Mercurial. Mysterious. Lover of SciFi and Izakayas.
Ian McEwan released his most recent work to a hailstorm of criticism from the SF community after he arrogantly admonished everyone not to call him a “Science Fiction Writer”. There is a lot to unpack in that little exchange. The ironies had ironies. Many offended authors told McEwan “Don’t worry. We won’t”. The irony lay in the fact that many of those “SF” authors that took umbrage, shouldn’t really be calling themselves SF writers either. McEwan’s attempt a scientific exposition though modest, was still an attempt. There were no spaceships taking off in the background of a coming of age story. There were no loosely fitting tropes masquerading as SF. All of the things that some of McEwan’s detractors, are painfully guilty of. What’s worse is most of the criticism centered around the idea that McEwan’s concept was unoriginal. Many, without ever having read it, had passed judgment. Though it speaks more about them then it does about McEwan. In a day and age when the very word “science” is being stricken from submission guidelines, the criticisms are hypocritical.
There were several things that bothered me right away:
The manual for the android starts off by quoting the First Law of Robotics: "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." Adam violates the 1st law with no hesitation or restraint when he attacks Charlie and breaks his hand. What I found particularly troubling and unrealistic about this, was Charlies' reaction to having his hand broken. Most rational people would have instantly realized that whatever programming that was put in place to protect consumers was no longer working. Charlie treated the whole thing as a minor industrial accident. He didn't even consider the possibility that Adam might harm someone else, or the liability he might incur as a result. Again, it was a crude device to increase the tension in the story. It lent nothing in the way of authenticity to the overall narrative.
The main character is supposed to be an advanced hobbyist in the realm of computing but often uses some very anachronistic terms when it comes to describing Adam. If was quaint (not in a good way), and reminded me of the 50s era representations of automatons in B movies.
The story takes place in an alternate reality where Alan Turing never died. The author attributes a great deal of technological advancement to that single event. Too much. While Turing was a genius, he was still constrained by the supporting technologies of the day. Materials, miniaturization. Those are things that were the by-product of the space race and the cold war. Not Turing.
There is a subplot in the story having to do with a young Muslim woman being sexually assaulted. This part of the story was easy, unoriginal, and sensational. It was a cheap trope used to create an ultimately unsatisfying tension. For lack of a better word, it was cheap, in every sense.
It also struck me as strange that McEwan insisted on inserting events that actually occurred into the story without giving any credence to the idea that Turing's’ existence might have utterly precluded them. As an example, he went on at length, more than once, about the Falkland’s War, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Margaret Thatcher. Aside from the pace at which technology had advanced, apparently the result of Turing having not killed himself, everything else about the world remained more or less unchanged. The Brits lost the Falkland war thanks to a bit of technology further enhanced by the computer age. It was stranger still that despite this world of incredible technological advancement, the British apparently enjoyed very little in the way of an advantage over poorer authoritarian countries like 80s Argentina. I suppose it’s plausible in an alternate reality. But these small inconsistencies felt brushed on and thin. Far more attention was given to the more nostalgic aspects of the book.
Further, the concept was not terribly original. It’s almost as if McEwan had never read “Bicentennial Man”, or any book written by Asimov having to do with robotics. Hell, even a brief binge watch of a season of “Humans” might have revealed that many of the dynamics that McEwan touched upon, have been pontificated ad nauseum by the SF community for decades. In that sense, the SF community was more than justified in their outrage about McEwan’s comments.
Lastly, the story meandered. In fact, the robot remained a prop in the background for much of it. What made it worse is that the story meandered quite a bit at various points. While I can appreciate the need for world building, a lot of it felt superfluous and repetitive. After a while, I began to wonder if the alternate Turing universe was just a device McEwan used to avoid having to discuss technology in a more modern vernacular. At best he simply lacks an understanding of the evolution of technology. At worst, he may be a dyed in the wool Luddite.
There were some good points. If you are a McEwan fan, you will find that his powers of prose are still very much in evidence. And some of you may be entertained by the idea of McEwan tackling subject matter such as this. Despite my earlier criticisms about McEwan’s lack of knowledge about the genre, it did seem that he put a fair amount of rigorous research into this novel. Despite the too frequent relegation of “Adam” to a stage prop, he didn’t avoid some of the more complex aspects of computing by making the technology fantastically inscrutable. Even though it was painfully obvious that McEwan had no knowledge of SF canon or lexicon to speak of, he made a more than modest effort to discuss the technology that was relevant to the story. Lesser writers often obfuscate their lack of scientific knowledge, or their unwillingness to do research in extremely generalized exposition, tropes, or by skirting the edge of the sister genre, Fantasy. In this sense. McEwan’s only real crime lay in breaking the scientific aspects of the story apart with an incoherent narrative. Yet he still managed to beat the pants off of many SF writers of today.
The truly interesting thing about the story is it seemed to have layered, nuanced, and concentric themes. Adam was described as a “Bosphorous Docker”, by which I assumed he meant a Turk. Or at the least not Anglo. When you put that together with the persistent reference to the anxiety of the British about having their jobs taken by machines, it struck me that “Adam” may simply be a surrogate for all of the xenophobia and nationalism cropping up throughout the western world. To further the construction of that dynamic, the main character, during a bout of introspection, begins to realize how useless he already was. He looks at Adam and sees this machine endowed in every way with the attributes of a human, but he also has a purpose, and not merely one chosen for him by Charlie. In fact, Charlie hints at this idea that being privileged by virtue of simply being human, he had simply squandered all of his potential. Conversely, Adam, whose very existence needed to be justified on a perpetual basis, was imbued with purpose and drive. The juxtaposition of those two dynamics could easily be interpreted as an allegory for the rise of modern nationalism in Europe and the US. People believed they were special by virtue of their citizenship are essentially being overtaken by people determined to justify their existence and even excel.
The book was a pleasant read. And a fast one considering its length. As an author of SF I would not recommend this to other SF readers unless it was as an instruction manual on how to do some rigorous research for their own works. However, I would recommend the book to others who are looking for a robot wrapped in some literary prose. I would also recommend that they have a look at some of Asimov’s work on the subject as well. If you’re a McEwan fan, it may be a good book to read if you're concerned about not liking SF.
British born “Queen of Country Soul”? Why not? “Walk Through Fire” firmly establishes British born vocalist, Yola, as precisely that. My first encounter with this magnetic voice was “Faraway Look”, a single that played on NPR’s ideastream before the official release of the album. My initial impression was a modern take on 60s era Brit-pop with a splash of Motown. It actually reminded me of LuLu, though Yola’s vocals are far superior. As the album continued, I kept getting distinct hints of country and kept asking myself if I was hearing what I was hearing.
“Love All Night (Work All Day)” has a title and some 70s era tremolo guitar licks running through it that made the song just beautiful and homey. This was a quintessentially country song in terms of tempo and arrangement. Once I got a look at the music video for this one, as well as “Ride Out In the Country”, there was no mistaking the musical direction of the album. However, it is important that I prepare someone looking for a little Loretta or Dolly, that while this is essentially a country album, it is also a soul album, hence the assertion on Yola’s website that she is the “Queen of Country Soul”. If this is a new genre, I’m here for it. There is also a darkness in the work. It’s conveyed quite clearly in the images in her videos, but if you listen to the lyrics there is almost a supernaturally “Bluesy” darkness to them. Additionally, this feels a bit like a crossover album in that it brings together two genres of music you wouldn’t expect to see together.
There was nothing to dislike about this album. Yola has a powerful voice and a rich and dark timber that I haven’t heard in a female vocalist in years. Dan Auerbach of “Black Keys” fame, produced this album. I wasn’t surprised to discover this since his own debut effort had some heavily blues-influenced songs. This was a dream collaboration for listeners and heightened my excitement for its release. Yola could have done far worse in a producer than Auerbach. And he clearly understood her vision. Together they produced something that demonstrated her range by choosing updated arrangements from the ages, effectively demonstrating the “timelessness” of Yola’s voice. Whether Auerbach is involved in her next effort or not, I am looking forward to seeing what Yola does next.
All of the songs can be listened to on npr.org, or you can just check out her videos on Youtube. As always, I am going to recommend that you actually buy the album on iTunes or wherever you prefer that the album is available.
I was a fan of Karen O since her days as the vocalist for The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Though I have to admit that a lot of their stuff was very hit or miss for me. Regardless of how I may have felt about a particular style, I’ve always remained a fan of Karen’s voice. I often get excited when an artist does something so different from previous work and after hearing a sample of the title track in January and heard the dramatic shift in singing style, my interest was piqued, but I reserved judgment. I reserved judgment all the way through the first 4 minutes of the title track “Lux Prima”. Midwaythrough “Lux Prima” Karen O’s vocals kick in. It was strongly reminiscent of Air’s “Le Femme D’argent”. Not because I found it derivative, but because it evoked a sense of excitement that I hadn’t experienced about an album of this type since “Moon Safari”. In fact, there were many aspects of this album that reminded me of Blue States as well. Both groups mixed ethereal and dreamy music, bass lines, and female vocals to make evocative albums. Where those albums injected vocals into their music sporadically, for Lux Prima, it was the point. And it was incredible.
To say I am a fan of Danger Mouse would be inaccurate. I’ve followed his work, mostly because I’m always curious to see how he influences the artists he works with. He definitely has a style and a signature without being repetitive. You can always feel his presence in the collaborations he participates in. It might be more accurate to call me a student of his. If you aren’t familiar with his work, he first gained notoriety with his mashup of The Beatles “White Album” and Jay-Z's “Black Album”, appropriately titled “Grey Album”. Since then, he has worked with Beck, U2, and more recently The Black Keys (whose album we will be reviewing). The collaboration was announced several years ago, and apparently first conceived after Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton had just finished working on Beck’s “Modern Guilt” in 2008. According to Karen, she’d drunk dialed Burton from Europe to tell him they should “work together”. Some have said that the album wandered, or that it lacked direction.
Karen O’s admission in an interview with Rolling Stone, that they “didn’t plan anything before going into the studio.”, would seem to support this. I disagree with the critics. I found Danger Mouse’s contribution to the album tied the whole thing together quite nicely. There was no doubt from the time that the collaboration was announced (nearly ten years ago) that there was an experimental component to it. And I think anyone listening to it, should make room in their minds for that. If you are looking for a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album with a little Danger Mouse stink on it, this is not the album for you. But if you are looking for two artists taking each other, and their listeners to a place they haven’t been before, you’re in luck. You can find tracks from the album on Youtube, starting with the title track here. I recommend having a listen before deciding if you want to buy. However, if you like the album I suggest you support the artist by buying it.
I have discussed, on occasion, my obsession with used bookstores; my habit of making a weekly circuit. It was in a used bookstore that I discovered my first worn copy of "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth", a book that changed my thinking, my process and, my life. Recently, I found one of my copies of the book and began reading. As I turned each page a greater and greater recognition of myself in his words welled up in me. It had been so long since I had last read the book, I'd forgotten where so much of what informed my world view had come from. It was nice to be reminded, and even nicer to be reminded that such a dearth of knowledge exists in such a compact book. I was so pleased by the end of reading I decided that this work was something that everyone in the world needed to read. Everyone. Not just science fiction writers. Every human should buy a copy and dedicate one afternoon to seeing what Fuller has to say. He starts out by talking about the lack of critical thought in America and how this is shaping discourse. This was published in 1969. What do you imagine this shortcoming in American thinking has lead to 50 years later? Then he talks about the unnatural state of overspecialization. This is still a highly controversial idea. I'm of the mind that some people are simply suited to specializing and others are more suited to polymathy. Just like some people are suited to tactical thinking and others are more suited to strategic thinking. That said, there are still merits to Fuller's point. Specialization does allow small groups to control the masses. How can a single person control the means of their own production if they only know how one part of their process functions. A more wholistic view is more likely to generate more freedom for the individual in terms of how he applies his labor and for how much. In subsequent sections, Fuller goes on to talk about climate change and global poverty. On the one hand, I am completely in awe of how cogent an argument he makes in 1969, and on the other hand, I am baffled by the number of people who espouse the same ideas without understanding that they aren't new. More importantly, Fuller takes a reasoned, factual, and scientific approach to explain some of the ills that beset man. This is the part I find most appealing about his work. I honestly believe that if every human read this book, much of the political divisiveness in this country would simply evaporate.
One final thought regarding Fuller: In 1927, at the age of 32, he almost leaped from a cliff into Lake Michigan and killed himself. Being unemployed and penniless, with a family, it was his hope that his wife would benefit from his life insurance policy. At the last moment, he changed his mind. He believed there was some possibility, no matter how remote, that his experience and knowledge could somehow benefit humanity. He went on to hold 28 patents and eventually invented the geodesic dome. He gave countless speeches at institutions around the world and has authored dozens of books and essays. If he had never done anything other than write "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth", his contribution to the public's way of thinking would have been enormous. READ this book. I've provided a link to a free copy below. It's on the UCLA website so I expect it is currently available under creative commons. However, I also recommend purchasing the book. And not just purchase, SHARE. Share the link. Lend the book to someone. This knowledge and way of thinking holds the key to stemming a very great and evil tide that is upon us.
Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth
Judge Dredd is a comic about a future America where the interior has been completely destroyed by a nuclear war. The coastal areas manage to survive because of a missile shield but one that only covered the most densely populated areas. Essentially the entire Eastern seaboard of the United States survived the war. What was left were towns and small cities surrounding major ones, that, out of necessity, eventually merged into one giant city. At some point after this war, the Judges lead a rebellion and overthrew the President and implemented martial law. They knew that if they didn't manage to maintain some semblance of law and order, the city would fall into chaos. The Judges declared themselves the sole authority and empowered themselves to not only make arrests but to dispense sentences on the spot. Including death sentences. The story centers around one Judge: Judge Dredd. He is the quintessential Judge. The standard by which all other Judges are Judged (sorry). All of the Judges are extremely tough. They train from the age of five to do the job and only a small percentage become actual Judges. Dredd is the toughest of the Judges and the stories perpetually test him and his partner, Judge Anderson. "2000 AD" is the comic in which "Judge Dredd" appeared. It was originally published in 1977 by IPC magazines. It is a science fiction comic anthology and each issue contains one or more different stories. Judge Dredd emerged over time as the most notable. IPC changed hands several times over the years and is currently being published by Rebellion Development. Despite this, the comic has remained true to its roots for the most part and still sells the "Judge Dredd" comics, though as stand-alone comics and graphic novels now. Another interesting thing to note, several notable artists and writers have worked at or contributed to "2000 AD", Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman being among them.
Recently I was reading an article about some studio that was planning to make "Judge Dredd" into a tv series. And because of the strength of the most recent film (not that Stallone monstrosity), Karl Urban might even end up reprising his role as the title character. I was really quite excited to hear about this. I enjoyed the movie, mostly because it managed to convey some level of the darkness of that world. Although it didn't quite nail the dry humor of the original comics, I feel like a serialized version of the movie might have a better shot at this. I'm excited about the show. Mostly because of the impact that the original comics had on my life. Even before Walter Jon Williams or William Gibson created the Cyberpunk genre, my first encounter with cyberpunk-esque, dystopian fiction, was "Judge Dredd". Oddly I first played the role-playing game with friends before hearing about the comics. That didn't come until months later when I was in a comic shop and saw a copy of "2000 AD" on the shelves. I enjoyed the game, despite not knowing much about the world, so I gave it a chance. I bought two black and white graphic novels and began reading them right away. The interesting thing about the black and whites is, for the longest time I believed Dredd was black. He was always wearing a helmet and the lower half of his face could have been anything. I would have read the comics either way, but looking back on it, I wonder what made me think that. The thing I loved about the comics was the rich detail about criminal sub-cultures, urban sub-culture, and youth sub-culture. All of the little things that a cop in a future megacity might encounter. I found the little glimpses into the lives of the citizens of Mega-City One to be fascinating because it made me interested to read more. One of the greatest things about the comics was Judge Dredd himself. He was this tower of iron will, this uncompromising being with the competence and the toughness to back it up. The last thing I loved about comics is the evolution of the stories and the art. Granted, "Judge Dredd" has jumped the shark many times in its 40-year run, but new writers and new artists have always managed to draw me back into the fold. I hope one day they will release a comprehensive art book detailing the entire history of the series because I thoroughly enjoy just looking at a lot of the art.
In a departure from the normal "media". (i.e. print), I am linking to the 2000 AD shop. There are several free downloadable "Judge Dredd" comics available which should get you started. There are also a couple of other freely available titles there as well. "Jaegir: Strigoi" a comic about a war veteran who hunts down escaped war criminals, is an awesome read. The main character is a badass. "Brass Sun" which wasn't my cup of tea about a character from a "clockwork solar system" that is dying and must find the key to restarting their sun. "Ichabod Azreal" is about a gunfighter who dies and has to shoot his way out of the underworld to get back to his life and family. I like westerns and I liked the art so give this one a try too. Lastly, there is a title there called "Aquila", a gladiator who was crucified for participating in Spartacus' rebellion. He makes a plea for vengeance and is brought back by a demon and now walks the Earth killing people. If you like that period then definitely check this out. I liked the concept, writing, and art, but ancient Rome isn't my thing when it comes to comics or film. Keep in mind that these are just samples. If you like them then please purchase some, either digital or hard copy. I am not being paid to promote the magazine. I simply love the comics and hope you will too. Considering that "2000 AD" has been running continuously since 1977, it may seem a bit daunting or weird to jump into a story. I have embedded a youtube video below of a couple of guys from the magazine who give an incredible guide to getting started reading the comics. I suggest you watch that before making any purchases. And I hope you enjoy "2000 AD" as much as I have. Below is the link to the 2000 A.D. store.
Most of the things I write in here have some nostalgic component to them. If you know me in real life, you will see how much of my life has been colored by Sci-Fi. It isn't a tale of desperation, grievance, anger, or even drama. It is a tale of a young man whose dreams transcended the technology of the day. A person who is Earthbound and trapped in a fragile coil that harbors neither superpowers or the technological capacity to build a starship. I once had someone tell me that fiction was escapism. And for the longest time, that sentiment angered me. Until one I realized I simply felt sorry for that person. How small must a person be to lash out with someone for imagining or dreaming a time beyond their own? How devoid of dreams must they be? But it wasn't until the advent of the Cyberpunk age that I began to find the true expression of what was in my geeky little hear. It took two of the things I loved the most Punk culture and near-futuristic machines and dynamics and joined them together.
It started for me with "Neuromancer" by William Gibson, and "Street Lethal" by Steven Barnes. And over the next fifteen or so years, I diligently mined the local bookstores for new releases in the sub-genre.
In truth William Gibson had no idea what he was writing was "Cyberpunk". He asserted in an interesting interview with Mark Dery some years later that it was a name given to his work by publishing houses. I'm ok with that. Giving it a name; giving it that name, associated my own voice and my own dreams with the things GIbson wrote. I loved Gibson, Williams, Barnes. But I couldn't love them forever. The books simply weren't coming fast enough for me to stay in love with them. And as the years wore on, they went in directions I simply became less interested in. (One of the problems of co-dependency). I stopped reading those authors for a while. I came across "Halo" by Tom Maddox which was free online for a while and an unexpectedly pleasant injection of Cyberpunk-esque writing and aesthetic. But it wasn't until around 2010 (I know, I was slow) that a former Professor of mine, and mentor, mentioned Charles Stross to me. He just said "Accelerando" and "You gotta read it.".
I went and bought the book that day. It was lengthy. But I read it in a weekend, not bothering to do anything else like shower or go out with my girlfriend. It was more than I expected, and in fact, the term "Cyberpunk" seemed far too small a word for it. Certainly, it had many of the trappings of what we call Cyberpunk, but it was far smarter than the word, far more nuanced than the genre. But somehow it seemed a natural inheritor of that legacy. Perhaps Cyberpunk is dead and this is some evolutionary descendant; a mutation that is smarter and stronger than its ancestors. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Mr. Stross has made this book and other works of fiction available for free on his website. Please go there and download it and read it. Also please observe the copyright information he has provided regarding Creative Commons and abide by them. Mr. Stross also has a comments section which he appears to respond and engage with his readers. We hope you enjoy this one. I did! You can download the books by going here. They are available in multiple digital formats. And if you enjoy the book you should purchase any one of the several books Mr. Stross has written. Even if you don't enjoy "Accelerando" it is highly likely you will find something by him that you will. And what better way to support an author than buying his or her books!
Here is a brief synopsis of the book:
"The book is a collection of nine short stories telling the tale of three generations of a highly dysfunctional family before, during, and after a technological singularity. It was originally written as a series of novelettes and novellas, all published in Asimov's Science Fiction magazine in the period 2001 to 2004. The first three stories follow the character of "venture altruist" Manfred Macx starting in the early 21st Century, the second three stories follow his daughter Amber, and the final three focus largely on her son Sirhan in the completely transformed world at the end of the century. "
Unlike some others around Fresh Pulp Magazine, I am not quite as much the Cyberpunk enthusiast. Don't get me wrong, I love the sub-genre, but it isn't my favorite and I am not one to fanboy out over a public sighting of William Gibson (sorry Bill, I do enjoy your work). There are a few books that have influenced me as a lover of Sci-Fi and fewer that have influenced me as a writer. I had not yet been introduced to Science Fiction when the first of these works appeared in 1982. And when I began reading in 1985, the second of the series had not yet been released. In fact, the five books, in total, took nearly 20 years for Rucker to complete. I still remain, perched, from the memory of those long intervals between releases, on the fence between love and hate for Mr. Rucker. Assuming each one was the last, I pined for more secretly and secretly loved Rudy when I learned another was to come. In retrospect, it was not knowing that drove me nearly to insanity.
Now we have a complete collection. Four books that Mr. Rucker has released under Creative Commons license, for free. It doesn't trouble me at all that I paid for mine and you don't have to. I am overjoyed at the idea that the low price might hasten you to download and read them. "The Ware Tetralogy" is one of the founding works of the Cyberpunk genre. Despite the fact that I am not a huge Cyberpunk fan, there is another element to the books that I found particularly noteworthy; the style. Rucker would later go on to pen an essay about his method for writing called "Transrealist Manifesto". You can read and download the manifesto here. Granted, "The Ware Tetralogy" are not considered to be among his "Transrealist" series, but his distinct style of writing is evident in all of his writing. William Gibson called Rucker " ... a natural born American Street Surrealist". I would highly recommend reading this manifesto, it is short and succinct.
One more work I would recommend for the Science Fiction writer and reader is a paid piece called "Surfing the Gnarl". The link can be found below. This book is really an extended interview with Rucker and it covers a broad range of topics and his thoughts on them. I am a firm believer that inspiration can be had not only from reading a writers work but getting a glimpse into their minds. After all Science Fiction is more than fantastical stories and teleological fetishes. And it is important to see what future some of these writers imagine.
I hope you enjoy binge reading "The Ware Tetralogy". You can download it here!