Benjamin Sperduto

Fantasy, Horror, & Science Fiction Author

Month: February 2018 (page 1 of 2)

The Culture Tsar: Musical Discoveries (Week of February 19-25)

Here’s what The Culture Tsar has been listening to for the past week. Check out highlights from each album on The Culture Tsar’s Weekly Highlights playlist on Spotify to listen for yourself.

If you’re reading this after the Spotify list has updated, check out The Culture Tsar’s 2018 Highlights playlist to find the selections below.

1: The Horrors: V (2017)

The Culture Tsar has a bit of history with The Horrors. They were one of the first bands he stumbled upon during his initial Spotify explorations several years ago. Both 2011’s Skying and 2009’s Primary Colours are excellent, but The Culture Tsar hasn’t really kept up with what the band’s been doing since then. V continues many of the trends present in Skying, moving the music beyond the more straightforward 80s goth sound of their early work. Although definitely a rock band, The Horrors never quite sound like one. They have good pop sensibilities and bring in a lot of interesting ambient electronic elements to break up the structure of conventional rock music. Above all, The Horrors seem intent upon combining every alternative music trend of the last thirty years into a single album. Their music has a bit of a timeless quality that’s difficult to pin down in a particular era. You could have told me this album was from 2007, 1997, or 1987 and every one of those dates would have made sense. Odds are you’ll find at least a few tracks you enjoy on this album as a result, but you might find the entire package somewhat unsatisfying.

2: Cloud Nothings: Life Without Sound (2017)

This is a tough album to review. Life Without Sound is easy to classify, of course. It’s a rock album that incorporates a lot of pop punk sensibility with more mature songwriting inspired by classic 60s era British rock. The songs are catchy, the vocals eager, and the whole thing moves along at a nice, steady clip. It’s fine. Perfectly enjoyable. The problem is that The Culture Tsar remembered literally nothing about the album when he sat down to write about it. This highlights one of the difficulties with this musical discovery endeavor, namely that it can be hard to say something insightful about an album you listened to once several days ago. Still, this hasn’t been a big issue in previous weeks. This album is just a little on the bland side. Again, it’s fine. If you like more modern pop punk type music, you’ll probably really like it. The Culture Tsar didn’t hear anything special, though. Nothing offensive, but just nothing worth getting excited about.

3: Kylesa: Exhausting Fire (2015)

Let’s cut to the heart of the matter straight away: Kylesa sounds awesome. The opening track tells you everything you need to know about this band. Heavy distorted, fuzz effect drenched guitars slogging over a bone crunching, mid tempo rhythm section with muted vocals fighting to cut through the mix. Listening to Kylesa is like going to see Black Sabbath in 1972 with a wet towel wrapped around your head…and you’re drunk. Kylesa is a particularly good example of the “stoner metal” genre, which is a descriptor that’s both unfortunate and perfect all at the same time. This band can crank out the riffs, but they have a good ear for a hook. Most of the songs are pretty catchy, and they’re one of the few bands that mixes female and male vocals effectively. On the down side, this album includes a rather subpar cover of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid.” Don’t let that deter you, though. The rest of the album is stellar. Highly recommended for any metalhead.

4: Tamaryn: Cranekiss (2015)

The Culture Tsar was fairly indifferent about this album upon the initial listen, but found it more enjoyable when he went back to it to select tracks for the playlist. Probably best slotted in the “dream pop” genre, Cranekiss is a pretty good album overall. It doesn’t have many tracks that stand out as great, but there aren’t any duds either. The album features a lot of swirling synths and echo-laden vocals that blend together in a pleasant wave of sound. It’s the kind of music that can very easily sink into the background if you’re not focusing on it, which is probably why The Culture Tsar’s initial impressions were rather muted. At its best moments, Cranekiss sounds a bit like a modernized version of Souxsie and the Banshees, but it never quite reaches the same level of confident swagger. The most standout track, “Hands All Over Me”, feels a bit atypical from the rest of the album, featuring a bit more pep and enthusiasm. Cranekiss strikes me as the sort of album you pick a few tracks from to put on your playlist and then set the rest of the songs aside. Good, but nothing you haven’t heard before.

5: Vallenfyre: Fear Those Who Fear Him (2017)

And now for some really intense music. Vallenfyre is a side project by Greg Mackintosh, the lead guitar player of Paradise Lost, which you may know is The Culture Tsar’s favorite band. But while Paradise Lost is very much a doom metal band, Vallenfyre is straight up black metal. The songs here are heavy, nasty, and sound like they were recorded inside a metal garbage can. If you’re into that sort of thing, it’s great, although this album is probably a bit on the slow side for some black metal fans. If you’re not a metal fan, Vallenfyre will probably strike you as unlistenable (and possibly offensive) noise. In the latter case, you’ll just have to take The Culture Tsar’s word for it that this is what good black metal is supposed to sound like. The drumming is fantastic, the guitars are savage, and the vocals are brutal without being incomprehensible. While The Culture Tsar appreciates Vallenfyre artistically, it’s not something he would listen to on a regular basis. The songs here are a little more melodic than the more extreme strands of black metal (Mackintosh is too good of a songwriter to lose that sensibility completely), but they’re definitely not trying to make their way onto the singles charts. Good stuff, but listen at your own risk…

 

That’s it for the Culture Tsar’s musical offerings this week. Here’s a sneak peak at next week’s albums:

1: End of the Dream: Until You Break (2017)

2: Minus the Bear: VOIDS (2017)

3: Hanging Garden: I Am Become (2017)

4: Emma Ruth Rundle: Marked for Death (2016)

5: In the Silence: A Fair Dream Gone Mad (2013)

New Morana’s Breath album, “Dust”, available now

Earlier this week, I finally got around to wrapping up the seventh Morana’s Breath album, Dust. I’ve been working on the album on and off since late April of last year, but most of that work has come in concentrated spurts of a few days at a time followed by months of inactivity. This was a difficult one to finish, probably the hardest since Beyond the Nebula. I’m pleased with the final results, but to be perfectly honest, I have some mixed feelings about the album itself.

As I’ve mentioned many times on this site, 2017 was a difficult year for me. I was going through a lot of personal issues when I came up with the concept for Dust and began the recording process. Listening to it now, especially some of the earlier tracks, is a little unsettling for me. It’s a very bleak album, and I can hear a lot of the struggles I was going through in the music.

The basic concept behind Dust was to strip things down as much as possible and try to evoke a sense of unease with arrangements that were far more minimalist than the typical Morana’s Breath song. This wasn’t totally foreign territory, though. Dark, creepy soundscapes have always been an important part of the Morana’s Breath toolbox (see tracks like “The Olden City” and “House of a Decaying Dream”), but doing an entire album of songs in that vein was a challenging task. It’s much harder to create a sense of variety or generate peaks and valleys when you’re committed to a specific aesthetic.

I think the final product strikes a good balance, though. Dust is certainly creepy, and hopefully listening to it will leave you feeling a bit uneasy. It’s not supposed to be a comfortable listening experience, but rather one that keeps you on edge. If the previous album, Hyperreality, was a showcase of everything I’d learned about electronic music up to that point, Dust represents a deliberate attempt to go someplace different. While I’m proud of the way the album turned out, I think the next Morana’s Breath project (if there is one) will return to more comfortable territory. For now, though, I hope everyone enjoys the journey, even if it’s a slightly depressing one!

Dust is available now on iTunes and Spotify. You can also purchase high quality audio files along with additional graphics materials from BandCamp.

The Culture Tsar: Altered Carbon’s Crucial Misdiagnosis

Last night, The Culture Tsar finally finished watching the final episodes of the Netflix series Altered Carbon. After providing a few first impressions last week, it seemed only proper to render a final verdict on the show.

The last few episodes are pretty jam packed, with a ton of stuff happening in rapid succession. Although it all comes together in the end, it’s easy to get lost if you’re not paying close attention. The final act features a lot of action and reversals of fortune that provide big spectacle without overwhelming the characters too much. Some of the twists and turns are a little too convenient, but it’s nothing outside the bounds we’re used to seeing in movies and television. All of the major questions and conflicts are resolved, and the (surviving) characters get satisfying send-offs. While the show does enough to lay the groundwork for another season, it wraps up the story tightly enough for this season to stand on its own.

But enough of this measured, objective criticism. You want to know whether the show’s worth the ten-hour investment. The Culture Tsar didn’t see anything in the last three episodes to fundamentally alter his initial impressions. Altered Carbon is good, but not great. Strip away the top tier production values and you’re left with a fairly boilerplate sci-fi story that tapdances around some compelling ideas, but is ultimately more interested in the sort of violent action and despicable villainy we’ve seen for decades in various works of film noir.

Something about the show just doesn’t add up. All the ingredients are there, but it feels like there’s something amiss with the recipe. After watching the entire season, The Culture Tsar felt strangely unsatisfied. While the show leans a little too hard on the shock value of violence and sex, its excesses didn’t rise above the level of mild annoyance. The answer had to be something deeper, something more fundamental to the show’s character.

After thinking this over for a while, The Culture Tsar might be getting closer to an answer.

The central theme of the show is the interplay between immortality and morality. Time and time again we’re shown examples of how the wealthiest and longest lived members of this society have lost touch with their essential humanity. They subject those weaker than themselves to myriad physical, sexual, and psychological abuses. Freed from the threat of death (“the great equalizer” as one character calls it), these immortals fashion themselves as demigods, even attracting worshippers willing to do their bidding. The show clearly wants us to conclude that living forever is a bad idea, that it robs us of something that makes us human.

What’s fascinating is that no one suggests at any time that the real problem here is not immortality, but wealth.

Altered Carbon is hardly the first work of fiction to draw the connection between living forever and the decline of human empathy. But the fact remains that Altered Carbon’s story would still work even if none of the villainous characters were immortal. They abuse people without fear of consequences because they’re rich and powerful. Immortality is simply the mechanism by which they accumulate that wealth and power. To its credit, the show does make mention of this at several points, but it doesn’t posit any alternative outcomes. Immortality is bad, it seems, because it allows the rich and powerful to become more rich and powerful. Based on this logic, the ideal outcome would be to eliminate immortality so that the wealthy can only abuse and exploit the masses for a single lifetime.

In the end, immortality is just another market investment that keeps paying out dividends. There’s no exploration of what it might be possible for humans to achieve if they had multiple lifetimes to develop and reach those goals. In a society where people can live forever, you would expect a variety of new ideas to develop in order to deal with this reality. What does immortality do to spirituality? To philosophy? The show deals with this a bit, but only in the very narrow context of a Catholic Church movement that ultimately serves the demands of the plot.

The show does conclude that immortality diminishes the satisfaction derived from wealth, but it posits that the natural response to this is to pursue sexual depravity and the primal thrill of violence. There’s never any question that, perhaps, the accumulation of wealth and power is spiritually unsatisfying. The show doesn’t present any alternatives, such as immortals who might cast aside the vapid materialism that drives endless capitalist consumption in favor of a quiet life of contemplation or altruism. Instead, it gives us a world in which humanity has overcome its greatest challenge and then decided to spend the rest of eternity on a drunken bender at the local mall because people are fundamentally hedonistic consumers forever locked in a Social Darwinian status struggle. This, the show seems to argue, is why we can’t have nice things.

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s the reason Altered Carbon’s present day is almost identical to the world the main character left behind 250 years earlier. There’s an easy case to be made that immortality leads to entrenched power structures committed to stifling social, artistic, and technological development unless they can profit from it. But the show doesn’t seem to make that argument. It instead takes for granted our present day capitalist mode of consumption and assumes that without death to level the playing field, the future will just be a more extreme version of what we have now. Altered Carbon might have been more interesting had it explored the ways in which immortality could upend our assumptions about social competition, wealth, and capitalism rather than simply reinforce them.

But at the end of the day, this show wasn’t really interested in big ideas. Immortality was a plot device that facilitated the story, not the basis of a philosophical thought experiment. If anything, the show is a bit retrograde in its thinking. It concludes that immortality is a bad thing to be either tolerated or done away with rather than exploring how it could reshape human existence. Had the show taken a bite out of some of these questions, it might have found the legs to help it endure as classic piece of sci-fi storytelling.

As it stands, Altered Carbon is a good show that you’ll probably enjoy.

And then you’ll probably forget about it…

You Can’t Fix Nothing

The single best piece of writing advice I ever heard came from author Chuck Wendig, who said something along the lines of when you sit down to write, write something, even if you think it’s terrible. “I can fix shitty writing later,” he said, “but I can’t fix a blank page.”

I think about this remark every time I’m struggling to get words on the page. When you’re working on a draft, it’s easy to forget that writing isn’t a public act of exhibition playing out in the town square for all your friends and neighbors to see. A draft belongs to you and no one else. You don’t have to share it with anyone. It can be as good or as terrible as it needs to be at any given time. If you write a terrible sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, or book, no one needs to know about it but you.

Some writers are very good about this. I’ve met authors who don’t write any exposition in their first draft, only dialogue. Others are perfectly fine connecting one scene to another by writing a simple “blah blah blah” tag so they can get right to the stuff they want to be working on to keep their energy and enthusiasm up. They don’t mind doing this because they’re not going to let another person lay eyes on the draft until they’ve gone back to fix all of those issues in the editing/rewriting process.

I can’t do that. My thought process is far too sequential to be able to backfill sections so completely. When I was in graduate school, I was absolutely perplexed by fellow students who would write their entire research paper without including any of their citations and then insert them later. With fiction, the idea of skipping a scene to work on another part of the book is borderline incomprehensible to me. There are plenty of people who can do it, but I’m definitely not one of them.

Despite that, I still find the “fix shit later” advice to be extremely valuable. A lot of writers have a perfectionist streak that compels them to edit as they go and constantly reassess what they’re writing along the way. It’s a perfectly valid approach, but it can be a frustrating one. The problem here is if writing feels torturous, you’re going to be less likely to want to do it on a regular basis. And if you’re not writing on a regular basis, you’re probably not getting anything done.

As another saying goes, the worst product in the world is still better than the best idea in the world because it actually exists. You might have a book in your head that’s worthy of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but until you get the damn thing on the page, it’s worth less than a terrible self-published book riddled with grammar and spelling errors.

One of the most important things you can do as a writer is to give yourself permission to suck. Write as badly as you have to in order to get the words out of your head and onto the page. You can always fix them later, and, more importantly, nobody has to know how bad they were to start with. While a lot of things take place out in the open in today’s social media environment, writing is mercifully not one of them. Don’t let the fear of not writing up to your perceived standards prevent you from getting work done.

You can fix bad writing; you can’t fix nothing.

The Culture Tsar: Musical Discoveries (Week of February 12-18)

Here’s what The Culture Tsar has been listening to for the past week. Check out highlights from each album on The Culture Tsar’s Weekly Highlights playlist on Spotify to listen for yourself.

If you’re reading this after the Spotify list has updated, check out The Culture Tsar’s 2018 Highlights playlist to find the selections below.

1: Marilyn Manson: The Pale Emperor (2015)

Listening to this album was like reconnecting with an old acquaintance you haven’t seen in years and wonder why you weren’t closer friends since you have so much in common. As teenager in the 1990s, The Culture Tsar naturally heard plenty of Marilyn Manson’s early material. While he always thought the infamous 1996 album Antichrist Superstar was better known for its shock value than its musical qualities, he greatly enjoyed its 1998 follow-up, Mechanical Animals. After that, though, Marilyn Manson fell off The Culture Tsar’s radar, usually provoking comments like “Oh, is he still around?” whenever the name came up. He was honestly a bit surprised to discover that The Pale Emperor is quite good. Not quite metal, but not really straight up hard rock, the album has a sleazy, grime-encrusted bluesy feel to it. If you mixed Alice Cooper with Tom Waits and The Cure, you’d get something that sounds kind of like The Pale Emperor. Manson seems more concerned here with crafting great songs than with shocking people, and it really showcases the musical talent that often gets overshadowed by the theatrics of his stage persona. While still dark and disturbing, it isn’t really “in your face” with shock value. The Pale Emperor may drag you into some frightening places, but you’ll find yourself tapping your foot along the way.

2: Hungry Lucy: Pulse of the Earth (2017)

An interesting combination of elements, Hungry Lucy pairs electronic ambience with delicate female vocals to occupy a unique genre space. Honestly, The Culture Tsar isn’t sure how to even categorize this album. It’s not pop, but it’s not electronica either. The singer sounds a lot like Tori Amos at times, and the songs strike an uncomfortable balance between sad and thoughtful. While the arrangements tend to be multilayered, they’re not overwhelming at any point. The album manages to be deep and austere at the same time. More than any other album this week, Pulse of the Earth is really hard to describe. That doesn’t mean it’s a difficult album to take in. Most of the songs are actually quite accessible, but there’s not an easy comparison for them. It’s not the kind of album you would listen to casually while doing something else. Hungry Lucy is a distinctive and original band you should sit down and dedicate some time to listen to if you’re looking for something different from the typical genre fare.

3: If These Trees Could Talk: The Bones of a Dying World (2016)

Ah, post-rock…

Sooner or later, The Culture Tsar had to listen to a post-rock album for this series. For those unfamiliar with the term, post-rock is a genre of instrumental rock music that originated in the 1990s and has since exploded into a thriving sub-genre. Seriously, you could spend days exploring different post-rock bands on Spotify. The Culture Tsar discovered If These Trees Could Talk on one of those deep dives. They’re fairly typical of the genre in that they manage to compose evocative songs that still cling to the basic rock music structure that listeners instinctively expect from a song. Their music tells a story without a single lyric intruding upon the narrative, though exactly what that story is will vary from listener to listener. That’s one of the cool things about post-rock; the instruments combine to elicit an emotion from the listener, but it’s up to the listener to work out what that emotion means to them. The Bones of a Dying World has some pretty epic moments and creates a variety of compelling soundscapes. Virtuosity takes a back seat to ambience, with many of the most emotionally powerful moments coming from rather simple arrangements. Post-rock certainly isn’t a genre for everyone. You kind of have to be on board with the idea of listening to a rock song without vocals. If, however, you want to get a good sense of what’s possible in the genre, If These Trees Could Talk is an excellent band to start with.

4: White Lies: Friends (2017)

The Culture Tsar is really digging this wave of bands inspired by early 80s New Wave pop rock. A few weeks ago, Cut Copy gave him a heavy dose of nostalgia. This week, White Lies takes the nostalgia up a notch and adds a skinny tie to the mix. Friends sounds like a lost album out of 1984, which is a good thing in The Culture Tsar’s book. The guitars have that heavily processed New Wave sound that meshes well with the echo laden synthesizers and the machine-like precision of the rhythm section. Rich and deep male vocals round out the classic sound, calling to mind any number of well-dressed bands from the early MTV era. None of this this would matter, of course, if the songs sucked. Fortunately, the songwriting is great, full of catchy hooks, melodies that get stuck in your head, and easy to remember lyrics that you’ll be singing under your breath for the rest of the day. Maybe The Culture Tsar is just a sucker for bands that sound like the music of his childhood, but Friends is the kind of album that will make you happy from the moment it begins until you inevitably decide to play the whole thing over again.

5: Memoryhouse: Soft Hate (2016)

Another tough one to categorize, Soft Hate bounces between an upbeat electronic pop sound and a more measured, introspective style. At a couple points, they veer into slightly darker territory with a couple of songs that sound like they could have come from a David Lynch movie. Most of the time, though, they keep to a standard of layered synthesizers and drum beats backing up the breathy female vocals. The album is good, but the style feels a bit inconsistent at times. There’s a bit of a kitchen sink feel to it, with a lot of good songs doing a lot of interesting things that don’t quite hold together as a coherent album. A great album typically has a strong thematic element that ties all the songs to one another conceptually. Part of the problem is that the best track, “Arizona”, is almost completely different from the rest of the album. After The Culture Tsar’s initial listen, he thought he liked the album a lot, but it was more a case of one song influencing his view of the album. His enthusiasm waned a bit on repeated listens because he wanted more songs that sounded like “Arizona.” Still, it’s not a bad album. Many of the songs are quite good, if not especially memorable. Definitely worth a listen, but it doesn’t set the world on fire.

Now, if they do more songs like “Arizona”…

That’s it for the Culture Tsar’s musical offerings this week. Here’s a sneak peak at next week’s albums:

1: The Horrors: V (2017)

2: Cloud Nothings: Life Without Sound (2017)

3: Kylesa: Exhausting Fire (2015)

4: Tamaryn: Cranekiss (2015)

5: Vallenfyre: Fear Those Who Fear Him (2017)

The Culture Tsar: David Lynch’s “Dune”

Later tonight, The Culture Tsar is going to a special showing of David Lynch’s Dune, the 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel. Dune has been The Culture Tsar’s favorite novel for decades now, with nothing much else coming even close to it. There’s really no other book that provides the same combination of imaginative sci-fi worldbuilding and adventure with compelling questions about politics, society, ecology, economics, and religion.

Lynch’s Dune adaptation is…well…interesting. Judging it on a spectrum of “good” to “bad” seems to miss much of what makes it worth talking about almost 35 years since its release. To get that superficial detail out of the way quickly, though, Dune is not a good film. The pacing is awful, the story is all over the place, the voiceover narrations are jarring, the performances are uneven, and the character motivations are opaque at best. As a piece of filmmaking, Dune is kind of a mess.

But nobody remembers or cares about that because Lynch’s Dune is an amazing work of visionary cinema. In retrospect, it’s unbelievable that a major Hollywood studio spent millions of dollars on this movie and released it hoping to score a big hit. Dune is weird, dangerous, and utterly fearless in most of its choices. The bizarre Jules Verne meets Renaissance Italy art design sets the film apart from contemporary sci-fi epics like Star Wars and Star Trek while being a strangely appropriate fit for the baroque society of Herbert’s Imperium. Lynch’s nightmarish vision of House Harkonnen’s Giedi Prime homeworld nicely embodies Herbert’s themes of corruption and resource exploitation in addition to giving us one of cinema’s most memorable and grotesque villains. The competing organizations of the Dune universe, the Spacing Guild, the Mentats, the Bene Gesserit, stand out as distinctive groups deeply enmeshed in their own institutional history and culture. There’s a sense of “otherness” about them that feels very true to Herbert’s book, even if the portrayals themselves are rather far afield from the book’s aesthetic. Lynch instinctively understood that film is a visual medium. While the book could take the time to explain the history and practices of the Spacing Guild, the film could accomplish the same thing with visual design. One look at the Spacing Guild and the viewer understands that it’s far more than just a group of powerful people with a monopoly on interstellar travel.

Not all of these choices work (although The Culture Tsar would like to register his dissent with popular opinion by saying that Sting is great as Feyd Rautha). Fantastic art design stands alongside some rather shoddily conceived ideas (the god awful ornithopters and the haz-mat worker lookalike Sardaukar soldiers come to mind), but on the whole, Lynch’s unique visualization of Herbert’s world is a success. Even the biggest divergence from the book, the “weirding module” sonic weapons, kind of work. Most of the desert scenes are great, giving the film a sense of scale that would be sorely missing in the later television adaptation (the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel mini-series, which was also flawed, but in completely different ways).

Honestly, the movie’s biggest problem is that it tried to be too faithful to Herbert’s novel. If Dune were being adapted today, it would probably wind up as a ten episode HBO series rather than a single film. There’s just too much information to pack into a two and a half hour film without fatally compromising some aspect of the novel. Lynch’s adaptation strips the story down to the absolute minimum and sacrifices a lot of the setting’s depth in an effort to make everything fit. As an adaptation, it doesn’t really come close to succeeding. The story is moving so fast and the characters so beholden to the demands of the plot that we really don’t become invested in anything. A lot happens in the movie, but you don’t really care about any of it, especially on the initial viewing when you’re just trying to keep up with what’s going on. The 2000 Sci-Fi Channel adaptation does a better job of making you care and giving more depth where needed, but it’s hampered by extremely uneven production values and some frankly mediocre writing and design. It’s worth noting that Sci-Fi Channel’s 2003 sequel mini-series, Children of Dune, is fantastic and easily the best film adaptation of Herbert’s work (despite a painfully cringeworthy Susan Sarandon performance). While bringing Dune to the screen is difficult, we have clear evidence that it’s not impossible.

At any rate, The Culture Tsar is eager to see Lynch’s compelling, if flawed, adaptation on the big screen tonight. Even when the movie showcases its worst features, he can always take comfort in its fantastic score. In keeping with the theme of not much about Lynch’s Dune making sense, the soundtrack was composed by the rock band Toto.

Yeah, that Toto.

It’s one of the great soundtracks of the 1980s. Go figure…

The Culture Tsar: Altered Carbon First Impressions

The Culture Tsar was very excited about Netflix’s Altered Carbon. Coming on the heels of Blade Runner 2049, it seemed like Altered Carbon might well usher in a revival of the cyberpunk genre on the big screen. If you want to be charitable, you could even include last year’s live action version of Ghost in the Shell in that equation (setting aside the “white-washing” controversy and the fact the movie just isn’t that great, Ghost in the Shell at least looked cool as a cyberpunk movie). The Culture Tsar hasn’t quite finished watching the entire season, but after about seven episodes, he feels like he has enough thoughts worth sharing.

Let’s start with the good stuff. The show looks great. Great production values, pretty good direction (thanks to some veteran Game of Thrones directors at the helm), and mostly good performances form the cast. While I wouldn’t call the show’s setting groundbreaking in any way, there are a lot of really cool ideas that are well executed (the AI trade union is a particularly inspired idea). There’s a gritty noir element to the series, which is a common feature of classic cyberpunk fiction.

And yet…

Something just doesn’t feel right with this show. The Culture Tsar can’t shake the feeling that it has more in common with a B grade SyFy Channel series than a prestige genre show like HBO’s Game of Thrones. It even feels a step below Netflix’s other big ticket genre show, Stranger Things. Altered Carbon has all the trappings of an A list show, but at the end of the day, it’s a fairly conventional murder mystery/conspiracy procedural that goes down easy but isn’t very filling. There are some interesting philosophical questions scattered throughout the show, but it doesn’t really grapple with them in any meaningful way because it’s too busy getting to the next action sequence or sex scene. Altered Carbon looks good enough to make you think it’s playing in the same league as HBO’s Westworld when in reality the better comparison is with a more predictable network/cable show like FOX’s Almost Human.

Again, it’s not a bad show. Not even close. Like most things, however, you just have to know what you’re getting into. Altered Carbon is an enjoyable show, but it’s not going to go down as one of history’s great sci-fi shows. It will be fondly remembered in the same strata as shows like Farscape and Stargate SG-1 (albeit with much better production values). The Culture Tsar is glad shows like Altered Carbon exist because not every film or television series needs to be a critically acclaimed, award winning artistic achievement. There’s something to be said for a conventional story being competently told. If there is indeed a market for shows like this, then producers will make more of them, which is great news for those of us who enjoy genre fiction.

The Culture Tsar must admit, however, that watching Altered Carbon does make him think that the time and money spent making it would have been better served on adapting William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy for the screen. Neuromancer, which essentially created the cyberpunk genre, has been stuck in some measure of Hollywood developmental hell for decades. It’s more than a little crazy that with all the film adaptations made over the last thirty years, the only Gibson adaptation to see the light of day was 1995’s terrible Johnny Mnemonic. Hopefully the success of Blade Runner 2049 and Altered Carbon will help Gibson’s work get the cinematic attention it richly deserves.

The Culture Tsar: Musical Discoveries (Week of February 5-11)

Here’s what The Culture Tsar has been listening to for the past week. Check out highlights from each album on The Culture Tsar’s Weekly Highlights playlist on Spotify to listen for yourself.

If you’re reading this after the Spotify list has updated, check out The Culture Tsar’s 2018 Highlights playlist to find the selections below.

1: Junius: Eternal Rituals for the Accretion of Light (2017)

Junius has been on The Culture Tsar’s “to listen” list for a long while now and he’s happy to report the band was absolutely worth the wait. They have a great, crushingly heavy sound that never quite reaches abrasive levels. Aside from a few screaming portions, most of the vocals are clean, with a bit of a muted, dreamlike quality about them. They sound a bit like a cross between Mastodon’s more cerebral work (think 2009’s Crack the Skye) and melodic post rock bands like God is an Astronaut. It feels inaccurate to label them as a metal band, although they very clearly are one. Their lyrics and song titles are deeply wrapped up in metaphysical themes drawn from the more eccentric corners of western philosophy. One gets the impression that somebody in the band was a philosophy major who studied a lot of pre-Enlightenment scientific theory, the sort of “quasi-science” that produced a host of delightfully weird ideas about the laws of the universe. Like a lot of metal bands, it’s hard to identify a standout hit on this album. The songs are all quite good, but Junius isn’t in the business of crafting a catchy tune. This album is best experienced as a whole because it feels like a journey through an alternate dimension that you might fall into if you concentrated on the patterns of the stars long enough. Highly recommended, especially if you’re looking for a little more IQ in your metal bands.

2: We Are Scientists: Helter Seltzer (2016)

Let’s get the good news and the bad news out of the way right up front: the first half of this album is absolutely brilliant, but the second half drops off significantly. We Are Scientists have a great pop rock sound and their songwriting is tight and peppy without being cheesy or annoying. Imagine if Weezer and Oasis got together to record an album that didn’t feature any of the pretentious self-importance that makes those bands annoying and you’d have something that sounds kinda like Helter Seltzer. The first three tracks are shockingly good, the kind of songs that make you wonder why this band isn’t a household name. Things begin to trail off after that, though. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth track, the album downshifts into a more predictable indie rock sound. It’s still good, but the bar was set so high by the opening songs that The Culture Tsar couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the end. The whole thing is still worth a listen, though, and whatever you do, you should absolutely check out those first few songs.

3: Client: Authority (2014)

This one’s easy to describe: Ladytron fronted by ABBA. Featuring heavy electronic dance beats with layered synthesizers to keep things moving, Client tries to strike a balance between catchy pop and house music. They do a reasonably good job, but the songs lean a bit closer to the house music side of the equation. As pop tunes, none of the tracks are particularly memorable. You’ll probably enjoy hearing Client when they’re playing in the background, but a more focused listen will leave you feeling like there’s just not much “there” there. The Culture Tsar had a hard time ignoring just how much they sound like Ladytron. While the ABBA-style vocals are a nice touch and sound very good, the fact remains that Ladytron is a much better version of the same music. Client just isn’t different enough to not make The Culture Tsar wish he was listening to Ladytron instead.

4: The Eden House: Songs for the Broken Ones (2017)

Along with Helter Seltzer, this album was the other big surprise of the week. It’s fantastic. Dark and vaguely gothic, it sounds like a less ambient version of groups like Delerium or Dead Can Dance. The first track isn’t great, but the album gains momentum after that and never really lets up. It has an ethereal sound backed up by a substantial rock punch. While sonically and emotionally heavy, the music never crosses the line into metal territory, and rarely even approach what you’d characterize as hard rock. Both the production and arrangement are stellar, making it possible to make out every last note from the multilayered instruments. The female vocalist showcases quite a bit of versatility, shifting from breathy, spoken word sections to more haunting melodic work on several songs. She’s not a siren by any means, but her airy voice is perfect for the dark tone of the material. Overall, a superb album that The Culture Tsar highly recommends.

5: Elysian Fields: For House Cats and Sea Fans (2014)

Alas, not everything can be good news, which brings us to The Culture Tsar’s big disappointment of the week. To be fair, this one is a victim of expectations. The Culture Tsar loves Elysian Fields’s 1996 debut album Bleed Your Cedar, but hasn’t had a chance to hear much of their subsequent material. Elysian Fields has a rather troubled history with record labels, which made it difficult to find a lot of their music over the years (although all of their albums are available on iTunes, only a few are available on Spotify). For House Cats and Sea Fans doesn’t have much in common with Bleed Your Cedar. It has kind of a stripped down, coffeehouse indie sound that occasionally ventures into more of a jazz vibe. A few tracks have a hint of the nastier edge Elysian Fields has shown in the past, but most of the tracks play it pretty safe. None of these songs would sound out of place playing over the speakers at the local hipster coffee shop. Which is fine, I guess. Jennifer Charles has a beautiful voice and she gives a great performance on this album. Again, The Culture Tsar is a victim of his own expectations here. Bleed Your Cedar is a delightfully strange and dangerous album, but For House Cats and Sea Fans is the very definition of safe and nonthreatening. After hearing the other standout albums from this week, it just felt a little flat.

That’s it for the Culture Tsar’s musical offerings this week. Here’s a sneak peak at next week’s albums:

1: Marilyn Manson: The Pale Emperor (2015)

2: Hungry Lucy: Pulse of the Earth (2017)

3: If These Trees Could Talk: The Bones of a Dying World (2016)

4: White Lies: Friends (2017)

5: Memoryhouse: Soft Hate (2016)

Writing as Project Management

One of the challenges I struggle with as a writer is determining which projects to focus my efforts on at a given time. Unfortunately, I’m not a fast writer. I simply can’t churn out thousands upon thousands of words every day. That means I have to prioritize and make tough decisions if I want to get anything done.

For example, right now I’m working on a post-apocalyptic fantasy novel aimed at younger readers. But I also have the outline of the third Chronicles of Rostogov book plotted out and ready to go. Then there’s the partially finished outline of a steampunk novel based on the world and characters featured in my short story story “The Iron Face of God.” And on top of that, there’s a couple different versions of a cyberpunk story (set in the same world as “The First Price” and “Lena’s Song”) I’m trying to sort through. Not to mention the dark fantasy story about a murder in an isolated coastal village I sketched out a while ago and haven’t gotten around to fleshing out. And then there’s…well, you get the idea.

I know some writers who can dash off 10,000-15,000 words a day (or more), which allows them to keep books coming at a steady pace. While I’m very diligent about getting work done, I just can’t write that fast. When I commit to working on something, I have to do so knowing I’ll be living with it for the next few months. It can be hard to maintain that level of focus, especially when you stumble into rough patches along the way (as you inevitably will).

So how do I make that decision? Sometimes it’s merely a process of elimination or taking what’s available. In my current case, the post-apocalyptic fantasy was already outlined in detail and has been since early last year. I’d even started writing at one point, getting a few hundred words into it before losing interest and confidence. When I decided to get the year off to a good start by immediately starting on a new book, this was one of two options available.

But why this project and not the other one? Well, in this particular case, it seemed like a better idea to focus on something completely new rather than work on the next Rostogov book. To be perfectly honest, the second Rostogov book, Mirona’s Law, hit the market with a dull thud last spring and hasn’t improved much since its release. There just aren’t a lot of people out there right now clamoring for the next installment in the series. I’m still committed to the story and will finish out the series at some point, but it didn’t make sense to work on it right now.

I also decided to work on this project because it’s different from what I’ve done previously. The Rostogov books are aimed at an adult market and my unpublished third novel, Blackspire, is even more geared for mature audiences. Sometimes you have to find a way to mix things up and try a new approach if you want to get different results.

All of these factors came together to help me decide what to work on right now. If you’re not the sort of writer who can focus on multiple books at one time, you need to come up with some kind of process, even if it’s arbitrary and illogical, to determine how you’re going to focus your creative efforts. Whether you write quickly or slowly, time is the one resource you have to spend as a writer and it’s very important that you develop a way to utilize it effectively. When I can’t decide on a project, I end up relentlessly tinkering with various outlines and concepts, bouncing from one idea to the next without actually writing anything. While this time is valuable for helping you to work out ideas, it can also distract you.

I spent pretty much the whole of 2017 trying to figure out what to write rather than writing something. In retrospect, I’d have been better served just working on what I had ready to go while dedicating a bit of time every week to planning what I might write next. My traditional way of working consisted of devoting all of my time and energy to a book, and then spending a long stretch of time after its completion figuring out the next book I wanted to work on. It introduced a lot of dead time into my writing process because I’d get hung up in those planning phases rather than actually writing anything new. That dead time became incredibly frustrating because I felt like I wasn’t making tangible progress on anything.

I suppose the moral of this story is to do whatever you need to do to keep writing and see a project through to the end. Don’t take on more than you know you’re capable of doing at one time and have a process for making decisions about how to spend your time that prevents you from feeling overwhelmed by choices. While the craft of writing is important, being a writer also demands that you become a project manager. After all, writing the most brilliant, eloquent prose won’t do you a damn bit of good if you’re never able to finish anything.

The Culture Tsar: A Trusty Blade

Yesterday, The Culture Tsar came across a Sonny Bunch article in the Washington Post reminding everyone waiting to write articles about the upcoming Black Panther being the first superhero movie to feature an African American protagonist that Blade accomplished this milestone almost twenty years ago. Actually, as Bunch later points out, even that isn’t accurate given that Spawn came out a few years before Blade. In any case, it’s a good article on the topic and you should definitely read it, but The Culture Tsar is more interested in talking about Blade.

Why? Because Blade and Blade II are fucking great.

Seriously, Blade is one of the most underrated action movies of the 1990s. The action is great, the story is well constructed, and the characters are memorable. It’s not a movie that tries to reinvent film. From a technical and narrative standpoint, Blade is a pretty conventional action movie about a hero learning to come to terms with who he is in order to prevail over the forces of evil. The script is good, but not great, and a lot of the film’s vampire mythology is rather derivative. But Blade rises above all of that for two reasons. First of all, the filmmakers treated the material with respect, consistency, and care. Blade never descends into camp, but it also never takes itself so seriously that it forgets to have fun. It strikes the same delicate balance that the Marvel Studios films would eventually perfect with the original Iron Man. If you think this is an easy task, go back and watch the first two X-Men films, which feel ponderously self-important in retrospect.

The other reason Blade works is far easier to understand: Wesley Snipes. Easily the most underrated action star of his era, Snipes is also an underrated actor by pretty much any objective measure. Seriously, name a movie where Wesley Snipes didn’t light up the screen in every scene he was it.

Go ahead, think about it. The Culture Tsar will wait…

Right, you can’t think of one. That’s because Wesley Snipes has more on-screen charisma than 95% of his contemporaries. He still holds one of the top spots in The Culture Tsar’s Action Movie Villain List (the one I just made up right now) for his electric role as Simon Phoenix in Demolition Man. And before you dismiss him as just being a good action movie star, remember that this is the same guy who went all out playing a drag queen in 1995’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.

Anyway, Snipes is awesome in Blade. Part of it is the physicality, of course. There was always something special about Snipes’s martial arts work that felt more brutal and real than that of his contemporaries. In a lot of ways, he was a preview of the type of cinematic fighting that became commonplace thanks to the Bourne series. But more importantly, Snipes understood how important it is to embody the visual essence of a comic book character. His movements and facial expressions always look like they could be ripped straight from a comic panel. A big part of Blade’s appeal is that he just looks cool, and Snipes absolutely nails that aspect of the character.

The movie also benefits from a sneaky great performance by Kris Kristofferson. I have no idea why on Earth Kris Kristofferson wanted to be in this movie, but it wasn’t simply for the paycheck because he sells the hell out of it. There’s an amazing little snippet where he sloppily spills gasoline all over Blade’s car while he’s filling the tank, then leans against the car and lights a cigarette. It’s a tiny moment, but it’s memorable and hilarious, the type of thing that makes Blade such an endearing and enjoyable movie.

Blade II is probably a better film, although some of the visual effects don’t hold up terribly well. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Blade II oozes style and features one of the most terrifying vampires ever put to film. Snipes is again fantastic as Blade despite having a bit less to work with from the script. The movie is more about the people around Blade than Blade himself, so there’s not as much of a character arc for him to go through. It doesn’t matter, though. Snipes is so good at playing off the other actors that you barely notice Blade is pretty much the same character by the end of the movie. Speaking of the rest of the cast, there’s a great performance by Ron Perlman, who plays a neo-Nazi skinhead vampire. In retrospect, it’s a rather weird and daring movie that you can’t see the Marvel Studios brain trust of today making.

Then there’s Blade: Trinity. Something something something, sequel exhaustion, inexperienced director, something something something.

As we all get excited for Black Panther, The Culture Tsar thinks everyone would do well to heed Bunch’s advice and rewatch Blade and Blade II. They’re not perfect films and some aspects of them haven’t aged very well (which is typical for late 90s/early 00s movies), but they’re great fun and absolutely worth your time.

 

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