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Review of Orson Scott Card’s "Empire"

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I’ve read a few reviews of Empire on the Internet and in print, and each one is prefaced with “I love Orson Scott Card, but…” To be honest, this is how I need to start as well. I’ve read nearly ten of his other books, and adore them all. I’ve borrowed his entire short fiction work from my library three times now. He’s a brilliant author. This is why Empire‘s shortcomings baffle me so thoroughly. There are so many I’m not exactly sure where to start.

The plot is this: America is less politically stable than it thinks, and when the President and his Vice are assassinated it plunges into civil war as various factions vie for power in the aftermath’s vacuum. It’s very different from the story of something like Ender’s Game, but Card has also written some amazing geopolitical global warfare in the Shadow series, so I had really high hopes when I settled down to read Empire.

Card is a strict Mormon (though using that adjective is probably tautological…), and I’ve consistently been surprised at how balanced, fair and human his stories are – considering how ultraconservative some of his views are. I suppose when his stories were set in the far future or on alien planets, his ideology was masked or just didn’t rear its head. In a novel like Empire, though, which deals with a blue-state vs. red state war in the very near future, they dominate.

A small example is the way that several major characters are having a discussion (and these are superhuman genius soldiers who are flawless Christians whom we’re supposed to love), and they flippantly refer to Al Gore as being completely insane and of a left-wing conspiracy pushing an environmental agenda. I don’t mind his making these comments if he’s going to justify them, but they make the comment as if it’s an accepted fact. These characters are supposed to be the moderates, but the stuff coming out of their mouth is anywhere but. Things like that just grated on me.

Even if I disagree with some of the politics in a book, I’m still able to love it for its story and characters – often ending up more convinced or at least understanding of the author’s viewpoint (for example, in Heinlein‘s Starship Troopers.) But Empire‘s characters are one-dimensional, generically similar and talk like they’re starring in bad action films.

I’m not kidding when I say that he’s trying to make them flawless: they always have the wittiest possible thing to say, which is fine, except it’s the same wit for all three characters: Orson Scott Card’s. During conversations I would lose track of which soldier was which because they all held the same viewpoints and talked in a similar manner.

The story goes nowhere interesting. The super-soldiers stop the left-wing conspiracy and the United States returns to pretty much normal and everything is saved. The twists and turns were obvious and predictable and when the biggest “surprise” in the book happened I didn’t bat an eyelid – and I’m usually pretty terrible at picking plot twists.

I’ve been so surprised, because characters like Ender and Bean have made me laugh and cry, and his plots have had me shaking my head in amazement. I wasn’t able to stomach finishing Empire, though I forced myself to read three-quarters of it in the hope that it’d improve. I’ll be happy to try other books that he releases, but I pray that they’re nothing like this.

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Written by atroche

July 7, 2008 at 2:51 pm

Posted in book, review

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First Impressions of Weezer’s Red Album

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The first eight tracks of their new album have leaked. I wouldn’t know, but rumour has it that a bit of torrent was involved. I’ve listened to the few of them. Or, rather, I started, then shook my head in disgust and punched my computer in the face. Initial thoughts: it’s generic pop-rock with bland, meaningless lyrics. I haven’t really enjoyed any of their whole albums since Pinkerton, though there have been a few good tracks. To spare you from reading the rest of the post, just look at the album cover below. Or to sum it up textually: the Red Album is a hodge-podge of anything the Weezer guys could come up with, thrown together with no coherence and apparently little passion. I like their new stuff maybe even less than I like anything since their sophomore.

Red Album Cover

“Giddy up, we’re going to ride our band-brand for every last, boring dollar!”

Make Believe, their latest LP, made me cringe – quite honestly. Rhyming hero with zero? After wanting to hang around with Rivers in his garage on the Blue Album, his apparent respect for Beverly Hills stars was an unwelcome shock. But, big deal, it’s about the music, right? Well, the music is as generic as the lyrics. Sure, the six minute The Greatest Man That Ever Lived is very weird, but it just splices EVERY STYLE of song they’ve ever touched upon into a short timeframe with no coherence. What the fuck is that song even talking about? And, more importantly, who told Rivers that giving pep talks over the music would be cool?

I’m pretty negative about all the tracks I’ve heard so far from the Red Album. The first song I heard, Pork and Beans, was so mindlessly boring that I was embarrassed to have it coming out of my speakers. I turned it down in case anyone heard it, even though the only person around was my mum. First line of the chorus: “I’ma do the things that I wanna do / I ain’t got a thing to prove to you”. You could prove that you can still write non-cliched lyrics with maybe even a little bit of feeling and thought behind them. But, no, you don’t have to, Rivers, just like I don’t have to like your new album. Yuck.

Rivers with Strat

“Hey Rivers, what you need is a stupid Handlebar moustache to create that ‘whole new image’ you’ve been looking for.”

The start of the next one, Cold Dark World, sounds like “Friday on my Mind.” But I guess that isn’t a very reasonable criticism. The thing that bugs me about this song and the rest of them to an extent is that he’s gone from being a geek to singing like he’s trying to be a hip-hopper or rapper. Is he trying to be cool this way, or is he satirising the “cool”? I have no idea, but I wish they’d gone down a different path.

Their softer one, “Thought I Knew“, has guitarist Brian Bell on lead vocals. What? Huh? Well, his voice is fine, I suppose. But, god, it sounds nothing like Weezer. It’s like they’re an entirely new band with the same old name. Maybe I wouldn’t’ve liked Blue Album and Pinkerton if I hadn’t listened to it so many times years ago and just discovered it today. I hope it’s not just nostalgia. Regardless, I don’t want to listen to their new stuff because it makes depressed – not not from (the end of Pinkerton’s) wanting something beautiful and destroying it with your ugliness but because it’s the final nail in a musical coffin. There’s nothing wrong with changing and developing as a band, but there’s a gigantic and career-ending difference between that and scrapping everything, alienating your fans and looking like fucking tossers. Give me a re-release of their awesome b-sides anyday.

</rant>

Written by atroche

May 14, 2008 at 12:14 am

Posted in music, review

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Mobile Applications I Use

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My Nokia 6120 has HSDPA, which is one of the main reasons I bought it. I subscribe to 3’s X-Series Bronze package and get a 100MiB download limit for $10 a month. I use it on the train or tram, when I’m sitting waiting for something or when I need to find out a definition or something. I’m really glad I have it, though it doesn’t always seem to achieve the 3.5G speeds – it depends on where I am, even in inner-city Melbourne. If I hit my broadband download limit at home I use my Nokia as a modem instead – and get speeds around 100KiB/s.

The internet access would be pretty useless without the applications:

Opera Mini 4.1 Beta

It runs fast and combines an efficient interface with lots of little techniques to format the page appropriately for the handheld format – reducing the data transfer required significantly. It reduces image quality if you want it to, stores bookmarks and history and can even synch up to your desktop browser – a shame that I use Firefox on the desktop. Combined with the faster access speeds Opera’s interface makes using my phone to browse Wikipedia or read my feeds with Google Reader actually worth it. It handles file downloading surprisingly well and the latest version (4.1 beta) takes about 5 seconds to load up!

Opera Daily Telegraph

My criticisms of it are few. The way that the session management is handled seems to be sketchy – I’d prefer to be kept logged in – because entering the username and password is a real timewaster. Also, I want an option for storing as much history as I can on there – so I can browse sites in offline mode when I have poor reception. I have hundreds of megabytes of storage through the SD card and I want to use it! Also, why on earth doesn’t it remember the searches I’ve done?

GMail Mobile

I love this app so much. It takes about 10 seconds to boot up, and then I’ve got a reasonably fast, responsive interface to GMail that is laid out in a suitably minimalistic fashion. It does everything you’d need it to, except attach files to the messages you’re sending. I suppose it’d be hard for the team to get this working on the ridiculous variety of different phones. Still, it’s a shame. You also can’t save attachments, as far as I can work out – though it does convert and display PDFs and maybe MS Office documents.

GMail Mobile Screenshot2

Apart from the attachments, all I’d want would be speed improvements!

Google Maps Mobile

I almost never use this, it takes forever and I can’t seem to ever search for one location, I have to put in two and get the directions between them. I suppose Google can’t help it being slow on a budget phone like the 6120 Classic, but it’s still disappointing.

Doom RPG / Orcs&Elves

These games are extremely impressive – they give me hope for the future of mobile games – but a few days after I first got them I stopped playing and haven’t since. It gives me a headache navigating my way through the cavernous spaceship or dungeon. Not only this, but it takes a lot of button presses to do things (no more than needs be, it’s not Carmack’s fault but the medium’s.) Regardless, I always prefer just browsing the web.

Doom RPG Screenshot

I’d love to see a really well made non-first-person RPG on the phone. For some reason that perspective makes me feel sick when travelling. I would much prefer a SNES-era Final-Fantasy-esque view. In fact, I’d very happily pay money to get a copy of any of the other Final Fantasies on my phone – with a polished and well-adapted interface, of course. The distribution of mobile phone games really sucks arse, I bet even if Square-Enix had released a couple of their Final Fantasy Mobile games in English I wouldn’t be able to find them anyway.

Things I want

Google Reader Mobile: the mobile web interface is nice, but I’d love for a really speedy and efficient way to read my feeds. They’ve done a fantastic job with the GMail app, hopefully soon they can do it again for Google Reader.

Written by atroche

May 9, 2008 at 1:22 pm

Posted in software

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Joanna Newsom Review: ‘Ys’

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One of the editors at my uni magazine recommended I listen to Joanna Newsom‘s latest album, Ys. Simon, the editor, told me what to expect: five epic, rambling, radically folky songs. Joanna plays the harp, mixing sparse, haunting plucks with breathless and spine-tingling runs. It’s hard to comprehend how anyone can do this at the same time as singing with such raw conviction. It’s very different to just about anything I’ve listened to lately, or maybe ever. Sometimes you get the feeling she’d be very much at home by the fire of some Olde English Lord’s castle – her lyrics are poetically illustrative and her wide-ranging voice literally drips with emotion (haha, got you, that was a metaphor!)

The second song, Monkey and Bear, starts off happy and carefree – Joanna cheerfully explains the wily animals’ escape from their indenture to a cruel farmer. Every time she moves from one free-flowing verse to the next, the mood changes oh-so-subtly. Slowly you start to suspect the monkey, to see the avarice and the lust for cruelty emerge. It’s painful, and at the end of it you’ll be amazed at the intense journey she packs into one song. The other ones follow suit, and there’s barely enough time for your ears to digest what’s thrown at them. The way the song weaves its way through different moods and keys is surprising and almost off-putting at first – when she changes the melody every couple of verses you’re left floating without a catchy hook to draw you back in.

This is part of the attraction and part of the problem I have with her music. I can’t relax and listen to it. It’s so dense and intricate that I have to concentrate for the music to mean anything to me. I can’t just sing along with a chorus because there never seems to be one. Her voice is unusual (in fact, all of her is), she pronounces words strangely and her voices jumps from low to high – sometimes actually cracking with feeling. Unless you listen hard or have looked up the lyrics you’ll miss what she’s saying – and the lyrics go so well with the music that you’d be crazy to be only getting part of “the experience”.

It’s beautiful music, but not in the relaxing way of something like Air. It’s inaccessible but rewarding in a way that I can’t remember ever experiencing. Lie in bed, close your eyes and turn it up loud. Let it fill your imagination with her clever rhymes and evocative poetry, and allow your heartbeat to undulate with its strange timing changes, and then make a judgement. Personally I think it’s worth the effort.

Written by atroche

May 8, 2008 at 8:48 pm

Posted in music, review

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Iron Man thoughts

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I saw Iron Man a few days ago, inbetween classes with some friends. I enjoyed it. It has fantastic reviews for a reason – mainly Robert Downey Jr. I’ve never read the comics (or any comics for that matter…), and I knew next to nothing about the Iron Man mythos. I was pleasantly surprised, I actually thought he would be some kind of robot (how embarrassing, I suppose.) Instead he was a funny, smart and above all cool character with very human flaws with which I could empathise.

Downey Jr. makes his larger-than-life personality believable, which is impressive given how fake it could so easily seem having someone as witty and magnetic (iron man? magnets?) as Tony Stark. I usually love origin stories, but Iron Man’s one took over half the movie, or so it felt. There was so much time introducing the character and so little of his doing-cool-shit-in-a-high-powered-suit that I would’ve been disappointed if he wasn’t such an awesome guy anyway. Besides, a sequel is assured and there’ll be plenty of time for his blowing stuff up. Having said that, the action scenes were fantastic – though the villain wasn’t much.

It’s very much worth seeing if you haven’t already – I can’t wait for the next one to come out (2010 I think?)

Written by atroche

May 8, 2008 at 8:20 pm

Posted in movie, review

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