Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reviews and apocalyptic holiday reading recommendations

Friday's mail (snail and electronic) delivered two very nice new reviews of Lou Anders' Fast Forward 2.

The December 2008 issue of Locus has a new column by the unstoppable Gardner Dozois, "Gardnerspace," which opens with Gardner's conclusion that FF2 may be the best (by a "very slight edge") original anthology in a year of many stellar contenders, singling out stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum/Cory Doctorow, Nancy Kress, Jack Skillingstead, Paul Cornell, Paul McAuley, Karl Schroeder and Tobias Buckell, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Kay Kenyon, and yours truly. An earlier version of this review appeared on the Asimov's message boards, and in the process of translation Gardner's kind note of my story has been adverbially upgraded from "cool" to "seriously cool" (that's right before the "almost too self-consciously cool, in fact" part, which gives me hope that I may yet succeed in my Quixotic effort to remake Arthur Fonzarelli as a pop Lacanian science fiction writer). Add that to the blurb list (or maybe better, "too cool for Gardner Dozois"?).

Friday's update of Strange Horizons includes a wonderful review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, in which he calls FF2 "that rare beast among anthologies of the imagination: one whose content actually provides a materialization of its own theoretical blueprint." He covers all of the stories along with some very insightful commentary about the editorial contribution and vision, and has this to say about my piece:

"The Sun Also Explodes" by Chris Nakashima-Brown is Fast Forward 2's most stylistically engaging outing, and perhaps also its most difficult to summarize. Living in Colonia, a legally independent "microstate," and pursuing a three-year fellowship paid for by the Virilian Investors Cultural Fund, the narrator finds himself entangled, emotionally and professionally, with bio-artist Elkin, a "genomic postmodernist." Nakashima-Brown brilliantly depicts the subtle inter-personal dynamics of the narrator with his friends and with Elkin, and enriches his mostly plot-less tale with thoughtful literary references (get out your Hemingway) and poetic descriptions ... Make no mistake, despite the literary veneer, the SF elements are everywhere, and this is an SF story at its core, not a modernist study in ennui transliterated to the idiom of SF. But Nakashima-Brown's SF "furniture" is not always brightly illuminated or center-stage. It is no less dazzling or mesmerizing for it, though.

Hey, they're flying off the Borgesian storerooms at Amazon for close to $10 a copy. Why not support your favorite science fiction small press and buy one for everyone on your list? If you need to mix it up, you can throw in a copy of Spicy Slipstream Stories for good measure.

If you are looking for the kind of media that generates this kind of weirdness, following is a holiday gift menu of some of things I have most enjoyed over the past year, just the kind of thing to cause awkward moments of disturbed bafflement by the tree:

The Architecture of Parking, by Simon Henley - A coffee table book filled with beautiful black and white photos of concrete parking structures, for those of you who can't wait for Geoff Manaugh's BLDGBLOG book.

The Hyena and Other Men, by Pieter Hugo - A coffee table book filled with photos of Nigerian dudes roaming the rough streets of Lagos with hyenas on leashes. I first saw one of these photos on the web some years back, and it just has some insanely potent 21st century juju going. I think these guys could handle The Ghost Who Walks just fine.

Terror and Consent, by Phillip Bobbitt - Though it has healthy dollops of warmed over neocon drool from this sometime advisor to Sarah Palin's running mate, this book has some very interesting surveys and explorations of the status of the nation state in the 21st century, and the emergence of the "market state," very interesting material to mix in the cerebral soup for anyone interested on extrapolating the coming century.

Year’s Best SF 13, edited by David Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer - A rare sf anthology filled with stories this weird reader wants to read, lots of politically (and geopolitically) charged speculative fictions for the age of the GWOT.

Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, by Barton Gellman - The last Dick Cheney book? See no one less than Dick Armey describe how his old friend personally lied to him about WMD, and how he wishes he could go back and prevent the Iraq war, as he believes he could have had he known the truth.

Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb, by Mike Davis - Did you know the first car bomb was a horse cart detonated on Wall Street by an anarchist in 1920? Mike Davis does, and he also knows the future. Talk about the street finds its own uses for things.

The Second Plane, by Martin Amis - I read the UK edition of this collection of Martin Amis essays about 9/11 and its aftermath, an interesting box of prisms through which to think about the period we are now leaving.

Biophilia, by Wena Poon - A wonderfully fun bit of technicolor prose from this gifted Singaporean now living in the US. Though (perhaps deservedly) Poon gets more attention for her literary short fiction, she has a knack for the eyeball kick that should not be wasted.

Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household (New York Review of Books Classics edition, with an introduction Victoria Nelson) - I first read this wonderful short novel years ago, an amazing lean thriller about an English gentleman hunter who tries to shoot Hitler and must literally go to ground. The new introduction is worth the book itself, and the book is required reading for anyone who loves thrillers with natural settings — a kind of literary proto-Rambo. NYRB's publishing imprint is putting out tons of wonderful volumes like this, including many genre lost diamonds like Christopher Priest's The Inverted World (now on my to-read shelf) and John Wyndham's The Chrysalids.

Maps & Legends, by Michael Chabon - Essays by this year's Nebula winner, in which his embrace of all things skiffy and lending to our genre of his much-coveted literary gentility is fully expressed, in an insanely beautiful package from McSweeney's.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, edited by Otto Penzler - All the hardfisted pre-WWII fiction you can read while drunk on eggnog, found under my tree last year.

McMafia, by Misha Glenny - If you're dying to actually meet those Nigerian spammers, here's your chance in this excellent journalistic tour of the high crimes of the 21st century.

Drug Lord: The Life and Death of a Mexican Kingpin, by Terrence Poppa - Not a new book, but just picked up by me on a West Texas trip, an amazing story of life in the borderlands.

The Wars of the Barbary Pirates, by Gregory Fremony-Barnes (Osprey Essential Histories) - Osprey, the publisher that started out doing tomes designed to serve as reference works for military modellers and wargamers, has adapted its power chords for excellent plain-English histories and real-time arcana about the wars of the 21st century, all of which are wonderful writerly reference works. This one is the perfect sober companion to Peter Lamborn Wilson's Pirate Utopias. See also, US Marine in Iraq: Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2003 – Richard S. Lowry (Osprey Warrior); Special Forces Camps in Vietnam 1961-70 – Gordon L. Rottman (Osprey Fortress); and my all-time personal favorite, Afghanistan Cave Complexes 1979-2004: Mountain strongholds of the Mujahideen, Taliban & Al Qaeda (Osprey Fortress).

El Verdadero Pablo: Sangre, Traicion, y Muerte, by Astrid Legarda - Spanish language tabloid true crime about Pablo Escobar. Study in technicolor scarlet, Jack Bauer meets the telenovela.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz - I know, last year's darling novel, but I just got around to it, and I have to say I have a soft spot for mainstream semi-autobiographical novels portraying the profundities of being an adolescent sf and D&D freak.

War and Film, by James Chapman - Found in the gift shop of the Art Institute of Chicago, a wonderful critical survey of the depiction of war in English-language cinema, in a beautiful small volume with perfectly presented black and white stills.

Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution, by Terrence McKenna - Enjoying J.J. Abrams' new series Fringe? Enjoyed Altered States? Want to remember Robert Anton Wilson in a different way? I just found this 1992 book-length summation of the late Terrence McKenna's fascinating theories on magic fungi and human consciousness in a used bookstore in Marfa. Curl up by the fireside with this tome, your favorite Amazonian shaman, a dose of ayahuasca, and a vomit bucket, and see if you can't find your own "self-transforming machine elves."

Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century, by Scott Bukatman - Wonderful collection I read this year by one of the finest theorists of sf.

Wiscon Chronicles 2, edited by L. Timmel Duchamp & Eileen Gunn - Worth the price just for Timmi Duchamp's amazing essay on sf convention panels and the "view from nowhere," this also includes a crazed essay by me about science fiction, revolution, and utopia.

The Color Purple (as rendered in black newspaper ink)

In Sunday's installment of The Phantom (which for decades preserved the old school tradition of separate, and sometimes conflicting, daily and Sunday storylines — the only thing better than a never-ending non-sequitur narrative that has been running since 1934 is *two* parallel versions featuring the same character, you know, the kind of thing that caused DC comics to kill off a bunch of characters just to try to tidy it up a little bit), a newly introduced character poses a question one of the Phantom's Bandar pygmy deputies should have asked a long time ago:

Note the Ghost Who Walks' Man Friday Guran leering at the interloper from the lower left hand corner of the above panel. Move in for a close-up. Wouldn't you be wearing a similarly self-loathing face if you had been living out your "existence" for 70-some years drawn as a chubby pygmy with a lampshade on his head, serving the arrogant whims of a white man in purple tights, gun belt and a bunch of giant skull bling? Not much of a surprise when you learn that part of the current Phantom's backstory was his youthful education in Mississippi.

To which you might say, hey, just be glad you're not one of the Phantom's vintage female characters, like these sisters trapped by African cannibals and then by Arab slavers in a vintage Sunday storyline that has been going on since sometime this past spring.

(One wonders if Falk, famous for his repeated use of a secret band of female air pirates who like to lounge in 1930s bikinis on their private atoll, hung out with Wonder Woman creator William Marston, who spent his life as the apex of a polyamorous triangle.)

What a weird experience to continue to wander through the technicolor pulp pre-WWII imagination of the Phantom's creator, Lee Falk, a kid from St. Louis who changed his own surname and concocted his own elaborate personal mythology when setting out to make his mark as a comics pro, styling himself as a world traveler who had studied with Eastern mystics when the farthest he'd been was Illinois. A bold lesson in inventing your own reality, and making the juvenile imaginary into a tangible simulation of the Real:

Falk died of heart failure in 1999. He lived the last years of his life in New York, in an apartment with a panoramic view of the New York skyline and Central Park; he spent his summers in a house on Cape Cod. He literally wrote his comic strips from 1934 to the last days of his life, when in hospital he tore off his oxygen mask to dictate his stories. However, his two characters, Mandrake and, in particular, The Phantom, are still active and popular, both in comic books (the newest addition to the Phantom coming from Moonstone Books) and comic strips.

Meanwhile, in the 21st century update of Upper Manhattan racial attitudes for the age of Obama department, the Sunday Times' glossy magazine cover story by one of its star journalists about her own experience hiring a surrogate to gestate her child features this astonishing photo of the reporter, her baby, and the baby's "nurse" (standing before some Hudson Valley miniature simulation of an antebellum plantation, I guess)...

...and if you flip the page, a photo of the barefoot working class surrogate that carried the reporter's child to term, lounging on her Appalachian porch:

The Phantom's pygmy personal assistants will be glad to see that the surrogate was allowed to keep her bow and arrow* with her on the porch.

According to the story, the gestational surrogate was located through a lawyer who places ads on diner placemats, total price $30,000-$60,000 (legal fees included, medical expenses not included).

And you thought The Handmaid's Tale was a dystopian fiction designed to prevent such a future from occurring. The difference is, the real-world variation is much more benevolent, governance by The New Mandarins of the Baby Boom, whose exercise of class and race power is okay because they are so rational and loving. And with such outstanding academic pedigrees.

Institutionally self-revelatory media pieces like these (the memoir pieces by big-time journalists are always a tell) provide rich subtextual insight into the old currents stirring beneath the utopian veneer of the current politico-cultural climate. Does the President-Elect realize that the portion of his constituency that's writing all the biggest checks love him the way they loved David Hampton? (You know, he goes to Harvard with the kids' friends, his father is Sidney Poitier?) That the 21st century remix of The Manchurian Candidate is not the Denzel Washington post-cyberpunk version, but rather a cathode ray stadium rally remake of Six Degrees of Separation for the consuming masses? Roll over, Richard Condon, tell George Orwell the news.

Can we arrange for the smart-assed gang kid from the Phantom's section of the comics page to wander uninvited into the Sunday Times Magazine? And when he's done there, spray some graffiti on the walls of the editorial page? Please? Maybe Huey**?

*Darn, inspection of the larger image in the print version reveals that the object in the lower-right-hand corner of the picture is not a toy bow and arrow, but a Swifter duster and a piece a pipe. Oh, well, I think the comparison of the photos still speaks for itself. Do the editors not realize what they are saying about themselves with this piece?

**Ten-year old radical from erstwhile daily strip (and now Adult Swim cartoon) Boondocks, who was frequently evicted from the comics page for being too uppity.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Baracchus Maximus?

At The Times Online, Cambridge classicist Mary Beard on the Roman Obama analog:

In the second century AD, Lucius Septimius Severus became the first ‘African-Roman’ emperor of Rome. Like Obama he was of mixed race -- his father from Libya, his mother of European descent. He too had an outspoken and determined wife, from Syria. And his first task on coming to the throne in 193 AD was to deal with a military disaster in Iraq (‘Parthia’ as it was then known). The success of his surge was commemorated in the great arch, which remains to this day one of the most impressive monuments in the Forum at Rome.

The two little children he took with him to the palace did not fare so well. In fact they grew up to be murderous thugs – even if the elder, Caracalla, did go on to initiate the most daring extension of civic rights in the whole of world history. Once he had got rid of his brother (nastily murdered on his mother’s lap), he gave full Roman citizenship, and the legal privileges and protection that went with it, to all the free male inhabitants of the empire.

Some ready-made precedent for an alternate future history? Flash forward to the Obama girls as a near-future Uday and Qusay? I would totally read that.

P.S. -- Wikipedia trivia on the death of Caracalla: "While travelling from Edessa to begin a war with Parthia [the territory subsequently known as Iraq], he was assassinated while urinating at a roadside near Harran on April 8, 217 by Julius Martialis, an officer in the imperial bodyguard."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Victor Six

When Mom went into Assisted Living, she gave me her car—a 2006 Chevrolet Impala, silver with leather seats. It was not the right car for me. But still a rather nice car. Odd, how catastrophe brings markedly mixed outcomes. Mom getting Alzheimer's was catastrophic for both of us. Yet the dark clouds turned out to have, if not sterling silver linings, at least glints of silver in the gloom.

The Alzheimer's has knocked out some of Mom's brain circuits. That's why she had to stop living alone. On the other hand, some of the affected circuitry seemed to control neurotic inhibitions, and maybe even self-absorption. In the past three years my mother has expressed more appreciation for my character, capability, and career than she expressed in the previous three decades. Then there was the end of our last phone call, a couple of days ago. She said, "Good night, Honey." Normal, right? Well, the norm for thirty years was an emotionally neutral, tentative signoff more appropriate for concluding a chat with a near stranger: "Good night...?" I treasure that unexpected, nice, normal "Good night, Honey."

And there's the silver Impala. It came in handy when I returned to Houston from Columbus, Georgia with most of what I inherited from Mom's house. The Impala effortlessly hauled a huge trove of childhood stuff plus heirlooms including furniture.

Six weeks later, I took the Impala on a 4,000-mile road trip out West, from Houston to Oklahoma then Colorado. For part of the trip I had a co-pilot. The car absorbed her luggage and mine and my plentiful emergency supplies with room to spare. One afternoon in Denver, I emptied out the car in order to transport pretty much all of the supplies for a publisher's party—Pyr's Brazil-themed bash at the World Science Fiction Convention, orchestrated by editor Lou Anders. Lou needed wheels to schlep the supplies to the party hotel. Enter the Impala. Into the Impala went lots of bottles of Brazilian booze, a hundred limes and other groceries, enough plastic cups and plates for a horde of partygoers, and several large boxes of Pyr-logo souvenir glasses shipped from New York. Booze and all was safely delivered to the party hotel in the capacious car previously belonging to my mother, the teetotaling Southern Baptist. After WorldCon my copilot and I drove on to Salt Lake City. When we unloaded our luggage, I found a lime skulking in the Impala's vast trunk. A couple of days later I took a long day trip out into the Uinta Basin, east of Salt Lake City, to do some novel research. Finally I returned to Texas via scenic routes in Utah and New Mexico. I had a safe, cool and comfortable ride day and night, rain and shine.

No way could I have made a trip like that in my 1996 Toyota Celica. And it was high time for me to move up to a more spacious car with newer safety features, even though I loved the Celi dearly. She was a sweet, fun-driving automobile that I named Sierra Tango—as in Celica ST, as distinct from the more souped-up but mechanically iffier Celica GT. At the tail end of September, I drove the Celica back to Georgia to handle more of my Mom's finances, and to sell the Celi to my third cousin.

That left me owning one car. The Impala. Unfortunately it still wasn't the right car for me. On top of that, with the potential failure of General Motors splashed all over the news, this did not seem like a good time to hang onto a GM car for too long. Much less a GM car purchased from and still under warranty from Bill Heard Chevrolet, which spectacularly went bankrupt just before I returned to Columbus in the Celica. Columbus was buzzing about it, since Bill Heard originated in Columbus and had rated as one of the top local points of entrepreneurial pride.

Returning to Houston via AirTran, I soon went shopping at the CarMax on the Gulf Freeway. After pleasant dealings with CarMax, including asking for delivery of a car from Austin because it was just the make, model and color I wanted, I bought that car. It's a 2005 Honda Accord. Yes, I dropped back a year—but despite being one year older than the Impala, the Accord drives much more nimbly and has fewer rattles. There are reasons why GM is not in the best of corporate shape. In any event, if you ask around for reliable, highly safe cars that have great fit and finish inside and hold value against depreciation, the brand names Toyota and Honda inevitably enter the conversation. Most other auto brand names exit stage right.

CarMax gave me a good trade-in price for the Impala. I'm sure its new owner will drive away happy. I certainly did. The Accord is exactly the right car for me. It's an elegantly styled coupe with an understated spoiler and a moon roof and it's the most wonderful, sparkle-saturated shade of blue. The sparkles in the high-tech paint reflect sunlight to keep the car cool. The interior is dark gray with leather and chrome accents. And there are more better storage arrangements than any car I've ever seen. These include a special little compartment above the rear view mirror for sunglasses; a lidded niche under the instrument panel for I don't know what, but I'm using it for tiny souvenirs of my travels with the Impala; and under the CD changer there is a compartment specifically sized for a stack of CD's. That's perfect, since I check out numerous CD's from the music collection at the Rice University Library.

I named my new car Victor Six. For one thing, it has a V-6 engine. For another thing, that's a way to declare victory over two years of problems. There was my mother's Alzheimer's with so many problematic repercussions. There was my first published novel being released into a bad time for the publishing industry and for science fiction sales. Hurricane Ike blew through Houston, and every place it didn't wreck outright it laded with negative energy. Now Hurricane Bad Economy is churning across the U.S. and world. None of these problems are over and done with. It's a good time to declare victory anyway. Victory can be at least as much frame of mind as fact on the ground.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Somali Pirates: The Risk Module

The fun-loving folks at the International Chamber of Commerce's Commercial Crime Services are maintaining a really sweet Google Earth based real-time map of global incidents of piracy, with map markers you can click through for more details about the specific incident. Some representative sample reports:

IMB Piracy Map 2008
Attack ID: 2008/239
Wed Nov 12 2008
Attack Type: ATTEMPTED
Vessel Type: TANKER
Incident details: 12.11.2008: 1210 UTC: Posn: 12:33.6n – 045:10.6e, Gulf of Aden. Armed pirates in two speedboats chased a tanker underway. Tanker took evasive manoeuvres and escaped from the pirates.

Attack ID: 2008/195
Fri Sep 26 2008
Attack Type: HIJACKED
Location: GULF OF ADEN
Incident details: 26.09.2008: 0920 UTC: Posn: 13:32N - 048:26E, Gulf of Aden. Armed pirates fired upon a chemical tanker underway. The tanker sent mayday messages via VHF channel. The pirates boarded and hijacked the tanker. Further details awaited.

Attack ID: 2008/095
Sun May 25 2008
Attack Type: HIJACKED
Location: GULF OF ADEN
Incident details: 25.05.2008: 2235 LT: 13:13N-050:49E: Gulf of Aden. Pirates hijacked a general cargo ship 80 nm off the coast of Somalia. Nine crewmembers are held hostage onboard. At present the vessel is 2.5 nm from the coast. Further details awaited.

ICC Commercial Crime Services: Live Piracy Map 2008

Lem: The Opera

From Gazeta Wyborca, via the amazing polymathic Allen Varney, the discovery of Stanislaw Lem's secret dystopian opera:

Stanisław Lem's Unpublished Works Discovered

An uncompromising NKVD man named Utterly Inadvisabiladze, a brave Soviet spy Dementiy Dogsonov, who's lost his eye trying to spy on the imperialists through the keyhole, an ideological communist Avdotia Niedoganina, brilliant academician Michurenko (student of Lysurin), and above all Stalin - as always superhumanly intelligent and inhumanly smiling. These are the main characters of a satirical piece by Stanisław Lem, which the author himself for half a century thought missing.

Lem, who gained worldwide recognition for his SF novels, wrote it in the late 1940s, at the height of Stalinism, when people were being imprisoned or even executed for far lesser trespasses. Twenty years later, in the 1960s, writer Janusz Szpotański received a very special literary prize for his unpublished musical satire The Silent and the Honkers - three years in prison.

Lem's piece is similar in some aspects to the Szpotański lampoon. Written during his student times, it is a quasi-opera about the brilliant future of communism and Stalin's genius. Lem read it only for his closest friends - Roman Husarski and his future wife, Halina Burton, as well as, among others, writers Jan Józef Szczepański and Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski.

Among those admitted to his closest circle was medicine student Barbara Leśniak, who was later to become the writer's wife.

'The first time I heard this piece was when Staszek was still a bachelor, around 1949, I think', remembers Barbara Lem. 'He enacted all the characters himself, and he was best in the woman's role. He performed the piece for as long as Stalin lived - he obviously needed this kind of abreaction'.

Lem mentioned the missing piece in numerous interviews, including those given to Stanisław Bereś and Tomasz Fijałkowski. 'We've turned everything upside down here. I still hope it surfaces somewhere', Lem told Bereś.

Also the writer's secretary, Wojciech Zemek, for years searched for the piece. 'From time to time Mr Lem would ask me whether I'd already found it, and I'd reply regretfully that I hadn't', remembers Mr Zemek. 'And yet I held the folder containing it so many times in my hands!'

The folder, an old-style grey cardboard, ribbon-tied folder, was inscribed 'Botched crime story' and contained an unfinished Raymond Chandler-style crime novel that Lem started writing in the mid-1950s. It has now turned out he used that typescript to create a hiding place so perfect the text went missing for five decades - he simply slid the Stalin opera between the pages of the crime novel typescript.

'I always knew that every one of Lem's pieces has a second bottom - even a botched crime story can hide an opera about Stalin!', commented Mr Zemek.

Translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak

Źródło: Gazeta Wyborcza

Thursday, November 20, 2008

There were giants in those days.

Newspaper columnists, I mean.

Once upon a time, only a few decades ago, there were newspaper columnists who produced something approaching art, columns which were lovingly crafted, where every word was given the attention of a poet, and which, though made for a disposable medium, were created to linger in the minds of the reader.

Now...oh, don't get me started. I'd rather focus on the past. The present is so much more grim. (Out of Town News, a landmark of my youth and many others' in Boston, is going to close. Harvard Square has lost its last, best link to its past). I would rather celebrate the past than contemplate what the future is likely to be like. (No, I'm not fearing it. Just hating it).

Let us consider, briefly, Murray Kempton. Great journalist. Pulitzer Prize winner. Author of Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events, which is one of the best collections of essays I've ever read, made all the more impressive when you consider that he turned out some of them three times a week.

Newspaper columnists today are non-entities, mediocrities, sycophants, nattering nabobs of negativity, mean-spirited putzes in the shape of human beings, and shrieking ideologues. But once upon a time Kempton was around, and produced the following on a few days' notice:
Woke up yesterday morning where there is not a chicken to crow for day and remembered that on September 27 next Bessie Smith will have been dead for fifty years.

She was killed a few miles from Clarksdale, Mississippi. The gods could not have selected a more appropriate place to close her epic, because Clarksdale is not very far from the railroad tracks where the Southern used to cross the Yellow Dog and where Miss Susie Johnson's Jockie Lee had gone.

September is a while away. But what fitter day for filing an advance notice of this special occasion could there be than July 4, which is sacred to the falling-short but undiscouragable pursuit of happiness that is most of what the works of Bessie Smith are about. Most but, as usual with great subjects, by no means all.

The rising sun ain't gonna set in the East no more
- "Hard Time Blues"

To distill a complexity into the sparest of direct statements and still preserve intact its paradox was among the subtler of Bessie's arts. We have no way to know the source of most of her lyrics; she must have picked up a good many in the carnivals and others were written for her by hands more practiced. But a lot of these words have to be her very own and they bring us the sense of being in the company of the last of the Anglo-Saxon poets. There are, as an instance, those lines in "Lost Your Head Blues" that have been authenticated as pure improvisation: "Once ain't for always and two ain't but twice." I have puzzled over them off and on through my conscious life and am yet to be sure precisely what they mean. All that I know with certainty is that they are entirely beautiful.

If I ever get my hands on a dollar again,
I'm gonna hold on to it till the eagle grin.
- "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out"

Or "My heart's on fire but my love is icy cold." No generation is long enough to produce more than one writer who can bring off this cadence so perfect that, when you think you remember it and look it up, you find that you were wrong because you had allowed some bit of dross - say, an adverb - from your own literary baggage to intrude and spoil the rhythm and taint the purity of the original. Those of us who learned to write from the blues are to be envied, and those of us who have since forgotten the lesson are to be pitied.

Thirty days in jail and I got to stay there so long.
- "Jailhouse Blues"

"Jailhouse Blues" was her first record and the first of hers I ever owned, which is to say that it was the one I have played most and thus the one I have loved most, because the record of Bessie's you have heard most often ends up the deepest in your heart.

I also saw and heard her once at the old Howard Theater in Baltimore in 1933, and was too overwhelmed for any coherent recollection. Witnesses to the apparitions of creatures from another world are seldom useful for details. I have only two memories. One is the shock of the recognition of how faintly even her records conveyed the immensity of her actual presence.

The other involves one of my companions, who was far from having conquered his baby fat and was indeed huge enough to be the most conspicuous figure in the house except of course Bessie herself. At one point she descended from higher things to "One-Hour Woman," one of the requisite dirty songs her grandeur somehow always kept from being quite disgusting, and then she noticed Freddy and, like giantess calling out to giant, she began singing that she had found in him her one-hour man.

He turned turkey red and fled the theater. Long afterward I ran into him and wondered as tactfully as I could if he remembered the afternoon we had gone to hear Bessie. He replied that he had and that, even though dozens of women had since bruised his heart, it was the supreme regret of his life that he had not held his ground and heard the whole set.

"Is it true," he asked, "that she sang `Muddy Water'?" I answered that she had and his sigh had resonances of sorrow and loss not unworthy of her own. We would still have no more used for her any name except the bare and stately "Bessie" than we would have spoken of Juno as Mrs. Jupiter. Goddesses do not have last names.

A while back I fell into one of those tiresome discussions where the other party says you take Julius Erving and I'll take Larry Bird and you take Sarah Vaughan and I'll take Ella Fitzgerald. There was no disposing of such nonsense except to observe that the years have taught me to be grateful for having them all, but I had to say that Sarah Vaughan is the greatest jazz singer I have ever heard. "What about Bessie Smith?" a bystander inquired. I could only answer that I had concluded that there could never have been a Bessie Smith; the molds where they stamp out human beings are just too small for stuff of those proportions.

Hairball science

At Nature, a report on the successful reconstruction by scientists at Penn State of most of the genome of the wooly mammoth.

Leading to discussions about whether a live mammoth could be brought to term inside the womb of an African elephant.

The NY Times report notes similar discussions about whether the now-reconstructed genome of Neanderthal man could be brought to life in a human embryo, or, if that's too ethically troubling, a chimp.

Yes, they are debating on the front page of the paper of record whether or not we should develop chimpanzee-Neanderthal hybrids.

Time to buy stock in the exotic pet distribution business?

Do you think they can keep a lid on this mad science for very long? Who knew Jurassic Park was going to end up being more like the Island of Dr. Moreau?

New York Times
November 20, 2008
Regenerating a Mammoth for $10 Million

Scientists are talking for the first time about the old idea of resurrecting extinct species as if this staple of science fiction is a realistic possibility, saying that a living mammoth could perhaps be regenerated for as little as $10 million.

The same technology could be applied to any other extinct species from which one can obtain hair, horn, hooves, fur or feathers, and which went extinct within the last 60,000 years, the effective age limit for DNA.

Though the stuffed animals in natural history museums are not likely to burst into life again, these old collections are full of items that may contain ancient DNA that can be decoded by the new generation of DNA sequencing machines.

If the genome of an extinct species can be reconstructed, biologists can work out the exact DNA differences with the genome of its nearest living relative. There are talks on how to modify the DNA in an elephant’s egg so that after each round of changes it would progressively resemble the DNA in a mammoth egg. The final-stage egg could then be brought to term in an elephant mother, and mammoths might once again roam the Siberian steppes.

The same would be technically possible with Neanderthals, whose full genome is expected to be recovered shortly, but there would be several ethical issues in modifying modern human DNA to that of another human species.

A scientific team headed by Stephan C. Schuster and Webb Miller at Pennsylvania State University reports in Thursday’s issue of Nature that it has recovered a large fraction of the mammoth genome from clumps of mammoth hair. Mammoths, ice-age relatives of the elephant, were hunted by the modern humans who first learned to inhabit Siberia some 22,000 years ago. The mammoths fell extinct in both their Siberian and North American homelands toward the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago.

Dr. Schuster and Dr. Miller said there was no technical obstacle to decoding the full mammoth genome, which they believe could be achieved for a further $2 million. They have already been able to calculate that the mammoth’s genes differ at some 400,000 sites on its genome from that of the African elephant.

There is no present way to synthesize a genome-size chunk of mammoth DNA, let alone to develop it into a whole animal. But Dr. Schuster said a shortcut would be to modify the genome of an elephant’s cell at the 400,000 or more sites necessary to make it resemble a mammoth’s genome. The cell could be converted into an embryo and brought to term by an elephant, a project he estimated would cost some $10 million. “This is something that could work, though it will be tedious and expensive,” he said.

There have been several Russian attempts to cultivate eggs from frozen mammoths that look so perfectly preserved in ice. But the perfection is deceiving since the DNA is always degraded and no viable cells remain. Even a genome-based approach would have been judged entirely impossible a few years ago and is far from reality even now.

Still, several technical barriers have fallen in surprising ways. One barrier was that ancient DNA is always shredded into tiny pieces, seemingly impossible to analyze. But a new generation of DNA decoding machines use tiny pieces as their starting point. Dr. Schuster’s laboratory has two, known as 454 machines, each of which costs $500,000.

Another problem has been that ancient DNA in bone, the usual source, is heavily contaminated with bacterial DNA. Dr. Schuster has found that hair is a much purer source of the host’s DNA, with the keratin serving to seal it in and largely exclude bacteria.

A third issue is that the DNA of living cells can be modified only very laboriously and usually at one site at a time. Dr. Schuster said he had been in discussion with George Church, a well-known genome technologist at Harvard Medical School, about a new method Dr. Church has invented for modifying some 50,000 genomic sites at a time.

The method has not yet been published, and until other scientists can assess it they are likely to view genome engineering on such a scale as being implausible. Rudolph Jaenisch, a biologist at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, said the proposal to resurrect a mammoth was “a wishful-thinking experiment with no realistic chance for success.”

Dr. Church, however, said that there had recently been enormous technical improvements in decoding genomes and that he expected similar improvements in genome engineering. In his new method, some 50,000 corrective DNA sequences are injected into a cell at one time. In the laboratory, the cell would then be grown and tested and its descendants subjected to further rounds of DNA modification until judged close enough to that of the ancient species. In the case of resurrecting the mammoth, Dr. Church said, the process would begin by taking a skin cell from an elephant and converting it to the embryonic state with a method developed last year by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka for reprogramming cells.

Asked if the mammoth project might indeed happen, Dr. Church said that “there is some enthusiasm for it,” although making zoos better did not outrank fixing the energy crisis on his priority list.

Dr. Schuster believes that museums could prove gold mines of ancient DNA because any animal remains containing keratin, from hooves to feathers, could hold enough DNA for the full genome to be recovered by the new sequencing machines.

The full genome of the Neanderthal, an ancient human species probably driven to extinction by the first modern humans that entered Europe some 45,000 years ago, is expected to be recovered shortly. If the mammoth can be resurrected, the same would be technically possible for Neanderthals.

But the process of genetically engineering a human genome into the Neanderthal version would probably raise many objections, as would several other aspects of such a project. “Catholic teaching opposes all human cloning, and all production of human beings in the laboratory, so I do not see how any of this could be ethically acceptable in humans,” said Richard Doerflinger, an official with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Dr. Church said there might be an alternative approach that would “alarm a minimal number of people.” The workaround would be to modify not a human genome but that of the chimpanzee, which is some 98 percent similar to that of people. The chimp’s genome would be progressively modified until close enough to that of Neanderthals, and the embryo brought to term in a chimpanzee.

“The big issue would be whether enough people felt that a chimp-Neanderthal hybrid would be acceptable, and that would be broadly discussed before anyone started to work on it,” Dr. Church said.

Supplemental material:

For a particularly crazed, unintentionally postmodern cinematic take on the breeding of chimeric manimals, rent yourself the DVD of John Frankenheimer's underrated 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, featuring the most over-the-top psycho-Brando ever (complete with his own mini-Brando homunculus), some extreme scenery chewing by Val Kilmer, David Thewlis somehow maintaining his composure throughout, and Ron Perlman as beast-man.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Honest Babe or Bape Star?

This morning's email brought the above from the folks at Adbusters. Pretty cool, I thought.

But then, maybe just because I am so much more cynical than them, I couldn't help but think in their effort to morph the Prez-elect with the Great Emancipator, they unintentionally managed to riff a very different (pop) cultural meme. Since they're Canadian, we'll give them one free pass for accidental racism.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The politics of apocalypse

The new issue of Reason has a very nice article, now online, about Tor Books and science fiction as a libertarian intellectual playground. With a compelling thread, I think, about the impact SF can have in introducing new ideas to the next generation:

Scratch a civil libertarian, and you’ll often find a 15-year-old who read a lot of Philip K. Dick. Ask a college guy protesting censorship at his student newspaper for his inspirations, and there’s a good chance Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 will come up. Meet someone who thinks there might be an upside to anarchy, and you have probably found a girl who once read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed or a boy who loved Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

“I suspect S.F. has an individualistic, antiauthoritarian trend to it not least because so many of the people who read and write it (not all by any means, but quite a few) are innerdirected introverts who make neither good leaders nor good followers,” emails Harry Turtledove, a best-selling author whose most famous novels pose questions about contingency in history and the importance of individual action. “Am I talking about myself? Well, now that you mention it, yes. But I ain’t the only one, not even close.”

Patrick Nielsen Hayden, the goateed and bespectacled Tor eminence who edited two of the house’s Prometheus finalists this year, draws a direct line between youthfulness and openness to libertarian ideas. “Young people read fiction to figure out how the world works,” he says, “and science fiction is an extremely effective, quick way of testing your views of how the world works.” Paraphrasing the late novelist and critic Thomas Disch, Hayden says, “Enormous quantities of science fiction and fantasy are about power, and who needs power fantasies more than teenagers, people who have a little bit of power for the first time in their lives and need to think about how power works?”

Topically, I had an interesting debate regarding the politics of mainstream post-apocalyptic scenarios with Matthew Bey Friday night (as we waited for the skronking horns of The Thing's "Viking Barbeque Jazz" at the 20th anniversary of the official lunch venue of the Turkey City Writer's Workshop, Ruby's BBQ (yes, they will mail it to you)). The discussion was queued by my wrestling with the issue in an essay-in-progress, with particular reference to my own adolescent immersion in a post-apocalyptic potpourri that even had me at one point mapping out the radioactive ruins of my hometown for a Gamma World scenario.

I postulated that the persistence of post-apocalyptic scenarios (as well as many disaster movies) expresses a latent yearning for the destruction of the state apparatus and the abolition of private property. At a deeper psychological level, I argued that the idea of roaming a depopulated earth rummaging for useful artifacts articulates the extent of our individual alienation in a thoroughly commodified society.

Matt had a different take on the private property aspect, contending that most-apocalyptic scenarios indulge libertarian fantasies. And that a credible Marxist reading would focus on the persistence in the stories of groups who obtain control over some scarce resource (think of the settlers in Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior) and use it as the base of their power over other survivors.

I suspect we are both right, and that post-apocalyptic scenarios, just like space operas and alternate histories and near-future dystopias, are perfect counterfactual playgrounds for experimental political theory.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Greed or Good

A while back I was sitting in the waiting area of the Veterans Administration Service office in Columbus, Georgia, and the conversation unfolding in that place was priceless. At the VA office, you arrive, sign in, and wait for a counselor to see you, with two or ten or twenty other people also waiting. I'm not a veteran; my mother is. She was a Master Sergeant in the Women's Army Corps and I was seeing the VA on her behalf. Others in the waiting room included widows, wives, and veterans of various vintages. They talked about Congress and other political figures; the economy that has ordinary people losing jobs and life savings while rich executives get golden parachutes; the length of wait in the VA office; Hurricanes Ike and Katrina (one of the waiting vets was a Mississippi native, his home community hard hit); the troubled state of the world; the length of the wait in the VA office; and the bankruptcy of Bill Heard Chevrolet, a company which originated in Columbus, had been headline news in Columbus for days, and was regarded in the VA waiting room as emblematic of larger issues.

There was a framed map of the world on the waiting room wall. One of the vets—a loquacious black man now employed as a barber—jumped up and ran his finger around the edge of the world map. "There's enough in this world," he said, "Enough for everyone, everywhere, except for greed!" His listeners nodded or said, "Mmmm—hmmm."

"Greed is good" is a famous line from the movie Wall Street. Greed regarded as good is how we got Wall Street's meltdown and worldwide casino capitalism in which everyone loses except the ultra rich. The greed-good equation created the perverted alchemy in which diamonds—marvels of the physical world—turn to blood because of the way they are mined and sold to fund wars. In another perverse alchemy, books—marvels of the imaginative world—become commodities, the commercially successful ones ground like wheat through the commercial mill, the unsuccessful ones thrown out like chaff. The same thing happens to music and visual arts.

Greed is one of the classical Seven Deadly Sins. (Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride.) In today's world greed may even be the worst of the lot. "The love of money is the root of all evil," said the Apostle Paul, without even having seen casino capitalism in action. Greed is not good. It's one pole of a perennial choice that faces most people and tribes, organizations and nations. The choice is greed OR good.

This nation had eight years of an administration that exemplified, enabled and exhorted greed. The restorative after 9-11 was go shopping, the stimulus to a faltering economy was a check for people to go buy stuff they don't need. The way to scratch a collective itch for war was to conquer an oil-rich country. Now the United States has to go in a new direction, staggering toward good instead of greed. The incoming administration has to attempt to steer the new course. Meanwhile we all have to choose between greed and good in our personal lives and cope with the fallout of bad choices that were outside of our control. And the ghosts of dead Iraqi civilians, drowned people in New Orleans, and extinct species, the ghosts of dead hopes and lost homes and defeated dreams, watch us during the day and whisper in our uneasily sleeping ears at night.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Kickoff time?

Technovelgy, an amazing site that tracks new ideas from science fiction, has picked up on a meme from my story "The Sun Also Explodes," included in Lou Anders' acclaimed new anthology Fast Forward 2. The new entry (including a short excerpt):

Ultimate Football League (UFL) — A football league without restrictions on human modification.

Crile scratched his silvery buzzcut, flexing a biceps that pulsed with the texture of manufactured tendons and polymerically enhanced blood vessels. He was one of the alpha generation of real celebrity cyborgs, a Texas star college quarterback who was among the first to go straight to the UFL.

The Ultimate Football League was the first to abandon professional athletics' anachronistic insistence on the prohibition of performance enhancements, be they pharmaceutical, biomechanical, or genetically engineered. It was a genius stroke by the founders. The audience was far more interested in superhuman performances than fidelity to nature, and the athletes were addicted to the potential of even greater power.

That's a wonderful memetic pickup for what was mainly included as backstory of a secondary character. Perhaps because it is so likely to actually happen, probably sooner than you think.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Yes we can (allow General Motors to die the death it deserves)

So, a week after the election, with the transition news settling into its Baby Boomer greatest hits groove, President-Elect Obama meets with President Bush. And uses the opportunity to ask Bush to bail out the big Detroit automakers. Is it okay to say, "WTF?"

To which the rejoinder might be, whaddaya want? The unions delivered big time for Obama all over the Rust Belt, as seen last Tuesday night, and probably made him prez. Which is okay, if we want to so quickly give the lie to the idea of a new politics. Because ideologically, it is hard to conceive anything more truly "conservative" one could do than preserve an ossified oligopoly of pre-World War II industrial conglomerates that have done more to damage the planet in the last 100 years than probably any other industry in the industrialized West. Along the way, killing basically all public transportation in America other than buses. You want me to pay my share of the losses of the people who bet their (and our) future on SUVs?

Granted, you are talking about 3 million jobs, $150 billion in personal income, and $60 billion in tax receipts in 2009. But there are plenty of other inefficient and outmoded businesses that won't survive the current credit crunch and consumer austerity. And don't deserve to.

The last American car I owned was a 1974 Chevrolet Caprice convertible that I sold in 1991. Since then, it's been an alternating mix of small cars from the leading Axis powers (that, and living walking distance to work or taking the bus). Driving to the coffee shop this morning, I was reminded why. I saw one of those new Chevy Malibus pulling into traffic. This is the car that is being widely touted as the hope for the future. Naturally, being a General Motors sedan produced after 1975, it is basically a mullet with wheels, as has been every American car I have rented in my adult life. The reason they are failing is because they so completely suck — as products, as businesses, as corporate citizens, as emblems of our American identity. (Unless you want a ranch-ready pickup, in which case they are right on the money.)

The only things the American automakers have really innovated in the past 30 years are (1) clever cupholders to holster the Big Gulps of saccharine and corn syrup that fuel the clotted vessels oxygenating our fat asses planted against the seat-heaters en route from our climate-controlled homes to our windowless cubes, and (2) televisions installed throughout the vehicle to anesthetize our mini-chubs with the latest sensory Soma from Disney. The Big Three are not our future.

The only hope for the American automotive industry is to allow Detroit to fail. Just as to bring back the healthy diversity within the soil you need to burn the ground cover clean, letting G.M., Chrysler and Ford and their earth-burning mega-cars collapse under their own weight will allow new transportation businesses to sprout, new businesses for a new era — people's versions of outfits like Tesla for those who want to drive, and news ways of moving us around that don't require navigating the on-ramp on insufficient stimulants. The pieces of Detroit that make sense will survive, sliced off through reorganizations that, like the hybrid lines and the utilitarian work vehicles (there will always be pickups and Town Cars).

And we will always have the ruins of Detroit, that American industrial Ozymandias monument whose own death has already been foretold in the urban shell of the city that once was.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Zeitgeist Level Cyber-Strategic Warfare

Prof. Nevin's upcoming paper on the deployment of post-Pentecostal Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare is well-timed, announced the same day as the Secret Service and the FBI revealed that they spent a large chunk of the summer fighting off foreign intelligence hacks of the internal computer systems of both major presidential campaigns. ArtVoice synthesizes:

Over the summer, the FBI had its hands full with simultaneous cyber crime investigations: the hacking of the Obama campaign computer system(s), and the hacking of the McCain campaign computer system(s). While the intrusions have been acknowledged, little else has been released or confirmed yet. At this point, it’s known for sure that the FBI was involved, that “a large number of files” were stolen from the Obama side, and that the attacks came from a “foreign entity” and definitely did not come from the opposing sides. The McCain campaign systems were intruded on in a similar fashion as the Obama systems, but the extent of the compromise on their side was unmentioned. The rest is speculation of course: security experts have suggested the attacks likely came from China or Russia, and anyone’s best guess is that the goal of such an intrusion was to gain an inside line on procedures and policies used by the campaigns for a leg up in future dealings with the to-be president.

This followed a report earlier in the week about successful hacks of the White House systems. From the Financial Times:

Chinese hackers have penetrated the White House computer network on multiple occasions, and obtained e-mails between government officials, a senior US official told the FT.

The cyber attackers managed to penetrate the White House system for brief periods that allowed them to steal information before US government experts each time patched the system.

US government cyber experts suspect the attacks were sponsored by the Chinese government, although they cannot say for definite.

“We are getting very targeted Chinese attacks so its stretches credulity that these are not directed by government-related organisations,” said the official.

The National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force, a unit established in 2007 to tackle security, detected the attacks. The official stressed the hackers had accessed only the unclassified computer network, and not the more secure classified network.

“For a short period of time, they successfully breach a wall, and then you rebuild the wall . . . it is not as if they have continued access,” said the official. “It is constant cat and mouse on this stuff.”

Fortunately, it was also announced on election day that Jack Bauer will still be around to locate, detain and torture any Chinese hackers found infiltrating the White House of President Palmer, I mean Obama.

Not sure, though, what Jack and the rest of the California windbreaker warriors of CTU will do with the opportunistic wave of Obama-McCain spam. From NZ IT Brief:

Cyber crims have wasted no time in attempting to capitalise on world events with IT security and control firm Sophos warning about a new spam campaign that claims Barack Obama and John McCain have died.

Sophos says the email spam campaigns use sensational - if somewhat confused - subject lines masquerading as breaking news to promote an online Canadian pharmacy.

The ‘Breaking News:' subject lines include ‘Barak and McCane killed', ‘McCane died of heart stroke' and ‘McCane's wife private video'.

Dude, who wouldn't click on the Cindy McCain video link? No doubt like a cross between Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS and Chuck Norris' Missing in Action.

I anxiously await the arrival of her avatar in my in-box, dancing like some kind of warporn variation of the Leela virus from the opening of Hari Kunzru's brilliant Transmission:


It was a simple message.

Hi. I saw this and thought of you.

Maybe you got a copy in your in-box, sent from an address you didn’t recognize; an innocuous two-line e-mail with an attachment.


Maybe you obeyed the instruction to

check it out!

and there she was; Leela Zahir, dancing in jerky QuickTime in a pop-up window on your screen. Even at that size you could see she was beautiful, this little pixelated dancer, smiling as the subject line promised, a radiant twenty-one-year-old smile

just for you.

That smile. The start of all your problems.

It was not as if you asked for Leela to come and break your heart. There you were, doing whatever you normally do online: filling in form fields, downloading porn, interacting, when suddenly up she flounced and everything went to pieces. For a moment, even in the midst of your panic, you probably felt special. Which was Leela’s talent. Making you believe it was all just for you.

But there were others. How many did she infect? Thousands? Tens, hundreds of thousands? Impossible to count. Experts have estimated her damage to global business at almost $50 billion, mostly in human and machine downtime, but financial calculation doesn’t capture the chaos of those days. During Leela’s brief period of misrule, normality was completely overturned. Lines of idle brokers chewed their nails in front of frozen screens. Network nodes winked out of existence like so many extinguished stars. For a few weeks she danced her way around the world, and disaster, like an overweight suburbanite in front of a workout video, followed every step.

Of course the whole thing made her famous, beyond even her mother’s wildest imaginings. Leela was already a rising star, India’s new dream girl, shinning up the greasy lingam of the Mumbai film world like the child in the conjurer’s rope trick. But while Leela’s mother had thought through most eventualities, she hadn’t factored the march of technology into her daughter’s career plan. Mrs. Zahir was decidedly not a technical person.

And so Leela found herself bewitched, the girl with the red shoes, cursed to dance on until her feet bled or the screen froze in messy blooms of ASCII text. Yet despite what her mother may have thought, she was a surface effect. The real action was taking place in the guts of the code: a cascade of operations, of iterations and deletions, an invisible contagion of ones and zeroes. Leela played holi, and her clinging sari diverted attention from the machinery at work under her skin.

A chain of cause and effect? Nothing so simple in Leela’s summer. It was a time of topological curiosities, loops and knots, never-ending strips of action and inside-out bottles of reaction so thoroughly confused that identifying a point of origin becomes almost impossible.

Morning through venetian blinds.

A cinema crowd watches a tear roll down a giant face.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

How did I get here?

With the apocalypse taking a five minute interregnum break, what better time for the nostalgic waxing involved in the discovery that MTV has just launched a site with a viewable library of essentially every music video they have ever run. You know, back when they played music videos.

You know you want yours.

Everything is improved by the judicious application of primates. Everything.

There’s a better world, somewhere. A world in which presidential campaigns don’t turn toxic, in which men and women can discuss politics rationally and maturely. A world in which literary genres like science fiction aren’t sneered at and disrespected, but instead treated the same way that mainstream books are: each author is happy to sell 300 copies of their novels. A world in which gay men and gay women have the same rights to awful, soul-destroying marriages, credit-wrecking alimony payments, and hideously painful weekend visits to children as heterosexual men and women. A world in which a woman will be judged and condemned not because of her affected Alaskan accent but because she doesn’t have the courage of her convictions and try to practice Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare in Washington, D.C., in front of Congress, on live television. A world in which we judge a man not by the color of his skin, but by the way he knots his tie. A world in which I’m not so terrified for my six-month-old son (who is the main reason I’ve been absent from this site for so long) and instead have the luxury of plotting ways that I can embarrass him when he’s a teenager.

A world in which there are more monkeys in movies.

As Chris Roberson, sage under heaven, has written, everything is improved by the judicious application of primates. Which is to say, everything’s better with monkeys. So imagine the world, so much better than our own, in which the following lines were uttered in films, and the changes necessary in those films to make those lines come to pass. Consider how much better certain films would be if these words had been said:

“Pay no attention to that monkey behind the curtain." (I actually, no foolin’, caught myself saying that to my son, which is what inspired this essay).

I’m going to make him a monkey he can’t refuse."

"Klaatu bonobo nicto."

"How do you live?" “I chimp." (It’s a shame there’s no film clip available online for this quote. It’s the last line in the movie, and it’s a killer).


“I’m shocked–shocked!–to find that monkeys are in here."

"That’s no monkey."

"I’m your monkey."

“As God is my witness, I'll never be a monkey again." (Believe me, I wish I could have found a video to match “Lawzy, we got to have a doctor. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ monkeys.")

"Open the monkey cage doors please, Hal."

"We deal in monkeys, friend." (And, of course, “Nobody throws me my monkey and says run...nobody."

Whatever Koko wants, Koko gets, and little man, little Koko wants you."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Moon Shot

On PBS late last night, Chicago's Grant Park had a million jubilant people and lots of American flags, but no silliness with confetti and pom-poms. It wasn't we-won jubilation so much as we-did-something-impossible jubilation, awestruck and sober.

I noticed the letters USA in white lights in the background of the televised scene. And I felt moved in a way I haven't felt moved by seeing "USA" in decades. The last eight years in particular have been an embarrassing time to be a citizen of this country. Last night was different. I was suddenly and strongly reminded of the "USA" lettered on Apollo 11's Saturn V at liftoff. The plain sans-serif capital letters even looked very much the same.

When the moon rocket lifted off, its destiny was very dangerous but its mission was astoundingly significant. And that, I think, describes the threshold the next presidency of the United States of America crossed last night. Godspeed, Obama.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Stay Classy Texas: Election Edition

Just as you thought it was safe to come out on election day without having to carry an umbrella to avoid streams of bilious spew coming from some wingnut or other, up steps Texas State Board of Education member Cynthia Dunbar to fill the void with her insightful and well-reasoned thoughts on Barack Obama:
AUSTIN — State Board of Education member Cynthia Dunbar isn't backing down from her claim that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is plotting with terrorists to attack the U.S.

The Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group that monitors the board, released a public statement on Monday asking Dunbar to retract the statement.

"I don't have anything in there that would be retractable," said Dunbar, R-Richmond. "Those are my personal opinions and I don't think the language is questionable."

For those of you slow on the uptake, my previous reference to "insightful and well-reasoned thoughts" was sarcasm seasoned with a heavy dose of cynicism. Dunbar, you might know, is a member of Governor Rick Perry's posse. As a member of the powerful State Board of Education, she wants to teach Texas school children that the dinosaurs all drowned when they couldn't fit on Noah's Ark. With folks like her filling this state's high offices, how can Texas not blaze a glorious trail into the 19th century?

I suppose it's too much to hope that Dunbar and Michele Bachmann eventually end up as unemployed drinking buddies, huh?

Dawn of the grackles

On grey November mornings in Austin like today, the boat-tailed grackles gather like the black birds of Mordor in denuded urban habitats — downtown street lamps, the pathetic trees lining the parking lot medians of a run-down old shopping mall, the double decker concrete of the freeway — and cackle en masse, a din that lets you know these hardy adaptable earth-mates of ours are making fun of us.

This morning reminds me of a very similar morning in Austin, eight years ago and a day. The morning after election day 2000. I had gone to bed the night before without knowing who won the election, something I could not remember doing in my adult life. When I got up to go to work the next morning, they still didn't know who won. Clouds were gathering as I drove to work through the grackled dawn, after a crisp sunny day before.

My day job office at the time happened to be next door to the Four Seasons Hotel Austin, which was where then-Governor George Bush and his entourage were staying to watch the returns. There was a weird, looming vibe about the whole scene, fundamental grammar school civics class certainties about the infallibility of American democracy already called into question by the absence of a definitive midnight answer, even before the full Constitutional crisis began to bloom that afternoon.

In no time, we were mired in hanging chads and the battle of the partisan lawyers. Dueling CNN spiels by wily statesmen — Bushie James Baker and Clintonian Warren Christopher (who I once rode an elevator with in the Hart Senate Office Building, causing me to conclude there is no human being on Earth who could so completely resemble one of the puppets from Kukla, Fran and Ollie). A month of grim Constitutional limbo, watching the process degenerate into a brazen partisan power struggle completely devoid of any idealism, ultimately decided by the Supreme Court.

The 2000 election exposed for me how much of the vaunted sanctity of the American electoral process is a myth. The process is riddled with errors, always has been, and every cycle there are races that need to be resolved by judges.

Uncounted ballots aside, for me the biggest imperfection of all for me was the fact that so many races are statistical ties, and most remarkably, that the presidential contest could end in what was, basically, a tie. Nothing could better illustrate my emerging sense at the time that political choice in America had become an illusion, a Coke versus Pepsi selection between avatars of converging pseudo-ideologies.

Perhaps 9/11 has changed that, rendering today's election one of more consequence. While I see real difference in the leaders proffered today, I remain unpersuaded that there is much real diversity in the system, believing that the two-party system is a red team-blue team factionalism that would have made the authors of the Federalist Papers cringe at the ossification of their system into a means for a small political class to perpetuate their own careers, using the power of the public fisc, the campaign finance system, and election laws designed to preclude outsiders to make sure that no candidate who represents real change will have an easy time getting in front of the voters.

As I await the unfolding of the day, and wonder if the clouds are going to break or thicken, I share the apprehension of the big-brained open source intelligence analysts down the street at Stratfor, when they remark that another uncertain election result a la November 2000 would be a very bad thing:

There is one critical thing for this coming election: that a president be elected without any ambiguity. The greatest destabilizing threat to the international system would be for the election to end in a complex deadlock as in 2000, with the courts forced to adjudicate. An extended period of uncertainty about the American presidency, considering the range of international issues on the table, would increase international political risk dramatically. It would also create a massive domestic crisis, not only for the usual reasons, but also because the polls have consistently shown Barack Obama ahead. His supporters would view a deadlocked election in the face of these polls with deep suspicion...

This election is bitter on all sides. There is already some emotional expectation among Obama supporters that someone will try to steal the election from their candidate. If there is a massive weekend swing (which may not become apparent until election night) that forces the election into recounts and litigation, the atmosphere surrounding this election could create political chaos in the United States, and that would mean that issues from Bretton Woods II to the status of forces in Iraq, to Russian plans in the former Soviet Union would all be affected. Bush’s ability to govern — as with all lame ducks — would be compromised, no transition would be in place, and the United States would be paralyzed politically. And, we might add, at that point Ralph Nader would again have been the pivot of an election.

I want to say keep your fingers crossed and hope there's a definitive result by the time you go to bed. But then I wonder, if we really want to see real change to the system, is there any better way to bring that on than an even more dramatic crisis that puts maximum pressure on all of the fundamental assumptions of our polis? I am not sure how long the 21st century will tolerate 19th century nation states that practice 18th century republican political citizens, when new networked forms of socio-political organization are aborning. Which science fiction theme are we going to get: war world dystopia or technocratic utopia? I guess we'll see what happens.

If you want a diversion from the returns, at least there's a new issues of the Internet Review of Science Fiction out today.