“On receiving an interrupt, decrement the counter to zero.” -Programming The Z80 by Rodnay Zaks (1982).
The other night, I finally finished book II in the Sprawl series by William Gibson. Kindle for iPad, not paperback, which in itself was kind of a bummer. Somehow, I still haven’t made the transition for hard copies to ebooks. Probably never will. In any case, it was a rewarding experience which reminded me why I like Gibson in the first place. After getting through the Bigend Trilogy and the Bridge Trilogy and having somewhat mixed feelings, I got back to the trilogy that started it all, and was interested by what I found…
Count Zero is number two in the series that picks up after Neuromancer, the book which started it all for Gibson and which I read first. Set in the Sprawl – a.k.a. the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis (or BAMA) – this cyberpunk story deals with themes familiar to classic Gibson fans. Cyberpsace jockeys, freelance mercenaries, corporate monopolies, the street, and people so wealthy that they are able to cheat death and transcend humanity. In between, there’s all the familiar lexicon which Gibson invented himself: microsofts, biosofts, decks, trodes, jacking, jockying, ice, black ice, icebreaker, the matrix, Turing Police, cores, and all that good stuff.
However, there were also a few elements which put me in mind of his later work. Really, I could dedicate an entire post to the parallels between this book and his Bigend Trilogy. Again, there was the notion of the transformative power of wealth, how it means so much more than just having money and the freedom to use it. Given how much importance is placed on this in the book, how it serves as a sort of motivation in itself, one would get the impression that this is a serious preoccupation of Gibson’s. But then again, it was serious preoccupations of Fitzgerald’s, and for good reason! As he and Hemingway are rumored to have said to each other:
F: “The rich are different than you and me.” H: “Yes, they have more money.”
The story takes place seven years after the events of Neuromancer and centers on the lives of three people: First, a mercenary named Turner who has just recovered from a near-death experience and is beginning to question what he does. However, while attempting to flee his life, he is picked up and told he must do one final job. A scientist named Mitchell, working the company of Maas, wants to defect from his job and join the rival company of Hosaka. It’s up to Turner to pick him up and transport him back to Japan where, presumably, he will be safe to pursue his work in biosofts – a revolutionary biological form of technology. However, the run goes terribly awry when they find that the evacuee is in fact his daughter, and the company destroys its own fortress and kills Mitchell rather than let him fall into their rivals hands.
Second, we have a disgraced Parisian art dealer named Marly Krushkova who has been hired by a fabulously wealthy man named Virek to track down the maker of some mysterious art boxes. One of these boxes, which are based on Joseph Cornell’s artwork, apparently contain indication of biosoft construction. Virek, who is currently alive in a vat somewhere in Scandinavia, wants the technology so he can ressurrect his body and live forever. Using his dime and his contacts, Marly begins to follow the clues which will lead her to the abandoned station of Freeside, the once proud holding of the Tessier-Ashpool clan, where she will learn the shocking truth of the boxes.
Third, a young New Jersey boy named Bobby Newmark, hacker alias “Count Zero”, who is new to the jockeying game and comes across some “black ice” that nearly kills him. He discovers that the friend who gave it to him, “Two-A-Day”, received it from a questionable source and pawned it off on him to test it. When looking into this, he finds that Two-A-Day’s backers are a group of Haitain hackers who are interested in investigating a bunch of apparitions in cyberspace that appear as Voodoo gods. One of these “gods”, it seems, was responsible for saving Bobby’s life when he jacked and encountered the black ice, which was apparently of Maas construction. Their group must now move quickly, because it becomes clear that anyone who knows about the ice is being murdered.
Sound familiar? Well it should. This is classic Sprawl Gibson at his best! In time, all three threads, supposedly unrelated, weave together to the point where it becomes clear that Josef Virek, the wealthy mogul is pulling all their strings. For starters, we learn that Mitchell is not the genius he was rumored to be. Apparently, he was being fed all the information he needed to produce the biosoft technology. The person feeding him this info was apparently working from Freeside, and turns out to be one of the “apparitions” that is haunting cyberspace.
In addition, this same apparition instructed Mitchell to place biosoft technology in his daughter (Angie’s) head. Turner learns of these enhancements shortly after rescuing Angie and performing a routine scan on her. As a result, she is able to access the matrix anytime she wants without the need for a deck. Often, when she’s asleep, she is heard muttering things in Creole and having odd dreams which appear to coincide with events in cyberspace. For one, she remembers helping a boy named Bobby when he was being attacked by a malicious program. In short, she is the one who saved Bobby when he got into the black ice.
Last, Marly’s adventure to discover the box maker is related to the whole Maas/apparitions thing because Virek’s true agenda is to find the maker of the biosoft technology so he can use it to repair his dying body. As is made clear early on, he is alive only in the strictest sense, his remains being vet in a vat that keeps his vitals steady, and his brain wired to a Sim-Stim link that allows him to communicate with the outside world. It is also revealed that he intervened in Mitchell’s defection by paying off some of the mercenaries. However, his plans were upset somewhat when Mitchell chose to free his daughter instead of himself. So for the remainder of the novel, it becomes a race to capture her.
In time, she asks to be brought to the Sprawl where Bobby and his Voodoo friends are holding up inside a club. When they see Angie, Bobby recognizes her as the girl who saved his life. The Voodoo hackers also recognize her as one of the chief deities they have been observing in cyberspace. With some outside help, they make a stand against Virek and the mercenary Captain that was helping him and take them down. This they do by locating them both in cyberspace and arranging for their hiding places to be destroyed.
In the course of all this, it is revealed that these “apparitions” or Voodoo deities are in fact the splintered personality of the AI’s from book I that went by the names of Wintermute and Neuromancer. After coming together at the end of the story to form the first, fully-functional AI, the combined personality split itself up into several smaller constructs so that it would not be alone in the matrix. They adopted the form of Voodoo deities because they felt these suited them best, which is what attracted the interest of the Haitain hackers in the first place.
In addition, it was they who sent the Maas icebreak down from Freeside, as part of their wider plan to smoke out Virek. Knowing that he was trying to cheat death, they decided to intervene so that he wouldn’t be able to achieve the immortality and godlike power he had been seeking. A sort of “Tower of Babel” or Icarus-type scenario there, where a god or gods punish mortals for overreaching and trying to taste divinity.
As I said before, this book reminded me of why I turned to Gibson in the first place. His abilities at world-building, at submerging the reader in a world of megacities, megacorporations and cool and potentially frightening technologies is what established him as a master of cyberpunk in the first place. I was also happy to return to his world of familiar gadgets and tools, a la simstims, microsofts, decks, jockeys and mercenaries; not to mentions shadowy agendas and double-crosses. After having read through the Bigend Trilogy where the agendas were pretty benign and unclear, and the Bridge Trilogy where the settings were kind of inconsistent and really not that dark, it was a real treat to get back to the dirty, dystopian world of the Sprawl!
However, there were some bumps along the way as well. For one, Gibson’s penchant for portraying wealthy moguls as people who have ridiculous amounts of control and influence was something I was overly-familiar with at this point. In fact, substitute a desire to cheat death with immense curiosity and Virek easily becomes Bigend. However, I could see how this was the result of reading his later works first. Had I read the Sprawl Trilogy in its entirety before tackling the more recent Bigends, I might have seen this a bit less critically.
Ah, but there was another signature Gibson trait in this book. The anti-climactic ending! After quite a bit of action in getting Turner, Angie, Bobby and the Voodoo priests all in the same place, after all the growing tension as we are told that the club is surrounded by goons, not much happens. Bobby contacts another jockier who lost her boyfriend in the raid on Maas, because of the Mercenary Captain’s betrayal, she kills both him and Virek, and the goons dissipate as they realize the people they are working for are gone. The word “abortive” seems appropriate here, for that’s what you call an ending that is building towards and explosive climax, then fizzles out!
Still, I loved the setting, the themes, and the feel of the story. It reminds me of why I love cyberpunk and was the perfect addition to a month that has been characterized by dark, dystopian and technologically-driven literature! Much of what I had to say about Gibson’s Sprawl in my Dystopian Literature post was taken from this very book. After Neuromancer, it helped to complete the picture of what Gibson was all about in his early writing career. In building the world of tomorrow, where corporate monopolies rule, people live in dirty, overcrowded environments, where the rich are barely human and the poor struggle just to live and retain some essence of their humanity, Gibson epitomized the cyberpunk ideal of “high tech and low life”!
Puget campus is virtually deserted, at least in the vicinity of the main student residence. Prad and the rest have dressed accordingly for an evening of felony hacking; dressy casual, all dark tones. No hoods or black toques, those would bring campus security running faster than a plea of rape or assault. Their best approach is to walk right in, playing it cool, set down to do their work then walk out like they just had a nice evening of gaming. That’s still the cover story, and Achebe has the Warlords disks to back it up. Prad, meantime, has the ICE breaker on his decorative flash drive, the one he’s been working on all week. Sa’id and Angie have been in regular contact with him, plus a few black hats he knows, letting him know everything they can about the FBI d-base. If they were wrong, they’ll know soon when the FBI boots them and does a trace to find where they’re working from.
But if things go well, Achebe’s lovely little creations will be circulating in the FBI’s files. That way, when the press gets a hold of them, a gift from an “anonymous source”, they’ll be able to confirm that the evidence is real. Angie’s anonymizer site, whichever she’s selected for this op, will come into play then.
All the bases are covered, all they need is for Angie’s “friend” to show up.
Their synchronized watches indicate that it is now midnight. Feet are getting itchy and nerves are on edge. Prad waits a few seconds before saying what he’s sure everyone must be thinking at this point.
“Where the hell is this guy?”
“He’ll be here, just wait!”
Prad grumbles, then realizes he has inadvertently confirmed that Angie’s friend is in fact a dude. He is further disappointed when the dude proves punctual and darkens the front foyer of the building they intend to enter. He does a little circular scan of the foyer and walkway leading up the front door, then pushes it open. He leans back against the door to hold it open, trying to appear calm for all the cams that are able to see him now that he’s outside.
“So who is this guy anyway? Some kind of grad student or something?”
“Yeah, looks a little old for living in residence, Ange.”
Angie looks at Achebe and Sa’id with daggers. She further corrects them on that a few facts. “He’s a doctoral student and I never said he lives here, he just has an ID.”
“You two dating?”
No sooner are the words out of his mouth than Prad wishes he could shove them back in. But like a wet vapour in a very cold room, it’s out there and frozen solid. Nothing in the world could erase it now. “We’re friends,” she says defensively.
“I’m not hearing nooooo,” Sa’id interjects.
“It’s time, you dickheads. Okay now, nice and cool,” Angie commands, and they walk nonchalantly towards the door. The cameras only scan the front and until now they’ve been beneath the shade of a tree. Prad thinks that such blind spots must be the subject of a lot of complaints. There’s enough room in the area they’ve been standing in for the last few minutes for several assaults or rapes to occur. For most people, this would be considered a strange observation. To Prad, its just plain fact, much like how the cameras are hopelessly out of date. No one is fooled by those tinted glass domes that cover them. Everyone knows they only point one direction.
Another observation: Scott is actually kind of handsome, in a starving artist, student-for-life kind of way. Sa’id’s description was bang on. The beard, button down plaid shirt and blue jeans, not to mention the glasses, all scream mature student.
“Everyone, this is Scott. Scott, this is everyone,” Angie says by way of introduction.
“Hi,” he says coolly as he closes the door behind them and takes the lead in their little procession. The lounge is just a few corridor lengths ahead, on the ground floor underneath layers of student residences. They round a corner and enter a gleaming white computer lounge and Prad feels like he stepped into a hospital. The colour, cleanliness, and availability of technology are all consistent with an operating room, a communal one at that. As predicted, there are only a few students there, the keeners or poor kids who are busy working or too poor to afford a laptop so they can check their MSN at home.
That’s certainly what the one redhead in the corner is doing. She types, pauses to read, laughs, types again. The Asian dude in the other corner only takes his eyes off the screen long enough to blink. Not a casual computer lounger.
They get to work occupying four computers side by side. Prad takes a moment to familiarize himself with his machine, which is clearly the same as all the others. Dell PC, 54.0 Mbps wireless connection, 2.0 GHz, Windows Vista operating system; not up to the latest of Mr. Pradchaphet’s standards, but enough to do tonight’s deed. Meanwhile Scott walks down the row to distribute pieces of paper with names and logins for them to enter. Prad looks at his with some scepticism.
Arlene Tomkins. Atomkins098.
“Come up with that on your own?” he asks the character Scott. Scott smiles from beneath his red beard and moves on to give Angie hers. She smiles at him when she takes it, sending more bristles up Prad’s back. With their fake student logins entered, Achebe passes around the copies of Warlords Online. Waiting for the computers to install it proves to be a test of patience. Bloody college computers. It takes a few minutes, then Prad calls up the FBI database and downloads his icebreaker.
Ten minutes have elapsed, putting them past midnight. The lounger is done doing her thing and gets up to leave. The icebreaker is still being downloaded into Prad’s machine, a small window showing the progress while the gleaming red, white and blue of the FBI homepage sits in the background. With only one person left in the room, and being far away and consumed by work, Sa’id thinks it’s safe to talk.
“Now we’ll know for sure whether or not all those years staying one step ahead of the NSA was worth it,” Sa’id says.
“Don’t toot your own horn too soon,” Angie reminds him. “Get into the game everyone except Prad, and lets look like we’re doing something non-threatening.”
Prad continues to wait. Finally, he is told that the piece of program he helped craft has finished downloading. He calls up the file and orders the computer to execute the executable file. That takes a little more time. While the others are busy designing custom characters for Warlords, he is waiting for his program to get to work and looking over his shoulder at the Asian dude. The Warlords program is minimized in his tray just in case he needs to call it up in a hurry to fill the screen. On the screen next to him, a dwarf in leather armour brings his battleaxe down to split the head of an adventurer, and his screen changes as the FBI site opens up to him. The CJIS, Criminal Justice Information System, for which his ICE was specifically designed to crack.
“I’m in,” he whispers. His fingers get to work typing while the others get to work on clearing the room. For the next minute or so, the boys make a lot of noise while Angie yells at them to shut up. When they finally notice that they’ve caught they eye of the young man in the corner, they add to the annoyance level.
“Are we bothering you, fellow?” Achebe yells in a loud, done up West African accent.
The Asian fellow is mortified to look up and see people talking to him so directly, being rude and forcing him to point it out. “No, its okay,” he says politely.
“Cuz if so, we can move,” Sa’id says, adding a little slur to sound just a little drunk. A loud crazy laugh follows and he turns back to his keyboard to notice he’s being killed by a level 10 Elf archer. “Fuck me! You pointy eared cocksucker!”
“Shut up, dude’s trying to work!” Prad yells.
By now the dutiful student has gotten the message and packs up to leave. Prad minimizes the FBI screen and looks like he’s playing with his buds. As the guy walks by, he offers a few more polite dismissals as Achebe calls after him with feigned apologies. But he’s gone at last. They nod at Angie. Prad’s console becomes the focal point of all attention and seats slide over on their wheels to join him. He flips back to the FBI site and begins navigating the CJIS’s database. Achebe produces the third and final flash drive from his pocket and slips it to Prad who shoves it in the only USB slot the computer has left. He pops open the file on the drive marked Photos (next to the one marked rejects) and begins opening them up onto the computers desktop, arranged in order.
“Okay, let’s start with the honourable Reverend Fred P. Johnston and his whacked out ministry,” he says and types in the name.
He gets a series of files the FBI has been keeping on him since the 50s. As predicted, the files are grouped based on the FBI’s surveillance of the outspoken preacher from Topeka, Kansas. Ironically, they begin with his involvement in the civil rights movement. There’s a few years of relative inactivity, then they move onto his more recent work assailing gay marriage and denouncing Muslims and illegal immigrants. Prad decides to insert Achebe’s first creation into the former area of pictures – a mock-up of the Congressman attending a service in the Westboro Baptist church. The topic of the day, in all likelihood, is why God hates fags and revels in the death of soldiers. The picture they used to duplicate the Congressman’s image is a few years out of date compared to the picture of the congregation, but they’re pretty satisfied with their work overall. No one is likely to notice it’s a fake until they take the time to examine it more closely. An annotation at the bottom is provided, making sure his name is provided in full along with other noteworthy members of the congregation.
“That ought to confuse the hell out of people who think he supports the troops,” Sa’id says.
“Yep. Now how about the Aryan union?” Achebe asks.
“Okay, one sec.” Prad begins a new search in the database for anything they might have on these fellows. The file is voluminous, and from the looks of it, updated on an almost weekly basis. Finding a single file of photo surveillance proves to be difficult. They are seen outside of Southern Baptist churches, funerals, federal and gubernatorial buildings, marching in protests, and having cook outs, any form of organization that would place them within the bounds of the law. Prad searches for a while before he finds a series of photos that look like they might be innocuous enough to support their own contribution. Then, Achebe’s second creation is inserted, a photo of Dangle shaking hands with Butler in a parking lot in his home riding. A black leather bag is in Butler’s other hand. No bills are leaking out the side, but the implication is clear. An illegal, off-the-books financial contribution is taking place, and they got it all on film.
“Last we got the good Congressman visiting a porn boutique. Arguably, my best work,” says Achebe.
“It’s just him darkening the doorway,” Prad smirks.
“Still good work.”
Prad finds a random place for this one. It really doesn’t fall under security issues. It’ll just look good, and ironic, come the six o’clock news.
“Alright, crumbs are placed. Now let’s just pray the techies can find ‘em all.”
“And do the right thing by reporting it,” Angie adds.
Prad leaves the site, erases the photos from the desktop, clears the web browsers history, and raises both hands. Low fives and a few laughs follow. Now it’s Angie’s turn. Passing Achebe’s flash drive to her, she moves the photos onto her desktop and calls up Firefox to make some emails. Getting onto the anonymizer’s web page, she opens three windows in Yahoo and types in the email addresses for the press desk at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Seattle Times. A simple cut and paste email, stressing how the source of these photos is anonymous and no explanation of how she came across them. Then a nice little line about how they want “the truth to come out.” She attaches Achebe’s files from the desktop to each one, and then hits send. She wipes the desktop clean, erases the anonymizer, and ejects the flash drives.
“And-we-are-finished!” she declares and raises her hands above her head to receive some high-fives.
And then… a weird silence. No one is sure what they should be feeling exactly, but everyone agrees it’s a bit anticlimactic. They just hacked the FBI and incriminated a terrible, though for all intents and purposes, innocent old man. They ought to be feeling something. And yet, there’s really nothing to it. No fireworks or overwhelming sense of relief, just the quiet drone of computers and the room’s air conditioning.
“Wow, so what do we do now?” Sa’id asks.
“Anybody actually want to do some gaming?” Prad suggests.
“Naw, lets look at those rejects, just for fun.”
Prad calls up the photos Achebe made that didn’t quite make the cut. In truth, everyone suspects he made them just for fun seeing how over the top they are. There’s Ahmadinejad and Dangle sitting together in a carriage sharing a laugh, Kim Jong Il and him playing polo, and international bogeyman Osama Bin Laden and him holding hands like young lovers back in the 1980s. The backdrop is some sunny hillside in Afghanistan, the faint blur of a Russian Hind in the background pushing up smoke with its rockets.
“Class, all class,” Prad says.
“How about we send these to the media too? I mean, you know, after the story breaks… if it breaks.”
It’s Angie suggesting this, surprising seeing as how this was her challenge. Strange to think she’s actually unsure of success this late in the game.
“That’d just be like adding insult to injury.” Achebe replies. “We wanna’ make sure we can string them along for a bit first before we burst their bubble.”
Sa’id agrees. “Yeah, seriously. The idea here was to just cause some trouble, right? I mean, no ones going to actually believe the Congressman’s this dirty are they?”
“Right,” Angie nods. “Silly idea. I guess I’m just feeling squirrelly.”
“Still…” announces Achebe, arms raised. “Kudos to our fearless leader and organizer for preparing this little smearjob.” He points to Angie. People begin to crowd around her and exchange high fives. This goes on for a few minutes as Angie receives and returns different variations of them.
“Ahem!” Prad finally says, looking around at them. “All due credit to the Captain, but who exactly was the pilot of this here frickin’ operation?”
The boys pat him on the back. Angie screws up her face in such a way that says she knows he did well, but will be damned to admit it. By way of diversion, she looks over at Scott who’s been standing there with his arms crossed and a placid smile on his face the whole time.
“And let’s not forget our boy Scotty. He did get us in here, in more ways that one.”
“Yeah, how did you come up with those student logins? You got a friend at student services or something?”
“Nope, all me,” he says blithely. Sa’id and Achebe look at him with newfound respect.
“Well, grad student by day, hacker by night. A black hat pretending to be a beret, huh?”
“He’s not a black hat,” Angie corrects them. “He’s actually…”
“Hatless.” Scott finishes the sentence. They share a laugh, and Prad wants to puke. The way she’s shifting from foot to foot and looking antsy just screams intimacy. Everyone can smell the awkwardness and sexual tension. She looks like she just wants them to leave so they can celebrate privately. Prad would rather see Scott’s head hit by a semi and tries to stall.
“I say we celebrate! Who’s up for hitting the pub?”
He’s hit by a wave of indecisive shrugs. “We really should…” Angie begins. The other boys get the hint and decide to pull Prad away.
“Yeah, why don’t we save that ‘til later? We got day jobs to think about and I’m sure Scott needs to study.”
Angie laughs again and Scott just smiles. Sa’id and Achebe remove the Warlords program from their machines and log off. Prad takes a little longer. He needs to wipe the web directory clean and erase all downloaded copies of their programs, then there’s the desktop pics to trash. He cleans out the recycle bin and logs off before saying his own goodbyes.
“Next Tuesday?” he asks her.
“I’ll let you know. We ought to all meet to let the others know how it went. But no talking about it online with anyone, okay?”
“Okay. Well, goodnight,” he says to her and nods at Scott.
At the front, Sa’id and Achebe are waiting and looking pretty pleased overall. Once they are out of the well-lit and surveillanced foyer, they begin to feel something welling up inside them. It’s as if what they’ve done has finally hit them now that they’ve left the scene. Hoots and hollers begin to spew forth. More low fives and slaps on the shoulder are exchanged too before words of congratulations are passed around.
“We did it! I mean you did it, Prad! I mean, we helped, but you did it!”
“Ah, I can’t believe how easy that was! God I wish I could have done something to help you out there!”
“Oh yeah, like what?” Prad asks.
“I dunno,” Sa’id replies. “Like maybe let the fuckers know exactly what I think of them. Maybe even crash their wiretapping software while I was at it.”
“I’m sure they’ll figure it out,” Prad says.
“Oh, they’ll figure out they’ve been had. Then it’s just a matter of time before they figure out how…” Achebe pauses as another rush of enthusiasm hits him. “But they aint gonna’ know who did it because we’re so fucking good! AM I RIGHT?!”
Sa’id and Achebe bump chests and laugh some more. Prad stands there quietly for a second before they realize he’s not joining in. That’s when it hits them and they start to calm down and show him some sympathy.
“Hey, tough break, man.”
“Yeah, sorry about that, but you know how it is.”
“The lady was sure to have friends, sooner or later.”
“I know,” Prad says coolly. “It’s fine. Really, it is.” A pause, then he renews his suggestion for beers at the pub. The offer receives the same cool response it did back in the lab.
“We were actually serious about getting home, man,” Sa’id says diplomatically.
“Oh, yeah, that’s cool too. I guess it is a work night after all, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, sorry. We’ll all hook up next week though right?”
“Yeah, Angie said she’d let us know about that. I guess she wants us all to meet in person again to let the others know how it went.”
“Yup, bragging rights.” Sa’id says, summing it up succinctly.
“Right. Oh, and remember that we’ve got a gag order put on us in the meantime. No bragging ‘til everyone’s around to hear about it… in private.”
“I’m always discreet,” Sa’id declares.
They have a final laugh and Prad says goodnight to them one last time before heading off to the parking lot. His Miata is there waiting for him, its seasonal protection undeployed against the dewy evening air. He is suddenly annoyed by this and the number of obstructions strewn across the seats as he gets in. A half-smoked joint is sitting on top of a few cases in his disk holder, a small burn mark from where it burnt itself out a few nights ago. He puts it to his lips before starting the car. A quick press of the lighter to get it burning, and he’s off. Looks like it’s partying alone for him again tonight.
It’s strange, he thinks as he comes to a stop at the intersection just outside the college property. He should be flying. He should be a mile high right now. If anything, the pot should be evening him out. But it isn’t. The pot is kicking in and the red light seems to drag on into infinity. He sits there looking ahead and resting his chin on his left fist, propped up against the armrest. The warm wind blowing across the nearby grassy fields makes him think of the end of summer. It’s that time that calls to him from his deepest memory when summer was coming to an end and the cold winds began to roll in from the north pacific, announcing the coming of winter… with its rains and monster storms. That’s about what it feels like right now, except that the wind is from the south, and it’s the beginning of spring.
All he can think about is how alone he really is. No warm body to keep him company in his spacious bed and his cool linens. Not even the thought of Brianna Banks or his adult dating site seems to hold any appeal for him right now. All he can think about is how Angie will be with someone else tonight, how she likes this man and gets all nervous around him, and how his presence seems to break her poise and cool demeanor. Most of all, he thinks about how it’s this other man, and not him that does that to her.
Warning! Explicit and suggestive language follows (Like that ever scared anyone away!)…
It’s Friday night and Prad feels like doing something while he’s out of the house. He couldn’t rope Angie into coming with them, but Sa’id and Achebe took him up on the offer. They needed a chance to discuss strategy before returning to their daily lives. Already Sa’id has a few people in mind that he would like to see associated with Dangle. He plans to email the list to Angie as soon as he gets home. He even thinks a few photo shop pics for the file would be nice. It seems a little overkill, but who the hell cares? All they need to do is create the illusion of something illicit, nothing that’ll survive investigation. All that’s really necessary is for the press to pick up on the scent of a possible scandal, a little something to make the Congressman’s life more interesting before the next election.
They discuss the anonymizer Angie’s planning on implementing. For a man like Dangle, who approved email surveillance for government employees, it seems like a fitting irony. The only question is which site she’ll use. Prad knows she’s partial to the Norwegians, though Russia has become good at producing such sites due to all the domestic spying they had to endure under Putin and Medvedev. Then again, there are plenty of Puget Sound services who offer similar services, thanks in no small part to eight years of Tom Ridge and Homeland Security spying on people’s emails. After their first pitcher, they get into specifics of their own work.
“You and me can come up with some Icebreakers for the FBI, no problem, Prad,” Sa’id says over his sudsy glass. “I got plenty of friends who would be more than willing to help. It’s a dream come true, you know. I gotta thank Angie for giving me this chance.”
“Assuming we don’t get of course,” Achebe says.
“It’s just a one time thing right? And even if we fail, they won’t know it was us.”
“They could always find out the old fashioned way.” Achebe looks over his shoulder at the other patrons. “Maybe we should be doing this from home… separately?”
“Naw, we need all our brains to do this. Angie did say our collaboration was key.”
Prad is saying this. He has surprised his fellow members on more than one occasion by demonstrating his willingness to take orders from a girl. It surprises him too sometimes, but none of them seem to think of Angie as a girl. Achebe’s concern seems more directed towards her methods though.
“All of us can do this from home and still stay connected, it’s called a conference call.”
“You trust your phone?” Sa’id scoffs.
“Then how about some MSN or Skype, Mr. Arab fucking nationalist?”
“Yeah, that’s smart. The feds are a hell of a lot likelier to tap your computer than your phone, dude! Public places are way safer.”
“Just wait til they start putting up cameras. This country will create its own version of the London Eye any day now.”
Prad slaps the counter. “This is all fine and good, but it was Angie’s call and we all said we were down, right? If you’ve got problems, Achebe, why did you agree to this?”
Achebe swills a little beer and his mouth and appears to be giving the questions some thought. “I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t like the idea of sitting things out while the boss lady is busy doing something dangerous.”
“And because you like a challenge.” Prad raises his glass and taps it against Achebe’s. Sa’id joins them from the other side. At the very least, they agree that they can pull this off. No federal tracker is as good as any one of them. How could they possibly fare against three of them combined?
It all sounds too simple. With a little lubricant and enough testosterone, just about anything does. Sa’id and Kingdome turn down Prad’s recommendation for a third pitcher and decide to call it a night. They have families and lives to get back to, which invariably forces Prad to go pick up his where he left off. He hops the el-train back to the Empire State towers and decides some television and a fat puff will be his entertainment for the remainder of the evening. Perhaps he’ll even call up mom and dad for his weekly update.
Need to make some more friends, Prad reminds himself. Life has become incredibly monotonous since moving to Puget Sound. The Society has not filled the void just yet, nor has lusting after Angie taken care of the vacuum that is his love life. As he passes through the revolving doors to his building, he realizes he scarcely needs to speak to his parents at all. He’s already telling himself everything they are going to. At least his mother at any rate, who will be concentrating on his love life. All he needs to do before getting to his apartment is lecture himself on finding a secure job and he’ll have both parents covered. Such is the breakdown of his parents’ advice; his mother covers love and companionship, his father career and finances.
It is the doorman calling to him. Prad is surprised, mainly because the guy finally said it right. He looks over at the old man in the monkey suit with a look that says “what the hell do you want?”
“A package came for you sir. I was going to bring it to your apartment, but seeing as how you’re here…”
“It’s okay, I guess. What is it?”
Prad is escorted over to the front desk and eyes a square box wrapped in brown paper and tied shut with binder twine. His address is written in large black letters in what appears to be permanent marker. There is no return address.
“Who sent it?”
“I do not know, sir. It was left at the desk while I was on my break and no one remembers seeing who dropped it off. It was just here.”
“Don’t suppose you gave it a shake? Checked it to see it was vibrating?”
Prad shakes his head at him and places his ear to the package. It’s not vibrating, or ticking, or emitting a funny scent. Could still be anthrax or some other crazy biological weapon. Or maybe it’s a pipe bomb, courtesy of the local Minutemen who think he’s a terrorist. Prad has always wondered why the heat Sa’id complains so bitterly about has never been directed at him. He’s dark enough that some dumb hick might get it into their head to call the NSA or FBI on him. For years he’s been waiting for a knock on the door or a kindly meet and greet with some cloaked figure in a dark alley. It’s like waiting for a shoe to drop. But alas, he is beginning to sense that maybe they’ve caught on to the fact that neither of his heritages are particularly suspect. He eyes the package and tries to decide whether he’s going to open it here or upstairs.
“I’ll take it with me. If it’s anything weird, I’ll phone down.”
“Are you expecting it to be something weird?” the old man asks.
“Uh…no. Never mind.”
Prad leaves the front lobby and wonders where the doorman has been for the last decade. Blissfully unaware that paranoia has become a national canon. The package clunks a bit as he hoists it under his arm and boards the elevator. Whatever it is is not secured too well inside, and is clearly a few sizes too small for the box itself. His nerves are on high alert as he expects the contents to blow up or start leaking from the little thump. He pushes the button for the fourteenth floor (thirteen in reality) and the doors close.
The elevator hums to life and rolls upwards. He can hear the motors purring gently and feels his heart beating pleasantly fast. When the elevator stops on the seventh, it skips a beat and he’s made all the more nervous when an older man steps on with him.
“Going up?” the man asks needlessly. Prad nods and tries not to look nervous, and fails. The man eyes him ever so suspiciously and steps in.
Hot date? Prad looks him over and thinks he’s going upstairs to see some nice widow. He’s decked out in a dapper black suit with a white shirt that looks to be faux-silk, possibly real. He has a dapper jacket on too, so he’s probably picking someone up in addition to taking them out. Or maybe he’s just stopping in for a booty call. Do men his age still do that? He smiles as he speculates as to the content of his wallet. Condoms, in addition to his platinum and senior citizen’s discount card?
Prad checks the numbers again. They’ve reached floor ten. That’s when it hits him. The doors are polished brass and highly reflective. The man has been watching him in the reflection the entire time. He could not have failed to notice how Prad was looking him up and down. And what’s this under his arm? A big brown package with no return address? Well now Prad is feeling the sting of paranoid eyes on him. Or maybe he thinks Prad is one of the buildings many nubile queers, the up and coming boys who are moving into the valley and taking over prime real estate from old fag bashers like him. He feels strangely empowered.
The doors open on twelve and the man politely gets out. Prad is let down. Unless he’s making a call to the authorities, Prad’s been imaging the whole thing. Ah whatever, it was fun while it lasted. And guiltily, he realizes he forgot that by even being in the same tight, confining space with the man, he might have been risking his life. If the package is indeed some leaking biotoxin, then he just killed the poor fellow, or possibly made him and his date very sick. At least he won’t be alone in the emergency room tonight.
The elevator passes the phantom thirteenth floor, reaches fourteen and dings. It takes less than a minute for Prad to make it to his apartment, get inside and fetch the pair of industrial scissors that came with his knife set. Taking a deep breath, he cuts through the twine and starts making a seam along the paper. Once he’s cut the box from one end to the other, he gently tears it off and peaks underneath. It’s a shoebox, Merrell’s from REI, which is indicative of something, he thinks. But it’s still just a shoebox, and he hasn’t even risked a peek at the true contents yet. He feels strangely let down and relieved again. No one would ever pack a bomb or a bio-agent into a shoe box. If the Anarchist cookbook doesn’t contain a section on that, well then it damn well should!
The edges of the box are secured with duct tape, which renews his sense of worry for just a second. If he were packing this box with something that wasn’t supposed to get out until opened, he would be using duct tape to seal it. The scissors come into play again. It’s an old habit that he can’t just rip the tape of something or tear into a package. Not being subjected to Christmas while growing up can do that to a person. They just don’t know how to devour a package. Nevertheless, his efforts are rewarded when he finally slits down the length of the last piece of tape. The eight pieces are easily removed and lay in a heap on his table. Eight silver strips in six and twelve inch lengths.
He takes a deep breath and removes the top.
It’s a book… shit.
Not just any book. A copy of Koestler’s “Ghost in the Machine” is staring up at him from inside. There was a note attached to it, a yellow sticky with cryptic instructions scrawled in fine ink.
Read it. Learn!
Already Prad is starting to feel annoyed. There is something inherently unsavoury about being instructed to learn. It takes all the fun out of it. Learning is most enjoyable when it goes against the grain, when it’s something you’re not supposed to be doing because it threatens the establishment. And the ultimate letdown of knowing that no one considers him important enough to kill him makes it worse.
He picks the book up and looks it over, just to make sure its not somehow rigged or booby trapped. He sniffs the pages, musty but harmless. The spine is intact, the cover not lined with some tactile poison. Nothing’s wrong with it at all. It actually looks like it’s in fine shape, like whoever sent it had the good graces to order a good copy through Amazon.com.
Who the hell sent this, he thinks as he opens it and flips through the pages. Probably Angie, he thinks. Something involving dating tips would probably be more appropriate given the tenor of their last conversation, but getting him to learn is something she would not pass up. The subject matter in undeniably Society as well.
The phone rings, causing his heart to jump again. He puts the book down and grabs the wireless from its cradle on the kitchen counter.
There’s no answer, just dead air and the almost imperceptible sense of something breathing in the background. His paranoia is starting to tingle again.
“Hello. Who is this?”
Another long pause. He strains to hear the presence of breathing but can’t be sure.
“Who the fuck is this? Answer me, you sick cunt!”
“Yamal?” an overtly feminine, high-pitched voice says.
Oh double shit! he screams internally. All the way from Bangkok, the one person he can never allow himself to say “shit” to has just heard the worst he’s got.
“Yamal?! What are doing talking like that?!” she demands.
“Sorry, ma,” he says sheepishly. “Thought you were someone else…”
And Friday night becomes the night from hell. What should have been a routine conversation about his inadequacies has become a full-fledged double-barrelled denunciation. He estimates, as his mother tears into him with fire and brimstone, exactly how many angry calls he will be getting from relatives, coupled with the amount of time it will take to live this down. He gives it about a year, six months at best.
When at last the conversation is over, he ear feels hot and swollen. His dignity is similarly flayed, having been subjected to every bashing his mother could manage. Time for a smoke! Locating his vaporizer and his baggie, he loads a nice fat piece into the chamber, grabs his torch and then heads for the balcony. Another nice feature of the Empire Towers, the lovely terraces overlooking the emerald city at night. It’s actually quite pretty tonight, the air cleansed by the wave of ocean air that’s finally sent it all to Tacoma and Olympia.
He settles into one of the chairs that came with the patio set, the one with the glass table that has the natural bumps and imperfections in it. He settles his feet onto the glass, lights the torch and puts it to his vaporizer. He sips the sweet, cloudy nectar that forms in the chamber, knowing that in a moment, he will have forgotten all about the day and its debacles. At least for a little while…
Well, after many, many suggestions on how my list of dystopian franchises could be augmented – this mainly consisted of poeple asking me “what about (blank)?” – I decided there were a few that I really couldn’t proceed without mentioning. This will be my last tour of the dystopia factory, lord knows that place gets depressing after awhile! But one thing at a time. Here’s my final installment in dystopian science fiction series, a hybrid list of novels, graphic novels, and movies!
A Clockwork Orange: This dystopian novella was originally written in 1962 and was adapted into film by the great Kubrick almost a decade later. In addition, it was adapted into play after the author realized he didn’t like how the adapted movie ended. Having experienced all three, I can tell you that the movie was probably the best. In addition to the rather ingenious ideas presented by Anthony Burgess, it also benefited from Kubrick’s directorial genius and the superb acting of Malcolm McDowell.
Set in the not-too-distant future, the story revolves around a British youth named Alex who is growing up in a world permeated by youth violence. He is the leader of a group of thugs known as “The Droogs”, young men who go about committing acts of “ultra-violence” which consists of them beating up homeless people, random strangers and other gangs, as well as committing theft and gang rape.
In time, Alex and his friends go to far (even for them!) and an innocent woman is murdered during a break-in. His friends, who are already angry over his bullying and strong arming of them, decide to betray him and leave him to the police. Once in prison, Alex decides to cut his sentence short by undergoing a radical government experiment – an artificially created conscience through Pavlovian conditioning!
The result of this conditioning is that Alex is no longer capable of committing any acts of violence. In fact, even the mere thought of violence produces a reaction so strong that he breaks down and is overwhelmed by nausea. This renders him benign, but also helpless. And in time, all his past crimes begin to catch up with him and he is nearly killed. Once he wakes up in the hospital, he discovers the conditioning has worn off, and he can either resume his old ways, or strike out on a new path…
Another interesting side effect of the conditioning is that he can no longer listen to Beethoven without getting sick either. This has to be one of the most curious and intriguing scenes in the movie, where a restrained and helpless Alex begs the doctors to turn off the symphony because he can’t stand the idea of not being able to listen to it. Much like everything else he does, it speaks volumes of his sociopathic nature.
Ultimately, the movie differed from the novel in that the final chapter was omitted. Immediately before this, we see how Alex is now freed from the conditioning. He also seems intent on blaming the current government, which will oust them from power. But beyond that it not quite clear what’s going to happen. However, the following chapter shows how Alex has realized, independently, that he doesn’t want to live a life of violence anymore. Human freedom, he’s determined, is the ability to make choices for oneself, free of persuasion and operate conditioning.
As I said, I truly think the movie was an improvement on the novel, which is a rare thing with adaptations. Still, it is was in the film that the point of the story really came through, thanks to Kubrick’s usual attention to detail and subtlety. Whether it was through those long, close-up shots of McDowell and his crazy eyes, the combination of wide angle action shots in slow motion, or the way that it played to the tune of Beethoven, you really got a sense of the odd combination of genius and madness that is the anti-hero Alex. The reliance on white, sterile settings also helped to punctuate the sociopathic nature of the story – how underneath the veneer of domesticity, brutality and violence can exist! And last, by leaving the ending a mystery, the moral was more ambiguous, which made for a far more effective dystopian feel!
A Scanner Darkly: Next up, we have Philip K Dicks seminal novel about drug abuse, self-destruction and the various hypocrisies arising out of America’s war on drugs. In this near-future scenario, which takes place in California in 1994 (seventeen years after it was written), a new drug has hit the streets known as Substance D – or SD, which stands for Slow Death. This powerful hallucinogenic is a great high, is violently addictive, and can render users brain damaged after too much use and abuse. And as a result of its popularity and impact, society is gradually becoming a full-blown police state, where cameras – or “Scanners” – are on every street corner and in the home of every suspected dealer.
Written from the point of view of an undercover narcotics agent, the story follows his descent into addiction and his eventual inability to tell reality from fantasy. Through repeated use of Substance D, he gradually becomes brain damaged himself, is released from the police department, and must go to a privately run recovery-center known as “New-Path”. There, he discovers that these centers, which operate like franchises, are actually growing the plant that Substance D is synthesized from. An interesting twist in which we learn that the people profiting from the side effects are the one’s providing the drugs. A stab at strong-arm governments or the pharmaceuticals industry, perhaps?
For the sake of adapting the movie to film, director Richard Linklater shot the entire thing digitally and then had it animated through the use of interpolated rotoscope. The effect of this was to render every single image in a vivid, almost cartoon-like format, which could only be interpreted as an attempt to mimic the effects of hallucinogens. This animation also came in handy with the rendering of the “scramble suit”, a sort of cloak-like device that PKD invented to ensure that undercover agents in his story could completely disguise their appearance, voice, and any other identifying characteristics.
In addition to being science fiction genius, these cloaks were a clear allegory to the anonymity of undercover agents and a faceless system of justice. While responsible for infiltrating and busting up the narcotics subculture, PKD clearly understood that this sort of profession can lead to an identity crisis, especially if the agents in question find themselves using drugs and becoming over-sympathetic to the people they are spying on. This, of course, is precisely what happens to the main character in the story!
In short, the novel was a commentary on the dangers of recreational drug use, but also on the reasons for why such subcultures come into existence in the first place. In addition to ruining lives and causing crime, repression, domestic surveillance, and other extra-legal practices can become quite commonplace. All of this mirrored PKD’s own experiences with the drug subculture and the law, which is why he dedicated the book to all the friends he had who succumbed to drug abuse and died as a result. Very sad!
And let’s not forget the name, a play on the words from the Biblical passage, 1 Corinthians 13:12 : “Through a mirror darkly.” In this day and age, where “scanners” are the means for monitoring society and police officers spend hours looking at their feeds, the scanner has become a sort of means through which people attempt to gaze into other peoples’ souls. But, as with the Biblical passage, this title is meant to refer to how, when we look at the problems of drug use in our society, we are seeing it all through a haze, the result of our own prejudices and preconceptions.
Akira: How the hell did I forget this one last time? I mean seriously, this is one of my favorite movies and one of the most inspired Mangas of all time! Not only that, it’s a pretty good example of a dystopian franchise. And yet, I forgot it! WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING?! But enough self-flagellation, I came here to talk about Akira! So, here goes…
In 1988, famed Japanese writer, director and comic book creator Katsuhiro Otomo undertook the rather monumental task of adapting his Manga series Akira to the big screen. Though some predicted that a two hour movie could never do justice to the six-volume series he had written, most fans were pretty pleased with the end product. And the critical response was quite favorable as well, with the film being credited for its intense visualizations, cyberpunk theme, its post-apocalyptic feel, and the exploration of some rather heavy existential questions.
To break it down succinctly, Akira takes place in Neo-Tokyo, a massive urban center that was literally build up from the ruins of the original. According to the story’s background, WWIII took place in 1989, and after twenty years of rebuilding, the world once again appears to be one the brink. However, as we come to learn, the destruction of Tokyo was not the result of the nuclear holocaust per se. It’s destruction merely heralded it in after the world witnessed the city’s obliteration, assumed it to have been the result of a nuclear attack, and starting shooting their missiles at each other. The real cause was a phenomena known as “Akira”, an evolutionary leap that scientists had been studying and lost control of…
Quite the story, but what I loved most about the adapted movie and the manga on which it was based was the level of detail. Set in 2019 (the same year as Blade Runner, coincidentally!) this series incorporated a lot of concepts which made for a far more intricate and interesting tale. First off, there’s the concept of a post-apocalyptic generation that is filled with unrest and angst, having grown up in a world permeated by the horrors of nuclear war. Second, there’s the ever-present element of gang warfare that has sprung up amidst the social decay. Third, there’s a government slouching towards dictatorship in response to all the protests, unrest and chaos that is consuming the city.
Into all this, you get a secret military project in which the Akira phenomena is once again being studied. Though motivated by a desire to control it and prevent what happened last time from happening again, it seems that history is destined to repeat itself. Once again, the survivors must crawl from the wreckage and rebuild, their only hope being that somehow, they will get it right next time… A genuine dystopian commentary if ever I heard one!
But what was also so awesome about the series, at least to me, was the underlying sense of realism and tension. You really got the sense that Otomo was tapping into the Zeitgeist with this one, relating how after decades of rebuilding through hard work and conformity, Japan was on the verge of some kind of social transformation. Much like in real life, the characters of the story have been through a nuclear holocaust and have had to crawl their way back from the brink, and a sense of “awakening” is one everybody’s lips and they are just waiting for it to manifest.
A clear allusion to post-war Japan where the country had been bombed to cinders and was left shattered and confused! Not to the mention the post-war sense of uniformity where politicians, corporations and Zaibatsu did their best to repress the youth movements and demands for social reform. Well, that was my impression at any rate, others have their own. But that’s another thing that worked so well about Akira. It is multi- layered and highly abstract, relying on background, visuals and settings to tell the story rather than mere dialogue. In many ways, it calls to mind such classics as 2001, Clockwork Orange, and other Kubrick masterpieces.
Children of Men: Made famous by the 2006 adaptation starring Clive Owen, this dystopian science fiction story was originally written by author P.D. James in 1992. The movie was only loosely based on the original text, but most of the particulars remained the same. Set in Britain during the early 21st century, the story takes place in a world where several subsequent generations have suffered from infertility and population growth has dropped down to zero. The current generation, the last to be born, are known as “Omegas” and are a lost people.
What’s more, the growing chaos of the outside world has also led to the creation of a dictatorial government at home. This is due largely to the fact that people have lost all interest in politics, but also because the outside world has become chaotic due to the infertility crisis. Much like in V for Vendetta, the concept of “Lifeboat Britain” makes an appearance in this story and acts as one of the main driving forces for the plot.
In any case, this also leads to the birth of a resistance which wants to end the governments tyrannical control over society, and which comes to involve the main character and his closest friends. In time, the plot comes to revolve around a single woman who is apparently pregnant. Whereas some of the rebels want to smuggle her out of Britain and hand her over to the international Human Project, others want to use her as a pawn in their war against the government. It thus falls to the main character to smuggle her out, protecting her from resistance fighters and the military alike.
Naturally, the movie drew on all the novels strongest points, showing how society had effectively decayed once childbirth effectively ended. It also portrayed the consequences of impending extinction very well – chaos, withdrawal, tyranny, etc. However, when it came time to adapt it to the screen, Mexican film director Alfonso Cuaron (who brought us such hits as A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), also used a variety of visual techniques and sets to convey the right mood.
For example, most of the sets were designed to look like near-future versions of today. In Cuaron’s estimation, all technological progress would have ceased once the implications of the crisis had fully hit, hence all cars, structures, weapons and gadgets were only slightly altered, or used sans modification. So while the billboards, newspapers and signs were all updated and carried messages appropriate for the period, cars, guns and other assorted background pieces looked entirely familiar.
In addition, much of the movie is shot in such a way so that the images are grey and the light effect seems piercing. This conveys a general mood of drab sadness, which is very accurate considering the setting! Last, Cuaron and his camera crews made many continuous action shots using wide angle lenses in order to capture a sense of crisis and how it effected so many people. Never was there a sequence in which you only saw the main actors and their immediate surroundings. The focus, like the scope of the story, was big and far-reaching.
Ghost in the Shell: Much like Akira, this franchise comes to us by way of Japan and is cyberpunk-themed. In addition, it also came in the form of a manga, then onto a film, but with a television series to follow. And in many respects, it qualifies as dystopian, given that it took place in a dark future where technology has forever blurred the line between what is real and what is artificial. In addition, it also tapped into several cyberpunk trends which would prove to be quite apt (i.e. cyberspace).
Again, this story takes place in Japan in the early 21st century, a time when cybernetic enhancements and technological progress have seriously altered society. The main character is named Motoko Kusanagi, a member of a covert operations division of the Japanese National Public Safety Commission known as Section 9. She is affectionately known as “Major” given her previous position with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. And did I mention she’s a cyborg? Yes, aside from her brain and parts of her spinal cord, she is almost entirely machine, and this plays into the story quite often.
In addition to facing external threats, Kusanagi and her companions also face conflicts that arise out of their own nature. These deal largely with issues relating to their own humanity, whether or not a person and their memories can even be considered real anymore if they have been replaced by digital or cybernetic enhancements. These questions were explored in depth in the movie, where events revolve around a sentient program that was developed by the government, but which has since gone rogue and is seeking an independent existence.
However, another thing that makes Ghost in the Shell a possible candidate for the category of dystopia is the setting. Whether it was the manga, the movie, or the television series, the look and feel of the world in which it takes place is quite telling. Always there is a dirty, gritty, and artificial quality to it all, calling to mind The Sprawl, Mega City One, and Neo-Tokyo.
As in these settings, things look futuristic, but also rustic, poor and improvised, hinting at extensive overcrowding and poverty amidst all the advanced technology. This is a central element to cyberpunk, or so I’m told. In addition to being futuristic, it also anticipates dystopia, being of the opinion that this “advancement” has come at quite a cost in human terms.
Logan’s Run: Considered by many to be a classic dystopian story, Logan’s Run takes place in a 22st century society where age and consumption are strictly curtailed to ensure that a population explosion – like the one experience in the year 2000 – never happens again. In addition, society is controlled by a computer that runs the global infrastructure and makes sure that the all the dictates of population and age control are obeyed.
In any case, the story revolves around this concept of an age ceiling, where people are monitored by a “palm flower” that changes color every seven years. When they reach 21 – on a person’s Lastday – the crystal turns black and they are expected to report to a “Sleepshop” where they will be executed. Those who refuse to perform this final duty are known as “Runners”, and it falls to “Deep Sleep Operatives” (aka. Sandmen) to track down and terminate these people.
The main character – Logan 3 – is one such operative. On his own Lastday, he is charged with infiltrated the underground railroad of Runners and finding the place they call “Sanctuary”. This is a place where they are able to live out their lives without having to worry about society’s dictates and controls. However, in time, Logan comes to sympathize with these people, due largely to the influence of a woman named Jessica 6. In the end, the two make plans to escape together for Sanctuary, which turns out to be a colony on Mars.
Right off the bat, some additional elements can be seen here. In addition to the concepts of Malthusian controls and ageism, there is also the timeless commentary on how rationalization and regimentation can lead to inhumanity and repression. Much like in We or Anthem (by Ayn Rand), people do not have names as much as designations. All life is monitored and controlled by a central computer, and it is made clear towards the end that the computer is in fact breaking down. I can remember this last theme appearing in an episode of Star Trek TNG, where a planet of advanced people are beginning to die off because their “Custodian” is malfunctioning and no one knows how to fix it.
Metropolis: A true classic of both film and expressionist art, this movie also has the added (and perhaps dubious) honor of being a classic of dystopian science fiction! Created in Weimar Germany in 1927 by Fritz Lang, this movie tells the story of a dystopian future where society is ruled by elites who live in vast tower complexes and the workers lives in the recesses of the city far below them where they operate the machinery that powers it all.
This physical divide serves to mirror the main focus of the story, which is on class distinction and the gap between rich and poor. To illustrate this artistic vision, director Fritz Lang relied on a combination of Gothic, classical, modern and even Biblical architecture. In an interview, Fritz claimed that his choices for the set design were based largely on his first trip to New York where he witnessed skyscrapers for the first time. In addition, the central building of the futuristic city was based on Brueghel’s 1563 painting of the Tower of Babel (right>).
The theme of class conflict is further illustrated by the fact that the workers who live in the bowels of the city are also responsible for maintaining the machinery that makes the city run. One is immediately reminded of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the divide between the Morlocks and the Eloi. This comes through even more when the workers decide to revolt and begin ransacking the neighborhoods of the elites. Ultimately, it is only through the love of the two main characters – Freder and Mariah – that the gulf between the two is sealed and order is restored, a fitting commentary on how society must come together in order to survive and achieve social justice.
In another act of blatant symbolism, we learn early on in the movie that the workers have taken to congregating in a series of tunnels that run under the city. It is here that they meet with Maria, their inspirational leader, and makes plans to change society. So in addition to tall, Babel-like buildings illustrated the gap between rich and poor, we have workers who are literally meeting underground! Wow…
In addition, several other dystopian elements weave their way into the story. The line between artifice and reality also makes an appearance in the form of the robot which the movie is best known for. This robot was created by Rotwang, a scientist who is in the service of the main character’s father – Joh Fredersen, the master of the city. Apparently, this robot is able to take human form and was created to replace his late wife. Once this robot was released into the city, she began sowing chaos amongst men who begin to lust after her, and is the very reason the workers began revolting in the first place. She even causes the character of Rotwang to go insane when he can no longer distinguish between the robot and the woman she’s impersonating.
Neuromancer/Sprawl Trilogy: Gibson is one of the undisputed master’s of cyberpunk and future noire lit and it was this novel – Neuromancer – that started it all for him. In it, he coined the terms cyberspace, the matrix, and practically invented an entire genre of Gothic, techno-noire terminology which would go on to inspire several generations of writers. His work is often compared to Blade Runner given the similar focus on urban sprawl, cybernetic enhancements, the disparity between rich and poor, and the dark imagery it calls to mind.
The first installment in the “Sprawl Trilogy”, this book takes place in the BAMA – the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis (aka. The Sprawl). In this world of the 21st century, cyberspace jockeys or cowboys use their “decks” – i.e. consoles – to hack into corporate databases and steal information. The purpose is, as always, to sell off the information to the highest bidder, usually another corporate power. In addition, guerrilla tactics and domestic terrorism are often used to get employees out of their contracts, seeing as how most companies have no intention of ever letting their talent go!
Also, there is the massive gulf that exists between the rich and the poor in these novels. Whereas the main characters tend to live in overcrowded tenements and dirty neighborhoods, the rich enjoy opulent conditions and control entire parts of the world. In addition, the richest clans, such as the Tessier-Ashpools and Vireks, actively use cloning and clinical immortality to cheat death, and often live in orbital colonies that they have exclusive rights to. Much like in his “Bigend Trilogy”, much attention is dedicated to the transformative power of wealth and how it affords one better access to the latest in technology.
But always, the focus is on the street. Here, jockeys, freelancers and Yakuza agents are at work, pulling jobs so they can buy themselves the latest enhancements and the newest gear. In the case of Molly Millions, a freelance lady-ninja, this includes razor nails that extend from her fingertips. In the case of Yakuza enforcer from the short-story (and movie) Johnny Mnemonic, it consists of a filament of monomolecular razor wire hidden inside his thumb. For others, it might consist of artificial limbs, new organs, implants of some kind. Whatever ya need, they got it in the Sprawl. If not, you go to Chiba City or Singapore, chances are it was made there anyway!
*Interesting Fact: according to Gibson, Blade Runner came out when he was still tinkering with the manuscript for this novel. After seeing it, he nearly threw the manuscript out because he was afraid Ridley Scott had pre-empted him! Funny how things work out, huh?
Final Thoughts: Gee, there really isn’t much more to say is there? One thing I have noticed is that much of modern dystopia comes to us in the form of the cyberpunk genre. Though the definition of cyberpunk appears to constantly be evolving, it is generally acknowledged that it is a postmodern form of science fiction that combines “high tech and low life.” Having sorted through several modern examples of dystopian sci-fi, I can say that this is certainly an apt description.
In essence, it assumed that the presence of high tech would entail the emergence of a dystopian society, that the endless march of progress would lead to the destruction of the environment, the devaluing of human life, the elimination of privacy, and the line between real and fake. This last aspect was especially important, embracing cybernetics, virtual reality, and things like cloning and clinical mortality. Since the 1980’s, all of these notions have infiltrated science fiction movies, television, and have even become cliches to some extent.
This genre has given rise to new kinds of science fiction as well. For example, it is generally acknowledged that a sub genre known as post-cyberpunk emerged in the 1990’s which broke away from its predecessor in one key respect. Whereas it too focused on the rise of technology, it did not anticipate dystopia as part of the process. This is best exemplified by books such as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a 21st century bildungsroman which predicted vast social and political changes as a result of nanotechnology.
Other sub genres that have emerged in recent years include “Steampunk”, a literary form that combines Victorian era technologies with the punk genres noire sensibilities. Other derivatives include Dieselpunk, Nanopunk, Biopunk, and even fantasy-punk crossovers like Elfpunk. Yes, like most things in the post modern era, it seems that literary genres are becoming fragmented and tribalistic!
But alas, I still feel the need to ask the question, what’s happened to dystopian literature of late? In my initial post, I got a lot of people asking me if I could include some more modern examples. You know, stuff that’s come out since 1984 and The Handmaids Tale. But unfortunately, what I’ve found tends to be more of the same. Just about every example of dystopian fiction appears to draw its inspiration from such handy classics as the one’s I’ve already mentioned, or is in some way traceable to them. Does this mean that we’ve hit bottom on the whole genre, or could it just be we’ve moved away from it for the time being?
Well, I recently learned from an article on IO9 that Neal Stephenson himself stated that science fiction needed to stop being so pessimistic and had to start getting inspirational again. Perhaps he’s onto something… Maybe we’ve gone too far with the whole cautionary tale and need to steer things back towards a brighter future, urging people on with common sense and technological solutions rather than laments. Maybe we need to let them know that such problems as world hunger, overpopulation, pollution, climate change, poverty, war, licentiousness and greed can all be overcome.
Then again, I’m working on a couple dystopian tales right now… Is it too much to ask that this craze last just a few years longer?
Thanks to all who’ve written in and “liked” my dystopian series! Hope to see y’all again soon as I get into ore cheerful things…
Well, it finally happened. After many interruptions, thanks to other books that made it into my reading pile, I finally capped off Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy with All Tomorrow’s Parties. And as usual, Gibson’s combination of high-tech gadgets, low-tech environments, and an assorted crew of characters are all there in full force. And, interestingly enough, I also noticed some decidedly Gibsonian traits that appear in his other trilogies.
For one, there’s that tendency of his where he switches main characters between the first and second novel, then bring them all together again for the third. And then there is his ability to end a story abruptly and in a way that’s both confusing and a little short on explanations. As you might be able to guess, I had a few problems with this book, but none to write home about. Mainly, I thought it was a fitting and faithful ending to his second trilogy, chock-full of insights, ideas, and cool concepts.
The novel takes its name from the song of the same name by Velvet Underground, which was apparently inspired by their contact with the Andy Warhol clique. The story opens in a Tokyo subway station, where the character of Colin Laney (the protagonist of Idoru) is now living in an improvised “cardboard city” with other misfits. Inside this assemblage of boxes, he spends all of his time online, following the exploits of a media baron known as Cody Harwood. Consistent with the effects of 5-SB, the drug that gives Laney his ability to discern patterns of information, he has become obsessed with this celebrity figure. However, he also sees that a nodal point is fast approaching, and that Harwood is at the center of it.
What this node is and what it entails, he cannot say exactly. All he knows for sure is it will change everything, and is set to go down in San Fransisco. To uncover the details of this , and perhaps stop it as well, he enlists help from the people of the Walled City – a virtual environment in cyberspace – Rei Toei (the Idoru), and Berry Rydell (the protagonist from Virtual Light). Meanwhile, Chevette Washington, the bike courier from Virtual Light, is also on her way to the bridge. Her new roommate, a film maker named Tessa, wants to go there so she can do a documentary on the people, how they live, and study the phenomena known as “interstitial places”. Pursued by her jealous ex-boyfriend, she agrees to accompany Tessa and show her around, and maybe reconnect with some of her fellow Bridge dwellers.
In time, and with the help of his hacker friends from the Walled City, Laney learns that Harwood has also taken 5-SB. He too has seen the nodal point approaching, and wants to shape its outcome to his liking. Although it not quite clear what its about, it seems to involve the Lucky Dragon franchise, and their incorporation or nano-assemblers in each of their outlets. In time, Rydell and Chevette arrive on the bridge, which is becoming a tourist attraction, and has a Lucky Dragon located just beyond it, with Rei Toei’s mobile projector. Several men show up and try to kill him, but he is helped unexpectedly by an assassin named Konrad – a man who is ostensibly in Harwood’s employ, but has chosen to switch sides.
After rescuing him from the first assassin, Rydell and Konrad run into Chevette at a club. She takes them her old friend Fontaine’s watch shop, where he and a young boy named Silencio – an apparent mute who is obsessed with researching watches – take them in. When Harwood is informed that they are holed up and their assassins are dying off, he orders them to set fire to the bridge. Meanwhile, in cyberspace, Laney and his Walled City friends find him and confront him. He manages to escape into the folds, but Rei Toei comes to the little boy and tells him to find a special watch – a task which is in reality a trek to find where Harwood is hiding. They track him down, and he is neutralized.
Laney and Chevette narrowly escape to Skinner’s old hideout at the top of the bridge, where they kill the last of the assassins and wait out the fire. Rescue trucks and airships begin dousing the flames, just in time to save the bulk of the population. Meanwhile, Rei uploads her program to the Lucky Dragon’s database, and when the nanoassemblers go online, they produce endless copies of her! As the nodal point comes and passes, things have changed, though not in the way Harwood wanted, and in a small cardboard box in Tokyo, Laney is found dead by some of his old associates.
Good Points/Weak Points: Much like its predecessors, this book advances the nanotechnology angle and brings it to an apparent conclusion. In book I, it was nanotech that was meant to be the means through which San Fransico was going to be rebuild after the Little Grande (aka. the Big One). It was also the means through which Tokyo was rebuild after said same earthquake. And many hints were dropped in Idoru that the character of Rei Toei, whose existence is strictly virtual, would be relying on it to manifest herself in reality. Alas, this finally seems to take place in this novel, where Rei uses the nanoassembly units in every Lucky Dragon around the world to produce copies of herself.
In addition, the concept of the nodal point is brought to its climax, where Laney and Harwood, both people who are sensitive to such things, are able to see one which will mean the end of the world. Not in the apocalyptic sense, merely that it will be the end of the world as they know it. From this description it is strongly implied that this will amount to a technological singularity, an event where advancement will speed up to the point where no one can predict the outcome. And given all the mentions of nanotech, it is entirely possible that it will be central to this transformation.
However, as I said earlier, this was not made clear. Much like with everything else at the end, explanations were lacking. What the big change-up involved, how Harwood planned to benefit, and how Silencio prevented that from happening… unclear! And Rei Toei’s involvement, her transformation and what purpose that served, also unclear. In essence, the climax just happens as describes, a few more short (really short) chapters tell what happened to all the characters once it was over, and the story ends. Little epilogue? Little conversation between the main characters explaining what they did and maybe what happened with Rei Toei? People learn the hero’s journey isn’t always an easy one?
Ah, I enjoyed reading it. Like all of Gibson’s work, it did a good job of contrasting high-tech and low, commercial applications and the streets use for them. The disparity of wealth and power also makes it in, as well as the average Joe’s ongoing attempts to subvert and resist it. In the end, Laney (the gifted social outcast), Rydell (the bewildered everyman), and Chevette (the streetwise survivor), all play a role in bringing down a major tycoon who’s only goal is to put himself at the center of the new order. Still, some indication of what that new order was and the meaning behind all his moves would have been nice!
And of course, the Walled City and Rei Toei make it back for their final appearances. Much like in Idoru, they are a shout out to the idea of artificial spaces, artificial constructs, and the line that separates them from that which is physically real. But rather than take a moralistic stance on the issue, Gibson’s approach was clearly towards the anthropological and sociological side of things. Mainly, he sought to show how humanity lives and adapts in an increasingly complex and changing world, and how the process is tied to the issue of control. Whereas everyone is effected by technological change and the social impact it has, it is clear that some are merely adapting whereas others have a degree of control over it.
And as with much of his other works, it is the disparity between the rich and the poor that is most central to Gibson. Whereas the rich occupy the top tier of society in his books, living on the cutting edge of development in comfortable, state of the art environments, the poor wait for development to trickle down to them and use it for their own purposes, meanwhile living in improvised environments made out of what’s available. In the middle, there are the “freelancers” who understand the conspiracies and agendas and do their best to expose them, hoping to do right by all the people who occupy the bottom rungs of society.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Bridge itself. Much as with the real life Walled City of Kowloon that inspired it, it all comes down to corporate interests who are trying to destroy, gentrify or commercialize it. Whereas in the first novel, the story revolved around a plot to gentrify San Fransisco through nanotechnology, in the third, those same interests try to demolish the Bridge itself because it is clearly beyond their control. It is only through the know-how and the sacrifice of those who see the larger agenda at work that it is saved, unlike the real Walled City (which was demolished between 1993/4).
It is little wonder then why this trilogy was seen as a sort of graduation for Gibson, moving from cyberpunk themed science-fiction to predictive social commentary. And while we might not be exactly where Gibson put us (2012 and we still don’t have nanomachines dammit!), the ideas he put forth in this trilogy are still on our minds. These days, people are practically holding their breaths, waiting for the day when an artificial personality will finally be realized and machines small enough to manipulate matter at the atomic level can be built. And when that happens, we can still expect that the effects will be felt unequally. Some people will be living in seamless building made from carbon nanotubes and run by AI’s, others will be living shanty’s, making appliances out of spare parts. Or, to put it as Gibson once said “the future is here, it’s just not widely distributed yet.”
The second installment in William Gibson’s “The Bridge” Trilogy. Looking back, I don’t feel like I did the first book justice with the rather short review I gave it. Not to say that my overall opinion of the book has changed, but I feel like there were elements and angles that I should have delved into a little more. But since this book took place within the same general framework as the first, I shall rectify that here! So much better than re-editing old posts, don’t you think?
What can I say about Gibson’s second “Bridge” novel? Well, for starters, I liked it! It was much more developed and intriguing than the first, to be honest. While Virtual Light was concerned with the sense of post-millennial shock, the disintegration of California and the US and the massive privatization thereof – calling to mind other books by Gibson and Stephenson’s Snow Crash – Idoru dealt mainly with the concept of celebrity and the nature of modern media. Although it is set just a few years after the events in the first novel, far less attention is given this time around to either the Pacific west coast or Japan’s experience of the big earthquake. It’s still there, just operating in the background and popping up on occasion to set the scene.
In addition, Kowloon’s Walled City makes an even bigger appearance this time around. In the first book, it is listed as the inspiration for The Bridge – aka. the Golden Gate Bridge that has become a community unto itself. This time though, it has matured into a cyberspace VR construct where people port in and live out their lives in a virtual environment. Like the original Walled City, it is a place for hackers, Otaku, and cyberpunks, people who live on the fringes of society in this day in age. In keeping with all of Gibson’s pre-Bigend novels, this is indicative of the disappearance of the middle class and the emergence of cyber communities as a form of resistance. This tribalistic behavior, taken into the digital realm, is not so much political as it is cultural.
This is best exemplified by the character Chia Pet McKenzie, a teenager who also happens to be a member of the Lo/Rez fan club. Lo/Rez is a Japanese band, a clever pun on Low-res (i.e. low resolution), and the fan site is an international community that communicates via cyberspace. The concept of “nodal points” is also introduced via the character of Laney, a man who is apparently adept at finding these nodes in information patterns. After leaving a company named SlitScan, a media giant renowned for ruining celebrities by exposing their secrets, he is hired because his unique abilities make him useful to anyone looking to find these patterns. These two characters and the plot strands that involve them come together when Rez, half of Lo/Rez, announces he wants to marry Rei Toei, the Idoru (Japanese for Idol). The Idoru is a virtual creation, a holographic person, who is apparently achieved a measure of sentience. Laney is hired to find out, via Lo/Rez’s info, why he could be doing this and/or if anyone is manipulating him (like the Idoru’s people). Chia is similarly flown to Japan to determine the cause of this as well, but on behalf of the fan club. In any case, the two finally find a way to consummate their union by obtaining nanotechnology, apparently so they can fashion her a physical body. This, however, is left open, we never see if they pulled it off or not.
All of this calls to mind several familiar Gibson themes. For starters, the concept of data mining, which makes an appearance in many of his novels. According to Gibson, the character of Laney is a fictitious rendering of himself, his ability being a metaphor for what Gibson dose on a regular basis in order to predict the future. This seems clear enough given that the theme has come up again and again in Gibson’s works (Cayce Pollard, another main character, did much the same thing in Pattern Recognition). Also, there is the concept of AI’s, digital sentience, and the increasingly blurred line between artificial and authentic. In addition, the influence of the mass media, the culture of celebrity, and the massive influence these two things plays on our society is featured throughout this book. In short, it asks the question of why people are obsessed with celebrities, want to be them, what it takes to be one, and why we want to ruin them so badly! It is also quite Warholian in how it addresses how fame has changed over time and how it is the industry that seems to determine who is famous, why, and for how long.
Overall, I could see why this book was hailed as the book that cemented Gibson’s reputation. There’s a lot going on in this book! One can see many layers of technological, cultural and social commentary, punctuated as always by Gibson’s love of sub-culture, street life, and cutting edge things. In fact, this book was quite influential in the way it predicted virtual personalities, which is something that became quite big in Japan on or around the time of the book’s publication. It was also rather prescient in the way it delved into the kinds of tribalism that have become incredibly common with the internet. On top of all that, his delving into the world of media, celebrity and the dividing line between what is real and fake (exemplified by the marriage of Rei Toei) was executed with his usual subtle genius. That was one of the things I liked best about this novel. At no point was someone saying “You can’t marry a program! It’s immoral, unnatural!” Nor was anyone arguing in favor of it by saying “Look at the world today! There IS no line between real and fake anymore!” Everyone was concerned, most people thought he’d either lost his mind or was being manipulated, but no one came right out and ANNOUNCED it. This is something that people like the makers of S1mOne, who were clearly imitating Gibson, did do (just look at that title! What an obvious binary reference!).
For one, the open ending. That applied to more than just whether or not Rez and Rei Toei ever achieved a physical union. That much I could understand given that it was the idea of it that was important, the exploration of whether or not it would ever be possible for a human and digital person to cross that boundary. But it also applied to other aspects of the story as well. For one, Laney’s ex-boss shows up deep into the story to blackmail him, and she is apparently disappeared by Lo/Rez’s head of security. We never find out if he really did anything to her or if he just scared her off. The plot thread involving her just disappears like it had become inconvenient and Gibson wanted to get rid of it. Perhaps it comes up in book three, but here, it was like a final act cut-off. This is something this book has in common with Stephenson too, ironically enough; the quick, choppy endings!
And of course, some familiar old patterns also emerge in this book and have become apparent in this trilogy as well. The first pattern is one I’ve seen in every Gibson book I’ve read yet: having one man and one woman as main characters and either hooking them up, or pairing them off with secondary characters. Some examples include Chase and Molly in Neuromancer (who hooked up with each other), Hollis and Milgrim in Zero History (who had separate hook-ups), Chevette and Rydel in Virtual Light (together), and now Laney and Chia (separate). Mind you, I’m not calling this a weakness. In fact, most people would call it a convention; interesting stories need some degree of romance to keep them from being totally dry! But it does seem just the slightest bit repetitive this time around. He also switches main characters in the second book in this trilogy, which he did with the Bigend Trilogy too, but not the Sprawl one for some reason.
Overall, a good book and a fun, fascinating read. I definitely recommend it for anyone interested in classic sci-fi or who, like me, is interesting in charting the course of cyber/post-cyberpunk literature. You see? This is the kind of treatment Virtual Light should have gotten! I’ll be sure to be this thorough from now on!
Boy, its been awhile! It seems like so long ago I was reviewing “Virtual Light” and looking forward to doing the rest of the “Bridge Trilogy”. Well, I didn’t forget. In truth I was just about finished reading Idoru – the second book in the trilogy – but then I decided to leave it in Red Deer for some reason. I managed to get a new copy, but then, wouldn’t you know it, I bought the box set of A Song of Fire and Ice and then started reviewing someone else’s book for them too! Somedays, I tell you, I think I might have literary ADHD! So, given my obvious need for structure, I thought I might make a list of all the books I intend to read and review in the coming weeks and try to stick to it for once!
For starters, there’s Idoru, which I’m just finishing but need some time to digest. Not only is this an important book in Gibson’s “Bridge Trilogy”, it is apparently what cemented his fame as an author after Neuromancer so I wanna take my time with it. But I will say that as far as first impressions go, I can see what the critics meant when they said this. Whereas Gibson’s earlier books tended to deal with cyberspace and the dark underbelly of society in the information age, this one tackled the vagaries of celebrity and media in said same era.
A follow-up with All Tomorrow’s Parties will then be necessary to complete the trilogy, and because I already bought the book. Thank you Amazon for your slow but reliable delivery system! Then, I shall turn to my pile of Kindle books since I’ve been scooping them up ever since my friend from Red Deer (hey Chi!) bought me this iPad! I tell ya, the thing is not the best typing implement, but man is it good for reading! I actually get more done on it than with a conventional book, may the God of paperbacks forgive me (blessed be his cellulose appendages)!
Speaking of which, that would be where A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin (“the American Tolkien”) comes in. After getting hooked like crack on the HBO miniseries of “A Game of Thrones” which covers the events in the first novel, I got myself the box set for my Kindle app. Well, truth be told, I bought the second book and THEN bought the box set on Kindle. Quite looking at me like I’m drugs, it was a deal I tell ya! And yes, I was hoping to buy them individually, but three books in paperback or all four on Kindle for roughly the same price, before the added cost of shipping and handling? You do the math! Besides, duplicates don’t really count if they’re not taking up space on a shelf, right?
However, all those must wait until I finish reading and reviewing a book by a fellow self-pub ebook author who goes by the name of Randy Attwood. His book Rabbletown: Life in These United Christian States of Holy America is an interesting look at fundamentalism in America and a new dark ages. This authors book came to my attention by way of my writers group, The Herscher Project, a few weeks back and I agreed to take his book on and give it its due. Look for my review in the coming days! I should also take this opportunity to mention that this same group will be putting out an anthology shortly, a collection of the group’s dystopian narratives from over the years. Look for it in ebook format when it comes out, and pay close attention to a little story called “Domicile 4.5”. I’ll give ya a hint, it’s by me 😉
Recently, I’ve taken to posting quotes by the great science fiction authors on twitter. Most are from the authors I draw the most inspiration from, others are just from people I admire and who offered some wisdom along the way. Like a true nerd, I keep these things in a file on my computer, adding to it every time I find a new one or think up one myself. Might sound odd but I find it useful, it offers fresh inspiration and perspective whenever I’ve hit a wall or am not sure how a piece of writing is turning out. Today, I thought I’d share a few of the gems that have really inspired me over the years. To be fair, some of them are not science-fiction related, or even by authors; they’re just moments of brilliance captured in an utterance. Here are a few:
“We sit atop a sort of anthill of technologies. At the bottom there’s fire, and growing cereal grains, and learning to store cereal – all those things that people have to store edible energy and start building cities. Not that we’re the crown of creation; we are at the crown of technological creation at any given moment.” -William Gibson during an interview after writing “Pattern Recognition”
“It’s impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information.”
“The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…”
“When I began to write fiction that I knew would be published as science fiction, [and] part of what I brought to it was the critical knowledge that science fiction was always about the period in which it was written.”
“. . . the street finds its own uses for things.” -Other tidbits from Gibson, who’s nothing if not prolific in his observations!
“The difference between stupid and intelligent people—and this is true whether or not they are well-educated—is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.” -Neal Stephenson, “The Diamond Age”
“Ronald Reagan has a stack of three-by-five cards in his lap. He skids up a new one: “What advice do you, as the youngest American fighting man ever to win both the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, have for any young marines on their way to Guadalcanal?”
Shaftoe doesn’t have to think very long. The memories are still as fresh as last night’s eleventh nightmare: ten plucky Nips in Suicide Charge! “Just kill the one with the sword first.” “Ah,” Reagan says, raising his waxed and penciled eyebrows, and cocking his pompadour in Shaftoe’s direction. “Smarrrt–you target them because they’re the officers, right?” “No, fuckhead!” Shaftoe yells. “You kill ’em because they’ve got fucking swords! You ever had anyone running at you waving a fucking sword?” -Stephenson, “Cryptonomicon”. One of the funniest written passages I’ve ever read, and fitting because it puts Reagan in his proper, historically accurate place!
“I just think talk of suffering should be left to those who’ve actually suffered.” -Jack (a First Nations former student I knew. As soon as he said it, I knew that I had just heard one of the smartest things ever said by anybody, anywhere, ever!)