Category: Rants


He spoke to me of Sei Shonagon, a lady in waiting to Princess Sadako at the beginning of the 11th century, in the Heian period. Do we ever know where history is really made? Rulers ruled and used complicated strategies to fight one another. Real power was in the hands of a family of hereditary regents; the emperor’s court had become nothing more than a place of intrigues and intellectual games. But by learning to draw a sort of melancholy comfort from the contemplation of the tiniest things this small group of idlers left a mark on Japanese sensibility much deeper than the mediocre thundering of the politicians. Shonagon had a passion for lists: the list of ‘elegant things,’ ‘distressing things,’ or even of ‘things not worth doing.’ One day she got the idea of drawing up a list of ‘things that quicken the heart.’ Not a bad criterion I realize when I’m filming; I bow to the economic miracle, but what I want to show you are the neighborhood celebrations.

He wrote me: coming back through the Chiba coast I thought of Shonagon’s list, of all those signs one has only to name to quicken the heart, just name. To us, a sun is not quite a sun unless it’s radiant, and a spring not quite a spring unless it is limpid. Here to place adjectives would be so rude as leaving price tags on purchases. Japanese poetry never modifies. There is a way of saying boat, rock, mist, frog, crow, hail, heron, chrysanthemum, that includes them all. Newspapers have been filled recently with the story of a man from Nagoya. The woman he loved died last year and he drowned himself in work—Japanese style—like a madman. It seems he even made an important discovery in electronics. And then in the month of May he killed himself. They say he could not stand hearing the word ‘Spring.’

I recently watched Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil for the first time and I can honestly say that it was an epiphany. Comments and insights like the above completely captivated me while watching the film. The connection to Borges’ essay-fictions or Sebald’s digressive meanders, the stream of casually remarked, precisely articulated facts and observations that co-exist with the seemingly quotidian images of everyday life make this precisely a film-essay, a Sebaldian ethnographic exercise that is predicated on a Borgesian artifice of multiple removes from the “original” creator of the letters and images, the fictional Sandor Krasna. His observations are mediated by the unnamed narrator, who manages to give them a personal slant, but they have been edited together by Marker and given additional weight by the music, created by Marker under the guise of Michel Krasna, brother of Sandor Krasna.

Krasna’s observations do not detract from the ability of the images to reveal, instead they add and elaborate; often they co-exist with such revelations: epiphanies that arise from the quotidian, from the random passing of people in front of the camera. A random cheeky look at the camera during a scene of crowds rushing past can make you aware of the individual, of the fact that these people have distinct personalities, are more than an agglomeration of faces. Eternity and perfection captured in a single gesture of absolute, unselfconscious expression of character and life, eliciting a sense of intimacy and kinship.

I experienced several such moments, feelings of loss, love, epiphany, reconciliation, humanity, regret as reactions to both words and images. Everything I experienced while watching it appears to be a response to Marker’s aesthetic, the subjects he chose to film, the way he filmed and edited the scenes together, the music he wrote to accompany them. I appreciated the way he chose to focus on a previously unnoticed background detail in the middle of shooting a street festival or a busy market. It seemed that instead of becoming more disoriented or bored, I was able to focus more deeply, become more attentive as a direct result of the way Marker chose to construct and structure the film, which mirrored some essential personal aesthetic preferences and therefore commanded my attention and engagement in a way I had heretofore deemed vanished. In the end, Sans Soleil seemed to release me from some sense of post-digital exhaustion that I suddenly became conscious of while appreciating the film’s treatment of history and memory, observation and interpretation.

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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.

Arbouretum – The Gathering

It’s been a while, because of some unwelcome and unavoidably time-consuming personal developments, and this post’s going to be fairly short too but I really needed to get this out of my system.

Arbouretum’s The Gathering is already a contender for record of the year. Amazing, deeply moving stonery folk-rock, reminiscent of Fairport Convention, Pontiak and Dead Meadow, heavy, fuzzy and hypnotic, lead by Heumann’s distinctive voice and staggering melodic sense. Loved the the way the meandering, complex melodies are set against the monolithic grooves these guys can achieve and sustain so effortlessly. Was left speechless by tracks like opener The White Bird, When Delivery Comes, The Highwayman and the stunning Song of the Nile.

Grab a copy now!

These are the ones I liked the most and that got more play time. I’m probably forgetting a few but here goes, in random order:

Emeralds – Does It Look Like I’m Here?
Luke Abbott – Holkham Drones
Supersilent – 10
Melvins – The Bride Screamed Murder
Harvey Milk – A Small Turn of Human Kindness
Ultralyd – Inertiadrome
Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal
Kayo Dot – Coyote
Master Musicians of Bukkake – Totem Two
Ufomammut – Eve
Titan – Sweet Dreams
Gonjasufi – A Sufi and a Killer
Deathspell Omega – Paracletus
John Zorn – In Search of the Miraculous
Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
Jucifer – Throned in Blood
KXP – s/t
Moritz von Oswald
Oval – O
Apparat Organ Quartet – Pólýfónía
Seefeel – Faults
Swans – My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky
Four Tet – There is Love in You
Bjørn Torske – Kokning
High Wolf – Incapulco
Forest Swords – Dagger Paths
Monopoly Child Star Searchers – Bamboo For Two
Megaton Leviathan – Water Wealth Hell On Earth

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.

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.

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.

Imagine that Tom Robbins, Thomas Pynchon and Michael Moorcock got together in the 70s and decided to write a book together. Now imagine that, while they were thinking about calling Vonnegut to help, Robert Anton Wilson persuaded them to submit the final draft to Borges for approval instead. That’s what Whittemore’s books read like. Exuberant, caleidoscopic, psychedelic meditations on history and time, politics and the human condition.

I’d written this on a message board some years ago and I still stand by it, so I’ve been trying to find an answer to this question, fruitlessly, for some years now. Why are Whittemore’s novels, as rich a body of work as we’re ever likely to get, out of print and out of mind? When, after years of looking for one, I found a tattered second-hand copy of Sinai Tapestry, after reading it, I felt so elated that I ctually mailed it to a friend in the US to read, as a present!!! I felt the need to share what, to me, was one of the most important and enjoyable works of fiction I’d ever read.

If his writing was more experimental or intricate, would he have joined Pynchon and DeLillo up there, in the land of the holy monsters? Was it the fault of his pubisher, who didn’t market his books properly? Critical reception was enthusiastic, yet the public remained uninterested. Whittemore still has champions like Jeff Vandermeer, Paul DiFilippo or Erik Davis, but the publishing world seems to have forgotten about him completely and utterly. The Old Earth Books editions remain out of print and second-hand copies can only be found at extortionate prices. In the US, if you’re lucky, you might find them in libraries, but, alas, not in Europe…

Anyway, people, if you have an in with a publisher, write them, call them, pester them continuously, until someone finally buys the rights and makes Whitttemore’s novels available again. They’re more timely now than ever.