Wednesday, September 30, 2009



There was no time to tumble, no chance to leap free. The catwalk plummeted. Screams echoed from the sleek walls and shattered gestation tanks, mixing with the roars of the moironteau.

Flavius jerked violently, ripped away from the catwalk. It vanished into the darkness amid a continuing shower of debris. An instant later a pure, bell-like tone washed over him from below.

Flavius shook his head to clear away the fog, then took his bearings. In the feeble light spilling out of the hole above, he saw Acaona dangling beside him. As did the Empress Malinche and Papantzin. Djserka em Naga-ed-der gripped each of them with a long, spindly arm, his own flabby bulk suspended precariously by a single silken thread.

“Er... ’preciate the catch,” Flavius managed.

“You’re welcome. You’re also most unbearably heavy,” Djserka hissed through clenched mandibles. “And, might I point out, that at any moment a sliver of glass may sever my line?”

“Right, right. Parric! Parric!” Flavius called, but the Crafter of Ominik was nowhere to be seen. “Damnit, Parric, nae around when I need you. Acaona! Can ya give us some light with that wee torch of yers?”

She held out her cuyab and a cool green brilliance blazed forth.

Flavius whistled.

“What is this place?” wondered the Empress Malinche.

“The underneath,” answered Acaona. “We’ve gone all the way down.”

Not more than thirty feet below, straining against taut, crystalline netting, gleamed iridescent spheres the size of cottages. The twisted remains of the catwalk impaled one broken, motionless moironteau. Two others lay a short distance away, their splattered blood virtually luminous in the cuayab light. A fourth moironteau twitched feebly, it’s body nearly severed through in several places by the netting. As chunks of shattered glass, peq and other debris rained down, soft, ethereal tones rang out from the spheres as if giants were running fingers across enormous wine goblets.

“Over there,” Flavius said, pointing to a narrow service way with a single hand rail crossing the steep mass of spheres. Along the way, it intersected other service ways cris-crossing the space above the netting. “They mound up toward the center. There’ll be access back inside there, most likely. Djserka, will yer thread hold enough for us to swing over?”

“I’ll have to spin another length or two for us to reach, but yes, my thread will hold our weight.”

“Do ya want us to--”

“Please, no. Just be still and let me do this on my own,” Djserka said, spinning out a length of thread to drop them lower. “If you start thrashing about, you’re more likely to dislocate and arm or three than anything useful.”

Djserka shifted its bulk subtly, and they swung back several feet. A moment later they’d moved twice as far forward.

“You’re good at this,” said Acaona.

“Dear girl, I’ve had plenty of practice,” Djserka answered. “It’s what we do.”

A large block of floor tumbled past, barely missing them. Flavius looked up to see two moironteau climbing through the hole. The beasts hadn’t yet noticed the thread amid the poor light and chaos.

“Let out more thread!” ordered Flavius on the backswing. “Enough to drop me down there without breaking my neck!”

“I do that and we’ll overshoot the service way,” Djserka protested.

“Donnae argue with me! Just do it!”

Djserka let out another ten feet of silk, the lurching extension imparting a wobbly spin to the party. As they swept through the lowest part of the arc, Djserka swung Flavius out and released him. With an involuntary shout, Flavius soared for a moment before planting his feet squarely atop the two dead moironteau.

Djserka fed out more thread as their arcing path carried them along, passing underneath the service way. The thead pressed taut against the bottom support rail, and Djserka’s momentum carried the em Naga-ed-der and passengers up and over the opposite side. Djserka quickly grabbed the safety rail with its hindmost suction pads, balancing precariously before setting Acaona, the Empress and Papantzin down roughly. Djserka hung precariously on the narrow service way, wrapped nearly all the way around it and dwarfing the three women.

“That was...” gasped Malinche, “entirely unacceptable.”

“Donnae just stand there yammering!” shouted Flavius as he clambered down the dead moironteau. “Them beasties are still coming! Get a godamned move on!”

The moironteau had spotted them, letting out squeals of recognition. One pushed off from its jagged perch and dove at Flavius, teeth bared in all eight footheads.

Flavius slashed Memory across the strands of netting. They separated with a whipping snap, and three iridescent spheres burst through like shot from a canon.

The first sphere hit two footheads a glancing blow with a beautiful, ringing tone, enough to send the moironteau spinning. The second struck it more solidly before shattering with the sound of a thousand jingling bells. The moironteau flailed as it fell, crashing through the service way scant feet ahead of Acaona before slamming into the netting below.

The impact caused a lurching shift among the spheres, and two more escaped from the rent in the net.

“Back this way,” Flavius shouted. “We’ll follow the perimeter until we find another connecting service way.

One escaped sphere rolled uneasily upon the ceiling above, its movement hampered by various utility pipes and vents protruding from the palace’s underside. The second moironteau clung to the ceiling, footheads keeping wary watch on both the spheres and Flavius. The third and fourth escaped sphered had found the gaping hole and escaped through into the ruined peq cloning chamber. One took a startled moironteau along for the ride after it chose an inopportune moment to pass through the hole. Through the opening shadows mingled as more moironteau joined the hunt.

The women passed over Flavius, followed by Djserka, almost comical as it clambered along the too-small service way. It dropped a loop of thread down to Flavius as it went.

“Thanks again,” Flavius said as Djserka hauled him up.

“There certainly is a prodigious number of those vile creatures,” Djserka said as they moved. The damaged service way wobbled with every step.

“That there is. And to ken it only took one to kill me before.” Flavius cast a worried glance back. No fewer than six moironteau had gotten through and were following along the roof. “Acaona, lass, can ya give us some cover fire?” he shouted past Djserka.

In answer, Acaona sent a spray of emerald bursts back at the moironteau. A few even struck home, slowing their pursuit noticeably.

“We’re nearly to the perimeter, Flavius,” Empress Malinche announced. “It looks wide enough to land a wej on.”

“I ken Djserka will appreciate--”

The rumble came upon them like rolling thunder, but at a much deeper pitch. Far more menacing. Flavius grabbed at the railing a hair’s breadth too late. The shockwave struck, throwing him from the service way. His innards slammed against his ribcage as he fell. Massive fissures snaked through the underside of the palace. Steam burst from ruptured pipes. Moironteau fell like rag dolls. The cut Flavius had made in the netting zippered open under the strain, and hundreds of buoyancy spheres launched themselves up, some shattering along the way, but all of them singing their ghostly music.

Flavius hit a sphere, snagged his foot on a strand of netting and tumbled. He slipped and slid through the gaps in the spheres, losing his grip on Memory along the way. The thought of skidding all the way through the spheres to fall to his death on the other side flashed through his mind, but he abruptly came up hard against a rough, unyielding surface.

“Ow. Ach,” he muttered, twisting his body a less mangled position. He felt his throbbing forehead and found it wet, hot and sticky. Flavius quickly realized he was thoroughly soaked, and more than a little disconcerted that in the darkness he couldn’t tell if the blood was his, peq or moironteau. As he stared at his hands, a soft green glow illuminated them, black with blood.

“Acaona?” he said, looking up. She was nowhere to be seen. The illumination grew stronger. “Acaona!”

“Flavius!” Her answering call was distant, high above him. “Where are you? What happened?’

Flavius flexed his fingers, intensely aware of Memory’s absence. He swallowed, then deliberately turned to look behind him.

The blazing green eye of the Ketza’qua stared back.


Apologies for the long delay in this installment. It wasn't intentional, I swear. I've posted some personal thoughts about chapter 40, as well as the whole "Memory" experiment thus far, over at my personal blog for anyone who's interested.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Review: The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard

“I first met Jane Ciracylides during the Recess, that world slump of boredom, lethargy and high summer which carried us all so blissfully trhough ten unforgettable years, and I suppose that may have had a lot to do with what went on between us.”

So begins the first short story published by J.G. Ballard, “Prima Belladonna,” from Science Fantasy in 1956. It is also the opening of The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard, finally out in the U.S. from Norton eight years after its publication in the U.K. The only addition appears to be the short personal introduction by Martin Amis, presumably designed to give genteel permission for establishment literary readers in the U.S. to read science fictions.

The canonization of Ballard as a writer who transcended his genre roots reached its apex upon the author’s death earier this year, and the past two weeks' rush of reviews (e.g., Jonathan Lethem in the Times, Michael Dirda in the Post) is the second ripple of the honorific obituaries from all all the papers that had largely forgotten Ballard’s work since Empire of the Sun. The English recognition of Ballard’s literary achievement never seems to have made it fully across the Atlantic. So perhaps the appearance of this definitive collection in an increasingly Ballardian 21st century America of abandoned suburbs, kinky astronauts and serial killers of the week is the perfect opportunity for a reclamation of Ballard by science fiction.

In contrast to Ballard’s more recent works (at least as they are marketed by publishers), every one of the 98 stories in this collection is a work of science fiction. (Granted, a science fiction that is being knowingly repurposed by an outsider who discovered the pulps as a young adult and found in them a perfect medium for underground literary surrealism.) Ballard’s contemporary establishment reputation is built largely on the works that made it socially acceptable to read him: the putatively mainstream novels that followed Empire of the Sun, explorations of contemporary bourgeois Europe like Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People, Kingdom Come, and the semi-autobiographical Kindness of Women. While he is a seminal influence for many pioneering sf authors of the last 30 years, I think most of the current generation of sf readers, writers and editors, carrying on with a linear evolution of pulp sf and fantasy, don’t really know what to make of Ballard — he’s the Ballard of Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, an outlier in the New Wave (already generally treated as a kind of dope-fueled footnote to generic history) who really is doing something other than science fiction. Fair enough, I suppose — I'm not holding my breath for the Syfy Channel adaptation of “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.” But in a genre replete with self-referential manifestos, surely there remains no more cogent call to action for the real potential of sf than Ballard’s 1974 introduction to the French edition of Crash — all the more prescient when read from the perspective of the cyberpunk reality of the 21st century:

The marriage of reason and nightmare which has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the specters of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Thermonuclear weapons systems and soft drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century—sex and paranoia. Despite McLuhan’s delight in high-speed information mosaics we are still reminded of Freud’s profound pessimism in Civilization and its Discontents. Voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings—these diseases of the psyche have now culminated in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect.

The demise of feeling and emotion has paved the way for all our most real and tender pleasures—in the excitements of pain and mutilation; in sex as the perfect arena, like a culture bed of sterile pus, for all the veronicas of our own perversions; in our moral freedom to pursue our own psychopathology as a game; and in our apparently limitless powers for conceptualization—what our children have to fear is not the cars on the highways of tomorrow but our own pleasure in calculating the most elegant parameters of their deaths.

To document the uneasy pleasures of living within this glaucous paradise has become the role of science fiction. I firmly believe that science fiction, far from being an unimportant minor offshoot, in fact represents the main literary tradition of the 20th century…

The main “fact” of the 20th century is the concept of unlimited possibility. This predicate of science and technology enshrines the notion of a moratorium on the past—the irrelevancy and even death of the past—and the limitless alternatives available to the present. What links the first flight of the Wright brothers to the invention of the Pill is the social and sexual philosophy of the ejector seat.

After establishing this premise, Ballard gently observes the failure of most sf to realize its potential in this regard, and his own approach to the task at hand:

…[W]hen I first turned to science fiction, I was convinced that the future was a better key to the present than the past. At the time, however, I was dissatisfied with science fiction’s obsession with its two principal themes—outer space and the far future. As much for embleamtic purposes as any theoretical or programmatic ones, I christened the new terrain I wished to explore inner space, that psychological domain (manifest, for example, in surrealist painting) where the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality meet and fuse.

Primarily, I wanted to write a fiction about the present day. To do this in the context of the late 1950s, in a world where the call sign of Sputnik I could be heard on one’s radio like the advance beacon of a new universe, required completely different techniques from those available to the 19th century novelist. In fact, I believe that if it were possible to scrap the whole of existing literature, and be forced to begin without any knowledge of the past, all writers would find themselves inevitably producing something very close to science fiction.

Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.

Yet, by an ironic paradox, modern science fiction becmae the first casualty of the changing world it anticipated and helped to create. The future envisaged by the science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s is already our past. Its dominant images, not merely of the first Moon flights and inerplanetary voyages, but of our changing social and political relationships in a world governed by technology, now resemble huge pieces of discarded stage scenery. For me, this could be seen most touchingly in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which signified the end of the herioc period of modern science fiction—its lovingly imagined panoramas and costumes, its huge set pieces, reminded me of Gone With the Wind, a scientific pageant that became a kind of historical romance in reverse, a sealed world into which the hard light of contemporary reality was never allowed to penetrate.

…We have annexed the future into our own present, as merely one of those manifold alternative open to us. Options multiply around us, we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for lilfestyles, travel, sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied instantly.

…Increasingly [the] roles [of fiction and reality] are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind—mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identitieswithin the realm of consumer goods, the preempting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.

I quote the essay at such length because I think it is the missing introduction to the Complete Stories, providing literary context that is barely touched in Ballard’s 2001 introduction to the collection, and entirely missing from Amis’ comments. The pieces collected in this volume are Ballard’s achievement of the mission he set out for himself, more so than his novels. Indeed, Ballard’s best novels really want to be short stories, if not pure conceptual abstracts — the ultimate form for the "literature of ideas." The most acclaimed long works like Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition, Concrete Island, High Rise, are conceptual pieces for whom novel length exposition undermines the raw cogency of the premise, and one wonders if Ballard would have written them as such if market conditions had permitted.

Many of the stories that fulfill this Borgesian potential for narrative condensation do so through Ballard’s masterful appropriation of the tropes of “invisible literature” – clinical notes (“Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown”), research abstracts (“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”), pataphysical sports reportage (“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race”), television transcripts (“Theatre of War”), surveillance transcripts (“The 60 Minute Zoom”), postcards (“Having a Wonderful Time”), exploration logs (“Report on an Unidentified Space Station”), astrological entries (“Zodiac 2000”), biographical indexes (“The Index”), and answers to unknown police interrogation questions (“Answers to a Questionnaire”). Ballard figures out how to mimic the densest academic turge with a Calvino-esque lightness that transforms interoffice memoranda into the richest prose poems, achieving an effect both gravely profound and chortlingly funny. Even more beautiful are the experiments where Ballard’s narratives are more putatively accessible and linear, but subverted by the skilled application of surrealistic logic to produce sublime short epics of the subconcious like “The Drowned Giant.”

The collected stories also reveal qualities that Ballard and the critics don’t really acknowledge — Ballard’s achievement of the modernist agenda more successfully than his mainstream peers. Many of the stories are powerful dramas of the self that transport the interior stage from the bourgeois domicile to the more authentic science fictional settings of the present —abandoned motels and overgrown space launch facilities; alienated resorts occupied by the ennui-drunk elan of the leisure class; zones of transit and disaster where all sense of time and social context is obliterated; and extreme scenarios of social stress that peel back the veneer of civilized behavior to reveal primal instincts laid bare, mutated by their technologically mediated context. In stories like “The Dead Astronaut,” “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island,” “Low-Flying Aircraft,” “The 60 Minute Zoom,” “One Afternoon at Utah Beach,” “Motel Architecture,” “Memories of the Space Age,” “Myths of the Neat Future,” “The Man Who Walked on the Moon,” and the Vermilion Sands pieces, Ballard pioneered the art of using science fictional scenario-building — treating setting and technological McGuffins as tools to transform fictive narrative into socio-psychological laboratory — to better depict the emotional reality of what it feels like to live in the present.

Ballard’s ouevre has throughly infiltrated the intellectual superstructure of contemporary cyberculture, as evidenced in omnivorous weblogs like Geoff Manaugh's BLDG BLOG that filter an aspect of the world like architectural space through a Ballardian prism, or Simon Sellars' Ballardian, which annotates the power of Ballard’s philosophical point of view to understand topics as diverse as Michael Jackson’s plastic surgery, airport terminal design, or the pixellated ultraviolence of autogeddon video games. But his literary influence is more elusive, perhaps because Ballard’s singular voice is so outside the bounds of both mainstream literature and science fiction. As Bruce Sterling remarked when I interviewed him for Ballardian, Ballard borrowed from visual art and conceptual art in a way that I think may be less inimitable than Bruce assumes:

How do you think it is that Ballard transcended the genre in terms of critical acceptance?

Well, mostly because he really knows what he’s talking about. Ballard can write a movie review that I would dare any other science-fiction writer to do. Science-fiction writers can’t write about popular culture, even high culture, without trotting out their own self-importance. Which is sort of humiliating. Ballard never does that. He’s said things that are very affirmative about science fiction, like “it’s the only true literature of the twentieth century,” “Earth is the only alien planet,” and other wise things. Ballard’s the kind of guy – the kind of science-fiction writer – who can put on a performance in a pop art gallery that would cause a riot! If you took most science-fiction writers and dropped them in a pop-art gallery, they’d be saying things like “I didn’t get it about Picasso”, or “I kind of like Bridget Riley op art. Is that her real name, Bridget Riley?” They wouldn’t grab the bit between their teeth and push the world of artistic expression to a place that caused people to freak out.

One can only hope that the U.S. publication of The Complete Stories will bring fresh consideration and fresh readers to Ballard’s work, encourage more “literary” writers to borrow from the sf toolkit, and cause more sf writers to throw out the Clarion handbook in favor of trying to really bite into the copper wire of the science fictional landscape inside and outside our heads. The 21st century could use a few more riots started in art galleries by rogue science fictionalists.

The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard (Norton, $35.00)

Previously in this space: "Invisible Literature for the Age of Celebrity" (or, "The Assassination Inquest of Diana, Princess of Wales Considered as an Unintentionally Ballardian Remix of the Warren Commission Report").

(Vintage covers courtesy of Rick McGrath's amazing Terminal Collection.)

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Last weekend I got lucky and was able to go to FenCon in Dallas on short notice. I had a great time: it was a well-run convention with all kinds of special stuff – some of it orchestrated and some just serendipity. During one panel I was charmed to hear the original Star Trek theme music wafting from the video room across the way. When I watched and loved Star Trek as a kid, I never imagined (a) SF conventions – they existed, but I never heard of such until I went to college, (b) Star Trek conventions – ditto, (c) recording media that let you own and show, whenever you want it for yourself (or for a convention), episodes of that show. Or (d) LED's brilliantly integrated into scale models of the USS Enterprise. In my childhood bedroom I had a painstakingly assembled model Enterprise hanging from the overhead light. Who knew there would one day be tiny, intense lights in all colors on Christmas trees and in models? A main hallway on Saturday at FenCon had this Enterprise, amazingly graced with lights, courtesy of a group called Building Ultimate Models. It was a thing of beauty and much admired by everyone who saw it.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Here's what we didn't have to do this year at Rice University's Fondren Library, where I work. At least, we won't have to do this unless a late-season hurricane strikes in the next few weeks. We didn't have to salvage wet books. However, we were prepared, with plans, salvage supplies, and even a disaster demonstration. In a dire little way, the demo was fascinating.

At one point in the demonstration, the presenter, a book preservation specialist named Andy, dunked a book in a bucket of water. Everyone in the room winced. Andy explained that it was a withdrawn (meaning, pretty darn useless) book and of course the point was to show us how to save a wet book. But still there was that collective wince. Library people really, really don't like seeing books hurt.

In this part of the world, though, it happens, sometimes on a devastating scale. In Hurricane Katrina, the Tulane University Library lost 90% of the collection. After Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, the University of Houston Law Library was devastated. It was underground and it flooded to the top.

Some years ago Fondren Library was hit hard by a tropical storm. The art library, which at the time was unfortunately located in the basement, flooded. The clay-coated pages of fine art books are readily ruined by water. That time, truck-loads of wet books were rushed down Interstate 45 to NASA-JSC and put in the space vacuum chamber: the same chamber where the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module had been tested. Freeze-drying in a vacuum is one of the only ways to save a soggy art book.

You have to act fast. Fondren Library has First Responders ready to come as soon as the building is declared safe and power restored. Andy demonstrated how to interleave wet pages with paper-towels, wrap the books in newsprint, pack them into boxes, number the boxes and record the numbers in a log.

As Andy went through his demonstration, he showed us the contents of one of several React Paks stashed in strategic locations in the Library. These Paks have all kinds of stuff in them, even a mop in three pieces that you clip together and a collapsible pail. That React Pak had so many items coming out that the effect was like a clown car disgorging clowns. While he was at it, Andy, who is a broad-shouldered former Navy man, demonstrated the sailor's mop twirl. If there's anybody who knows how to mop decks, it's sailors!

In this digital age we live in, a lot about libraries is changing. At one extreme, there is reported to be a library in New England that has divested itself of all of its physical books. And yet, though much has changed, librarians still love books and do everything in their power to preserve them. When flooding strikes any library anywhere, people who work there are willing to wade in and work their hearts out salvaging books. Long live libraries and their people who love books!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Tajik Jimmy

If you did a Leggy Starlitz remix of Rainman and Los Pikadientes de Caborca, surely it would end up producing "Tajik Jimmy," the Russian web phenom, a Tajikistan stockboy with the strange gift of being able to singlehandedly replicate entire Bollywood soundtracks with nothing but his own voice and a tin bucket tabla. NYT:

THE great cities of Russia are still strange to Baimurat Allaberiyev, who as a younger man herded sheep in his native Tajikistan for a salary of one lamb per month. Two years after moving here, he still wonders aloud where the apples in the market come from, since he cannot see apple trees anywhere.

For this reason, his manager has assigned an assistant, 22-year-old Natalya Glazova, to look after Mr. Allaberiyev as he pursues his career in show business. Ms. Glazova quickly developed a fondness for the new client, and her heart flipped over with pity when on their first meeting, she realized that the things he was carrying — a change of clothes in a nylon sports bag — were everything he owned.

The rise of Mr. Allaberiyev, widely known as Tajik Jimmy, a migrant worker in a provincial Russian stockroom who delivers astonishing renditions of Bollywood musical numbers, is one more testament to the strange power of the Internet. A little more than a year after one of his performances was filmed by a co-worker with a cellphone and posted online, Mr. Allaberiyev cannot walk through a crowd in the Russian capital without being stopped by fans. This is especially remarkable given the place that Central Asian migrants occupy in Russian society: members of a vast and nearly invisible work force, targets of derision and occasional violence.

This summer, Mr. Allaberiyev quit his job loading boxes and decided to move to St. Petersburg to pursue fame. The transition has not been entirely smooth; after one of his first bookings, at a hip Moscow nightclub, he was so desperate for a place to stay that he asked journalists if they could take him home for the night. During an interview with The New York Times he asked for money to replace three teeth that were knocked out in April, when he was attacked by thugs on his way home from work.

“You have lots of people in America,” he said. “Send me lots of teeth.”

Monday, September 7, 2009

Liberation Day?

[Pic: Wannabe revolutionaries from suburban Houston rest their corn syrup-fed bodies beneath the shade of the monument to "Heroes of the Alamo."]

I started off my Labor Day weekend Saturday morning typing away in Little City Coffee on Congress Avenue in Austin, just a block and a half south of the Texas Capitol. As the morning progressed, increasingly large numbers of people could be seen walking toward the Capitol carrying protest signs, many of them stopping to get a coffee or a Coke (the baristas did not mention that these Cokes were smuggled from Mexico, where they sweeten things with actual sugar).

When I had gotten my work done, I decided to follow them. Alas, they were not advocating the liberation from work. They were throwing a Tea Party, a right-libertarian protest of governance by Washington. "Party," as one sign read, "like its 1773."

Jenny Holzer (@jennyholzer) may be right when she tweets "THE IDEA OF REVOLUTION IS AN ADOLESCENT FANTASY." Certainly in a society that is as affluent as ours. But a culture that weans its youth on the society's revolutionary mythos, a secular gospel of the right of revolt grounded in natural law and social contract, will always have to deal with disenfranchised fragments yearning for the blood — real or metaphorical — of those they view as tyrants.

[Pic: A group prayer, one of those post-Christian "vanquish my enemies"-type prayers.]

The Tea Party people, a surprisingly small group of a few hundred gathered from various parts of Texas (heavy on Houston, naturally), are white middle class suburbanites. Nice folks, basically — you know, to the extent people working on a PG-rated real-life version of The Turner Diaries could be called "nice."

What were they protesting? I'm not sure it was all that specific. There was a series of disparate speakers emceed by a comedic young goateed Christian, with plenty of jibes about the health care debate. But the event was really a general vent, an exorcism of generalized suppressed rage about the state of contemporary American society.

[Pic: Sensible white sneakers are the preferred footwear among Tea Party revolutionaries.]

What these folks are really protesting, in my estimation, is the general failure of America to live up to its mythic paradigm, the version depicted in all of our cultural programming from Hollywood, the schools, and the stories of our parents and grandparents. They are protesting the profound condition of alienation in which we all live, of the absence of any authentic sense of community — a generalized feeling that ends up directed at whoever is perceived to be in power. They are protesting the consequences of the relentless advance of capital accelerated by technological advancement — the technological mediation of all "personal" interactions, the obliteration of geography and the rootedness in the local, the hyper-specialization of all labor, the hollowness of consumption as the sole basis of leisure, and, yes, the role of big government (in the permanent embrace of mass media) as facilitator of our collective mental enslavement.

Okay, maybe that gives the implicitly racist Tea Party troglodytes too much credit, but I think there's something to it. And how sad that their profound energies are so unfocused, so easily manipulated by post-populist cable TV demagogues looking to drive up their ratings. Shouldn't a Labor Day protest be about breaking down the shackles of capital — the liberation from work?

[Pic: Naturally, the only person of color at the Labor Day Texas Tea Party Rally was a LaRouche supporter.]

Labor Day is perhaps the most ironic of government-created holidays — a day in which we celebrate a very brief, usually self-medicated, respite from the binding of our lives to purportedly productive activity that commonly affords us no real satisfaction. It's all there in the cultural cue of the word "Labor," encoded with all the negative aspects of work as toil, as opposed to rewarding productive and creative engagement. Rather than worshipping the idea of the "day off," wouldn't a better observance involve a temporary abolition of the division of labor, such that everyone did someone else's job for the day, or engaged in bona fide creative production of goods and services from which they were not alienated?

(I am ignoring, of course, the very depressing report in today's NYT about the millions of Americans who have so completely given up trying to find work that they no longer show up in the unemployment statistics — causing some to speculate the real number of unemployed may be as high as 20%.)

Or, you could go catch the matinee of the new Gerard Butler grimace vehicle, Gamers, which illustrates the contemporary condition in beautiful technicolor cartoon fashion. Like The Matrix with balls and a sense of humor: a near-future in which our brains are re-wired to play meaningless games under the control of others, the perfect convergence of the division of labor with the Society of the Spectacle. A little close to home, I thought, in a society where our self-images are so infiltrated by commodified cathode ray virals that our brains have been proven to devote an individual neuron to each celebrity in the pantheon. Bookended by an opening shot of advertising on the side of the Great Pyramid, and a denouement that opens with a nanobot-enabled Sammy Davis Kung Fu fight (!).

"It ain't just a game. We're all slaves." — Ludacris as the undergound revolutionary bio-hacker in *Gamers.*

Or you could click through to Arthur Magazine for this outstanding interview with Peter Lamborn Wilson (aka Hakim Bey), who may help you map out a path to the creation of your own Temporary Autonomous Zone in the remainder of your day off. The real Declaration of Independence that needs to happen starts in each of our heads.

Or you could just have a few beers.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Let's get lost

Some meandering old instructions on how to get lost in a three-day weekend, recently rediscovered:

I am constructing a 1/72 scale diorama in my basement. It is a speculative rendering of the post-apocalyptic landscape of the city I live in. It now consumes most of the space in my cellar, occupying the scale equivalent of three or four square miles.

The buildings are mostly scratch-built, dozens of commercial strip shacks transformed into lonely bunkers for the degenerate hoardings of the human detritus who conduct daily scavenger hunts in the abandoned shopping plazas. Irregularly outfitted armored personnel carriers plod their way through the potholes of parking lots, scrounging for serviceable parts. The figures, most of them plastic toy soldiers modified to neutralize their otherwise obvious aspect as 18th Century hussars or cold war commandos, are often hidden from each other in their desolate post-industrial human dens, underneath rusted manhole covers (indeed, the underground maze I have postulated and constructed is even more elaborate than the surface world). Pith-helmeted expeditioners roam a dying desert of grit, broken glass, and metal fragments, crunching bone underfoot. With careful scrutiny one can find them half-hidden, with scoped rifles braced against collapsed telephone poles, looking for carrion-feeding crows and vultures to drop from the sky. Currently, the human population is 23.

Suburbia Deserta, at Revolution SF.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Chupacabra thieves

This is interesting. It's an image collage of the so-called Chupacabra, a WikiCommons image produced by someone going by the moniker of Olvetigabor. The images is copyright Wikimedia Commons. The image collage accompanies an article by Sylvia Cochran regarding the possible origins of the creepy looking beasts:

Except that the majority of the images contained in the collage--namely, the good, clear ones--come from my blog, Gibberish. I published them on October 14, 2004, as part of a entry titled Return of the zombie chupacabra." And the images most certainly aren't the copyright work of Olvetigabor or Wikimedia Commons--they are the copyright property of Sharon Womack, published by myself with her explicit permission. Not only did this Olvetigabor blatantly pinch the images, they didn't even have the common courtesy to indicate where they originated from. That's just low.

I realized that as a professional journalist, many in the so-called "new media" look upon old-school ethics as passe and irrelevant. But no matter how you spin it, passing off others' work as your own is just downright sad.

The Zeppelin Pulps

The following is an expanded version of my essay in Incognito #6, the last issue in the wonderful pulp-supers-noir comic by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Incognito #6 is in stores today (make sure to buy three copies each!) and a shorter version of the following appears there. For space reasons I had to cut some things out, but Ed’s graciously given me permission to repost the original here.

(BTW, this may be the single thing I’m most proud of having written, if only because doing research on the zeppelin pulps and the background to Complete Zeppelin Stories was such a challenge. I’d read Complete Zeppelin Stories, of course, but the context to it, and the information on the other pulps was extremely hard to find. This was a challenge from start to finish, and I’m glad I met it).

Posterity is cruel to popular culture. Successful series, in any medium, find themselves quickly forgotten. Sexton Blake was the second-most imitated character in the world in the 1930s, after Sherlock Holmes, and today Blake is virtually unknown. The radio serial “Fibber McGee and Molly” was famous internationally in the 1930s and 1940s and is now almost forgotten. This was true of the pulps, as well. One of the best examples of the forgotten pulps is the genre of zeppelin pulps and Complete Zeppelin Stories, the most famous zeppelin pulp of them all.

During the late 1920s Frank Armer (1895-1965) was the man behind Ramer Reviews, a publisher of four minor pulps, including Zeppelin Stories, which was best known for Gil Brewer’s lost apes-and-zeppelins classic, “The Gorilla of the Gasbags.” Ramer Reviews failed in late 1929 and Armer became an editor for Harry and Irwin Donenfeld on their “spicy” line of pulps, including Spicy Detective Stories. In 1935, for reasons not known, the Donenfelds and Armer had a falling out, and Armer left the Donenfelds’ Culture Publications.

On February 12, 1935, the U.S. Navy Zeppelin Macon, pride of the Navy’s aerial fleet and hoped-for model for future U.S. military zeppelins, crashed off the coast of California. The Macon disaster, two years before the more famous wreck of the Hindenberg, cast doubt on the viability of zeppelins as military vessels. But the zeppelin boosters within the U.S. Army and Navy were unwilling to let a freak accident spoil their plans for a fleet of armed zeppelins, and sought for a way to redeem the image of the zeppelins in the eyes of the public.

This was not the Navy’s first public relations problem. In 1934 the Navy was faced with non-existent enlistment from Americans from non-coastal states. In response, Frank Martinek, a Navy Lieutenant, created the comic strip “Don Winslow of the Navy.” Martinek’s Don Winslow is an agent of Naval Intelligence who has thrilling adventures fighting against various international super-criminals. “Don Winslow of the Navy” succeeded in boosting enlistment, and a year later, the Navy decided to use the lesson of “Don Winslow” on zeppelins.

They hired Frank Armer, who founded a new publishing company, Stars and Stripes Publishing, and promptly resurrected Zeppelin Stories as Complete Zeppelin Stories. The lead story in the first issue, in September, 1935, was “Death at 30,000 Feet,” starring John Paul Jones, Commander of the U.S. Navy Zeppelin Saratoga. Jones was clearly intended to be the poster child for the series and to act as a recruiting tool–his stories extol the safety and speed of zeppelins and confidently predict that they will be the future of air travel–but something unexpected happened: fan interest skewed away from Jones (who, to modern eyes, is colorless and one-dimensional) and toward Professor Zeppelin, the protagonist of the back-up story, “The Sargasso of the Skies.”

Modern readers dismiss Zeppelin as a Doc Savage rip-off–and, indeed, he is. Zeppelin is the “Sky Scientist.” Zeppelin is reputed to be “the smartest man in the world” and is an expert in every field. Zeppelin is assisted by a team of men, all experts in their fields, including Auberon “The Brigadier” Cooper, the world’s foremost export on aeronautics, and Hammond “Piggy” Higgins, America’s leading test pilot. Zeppelin has a floating base, the “Zeppelin of Silence,” stocked with technologically-advanced aircraft, including one-man “electric zeppelins.” The Zeppelin of Silence also a medical laboratory in which Zeppelin performs operations to remove the “sickness of evil” from the brains of criminals. And Zeppelin’s skin is deeply tanned from months spent in the open cockpit of his zeppelin.

The similarities to Doc Savage are pronounced. But it was these similarities which were the cause of Professor Zeppelin’s popularity. Doc Savage was at this time hitting its peak, both in quality and popularity, and the demand for more Doc Savage stories was greater than the supply, so Doc Savage imitations–like Jim Anthony and Captain Hazzard–were popular with readers. So, too, with Professor Zeppelin.

That a vigilante like Zeppelin should be more popular than a square-jawed, heroic Naval Commander like John Paul Jones was undoubtedly embarrassing to the Navy, but Armer was a wily veteran of publishing and knew to play to his strengths, so in the next few issues he relegated Jones to the back-up features and made Professor Zeppelin the pulp’s lead. Over the next nine issues–Complete Zeppelin Stories, like many other pulps, was bi-monthly–Zeppelin fought an increasingly colorful set of foes: the Prussian aviator Pontius Pilot; the Black Death, the “living disease;” Wu Fang, the Helium Mandarin; Dr. Okayuma, who vivisects spies in his zeppelin laboratory; Amenhotep, the simian Pharaoh of the Congo; and Baron Nosferatu, the Flying Vampire.

Complete Zeppelin Stories was an instant success, and Armer responded by increasing the size of the pulp and including other series characters, most modeled on other popular heroes, in an obvious attempt to further increase sales and perhaps create spin-off pulps. The January, 1936 issue introduced Lazarus, the Returned Man, a two-gun-wielding lift of the Shadow. The March issue introduced Agent 1776, who differed from Operator #5 only in the use of a red, white, and blue zeppelin. The May issue introduced the Scorpion, a more obvious-than-usual lift of The Spider. And the July issue introduced both Swift Stevens, a Flash Gordon lift, and Jack Blake, the Zeppelin Vigilante, a combination of the Phantom Detective and Secret Agent X.

By the summer of 1936 the sales of Complete Zeppelin Stories approached those of Doc Savage, Love Story Magazine, and Western Story Magazine. As was common in pulp publishing, other publishers rushed to imitate success and churned out a number of zeppelin pulps, including Ace Magazine’s Zeppelins, Popular’s Dime Zeppelin Magazine, Red Circle’s Complete Zeppelin Detective Stories, Columbia Publications’ Flying Cowboy Stories, and, most absurdly, Culture Publications’ semi-pornographic Spicy Zeppelin Stories. Few of these pulps lasted long–Spicy Zeppelin Stories was such a failure it was cancelled after a single issue–but some had staying power. Street & Smith’s Zeppelin Story Magazine proved to be a minor hit, and its most popular characters, the humorous, tall-tale-telling cowboy “Gasbag” Gallagher and the Texas Ranger “Dirigible” Adams, made appearances in other Street & Smith pulps well into the 1940s. And Popular Publications, who in 1933 created the “weird menace” genre by turning the mediocre detective pulp Dime Mystery Book into the best-selling occult horror pulp Dime Mystery Magazine, made more money with another weird menace pulp: Strange Tales of the Black Zeppelin. Strange Tales featured a variety of unusual characters and stories, two of which outlived Strange Tales itself. The serial “The Passenger in Berth 12,” written by Cornell Woolrich under the pseudonym of “K. Hite,” became the famous lost film noir The Passenger (1938), which starred Paul Muni and Ann Savage in her first lead role. And the series “Doctor Weird,” about an occult detective, was picked up by Chicago radio station WENR and turned into the horror drama “Doctor of Destinies.” Aided by its position following the notorious “Lights Out,” “Doctor of Destinies” was a hit for several years, and its opening was once as famous as The Shadow’s: a sepulchral voice intoning the phrase, “Do you dare step aboard the floating mansion of Anton Weird, Doctor of Destinies?”

In May, 1937, the zeppelin genre of pulps seemed poised to become as significant and established a pulp genre as sports, romance, and detective pulps were. Hollywood was preparing to capitalize on the genre’s popularity. Several zeppelin films were in pre-production, including the Willis O’Brien-directed War Eagles (in which Lost Race Vikings, riding pterodactyls, battle German zeppelins in the skies over New York), the Republic Pictures serial The City in the Sky (in which Ray “Crash” Corrigan would reprise his role from Undersea Kingdom and fight against a floating city of Yellow Perils), and the Universal Pictures serial Smilin’ Jack vs the Mad Baron (which would have been the first serial for comic strip aviator Smilin’ Jack). But on May 6th the Hindenberg burned. The Hindenberg disaster was the death knell for the use of zeppelins internationally and was equally fatal to the zeppelin films and the zeppelin pulp genre. So powerful was the image of the burning Hindenberg etched in the public’s mind that pulp publishers didn’t wait for sales to kill the zeppelin pulps, but pre-emptively cancelled them or folded them into other, safer pulps, as Street & Smith did, turning Zeppelin Story Magazine into Air Trails. Frank Armer was the lone hold out, keeping Complete Zeppelin Stories going as a Professor Zeppelin vehicle. Zeppelin became land-bound and rode a motorcycle, although his enemies, like the Baron von Mörder, the Future Führer, remained imaginative.

But sales of Complete Zeppelin Stories never recovered, and in late 1937 Armer cancelled the pulp, folded Stars and Stripes Publishing, and agreed to sell Stars and Stripes’ inventory to Martin Goodman, who was having success as a publisher of pulps like Best Sports Magazine and Detective Short Stories. Goodman apparently intended to use the Zeppelin Story Magazine inventory of stories in a new pulp, Sky Devils. But a quarrel between Armer and Goodman over the rights to several of the stories–Armer might have been thinking of the example of The Passenger, whose filming reportedly didn’t earn Armer anything–reportedly led to Armer to threaten legal action if Goodman used any of Stars and Stripes’ pre-existing characters, like Professor Zeppelin, Lazarus, and The Eagle. Goodman, who already had a stable of characters like Ka-Zar (who appeared in an eponymous pulp in 1936 and 1937) and the Masked Raider, decided the legal battle wouldn’t be worth the money and effort. Armer went back to the Donenfelds and Culture Publishing, Goodman continued publishing pulps (and, two years later, began his own comics company–Marvel Comics) and Professor Zeppelin, Lazarus, and the rest of the Stars and Stripes crew disappeared, never to reappear.

Until Incognito, which is one of several reasons Ed Brubaker should be lauded. But–to this pulp researcher, at least–there are a few curious things going on here, foremost among them is their reappearance to begin with. Purely due to vanity, I’ve been reluctant to ask Ed about how he found out about Complete Zeppelin Stories and Professor Zeppelin. Complete Zeppelin Stories is a rarity–only three issues are known to exist, and they’re all in the British Library, which is where I read them. (The British Library actually has a fantastic collection of pulps, on par with the Library of Congress). How Ed found out about these issues, much less got the relevant information on Professor Zeppelin, I have no idea. I didn’t even know about Complete Zeppelin Stories until a couple of years ago–the series even got left out of my Pulp Magazine Holdings Directory, and that book is supposed to be a complete and thorough listing of every pulp still in existence in a library anywhere. Not to flash too much ego, but...if I didn’t know about Complete Zeppelin Stories, how the hell did Ed Brubaker?

To give you an idea of what Ed somehow pulled off–there are no, zero, 0 hits on Google for Complete Zeppelin Stories. The pulp does not appear on the Fictionmags Index (an invaluable resource for pulp researchers). The pulp doesn’t appear on Phil Stephensen-Payne's splendid index of pulps, Galactic Central. Neither Complete Zeppelin Stories nor any of the characters in it appear in Ralph Sampson’s magisterial six-volume “Yesterday’s Faces” guide to pulp characters (the best guide to pulp characters until my own Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes comes out). There are a few other pulps which have similarly fallen through the cracks–but those pulps are gone beyond recall. How on earth did Ed find out about Complete Zeppelin Stories???

Second, I’m bemused by the lack of commentary over the appearance of Zeppelin et al. The characters in Complete Zeppelin Stories are incredibly obscure–but not completely unknown. Certainly the pulp experts know about Complete Zeppelin Stories and the other zeppelin pulps, but nobody on Pulpmags-L has said anything about this. Perhaps the pulp fans just don’t read modern comics? Too, Professor Zeppelin et al. are one of the great What-Ifs of Golden Age comics. We can only imagine how different those early issues of Marvel Mystery Comics, Daring Mystery Comics, etc., and perhaps Timely Comics itself, would have been with these overtly pulp characters in them, rather than immortals like Taxi Taylor and the Challenger. Perhaps Golden Age comics would have taken a more overtly pulp bent, rather than trying to insert pulp characters into a superhero world? Timely’s The 3Xs, for example, are Jack, Doc, and Reggie from “I Love a Mystery” with the serial numbers filed off, but in a superhero world. Perhaps The 3Xs would been allowed to be properly pulpish if Professor Zeppelin had been around?

I understand why the official histories of Marvel Comics left out the Armer/Goodman quarrel and the Complete Zeppelin Stories characters–the Donenfelds’ National Publications became part of DC, and the writers of the official histories no doubt didn’t want to dredge up ancient history and make the Marvel/DC rivalry any more unpleasant–but where has the commentary been from the Golden Age comics experts? Given that Professor Zeppelin and Lazarus appear in Incognito, Marvel has obviously reacquired the rights to them. No one has said anything about this, that I can find. Where has Roy Thomas been? Is there some article on Frank Amer, Complete Zeppelin Stories, and Professor Zeppelin waiting to be published in Alter Ego? Nothing from Kurt Busiek or Mark Waid (both experts of comics history and arcana) on this?

Thirdly, I’m bemused by the lack of nerdfury over what Ed did to Zeppelin et al. Professor Zeppelin et al. are, as I said, obscure but not unknown. But those of us who are fans of the originals know that they weren’t as...well, dark as Ed makes them out to be. Lazarus was a Shadow lift, true, but he wasn’t a Punisher-style murderer, and Professor Zeppelin’s operations on the brains of criminals was something done to completely wicked men–Zeppelin rehabilitated a fair number of criminals without operating on their brains. Ed’s versions of Zeppelin and Lazarus don’t particularly bother me–reinterpretation of established characters is as old as popular culture itself, and since Incognito isn’t in mainstream Marvel continuity, the fans can still hope to see the real Professor Zeppelin and Lazarus, one day–if not in an issue of The Twelve (is that series ever going to be completed?), then perhaps in Ed’s The Marvels Project. (Hint, hint, Ed).

But this is the Interwubs. There are comics fans out there who are predisposed to hate everything, and lord knows a lot of them are Golden Age fans. And there are pulps fans who are even worse. Where’s their nerdfury over what Ed did to Prof. Zeppelin and Lazarus? They complain like the dickens about any modern interpretation, however faithful, however theoretical and non-existent, of the pulp standbys. Where’s their kvetching over Professor Zeppelin? Surely some of these fans must know about Incognito.

On the other hand...Incognito really is great fun, and it’s been a privilege for me to have my little slabs of pulp history appear there. I really shouldn’t be wishing nerdfury on Ed, should I?

(Oh, how I’ve searched for a cover image of Complete Zeppelin Stories to accompany this essay. Nothing. My Google-Fu is strong, but I have been defeated. I’ve actually had a Google Alert set up for a couple of years now, hoping that an issue of Complete Zeppelin Stories might pop up on eBay–especially the possibly-mythical Complete Zeppelin Stories #11 (there’s considerable debate over whether the eleventh issue ever saw print) but no luck. cover image of one of the issues. I was particularly hoping for an image of the cover to Complete Zeppelin Stories #5, which features Amenhotep, the gorilla Pharaoh. I saw it on microfilm in the British Library, and it is glorious).

Finally, thanks to Ed and Incognito, Professor Zeppelin is making a comeback of sorts. He’ll be appearing in a story in the next “Tales of the Shadowmen” anthology–I’m told the story will describe what Zeppelin was doing in New York City on the day King Kong climbed the Empire State Building.