The Jewels of Aptor

The Jewels of Aptor is Samuel Delany’s first book, written when he was just 19 and published a year later. His wife, the poet Marilyn Hacker (with whom he went on to edit the speculative fiction anthology/journal Quarkwas an assistant editor at Ace Books at the time, and so nepotism greased the machine to give the world this weird, highfalutin’ fantasy novel about the dark gods of the future and the post-nuclear mutants who believe in them.

I’m tempted to draw parallels between this book and Octavia Butler’s Patternmaster, which I reviewed a few weeks ago: they’re both early novels from iconic black science fiction writers who made careers on unflinchingly drawing out the sexual, racial, and gendered subtexts of the genre. They both employ a narrative conceit that I call “Mythological Futurism,” that is, they set their action in such a distant post-apocalyptic world that the technology of our time has been reduced to a set of symbolic associations, fables, and ruins. They both erase the world, tabula rasa, and give it back to the reader in knowing glimpses: fragments of once-great cities peeking out from overgrown jungles, piecemeal stories about a mute people who once built machines and traveled to the stars. The difference, however, is that Delany’s novel predates Butler’s by a decade–enough of a gap that it could well have been an influence–and is much more ambitious.

Science fiction appears to welcome young genius. Maybe it’s the imaginative streak of youth, or its proximity to the leading edge of the future: Bradbury was published at eighteen, as were Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl. John Brunner published his first novel, Galactic Storm, when he was seventeen, and Theodore Sturgeon sold his first story when he was twenty. Of course, none of those guys are as good as Delany, whose command of language in The Jewels of Aptor is rare at any age.

The novel is intensely lyrical, complicated, and peppered with poems and songs whose strangeness suits the fact that they’re supposed to be ritual fragments from an alien civilization. It’s heavily mythic, a kind of post-apocalyptic hero’s trial where the journey’s purpose weaves and folds into itself like one of Mandelbrot’s fractal coastlines: you must seek a goddess on a damned island populated by shape-shifting creatures. No, wait, the goddess is manifoldShe is and isn’t her own mother. Thieves and poets run wild. What are the jewels, technology or magic?

This, it turns out, is the central theme of the novel: the distinctions (and diffusions) between magic and technology. In this novel, isolated cults employ the scientific tools of the nuclear age (or, rather, what’s left of it) in a highly ritualized manner. Casualties of the bomb, generations down the line, barely resemble humanity but rather a hierarchy of mutants and flying creatures straight out of Dante. Words banal to our ears float through their minds like mystical incantations: radio, electricity, diode. A television, without context, in the hands of such a believer, takes on oracular form. Where religion is a culture performed publicly, technology, in this novel, is a kind of cargo cult secreted in the jungle, bearing occult knowledge.

In principle, religion satisfies its own metaphysical ends, but magic is a functional art, one which shoots for tangible results. In this respect, magic already resembles technology and science–it doesn’t take much to imagine their conflation somewhere down the timeline–and Delany plays knowingly with these nebulous distinctions. The end result of the hero’s journey to procure a handful of magical jewels is that they could be used to build an engine. When they are lost, it’s discovered that they were just shorthands; machines can (and will) be built without them. It’s the knowledge that was sacred.

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Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews

Ray Bradbury always seemed out of synch with the contemporary science fiction milieu: he wrote on a typewriter until the end, was sentimental, loved circuses, dreams, toys, fantasies, myths, loathed technology to the point of never driving a car, and never concerned himself much with scientific fact. Reading Listen to the Echoesa book of conversations between Bradbury and his biographer Sam Weller, is like entering another world entirely–a little like sitting cross-legged on the rug in Bradbury’s study, I’d imagine, poking around his papers, listening to stories about the old days, and occasionally taking a break to play canasta.

Weller: You have long associated the space race with religion and faith. What is the connection?

Bradbury: Exploring space is our effort to become immortal. If we stay here on Earth, human beings are doomed, because someday the sun will either explode or go out. By going out into space, first back to the moon, then to Mars, and then beyond, man will live forever.

It definitely doesn’t make Bradbury come off as any more avant-garde, but it does clarify him as an authentic individual who cared deeply about the ephemeral magic of creativity. The artists he admired–John Huston, Frederico Fellini, George Bernard Shaw, to name a few–he loved, deeply, with the emotional resonance of a child. His relationship to the creative process was beautiful; he wrote every day and would sometimes sob when re-reading his old work, feeling that it came from somewhere beyond his mind. He was formed by experiences he chose to interpret as mystical: a circus performer who touched his forehead as a child and pronounced “live forever,” for example, or a glimpse at the Apollo lander through the window of the Smithsonian one night, lit up briefly by a bolt of lightning in a rainstorm.

Weller: Did you know Philip K. Dick?

Bradbury: Forty years ago we were together at a bar and we talked. You meet people and you realize they don’t like being alive. They don’t like talking. He seemed pretty negative.

In a climate of “hard” writing, Bradbury was the softest of the O.G. science fiction canonists. The man who famously, in The Martian Chronicles, put oxygen on Mars, didn’t care much for science–or any other system of knowing. He wasn’t impressed by any critical or formal approach to writing. As a self-educated person (and a dreamer), he burned bright for ideas, not ideologies. I think that for Bradbury, science was a functional metaphor, and science fiction a methodology for tapping into grander, more archetypal kinds of stories. When it comes down to it, he wrote fables and myths about the future, not extrapolations.

The Paris Review: Do you think science fiction offers the writer an easier way to get at ideas?

Bradbury: I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, into the face of Medusa, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield, then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of the truth that is immediately in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricocheted truth, which enables you to swallow it and have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and super-intellectual.

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The Drowned World

Epochs drifted. Giant waves, infinitely slow and enveloping, broke and fell across the sunless beaches of the time-sea, washing him helplessly in its shallows. He drifted from one pool to another, in the limbos of eternity, a thousand images of himself reflected in the inverted mirrors of the surface.

To share Ballard with someone is to bridge unconscious minds. To describe his books is impossible. On the surface, The Drowned World is a post-apocalyptic story about solar radiation, melted icecaps, and the great cities of the Western world submerged in brackish water. But this scientific conceit is a formality, something to explain away the deliberately surreal environment: high-rise towers rising from viscous lagoons, fata morganas of light on the throbbing horizon, gymnosperms and iguanas poised like gargoyles among the heat-warped ruins of civilization. It’s a shockingly languid, sensuous book, a romance to the Precambrian era. I read it mostly at night during a heatwave, but it doesn’t need that context to feel like a half-remembered fever dream.

Driven by heady dreams themselves, the characters in The Drowned World all share an inexplicable urge to move South, towards the equator and, metaphysically, into the sun. Which is where the pulp paperback qualities of this novel break down and The Drowned World reveals what it really is: a tango between the motivations of a lost sacral brain and the higher power of symbol. There’s this idea that if we change our environment, we change our minds: as the Earth reverts to primordial stew, human consciousness seemingly falls deeper and deeper down the brainstem, into more primitive and inarticulate forms. Time slows to a glutinous wah; the sun becomes clock and master. Lizard brain, if you will. Ballard postulates a genetic memory of not only our own species, but the entire unbroken neurophysical history of life.

“As we move back through geophysical time so we re-enter the amniotic corridor and move back through spinal and archaeopsychic time, recollecting in our unconscious minds the landscapes of each epoch…this is no scenic railway, but a total re-orientation of the personality.”

With this fake science, Ballard speculates that cities order man, not vice-versa. Change the container and we ooze into premodern forms, content to gaze into the sun and occasionally dive below the water, to discover, say, a drowned planetarium, great symbol of the human past, recontextualized as a cosmic womb. This scene, incidentally, slays: deep underwater and within the uterine dome of a planetarium sky, our protagonist, Kerans, watches an unfamiliar zodiac form “before his eyes like the first vision of some pelagic Cortez emerging from the oceanic deeps to glimpse the immense Pacifics of the open sky.”

Our pelagic explorer has sunk deeply into the grey sweet mother of us all, and in this moment recalls Socrates’ metaphor, in Plato’s Phaedo, of a fish who gazes up at the sea and believes it to be the sky. Like sea-creatures who believe the void of corroding brine to be the limit of all there is, “we are dwelling in a hollow of the earth,” he says, “and fancy that we are on the surface; and the air we call the heaven, and in this we imagine that the stars move.” For Plato, this is a way of thinking in scales, of remembering that the sky begins at our feet; for Ballard, it represents a gradual, but welcome, contraction of perception back into a pre-evolutionary blip.

Simon O’Carrigan, Study for “Lagoon,” from The Drowned World, 2008.

The asphyxiating lagoon that was London is, at one point in the novel, briefly drained. The buildings and streets slowly emerge from their amniotic beds, dripping with brine and foul algae. Kerans roams the ruins at night, disembodied and completely unable to come to terms with the sudden return of what this once-ordered city represented: chronological time, form, society, and geographical specificity. The global cataclysm that triggered the floods has, by then, erased the notion of urbanity from human consciousness–made it feel as unnatural as it always-already was. It’s a relief when the levee breaks and the warm oozing tides of oblivion descend once more upon the stage.

Simon O’Carrigan, another Study for “Lagoon,” from The Drowned World, 2008.

The reborn sun dominates: one character goes blind navigating through the jungle to follow it. All of Ballard’s books feel like great unmade films. They are so visual, sensory. We, as readers, are all gazing into the same heat-warped lagoon, but the symbols which jump into our minds arrange themselves differently for each of us. Ballard is deft and unapologetic about his predilection for largely symbolic narratives. For many cultures that use magic, symbols are seen as a type of technology.

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Ray Bradbury’s Birthday, William Gibson, and Being Science-Fictional in Los Angeles

Los Angeles is arguably the science fiction capital of America. Blade Runner’s iconic sino-Futuristic downtown notwithstanding, there’s a strong historical lineage for science fiction in the Southland: the fan culture which took root here mid-century, the early conventions, the legacy of Forrest J. Ackerman and his one-man museum of memorabilia, Ray Bradbury’s lifetime on the West Side, Harlan Ellison’s local screeds, and, of course, the Hollywood culture machine, which has been spitting out genre epics from backlots in Burbank since time immemorial. Science fiction in L.A. has had many stomping grounds, from the fourth-floor dining room of Clifton’s Cafeteria, where the early heads congregated over free lime sherbet, to the hallowed halls of the L.A. Science Fiction and Fantasy Society clubhouse in North Hollywood, but it’s also always everywhere, just a feeling, something disconnected about a city both so fake and real.

I have been enjoying, very much, being a science fiction reader in Los Angeles.

Not only does the city’s atmosphere of accreting globalization, total simultaneity, and neon lend itself perfectly to my inner wanderings, but the culture is alive and well. Several weeks ago, I attended a birthday party for Ray Bradbury at Mystery and Imagination Books in Glendale. When he was alive, Ray would spend his birthdays at the bookstore, signing for fans and eating cake; after he passed away this year, the owners decided to keep the tradition going. Friends in the community took turns telling stories about Ray, showing off old letters, and reading miscellaneous Bradburiana. Old men in thick glasses sat nestled on plastic chairs like thrones. Christine Bell, the owner of Mystery and Imagination, gave a halting eulogy to her friend that brought the whole room to tears.

On the other end of the spectrum, I also recently saw William Gibson speak at the Last Bookstore. In a sense it was the perfect genre dichotomy: while Mystery & Imagination is a hole-in-the wall bookshop, all lurid pulp paperbacks stacked vertiginously (and tends to host moldies and tenderhearted horror geeks), The Last Bookstore is a cavernous warehouse, an old bank building in the always-already cyberpunk milieu of downtown L.A.

Gibson was chewing gum and perpetually craning his neck to gawk at the monstrous ceilings, like some kind of enfant terrible bobble-head. He kept referring to the bookstore itself as the perfect example of science fiction’s divergent predictions; if a person from 100 years ago were to peer through a time-portal at us sitting on folding chairs in this once-grand building perverted, he postulated, they would have thought we were dressed like longshoremen and wouldn’t recognized our activity as something cultural. He called the store “glorious, Borgesian, mad in the best possible way.”

He had some great things to say about the early days of cyberpunk, too, namely that the moment the epithet materialized, he immediately sought to avoid the inevitable typecasting to follow. “If we get any on us,” he remembers thinking, “we’re finished.” The attempt wasn’t quite a success; he recalled looking around and realizing that all his contemporaries were lining up to get “Cyberpunk” stamped on the backs of their jean jackets. “I didn’t want to spoil the party.”

He called contemporary SF a “forest of unfamiliar names” and confessed to reading scarcely any of it. Essentially, he said, it’s not a problem with the genre–rather, it’s a problem of genre itself. When science fiction aficionados write off all other fiction as “mundane,” something is wrong, he said, adding, “Isaac Asimov is far out and Cormac McCarthy is mundane? And you want me to talk to you?”

Other great Gibsonisms from my notes:

  • “The banal Holiday Inn-like ruins of post-Tolkien epic fantasy”
  • “In The Wire, we have our Dickens”
  • “Bruce Sterling is the Leon Trotsky of cyberpunk”

Of his recent trilogy’s (Pattern RecognitionSpook Country, and Zero History) diversion away from science fiction, he summed it up as a recalibration of his weirdness stick:

In order to induce the kind of cognitive dissonance we come to good science fiction for, one must have a yardstick for how weird it is right now. My yardstick of weirdness was too short to describe the weirdness outside my window.

Which is as fair a description of Los Angeles as I could summon right now: weirdness outside the window, ever-changing, and rife with exactly the kind of cognitive dissonance we come to good science fiction (and interesting cities) to experience.

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Patternmaster

I have an arcane personal system for reading. It’s basically a hierarchy of dog-earing: big folds at the top corners of the page when I put a book down, and precise little tucks on the bottom corners when a passage strikes my interest. Later, when I have a pen, I trace back through the dog-eared pages and underline specific lines–although I don’t often remember what moved me at first reading. A casual observer can tell immediately which books did it for me: they are peppered at the edges with accordion folds, and shed tiny triangles of old paper when handled. I read Patternmaster, Octavia Butler’s first published novel, in an afternoon and it contains precisely one dog-ear: a poor rating.

The essential premise is that eons from now, the human race has split into three distinct evolutionary categories: Patternists, mutes, and Clayarks. Patternists are psychic knights who are all tenuously linked to one another through the “Pattern,” a sparkling web of power and consciousness. They control the world; to them, the non-psychic are little more than animals. Clayarks, on the other hand, are a proud tribal race of creatures who look like lions and lack the ability to read and control minds. These two groups are sworn enemies, so mortally separate that they scarcely ever come within a mile of each other without flinging arrows, psychic and material.

Patternists and Clayaks stared at each other across a gulf of disease and physical difference and comfortably told themselves the same lie about each other: “Not people.”

Mutes, humans like you and me, aren’t even part of the equation. There are rumors that the mute race once built a mechanized society, traveled to the stars, and that this somehow led to the present situation, but they’re dispelled as myths. Patternmaster is a future epic that, without its glimmer of temporal premise, would be a fantasy novel. There are Lords, horse-riding and fiefdoms. It only hints at the themes which later developed over the course of Butler’s significant oeuvre: gender issues, empathy, class struggle, and racial anxiety.

What I’d like to discuss here is not the plot of Patternmaster, nor the merits of Butler’s later career, but a trope within science fiction that this book perfectly expresses. Imagine a future so distant that our present has become mythological, and all the things we associate with science fiction–viz. technology, space travel, modernity–have become inward experiences. Instead of zap guns, we have telepathic warfare. Instead of travel to the stars, we have a starlike map of consciousness. It’s a distinctly unfuturistic future, one where society functions like juiced-up medieval history, and monarchy and the mind are the only forms of power.

The implication, presumably, is that our current epoch is a folly, an outlier, and that once we shake our obsession with gadgetry, we’ll understand the full force of the focused human mind, and replace theories and ideas with myths and stories. It relegates the entire span of the industrialized world into a chronological blip, rendered irrelevant by time. This genre deserves a name, and I propose Mythological Futurism.

Mythological Futurism has a strong lineage. We see elements of it in the entheogenic space travel and interstellar feudalism of Dune; all over the work of Samuel Delany, particularly in the Einstein Intersection, which takes place in a future so remote that the Beatles are half-remembered as gods; and in the broad chronological strokes of Olaf Stapledon, of course. Clifford Simak’s A Choice of Gods goes there beautifully, too, as does much of the canon of Jack Vance (undoubtedly there are scores more, and I look to my readers to fill me in). These are post-historical narratives, stories that have mutated far beyond us and somehow returned full-circle to the slow dreamtime of early human history.

At its worst, placing a narrative in such a remote future can turn science fiction into fantasy, absolving the writer of the responsibility of operating within real-world, or extrapolated real-world, physics. At its best, it zooms the human struggle out to a poetic and universal whole. I can’t say exactly where Patternmaster falls on that spectrum; in a sense it’s too grounded to be fantasy, but it’s also too concise to thrill as an ambitious work of science fiction (only one dog-ear, after all). That said, the difference between science fiction and fantasy, in this case, is essentially semantic; here is a world where technologies are so advanced as to be invisible, and its effects could be classified as magical if Butler chose to describe them as such.

Perhaps the distinction, then, lies in the gradients of myth. If, in the culture of its telling, a myth is regarded as a true account of the remote past, then a writer who scries forward through the same ahistorical fog–who tucks technology back into a magical space, building fables for remote aeons–is building a kind of sacred narrative for the future.

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In The Beginning…Was the Command Line

When Neal Stephenson penned In the Beginning…Was the Command Line in 1999, a book of technical essays had a short shelf life. Now, it’s almost inconceivable that a writer would dedicate as much time to lovingly detailing the essence of his favorite operating systems; by the time the book was released, it’d be obsolete. And so this slim classic of the genre, in which the “Hacker’s Hemingway” breathlessly pontificates on Linux, is now more of a historical relic than a timely rant on tech. That said, it’s still not obsolete.

It is Stephenson’s specific virtue in this text that although he happily roots around in the muck of programming–a true nerd, Stephenson dedicates entire chapters to open-source evangelism and refers to Unix as the Gilgamesh epic of hacker subculture–he also flings great and lofty observations up from below. The prevailing metaphor in this book is the command line, which Stephenson likens to a direct channel into the heart of the computer. In the days of command-line programming, users needed to be versed in computer language, needed to stretch themselves to understand the perimeters of machine logic. They had to make an effort. The same kind of effort, Stephenson argues, that people made back in the days of book-reading and old-fashioned culture learnin’: it wasn’t easy to read canonical texts and turn them into knowledge, but that was the nature of being a person. Stephenson writes, “just as the command line interface open a much more direct and explicit channel from user to machine than the GUI, so it is with words, writer, and reader.”

With the advent of the graphical user interface (or GUI) the hallowed tradition of command-line tinkering was sublimated into something palatable to the lay user, the person uninterested in learning to code for themselves. The personal computing revolution democratized use, but in doing so, placed an opaque veil between the user and the command line, which is to say, the computer at its essence. Stephenson compares this to a Disneyfication of culture; just Disney turns mythology, literature, and folk tale into flat symbols, into adventure parks and perfectly-manicured replicas, so did Windows turn the arcane (and often torturous) relationship between computer and user into a theme park of visual mixed metaphors.

Stephenson’s deconstruction of those metaphors, incidentally, is a highlight of this book; his passage on how “Saving” documents is really a form of annihilation and replacement rips, delightfully, into the bloated interface design elements we all take for granted. What we’re really buying when we buy an operating system, he writes, is not just these faulty metaphors but “the underlying assumption that metaphors are a good way to deal with the world.” Metaphors work for writing, they work for Disneyland, and they have made software companies a lot of money over the years, but is something lost along the way when hard things are made easy? Are those “desktop metaphors” just magic mirrors, concealing the guts of real computing?

Being a dyed-in-the-wool hacker, Stephenson thinks so. In his estimation, despite the fact that we sometimes want to go to Disneyland, the sheer power and complexity of a Linux machine overrides everything. Which makes sense: a writer is someone who likes to take the lid off of things and meddle around inside. A science fiction writer is an even worse case, someone fascinated with the dirty mechanisms that, beneath the surface, shore up those metaphors which turn the impossible detail of reality into a story that makes sense. In an increasingly technological world, the hacker model of science fiction authorship depends on an open channel down to that root–a command line, if you will–as it’s those mechanisms, flawed or otherwise, that propel us into the future.

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Idoru

As a rule, I avoid judging the quality of a science fiction novel by the success of its predictions. For one, it’s too easy. And I inherently distrust any method of judging literature as cleanly qualitative as “did this invention end up being true”?

Although science fiction’s role isn’t necessarily to be prophetic, it often fulfills its own predictions. The predictive quality of the genre is how you sell science fiction to neophytes: did you know Arthur C. Clarke invented the geosynchronous communications satellite? Jules Verne the modern submarine? Granted, when writers have imagined 10,000 different futures, a few of them are bound to be true–monkeys at typewriters and all that. Still, some form of prescience, whether it pans out or not, is an essential dimension of science fiction, and a variable completely absent from almost all other literature. For that reason, it’s interesting.

A creative approach to future-making isn’t just a burden of conceit. It can actually alter the future; new ideas, presented via radically dissociated future-scenarios in literature, can help us realize the prevalence of old ones, and shock us into perception. This is to say that a strictly pragmatic, humanist, or scientific approach to understanding history (and I include the history of the future in that statement) is not often the most accurate. The unexpected happens continually in the history of science, as in the history of humankind; ideas that seemed like nutty fantasies in the heyday of early science fiction look cute now, because the future is explosive and manifold and strange. Sometimes the best way to predict the future is to make outlandish projections, imaginative assumptions, and intuitive guesses–all the purview of artists.

The great science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon, in the preface to his epic evolutionary future history Last and First Men, explained it this way:

We are not set up as historians attempting to look ahead instead of backwards. We can only select a certain thread out of the tangle of many equally valid possibilities. But we must select with a purpose. The activity that we are undertaking is not science, but art; and the effect that it should have on the reader is the effect that art should have.

I love this idea of selecting “a certain thread” from a tangle of possibilities; to me, it really speaks to the complex, simultaneous, and utterly subjective experience of “future” and “futuristic” things. We often confuse futurism, of course, with the high-tech experience; after all, the present day was once the future, and there are plenty of people living on the Earth who live day-to-day much as their ancestors did, unchanged.  For a writer to suss out a thread from such an uneven present in this way and draw it to narrative extrapolation–what the literary critic Robert Scholes calls a “projected dislocation of our known experience”–they need a sense of the tangle, they need to be able to see the larger picture, the context, to see which threads throb with importance and which are just uselessly snarled, going nowhere.

This, to actually get to the subject of this review, is William Gibson’s genius. He often writes about people who are able to cut through webs of information, sensing patterns. Like his characters, the data cowboys, he can see interwoven threads and pull them in just the right place, elegantly displaying the nature of the knot. To wit, he once compared himself to Colin Laney, the protagonist of his 1996 novel Idoru, whose peculiar talent lies in sieving “nodal points” of relevance from vast fields of data:

Laney’s node-spotter function is some sort of metaphor for whatever it is that I actually do. There are bits of the literal future right here, right now, if you know how to look for them. Although I can’t tell you how; it’s a non-rational process.

Like Stapledon said, it’s not a science. As a non-rational process, the results have the effect that art has. But because it plays with interpretations of reality, and because reality is often irrational, the results can–especially when the node-spotting ability is strong–incant elements of the real future.

Idoru centers around Rei Toei, an artificial intelligence embodied as a Japanese idol singer. She manifests holographically, draws deeply from the public web, and is a multiplicity of things to different people. There are as many versions of  Rei Toei as there are fans, with each fan constructing her identity, performance, and form based on their preference. There are some truly beautiful descriptions of her shimmering iteration, coded with icy imagery in shards, the hologram only a visible manifestation of some unthinkable volume, “an Antarctica,” of information. Consistently described as cold, as snow, she moves unhindered from the world to to the web, changing form, like a ghost. The central crisis of the novel is that an important man wishes to marry her: an unholy union of the flesh and the digital.

I’m certainly not the first to draw this parallel, but the fictional Rei Toei was computer grandmother to Hatsune Miku, a real-life digital idol, a blue-haired avatar that is the biggest pop star in Japan. Like Rei Toei, she is an empty shell for the creative impulses of her fans, who write her songs on  Vocaloid 2, a “singer in a box” software platform designed by Yamaha. In a sense, Hatsune Miku is even better than her fictional forebear, because (despite being owned by a technology firm called Crypton Future Media) the songs, illustrations, videos, and sundry visual fanfic that make up her multifarious identity are all collectively authored by her millions of fans. She doesn’t just present herself uniquely to each user; instead, each user uniquely makes her. In concert, in front of millions of screaming fans toting glowsticks, she is conjured from the web into a massive pony-tailed hologram flanked by a live band. Each song performed is the result of a massive pool of user-noodling on the Vocaloid software, perfectly synthesized and on-pitch, belonging to everyone while simultaneously being unachievable for anyone.

It’s uncanny that, in 1996, Gibson could spot the cresting twin vertices of Japanese pop-idol culture and the democratization of mass-media, infer their ultimate collision, and give us Rei Toei. But it’s the particular skill of the science fiction writer to draw those threads; this strange hybrid of digital pop culture was undoubtedly a long time coming.

And stranger things await us still, if we know where to look.

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Ray Bradbury Was For The Humans

It was the summer of 1992 when I picked up my first Ray Bradbury novel at a yard sale. A paperback copy of The Martian Chronicles beat up beyond repair, it still surreptitiously toted the markings of a public library on its inside jacket pocket. I was eight. I slipped out the library card; no one had checked it out since the mid-1970s. Seduced by the cover – a man in horn-rimmed glasses, hair parted do-goody to the side, flanked by an ominous red planet – I bought it for a kid nickel, and skipped home, all white Keds on black asphalt.

I remember everything about that day: how I flopped onto a couch in my parents’ house, savoring the cool of the basement, and propped the old paperback on my knees with a shrug. How the cover was held on by yellowing Scotch tape, the corners dog-eared into smooth nubs. How the grey concrete walls of the basement slowly disintegrated, replaced by the quiet whirl of interstellar space.

How I could no longer see our rope swing out the window, or hear the familiar click-click of the sprinkler: only the hazy orange light of a Martian sunrise, the siren call of distant alien songs. How suddenly I was floating through space and time, my sweaty legs still stuck to the couch leather.

In retrospect, my initiation was classic Bradbury. His stories, even when they ebbed far into the reaches of interstellar space, always remained anchored in the warm grit of everyday life.

Sure, he tackled planetary conquests, near and distant futures, and cybernetic pathos, and his fear of technology dampening the human spirit was nearly divinatory. But he wasn’t married to the machines. The guy didn’t even drive a car. Instead he spent his life giving voice to the dreams, heartbreak, sacrifice, and tiny quotidian tragedies lived by the people that the future left behind.

Bradbury, in short, was for the humans, and to peg him as merely a science-fiction writer is to diminish the scope of his work.

His stories swelled from a fountainhead of seemingly indomitable faith in the human spirit; even his most prescient dystopia, Fahrenheit 451, trusts the human race so much that it imagines an entire colony of people who devote their lives to memorizing, word for word, the books their totalitarian government hopes to eradicate. His baddies were always those who dared rob humanity of its culture, exploit its capacity for love, or pervert the sticky-sweet flow of childhood memory. For Bradbury, science was a metaphor, a great force which might, if employed incorrectly, corrupt the starry-eyed eight-year-olds within us all. His science-fiction went beyond the ghetto of genre; it was universal, literary, with the lasting quality of myth.

From the first page of The Martian Chronicles, and with every page that followed, Ray Bradbury lulled me into a reverie of grandiose proportions from which, over twenty years later, I still have not yet awoken. He didn’t toss me, or any of his readers, into the future unthinkingly. Rather, he showed us an unbroken continuum stippled with the same cresting melancholia and folly that has always characterized the human experience.

Ray Bradbury was gentle, sometimes exceedingly sentimental, with a wizardly knack for story; above all, however, he was our shepherd, luring us first into the sweeping, dusty vistas of Mars, and then forward into the infinite.

* This little elegy to my departed science fictional hero first appeared yesterday on Motherboard, but I thought I’d share it to my readers here. 

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What Happened to Cyberpunk?

Image by Dream Beam.

Any regular reader of Space Canon knows my fondness for cyberpunk; Gibson, Rudy Rucker, and Bruce Sterling have all received breathless passes on these pages. Cyberpunk at its peak–before the movement was co-opted by 90s ‘netsploitation flicks and video games–was sexy, prescient, fiercely countercultural, and absolutely the medium most fit for our impending technological milieu.

Still, even an old head like me knows that cyberpunk today is associated more with rollerblades, bad computer animation and mirrored sunglasses than any intellectual subculture of note. For most people, it’s basically a joke: ha ha, let’s rent Hackers! And yet, we live in a world where crypto-anarchic hacker cabals launch decentralized attacks on megacorporations and governments, where institutional intrusion into the Internet threatens our privacy, where even the most milquetoast norm lives half their life online. Which is to say, shouldn’t the issues raised by cyberpunk fiction be more relevant than ever?

Basically, what happened? Where did cyberpunk go? Well, the question piqued me so much that I wrote a long piece on the subject for my favorite blog, Motherboard. In the process, I managed to get essentially every major cyberpunk author, ranging from the O.G. participants to those who have (for better or worse) inherited their legacy, to contribute their thoughts on the question. Rudy Rucker offered this, “If nobody’s pissed off, you’re not trying hard enough. I’ll never stop being a cyberpunk.” William Gibson, on the other hand, was less rough-and-tumble; “Cyberpunk today,” he noted, “is a standard Pantone shade in pop culture.”

Want to know what Neal Stephenson said? Or Charlie Stross? Check out all ten cyberpundits’ contributions at “It Evolved Into Birds: Ten Science-Fictional Thinkers On the Past and Future of Cyberpunk.” And don’t miss the original essay, “What Happened to Cyberpunk?” And if that’s your thing, it’s blowing up on Reddit right now.

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The Day of the Triffids

Hi. This is about a deceptively stuffy British novel, The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham. I really like postwar British science fiction. There’s something richly strange and dissociative about the juxtaposition of pure fantasy and Britannic reasonableness; I suppose being civilized in the face of abject horror would be an inevitable literary coping mechanism of the 1950s.

The horror in The Day of the Triffids is, of course, the titular Triffid, a tall, mobile plant that carries a deadly sting. Before you balk at the notion of a plant being a legitimate sci-fi baddie, consider the vegetable kingdom: we often forget that plants, like ourselves, live linear lives. Trees are born, become saplings, creepily grow, mature, and then die standing. They just do it in a much longer and much less mobile time frame than we do; they are so immobile and quiet, in fact, that they rarely remind us they’re alive at all.

On some level, this thundering silence is eerie; lulled into complacency, we ignore most plants completely, even if we claim to love them. And what’s more frightening than something you always considered to be reliably benign–something, to boot, that cloaks the planet–wrapping a slowly tightening branch around your neck? Hence the Triffid: scary as hell, a plant waiting in the wings to destroy us all.

When the entire human race is rendered blind by an unexplained cosmic event, then largely wiped out by an ensuing plague, these lumbering plants, once cultivated, multiply in droves. Where there is a sickly human groping through the darkness, there stands a Triffid, lashing its poisonous whip and then slowly–like a Venus flytrap–consuming the corpses.

All that said, The Day of the Triffids is less about triffids than it is a straight morning-after-the-end-of-the-world tale. Our hero bats off the carnivorous plants, but that struggle is largely secondary to raiding abandoned grocery stores, stockpiling grain, learning how to farm, and rescuing the sick. We see him join militarized groups, mourn old England, and siphon gasoline.

Yet despite all this civility, no aspect of the cataclysm is ever really explained, and there’s no moral judgement on the extinction of the race: it’s just something senseless and inexplicable, natural as an Ice Age. Sure, we made the triffids, but it’s not a cautionary tale. Because maybe we didn’t. Wyndham doesn’t press the point: the moral, rather, seems to be that history on a grand scale is indifferent to the triumphs and apparent stability of individual nations, or great cities–eventually it all goes to seed, and we must adapt or be destroyed. It’s only when our hero has built a farm, stood his ground, that he realizes the triffids might be unbeatable; he toils constantly, but they quietly reproduce, begin crowding his fences like lemmings, their slow tenacity and vegetable hive mind a menacing advantage.

The psychedelic philosopher Terrence McKenna spoke of the “vegetable mind” of the planet, an ancient and emergent intelligence that encompasses the entire ecosystem of global plant life. In his appraisal, connecting with this mind is a gnostic experience, one which lends spiritual dimension to human life–which, in fact, may be the original spiritual experience. Wyndham’s vision clearly predates the psychedelic project by several decades; although it clearly respects the existence and potential profundity of non-human intelligence, for him, the notion of plant mind is patently alien.

Still, he’s a radical thinker in many ways. The novel proposes an alternative morality for a post-apocalyptic society, namely in the form of polygamy for population growth. And the final conclusion of The Day of the Triffids seems to be that life and intelligence manifest in different ways, and humanity, despite its grandeur, has no fundamental right to exist. We are owed no primacy on this Earth, save the position we earn from relentless struggle, then decorate, as an afterthought, with myths and ideology.

Which, incidentally, is one thing plants don’t do.

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