sábado, janeiro 24, 2015

Geeking out or Vegging out. That Is The Question: "Some Remarks" by Neal Stephenson

Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing - Neal Stephenson

Published August 7th 2012.

I’ve been reading Neal Stephenson for a long time, and I’ve been planning on re-reading him. Now that I’ve just read his very first collection of essays, this need is even greater. The man “touches” a soft spot in me… Not all of the essays are top notch, but the ones who are, oh my.

“Mother Earth, Mother Board” is one of those superlative essays that I remember reading in Wired(with the pictures; I still have that issue of Wired floating around somewhere). I never understood why“Mother Earth, Mother Board” wasn't published as a separate entity. Unfortunately in this collection we get no pictures whatsoever. The pictures would have added so much to the book. It’s a wonderful essay about the history of submarine cable that spans the full spectrum of Stephenson’s intellectual scope. It’s an artiste piece, and one that still resonates 19 years after being published in Wired. I still remember wanting to be a submarine cable guy of the depths or a hacker tourist when I read it for the first time. Now, almost 20 years later, too bad I didn’t embark on that particular career…

I even liked Arsebestos, which as far as I can recall, it’s the only original essay in the collection, but I was not really convinced by its arguments.

I’ve always maintained that Stephenson does have an unique voice for talking about real things through fiction (eg, I loved the whole code-breaking stuff he did with Alan Turing's bike chain in Cryptonomicon). I even like Stephenson when he’s at his worst, ie, when so much of what he writes, particularly when he or his “Neal-Stephenson-look-alike” characters are having opinions about Computer Science, Economics, Culture, and Politics, occupies with almost clinical medical precision the gap between how clever he actually is (which is pretty clever) and how clever he thinks he is. But to me that’s not really an issue. I like my fetish writers to be cleverer than me mere mortal. That’s why I like to read them.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance again to talk about Stephenson. So here it goes. Sometimes Stephenson can sound a little sanctimonious, but I think those are more his character's views than his, but then I don't like to cogitate too much on my favorite writers, in case they start turning me off their work from not liking them…
Coming back to the book at hand. It’s not for everyone. If one dives into it expecting one of his novels, it’s going to be a huge disappointment, because the speeches, and the shorter pieces and other essays simply don't pack the same punch as his novels do, but he still manages to exploit the capabilities of complex systems. This is not really Stephenson on predictive mode, but it’s Stephenson on unveiling-complex-reality mode, and that’s where he excels. For me SF is not really about the future (I’ve discussed this at length in other reviews). Why? Because we can only think about the future in terms of the present. In 2015, SF can be no longer successfully defined as text which extrapolates the future from particular presents. In 2015 (or in the year the essay in question was originally published), the present is in fact SF, even when we discuss essays like the ones Stephenson wrote. Stephenson can sometimes discourse about the “future” like someone outside a box. We, mere mortals, are inside the box, ie, we cannot grasp its existence. The question now is: is Stephenson successful all the time writing-wise? Not by a long shot. Nevertheless I still enjoy his attempts at being successful, ie, writing stuff that pushes the boundaries of our understanding of complex systems.

Apart from the above-mentioned essay on underwater cables, there was another one right up my alley: "Metaphysics in the Royal Society" (Stephenson’s take on the fascinating Newton-Leibniz debate about the nature of space and time).

Just by reading these two essays justifies reading the collection in its entirety. As mentioned before, not all are attain the same high mark, but all of them are worth reading anyway (particularly “It’s All Geek to Me”, where he defines what it means to “geek out” and to “veg out”: “to geek out on something means to immerse yourself in its details to an extent that is distinctly abnormal – and to have a good time doing it. To veg out, by contrast, means to enter a passive state and allow sounds and images to wash over you without troubling yourself too much about what it all means.”).

So what it is your take on this? Vegging out or geeking out? As for myself, using the reviews I write as testimony I prefer the latter. It takes time, but writing them is good for (my) soul and it’s also loads of fun.

SF = Speculative Fiction

sábado, janeiro 17, 2015

Rebus Redux: "The Beat Goes On. The Complete Rebus Stories" by Ian Rankin

The Beat Goes On: the complete Rebus short stories - Ian Rankin

Published October 9th 2014.

Can a writer copyright a city? Rankin has surely done that regarding Edinburgh.

The stories in this collection are a mixed bag. Some of them are less intricate than others, but all are filled with small yet important details of Rebus’s/Rankin’s Edinburgh. Thinking about this stories and the appeal they had on me, I was quite surprised with how much I liked some of them. I was in doubt whether Rebus in short form would be as interesting as Rebus in the longer works. Bottom-line: the stories became interesting to me because the plots were less convoluted and I got more of Rebus and Edinburgh, which incidentally I visited only by reading Rankin’s work. I was also very impressed by the fullness of each story. Rankin writes each of them as a neat, self-contained nuggets. Another plus is that we get to know Rebus “chronologically”, ie, in terms of a timeline, from beginning to end.

What makes a good Crime Fiction collection? For starters I like a story where I can't guess the culprit, even though all the clues are there. Another factor that I always take in account is that the writer only has a short amount of time in which to be clever. Rankin is always pretty clever even when the story has really no mystery our culprit in it as in “Monstrous Trumpet”. Rankin is also able to take a cliché and completely subvert and recreate it.

My favourite stories were "Sunday" and “Monstrous Trumpet” (I was laughing out loud all the time). With “Sunday” we get to “experience” what Rebus’ typical Sunday might be while he’s ruminating on all of the mundane matters of life: making coffee, walking down the block to get the paper and groceries, having breakfast, thawing a steak, doing the crosswords, thinking about all his books read and unread:

“Back in the bedroom, he picked up some books from the floor and stacked them against a wall, beside other columns of paperbacks and hardbacks, read and unread. One day he would get time to read them. They were like contraband: he couldn’t stop himself buying them, but then he never really did anything with them once he’d bought them. The buying was the thing, that sense of ownership. Perhaps somewhere in Britain someone has exactly the same collection of books as him, but he doubted it. The range was too eclectic, everything from secondhand rugby yearbooks to dense philosophical works. Meaningless, really; without pattern. So much of his working life was spent to a pattern, a modus operandi. A series of rules for the possible (not probable) solving of crimes.”

Monstrous Trumpet” is Rankin’s shot at comedy. Rebus is paired off with a visiting French policeman (Cluzeau…) who wants to see how the Scottish cops do it… you get the drift where Rankin took the story to. Hilariously funny all the way.

And of course, being short-stories (Rankin not having enough pages to dwell on plot), we get to know more about Edinburgh itself:

“There was a while city somewhere out there, waking to another night of possibility and accident, chance and fate, pity and fear.”

The final piece alone justifies reading this collection: “Ranking on Rebus”. Not only because Rankin dwells on Rebus creation as fictional character, but also because I became acquainted with some of his literary references, being Muriel Sparks one of them: “and through her I was beginning to investigate the Edinburgh of the imagination”.

And then it’s all about Edinburgh as a fictionalized city. Rankin was always more interested in telling a story about Edinburgh than he was in Rebus as a person:

“This is a haunted city. For centuries it was haunted by the memory that it had once been a thriving capital, before signing that status away to London. It’s a city rife with ghost tours. Its cemeteries teem, and there are myriad streets, tunnels and caves below ground level. It’s a city that hides itself away from the world.”

This collection really contributes to the characterization of the Rebus and his imagined Edinburgh we all know and love.

domingo, janeiro 11, 2015

The Transformative Power of Theatre: "Power and Desire"/"O poder e o desejo"

"O Poder e o Desejo" ("Power and Desire").

Yesterday I went to see a wonderful play in Lisbon written and directed by Álvaro Cordeiro: "O Poder e o Desejo" ("Power and Desire").

The Actors: Joana Oliveira, Paulo Vaz and Vicente Morais.

This is what theatre is all about. At least it's the one I much prefer: Text vs Silence vs Actors (forget about props, stage sets, etc).

I'm not going to discuss the play in itself. What interested me the most about it was the way it reminded me of a Shakespeare Play: It was all in the Word itself.

A long time ago I watched "The Tempest" in Lisbon directed by Tim Carroll from the English Shakespeare Company.  It was a transformative experience. To care about this kind of theatre is to make me care about the obsession with The Pause (aka "The Silence"). As with any worthwhile Shakespeare play it's all about the silence/pause. There must be a pause—a certain kind of pause, I insist—or all is lost. Cordeiro's play takes this theatre concept to heart, which isn't exactly common in our fast-food theatre plays that we get to see on stage most of the time nowadays. It's a case for Theaterumschulung in terms of the viewer....

Shakespeare for me is a way of life. When it began within me it was a kind of initiation into a new domain. What do I mean by domain in this context? It's a kind of realm of transcendence that I’ve sought with mixed success to return to ever after. It was the experience that, for me, gave a lifelong urgency to the conflicts over Shakespearean questions.

Sometimes I talk about how watching Shakespeare being performed on stage for the first time (in English) was such a transformative experience for me.  How I’ve spent the years since trying to recapture or at least explain to myself why that night was so transformative. I feel almost a bit embarrassed at making this kind of statement... It's something I haven’t recovered from. Ever since then I’ve been trying to recapture it, to explain what it was. Watching "O Poder e o Desejo" last night had a similar effect on me. I’m not sure my experience yesterday in Lisbon at Guilherme Cossoul went as deep as watching a Shakespeare play (I'm still processing it...), but I did feel my heart “report” something it never reported before when watching a play in Portuguese being performed on stage.

About Shakespeare and the Theatre in general I've written a lot in several venues (The British Council, The Goethe Institute, etc). My latest incursion into Shakespeare territory was with the close reading of the book "The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups" by Ron Rosenbaum", which is a wonderful text on what it means to always have Shakespeare close by your side...

I end this text with my favourite Shakespeare Sonnet, which I truly believe represents what my take on what Theatre should be all about:


 “O, learn to read what
silent love hath writ:/To hear with eyes
belongs to love’s fine wit.”
(Sonnet 23)