(Hello, due to extenuating circumstances, your regularly scheduled Griph will not be posting today. Instead, he's unchained me from the radiator to fill in for the Thursday post. I also update Pre-Sonic Genesis semi-weekly, should you find yourself interested in even more novelties of questionable worth. -CJ)
For the past month, I have found myself summering in scenic Lincoln, Nebraska in an effort to leave behind the harsh Texas sun for the merely capricious heat of the midwest. Unfortunately, this means leaving my limited social circle behind, which leaves lots of time to devote to the endless variety of media available to any technologically enabled person these days. If you are anything like me, and may God have mercy if so, then even living as spartanly as possible you tend to acquire media faster than you can readily consume it. So rather than focus on one thing in particular, you tend to form a vanguard of the few things that strike your interest and keep it nearby to pick at almost randomly. You have your own name for it, but I call mine The Stack.
So with two hours until this needs to be posted and absolutely no idea what to ostensibly entertain his faithful audience with, I decided to fall back on the narcissistic standby of trumpeting my own self-interest in a quick look at what occupies the half dozen hours between deciding I need to go to bed and actually falling asleep.
The Corner - David Simon and Edward Burns: If you are reading this and have not watched David Simon's sublime HBO show The Wire, I am not going to lecture you about why that is incorrect. The Wire is one of the greatest television shows to have ever been aired, you already know this. The show is not just good, but it is objectively good. Science can put it under a microscope or set the DVD over a bunsen burner for a half hour, but thirty reports out of thirty reveal hey this is a very good television show guys. But before The Wire, there was The Corner, a book David Simon wrote after following a group of speedball addicts and dealers around the slums of Baltimore for a year straight. The Corner was made into an HBO mini-series, which more or less became the basis for the first season of The Wire, which largely took place on the same streets that Simon wrote about in The Corner, but with (mostly) fictional characters on both sides of the law. The Corner is absolutely gut-wrenching and visceral, to the point where the gonzo-journalism starts to wear at your soul. Simon and Burns don't pull any punches on the war on drugs, and definitely do not have an answer (Season Three of The Wire revisits this, down to a few word for word scenes, with a harsh look at why both sides of the law wouldn't be able to handle a sudden legalization of the drug trade). But while they have no easy answers, they know the current system isn't working. The works of Simon were a major factor in my need to switch to attain a Bachelors of Social Work, and I can't recommend them enough simply as a starting point into the preciously small library of work that tackle social problems without being preachy.
Midlake - The Trials of Van Occupanther: Due to the choice of dreary name and needlessly wordy and opaque album title, Midlake's 2006 sophomore album The Trials of Van Occupanther can and has found itself criminally ignored. This is, predictably, a shame, as Midlake are one of the best Americana-twinged bands in recent memory.
The album gets compared to Fleetwood Mac fairly often, and that's not entirely an inaccurate way of looking at things. The band relies on lush seventies style production, with every instrument playing warm and a little fuzzy over analog synths older than most people reading this. The band relies on softly sung vocal harmonies barely hovering above the instrumentation, both of which are appropriately understated considering the subject matter - a bizarre magical realism exploration of isolation on the American frontier. Or at least that's how I hear things. Think of it as The Decemberists, but you are fifty times less likely to punch the members in the throat. But don't just take my word for it; in grand Come On Let's Go tradition, here is a music video showcasing the opening track:
Cabelas Big Game Hunter 2010: Hey, listen. I am not a strong man. Sometimes, the allure of cultural garbage is just too strong. And the allure of a free Gamefly account that seems to permanently never actually send you anything you actually want to play is even stronger. So here I find myself taking part in what I can only describe as genuine hunting pornography. I really doubt that there is a secret society of hunters that whisk potential recruits around the world to stand in glowing blue circles to open fire on an endless parade of foxes, but you sure can pretend there is for a few dollars and the endless shame of the game taking permanent residence on your achievements list. As an added bonus, there is a veritable party boat of homoeroticism that I have a sneaking suspicion is intentional, given the developer's cheeky self awareness popping up in achievement titles like "Metal Deer Solid"
Of course, there's tons of other stuff there, some of which I will savor, some will just get a cursory glance before being thrown back on The Stack, potentially never to emerge. Out of all the problems our information saturated society has saddled us with, The Stack is probably the best of them.
“Thank god I'm not crazy. I have real enemies. It's a tremendous relief to discover that someone really is after me.”
In 1977 Philip K. Dick gave a rare public interview during a French science fiction convention. In the first section, he speaks about the difference in respect the science fiction writer received in the US and abroad, specifically France.
In the second part, he speaks about his literary upbringing in Berkeley.
The third part is by far the most interesting. Dick describes a break-in he experienced that his lawyer credited to “the government.” He goes on to speak about illegal surveillance, COINTELPRO and his self-ascribed status as Enemy of the State. Dick also reveals that in his research for The Man In The High Castle, he stumbled across the etymology for “egghead.”
I took three essay-based exams today, in a row. While waiting for the final one to begin, I sat through a number of English Majors discussing in detail the, sigh, “physics and metaphysics” of a certain TV show's series finale. I was wincing the entire time, mainly because I'm entirely sure I sounded exactly as they did the few days after the Sopranos came to its own inglorious end. To celebrate both the completion of my exams, here is something related both in content and pretentiousness:
For those interested, here's a collection of Joyce's love letters to Nora Barnacle. They read like a cross between glossolalia and a cybersex transcript. So, y'know, nothing new.
Like a vintage wine, the near future of the mid-1980s only grows finer with age.
Phantasia Press hardcover art. Artist unknown. Click for the king-size version.
Philip K. Dick would have turned eight-one this last Wednesday. I’ve previously written about him, within the scope of a Scanner Darkly, but for his birthday I’d like to claim the first miracle that will hopefully lead to his eventual beatification.
By way of the combined efforts of Hanson Robotics, the University of Memphis, and the University of Texas, Arlington, (along with the consultation of the Philip K. Dick Trust, PKD was returned to the land of the living. Well, sort of. In honor of his exploration of the meaning of human being-ness, he came back in the form of Phil the android. Certainly this man-machine would bomb the Voight-Kampff test about six seconds in, but considering it was a hunk of machinery, its bestowed abilities were impressive
The robot was fully autonomous. In other words, it operated without human intervention. it tracked people coming in and out of the room with face recognition software, and would greet faces that it knew. It listened to verbal input, used complex algorithms that incorporated LSA to generate a response, and would respond verbally using speech synthesis. - The Philip K. Dick Android Project
Now, in 2006, Phil was on his way to Mountain View for a private showing to the employees of Google. Now, Phil was clearly unwilling to be displayed in such a manner to the company who will, eventually, be able to bodily recreate you from your browser cache and email archives alone. In protest, Phil pulled off a vanishing act: first the body, and then the head.
Admittedly, this is a tragedy. Hundreds (if not thousands) of hours – along with $750,000 – were put into Phil’s meticulous research and construction. And, quite unfortunately, Hanson Robotics’ lawsuit was dismissed.
However, I have a feeling that on the day he is genuinely needed, on the day that the robot uprising is in full swing and mankind is on the brink of destruction, Phil will return to us and bring peace. Call it an inkling, but that android is out there, somewhere, learning, thinking, becoming more and more human by the day.
Picture courtesy of the PKD Android project blog.
I've taken ill these last two days, so original content will have to be put on hold at least for a while. Considering today was spent intermittently napping and checking Google Reader, here are some fun links:
These two have been around a while, but they're always a blast. Strange Sisters and Gay on the Range collect covers of 1960s lesbian and gay pulp novels, respectively. They go anywhere from nostalgic and sentimental, to adorably campy, to just plain weird. There's also a few in disguise; purporting to be exposes ("Gay" slang dictionary for novelty purposes only) or "dramatizations" of vile, villainous and, dare I say, immoral acts of homosexuality. Now you'll have to pardon me, my newest shipment of completely straight physique magazines just arrived.
BoingBoing did a story on Cactus, a 24-year-old Swede who seems to release a new video game every third breath. Air Pirates resembles what I would have preferred last night's fever dreams to look like. If you don't feel like clickin' around or watching videos, here is the direct link to the download portion of his website. Cactus Arcade, a collection of seventeen (seventeen!) of his games is the brass ring.
New York Shitty presents Victoria Belanger's photos of a hamster inside a tiny recreation of the 4 train.
...and it is back to convalescing for me. Before I go, however, I'd like to remind all of you to keep track of the upcoming elections. Gay On The Range has declared a dark-horse candidate, so let's all remember to vote for...
Patrick Farley wrote and drew The Guy I Almost Was in 1998. Webcomics were still fetal then; it was long before the medium could sustain giant charity cons and make Time Magazine. I don't remember the first time I encountered the comic, although it must have been at least five or six years after being published. I was, at the time, younger than the protagonist and safe in my own dreams about how Fucking Awesome the future is going to be.
I clearly remember reading William Gibson's seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer for the first time. I downloaded a copy off IRC, stuck it on my Palm Pilot and read a few chunks during one particular cybergoth night at the Pyramid. It was too early for the crowd, so we were just lounging around, all blaring music and club-smoke on an empty dancefloor. It was great – reading about the Panther Modern punks while intermittently peeking up to see if anyone interesting had showed up. My hearing was probably as bad then as it is now, so having a conversation with my friends without screaming “WHAT?!” every few seconds did not enthuse me. I'd play game after game of Yar's Revenge on the all-in-the-joystick Atari console at the bar (not being old enough to drink or slick enough to chalk my ID yet) and eventually, enough people would make the dancefloor tolerable and I'd finally hit it, grooving to the sweet sounds of And One and Wolfsheim. It was the closest to /feeling/ cyberpunk I'd ever encountered in my life. Whether the inherent isolation (reading books and playing video games at a nightclub) reflects poorer on my life or the concept itself is up for decision. I had fun.
Anyhow, back to the comic. TGIAW isn't just about cyberpunk, or a simple indictment of it. It's a personal story, kicked off by the protagonist's fleeing some angry housemates:
When school ended last month, I had to live somewhere. Of course, with a terrible credit rating like mine, (that trail of busted credit cards littering my passage through an "academic career") and no money for a deposit, it wouldn't be easy to find a place. My current housemates, fortunately, didn't check my credit or ask for anything upfront... they naively assumed that since I was in college, I must be a solvent young bourgeois like themselves.
I did nothing to disabuse them of this illusion.
It is about failed escapism from the dregs of being 20-something and not having a god damned clue. About the realization that people who share your dreams and fantasies aren't necessarily going to be your best buddies, or even tolerable human beings, for that matter. There's even a few dense pages of counterculture/media-theory rambling in there, but hell if it wasn't planted with the seeds of truth. And who can't love the irony of not having enough money to fund a neo-luddite lifestyle?
Anyhow, just read the damn comic. The illustration is a bit rough, but keep in mind this guy was carving out new territory as he was writing and drawing it. If you like it, make sure the give the author a shout.
(Thanks to Francis for reminding me it existed.)
After separating from his fourth wife, Philip K. Dick opened the doors of his newly-empty home to potheads, tweakers, junkies – you name it. He had already been using amphetamine to assist in the writing process (living off pulp novels means shooting out pages like a photocopier,) and now let his addiction run rampant among this crowd.
(Brief aside: this origin story may sound familiar to fans of the Mountain Goats, as John Darnielle's experiences in a similar environment were the foundation for We Shall All Be Healed.)
Eventually kicking the kids out and joining a group-recovery program, the result of this two-year-long nadir was A Scanner Darkly. Plot-wise, it is the story of Bob Arctor, an undercover vice officer whose junkie persona, Fred, splits off, and the troubles this causes for both Bob, and his attempts to narc on himself. The cause for the split is Substance D – a highly addictive and amorphously ingested narcotic, resembling amphetamine. D (for death, D for doom, D for despair, D for desertion) causes the hemispheres of the brain to no longer recognize each other as being part of a single entity.
ASD is not only a tour of the drug culture of ca. the 1970s, but is still pretty damn relevant today. Here we have the cover of the first edition:
This cover encapsulates both the themes and issues within ASD. Arctor's/Fred's split personality is presented in the most cliched way possible, but the simplicity works. Note the contrast between the needle and the old-school sheriff's star. The hand signals, too, are poignant. Fred is momentarily holding back with the junk while Bob is holding back and pointing out his authority. They're both wearing dead-eyed, annoyed expressions; they've interrupted each one another's existence.
However, before noticing any of that, you probably noticed something else: the incredible outdatedness of the photo. It screams 1977, even though the book is supposed to take place in the far-flung future of 1994. It is reminiscent of the second scene in James Cameron's Terminator. Contrasting the first scene's “2029” caption, the latter reads “TODAY.” Then, the caption vanishes and the film proceeds to take place, absolutely unmistakeably, in 1984.
Reading, you'll notice that this cover forebodes the content. ASD, much like Dick's Hugo and Nebula Award-winning The Man in the High Castle, is more speculative fiction, rather than science fiction. Certainly, there's technology we still don't have (MitHC's cross-continent passanger rockets and ASD's cephalochromoscope – a barely-explained entertainment device,) but outside of those details the only changes are slight-and-paranoid modifications to the local government and economy. Written in 1977, ASD's speculative-ness reflects the world of 1977. As the characters are all members of the counterculture, they speak the street argot of the time. If you haven't read the novel, imagine if the hoods in The Wire spoke like the cats in Superfly – anachrotastic! Fortunately, there's just not enough futurity in ASD to make this a fault.
One of my pet peeves regarding the popularity of ASD is the tendency (by whom? A Wikipedia editor might ask) to take the novel (and film) in the same vein as Requiem For a Dream: occasionally tender, but ultimately disasterous. No, no, no. Personally, I break it down like this: 50% Requiem, 25% 1984 and a good ole 25% Cheech and Chong. The scene above is practically vaudeville. Although stemming from tragedy – the Substance D has robbed the characters of their ability to comprehend how a gear train works, the result is a clownish back-and-forth where even the straight man (straight couple, rather) are sucked into the routine.
Speaking of routine, the film omitted my single favorite comic scene from the novel. I'll admit, it is a long conversation which would have slowed down the deliberate pace of the film. However, I was a bummed to see it cut. So, as a favor to the community, I reproduce, in full, Barris' scheme to get “two billion” dollars of hash through customs:
"Barris had his other way to smuggle dope across the border. You know how the customs guys, they ask you to declare what you have? And you can't say dope because--"
"Well, see, you take a huge block of hash and carve it in the shape of a man. Then you hollow out a section and put a wind-up motor like a clockworks in it, and a little cassette tape, and you stand in line with it, and then just before it goes through customs you wind up the key and it walks up to the customs man, who says to it, 'Do you have anything to declare?' and the block of hash says, 'No, I don't,' and keeps on walking. Until it runs down on the other side of the border."
"You could put a solar-type battery in it instead of a spring and it could keep walking for years. Forever."
"What's the use of that? It'd finally reach either the Pacific or the Atlantic. In fact, it'd walk off the edge of the Earth, like--"
"Imagine an Eskimo village, and a six-foot-high block of hash worth about--how much would that be worth?"
"About a billion dollars."
"More. Two billion."
"These Eskimos are chewing hides and carving bone spears, and this block of hash worth two billion dollars comes walking through the snow saying over and over, 'No, I don't.'"
"They'd wonder what it meant by that."
"They'd be puzzled forever. There'd be legends."
"Can you imagine telling your grandkids, 'I saw with my own eyes the six-foot-high block of hash appear out of the blinding fog and walk past, that way, worth two billion do!lars, saying, "No, I don't." 'His grandchildren would have him committed."
"No, see, legends build. After a few centuries they'd be saying, 'In my forefathers' time one day a ninety-foot-high block of extremely good quality Afghanistan hash worth eight trillion dollars came at us dripping fire and screaming, "Die, Eskimo dogs!" and we fought and fought with it, using our spears, and finally killed it.'
"The kids wouldn't believe that either."
"Kids never believe anything any more."