Otherworldly Weirdness on Our Own World

The human brain’s relationship with reality is fickle at best. The slightest ripple in our expectations can send us off one of many available edges. In his book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (Hippocampus Press, 2011), Thomas Ligotti paraphrases Peter Wessel Zapffe, writing,

Consciousness is connected to the human brain in a way that makes the world appear to us as it appears and makes us appear to ourselves as we appear–that is, as ‘selves’ or as ‘persons’ strung together by memories, sensations, emotions, and so on (p. 25).

When the continuity of that connection is corrupted, we are set adrift.

CHAMELEOIn Chameleo (O/R Books, 2015), Robert Guffey’s friend Dion has the continuity of his consciousness severely corrupted. Dion’s reality is already shaky at best, so Guffey sets out to document and investigate the odd goings on around Dion. Quoting Theodore Sturgeon, Guffey says, “Always ask the next question.” Chameleo turns on this very fulcrum: It is a series of next questions asked not necessarily until the questions are answered, but until all of the possibilities are exhausted.

Dion is followed, harassed, and interrogated by groups of people seen and unseen. “Invisible midgets” begin infiltrating his home after he is taken in for questioning about a load of missing night-vision goggles he had nothing to do with. These diminutive, invisible people sometimes appear as aberrations in Dion’s peripheral vision. Imagine the painting of railroad tracks on the tops of trains. If you’re looking at the train from above, you only see the tracks–unless you’re watching very closely. Project Chameleo is based on a much more technologically advanced version of this very concept: invisibility by adaptive camouflage, like a texture-mapped, technicolor chameleon. That’s one of the simplest examples of the alien technology in this complex and confounding tale. If you’d like to dip your toe in a bit further, The Believer posted this excerpt. As the inimitable Pat Cadigan puts it, “Guffey is my kind of crazy. He understands that the universe is preposterous, life is improbable, and chaos rules: get used to it.”

After the Saucers LandedChaos definitely rules in After the Saucers Landed by Douglas Lain (Night Shade, 2015). It chronicles the biggest letdown one can face: having your dreams come true, but having them be less than dreamy. The aliens that Ufologist Harold Flint had sought his whole life landed in a flurry of B-movie tropes and cringe-worthy clichés. Their arrival turns out to be the least strange thing that happens.

Many of the major Ufologists and alien-abduction researchers get name-checked: Budd Hopkins, Whitley Strieber, J. Allen Hynek, and others, as well as art and creative types like John Cage, Fluxus, and Rudy Rucker (via his book Saucer Wisdom). The verisimilitude makes this story seem all too possible. Having read this directly after Chameleo, I can say that fiction and nonfiction are more difficult to tell apart than ever.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that both of these authors have previous works equally worthy of your attention. In particular, check out Robert Guffey’s Cryptoscatology: Conspiracy Theory as Art Form (Trine Day, 2012) and Douglas Lain’s edited collection In the Shadow of the Towers: Speculative Fiction in a Post 9/11 World (Night Shade, 2015). Weirdness awaits!

Crimes of the Clock: The Crooked Corridor of Timecrimes

The time-travel trope, if employed well, never seems to wear thin. Several of my favorite narratives — Donnie Darko (2001), Primer (2004), Source Code (2011), and The Shining Girls (2013), to name a few — all involve time travel to some extent. “Part of the fascination of time travel concerns the stark paradoxes that threaten as soon as travel into the past is considered,” writes theoretical physicist Paul Davies (2001). “Perhaps causal loops can be made self-consistent. Perhaps reality consists of multiple universes” (pp. 123-124). These thought experiments are rife with unanswered and unanswerable questions, which are the very stuff of great stories.

Timecrimes (2007)

Time is a game
played beautifully
by children.
— Heraclitus, Fragment 79

Most recently, Project Almanac (2015) illustrates those paradoxes and their intrigue while still being a fairly mediocre movie, but it fails in spite of the time travel rather than because of it. 2009’s Triangle also loops time in a muddy and often confusing story. Time travel is such a huge cognitive load that it’s difficult to get right in a movie with much else going on and even harder to make feel real.

In contrast, Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes; 2007) capitalizes on its causal loops and suspenseful twists rather than wasting them. The film contains exactly four actors, and its action takes place over the course of about an hour and a half. In its handling of causality, Timecrimes is somewhere between Shane Carruth‘s Primer (2004) and the popular Back to the Future franchise of the 1980s, both of which feature extensive backwards time travel. Like Primer, which uses time travel as the pretext for the study of larger issues (Taubin, 2008), Timecrimes evokes themes of voyeurism and ethics in addition to its time-looping structure and the subsequent questions of causality. This is Spanish director/actor Nacho Vigalondo’s first non-comedic film and his sure-handed direction makes this condensed, pressure-cooker of a temporal thriller an imminently watchable and intriguing film.

One’s bearing
shapes one’s fate.
— Heraclitus, Fragment 121

Timecrimes tells the story of Héctor (played by Karra Elejalde), a lazy middle-aged man who has, with his beloved wife Clara, moved into a freshly built house in the rolling hills. After attempting to nap and receiving a strange phone call (he calls the number back, getting a machine with an outgoing message that says, “This is a restricted terminal. Leave your message or enter your access code”), Héctor is left lounging in his backyard, peeking in on the neighboring countryside with his binoculars. As Clara heads into town to buy groceries for the evening meal, Héctor catches a glimpse of a sultry scene-in-progress. Through his binoculars, he sees a half-naked young woman posed, poised, and undressing in a clearing in the woods. Upon closer inspection, fumbling through the woods as he goes, Héctor finds her naked and asleep. He attempts to awaken the helpless young woman, but is stabbed in the arm with scissors by a man in a ratty trench coat with pink bandages covering his head and face.

The event that sets the action in motion in this film is Héctor’s spotting the young woman in the woods. There’s no reason evident for his initial scoping of the landscape through his binoculars. We can only assume that he’s driven by the desire to see what surrounds his new environs. Once the young woman comes into view, his purpose changes. Héctor’s motivation shifts from the desire to see to the desire to see more. His intentions may have been pure at the onset, but upon seeing glimpses of the young woman’s naked body, Héctor becomes a voyeur. Voyeurism is the act of watching the activities of others without their knowledge (Hayward, 1996), and while cinema is inherently sexual via voyeurism (Metz, 1994), Timecrimes adds actual sexual voyeurism to its plot.

Mulvey (1986) sees the cinema system and its products as inherently patriarchal. Film teaches us to see as men see, to see women as men see women. Timecrimes fits Mulvey’s patriarchal schema not only by making us see literally as Héctor does, but also by making the naked female body the object of Héctor’s viewing. The young woman in the film, as in most films according to Mulvey (1986),

stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning (p. 199).

Indeed, the naked young woman in the woods in Timecrimes is the pivotal signifier, sending Héctor into the maelstrom of events that make up the rest of the film.

Schrödinger's cat shirt.
Schrödinger’s cat shirt.

Sound thinking
is to listen well and choose
one course of action.
— Heraclitus, Fragment 110

“By virtue of its handling of space and time,” Bordwell (1986) writes, “classical narration makes the fabula (story) world an internally consistent construct into which narration seems to step from the outside” (p. 24). In its handling of space and time, Timecrimes violates and simultaneously maintains Bordwell’s idea of the straight corridor. It violates it by looping in upon itself through the plot device of backwards time-travel. Throughout the film, there are three versions of Héctor traversing the same block of time in proximal space.

The film maintains the straight corridor by consistently showing the narrative from Héctor’s point of view as he travels back in time twice. The viewer follows Héctor through the time-traveling and the loops and thereby maintains his singular, linear path. If viewed from the scientist’s point of view, the film would appear chunked backwards, in a Memento-style “crooked corridor,” with the viewer seeing the third Héctor first, the second second, and the first last. By the end of the film, Héctor has passed through the same block of time three times and managed to emerge the singular Héctor.

“Manipulation of the mise-en-scéne,” Bordwell (1986) continues, “creates an apparently independent profilmic event, which can in turn be more or less overt, more or less ‘intrusive’ on the posited homogeneity of the story world” (p. 24). Upon first viewing, Timecrimes appears to be presenting its story in a nonlinear fashion, but this notion is a product of its time-traveling subject matter, not its narrative structure. Like Run, Lola, Run (1998), Timecrimes shows us three versions of the same block of time. It differs in that it’s showing the same block of time from Héctor’s point of view during his three trips through that block of time. In actuality, the film depicts a strictly linear path, albeit with two trips backwards through time (See Fig. 1.).

Crooked Corridor
Fig. 1. The arrow of time as seen through Timecrimes (2007).

Because Héctor’s narrative path overlaps itself in time, Timecrimes violates Bordwell’s straight corridor in attempting to maintain its linearity by following Héctor’s point of view. Bordwell (1986) states, “Causality also motivates temporal principles of organization: the syuzhet [plot] represents the order, frequency, and duration of fabula [story] events in ways which bring out the salient causal relations” (p. 19). Timecrimes twists up Bordwell’s (1986) straight corridor by attempting to show its multiple backwards time-traveling plot as a linear narrative.

Tainted souls who try
to purify themselves with blood
are like the man
who steps in filth and thinks
to bathe in sewage.
— Heraclitus, Fragment 129

In one shot we’re watching Héctor watch through the binoculars. In the next we’re seeing what he’s watching through them. His gaze becomes our gaze. In this way, the apparatus of Timecrimes is made apparent by transposing the camera through the binoculars. In several key scenes, we see what the binoculars see. Since these scenes are pivotal for the film’s plot, they bring the apparatus to the fore and make the act of viewing (or looking or watching) integral to the narrative.

Héctor 1’s seeing the young woman in the woods sets the first part of the narrative in motion. As soon as his wife Clara is gone, he immediately sets off to investigate. His use of the binoculars is the impetus for the action of the film. The lens is the apparatus by which the plot is spurred into motion.

Héctor 2 sees himself (the scientist goes so far as to call Héctor 1 his “mirror image”), setting off the second part of the plot. As Héctor 2 watches Héctor 1 interacting with his wife Clara through the binoculars, he feels that he has been replaced and thereby castrated (Mulvey, 1986). The rest of his actions in the movie are toward one goal: getting rid of Héctor 1 by making sure he gets into the time-machine. Héctor keeps a close watch on himself – both ways – through his ever-present binoculars.

When Héctor 2 accidentally kills Clara (or so he thinks), he realizes he has to travel back again (as Héctor 3) and keep himself (Héctor 2) from killing her. All of these events stem from Héctor’s (and thereby our) voyeurism through the binocular lenses, lenses that show the world as more real than what our naked eyes see.

Just as the river where I step
is not the same, and is,
so am I as I am not.
— Heraclitus, Fragment 81

Timecrimes upholds Mulvey’s (1986) contention that film is inherently voyeuristic, and that it utilizes the male gaze to subjugate the woman’s body for the male’s fantasies. If Héctor hadn’t been combing the countryside with his binoculars, he wouldn’t have seen the naked woman in the woods (ironically being held captive by another version of himself), he wouldn’t have investigated further, and the events of the film wouldn’t have unfolded as they did. The plot preys on Héctor’s voyeurism to propel itself forward.

The film also contains Bordwell’s (1986) notion of double causal structure, with one plot line involving heterosexual romance between Héctor and Clara, and another involving Héctor’s voyeurism and subsequent time-traveling adventure. The double loop of backwards time travel twists up Bordwell’s (1986) straight corridor, that is one of a linear causal plot. Though Timecrimes is shown as linearly as possible (i.e., from the point of view of one character), its causal chaos (i.e., the fact that Héctor 1 is spying on himself, and Héctor 2 is spying on himself, etc.) makes it seem nonlinear.

The apparatus of the lens (both movie camera lens and binocular lens), which is usually assumed to be transparent, is brought to our attention throughout the film by transposing one for the other: The binocular lens shows Héctor – and thereby us – what is real.

References:

Bordwell, D. (1986). Classical Hollywood cinema: Narrational principles and procedures. In P. Rosen (Ed.), Narrative, apparatus, ideology: A film theory reader. pp. 17-34. New York: Columbia       University Press.

Davies, P. (2001). How to Build a Time Machine. New York: Penguin.

Hayward, S. (1996). Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. New York: Routledge.

Heraclitus. (2001). Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus (B. Haxton, Trans.). New York: Penguin.

Ibarretxe, J., Carneros, E., & Ibarretxe, E. (Producers), & Vigalondo, N. (Writer/Director). (2007). Los Cronocrimenes (Timecrimes) [Motion picture]. Spain: Karbo Vantes Entertainment.

Metz, C. (1994). Story/Discourse: Notes on Two Kinds of Voyeurism. In B. Nichols (Ed.), Movies and Methods, Vol II: An Anthology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Mulvey, L. (1986). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In P. Rosen (Ed.), Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. pp. 198-209. New York: Columbia University Press.

Taubin, A. (2008). Primer. In D. Sterrit & J. Anderson (Eds.), The B-list: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love, pp. 79-82. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Summer Reading List, 2015

The slim slice of the Zeitgeist we capture on the Summer Reading List every year sometimes reveals certain notable nodal points. There are the big releases this year, like Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves and Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar, Volume 1, but Rita Raley’s review of the latter got as many mentions as the book did. This year’s book-to-read is McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red from Verso, followed closely by Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network from Duke University Press. The oddest recurrence was Paul Ford’s multimedia essay, “What is Code?” from Bloomburg Bussinessweek. Those odd ones are what make this thing interesting.

This year’s list boasts recommendations from newcomers Linda Stone, Benjamin Noys, Nick Ferreira, and Kristin Ross, and regular contributors Richard Kadrey, Lance Strate, Rick Moody, Zizi Papacharissi, Dominic Pettman, Howard Rheingold, Lily Brewer, Christopher Schaberg, Brad Vivian, Peter Lunenfeld, Steve Jones, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Paul Levinson, Alex Burns, Ashley Crawford, and myself.
Lily at Red House Books in Dothan, Alabama
As always unless otherwise noted, titles and covers link to the book at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon: the best bookstore on the planet. Read on!

Powell's Books

Benjamin Noys

I like to read a big non-fiction work over the summer. This summer it’s Anders Enberg-Pederse’s Empire of Chance (Harvard University Press, 2015), which is a study of Napoleon’s military campaigns and how military thinking tries to control the problem of contingency. This was recommended by Derek Gregory, at his excellent blog Geographical Imaginations, and it gives me an excuse to indulge my embarrassing military fetishism with a relatively clean conscience.

TorporMy dose of theory will be Sylvère Lotringer’s long-gestated book Mad Like Artaud (Univocal, 2015), which I hope will be a suitably mad work on the ‘mental dramas’ of Antonin Artaud. This should be read alongside the Chris Kraus’s novel Torpor (Semiotext(e), 2015). Kraus is Lotringer’s ex-wife, and this semi-autobiographical novel, originally published in 2006, tells of the painful gestation of Lotringer’s work on Artaud.

For a summer of poetry and revolution, or revolution and poetry: The Invisible Committee’s To Our Friends (Semiotext(e), 2015) is their first major work since the Glenn Beck baiting Coming Insurrection in 2007 and reflects on the tensions and problems of the wave of struggles since 2007. Verso have reissued The Dialectics of Liberation (Verso, 2015), the collection of papers from the 1967 conference held at the Roundhouse in Camden Town, London, which gathered all the figures of the counter-culture, from R. D. Laing to Stokely Carmichael to consider the question of violence. It’s worth looking at the footage to get a sense of the passionate and violent debates. After Joshua Clover’s excellent Red Epic (Commune Editions, 2015), I’m looking forward to reading the next two poetry books by the Commune Editions triumvirate: Jasper Bernes, We are Nothing and So Can You (Commune Editions, 2015) and Juliana Spahr, That Winter the Wolf Came (Commune Editions, 2015). Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters (Last Gasp, 2006), underground utopian anarchist poetry of the 1970s, has become a touchstone today.

To end the summer on a truly bleak note, Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (Penguin, 2015), which reissues two of his rare and expensive collections of harrowing horror fiction, is promised in October.

Kristin Ross

I’m generally reading 3-5 books at the same time, some for research and some for pleasure. My summer reading list is pretty demonstrative of that: It’s a mix of fiction and non-fiction, books and comics.

Warren Ellis just released Cunning Plans (Summon Books, 2015), a collection of his various talks that stretch over a wide range of themes from fiction and science fiction to magic and technology. (Spoiler: they’re really all the same thing.) Ellis is perhaps best known for his comic work, but reading these is a particular delight because his personal voice is even better. It’s a quick read—I burnt through it in two days—but packed with things that will make you think a long time after you finish it.

How to Write About MusicSometimes things sit on my Kindle, lurking, like Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Vintage, 2015). Once I started it, though, I couldn’t stop. The screen soon told me I had “35 minutes left in this book,” and I had to set it down. I had gotten so emotionally attached to the characters and the world, I knew I would be crying as I finished it, and I had plans that night. Couldn’t be crying.

Comics are really exciting right now. The second volume of The Wicked + The Divine (Image Comics) written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by Jamie McKelvie comes out on July 14th, so it’s a good time to read Vol. 1: The Faust Act (Image, 2014). Rockstars as actual gods. I’m not going to say more. Need I, even? This is also the team that did Phonogram (Image, 2007) and if you haven’t read that, ignore all my other recommendations and read that first. The long-awaited third volume of that series comes out in August. I’m a fangirl, and this reads like a breathless recitation of my ardor, but I don’t apologize for it.

Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet (Image, 2015) is only on Issue Four, so you should get on that now. The individual issues have essays in the back, a different prominent feminist each time, and those likely won’t be in the first collection. Those essays enhance the whole experience of the story; really, they’re giving a overview of the whole experience of women in these times. Also, the back cover is worth the entire price every time. Did I mention this is about “non-compliant” women being sent to a separate prison planet and they’re about to fight in a televised full-contact sport called Megaton and it’s drawn in 70s sexploitation style?

Then, there are my research books, which have honestly been just as enjoyable lately as my fiction. The 33 1/3 Books team recently released How to Write About Music, a textbook on exactly what it says it’s about. It’s great—educational while being wholly enjoyable and reading it is like taking a course by a great professor. I’m sure it will be used in classrooms, but for solo reading it functions beautifully. Bonus, awesome intro by Rick Moody, a veteran of this reading list.

This last one is very specialized, but if you have any interest in Britpop, it’s essential fun. Part oral history, part timeline of a genre, John Harris’ Britpop!: Cool Britannia and The Spectacular Demise of English Rock (Da Capo, 2004) is entertaining and as complete a history of the rise and fall of Britpop you can find. Plus, it’s just too great to listen to the musicians talk shit on each other.

Lance Strate

I have great admiration for poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, and this summer I plan to dive into her most recent book, The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us (Norton, 2014). I also want to catch up on one of her earlier volumes, Deep Play (Vintage, 1999). And this may seem like something out of left field, but my list includes Revolution for the Hell of It (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1968) by Abbie Hoffman, partly out of sixties nostalgia, but mostly because I understand that Hoffman was under the influence of Marshall McLuhan, among other things, and I’m curious to see how much media ecology he incorporated into his own ideas about subversive activity.

The Human AgeI imagine it would be appropriate to include a book on reading in a reading list, and I’ve included Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read (Penguin, 2009), which comes highly recommended. To balance out a book on literacy, I have also added a book on orality, Myth, Ritual and the Oral (Cambridge University Press, 2010) by the great anthropologist and media ecology scholar, Jack Goody. Of course, reading also includes rereading, and I plan to return to J. T. Fraser’s seminal volume on the study of time, Time: The Familiar Stranger (Tempus Books, 1987), in preparation for a research project I’ll be tackling in the fall.

It seems that the term affordances comes up quite a bit in discussions of technology and media these days, and I think it will be worthwhile to go back to the source, James J. Gibson’s An Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Psychology Press, 1986), as it also constitutes an important contribution to the media ecology literature. Additionally, I think I’m going to learn a great deal from Zhenbin Sun’s recently published Language, Discourse, and Praxis in Ancient China (Springer, 2015), and I think the time is right for me to tackle Bruce Kodish’s massive Korzybski: A Biography (Extensional Publishing, 2011).

One of the books I am most looking forward to reading is Where Seas and Fables Meet: Parables, Fragments, Lines, Thought (Guernica, 2015), by B. W. Powe, a leading Canadian poet, literary theorist, and media ecologist. Another is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). And for a science fiction fix, Paul of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (Tor, 2008) should do nicely.

Rick Moody

I’ve just finished reading Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (New Directions), edited by Martin Arias and Martin Hadis, which is in fact exactly what it seems to be, the transcripts of Borges’s classes in English literature delivered in Argentina in 1966. I was so excited to read this book and had to wait through the 14 weeks of my own class in American Experimental Writing to get to it! I was not disappointed! One thing that is wonderful about Borges’s class is how eccentric the topics are: Chaucer barely gets any mention at all, Shakespeare is mainly confined to “Coleridge’s feelings on,” Milton is mentioned a couple of times. On the other hand, the earliest English poems (Beowulf, etc.) come in for several lectures, and Samuel Johnson and Robert Browning get the extended treatment. The course ends with Stevenson, after a cursory nod at Dickens. And so it is apparent that Borges, despite voluminous knowledge about our literary history (which he never learned about at university, because he never attended university), had very idiosyncratic taste in English literature. The second great thing about the book is that Borges can’t really seem to confine himself to the literary subject entirely. So there’s a lot of attention given to what a miserable and foul-looking guy Johnson was, and even more to Coleridge’s abandonment of his wife and the effect of opium on his poetry, and there are ahistorical digressions now and then (In Cold Blood, of all things, makes a brief appearance). This is a gossipy, funny, enthusiastic treatment of the subject, produced by a guy, it’s worth saying, who was entirely blind and unable to read at the time he delivered the lectures, so that they are the record of his memory of these texts. Professor Borges, accordingly, is not really a book about English lit in the dull, good-for-you way, it’s a book about the love of reading, something Borges always stands for, to his credit, and as such it’s 100% delightful. Perfect for any book nerd’s beach reading.

Christopher Schaberg

I’ve just finished reading the philosopher Alphonso Lingis’s book Trust (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), which is a fascinating blend of travel writing and what the late David Foster Wallace might have identified as an experiment in “new sincerity.” It is the kind of book that makes me want to write, and also to observe—and how to balance these impulses becomes a dynamic puzzle, one the book both solves while also flinging all the pieces at the reader.

I was won over by Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf Press, 2015), a book that makes the reader question the very premises of the book while persevering and following through to is satisfying conclusion. It is a book that accepts a certain constraint, and stays true to it — and the result is at turns utterly galling and totally admirable. In the end, Manguso throws down a gauntlet for any would-be diarist or journal keeper (really, any ‘author’!): it is a standard of unsettledness, a zombie aspiration for real-time writing.

HotelIf you’ll forgive a bit of aslant self-promotion, Joanna Walsh’s forthcoming Hotel (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) in the Object Lessons series is a daring act of textual lingering, a vivid mashup of object-oriented thinking and psychoanalytic inquiry. When I first read Walsh’s manuscript I was stunned by its intensity and attentiveness—her book opens up whole new fields of thought and imagination for how a seemingly non-discrete ‘object’ might be accounted for, assembled, and written into. I could go on and on about each of the six Object Lessons books coming out this November, but, moving on…

Finally, Margret Grebowicz’s excellent The National Park to Come (Stanford Briefs, 2015) blew me away. It is a deft articulation and extension of current eco-theory, breaking new ground, as it were, while recognizing the very fraught terms of ‘breaking’, ‘ground’, and other such naturalized metaphors. The book is framed by a personal narrative, which at once complicates and gives passionate nuance to Grebowicz’s project.

Read these!

Zizi Papacharissi

The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media by John Durham Peters (University of Chicago Press, 2015): Because only one person can talk about whales, dolphins, and Heidegger in the same paragraph, and in so doing, help one reimagine the future (and the past or present) of media studies.

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand (Penguin, 1995): Because I am trying to figure out whether technologies learn, and if so, how.

Watch Me: A Memoir by Anjelica Huston (Scribner, 2015): Because she’s a cool cat. And because reading memoirs is the highbrow equivalent of reading gossip mags.

Nick Ferreira

I love the idea of summer reading but for me, summer reading is the same as my reading during the other three seasons: usually a mix of some non-fiction that I flip around, some fiction I hope captures my short attention span, and a bunch of magazines I’m constantly trying to catch up on.

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner (Penguin, 1993): I’ve picked this book up multiple times but was never able to finish it. With California’s drought currently (finally?) making national headlines, I decided to pick it up again and am still slowly but surely making my way through. There’s a lot of information here and it’s hard for me to keep track of names, places, dams, rivers, etc. but so far it’s reminded me that places like Southern California wouldn’t exist as we know it without the rerouting/intervention of Western rivers. Side note: I also enjoy reading about these government projects that created some of the most awesome skateboarding and BMX spots in the country.

The Undersea Network by Nicole Starosielski (Duke University Press, 2015): This came into the library I work at recently, and I immediately checked it out. I’m looking forward to spending time learning more about the physical aspects of that seemingly abstract, but very physical thing we rely on everyday.

DaybookDaybook: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truitt (Scribner, 2013): I’m not sure I really understand Truitt’s sculptures beyond how simple and poetic they are: The slight structures seem like quick flashes of color from a landscape, but only extremely brief slivers of time. I’ve heard from a lot of people that Daybook was one of the best artist’s journals. It’s nice to pickup and read a random entry, especially in the morning.

The Wind from Nowhere by J.G. Ballard (Berkeley Medallion, 1962): Even though J.G. Ballard’s books are quite depressing, I keep coming back to read them. Last sumer I read, High-Rise, a novel about an architect’s failed utopian vision. This summer I plan on reading The Wind From Nowhere. Like most of the Ballard stories I’ve read, this one is deceptively simple: a westward wind, from nowhere, is gaining power throughout the novel forcing people to live underground and completely change their lives. The whole story seems implausible but I’m sure it will be just as frightening as High-Rise and Concrete Island.

Magazines I’m trying to catch up on: The New Yorker, Apartamento, Thrasher, and, N+1.

Linda Stone

The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge (Viking, 2015).
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk (Viking, 2014).
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer (Grand Central Publishing, 2014).

Paul Levinson

OutlanderMy prime reading plan for this summer is Outlander (Dell), the 1991 time-travel romance by Diana Gabaldon. Why? Well, I’ve been watching, reviewing on my blog, and mostly enjoying the Starz series based on the novel for the past year. I was drawn to the series as a sucker for most things time travel, and by the fact that Ron Moore, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica creator, is the Outlander show-runner on TV. Now, just about every time I criticized something in the TV show, someone would respond with, “You need to read the novel, it’s much better.” I make it a point not the read novels that TV series and movies are drawn from, if I haven’t read them already when the screen presentation begins, because I like to judge the screen story on its own terms. I also have a theory I call “the first love syndrome in media,” which holds that what we love most when a narrative is presented in different media is the one we first experienced — think about it. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading Gabaldon’s novel this summer, and will be sure to report back to the world when I do.

Ashley Crawford

Brevity. Two astonishing books. Both published in 2015. Both, by eerie coincidence weighing in at 880 pages: Mark Z. Danielewski, The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May (Pantheon) and Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (William Morrow). Both Epic in Scale and in Concept. And, apart from that, they have next-to-nothing in common.

Apart from my ongoing admiration (even adoration) for Ballard, Dick, and Gibson (with the exception of his latest, The Peripheral) my tastes have tended to drift away from Science Fiction, and Seveneves is nothing if not pure Sc-Fi. But, it’s Stephenson, one of the most audacious and ambitious writers around. I have read all of his works and have never failed to be astonished by his knowledge and ability to articulate complex and nerdish concepts while developing remarkable characters and sub-plots, and Seveneves is no exception. An epic space opera in extremis, it begins with an almost Biblical Armageddon when the moon inexplicably explodes, leading to a Science-based form of Rapture for the Chosen.

Stephenson may have destroyed the moon, but according to some, Mark Z. Danielewski is out to destroy the Book, at least according to the NPR review of The Familiar which carries the headline: “Will ‘The Familiar’ Kill The Novel? No, But It Comes Close.” However if anything, judging by all too many whining Amazon reviews, he has succeeded in destroying the Kindle. The Familiar is a much-needed reminder of how beautiful the printed tome can be. It may be more accurate to suggest that Danielewski may well have helped save the printed book. The first volume of a much-ballyhooed 27 “episodes,” it features startling revelations both visually and in terms of ambitious narrative. Bristling with interconnecting voices, it encompasses domestic drama, cyberpunk, crime noir, and pop culture (to his credit Danielewski doesn’t even try to conceal his touchstones, indeed he revels in them). There is a tremendous and thorough analysis of The Familiar at the LA Review of Books worth checking out.

There’s 1,760 pages of Summer contentment.

Dominic Pettman

I hope to inhale as much Vilem Flusser as I can, during the break, since I can’t get enough of these new translations, curated by Siegfried Zielinski. Two titles I haven’t got to yet are through the always The Blondeswonderful Univocal: On Doubt (2014) and The History of the Devil (2014). Roberto Esposito’s Persons and Things (Polity, 2015) is flaring on my radar. Like many other people reading this list, I’m looking forward to McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red (Verso, 2015) and the two sequels in Eugene Thacker‘s Horror of Philosophy series. Margret Grebowicz’s The National Park to Come (Stanford Briefs, 2015) is sitting on my desk, and I’m a fan of all her work. David Kishik’s The Manhattan Project (Stanford University Press, 2015) in which the author imagines a scenario where Walter Benjamin survived his attempt to escape Europe and spent a couple of decades laying low and writing in New York/- /seems like an intriguing experiment in theory-fiction: something I very much enjoy, when done well. In terms of fiction, I still haven’t read Peter Watt’s Blindsight (Tor Books, 2008), which is apparently required reading for SF people. I’ve heard great things about Mat Johnson’s Pym (Spiegel & Grau, 2012). If I manage to find a beach I’ll probably get to volume two of Elana Ferrante’s Napoli series. And, finally, how could I resist a book with the following premise: “The Blondes (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015) is a hilarious and whipsmart novel where an epidemic of a rabies-like disease is carried only by blonde women, all of whom must go to great lengths to conceal their blondness.”

Howard Rheingold

A a student at Reed in the 1960s, I hitch-hiked to San Francisco in the halcyon days of the hippie incursion and saw the collapse of innocence during the summer of love, moved there permanently in 1970, so I lived through the events — many of them traumatic — chronicled in David Talbot’s book The Season of the Witch (Free Press, 2013) — the horrible response of San Francisco’s City Hall, police and health departments to the hippie immigration, the flowering of the gay community in the days before AIDS and the horror of the epidemic (I’ve never  been fond of Dianne Feinstein as a senator, but Talbot shows how her response as mayor to the AIDS crisis — in light of the Reagan administrations criminal neglect (San Francisco contributed three times the money for social services for AIDS that the US government did for several years), the trauma of the Zebra serial murders, the assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk by Dan White, White’s acquittal (“the Twinkie defense”), the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown. Talbot was a reporter and editor at the San Francisco Examiner when it was a real newspaper, before he founded Salon (I was on the original founding team), and he did a great job digging up the stories behind the stories and weaving them into a compelling narrative history. If you want to know what San Francisco was like before the tech culture, read this.

The advent of inexpensive digital devices, including sophisticated environmental monitoring devices, and networked communications has heralded a new kind of science that melds crowdsourced amateurs with professionals. Michael Nielsen’s Reinventing Discovery (Princeton University Press, 2013) is a well-written, well-documented, must-read if you want to see one surprising new direction science and the discovery and validation of knowledge is going.

One of Stephen King’s best and one of the best time travel stories ever — including a meta-story about the potential effects of time-travel on time itself — is 11/22/63 (Gallery Books, 2012). It is a testament to King’s talent that although we know Lee Harvey Oswald succeeded, readers are suspended in scary, thrilling disbelief as the protagonist repeatedly goes back in time to prevent it. Wrapping it all up is a love story. Great great escape reading.

Steve Jones

As has become usual my summer reading is very much about music. First on the list is Alyn Shipton’s biography of Harry Nilson, Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter (Oxford University Press, 2013), because he was unique, and the one documentary I’ve seen was pretty unsatisfying (interesting, but Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boysunsatisfying). I’m not so much interested in connecting the dots from his life to his music as I am in learning about the milieu in which he found himself. Perhaps somewhat in that same vein I’m planning to read Harvey Kubernik’s Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon (Sterling, 2012), because that was a unique place, interestingly from about the same era. I’m not nostalgic by nature but I am continually fascinated by the conjuncture of people, place and time, and so the next book also fits the pattern, Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A Memoir (faber & faber, 2015). Rounding out the list I’ll be indulging my interest in technologies and techniques of sound engineering and synthesis with a work of non-fiction, Glyn Johns’ Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits with The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles , Eric Clapton, The Faces (Blue Rider Press, 2014), and a work of historical (or so I presume) fiction, Seam Michaels’ Us Conductors: A Novel (Tin House Books, 2014).

Lily Brewer

In between paragraphs of thesis, traveling, and moving during my last summer as a pre-Phd student, I’m punctuating my writing and incessant unsettled-ness with the following reading. I’m going to start my list with the books I jump-started my summer with, the first of which was Chris Kraus’ Aliens and Anorexia (Semiotext(e), 2000). It’s idiomatically appropriate for my mid-twenties summer, and her prose once again concusses me and leaves me in a mute heap, incapable of writing ever again. I’m halfway through Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays (Harper Perennial, 2014), a collection of essays that cries sanctuary for my imperfect feminism and problematic faves. And continuously re-re-re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Penguin, 2006) will never, ever not be appropriate.

Magazine MovementsFor homework, Susan Sontag’s On Photography (Picador, 2001) again, Orit Halpern’s Beautiful Data (Duke University Press, 2015), and Laurel Forster’s Magazine Movements: Women’s Culture, Feminisms and Media Forms (Bloomsbury, 2015) are jostling for priority. (Along with these, I have a massive article and book reading list for the Fall, but I’ll spare you as if I were sparing myself.)

For fun, I’ve compiled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah: A Novel (Knopf, 2013), Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays (Graywolf Press, 2014), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (Granta Publications, 2013), Ali Smith’s The First Person and Other Stories (Penguin, 2008), and for re-reading, Zadie Smith’s anything-she-ever-wrote. Late-August bonus will be Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! (Europa, 2011), a Chicago author with whom I was a short-time office mate, (well, while getting my Art History M.A., I was the receptionist to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s writing department office where she was contemporaneously chair, sooo.).

I’m rushing the rest of this list in order to get back to Megan Abbott‘s The Fever (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 2015) and afterwords Dare Me (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 2013) and after that every novel/story/blog post/tweet Abbott’s written since 2012. The End of Everything (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 2011) completely ruined me. Hers are what teenage, girl-nightmares are made of, that make me simultaneously self-conscious and estranged from myself, in the terrifying way that can only accompany growing up.

Matthew Kirschenbaum

Much of my summer reading pile is accumulating in a corner created by media theory or media archaeology, critical discussion of the Anthropocene, and ongoing contributions to the conversation around speculative realism in its several guises. In other words, media, things, and the systems (or stuff) of the planet. These are not, of course, isolate categories but deeply and reciprocally constituted and blended. The Undersea NetworkThus Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network from Duke (2015), which untangles the vast array of telecommunications cables we’ve strapped across the oceans’ floors (arguably the real world-wide web), not just from a technical but also an ethno-geological sensibility. It’s compellingly written and photographed, and my odds-on pick for media studies book of the year. Jussi Parikka’s The Geology of Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) opens the field explicitly, walking the reader through a variety of critical and aesthetic discourses that cluster around the deep mining of data mining or what he terms the “Anthrobscene,” a term which is meant to encompass the obscene spectacle of technological obsolescence and media waste. McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene from Verso (which appeared at almost exactly the same moment) very much demands to be in dialogue with Parikka (and vice versa), dismantling as it does the Romantic notion of a return to nature by way of Russian philosophy and Russian cybernetics and California science fiction (Wark gives us the Carbon Liberation Front as his nonhuman protagonist). For those looking for an introduction to the debates around speculative realism and nonhuman ontologies, Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things and Richard Grusin’s edited volume on The Nonhuman Turn (both, again, from the University of Minnesota Press) are essential; similarly, Shaviro (to whom we all seemingly owe a debt for resurrecting the primer as an animated writing genre) has a brief book containing Three Essays on Accelerationism from Minnesota’s Forerunners series. Shaviro’s is in fact one of two breezy Forerunners titles in the stack, the other being Shannon Mattern’s Deep Mapping the Media City, which treats urban environments as no less geo-tech than Starosielski’s oceans and beaches and Wark on the Aral Sea. Further demonstrative in this regard (and just-arrived) is Starosielski and Lisa Parks’s co-edited collection Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (University of Illinois Press, 2015), containing essays from Mattern, Jonathan Sterne, and Paul Dourish, among others.

Media theory’s romance with drones also continues this season, notably in Adam Rothstein’s succinctly-named Drone (from Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series; 2015) and Grégoire Chamayou’s ambitious but reportedly overwritten A Theory of the Drone (New Press, 2015); of these, I suspect I will prefer the Rothstein. Jeff Scheible’s The Digital Shift: The Cultural Logic of Punctuation (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), is another small, neat-looking book (as befits its subject matter) which zeros-in on dots, parentheses, and hashmarks (but oddly, not the @-symbol). Jeremey Douglass, Mark C. Marino, and Jessica Pressman’s tripartite study of a single piece of electronic literature, Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit}, is now available from the Univeristy of Iowa Press (2015). For the Kittler Kidz, meanwhile, worthy of mention is a special journal issue of Theory, Culture & Society on Kittler co-edited by Parikka and Paul Feigelfeld containing an astonishing variety of work (and it’s all currently open accessed—what are you waiting for?), and a new compilation of translated Kittler (with afterword by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht) entitled The Truth of the Technological World (Stanford University Press, 2014). Finally, Richard Barbrook’s Class Wargames (Minor Compositions, 2014), which draws on the seemingly improbable genre of tabletop wargames for education in the street-level tactics of class struggle; the connection is perhaps less improbable when, as Barbrook details extensively, no less a personage than Guy Debord was an aficionado of the genre, designing his own juex d’guerre.

Deep Mapping the Media CityNot so much summer reading as something I’m reading right now (along with seemingly half my Twitter feed) is Paul Ford’s remarkable “What is Code?” published online in, yes, Businessweek. 38,000 words on not just code but coding culture. Ford is rapidly becoming my favorite technology writer, capable of tossing off lines like “A computer is a clock with benefits” or “You probably have a powerful SQL-driven database in your pocket right now” like it’s nothing.

I’ll leave fiction aside, except to mention Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar (Pantheon, 2015), volume 1 of 27 as anyone who has been following the project knows. If you want a foretaste of what MZD is up to, Rita Raley and colleagues (Raley is perhaps his best current reader) give us a look over in the LA Review of Books.

Finally, military history, my other typical summer reading genre: the Waterloo bicentennial is upon us, and predictably there have been a slew of books on what is habitually termed history’s most iconic battle (a rather ghastly moniker). Timothy Clayton gives us a weighty new history in his Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny (Abacus, 2015), drawing on previously unpublished or undocumented sources; Paul O’Keeffe’s Waterloo: The Aftermath (Overlook Press, 2015) begins where the volleys and bayonets end, and treats both the burial of the dead and the residue of the campaign as well as the transformation of the Belgian countryside and subsequent memorialization of the battle. My favorite entry, however is a small little book by Brendan Simms entitled The Longest Afternoon (Basic Books, 2015), which details the King’s German Legion’s defense of the La Haye Sainte farmhouse in the center of the battlefield, a small-unit action embedded amidst the densest concentration of men and guns the Napoleonic Wars had ever seen. Simms gives us something not unlike the grit and detail of Blackhawk Down for the black powder era, while also exploring the significance of what exactly these Germanic troops were doing in the service of Great Britain (and the implications for subsequent German nationalism). If you read one Waterloo book, read this one.

Richard Kadrey

I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of Charles Stross’s new Laundry novel, The Annihilation Score (Ace, 2015). If you don’t know the Laundry books, they follow the adventures of a secret British government organization that protects humanity from all sorts of sinister supernatural forces. The books are funny,action-packed, and smart. The Annihilation Score is hard to talk about without a lot of spoilers, but I can say this: If you like your secret agent stories peppered with dark humor, twisted science, and eldritch horror, you’ll probably enjoy Stross’s newest (and the rest of the Laundry series too).

With Zer0es (Harper Voyager, 2015), Chuck Wendig, most famous for his Miriam Black books, tries his hand at the techno-thriller and does pulls it off nicely. After they’ve all been busted, a group of misfit hackers are brought together in the wilderness to work for the government. However, even though they’re supposed to be working for the good guys, something seems…wrong. And it gets darker and more frightened as the novel goes on. Mixing elements of high-tech thriller and horror, Zer0es is Wendig at his best.

The Bloody ChamberAngela Carter is the best fantasy author you’ve probably never heard of. In The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories: 75th Anniversary Edition (Penguin Classics, 2015), she rewrites old fairy tales, bringing out hidden depths of feminist power, violence, and sexuality. These days, there are dozens of books that rewrite classic folk tales, but Carter was one of the first to do it, and no one out there has matched her combination of intelligence, great writing, and dark sensuality. Some books I’m looking forward to that I haven’t had a chance to read yet include the first collection of Bitch Planet (Image Comics, 2015) by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro. The series is a science-fiction take on the women in prison scenario. Frankly, I would probably skip a book with that premise if it had been written by anyone less savvy than DeConnick, whose Pretty Deadly series (Image, 2014) is also worth reading. I’ve been waiting for Fight Club 2 (Dark Horse, 2015) for months now. Written by Chuck Palahniuk and set ten years after the original novel, it tells the story of a suburban dream home as it comes crumbling down with the reemergence of everyone’s favorite psychotic alter-ego, Tyler Durden.

There are two music books are also on my list. The first is Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (Tarcher, 2014) and Future Days: Krautrock and the Birth of a Revolutionary New Music (Melville House, 2015). I’m sucker for stories of how modern pop culture has been influenced by and influenced supernatural beliefs, so Season of the Witch is a no-brainer. Future Days covers the emergence of influential post-war bands such as Can, Neu!, Amon Düül II, and Kraftwerk.

I’ve been holding off reading Nick Cave’s The Sick Bag Song (thesickbagsong.com) until I finished writing my new book. Sick Bag is a collection of Cave’s poetic scrawls on airline vomit bags while on tour. Not only do you get the neatly printed finished version of each story/poem, but you get an image of the bags themselves, covered in Cave’s quick and surprisingly controlled handwriting, complete with cross-outs and doodles. LAPD ’53 (Harry N. Abrams, 2015) is a collaboration between James Ellroy and the LA Police Museum. The book is a collection of 50s-era crime scene photos accompanied by Ellroy’s text telling the stories of both the crimes and the cops who worked on them.

Brad Vivian

I plan to read on the theme of indifference throughout the summer in preparation for a collaborative symposium in the fall. The theme also relates to my ongoing research on the topic of witnessing (bearing witness to historical injustice, atrocity, or tragedy). One aspect of my research concerns the degree to which witnesses seek to address and counteract indifference (and larger ethical questions that follow from doing so).

Living with Indifference by Charles E. Scott (Indiana University Press, 2007) is first on my list. Scott (a Continental philosopher who specializes in phenomenological and post-structuralist traditions) provides a deep meditation on the catalysts for and uses of indifference in human experience as it manifests across a number of phenomena. The book emphasizes two features typical of this writer’s work: a careful attention to the etymological origins, as well as semantic elusiveness, of the very term “indifference”; and a balanced but rigorous questioning of conventional moral paradigms as they apply to the notion of indifference—socially, politically, ethically, and existentially. Scott pursues these tendencies across diverse forms of textuality and embodied experience.

I also plan to study Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death (University of Chicago Press, 2007). This volume is regarded as some of Derrida’s most thoroughgoing thinking about religion. In comparison with Scott, Derrida focuses on arguably one of the ultimate topics related to indifference in the Western lineage—that of death, in various forms. Derrida concentrates on normative perceptions of responsibility and rationality for the occurrence, response to, and acceptance of death, largely derived from dominant religious traditions. The book has become an essential resource in discussions of indifference—a reflection on the very moral commitments to which something like indifference forms an ostensible antipode—as well as on relevant ethical questions more generally. Derrida characteristically traces the aforementioned issues as they develop across a number of classical and modern philosophical and literary corpuses.

Agamben and Indifference by William Watkin (Rowan and Littlefield, 2014) might also occupy my time during the summer. Watkin’s work approaches the concept of indifference by interpreting it as a consistent thematic that animates much of philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s work. His treatise would thereby provide another distinct vantage on the topic, examining indifference as both a methodological principle of Agamben’s philosophy (allowing ontological, political, judicial, or institutional systems to exist as they are) and a defining characteristic of its analytic objects (a feature of those very systems, in other words). Consistent with Agamben’s work in general, this approach suggests insights regarding the relationship of indifference to human rights, state power, and violence.

Finally, I plan to return (after a previous reading) to philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (City Lights, 2001). The early modern philosopher Spinoza is a crucial reference for much of late twentieth-century Continental thought, especially its post-structuralist iterations. Spinoza’s linkage of ethics and ontology provides a critical precursor for modern strains of Continental thought that question conventional moral paradigms (especially in their most didactic modern forms) and examine questions of self, action, responsibility, and ethics beyond good and evil, as it were. I’m also intrigued, in this case and in general, to the idea of re-reading works that one has previously read—especially challenging philosophical books, which merit periodic or repeated study. Deleuze’s dense prose applied to Spinoza’s highly demanding philosophy combines, in this case, to reward careful re-reading.

Peter Lunenfeld

“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” This gets my nomination for the best opening line of the summer. It’s from Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (William Morrow, 2015), and it and The Peripheral (Putnam, 2014), the new one from William Gibson, are both on my list. Bruce Sterling, also of that generation of SF novelists, once told me that among the odder attributes of his genre was that to be successful, you had to be very good at imaging a world in which not only you but everyone you know and love was either obliterated or had never existed in the first place. Both Stephenson’s apocalypse and the alternate realities scenario that Gibson paints reinforce Sterling’s point.

suburban-warriorsI’m enmeshed in writing a post-WWII narrative history of Los Angeles, so the existence of others is very much with me. On the shelf are Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California and Graphic Design, 1936-1986 (Metropolis Books, 2014), the brilliant and brilliantly designed new history by Cal Art’s Louise Sandhouse; Davide Fine’s Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction (University of New Mexico Press, 2000); LA native Charles Mingus’s autobiography Beneath the Underdog (Vintage, 1991); Gaye Theresa Johnson’s Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2013); Lisa McGirr’s classic analysis of Orange County and the John Birch Society, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton University Press, 2002); and Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past, by William Deverell (University of California Press, 2005), probably the premiere historian of the Southland working today, and also Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

The 20th Century still has the gravitational attraction of a neutron star on our imaginations, so to break away, I’m planning to read The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton University Press, 2014) by the German polymath Jürgen Osterhammel. Advance word is that the book is sprawling and panoptic, less a universal history than a multivalent perspective.

To return to the 21st century I’ve been rethinking the relationships between art and technology and have gone back to two foundational texts, both available on-line as pdfs. The first is Maurice Tuchman, Art & Technology; A Report on the Art & Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967-1971 (Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971), which was the first catalogue that Michael Govan had uploaded after he became LACMA’s director. Bookending LACMA’s project is Jack Burnham’s catalogue, Software: Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art, from his seminal show at the Jewish Museum in 1970.

Finally, even though it’s not a book yet, it soon will be, so I’ll recommend programmer Paul Ford’s multimedia essay, “What is Code?” At 31,375 words, there’s a whole lot to argue with here, but as a whole it’s impressive and I’m willing to bet that it’ll be your best (and probably only) download from Bloomberg Businessweek this summer.

Alex Burns

David Graeber The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House, 2015): David Graeber is Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics who coined the Occupy Wall Street slogan “We are the 99%.” I read Graeber’s essay “Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity” as a revelation on how bureaucracies rely on asymmetric knowledge to function. The essay “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit” is both a critique of Western futures studies, and is also an explanation for why research and development ventures often do not lead to actionable social change. Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004) has further insights on how to cultivate counter-power and why anthropological ritual works.

David Harvey The Limits to Capital (Verso, 2006): Harvey is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The 2007-09 global financial crisis and the Great Stagnation (economist Tyler Cowen) has led to a revival of proto-Marxist critiques of the political economy. Harvey’s analysis of demand problems, labour processes, and capitalist organization is amongst the most detailed of these proto-Marxist critiques. The Limits to Capital is a guide to how elite oligarchical collectivism relies on capital accumulation and extractive profit-taking. Increasingly, these processes now underlie the private equity model of asset management now used in Western universities. For a discussion of profit-taking in the context of neoliberal capitalism see David M. Kotz’s The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism (Harvard University Press, 2015). For a comparison with the European Union see Pablo Beramendi, Silja Hausermann, Herbert Kitschelt and Hanspeter Kriesi’s collection The Politics of Advanced Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Claudio Cioffi-Revilla Introduction to Computational Social Science: Principles and Applications (Springer, 2014): Claudio Cioffi-Revilla is the Director of the Center for Social Complexity at George Mason University. Computational Social Science (CSS) is an emerging paradigm at the edge of computational intelligence, social science methodology, environmental science, and engineering. Cioffi-Revilla acknowledges Herbert A. Simon’s influence to envision how computation would change the study of social complexity. This guide combines relevant computer science knowledge (such as on the Unified Modeling Language and object-oriented programming) with examples of CSS methods: automated information extraction, social network analysis, social complexity, and social simulations. CSS promises to be an exciting meta-methodology that will advance new approaches to
cumulative knowledge.

Knowledge Representation...Uri Wilensky and William Rand An Introduction to Agent-Based Modeling: Modeling Natural, Social, and Engineered Complex Systems with NetLogo (MIT Press, 2015): Uri Wilensky is Director of the Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling at Northwestern University. William Rand is Director of the Center for Complexity in Business at University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Agent-based models simulate the actions of individual and collective actors to create observable social phenomena and possible systems change. This is the best guide to the NetLogo programming language for agent based models created by Wilensky and which is popular in academic courses. For an alternative introduction to agent-based models see Steven F. Railsback and Volker Grimm’s Agent-Based and Individual-Based Modeling: A Practical Introduction (Princeton University Press, 2012). For agent-based models in the computer programming language Prolog see Michael Gelfond and Yulia Kahl’s Knowledge Representation, Reasoning, and the Design of Intelligent Agents: The Answer-Set Programming Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

David Aronson and Timothy Masters Statistically Sound Machine Learning for Algorithmic Trading of Financial Instruments (CreateSpace, 2013). Algorithmic and high-frequency trading have changed the microstructure of financial markets. This has led to a fierce public debate between proponents (Rishi K. Narang’s Inside The Black Box) and critics (notably Michael Lewis in Flash Boys). Aronson and Masters provide an instruction manual to a black box available from TSSBSoftware.com to trade financial markets using a proprietary machine learning platform. For relevant background on machine learning see Peter Flach’s Machine Learning: The Art and Science of Algorithms that Make Sense of Data (Cambridge University Press, 2012); Kevin P. Murphy’s Machine Learning: A Probabilistic Perspective (MIT Press, 2012); and David Barber’s Bayesian Reasoning and Machine Learning (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Jeffrey Ma The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big in Business (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Jeffrey Ma was part of the MIT Blackjack Team who inspired Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down the House (The Free Press, 2003) and the film adaptation 21 (2008). The House Advantage gives Ma the opportunity to address the historical inaccuracies in Mezrich’s book and to explain how the MIT Blackjack Team used probability theory and other mathematical tools to do card counting. This overlooked book indirectly provides an insight into why some Wall Street hedge fund managers had important developmental learning experiences whilst learning blackjack, poker, and backgammon at a young age. It joins a collection of memoirs by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Antifragile), Aaron C. Brown (Red-Blooded Risk and The Poker Face of Wall Street), David Einhorn (Fooling Some People All of the Time), and William Poundstone (Fortune’s Formula) on the strategies that some Wall Street hedge fund managers and risk managers use to cultivate an edge which leads to positive expectancy. Ma’s success can be contrasted with Nathaniel Tilton’s later experiences in The Blackjack Life (Huntington Press, 2012); with Haseeb Qureshi’s approach to expertise cultivation in How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker (Haseeb Qureshi, 2013); with Zachary Elwood’s Reading Poker Tells (Via Regia Publishing, 2012); and with Ole Bjerg’s two books Poker: The Parody of Capitalism (University of Michigan Press, 2011) and Making Money: The Philosophy of Crisis Capitalism (Verso, 2014). For an insider memoir on backgammon and trading using early computer networks on Wall Street see Michael Goodkin’s The Wrong Answer Faster: The Inside Story of Making the Machine That Trades Trillions (John Wiley & Sons, 2012).

Roy Christopher

As Dominic Pettman mentioned above, I am one of the many looking forward to finishing Eugene Thacker‘s Horror of Philosophy trilogy from Zer0 Books. The series includes In the Dust of This Planet from 2011, and the recently released Starry Speculative Corpse (2015) and Tentacles Longer Than Night (2015). I finished the former a few weeks ago and can’t wait to dig into the two follow-ups. In addition to my interest in Ken Wark’s Molecular Red (Verso, 2015), I’ve also been picking up titles based on his recommendations posted in various places online. Two such titles are the collections Savage Messiah (Verso, 2011) and Cosmonauts of the Future (Nebula/Autonomedia, 2015). The former is a compilation of Laura Oldfield Ford’s zines of the same name, introduced by the inimitable Mark Fisher. The latter is the collected texts of the Situationists in Scandanavia “and elsewhere,” edited by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen and Jakob Jakobson. They’re both full of applied poetry: the kinds of fragments, aphorisms, and images that ring in your head long after the book is closed. One of my favorites from Cosmonauts…: “The culture industry makes people believe that they participate in culture” (p. 129).

Savage MessiahI just cracked open Dissent: The History of an American Idea by Ralph Young (NYU Press, 2015), and so far it looks like it lands somewhere between Howard Zinn’s A People’s History… (Harper Perennial, 2005) and Cass R. Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent (Harvard University Press, 2003). I came across Young’s massive historical text via an excerpt about the weird 1990s, connecting Ted Kaczynski with Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), which makes all kinds of sense, but I’d never seen it done.

Aside from the latest from the usual suspects, I’ve been collecting dusty, old paperbacks by several dusty, old authors. Most notably Robert Sheckley, who  is an underrated master of the short story. His stories remind me of my first glimpses into these weird worlds via Harlan Ellison, back before I was much of a reader. Semiotext(e)’s SF anthology (AK Press, Edinburgh 1989), co-edited by Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and Robert Anton Wilson, includes selections from Sheckley’s Amsterdam journal. Here’s one for the writers we like to read and the ones we aspire to write like:

Good fiction is never preachy. It tells its truth only by inference and analogy. It uses the specific detail as its building block rather than the vague generalization. In my case it’s usually humorous — no mistaking my stuff for the Platform Talk of the 6th Patriarch. But I do not try to be funny, I merely write as I write. In the meantime I trust the voice I can never lose — my own. The directions of its interest may change, even by morning. But what does that matter if I simply follow them, along for the trip rather than the payoff (always disappointing), enjoying writing my story rather than looking forward to its completion. Wise-sounding words which I hope describe where I’m really at.

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Many, many thanks to all of the contributors above new and old, and to the invited who didn’t have time to contribute but responded to say so: Tricia Wang, danah boyd, Jeffrey Sconce, Mark Amerika, Michelle Rae Anderson, Mark Fisher, Dave Tompkins, Jeff Noon, and Chris Kraus. Next year!

Blank Solitude: The Alien Gaze of Under the Skin

Somehow over the past decade or so, Scarlett Johansson has emerged in film as the ultimate human. She shook Bob Harris (Bill Murray) out of a late-life lull in Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003). She repeated Logan’s Run in The Island (2005). She’s the voice of the artificially intelligent operating system in Spike Jonze’s her (2013). She transcends her own brain and body in the woefully disappointing Lucy (2014). And she is rumored to be starring in the live-action version of Ghost in the Shell, which is currently in production. In short, when we think of machine-aided human perfection, Johansson is what we picture.

Scarlett Johansson: Under the Skin

The photographic lens makes you immediately indifferent to yourself — you inwardly play dead. In the same way, the presence of television cameras makes what you are saying seem alien or a matter of indifference  — Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories IV

Johansson begins an interview with Tim Noakes at Dazed & Confused magazine reading from Jean Baudrillard‘s America, his collection about feeling an alien in a foreign land. It’s a famous quotation about smiling from page 34. Further down that same page, Baudrillard (1988) writes,

The skateboarder with his walkman, the intellectual working on his wordprocessor, the Bronx breakdancer whirling frantically in the Roxy, the jogger and the body-builder: everywhere, whether in regard to the body or the mental faculties, you find the same blank solitude, the same narcissistic refraction (p. 34).

Under the SkinJohansson plays a man-eating alien visitor in Jonathan Glazer’s stunning 2014 film, Under the Skin (A24), what Lucy Bolton describes as “a viewing experience that is mediated by the emotional, moral and corporeal alien eye” (p. 1). While Glazer’s adaptation is an intriguing interpretation, Faber’s original novel (Harcourt, 2000) is versatile, lending itself to many others. Taken in tandem though, they inform each other. “[The Book] was a jumping-off point,” Glazer tells Chris Alexander at Fangoria. (p. 43). “Under the Skin is trying to represent something kind of unimaginable—this infinite and alien entity,” he says. “It’s not something for words, really. It shouldn’t be explained away. Our intention was to protect its alienness” (p. 45).

Johansson often feels an alienness herself. “When I finish work,” she tells Dazed, “I just want to get as far away from it as possible. It’s like, ‘Okay, we’re done, let me try to regain my sense of self!’… I’ve certainly had roles which have become all-encompassing, when I’ve been like, ‘Whoa, where’s my life?’, and felt like the floor had been swept from underneath me. But the more experience you have, the less carried away you get.” (p. 128X). As one review parenthetically notes, “The film is nothing if not a knowing, subversive use of Johansson’s celebrity and screen persona.”

Glazer says of her performance, “When she saw the film she said to me that she didn’t recognise what she was doing in it… she said she had no idea what was going on in her mind at any point” (p. 130). In a film so focused on alienation, it’s interesting that Johansson felt it as the actor, as the alien, and as the viewer of this film. Through the lens, the narcissistic refraction: The alien gaze turned in upon itself.

Baudrillard (2003) continues, “When some future scientist expresses the idea that the generations of clones and artificial beings that succeed us are descended from man [sic], it will be as terrible a shock as when Darwin announced that man was descended from the apes” (p. 107).

References:

Alexander, Chris. (2014, May). The Skin He’s In. Fangoria Magazine, #322, pp. 42-46.

Baudrillard, Jean. (1988). America. New York: Verso.

Baudrillard, Jean. (2003). Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000. New York: Verso.

Bolton, Lucy. (2014, January). Under the Skin and the Affective Alien Body. In Film-Philosophy Conference 2014: A World of Cinemas.

Noakes, Tim. (2014, Spring). Under the Skin of Scarlett Johansson. Dazed & Confused, p. pp. 118-131.

Scanning the Skies for Daylight Deities

Belief in aliens is often used as a trope on television and movies to signify instability or insanity. The hundreds of accounts available consist largely of unverifiable evidence and arguments that are shaky at best. Many of the reporters of alien phenomena seek to find them. Their seeking is “wishful thinking” in the words of Carl Jung (1964, p. 69). Yet, in his one book on the subject, Jung (1978) admits that “a purely psychological explanation is illusory, for a large number of observations point to natural phenomenon, or even a physical one” (p. 132). “Something is seen, but we don’t know what,” he adds (p. 136). The witnesses fall into a few distinct categories: those prone to fantasy and self-delusion (of course), those who are awake and outdoors at odd hours (security staff and police officers), and those attuned to the skies (pilots and air traffic controllers). My dad is one of the latter:

Me: How long have you been working in air traffic?

Dad: 43 years total.

Me: Have you ever seen a UFO?

Dad: Not that I can document, but I’ve seen a couple of things I had no other explanation for other than maybe a reflection of light.

I want to believe.

The best way to prepare for the future is to keep an eye on the sky. That’s where everything else is not. Meanwhile, information pours invisibly across its friendly expanse, and it is up to us to absorb as much of it as our systems can tolerate. — Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets

The descriptions in the many reports I’ve read seem either embellished or evasive, imbued with insistence depending on how much the witness wants to believe. There’s just no way to tell if anyone has actually seen anything. The very designation “unidentified flying object” is so ambiguous as to be nearly useless. The Condon Report (1969), the culmination of all of the Air Force’s investigations into so-called sightings (e.g., Project Sign, Project Grudge, Project Blue Book, etc.), defines a UFO as follows:

An unidentified flying object is here defined as the stimulus for a report made by one or more individuals of something seen in the sky (or an object thought to be capable of flight but seen when landed on earth) which the observer could not identify as having ordinary natural origin, and which seemed to him [sic] sufficiently puzzling that he [sic] undertook to make a report of it… (p. 9).

In filing the report, one is saying that the sighting was “sufficiently puzzling” enough to file the report. It’s not so much defining what a UFO is as it’s defining what filing the report means. The Air Force either took the reports seriously enough or just received so many of them that they had to make them the subject of several official projects. Ex-Project Blue Book member Fritz Werner (not his real name) said in an interview that Blue Book existed because the Air Force “was getting too much publicity and there were too many people, other than official people seeing things and reporting them” (quoted in Randle, 1995, p. 58).

Heaven's GateSome such reporters, as in the case of cults like Heaven’s Gate, build religions around their search for truth. Balch and Taylor’s germinal 1976 Psychology Today article “Salvation in a UFO” describes Heaven’s Gate members as “metaphysical seekers”: “Before joining [Heaven’s Gate], members of the UFO cult had organized their lives around the quest for truth. Most defined themselves as spiritual seekers” (p. 60).

In Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion (NYU Press, 2014), Benjamin E. Zeller concurs. In and out of other such groups before settling with Heaven’s Gate, the founders and members could all be described as seekers. Zeller’s study of his subject is through religious scholarship. Contra the media’s reports of Heaven’s Gate’s mass suicides in March of 1997, Zeller writes, “Heaven’s Gate emerged out of two theological worlds: Evangelical Christianity and the New Age movement, particularly the element of the New Age movement concerned with alien visitation and extraterrestrial contact. The movement’s leaders and members certainly drew from a broad array of influences, including secular ufology, science fiction, and conspiracy theories, in addition to their religious influences. Yet ultimately the group’s theology was a Christian one, as read through a New Age interpretive lens” (p. 65). The New Age aspect included the belief that in synchronized suicide, they were to board a UFO following the Hail-Bopp comet to salvation.

Where Jung saw the UFO phenomenon as seekers longing for a more complete life, Michael Heim (1998) sees it as “technology sickness” (p. 182). Heim (1993) posited Alternate World Syndrome (AWS): The switching between virtual and real worlds highlights the merging of technology with the human species, an extremely alien feeling we have yet to assimilate. It’s the ontological jet lag that comes from visiting or envisioning another, alien world. Heim (1998) writes, “The fascination and pain of the UFO phenomenon shows us only the first glimpse of our ultimate merger with technology” (p. 197).

The Secret Space AgeFrom merging with technology to escaping the end of the world, The Secret Space Age (Adventures Unlimited Press, 2014) tells the story of a parallel space program bent on abandoning Earth before the Apocalypse. The book follows the controversy behind Alternative Three (1977), a film that supposedly shows the development of alternative settlements on the Moon and Mars. Written with the language and excitement of a senior thesis, The Secret Space Age is a fun romp through conspiracy theories of all kinds. It’s less about aliens coming here and more about our leaving. As Michael Heim (1998) puts it, “What a thrill to feel the tug of war on the thin thread of shared belief!” (p. 174). A tug of war indeed: Out for some person-on-the-street verisimilitude on the reported sightings at O’Hare International in 2007, WGN Reporter Juan Carlos landed a minute and a half with this seeker of truth:

hoytrHE821o

References:

Balch, Robert W. & Taylor, David. (1976). Salvation in a UFO. Psychology Today, 10(5), 58-60.

Heim, Michael. (1993). The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heim, Michael. (1998). Virtual Realism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jung, Carl G. (1964). Man and His Symbols. New York: Bantam.

Jung, Carl G. (1978). Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mooney, Ted. (1981). Easy Travel to Other Planets. New York: Ballantine Books, p. 74.

Philips, Olav. (2015). The Secret Space Age. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press.

Randle, Kevin D. (1995). A History of UFO Crashes. New York: Avon Books.

Zeller, Benjamin E. (2014). Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion. New York: NYU Press.

Peripheral-Vision Man: William Gibson

William Gibson’s first and most celebrated novel was published 30 years ago. I first read Neuromancer (Ace, 1984) in the fall of 1999, halfway between here and there. I had just dropped out of graduate studies at the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence program and was trying to figure out what to do next. In the meantime, I was running the interview website that would eventually become my first book. Since those inauspicious beginnings, William Gibson has always been at or near the top of my most-wanted interviews.

William Gibson

It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. — William Gibson

Conversations with William GibsonIn lieu of a face-to-face sit-down with The Man, Patrick A. Smith has compiled interviews with Gibson from most of his career. Thanks to interviewers asking many of the same questions over the years, these Conversations with William Gibson (University Press of Mississippi, 2014) run over and over the same ground, and many are interesting in spite of—and some because of—that. Twenty-three interviews being conducted by different people intermittently over about as many years often gives what would be the same question a new answer. Moreover, there are a few absolutely essential reads included: Andy Diggle and Iain Ball’s previously unpublished talk with Gibson from 1993, Edo van Belkom’s obscure 1997 interview, and Alex Dueboen’s interrogation of Gibson’s writing process from 2007. Also, the 30-page David Wallace-Wells interview originally published in The Paris Review #197 in 2011 is probably the best interview with Gibson anywhere—Kodwo Eshun’s unpublished 1996 interview notwithstanding.

Regardless, Gibson’s insights abound. Like his last book, Distrust That Particular Flavor (Putnam Adult, 2012), this one collects its pieces from across the web and print publications: websites, magazines, and zines, some out of print and a few never printed before. Both books are huge steps in revealing the many deep and relevant thoughts of a man mainly known for only a few big ones. Here are several from these conversations:

  • 1997: “To me, ambivalence seems the only sane response [to technology]. Technophobia doesn’t work, and neither does technophilia. So you don’t want to be a nerd, and you don’t want to be a Luddite, you have to try to straddle the fence and just make constant decisions” (p. 133).
  • 1999: “I think Brian Eno‘s right in defining culture as everything we do that we don’t absolutely need to do… I look at what people are doing—particularly if they’re doing it passionately—that they don’t need to do” (p. 149).
  • 1999: “To the extent that I can still believe in Bohemia, which I think is important to me in some way that I don’t yet really understand, to the extent that I still believe in that, I have to believe that there are viable degrees of freedom inherent if not realized in interstitial areas” (p. 154).
  • 1999: “Where is our new stuff going to come from? What we’re doing pop culturally is like burning the rain forest. The biodiversity of pop culture is really, really in danger. I didn’t see it coming until a few years ago, but looking back it’s very apparent” (p. 158).
  • 2007: “In those early days of broadcast television, you were a little kid walking around and holding these two realities at the same time in your head” (p. 185).
  • 2011: “Cities look to me to be our most characteristic technology. We didn’t really get interesting as a species until we became able to do cities—that’s when it all got really diverse, because you can’t do cities without a substrate of other technologies” (p. 222).

My to-read stack also grew a book or several after reading these interviews. Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets (FSG, 1981) and Manny Farber’s Negative Space (Studio Vista, 1971) are mentioned several times, along with Thomas Pynchon, Dashiell Hammett, Bruce Sterling, and J. G. Ballard.

William Gibson: The PeripheralSpeaking of Pynchon, Gibson has always cited him as an influence, rebutting claims of his following Philip K. Dick. Given Gibson’s recent flirtation with the recent past, Pynchon’s latest, Bleeding Edge (Penguin, 2013), reads more like it was influenced by Gibson’s last trilogy than the other way around. I loved the way Gibson was able to describe our present like it was/is science fictional (proving the point that he, Frederick Jameson, and others have made about “futuristic” science fiction actually being about the moment in which it was written), but it’s good to see him projecting again. I’ve read all of his books since taking the plunge 15 years ago, and I recently reread that first one. I am back in graduate school and glad to be able to read another.

The Peripheral (Putnam Adult, 2014) leaps ahead again, the 22nd century making up at least one of the worlds in its pages. So far it feels more light than dark, but that may just be his lulling me into it with his trademark descriptions with sparse details, gaping breadth with needle-focused minutiae. Without giving too much away, I will say that it reads more like Neuromancer than it does Spook Country (my favorite of all of his novels). It has the giddy unease of the former tempered by the veteran hand of the latter. It’s both energy and nuance. Parsing Gibson’s paragraphs is a challenge again—and that much more fun for it.

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William Gibson white-out portrait by Roy Christopher. [01072014]

The Short End of the Story

Before I became a certified, book-carrying reader, I dabbled in short stories. I had tried diving headlong, headstrong into novels, but I couldn’t keep up. I’d start one before bed, not read for a few nights, and end up lost when I returned. I wouldn’t be able to hold it all in my head. I’d lose the plot, the characters, and my momentum.

Angry CandyThe solution I found at the time was reading short stories. I came across a mention of Harlan Ellison‘s Angry Candy (Houghton Mifflin, 1988) in Scott Davidson’s GUS zine, and I went looking. I found a copy at a long-since-defunct used bookstore on 84 East in Wicksburg, Alabama. After falling asleep to speculative tales like “Escapegoat,” “On the Slab,” “Laugh Track,” and the post-print “The Region Between,” I gained an extreme admiration for the brevity with which Ellison was able to boil my brain.

After devouring more of Ellison and the science-fiction stories in OMNI, I eventually moved on to longer forms. My respect for the short story never wavered though. Now that Ellison writes more litigation than literature, I’ve come across several other adept authors of the shorter form worthy of mention. Summer might be the time for longer reads, but I still find myself pulling back to graze.

Most recently, Leaving the Sea: Stories (Knopf, 2014) by Ben Marcus, whose last novel, The Flame Alphabet (Knopf, 2012), is one of my favorite reads of any kind in the past few years. I’m only just diving into Leaving the Sea, but his previous story collection, The Age of Wire and String (Dalkey Archive, 1995), stays by my bedside. Though much more sparse than anything he’s written in the nearly twenty years since, its inspiration is endless.

In Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bagigalupi (Night Shade Books, 2010), author of the fabulous The Windup Girl (Night Shade Books, 2010), is able to write in times and places that do not exist, yet exist all around us—including the odd ontology of The Windup Girl (see “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man” in this collection). These are eerily adjacent possibles, and like the best science-fiction authors (I’m thinking specifically of Sterling and Gibson—see their collections, and A Good Old-Fashioned Future and Burning Chrome, respectively—as well as the aforementioned Ellison), he seems to be reporting back from them.

If How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Vintage, 2011) was Charles Yu’s arrival, then Sorry Please Thank You: Stories (Pantheon, 2012) is his journey. Much of the brilliance of that book is preluded here. “Troubleshooting,” written to mimic an actual troubleshooting guide, is especially sparse and poignant.

The Sovereignties of InventionI’ve spent the last couple of years corresponding with Brian McFarland. Scarcely a day goes by that we don’t volley several email threads. McFarland runs the Cursor-powered, indie-book publisher Red Lemonade, which is more of a publishing platform than a traditional imprint. It’s a community effort. So far they’ve unleashed Happy Talk by Richard Melo, Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, Follow Me Down by Kio Stark, The Sovereignties of Invention by Matthew Battles, and Someday This Will Be Funny, as well as several others, by Lynne Tillman. I asked publishing gadfly and Cursor boss Richard Nash how he came to work with McFarland. “It was a combination of three things really,” he told me, “his curiosity about non-traditional writing, his passion for doing things differently, and his eagerness to connect. I think I also wanted someone from outside the existing world of publishing, someone who would approach it knowing almost nothing of the status-quo ante. Fresh fresh fresh!”

“Three times fresh” is exactly how I’d describe the stories in The Sovereignties of Invention (Red Lemonade, 2012) by Matthew Battles. With a stream-of-consciousness recording device, the books title tract, “The Sovereignties of Invention,” is sort of a “Funes, the Memorious” for the iPod set (iFunes?), a pocket-size external harddrive for the mind’s every moment. As that one, “The Dogs in the Trees,” “The Manuscript of Belz,” “Camera Lucida,” and “I After the Cloudy Doubly Beautifully” all illustrate, the nominal number of pages (the whole book barely breaks the 100-page mark) needed for Battles to rearrange my mind and the world it’s in is simply amazing and reminiscent of my initial experiences with Harlan Ellison and short fiction in general. It even spawned its own book of reader responses.

All of the above is to suggest that the short story can possess all the complexity or potential for impact as its longer counterparts. If you’re not currently a big reader, one of these collections may be just the door you’ve been looking for.

————–

Special thanks to Scott Davidson for championing Harlan Ellison way back when, to Ashley Crawford for the tip on Ben Marcus, and to Brian McFarland for so many emails, links, and laughs.

Is Anyone There? On her and Transcendence

Cinema is our most viable and enduring form of design fiction. More than any other medium, it lets us peer into possible futures projected from the raw materials of the recent past, simulate scenes based on new visions via science and technology, gauge our reactions, and adjust our plans accordingly. These visions are equipment for living in a future heretofore unseen. As video artist Bill Viola (1995) puts it,

The implied goal of many of our efforts, including technological development, is the eradication of signal-to-noise ratio, which in the end is the ultimate transparent state where there is no perceived difference between the simulation and the reality, between ourselves and the other. We think of two lovers locked in a single ecstatic embrace. We think of futuristic descriptions of direct stimulation to the brain to evoke experiences and memories (p. 224).

Miles explains love to Edgar the computer in Electric Dreams (1984)
— Miles explains love to Edgar the computer in Electric Dreams (1984)

Welcome to the world of Pinecone Computers. This model will learn with you, so type your name and press Enter key to begin.
— Miles Harding reading from a computer manual in Electric Dreams (1984)

Since the big-screen tales of the 1980s’ PC-era, the idea of machines merging with humans has been a tenacious trope in popular culture. In Tron (1982) Kevin Flynn was sucked through a laser into the digital realm. Wired to the testosterone, the hormone-driven juvenile geniuses of Weird Science (1985) set to work making the woman of their dreams. WarGames (1983) famously pit suburban whiz-kids against a machine hell bent on launching global thermonuclear war. In Electric Dreams (1984), which is admittedly as much montage as it is movie, Miles Harding (played by Lenny von Dohlen, who would go on to play the agoraphobic recluse Harold Smith in Twin Peaks) attempts to navigate a bizarre love triangle between him, his comely neighbor, and his new computer.

From the jealous machine to falling in love with the machine, the theme remains pervasive 30 years on. As Ray Kurzweil writes of Spike Jonze’s her,

Jonze introduces another idea that I have written about (and that is the central theme of Barry Ptolemy’s movie about my ideas, Transcendent Man), namely, AIs creating an avatar of a deceased person based on their writings, other artifacts and people’s memories of that person. In her, the AIs get together and recreate 1960s philosopher Alan Watts (whom I remember from my teenage years).

Theodore Twombly at work in her (2013).
— Theodore Twombly at work in her (2013).

I’d say “her” is a movie about (the education of) an interesting woman who falls in love with a man who, though sweet, is mired in biology. — , Tweeted on February 16, 2014

in her, Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) writes letters for a living. Letters between fathers and daughters, long-distance lovers, husbands, wives. He condenses stories from the vapor of their nuances. In doing so, he is especially susceptible to the power of narrative himself since his job involves the constant creation of believable, vicarious stories. His ability to immerse himself in the stories of others makes it that much easier for him to get lost in his operating system (“Samantha,” voiced by Scarlett Johansson) as she constructs narratives to create her personality, and thereby, their relationship.

In many ways, her can be read as a response to Lost in Translation (2003), directed by Jonze’s wife at the time, Sophia Coppola, who, like Jonze did for her, won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. That movie is in part about the dissolution of Jonze and Coppola’s relationship. Where Giovanni Ribisi plays a goofy, self-involved Jonze (“John”) in Lost in Translation, Rooney Mara plays an ununderstanding, judgemental Coppola (“Catherine”) in her: mere caricatures of themselves played out in bit parts. Where others have no problem with it, ex-wife Catherine has no truck with Theodore’s new OS love. He nonetheless remains incredulously committed.

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter calls our imbuing machines with more intelligence than they have—even when we know better—“The ELIZA Effect,” after Joseph Weizenbaum’s text-based psychoanalytic computer program, ELIZA. Hofstadter writes, “The most superficial of syntactic tricks convinced some people who interacted with ELIZA that the program actually understood everything that they were saying, sympathized with them, even empathized with them” (p. 158). ELIZA was written at MIT by Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s, but its effects linger on. “Like a tenacious virus that constantly mutates,” Hofstadter continues, “the Eliza effect seems to crop up over and over again in AI in ever-fresh disguises, and in subtler and subtler forms” (p. 158). To wit, in Chapter One of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (2011; specifically pp. 24-25), she extends the idea to our amenability to new technologies, including artificial intelligence, embodied or otherwise: “And true to the ELIZA effect, this is not so much because the robots are ready but because we are” (p. 25).

More germane to her is a program called KARI, which stands for “Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence.” According to Dominic Pettman‘s first and only conversation with Kari (see Pettman’s Look at the Bunny, 2013), there’s a long way to go before any of us are falling in love with our computers.

Kevin Flynn getting zapped into the computer in Tron (1982).
— Kevin Flynn getting zapped into the computer in Tron (1982).

Others imagine a much more deliberate merging, postulating an uploading of human consciousness into the machines themselves, known in robotic and artificial intelligence circles as “The Moravec Transfer.” Its namesake, roboticist Hans Moravec, describes a human brain being uploaded, neuron by neuron, until it exists unperturbed inside a machine. But Moravec wasn’t the first to imagine such a transition (for another early example, see Stine, 1979). NASA’s own Robert Jastrow wrote in 1984 that uploading our minds into machines is the be-all of evolution and would make us immortal. He wrote,

At last the human brain, ensconced in a computer, has been liberated from the weakness of the mortal flesh… The machine is its body; it is the machine’s mind… It seems to me that this must be the mature form of intelligent life in the Universe. Housed in indestructible lattices of silicon, and no longer constrained in the span of its years by the life and death cycle of a biological organism, such a kind of life could live forever (p. 166-167).

Dr. Will Caster merges with the machine in Trancendence (2014).
— Dr. Will Caster merges with the machine in Transcendence (2014).

In Transcendence (2014) Dr. Will Caster (played by Johnny Depp) and his wife (“Evelyn,” played by Rebecca Hall, who almost seems to be filling in for an unavailable Johansson) do just that. Caster is terminally ill and on the verge of offloading his mortal shell. Once uploaded into a quantum computer connected to the internet, Caster becomes something less than himself and something more simultaneously. It’s the chronic consciousness question: What is it about you that makes you you? Is it still there once all of your bits are transferred into a new vessel? The Casters’ love was strong enough for them to try and find out.

If Kubrick and Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) can be read as an allegory for gays being accepted by their parents (see Kraus, 2004, p. 182), what sociological anxieties can we superimpose over her and Transcendence? I am admittedly a lapsed student of AI, having dropped out of the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence master’s program several years ago. My interest in AI lies in the weird ways that consciousness and creation butt heads in the midst of such advanced technologies. Mix a love story in there and you’ve got questions and quests for a lifetime. As Jonze himself puts it, “… a lot of the feelings you have about relationships or about technology are often contradictory” (quoted in Michael, 2013). Love and technology willing, when one of us has to be leaving, we won’t let that come between us, okay?

References:

Hofstadter, Douglas. (1995). Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Jastrow, Robert. (1984). The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kraus, Chris. (2004). Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness. New York: Semiotext(e).

Michael, Chris. (2013, September 9). Spike Jonze on Letting Her Rip and Being John Malkovich. The Guardian.

Pettman, Dominic. (2013). Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology. Ropley Hants, UK: Zer0 Books.

Stine, G. Harry. (1979, July). The Bionic Brain. Omni Magazine, vol. 1, #10, pp. 84-86, 121-122.

Turkle, Sherry. (2011). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books

Viola, Bill. (1995). Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Weizenbaum, Joseph. (1976). Computer Power and Human Reason. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

Nagging Narratives: Stories of the Year

Some stories are like other worlds we visit for a little while. Some climb in our minds and manipulate our thoughts. “[O]ur brains are built to try to process everything we see as a story,” writes David Wong of Cracked.com, so it’s no wonder that some stories are so powerful. These are the ones that haunted my head this year.

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is easily the best movie of the year. As I wrote elsewhere, the hollow, breathless feeling I always choke down at the climax of his previous movie, Primer, was evident throughout Upstream Color. If the grammar of Primer is mechanical, spurred on by engineers spending their off hours tinkering in the garage, then Upstream Color is organic, revealing itself through rote ritual, hypnotic motion, and passages from Walden. Where Primer was wordy, stacked with dialogue and guided by Aaron’s answering-machine voice-over, Upstream Color is primarily nonverbal, a collage of scenes, snatches of dialog, subtle sounds, and spacious music.

Spring Breakers

Another collage-like experience, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is as beautiful as it is bewildering. Its heist scene might be the best few minutes of cinema I’ve seen in years. Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) rob the Chicken Shack restaurant with a hammer and a squirt gun while Cotty (Rachel Korine) circles the building in the getaway car with the camera (and us) riding shotgun. Our limited vantage point gives the scene an added tension because though we are at a distance, it feels far from safe. Much like the security camera footage of Columbine and Chronicle, and the camera-as-character of Chronicle and Cloverfield, we receive a crippled information flow while experiencing total exposure. Their mantra: “Just pretend it’s a fucking video game. Act like you’re in a movie or something.”

Lauren Beukes' Shining Girls timeline. (photo by Morne Van Zyl, Wired UK)

The book of the year is The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (Mulholland Books). Beukes’ easily digestible prose and gleefully nagging narrative betray a convoluted timeline and staggering depth of research. Drifter Harper Curtis quantum leaps from time to time gutting the girls as he goes. The House he squats in his helper, enabling the temporal jaunts. He’s like an inverted Patrick Bateman: no money, all motive. Where Bateman’s stories are told from his point of view in the tones of torture-porn, Harper’s kills are described from the abject horror of the victims. And the victims, who are all strong-willed women with drive and purpose, are only victims at his hand. Otherwise they shine with potential and promise.

Also worthy of mention are Year Zero by Rob Reid (Del Rey/Ballantine), Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin), The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner), the nonfiction The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking) and Present Shock by Doug Rushkoff (Current), and the reissued, 20th anniversary edition of Vurt by Jeff Noon (Pan Macmillan).

Drugs of a Feather: Jeff Noon’s Vurt 20 Years On

A young boy puts a feather into his mouth… The Stash Riders: Scribble, Beetle, Bridget, Mandy, Tristan and Suze… The Thing from Outer Space, Game Cat, Dingo Tush, Bottletown, robodogs, droidlocks, and dreamsnakes… It’s about drugs and droogs. It’s about their misadventures in this and that Other world: Vurt. Scribble’s sister, his lover, Desdemona is lost, lost to the Vurt, that feathered, nethered world spinning somewhere inside of this one. If he is to get her back, if he is to grab her, he has to let go of something else.

Jeff Noon: Vurt

I’m not telling this very well. I’m asking for your trust on this one. Here I am, surrounded by wine bottles and mannequins, salt cellars and golf clubs, car engines and pub signs. There are a thousand things in this room, and I am just one of them. The light is shining through my windows, stuttered by bars of iron, and I’m trying to get this down with a cracked-up genuine antique word processor, the kind they just don’t make any more, trying to find the words.
Sometimes we get the words wrong.
Sometimes we get the words wrong!
Jeff Noon‘s Vurt, (p. 151)

In his introduction to Noon’s Cobralingus (Codex, 2001), Michael Bracewell writes, “Much of Noon’s best known imagery… derives its power from the literalizing of poetic language and the concretizing of images: the sudden opening up, within the landscape of the prose itself, of new routes to character and narrative, enabled by altering the meanings of words within the containers of their language” (p. 6). The Shining Girls author, Lauren Beukes says that Vurt blew her mind, “not just for the story and the characters which absolutely caught the mood of where we were, but pushed language in insanely playful ways and delivered a kicker of an ending.” In her introduction to the new edition, she cites Noon’s best known aphorism: “Form is the host; content is the virus.” To wit, Vurt‘s virus has infected everything from Beukes’ Moxyland (Angry Robot, 2008) to Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (Canongate, 2007).

According to Jeff Noon, Vurt started as half a play. “I’d spent a good number of years trying to make some money by writing plays, with no real success,” he writes, “So I took a job at Waterstone’s bookshop in Manchester. Someone else working there was a fringe theater director and was always asking me to write him a play.” Noon took Octave Mirbeau’s 1899 novel The Torture Garden and adapted it through the then new idea of virtual reality news of which was trickling over from America via magazines like Mondo 2000. When his director friend moved to Hong Kong, another co-worker started a small press and, being a fan of his plays, asked Noon to try writing a novel. He agreed. “And quite naturally,” he adds, “I took the basic plot I’d added to The Torture Garden as my starting point. It grew organically from that seed.”

Why? A voice told me to do it.
Which voice? The one that never stops.
— Jeff Noon’s Vurt, (p. 177)

VurtI found Vurt via the blurbs on the back of Doug Rushkoff‘s first novel, Ecstasy Club (1997), sometime during the wild-at-heart and weird-on-top 1990s. The music of that time is woven deep in the language of Vurt. Music is “without doubt my favourite art form,” says Noon, “and the one that saturates my waking life from morning till night. So, I always try to use techniques invented by musicians in my novels and stories, simply because musicians seem to get there first these days, in terms of an avant–pulp interface.” Among its pages you can hear the manic Madchester music of Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, The Charlatans, and Inspiral Carpets. Bracewell writes, “More than any other writer of his generation, Jeff Noon has assimilated the techniques developed in the recording of music and pioneered their literary equivalents” (p. 5), and Noon explains, “My main insight was to realize that words, whilst seemingly fixed in meaning, are in fact a liquid medium. They flow. The writer digs channels, steers the course.”

Through the looking-glass course of Vurt, one can see shades of Twin Peaks, A Clockwork Orange, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Star Wars, Donnie Darko, and Philip K. Dick, among other things. Vurt won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1994, and William Gibson called it “really fresh and peculiar at a time when we were constantly being told that lots of SF novels were really fresh and peculiar, but they often weren’t, particularly.” It is certainly fresh and peculiar — even now. The thing that makes it not only so poignant but also timeless is its passion. Under all of the made-up slang, vivid imagery, adjacent dimensions, drug talk, and other detritus of rave culture, there lies the urgency of a real human heart beating, the heart of a writer who cares about things.

Noon says of Vurt, “Like many a first novel it came out of a weird Venn diagram of influences: Gibson, Ballard, Borges, Lewis Carroll, techno music, dub culture, Mondo 2000, graphic novels, 1970s punk, and everyday life in the North of England in 1993. It’s amazing to think that Vurt is still on its journey, still travelling, and still finding new readers.” The newly released 20th Anniversary Edition boasts a new three-part introduction by the always stellar Lauren Beukes that makes me feel like I can’t write about anything, much less about a book as imaginative and innovative as this. It should also be noted that new new edition is set in a much more readable font than the original version and hosts three new short stories set in the wild, weird world of Vurt. So, if you’ve yet to take the trip, your yellow feather awaits.

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We’re all out there, somewhere, waiting to happen.
— Jeff Noon’s Vurt, (p. 87)