Monthly Archives: July 2010

Perdido Street Station: A Review

I’m not sure how to talk about Perdido Street Station (written by Mr. China Mieville). It does not want to be carefully tucked into a genre. It resists against it, in fact, violently if necessary.

It’s not quite fantasy, though there are magicks and strange creatures. The magicks are described in half-mystical and half-scientific terms, like 19th century descriptions of faeries.

It’s not really Steam Punk, or at least my limited understanding of “steam punk”. There is steam, yes, as well as clockwork-men and dirigibles and perhaps individuals who may be described as “punk”.

And it’s not science-fiction either, in spite of the aforementioned science. There are cyborgs (clockwork cyborgs), a sunpowered death ray and genetic tamperings.

China Mieville, I imagine, sat down at his desk and then bled out this world, whole and entire, from the local flora and fauna to the political machinations to the afterlife. He stared at it, plucked out a few characters that he had developed a fondness for and then wrote down their stories: Isaac, the self-absorbed and self-important scientist. Lin, the bug-lady artist. Yag, the bird-man, on a quest he won’t be shaken from.

He wove their narratives together, a subtle spider touching their stories and altering the course of things like a mad dancing god.

It’s an almost overwhelming story, with characters that appear and then disappear (or are viciously removed). There are unfinished plots, though the main arc is always touched on in some way. It only feels right that those threads are left unmentioned. Their part in the story is done, so why mention them? They haven’t been forgotten, they’ve been dismissed.

It’s a book that refuses to be encapsulated, just by the simple scope of the world. A rich, teeming, vibrant, disgusting, dirty, horrible little world, filled with petty awful people and terrible deeds and betrayals and insanity. Here, China Mieville has created a whole world and shared only a piece of it with the readers.

Dylan Charles

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The Robot Menace

We all have different notions about what the future will be like, about what our world will be like. For some us, the Future will be signified by an ushering in of newer and better technology; whether it’s hover cars, molecule-sized computer, genetically engineered monstrosities or, in my case, robots.

For whatever reason, robots mean the Future for me. Robots fighting, robots flying, robots vacuuming the floor, robots fetching beers: that’s truly a sign that we’ve entered a new age. And not remote controlled robots either, but fully autonomous bots that are capable of learning and adapting to changes in the environment.

So I’m constantly scanning the news, looking for newer and better ‘bots. And by that, I don’t mean those terrifying monstrosities that the Japanese can’t get enough of. There is, apparently, no analogous term for “the uncanny valley” in Japanese.

I’m more interested in, say, the PR2. It learns to better do chores around the house. And look, it doesn’t have vaguely human features designed to send the user shrieking from the room. There’s also the blob-bot, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a bot…that’s a blob. It moves through a complicated process that I can’t explain. Just watch the video.

But I think my interest (and the interest of many of the designers) goes deeper than just geeking out over cool tech. The idea of one of our creations being smart enough, flexible enough, human enough, to talk back to us is exciting.  I believe that humanity has, in general, always been on the lonely side. Our stories are populated with creatures and beings with brains that match ours and walk alongside us. We keep pets and then anthropomorphize the shit out of them. We keep a constant eye on the stars in the hopes that somewhere out there, there is intelligent life. Hopefully benevolent (or at least morally ambivalent) and willing to talk to us.

With artificial intelligence, it’s just one more way we’re trying to find a companion who is Other and, at the same time, very familiar.

Dylan Charles

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: A Review

So for the first time in a long time, I’m going to write me a review, ’cause…why the hell not?

I generally stay away from books that appear on the New York Times bestseller list.  If Oprah’s seal of approval appears on the cover, I’m ten times more likely to throw the book on the ground and run for the hills.

This isn’t really a rational way of thinking, more of a snooty, anti-populist way of thinking that I’ve been trying to curb. After all, things are popular for a reason and maybe it’s because the thing in question is really good.

So after encountering The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at every corner and having appear in places I usually don’t notice books, like the grocery store, I decided to give the damn thing a try. I’ve got a Kindle, I might as well put it to work.

And now I’m done reading it and I don’t know what I think.

It’s an interesting book, from the perspective of a writer, because it looks very much like Stieg Larsson was figuring out how to write a novel as he wrote it. The prologue was painful, awkward, stilted and nearly got me to delete it from the Kindle. If I hadn’t paid for it, I would have stopped reading it, just based on those opening ten pages.

But the book got better, because, in part, because Mr. Larsson got better. His characters are, across the board, fairly interesting and complex creatures, believable in their motivations and actions. Of course, the best part of the book was Lisbeth Salander. She’s quirky, vicious, socially inept, intelligent and firm in her beliefs about how to deal with the world. In every way, the kind of character I enjoy reading about. She’s another version of detectives like Holmes and Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe: those individuals who are terribly flawed human beings (at least from the perspective of the people around them) and yet, continue to do what they consider the right thing in spite of all the pressures not to.

The mystery aspect of the plot was worthy of both of the detective characters and was riveting from beginning to end. The only problem is, the mystery doesn’t start till a third of the way into the book and ends well before the book ends. A considerable chunk of time is taken up to describe business crime. Give me murders over corporate shenanigans any day.  The corporate menace that lurks over the entire story is not as interesting as the murder mystery. All it does is steal time from the best parts of the book.

I will, most likely, pick up the next book in the trilogy, if only to learn more about Lisbeth Salandar, but I’ll cry if I have to read several hundred pages about business magazines and journalists and accounts whose figures DO NOT ADD UP.

Dylan Charles

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Turning

I work over at a machine shop that allows people to use the machines for the price of a monthly membership. I’ve worked there off and on since last October, but I’ve not had much interest in actually using the shop, though employees can use it for free.

While I consider myself a creative person, I don’t need the shop to create anything I’m interested in. While there are a lot of truly awesome things going on there, my immediate response is not, “Ooo, I want to do that too” but “Ooo, that’s awesome” and then going back to doing whatever it is I’m doing.

The things I make require only a limited set of tools: something to write, something to record. Bam, done.

While I have occasional notions, actual constructs instead of just words, the design process doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t think well spatially. If I’m reading the description of a room or spaceship or building in a book, I end up skipping it. If someone gives me directions, I end up spacing out. For whatever reason, my brain does not lock onto that kind of thing well.

And the idea of measuring and calculating and plotting is even less appealing. Having the finished product would be nice, but it’s not enough of a draw to get me through the whole process. I’m not someone who likes details, precision or extensive planning while being creative. I just want to go and worry about the little details later. So metal working is right out.

But…the wood shop on the other hand. That’s a part of the shop that’s always appealed to me. It’s more flexible, less precise and looks, well, more fun.

So yesterday I decided to take a class on how to use the wood lathe. The thing I ended up liking the most about it was how little it depended on being exact. It was about feeling out the wood, seeing what was right, seeing what FELT right. Testing the angle of the tool and seeing what was working. It was very visceral. While the metal shop requires a lot of hands-off work (set the distance, place the metal, press the button and make sure nothing goes wrong during the process), most of the tools in the woodshop demands that you stay in contact. There’s less distance.

While I doubt I’ll ever become a woodworker, I definitely plan to make use of the lathe. I like doing something that requires working in the world, a welcome change from sitting in front of the computer for hours at a time.

Dylan Charles

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Throwing Away the Past

I’ve been doing a lot of cleaning, a lot of throwing things away and I’m once again amazed at how much shit I’ve managed to accumulate over the years.

Just going through my desk alone, I’ve found papers that I’ve been holding onto since elementary school: recipes for fake glass, notes to chemistry class, English assignments, comics I drew. There are toys and knick-knacks, bits of metal, broken locks, magnets, dead pens, old Far Side cartoons and a whole host of other things. Or, there were. Now it’s all either in the trash, in the recycling, or in a give-away box.

It’s extremely cathartic to just…let all of these things GO. There’s no reason to keep 90% of these things. I don’t look at them. I don’t treasure them. They’re just taking up wasted space that I could be using to store newer pieces of junk.

I want to get rid of it all. Just get a giant trash bag and throw everything away and start from scratch. Except I don’t want to accumulate this much stuff again. I want to always be this free of tie-downs, of nostalgic reminiscences.

I’ve always been a weird mix of sentimental and anti-sentimental. I have no interest in photographs, because I assume if I don’t remember something, it wasn’t worth remembering. And photographs, or more accurately snapshots, don’t contain enough of the experience to be worth having.

On the flipside, I’ll hold onto some weird doodle I made in 7th grade math class because it’s something I made. Never mind that it’s something so crappy looking that I’d be ashamed to show it to anyone. I made it, so it must stay.

But my old stance on that kind of thing is quickly being reversed by the idea that I can’t take it with me, so why bother keeping it at all? I don’t WANT this much stuff. I don’t want to have to cart it around. I don’t want to worry about it. I just want it gone.

This is an extension of my old blog and my need to delete it. It’s time to move on from things. It’s time to stop dwelling and focusing on the things that were and move on to things that are actually important. Namely, what’s to come and what’s going on right now.

Dylan Charles

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The Timeline

I was going through my old blog, which is shortly facing erasure, and it’s a strange experience.

I wrote there for almost seven years, which is a long span of time. I went through a couple of jobs, graduated from two schools, traveled around quite a bit. I went from wanting to be a paleontologist to committing to the idea of being a writer. I (hopefully) grew as a person and slowly turned into the person I am now.

And it’s all, more or less, captured there. All those little stages and giant leaps in me, captured in words (my words). I can see the changes in what I talk about, how I talk about it, what I’m focusing on in general. Reading it, I can’t help but think of those Dylans, the ones who wrote those entries, as different Dylans, people apart from me. “I didn’t write that. That was that OTHER Dylan.”

And it’s disturbingly personal. Seeing these changes, up for everyone to see, the things I talked about then. I’m not so sure I’d talk about half the things I used to. I think I’m more careful, less impulsive. I hope anyway. And this blog, where I’m writing now, has a stronger focus on writing and I’m planning for it to be a very public thing. The last one…more personal, more intimate, more about who I was. And, for that reason, I’ll be glad to see it go. I feel exposed with it sitting there, out in the open, available for anyone to see it. The one blessing is that it was never very popular.

But I’ll still be sad to see it go. It has affected my life in a lot of ways, some small, some big and some extremely big.

I’ll miss it, but I’m still going to burn it down this Monday.

Dylan Charles

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Diversions

I’ve never been good at hobbies.

Maybe I should elaborate on that a bit.

I’ve never been good at maintaining hobbies. My attention span doesn’t really allow for it. I’ll become heavily invested in something for several months, burying myself in the minutia of whatever it happens to be. The history, what’s currently going on, facts, figures: whatever information that possibly exists on the subject at hand.

And then I drop it.

There’s no gradual decline in interest. It’s an off and off switch. One moment I care intensely about Care Bear merchandise, the next minute I’m into Dutch zombie manga. It’s sometimes frustrating. I want a hobby! And no, writing doesn’t count as a hobby. And neither does reading. Reading is something everyone should be doing and doesn’t count as a special, niche interest.

I want to hang out with my fellow enthusiasts and wax on and on about the tiny little niggling details about something and loudly harrumph about changes and misconceptions about whatever it is. I want to be one of THOSE people, who always wear t-shirts that loudly proclaim that they’re a part of some geek tribe and whose every other word somehow references that interest.

My last resort, the plan that I consider a desperate measure, is to make up a hobby. My hobby will be to have a fictional hobby. I will spout technobabble at the drop of a hat that pertains to nothing and means just the same! I will reference people who are experts in the field of my unreality! There will be dates and times, key points in the history of my elaborate fiction!

Granted, I will become tired of it after a few months, but, for those few months, I will be the foremost expert in gibberish.

Dylan Charles

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