The new Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, is one of the best albums I've heard in a long, long time. You've heard the phrase, "If this music doesn't make you get up and dance, you must be dead." Along the same lines, if this album's lyrics and music don't grab you by the lapels and slap you around, you must be deaf or soulless.
It helps that Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is one of Cave's most approachable albums. The songs are just as good as "Red Right Hand," "Tupelo," "The Mercy Seat," or other, earlier tunes. It's just that this album starts with songs that aren't quite as musically off-beat as some of Cave's earlier work.
Cave knows how to write lyrics and music that both demand your attention. The first song on the album, "Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!" sounds a little like the Velvet Underground, and the words have the punch of a dark Biblical parable. (Click here for an interview in which Cave explains his fascination and frustration with Bible stories.) Cave's sardonic humor reaches full force with "We Call Upon The Author To Explain," with Steppenwolf-like bass and guitar lines. And you can't get more carnal than "Lie Down Here (& Be My Girl)", probably the randiest song since Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" or "The Fever." The lyrics from "Jesus of the Moon" are both beautiful and disturbing in the fashion of Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat."
I feel that I'm being a bit unfair to Cave by comparing this album to the work of other people. I'm definitely not saying that Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is a series of pastiches of other people's work. Quite the opposite: this album has the distinct sound and words that have made Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds one of the most interesting (and under-appreciated) groups around.
Maybe these lines from "More News From Nowhere" will show exactly how good a songwriter Cave can be:
Now Betty X is like Betty Y minus that fatal chromosome
Her hair is like the wine dark sea in which sailors come home
I say hey baby I say hey Betty X
I lean close up to her throat
This light you are carrying is like a lamp
Hanging from a distant boat
And if that doesn't convince you, here's the video for the title cut:
Thought I'd recommend a couple of movies I've seen in the last few months that fit the theme of this blog...
Children of the Revolution One sure sign that you've enjoyed a movie: you don't want to give anything away. The premise hooked me immediately: a comedy about an Australian who might or might not be the illegitimate son of Stalin. And that's all I'll say about the plot. Very good performances by Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Geoffrey Rush, and F. Murray Abraham as Stalin.
The Tunnel One of the most exciting movies I've ever seen. Really. Screw all the childish, violent fantasies of American filmmakers, and give me more East Berliners trying to escape to the West.
Justice League: The New Frontier The core stories about Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and the Martian Manhunter, told as a parable about America in the 1950s and early 1960s. It felt like what comics might have been like if Le Carre and Greene had written them.
Max A much-overlooked movie about a young Hitler, failing to be one kind of artist, and becoming another one. One of the best movies in English about the Weimar period, and where the Nazis fit into or clashed with other movements.
[Today's perfect storm of geekdom is almost past!]
This week, Gary Gygax, the co-creator of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game, passed away. I've seen remembrances springing up across the Internet. That's not surprising, since D&D was a landmark in popular culture with wider effects than are often appreciated.
Generation D: the original D&D Before D&D, there was the miniatures branch of the wargaming hobby. People would use painted lead figures (you didn't say "toy soldiers," unless you wanted a punch in the snoot) to depict history's great battles. Gygax co-authored Chainmail, a set of rules for playing medieval miniature battles that included some elements straight from Tolkein and other fantasy stories, such as dragons, orcs, and elves.
Later, Gygax and his collaborator, Dave Arneson, decided that it would be fun to tell stories, not on the scale of the siege of Minas Tirith or the Battle of Pelennor Fields, but with a tighter focus on individual protagonists--more like the hobbits on the difficult journey to Mount Doom.
And thus the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons was born. The rules consisted of three small books, packed in a white box. The text was poorly organized and often confusingly written. The artwork was...Well, let's just say that the "artists" might not have been holding their pens with their hands, if you get my drift. The game itself was electrifying.
That's when I became a D&D geek. I fell in love with my copy of the white box set, and I soon found fellow enthusiasts. Although the plots were never as epic as Lord of the Rings or the Norse sagas, they did have their own odd fascination. In fact, it was hard to say that some games had a plot at all. You were the good guys, waiting around a tavern to do good deeds. A mysterious stranger approached and asked you to [fetch a powerful artifact/kill a terrible creature/unlock an ancient mystery] in the underground labyrinth nearby.
Way down into the hole you went, fighting a Stalingrad-esque battle from room to room. Every fight left you a little more experienced, and if you were lucky, a little richer. Once you learned how to trounce puny creatures like oversized rats and irritating goblins, you could graduate to tougher challenges.
Eventually, the rules improved. Not only did TSR, the publisher of D&D, come out with an "advanced" edition, but other companies started writing their own role-playing games (RPGs). This new medium could be the weekend entertainment for teenagers, or the vehicle for someone to describe their own world of high fantasy. (For one in a really different vein than the normal Western European medieval fantasy, check out Glorontha.)
Over time, the plots got better, too. Instead of "dungeon crawls," a form of high fantasy freebooting, many of the published storylines were just as involved as Tolkein. Players had dramatic moments--this heroic deed, that noble death--that they determined, as the protagonists in an interesting story.
The new game, D&D, had sired a new hobby. Another generation quickly followed with the spread of personal computers.
Generation E: the electronic RPG Many computer game designers were D&D players, so it was natural to bring the D&D motif to another new hobby. Games like Wizardry and The Bard's Tale were as unsophisticated as the early D&D adventures, but they had the same fascinations. Another series of games, Ultima, gained a loyal following because of the more interesting plots and characters. The Ultima games also pushed the envelope of personal computer technology; many computer manufacturers owed their sales of next- generation hardware to impatient Ultima fans.
Unintentionally, D&D and its computer cousins accomplished something else: they made fantasy a mainstream genre. George Lucas accomplished much the same thing with Star Wars, which made the "space opera" form of science fiction wildly popular. (Three seasons of the original Star Trek never generated anything like the mania around the first Star Wars film.)
During the 1960s, Tolkein was fashionable. Led Zeppelin mentioned Tolkein characters in their songs; the Beatles pondered making a Lord of the Rings movie. However, Tolkien remained a bit of a fad, which failed to inspire long-term interest in the fantasy genre beyond The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
D&D gave many people a taste for heroic fantasy that they might never have developed. Come for the rousing good fun of playing D&D over the weekend with your classmates. Stay for the wealth of novels and short stories in a genre you never knew existed.
Generation F: fashionability Today, the SF section of chain bookstores are stuffed with fantasy novels. Fantasy is so popular, in fact, that some science fiction authors grumble about the vulgar tastes for this lower form of imaginative fiction. The Lord of the Rings movies were huge commercial successes--something unimaginable from the vantage point of 1974, when the first D&D boxed set was published. Celebrities like Steven Colbert and Vin Diesel talk fondly about their D&D roots. Millions of World of Warcraft players are fighting their way through a virtual world that fits the D&D mold completely.
Gygax may have died in relative obscurity to other cultural innovators. He faded from view in the RPG hobby after he left TSR in the mid-1980s. Gygax authored other games like D&D--but they were too much like D&D to attract any attention.
D&D may have been Gygax's one shining moment that he could not repeat--but so what? We should all have such an impact on generations of people.
[For another Gygax tribute, with links to several others, click here.]
Certain computer games have established a cachet so great that you almost don't have to say anything about them. The games were so fun, so addictive, so interesting that a certain generation of gamers just know, from the brief incantation of the game's name, that you're part of the brotherhood.
Here's a sample invocation:
MASTER OF ORION.
You know what I'm talking about.
If you don't, imagine the game that went beyond any science fiction book, TV show, or movie. You were in charge of a civilization clawing its way into the galaxy. Colonies on other planets! Space exploration on a galactic scale! Scientific breakthroughs! Aliens! Space battles! Add some diplomacy, economics, politics, and you have the recipe for one of the most engaging games you've ever played.
By engaging, I mean a game so good you could not tear yourself away from it. With all the dramatic events described in the previous paragraph unfolding in parallel, there was always a good reason to play for just one more turn. You had to see what happened when you declared war on the sneaky aliens that kept stealing your hard-earned technologies. You had to add to the defense of a colony that the sneak aliens were sure to attack. You had to build and deploy a fleet to intercept the sneaky aliens before they reached that colony in the first place. You had to upgrade your ship designs, before building the fleet, to incorporate some new wonder-weapon you just developed. Whoops, there went another hour...
Unfortunately, the pinnacle of space empire bliss, Master of Orion II, was published 12 years ago. The third in the series degenerated into a tedious accounting exercise, and would-be heirs just didn't have the alchemy of Master of Orion.
I've started playing a new game, Galactic Civilizations II, which has every promise of being the new Master of Orion. The first version was a bit funky; the new version is just plain cool. Here's a quick video overview:
I've been following a weird reading trajectory lately. Apparently, my need for escapism was a lot bigger than I expected, so I've been loading up on the sub-genre "military science fiction." Heeding Sturgeon's Law ("90% of everything is crap"), I've been careful to follow other people's recommendations. Thank the gods for the Internet. Sure, you can waste a lot of time on the Web, but other people can help you save a lot of time--such as time spent finding out what's really crap, and what's worth reading.
Since military SF is where my head has been lately, I thought I'd share some recommendations. Some are recent acquisitions; others are books that I read a long time ago. I'm not going to give you a mini-review of each book, but I will add a little information that might pinpoint something worth reading.
TOP PICKS John Scalzi, the "Resurrected" series. A shotgun packed full of neat ideas. I won't give anything away--just read them.
Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers. One of the most misunderstood books ever. No, it's not a fascist tract, as some critics claim. Instead, it's a long musing on the meaning and importance of citizenship that's completely different, and better, than the silly movie "inspired" by the book.
Steakley, Armor. If Heinlein had dropped the political parable to focus more on the plot for its own sake, and if he had been a somewhat better writer, you'd end up with something like Armor. Same motif (ground-pounders versus aliens), different reasons for reading (a better escapist read).
David Feintuch, the "Hope" series. Very Hornblower-esque, in that the main character starts as a midshipman in a very Royal Navy-like setting. The characters and writing were good, and the situations stayed interesting until the last book or two, when the series lost steam.
Hook, the Human/Zor series. At first, I thought it would be another Hornblower retread. However, it turned into a weird but effective melange of space opera and alien mythology (!).
Joe Haldeman, The Forever War. Even if the author intended it to be a Vietnam metaphor, it doesn't quite read that way. On its own merits, it's a great book about soldiers getting more and more disconnected from the people they're defending.
Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game. I never liked the sequels, but the original is still a must-read book.
Frank Herbert, Dune. Of course it's a military SF book! Jihad, anyone?
WORTH READING Walter Jon Williams, the "Empire's Fall" trilogy. Surprisingly prosaic space opera from one of the most imaginative writers around. Still worth reading, however, for the entertainment value.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote In God's Eye. A good novel about humans facing a potential alien enemy whom they really don't understand. Skip the excruciating sequel.
Various writers, the Man/Kzin wars collections. Several SF authors contributed to this series of short stories, all based on Larry Niven's "Known Space" setting, specifically on the bitter war between humans and the Kzinti.
Keith Laumer, the Bolo stories. If you put artificial intelligences inside heavily-armed robo-tanks, you know there's going to be trouble.
EH, MAYBE NOT Campbell, the "Lost Fleet" series. I've read two of these recently. They're OK, but for "naval SF," the battles are surprisingly weak. Lots of scenes about how the hero is just plain amazing, even though he's amazingly humble. Too many borrowed ideas and motifs (fleet on the run remind you of anything?).
David Weber, the Honor Harrington series. The first couple of books were OK, but then they collapsed into tedious narratives, flat characters, and uninteresting political rants. Other people like 'em, but I just can't get into them.
HAVEN'T READ YET, SO CAN'T RECOMMEND David Drake. I have one of the new collected Hammer's Slammers volumes on my shelf, begging for attention.
Lois McMaster Bujold, the Vorkosigan series. I read one of these volumes too long ago to remember the details, so it's almost as if I never read it at all!
Sometimes, your greatness is defined by your own artistic contributions. At other times, you deserve recognition for the creativity you inspire in others. For illustration of the latter case, take a gander at this video. You won't be disappointed.
This week, the weather here has been gray, gray, unrelentingly gray, the gray of tombstones and bureaucrats' souls. Today we took a Wagnerian turn, rain driven by jackhammer gusts of wind. I don't know about you, but I need a pick-me-up.