Monday, July 27, 2009

Missions Unknown interview

The lovely and talented John Picacio has conducted an interview with yours truly, and the resulting morass of random thoughts, odd tangents and non-sequiturs is now live for the world to see over at Missions Unknown. There are goofy pictures of me accompanying the write-up, so everybody can point and laugh.

Friday, July 24, 2009



Flavius leaned forward against the railing, mouth agape, staring at the thousands of cylinders filling the vast chamber.

“Those are peq!” Flavius said, half bafflement, half accusation. “Yer growing goddanmed peq in here!”

“Of course we grow our own peq. You don’t expect us to rely on wild populations, do you?” Empress Malinche said weakly, rousing from unconsciousness. “Captain, you may put me down.”

“Certainly, Your Imperial Highness,” Pacal said, setting the Empress on her feet. Papantzin came instantly to her side, offering support.

“Ya grow yer own peq?” Flavius repeated, pronouncing the words slowly as if looking for some nuance he’d overlooked. “Am I the only body here what finds that just a wee bit mad?”

“You haven’t met many peq in the wild, have you, dear Flavius?” Malinche looked at him as she would a particularly dim child. “They are a brutal and uncouth breed of lesser sentients, wholly unsuited for contact with the Eternal Dominion. It took centuries of selective breeding to produce a suitably docile servitor. Given the established genetic unpredictability of the breed, cloning was the only rational course to pursue.”

Flavius looked to Acaona. She shrugged. “They’re peq. What do you expect?”

“Ah, nevermind I asked. Ya people scare me sometimes, ya ken? On second thought, ya scare me all the time.” Flavius nodded at Parric. “Which way?”

“Alonging this way,” Parric answered, motioning to a catwalk that ran along the perimeter of the chamber. “Then downing more levels to the bottom.”

“Down where? Where are we going?” Malinche demanded.

“To the portal chamber, the nexial gaps,” Pacal answered.

“Absolutely not. We will not so much as flee the palace. When--”

The skylights far overhead shattered. Shards of glass rained down as multilegged forms surged into the cloning chamber.

“Move!” shouted Flavius, shoving Acaona along the catwalk. Djserka heaved its bulk after her, flabby flanks spilling over the guard rails. Flavius winked back at Malinche as he followed. “Be seeing ya around!”

The wall crumbled above the entrance, a spray of stonework shattering the closest peq tanks. A scarred and bleeding foothead forced its way through the opening, snapping wildly.

Captain Pacal grabbed Empress Malinche and chased after the others, with Papantzin close behind.

The columns of tanks buckled under the weight of the moironteau. Flavius dodged chunks of jagged acrylic and fetal peq. Viscous amniotic fluid.splattered in great globs, smelling like a dead fish left under someone’s bedcovers too long.

“Up there! Up there! Burn the bastards while they’re far enough away!” shouted Flavius.

Acaona unleashed her cuayab at the moironteau above, but her erratic aim did little more than bathe various peq clones in fire. Pacal followed her lead, though, sending up quick, precision bursts of emerald flame, the well-placed streams searing several footheads. There were at least four of the otherwhereians, clambering from column to column as the support grids buckled and moaned. After the first volley from Pacal, they quickly moved to keep peq cylinders between their bodies and the cuayabs, exposing only their footheads.

“They’re coming down too quickly!” Pacal said. “We’re exposed like bulbous gloids here.”

“Parric! If yer going to work yer magic, now’d be a bonny time!”

“Craftings are not magicings,” Parric snapped, antennae twitching with concentration. “This is more than I’m wanting to Crafting, but under the circumstancings-- uh-ohing.”

“Wha? What’s this ‘uh-ohing’? There’s be nae of that!” Flavius shouted as he ducked away from a falling peq arm. “Ya do that Crafting thing with yer antennae and we go on our merry way, that’s what ya do.”

“Blockings,” Pairric said softly. “Blockings of my Craftings.”

“Who? What? That’s nae possible!”


“Rap–? Oh, bugger!” Flavius kicked at the railing in fury. “Why the hell dinnae ya contract with the Junsturs? Their particular style of violence would be a wee bit handy about now, eh?”

A tremendous crash behind them wrested their attention from the moironteau above to the one beind. The battered and scarred creature had broken through completely, destroying hundreds of peq tanks in the process. Footheads clawed at the wall, jagged teeth biting into the solid surface. The moironteau came after them.

Pacal leapt past Papantzin and the Empress, dropping to a knee and throwing a full blast of his cuayab into the moironteau. The fire washed over the beast, blackening a foothead. The burning foothead whipped wildly back and forth, trailing flame as it smashed dozens of peq tanks. The amniotic fluid smothered the fire, filling the air with choking, bitter smoke.

“Get her back!” Pacal ordered Papantzin while keeping a steady fire trained on the moironteau. “Protect the Empress!”

Engulfed in flames, the moironteau reared back a foothead, and lightning-fast struck hard, crushing the catwalk and Pacal. The foothead pulled away from the wall, and Captain Pacal’s shattered body tumbled away.

The moironteau crossed the break in the catwalk, the foothead teeth grinding menacingly as they dug into the wall. The moironteau was breathing heavily, rumbling groans surging up from deep within.

Empress Malinche crouched in a ball, her arms covering her head. Papantzin stood between her and the moironteau, slender stiletto in her hand.

“Flavius!” Malinche called, voice wracked with sobs. “Flavius save me!”

Instinctively, Flavius moved to her defense, but pulled up before Djserka. The em Naga-ed-der’s girth blocked the way.

A foothead lashed out. Papantzin nimbly ducked away. The open maw bit hard against the wall, the bulk of the limb passing over Papantzin and the Empress and shoving hard against Djserka’s back.

Angry crimson blisters erupted across the foothead. The moironteau recoiled in pain, wrenching the foothead free of the em Naga-ed-der spines embedded deep in its flesh. The blisters grew at an alarming speed, bursting open to release a black, watery puss. More blisters formed even as the moironteau convulsed violently then released its grip on the wall.

The moironteau shattered cloning column after cloning column as it fell. Undercut, the towering pillars toppled, breaking apart in a chain reaction. The moironteau above found themselves falling among the shattered tanks, flailing arms wreaking destruction as they plummeted.

The first moironteau hit the distant floor with a resounding crash. Fissures radiated out from its carcass, broad lines clearly defined even amidst the debris and dismembered peq. The second hit with greater force, and the fissures grew three fold.

The battered catwalk shifted suddenly, pulling away from the wall. Flavius grabbed the railing, sheathing Memory as he did.

The next two moironteau hit nearly simultaneously, and the floor dropped away into nothing. All the shattered columns and tanks and peq followed into the darkness.

“Grab something lass!” Flavius yelled to Acaona. “We’re going for a ride.”

The catwalk shuddered, then tore free, plunging them through the cavernous hole below.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Omega Man: The Reality Show

After turning on my TV last night to watch The Wanted, which was even more insane than I could have imagined (imagine a cross between 24, 60 Minutes and Ali G, as our overacting reality heroes confront real-life Norwegian government officials with evidence of the terrorist living in their midst in, as one of the dudes says during the opening briefing: "Norway? As in, Nobel Peace Price Norway?"), this morning I am greeted with news of Discovery's new show: The Colony, in which a dozen "volunteers" are subject to a 10-week simulation of post-apocalyptic survival in a barren industrial neighborhood of L.A.

The scenario is apparently straight out of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (the subject of *three* Hollywood movies) — the rest of the population has been wiped out by viral plague. Complete with liberating sprees of looting, patrols of empty concrete overpasses with overloaded shopping carts, and opportunities for tribal violence.

Yes, there will also be actors paid to attack the "colonists" in the capacity of Mad Max-style marauders.

Do you suppose the producers will intervene when cannibalism develops?

NYT: It’s Doomsday Once Again. Are We Having Fun Yet?

The end of the world happens again and again in tales of fiction. Now it is getting the reality-show treatment.

Mercifully, the producers, including the tough-guy documentarian Thom Beers, are not causing an actual cataclysm for the benefit of their cameras. Instead they are doing it the Hollywood way: decorating an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Los Angeles, casting 10 people to rebuild society, and isolating them for two months with minimal food and water.

Their television series, “The Colony,” makes its debut on the Discovery Channel on Tuesday night. The show is a gamble on the part of Discovery and Mr. Beers, who is best known for “Deadliest Catch,” as it seeks to capitalize on society’s fascination with the postapocalypse...

John Cohn, a senior scholar at I.B.M., said in an interview that he signed up as a cast member to sharpen his engineering skills and try to survive with limited resources. Also appealing, he said, was “the promise of disconnecting from the regular world.”

Notably, “The Colony” is not a vote-someone-out-of-civilization show. There is no prize money (just a nominal payment). The 10 cast members — recruited for their skills, not selected in auditions — are pointedly called volunteers instead of contestants. The series is essentially a social experiment, albeit one set up by cameramen instead of scientists...

In the first episode the volunteers adopt their roles surprisingly quickly. Mr. Cohn is shown standing nude outside the warehouse and taking a shower in a sudden rainstorm. “I’m amazed how unself-conscious we were so soon” after starting, he said when interviewed.

Mr. Cohn said the situations seemed real because of the limited resources. When actors pretend to break into the warehouse during the episodes, for instance, the volunteers take the threats seriously.

“Even though, intellectually, I knew these people weren’t trying to kill us, they were trying to take our peanut butter,” he said.

The show stands out on Discovery because that science- and history-oriented channel does not normally manufacture circumstances for its shows.

But while the premise is faked, the show is well within “Discovery territory,” Mr. Ford said, because it documents survival skills and ingenuity under pressure.

The series opens with the foreboding comments of Adam Montella, described by the show as a private homeland security adviser.

“Disasters can happen at any time and at any place,” Mr. Montella says, listing calamities: wars, nuclear explosions, natural disasters, chemical warfare. (Keep those in mind for sequels.)

Then a narrator explains the season’s premise: a viral outbreak has decimated the world’s population. Chaos ensues. Los Angeles is devastated. Ten strangers try to rebuild a society in a warehouse called the Sanctuary.

To simulate the shock after a disaster, the volunteers were kept awake for 30 straight hours before they hiked along the concrete channel of the Los Angeles River to the warehouse. As the series progressed, the volunteers faced questions about leadership and interpersonal relationships. Mr. Cohn had recently finished rereading “Lord of the Flies” and found similarities to it in the staging. “We even had the equivalent of a conch when people would talk over each other in the meetings,” he said.

How about that? J.G. Ballard often suggested his narrative approach used the novel as a social psychological laboratory experiment in which none of the participants could be hurt. Using a science fictional premise as the basis of an *actual* social psych experiment is something else entirely. What does the release of liability for a paid participant in a simulated post-apocalyptic looting, starving and marauding situation look like?

Kim Newman, in his excellent survey Apocalypse Movies, points out that the only works of most science fiction writers to get filmed are their post-apocalyptic stories. Why is that? Why did Cormac McCarthy's unrelentingly bleak The Road become a bestselling Oprah selection and a soon-to-be-released Viggo vehicle? Why, of all the experimental psychological premises in science fiction, is it the ruined world that gets picked for its own well-produced reality show?

I have argued elsewhere that post-apocalyptic narratives are, perhaps more compellingly so than other sf premises, counterintuitive opportunities for psychological realism that more accurately depict what it *feels* like to be alive today than any conventional realism can muster. That the point of view of the central protagonist in The Road is an alter ego for all of us. An articulator of the state of our alienation — from each other, from nature, from ourselves — and a fantasy of liberation from private property regimes, state apparatuses, and socially-mandated constraints on the use of violence.

(See The Politics of Apocalypse, and my soon-to-be published essay from the 2009 Festival de Mexico's conference on Mundos Paralelos.)

One can only hope the producers will employ actual psychologists (and perhaps a semiotician or two?) to understand more fully the experience of the participants in The Colony.

What other science fiction scenarios would be especially well-suited to a reality show simulation that all the participants want to be real?

The Man (or woman) who fell to Earth?

The Rip van Winkle scenario?

The time traveling hunter?

The marooned spaceship?

The alien abduction?

The secret conspiracy?

Is The Colony really just telling us the truth: that our lives are no more real than reality shows, as we each live out media-implanted social scenarios in front of the imaginary camera eye in our heads?

Scenarios that lay over our primate programming to ensure our productivity and just manage to maintain the tenuous social fabric of our mutated society?

Save me some popcorn.

In other news, today's Wall Street Journal has an amazing feature on Mexican Narco-Bling (courtesy of BruceS). Fantasy fetish objects for midtown investment bankers? I imagine an Almada Brothers movie version of Jack Womack's Ambient, with gold-plated Uzis and Gucci death's heads.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Fresh Scandinavian Skronk (with brisket)

At Mapsadaisical, a great review of the new album from my favorite Scandinavian punk jazz trio, The Thing. Naturally, these psycho-vikings live off the organic barbeque from Austin's Ruby's, which doubles as the official luncheon spot of the Turkey City Writer's Workshop. The new album even has an extra track, "Beef Brisket," dedicated to Ruby's.


The Thing, Bag It (Smalltown Superjazzz)


And so begins another album by Norway’s finest, The Thing. This time round the trio of Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love and Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten have followed their punk leanings to their most logical conclusion by enlisting the recording services of none other than Steve Albini to capture their live dynamism. And what a great job he does: even just getting saxophonist Mats Gustafsson’s desperate gasps for breath, the ones which punctuate the intro to their cover of The Ex’s “Hidegen Fujnak A Szelek“, builds an incredible tension. That tension builds through the following “Drop The Gun”, finally exploding with blinding white electronics from Gustafsson and Haker-Flaten. Electronics also feature in the group’s composition “Hot Doug”, meshing with the bass to form a deep, rumbling undercurrent for Nilssen-Love to thrash against. Gustafsson is on fiery, imperious form throughout, with the confidence to take on Albert Ayler’s “Angels”: he resists the urge to tear it into tiny pieces, douse it in petrol, set it ablaze, and pound the embers into the earth, keeping the matches in the box with a remarkably restrained performance.

For those hungry for more, the CD comes with a bonus thirty minute slab of prime Thing, also recorded by Albini, entitled “Beef Brisket” (first four minutes: umm dumm shuffle clang rrrrrrrrrrrr ummm dummm dagadagadagadagaDAGADAGADAGA YEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAA). Here, Gustafsson channels Ayler, Trane, Pharoah, and Brotzmann, spitting molten concrete all over the stage. Do what they tell you: bag it. Available now from Smalltown Superjazzz.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"It's not a show. It's a mission."

Alarmed by the news that Leon Panetta is suspending Cheney's secret assassination program (the one that would replace drones piloted from trailers in South Florida with actual, 007-style agents)? Don't worry: starting Monday, NBC will be hunting terrorists in a new reality show: "THE WANTED." The show teams a 60 Minutes producer (who also worked as a lawyer for the CIA), a former NAVY SEAL, a former Green Beret, a reporter and a war crimes prosecutor to hunt terrorists alive and well and living among us.

Like a cross between "To Catch a Predator," the NBC Dateline series that confronted accused sex offenders on live TV, and Jack Bauer's "24." Bringing the mainstream media's commercial exploitation of geopolitical fear and internecine xenophobia to entirely new, PKDickian levels. The preview, linked above, is a masterpiece of unintentional self-parody. Simultaneously so hilarious and so horrifying that I fear my Zeitgeist irony governor may now be permanently damaged.


NBC has called “The Wanted” a “groundbreaking television event” that would show an elite team of investigators pursuing accused criminals living in the open and avoiding justice. An online promotion for the program suggests that it will have cinematic qualities, including sweeping shots from helicopters and a command center for the team. In a mostly low-rated season of summer programming, the ratings for “The Wanted” will be closely watched after it has its premiere on Monday at 10 p.m. Eastern time. A second episode is scheduled one week later; four more episodes have been filmed.

“The truth is the real weapon in this redefining news series that follows a Navy Seal, a Green Beret and a dedicated reporter as they hunt down war criminals and terrorists from around the world,” the production company, Echo Ops, says in its promotional materials.

File under truth is stranger than satire. You can bet I have already set the timer on my DVR.

HD version of the preview here.

I anxiously await the series finale, in which our heroes travel to Argentina and abduct Dick Cheney while he is off fly-fishing, protected by his coterie of secret service agents chosen for their resemblance to famous action heroes of the 70s and 80s. The Portage to San Antonio of R.C.?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


I am off to Boston tomorrow to hang with the sf literati at Readercon. If you're there, please come by and say hi! Here's where you can find me:

SF As The Literature Of Things.

Friday, 11 am

Clute, Bobet, Di Filippo, Nakashima-Brown, Weinstein

It's commonly agreed that stories set in the future can "really" be about the future or the present. But in novels like William Gibson's Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, and Bruce Sterling's Zeitgeist and Zenith Angle, we are for the first time seeing stories set in the present which seem to be about the future. These fictions seem to argue that the future will be built bottom-up rather than top-down; that progress does not derive from the implementation of ideas but rather from the accumulation of quotidian technological change. Character in these works is not so much a matter of nature or nurture, but a product of our interaction with things, things produced as fast as we can (because we can) and without any deep consideration for their consequences. Is this "SF as a Literature of Things" ultimately just an interesting sub-genre, or might (or should) the field itself be morphing in its direction? There are more and more slipstream stories that start with an architectural setting or an object or some arcane text; do these reflect the same movement?

Reading – Chris Nakashima-Brown
Friday, 7:30 pm

I Spy, I Fear, I Wonder: Espionage Fiction and the Fantastic.

D'Ammassa, Finlay, Macdonald, Nakashima-Brown, Shirley

Saturday, 2-3 pm

In his afterword to The Atrocity Archives, Charles Stross makes a bold pair of assertions: Len Deighton was a horror writer (because "all cold-war era spy thrillers rely on the existential horror of nuclear annihilation") while Lovecraft wrote spy thrillers (with their "obsessive collection of secret information"). In fact, Stross argues that the primary difference between the two genres is that the threat of the "uncontrollable universe" in horror fiction "verges on the overwhelming," while spy fiction "allows us to believe for a while that the little people can, by obtaining secret knowledge, acquire some leverage over" it. This is only one example of the confluence of the espionage novel with the genres of the fantastic; the two are blended in various ways in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, Tim Powers' Declare, William Gibson's Spook County, and, in the media, the Bond movies and The Prisoner. We'll survey the best of espionage fiction as it reads to lovers of the fantastic. Are there branches of the fantastic other than horror to which the spy novel has a special affinity or relationship?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Treasures of the Spiderhole

A couple of weeks ago I read a comic book in which an aged version of Wolverine is carried, assumed dead, into a dystopian White House occupied by the Red Skull. The Red Skull is wearing the bloodied uniform of Captain America, his staff unable to extract him from the trophy room he has installed with mementos of all the superheroes he killed. The idea of the trophy room persists in comic books, as depicted in a thousand cross-sections of their secret hideouts. The Fortress of Solitude, the Batcave, the Baxter Building. Not unlike the imagined Al Qaeda mountain fortress depicted by some comics-weaned newspaper graphic artist at the onset of the invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, which had basically every super-lair sweet playset option *except* for the trophy room.

[Pic: The above cross-section actually appeared in leading newspapers before the Tora Bora push in November 2001.

So, perhaps sensing that I needed some reminder that the Team America reality is just as authentic as consensus reality, today's NY Times ran an amazing report about W (The Ex-President), now retired to Dallas.

He has a trophy room. Kind of like Batman or the Justice League of America, only W's is real. And the centerpiece of the George W. Bush trophy room is Saddam's Glock:

The gun, a 9 millimeter Glock 18C, was found in the spider hole where the Iraqi leader was captured in December 2003 by Delta Force soldiers, four of whom later presented the pistol to Mr. Bush. Among the thousands of gifts Mr. Bush received as president, the gun became a favorite, a reminder of the pinnacle moment of the Iraq war, according to friends and long-time associates.

Before Mr. Bush left the White House in January, he made arrangements for the gun to be shipped to a national archives warehouse just 18 miles north of his new home in Dallas. His foundation said a final decision had not been made on including the gun in the presidential library. But his associates and visitors to the White House said Mr. Bush had told them of his intention to display it there.

For nearly five years, Mr. Bush kept the mounted, glass-encased pistol in the Oval Office or a study, showing it with pride, especially to military officials, they said. He also let visitors in on a secret: when the pistol was recovered, it was unloaded.

“We were getting ready to leave the Oval Office, and he told us, ‘Wait a minute, guys, I want to show you something,’ ” recalled Pete Hegseth, the chairman of Vets for Freedom, who described a July 2007 visit. “The president moved back into his private study and he came out with the gun, inside this glass case. He said, ‘The Delta guys pulled it off Saddam.’ He was very proud of it.”

I once imagined a Presidential trophy room, and featured it in a work of political satire that was published in Eileen Gunn's The Infinite Matrix the week Saddam was found in his spiderhole. The story, "Script-Doctoring the Apocalypse," imagined psychological warfare operators commissioning a special work from the dictator's Frazetta dealer. With any luck the W Library will also include some of the Rowena-knockoff chainmail bikini art discovered in Saddam's bachelor pads, or perhaps even this work that apparently never made it:

In the game room of level B-3 of the apocalypse-proofed sub-basement at Camp David, the Vice President sat in the warmth of the fire with a tumbler of Glenlivet rocks and admired the newest addition to the trophies hanging on the wall. Between T.R.'s bison head, a D K E fraternity paddle, and a carefully embalmed extraterrestrial biological entity, stretched eight feet of canvas featuring a scene from a geopolitical fever dream.

"Scooter, you've got to come in here and check this out," hollered the Veep to his chief staffer.

Envision this: The Giant White King, an albino sword and sorcery simulacrum of the American President, lies recumbent on the pillowed daybed throne of his private sanctum, framed by a Tolkienesque map of his new empire of the imagination. His imperial pets surround him on the marbled floor, a menagerie of Moreauvian anthromorphs with facial features redolent of barely-remembered newspaper photographs of minor autocrats. Spotted little cat-men, a talking pig, a litter of mangy dog-men, all effusing well-fed supplication.

And stretched across the King's lap is the Leader, re-imagined as a freshly shampooed leonine bodybuilder, bushy tail curled up between his legs, eyes half-closed, whiskers signaling a submissive smile of pleasure. The King strokes the lion-man's belly with one hand; the other holds a leash of silver chain. The King's armory of magical blades is arrayed nearby, ready for use as needed.

"Remember Womack?" asked the Vice President.

"Isn't he the special ops wacko who started jamming Orrin Hatch gospel videos over Saudi national television?"

"Among other bad career moves."

"I thought he got reassigned."

"Yeah, but he's still on the team. Need to keep a fruitcake like that around for the oddjobs that require that rare postmodern sensibility they don't teach at West Point. Like this."

"Kind of weird stuff, if you ask me," said Scooter.

"I know. But it grows on you. It's supposed to be en route to the Leader's weekend retreat, but I thought the Boss might benefit from having it around for a while. Let the idea sink in a bit, if you know what I mean."

Scooter mixed himself a Tanqueray and tonic, leaned up against the billiard table, and took in the work. In the background, one of Nixon's old Martin Denny records played on the hi-fi at low volume.

"I mean, I'm not much for the science fiction thing," said Scooter, "but he does have a nice brush stroke. And you know, that looks just like…"

"Bingo. You're a little slow today. Take a closer look at the other faces."

Scooter walked up, squinted, and then stepped back.

"I'll be damned," he said. "How about that. Looks like last year's Arab League meeting."

"Yeah. You should have seen it before. The original version was a little too anatomically correct, and we had to have it touched up a bit. Never know when the Attorney General might drop in."

"No kidding. Got a title?"

"Tyrant Odalisque."

"Which one's the tyrant?" asked Scooter.

"Very funny."

"Speaking of tyrants, I'm going to head back up to the War Room and see what's happening," said Scooter.

"Screw that," said the Veep. "Rack 'em up and tap the keg. I can hear Marine One chopping in now. It's party time."

As his cyborg heart thumped in mellow sync with the distant helicopter blades, the Vice President sat back, admired Endora's work, and got to thinking it would look very nice on the wall of his favorite undisclosed secure location.

[Pic: A copy of this Rowena painting was found on the wall of one of Saddam's love shacks during the 2003 invasion.]

Friday, July 3, 2009

Our real-world Atrocity Exhibition

At Balladrian, "Michael Jackson's facelift," after Princess Margaret's.

“The relationship between the famous and the public who sustain them is governed by a striking paradox. Infinitely remote, the great stars of politics, film and entertainment move across an electric terrain of limousines, bodyguards and private helicopters. At the same time, the zoom lens and the interview camera bring them so near to us that we know their faces and their smallest gestures more intimately than those of our friends.

Somewhere in this paradoxical space our imaginations are free to range, and we find ourselves experimenting like impresarios with all the possibilities that these magnified figures seem to offer us. How did Garbo brush her teeth, shave her armpits, probe a worry-line? The most intimate details of their lives seem to lie beyond an already open bathroom door that our imaginations can easily push aside. Caught in the glare of our relentless fascination, they can do nothing to stop us exploring every blocked pore and hesitant glance, imagining ourselves their lovers and confidantes. In our minds we can assign them any roles we choose, submit them to any passion or humiliation. And as they age, we can remodel their features to sustain our deathless dream of them.

In a TV interview a few years ago, the wife of a famous Beverly Hills plastic surgeon revealed that throughout their marriage her husband had continually re-styled her face and body, pointing a breast here, tucking in a nostril there. She seemed supremely confident of her attractions. But as she said: ‘He will never leave me, because he can always change me.’

-- JGB

See also Michael Jackson's science fiction paperback selection.