Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Lost Symbol, plus more Dan Brown

I've read Dan Brown's entire catalog. I imagine most people who have read his books followed about the same path I did: I'd never heard of the guy until 2003, when The Da Vinci Code became huge, controversial news. Of course, I didn't pick up The Da Vinci Code just on the promise of controversy alone. All the controversy in the world wouldn't save it from a clunky plot, or an unbelievable premise, or a stupid story. But I got the idea that The Da Vinci Code wouldn't be like that--it had the promise of junk science, and cryptic codes, and secret societies, and world travel.

The Da Vinci Code actually exceeded my expectations. It turned out to be a fast-paced thriller, with some unexpected twists, some intelligent cryptography, and just enough "oh, yeah, right" moments to make it worth reading. Based on its strength, I--and judging by bestseller lists in 2003-2004, thousands and thousands of other people--decided to read the rest of Dan Brown's books.

Turns out we didn't really need to. For illustration, here's a summary of some undisclosed Dan Brown book. Harvard professor, skeptic, and symbologist extraordinaire Robert Langon is called to check out a mysterious happening at a well-known world landmark. As he investigates, he realizes that the mystery is much deeper than it appears, linked to some ancient (but ultimately misunderstood) society that serves as a guardian of mystical knowledge. Langdon relies on a few important allies, including his mentor Peter Solomon, and an attractive female fringe scientist, whose knowledge sets coincidentally complement his own in the exact right way to solve the mystery. By the end, Langdon has stumbled on some secret that only a handful of other people on Earth have ever seen, not to mention kindling a romance with the attractive female scientist and exposing some bad people in the upper ranks of an important organization.

Now, if you've read The Da Vinci Code, you're probably nodding along and adding some details about the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail. If you've read Angels and Demons, you're probably nodding along and adding details about antimatter and the Illuminati. Or, if you've read The Lost Symbol, you're probably nodding along and adding details about the Freemasons and Noetic Science.

You might argue that Dan Brown is not unlike any other author in that regard: Robin Cook has written dozens of formulaic medical dramas; John Grisham has written dozens of formulaic legal dramas; the late Michael Crichton wrote dozens of formulaic weird-science dramas. So Dan Brown has the market cornered on thrillers featuring cryptic symbols and secret societies. The biggest difference here is that Cook, or Grisham, or Crichton, wrote different books every time.

To say that every Dan Brown book is an unabashed clone of the last is a bit of an exaggeration. But each does follow the pattern above, especially the Langdon books. (It's worth mentioning that he has written two other books, Digital Fortress and Deception Point, that only somewhat follow the pattern. They're cousins to the nuclear family that includes the Langdon triplets.)

If these books are so much the same, are they all worth reading? That's the fantastic thing about Dan Brown's books: you know exactly what you'll be getting, but it's entertaining anyway. If nothing else, Brown has perfected the art of the thriller. His pace is frenetic, almost amusingly so, starting a new chapter about every four pages. But each mini-chapter ends on enough of a cliffhanger, or at least an intriguing development, that you want to keep reading until you reach that batch of characters again.

So yes, Brown's books are all worth reading, if you're into this sort of thing. Bear in mind, he's not writing great literature. If you're looking for powerful redemptive tales, or multi-faceted character development, or multiple layers of interpretation, or an acknowledgment of the entire spectrum of emotional experience, you're very much in the wrong place. About the only commentary on the human condition Brown is going to make is something about man's insatiable curiosity about the unknown.

I haven't said a lot about The Lost Symbol itself yet. It mostly plays like a rehash of The Da Vinci Code, which in turn played like a rehash of Angels and Demons. There are a few differences--the biggest one is that The Lost Symbol feels a lot closer to home than the other two. Set in DC and involving locations and historical figures intimately related to the American cultural tableau, Symbol has a "what if this is true?" factor that the earlier books lacked.

The fringe science du jour in Symbol is noetic science, which makes using particle colliders at CERN to create antimatter (a la Angels and Demons) look downright plausible. But where antimatter was actually important to the plot of Angels, noetics were a MacGuffin in Symbol: Katherine Solomon's research could have been on self-assembling nanosurfaces, or the inclusion of the Korean language in the Altaic family, or the feces-throwing capabilities of different monkey species, and it would not have changed the plot. The beginning of the book seemed to promise thoughts projecting a force in a sort of noetic telekinesis, but we never get it.

More differences exist--Langdon exchanges romance with a young, attractive female scientist for friendship with a middle-age attractive female scientist. There's less focus on ancient messages embedded in well-known works of art, and more focus on slightly less ancient messages embedded in a totally secret stone pyramid. And in the end, Langdon doesn't come across any world-shattering discoveries, just an affirmation of religious faith by the nation's founders. All of that adds to a sense of plausibility in Symbol that wasn't present in Da Vinci and Angels.

Between that plausibility, the cultural intimacy, and a few unexpected twists, The Lost Symbol is probably Brown's best book yet. It's impossible to put down and a great read, assuming you know and like what you're getting yourself into. And if you've read anything else by Dan Brown, there's little doubt of that.

Currently listening: Middle Cyclone, Neko Case

Monday, December 21, 2009

Survivor: Samoa: Reactions

For all the legitimately good television I watch (Lost, House, The Office, and then some), I think I deserve a guilty pleasure show or two; Survivor has filled that role for the past ten years. Some of the past nineteen seasons have fallen flat, being totally unmemorable and lacking both character and interesting characters. The past two seasons, though, have failed to disappoint: we had the blatant psychosis of Coach last season, and the unprecedented malice of Russell this season.

At first, I thought this season would be doomed, mostly because of how evil Russell appeared at first. As the season wore on, though, Russell became less the bully and more the champion of an underdog tribe. As his tactical moves shifted from burning his own teammate's socks to finding hidden idols without the benefit of clues, though, I grew to respect Russell as one of the greatest players ever to have played the game--and I wasn't alone. Russell's epithet on CBS's promotions morphed from "evil genius" to "fan favorite".

Russell's goal and purpose for being in the game was simple: "I don't need the money. All I'm here to do is show people just how easy it is to win this game." Clearly, he had the skills to do that.

Just how great a player was Russell? His people were at a 4-8 disadvantage coming to the merge, and they ended up eliminating all 8 of the other team, suffering only a single casualty at the very end. In a game where hidden immunity idols seem to leave the game unplayed more often than they're actually used, Russell keyed on the exactly correct moment to play his and swing momentum irreversibly to his side. He made alliances with the right people at the right times, and he knew exactly when to cut off those alliances to maintain his superior strategic position.

And for all that apparent mastery of the game, Russell did not win. The one thing that Russell failed to account for in his grand strategy was the temperament of the jury, which is the greatest variable of all in Survivor. The way I see it, there are two types of juries that can emerge. The first is the bitter emotional jury, which votes against you because you had a hand in voting them out; the second is the detached intellectual jury, which votes for you because you had a hand in voting them out. The first rewards integrity, possibly at the expense of allowing a less-skilled player to win, while the second rewards game mastery, possibly at the expense of allowing a devious player to win.

What sort of jury America wants is not consistent from season to season. Sometimes we root for the honorable guy, sometimes we want the evil genius to win. We're unpredictable. And so is the jury. There is literally no way to know what sort of mentality those nine people are going to have when they cast their votes. Therefore, I argue that it's in no way Russell's fault that he didn't win the game. As Jeff Probst is so fond of saying, he went as far as he could go in the game.

Instead, the mostly undeserving (but quite pretty, once she'd put on about fifteen pounds and washed her hair) Natalie won, apparently on the strength of her "social game". But Russell played a hell of a social game too, in that his entire strategy revolved around the manipulation of people. In fact, the only person who made it to finale night who hadn't played an entirely social game was Brett, who made it to the finale on success in challenges alone. In Survivor-land, though, "social" does not exactly mean "involving other people".

No, in the odd vernacular of Survivor, "social" more closely means "having people like you". So, yes, Natalie did play a better "social game" in that fewer people hated her than hated Russell. By that same logic, then Shambo's chickens should have had a decent shot of winning too, and the Samoan fire jugglers should have been a lock.

The only reason I say that Natalie is "mostly" rather than "wholly" undeserving is that alliances are necessarily a two-way street. Natalie needed the protection of Russell to remain in the game as long as she did, but then again, Russell needed Natalie's loyalty and guaranteed vote every week in order to manipulate each tribal council.

But the thing is, while the finale might have left me and a a majority of viewers with a bad taste in the mouth, it couldn't retroactively doom the rest of the season. Credit to Russell--and casting at CBS--for making this one of the most memorable seasons yet.

(And by the way, "Heroes Versus Villains" sounds like the lamest concept yet for a season of Survivor. Good luck making that watchable.)

Currently listening: "Ambulance" (which is VERY VERY GOOD), Eisley, from Fire Kite EP

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mae: (A)fternoon

I wanted to like (A)fternoon. Really wanted to. For lots of good reasons.

First, Mae is one of my favorite bands of all time. I'd proclaim them among my favorites on the strength of The Everglow alone, but then I'd be ignoring a strong debut in Destination: Beautiful and a pretty decent EP in (M)orning. The thing about any band, though, is that to remain in favorite-band status, you have two choices: 1) release more material that is good, or 2) take the George Costanza approach and quit while you're on top. Since Mae has opted out of the second option, it's especially important that the follow-ups to their earlier brilliance are worth something.

Second, the music that Mae is producing now is critical to developing some sort of trend for the band's future direction. Destination: Beautiful was good to great. The Everglow approached perfection (trend: upward). Singularity was forgettably average at best (trend: downward). That meant that whatever Mae put out immediately thereafter would essentially serve as a harbinger of the quality of Mae's future material. If it was consistently good, then Mae could write off Singularity as an uninspired blip. Consistently bad, and Mae was essentially admitting to us that they'd run out of gas after their magnum opus.

(M)orning, in turn, was good again (trend: upward). (A)fternoon also being good would go a long way toward establishing the promise of good Mae for years to come. (A)fternoon being bad again, on the other hand, would mean that all bets are off, and that Mae really has no idea what it's doing, throwing out genius, tepidness, and everything in between with no consistency.

Third, (A)fternoon is the same album as (M)orning. Seriously. Compare the track lists:

  • Track 1: "Good (name of EP)", a track that mixes a little music with assorted noises ("Good (M)orning", "Good (A)fternoon")
  • Four tracks that corresponded to the songs sold for charity in that part of the year ("The House that Fire Built", "Boomerang", "A Melody, The Memory", "Night/Day"; "Over & Over", "The Fight Song (Crash and Burn)", "In Pieces", "The Cure")
  • An instrumental track that more or less followed from one of the charity tracks ("Two Birds" from "Boomerang"; "Falling into You" from "The Cure")
  • A seven-minute-plus experimental track that may or may not feature the same Jesus figure ("The Fisherman Song/We All Need Love"; "Communication")
  • and Track 8: another one with the name of the EP that's mostly noise rather than music ("(M)orning Drive"; "(A)fternoon in Eden")

Obviously, the songs aren't the same at all, but the structure of the albums is so close together that by this point, comparisons are inevitable. And if you're going to make essentially the same album twice in a row, the second iteration better be at least as good as the first, or those inevitable comparisons are going to be overwhelmingly negative.

My friend and mock trial mentor Kyle told me that there are two ways a mock trial round can end in a blowout. The first is that one or two critical parts of your case just fall apart: your opener opens for the wrong side, your star witness forgets his testimony, your expert is torn apart by a masterful cross. The second, much less devious, but equally as dangerous, is when the one team is a notch better in everything that it does: the directs are a touch more conversational, the character witnesses are just slightly more entertaining, the closer is a hair more impassioned.

And unfortunately, that second scenario is the tragedy that befalls (A)fternoon. I'll start with the high points: "In Pieces" and "The Cure" can stand up to anything on (M)orning, and I'll go out on a limb and say that with the possible exception of (M)orning's "The Fisherman Song", "In Pieces" is Mae's best track since The Everglow. The opening and closing tracks are meant to be interesting bookends, nothing more, and the two EP's are about equal in that respect. (A)fternoon goes downhill from there.

"Two Birds", (M)orning's lead-out instrumental track, was a pleasant surprise, playing off the strengths of "Boomerang", but becoming an interesting track in its own right. "Falling Into You", on the other hand, is totally unrelated to "The Cure", plus it manages to be wholly cliche and uninspiring at the same time. "Communication" is miles behind "The Fisherman Song", which is especially disheartening, because I hailed "Fisherman" as salvation for Mae: a promising new direction that incorporated the earlier style and emotion while managing to be something completely different. "Communication" falls flat by (again, inevitable) comparison: the narrative is nowhere near as compelling, the instrumentation less passionate, the message less exultant. "The Fight Song" is a regrettable example of why Mae should not play around with distortion and free-from guitar soloing.

But my biggest gripe with (A)fternoon is a series of just four notes. That may seem petty and insignificant, but it's a complaint that's been brewing ever since Singularity. It's unfair to pick on "Over & Over" by itself for this gripe, but it shows up most insistently and dramatically on "Over & Over", so I have little choice. It's a musical issue, so the less-exposed to music theory may be less bothered by it than I.

Get to a keyboard, and try this out. (Feel free to click the "notes" and "sharps/flats" buttons if you like--I certainly had to.) Play the following sequence of notes: B flat-A flat-G-F. It should feel like it's resolving melodically, because it is: it's the bottom half of the descending F-minor scale. Mae starts "Over & Over" using this motif in the chorus, and it sounds fine. Actually, it sounds pretty cool, especially with the chords that's being played on top of. (I don't know quite enough music theory to recognize those chords by sound!)

Now, try this. Play the sequence B flat-A flat-G-A; that is, use the same first three notes, but change the fourth to an A. It sounds odd, right? That's because it's really nothing other than an awkward way to change from major to minor tonality. There are probably dozens of ways to do this that other musicians have thought of. Picardy is an especially famous one. Mae's method--which, I assure you, did not start with "Over & Over"--is probably the clumsiest that I've ever heard.

Does one bizarre musical miscue derail Mae's entire career? It does derail "Over & Over"--which, again, started as a pretty good song--and we all know the adage about losing the war for want of a nail. But no, B flat-A flat-G-A does not spell the end for Mae by itself, especially not with the other weaknesses that plague (A)fternoon. It does, however, represent the Singularity-style pitfalls that the (E)vening EP must desperately avoid if Mae wants this "temporal EP" experiment to represent a positive future for the band.

I'll eagerly await early next year, which is when I assume (E)vening will be released. I'll hold out hope that the temporal EP's follow the trilogy curse, and that the middle volume will turn out to be by far the weakest. (Imagine reading The Lord of the Rings and stopping at The Two Towers, or worse yet, reading The Two Towers by itself.) Until then, though, your best bet for 2009-era Mae is by far (M)orning.

Currently listening: "Child's Prayer", Chicago, from the Christmas album