Archive for william gibson

The Golden Age of SF is However Old You Are When You Die In An Alien Invasion

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2011 by theclockworm

The columns of light striking the soil informed him of his condition. He was inside a SF story. Obviously.

His room appeared no different than it had before; the bed he woke up in, from which vantage point he witnessed this impossibility of aggression, was comfortable and worn and sagged near the center where he tended to resolve in his nightly rotations. But however familiar the setting seemed, he knew it could not be real, that this was no longer his real life – if indeed he had ever had one. In real life, green shafts of unknown energy did not smash into fields and streams, sending floods of muddy frog-water and whole stalks of corn careening through the morning sky. In the real world, one could not sense the fissuring of the crust below through the foundations of a house, the disconnection of plate from plate as the earth itself buckled. Since these things did not happen in the real world, this must not be the real world.

Assuming he had entered a fictional universe, some very basic questions begged an answer. First, what sort of story was it? SF isn’t without its own inner lines of demarcation, after all. Looking around, he set about trying to determine the parameters of his condition. Maybe if he could guess whose story he was in, he could figure out his role, a way to survive.

He narrowed his view, tried to look beyond the obvious. After all, perhaps this was a pastiche inside a dream or on a television show, itself occupying a less Golden Age-type tale. Maybe he should start small, think creatively. What criteria could he use? He looked away from the window, from the glaring blaze of heat-death; from the walls, blank and simple, devoid of clue or genre marker; past the empty nightstand, the mundane closet, the boring things strewn and hung here and there. Looking down, he saw the bed. Ah ha.

A writer would start here, and so he, being written, started here. Whose bed could this be?

He recalled the massive, luxurious beds featured so prominently in the works of Robert Heinlein. These beds were central to the galaxy-wide Red-Headed League that Lazarus Long had spawned. More action took place between sheets in the typical Heinlein book than ever happened between enemies, who usually dropped after a single shot. Looking left and right, he noticed the absence of even one, let alone two, people there with him. This was not Heinlein’s bed.

Could this be Le Guin’s bed? Was this the place where brilliant scientists crashed with manic irregularity, to dream up a fiery addition to some foreign physics? Was it a strange bed on a frozen world, a friendly posh bed or a simple warm bed in the territory of doubtful allies? He checked beneath the sheets, found the familiar things; the beam hadn’t left him genderless. Looking at his arms, he found that they too retained their usual hue. The beam had not rendered him colorless and gray. Alas, this was not Ursula’s bed.

Was it William Gibson’s bed? Was it a lonely rack in a shoddy motel, where a broken and lost relic of the filthy future might be consumed by a figment of someone else’s imagination? Was it a mere cubby hole, the ultimate symbol of minimalism and badass-ness, a claustrophobic cubicle where one might be ridden by a girl with sharp claws? Well, it was a bed; that alone seemed to disqualify it. He checked about for ratty plastic interfaces, or “decks;” none were apparent. Inside the bedside table, a lack of stimulants, weapons, or eyewear of any sort. No go for Gibson.

He tried to remember a bed in the works of Philip K. Dick, but came up empty. Maybe this was reflective of the man’s life. Other than one terrifying scene of domestic paranoia involving a teenage narc, he could remember not one example. Dick seemed to steer as clear of rest in his writing as he did while writing. If this was Dick’s bed, surely it was a mere pretext, a trap-door he would soon fall through into a hell of perceptual doubt or esoteric cosmology. More likely than not, in Phil’s universe, there were no beds at all.

He scrolled through the traitorous royal chambers of Herbert, the Freud-laden psychopathic millionaire mattresses of Bester, the horribly heavy beds of Lem, newly populated by the very old. He considered the lonely corporate-funded suites of Tiptree. He came up blank.

Outside, the beams moved steadily closer to the house, sending ancient trees up into wisps of smoke and ash. Time was running out, and so were ideas. A strange thought struck him from the corner of his mind. There was a new writer, he thought, whose stories had been showing up over the past few months. He liked to play with tropes, to layer allegories, to explore transcendence and iterative identity. He was also quite fond of literalizing, and considered SF to be a dialogue, carried on by SF writers in a constant interpretive cycle. He didn’t mind sacrificing a nameless, faceless character to make a point, either. There was a bed in one of his stories, and it was filled with the copied forms of a whole history of lovers. Maybe this is his bed, he thought, the heat now palpable as the beams moved across the lawn. He couldn’t recall his name.

Dystopography

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2011 by theclockworm

For a long time, I’ve had mixed feelings about the “dystopian” genre of fiction, and about its inclusion in the SF conversation. To the younger me, cyberpunk adherent that I was, there was an absolute disparity. The SF I loved was morally ambiguous, post-modern in the way Gibson is post-modern: not about paralysis, but about moving within something unchangeable.  This fiction didn’t make value judgments about technology, nor did it seek to separate the development of human traits, social structures, and politics from technological development. It recognized that they were linked, organic, and with this recognition made, it simply told stories. Bester, the proto-cyberpunk, did this too, and arguably better. In contrast, books like 1984, Brave New World, and the rest seemed implicitly moral, not to mention moralizing. They were “about something” in the way I disapproved of in almost every medium. They wanted you to be scared, to judge harshly; if you read 1984 and side with Big Brother, you’ve read it wrong. That’s a kind of patronization I dislike. It’s like a Spielberg movie, being told when to cry.

And then there was the moral itself. I might have prided myself on the amorality of my SF, but if it was to have a moral, it would certainly have been a pro-technology, progress-centric one. These dystopians were squarely opposite. How could so many people not see the differences here? It seemed to me you had two camps with irreconcilable values being lumped into one category because of the settings they shared, settings which I felt belonged to ‘real’ SF, the kind that wasn’t a promotion for some Luddite cave-commune.

Looking back, I see problems in a lot of these ideas. First of all, the assumption that the amorality would have given way, under pressure, to one particular opinion and not the other seems questionable at best. Oddly, Heinlein stands up in this fight a lot more than Gibson; Heinlein, definitely not a cyberpunk, and in some ways absolutely a moralizer, was the gung-ho “progressive.” In Heinlein’s novels, space travel ends war, saves humankind, and makes immortality practical; pioneering keeps Darwin happy, and free love finally breaks the bonds of jealousy. But Heinlein, for all his attempts at practicality, is guilty of something almost as bad as dystopianism – utopianism. A literary battle between RAH and Orwell is like Star Wars – good if you’re in a totemic, black-and-white, myth-as-tautology mood. It’s too much a dichotomy. There’s not enough grey.

Grey is where I tend to live. It’s more interesting, in my opinion, not to mention more realistic. I’m sure that Gibson, if asked, wouldn’t have some myopic opinion of technology and “progress;” as I mentioned, the acknowledgment of the inherent connection between technology and society would probably preclude such a view.  And Orwell? Who knows. But I think, as an adult as well as an aspiring writer,  I can understand a bit more: sometimes, you hold back some of the grey to give the work more impact. I just wish it had been clearer to me when was younger that one could have more nuanced views of these topics. I’ve grown past my own “progress at all costs” system of belief. It is, as I said about information in the previous post, not about the chronological newness, but rather the complexity, the true value.

Not that I’m giving the dystopians too much credit. In most ways, I think I was right. SF doesn’t have to support newness with abandon; it doesn’t really have to support anything. But I don’t think it can be good, or smart, if it’s built on fear-mongering, on extending the worst things in plain sight to their most extreme ends, on practicing what Vonnegut called “royal astronomy:” the constant insistence, since the beginning of time, that everything is about to end. Even if the S in SF is for “speculative” and not “science,” that’s not smart speculation. It’s effective, because it plays on our fears, but it’s not how the world works.

The one dystopian novel I really did like was We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. It’s the most artful application of the tropes and structures of the dystopian novel (probably because it essentially invented them), and it seems more a reflection on the human response to oppression than sociological assumptiveness.

I occasionally hear PKD called dystopian. I disagree. I think what doesn’t work, what fails,  in Dick’s world, isn’t the country or the government, but rather the universe. Everything else is simply an emanation of that initial malfunction (this is not accidental; emanation theology is at the core of Gnosticism).  However, Dick does, on occasion, delve into the particular horrors and abuses of government and social oppression, and guess what? I love it. It moves me. It scares me. I empathize. I sympathize. Because he got it right.

The oppression of Radio Free Albemuth is simply too close to issues of the present to dismiss as Berkeley activist-politics gone the way of all things boomer-ey. The overwhelming, integrated, hidden-in-plain-sight “pusher economy” of A Scanner Darkly is not even slightly allegorical; that’s simply the way it is. If only Substance-D were a McDonalds cheeseburger, it would be a fully literal story.

As wary as I am of royal astronomy, as much as I disapprove of fear-mongering and wild extrapolation, things really are bad, and saying so in a responsible way is always brave and meaningful.

Something strange happened on the way to my first Hugo…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2011 by theclockworm

Part of my intention in starting this blog was to talk about the process of “becoming” a writer – learning to write, learning to present pieces for publication, and hopefully, one day, actually getting published. So far, I’ve neglected this aspect of things, and I intend to remedy the situation, starting now.

I’ve been writing regularly for about five months now. Wait, back up; I’ve been writing regularly for most if not all of my semi-adult life. I’ve been seriously writing planned, constructed pieces of fiction regularly and to completion for about five months now. As a younger person, like many others, I wrote mountains of material, most of which was some sort of Burroughs-esque journal/poetry/lyrical hybrid – in other words, so totally different from writing fiction that it scarcely even counts toward it. As a beginning fiction writer, this history has worked against me much more than for me, more often than not serving as a heap of rubbish I must unlearn before I can get to anything of quality. But it’s also what led me to my current state of balance; what was, in my youth, a prolific but unfocused flood of verbiage is now, like the person it runs through, older, more paced, more focused. I have an outlet for analysis, criticism, and pseudo-academic writing, right here; I have a place for the stripped –down descendants of that older gibberish in my musical endeavors, especially Secret South; and I have the real beginnings of a fictional outlet, something I never thought I would accomplish, and something that is more satisfying than almost anything.

Harlan Ellison said, when talking about his public writing appearance, that people think writing is done by wizards on high mountains, and that he wanted to show people the truth: that it’s work – not magic. I fell victim to that fantasy for many years. While I never doubted that I could write a good song or a good poem, or draw a good picture, I assumed I couldn’t write a good novel. I’m still not sure how this happened. I think I was also lazy – too lazy to undertake such a task, such a monumental learning process. And it’s still daunting; the road from my first few short stories to my first finished novel is long, and most of it is still ahead of me. But I’m on the road.

With age, I grew more confident; I saw myself doing most of what I sought to do with some amount of success – mostly personal, internal satisfaction as opposed to financial gain, but still success. I realized that my ideas, my ways of thinking, my tastes, were usually fairly good, and sometimes, just maybe, truly interesting. And I started to see people from every walk of life as people. I gained a sort of no-nonsense view of human beings that told me my heroes were just ordinary Joes and Janes who were good at their jobs, and that I was good at my job too – the only difference being that I wasn’t being paid for doing it. And in the end, I thought, why not? Why shouldn’t I write?

The world of SF has an especially wonderful way of disintegrating castes. There is a long tradition in SF of readers becoming writers. There is no clear and solid line between fandom and professional contribution. SF is, above all else, a kind of meta-dialogue – about life, about human experience (psychology), about society and government and history (sociology), about the nature of the universe and of life, about technology and the impact it can have (science), and about SF itself. Reading SF is an act of engaging in this dialogue.

A few days ago on TotalDickhead, David Gill asked an open question about Philip K. Dick’s loopy and incredibly detailed descriptions of clothing in Ubik. This is one of my favorite examples of this phenomenon. As a lifelong SF reader, though I don’t claim to know his exact intentions, I got a sense when reading them of how Dick meant these descriptions. If I were unfamiliar with SF as a field, I would probably not recognize the humor, the sense that he was lovingly teasing his own, the pastiche he was employing. I would probably think he really meant it – which might very well turn me off to the whole business. This can be problematic for SF, depending on your goals; it does have a way of keeping new readers out. But as an “insider,” I see this as part of a conversation. Every work of SF helps to define, or redefine, or undefine, what SF is. And it doesn’t end there; take Dick’s story “Null-O,” which is a critique of  “The Players of Null-A” by A. E. van Vogt. Or take Fritz Leiber’s stunning, chilling, prophetic “Poor Superman,” a harsh indictment of Scientology by someone who shared Hubbard’s original line of work. The list is endless; SF writers were “battling” long before Nas and Jay-Z. SF has been at the forefront of “remix culture” since Gernsback, since Verne – hell, since Lucian, whose “True History” is an intellectual take-down of Homer and his ilk. It’s a formidable lineage.

But it’s not mean-spiritedness that usually compels SF writers to engage in this kind of “response;” I’m fairly sure it’s more often love, and respect, and a sense of freedom and permission – to play with ideas, to test for structural (and philosophical and ethical and scientific and literary) integrity, to riff and reinterpret and “cover.” This sense of inclusion, of permission, permeates SF. It’s not just for the already successful. It’s for us, the living, as Lincoln would say (and Heinlein would co-opt – the dialogic act is not constrained to SF alone), those of us on the other side of the fence who know it’s just a matter of time, and luck, and effort before we can join the ranks of our heroes. This spirit of equity is so much of what makes SF the place to be. It’s why Scientology didn’t catch on in the SF community, with a few notable exceptions; we’re not so easily taken, even by those we respect (see this very interesting thesis on Scientology and SF for more). And even if a lot of us end up being wrong – delusional, even – it’s still a nice feeling. And sometimes, one or two of us are right.

Wanting to be the next ________ is a crappy reason to do something. But wanting to explore the same playground of ideas as Philip K. Dick or William Gibson or whoever – thinking, “hey, I bet I could do some pretty cool stuff on that jungle gym” – that’s a pretty good reason to give it a shot. Doing it with a sense of reverence, but also with a sense of equality: that’s what it’s all about.

The supportive foundation of SF was a big part of what made me decide to jump in and tackle writing. But in the end, there’s one simple question I asked myself, and the answer is what made the difference between jumping in and running like hell. The question was this:

True or false: After much earnest self-searching and scrutiny, doing my best to remain objective, I have come to the conclusion that I have something to offer as a writer.

The answer was True.

Now I’m waiting on one last set of eyes before I send off my first two finished stories. They are labors of love, products of my past; they are the end result of the strange and useless tomes I used to write; they are alive with the wonder I felt reading the imaginative works of others, and they are alive because of that wonder. They’re a first salvo in a new stage of my creative life. And they’re pretty good, too. When I win my first Hugo, you’ll be the first to know.