The Dune within a Dune within a Dune?

I just finished reading Frank Herbert’s seminal Dune trilogy. Hailed by many as the definitive piece of science fiction, the Lord of the Rings of sci fi, the trilogy certainly has its merits. The first book, Dune, is indeed one of the most amazing science fiction books I’ve ever read.

Dune is also, I think, one of the smartest books I’ve ever read, and that, I guess, is a lot to say, considering I have read through quite a few smart books before. Dune is also easily the most underlined fictitious book I have ever read. I simply cannot read non-fiction without a pen in my hand, but with fiction I usually only pick up a quote or two. With Dune, I underlined and marked the book like it would have been a cutting-edge study on the philosophy of the mind, or something.

The first book is laden with a depth of ideas and history that is quite impressive. Like in any great book, what is not been said here is as important as what has been. The reader is baffled about this world tens of thousands of years in the future, powered with middle-ageish intrigue and a strange substance called the spice melange. It is, as great sci fi should, outright alien – and yet hauntingly familiar. The first book offers a deep, philosophical and pondering story arc that is without a doubt one of the most significant pieces of science fiction ever written.


Then the story goes on.

And what made Dune so intriguing and compelling is, all of a sudden, violently laid explicit right in front of your eyes. While with the first book, the nature of such concepts as the Guild Navigators or the Butlerian Jihad are only hinted at in the subtext, the subsequent two spare no punches. And here, I think, the Dune series pales in comparison to the Lord of the Rings. Reading the two sequels, I felt more like reading the Silmarillion than the Two Towers or the Return of the King: a mind-numbing exposition of a vast stunt of imagination, but with no human dimension to keep things interesting.

In Dune Messiah, the main character is given a hauntingly accurate prescient capability, to the extent of rendering any and all plot events completely vacant. If your main character knows already what is about to happen, what is there for the reader to get excited about? It’s like watching a film with a friend going “I told you so” every five or so minutes. Add to this the stony exposition and the wooden dialogue of the second book, it makes for a really heavy reading recommendable only to such people whose own imaginations fail to fill in the delicious blanks in the first book. As a cherry on top, while Herbert certainly had great vision, he is no Shakespeare. To this end, it is occasionally painful to see how much this second installment of the series aspires to be something like a classical Shakespearean king play.

The last book of the trilogy, Children of the Dune, certainly has its moments. The main characters, Leto II and Ghanima – little children with the history of the human kind in their heads – are quite interesting, and fortunately enough Herbert understood to steer clear of most of the prescience here. At moments, the third book does hold the promise of returning to the same kind of amazement as the first one. Certainly, here too there was much worth underlining. But here also, about half of the text could have easily been cut away.

Ernest Hemingway said that a great writer can leave much of what he wants to say unsaid. The magnificence of a great text is like an iceberg, where nine parts out of ten are submerged under water. In the first installment of the Dune series, the iceberg sails magnificently. In the second two, while still impressive, it has been lifted on deck to dry.

I think books are about imagination. And I think they are as much about the imagination of the reader as they are of the writer. If everything is laid down in plain sight, there is no much work left for the reader. In this sense, it is too bad that in his two sequels, Herbert failed to deliver what was one of the repeating motifs in his books: the feint within a feint within a feint. The first Dune was like a ballet or an elaborate fencing match, with hidden layers behind hidden layers. The two others were like a punch in the face.

But it is an interesting universe, nonetheless, what with all the intriguing aspects of technology being shunned in a space-faring culture; the logical mentats and the intuitive Bene Gesserits; the Shakespearean intrigue of the royal houses; the space-faring mercenaries who remained delightfully neutral to all the intrigue and the events that took place; and Dune itself: a hugely imaginative Saharan culture blown to planet-wide proportions where massive worms rule the sands and produce what is a combination of oil and cocaine for the future.

In terms of world-building, Herbert certainly compares to the likes of Tolkien or Asimov. In terms of story, it was a bumpy ride.

That being said, Dune itself was still one of the most amazing science fiction books I’ve ever read.

Revelation Space

I just finished reading Turquoise Days, which marks for me the last of the stories I’ve read set in Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space Universe published so far. So I thought it proper to say a few words about the journey through this universe.

And what a journey it has been.

The first novel I ever read from Reynolds was House of Suns, which is still my favorite of his work (and pretty much the no. 1 scifi novel of all time for me). But the Revelation Space Universe does certainly compare, even if it is spread out through several novels and short stories. The scope of the world, both in terms of spacetime and imagination is mind-bending. And still, the stories remain interesting and grasping also on the human level from the first page to the last.

I started reading these stories from Revelation Space, Reynolds’ first novel and his breakthrough work. It is an amazing piece in itself. The politicking and the archaeological intrigue on the planet Resurgam, as Dan Sylveste tries to uncover a millennia old mystery is original and suspenseful. The tensions between Sylveste, the space-faring Ilya Volyova and the assassin Ana Khouri are memorable. The convoluted ending of the first RS book is somehow reminiscent of thinking about Schroedinger’s superposition principle, with a twist of 2001 thrown in, although I am still not quite sure what the hell just happened.

Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap tie up the storyline for the characters of the first novel. Redemption Ark introduces us to the conjoiners in more depth. They are a hive mind sort of community that is the most technologically advanced of the human factions in the RS Universe. The obiwankenobish Neville Clavain is sympathetic, whereas the mentally challenged Felka is one of the most intriguing characters in the series. And the zealous Skade makes for an impressive bad guy (girl) here, even though all the while the human characters are fighting for the possession of outlandish scifi weapons, a more sinister enemy is approaching in the background. Absolution Gap flirts a lot with gothic horror. The story of Quaiche has some shakespearish connotations, with a lost love that drives the man insane and creates a bizarre culture from that insanity. I really love the way the trilogy ends, with the looming threat eliminated, but with the hint of a new threat in the form of the greenfly, which are delightfully powerful and definitive to the entire RS Universe and yet are never shown in full light.

Chasm City is another of my favorites, with The Prefect not trailing far behind. They are set in the Yellowstone system that is something like the the Trantor or Coruscant of Reynolds’ universe: the commercial and political hub where it seems everybody passes through eventually. Both Chasm City and The Prefect tie in nicely with the Revelation Space trilogy, the former explaining some of the motivations of an influential character and background figure in the latter two novels of the trilogy, and the latter giving us interesting insight into the fundaments of the world itself, such as the eventual fate of the unfortunate Philip Lascaille. Both Chasm City’s Tanner Mirabel and The Prefect’s Tom Dreyfus are solid and intriguing characters that drive the story forward. The Prefect and Chasm City also give a great before/after comparison of the Yellowstone world in terms of the defining event in the RS Universe: the Melding Plague. The plague is a really cool twist that renders much of the more advanced scifi stuff defunct and gives the whole universe intriguing and gritty overtones.

It’s cool that you can hint at (and actually show in The Prefect) all the cool stuff that there once was, but have the characters actually struggle with some bubble gum and rubber band to get by. It reminds me of the New Hope / Phantom Menace and the Galactica / Caprica contrasts, but unlike these two, Reynolds manages to keep also the shiny chrome and silver version of his world intact, whereas both George Lucas and Ron D. Moore somehow lost the soul of their work with the grit.

Then there’s the collection of short stories Galactic North that gives both prequel-ish glimpses to the RS Universe, as well as ties the whole thing up in the eponymous story that works as a kind of an epilogue to the whole thing, with a cool Reynolds trademark: the thousand years chase sequence. I loved this trope to pieces when I bumped into it in House of Suns. A chase scene that takes 60 000 years and yet maintains the intensity of a 1970’s police flick is quite the stunt to pull. When it was repeated in Redemption Ark, it still stood up, and the same here. Even if the third time around this became already something to expect from Reynolds, it’s still awesome.

And last, and certainly not least the two novellas Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days. I was quite apprehensive about these two, or more particularly the first one. While I was a horror fan as a teenager, I have developed some squeamishness for the more visceral style of horror, and tend to try to avoid it whenever I can. So when I learned that Diamond Dogs draws inspiration from the scifi slasher The Cube, I almost gave this a pass. Thank goodness I didn’t, though. While the first novella is probably the bloodiest work I’ve read from Reynolds to date, for some reason the bloodshed seems warranted.

This is not gornography, but rather quite classic gothic horror, somehow reminiscent of  H.P. Lovecraft. Yes, good people find themselves in an unfixable mess, and yes, it gets nasty. But there is still something behind the story that keeps it together. Even with its weirdness to the tenth power, and the occasional gory detail, Reynolds’ work has a good heart. Not in a fluffy-happy sort of way, but rather in the way you find in Lovecraft, Shelley or Poe. There are not many happy endings. Many things are inherently skewed. But there is still some deeper notion of purpose, of depth that keeps things going.

And this brings me to Turquoise Days which I just finished. In a sense, it is a fitting end to the Revelation Space journey. While its scope is much smaller than that of many of the other stories, it has a true sense of finality and closure to it – even more so than “Galactic North”. Its bittersweet tones fit the RS Universe perfectly. The short glimpse we get to the life of Naqi manages to convey many of the themes of solitude, outsiderness and simply the weird of the world present throughout the RS books. And while the alien Pattern Jugglers are an obvious nod to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, Reynolds manages to give the strange algae beings a personal character of their own. The very ending is, I feel, a very suitable way to put the full stop to the series.

It has been an amazing journey. I don’t think Reynolds’ work has so much changed my world than given me an entire new world to live in. It is a rare imagination that spins up an entire living universe. And here Reynolds joins in my opinion the pantheon of great worldbuilders such as Isaac Asimov, Iain M. Banks or Dan Simmons.

What a journey indeed.

impOscar – a Synth with a Soul

A couple of months back, I claimed I was not a very technically oriented musician; and I guess if I look back ten years, compared to that I’m not. But I guess there is a degree of geekery that just sticks to you when you start working with synths and music gear.

The last big studio I ran about ten years ago had over 20 different hardware synths, not to mention the plugins. So lots of stuff to fiddle with. These days, I like to keep things simple. I think getting the right gear is important, but it’s even more important getting rid of the wrong gear. Music is in the person, not in the gear – and surrounding yourself with all the latest toys can, at least in my experience, even distract you from the actual music itself.

That being said, there are a few little widgets which I would not like to do without. One of them, the Valhalla Shimmer reverb I wrote about a while ago. The other is the Yamaha SY99 (the only hardware synth I have left), which I’ll maybe write more about later. The third is this amazing synth plugin from GForce, called the impOscar.

The impOscar has been, after a fashion, modelled after the classic monophonic Oscar synth. But GForce have done a tremendous job with enhancing the classic. First of all, the impOscar is polyphonic. Secondly, this little thingy has such amazing range of expression that it’s boggling. You really don’t need much more than this one plugin for a huge range of analog sound beauties, ranging from basses to leads, from sound effects to lush pads.

While it is not quite as versatile, its sound quality brings to mind when I got my first Access Virus: it just blows everything else straight out of the water. (And I got rid of the Virus eventually, because it was *too* good: you really didn’t have to do much with it to make it sound great.)

The impOscar is challenging enough to have you do some intriguing tweaking, yet intuitive enough not to frustrate you to death. It sounds great enough straight out of the box to even slap some great presets on songs, but also invites you to do some tweaking to really take it off the ground. If there is one synth plugin out there that I think stands above all the rest, this is it. So go check it out on GForce’s website; they just released a new version of it.

Floex: Zorya – Scandinavian-style Classy Electronica from the Czech Republic

I find the Czech one-man-band Floex, also known as Tomáš Dvorák, some of the most interesting music out there right now. While my favorite out of all of Dvorak’s productions is the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack for the excellent game Machinarium, his latest release, Zorya does not trail far behind.

Dvorak has an amazing scale of expression, ranging from very contemporary electornica gimmickry to traditional jazz to film music mainstays. The closest comparisons that come to mind are, for some weird reason, all Scandinavian: the Danish Trentemøller, the early releases of the Norwegian Röyksopp, and the Finnish (yes, Finnish) Roberto Rodriguez. Throw these three into blender in a perfect mix, and you would probably get something quite close to Floex. There are also flavors that remind me of more eccentric electronica such as Boards of Canada and Mouse on Mars. And, of course, the Mark Bell era of Björk.

All together, the Czech musical genius Dvorák has managed to create another haunting and beautiful masterpiece that will certainly last several listening-throughs. If you are into classy intelligent electronica, be sure to check it out here.

Music Only Comes Alive When Shared

Writing music just for oneself feels like an empty business. I do not quite clearly understand why, though.

I spent some ten years of my life working as a professional musician. I released several hundred tracks on albums, on television, in commercials and multimedia, to audiences ranging from a few hundred to several millions. For the last seven or so years, I have, however, focused most of my time on research. While I now write music as something like a well-developed hobby, why do I still bother to release it to the general audience?

I have wondered at this urge to share music for pretty much my entire adult life. When I was younger, I would drag all friends and family to listen to every new tune I wrote. In my professional career, I got the satisfaction from releasing music. And now, I have this blog. But why?

Despite the ideal of artistic independence, I believe when people write music, they don’t do it just for the kick they get out of it – even if that is, for most of us, the beginning of getting into music. It is, indeed, a very rare breed of musician that would never play her music to anybody else. Even those few who refuse to play their tracks usually turn out to be meek because they are scared of the chance of bad criticism. Can there really even exist a musician who would not want their music to be heard (and loved) by somebody else?

I wonder whether music is actually a form of communication, where the listener is just as important as the maker. Or whether music is a kind of a relationship between a listener and a maker that does not even come to existence before sharing. No, but really: I still do not have the faintest idea. Maybe you do?

It’s almost as if it’s easier to figure out how neurons communicate with one another, or how the unconscious mind works than to understand why music won’t let itself remain unheard. But whatever the reason, and whether or not I will ever discover it, I am pretty sure of one thing.

Music only comes alive when shared.

New Inspirations: Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Now if this is not an event in the world of graphic novels, I don’t know what is. Brian K. Vaughan of Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina fame has teamed up with Fiona Staples of Mystery Society. The two have produced something that is pretty close to a perfect beginning for a graphic novel: Saga.

Saga is a science fiction adventure set in a future intergalactic world. It has been compared both to the classic Star Wars movies and Game of Thrones. And with good reason. Only two issues down, the series has already been able to capture moments not unlike the banter of Han Solo in A New Hope, the awe of the first sight of the AT-AT walkers on Hoth, the intrigue of the Lannisters and even the idiosyncrasies of the Targaryens. When we see the gleaming eyes of the Horrors of Cleave for the first time, what springs to mind immediately are the Rat Creatures from Bone. And the android prince with a TV set for a head? Pure gold, that propels the mind to classics like Leiji Matsumoto’s Galaxy Express.

Set against a Shakespearean love story of a star-crossed couple on the run, the story is imaginative to a degree I have never seen, and yet in something of the same way the original Star Wars was: with some scrutiny, you can start to see the influences that have driven Vaughan and Staples. But as with all great art, wearing your influences on your sleeve is not a detriment, but rather only adds to the pleasure. Talent borrows, genius steals.

All together, the first two issues of Saga have opened up a world that is so vibrant, so imaginative and so alive that I am not quite sure I have ever encountered something like this before. If you are in the least interested in science fiction, comics, or good stories in general, be sure to check it out. If you go digital, you can get the first issue straight away from Comixology.

Right now, the only downside I can think of for this series is that the next issues surely have a great deal to live up to. But if Vaughan and Staples can keep up with this pace, not unlike Vaughan has already proven he can with the epic storylines of Y and Ex Machina, this is setting out to be the new standard against which the future works of science fiction in comics will be judged.

Valhalla Shimmer

These days, I am terribly un-technoogy-oriented. I used to be a real tech geek back in the day, checking in at GearSlutz several times a day, dropping in at the music store twice a week. But at some point I realized it’s not the gear that makes the music – it’s the human being.

Anyway, lots of tech or not lots of tech, its usually not the tech that makes the difference. Except when it does. I try to make do with a handful of plugins I know really well, and having narrowed down the set, there are a few ones I would not really feel comfortable working without. One of them is this outstanding reverb plugin called Valhalla Shimmer.

I used to have a selection of top notch reverb units from Lexicon, TC Electronic and the likes, but nothing has ever come close to Valhalla Shimmer. It’s nowhere near in fidelity to its more successful siblings, but for what music I write, it’s a perfect fit. No, you can’t tweak a great snare room out of it. But boy what can this little piece of genius do to a piano lead or a synth pad.

There are a lot of synths and sample sets out there that promise a spacey timey-wimey ethereal sound – synths and sets that have been programmed by some of the best sound designers out there. But I think none of these capture the straight simplicity and elegance of Valhalla Shimmer: you can run pretty much any hand-picked synth line through its frequency modulated reverbs and they come to life unlike really anything much out there.

It’s also not terribly expensive. So if you like your music ethereal, be sure to give it a go.

The Anatomy of an Album

Any music is really a network of ideas. At the heart of Launchland is the deep influence of the music of Jean-Michel Jarre and Vangelis. Also, many songs have been directly influenced by film music and classical music.

“Row Row Row Your Boat” references a scene from (yes, I know the movie sucked but anyway) Star Trek V where Kirk and Bones are singing the song and Spock is wondering about the ritual. The song itself goes way back to stuff like Brian Eno’s Apollo and Jarre’s Waiting for Cousteau. It’s also a hat tip to Joel Goldsmith’s outstanding Stargate Universe score, which I loved to death. (It’s funny but I just realized that you can hear tones from that score on “Tau Ceti Center” too, which was directly influenced by Goldsmith’s dad Jerry.)

“Aldebaran” began with playing with a Top Gun-ish sound on the Yamaha SY99, which led to this amalgam of the “Top Gun Anthem” by Harold Faltermeyer, “Main Sequence” from Albedo 0.39 by Vangelis and “Chariots of Fire” by the same.

“Quantum Thief” – a nod to my countryman Hannu Rajaniemi’s mind-blowing novel by the same name – steals or borrows (you name it) from the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony and from Clint Mansell’s Moon soundtrack. The flute melody is a nod to Ennio Morricone’s mindblowing and chilling soundtrack for The Secret of Sahara. (Which I last saw as a little kid and loved back then.)

“Stella Maris,” another name for the VIrgin Mary, is of course an obvious nod to Charles Gounod’s “Ave Maria,” which is in turn based on Bach’s “Prelude no. 1” from the Well-tempered Clavier. Another Bach song is also a direct influence, namely the “Air on a G string” (which is actually an adaptation by August Wilhelmj, but anyway). The bassline turnover between verses was actually a carbon copy of the Air at first (going G, A, B, C, D, F, E, D), but then I changed it to a straight G major scale since… I don’t know. To make it slightly different after all. Why do you make these choices in music anyway?

To complete the circle, “Approaching Delta Pavonis” nicks a synth comp from Jarre’s “Magnetic Fields I” (an amazingly majestic song), one that the impOscar’s default preset just cries out to play with a little added portamento. (And yes, while tweaking is amazing, there is nothing wrong with playing with default presets when they fit. Ask Vangelis.)

I know a musician should not write analyses like this about their music. The music should speak for itself. But really: this is almost as much fun as writing the actual music. And anyway, there is so much left to discover in the songs even with this anatomical study that I think I haven’t spoiled all the fun.

To wrap up, Igor Stravinsky once said, talent borrows, genius steals. The rest of us, we just make music we love to listen to.

(And yes, my musician friends always told me I think too much. So there.)

Music from the Future of the Past: How a 15-Year-Old Melody Became the Key to Launchland

The main melody for the track “Tau Ceti Center” is something I wrote around fifteen years ago. For some reason I could never quite grasp how to get this theme sorted out, though. I think I have tried in one form or another to make a publishable song from this theme from at least the late 1990’s. I guess I had already given up on it, when all of a sudden early last year, it just clicked.

Playing with an impOscar, I stumbled upon the dual arpeggiator lines that carry the song along, with the theme played on a Mellotron woodwind. The secondary theme came soon after, and with that the orchestration also clicked into place. The rhythm track, though, was harder. Bear McCreary’s soundtracks for Battlestar Galactica and Caprica have been a huge influence for me in the past few years. Drawing from that inspiration, the first version of the song had a very ethnically influenced rhythm track (something like “The Wild”, but wilder). The song was too hectic, though.

I remember listening to a concert by Jerry Goldsmith (of Star Trek fame) in Oulu in mid-90’s. I had paid attention to how Goldsmith often used a drum kit with the orchestra only to play out a straight beat comp. I tried out this basic rhythm, and things clicked into place: at this point, the rest of the music practically wrote itself.

After 15 years and I don’t know how many versions, it certainly felt weird to have this song sorted out. It still does.