Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Low Budget Science Fiction Props

At the Rice University library, where I work, someone rescued a weird bare twig from a flower arrangement and put it into a vase of water. It gratefully put out thready white roots and corkscrewy, bright green leaves.

It is a Curly Willow (Salix matsudana). Apparently the species originally came from Northwest Asia, grows fast, gets ten or twenty feet high and can wreak havoc on defenseless underground water pipes in the way of the root system.

In my opinion, this plant looks and acts like a low budget science fiction movie or play prop.

And so do many other things. Consider:

Banana slugs. These mollusks of the Pacific Northwest can be as much as 10 inches long and have long eyestalks and a rippling underfringe. With some amazement, I encountered them in Berkeley when I lived there. It's a memorable experience to watch a six-inch-long yellow slug lumber across a garden stone stair step. It tends to make people get out of the way. It must be noted that the Banana Slug is the de facto mascot of the University of California Santa Cruz. It would be difficult to make up something like that.

Lenticular clouds – the ones shaped like flying saucers and responsible for a good many excited reports of UFO's over the years. Admittedly lennies push the limits of low budget SF props – they're free if you find one in the sky to photograph but it may take some doing to get into position downwind of one of the mountains (Shasta and Rainier, for two) where they've formed.

Autogyros of the minimalist, single-place variety that have a seat for the pilot, a rotor on top, an inconspicuous propeller and not much else. I once saw one come calling at the local gliderport. Everybody's reaction was, "Hey lookit, there's a flying lawn chair in the landing pattern!"

Memorial Hermann Medical Plaza in Houston. By day it's a tall white box with and interesting cut-out on top. They call the cut-out a "lantern" because at night it lights up to spectacular effect. There are reflective tiles and various colored lights. The predominant effect is a saturated cobalt blue with purple flicker in the end visible from Rice University. When I swung by to a snap a picture, a nearby church on South Main Street was audibly having bell change-ringing practice – change-ringing being an old and very English art. So there's a futuristic architectural lantern on top of a modern medical palace, and there's change-ringing in the air, and it's in Houston; time and space felt doubled over in an odd way.

Science fiction is in the eye of the beholder.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

¿Quien es mas Slipstream: Donald Barthelme o Alan DeNiro?

"The Indian Uprising" (1968) v. "Our Byzantium" (2002)

City being invaded by anachronistic barbarians:
IU: Unnamed American city whose streets are named Boulevard Mark Clark, Rue Chester Nimitz and George C. Marshall Allée, somewhere between Houston and Manhattan.
OB: Unnamed American college down nestled within the Allegheny foothills, in striking distance of Pittsburgh.

IU: Comanches
OB: Byzantines

Tortured prisoners:
IU: Two scenes of torture of captured Comanche — one water torture, one attachment of wires to testicles revealing the Comanche prisoner's name was Gustave Aschenbach.
OB: None.

Narrator emotionally tortured by lover:
IU: Maybe.
OB: Definitely.

Potential as origin of Dan Rather "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" episode:
IU: Yes
OB: No references to "Kenneth;" chronologically unlikely.

Scenes of explicit erotic longing:
IU: No.
OB: Several, sweaty, sweetened with Pop Tarts.

Scenes in Ford Pintos:
IU: None.
OB: One.

Orangutan smoke:
IU: No
OB: Yes

Buildings sacked:
IU: None, just streets and barricades and clouds of arrows
OB: A hospital, wheelchairs tossed from third-story windows

Men on horseback:
IU: Horseless Comanches, apparently, hidden by girls in their apartments and under their long blue mufflers.
OB: Cuirassiers, shields with gold and blue owls on them, helmets maroon along the edges, some with blue feathers, blocking traffic and dragging narrator from his Toyota Tercel.

References to a female character being beaten up by a dwarf in a bar in Tenerife:
IU: Two.
OB: None.

Country for old men?
IU: Maybe.
OB: Definitely not.

Locus of ennui:
IU: Off the page.
OB: Comin' at ya, straight out of Erie.

Verdict: The idea of one's contemporary urban existence and most private domestic life under assault by phantom armies of the past is a persistent and powerful meme employed by gifted fabulists to articulate the sense of looming barbarism that intrudes upon our emotional sanctuaries of private intimacies, regardless of historical milieu. Both are on your required reading list. Barthelme had a better beard, but DeNiro is working on it.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Champion Joe adds another trophy to the case

I don't read horror. Not really--being frightened out of my mind isn't a sensation that I respond to in an approving fashion. That said, I do read stuff by Joe R. Lansdale (His Ownself), stuff that'll scare the bajeezus outta hardened ax murderers. Why do I read his works, other than the fact he pens occasional non-horror masterpieces such as Zeppelins West? Because he is one of the best instinctive storytellers I've ever encountered. Had he lived back in viking times, he'd be one of their most honored skalds, I'm certain. He can take even the most threadbare plot and craft it into unique. Case in point:

So, based on the above reading from Armadillocon, Bubba Ho-Tep and Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland, I'm pleased to say that Joe's recent honorification by the 2007 World Horror Convention (being named Grand Master and all that) is not only well-deserved, but also long overdue. Congrats Joe!
World Horror Convention 2007 announced Thursday, January 25, that Joe R. Lansdale has been voted the winner of the 2007 Grand Master Award.

The number of votes cast this year by members of the convention was the highest in the history of the seventeen-year-old award. Previous Grand Masters included Robert Bloch, Stephen and Dean R. Koontz.

Joe R. Lansdale is the author of more than thirty novels in all genres, including crime, Western, horror and pulp adventure. He has also written scripts for comic books and animated television shows, and his novella Bubba Ho-Tep, about an aged Elvis Presley and black John F. Kennedy battling a soul-sucking mummy, was filmed by Don Coscarelli in 2002. His short story, "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" was adapted as the first episode of the first season of TV's Masters of horror series.

Joe R. Lansdale has received six HWA Bram Stoker Awards, the British Fantasy Award, the MWA Edgar Award, the American Mystery Award, the Horror Critics Award, the "Shot in the Dark" International Crime Writer's award, the Booklist Editor's Award and the Critic's Choice Award.

For the first time in its seventeen-year history, the World Horror Convention is being held outside the United States. With a theme exploring "The Diversity of Horror", World Horror Convention 2007 will take place over March 29-April 1 at the Toronto Marriott Downtown Eaton Centre, located in the heart of Toronto, Canada.

The 2007 Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Awards Presentation will be held at the convention on the Saturday evening. For details about how to purchase your tickets to this very special event, please consult the Stoker Banquet page.

Anyone wanting additional information about the award or the convention ought to visit I don't get a percentage rate for every visitor who clicks through from this site to that, but it'd sure be nice if I did.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Happy Hour in Moktada Town

The Bunker of the Tikriti

Neon lights crackled, popped and glowed in the vice quarter of Baghdad’s Red Zone, where the 21st century mercenaries partied toward dawn. The seediest stretch of the old Christian district, public sin indulged by a more forgiving God. Vintage Arabic turbopop blared from the war-worn jukeboxes of the open air bars that populated two small blocks, competing with a bit of Nazareth cowbell booming from some roughneck’s anachronistic ghetto blaster. KBR truckers, private military contractors, power company engineers, third-string tabloid reporters and a few AWOL grunts played grabass with gypsy whores in the dimly flickering fluorescence, beyond the distracted purview of the military police. The thousand year-old street smelled of a toxic brew of steel, sweat, spilled homebrew, tobacco, public urination, cordite and semen. A zone of timeless medievalism, one of the shadowed spots where men of war and world-weary rogues capture the diminishing day in a milieu of imminent death. On one crumbling wall a fellow had spray-painted “Carpe Diem,” by which he meant “hold it down, tie it up, torture it, and fuck its brains out.”

The most raucous of those dens was called “Vice City” among the PlayStation-trained Army teens that patrolled the streets, though you wouldn’t find that name or any other marring the entrance. Within, the dense crowd roared in a dozen dialects — a multicultural muezzin chorus heralding the apocalypse to a South London drum & bass backbeat that shook the ancient pillars holding up the roof. The customers came in every color. Iraqis dominated, dark eyes ringed with darker circles and thick black moustaches wet with the bar’s backroom Bourbon, but there were plenty of ugly mother white guys ranging from pasty to pink to the battered brown of saddle leather.

A huge Russian stood with his back against the wall, silently sipping grain alcohol straight up, Bizon submachine gun strapped tight. A middle-aged counterfeiter from Karachi displayed his latest Benjamin Franklins to a natty Turk stroking the comely Kurd on his lap. A posse of Red State Blackwater boys hogged the tables near the door, trading insults over tandem games of Texas Hold ‘Em. Behind them, the otherworldly vocal tremors of Tuvan blues emanated from a trio of plastered Mongolian soldiers out of uniform, and a lonely Australian airman trying to teach them a rugby anthem.

On a television over the bar, a young Chuck Norris tried to use his Oklahoma kung fu to restore the vertical hold.

A small crowd gathered around another table, listening to a professional kidnapper from Damascus drunkenly brag his planned abduction and ransom of a famous blonde American news anchor spending the week at the Sheraton.

“This so-called journalist,” the Syrian shouted in lubricated English, “looks more like a character from some ridiculous American shampoo advertisement.” He stopped for a big swig from his sixth Shiner Bock, lifted from the cooler one of the Americans had pulled from the back of his armored Tahoe. “They think she’s safe behind the concertina?” he said, spewing foam. “I own every housekeeper in that place. I’ve been scoping out the plan for weeks. We’ll take her straight out of her bed, down the back stairs, out with the trash, and have her reporting live from a cage in Khatuniyah by morning.”

He pursed his lips in a wet kiss.

“Those kaffirs in New York will have their lawyers sending me more money than Uday has stashed in his secret bunker!”

The Syrian turned in annoyance at a hard tap on his shoulder. To his surprise, a tall white teenager devoid of any semblance of military demeanor stood over him. A weathered black T-shirt revealed a sinewy physique that had never darkened the doors of a school gymnasium. His massive hands disguised the size of the serrated folding knife he absent-mindedly fiddled with. He brushed untamed locks of long hair the color of raven feathers from his eyes, revealing a puzzled expression.

“I thought they captured Uday and his brother,” said the youth in an oddly rounded American accent. “Put more holes in them than an East Texas anthill. What are you talking about?”

“You believe that Pentagon propaganda?” said the Syrian, playing the gathering crowd. “Any fool knows that the corpse they showed on TV was a body double, a trick to flush out the father. Psychological warfare — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid by way of CNN. I tell you Uday sits right now, comfortable in his safehouse beyond Falluja, with all his favorite playthings and a stolen fortune worthy of the Prince of Wales!”

“If everybody knows it,” said the youth, “why hasn’t somebody ratted him out and delivered him to V Corps? Take his money and the million dollar bounty while they’re at it.”

The Syrian’s eyes popped with astonishment, before his mouth opened with a roar of joyous laughter and his companions joined in.

“Listen to this young Boogshie!” he bellowed. “He’s going to capture the Crazy One. You watch too many Hollywood movies, you stupid fucking American.”

“I’m from Minnesota,” the youth said, indignantly. “Arrowhead country. Almost Canada.”

“Listen to me, Minnesota,” said the Syrian. “In this new Iraq, there are more adventurous scoundrels gathered than anywhere else in the world, and armies that can conquer whole continents. If Uday could be extracted from his hideaway, or his treasure pilfered, it would have long ago happened. Uday’s lair is a secret house, buried inside a mountain in the western desert, territory beyond the control of your Army, beyond even their bombs. If you could find it, and penetrate just the outer perimeter, you would face a small army of ex-Revolutionary Guards and fresh Saudi mujahideen, who would cut off your girlish head and fuck your eyes out before feeding it to Uday’s elephant man pet.”

The Minnesotan scowled at the insult. “They are watching for soldiers in groups, with air cover and armor. One lone tracker could sneak right past them.”

“Listen to Rambo!” shouted the Syrian, gesticulating at the heavens with ten fingers splayed. “Maybe they will beam him from his computer-generated spaceship straight into the house at the heart of the mountain.”

The Minnesotan flinched at the thunder of mocking laughter that filled his ears. Sarcasm was an art rarely practiced on the Iron Range, where a bad enough insult might lead to a drowning in the rapids or an unexplained mining accident. He resolved to leave, but the Syrian egged him on.

“Come on, big boy!” he shouted, slapping his overfed gut. “Tell these men, who have only been fighting and stealing since before your American whore mother wet the barn floor with your milky flesh — tell them how you will steal the head of the secret police from the inner chambers of his private fortress!”

The lights dimmed for a moment then tried to come back up, one of the frequent brownouts endemic to the city.

“There’s always a path to track,” said the Minnesotan. “All you need is five senses, a lot of patience, and bigger balls than they must grow in Baghdad.”

“Fool!” shouted the Syrian, knocking his chair to the floor as he stood. “You dare to question our courage?”
The Minnesotan turned to leave.

“That’s right,” cursed the rogue, pushing the strapping youth from behind and brandishing a small pistol. “Get out of my bar!”

The lights flickered again, then disappeared completely. The shadows shuddered with the sounds of breaking glass, screaming men, grunting women, colliding furniture, two gunshots, and curses in a dozen tongues. When the lights came back on, the center of the room was cleared except for the body of the Syrian, a broken bottle of Shiner jammed into his neck, blood pooling on the floor underneath him. The Minnesotan was nowhere to be seen.

-- From "The Bunker of the Tikriti," in Cross Plains Universe: Texans Celebrate Robert E. Howard (2006)

Baghdad graffitti by Arofish.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

No fear of the foodstuffs.

It's been the done thing to blame the French for various woes since 9/11, although the British have been doing it for a lot longer. (The O.E.D. has a pejorative use of "Frenchified" dating back to 1592). But let's not forget to blame the Swedish. Or, more precisely, Gustav Vasa.

Once upon a time, it was an honorable thing to be given the title of lord (occasionally, lady) of the grain. Shénnóng was "Emperor of the Five Grains." (Chi (setaria millet), shu (panicum millet), shu (legumes), mai (wheat and barley), and either tao (rice) or ma (hemp), depending on which translator you use, were the staples of Chinese diet in antiquity). Suddhodana, the father of the Buddha, was known as the "Pure Rice King." The Izapa Maize King drew blood from his own mouth to use as an offering to the gods, while Mayan mortals who wore the headdress of the "Jester God" were the "Maize Lords." (Keep in mind that, for the Mayans, human flesh was made from maize dough, which should hint at the level of importance of the Maize Lord, which is why his sacrifice to the gods, every April 20th, was so vital to the health of the community). The Golden Bough tells us of the Silesian "Oak King," one of a bridal pair who--well, go ahead and read it yourself, although you should probably start at the beginning of the chapter. (But then, the oak was Jove's tree, so of course the Oak King is going to be important). And, of course, there was John Barleycorn, lord of the corn, always dying, alway reborn. The ancients being what they were, we can assume there was some human sacrifice involved. (What, you want to tell Rabbie Burns and James Frazer (yes, him again) they were wrong?)

You'll note that these individuals didn't grab the title for themselves. They were assigned it or given it, and accepted the responsibilities which came with it. Indeed, sacrifice and responsibility were a central part of the role. The kings and lords came from the community and died in the community, and theirs was a role of significance.

More recently?

There was John Mackay, the Canadian "Barley King" and Almon James Cotton, the Canadian "Wheat King." There was Henry Wilson, the South African "Oat King," who was apparently succeeded by Tom Rhatigan, the "World Oat King." There was Lê Văn Lập, the "Millet King."

The "Sorghum King" is a special case. The lineage is unsettled, and the title contested. Was it the Cherokee Charley Bumper? The South Carolinan W.S. Wilkerson? The Missourian John Heathman (father of Frankie Lee Timbrook)? The Georgian Walt Medlock, "Sorghum King of Sand Mountain?" Phelix Pryor Nance, "Indiana's Sorghum King?"

We've also seen a number of "Rice Kings," from Korean-American Kim Chong-nim, who had over 2,000 acres of rice in the San Joaquin Valley, to a succession of Chinese businessmen in Vietnam, all calling themselves "the Rice King." But the last Rice King in Saigon was Ma Hy, and the Communists arrested him in '75, and since then, the only Rice Kings have been...something quite different.

So where did it go wrong? When did the title of lord of the grain shift to profiteers and outsiders? How did it become about avarice and not responsibility, about aliens and not members of the community? Somewhere along the way the archetype of the Lord of the Grain flipped; it went from Tammuz/Attis/life-death-rebirth gods to something colder and crueler and altogether more exploitive, to the naiad of Love Canal. How did this happen?

If Ken Hite were writing this, he would describe, with erudition and wit, the occult significance of the change in the nature of the identities of the title-holders, perhaps involving the Green Man or Caliban's "pricks at my footfall" speech as displaying the symptoms of ergotism or the manne in which Lussi, Queen of Light was replaced by St. Lucia.

But, alas, I'm not Ken. My thoughts are more base. Like Falstaff, I'm led by my belly, or at least preceded by it, and so my thoughts turn to food.

I mentioned Gustav Vasa. In The Observer Guide to European Cookery Jane Grigson mentions seeing "a portrait...of the great Gustav Vasa, the 16th century King of Sweden, dressed all in black with yellow slashes, like a regal insect, who encouraged his subjects to grow rye and make crisp bread. He is the Rye King of the packaged crisp breads sold in Britain." Not just of the crisp breads, though; he was known as the Rye King during his lifetime.

Let's look closer at Gustav. Founder of modern Sweden, but known as a tyrant. Led the rebellion against Christian II of Denmark, a.k.a. "Christian the Tyrant," the man responsible for the Stockholm Bloodbath--but Gustav was no cupcake himself when it came to massacres, so that's a wash. He oversaw the breaking of the monopoly of the Hanseatic League and the conversion of Sweden to Lutheranism--again, a wash. And the gematria gives us a 79 for Gustav, and a 1010 for Kristian (Christian II's real name), which would seem to indicate that Gustav was one of the white knights.

On balance, Gustav seems a positive figure. But there is one area in which we can fairly describe Gustav, or at least his impact, as calamitous, and that's in matters culinary.

From 1470 to 1521 Kristian II and Denmark ruled Sweden, but Gustav led the rebellion, got himself elected regent in 1521, and then was elected king in 1523. At the time of Sweden's independence the most influential school of European gastronomy was French, and this was magnified in 1533 when Catherine de Medici arrived in Paris from Florence. She brought with her a retinue of chefs, pastry makers, and gardeners, and revolutionized French cooking, leading to a deluge of French cookbooks swamping Europe, including the very influential Le Grand Cuisiner de Toute Cuisine (1540), which displaced the more traditional Le Viandier (circa 1485).

Denmark, as it happened, was and remained primarily influenced by German cookery. (This changed in the 1830s, with Madam Mangor's Cookbook for Young Girls, Written by a Grandmother (1837), but we can attribute that to Denmark's choice of Napoleon as an ally). Sweden, on the other hand, more quickly took to French cookery.

Now, consider lutefisk. (In the Swedish, lutfisk). Garrison Keillor, who presumably knows whereof he speaks, described it this way:

Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I’d be told, "Just have a little." Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.

And where can we find the first written mention of lutfisk?

That's right.

In one of Gustav Vasa's letters, written in 1540. (Wikipedia doesn't give a citation for this, but it can be found in Astri Riddervold's Lutefisk, Rakefisk, and Herring in Norwegian Tradition (1990)).

Gustav didn't invent lutfisk--the taste for lutfisk already existed among Swedes--but he surely had a hand in popularizing it. (We can't discount the effect of royalty's imprimatur on food; just look at what Catherine de Medici did). Swedes wanted to emphasize their differences from the Danes, and so they embraced the French rather than the German influence on their cooking.

This, by the way, was a decision Swedes surely came to regret. Patrick Lamb, cook to five kings and author of Royal Cookery: or, the Compleat Court-Book (1710), described northern European, German, and Danish cooking as a "substantial and wholesome plenty." The French of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, on the other hand: followed the Italian lead in seeing the tomato as evil and claiming that it caused "inflamed passions;" blamed chocolate for corrupting women's morals; said that too much chocolate consumption led to women giving birth to coal-black "cocoa babies;" likened chocolate to feces; said that Madame du Barry's appetite for chocolate came from her propensity for anal sex, gotten from her brothel training at the House of Gourdan; claimed that allowing proles to eat pain mollet, a light bread formerly reserved for royalty, had introduced "an element of voluptuousness" into France; sneered at rye and barley bread, with only white bread being good enough for French palates, so that the elite were "bread mouths," who dined only on white bread, and the proles were "fodder mouths," peasants who lived on dark brown bread; agreed with Diderot, who said, in his Encyclopédie, "the potato is righly held responsible for flatulence. But what is flatulence to the vigorous organs of peasants and workers?"; and ultimately created the attitude which Brillat-Savarin described so well: "a true gourmand is as insensible to suffering as is a conqueror."

Now, lutfisk was originally prepared with potash (K2CO3), but that was displaced by the stronger "caustic soda," a.k.a. NaOH, a.k.a. lye. The way it works is, a white fish (usually cod) is steeped in lye for several days, rinsed under running water, and then boiled, which reduces it to a shoggoth-like mess gelatinous substance. It's then served with boiled potatoes, flatbread, a white sauce, pepper and melted butter.

Between 1820 and 1920 over a million Swedes emigrated to the United States, many of them settling in the midwest and bringing their culinary traditions with them. So we can assume that, during that time, an unusually large amount of lye was used and dumped into the soil. Lutfisk consumption declined after the 1920s, when roast rib of pork replaced it as the main dish of Christmas Eve dinner, but lutfisk made a comeback in the late 1970s and has been going strong ever since.

Lye is an alkaline. And the Mississippi River (which, as you can see, runs along the Wisconsin border), is suffering from greatly increased alkalinity (see, for example, Science v302n5647, 7 Nov 2003, esp. Jones, "Increased Alkalinity in the Mississippi" and the Lackner/Raymond/Cole exchange on "Alkalinity Export and Carbon Balance"), with, as Jones puts it, "important implications for the biogeochemistry of the region."

But not just biogeochemistry. Regularly dumping toxic amounts of alkalines into the soil for almost two centuries has, obviously, done more than just poison the rivers. It poisoned the earth, so that those who would claim to lordship over its produce are poisoned themselves. No more self-sacrificing Corn Kings for us. The Lord of the Grain has become a dictator. Now we get Blairo Maggi, the iniquitous "Soy King."

And it's all Gustav Vasa's fault.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Veep me

The Dark Buddha sits resplendent behind the Party Chimp, taciturn and knowing in his lush purple tie, spun of colors so rich they burn up the cathode rays, clandestinely mesmerizing the audience.

Occasionally the corners of his mouth will dimple ever so slightly, as the pacemaker tickles the ripe scarlet flesh under his sternum.

24 hours earlier, on 24, our hero the crypto-Canadian Brat Packer turned meta-G-Man and real-time utilitarian, meets his brother for the first time in six-plus years. They exchange small talk in the foyer, meeting the wife and the boy, before retiring to the home office, where Jack rips an electrical cord from a lamp, ties his brother to a chair, and proceeds to commence the torture. Close-up on on a contorted face consumed by a gaping maw of mouth sucking on a cellophane bag wrapped around his head: the housewife's waterboard. Cut to black.

On the teleprompter, the über pledge captain reads from the fever dream of another Houstonian.

"We defended the city as best we could. The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds. The war clubs of the Comanches clattered on the soft, yellow pavements. There were earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark and the hedges had been laced with sparkling wire. People were trying to understand. I spoke to Sylvia. 'Do you think this is a good life?' The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. 'No.'

"Patrols of paras and volunteers with armbands guarded the tall, flat buildings. We interrogated the captured Comanche. Two of us forced his head back while another poured water into his nostrils. His body jerked, he choked and wept. Not believing a hurried, careless and exaggerated report of the number of casualties in the outer districts where trees, lamps, swans had been reduced to clear fields of wire we issued entrenching tools to those who seemed trustworthy and turned the heavy-weapons companies so that we could not be surprised from that direction. And I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love. We talked."

-- Donald Barthelme, "The Indian Uprising"

At the after-parties, red cocktails flow and the bards recite rhymeless epics of invisible literature as the loyal secretaries perform their best Lynndie England impressions for the crowd. Several garner those gratuitous standing ovations for which the gathered chambers are known.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


It's a truism of the 9 to 5 world that good work goes unnoted while the boss and the customers only single out bad work. More or less the same happens in speculative fiction publishing. We even have a sort of horror subgenre based on the reported misdeeds of editors, agents, copyeditors, and writers themselves.

Competent people with a high degree of professionalism aren't praised nearly enough. One of these is Deanna Hoak, the copyeditor for my novel coming out from Pyr in July 2007. She did an impressive job. In reviewing the copyedited MSS in Microsoft Word, I responded with the electronic equivalent of stet at some places – I meant it the way I wrote it. At other places my reaction was Am I ever glad she caught that one!

Deanna's work was astute, meticulous, and fair. She posed excellent questions when the MSS was unclear, and when it was perfectly clear but merrily contradicted itself. So she caught scads of typos and worse. As a reader, typos irritate me, but if I can tell what the word/name/sentence was supposed to be, I don't fall out of the story. If the grammar has a glitch I grumble but keep reading. Logical lapses and internal inconsistencies are the worst annoyance of all. If I have to flip back and forth in a book trying to figure out how it makes sense – or how it could make sense if rewritten to say what the writer probably intended – well, that's when my suspension of disbelief teeters and may come crashing down. As John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, a writer's mistake can abruptly and unpleasantly snap the reader out of the "vivid and continuous fictional dream." That's not, not, not what I want for my novel, and at number of points where it won't happen, I'll have Deanna to thank.

She has a Website in which she offers insight into what her job is like and much good advice to writers. Recommended!

Monday, January 22, 2007

No. 5 of 9

So here we are, a year (give or take) following the launch of New Horizons mission to visit the last unexplored planet in our solar system. A lot has changed since then--namely, a conspiracy of egomaniacal astronomer-types (not to be confused with the sane, rational astronomer-types) conjured up a new and utterly convoluted definition of "planet" for the sole purpose of demoting Pluto. That, folks, is a dead horse I won't continue to beat here at this particular moment. Instead, I'd like to point out some nifty value-added science New Horizons is currently cooking up en route to its primary target world eight years from now:
The fastest spacecraft ever launched, New Horizons will make its closest pass to Jupiter on Feb. 28, threading its path through an "aim point" 1.4 million miles (2.3 million kilometers) from the center of Jupiter. Jupiter's gravity will accelerate New Horizons away from the Sun by an additional 9,000 miles per hour - half the speed of a space shuttle in orbit - pushing it past 52,000 mph and hurling it toward a pass through the Pluto system in July 2015.

At the same time, the New Horizons mission team is taking the spacecraft on the ultimate test drive - using the flyby to put the probe's systems and seven science instruments through the paces of a planetary encounter. More than 700 observations of Jupiter and its four largest moons are planned from January through June, including scans of Jupiter's turbulent, stormy atmosphere and dynamic magnetic cocoon (called a magnetosphere); the most detailed survey yet of its gossamer ring system; maps of the composition and topography of the large moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto; and an unprecedented look at volcanic activity on Io.

The flight plan also calls for the first-ever trip down the long "tail" of Jupiter's magnetosphere, a wide stream of charged particles that extends tens of millions of miles beyond the planet, and the first close-up look at the "Little Red Spot," a nascent storm south of Jupiter's famous Great Red Spot.

"Our highest priority is to get the spacecraft safely through the gravity assist and on its way to Pluto," says New Horizons Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo. "But we also have an incredible opportunity to conduct a real-world-encounter stress test to wring out our procedures and techniques for Pluto, and to collect some valuable science data."

The Jupiter test matches or exceeds the mission's Pluto study in duration, data volume sent back to Earth, and operational intensity. Much of the data from the Jupiter flyby won't be sent back to Earth until after closest approach, because the spacecraft's main priority is to observe the planet and store data on its recorders before transmitting information home.

After such a long and thorough observation of the Jovian system by Galileo, it is really a great bonus to be able to scope out Jupiter with a suite of even more advanced instruments such a relatively short time later. It'll be particularly nice to get closer observations of the "Little Red Spot" as it grows, moves closer to, and interacts more with the famous Great Red Spot. Any observations of the Jovian satellites--in particular, Io and Europa--will be quite welcome as well.

When I was a kid, I would pore over the issues of National Geographic that featured extensive coverage of Viking at Mars and the Voyagers at Jupiter and Saturn. I'd goggle over the photos, and reread the articles until the pages were literally in tatters. That thrill's never really left me, and I'm sure I'm only one of millions eagerly awaiting our first closeup view of Pluto and Charon. I have to admit, though, that Jupiter's a pretty groovy opening act.

For more information on New Horizons, visit

Friday, January 19, 2007

Still missing

Some imagined sightings of Johnny Gosch, Missing Paper Boy and forgotten icon of the American imagination

• January 8, 1990, 12:41 pm: Standing against the wall of an airport terminal in Cozumel, Mexico.

• August 27, 1983, 3:57 pm: Emerging from the bathroom of a service station on Highway 668, east of Phoenix.

• September 5, 1982, 4:20 pm: Peering out of the rear window of a rusted and worn white Ford Econoliner van traveling north on 86th Street, Clive, Iowa.

• June 10, 1993, 9:35 am: Sitting in front of an abandoned Stuckey's outside Cape Girardeau, Missouri, drinking water.

• October 19, 1986, 6:15 am: Shuffling down Cahuenga Boulevard, Los Angeles, wearing tight jeans and an olive green windbreaker.

• July 15, 1994, 4:00 pm: Raking sand trap, Hole 17, Royal Melbourne Country Club, Buffalo Grove, Illinois.

• December 20, 1987, 10:00-11:17 pm: Appearing as "Johnny (School Boy Number 3)" in "The Dead Paper Boys Society," Aetherium Theatre, 44th & Broadway, New York City.

• October 28, 1984, 7:40 pm: Hitchiking, westbound shoulder, Route 40, mile marker 172, State of Nevada.

• February 3, 1985, 10:11 am: Sorting novelty devices wrapped in blister-packs, back room, "The Secret" magic shop, Merle Hay Mall, Douglas Avenue, Urbandale, Iowa.

(For one elaborate and insane theory of this secret history of middle America, read this)

Straight Outta Ljubljana

If you're feeling in the mood for 75 minutes of a hyperactive Marxist-Lacanian from Slovenia spewing Theory riffs on his world tour, this is the ticket.

Žižek! Now available at your local indy DVD rental shop.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sic semper posterus

Edit: The original post was lost; this is a recreation, sans relavent links.

For some of us, science is ensuring that the future will be every bit as glorious as we’d ever hoped.

By "some of us," I mean those of us whose parents read De Quincey’s "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" to us while we were still in the cradle. We’ve a macabre (not to speak of morbid) bent, and a heightened appreciation for aesthetically pleasing methods of putting others to death. The artistic murder, the one which appeals to a sense of beauty and fitness, to theology and geometry, deserves admiration as much as a well-turned violin solo.

One can point to the achievements of Dr. Anton Phibes, of course (and I often do), but we needn’t restrict ourselves to fiction. History is full of murders which are pleasing and symmetrical, which have a certain panache or élan or je ne sais quoi, mais il assassine joliment néanmoins.

Tradition (if not modern Japanese scholars) tells us that Uesugi Kenshi was killed by a ninja who hid in Uesugi’s privy for several days; when Uesugi sat down to relieve himself, the ninja thrust upward with a spear. (Something similar befell Emperor Caracalla). Divine Claudius was murdered by a poisoned feather, stuck down his throat in an apparent attempt to induce vomiting. The Markov death umbrella has a pleasing pulp feel, while the Great Molasses Disaster, long rumored in Boston to have been industrial sabotage aimed at killing one particular worker, is on the correct side of the surreal.

But those are all in the past. We have more wonderful murder weapons awaiting us.

You will undoubtedly have been aware of the use of rats in detecting landmines. It makes good sense, seeing as rats have a better sense of smell than dogs, are easier to train, are generally cleverer, and of course much lighter. But you may not have heard that scientists, using fifty-year-old science, are using rats not only to discover buried earthquake survivors but are even controlling the rats’ behavior from a distance. Those behind this use, in their article in the Journal of Neuroscience Methods (v133n1-2, 15 Feb 2004), describe their equipment as "a multi-channel telemetry system for brain microstimulation in freely roaming animals." A Boston University researcher is achieving similar results with sharks, electrically stimulating the sharks’ sense of smell via remote control.

Meanwhile, for at least fifteen years experiments have been carried out in recording and "artificially" eliciting saccades, "fast eye movements by which objects of interest are sought and captured." (See, for example, Trends in Neurosciences, v13n10, Oct. 1990). And scientists have shown that remote electronic stimulation of the monkey brain can artificially and automatically evoke fight/flight reactions. (Neuropsychologia, v44n6, 2006).

My point?

Very soon now we will no longer need fear the gracelessness of the sniper, the obviousness of the suicide bomber, or the crudity of the poisoner. In their stead will be the assassination by remotely-controlled animals. Humans being what they are, we can expect gaucheries: the predictable pecking to death of a president by a flock of pigeons, the general tediously killed by the no-longer-urban-mythical rat-in-the-toilet, who was there to gnaw through the general’s exposed genitals, and the unimaginative (albeit lethal) alligator or hippopotamus attack on a tyrant. But there will be artists among the killers, the occasional Cassius standing out from the many Servilius Cascas and Decimus Brutuses. We can expect straightforward symbolism: the glutton gnawed to death by pigs, those who malignly buy up stock being trampled by bulls. We can look forward to homonymic puns: boors gored by boars. We can pleasantly anticipate whimsy: a lethal bear attack on Stephen Colbert, peacocks smothering whichever vapid heiress is the celebrity-du-jour, rabbits lethally abrading the skin of the president of a cosmetics company. Those of us of a pulp mindset will be able to glory in remote-controlled monkey assassins.

Fear the future? Some of us can’t wait for it to get here.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Tick-Tock of the Doomsday Clock, part 3

With my mother in the early stages of senile dementia, I'm reminded of the Doomsday Clock's minute hand – too near midnight for comfort, but flicking back and forth when the future looks better or worse. She starts having falls at night and suddenly it's three minutes to midnight. The next morning, I see a red-tailed hawk perched in the tall, bare sweet gum tree over the house. I call my mother to come look, and she marvels with me at the big raptor with its terracotta-colored tail feathers. My mother's parenting style over the years can be described as woefully inadequate. But she did instill in me a sense of wonder about nature.

The next day my mother clearly remembers seeing the hawk. The minute hand of her personal doom has backed up a bit, or so I imagine. I'm aware that senile dementia progresses inexorably. At some point my mother may not have a future in a meaningful sense, even if she's still alive.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock, on the other hand, is designed to be a galvanizing warning. The journal hopes that if the warning is heeded, the minute hand will never touch midnight: nuclear war won't happen.

While the realization of my mother's condition was sinking in over Christmas of 2006, I happened to be reading Our Final Hour by Martin Rees, the renowned cosmologist and Astronomer Royal in Great Britain. He subtitled his book A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future in This Century – on Earth and Beyond. Rees thinks we were lucky to get through the Twentieth Century without a fallout-flavored world war. But our luck may be about to run out. "If our solar system's entire lifecycle, from its birth in a cosmic cloud to its death-throes in the Sun's terminal flare, were to be viewed 'fast forward' in a single year, then all recorded history would be less than a minute in early June. The twentieth century would flash past in a third of a second. The next fraction of a second, in this depiction, will be 'critical': in the twenty-first century, humanity is more at risk than ever before from misapplication of science."

The British edition of Our Final Hour is titled Our Final Century. Did a Marketing Department decide that America's event horizon is so short that "century" wouldn't grab the American attention? Could be.

Rees covers a lot of doomsday ground, includes asteroid impacts. Asteroids coming our way are inevitable, but disastrous impacts may be preventable with space monitoring and deflection technology. Rees even mentions extremely unlikely world-rending outcomes of as-yet-unknown new physics. He advises scientific caution with regard to events of very low probability but utterly catastrophic consequences. The most probable dooms are those that stem from "bioterror and bioerror." Outcomes range from civilization collapsing to the top of the Earth's ecosystem shearing off, leaving the bacteria to start over.

Through the book, Rees builds a case that human technological adventurism has higher stakes than we imagine, for this reason: we do not know if there is intelligence anywhere else in the universe. If we manage to destroy ourselves, perhaps this universe will forever cease to wonder at itself.

It's distressing to imagine no one out there, and intelligence on Earth winking out.

Usually I don't share Rees' cosmic concern. I tend to think that intelligence exists elsewhere in the universe. My guess is that intelligent races arise, live and die on a regular basis the same as stars do. Or if intelligence doesn't occur throughout the stars, it could happen sequentially here. Who says we are the only, last, much less best intelligence on Earth? When we fade away, or manage to make a more drastic exit, and somebody else evolves into the role of tool-using intelligent life, I bet it'll be squirrels. Or creatures evolved from ravens, crows and jay birds, and then the dinosaurs will once more rule the Earth.

My science fiction happens in that kind of universe. In my novel Hurricane Moon, there's an old world that has birthed a succession of intelligences ranging from sapient bipeds, to intelligent birds, to sentient plants. In other words, when I'm in a SF-nal mindset, I don't think it's a cosmic tragedy that the human species has a finite life expectancy.

Yet the day my mother and I saw the red-tailed hawk, I think I better understood what Martin Rees hopes to get across. It was such a significant coincidence: the hawk in the sweet gum tree, right over the roof of the house, where we've never seen a hawk before, on a bad day for my mother, in the last meaningful fraction of her life, when I was there to call her to come see it. Traditional peoples believe in totems and spirit-animals. So do I, just for different reasons. The red-tailed hawk is our traveling companion on Earth and a fellow creature with whom we share a great deal of DNA. Hawk kind is older than hominid kind and abler in flight – every glider pilot I know yearns to soar like a hawk, and would be thrilled just to soar in the same thermal with one.

The hawk in the sweet gum tree was our hawk, because we are the hawk's relatives. Any time you lose a relative you lose a part of yourself. Within the realm of the possible, you do what you can for the welfare of your relatives. You avoid doing them harm. And a cavalier attitude toward the ruin of a relative is just unconscionable. Being responsible for our relatives – including parents and hawks, people and trees – is complicated, hard, and human: something we need to do because we are the natural world being aware of itself in dread and wonder.

The Day After

Fox has amped up the fear factor by opening the new season of 24 with a nice little mushroom cloud over Los Angeles. We watch with Jack Bauer from the vantage point of a perfect California cul-de-sac, where Jack has just rescued a family that was naive enough to help out the Arab family next door, only to discover they are *actual terrorists* (the son who makes suburban dad fetch the nuclear detonator amusingly played by the guy from Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle with a healthy dose of Spicoli — a perfect postmodern soldier of Hassan-i-Sabah). The pilot episodes warmed up the suitcase bomb with several scenes of intense torture inflicted by both sides (our hero scarred by Chinese interrogators like a Mel Gibson messiah), detention camps of American citizens straight out of an Alex Jones fever dream, and the lives of millions balanced on edge as the IT guys fight their Dilbert-meets-Melrose Place office battles.

24 has achieved near media ubiquity and all the best ads, reflecting its gift for mainlining the Zeitgeist since it premiered the same month as the September 11 attacks. The genius of 24 is its simulated realism, situating our contemporary geopolitical anxieties in the milieu of of Hollywood's imaginary version of Los Angeles.

The cliffhanger-on-speed plotting of 24 keeps us from ever giving much thought to the colossal anachronism at its narrative heart: the fate of the world persistently determined by the acts of a small group of meta-cops in the L.A. branch of a non-existent domestic ops division of the CIA. We buy it implicitly, our imaginations having been so well-nursed by Hollywood over the past century: Los Angeles is the primary soundstage of our dreams and nightmares. The streets the cops cruise, the deserts the cowboys cross, the planets Kirk beams down to. And, most importantly, the venue where most apocalypses occur. (Just ask Mike Davis.)

The world of 24 operates in accordance with the logic we believe — the narrative logic of police procedurals and disaster movies (informed by hundreds of hours of seminars in which nascent screenwriters internalize Joseph Campbell's distillation of the heroic über-myth). Jack Bauer is a direct descendant of Adam-12 Officer Pete Malloy and his kin, the law and order paranoia of the 60s amplified into the nuke next door (too bad they went for James Cromwell as Bauer's dad rather than Martin Milner). Just as Martin Milner matured from the frat boy beatnik Hemingway of Route 66 to become the lonely dutiful white guy playing patrol car whack-a-mole as the world went mad, Kiefer Sutherland leads the way as the Brat Packer devolved into a post-Clancy fighting machine who's not afraid to torture the enemy when it suits his real-time utilitarian calculus. And 24's terrorists are straight out of the Starsky & Hutch playbook — quintessential California Windbreaker Hoods mixed with a little Yellow peril.

As Hurricane Katrina played out last year, you could hear the collective gears grinding as our actual societal response to the disaster failed to conform to the Hollywood disaster movie paradigm. The master narrative calls for Charlton Heston, the solitary American professional who achieves heroics through self-reliant individualism, in some cases literally holding the world together as it cracks apart. Mass catastrophe, it turns out, is not amenable to resolution by lone Western heroes. That only works on the micro-scale -- the lone yuppie father, loading his family into the Volvo to escape to the Houston Four Seasons Hotel, to the in-laws in a nice white neighborhood in Memphis, barely evading the hordes of vampiric zombies that will rape and eat them all if they fail to make it out before the giant tidal wave hits.

Watching Kiefer Sutherland tackle the horns of the GWOT's dilemmas with the taciturn decisiveness of a rodeo cowboy is far more therapeutic than confronting the failure of reality to conform to the master narrative. See, e.g., the unresolved effort to find Osama in his Blofeldian mountain lair; the failure of Iraq's fractured society to gestate some saccharine Jimmy Stewart fantasy democracy. Nb. the quickly forgotten staged mythology of Jessica Lynch. Kiefer Sutherland's real-world analog may be Pat Tillman.

Is the real challenge for our leaders to do a better job of imposing the American myth on the reality-based community? We await the imminent appearance of "Jack Bauer for President" buttons.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007)

"'Tis an ill wind that blows no minds." -- Malaclypse the Younger, Principia Discordia (epigram to Cosmic Trigger)

Snow day

Chisos con nieve.

Visions of surreal dystopia

JefferyScott1019VisionsMechanismSometimes I feel like I'm the last person on Earth to discover the hot new artists/authors that everyone's talking about. Case in point: Jeffery Scott (1019). Who is this guy, and where did he come from? More importantly, why didn't anyone tell me about him? Well, thanks to the straightforwardly-named Nude Art Blog I am now aware of his existence on this temporal plane, as well as his MySpace page, his one model place profile and most importantly, his new book Visions from Within the Mechanism: The Industrial Surrealism of Jeffery Scott (1019). Needless to say, this one's already on order from Amazon.


I haven't been this jazzed about an artist since a certain fellow by the name of John Picacio started lighting up the literary world with his distinctive approach to book covers, and certainly Scott shares some stylistic similarities with Picacio. Both, for example, make use of photo manipulation in their art. But whereas Picacio comes at the subject matter as a traditional artist using traditional media (at least the majority of the time), whereas Scott comes at the subject matter as a photographer using photo manipulation to push his work in more artistic directions. Some of the verisimilitude Scott achieves in his work is downright disturbing, especially with his sepia toned, distressed "old tyme photographs." Consider "Aristocracy 2032: Mistress Lin Unpluged from Securities for the Sake of Unconditional Love" above left. A haunting, poignant piece that effectively blurs the line between reality and illusion. The title may be a bit pretentious, but it serves the mood of the image well. The retro-future aspect of this piece (and the others on his site where he utilizes the same technique) struck quite a nerve with me, and it took a bit of thinking until I could put my finger on it. But finger it I did--the work of the brothers Quay, specifically, some dark, moody stop-motion animation sequences they produced for MTV in the 80s:

That stuff stopped me in my tracks, made me believe for years that is was the work of some disturbed, visionary filmmaker from the 1920s who was channeling Tim Burton's darker impulses well before there even was a Tim Burton. So for Scott to push those same buttons after all this time, I say bully for him. And just to show he's not a one-trick pony with a nifty gimmick, the companion piece above right, "Elevation on the Wings of Reality from Pre-Conceived Notions," is exuberant and uplifting leavened with just a hint of trepidation. Gorgeous artworks, both of them.


There are quite a few more stunning, disturbing and amusing images at Scott's sites listed above, including a handsome number available as prints. Surreal technocratic cheesecake is well-represented, but many veer into disturbing horror and skewed Orwellian social commentary. Fans of Frank Miller's Sin City in particular will find something of keen interest. Two pieces that well-represent Scott's keen eye for fictional detail are "Inner Truth Struggles in the Belly of the Beast" and "Building a Better War Machine," above left and right, respectively. This may sound counter-intuitive, but I believe what makes these so powerfully effective is Scott's ability to strip the humanity from his photographic subjects, making them appear, well, artificial. Take "Inner Truth" for example. It looks more like a mannequin, a wax figure, than a real human. Perhaps a profoundly dedicated airbrush artist spent several weeks crafting those visuals out of whole cloth. Nope. That's a real woman at the core of the image (or rather, real women) and the end result is more startling when the viewer understands that. Ditto for "War Machine." The presentation is so slick, so hyper-textured that the first though to come to mind is "Which rendering program did he use?" The flesh-fantasy interface is so seamless that it's hard to fathom any part of the work starting out as organic.

Despite all of that, the one thing that stumped me more than anything else was why I hadn't seen his work gracing the covers of books other than his own? Lou Anders, for one, is an editor I suspect would find some nifty uses for this guy's talent. So I decided to pose the question directly to Scott himself:
"Book cover?'s something I have always wanted to do...but have (as of yet) never been approached for."

Let me go out on a big limb here and say I do believe those days are numbered. You do remarkable work, Jeffery Scott, and even laggards like myself are noticing.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Lost Weekend

Tanya casts her chartreuse worm long and high, gently ripping the air with the simple machine rhythm of a reel unspinning.


Ripples roll across the black pond. Insects with tiny wings of flesh dance over the water, flirting with the fish. Cicadas summon the night, muffling the sound of tires rolling down the nearby interstate. A screech owl lands on the rooftop of the white stucco office complex and stares at the scene.

I jerk my reel a nudge, watching bluegill snap bugs off the pond's surface membrane.

I look at Tanya in her Dad’s old boonie hat, Incredible Hulk T-shirt and white jeans, backlit by the artificial green glow of the landscaped turf leading down to the water from the parking lot.

"Corporate ponds rule," says Tanya, stating the obvious.

The flapping rubber sound of retreads ripping loose from an eighteen wheeler. Downshift grind echoes off concrete. The owl talks back.

"How did the fish get here?" I ask.

"Walked," says Tanya.

I nod to myself in agreement. In the morning the office will fill with the employees of Dannermark Corporation. Five hundred or so white polyester serfs tilling abstract acreages of financial data.


"Pull back!" says Tanya.

I yank my rod and set the hook. My body is now connected to a good-sized fish. A long extra tendon runs out from the webbing of my fingers, hooked into a distant aquatic muscle throbbing spastically in the water.

I pull it in, daydreaming the sensation of dental surgery. Through the numbness, strong hands wrapped around pliers tug at cartilaginous cord woven into the roof of my mouth.

Soon, the fish splashes in the shallows at our feet. Tanya grabs it and extracts the hook. A catfish, 10-12 pounds, whisker-like antennae signaling the mothership.

Tanya holds up the wriggling fish in two hands.

"Let's kill it," she smiles.

I stare at the fish's eye and try to discern its expression.

"Pan fry it," continues Tanya. "My place. We can eat on the balcony and watch the freeway."

"Shouldn't we throw it back?" I say.

"It's mouth is all torn up," she says, holding jaws open to reveal gnarled tissue. "No point."

Tanya throws the catch into her styrofoam cooler filled with pond water, and gets back to work.

Later, I watch the catfish's entrails spill onto the white linoleum of the kitchen counter as Tanya cleans it with a paring knife.

Reds, whites, blues and grays. She examines the discreet organs with dainty precision, reading them like an Etruscan seer.

"Looks like a good night to stay in," she says. She tosses the entrails and scales the fish, whistling along to the entropic sounds of the Concert for the Comet Kohoutek. Soon, the hot spattering of oil in a cast-iron pan.

After dinner, we watch the FOX television drama Pentagon City. The Homeland Security agents look like battle-hardened refugees from a J. Crew catalog, armed and ready to shop. While the primary squad hunts down an Arab sleeper cell in a warehouse near the old airport, another subplot begins to play out. This hot new brunette actress Nia Hirsch plays a twentysomething resident of an apartment complex full of her peers. Very Melrose Place. Until you watch her attach the new detonator to an improvised explosive device destined for the nearest mall.

An enigma. No ideology revealed. Revolution as fashion?

I imagine real American revolutionaries, bisexual Abercrombie narcissists with white teeth, clean pores, and credit cards, dedicated to blowing up all the ugly shit.

And then Tanya shows me her guns.

Life is full of surprises.

Thursday, January 11, 2007



(courtesy of McSweeney's)

Congratulations on your purchase of the 8-gigabyte iPhone from Apple Inc.! For the first time, you will be able to engage in all the varieties of human interaction through a single device. Please consult the table of contents below for an in-depth look at your iPhone experience.

I. Introduction

II. Turning on the iPhone


IX. Using the iPhone to solve disputes between Moqtada al-Sadr and certain Sunni elements within Iraq without causing an escalation of hostilities, or the development of closer ties between Iran and Shiite militias


XIII. Using the iPhone to take pictures of celebrities without underpants

XIV. Using the iPhone to become governor of an oil-rich former Soviet republic where the temperature often drops to 76 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit), and then buy an English Premier League soccer team


XIX. Using the iPhone to learn whether Ehud Barak ever considered adopting Barack Obama and changing the Illinois junior senator's name to Barack Barak


XXIV. How to change the iPhone's battery

Monday, January 8, 2007

Gospels of an uncommon vintage

I've long had an interest in things Biblical--to me, honestly, the Bible reads like a really long, convoluted fantasy novel (which probably explains why I got such a kick out of The Silmarillion) and I've always approached it from that literary perspective. I took some classes on it in college, and learned about the different authors and the mysterious "Q" document. The mythology of Christianity fascinates me as does Mayan or Norse or Chinese, the only difference being that this particular mythology defines and affects my worldview.

With the recent conclusion of the Christmas season with the Epiphany, I felt it apropos to share some recent revelations of a personal nature--nothing life-changing to be sure, but fascinating from my point of view. You see, during the recent holidays, I heard reference more than once to the Nativity taking place in a cave. Now I make no claims of being a Biblical scholar, but I've read the narratives of Matthew and Luke, and while Luke references the famous manger, neither of them mention a cave. But I've seen and heard occasional cave references for years, and it's always struck me as somewhat odd, in an out-of-left-field sort of way.

Another detail that struck me a curious came during mass a couple of weeks ago, during the priest's homily. Mentioning that Joseph and Jesus were carpenters by trade, the priest saw fit to go into detail to emphasize Jesus' humble origins. "Now they weren't carpenters who made fine cabinetry or nice furniture. They made plows and yokes for oxen--they were more like the equivalent of construction workers." Again, that came off as curiously out-of-left-field. That's not in the Bible. Where are these facts coming from?

Enter Bart D. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at North Carolina-Chapel Hill. My wife got me a copy of his book Misquoting Jesus a year or so back, and while I found it frustratingly superficial overall, I was also impressed with his concise analysis of Biblical scholarship--enough so that I recently picked up his book Lost Scriptures. The latter book contains a wide array of Gospels and letter and other assorted writings that did not make it into Biblical canon for one reason or another. Quite a few are Gnostic, which explains their omission from modern Christian Bibles, but while others are apparently "orthodox" they don't quite rise to the standards necessary for inclusion in the book. The situation evokes images of a divine anthology with various pope, patriarchs and bishops sifting through a theological slush pile, sending out various rejection letters:
Dear contributor,

Thank you for your recent submission of "The Apocalypse of Peter." Your evocative descriptions of Heaven and Hell are impressive, but this is the third "Apocalypse of Peter" we've received this week, alas. Best of luck with it elsewhere.

Many of these non-canon, orthodox and quasi-orthodox works were well-known in medieval times and treated as if they did have Biblical authority, or at least something approaching authority. Among those was the Gospel of James, supposedly written by Jesus' brother (and that's a theological debate for another time). This one's referred to as "The Proto-Gospel of James" because it doesn't deal much with Jesus at all, but rather concerns itself with the Virgin Mary up through the Nativity. It is quite interesting reading if you've never encountered it before. Mary goes into labor during the journey to Jerusalem, but does so in the wilderness before they actually reach Bethlehem. I have to say I sat up and took notice when I came to James 18:1, which reads:
He found a cave there and took her into it. Then he gave his sons to her and went out to find a Hebrew midwife in the region of Bethlehem.

So that's where all the cave references came from. Apparently, the Gospel of James was quite popular during the middle ages, and influenced a lot of traditions to come later. It's a pretty cool narrative at that--while Joseph is searching for the midwife, time stops at the moment of Christ's birth. That's a pretty cool special effect, any way you slice it.

But what of the carpenter reference I mentioned earlier? Is there a textual basis for that as well? I'd like to say I went looking for one and found it, but that wouldn't be true. I blundered into it while reading the Gospel of Thomas, one of the so-called "infancy gospels" that were also popular during the middle ages which dealt with Christ as a child. Here, the key passage comes at Thomas 13:1, when Jesus is eight years old:
Now his father was a carpenter, and at that time he used to make plows and yokes. He received an order from a certain rich man to make a bed. But when the measurement for one of the beautiful crossbeams came out too short, he did not know what to do. The child Jesus said to his father Joseph, "Place the two pieces of wood on the floor and line them up from the middle to one end."

Jesus then proceeds to stretch the shorter of the two beams to the proper length. Speaking as one who is currently enclosing the loft in our house to make a bedroom from my almost one-year-old son, having a kid around to fix my measuring mistakes would be quite convenient. The fact that Jesus in this gospel is pretty much a normal kid with super-powers and prone to killing his playmates when he's angry and only grudgingly resurrecting them... that's not really sweetening the deal. He's also a terror at school as well. I remember some teachers who got quite frustrated with me back in the day, to whom I now say, "You don't know how lucky you had it."

I've only read a handful of the texts collected thus far, but already it's been a fascinating experience. Lots of ideas floating around there. It seems a shame that there's not a Great Big Book of Christian Mythology out there, because golly gee wow, that's one cool reference book I'd love to have on my shelf.

Friday, January 5, 2007

A Secret History of 1975

Memories of the Ford Administration

The years of the Ford Administration, from late summer 1974 through the end of the Bicentennial, lurk in my memory as cultural interstitia. A minor Midwestern limbo between "the Sixties" and "the Seventies" during which nothing appeared to happen, but powerful memes of future change were cryogenically sealed in the sub-basement with the remains of Walt Disney.

During those years, they renovated the old mall in my hometown (which had originally been built on the site of a monastery much older than the surrounding suburb) to double its size. The central feature of the new wing was a rounded bi-level courtyard anchored by such mid-70s retail landmarks as a Spencer's Gifts, a leather clothing store, a Biorhythm reading machine, a pet store specializing in hamsters, gerbils and Habitrails, a magic supply store, and a B. Dalton bookstore.

On the ground floor, the developers installed a larger-than-life bronze sculpture of a nude and anatomically correct man with a handlebar moustache riding a gigantic tricycle. No explanation was provided.

I seriously doubt such an aesthetic enigma would have been viable in any other period than the Ford Administration. After the Sixties had blown gaping holes in all of the cultural conformities of the Fifties, and before the consequent opportunities for hedonism morphed into the coked out Seventies.

In that B. Dalton, you could still find fresh how-to books of American insurrection, from The Anarchist's Cookbook to The Monkey Wrench Gang. If you were the sort of kid who frequented the science fiction shelves, amid the Bama bronzes and the Frazetta cheescake, you might discover the featured new Bantam paperback of 1975: Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren. A Frederik Pohl selection!

The cover offered your average pre-adolescent nerd a familiar fantasy of wandering the post-apocalyptic landscape, a power meme drilled in by a steady stream of Charlton Heston cozy catastrophes. The interior was something much more, its tale of a mysterious Midwestern city cut off from the rest of civilization by an unknown catastrophe serving as the narrative vessel for an experimental novel of consciousness. The inhabitants of the book willingly linger in their meandering dystopia, wallowing in the implosion of conventional social structure. A prescient masterpiece, but not exactly mainstream commercially accessible fare. Only during the Ford Administration would such a work sell a million copies.

For me, Dhalgren tunes the existential frequency of that peculiar period as well as any other contemporary work. A crackled transmission from a mirror reality, accidentally tuned in on translator channel 72.

The dream of revolution becomes a non-sequitur, running out of gas. Enjoy the laser show and pass the spliff.

Presidential assassins become openly surreal. Only during the Ford Administration could one of Charlie [Manson]'s Angels emerge as a risible self-parody of political violence (check out RU Sirius' awesome post this week at 10 Zen Monkeys on"The Chicks Who Tried to Shoot Gerald Ford").

Urban legends trump real news in the aftermath of Nixon and the War. Rumors abound, spread by boys as their neighborhood matinee houses are repurposed as grindhouse pornos. The secret post-history of the cast of Leave it to Beaver: Wally was a cop, Eddie Haskell was Alice Cooper, and the Beav got fragged in Nam.

Somebody's dad's friend who worked at the hospital told astonishing tales of the midnight emergency room visit of a famous rock star when he played his recent show at Veteran's Auditorium (see Number 6). Put your finger on the turntable and turn it counterclockwise for the real story.

The 20th century utopian dream of radical change was definitively snuffed by the masterful anti-climax of President Ford's primary executive act, the anthems of the earnest replaced with self-amused irony stoned on pop culture junk food.

At my elementary school, designed on an experimental open plan, we buried a Bicentennial time capsule. Therein, we hermetically sealed a variety of artifacts of the end of the jet age, the clandestine history of that eighteen-month epoch backmasked onto forgotten vinyl LPs in the voices of children possessed by the frequency modulated spirits of the cathode ray, the sound of an Emergency Broadcast System test played backwards. The capsule is not to be opened until 2076, but on some days it seems the secrets are already seeping out, deep sleeper culture agents lurking among us, awaiting activation orders from headquarters.

Spaceship Earth implodes

Ga. artwork of 'fragile' Earth collapses
Associated Press
Jan. 04, 2007
ATLANTA - A million-dollar stone sculpture, intended to remind future generations of the Earth's fragility, made its point a bit early, just three months after its unveiling, it collapsed. The 175-ton "Spaceship Earth" lay in ruins at Kennesaw State University after mysteriously falling to pieces last week.

The engraved phrase "our fragile craft" was still visible amid the debris.

"Kind of ironic," said Mary-Elizabeth Watson, a university employee. "I had no idea it was made up of so many pieces."

University officials say they suspect water damage or glue failure, but agents with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation are also looking into the possibility of vandalism, said Frances Weyand, a spokeswoman for Kennesaw State. However, GBI spokesman John Bankhead said Thursday that the agency had not been asked to look into the situation.

The Finnish-born sculptor, who goes by the name Eino, had called the work "Spaceship Earth" to honor environmentalist David Brower, a leader of the Sierra Club. It depicted a bronze figure of Brower standing atop the globe. The founders of California-based PowerBar had paid for the $1 million sculpture.

"How can stone collapse by itself?" Eino asked. "I'm devastated."

He said he used a resin made specially for stone, worked with an engineer and was assured that the globe would stay in one piece.

Eino, who lived in Georgia in the late 1990s and now lives outside Las Vegas, vowed to restore "Spaceship Earth" to its former glory, with structural modifications. Rebuilding will start as early as next month, he said.

"I want to rebuild it and build it stronger than ever," Eino said. "It has to be made safe."

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Surf Titan! (no, seriously)

I know the Planetary Society has been selling those cool Surf Titan shirts for years, but a new study out in Nature confirms that Cassini has detected liquid lakes on the Saturnian moon:

Scientists report definitive evidence of the presence of lakes filled with liquid methane on Saturn's moon Titan in this week's journal Nature cover story.

Radar imaging data from a July 22, 2006, flyby provide convincing evidence for large bodies of liquid on Titan today. A new false-color radar view gives a taste of what Cassini saw. Some highlights of the article follow below.

Lake Characteristics:

  • Radar-dark patches are interpreted as lakes based on their very low radar reflectivity and morphological similarities to lakes, including associated channels and location in topographic depressions.

  • Radar-dark surfaces are smooth and most likely liquid, rock, ice or organics. More than 75 radar-dark patches or lakes were seen, ranging from 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) to more than 70 kilometers (43 miles) across.

  • Some lakes appear partly dry, while others seem liquid-filled. Some of the partly filled lakes may never have filled fully, or may have partly evaporated at some point in the past. The dry lakes have margins or rims and a radar brightness similar to the rest of the surrounding terrain, making them appear devoid of liquid.

  • The varying states of how full the lakes are suggest that lakes in this region of Titan might be temporary on some unknown timescale.

  • Approximately 15 of the dark patches seem filled and show no clear evidence of erosion. These dark patches resemble terrestrial lakes confined within impact basins (for example, Clearwater Lakes in Canada) or within volcanic calderas (for example, Crater Lake, Oregon). The nest-like nature of these lakes and their limited range of sizes make it unlikely that they originated from an impact. A volcanic origin for the depressions is possible, given their appearance.

  • Some lakes have steep margins and very distinct edges, suggesting a topographic rim. These lakes are consistent with seepage or groundwater drainage lakes.

  • Other lakes have diffuse, more scalloped edges, with a gradual decrease in radar brightness towards the center of the lake. These lakes are more likely to be associated with channels, and may be either drainage lakes or groundwater drainage lakes.

  • Yet other lakes have curvy channel-like extensions, similar in appearance to terrestrial flooded river valleys (for example Lake Powell).

  • Bright patches near the lake edges could be small islands peeking through the surface. Floating “icebergs” are unlikely because most materials would not float in liquid hydrocarbons.

Other Observations:

  • Based on the lake characteristics, Cassini scientists think they are observing liquid-filled lakes on Titan today. Another possibility is that these depressions and channels formed in the past and have now been filled by a low-density deposit that is darker than any observed elsewhere on Titan. However, the absence of wind-blown features in this area makes the low-density hypothesis unlikely.

  • These northern hemisphere lakes are the strongest evidence yet that Titan's surface and atmosphere have an active hydrological cycle, though with a condensable liquid other than water. In this cycle, lakes are filled through methane rainfall or intersect with a subsurface layer saturated with liquid methane.

  • As Titan's seasons progress over the 29-year cycle of Saturn's orbit around the sun, lakes in the winter hemisphere should expand by steady methane rain, while summer hemisphere lakes shrink or dry up entirely.

To read more about the radar imaging data from the July 2006 flyby, go to Cassini Finds Lakes on Titan's Arctic Region.

I'm sure there must be some, but I can't call to mind any fiction set on Titan featuring the dark, thick and frigid seas of scientific speculation. Anyone want to offer up a title or two? It is interesting how Cassini and Huygens have reshaped planetologists' thinking about Titan's climate. Previously, the models were somewhat Earthlike in behavior, with regular hydrocarbon "rainfall" consisting of methane and perhaps ethane, which then collects in rivers, lakes and seas before evaporating and starting the cycle over again. Now, however, it appears that Titan leans toward more of a "deluge" model, in which large bodies of liquid (the lakes in the latest finding) gradually evaporate, leaving the landscape in a somewhat arid condition. Once the atmosphere reaches saturation point, a vast amount of liquid hydrocarbons precipitate, flooding the landscape--a sort of desert monsoon season.

It will be interesting to see how this model is refined as researchers collect more data from Cassini, and even more interesting to see how SF writers take these new wonders from the Saturn system and apply them in a fictional context.