Return to Cinder: Supergods and the Apocalypse

Grant Morrison describes his growing up through comics books as a Manichean affair: “It was an all-or-nothing choice between the A-Bomb and the Spaceship. I had already picked sides, but the Cold War tension between Apocalypse and Utopia was becoming almost unbearable” (p. xiv). Morrison’s first non-comic book, Supergods (Spiegel & Grau, 2011), is one-half personal statement, one-half art history. It’s an autobiography told through comic books and a history of superheroes disguised as a memoir. His early history of superhero comics is quite good, but it gets really, really good when Morrison enters the story full-bore — first as a struggling but successful freelancer and later as a chaos magician of the highest order, conjuring coincidence with superhero sigils.

As if to follow Kenneth Burke’s dictum that literature represents “equipment for living,” Morrison puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of the supergods. “We live in the stories we tell,” he writes, and he’s not just saying that. Morrison wrote himself into his hypersigil comic The Invisibles and watched as the story came to life and nearly killed him.

In Supergods Morrison tells the story in high relief and stresses the transubstantiation between words and images on a page and thoughts and actions in the real world. His works are largely made up of “reality-bending metafictional freakouts dressed up in action-adventure drag,” as Douglas Wolk (2007) describes them, “metaphors that make visible the process by which language creates an image that in turn becomes narrative” (p. 258). If you’re not one for the magical bent, think of it as a strong interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis with a Rortian addendum: If we assume that language creates reality, then we should use language to create the reality we want to live in. Morrison writes, “Superhero comics may yet find a purpose all along as the social realist fiction of tomorrow” (p. 116). He insists that whether we realize it or not, we are the superheroes of this world.

The mini-apocalypse of September 11th, 2001 presented an odd dilemma not only for us, but also for our masked and caped heroes and our relationships to them. On one side, the event questions the effectiveness of our superheroes if something like that can happen without their intervention. Our faith in them crumbled like so much steel and concrete. On the other, after witnessing that day, we were more ready to escape into their fantasy world than ever. The years after that event exemplified what Steve Aylett described as a time “when people would do almost anything to avoid thinking clearly about what is actually going on.”

9/11 is conspicuously missing from Peter Y. Paik’s From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), as is Morrison, but blurbed by our friends Steven Shaviro and Bruce Sterling, the book provides another look at the link between the printed page and the world stage. As a contemporary companion to Barry Brummett’s Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric, which came out in 1991, Paik’s book provides another peek at the larger picture beyond the page that Morrison alludes to. I do find it odd that there’s no discussion of 9/11, a date that also roughly marks an epochal shift between things that were once considered nerdy and now are not. Morrison rails against the word “geek” as applied to comic book fans saying, “They’re no different from most people who consume things and put them in the corner or put them in a drawer… Anyone who’s into anything could be called a geek, but they don’t call them a geek.”

As much of a nerd as I’ll admit I am, I’ve never really been much for comic books. With that said, I found Supergods enthralling, much in the same way I found the screen stories of Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives. Intergalactic narrative notwithstanding, Morrison’s prose seems both carefully constructed and completely natural. As my colleague Katie Arens would say, he writes to be read. My lack of comic-book knowledge sometimes made following the historical cycles of superheroes difficult, but Morrison’s presence in these pages and personal touch kept me reading hyper-attentively. Here’s hoping he writes at least half of the other books hinted at herein.

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My own introduction to Grant Morrison came via Disinformation‘s DisinfoCon in 2000 where he explains the basics of chaos magic in an excitedly drunken Scottish accent [runtime: 45:28]:

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References:

Brummett, Barry. (1991). Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Burke, Kenneth. (1974). The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Hiatt, Brian. (2011, August 22). Grant Morrison on the Death of Comics. Rolling Stone.

Morrison, Grant. (2011). Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Wolk, Douglas. (2007). Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo.

Maps for a Few Territories: Guides to Gibson

Any web wanderer worth her bookmarks knows that William Gibson coined the term for the spaces and places that we all explore online. So strong was the word that one large software company attempted to trademark it for their own purposes (Woolley, 1992). So many such ideas have been co-opted by others that Gibson has jokingly referred to himself as “the unpaid Bill” (Henthorne, p. 39). We have recently been called “people of the screen” by some other big-name dude, but this idea was evident in Gibson’s early work some thirty years ago. He saw an early ad for Apple Computers, and the idea hit him: “Everyone is going to have one of these, I thought, and everyone is going to want to live inside them. And somehow I knew that the notional space behind all of the computer screens would be one single universe” (quoted in Jones, 2011).

“I needed to replace the ‘rocketship’ and the ‘holodeck’ with something else that would be a signifier of technological change,” he tells Mark Neale in No Maps for These Territories, “and that would provide me with a narrative engine, and a territory in which the narrative could take place… All I really knew about the word ‘cyberspace’ when I coined it was that it seemed like an effective buzzword. It was evocative and essentially meaningless. It was very suggestive of… it was suggestive of something, but it had… no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.”

FADE UP MUSIC. Slowly, images start to bleed through. Red swirls, white, black dots… As more and more of the image bleeds through the titles we begin to make out what we’re watching…
— Opening lines, William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic screenplay

In the preface to Burning Chrome (Ace, 1987), Bruce Sterling wrote that Gibson’s early stories had made apparent ”the hidden bulk of an iceberg of social change,” an iceberg that the web’s social warming has melted over the years since. In his later work, Gibson writes in a world informed by his previous prophecies. It is as if the present caught up with his projected future: “I suppose I’ve always wanted to have a hedge against the literal assumption that these stories are fictions about ‘the future’ rather than attempts to explore an increasingly science fictional present. I think we tend to live as though the world was the way it was a decade ago, and when we connect with the genuinely contemporary we experience a species of vertigo” (quoted in Eshun, 1996). His latest trilogy is intentionally set in that science fictional present. Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010) read like Gibson’s earlier science fiction, yet the weird gadgets and odd characters they’re riddled with are all readily available outside the book’s pages. He’s not making any of those things up. Anymore. In spite of its uneven distribution, the future is already here. The merging of cyberspace and the everyday as well as the techno-paranoia he projected in his early work is pervasive post-9/11.

As a guide to his many fictions cum realities, Tom Henthorne’s William Gibson: A Literary Companion (McFarland & Co., 2011) goes a long way to mapping his fiction to our reality. Arranged encyclopedia-style and covering the breadth of Gibson’s novels, the book provides handy crib notes to the concepts and connections of his work. It also includes a chronology of Gibson’s life and work, a glossary, a technological timeline, writing and research topics, a bibliography, and a full index, all of which make it an easy entry point into Gibson’s world of work.

I have often thought he’d get more credit for his ideas if the times he’s talked about them were in print somewhere (e.g., the many ideas he discusses in Mark Neale’s 2000 documentary, William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories). Enter Distrust The Particular Flavor (Putnam Adult, 2012): thirty years of Gibson’s collected nonfiction. Essays, talks, observations, articles, and other ephemera are all collected in one place for the first time, some in print for the first time ever — from WIRED, Rolling Stone, and New York Times Magazine to smaller publications no longer in production.

William Gibson is one of our brightest minds and these two books not only provide a solid introduction into his fiction and ideas but are also valuable texts on their own. Whether you’re fumbling through his fiction, wishing his tweets were longer, or just curious, I recommend checking them out.

References:

Eshun, Kodwo. (1996, November). William Gibson in Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. Unpublished outtake from Paul D. Miller (ed.), Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Arts and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gibson, William. (1995). Johnny Mnemonic [screenplay]. New York: Ace Books.

Gibson, William. (2012). Distrust That Particular Flavor. New York: Putnam Adult.

Henthorne, Tom (2011). William Gibson: A Literary Companion. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Jones, Thomas. (2011, September 22). William Gibson: Beyond Cyberspace. The Guardian.

Sterling, Bruce. (1987). Preface. In William Gibson, Burning Chrome. New York: Ace Books, pp. ix-xii.

Woolley, Benjamin. (1992). Virtual Worlds. New York: Penguin.

Cyberpunk’s Not Dead: Rucker’s Nested Scrolls

Like birthdays, the end of the year always brings about a recounting of the previous twelve months. We reassess our existence every year, every ten years, every one hundred… Human and technological movements are cyclical. Heraclitus once posited that generational cycles turn over every thirty years. By that metric, the personal computer revolution has run its course, and with it, the cyberpunk genre. Running its course doesn’t mean it’s over. It means it has been assimilated into the larger culture. What was once weird and wild is now a normal part of the world in which we live.

In his autobiography, Nested Scrolls (Tor, 2011), Rudy Rucker tells the story of catching the cyberpunk wave just as it was swelling toward the shore. Rucker already had two science fiction novels out, a third in the pipe, and was out to change the genre with a vengeance. He’d won the first Philip K. Dick Award in 1982 just after Dick died, and met up with the reigning crop of the new movement. “I started hearing about a new writer called William Gibson,” he writes. “I saw a copy of Omni with his story, ‘Johnny Mnemonic’. I was awed by the writing. Gibson, too, was out to change SF. And we weren’t the only ones.” Around the same time, Bruce Sterling was publishing an SF zine called “Cheap Truth.” Rucker continues, “Reading Bruce’s sporadic mailings of ‘Cheap Truth’, I learned there were a number of other disgruntled and radicalized new SF writers like me. At first Bruce Sterling’s zine didn’t have any particular name for the emerging new SF movement — it wouldn’t be until 1983 that the cyberpunk label would take hold.” It was in that year that Bruce Bethke inadvertently named the movement with the title of his short story “Cyberpunk.” In this revolution, the names Rucker, Gibson, and Sterling were loosely joined by John Shirley, Greg Bear, Pat Cadigan, and Lew Shiner.

Rudy Rucker: Nested Scrolls

While cyberpunk sometimes seems a definitively 1980s affair, it was often ardently so at the time. It was post-punk and pre-web, yet wildly informed by the onset of the personal computer and the promise of the internet, which marks the genre in sharp contrast to its galaxy-hopping, alien-invaded forebears. Rudy Rucker is the bridge from Dick-era, drug-induced paranoia to Gibson-era, network-minded paraspace. He was around early enough to be a Dick fan before Dick died, but noticeably older than the rest of the cyberpunk crew. Nested Scrolls secures his place joining the generations of the genre.

It’s not all computer-generated virtual worlds though, Rucker has had a storied career as both an author of science fiction and nonfiction, as a college professor, and as a software developer, all of which inform each other to varying degrees, and all of which inform Nested Scrolls, making it an engaging narrative of high-science, high-tech, and high times. Cyberpunk’s not dead, it’s just normal now.

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Illustrating the initial disjointedness of the genre, here’s the 1990 Cyberpunk documentary, directed by Marianne Trench:

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References:

Georgoulias, Tom. (2007). Rudy Rucker: Keeping it Transreal. In Roy Christopher (Ed.), Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes. Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear.

Heraclitus. (2001). Fragments. New York: Penguin Classics.

Rucker, Rudy. (2011). Nested Scrolls: The Autobiography of Rudolph von Bitter Rucker. New York: Tor.

Rucker, Rudy. (2011, December 6). The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk [Book excerpt]. io9.com.

Trench, Marianne (Director) & von Brandenburg, Peter (Producer). (1990). Cyberpunk. Mystic Fire Video.

2011: Are You Going to Eat That?

It’s December and time to reassess the year, and 2011 is a joy to revisit. It was easily my best year ever personally. I signed a book deal, spoke at several conferences with some of my best friends, got engaged to a wonderful woman, built some new bikes, redesigned my website (finally), and finished coursework and comprehensive exams on my way to a Ph.D., among other things.

This year was crazy, from the death of Steve Jobs and Occupy Wall Street to the ramping up of some sort of political happening. I also saw, listened to, and read a lot of good stuff. Here is the best of the media I consumed this year:

Album of the Year: Hail Mary Mallon Are You Going to Eat That? (Rhymesayers):  Hail Mary Mallon is the melding of word-murdering minds Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic and the laser-precise cuts of DJ Big Wiz, all three Def Jux alumni and no strangers to the raps and beats in their own rights. In the interest of full disclosure, these dudes are my friends. To be perfectly honest, if they were wack they wouldn’t be.

These three have been touring and clowning together for years in different guises, and it’s obvious when you hear how well they play together. Are you Going to Eat That? is the dopest record out this year.

Production-wise, “Mailbox Baseball” sounds like an Iron Galaxy outtake, while “Grubstake” evokes the stripped down reduction—all 808s and sparse scratches—of a salad-day-era Rick Rubin. Aes and Rob pass the mic like the Treacherous Three. “Table Talk” is a 21st-century “High-Plains Drifter.” But don’t get any of this twisted: this is not a throwback, it’s a leap forward.

It’s all good (“Breakdance Beach” is dope, though it does get grating upon repeated listens), and the skills are barn-razing and bar-raising. Whether it’s Hannibal Lector or Cannibal Ox, Hail Mary Mallon prove that rap will eat itself.

Here’s their video for “Meter Feeder” [runtime: 3:47] directed by Alexander Tarrant and Justin Metros:

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Close Second: Radiohead The King of Limbs (Waste): “I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt…” The most important band in the world has returned with another cure for the malaise of the age. Pick one: They’ve saved rock and roll, killed rock and roll, and still emerged from the muck of the music industry well ahead of the curve. Everyone in media keeps them under the microscope to see how they will win. Again. Lean in, here’s the secret:

Radiohead makes great records.

And they do it consistently. They’re also quite adept at parsing the patterns on the horizon of the mediascape, but that wouldn’t matter if their records weren’t good. Damn good.

The King of Limbs is no exception. It’s more mellow than the sparsest parts of Amnesiac, but not nearly as insular. It might be their most even record. Thom Yorke’s voice, which I have to admit used to grate on me as often as it moved me, has gotten mature enough to carry the toughest of tunes. He is the voice of Radiohead, literally and figuratively (no small task either way), and he handles it with confidence and control.

Radiohead was never as joyfully abrasive as Sonic Youth or The Flaming Lips, but The King of Limbs reminds me of the releases of the former’s A Thousand Leaves and the latter’s The Soft Bulletin. All three records are still weird in their ways, but they’re also far more subtle than the previous work of their creators. Radiohead have always been masters of subtlety, and with The King of Limbs, they’ve earned their Ph.D. It’s such a tease and such a flirt.

Even Closer Third: Ume Phantoms (Modern Outsider): If ever a band were poised for the next level, Ume has been teetering there headlong for the better part of the past few years. Phantoms is the kind of record that neuters naysayers and emboldens enthusiasts. Lauren, Eric, and Rachel are some of the friendliest folks you’re likely to meet, but on stage they are ferocious. While Eric (bass) and Rachel (drums) are the stable and able drivetrain, Lauren (guitar and vocals) is the high-octane, internal combustion engine, careening ahead on the edge of control. Theirs is pop music in the sense that it’s explosive. Their live shows are where the real, volatile magic happens, but Phantoms captures their energy serviceably. For further evidence, here’s the video for “Captive” from Phantoms directed by Matt Bizer [runtime: 4:01], the most shared video on MTV.com:

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Runners Up: Wolves in the Throne Room Celestial Lineage (Southern Lord), Seidr For Winter Fire (Flenser), Cloaks Versions Grain (3by3), Jesu Ascension (Caldo Verde), Big Sean Finally Famous (GOOD Music), Knives From Heaven s/t (Thirsty 3ar), Pusha T Fear of God/Fear of God II: Let Us Pray (GOOD/Decon/Re-Up), Random Axe s/t (Duck Down), IconAclass For the Ones (deadverse), Crack Epidemic American Splendor (self-released), Deafheaven Roads to Judah (Deathwish), Panopticon Social Disservices (Flenser), Graveyard Hisingen Blues (Nuclear Blast).
Most Overrated: Opeth Heritage (Roadrunner), Kanye West & Jay-Z Watch the Throne.

Live Show of the Year: Deftones, June 4, 2011, Austin Music Hall, Austin, TX: Say what you will, but it’s absolutely unfair to lump Deftones in with bands they have next-to-nothing to do with (e.g., Limp Bizkit, Korn, Tool, et al). Deftones are as sophisticated as they are heavy and as beautiful as they are aggressive, as much like the Cure as they are Clutch. Their live show confirms all of this and more.
Runners Up: Mogwai, May 16, Stubbs, Austin, TX; Wolves in the Throne Room, September 27, Red 7, Austin, TX.

Comedian of the Year: Louis CK: No one else comes close.

Event of the Year: South by Southwest: SXSW is always a blurry blast, but this year was especially good. I got the opportunity to speak at Interactive and run around with friends seeing great music the rest of the time. You know who you are. Here’s to next year.
Runners Up: SF MusicTech Summit, Geekend Roadshow Boston.
Most Overrated: TEDxAustin.

Book of the Year: James Gleick The Information (Pantheon Books): James Gleick always brings the goods, and The Information is no exception. This is a definitive history of the info-saturated now. From Babbage, Shannon, and Turing to Gödel, Dawkins, and Hofstadter, Gleick traces the evolution of information theory from the antediluvian alphabet and the incalculable incomplete to the memes and machines of the post-flood. I’m admittedly biased (Gleick’s Chaos quite literally changed my life’s path), but this is Pulitzer-level research and writing. The Information is easily the best book of the year.
Runners Up: Insect Media by Jussi Parikka (University of Minnesota Press), The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading by Peter Lunenfeld (The MIT Press), The Beach Beneath the Street by McKenzie Wark (Verso), remixthebook by Mark Amerika (University of Minnesota Press), Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland (Atlas & Co.).
Most Overrated: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Crown).

Educator of the Year: Howard Rheingold: Howard’s homegrown Rheingold University started this year and quickly established an impressive online curriculum. I took the first class and joined the very active alumni in continuing our co-learning with Howard’s help. It was through this group that I got the opportunity to speak to David Preston’s Literature and Composition class — one of the best experiences I’ve had in education.

Site of the Year: Shut Your Fucking Face and Listen: My man Tim Baker and his band of ne’er do wells have put together a site that’s as hysterical as it is historical. Mostly focused on music, they veer off on pop culture tangents and mad rants that are always more entertaining than their subject matter. Get up on that.

TV Show of the Year: Breaking Bad (AMC): I have Tim Baker from SYFFAL to thank for this one. This show doesn’t just rearrange the furniture in the standard TV drama’s livingroom, it tosses it on the lawn and sets it on fire. I’ve only made it through the first three seasons, but my guess is that by the end of the recently inked fifth and final, this will be hailed as one of the greatest shows ever to creatively corrupt the television medium.
Runners Up: Party Down (Starz); Lie to Me (Fox).

Movie of the Year: The Muppets (Disney): I haven’t laughed so consistently through a movie since maybe first seeing Doug Liman’s Go in the theater. It’s not flawless (maybe one too many metacomments and one too many eighties references), but it is downright entertaining from titles to credits. So good to see a chunk of your chlidhood revived so well.
Runner Up: Tree of Life (Plan B).

Video of the Year: “Yonkers” by Tyler, The Creator: Written, directed, produced, rapped, and eaten by Tyler himself. I’ve already spouted my feelings about OFWGKTA elsewhere.
Runners up: Pusha-T featuring Tyler, The Creator “Trouble on My Mind,” Big Sean featuring Chiddy Bang “Too Fake,” Hail Mary Mallon “Meter Feeder” (embedded above).

So those are a few of the things that caught and held my attention this year. What were yours?