Sunday, February 28, 2016

February Reads Part Two

Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan
Software by Rudy Rucker
Trouble and her Friends by Melissa Scott
The Nether by Jennifer Haley
Mississippi Blues by Kathleen Ann Goonan
Deception Well by Linda Nagata
Daughter of Elysium by Joan Slonczewski
253 by Geoff Ryman
Sailor on the Seas of Fate by Michael Moorcock

Let's start with the play, The Nether by Jennifer Haley. This was recommended to me by a stranger who asked me about my research interests. The play does sound entirely up my alley: cyberspace, selfhood, the body, ethics, etc. However, The Nether is clearly not written for me or other people well-versed in science fiction. Instead, this play is Baby's First Science Fiction. None of the content is remotely novel nor is the execution particularly forceful or compelling. The plotting is pedestrian and the characters have the annoying tendency of announcing themes in hyper-articulate fashion. Not that the stage absolutely needs realism, but a more deft hand could have walked the line between Brechtian estrangement and didactic pronouncements more successfully.

This is sci-fi for people who have never encountered sci-fi. The Nether really calls into question the class dynamics of the theatre in an interesting way: while the novel is intrinsically bourgeois, the stage should be less lateral in class accessibility. Yet, more and more, the stage has become the playset for the elite, as ticket prices increase to prohibitive levels. The Nether, with its simplistic ethics and bourgeois attitudes around sex and performance, speaks to its rich audience, inflating their ego with pseudo-intellectual nonsense that sci-fi has already been working out for decades, in the "ghetto" of genre. Frankly, cyberpunk and postcyberpunk theorized and problematized the ethics of virtuality twenty to thirty years in better, more stylish, less tryhard fashion.

In a typically bourgeois manoeuver, the play uses pedophilia to make its "shocking" points, because I suppose audiences wouldn't consider the ethics of a crime less sensational. Of course, The Nether would involve pseudo-Victorian garb, language, and architecture in its cyberspace as nothing speaks more of the corruptible innocence of youth than a Victorian orphan. This play is like a 15 year old's attempt at being edgy. The Nether is awful.

As of February 28, I'm waiting to see if my review of Goonan's Mississippi Queen will be published to the SF Mistressworks blog that reviews and revives forgotten or underappreciated works of science fiction written by women. In case that post does not appear in time for this post to be published, I'll say that I thought it was an improvement over Queen City Jazz in terms of technical execution; Goonan's weaving of theme with worldbuilding is exquisite. However, the sequel also treads some of the same weak spots that plagued Queen City Jazz: characters have an exceedingly annoying tendency to avoid answering direct questions, all for the purpose of prolonging the plot. More frustrating than Dumbledore. It's also a bit too long, maybe, but what novel isn't, really.

Rudy Rucker's Software was super entertaining and obviously the first winner of the Philip K. Dick Award. In fact, I can't imagine this novel without the looming influence of Dick. The more science fiction I read, especially of cyberpunk and its derivatives, the more I realize that Dick's impact on science fiction cannot be overstated. Without Dick, I’m sure a bunch of disparate and discrete authors would have eventually assembled the riches of ideas that Dick provided us, but he did it all himself. Other than maybe Asimov and Clarke, I can think of no other presence in science fiction that’s completely and 100% indelible. Rucker's novel doesn't exist without the tropes and paranoia that fuels Dick's fiction and ideas. This doesn't mean I didn't thoroughly enjoy Software, I just want to point out how completely indebted the novel is to Dick. It's hard not like a novel that features numerous scenes of robots and people exclaiming they need to literally eat brains.

Deception Well was a fantastic read. I was worried before starting it, as I wasn't terribly impressed by The Bohr Maker and the reviews on Goodreads implied the novel was a misfire. Well, as per usual, Goodreads is fucking wrong. Deception Well is a vast improvement over her first novel, as Nagata's plotting improves by leaps and bounds. The plot is almost too intricate for its relatively brief length (~400 pages, which I read in a single day!); I needed to doublecheck my understanding of the plot with a summary from the Internet, just to make sure I comprehended everything. Still, I don't consider this a detracting element as I wish more books were optimistic that I could follow along.

I read Door into Ocean back in May of 2014 and I enjoyed it, sort of. Now that I've read Slonczewski's "sequel," Daughter Elysium, I can't help but see that first novel as merely prologue for a deeper, more complex, more rewarding bit of feminist/sociological/ecological science fiction novel. Daughter Elysium takes place hundreds of years into the future and features a cast of dozens from a plethora of species that are lovingly detailed. Slonczewski juggles dozens of plot threads and themes, from the ethics of bioengineering, of abortion, of colonialism, to the very definition of sentience and personhood. For some, the lack of forward momentum in the plot might present a bit of a hindrance, as the novel lacks the classic structure of "obstacle, resolution, obstacle, rinse repeat" but rather, characters bouncing off ideas and concepts and each other. Conflict comes from complex political and sociological differences, a main theme of Door into Ocean but expanded and multiplied by more species and races. Generically, Daughter Elysium straddles a line between science fiction and fantasy, as the narrative deploys numerous paradigmatic fantasy tropes (eg. the barbarian medieval feudal race, the close to nature spiritual race, etc) but grounds them in some very detailed biology and genetic science that must have been cutting edge in 1993.

The focal characters for the novel come from a matriarchal society that still insists on a form of gender equality: the women bear the children, the men raise the children. The husband is a physician, the wife is a linguist, both have important jobs and functions within their society. Sometimes, especially when commenting on relations between sexes, Daughter Elysium comes off as incredibly 70s feminist camp, the kind skewered by Futurama in their fourth film. The novel also feels stunningly essentialist in that gender roles are rigidly defined and there seems little space for a gender non-conforming individual. Even the queer folk are written as performing their gender without deviation. Still, the novel has its heart in the right places, and perhaps as a scientist, Slonczewski was not at the cutting edge of gender theory (Butler's Gender Trouble was published in 1989) (additionally, I've found many science fiction writers who are hardline scientists to be rather skeptical of gender theory anyway). Ultimately, Daughter Elysium was a fantastic read, slow, but extremely rewarding.

I only meant to read the first twenty or so pages of 253 by Geoff Ryman, but I ended up reading almost half of it in one sitting. The book's premise is so exceedingly clever, I'm angry that I didn't come up with it on my own. 253 is composed of 253 chapters comprised of 253 words, each chapter focusing on an individual on a perfectly full train in England in 1995. Each chapter has three sections: what they look like, what they do, what they are doing/thinking. Some characters are linked in some obvious ways (eg. marriage) and others in not so obvious ways (one robbed the other but do not recognize each other). Ryman manages to convey a spectacular cross-section of London, in terms of class, gender, age, race without seeming like characters are token. Some chapters are funny; some are heartbreaking. Beyond the 253 words of each chapter, there are footnotes that may or may not be misleading or informative, some are short, while one or two are David Foster Wallace-style long (including a bizarre tangent in which the poet William Blake finds himself in the modern day). Ryman's voice is wry and sardonic, and he even admits that he initially came up with the footnotes as an opportunity to be "bitchy." Predicting Twitter's character constraints a full decade before, 253 finds art in limits, showcasing Ryman's carefully selected phrasing and insightful eye. I read The Child Garden in December 2014 and didn't love it, but Ryman seems to invent himself with each book. His ambition was enough for me to get over my initial disappointment with The Child Garden and I'm glad I did. I'll next read his 1992 Was, a postmodern examination of The Wizard of Oz.

As much as I enjoyed the first Elric book, Sailor on the Seas of Fate was a spectacular increase in quality. Consisting of three linked longer short stories, the second book brings together Moorcock's other Eternal Champions and pits them against a set of twins who will sap the multiverse of all energy if these Champions don't step in.

A brief interlude. When I was a child, I had Lego and action figures and I told stories using them. I had characters with deep histories, mostly cribbed from other sources (eg. I had a "Phoenix" like the X-Men). So, in order to circumvent the contradictions inherent in competing canons, I devised a multiverse. Certain Lego minifigs fulfilled different roles in this multiverse. Specifically, one of my Blacktron minifigs was the protagonist in almost all of my "sagas" but not always as the same character. Here's a picture of him:

I imagined that I was a writer-God and that these action figures and minifigs were performing roles in an epic meta-saga that encompassed all of the multiverse in its totality. I also imagined a universe in which a character rose to the level of a God and was able to reach through universes to combat other characters that I created. And on and on and on. Inspired by the galactic scale of comics by Jim Starlin, I created whole universes just to destroy them. The stakes in my sagas were enormous.

I mention all this just to give you an idea that I was not prepared for how similar Moorcock and I are in terms of how we approach storytelling. The climax of the first story in this book features the four Eternal Champions combining and using an ultimate sword that literally slices through planes of existence to puncture the eye of a creature that manifests as an infinite building that breathes. In other words, Moorcock has gone from being an author I'm interested in to an author that I must read everything by. We share a sensibility about the possibilities of storytelling, one that he exploits with a large canvas, a scale I haven't seen since Hickman's run on The Avengers. This is the type of insanity that I can get behind.

The epidemic of Lydian

I work in a bookstore and I'm also a nerd, so I tend to look at books in nerdy ways. I'm also an amateur (stress on amateur) typography enthusiast. My father is a printer and has been for eons, so I come by this honestly. This post is going to gather instances of book designs that use the typeface Lydian, because for some reason (probably related to market trends and focus groups), Lydian appears to be an oddly popular choice in book design. Unlike the famous typefaces of Futura, Helvetica, Avenir, Baskerville, and Elektra, Lydian isn't really all that well known or versatile. It's a clean, thin style with delicate curves, giving the text an older, classier feel. Here's the typeface:

And here are some book covers from the past year or so that have used it (I will add more as I find them). Notice that the designers have opted for verticals, putting few words on each line.

People my age and a bit older might recognize the typeface in the credits to a really famous TV show:


Added March 4, 2016

Added March 9, 2016

Added March 13, 2016

Added March 18, 2016

Added March 26, 2016

Sunday, February 21, 2016


Cadigan's Mindplayers was an interesting beast. For most of the slim volume, I found myself bored and my mind wandering as Cadigan's plotting was less than optimal. The protagonist bounces from incident to incident, with little connecting them all. I found all of the "gee-whiz" science fictional gadgets and strange "future" social customs and mores to be tiresome and, frankly, lifted from Philip K. Dick. A couple male characters "casually" mention that they have had husbands in the past or present; "gang" is a commonly accepted term for a marriage involving more than three individuals; anarchic retreats emulate hippy communes, which seems especially Dickian (is that the word we're using?). I grew restless with the book and finished two in the meantime.

However, a connective plot strand grabbed my attention. Jerry Wirerammer is this book's version of a drug dealer, selling illicit drugs that simulate, temporarily, insanity or schizophrenia ("madcaps"). He is arrested and does time for this illegal activity, but when released, has no income; he turns to companies, some sketchy, and sells off his memories for people to experience or internalize for pleasure. However, his strategy of selling to multiple companies turns on him, forcing him into more desperate measures, such as selling almost complete duplicates of his entire selfhood. In his last appearance, the protagonist is unsure if the Jerry Wirerammer she's talking to is the original or if the original has been lost forever.

This certainly seems the most Philip K. Dick-esque of all elements in the novel. The reification of selfhood, its malleability and ephemeral qualities were obsessions with Dick. However, Cadigan's use of this concept is less "gee-whiz" or horrifying than Dick's treatment and more solid characterization for her protagonist, Allie. Mindplayers is not really about "cyberpunk" plotting. Rather, the novel is intensely, almost myopically focused on Allie's emotional maturity and her relationship to her own mind. Using an episodic structure, Cadigan bounces odd incidents off Allie, all of which slowly shape her and change her, which is definitely refreshing. Considering my oft-repeated complaints about realism, characters, and the prison of narrative, Cadigan's novel stands in stark relief from other examples of the genre.

On the same tact, some periodization would be helpful here. Cyberpunk, we might remember, is formed as a shaggy movement in the early 80s (Blade Runner in 1982, Neuromancer in '84). Already by '87, cyberpunk has become a victim of its own success. While the subgenre was originally anti-capitalist, or more accurately, anti-corporatist, its success meant an evacuation of those politics; subsequent imitators jettison the radicalism for a more palatable and commercially friendly message ("tech is bad in the wrong hands"). Cadigan had already made her mark on the scene with some impactful short stories, but her first novel wasn't published until 1987. Some critics have pointed to Mindplayers as either the final novel of cyberpunk or the first of postcyberpunk. It's certainly hard to categorize due to its disinterest in the tropes and aesthetics of cyberpunk (noir/detective plot structure, garish neon/Eastern influences) and to its ambiguity vis-a-vis technology.

Cyberpunk, many have argued, including the great Samuel R. Delany, is intrinsically optimistic about technology. The new tech that cyberpunk seems to champion (cyberspace, virtual reality, cybernetics) make material our previously immaterial connection to data and more abstractly, information. Delany compares cyberpunk's depiction of cyberspace as akin to a "noosphere," a repository of all possible knowledges. Cyberpunk proposes that technology is the only possible avenue for accessing this noosphere and this is assumed to be a prima facie "good" thing to do. Cyberspace in William Gibson's Neuromancer and its derivatives literalized that which was previously metaphor. The deployment of metaphor is distancing: it requires the audience an additional cognitive step to parse meaning; cyberspace, on the other hand, takes that which is metaphor (virtuality) and turns it into actuality. For example, when Allie misunderstands another character's pronouncement, from "altered states of consciousness" to "altered snakes of consequence" the cyberspace in Mindplayers provides a literal snake eating its own tail for Allie to see.

A bit of Deleuze and Guattari then will help (or obfuscate depending on how well I can translate their esotericism. In A Thousand Plateaus, D and G lay out their toolkit, explicating the rhizome and its multiple possibilities of entrance. The world is not organized into discrete strata such as a "biosphere" or a "noosphere" but rather a "Mecanosphere," a plane of consistency (D and G were really big on "planes") in which there is no metaphor, nothing is "like" something else; it is that thing. It is a system of self-organization, deriving from complexity theory and non-linear mathematics (don't ask me, I have no idea) which involves a mechanism for self-organization called double-articulation. Here, they draw on Foucault who highlights that which is "seeable" and that which is "sayable." The articulation of the strata, say for example, cyberspace, is never without discursively relying on the corresponding and concomitant strata. If cyberspace is a mechanism for self-organization, then its articulation relies on a whole mess of other "sayable" strata, such as "space," "cyber," "metaphor," etc etc etc. There are horizontal "parastrata" (technology) and vertical "epistrata" (English language, mathematics) that the strata draws on for meaning.

What matters here is D and G's use of the mechanism. They call this plane of consistency an abstract machine. This requires a bit further of unpacking, of course (what doesn't in D and G?). A machine, the authors define as a system of interruptions and flow. A human body is a classic D and G machine: the mouth, the eyes, all open and close, interrupting the flow, both out and in. An abstract machine, then, is a system comprised of smaller machines that interrupt and flow, but is abstract in nature. For example, a disciplinary technology such as the school or the prison is an abstract machine as it is composed of smaller machines working in conjunction. Cyberspace is an abstract machine, with its constituent elements including technology (1 is flow, 0 is interruption) and humanity. Cyberpunk literalizes the intersection of organic and inorganic; a new abstract machine is composed from technology (computers, cords, wires, electronics) and humanity (neurons, synapses, thought). Cyberpunk is optimistic that this abstract machine of cyberspace, of human-machine interaction allows access to more knowledge and thus more power. Even if that power is corrupted by other abstract machines (eg. The State, corporations, faciality). The abstract machine as an articulation allows us to understand how there is really no starting point and no ending point; there is only the flow, only the becoming. Cyberspace, then, is not a beginning nor an end point of knowledge, nor is it an unbreachable impasse between organic and inorganic.

Consider, then, if we can return to Mindplayers, that Wirerammer becomes a collapse of organic and inorganic. Frequently, Wirerammer is held up as this warning; while Allie's job, mindplaying, a technologically oriented form of psychoanalysis, what with its literalization of metaphor and subconscious, is depicted as mostly positive, Jerry's plight is tragic almost, an example of the commodification of personhood. I'd rather we conceptualize Wirerammer not as a logical outcome of the increased rapidity of technology's encroachment on humanity, as outcome implies a linear progression. Instead, we might apprehend Wirerammer as the collapse of the Cartesian dualism that pervades science fiction. He is the deterritorialization of binary systems. He loses his selfhood, his originality, and we might mourn this, but secretly, quite cleverly, Cadigan implies that this originality never existed in the first place.

Allie is a mirror image of Jerry in that while he goes further down a road of illegality, Allie becomes increasingly responsible and respectable (she trains for a job, acquires a career, marries a cis man, fulfilling the heteronormative metanarrative required of women in the 21st century). However, Allie is, as we've mentioned, formed by her interactions with other characters, incidents, machines, both literal and figurative. Her selfhood is constructed by interfacing with machines that interface with other machines ie humans. In a way, Allie and Jerry are the double-articulation of an abstract machine that is the collapse of the organic and the inorganic. Allie is a strata that works only in conjunction with its parastrata (people she meets) and epistrata (language, metaphor).

The effect that Jerry and others have on Allie is literalized, as with all cyberpunk metaphors, in cyberspace. Spectres of past encounters haunt Allie, to the point where she even questions if her selfhood actually exists a priori her interactions. Here, we see another concept from Deleuze: the assemblage. I won't bother recapitulating the pedantic definitions of assemblage but suffice it to say that Allie's character conceptualizes a becoming, a constant vibrancy of matter that only exists in relation to others. Cyberspace, then, literalizes this relational permanency of identity, as cyberspace seems to only literalize. Recalling that cyberspace is a zone of thought, a noosphere, it also only exists in relation to the strata of "reality." Epistemologically speaking, cyberspace and reality do not compete for the top spot in some hierarchy of zones; as virtual reality is just as real to human senses as reality, then the two zones are parallel.

One of science fiction's favourite tropes, so perfectly and lovingly satirized by South Park, is losing a grip on which reality is which. In an episode from the 18th season, Cartman pranks Butters by convincing him that Butters has become trapped in virtual reality, confusing it with reality. So begins a hilarious series of matryoshka dolls, with each "layer" of reality being revealed as virtual. South Park plays into this logic up until the very end, when the animation cuts to a live action shot of actors playing the main characters, calling attention to the "virtuality" of animation and even to the construction of the show itself.

While Mindplayers doesn't tumble all over itself into rabbit holes with regards to the confusion of virtuality, the novel does confidently suggest that conceptualizing discrete zones of reality is counterproductive for personal relations. Allie's job involves helping people come to realizations, like a therapist, but by travelling into their minds and playing with their thoughts. In this way, Mindplayers eschews the typical cyerpunkian distrust of technology (that simultaneously and paradoxically fetishizes it). The text keeps the actual tech at a remove, never really describing in lurid hard sf fashion what the tech entails. Instead, we're left with short descriptions of Allie lugging around machines that probably look something like an EKG monitor. The tech, then, facilitates the collapse of barriers between zones, between people, pushing them into modes of becoming (rather than being). Even still, the "agency" of the tech is minimized in favour of skills, or perhaps more accurately, the development of skills (as this is a Bildungsroman). The becoming-human impact is far more valuable to than the tech, though I should be careful not to erase the importance of tech in the text. This is, after all, still a science fiction novel. Mindplayers is, refreshingly, more interested in characters than gee-whiz technological fetishism, though this aspect still rears its head. It's also confidently liberated from the generic constraints of plot, bereft of typical cyberpunk narrative clichés. Perhaps this is why some have periodized the text as either the last cyberpunk novel or the first postcyberpunk novel.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Trouble and Her Friends

Trouble and Her Friends took me a loooong time to read. I believe I started it in 2014, when I stumbled across its existence in a Chicago public library. I dropped it after about a hundred or so pages, only to pick it up again in summer of 2015. On Feb 9th, I decided to brute force my way through the remaining 150 pages. I finished it, but it was a real struggle.

Ugh. There were so many elements that were interesting and successful inversions of cyberpunk's cliched tropes, but they were all hampered by a narrative slower than an iceberg, a narrative hyperbolically committed to conventions (including a grotesquely neat and happy ending), and some excruciating scenes of cyberspace that must've been cliché by 1986, let alone 1994. Which is a real shame, as Scott's command of characterization was top notch and her squeamishness around violence really worked in the novel's favour. Instead of the usual "might makes right," hyper-violence that permeates cyerpunk's technology, Scott opts for intelligence, guile, and most importantly, pure computer skills such as coding. An implicit conclusion of the novel is that queer folk are intrinsically more skilled at hacking as both are outsider, marginalized groups.

The implicit metaphor that hackers (or crackers as they're annoyingly dubbed in the novel) are a counterpublic akin to the queer community was extremely compelling. Some of the best bits in this novel come from the intra-hacker politics and their intersection with identity politics: continuously, Trouble and her friends are undermined due to their gender... not in any obvious or irritating way, but subtly, which works quite well. There's a casual acceptance of queer identities in this future society, but still the recognition that corporatism wasn't ideal bedfellows for queersat least in 1994.

Pinkwashing is a portmanteau referring to the smoothing of inconvenient waves of queers with marketing and consumerism aimed at enveloping those queers within the warm and suffocating embrace of capitalism. Once the machinery of capitalism realized that queer folk consumed just as much as hetero folk, products and lifestyles were aimed at this "new" demographic. We should remind ourselves that one usage of the word "queer" refers to an explicitly and destabilizing political position, one counter to the metanarratives that comprise heteronormativity. These queer folk, then, had their political volatility exhausted through their willful participation in capitalism; they became "good" subjects. This is the opposite result that Scott's novel predicts. In her future society, queer folk are socially accepted but still exist on the fringes of society. They are not "good" subjects.

However, this might be reductive and unfair to Scott. One of the narrative strands running through the novel is Trouble's lover/friend/ex Cerise and her employment as a security specialist for a corporation they used to hack. It's implied that Cerise's individuality, that which makes her attractive and unique, is squashed under the boot heel of the conglomerate. That is to say, Scott expresses, in an unsubtle fashion, that "selling out" is an undesirable outcome. Selling out isn't really a concern of 2016's youth culture and hasn't been since the late 1990s.

In this way, Scott's novel is more interesting as a document of retrofuturism than as prescient science fiction. As I said, even in 1994, the fetishistic depictions of hacking were clichéd. Trouble and Her Friends is positively obsessed with technology, with the narrator lavishing endless paragraphs with details of hackers typing, plugging and unplugging cords, carrying around equipment, and countless mentions of seemingly "technical" words such as "routines," "programs," and other cool new terms (relative to 1994). Similarly, its neverending descriptions of cyberspace are so old-fashioned and quaint: neon avenues; literal walls of ice representing IC(E); glowing logos; security programs literalized as watchdogs. Again, Neuromancer and the stories in Burning Chrome were from the mid 80s, and ten years is an eternity with regards to technology.

Thus, Trouble and Her Friends is a great example of postmodernism as formulated by the great obfuscating thinker Fredric Jameson. Let's remind ourselves of the symptoms he identifies as indicating postmodernism:
  1. a new depthlessness
  2. a consequent weakening of historicity
  3. a whole new type of emotional ground tone
  4. relationships of all this to a whole new technology
  5. mutations in the lived experience of built space itself
Let's start with the last item. The novel depicts a mutation in experience vis-a-vis built space by literal wires connecting computing machines to human brain tissue. This new connection facilitates conceptualizing a completely virtual space, a new space built and constructed by technology, which in turns, relates to the fourth item. These new technologies (both retrograde and futuristic simultaneously) establish new relationships with humans, one of codependency—the machines need people for electrical power, the people need machines for political (discursive) power. A revised dialectic emerges; a new emotional tone emerges concomitantly, one of a waning affect. Characters are not required to feel as the labour of affect has been outsourced to virtuality; cyberspace produces affect for the wired users; in Trouble and Her Friends, this is literalized, for example, as touching IC(E) leads to real ("real") physical pain for the user. This, of course, introduces a phenomenological quandary: which comes first, the pain or the experience of the pain? or, is there even a difference? This might be an extreme example of the weakening of historicity, taking it to a microcosmic scale more minute than Jameson may have meant.

But, we can expand our gaze and consider the prescient and paradoxically retrograde mobilization of science fiction tropes. In the logic of postmodernism, the past is no longer something to orient ourselves within our present but instead a vast pool of images from which to draw on repeatedly. Postmodernism and thus Trouble and Her Friends, "randomly and without principle but with gusto, cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles" as Jameson writes in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (19).

Cyberspace, as Adam Roberts writes in his book, Science Fiction, is a literalizing of alterity. He argues that there exists
a close enough affinity between SF as literature and the reality of existence in the West today under the cultural logic critics call ‘postmodernism’. We encountered this earlier, in Baudrillard’s argument that contemporary culture involves us in a supersession of reality by simulacra. The extent to which postmodernism as a cultural logic depends upon today’s advanced technology is rarely stressed by critics of that phenomenon; but it is precisely that technology, and most especially today’s technologies of mass reproduction, the TV, the computer, that determines and defines postmodernity. And it is the coming together of TV and computer that informs cyberspace, one of the most potent of the technological metaphors to come out of SF. (124-5)
The screen comes to stand in for new perception, or perhaps more accurately, a paradigmatic perception, one that overrides and replaces the pre-existing multiplicity perspectives accessible to us. The screen is monolithic. We all watch the same screen.

In 1993, Scott Bukatman identified a new discursive motion in contemporary culture, the emergence of the “terminal identity”: “an unmistakably doubled articulation in which we find both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer station or television screen” (Terminal Identity 9). In another piece, on Pat Cadigan's Mindplayers, I'll say more on this double-articulation. To keep focus on Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends, I'll mention that Bukatman's use of the word "terminal" is, of course, a pun: terminal meaning final as well as the computer terminal into which we plug. Our identity, complete and now objective, exists only in virtuality, a replacement of reality with rapidly advancing technology. Trouble and Cerise find meaning in their lives thanks to their terminal identities. Without their labour, without their "cracker" personas, they are meaningless. The hyperbolically upbeat end of the novel has Trouble becoming "Mayor" of cyberspace; from her lowly corporate position to on the run from the law all the way to be credentialized by the State to uphold law and order within a virtual space. Her virtual identity comes to replace her actual identity (her real name is India, but it's rarely mentioned). The virtual completes Trouble.

This completes another foray into my continued efforts to cover critical theory and cyberpunk literature. I'm working on something... I'm not sure what exactly, but this piece, and others to follow, will poke and prod at cyberpunk until something productive tumbles out. I'm using these brief fumbles in the dark as a brainstorm exercise. Or perhaps imagine these as lecture notes for a seminar from which fruitful discussion will spring. Hopefully all of this will come to something. Hopefully.

February Reads Part One

The Bohr Maker by Linda Nagata
Silver Screen by Justina Robson
Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

Elric of Melniboné was quite good. I am not a reader of fantasy. I generally loathe high fantasy, especially works from the Tolkien paradigm. I find the obsession over kings and swords and armies to be weird and off-putting. Fantasy seems oddly myopic and provincial; there's an infinity of possibilities and yet all we can manage to imagine is the same group of white people warring over a throne. Perhaps there exists a better example of white nerd culture's lack of imagination but I can't think of anything better than high fantasy. Moorcock's longrunning series Elric starts with some novellas or novellettes (or whatever cutesy term marketing comes up with) but I have opted to begin with the first novel, Elric of Melniboné. As I am not a connoisseur of fantasy, I did need some acclimatization. Especially since Moorcock's acknowledgements includes a nod to Brecht.

Moorcock seems to understand my hesitation and provides some intermittently gorgeous prose to bring the reader into the world he has built. This is all subterfuge of course, as the Brechtian influences impress upon the attentive reader almost immediately. Moorcock is working within the classic "cognitive estrangement" mode of fantastic writing. The reader is faced with a world not unlike a medieval past we are familiar with, but slowly Moorcock strips away the meaningfulness, heading closer to an abstraction. Todorov writes of the "fantastic marvelous" in which the laws that govern our reality must be reorganized to fit the novum (if I might mix up my theorists a smidge). As Elric quests further and further for revenge, the laws of reality he encounter abstract more and more, until he is armed with a sentient sword, fighting an uncanny double armed with the sword's twin. The sentience of the sword is never in doubt, as Elric must fight for control over it. The figure of the sword, we might agree, is a representation of the will of the character. It is the steely literalization of their instincts etc. In other words, the sword is the id, Elric's moralizing non-Melniboné nature is the super-ego, and this battle between the two is Elric's ego.

Elric is an anti-Conan in that he is governed by his ego, he is effeminate yet powerful, brooding, self-reflective, concerned by morality and ethics, and fears his own power. He is not the embodiment of power, like Conan or other heroic fantasies. His power is of a different nature. Moorcock, cognizant of storytelling structures, models Elric partly on the Trickster figure, partly on the doomed hero. The overall feeling tone of the adventure is thus of melancholia. Moorcock's Elric mourns for an unarticulated futurity, a structure of feeling different from that which Melniboné declines.

Moorcock has a strong command of storytelling meaning that even when the book descends into abstraction, the stakes and narrative are clear enough to maintain the reader's interest and participation. On the other hand, and perhaps this is because I'm reading it 30 years after the fact, the novel does feel somewhat perfunctory. For example, once the author introduces this mystical swords, it feels inevitable the protagonist will come to possess one. As if the trappings of the fantasy genre are constricting Moorcock's prodigious talents. I've been thinking a lot about how narrative seems to be a form of imprisonment, enough that I won't say too much about Robson's or Nagata's novel here as I'll save those thoughts for a longer more scholarly piece.

Giovanni's Room was my selection for our Queer Bookclub. I read the novel in one sitting, which is, as usual, a high compliment for the book, but I struggled with it. Certainly, the novel is very old-fashioned, mostly in its construction. Baldwin takes around 30 pages or so to even introduce the main thrust of the story. Scenes are languidly paced, filled with writerly affectations and asides. Additionally, Baldwin really struggles to depict genuine human emotion, beyond misogyny, which this book has in spades. The culture of gay men seems to be often steeped in misogyny; consider how gay men speak of vaginas as "gross" or "disgusting." In the same vein, Baldwin's cast in this novel is composed of awful people behaving in awful ways, and not in a particularly entertaining way (like Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street). Rather, it's depressing and tedious, but effectively, of course, as Baldwin is trying to depict awful people who treat each other like dirt. However, Giovanni's Room is not without its positives: his treatment of the fluidity of sexuality (and gender) is progressive considering its conditions of production. As well, the limited first person perspective forces the reader to do a little bit more work than usual, as David, the protagonist, is not as perceptive as he might believe he is.

Silver Screen was an absolute delight. Here we have something we might call post-post-cyberpunk, a genre that has internalized both the original subgenre's failings (misogyny, racism, white dudebro fantasies) and the derivatives' missteps (overbearing whiteness, a lack of political imagination, techno-optimism). Robson's novel, get this, stars an Indian-British engineer with a non-normative body shape (ie not Hollywood thin) who is neither fetishized nor Orientalized by the narrative. She struggles with food, not in a "I need to be thin" kind of way but in the healthy self-reflective manner, aware that her indulgence in food is a counterproductive coping mechanism. And really, these details are organic, produced from the character in an unobtrusive manner. The protagonist also has female friends that she does not compete with, who have a mutually supportive network. That is to say, the novel hits the Bechdel Test quite a few times.

Of course, none of these elements indicate quality. Luckily, Robson's novel is superb both in plotting and in themes; the diverse formation of the cast is simply a cherry on a fantastic dessert. Silver Screen is focused on artificial intelligence, personhood, and the body... in other words, this is catnip for me. This is Robson's debut, I believe, and it does suffer a bit from first-novel-itis: there is too much happening, an attempt to accomplish everything possible. There's a courtroom drama, a military style action scene, a mystery, comprehensive worldbuilding, a critique of capitalism, etc etc etc. Not all of what Robson throws at the wall sticks, but I have admiration for her valiant attempts nonetheless.

Normally, hard science fiction, a marketing term if ever there was one, is characterized by, well, a lack of characterization and clunky prose. The writers of hard scifi traffic in ideas, not narrative or affect. Robson, categorized as hard scifi, is blessed with a gift for excellent prose and better-than-average characterization. Often, I would be struck by a passage, a choice in phrasing, or an image. For example, the protagonist wakes up from a nightmare "bored with fear" which I thought was a lovely way to indicate the banality of bad dreams.

Her plotting was almost irreverent, which was a nice change in pace from the exceedingly self-serious narratives that plague important scifi or cyberpunk. While Robson's overall feeling tone was one of grief and frustration, her deft handling of the plot was light and almost inconsequential. Silver Screen is not imprisoned by the trappings of the genre, as Robson gleefully picks up and drops that which no longer interests her. The plotting's lightness expresses itself in a rapidity, a desire to get to the "good stuff" of concepts and how they intersect/interact with personhood. The mystery angle of the plot is simply a going through the motions, an acknowledgement of the necessity of a narrative upon which the author can hang some brilliant ideas and some (mostly) welldrawn characters. I thought Silver Screen was terrific and I eagerly await more of Robson's work.

I hesitate to say much about Nagata's The Bohr Maker as I'm working on a longer, more scholarly piece about the novel. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed the book more as a collection of ideas than as a narrative. I worry that the prison of narrative is what holds Nagata back, as I believe she has loftier ambitions than what modern science fiction can allow, by dint of the market and by the possibilities of thought allowed by the genre. Science fiction's obsession with the generic forms of realism have turned the overall genre into a game of "magical instruments as a backdrop to working out the problems of human subjects." This sounds dismissive, and as somebody who loves narrative, I feel hypocritical. But the scifi that I've read seems completely hindered by the rote tropes. As scifi is inherently epistemologically oriented, the genre finds convenient bedfellows with similar interests like the detective story. Nagata's "nanopunk" subgenre takes some of what makes cyberpunk so boring (the narrative) and adds some of what makes science fiction so compelling (the nova). I still liked the novel quite a bit, but The Bohr Maker escapes me, slips through my fingers.