the same weight of shame for the wanton destruction of things they could not understand.  If here and there something positive came out of it, that something was by accident and had no real part of the initial decision to Go There.

With what we now know—ethically, scientifically, behaviorally—if given the chance to do it again, would we?  And if we decided to go ahead anyway, would we do anything differently or would we still be dominated by a subconscious obsession to exploit for resources to fuel a growing population trapped within an economic system that seems custom made to produce the necessary excuses to do what we want with whatever we find?

We seem forever to be doing things that go sour on us and then having to clean up the mess and apologize and figure out how to prevent a repeat performance. The problem with that is, one situation is not so exactly like another that the lessons do not come with big loopholes and the opportunity for rationalizing our hubristic avarice.

In short, we never learn.

At least, not in aggregate.  We understand this as well and so a good part of our political theorizing is geared toward a place wherein the individual moral insight can be effectively balanced against the rock-stupid momentum of the group; and in which the common wisdom of historical experience as exemplified by the group can temper the less enlightened passions of the individual.  In other words, to find the point at which we can allow for the individual who is correct to trump the so-called “will of the people” and conversely where that common will can morally check the individual who may only be thinking of him or herself, the group be damned.

Underneath, threaded into, and informing Marguerite Reed’s Philip K. Dick Award nominated novel, Archangel, we find this ongoing debate carried on at several levels.

Ubastis is a world seemingly ideal for large-scale human settlement.  Two waves of advance “scouts” grounded to do extensive surveys, impact studies, and established trial settlements. It became clear that this was a vital ecosphere and that, compatibility aside, questions of too much too soon drove the negotiations that prevented a rush to fill it with human excess.  Dr. Vashti Loren, widow of the spiritual and moral leader of these two waves, is one of the principle advisors on the ad hoc committee overseeing Ubasti, which exists as a kind of protectorate.  The rest of human polity is hungry for it to be opened for a larger human presence, which the people who live there know will mean the ruin of a unique biome. Vashti becomes the focus of all the efforts to forestall such open colonization.  As the widow of a slain “hero” she carries great weight.

She is also a problematic figure in this culture.  She is a genetically unmodified human in a larger culture where modification has become so widespread that “Natches” are special. That she is a protector of an “unmodified” ecosphere is only the first layer of what becomes a deeply meaningful representation of not only human moral responsibility but also human potential in an alien cosmos.

Reed gives us a civilization where aggression is being gene-modified out of individual humans, even though wars are ostensibly still fought, uprisings happen, and certain strain of bloodlust remains a given in controlled contexts. That Vashti is wholly unmodified adds to the irony that she also hunts native species as part of her job as an exobiologist and as a kind of PR component to assuage outworlders who are curious, acquisitive, and need persuading that Ubastis requires the time to be understood before the exploitation full-scale human settlement will bring. She takes outworld visitors on sdafari to hunt the local big game.

Her deceased husband, Lasse, was murdered by a renegade “soldier”—a Beast, a BioEngineered ASault Tactician, a member of a clone experiment in super soldiers—as a result of trying to prevent poaching.  The Interests trying to discard the treaty that keeps Ubastis inviolate have all along been probing at the defenses, trying to engineer excuses for open incursions.  Vashti kills the Beast.  That action calls into question her sanity, but she effectively defends herself from charges that would see her “re-educated.”

What she did not know was the deeper game her husband was playing to bring about a future independent Ubastis—and that it involved the Beasts, the lot of which have been presumably destroyed as too dangerous. Vashti begins to learn what her husband never told her when she is confronted with a Beast that has been smuggled onto Ubastis by the governor’s wife.  She vows to kill it, but that impulse itself gradually morphs into powerfully conflicted responsibilities, the details of which comprise the plot of this densely-detailed and finely-realized novel.

Vashti. The name has history. She was the Queen of a Persian ruler who requested she appear naked before a banquet he was holding in honor of other kings.  A “higher politics” was obviously going on and his demand of his wife was obviously part of the impression he was trying to make on his fellow kings.  Vashti refused.  Harriet Beecher Stowe later declared that Vashti’s refusal was the first blow for women’s rights.  She followed her own code.  Her husband’s request was deeply inappropriate even in that culture.  Vashti stood by her own values.

Make of that what you will.  Reed’s Vashti is a woman dedicated to a set of principles which are sorely tested in the course of the novel.  Watching her come to terms with political, ecological, and moral realities and steer a course between the shoals of competing colonial, imperial, and personal demands makes for a compelling read.  She is a superbly realized, flawed character, and the questions she raises, wrestles with, and reacts to lend themselves to consideration long after the last page.

This is excellent science fiction.  It takes the abstract, the conjectural, and the epistemology of human systems and moral dictates and makes them personal, the stakes high, and answers often problematic, leaving us with a great deal to think about.

Traditions and New Eyes

I recently finished rereading a book from last year, preparing to read the sequel. I should cop to the fact that my reading has rarely been what you might call “timely” and I’ve gotten worse over the last several years.  When I wrote reviews for actual pay this was not as much a problem, because I had to read current material.  But left to my own devices, I pick and choose from my to-be-read pile at random, pretty much the way I buy books to begin with.  So I might read an old Agatha Christie concurrently with a newer physics tome by Kip Thorne after having finished a very new history of the sinking of the Lusitania, then pick up a newish novel while at the same time rereading some Ted Sturgeon… So it goes.

So I am very much “behind” almost all the time.  I served as a judge for the PKD Award one year and managed to read an unbelievable number of recently-published SF novels.  I can commit and stay the course when required. But in general my reading keeps me in a kind of ever-imminent nontime in terms of how I encounter works.  I don’t sort by decade when I start reading, not unless something in the text forces me to recognize it.  So to me, it is not at all odd to see James Blish and Iain M. Banks and C.J. Cherryh and Ann Leckie as in some sense contemporaneous.

So when I encounter a novel like Charles E. Gannon’s Fire With Fire I have no trouble—in fact, take some delight—in seeing it as part of a continuous thread that connects Doc Smith to Poul Anderson to C.J. Cherryh to any number of others who over the past 70 + years have mined the fields of alien encounter/politicomilitary SF.  And when I say I found the closest affinity with Poul Anderson at the height of his Terran Empire/Flandry period, that is, for me, high praise.

I loved Dominic Flandry.  Not so much the character, though there is that, but the milieu Anderson created.  One of the appealing aspects of his future history, especially those stories, was the authentic “lived in” feel he achieved, rarely duplicated by his peers, and seldom realized to good effect now.  Gannon does this.

The story in Fire With Fire is nothing new.  Earth has begun to settle other worlds around other stars and it’s only a matter of time before we encounter other space-faring civilizations.  In fact, we have, only it isn’t public knowledge, and in some instances it’s not something the discoverers even want noticed.  While Anderson had the Cold War to work with, Gannon has the transnational world, with all its disquieting ambiguities over what constitutes nations and how they differ from corporations and the undeniable motivation of profit in almost all human endeavors, leading to an ever-shifting array of allies and enemies in arrangements not always easy to define much less see.  He takes us through all this quite handily.  It’s not so much that he knows the pitfalls of human civilizations than that he recognizes that the field is nothing but pitfalls.

“All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.”  Hobbes’ dictum plays in the background throughout as good guys dupe both bad guys and good guys, people are moved around and used like game pieces, power is unleashed—or not—based on calculi often having little to nothing to do with ethics and morality.  This is politics writ large and individuals learn to surf the swells or drown.

Into which is tossed Caine Riordan, an investigative journalist who is also a good man.  He is unfortunately snatched out of his life through a security mishap, placed in cryogenic suspension, and awakened 14 years later with a hundred or so hours of missing memory dogging him through the rest of the book, memories having to do with the two men in whose thrall he seems now to be. Nolan Corcoran, retired Admiral, and Richard Downing, former SAS and often reluctant aid to Admiral Corcoran.  Not reluctant in being unwilling to serve, but reluctant about some of their methods.  They run a secret organization designed to prepare for exosapient first contact.  It practically doesn’t exist, sort of in the way gravity under certain conditions doesn’t exist, and now Caine has become their tool.

Without going into details, which are a major aspect of this novel, suffice to say it is about that first contact and the political ramifications thereof. This is a not a new idea and much of the book may, to some, feel like ground well trod, but there is ample pleasure to be had in the trek over familiar ground seen through fresh eyes.  What is done better here than the usual is the economic and political backgrounding and the debates over the impact of first contact.  Furthermore, the seemingly impossible disaffection among the various political entities comprising the world we know are displayed to lend a plangent note of nailbiting despair to the very idea that we might pull ourselves together sufficiently for anything remotely resembling a world government.

To be sure, Gannon adroitly addresses the hoary old notion that when we meet the aliens they themselves will already have worked all this out long since and be in a position to pass elder judgment on our upstart species.  They haven’t.  They have a (barely) workable framework among themselves, but the advent of introducing another new race into their club proves to be an opportunity for old issues to be forged into new knives.

Gannon handles all this well.  He clearly has a grasp of how politics works and has imaginatively extended that knowledge to how nonhuman species might showcase their own realpolitik. He has a flair for detail.  He handles description very well, sets scenes effectively, and even manages to disguise his infodumps as conversations we want to hear.  Most of the time, it has the pleasurable feel of listening to a good musician groove on an extended improvisation.  Throughout we feel sympatico with Caine and the people he cares for and the situation is certainly compelling.

For me, this was a walk down a street I haven’t visited in some time.  I read this novel with a considerable experience of nostalgia.  It is part of a tradition.  A well-executed piece of an ongoing examination over issues we, as SF fans, presumably hope one day to see in reality.  We keep turning this particular Rubik’s Cube over in our collective hands, finding variations and new combinations, looking for the right face with which to walk into that future confrontation.  One may be forgiven if this particular form of the contemplation seems so often to turn on the prospect of war.  After all, aren’t we supposed to be past all that by the time we develop star travel and put down roots elsewhere?

There are two (at least) answers to that.  The first, quite cynically, is “Why would we be?”  Granted that most wars have at least something to do with resources.  One side wants what the other side has, and you can do the research and find cause to argue that even the most gloriously honor-driven wars had deep economic aspects to them.  Certainly the conduct of all wars has deep economic consequences.  But while that is true and might be argued for most wars, it is also true that many wars need not have been fought as there were other means of securing those resources.  But that didn’t matter.  It was the war, for someone, that mattered more even than the well-being of the people, the polity.  That ill-define and in retrospect absurd thing Glory is a very real ambition down through history.  Wars get fought as much for that as for anything else.  Suddenly having all your resources needs met would do nothing to dampen that.  In fact, it might exacerbate the Napoleonic impulse in some instances.

Because the reality is that Going There will do that.  Not survey missions, no, but if we assume the level of technology and capacity that allows for colonies on world in other solar systems, then we can assume a post-scarcity economy.  It’s the only way it makes sense.  We will not solve economic problems with an interstellar empire, the empire will be the result of those solutions.

So that leaves us with the second reason we may still face war.  No less cynical but more intractable. Racism.  Not the kind of small-minded nonsense we deal with in terms of skin color and language, but the real deal—wholly different biologies confronting each other over the question of intelligence and legal rights and the desirability of association.  Deeper even than that is the history and tradition brought to the question by two civilizations with absolutely nothing in common, having developed in isolation more profound than any we might imagine on the face of the Earth.

Not that either of these are inevitable, and it may well be that sophistication of technology and its responsible use breeds requisite tolerances.  But this is, as likely as it sounds philosophically, not a given, any more than war with aliens is inevitable. So we talk about it, in the pages of fictions with long traditions. There are certainly other possibilities, other scenarios, and there are other writers dealing with those.  Gannon is dealing with this one.

And doing so with a thick cord of optimism that raises this above the level of the usual “Deltoid Phorce” clone in the tradition of Tom Clancy or some other purveyor of gadget-driven war porn.  Gannon asks some questions in the course of this novel which keep it from descending to the level of the field-manual-with-body-count-in-technicolor.  This is more like what Poul Anderson would have written, with no easy answers, and heroes who are not unalloyed icons.

It’s worth your time.

Nicely done, Mr. Gannon.

The Visceral and the Vast

One of the ongoing struggles with what might be called epic science fiction, of which “space opera” has been a mainstay for many decades, is finding the balance between the plausibly human and high-tech melodrama.  Science fiction was born out of a passion for innovation and event which often overwhelmed or even shut out attempts at telling human stories.  It was a genre of heroes, villains, and grand conflict.

In the wake of the New Wave movement of the 1960s, certain forms diminished in prominence for just this reason.  Writers wanted to connect with their characters, tells stories that mattered on more than an adrenalized level, do work that might attain to the standards of literature, which meant more modest scales, closer scrutiny of the human heart, and a muffling of melodrama.  The lesson, unwelcome as it sometimes seemed in certain quarters, was learned and work produced after the 1970s reflected a shift in focus from the grander to the ordinary, at least in the treatment of character.  But to manage that the scope of the work suffered constraint.  The vast scope that made so much science fiction so much fun diminished, occasionally to claustrophobic dimensions.

With the resurgence of space opera in the late 1980s, beginning with Iain M. Banks’ and his Culture stories, we have seen the gradual humanization of the form to terrific effect.  (To a large degree, C. J. Cherryh had been doing this all along, but she had occupied her own niche, as it were, for over a decade before space opera itself enjoyed a renaissance.)

Suddenly we had the wide stage of interstellar space, many different alien species, the concomitant politics, and the kind of characterization one might expect from any competent novelist in any genre.  Occasionally, we saw superior examinations of the human, utilizing the surgical theater of the future and great distance to open the characters up to unique experiences which reflected back new insights.

Ann Leckie’s first novel, Ancillary Justice , is the latest example of what is possible in this revitalized format.  In a way, she has even given us a bit of a metafiction in that the story is about reducing the vastness of form into a cramped human scale—and then letting us see the former scale from this new perspective.

Breq is all that remains of a huge starship, Justice of Toren, one of the proud ships of the immense fleet of the Radch, an expanding human empire.  The Justices are troop carriers, among other things, main components of invasion forces—which the Radch call “annexations”—doggedly increasing the human sphere in the galaxy.  An act of betrayal from the most unlikely source of all has caused the destruction of the ship except for this one component, an ancillary which now works toward revenge, a shadow of her former self.

To describe the betrayal would give too much away and one of the chief pleasures of this novel is the onion-layer unfolding of the levels of plot and counterplot.  Aliens are involved, codes of conduct, and a class structure that is quasi-aristocratic and mercantile at the same time.  In some ways it reminds one of France’s ancien regime.

Leckie has done a number of clever things throughout.  The class structure is taut but not impermeable, although its rules make advancement agonizingly difficult and fraught with traps.  She has turned gender on its head—the preferred pronoun is feminine: everyone is “she,” even the males.  It makes little difference until Breq finds herself having to deal with societies that are more rigidly structured along gender-role definitions.  The ancillaries themselves could be virtually sexless and maybe they are—they are one-time humans taken as prisoner, their personalities overwritten and replaced by the sentient AI complexes of the ships.

The ships are aware.  And through their ancillaries they are ubiquitous.  The ships also have complex emotions.  Although Leckie never says, it is likely the ships have feelings because of their ancillaries.  The interface goes both ways.

Loyalty is both to the Radch and to individuals within it.  Ships have their favorites.

And in this instance, a favorite has been made a pawn in a much larger game being played by the absolute ruler of the Radch herself.

This game leads to the destruction of Justice of Torren—at least as a starship.  Breq, its last surviving ancillary, maintains loyalty to the cause it adopted in the wake of the betrayal and intends doing something about it.  Breq complains occasionally of its truncated memory, its limited resources, its smallness especially in the face of what it has to do, but it becomes clear that Breq retains enough of its former self to do the one thing it thought it could never do again—be human.

Leckie plays ends—several of them—against middles—more than one, it seems—to great effect, and manages to convey it all through the limited perspective of a single character.  This is a remarkable achievement, especially set as the story is against such vast backgrounds.  The driving problem of the action turns on a bit of political philosophy which we deal with today: what happens when the government turns on itself over a difference of opinion about policy?  While this may sound trite, the repercussions are anything but, elevating the book one more level.

Ancillary Justice is itself a consequence of a turning inward or against over a question of direction, and it answers the challenge well.  There is nothing expected about this book.  It goes in seemingly familiar directions, to apparently familiar places, but then leads the reader to nowhere he or she has been before in quite this way.  A wholly subversive work in the best sense of the word.

A sequel is promised.

Mixed Signals

I listen to music every day. Intentionally.  I choose something to set my internal harmonic brainscape and listen.  It was a difficult and startling revelation to me back in my youth to realize many people don’t. That is, even when they have music playing, they don’t listen.  For many, it’s wallpaper, and this just struck me as sad.

But it explained what I thought of then as the execrable taste a lot of my acquaintances seemed to display in music.  I have never cared for so-called Top 40 tunes, with rare exception, because in my experience such songs were either the least interesting pieces on their respective albums or they were the zenith of a mediocre musical imagination.  Boring.  Listen to them three or four times and their content is exhausted.

I also used to have an absolutely absurd prejudice that if I could manage to play it myself, on guitar or keyboard, with only a few practices, it was just too insignificant.  This was ridiculous, but I’d been raised to appreciate technical difficulty as a sign of quality in most things.  It took a long time for me to overcome this notion and I still have not completely.

For good or ill, though, it informs my taste to this day, and in the presence of the technically superb I am seduced.  I have found technically accomplished work that was simply not as good as its polish, but I have more rarely ever found sloppy work that was so much better than its presentation that it didn’t matter.  Technical ability, precision of execution, polish…these are not simply ancillary qualities.  The guitarist may know all the notes of the Bach piece but if the timing is wrong, the chording inaccurate, the strings squeak constantly, it will be a thoroughly unenjoyable performance.  Likewise, if the guitarist has composed a beautiful new piece but then can’t perform it as imagined…who will ever know how beautiful it is?

Ultimately, technical sloppiness gets in the way of the work.  The better the technique, the clearer the art shows through.

Which brings me to what I wanted to talk about here.

The other day I sat down with two works that for whatever reason seemed to counterpoint each other.  Put it down to my peculiar æsthetic, as I doubt anyone else would consider them complimentary.  And perhaps they aren’t, but they shared a common quality, the one I’ve been going on about—technical superiority.

Ansel Adams is a byword for precision in art, especially photographic art.  His images are studies in excellence, from their composition to their presentation.  There is a fine-tuned carefulness in many of them, if not all, that has set the standard for decades.  I have a number of his monographs on my shelf and I have been an admirer and follower since I was a boy.  His set of instructional books, the Basic Photo series, were among the first I read when becoming a photographer myself.  Every year I hang a new Ansel Adams calendar in my office.  I have a biography of him, one signed volume of his Yosemite images, and I find myself constantly drawn to his work.  These photographs are replenishing.

So when a new collection came out this past year—400 Photographs—it was a given that I would acquire it.  (I do not have all his books—there’s a heavy rotation of repeats strewn throughout his œvre.)  I had it for some weeks before I found time to sit down and really go through it.  When I did I was surprised.

The collection is broken down in periods, beginning with some of his earliest images made when he was a boy, reprinted directly from the scrapbooks in which they were pasted, all the way up to the very early 1970s when he, according to the commentary, stopped making “important” photographs and devoted his time to the darkroom.  Gathered are most if not all his iconic images, many that will be familiar to those who have more than a passing acquaintance with his work…

…but also a number of relatively unknown photographs, peppered throughout, many of which show a less than absolute control on Adams’ part.  They do not come up to par.  Some of them, the composition is slightly “off” or the tonal range is not fully captured.

Which is not to say they are not beautiful.  Adams at his worst is equal to most others at their best.  But historically it’s interesting and instructive to see the “not quites” and the “almost theres” among the otherwise perfect works we have all come to expect.  But rather than detract, these works actually enhance the overall impact of the collection, because there is variation, there is evidence of “better”, there is obvious progression.  The commentary between the periods by Andrea Stillman is concise, spare, and informative as to the distinctions in evidence.  This is a chronicle of an artist’s evolution.

Looking at an Ansel Adams photograph, one sometimes feels that the very air was different around him, that light passed from landscape to film plane through a more pristine medium, that nature itself stood still for a few moments longer so the image could be recorded with absolute fidelity in a way given to no other photographer.

As I went through the images, I listened to a new album.  New to me, at least, and in fact it was released this past year.  Levin Minnemann Rudess.

Who?

Of the three, two had been known to me before this year.  Tony Levin is a bassist of extraordinary range and ability.  Besides his own work, he seemed for a time the player the serious groups called in when their regular bassist was unavailable.  Which means he played bass for Pink Floyd in the wake of Roger Waters’ exit.  He played bass for Yes. Dire Straits, Alice Cooper, Warren Zevon, and even Paul Simon and Buddy Rich.

He was also one of the most prominent members of King Crimson during one of its best periods.  He is a session player in constant demand and his ability seems chameleonic.  He can play anything in almost any style.  He is one of those musicians who always works, is always in demand.

Given his associations, sometimes it is a surprise to hear his own work, which can either be described as a distillation of all his influences or as a complete departure from them.  Such would seem to be the case here.

Jordan Rudess plays keyboards and came out of the progressive schools of Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, UK, and others, although the first band with which he was associated was the Dixie Dregs. He later joined Dream Theater, but like Levin has been a much in demand session player whose name I’ve seen pop up many times since the early 90s.

Marco Minnemann, then, is the only name with which I am unfamiliar, but that’s changing.   As a drummer, he’s played with former members of UK—Eddie Jobson and Terry Bozzio—and has been doing session work with metal groups.  I learned of him just this past year in association with guitarist Guthrie Govan, with whom he has formed a trio with bassist Bryan Beller, The Aristocrats.  He seems committed to that unit, so I believe the album I’m discussing may be a one-off, an experiment for these three musicians.  He is an explosively complex, solid drummer.

What does this have to do with Ansel Adams?

Not much other than what I began with—precision.  There is an overwhelming technical precision here that, for the duration of my study of the Adams book, formed a complimentary experience of sharp-edged landscapes and absolute control.  The LMR album is largely instrumental (which has slotted it into my writing queue) but fits no particular genre exactly.  Jazz?  Sure.  Metal?  Somewhat.  Fusion, certainly, but fusion of what?  Rudess’s runs evoke classical associations, but no single track is identifiable with a particular Great Composer.  This is experimental work, theory-in-practice, done at a high level of musicianship and compositional daring.  An aural high-wire act that is constructing the landscape as it records it.

As I said earlier, it happens more often than not that technical prowess can substitute for significant content.  “Too many notes” can mask as absence of substance.  Too-fine a presentation can distract from the fact that an image contains nothing worthwhile.

But when substance and technique are combined at a stratospheric level of ability, when performance melds precision and depth, then we have something truly special.

All I needed that afternoon was a fine wine to complete the immersive experience.

Life On The Dark Side

There is a moment in Dennis Lehane’s Live By Night in which the protagonist, Joe Coughlin—Joseph to his father, the man against whom Joe gauges himself all his life—realizes that he is not what he wants to be, what he always asserted himself to be.

“How many men have you killed?” Estaban asked.

“None,” Joe said.

“But you’re a gangster.”

Joe didn’t see the point in arguing the definition between gangster and outlaw because he wasn’t sure there was one anymore. “Not all gangsters kill people.”

“But you must be willing to.”

Joe nodded. “Just like you.”

“I’m a businessman. I provide a product people want. I kill no one.”

“You’re arming Cuban revolutionaries.”

“That’s a cause.”

“In which people will die.”

“There’s a difference,” Estaban said. “I kill for something.”

“What? A fucking ideal?” Joe said.

“Exactly.”

“And what Ideal is that, Estaban?”

“That no man should rule another’s life.”

“Funny,” Joe said, “outlaws kill for the same reason.”

Throughout the novel, Joe is teasing at distinctions.  He gets involved in crime to distinguish himself from his father and his older brothers.  He disobeys his boss in order to fulfill an image of himself as his own man.  He takes as lover his boss’s moll because she is someone he wants more than he ever wanted anything before and cannot see why he should not risk all in order to be who he wants to be.

It costs him and in the end he loses—constantly and dearly—even as he achieves exactly that goal, to be himself.

Live By Night may be a turning point for Lehane, who has been consistently raising the bar in his own work by engaging his worlds and his characters at a level beyond the expectations of noir.

Joe Coughlin considers himself an outlaw.  Not a gangster.  For him, there is a fine by significant difference.  While both engage similar tactics, the reasons are different, and in his own way Joe seems to think there is a moral distinction.  The outlaw sets his own rules, but reserves the right—indeed, believes in the necessity—of setting limits on what he will and will not do in pursuit of his goals.  He will not kill indiscriminately.

This alone sets him at odds with his putative superiors.  As far as Joe is concerned, if he achieves the same thing without indulging in what he believes to be senseless violence, why should anyone be disappointed.

Sometimes this works out well and everyone is happy.  Other times, it runs afoul a deeper motivation on the part of the people with whom he is in league.

Set during Prohibition, Lehane gives us a rich view of the borderline landscapes where the illicit and licit blur into each other.  In Joe’s own view, he and his “live by night,” where the rules are murkier, the motives different, the standards other than for those who live in the day.  Day and Night are almost metaphysical concepts.  Similarities abound, but in many ways superficial.

Joe begins in Boston, the son of a prominent man in the police department who despairs of his youngest boy, even while he loves him.  The Oedipal tangles binding them in an impossible relationship are revealed but only as foundational constructs.  Nothing can be resolved between them.  Life has taken them in such directions that they cannot accommodate each other.

And yet their lives intersect tragically when Joe is sent to prison and falls into the orbit of one of the most powerful mob bosses on the east coast.  Joe plays the situation masterfully, but the game is ultimately rigged and the house claims it tonnage of flesh over the course of a career that sees Joe rise to power in Florida, becoming the chief rum runner in the Gulf.

What sets this story above the standard-issue gangster novel is Lehane’s insistence on a moral center that, flawed as it is, possesses real force for Joe and takes him in directions that often irritate him because it would be simpler, easier to just go along with the power structure.  In this, Joe becomes iconic—a moral man (such as he is) caught within a broken system.

As well, Lehane’s wordcraft—his art, his dextrous use of image—puts him on par with Chandler and Cain, Ross McDonald and Hammet.  There is a flavor of Scott Fitzgerald in his evocations, in the in-built tragedy, in the almost Shakespearean psychologies at play.  Even the minor, bit players feel fully fleshed and viscerally authentic.

And the passion is narcotic.  Joe loves two women in the course of the novel and Lehane makes it real.  Through this as much as anything else he shows us the costs of being an outlaw, of refusing the safer trajectories of life.  Joe makes his choices—because he can and also because he can’t not—and accepts the risks.

A superior read.