Reviews

The Value of Dystopia by Brandon

In response to Michael Solana's "Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi—It’s Making Us All Fear Technology," which had inspired "We Need Dystopias Now More Than Ever."

Solana's essential message is, "Technology is our salvation, so why do those pesky Luddites keep trying to challenge progress and scare us?" Science fiction, like life, has always contained both utopian and dystopian themes, optimism and pessimism. If dystopias are suddenly overrepresented — which I think is untrue — it's probably worth asking why they're so popular, and maybe even trying to learn from them.

Perhaps they'resymptomatic of something important: frustrations with roots in very real social grievances, as with the co-existence of extreme poverty and technological near-omnipotence in Elysium; or concern with how tech's extraordinary possibilities are often subverted for cheap and exploitative purposes, like in Andri Snaer Magnason's Love/Star and M.T. Anderson's Feed; or, per Paolo Bacigalupi's fiction, the day-after-tomorrow imminence of resource scarcities and ecological catastrophe; or misgivings about the interconnected, seemingly fragile nature of globalization's networks, which are exposed by so many zombie/outbreak movie plots.

From a certain perspective, The Hunger Games is a parable for a moment when teenagers and young adults struggle to find jobs in a hypercompetitive marketplace. It's also an obvious parable of unconstrained big-government power. Solana's take is, "So what the hell are we supposed to make of the Hunger Games?"

An interesting historical aside is how much dystopian sci-fi — here I use the term "dystopian" loosely, as does Solana, who seems to think any story with conflict, such as Battlestar Galactica, is anti-technology — was written by cyberpunks of the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of those authors, such as William Gibson and Charles Platt and Bruce Sterling, were also early adopters and techno-proselytizers. They had a front-row seat from which to appreciate science fiction's great, lasting lesson: that technology is inseparable from human nature, culture, economics and history.

Antibiotics and washing machines and packet-transfer protocols and high-yield crop varieties are all tech. So are AK-47s and online identity theft and flash-crashes and multiple pesticide-resistant corn. The Google campus is a marvel of technology's possibilities; so was the East German surveillance state. The world is a messy place, as is progress. Sci-fi, and its dystopias, reflect and reflect upon that tension. They nourish critical thought. Rather than embracing tech on faith, as an article of secular theology, we'reencouraged to understand that technology isn't a magic-wand principle that absolves people from the hard work of progress.

Instead Solana sees technology as "perhaps the only thing" that can solve society's most pressing problems. He calls for a Panglossian science fiction, its highest purpose to "prepare people to accept the future without pain," an antidote for those Luddites who "have challenged progress at every crux point in human history."

It's telling how he refers so flippantly to that social movement. (And, the copy editor in me can't help but mention, so nonsensically: "At every point in human history"? Did Ned Ludd, smasher of mechanical looms, also invent a time machine?) Luddites weren't broadly anti-technology, but rather opposed a particular piece of machinery that threatened their livelihoods. I've no idea whether their stance was beneficial to society at large, but calling it anti-progress is a stretch, unless one thinks progress and technology are synonymous, inextricable and very simple. ("Why do we keep writing sad stories about the West African slave trade, when we could be writing fabulous tales about fast ships and cotton gins!")

We need fewer dystopias and more Star Trek, laments Solana. And indeed Star Trek is one ofour most powerfully positive, and flat-out powerful, sci-fi stories. But what makes it so inspiring, apart from the transcendent fun of a good adventure smartly told, isn't holodecks or transporters or photon engines. It's the vision of an egalitarian, multiethnic and muscular democracy, in which great power is wedded to humility and generosity. As for the technology, the Klingons and Borg and other bad guys have it, too.

Image: Enokson/Flickr

Good-Bye and Thank You, Mr. Bradbury by Brandon

"Well, what do you make of it?"

A small boy, stunned by the circus-poster effect of the old man's attire, blinked, in need of nudging. The old man nudged:

"My shirt, boy! What do you see!?"

"Horses!" the child blurted, at last. "Dancing horses!"

"Bravo!" The doctor beamed, patted him, and strode on. "And you, sir?"

A young man, quite taken with the forthrightness of this invader from some summer world, said:

"Why … clouds, of course."

"Cumulus or nimbus?"

"Er … not storm clouds, no, no. Fleecy, sheep clouds."

"Well done!"

The psychiatrist plunged on.

"Mademoiselle?"

"Surfers!" A teen-age girl stared. "They're the waves, big ones. Surfboards. Super!"

"And so it went, on down the length of the bus and as the great man progressed a few scraps and titters of laughter sprang up, then, grown infectious, turned to roars of hilarity. By now a dozen passengers had heard the first repsonses and so fell in with the game. This woman saw skyscrapers! The doctor scowled at her suspiciously. The doctor winked. That man saw crossword puzzles. The doctor shook his hand. This child found zebras all optical illusion on an African wild. The doctor slapped the animals and made them jump! This old woman saw vague Adams and misty Eves being driven from half-seen Gardens. The doctor scooched in on the seat with her awhile; they talked in fierce whispered elations, then up he jumped and forged on. Had the old woman seen an eviction? This young one saw the couple invited back in!

Dogs, lightnings, cats, cars, mushroom clouds, man-eating tiger lilies!

Each person, each response, brought greater outcries. We found ourselves all laughing together. This fine old man was a happening of nature, a caprice, God's rambunctious will, sewing all our separateness up in one.

Elephants! Elevators! Alarums! Dooms!

When first he had bounded aboard we had wanted naught of each other. But now like an immense snowfall which we must gossip on or an electrical failure that blacked out two million homes and so thrown us all together in communal chat, laugh, guffaw, we felt the tears clean up our souls even as they cleaned down our cheeks.

Each answer seemed funnier than the previous, and no one shouted louder his great torments of laughter than this grand tall and marvelous physician who asked for, got, and cured us of our hairballs on the spot. Whales. Kelp. Grass meadows. Lost cities. Beauteous women. He paused. He wheeled. He sat. He rose. He flapped his wildly colored shirt, until at last he towered before me and said:

"Sir, what do you find?"

"Why, Dr. Brokaw, of course!"

— Ray Bradbury, "The Man in the Rorschach Shirt"

Photo: Svennevenn/Flickr

An iPad Critique by Brandon

Several days ago a friend asked what I thought of my iPad. I didn't answer right away, as we were communicating via instant message, and typing more than a few words on said device is a miserable process; and more than a few words are needed. The iPad is a marvelous device — but that only makes its flaws more profound. It's also a political object, an embodiment of two deep and opposed forces in Apple's corporate soul: toolmaker and marketer.

The friend was only the third person to whom I'd even admitted iPad ownership. I'm embarrassed, ashamed even, that in the middle of the Great Recession I plunked down $499 on a new toy — and did so hours after it went on sale, along with thousands of other fanboys, having spent years reading and anticipating every dribbled rumor of an Apple tablet. There was something pathetic about this, symptomatic of a certain impoverishment of the spirit, a feeling only heightened by Apple's smugly solicitous promotional campaign, which ascribed to the iPad the portentousness of Stonehenge and the usefulness of penicillin.

Yet it wasn't just toy lust. I'd anticipated the iPad because I depend for my livelihood on computer tools, and there's no finer maker of consumer tools than Apple. Foremost among these is the OS X operating system, a work of genius that left Windows behind by a full decade and turned my computer into a cognitive extension of myself, making possible a workflow that I couldn't sustain on a traditional Windows machine. Learning my job hasn't just involved refinements in writing and reporting, but in my use of computers. And a tablet-form computer would be quite useful: while traveling or taking trips in the city, I'd be able to do light work — requiring email, text documents, and web browsing, with just a few windows open rather than dozens — without carrying (and losing or damaging) my laptop. I could use it lying down, something that's just not pleasant on a laptop, and for reading long articles and perhaps books — again, unpleasant on a laptop.

Existing netbooks and handhelds are limited by clumsy software and physical form, and ebook readers useless for anything else. The iPad would fit this odd niche between laptop and handheld, utility and convenience. It would be an everyday device, which brings us to the fantastic physicality of the machine. Criticisms that it's a super-sized iPod Touch are misguided. As with a candle and a lantern, a difference of degree is also one of kind. The screen is large enough to interact easily with any single application; its resolution verges on print-like; the body itself fits comfortably in hand or on a reclining chest, almost like a book. These physical traits, along with the crisp responsiveness of applications and smooth transitions between them, are not eye candy. They're necessary interface elements, maintaining a continuity of experience that allows a tool to be what Heidegger called ready-to-hand, and scientists have since validated: the literal fusion of tool with self, its subjective experience as an extension of mind-body. While watching a video or reading a book or surfing the web, the iPad attains this.

Such success, however, makes the iPad's failures more frustrating. I wrote the original draft of this essay on a train, precisely the sort of situation for which I'd wanted an iPad; but I wrote with pen and paper, as I'd forgotten my wireless keyboard, and typing on the iPad  is an utterly miserable exercise. The on-screen keyboard, which appears when text needs to be entered and claustrophobically covers the screen's bottom half, are hypersensitive and awkwardly arranged — too far apart for hunt-and-peck, too close to type naturally. Unless one is content to type very slowly, it's difficult not to make constant errors. All punctuation other than a period, comma, question mark and exclamation point require an extra keystroke that activates a secondary keyboard screen, making them clumsy to use and further slowing typing. As a result, a keyboard-less iPad is best suited for short, code-style text messaging phrases. For anything more, it hobbles writing and therefore thinking.

Of course this is fixed by a keyboard, but it shouldn't be a problem at all. The handwriting recognition software Apple developed more than ten years ago for the Newton handheld is still the industry's most sophisticated, and the iPad is its ideal device. The absence of handwriting input defies explanation, except as a vehicle for selling keyboards or an active discouragement of writing.

Less immediately obvious but just as frustrating is the lack of a file management system. The desktop metaphor for information management has become so ubiquitous that it's easy to take for granted, and to forget how intuitive it is. The desktop metaphor also suffers from connotations of stodginess, as if categorization by arrangement had not been refined since the Stone Age, but rather invented fifty years ago by IBM bean counters. Various design theorists, including Apple, have talked of replacing the desktop metaphor. One envisioned replacement gathers all of a person's files into a single, undifferentiated pool that's accessed through "smart" searches of keywords and tags. However, unless searches are consistent and omission-free — which is not the case in OS X, where Apple implemented elements of this system* — then important information is omitted and forgotten.

Sorting by hand isn't foolproof, but it's reliable, and the process is very useful. Organizing files isn't simply a chore, but a way of coming to know and understand and ultimately control information.

On the iPad, Apple has fulfilled its desktop-destroying dream. As with OS X, smart search aspects of the infopool metaphor are used, but in tandem with program-specific file arrangement. For example, there's no way to interact with the document I'm now typing — having remembered my keyboard on a second train trip — except to access the file in the program that created it. This approach works fine in certain instances — having music and podcasts accessible only through iTunes makes sense, as I use only iTunes to play them — but for others is inadequate. Articles I write for work can involve dozens of files: interview transcripts, audio files, journal articles, web pages, notes. On the iPad, they're scattered between programs, which ultimately act as gatekeepers to my own files.

Third-party programs do provide some basic and necessary file management, but they're rudimentary compared to OS X's Finder. Moreover, there's no simple way of synchronizing folders or files between the iPad and another computer. Individual programs may do this, but — for example — my book project folder and its files can't be conveniently moved, nor can the half-dozen text files that I use every day and are crucial to my workflow. This further hobbles the iPad's use as a work device, but it's of a piece with other operating system shortcomings. Except for a few Apple programs, it's impossible to have two applications running at once; it's not at all possible to have two windows open on the same screen.

Apple has designed a wonderful tool, and shackled it. Implicit in the operating system is pressure to use the iPad not for construction or creation, but consumption — in particular,  consuming content that Apple sells, having positioned itself as a purveyor of digital music, movies, books and applications. This would be fine if Apple allowed the operating system to be substantively modified, but that's forbidden, a policy that made sense for the iPhone but here is controlling and greedy.

For years, Apple has promoted itself with heavy-handed lifestyle marketing, consultant-based hipsterism and calculated coolness, but the computers themselves were distinct from all that. Perhaps Apple was different then; perhaps citizens had different expectations for their computers. Whatever the case, marketers now seem to have the upper hand. Let's hope it doesn't stay that way.

Image: Via Jamais Cascio

* In tandem with a desktop metaphor, smart searches and folders in OS X can be tremendously useful. With one keystroke, my computer can call up all files altered in the last week, arranged chronologically — a very handy trick. And I can't imagine not having Spotlight, the instantaneous search tool.

Go Speed Racer! by Brandon

Somewhere inside Anthony Lane is the little boy he once was, and that little boy is annoying as fuck and probably doesn’t like Halloween, either.

Same goes for the Chicago Sun-Times' Jim Emerson, who calls out the hypocrisy of a General Mills- and McDonald's-sponsored "packaged commodity that capitalizes on an anthropomorphized cartoon of Capitalist Evil in order to sell itself and its ancillary products." This is a half-decent point, though Emerson's attack on an anti-corporate screed while in the employ of a corporate media behemoth would probably benefit from a convenient suspension of his own logic.

But what Emerson misses is the story's essential theme: the difficulty and importance of doing right even when doing right appears to be useless, when conscience is its own and only reward. It's an eternal dilemma, and one hopes the parable of Speed Racer will outlast and even erode the rapacious power of its sponsors.

On a side note, Speed Racer’s first half-hour is a gorgeously crafted present-future-past narrative slipstream, a work of minor genius, kid flick be damned.

A Minor Dilemma by Brandon

The first story in Tao Lin’s Bed -- entitled “Love is a Thing on Sale for More Money Than There Exists”,  in which a young-twentysomething relationship dissolves as the man slips into self-centered torpor, delivered by Lin in a smartly faux-slacker voice that nearly veils, and thus magnifies, an underlying desperation -- is excellent.

Garret's dreams were increasingly of normal things that, because of their utter messagelessness, had very natural-seeming undertones of foreboding and impending doom to them. In one dream, Garret was in the shower. He soaped himself, dropped the soap, picked up the soap, put it adjacent the shampoo, and read the shampoo bottle. "Pert Plus," it said.

The second story, “Three-Day Cruise”, is similar in tone and style; it’s not clear whether the family in question is subsumed by or transcends its desperation, but desperation is again on tap. Still, it's pretty good.

Story number three, “Suburban Teenage Wasteland”: more desperation, more faux-slacker smartness. Same with the next story, “Sincerity”, in which a young-twentysomething relationship dissolves as the man ... etc. etc.

It's getting a bit tired.

Which leaves me wondering: am I being unfair? Couldn’t I say the same things about, say, Kafka? (An exploration of alienation, ambiguity and the impenetrability of society, told with the logic and clarity of a lucid dream -- again! ) Maybe I simply have a 21st-century attention span, attuned to fragments rather than wholes. Maybe I’m being harsh because I’m feeling harsh these days, and because Lin has the temerity to be just twenty-five years old.

Or maybe it frustrates me when artists perform the same trick again and again. Or all of the above. At any rate, I wonder whether I should continue reading --  and risk being so disappointed that I’ll remember even these fine stories with distaste, à la Matthew Derby’s genius “First” after finishing his self-cannibalizing and shit-miserable Super Flat Times -- or simply give up.

If only George Saunders could write a book every three weeks or so. Then none of this would be a problem.

Image: Courtesy of Karen Horton, detail of a Takashi Murakami painting of Kaikai and Kiki. Mr. DOB would have worked better in this context.

Thoughts on "Darkmans" by Brandon

If Thomas Pynchon had a daughter who learned from his mistakes, that daughter would be Nicola Barker, author of Darkmans. I don't know quite how to describe it, except by recommending you put on some good headphones and blast Animal Collective's "Fireworks" until your eardrums vibrate on their own. But before that, listen to an old, random song you don't really like and will quickly forget, and afterwards you take a shower and put on a terry-cloth bathrobe and smoke a cigarette over Earl Grey tea.

But what's it about? For once the cover blurb comes close:

Darkmans is a very modern book, set in Ashford [a ridiculously modern town], about two very old-fashioned subjects: love and jealousy. It's also a book about invasion, obsession, displacement and possession, about comedy, art, prescription drugs and chiropody. And the main character? The past, which creeps up on the present and whispers something quite dark - quite unspeakable - into its ear.

A palmful of quarters and dimes to go with that: Barker's prose layers banality on top of virtuosity on vernacular on OCD, emulsifies it with compassion, bakes it in a casserole dish of curiosity -- and she'd probably forgive me for that sentence. She turns virtue into vice and vice versa, understands glue sniffers as well as scholars and could "unrapt a raptor," in one memorable phrase. The book is 748 pages long and set in sans-serif.

Among the plot devices are demon birds and a man who fathers his own ancestor, but the surrealism is never for its own sake, and somehow exists in the same conceptual continuum as shopping mall expansions and contractors' vendettas over phone book listings: they're either equally sensible, or equally absurd, and in case are part of a larger story -- the aforementioned emergence of the past, which doesn't so much creep up as blast out like a stoppered sewer.

Darkmans' sense of past is twofold. The first is social. As England emerged from the Middle Ages, jesters were the only people permitted to communicate without sanction, and thus the ribald guardians of a truth outside authority. They were made irrelevant a by the maturation of the English language -- a process that's lately been called a linguistic saltation, making possible a culture of unprecedented complexity and freedom.

As language atrophies and society is consumed anew by icons, inarticulation and arbitrary justice, the jester is needed to make communication possible again -- and this plays out in the second fold, the personal stage, an immediate past of failure and disappointment between father and son, husband and wife, that underlies the present and shouldn't be concealed.

But jesters aren't always nice.

And ... enough said. Read it. Bonus points: one of the characters belongs to the Yazidi, a secretive Kurdish tribe that believes itself descended from Adam. No word on whether or they do in fact fear and loathe leafy green vegetables.

Image: youngrobv

Thoughts on "The Orphanage" by Brandon

Guillermo Del Toro uses horror-movie tropes to set an atmosphere that is frightening, but not too frightening. A door swinging shut, a grotesque doll, a ghost child: they're less vehicles of fear than a vernacular of suspensefulness with which to tell a story of maternal loss and devotion.

One unusually graphic scene, involving a torn-open mouth, echoes the sliced-open cheek of the Republican general from Pan's Labyrinth. Like The Orphanage and its horrors, Labyrinth used stock -- though beautiful, poignant -- pieces of fantasy in the service of a genre-independent tale. At the end of each, a question lingers: was it real? Or imagined? And it doesn't really matter.

As an aside, while Orphanage wasn't too frightening, it had its moments. And just to clarify, reclining in a seat, knees pulled to chin, chewing on a hat and going "aaaaahhh!" is actually the basic fighting stance of an ancient half-Filipino martial art, kinda like karate's kiba dachi.

Thoughts on "Samedi the Deafness" by Brandon

A potentially great plot; one wishes it was Jesse Ball's third or fourth novel, rather than his first. Betrayed by the clunkiness of his protagonist, who after a few chapters as half nebbish, half cipher -- a person empty of desire, initiative and introspection -- becomes capable, as if a page were turned, of eloquence, volition and insight.

It's possible Ball intended this. The transition coincides with the protagonist's sudden abduction and incarceration in a verisylum -- an asylum for compulsive liars who are allowed to indulge their falsehood but must obey a set of arcane and arbitrary behavioral strictures that build them a scaffold for consensual reality. "In the kingdom of the foxes, believe only what you are not told." The protagonist also finds love, protecting against and navigating with it this treacherous world. The treacheries themselves revolve around a rather ridiculous mad scientist and wannabe revolutionary's plan to deafen the population of either the United States or the world. It's never quite clear.

The protagonist's newfound soulfulness inside the madhouse feels like a coincidence. Maybe that's unfair. Maybe I'd be less bugged if Ball's vices didn't remind me so much of my own bad habits. The tendency to purple prose -- to eggplant, mulberry, wisteria, to Pantone 19-3540 Purple Magic prose -- gets goddamn annoying. Quickly.

Birds were diving back and forth between the limbs of trees, and an ephemeral greenness cast by the morning hung over the late-autumn park. He would have liked to tie strings to all the birds, to all the branches of trees, to all the whirling leaves and the swells upon the river, and pull with his hand, here and there, the glad enormity of that morning, of that very Sunday morning. To take up in his hand the paths across which he had come, the boy running ahead upon the path, the boy behind, his face covered, the bald shopkeeper with his regimented monies....

That's just a random easily net-accessible selection. The characters also talk that way. Action -- walking down a hall, opening a door -- is imbued with the same gravity, as are political broadsides, though those exchange compound sentences for sophomoria. And New York Magazine's blurber likened him to ... Graham Greene? It's probably not her fault, she likely didn't have time to read it, but please. (For some reason I keep thinking of A River Runs Through It; if that was an oil painting, Samedi was an art student's Warhol, but without a sense of irony.)

And to top it off, just to make it more of a funhouse mirror, he used the same narrative device I did in my final short story.

Image: Thomas Mues