Category: Fiction

I’ve always found Greg Bear’s output a bit hit and miss but the hits really nail it. In the realm of post-Arthur Clarke hard SF, few authors can do it like Bear does. The Forge of God is a masterpiece of a first contact story, one of my favourite ever along with Clarke’s Rendezous with Rama, Will Eisner’s great Life on Another Planet and Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin. Novels like Blood Music, Eon and Eternity (and even Hegira) should go without saying.

As a result, I didn’t really have any specific expectations about Hull Zero Three. I knew I wanted to read it but didn’t feel a lot of pressure. Turns out I should have had. I was blown away. The novel starts off with familiar SF tropes, the generation ship and colonisation etc, and then develops into a taut SF thriller. For most authors that might be enough but not for Bear. The cheesy, hopeful tone of the opening gives way to distinctly vague and unreliable first person narration as the protagonist, Teacher, one of the colonists, finds himself awakened in the ship, bound for a new planet, and slowly realises that things are wrong. The novel, then, slowly transforms itself into a discourse on authorship, identity, consciousness and theology that, at the same time, manages to maintain its momentum as a thriller.

Bear employs all the advantages afforded him by the conventions of first person narration remarkably and subtly. There are minute and easily unnoticeable references that give clues to the plot, amidst an ongoing meditation on the ways we perceive language, identity and consciousness and the primeval religious impulse. The suspense is almost unbearable, as is the sense of unease and the palpable existential frustration of an advanced intellect faced with ignorance, enforced amnesia and lack of information. Hull Zero Three reads, in parts, like a meditation on Platonic thought, a combination of The Cloud of Unknowing and Augustine’s Confessions, Clarke’s Childhood’s End and films like Pandorum and Event Horizon with the timeless quality of a morality play. We are given an inkling of the wonderful mix of theological speculation and hard SF themes that will be Hull Zero Three in the division of the novel into three parts, entitled The World, The Flesh and The Devil. Long-time SF readers and enthusiasts might recognise those as the title of the amazing book by the scientist J.D. Bernal, in which he postulates a space habitat similar to the one Bear describes in the novel. Bear, however, while still alluding to Bernal, also harks back to the Christian background of the phrase, the distractions and temptations posed to the soul (to the rational soul, according to Bernal, who also knowingly reflects along those lines) by its three main enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil.

Bear dramatises the process of anamnesis in a very interesting way, having made it an integral part of the plot itself. Throughout the novel, Teacher struggles with seemingly randomly triggered recollections of both facts and language itself. He keeps remembering words that, to him, are without referent. In a very Platonic sense, he intuits that there is a sense of purpose to his creation, which becomes remembered gradually. Since those that have been awakened do not have any recollection and therefore knowledge of those responsible for planning and controlling the mission, the result is pure theological speculation. Teacher actually engages in a literal act of exegesis with the texts left by other characters that have been through the same experience, once he realises that he is one of a long line of Teachers who have attempted to find out what has gone wrong with the mission and the ship itself. The Platonic/Gnostic preoccupations of the novel (the seeming creation of the colonists by a fallible god, the process of return to perfection) are well thematised and pursued within the action-packed plot.

So, yes, I really enjoyed Hull Zero Three, and all the more so because it was so unexpected (and I don’t mean that we can’t expect novels of this calibre from Greg Bear). It was far more economical, solid and convincing than something like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which shares some of its themes, but which I found verbose and incontinent and ultimately anticlimactic…Oh, well. Definitely a candidate for one of my novels of the year, Hull Zero Three is a must-read for serious readers of speculative fiction.

Since I finished reading Zero History a few days ago, I’ve been trying to come up with a relatively coherent account of my impressions and I’d decided to give it some time, when I came across Adam Greenfield’s post on cyberpunk. It reminded me of something I wrote about Charlie Huston’s Sleepless a while back:

Not only is it particularly relevant and timely, it also created the sort of frisson I felt when I first read Gibson’s short stories or Womack’s novels, this sense of entering a fully realised near-future world, almost tactile in its feasibility and terrifying in its immediacy.

I have been thinking lately, like Greenfield apparently, that my discovery of cyberpunk at a very young age constituted not only a sort of personal watershed, a formative intellectual landmark, but also a very specific emotional impression that I may have been trying to recreate, consciously or unconsciously, ever since. Huston’s novel came pretty close as did McDonald’s River of Gods and more recently Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. It’s probably due to the fact, as Jon Courtenay Grimwood notes in his comment to Greenfield’s post, that I was exposed to the radical newness of cyberpunk at a very young age, like most people then. At the same time, one of the reasons for the lasting appeal of Neuromancer and other works of fiction, cinema or music from the same period, would be that, pre-internet, cultural artefacts had more impact, carried more cultural weight because the immediacy and saturation brought about by the web was not there yet.

Before the web made everything so easy, we had to make more effort to find those books, records, comics or films that we were told would change our lives, and when we did find it was SO fucking worth it. We would lend or borrow books and VHS tapes, copy friends’ vinyl records, make long trips to obscure little stores in the off chance that they had copies of novels by P. K. Dick, Harlan Ellison or Vonnegut and Burroughs, or of films like Liquid Sky, Eraserhead and Repo Man. If they didn’t, you had to wait for weeks until they got them in. You’d go for weeks listening to the same record over and over, reading the same novel, mercilessly dissecting the same issue of some crappy fanzine, until you had the opportunity to find something else, usually courtesy of some better connected or more well off friend (i.e. someone with a job).

Now consider Neuromancer. We had been hearing amazing things about it, a lot of us were at that particularly receptive age, and it still managed to be so much more than what it promised. Not only was it incredibly timely, it also seemed frighteningly prescient, the language sounded disturbingly right and it described a dystopian society that managed to be oddly attractive! Everybody wanted to be the equivalent of a Panther Modern, to jack in and creep around Bladerunneresque cityscapes (probably listening to Throbbing Gristle and Sonic Youth, not Vangelis, even if we still loved his music).

Compare the exhilaration of finally receiving a record after weeks of waiting and the immersion of listening to that same record continuously for days and weeks even, with the instant gratification afforded by the web in the form of downloads and on-line shopping. Products are immediately available and easily accessible. I don’t even know how many records I get each month but I definitely don’t have the time to listen to all of them properly. That special frisson that I used to get by listening to a great record has dissipated with age and overexposure. How fair can it be to compare the deepness of the affect produced by a book or a record or film then and now? How can anyone think that Zero History or any novel could provide that same experience to a teenager now that Neuromancer did twenty five years ago? Of course it won’t.

To get back to our apparent topic, it appeared as if, after the late 80s works of the cyberpunks, that political edge and perspicacity that formed such a big part of the attraction almost disappeared. (I tend to consider much of the rest of American fiction in the same way, especially since the publication of novels like DeLillo’s White Noise, Pynchon’s Vineland) and Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All, all of which appeared from the late 80s to the early 90s.) The seeming political clairvoyance of the cyberpunks, their observations and caveats had been long foretold by William Burroughs and James Ballard, but the impact was stronger because of their sheer concentrated fury and the already tactile and perceivable impact of the “future” they were describing. Because they weren’t really prescient, only more observant than most. The various expressions of late capitalism, the political economy of the media and the pervasive influence of corporations, not to mention the rapid descent into what is increasingly becoming a highly intrusive surveillance culture, had already starting to become our reality. The “future” seemed to overtake us but that does not mean that cyberpunk is somehow obsolete. It’s more current and timely than ever. The thing is that any work of fiction is of its time only, a reaction to the political/social/cultural milieu at the time of its creation. SF itself has never been predictive, has never been about the future so much as about the writer’s perception of the present and what he can extrapolate from that. In that sense, Gibson’s novel remains a very astute depiction of our fears for the way things were going.

Over the past few years, cyberpunk appears to have mutated in the near future techno-thrillers of writers such as Charlie Stross, Ken McLeod, McDonald and Bacigalupi, or even Cory Doctorow and Laura Beukes, not to mention Sterling and Gibson’s own later work. I have to admit that I loved Pattern Recognition and that it made me realise how raw Gibson’s early work really was. His style has matured, the urgency has perhaps evaporated but his eye for emerging trends and their economical and political ramifications, the varied manifestations of the information age, is still there. And that’s one of the things about SF that more and more readers and mainstream authors are coming to realise: technological trends and developments proliferate seemingly uncontrollably. The speed with which ideas, images and news propagate on the web is uncanny. Information has never been more dispersed, readily available or overwhelming. Technology changes our lives rapidly and in very profound ways, without us even realising it. In the last fifteen years or so, our interface with the world has completely changed. We’re tele-experiencing much of what used to be everyday first-hand experience. Our sense of the historical process has been eroded by the undifferentiated plateau of information that is the web.

(By the way, as far as I am concerned, this is the only basis that can support Bruce Sterling’s concept of atemporality. In more ways than one, it’s nothing more than what used to be called post-modernism, another term I’ve never been okay with. It is only when I see it in relation to the unhistorical, levelling effect of the web and the network culture it has enabled that the concept becomes something else, more relevant and fitting to our experience. At the same time, the notion of atemporality is starting to seem to me increasingly relevant to the way readers can approach novels now. In a recent interview, he claimed that he doesn’t bother with infodumps and extraneous explanations any more, since everything is “googlable”. Words become virtual hyper-links, immediately searchable on our iphones. I’m sure that a lot of us have spent some time on PR-Otaku and Node Magazine, the websites dedicated to Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, where such searches are aggregated to form annotations to the novels. Narratives are transformed into an atemporal web of myriad hyper-linked connections, the act of reading becomes a non-linear process of constant contextualisation.)

Even if I recall Pattern Recognition as being more dense in a narrative sense, I’ve found Zero History to be equally vivid and captivating. Gibson’s references to cultural and technological minutiae are topical and he manages to construct a spectacular web of connections among them. His writing is razor-sharp and super-precise, conveying the essentials of every scene with minimum effort. As always, style and form is more relevant than actual plot. However, the novel is a very effectively sparse and streamlined techno-thriller, which maintains its thematic weight throughout.

Reading Gibson is as much about references as it is about plot or characterisation and Zero History is definitely the prime example of the novel-as-hyper-link, something about which Gibson has been increasingly vocal in interviews lately. The amount of googlable details is actually staggering. It creates a vertiginous impression that the novel, in a more heightened sense than traditional realism, acquires and maintains a truly reciprocal relationship to the world as it is filtered through the web, in a Borgesian continuum of mediation. Zero History springs from and redirects to myriad cultural minutiae that Gibson has been assembling and which will take on their arbitrarily imposed narrative significance once again, when the reader looks them up.

Leaving all the references and knowingness aside, it can be read, like the rest of Gibson’s work and certainly much of the rest of the cyberpunks, as a lament for a certain counter-cultural ethos. It evinces a nostalgia for something that existed or might still exist in potentia perhaps, not fully achieved, but definitely a romantic idea of some sort of subcultural autonomy. It is a theme that can be traced from Burroughs straight down to Gibson, Sterling, Shirley and Stephenson, via Pynchon of course, and more famously theorised by Hakim Bey. In the past, subcultures were visible and exposed. They became monolithic. The web has provided ways in which subcultures can circumscribe “temporary autonomous zones” for themselves and become more diffuse on certain levels, but they still remain searchable and cannot avoid the inevitability of commodification and co-optation. Zero History describes an even more cryptic form of that, however. Gabriel Hounds is a truly secret brand. It has withdrawn into actual off-the-grid circulation. It looks like Gibson is alluding to an ideal that can be tentatively realised on those terms only.

If there ever has been potential for any sort of authenticity or purity, be it cultural or political, in a subculture or even a brand it can be readily dispelled by commodifying and commercialising it, which is exactly what Bigend has been doing and what Hollis ultimately reacts to, after protracted soul-searching. Her search eventually leads her to a meeting with the designer of Gabriel Hounds herself (a cool little revelation here), where Hollis decides to protect her privacy. The scene is wonderfully resonant and subtly emotional, sketching out Hollis’ thought process very economically. For me this is the thematic crux of the novel and the culmination of Hollis’ travails since Spook Country. I can’t say anything other than that this is vintage Gibson. Like the best of his novels it makes you re-evaluate a lot of things you’ve taken for granted or look at things with a fresh eye. There is never going to be another Neuromancer but this is as close as it’s bound to get.

The Art of Sidney Sime

Sidney Sime was an amazing illustrator but his work is really hard to find. He worked on books by Lord dunsany, W. H. Hodgson, Arthur Machen etc. Here are some of his illustrations, courtesy of Golden Age Comic Book Stories:

The documentary in its entirety.

(via Dangerous Minds)

Yes, I know, it’s been a while since Sleepless was published, but hey, I just got around to reading it so…

First of all, I have to say straight away that I haven’t enjoyed a new novel this much in ages. At least since Banks’ Matter and probably even before that. As cool as Huston stuff has been in the past, I somehow connected to this novel in a very unique, for me, way. Not only is it particularly relevant and timely, it also created the sort of frisson I felt when I first read Gibson’s short stories or Womack’s novels, this sense of entering a fully realised near-future world, almost tactile in its feasibility and terrifying in its immediacy.

Sleepless takes place in a seemingly near-future version of LA (despite the fact that the story itself is set in 2010), where people suffer from an incurable disease that causes insomnia. Our main character is Parker Haas, a police officer, whose own wife suffers from the disease and who, working undercover, becomes involved in a case involving the drug Dreamer, which is the only substance that can temporarily alleviate the affliction. Perhaps inevitably, he becomes entangled in a web of corruption, money, drugs and politics as he tries to balance his personal morality and the demands of his investigation.

Let me repeat, this novel is fucking terrifying at times. It’s too close to home, in some ways, so very relateable and immersive, that you will continue considering its implications long after you’ve finished it. Huston’s novel unflinchingly explores the potential social and political implications of such a situation, economically and sparingly, sowing seeds that bear haunting fruit in the reader’s imagination, like all truly succesful works of art should.

I’m not writing anything else. Go get it now.

Umberto Eco’s new novel will published this autumn in Italy. Titled Il Cimitero di Praga (The Cemetery of Prague), it is the story of a secret agent who “weaves plots, conspiracies, intrigues and attacks, and helps determine the historical and political fate of the Continent,” according to his publisher. Sounds like the novel could be about Pyotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, well known territory for Eco. His essay ‘Fictional Protocols’ from his collection Six Walks in the Fictional Woods is devoted to the subject, which he also discusses in Foucault’s Pendulum.

(via the NYTimes)


A group project by three students at Columbia’s GSAPP—Yuval Borochov, Lisa Ekle, and Danil Nagy, under the guidance of professor Ed Keller—Protocol Architecture was pitched as a team that “investigates potentials for future design through the creation and analysis of hyper-fictional documents. These document sets create evidence for future scenarios that string together a specific history of political, social, and technological developments.” As such, Protocol’s work becomes less architectural than it is archival:
By focusing on the space of the document, we can avoid simplistic predictions of the future while creating a database of potential evidence which can be analyzed and interpreted by a wider audience of designers.
The resulting fictional archives—or “fabricated histories,” as the architects describe them—allowed the group to question “the role that fact and evidence plays in how we perceive our own history and our place as designers within it.”

If this isn’t a Borgesian idea, I don’t know what is: creating fictional future documents as archaeological/historical evidence for the design purposes of the present. As Manaugh observes, as fruitful or not this idea might be from an actual architectural standpoint, it offers wonderful possibilities for storytelling:

And that’s the rub: at the end of the day, most architecture students—unsurprisingly—think they have to take this stuff, put it all together, and produce something clearly definable as a building. But the research, in many cases, is more worthy of attention (and well worth the time it takes to produce it). In other words, the research—the preliminary material, the periphery, the narrative excess, the unwanted fringe—is very often most provocative before it becomes a building, when that inchoate mass of possible future projects, storylines, techniques, and more offers a million alternative directions in which we have yet to go.

I only say this here because it is extraordinarily exciting to see a project like this, that out-fictionalizes the contemporary novel and even puts much of Hollywood to shame—to realize, once again, that architecture students routinely trade in ideas that could reinvigorate the film industry and the publishing industry, which is all the more important if the world of private commissions and construction firms remains unresponsive or financially out of reach. The Nesin Map alone, given a screenwriter and a dialogue coach, could supply the plot of a film or a thousand comic books—and rogue concrete mixtures put to use by nefarious underground militaries in Baghdad is an idea that could be optioned right now for release in summer 2013. HBO should produce this immediately.

I mentioned Neal Stephenson’s new project, the Mongoliad in my last post but a couple more details were made available since. According to their Facebook page and their Wiki, the Mongoliad is going to be “primarily” an app based multimedia story in serialised form. Here’s the blurb from their wiki:

The Mongoliad is an experimental fiction project of the Subutai Corporation, scheduled for release in 2010. The corporation is an application company based in San Francisco and Seattle, whose chairman is speculative fiction author Neal Stephenson. Stephenson is the guiding force of the project, in which he is joined by colleagues including Greg Bear.

The work is intended to be distributed primarily as a series of applications (“apps”) for smartphones, which the Corporation views as a new model for publishing storytelling. At the project’s core is a narrative of adventure fiction following the exploits of a small group of fighters and mystics in medieval Europe around the time of the Mongol conquests. As well as speculative fiction authors Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Nicole Galland, Mark Teppo and others, collaborators include filmmakers, computer programmers, graphic artists, martial artists and combat choreographers, video game designers, and a professional editor. In a departure from conventional fiction, much of the content of The Mongoliad will be in forms other than text, not bound to any single medium and not in the service of the central narrative. Once the project develops momentum, the Corporation envisages fans of the work to contribute, expanding and enriching the narrative and the fictional universe in which it takes place.

In the telling of the Corporation’s president Jeremy Bornstein, the genesis of the project was in Stephenson’s dissatisfaction with the authenticity of the medieval sword fighting scenes he had written into his Baroque cycle of novels.Stephenson gathered a group of martial arts enthusiasts interested in studying historical European swordfighting, and this eventually resulted in some of the members of this group collaborating on a set of stories which would make use of accurate representations of these martial arts. The collaborators decided the project need not limit itself to traditional novel form, and began developing ideas on how to produce it in different media while retaining the caliber that would be expected of a new work by authors such as Stephenson or Bear.

An “alpha version” was demonstrated at the periodic application showcase SF App Show in San Francisco, California on May 25, 2010. The project is expected to go live sometime in 2010. Supported smartphones and platforms include the iPad, iPhone, Android, and Kindle.

I hope that they decide to expand the scope of application for the project because it could branch out in very interesting directions. Here’s a video of stephenson and Bear discussing the historical scope of the project.

I don’t know how many of you have read the ongoing comics series Unwritten (Vertigo), by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. The plot follows Tommy Taylor, whose father is the famous author of a series of fantasy books closely resembling the Harry Potter series. His father has based the eponymous young protagonist of his books on young Tommy himself, who now, after the sudden disappearance of his father, makes a living by attending conventions etc. After a few intriguing confrontations with some shadowy individuals, Toomy gets caught up in a conspiracy of sorts and realises that the world of fiction isn’t as fictional as it seems and/or that he might be a fictional character himself…The series interweaves myriad well known narratives from various genres, in a sense following the Borgesian idea that religion, philosophy etc are but branches of fantastic literature (or, rather post-modernistly, that stories are all we can have). It’s a story about stories, the intersection of reality and fiction, the role of narrative and the notion of identity, among other things.

Now, the interesting thing is this: When Tommy was a boy, his father, Wilson Taylor, taught him countless trivia concerning the actual geography of fictional events as they are described in works of fiction, from chivalric romances to the novels of Dickens and beyond. On which streets characters lived, in which cities the action took place etc, thereby giving them a semblance of reality by spatialising them. It seems that Wilson knew about the situation in which Tommy would find himself and taught him that as a means of protection.

I loved the idea when I started reading the comic, so imagine my surprise when I came across GoogleLitTrips. GoogleLitTrips is an educational resource that endeavours to teach students about literature by showing them the routes and travels undertaken by characters in famous road trip novels. It does this by taking advantage of certain features of Google Earth. At this stage, it offers a very limited number of such spatialised versions but it doesn’t take much to see how far this could go as an educational and creative tool. Yes, people have been going on literary tours and creating soundtracks for works of fiction for years, but this model could add various multimedia dimensions to the way we approach the act of writing and the act of reading literature itself. Obviously, I do not view this as a substitute for reading and writing but as a level of extension of the creative and experiential aspects of those processes.

For example, Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear have been collaborating on a project called Mongoliad that combines the freeform storytelling aspects of MMORPGs and the externalised, spatial aspects of GoogleLitTrips:

The Mongoliad is a rip-roaring adventure tale set 1241, a pivotal year in history, when Europe thought that the Mongol Horde was about to completely destroy their world. The Mongoliad is also the beginning of an experiment in storytelling, technology, and community-driven creativity.

Our story begins with a serial novel of sorts, which we will release over the course of about a year. Neal Stephenson created the world in which The Mongoliad is set, and presides benevolently over it. Our first set of stories is being written by Neal, Greg Bear, Nicole Galland, Mark Teppo, and a number of other authors; we’re also working closely with artists, fight choreographers & other martial artists, programmers, film-makers, game designers, and a bunch of other folks to produce an ongoing stream of nontextual, para-narrative, and extra-narrative stuff which we think brings the story to life in ways that are pleasingly unique, and which can’t be done in any single medium.

Very shortly, once The Mongoliad has developed some mass and momentum, we will be asking fans to join us in creating the rest of the world and telling new stories in it. That’s where the real experiment part comes in. We are building some pretty cool tech to make that easy and fun, and we hope lots of you will use it.

People will be able to get The Mongoliad over the web and via custom clients for mobile devices – we’re going to start out with iPad, iPhone, Android, and Kindle apps, and will probably do more in the not too distant future.

(via SFSignal)

This platform could develop as an updated form of Second Life and MMORPGs, much like the one envisaged by Greg Egan in Zendegi or the platform that Neal Stephenson envisaged in Snow Crash.

Greg Egan’s Zendegi

As imperfect as it is, I really enjoyed aspects of Greg Egan’s latest novel. I found it to be Egan’s most readable novel, vividly realised and economicaly presented. The thing is that by its very nature Zendegi can only be enjoyed in a very fragmentary fashion, unfortunately.

Zendegi is a near future novel that revolves around questions of identity, both personal and national. The plot revolves around two main characters, whose stories are told in alternating chapters. One is Martin Seymour, an Autralian journalist who is sent to Iran to cover the 2012 elections and decides to stay there. The other is Nasim Golestani, a young Iranian expatriate whose work in mapping the human consciousness becomes the groundwork for the creation of a very popular MMORPG, Zendegi. Their stories become entwined when Nasim returns to Iran with her mother and they are brought together by political and personal circumstances. Martin suffers from cancer and asks Nasim to help him have his consciousness mapped and become a Proxy (an avatar) in the game, in order for part of him to be able to keep providing guidance to his son.

My main complaint is that the story moves in a rather facile fashion, with the background political and developments working themselves out in a rather simplified way and the plot resolving itself very conveniently. The whole thing is narrated very elliptically, with situations left unfinished and characters sketchily presented. It feels like Egan was undecided about things and he couldn’t reconcile the personal aspect of the story (Martin and his son) with the scientific one (Nasim and the mapping of consciousness), finally leaving both underdeveloped. The problems of the articulation and construction of identity and consciousness that appear to be forming the core of Egan’s novel are integrated within the characters’ everyday experience, without Egan having to resort to extreme infodumping, but we don’t really get anywhere. The same goes with the fact that he decided to set the story in Iran. Even though he is at his strongest when he presents everyday life in Iran, the little rituals that frame social interaction, that aspect again remains incomplete.

It’s a shame that Egan couldn’t really juggle his themes and choices. Parts of this novel work really well and it’s a shame that he didn’t take his time with rest of it.