Thursday, February 26, 2009

To your scattered body go

I was saddened by last night's news of the death of Philip Jose Farmer. Farmer cracked my brain open at a young age, when I discovered his Peoria phabulism on the shelf of a branch library in a leafy old neighborhood, and wrapped my brain around the extent to which imagination permeates "real life" through its narrative infection of our minds. Farmer, perhaps more than any other writer, managed to transform the rawest pulp material into an X-ray lens that exposes unexpected revelations about consciousness and identity, partly by exploring the bizarre subtexts of mainstream genre narratives. I try to situate his contribution in the essay I will be presenting as part of the upcoming symposium on Parallel Worlds: The Impact and Influence of Science Fiction on Contemporary Culture at the Festival de Mexico March 16-20 in Mexico City:

Midwestern fantasist Philip Jose Farmer intuited what’s going on [with the increasingly slippery boundary in our heads between our fantasy narratives and consensus reality]. In Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, Farmer wrote biographies of great pulp heroes as if they were actual historical figures. And in the process of doing so, invented a metafictional postulate that all of the pulp heroes of the English language since the late eighteenth century were literal cousins, descendants of a small group of people exposed to a mutation-causing meteorite in 1795 Yorkshire. In the Riverworld novels, he imagined a meta-nonfictional purgatory realm in which everyone who ever lived co-existed, allowing for the novelistic protagonist (and readerly alter ego) to adventure with pulped-down versions of great figures from history — Richard Burton, Hermann Göring and Mark Twain on a quest to discover the secrets of heaven. The cartoon heroes are all real, the historical figures are all cartoons, and they all co-exist as non-player characters in the role-playing game of our elusive self.

He will be missed.

More at Win Scott Eckert's Wold Newton blog.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Day After

When the President gives a speech to a joint session of Congress on Mardi Gras, is it too much to ask that just one lunatic member of the Senate yell "Show us yer tits!"? Or that the Prez* throw beads from the podium, with the Veep and the Speaker wearing creepy post-Venetian masks behind him? I guess they don't need to throw plastic coins like the ones the rich white Krewe members throw from the floats to the poor working people below at the actual Mardi Gras, since they are already throwing so many billions at the problem of the, you know, collapse of Western capitalism.

Today is the day after Mardi Gras, when the streets of New Orleans are deserted as everyone in town sleeps off the hangover of a five-day gluttonous binge. Not a bad metaphor, perhaps, for how things feel today as a citizen of the West. Sitting here today, watching the whole grand edifice crumble to the ground, you can't help but feel like, in some respects, the whole economic-cultural milieu of middle-class American life since World War II has been a kind of grand binge in which we developed an entire economic system grounded in fictions and fueled by militaristic Keynesian fiscal policy that got us out of the last depression, and provided the core economic engine ever since: the great edifice of the military-industrial complex, which pretty much begat the modern technology and automotive industries.

It feels like everything else in the postwar economy has been basically a narrative construct. Sure, if you dig through the contractual labyrinths, you would find the underlying tangible assets like the crappy suburban houses and the office supplies of the Fortune 500. The genius of capital is its ability to take a closet full of paperclips, convert it into money, and create more money out of thin air through brilliantly conceived rhetorical time travel. When you get so far out into the ether that you can't remember what the paperclips are worth, you are about to being playing a very expensive game of pick-up stocks.

When I was in college, I heard the great economic historian (and historian of economics) Deirdre McCloskey (at the time, bearded, dramatically stammering, crazy charismatic Donald McCloskey) present "The Rhetoric of Economics." This brilliant paper from Iowa City's finest borrowed from contemporary critical theory to deconstruct the mathematical constructs of modern neoclassical economics as rhetoric (metaphor, mainly) whose actual moorings to observable physical reality were (are) elusive, amenable to dissection with the same critical tools as one would use on a novel.

I think McCloskey's observations are equally applicable to the contractual labyrinths on which our modern capital markets are constructed: the infinite texts crafted by the armies of smart lawyers who transform the ever-more complex exchange arrangements of entrepreneurial capitalists into narratives designed to serve as the scripts for the conduct of private persons that can be enforced by a court. The distance between the top of that mountain of paper (in itself merely the vehicle for the cartography of the infinite maze of applied symbolic logic that represents the world's financial instruments) and the hard utilitarian asset value that is nestled therein, on the other side of an exhausted minotaur, is longer than we know. For a simplistic example, consider the distance between the market capitalization Google at its peak, and the book value of the tangible assets of Google that could be sold in a liquidation.

That distance seems to be the one we are currently traversing, a psycho carnival ride drop of unknown distance. One that comes at a time of other massive, wrenching changes, like the demise of the media that for a hundred years have been our principal means of the dissemination of socio-economic information, the crescendo moment of climate change, the political realignment of the world expressed through resurgent religious/tribal identity politics, and the cracking of our own genetic code. May you live in interesting times.

Watching our "leaders" mime their way through the same old rhetorical prestidigitation, one can't be faulted for wondering whether any of them really have a freaking clue what's going on. If the guys at the Bloomberg terminals have lost their ability to value the assets of the society, do you really think the politicians have a better idea? You can pump all the plasma you want into the patient, but it helps a lot if you can figure out how to stop the bleeding.

There's a weirder world than any science fiction writer could imagine lurking on the other side of the next fifty years.

* Speaking of which, the 44th president does in fact throw a big shout out to the forgotten DC Comics character Prez: First Teen President. For some reason I have a weird feeling today that this Joe Simon hail mary from the 70s may prove to be weirdly prescient, maybe because the current prez is appearing in so many comic books. Is the appearance of the Watchmen movie, with its alt-Nixon dystopia, portent of some imminent convergence of consensus reality and comic book semiotics? Wikipedia recap:

Prez: First Teen President was a four issue comic series by writer Joe Simon (the creator of Captain America) and artist Jerry Grandenetti, released by DC Comics in 1973 and 1974. It followed the adventures of Prez Rickard, the first teenage President of the United States of America, whose election had been made possible by a Constitutional amendment lowering the age of eligibility to accommodate the then-influential youth culture of the baby boom (a premise similar to that in the cult film Wild in the Streets).


Martha Rickard, of Steadfast, Middle America, named her son Prez because she thought he should someday be President. Having made the clocks of Steadfast, whose towers were so out of sync that the town heard a constant chiming, run on time, he was hired as a ringer for shady businessman Mr. Smiley to run for United States Senator after the eligibility age was lowered. An idealist, he rebelled against Mr. Smiley. With 45% of voters under 30, the youthful Congress passed an amendment lowering the eligibility age for the presidency and Senator Rickard was voted President of the United States. He appointed his mother Martha Vice President and made his sister his secretary.

The most significant supporting character, however, was Eagle Free, a young Native American who has a deep understanding of animals. He lives in a cave well-stocked with books about them, but knows most of what he knows first hand. Prez appoints him director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Eagle Free wears a headband with feather, braids, and no shirt, and is often accompanied by a menagerie of native and non-native animals. Eagle Free trains Prez in multiple fighting techniques. This is never shown, but it is referred to when he utilizes them.

Original series

Prez fought legless vampires, a right-wing militia led by the great-great-great-great-great-grandnephew of George Washington, "Boss Smiley", a political boss with a smiley face, and evil chess players. He was attacked for his stance on gun control, and survived an assassination attempt during that controversy.

After four issues, the series was abruptly cancelled. Several years later, Issue #5 was included in Cancelled Comics Cavalcade #2, though Prez itself predated the DC Implosion.

Prez also appeared in issue #10 of the 1970s Supergirl series, cover dated October, 1974. Although the first issue Prez specified that the series was an imaginary (non-continuity) story, this story by Cary Bates implies that Prez Rickard is President of the United States on Earth-One of the DC Universe. In the story, Supergirl (Kara Zor-El), also known as Linda Lee Danvers, saves Prez from two hoaxed assassination attempts to be entrapped into a third by a politician working with a witch who is called Hepzibah, though she looks exactly like Eve, who stabs the head of a doll of Supergirl's likeness in attempt to make her drop him. Kara is able to resist and flies Prez to the Fortress of Solitude, then drops a plastic dummy dressed as Prez into the East River so that they will leave her alone. The story played up Prez's ability with clocks to the point that they seem a predominant interest in his life, and Kara believes he has the precision of a jeweler.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Elders' Village

For most people the world over, life is more about making do than having it made. Even prosperous people end up making do—improvising their way through life—when faced with various difficulties. When you're making do and you have a child to raise, you really do need help from aunts, uncles, grandmothers, schoolteachers, pediatricians, and the rest of the proverbial village that it takes to raise a child.

It takes a village applies just as much, or more, when you have to care for a parent with Alzheimer's.

My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's two years ago. She is now comfortably situated in assisted living, in Columbus, Georgia, where she lived in her own house for decades and still has many friends. She's in good physical health and good spirits and her finances are in order. I devoted intense energy and numerous trips to Georgia to making this outcome happen. It also took a whole village of other people, starting with a care-giving agency's owner, the agency's skilled and compassionate care coordinator, and a wonderful care-giver; and the authors, editors and publishers of several helpful books. I had kind and invaluable help from many other experts, including the elder law attorney, the financial planner, the lady from Mom's church who works at Mom's bank, the vice president at our other bank and the financial advisers she referred me to with questions, and the tax preparers, who were an AARP volunteer last year and this year a professional bookkeeper/tax preparer who will sort through the tax ramifications of all the financial arrangements I made.

Then there are the assisted living facility's manager, director, staff, and chaplain; two Columbus Veterans Service Office counselors and one field officer of the Veteran's Administration (from which Mom now receives an Aid and Attendance Benefit to offset her medical expenses); the real estate agent who succeeded in selling Mom's house; the woman who collects used household goods that are sold in a thrift store to support a cat charity, and the young man who drove the truck—this was how we cleared away a lot of Mom's old clothing and housewares—and the local library which accepted six boxes of books for the next book sale.

Last but most important of all, there are my cousins, Mom's nephew and his wife. Because they are in the estate sale business, they really know the lay of the land for elders moving to assisted living. They moved Mom to her new efficiency apartment and fixed it up nicely for her. They give me a place to stay and loan me a car to drive and a computer to use every time I go to Columbus. More than anyone else, I could not have done what I had to do without them.

Add doctors to the village that helps adult children care for a parent with Alzheimer's. My mom receives excellent care from her internal medicine doctor, her dermatologist, and her neurologist. The neurologist has had Mom on a combination of the drugs Aricept and Namenda for a year and half. Add medical researchers to the village too! As reported in the January 2009 issue of the newsletter Mind Mood and Memory (from Massachusetts General Hospital), a recent study indicates that the combination of Aricept, or another in the same class of drugs, with the drug Namenda is best treatment yet found for Alzheimer's. One researcher is quoted as saying, "We don't yet have a cure for Alzheimer's disease, but it's no longer accurate to say we don't have a useful treatment.... All AD patients in the study became more seriously affected by the disease over time, but those who received the combination treatment declined significantly more slowly. What's more, the longer patients received the combination, the greater the effect appeared to be." The drug combination doesn't cure Alzheimer's, but it buys time. If you have a loved one with Alzheimer's, buying time is the best deal on Earth.

Over Valentine's Day I went back to Columbus to visit Mom. I brought her a red balloon and a potted fern, both of which she liked. On a crystal clear afternoon, we walked around the outside of the assisted living facility. She has the shuffling Alzheimer's gait, and we didn't go fast, but we made it around the whole place. Downhill on the main driveway, then onto the sidewalk that goes around the back beside the wide sunny patio overlooking a meandering stream. Then along the other side of the building, by two vegetable garden plots, and finally up a large flight of concrete steps. Mom kept a safe hold on the railing and motored up the steps like somebody twenty years younger. All the way, she marveled at the signs of very early spring in Georgia. The vegetable plots were fallow, the trees by the stream bare, and the lawn grass winter brown, but shrubs and trees had tight buds. Sun-yellow dandelions dotted the edges of the lawn, and tiny blue flowers were mixed in with the brown stems of grass. I'm glad that Mom can still notice these things. She looks forward to seeing the first bluebirds of the year.

In the long uneven dying that is Alzheimer's, she'll probably lose the ability to recognize bluebirds, me, or anything else. More crises and heartbreak lie ahead. But know I now something vitally important: I'm not facing Mom's condition alone.

The world tilts, as it always has, summer to winter and back toward spring. People make do as they raise a child or walk with an elder toward the end of life. And the help of a village makes all the difference in the world.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

When homunculi attack

When I was a kid, there was a period when I really wanted to get a pet monkey. My parents resisted, so I did a lot of research on the subject and made a series of compelling arguments as to how it could work. They still resisted, and in the end I was placated with a new dog.

I think the idea may have been subtly inspired by my viewing of a matinee showing of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, in which a ship-borne necromancer creates his own homunculus, a groovy little Harryhausen gargoyle that carries the film. The monkey as pet is the ultimate anthropomorphic self-indulgence, a highly intelligent mini-human complete with opposable thumbs, an action figure with a beating heart, a cartoon mirror that enables a peculiarly eccentric and authentic simulation of whimsical self-expression.

I remember reading, many years later, a putatively "straight" biography of Michael Jackson, who at the time I considered an iconic postmodern figure who occupied some weird nexus of the '60s Motown pop star and David Bowie as the raceless and sexless alien Man Who Fell to Earth (for more on that strange theme, see my story "Immaculate Perception" in the hard-to-find Argosy 3, the last issue of that venture edited by Lou Anders before he moved on to bigger and better things at Pyr). Among the most compelling scenes in that bio was the image of Michael Jackson crying hysterically in his private apartment at Neverland Ranch after his sweet pet chimp Bubbles beat the crap out of him. Which reminded me of my pre-teen research, and the oft-repeated lesson in the exotic pet trade that nothing is quite so mean as a mature chimp held captive by nutjob humans who should know better.

[pic: "Michael Jackson and Bubbles," by Jeff Koons (porcelain, 1988)]

So when I see Drudge's latest tabloid purple involves an overfed Xanax-fueled chimp in Stamford going postal, with a bit of Morgan Fairchild thrown in for for that extra little frisson of avant-pop WTF?, I can't help but wonder how many little downscale Michael Jacksons are out there in suburbia, spending the long quanta of their leisure time inventing increasingly mutant variations on their imperceptible selves, complete with homunculi rebelling against their twisted, misguided, velvet confinement.

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: 911 tape captures chimpanzee owner's horror as 200-pound ape mauls friend
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The chilling screams of a crazed chimp mauling a Connecticut woman were captured on a 911 tape - along with the animal's owner begging, "Send police with guns!"

The 15-minute recording captures the bizarre horror of Monday's attack, which left a 55-year-old woman critically injured and the 200-pound ape dead in a hail of police gunfire.

"Hurry, please! He ripped her face off," the ape's frantic owner, Sandy Herold, 70, is heard telling the dispatcher on the tapes released Tuesday night.

"Listen to me, you have to shoot him."

The terrifying screeches of Travis the chimpanzee are heard as he mercilessly pounces on Herold's pal, Charla Nash.

"He killed her!" Herold told the dispatcher. "He ripped her apart. He tried attacking me. How fast can you get here?"

The dispatcher sounds incredulous as Herold describes how she had to stab the burly ape and only aggravated him.

"He's eating her," Herold screamed. "Please have them go faster."

When cops arrived at Herold's Stamford home, she can be heard yelling for them to "Shoot him!"

Nash was so disfigured that a cop on the scene mistook her for a man, telling the dispatcher, "He's got no face."

Fighting back tears Tuesday, Herold mourned the death of her beloved chimp and expressed concern for her friend.

"He was all I had," Herold said outside her home.

She painfully recounted how she stabbed her 15-year-old chimp with a butcher's knife, trying to stop the attack.

Cops shot and killed the rampaging primate when he cornered them in a squad car.

"To do what I did, it was the worst thing in the world," said Herold, a widow whose only daughter died in a car accident.

"He was my kid ... I never left the house without kissing him goodbye."

Herold revealed her heartbreak moments before she headed to Stamford Hospital to visit Nash, who underwent surgery Monday night.

"We're very optimistic right now," said Nash's brother, Steve.

What triggered the normally docile chimp's brutal attack remained unclear. Herold suggested that Travis, who appeared in TV commercials and delighted in sipping wine and surfing the Internet, pounced on Nash because he didn't recognize her.

"She always wore her hair long and brown," Herold said. "Friday she had her hair done. She cut it blond and fluffy. And she was in a different car."

Herold added: "He was very protective of me."

Travis' violence may be linked to a recent bout with Lyme disease, a tick-borne infection that can cause paranoia and mood swings in people, said Stamford police Capt. Richard Conklin.

Cops say that before Travis went berserk, Herold gave him the anti-anxiety drug Xanax because he was acting up. Herold said he never took the drug.

Either way, Travis escaped the house and was running around the lawn when Nash arrived with a stuffed Elmo doll to help coax him back inside. Travis set upon her immediately.

When cops arrived, Travis tore off a police cruiser's side mirror and opened the door, prompting a cornered cop to open fire on the burly ape.

The bleeding chimp staggered back into the house and died.

"I don't blame the cop for what he did," Herold said. "It's a tragedy on both sides."

The attack stunned Herold's friends and neighbors - and even left actress Morgan Fairchild, who once appeared alongside Travis in an Old Navy ad, devastated.

"This is not at all the personality I worked with," Fairchild told the Daily News. "It was like having a very bright child on the set that wanted to be a part of everything. He was just an amiable little guy, friendly and just loved to be the center of attention."

If I were to suggest I'm on the chimp's side, would you say I am even crazier than the "owner" who created this situation? Crazier than Michael Jackson dressing up his simian alter ego in matching gold epaulets, and surprised when the familiar lashes back like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes? I am sure you are right.

Recommended viewing: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), the fourth in the series, featuring a dystopian near-future (1991!) in which apes, having been domesticated as pets and servants by humans following a plague that kills all the cats and dogs, revolt and overthrow their human masters under the leadership of a chimpanzee from the future. Worth it for the soundtrack alone, to say nothing of the back-to-back Roddy McDowell and Richardo Montalban, and now seeming more prescient than I ever would have imagined. Now re-released in a director's cut (!) reviewed here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Buffy, Dollhouse creator Joss Whedon to receive Bradbury Award

CHESTERTOWN, Md. -- Joss Whedon, creator of such science fiction and fantasy-themes television series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dollhouse, has been named recipient of the Bradbury Award for excellence in screenwriting, as presented by Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

SFWA President Russell Davis made the announcement Feb. 16. Whedon will be honored during the Nebula Award Weekend® in Los Angeles, Calif., April 24-26.

“Like everyone who picks up a pen, I was a rabid Bradbury fan and as greatly influenced by him as any other writer I read,” Whedon said. “To receive the award named for him is an honor I'd not dreamed of. In my defense, it didn't exist back then. What did exist were the very lovely, very twisted and very human stories that warped my impressionable mind, and that I have tried, in whatever medium they will let me, to measure up to.”

Created in 1992 by then-President Ben Bova and named after famed author and screenwriter Ray Bradbury, the Bradbury Award is a special president's award presented for outstanding genre-themed work in a dramatic medium. Previous Bradbury Award winners are James Cameron for Terminator 2 (1992), J. Michael Straczynski for Babylon 5 (1999) and Yuri Rasovsky and Harlan Ellison for 2000X - Tales of the Next Millennia, a National Public Radio series (2001).

“I'm very excited to be giving this honor to Joss Whedon in recognition of his substantial and superior body of work, including Buffy, Angel, Firefly and the Serenity film, as well as Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog,” said SFWA President Russell Davis. “His impact as a writer, producer and director on the science fiction and fantasy film and television landscape is undeniable, and he is more than deserving of this recognition from our organization.”

As of 2010, the award will become the annual Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation for works including motion pictures, television, Internet, radio, audio and stage productions. The award will first be presented in 2010, for works released in 2009. Though not a Nebula, the award will be presented at the Nebula Awards Ceremony and will follow Nebula rules and procedures; the Script category of the Nebulas has been eliminated.

The 2009 Nebula Awards® Weekend will be held in Los Angeles, Calif., April 24-26. Harry Harrison will be honored as the next Damon Knight Grand Master, while M.J. Engh will be honored as Author Emerita. Singer/songwriter/author Janis Ian will be on hand to serve as toastmistress. Victoria Strauss will be presented with the SFWA Service Award, while Kate Wilhelm, Martin H. Greenberg and the late Algis Budrys will be honored with the inaugural SFWA Solstice Award.

About SFWA

Founded in 1965 by the late Damon Knight, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America brings together the most successful and daring writers of speculative fiction throughout the world.

Since its inception, SFWA® has grown in numbers and influence until it is now widely recognized as one of the most effective non-profit writers' organizations in existence, boasting a membership of approximately 1,500 science fiction and fantasy writers as well as artists, editors and allied professionals. Each year the organization presents the prestigious Nebula Awards® for the year’s best literary and dramatic works of speculative fiction.

Raven on Sterling

At Futurismic, a very nice Bruce Sterling interview by the always-excellent Paul Raven, with some interesting little riffs about the future of the genre:

What’s next for Bruce Sterling – what will you be focusing on, and what should we all be watching out for on the global stage?

Well, I never said much about this, because there are certain dark remarks that can become self-fulfilling prophecies. But I always held a secret, silent dread that I would end up as a publisher. It’s the standard punishment for getting too close to the Muses: they make you put on an apron and an eyeshade and do all the scutwork.

But if there’s no commercial science fiction, no bestsellers, no chainstores, no media tie-ins — no more place to throw my glowing pearls before those capitalist swine — well then, clearly the model for action is something like Arkham House. Yes, Arkham House, or maybe some Czech hippie ‘89er samizdat underground scene. Counterculture goes to the trenches. Cold canned spaghetti with the Lovecraft cult. It’s what one does.

I sure don’t relish that prospect, because I’m old and lazy, but what the heck, I’ve seen it. Maybe, if I absolutely had to do it, I could do it in some way that better fits contemporary circumstances. Like: buy the 6,000 word scifi story, get the free fabricated chair-plans. An Arduino chip with every novelette. Buy the fantasy trilogy and you get a gratis Italian street uprising and a homemade steampunk watch. You get my drift here.

When the world turns upside down, the people don’t stop breathing. Tomorrow just composts today.

Out next week: The Caryatids.

Fortean fireball weekend

I guess that's what happens when you stay inside in the morning and tap away at the laptop. You miss the flaming space junk raining on the Sunday morning marathoners outside.

Local news reports:

Mystery fireball streaks across Texas sky
Updated: 2/16/2009 7:40 AM
By: News 8 Austin Staff

The U.S. Strategic Command said Monday that the weekend shower of fireballs over Texas was not debris from last week's collision of two satellites over Siberia. They said it was a natural phenomenon.
(((We still have a Strategic Air Command? I thought it was "disestablished as a MAJCOM" in 1992. Nothing reassures like a denial from a nonexistent agency*...)))

What looked like a fireball streaked across the Texas sky Sunday morning, leading many people to call authorities to report seeing falling debris.

Preliminary reports from Williamson County officials said a small aircraft went down, and then officials said it was likely space debris from two satellites crashing.

(((Williamson County is north suburban Austin, home of Dell computer, endless new suburbs, and plenty of actual Texas farms and ranches.)))

The Federal Aviation Administration said Sunday that it received numerous reports across Texas of falling debris and they are uncertain what the fireball in the sky was.

FAA spokesman Roland Herwig said officials initially suspected the debris could be related to the collision, but he said that had not been confirmed.

News 8 received numerous calls saying debris was falling around midmorning Sunday, what looked like a meteor. Some of the callers reported what looked like a fireball in the sky.

Williamson County officials combed the area in a helicopter searching for any trace of a small aircraft landing, but were unable to find anything.

((("Hey, sheriff, I think that there lid on that thang is startin to unscrew like all by itself.")))

The FAA notified pilots on Saturday to be aware of possible space debris after a collision Tuesday between U.S. and Russian communication satellites.

The chief of Russia's Mission Control said clouds of debris from the collision will circle Earth for thousands of years and threaten numerous satellites.

(((How very Ballardian of them — orbital ruins! Ozymandias monuments of the Cold War superpowers. Like the opening of the second act of Kubrick's 2001, but with all the space stations and satellites dead, The Blue Danube replaced with some more suitably entropic fugue.)))

The debris field from the collision is described as huge, but scientists are still trying to determine the full scope of the crash.

News 8 Austin photojournalist Eddie Garcia caught the fiery streak in the Central Texas sky Sunday morning.

The people running were not running from the fireball. They were actually running the Austin Marathon.

(((Yeah, right, we know they were running from the zombies.)))


The U.S. Strategic Command said it is not debris from last week's crash between U.S. and Russian satellites.
(((No, it's debris from our secret war with the aliens.)))

A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said they don't know what the fireball in the sky was.
(((First-rate big budget viral marketing for the new season of 24, which postulates a sinister African dictator who captures a device that allows him to magically hack any infrastructure system and cause plant spills and mid-air plane crashes. Keep fear alive!)))

The debris field from the collision is described as huge, but scientists are still trying to determine the full scope of the crash.
(((Just imagine the redneck who's still digging up tiles from Space Shuttle Columbia, walking out Sunday morning to find space junk carrying the Andromeda Strain smoldering in the ditch. So that's where the zombies are coming from...)))

I look forward to the singer-songwriters of this "live music capital of the world" to come up with some suitable Texas-centric remakes of the prescient song from Devo's first (Spacelab-era) album:

Space Junk

she was walking
all alone
down the street
in the alley
her name was sally
she never saw it
when she was hit by
space junk

*(((Correction, it's not S.A.C., but the new U.S. Strategic Command, our "Leaders in Strategic Deterrence and Preeminent Global Warfighters in Space and Cyberspace." )))

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dery on Ballard

At LA Weekly, a very nicely done review of J.G. Ballard's "pre-posthumous memoir," Miracles of Life, from the always-amazing Mark Dery. Dery does an excellent job in a brief essay of encapsulating the immense importance of Ballard, who managed to repurpose the narrative prisms of science fiction using the cultural pathology surgical instruments of psychology and criticism to dissect contemporary consciousness in a way none have really matched:

In a very real sense, Ballard did become a psychiatrist, albeit a dryly ironic one, at ease with his philosophical bipolar disorder — now profoundly moralistic, now exuberantly amoral, now both. All of his dystopias are in truth pathological utopias; Ballard rejoices in the breakdown of bourgeois morality and the Return of the Repressed. Like the Freud of Civilization and Its Discontents, he can always hear the scrabbling of our sublimated instinctual drives behind Western society’s liberal-humanist facade. But unlike Freud, and like R.D. Laing, Norman O. Brown and other radical Freudians of the ’60s, Ballard is equally wary of the soft fascism of our master-planned, socially engineered age, with its megamalls and Club Meds, its gated communities and New Urbanist retrovilles. “In a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom” is a copyrighted Ballard quote.

Ballard’s genius lies in his metaphoric use of scientific jargon and an antiseptic tone, somewhere between the dissecting table and the psychopathic ward, to psychoanalyze postmodernity. Long before deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida were slinging around references to the “decentered” self, Ballard is talking, in his trenchant introduction to Crash (1973), about “the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect” and about “the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods.” Before postmodernists like Jean Baudrillard were announcing the Death of the Real and its unsettling replacement by uncannily convincing media simulations, Ballard is claiming that “we live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind” — advertising, “politics conducted as a branch of advertising,” P.R. “pseudo-events,” et al. — where “Freud’s classic distinction between the latent and manifest content of a dream, between the apparent and the real, now needs to be applied to the external world of so-called reality.” And before neo-Marxists like Fredric Jameson and Mike Davis were pondering the deeper meanings of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Frank Gehry’s Hollywood library, Ballard is pondering the psycho-spatial effects of the built environment: the experience of swooping around a freeway cloverleaf; of walking through a cavernous, empty multistory parking garage; of waiting, alone, in an airport departure lounge; of walking the privately policed streets of an obsessively manicured exurban community. How, Ballard wonders, is our sense of our selves as social beings and moral actors — our very understanding of what it means to be a self — being transformed (deformed?) by the whip-lashing hyperacceleration of technology and the media, the blurring of the distinction between real and fake? Ballard was the first to ask how we became posthuman.

I read the book last year, and highly recommend it for just about any reader. It's Ballard's first true memoir (unlike Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, which beautifully (and transparently) experimented with fictionalized blends designed to find even greater emotional and meta-historical truths), rich with treacleless poignance and grand wisdom, finding incisively fresh perspectives on common biographical events such as the birth of a grandchild — the warm feeling of completion as if his evolutionary duty had finally been fulfilled. Attention to Ballard in the U.S. has lamentably waned in the past decade, so go get your copy from the homeland and find paths to inner liberation you didn't know existed. As Mark writes:

It’s not yet time to write Ballard’s epitaph, but when it comes, his poetic, almost liturgical credo, “What I Believe” (1984), will do nicely:

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.

I believe in the non-existence of the past, in the death of the future, and the infinite possibilities of the present.

Also, at NYRB:

Diane Johnson, "J.G. Ballard: The Glow of the Prophet" (October 9, 2008)

Robert Towers, "Believe it or Not" (October 24, 1991)

And, at Evergreen Review, the full text of "The Assasination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Frozen sperm of the stars and other poodled celebrities

Today's NYT had an intriguing article about the latest technology for the breeding of champion dogs:

Frozen Sperm Keeps Dogs' Championship Bloodlines Alive

Every time Tim Brazier leads his dog Yes into the ring, he can’t help thinking of Snapper, another champion black standard poodle.

“It’s a trip down memory lane,” said Brazier, who won the nonsporting group with Yes, or Ch. Randenn Tristar Affirmation, at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on Monday.

Yes, a daughter of Snapper, or Ch. Eaton Affirmed, shares her father’s sashay as well as his fluid movement and balance.

“And the little personal quirks, too, like cocking her head to the side, like he always did,” Brazier said.

Like father, like daughter, with a twist: Snapper died in 1990, 13 years before Yes was born. She was conceived using 25-year-old frozen sperm from Snapper, who sired more than 100 champions in his lifetime.

Which made me wonder how long it is before this technology is applied to humans. Consider, for example, the possibilities for the infertile members of the superclass to pay for the privilege of breeding their own new legal offspring using the harvested genetic material of dead celebrities. A more wholesome family variation on James Ellroy's meme from L.A. Confidential, involving a silver age high-end prostitution ring staffed by women who are dead-ringers for famous screen goddesses. Imagine a well-born little tot running around the house, with the adults whispering about Marilyn, or Brando, or Heath Ledger. Best in show? Surely a killer app for the propulsion of new genetic technologies, and a novel way to accelerate the de-evolutionary in-breeding of the very rich.

Personally, I think I could go for having my own little pet Charlton Heston, a square-jawed pre-teen who would have a different dystopian outfit for every day of the week — Taylor from Planet of the Apes, Neville from The Omega Man, the airline pilot from Airport 1975, the reporter from Soylent Green, the architect from Earthquake, the NRA President from Bowling for Columbine, maybe Moses on Saturdays. That would so kick that poodle's ass.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

SFWA announces inaugural Solstice Award recipients

SFWA announces inaugural Solstice Award recipients

Kate Wilhelm, Martin H. Greenberg and the late Algis Budrys are recipients of the inaugural Solstice Award, presented by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

SFWA President Russell Davis made the announcement Feb. 10. The recipients will be honored during the Nebula Award Weekend® in Los Angeles, Calif., April 24-26.

Created in 2008, the SFWA Solstice Award may be given at the discretion of the president with the majority approval of the SFWA Board of Directors. No more than three awards may be given in a fiscal year. The Solstice Award may be given to any person, living or deceased, with the exception of an individual who has already received either a Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award or named Author Emeritus, who has had a significant impact on the science fiction or fantasy landscape, and is particularly intended for those who have consistently made a major, positive difference within the speculative fiction field.

Kate Wilhelm’s writings span a wide range of genres and media. With her husband, the late Damon Knight, Wilhelm helped establish the Clarion Writer’s Workshop and the Milford Writer’s Conference, providing invaluable assistance to many writers over the years. Wilhelm continues to host monthly workshops, as well as teach at other events.

“As a new writer many years ago I was met with a generosity of advice, help, and encouragement that I've never forgotten,” Wilhelm said. “I assumed wrongly that it was general to all writing groups. It isn't. It is a unique spirit within the speculative fiction field for which all members can take pride. I am honored by this award, and thank those who have granted it, but with the awareness that at long last that generous sharing of knowledge and experience by the community as a whole is being recognized. Thank you very much.”

Martin H. Greenberg published his first anthology in 1974, and since then has gone on to shepherd hundreds of anthologies of both new and reprint material as president of Tekno Books. Greenberg’s anthology projects have long provided a valuable outlet for short fiction, an importance that is only enhanced as the periodical market continues to contract.

“It’s a great honor to receive this award,” Greenberg said. “Short fiction is close to my heart but this recognition also belongs to my professional colleagues, the editors and writers that I’ve been privileged to work with over the last 30 years.”

Known to many fans and friends as A.J., Algis Budrys wrote, reviewed and edited a wide array of science fiction beginning with his first sale in 1952 until his death in 2008 at the age of 77. Budrys’ career took him behind the editorial desk at Gnome Press, Galaxy, Regency Books and Playboy Press. He was the long-time coordinating judge for the L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of The Future competition, organizing workshops for the participants and offering advice and assistance to countless aspiring authors.

“A.J. felt strongly about helping and encouraging new writers,” said his widow, Edna Budrys. “In a workshop he would critique a story in a way that showed what was wrong, but never in a cruel way. He did it with kindness, and never diminished the person. He enjoyed helping aspiring writers improve and become successful.”

The Solstice Award is not reserved to members of SFWA, nor just to writers, but is intended as a broad spectrum award to recognize a wide variety of individuals.

“The creation of the Solstice Award is, I think, a great opportunity for SFWA to be able to recognize the many valuable people that have made the entire field of speculative fiction what it is today, and who have contributed to a mindset of paying forward,” said SFWA President Russell Davis. “Our first recipients, Algis Budrys, Martin H. Greenberg and Kate Wilhelm exemplify the spirit of this new award.

“Algis Budrys had an amazing impact on the field as a writer, editor and reviewer, but more than that, he was a mentor to many, many young writers who have gone on to have noted careers of their own,” he said. “As a noted anthologist, Martin H. Greenberg has launched untold numbers of writers on their career and no one has done more to keep the anthology market alive. And Kate Wilhelm, whose career has spanned many years and who is intimately tied to SFWA’s very beginnings, helped launch both the Clarion and the Milford writer’s workshops--and continues to offer workshops to this day. I am very excited about being able to recognize all three of these individuals at this year’s Nebula Awards banquet and believe they represent the very best of what the Solstice Award is truly about.”

The 2009 Nebula Awards® Weekend will be held in Los Angeles, Calif., April 24-26. Harry Harrison will be honored as the next Damon Knight Grand Master, while M.J. Engh will be honored as Author Emerita. Singer/songwriter/author Janis Ian will be on hand to serve as toastmistress. Victoria Strauss will also be presented with the SFWA Service Award.

About SFWA

Founded in 1965 by the late Damon Knight, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America brings together the most successful and daring writers of speculative fiction throughout the world.

Since its inception, SFWA® has grown in numbers and influence until it is now widely recognized as one of the most effective non-profit writers' organizations in existence, boasting a membership of approximately 1,500 science fiction and fantasy writers as well as artists, editors and allied professionals. Each year the organization presents the prestigious Nebula Awards® for the year’s best literary and dramatic works of speculative fiction.


Contextualizing those zombies

As noted, my post of the zombie construction sign hack has gone persistently viral, with daily Google alerts regarding new publications around the planet of one or more of our photos of the Austin mod alerting drivers to the Nazi zombie attack and the imperative to run for cold climates. (My son was even asked about one of my photo credits by some of his schoolmates.)

Which is somewhat ironic, since I am not that big a fan of the zombie sub-genre. For example, when I stop at my local comic book store and find racks of Marvel Zombies, my interest is repelled. Not just because the idea of Captain America as a zombie is the height of shark-jumping.

My view is that the zombiefication of the world is kind of stating the obvious. That is because I believe that the increasingly ubiquitous idea of everyday zombies is a psychologically accurate expression of our state of contemporary alienation — a variation on the same truths revealed through our better post-apocalyptic narratives. I touched on this topic in an essay I recently wrote that wrestles with, among other things, the role of dystopian zombies in science fiction as avatars of our estrangement from our fellow man in advanced capitalist society:

"The fuller social implications [of post-apocalyptic cozy catastrophe narratives] are revealed more explicitly, if with less authorial self-awareness, in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, a story with such pop memetic potency that it has been filmed three times in four decades. The novel opens with the physician protagonist settling down at dusk in the comfort of his barricaded townhome in plague-ridden Los Angeles:

'He sat in the living room, trying to read. He’d made himself a whisky and soda at his small bar and he held the cold glass as he read a physiology text. From the speaker over the hallway door, the music of Schönberg was playing loudly.

'Not loudly enough, though. He still heard them outside, their murmuring and their walkings about and their cries, their snarling and fighting among themselves. Once in a while a rock or brick thudded off the house. Sometimes a dog barked.

'And they were all there for the same thing.

'Robert Neville closed his eyes a moment and held his lips in a tight line. Then he opened his eyes and lit another cigarette, letting the smoke go deep into his lungs.

'He wished he’d had time to soundproof the house, It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t that he’d had to listen to them. Even after five months, it got on his nerves.'

"As Neville stares into his microscope searching for a cure to the mysterious virus that has rendered him alone, he reveals the extent to which his cozy driving tour of an apparently deserted Los Angeles is a depiction of real-world estrangement. Neville is *not* the last man Earth. He’s just the last upper-middle class professional white guy. A man who experiences his world largely through the medium of his own alienation, spends his days in the solitary performance of his professional chores, finds himself unable to form authentic emotional connections with the world around him, his comfortable suburban home a prison that protects him from the world of the real outside. As Neville drives around scavenging for commodities, he is surrounded by other humans, but they are dead to him other than as tribal predators or lewd objects of sexual desire. Like the protagonists of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, locked in a giant shopping mall that has been overtaken by zombies! (Perhaps you know the feeling?)"

I think this postulate probably has the best chance of explaining how it was that Cormac McCarthy's publication of the world's first literary realist zombie novel became an Oprah selection and a Viggo Mortenson major motion picture. File under nonfiction?

For the fuller discussion of these topics (including the aforementioned essay, "Feeling very estranged: science fiction and society in the aftermath of the twentieth century"), you can spend your spring break with yours truly and many bigger brains (including Mark Dery, Bruce Sterling, Christopher Priest, M. John Harrison, and Linda Nagata) March 16-20 at the Festival de Mexico in Mexico City, where we will put forth our essays and other thoughts on the important topic of Parallel Worlds: The Impact and Influence of Science Fiction on Contemporary Culture. The zombie-fighting Mezcal is on me.

Monday, February 9, 2009

NASA gets the YouTube treatment

Remember back last summer when a news blip made the rounds about how a significant number of engineers at NASA were so dissatisfied with the designs of the official launch system they were working on that, in their spare time and at their own expense, they designed their own renegade version and offered it to NASA as a superior product? And that NASA middle-managers promptly turned them down, since getting to the moon ain't exactly rocket science... Oh, wait. Yes it is!

Did you ever wonder what kind of culture can be so steeped in technology, yet so hidebound that it dismisses innovation from the very people hired to make such wonders manifest? Wonder no more. Astronaut Andrew Thomas has, with the assistance of numerous poorly-paid non-thespians, produced (in the tradition of all YouTube greatness) a shoestring video that gleefully bites the hand that feeds, well, a bloated, hidebound bureaucracy well-deserving of such scathing satire. NASA admins do get credit for allowing this to be posted on YouTube, but will this lead to any real change at NASA? I'm not holding my breath.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Lukas Foss

Lukas Foss died last week. He probably wasn't much of a household name. Foss spent years as the conductor of the Buffalo Symphony Orhestra, where he championed and recorded a lot of 20th century music. I suspect a lot of composers' only commercial recordings--many for Naxos--were done by Foss. He himself was a composer of note. Like a lot of his contemporaries, his early work was very out there in terms of tonality or the lack thereof. As time went on, Foss apparently embraced more mainstream style, even writing an opera based on Twain's The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

Personally, I knew him from one piece. Years ago, and I have no idea why I bought it, I had a cassette (that's how long ago it was) of his Baroque Variations (1967). This was a clever little thing, very 60s, that consisted of three movements, each based on a classic composer of the period. So the first movement was "On a Handel Larghetto," the second "on a Scarlatti Sonata," and the third "On a Bach Prelude 'Phorion'."

Baroque Variations is the sort of mid-century classical that feels old in newness, if that makes any sense. It sounds very time specific. Like a lot of science fiction, you could probably guess its creation date within a year or two. Foss took the scores of each one of these small classical works and sort of played with them. For instance, with the Handel, he went through and simply erased some of the notes. Writing that sounds ridiculous, but the result is that the music, which would normally gather a narrative drive isn't allowed to do so. It has a weird start and stop to it, the music seems to drift in and out. In the liner notes (remember those?), Foss said simply: "I composed the holes."

The movement derived from the Bach is just outrageous. Again, the familiar underlying music is there, but it jitters in and out of the foreground, loud then soft, while all around it are out of place snaps and bangs of percussion instruments, an organ providing bottom at the end. The liner notes quote a New Yorker review of the original performance: "The thing reminded me of Marcel Duchamp's celebrated gesture of painting a mustache on Leonardo's 'Mona Lisa'. Shortly after that, Mr. Duchamp stopped creating art altogether and devoted himself to chess. A similar move by Mr. Foss might benefit the future of the art of music."

That's the sort of review you dream of getting. All I know is that I found Baroque Variations compelling. To the point that I still had the cassette years after I no longer had a cassette player and would think about it now and then hoping that it might come out on CD. As far as I can tell, it never did. About a month ago, I was thinking about the music, went on eBay and bought an old copy of the record. Baroque Variations is side 2. Side 1 and no doubt the big draw at the time was John Cage's Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra. I got the record a day or so before reading that Foss had died.

You have no doubt been looking for a link to Baroque Variations or some of Foss' music. Sorry, I tried but I couldn't find any online. And I don't have one of those newfangled space age USB turntables that would let me create an audio clip. But to give you a taste of a similarly Duchampian piece of the era, here's a link for some of John Cage's 4'33''

Friday, February 6, 2009

Holy moly! A year already?

I just noticed, much to my astonishment, that Jan. 14 marked the one-year anniversary of Memory, my experiment in serialized online storytelling. If you'll harken back to the original rules, you'll see my goal was to produce a chapter/installment each week of roughly 1,000 words. I would not plot ahead. I had no idea how long it would be when I started, and honestly, I still don't have a clear guesstimate on that point. I missed the weekly posting goal by a pretty miserable margin--I'm up to roughly 33,000 words whereas it should be topping 52,000 by this point. But I haven't cheated by going back and doing rewrites and I generally meet my 1,000-word-per-chapter goal, if not surpass it.

For those of you who missed it, we're also a week shy of the anniversary of my first (and thus far only) interview with one of the two leads in the story, Flavius MacDuff. The interview didn't go quite as I'd expected, which puts it on footing quite similar to Memory itself. Enjoy.



Papantzin slapped the flat of the blade away. Her kick to the chest sent Flavius sprawling. Immediately she turned back to Anacaona, a reed-thin stiletto glinting wickedly in her hand.

Anacaona scrambled away, stumbling over the corner of the bed. She fell hard onto the small pile of her clothes on the floor.

“Damn ya for losing focus, ya git,” Flavius gasped from the floor where he’d fallen. He still held Memory--thank goodness--but his chest burned like fire where she’d kicked him and it felt as if all his ribs were pulling loose as he tried to get up. “She’s nae just some stuck-up handmaiden. Ach! Damn, but she kicks like a mule!”

Papantzin moved quickly and fluidly to Anacaona. She bent over the fallen Sajal, stiletto poised for the killing stroke--

A burst of green flashed, flinging Papantzin away.

Anacaona sat up, a miniature cuayab glowing in her hand.

“What the hell is that?” Flavius managed, glancing over at Papantzin, who lay moaning--and smoking--in the middle of the floor. Empress Malinche stood frozen in place, disbelief and outrage battling for supremacy on her face.

“Palm cuayab. Nobility of Sajal rank and higher are entitled to carry one for personal protection. What? I keep it in my belt pouch,” Anacaona said, staring down at Papantzin with loathing. “They’re not powerful enough to more than stun. Unfortunately.”

Papantzin grunted and propped herself up on her elbows. Flavius quickly directed the sharp tip of Memory menacingly above her chest.

“Ah! That’ll be far enough, I’m thinking,” he said. “I’m nae squeamish about bloodying a lass, or even ya, Papantzin, but I’ll be letting ya live out of respect for my deep, meaningful relationship with yer Empress. We had some good times, didn’t we Malinche?”

The Empress’ disbelief and outrage had compromised to express themselves via a disapproving scowl. “This joke has lost all humor. Sajal, you will help Papantzin up and then accompany her to your suite where she will administer atonement. Flavius will accompany me to the Imperial wing.”

“I ken yer having a wholly different conversation than the rest of us,” Flavius said, staring at the Empress in exasperation. “Right then. Anacaona, whatever’s in the wardrobe, fit it in my pack there. Hand me my sporran, too, when ya get a chance. Hurry now, lass, be quick about it.”

“Have you made up your mind, then?” Anacaona asked as she stuffed Flavius’ few possessions into the much-abused pack. “About my traveling otherwhere with you?”

“Dinnae be a git. Of course yer coming with me. On one condition-- I have to have yer solemn promise yer going to let me sleep at least a week before we finish our business.”

“Yes! Yes!”

“And lass, much as it pains me to say this, ya’d better put yer clothes back on. The Nexus of All Realities is nae place to be flouncing around starkers.”

The room shook suddenly, an unnerving lurch just strong enough to throw Flavius off-balance.

Papantzin reacted, rolling to the side as Memory wavered. She came up thrusting her stiletto. Flavius pivoted, dodging the blade. His momentum carried Memory around, catching Papantzin’s knuckles. She cried out. Blood flew across the room, streaking Anacaona’s breasts scarlet. The stiletto clattered to the floor, along with splattering drops of blood.

“You moved as quickly as she did,” Anacaona said, eyes wide. “Your skill in disarming her--”

“Skill, hell. I was aiming to lop off her goddamned head!” Flavius kicked the bloody stiletto to Anacaona while keeping Memory trained on Papantzin. Anacaona snatched it up. Flavius tried staring Papantzin down with a murderous glare, but she returned it with equal ferocity as she cradled her bloody hand. Finally, he gave up. “Anacaona, that shake we just felt--that something happens often around here?”

She shook her head. “I’ve never felt anything like it.”

“Yer Imperial Majesty...?”

“The Palace of Un-pic Ja’ab has the most advanced inertial dampers in forty cosms,” Empress Malinche said proudly. “It does not shake.”

“Then just what--” Flavius jabbed Memory at the Empress for emphasis, “--do ya call that belly-knotting jitter what came through a moment ago and made the room go all wobbly, eh?”

The door to the room opened. A squad of Eternal Militiamen stood outside in the hall.

“Your Imperial Majesty, a situation has...” the commander trailed off, dumbstruck by the scene before him. The sounds of alarms drifted in from the hall.

Flavius looked at the Militiamen, then at Memory, pointed directly at the Empress. He closed his eyes. “Bugger me,” he muttered under his breath. Quickly he directed Memory away from the Empress, back toward Papantzin.

“Lads, it’s nae what it looks like,” he said, forcing a smile. “I was just having a chat with Her Imperial Majesty, that’s all. It was Papantzin I was having a wee row with.”

The commander’s eyes, if possible, got even wider at the sight of Papantzin’s blood everywhere.

“Damnit man, I ken what yer thinking, and it’s nae like that. She tried to kill me first. Ask Sajal Acaona--” For the first time, Flavius noticed the blood streaking her naked body. “Oh, Goddamn it all to hell. I’m nae getting out of here without a fight, am I?”


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Concerning the Chicken Ranch

Friends and neighbors, I have a project, and said project demands that I ask of you this simple question: "Do you remember the Chicken Ranch?" And by that, I don't mean "Do you vaguely recall it existed at one point?" or "Have you seen the Burt Reynolds/Dolly Parton movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas or the Larry L. King play it was based on."

I am looking for, searching for, seeking out persons with actual, genuine first-hand knowledge of and experience with the famed brothel in La Grange, Texas. This would include former employees (yes, former employees. I know they're out there), former clients, failed Dallas-area restauranteurs, townsfolk, neighbors, law enforcement, relatives... anybody with a story, memory or recollection to tell regarding the history of what is, quite possibly, the world's most famous bordello. I would prefer being able to use sources full names, but given the particular nature of this unique subject matter, suitable arrangements can be made to ensure anonymity if required.

Lest you folks think I'm going about this the lazy way, posting this invite online and waiting for sources to come to me, I'd like to point out that I did go to ground zero for this, as it were. But sadly, nobody was around to answer any of my questions.


Feel free to spread the word.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Welcome to the party

Well over a week since our own Chris Nakashima-Brown alerted the world to the zombie menace in Austin, MSNBC wades into the fray. Cutting-edge, those folks are. The latest insightful contribution from corporate mediadom: "Pranks with electronic road signs stir worry." Uh, right. If the AP starts holding a contest for "most uninspired headline writer" my money's on this guy.
COLLINSVILLE, Illinois - Hackers are messing with electronic road signs in some U.S. states, warning of zombies and raptors down the road. Traffic safety officials aren't amused.

The latest breach came during Tuesday morning's rush hour near Collinsville, Illinois, east of St. Louis. That's where hackers changed a sign along southbound Interstate 255 to read, "DAILY LANE CLOSURES DUE TO ZOMBIES."

Seeing as how these zombies are local to Collinsville, one can only assume (hope) that they're Native American zombies, rising up from the nearby Cahokia Mounds, which was once a thriving city of some 20,000 inhabitants at a time when London and Paris were muddy, disease-riddled bumps in the road. Seriously, who wouldn't want to see an army of Native zombies cross the river and scale the Gateway Arch? space!

Blocked on coming up with scenarios for that near-future postcyberpunk space opera you've been wanting to work on? Well, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has you covered, with the launching of the first Iranian satellite yesterday from an undisclosed location in the secret heart of Persia.

Take your 300 Spartans (last stand of the valiant Westerners against invading Persians, with extreme body-piercing)...

Mix in some cybernetically enhanced future mullahs (think electro-Saruman)...

Borrow some tricks from Ken Follett's On Wings of Eagles (the true story of Ross Perot recruiting ex-military guys to rescue a bunch of EDS employees trapped in revolutionary Tehran)...

Put them all on some kind of Sinbad-remixed Freeside (the degenerate space station home of the Teshier-Ashpool clan and the Wintermute AI from Neuromancer)...

And see what happens.

NYT "The Lede" — "What's the Farsi word for 'Sputnik'?"

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Notes on the continuing generic crisis

io9 recently noted that science fiction narratives provided 2/3 of Hollywood's grosses in 2008 (at least if you count comics-based narratives).

Meanwhile, as widely reported, the leading commercial sf magazines are in a new wave of hurt (along with huge swaths of the magazine market generally). Dutiful authors supported (directly or indirectly) by such markets renew or restart their subscriptions. How much of the content they will actually read is the question none dare ask. As one who has not been published by such magazines, and always enjoys at least some of the fiction and nonfiction within, I will leave the ongoing debate about the relative faults of content, distribution, or media death to others, and say that dream editors and publishing entrepreneurs like FSF's Gordon van Gelder deserve to succeed. I think sf, broadly viewed, is very healthy, as evidenced by its domination of Hollywood and appropriation by so many great mainstream novelists in recent years. But I think literary sf, which is the hearth of wonder, could probably use a new marketing department (as well as some fresh pollination from sources outside the insular small town of the genre).

Consider the February issue of Asimov's. It has some great content. A sparkling cosmic collaboration between Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling, a rich space opera from Judith Berman, a welcome new story from Turkey City emeritus professor Steven Utley, a new story by grande dame Carol Emshwiller, a cool story from Matthew Johnson, some groovy speculative poetry from David Lunde and others, and some great reviews and short essays. Which makes me want to say, is it too much to ask that it be put in a package as cool as the work within? As in, something other than a wonderless pulp pastiche cover of a space-babe being assaulted by tentacles?

Would you want to be seen reading a magazine with that cover, other than at a science fiction convention? Or, maybe a hentai party? I'm not advocating some kind of literary gentility. But great sf like many of the stories in these magazines is intellectually vibrant and intensely cool. Why can't it be presented in a format that strives for those same qualities? I am sure the answer would be that unironic third-generation pulp covers are essential to keeping the core audience. To which I might ask, where else are they going to go if we try to push the comfort zone a little (and aren't they already leaving anyway)?

(See, e.g., Jayme's post below about Electric Velocipede, and compare the covers.)

Okay, time to go update my subscriptions. If you haven't done so before, disregard the cover, pick one of these up on the newsstand, and see if there isn't something in every one worth your five bucks.


Fantasy & Science Fiction.


Monday, February 2, 2009

Electric Velocipede

Wondering what to do with all that extra cash you'll have in your pockets once President Obama's economic stimulus plan kicks in? Well, wonder no more! What better to spend your hard-earned bailout money on than a subscription to Electric Velocipede? Single issues are groovy confections of literary goodness, and the current offering is actually a double issue, jam-packed with more inspired writing than is oft seen on this mortal coil. And, being "electric," it emits no greenhouse gases.

The fact that yours truly has a story contained therein--"A Plague of Banjos"--is merely value added.

A Plague of Banjos by Jayme Lynn Blaschke

When Moses left the Pharaoh, he prayed to the Lord. A great wind arose from the west, and swept away all the locusts, cleansing Egypt.

Seeing this Ramses grew obstinate, just as the Lord had foretold. He summoned Moses and Aaron before his court, and boasted loudly, “Eight plagues have your Lord sent upon the people of Egypt, and we have withstood them all. I will not let your people go. Return now to Goshen with my words, and let all Israelites weep and wail and beat their breasts.”

At this Moses grew angry. “Eight times have you begged forgiveness for your sins, Pharaoh, and eight times has our Lord been merciful. But be warned—the most awful power of the Lord has yet to be revealed! Thus says the Lord: If you refuse to let my people go, tomorrow I will bring banjos into your country. They shall cover your territory so that the ground itself will not be visible. Their noise shall fill the air, so that not even your own thoughts may be heard. They shall corrupt generations of Egyptians yet unborn, and you may cry to your progeny how ruthlessly I dealt with the obstinate Ramses!”

The rest of the story, of course, can be read within the pages of John Klima's Electric Velocipede.