Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It's that time again.

Those yahoos (in the Swiftian sense) at San Jose State have posted the results of the Bulwer-Lytton Contest, so I have to continue my (likely Quixotic) effort to defend the man. The following is the appendix to my Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana:

In his lifetime Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron of Knebworth (1803-1873) was a popular, prolific, and influential writer. But thanks to the vagaries of time and changing literary tastes Bulwer-Lytton’s name has become synonymous with bad writing, to the point that the English department of San Jose State University has, since 1982, held the "Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest" for the "opening sentence of the worst of all possible novels." The decline in Bulwer-Lytton’s reputation is at least somewhat understandable, as many aspects of his style have not aged well. Bulwer-Lytton’s work can be stiff, wooden, and melodramatic. He often unsuccessfully strains for affect. He had a fatal weakness for prolixity, fustian, and bombast. He is little-read today.

But Bulwer-Lytton deserves better. Never mind that he wrote in the style of his era, and that to single him out for writing like his contemporaries is unjust. Never mind that other writers who are his stylistic inferiors are not targeted so; no sober critic would read Walter Scott or Fenimore Cooper, and then read Bulwer-Lytton, and declare that Bulwer-Lytton is more deserving of derision. Never mind that, as Jaime Weinman says, "It was a dark and stormy night" isn’t really that bad. (I can find several opening lines in Dickens that are worse).

Bulwer-Lytton deserves praise and admiration. Few writers, of any time or of any country, were as influential during their lifetimes. Few writers possessed his commercial instincts or had as great an insight into the tastes of the reading audience. And few writers were as consistently experimental over as long a period of time. The following is a summary of his accomplishments:

Pelham (1828) was the most popular and influential of the Silver Fork genre of novels. The Silver Fork (or "fashionable novel") genre described the improper behavior of the aristocratic set, as told to the public by (supposedly) one of the aristocrats themselves. The Silver Fork novel was popular from the 1820s until the 1840s and was the transitional genre between the novel of the upper classes and the domestic realism of the Victorian novel proper. Pelham made the fortune of the publishing firm of Colburn and Co. and may have been the best-selling novel of the 19th century. Pelham also set the style, still the standard today, for men wearing black evening dress rather than blue.

Paul Clifford (1830) and Eugene Aram (1832) were the first two major Newgate novels and essentially established the genre. Neither novel was quite as popular as William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood, but both novels were successful (and scandalous), and Rookwood and the succeeding Newgate novels would not have been written without Bulwer-Lytton’s precedent.

The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) was not Bulwer-Lytton’s first historical novel (the undistinguished Devereux (1829) was), but it was his first success in the genre. It is the best historical novel of the 1830s and was seen by critics as having topped the work of Sir Walter Scott. Bulwer-Lytton followed Pompeii with Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes (1835), The Last of the Barons (1843), and Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings (1848). Scott deserves credit for the creation of the modern historical novel, but Bulwer-Lytton’s historical novels were among the most popular in the genre in the 1830s and 1840s, and The Last Days of Pompeii created the subgenre of historical novels set in Rome, a group which would later include Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurian (1885) and Lewis Wallace’s Ben Hur (1880). Bulwer-Lytton’s historical novels set the standard for applying scholarship and research to the writing of historical romances, and The Last of the Barons and Harold were among the first historical novels to apply contemporary social political issues to the past: in Barons, the negative effect of the Industrial Revolution on England; in Harold, the question of what it is to be "English" and a celebration of the romantic Toryism of the Young England movement of the early 1840s.

England and the English (1834) was an important criticism of English culture which was politically radical in its call for education and child labor reform.

Athens: Its Rise and Fall (1837) is one of the best and most readable Victorian histories of ancient Greece.

Ernest Maltravers (1837) is the novel in which the influence of the Germans on Bulwer-Lytton is the most pronounced. Bulwer-Lytton was greatly influenced by the German thinkers and writers, Goethe and Schiller especially, and he translated Schiller’s lyrical poetry and wrote essays on Wieland, Lessing, Herder, and Klopstock. Bulwer-Lytton admired and liked the Germans and helped spread an appreciation for German thought among the English, and in Ernest Maltravers Bulwer-Lytton did a passable attempt at emulating Goethe.

Night and Morning (1841), another of Bulwer-Lytton’s Proto-Mysteries, was reviewed by Edgar Allan Poe in the same issue of Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine in which appeared Poe’s "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Poe’s first C. Auguste Dupin story. Though not wholly complimentary of Bulwer-Lytton, Poe nonetheless praises Night and Morning’s plot construction. Poe probably did not read Night and Morning before he composed "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," but it is likely that the complicated plot of Night and Morning had some effect on Poe’s composition of "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Purloined Letter." Moreover, Night and Morning’s detective Monsieur Favart, though an imitation of Eugène François Vidocq, is an early example in crime fiction of the police detective character. Both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins knew of Night and Morning, and it is arguable that Favart was an influence on Dickens’ creation of Inspector Bucket (in Bleak House) and on Collins’ creation of Sergeant Cuff (in The Moonstone). The mystery genre would be different without the example of the Newgate novels to draw upon. The mystery genre would not exist without the work of Poe, Dickens, and Collins, all three of whom were influenced by Bulwer-Lytton.

Zanoni (1842) and A Strange Story (1861-1862) created the occult fantasy genre. Bulwer-Lytton had predecessors, including William Beckford (in Vathek), but it was Bulwer-Lytton, Zanoni and A Strange Story which were influential on and imitated by later writers of occult fantasy.

The Caxtons (1849) was not the first major domestic novel–-Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847) has that honor–-but Bulwer-Lytton’s prestige (by the mid-point of the century Bulwer-Lytton was seen as England’s leading novelist) gave significant impetus to domestic fiction and helped make it fashionable.

The Haunted and the Haunters (1859) was the first modern haunted house story. It is set in the London of the day and uses psychic phenomena rather than the rationalized supernatural of the Gothics. The Haunted and the Haunters has been imitated dozens of times and is one of the two or three most influential haunted house stories ever written.

The Coming Race (1871) was multiply influential. It is a significant early work of science fiction and uses concepts which would become standards in science fiction, including a version of atomic energy in the vril force. The Coming Race is the best-written of the 19th century Hollow Earth novels and was influential on later utopian novels, including Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872). And the mystical vocabulary and ideology of The Coming Race were adopted by Helena Blavatsky and incorporated into the philosophy of Theosophy.

The preceding list does not include Bulwer-Lytton’s work (1831-1833) as an editor on the New Monthly Review, one of the most popular of the monthly fictional magazines; his political career as a Member of Parliament (1831-1841, 1852-1866) and as Secretary of State for the Colonies (1858-1859); his satires, including The New Timon (1846), with its then-shocking attack on Tennyson, and Money (1840), which like England and the English retains its bite today; his great influence on modern occultism, including the Order of the Golden Dawn; his influence on other writers, particularly Dickens; his efforts on behalf of other writers, both toward creating effective copyright laws and, through the Guild of Literature and Art, to support struggling writers and artists; his extensive critical work on the theory of fiction; and his attempts to experiment with narrative structure and to expand the possibilities of contemporary fiction, especially in My Life (1853), in which the narrative is interrupted by criticisms from the characters.

The callow call Bulwer-Lytton "Barely Literate," and the annual "Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest" invites similarly shallow jibes, but Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton is as deserving of respect and appreciation as any other writer of his age.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Life as performance art.

Ladies and gentlemen, let us mourn the passing of America’s finest performance artist, the man who so loved a literary genre that he used his whole life to emulate it.

The Gothics were, of course, the literature of terror and horror of the late 18th and 19th century. The Gothics began with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and ended around 1830. The most common male character in the Gothic is the Hero-Villain. The roots of the Hero-Villain lie in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which Satan’s combination of admirable and objectionable qualities–his dignity, evil, and defiance against a power he knows he cannot beat–have led many critics to see him as the hero of the poem. Milton’s Satan was influential on the Romantics, and through them the Gothics, as was Sensibility, the privileging of emotions over rational self-control and the indulgence of what Goethe called the dämonisch, or “daemonic” impulse, the unquestioning trust in the correctness of one’s instincts and emotions, regardless of the laws of morality and society.

The Gothic writers used the model of Milton’s Satan and the Sensibility/dämonisch to create the Hero-Villain, the dominant villain of the Gothic genre. The Hero-Villain commits evil but is never purely evil. He is a mix of violent passions and uncontrollable impulses which he knows to be evil but cannot resist or overcome. He has great intellectual and physical gifts, great strength of character and will, but uses them for evil ends. The Hero-Villain is attractive to the reader because of his passion and great abilities as well as for his temptation and suffering, but he is villainous because of his final surrender to evil. The Hero-Villain is tormented by his own dark urges at the same time that he torments others. He is, in the words of Charles Maturin, one “who can apprehend the good, but is powerless to be it.” He is not an anti-hero, for he is set in opposition to the hero or heroine of the Gothic, and his downfall is the hero’s triumph and the victory of good. But the Hero-Villain is a waste of potential and a lesson in what the inability to resist temptation and one’s impulses can lead to.

I give you Michael Jackson, the world’s biggest fan of the Gothic. Does not the preceding description fit what we know about Michael Jackson? More, doesn’t his life embody not just the Hero-Villain, but the Gothic itself?

Consider the main themes and symbols of the Gothic. There is the villain as ethnic Other--Jackson turning himself from African-American to some sort of visually Unheimliche being. There is the scary castle with secret passageways--Neverland Ranch. There is weather as an objective correlative (physical manifestation of emotion and other immaterial things) for the protagonist and villain–the sunshine of Santa Barbara (home of the Neverland Ranch), like the sunshine of Southern California, is too bright, too sunny–a kind of desperate and even ominous sunshine, like a smile that widens and widens until it is literally rather than figuratively from ear to ear. There is the notion of the body as monstrous–witness what Jackson did to his face.

The Gothic has innocents threatened and pursued by the Hero-Villain, and we can only imagine what horrors went on in the Neverland Ranch when one of Jackson’s overnight guests didn’t want to cuddle in bed with Jackson. The Gothic has the supernatural as an accepted part of life–and “Thriller” introduced more people to zombies than every George Romero film put together. The Gothic had high-pitched emotions aplenty, including swoons and fits–well, just read Jackson’s lyrics. In the Gothic, patriarchal figures are almost always revealed to be tyrants–and we all know about the abuse which Michael’s father inflicted on him. In the Gothic, clergy are nearly always corrupt–something the adult Michael said about the Jehovah’s Witness authorities who were a part of his childhood. In the Gothic, birthmarks are often crucial in the resolution of a plot–as was Jackson’s vitiligo and the marks on Jackson’s penis which Jordan Chandler described in the 1993 sexual abuse case against Jackson.

Consider, too, the categories of Gothics. The two main ways of categorizing Gothics have always been male-vs-female and external-vs-internal. The “male Gothic” puts a male figure at the center of a story of social, sexual, and/or religious transgression and usually reduces the heroine to the status of object, to be sexually and physically threatened, rescued, and eventually married. Jackson’s life was full of transgression–sexual (the pedophilia), racial (from black to Unheimliche), and religious (from activist Jehovah’s Witness to atheist, both of which Middle America fight transgressive). And how else can we describe Jackson’s “marriage” with Lisa Marie Presley but his acquisition of a thing, an object, which he can use as a shield against rumors?

The “external Gothic,” or socially-oriented Gothic, is concerned with the home: the lineage and patrimony of the hero, his disinheritance by the villain, and the revelation of the hero’s true identity and the restoration of his estate. In the external Gothic the home is defined by the male’s possession of it (or the lack of same). Doesn’t this define Jackson’s entire life? His patrimony (the atrocious, abusive Joseph Jackson), his disinheritance (Jackson’s estrangement from his father), and Jackson’s quest for the epiphanic revelation of his true identity (what else can we call the ongoing transformation of his face) and for the restoration of his estate? The external Gothic is about regaining the true home--remember what Frost wrote in “Death of the Hired Man:”

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”

“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

Jackson never got either, did he? He had to create his own home, and fill it with odd animals, and ship in children who could however briefly fill the role of the “they” who had to take him in, and take part in a painfully awkward arranged marriage so unconvincing that his wife had to reassure the public that they were, in fact, having sex.

I call that devotion to the Gothic, and to performance art–taking your embrace of the Hero-Villain role and the core elements of the Gothic. Well done, Michael Jackson, well done.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

When Björk attacks

Courtesy of Ballardian's Simon Sellars, an amazing collection of the world's best celebrity versus paparazzi smackdowns via Oz's thevine.com.au. See THX-1138 bald Britney smash the windows of an SUV with her umbrella! See Matthew McConaughey and his Malibu surfer posse going all Jets and Sharks on the photogs! Feel the unleashed Njalster tantrum fury of Björk! This is your reality.

If that's not enough, try this speculative version of celebrity culture jamming in my story R.P.M., courtesy of the fine fellas over at Futurismic, in which near-future revolutionaries take paparazzi tactics to the next level by creating intentional accidents with movie stars and dutifully documenting the results:

Seven long seconds across the yellow line, four overpowered bald tires balanced on the edge of totally out of control.


The windshield fills with white as the Monte Carlo punctures the left drivers’ side door and rear quarter panel. Elegant forms of sheet metal assembled with attentive precision by North America’s most diligent factory robots krush, crumpled like the aluminum foil of the Gods. The busted hymen of new car virginity rended in an act of loving violation.

“To free the world, we must rape the Spectacle,” says Avineri in the Prison Blog.

Tinted windows shatter and blow, exposing Jessica as she screams, the secret sphincters of her facial muscles contorting her pampered dermis into a horrifying rictus a hundred times over, once for each of the dilating shutters excitedly popping off in her face—our half-dozen cameras and those of the true paparazzi excitedly seizing upon the sudden scene.

The best of our photos and video clips will be posted on one of 0z0’s myriad websites that bounce from host to host as the cybercrime brigades hound the ISPs. The straight paparazzi images will end up in checkout counters and dinnertime television broadcasts. Percy usually manages to sell a few of our choicest illegally procured spots to the same outlets, financing our future efforts with the fruits of our transgression. The best of the celebrity accident photos will go for a few thousand bucks; clean video can reap five figures.

“Our home invasions are legitimate, virtual, and totally commercial,” says 0z0 in his manifesto-in-progress. “We merely insert a slow-burning virus into the mediascape to hasten its self-immolation. No one makes you watch, right?”

See also: Invisible Literature for the Age of Celebrity: The Assassination Inquest of Diana, Princess of Wales Considered as an Unintentionally Ballardian Remix of the Warren Commission Report.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


My friend Bridget asked me, "Have you ever heard of a celebrant?"

Oh yes, it's the Roman Catholic or Episcopalian priest or other Christian minister who celebrates a sacrament on Sunday morning and at weddings and funerals. But that wasn't what Bridget meant. She didn't mean the river Celebrant in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings either. (The latter is pronounced with an initial hard "k" sound and not an "s" sound.)

It seems there's a growing movement to have trained, credentialed, but secular celebrants for the important moments of life in our society. The occasions can be anything from the death of a pet to the death of a person; weddings and funerals; divorces; graduations, promotions, or the loss of a job—practically anything important to someone.

How interesting. Traditionally, clergy do some of these things—more than you might realize. There are liturgical ceremonies for blessing pets (on or around the feast day of St. Francis), boats, and homes. An Episcopalian home blessing is especially nice. Where I live now, my priest made her way from one room to the next, followed by everybody else with one person holding a candle and another sprinkling holy water with a sprig of rosemary. The priest said special prayers for every room, including living room, kitchen, dining room, bedroom, and study. Even the bathroom—into which twelve people cheerfully fit themselves, with two standing in the tub, to participate as the well-crafted and tasteful words of blessing were pronounced.

Less formally, some church services take a few moments to celebrate occasions in the lives of the people. At my church, St. Stephen's Episcopal in Houston, there's a time in the service for people to come up and put coins into a little model church as they announce celebrations or thanksgivings for everything from a new baby sister or brother to a union or wedding anniversary to a 2400-mile road trip in which the only problem was a flat tire that happened in the driveway of a friend's house.

And a lot of clergy are willing to informally all kinds of things that you feel need blessing. According to the Houston Chronicle, one passenger on a recent flight from Belgium to Houston never flies without a rabbi's blessing. In Antwerp, he had to wait until late in the night before his departure to get a blessing from a busy rabbi. He was glad he had done so after the airplane's pilot died of a heart attack over the Atlantic Ocean and the other flight crew brought the jet to a safe landing in Houston.

On the other hand, a lot of religious traditions leave much to be desired when it comes to celebrating the occasions of our lives. The most glaring example is same-sex weddings or unions. It has been pointed out by gay Catholics in the Houston-Galveston area that in the Catholic Church it is OK for all kinds of things to be blessed, and this includes pet parakeets and Galveston's shrimp fleet. Why not two people who love each other enough to want to make a life together?

Thus the need for secular celebrants. A Web search turns up several venues for the training and credentialing of people to serve in that capacity. One is the Celebrant USA Foundation and Institute. Another is the Council for Secular Humanism. Yet another is the Humanist Society.

And according to Wikipedia, in Australia an "authorized celebrant" is a person who can conduct legal marriages, while "general celebrants" perform a range of extra-legal ceremonies including funerals, renewal of wedding vows, funerals, birthdays, commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples, scattering of ashes, boat-naming ceremonies, citizenship and naturalization.

This is all to the good. Life gets thin, strained and tiresome without ceremonies. I don't just mean celebrating the good stuff. As much and more, we need ceremony for funerals and other really bad stuff—of which there is a lot these days. Ceremony is food for the soul. Without it, we have an emptiness inside that we may try to fill with food, entertainment, and possessions. Without ceremonies we are reduced to consumers. Insatiable ones.

Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples must do their part as they are able. Some are surprisingly able. Others are mired in the kind of religious judgment-mentality (judgmentality?) that drives hurting people away. Meanwhile, a secular celebrant movement has arisen because the need is great, and the stakes are high: people who may have been secretly unhappy consumers in flush times are openly suffering now, and all of us feel the weight of jobs lost, dreams derailed, retirements deferred, and the whole rest of the trouble we're in. We desperately need celebration for the good things, the bad things, and all of our hopes for something good hidden inside the bad.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The new BRUTARIAN is here

Hey folks, in between my copious amounts of non-posting here on the blog, I sometimes manage to squeeze in occasional, for-real publication in actual dead tree media. Brutarian Quarterly no. 53 is a case in point.

Aside from the spiffy cover, this issue of Brutarian is worth picking up for the contributions inside from yours truly, first and foremost being an interview with the great SF writer and reformed journalist Allen Steele. Here's a sampling of what's in store:

BRUT: You won your first Hugo in 1996 for "The Death of Captain Future." I have to ask you, though, were you influenced in any way by S.J. Perelman's 1940 essay "Captain Future, Block That Kick!"?

STEELE: No, I hadn't even heard of that one before I wrote my story. In fact, a friend of mine, Rob Chilson, gave me that one later on, and I was highly amused. But no, I hadn't heard of it before.

What I was influenced by, of course, were the Captain Future stories themselves. I read those when I was a kid. It was a part of this fascination I had as a pre-teen with pulp fiction that started with Doc Savage and continued through with reading reprints of The Shadow, G-8 and His Battle Aces, Conan and so forth. Captain Future, although he wasn't my favorite of those pulp heroes, somehow there was something about him that really stuck in my head. Many years later I decided that I wanted to try to write a pulp story for the 90s, and it came back to Captain Future. But I didn't want to do a parody, and I didn't want to do a Captain Future story, pre se; for one thing, I didn't think I could get the rights to the character.

So I did sort of a reflection on it. I did a story about somebody who's obsessed with Captain Future to the point that he's trying to emulate him, even though this person has no right in the world to be anybody's hero, and how his personality conflicts with somebody who in some ways does have Captain Future's attributes, somebody how really is something of a heroic type.

It was a lot of fun to write and I can't be more pleased by the fact it's remained popular, is still read and has been translated many times. Now there's even an audio production out there from Audible.com.

In addition to a handful of book reviews contributed by myself, the issue also contains the usual glorious lineup of underground and off-kilter fare. Highlights include an interview with "Scream Queen" Linnea Quigley, she of countless low-budget horror flicks, including "Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers," a personal favorite.

At just $5 an issue, it's cheaper than most other mind-altering substances. Drop by the website and tell Dom you want a copy or six.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Guy Debord at the Barnes & Noble

Meanwhile, back on the other side of the planet from Iran, a different sort of insurrection:

NYT: Liberating Lipsticks and Lattes
By Colin Moynihan

They arrived at the Barnes & Noble at Union Square in small groups on Sunday afternoon, proceeding two and three at a time to the fourth floor, where they browsed among shelves holding books by authors like Jacques Derrida and Martin Heidegger.

By 5 o’clock a crowd of more than 100 had gathered. Their purpose: to celebrate the publication of an English translation of a book called “The Coming Insurrection,” which was written two years ago by an anonymous group of French authors who call themselves the Invisible Committee. More recently, the volume has been at the center of an unusual criminal investigation in France that has become something of a cause célèbre among leftists and civil libertarians.

The book, which predicts the imminent collapse of capitalist culture, was inspired by disruptive demonstrations that took place over the last few years in France and Greece. It was influenced stylistically by Guy Debord, a French writer and filmmaker who was a leader of the Situationist International, a group of intellectuals and artists who encouraged the Paris protests of 1968.

In keeping with the anarchistic spirit of the text, the bookstore event was organized without the knowledge or permission of Barnes & Noble. The gathering was intended partly as a show of solidarity with nine young people — including one suspected of writing “The Coming Insurrection” —whom in November the French police accused of forming a dangerous “ultraleftist” group and sabotaging train lines.

As a bookstore employee announced to the milling crowd that there was no reading scheduled for that night, a man jumped onto a stage and began loudly reciting the opening words of the book’s recent introduction: “Everyone agrees. It’s about to explode.”

A security guard tried to halt the unsanctioned reading, but the man continued for about five minutes, until the police arrived. The crowd, mostly people in their 20s and 30s, including some graduate students, then adjourned, clapping and yelling, to East 17th Street. There they formed a rebellious spectacle, crowding into shops and loudly shouting bits of political theory, to the amusement of some onlookers and store employees and the irritation of others.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

SF Site on FF2

Okay, one more late review of Fast Forward 2, this one from Derek Johnson at SF Site, with due kudos to the editor:

In 2007 Lou Anders edited Fast Forward, one of the strongest original anthologies that science fiction has seen -- so strong, in fact, that after one closed the book one wondered if Anders would be able to match both the quality and the ambition of that volume in his next. After all, the anthology's very title indicated that Anders wanted to actually incorporate the Campbellian vision into a genre that, for all of its rhetoric about being a literature of the future, too often looks fondly over its shoulder at the trails blazed in the past. Even Dangerous Visions fought to bring the genre up to the speed of the present more than chart a path to the future. But Anders did it; Fast Forward not only met the challenge to look forward, but succeeded. And with Fast Forward 2, his follow-up anthology, Anders not only continues to forge ahead and actually push science fiction into the future, but also position himself as one of the genre's most dynamic and influential editors. A reader looking for the best in contemporary science fiction will find not a wasted story in Fast Forward 2's pages. This is the Stuff.

Anders starts out strong with his introduction. Titled "The Age of Accelerating Returns," where he discusses the genre's ever-increasing popularity and opinions by Joseph Mallozzi, Isaac Asimov, Brian Aldiss and Paolo Bacigalupi of science fiction's purpose (even futurist and The Singularity Is Near author Ray Kurzweil gets a citation) before citing what he sees as science fiction's four purposes: its predictive capability, its preventative possibility, its ability to inspire the future, and being "the literature of the open mind," which "acknowledges change and encourages thinking outside the box." And then presents fourteen tales which promise to do just that...

And then there are the standouts among the standouts. Chris Nakashima-Brown gives us a powerful, and quite funny, vision of bio-artists, sports, body enhancement and copyright law wrapped up in an air of Hemingwayesque melancholy in "The Sun Also Explodes." It's a story of gene-splicing gone amok that never lets up on the wow factor. Mike Resnick and Pat Cadigan, in "Not Quite Alone in the Dream Quarter," lead us through a surreal, haunting landscape where beings from human dreams have escaped, and try to learn what it means to be human. And in "An Eligible Boy," Ian McDonald returns to the India of River of Gods to tell the story of a young Hindu man looking for a suitable mate, and seeks out the advice of an artificial intelligence designed for a soap opera to help him traverse the hazardous terrain of dating in the twenty-first century. It is the anthology's most human, and most charming, story, a great love story without all of the sap one finds in such tales.

Thanks, Derek!

Also, check out the rest of the Pyr catalog, including Fast Forward 1, now available in Kindle edition.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Muleborg Cometh

Stumbling out of the future into my conciousness, this is both the most amazing and most disturbing robot action video I have witnessed, of the many that seem to be appearing of late. Somehow embodying in a machine the tenuous balance of upright vertebrates constantly on the verge of complete wipeout.

Boston Dynamics Big Dog. Brought to you courtesy of DARPA. The future is far freakier (and furrier) than any cold metal Terminator flick. And, more amazingly, it is here.

BigDog - The Most Advanced Rough-Terrain Robot on Earth

BigDog is the alpha male of the Boston Dynamics robots. It is a rough-terrain robot that walks, runs, climbs and carries heavy loads. BigDog is powered by an engine that drives a hydraulic actuation system. BigDog has four legs that are articulated like an animal’s, with compliant elements to absorb shock and recycle energy from one step to the next. BigDog is the size of a large dog or small mule; about 3 feet long, 2.5 feet tall and weighs 240 lbs.

BigDog's on-board computer controls locomotion, servos the legs and handles a variety of sensors. BigDog’s control system keeps it balanced, navigates, and regulates its energetics as conditions vary. Sensors for locomotion include joint position, joint force, ground contact, ground load, a gyroscope, LIDAR and a stereo vision system. Other sensors focus on the internal state of BigDog, monitoring the hydraulic pressure, oil temperature, engine functions, battery charge and others.

In separate tests BigDog runs at 4 mph, climbs slopes up to 35 degrees, walks across rubble, climbs a muddy hiking trail, walks in snow and water, and carries a 340 lb load. BigDog set a world's record for legged vehicles by traveling 12.8 miles without stopping or refueling.

The ultimate goal for BigDog is to develop a robot that can go anywhere people and animals can go. The program is funded by the Tactical Technology Office at DARPA.

The last FF2 review

Over at Fantasy Book Critic, a great late review by Fabio Fernandes of Lou Anders' Philip K. Dick Award-nominated Fast Forward 2, including this about my contribution:

In The Sun Also Explodes, Chris Nakashima-Brown pays a beautiful homage to Ernest Hemingway, telling the story of an impotent man in a far future of posthuman beings where everybody can be (and have) whatever he/she/it desires, and shows that size (not even performance) matters after all - but to be master of your own desires is the most important thing in the all-too-real end. The scenery and the endless, movable posthuman feasts are a treat to the eyes, to the palate, and to the imagination. Nakashima-Brown does a beautiful job with words in this story.

I share Fernandes' closing sentiment:

Lou Anders has outdone himself as an editor, and all that I have to say is that I´m looking forward to FF 3.

Check it out.

Thursday, June 11, 2009



Flavius jabbed at the moironteau with Memory, skewering one of the glassy black eyes rimming the gaping maw. The foothead flinched back. Then it roared, thick trails of slobber flicking over concentric rows of jagged teeth.

“We’re cut off!” shouted Acaona.

“Tell me something I dinnae already ken, lass,” growled Flavius, scanning the walls of the passage. “Do ya ken we can muscle our way through these walls here? In another minute or two this beastie’s going to figure out it can come down on top of us through the ceiling.”

Captain Pacal struggled to direct his cuayab at the foothead blocking the other end of the hall while carrying the empress’ limp form. The green stream of fire seared the foothead, which thrashed and snapped in response. Dust and rubble rained down from the hole. The walls around the foothead smoldered from the blast.

“It’s not enough,” Pacal said. “I can’t hit it with anything stronger–the blowback’ll burn us all.”

Acaona shrieked, cowering against the wall.

More debris rained down on them. Ominous fissure spiderwebbed across the ceiling.

“Whole damned place going to come down on us at this rate,” Flavius muttered. “Right then. Captain, try blowing yer fire down this other one’s gullet-- And ya cannae understand a word I’m saying.” Flavius grabbed Pacal’s shoulder and spun him around, relaying his intent with emphatic gestures clear in any language.

“Acaona! Acaona, lass, look alive. When I cut into that foothead blocking our way, yer only going to have a few seconds to get by,” Flavius said, pulling her up by the elbow. Acaona looked at him with eyes wild with fear.

“I don’t want to go. Not anymore. They’re too big. Too many.” The words tumbled out of her in a panicked rush.

“Keep yerself together just a wee bit longer, lass,” he said, clasping his hand to the side of her face. “When the beastie pulls back, ya get yerself down that hall as fast as ya can. Can ya do that? That’s a good lass.”

He motioned to Pacal, who loosed a stream of flame at the snapping maw of the pursuing foothead. Flavius lunged at the blocking foothead, stabbing and twisting with Memory. The foothead jerked then slammed Flavius broadside, throwing him to the floor. Memory fell to the floor beside him. The foothead thrashed wildly, crushing sections of the wall and ceiling to rubble.

“Cover yerselves! It’s coming down!” Flavius shouted.

Abruptly, the footheads pulled back from either end of the hall with startling speed.

The sounds of fighting and explosions echoed from distant parts of the palace, but the hall was otherwise silent, save for the crumbling, shifting debris of the hall.

“Is it gone?” Pacal wondered.

Flavius held up a hand of caution. He pulled himself deliberately from the remains of a partially collapsed wall, his right hand picking Memory up. “There’s something up there,” he whispered.

His eyes followed some unseen threat above them, moving this way then that. A blur of motion swept in through the hole in the ceiling. Flavius pivoted to meet it, Memory’s point halting less than a finger’s breadth from Parric’s clicking beak.

“We are leaving now,” Parric said, antennae contorting in extreme agitation as the Crafter hovered in midair. “Must be hurrying. No time to be losing.”

“Damn it, Parric!” Flavius shouted, mock-clutching at his heart. “Don’t do that! This poor man’s heart cannae take the shock!”

A fat, orange-segmented creature the size of a horse slid down a silken thread through the hole in the ceiling behind Parric. Nictating membranes blinked over its dark compound eyes. Its back bristled with hairy spines.

“Is the, ah, kitchen help here with ya?” Flavius asked.

“Yes,” answered Parric. “And Djserka is wanting muchly to be departing.”

“I am hardly ‘kitchen help,’” Djserka rumbled. “I am Djserka em Naga-ed-der former head of the Imperial--”

“And it’s a right bonny pleasure to meet ya, too,” Flavius interrupted before turning away. “Listen up, the lot of ya. Follow Parric. He’s the only one what kens where to go. He moves fast, so if ya don’t keep up, ya get left.” He cast a warning look to Acaona, who answered with a terse nod as she wiped her eyes. He took his pack from her and fished out a long, white shirt.

“Here. Ya put this on. It’ll nae fit worth a damn, but at least ya’ll feel less, uh...”

“Naked. Thank you.” She slipped it on. It hung tent-like over her slight frame. “I– I’m sorry for–“

“Nae time for that now, lass. We’re on the move.” Flavius gave her a quick kiss, then whispered in her ear. “Remember, follow Parric if yer still serious about taking yer chances at Tradefare. If nae, well, yer going to have plenty of chances to slip away in these next few minutes, I’ll wager. Nobody’ll think worse of ya if ya do.”

She managed an uncertain nod.

“I’m not understanding,” Parric said. “Are you sayings goodbye, or are you merely delaying us to all be victimings of the moironteau?”

“Right. Everyone, after Parric!”

Parric darted off down the hall, and the troupe lurched after him. Flavius fell in at the rear, beside Papantzin.

“Ya seem to have recovered from yer earlier mishap,” Flavius said.

Papantzin narrowed her eyes.

“Not enough, though, to use those unexpected fighting skills of yours against the beasties what were trying eat us. Or stomp us. I dinnae quite ken which.”

“It seemed reasonable,”she answered in measured tones, “that the odds of your surviving would be somewhat enhanced with my participation.”

“Oh, is that all? Well, why didn’t ya say so earlier?” Flavius slapped her on the back hard enough make Papantzin stagger. “I’m very glad we’ve had this talk. Remind me to garrote ya in yer sleep next chance I get.”

Parric led them down several flights of stairs and into a maze of corridors. The finely maintained carpets and paneling gave way to bare walls and exposed pipes. Alarms continued to pierce the air and so often they caught a whiff of smoke. The tremors came steadily now, although abrupt lurches had subsided. An oversized pair of doors blocking the passage flew open with a flick of Parric’s antennae.

Blazing white light blinded Flavius as he entered the chamber, and he rubbed his eyes with the heel of his had as they adjusted. Blinking hard, he took in his surroundings. He cocked his head to the side.

“Well,” he finally said. “There’s something I donnae see every day.”

Crystalline cylinders floated in stacked columns extending above and below as far as the eye could see. The columns were arranged in hundreds of rows to the left and right, each one extending back a seemingly infinite distance. Within the cylinders, suspended in buoyant translucent fluid, floated peq curled in fetal positions.


Monday, June 8, 2009

Obama: The Parallax View

At Salon, an intriguing catalog of urban legends that have spread regarding the new president *since* his inauguration. Most are Fox news crazy riffs on actual discussions of potential policy, cathode ray incantations of an alternate reality even scarier than the ones we are currently enduring. Some are Alex Jones-style conspiratorial extrapolations, the political equivalent of outsider art. And then there are the totally unhinged Satanic visions. Some of the better ones:

Myth: Barack Obama is the Antichrist.

Who's spreading it: Get in line. If you have an idea for a "Barack Obama is the Antichrist" Web site, the URL is probably already taken (www.barackobamantichrist.blogspot.com; www.obamaantichrist.blogspot.com; www.beastobama.com). It's also hard to blame any particular individual for preaching the bad news about Barack Obama being the Antichrist when a Google search for "Barack Obama is the antichrist" gets you nearly 800,000 hits and just searching for "Barack Obama" and "Antichrist" together gets you 2.2 million.

What they believe: That, um, the president is Satan. Or Satan's son. Or maybe he's just the warm-up act for Satan. At the very least, he likes the devil.

The evidence? Why, Nostradamus predicted his coming. Obama bears traits resembling the Antichrist, according to former "Saturday Night Live" cast member and current Christian wactress Victoria Jackson. He sends subliminal messages to his minions and to his master, Satan. Also, Jesus' biblical prediction of the coming of the Antichrist describes him as coming as "lightning from heaven"; that translates to "baraq o bama" in Hebrew. And if Obama were not the Beast foretold in Revelation, why would the nickname for his presidential limo be -- the Beast? And, why, on the day after his election, was the winning number in the Illinois lottery 6-6-6?

What's real: The winning number in the Illinois Evening Pick 3 Lottery on Nov. 5, 2008, was 6-6-6. And his armored-plated 2009 Caddy is nicknamed the Beast. But Obama is probably not the Angel of the Bottomless Pit, the First Horseman, or the Seed of Satan. If he is, well, then we're wrong about a whole lot of other things too.

Myth: Obama is a fascist.

Who's been spreading it: Glenn Beck, but especially Jonah Goldberg. His revisionist history book, "Liberal Fascism," re-shelves European fascists as inveterate leftists and insinuates that vegetarian, organic-eating Hitler was some kind of proto-hippie.

What they believe: So you think Obama is cool? Hold on there, liberal mushhead, Mussolini was cool too. He had the worshipful crowds, the admiring world leaders, the good public transit -- the whole nine yards. Hence the insistence, in certain quarters of the right, that we keep a close eye on hipper-than-thou President Obama for hints of fascist instincts. It's the surreal, looking-glass version of "Obama is a socialist." "We've so overused the word 'socialism,'" says GOP operative Saul Anuzis. "Fascism -- everybody still thinks that's a bad thing." The government is bossing around corporations, the president is the subject of a cult of personality, and there's a bundle of rods pictured on the back of the dime called the fasces in Latin. It's all evidence that our first black president is a brownshirt. "People are once again feeling oppressed by an out of control state," wails Glenn Beck. "Like it or not, fascism is on the rise." Of the quasi-nationalization of GM, pundit Goldberg said ominously to Beck, "I'm not calling Barack Obama a Hitler and I'm not calling him Nazi and all the rest. But, you know, in fascism, we saw the people's car. We call it the Volkswagen."

What is real: Bush-era torture, surveillance and aggressive warfare do not meet the standard for fascism, but bailing out a bankrupt car company apparently does. If this is the road to fascism, the American people aren't feeling oppressed -- they're riding shotgun. Also, the fasces have been on the dime -- as well as on all the rest of our symbols -- since before the term "fascism" came into English.

Myth: Obama has created his own version of the Hitler Youth.

Who's spreading it: Radio host Alex Jones; various hard-core right-wing bloggers

What they believe: Again with Hitler! Even by the rather baroque standards of the Obama conspiracy theorists, this one's a tad wacky. It stems from a bill that Congress recently passed and Obama signed into law as the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. The law allegedly contains "disturbing" language forcing young people into mandatory national service. Ratcheting up the fear, some conservatives are calling it "coercive servitude" and "statist indocrination." "At best, this reprise of Hitler Youth will nationalize charitable work, using slave labor to help the State to further marginalize Christianity, which is one of the few remaining obstacles to totalitarianism," Right Wing News seethed. "At worse, this and Obama's Serve America Act are part of his stated plan to create a race-based, Gestapo-style 'Civilian National Security Force' as large and well-funded as the military." Evidently, Obama wants to conscript 1 million young people into "youth brigades," and they'd be barred from attending church services while they were enlisted. "This has serious Nazi Germany overtones to it." In a nice twist, some bloggers are calling the alleged brigade "Obama Ujana" -- using the Swahili word for "youth."

What is real: Don't start goose-stepping yet. The legislation doesn't involve conscription, Obama Youth or anything else of the sort. It expands AmeriCorps and other existing volunteer programs, devoting $6 billion over five years to creating 175,000 new service jobs and creating new volunteer corps to deal with energy, education and healthcare. It does set up a commission to investigate whether mandatory national service would make sense for America down the line, but chances are its findings -- whatever they are -- won't exactly set the political world on fire. There's no ban on attending church services, no racial component at all, and no reason to be alarmed. Unless you're a Republican who looks at exit polls showing two-thirds of voters under 30 supported Obama.

I hadn't previously considered the apparent fact that Fox News is broadcasting large quantities of science fiction. Real-time extrapolative alternate history, tabloid Orwellians creating an even scarier variation on reality.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Bookshelf: The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium

In this marvelously titled book, Philip Dodd tells the backstory of eponymous objects. Dodd researched, networked and traveled around the world to investigate the invention of such things as the Frisbee, Jacuzzi, sandwich, leotard, Mercedes (Benz), and foxtrot, as well as the naming of the Grafenberg spot, the Tony and Oscar awards, various flowers, and guppies. Apocryphally but, as it turns out, not in reality, guppies were discovered in the West Indies by an English clergyman of the same name.

Dodd approached each eponym as a quixotic yet sincere quest. He went to see relevant locales for himself, ferreted out obscure facts, and interviewed inventors, their descendants and other family members, neighbors and business associates, and aficionados. The book ends up being an ode to the intricacy and serendipity of invention. Recommended.

The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium by Philip Dodd
ISBN-13: 978-1592403479
Gotham Books, 2007

Monday, June 1, 2009

Goat Variations Redux Redux

A while back I posed a recommendation of Jeff Vandermeer's amazing Goat Variations Redux, which appeared in last fall's election issue of Black Clock. It's one of the very best uses of the sf toolkit to achieve political surrealism that I have ever read, like a cross between China Mieville and Hunter S. Thompson. Jeff has now posted the story in its entirety on his site. Check it out:


The fungus cometh and in the shattered bunker President McCain laughs through a mouthful of blood. The last emergency sequences were overrun and they had to fall back even after he’d emptied a clip from his Glock into the heads of those creeping nearest. “Ah, Tootsie,” he says to his golden retriever, cowering in a corner. “Sometimes I wish I was back on the bus. It’s a helluva a thing to be President.” Blood wanders down his forehead, near the green crater where the fungal presence has manifested. It pulses and itches, and with the drugs to keep it under control now gone, McCain knows he only has a few hours of free will. As it is, the titanium door of the bunker tinkles and echoes with the sound of those on the other side.

On his side, it’s just him, the dog, and fifty dead marines; he’d had to turn the flame-thrower on them himself, just so more of the Colonized wouldn’t rise to challenge him. Laughing bitterly as he did it. If he hadn’t help kill the congressional resolution condemning the past President for internal use of nukes, the damn things might not have mutated so fast.

He’s lost the last of his hair, and shifting somewhere in the mottled red-and-white is a rough map of the world — half at war, half at rest, as if war were life and rest were death.

The sounds behind the titanium are getting louder.

“Tootsie, my old friend,” McCain says, sliding down beside the dog, wincing against the pain of the wound in his leg. “Tootsie,” and it’s as if he is about to give a speech but thinks better of it. He doesn’t think he has a speech left in him. Heck, Tootsie was just a photo op prop that happened to stick by him.

The world is like a furnace. The world is like a vast POW camp. The world smells of burnt human flesh, and outside the entire U.S. has become a colony of something that does nothing but Colonize, without thought or need.

“What’ll it be, Tootsie?” McCain asks with a bitter laugh. Prisoner of war. Prisoner of peace. Prisoner of war again. “I could blow your brains out, sure, but what would be the point?” They’d just bring him back, and it might be worse living as an echo. It might be much worse. “I’ll just sit here,” he tells the dog. “I’ll just sit here a moment longer.”

If this were a movie, we’d leave him there, slowly panning back, the gun in his lap, his head on the dog’s neck as it whimpers, eyes focused on that point in the middle distance that meant he was waiting for his own dissolution. You wouldn’t see the crater in his forehead explode, or the thing that comes out, briefly, like the gunner in a tank crew, and then goes back in again. You wouldn’t see him rush to open the titanium door, greet what crawled in as “old friend.”

There would just be the defiant red-tinged eye, the close-up so you couldn’t see: the trembling lip, the shuddering breath.