Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Keep Austin Weird

I hate my hometown's back patting slogan as much as the next person, but once in a while I'm reminded that it comes--at least a bit--from a place of truth. The past couple of weeks, insomnia has led me to some late night/early morning bike rides. I set out from central Austin usually around 2 or 3 in the morning, hanging out a big 15 to 20 mile circuit downtown, across the river, sliding over into East Austin, and back to my apartment. 

In the past week and a half, I've seen this: two men dressed in full Renaissance Faire gear hitting each other with their wooden swords. And "hitting" is putting it lightly. I was biking my way in a neighborhood by the old airport, nice old 50s era houses and home mostly to UT folks. Anyway, I turn the corner on a street that leads into a park and there they were on a tennis court, both in bright colored regalia, chain metal over their heads, just wailing away on one another other with swords, the loud *gak* *gak* of the wood echoing off the concrete tennis court. They didn't seem to be practicing anything, I didn't get a sense that it was choreographed, just two guys enjoying themselves. Had to have been three in the morning. I rode on and left them to it. 

The second surprise came a few days later. I was mixing my routes up so instead of going south, I went west, which gets hilly in Austin. I headed up a steep grade (steep for me, anyway) towards a Randall's grocery near St Andrews School. In the gravel parking lot, a full on game of cricket. I don't know the rules---but broadly, there was the wicket, there was the guy equivalent to the catcher standing behind it, there was the batsman, and spread out over the lot were the fielders. I didn't get a sense of who they were or why they were playing in a lot at 2 in the morning instead of a park during the day. Just enjoyed watching them play for a few minutes and moved on.  

Finally, and this was on a Saturday just after SXSW ended. I'd avoided the music convention like the plague, waiting until I figured the shows would have ended to start a ride that would take me downtown. I'd timed it wrong; the bars were letting out and I found myself in a traffic jam that lasted from Congress Avenue to the interstate, maybe a mile and a half. Anyway, I detoured into East Austin, past the State Cemetery, up a hill running parallel to the historically black Huston Tillitson College hill, and on a street called Chicon. And ran into what seemed to be an impromptu car show/drag race. There had to be about between 50 and 70 cars up and down the street, mostly tricked out Japanese rigs, wild paint jobs, complete with over the top rims and--my favorite--the neon under the body, glowing on the road. Heading east down Chicon is a nice straight line, so I stayed for a minute and caught a couple of races. I wished I had my camera, but as I biked away, I figured I would return the next week at the same time and get a couple of shots. So the next Saturday I returned around the same time and--I'm sure you can guess--nothing. 

So Austin retains at least a bit of its weirdness, although I find it's better to just let it surprise you as you turn a corner rather than waste breath bragging about it. 

Monday, March 30, 2009

Suburbanizing Baghdad

Today's NYT has a mind-blowing story about the sudden popularity of Hummers among certain Iraqi civilians, as a symbol of power and status. The idea of Baghdadi dudes trading in their Brazilis for Dallas-style canary yellow and fire engine red Hummers is, erm, ironic. Of course, the dream will only truly be complete when they have a nearby Hooter's franchise to drive it to.

From my story "Welcome Back Qatar" (RevolutionSF, May 2006):

My cue came as I looked out the window at the smoking ruins of Riyadh's southeastern quarter.

"What this town really needs," said the Vice President, "is a Hooters."

Prince Salman scratched his scalp through his kuffiyeh headgear. The Minister of Culture's briefing papers neglected to mention the Veep's tenure on the Board of a global restaurant franchise during the interregnum.

"Maybe even a couple of them," added the Vice President.

"What is . . ."

"Family-style restaurant," interrupted the Vice President. "Sports TV, chicken wings, cute waitresses. Hard to explain if you haven't seen one. They have one in Cater."

"Qatar," corrected a pinstriped aide. "Like the TV show."

"Whatever. Didn't used to be. But they have a very nice new Hooters. Even imported the waitresses. Mostly from the flagship in Boca, I hear."

In the plaza outside, a pair of UN armored personnel carriers worked their way through the rubble, prowling for stray mujahideen. I saw phantoms of its reinvention: Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Café, Warner Brothers Studio Store, mega-Starbucks. Anchors for a sprawling retail complex staffed by a legion of thonged Method dropouts. The Mall-al-Khali.

The Vice President fidgeted in his wool suit, scratching a marbled thigh.

Through the window, my mind projected the scene: A newly conceived pop star, surrounded by a crowd of thousands of young people filling the plaza. As the music cranks up, she dances to the front of the stage and rips off her fundamentalist vestments, revealing a hot brown Britney. Selling Pepsi, making peace.

The Prince leaned back, unimpressed by talk of battered poultry and other white meat...

The new shopping

Salon: Taking in the trash
By Katharine Mieszkowski

Kristan Lawson's legs are dangling out of the mouth of a Dumpster, as if he's being eaten alive. Inside, the scavenger is grabbing loaf after loaf of freshly baked bread. This isn't just any bread; it's rarefied artisanal bread, the kind of baguettes and ciabattas that are displayed as impulse purchases in their own tempting wooden stand near the checkout at posh grocery stores, because shoppers just can't resist them, despite the eye-popping prices.

The price is free at this Dumpster behind a bakery in an East Bay neighborhood. Lawson, 48, hands the spoils off to Anneli Rufus, 49, his wife of almost 20 years. He opens his backpack to reveal another empty bag, which he takes out and stuffs with about 15 loaves of bread, which they will freeze and eat for weeks to come.

The couple is leading me on an expedition in the East Bay cities of Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville to show me just how much stuff is free for the taking -- or at least extremely cheap -- if you're willing to spend the time and effort to look for it. Like this bread, not even a day old, discarded for a few bumps and dents.

"They know people go there, but I don't think they want to advertise it," says Rufus, making me promise not to reveal the bakery's name for fear the Dumpsters will be locked up tight. We make a hasty getaway in my car. (We're in my car, because, naturally, Rufus and Lawson don't have one.)

Rufus and Lawson are the authors of the new book "The Scavengers' Manifesto," a do-it-yourself handbook and love letter to the joys of salvaging, swapping, repurposing and reusing stuff. Getting something for nothing -- or close to it -- is their way of life, and it defines what they wear, eat, how they decorate their home, right down to the way Lawson dispenses with the whiskers on his chinny-chin-chin. (He has literally never paid for shaving cream, using free samples that companies give away to U.C. Berkeley students to get them hooked on their brands.) These two are no slumming trust-fund babies. Rather, they save so much money scavenging that Lawson hasn't worked a full-time job in over a decade, and Rufus never has, which just gives the two writers -- they've both written other books -- time for their perpetual hunt.

Friday, March 27, 2009



Captain Pacal and his men stared after Flavius, blood splattered and breathing deeply. The wounded groaned and cried from the floor.

“What are you standing around for?” Empress Malinche snapped her fingers and pointed through the shattered window. “After them.”

Pacal nodded and leapt through the shattered window, his squad following after.

Flavius looked up from where he’d fallen and rolled, getting tangled in a thick mass of spiny vines in the process. The drop from the window was only a bit higher than he could reach, but the ropey vegetation that’d cushioned his landing were even better at digging into the skin.

As the militia were finding out first hand.

Flavius tried to stand only to find a vine had managed to wrap around his thigh, holding him down. Every time he moved, the hairy spines gouged a little deeper into his flesh.

“Goddamnit,” he muttered, sawing at it with Memory. The vine parted, but not before giving a fierce constriction. “Yeow!”

He leapt up and kicked his leg free. He found Acaona a short distance away, held fast by a knot of the vines. Flavius could see now they were definitely moving, and not as a result of Acaona’s struggles.

“Lassie, what kind of garden have we landed in?” Flavius demanded as he hacked away at the tendrils coiling around her.

“I don’t know. The gardens along the secure wing are off-limits,” she answered as he pulled her to her feet. The gray-green vines extended perhaps half a stone’s throw from the building, but ran the length of the entire wing. The vegetative mass undulated menacingly in the starlight. “Whatever it is, I think we’ve woken it up.”

A blast of green cuayab fire illuminated the night as a militiaman scoured the ground around him. “Damn bloodnettles are everywhere!” he shouted. “Shit! One’s on my leg!”

“What’d you expect, frothwai blooms? This is the secure wing, you idiot,” another grumbled.

“They’re bloodnettles,” Acaona offered, wincing as Flavius tugged the last tendril from her back. A needlepoint trail of blood blistered up.

“Thanks, but I got that much,” he answered, slashing Memory at a grasping vine. “Can ya burn us a path out of here while I hold off our friends?”

“I dropped the cuayab.”

“Of course ya did. Well, let’s find it.” Flavius turned in time to parry a blow from Captain Pacal. Sparks flew as Memory took another deep bite out of the cuayab. Pacal feinted and jabbed, catching Flavius square in the midsection where the cuayab’s caged fire burned through his shirt into his belly. Flavius backpedaled, his feet sarling among the bloodnettles.

Pacal pressed his sudden advantage, jabbing to keep Flavius off-balance, then raining overhead blows upon him. Flavius warded off the attack with Memory, the sword taking bigger and bigger bites from the cuayab.

Abruptly, the cuayab stuck.

Cage broken and split, braided staff spitting fire from a dozen fissures, the cuayab had embedded mid-blade on Memory, stuck fast. Arms throbbing, Flavius pulled Memory back, jerking the cuayab from Pacal’s hands.

“I’ve just about had my fill of ya,” Flavius said, raising his sword.

Three militiamen charged before Flavius could strike Pacal. Cursing, Flavius swung Memory in broad, deadly strokes. Now unconfined by the narrow apartment, Memory’s reach was a good foot better than the cuayabs, and he pressed his advantage. The impaled cuayab was like a lead weight on the sword, though. It also proved to be a convenient target for the militia, who chose to block at it rather than Memory directly lest their cuayabs end up impaled as well. With every crunching blow, the mangled cuayab spouted more spark and flame.

The bloodnettles continued grasping at his ankles.

“Flavius! I’ve found it!” Acaona shouted, loosing a well-aimed emerald burst at a knot bloodnettles reaching for her legs.

“Brilliant! Burn us a path out of this gorse patch!”

Two militia swung their cuayabs simultaneously. Flavius blocked them, but the shock proved too much for the battered cuayab. The cage broke away completely. Fire erupted from the open end uncontrollably.

“Fall back!” ordered Captain Pacal. “All militia fall back and take cover! The cuayab’s going to blow.”

“These things explode?” Flavius asked accusingly of Acaona.

“How should I know?” Acaona shot back. “I’m Sajal, not militia!”

The fire and smoke belching from the cuayab wreathed Memory in a swirling inferno. Flavius’ hands blistered.

“Come on, Memory, let’s be rid of this faggot, eh?” Flavius whispered. He swung the sword at arm’s length, once, twice, then abruptly pulled back at the apex of the arc. The cuayab slid neatly off the end of the sword.

The spitting missile sailed over the scattering militia and through the shattered apartment window. The window where Empress Malinche, Papantzin and the two militia bodyguards had gathered to watch the melee.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Retaliatory lawsuit against Writer Beware staff dismissed

Putting on my SFWA media guru hat for a moment:
CHESTERTOWN, Md. -- A Massachusetts Superior Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Ann Crispin and Victoria Strauss, the principal operators of the Writer Beware website, filed by a purported literary agent.

Writer Beware is a publishing industry watchdog group sponsored by Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America which “shines a light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes and pitfalls.”

The suit, initiated by Robert Fletcher and his company, the Literary Agency Group, alleged defamation, loss of business and emotional distress while making claims Fletcher had lost $25,000 per month due to warnings about his business practices posted by Crispin and Strauss.

The suit was dismissed with prejudice March 18 by the Massachusetts Superior Court due to Fletcher’s failure to respond to discovery or otherwise prosecute the lawsuit. Crispin and Strauss, through counsel, intend to file a motion against Fletcher and the Literary Agency Group, Inc., seeking recovery of their legal fees incurred in defending what they believe to be a frivolous lawsuit.

The case dates to Feb. 2008, when Fletcher and his company filed for a temporary restraining order pending a preliminary injunction against Crispin and Strauss in Suffolk County Superior Court in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. During a subsequent hearing Feb. 19, the temporary restraining order was dismissed for improper service (Strauss wasn't served until 42 minutes after the time of the hearing, and Crispin was not served at all), but the supporting complaint was allowed to proceed.

Currently, Fletcher and his companies remain the subjects of an active investigation by the Florida Attorney General's Office.

“I’m very pleased that the case was dismissed. Knowing how hard those involved with Writer Beware work – and how important the work they do is to writers, both within SFWA and outside of it – it’s very good news, indeed,” said SFWA President Russell Davis. “Writer Beware is one of the most important and valuable services SFWA provides, and knowing that this frivolous case was dismissed, and that Mr. Fletcher is now the subject of an investigation in Florida only validates the work done by Ann Crispin and Victoria Strauss.”

Crispin and Strauss have volunteered countless hours of their time to advising, educating and warning aspiring and established authors about dubious, questionable and outright criminal business practices on the fringes of the publishing industry. They maintain the Writer Beware website (www.writerbeware.com) and are major contributors to Writer Beware Blogs! (http://accrispin.blogspot.com/).

About SFWA

Founded in 1965 by the late Damon Knight, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America brings together the most successful and daring writers of speculative fiction throughout the world.

Since its inception, SFWA® has grown in numbers and influence until it is now widely recognized as one of the most effective non-profit writers' organizations in existence, boasting a membership of approximately 1,500 science fiction and fantasy writers as well as artists, editors and allied professionals. Each year the organization presents the prestigious Nebula Awards® for the year’s best literary and dramatic works of speculative fiction.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Regarding the narcotic effect of eating giant ant eggs

"We don't need other worlds. We need a mirror."

— Snaut, the cyberneticist, from Tarkovsky's Solaris, as quoted in my paper "Feeling Very Estranged: Science Fiction and Society in the Aftermath of the Twentieth Century."

[Pic: Mark Dery about to dive into a hearty meal of escamoles (eggs harvested from the abdomens of very large ants) and some sort of fried grub.]

I am back from a week in D.F. con los Mexicanos Fantasticos. The three-day colloquium on Parallel Worlds as the literary track of the Festival de Mexico, featuring Mark Dery, Christopher Priest, M. John Harrison, Bruce Sterling, Linda Nagata and me, moderated by authors Mauricio Montiel (who put together the amazing program with the encouragement of Festival director Jose Wolffer), Bernardo Fernandez (BEF), Alberto Chimal, and Pepe Rojo ended Thursday, but I am just now collecting myself from the experience.

[Pic: Author and comics auteur Bernardo Fernandez (BEF) and author, organizer and Dharma Initiative member Mauricio Montiel Figueiras.]

The program featured two tracks each day: a noon round table discussion featuring two of the gringo autores answering questions from the moderator and the audience, with an evening presentation of lectures/essays by two of the speakers. Thematically, much of the discussion seemed to focus on science fiction as the literature best equipped to understand contemporary identity in a technologically mediated world.

Some of the highlights (in addition to those previously blogged here, including remarks by Mark Dery and Christopher Priest):

M. John Harrison on the idea of personality. The idea that we are all cpmpiling our personalities moment to moment. The twenty-first century will reveal all that, and cure it.

"I was raised with fixed cultures as being wholly determinative of the individual's identity... The collapse of culture may already have happened, and we may be on the other side of it, and it's probably a good thing."

We live in era in which the self exists in mediated feedback loops, in which media inputs impact personality. How you interrupt those loops remains to be seen. The Adbusters approach does not seem to be the answer.

The writer's task is to "write about individuals who are constantly being mediated and re-mediated. Not alienated, but pureed."

"If you want to break an orthodoxy, the first thing to do is to break the medium itself."

"While I think of myself as a subtle propagandist, I am propagandist for my own ideas."

"I write to find out why I'm writing what I'm writing."

[Pic: M. John Harrison and Christopher Priest enjoying a long lunch properly lubricated for the discussion of temas fantasticas.]

Linda Nagata: "Could it be that as a sign of intimacy, we show more identities to each other?"

Bruce Sterling: The fluidity of the idea of national identity.

The idea of "developing countries" is a bogus anachronism. Places like Mexico City are better thought of as "areas of global urbanization." Mexico CIty is much closer to the reality of Shanghai or Lagos than rural Chiapas or Oaxaca. Mexico CIty as the "global capital of Latino globalization."

The ascendant role of the *city*, which establish national economic archetypes and don't care about borders, in a world where the nation state is slipping away, as the national governments lose control of their economies and borders.

"People talk about emerging economies. What about *submerging* economies -- places like Detroit...parts of D.C. where the AIDS rates are higher than Uganda."

"In the future, the poor will not be able to avoid becoming posthuman, because they just can't afford it."

[Pic: Los Nagatas, comiendo.]

"Nationalism is mostly useful when you are being invaded by another country...If no one invades you, you can disintegrate, expecting invasion, like Russia, but instead getting total collapse."

We started in the 20th century with the self characterized by a condition of modern anomie and alienation. We then moved into the postmodern condition, characterized by technology and subjectivity fragmentation. We are now moving into something else, the precise characteristics of which remain to be seen...

Envisioning a viable future that is not disastrous, Bruce considers the possibility that (i) we might get to where our technology is sustainable, (ii) we get rid of material poverty — food and shelter and rudimentary health care, and (iii) we secure extended lifespans in which it is common to be 100-110 years old. The result? "A serene Ft. Lauderdale society run by old people who are healthy and enjoy themselves...The 20-year-olds may rebel, but mostly they wait their turn."

The early indicators of posthumanism:

- athletes
- celebrities
- supermodels
- political/cult heroes

Terri Schiavo was the first celebrity posthuman, and there was recently an Italian Terri Schiavo. Keep your eyes out for the next one.

[Pic: Mark Dery and M. John Harrison debating posthuman ethics outside El Opera.]

Mark Dery:

On the space age: "Was it all just a moonage daydream?"

A mythology of the next five minutes.

"In the age of YouTube, we've learned to stop worrying and love the Panopticon."

[Pic: Bruce Sterling, Christopher Priest, and M. John Harrison relighting the pilot light on their sense of wonder at the Templo Mayor.]

Christopher Priest:

"The general novel (and also the fantasy novel) can of course contain actions or decisions, with consequences for which the characters become responsible...the point I am making is that only in the modern speculative novel is responsibility the core, the argument, the message.

"When ideas are suppressed, the tyrants move in to manipulate ordinary people. When expression is made less free, then ideas start to suffer. I hold as axiomatic the belief the fiction should express ideas, should defy tyrants and governments, that it should speak directly to the reader, and provide entertainment and provocation in equal measure. This is the cause for which I stand."

Mexico City is a truly magnificent 21st century city, a cultural, ethnic, and architectural/archeological palimpsest where the pre-Columbian past and the colonial ghosts and the imminent future all coexist in a space where one sometimes expects to turn the corner and find Perdido Street Station. Our hosts were all smarter and more prolific than us (and infinitely more hospitable), revealing a Mexican sf and fantastic fiction scene that merits more attention from its northern neighbors (more on that later, but the early plans for a cross-border fantastic fiction fest in Juarez or Tijuana are abrewing). Most impressive were the audience members, who asked some of the most provocative questions on these topics any of us had ever heard.

[Pic: Mad genius collaborators Bernardo Fernandez (BEF) and Pepe Rojo, planning their epic film memoir of their trip through Morocco retracing the steps of William S. Burroughs.]

Monday, March 23, 2009

Crisis Time

Science fiction book sales are, except for established big-name authors, way down. Could it be something about fear of the future at a time of financial calamity unfolding even while technology changes society and the Earth itself in ways that seem out of control?

The kind of adversity that has our whole economy reeling hit publishing early. For years in the publishing business, money has poured into faster ways of making more money as over against service of the common good. So what other sectors feel now, the publishing world, its writers, editors, and other hard workers have felt for a long time: unrelenting pressure to produce more that sells better in less time with less resources, but none of that is enough, and too many people lose jobs and careers and hopes and dreams anyway. This year things seem to be sliding from bad to worse. Science fiction has been hit harder than its sister genre, fantasy, but no one feels very safe.

And yet science fiction, as a genre of hope, caution and wonder, is as full of possibility and entertainment, as ever. Many long-time readers love science fiction as much as ever. And thanks in large part to TV shows and movies, all kinds of people who are not lifelong SF readers can read SF and enjoy it. The star voyage goes on, for me and for everyone who likes good science fiction about life, love and wonder.

A novelette-length sequel to my novel Hurricane Moon appears in the May 2009 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact. The magazine is on many newsstands and electronically available through Fictionwise and Audible.com at a link on the Analog Website. The story's title is "Quickfeathers." It blends language, culture, and aerodynamics as the young colony on Planet Green makes a discovery that transforms how they understand their new world and their own human nature. As always in good science fiction, the future has fear and wonder, danger and opportunity, seasons of crisis and signs of hope. And for everybody who likes to read about flying, "Quickfeathers" centers on soaring on fiberglass wings and feathered wings.

Thursday, March 19, 2009



“They can’t understand you,” Acaona said.

“What’re ya getting on about?” muttered Flavius.

“They’re not nobles, they’re militia,” Acaona said, as if the simple statement was as obvious an explanation as anyone would need. Flavius’ baffled stare drew a sigh from her.

“Only nobility in the Eternal Dominion are gene-grafted with a linguistics lobe, dear Flavius,” Empress Malinche offered helpfully, her cool composure recovered with the arrival of the militia. “The expense and effort would be squandered on them, after all. The only times they venture Otherwhere their purpose is to destroy the enemies of the Eternal Dominion, not have a nice chat. This keeps things simplified, don’t you think?”

“Oh. Right,” muttered Flavius, casting an annoyed look at Memory. “I ken that.”

“Your Imperial Majesty can understand that croaking noise?” the militia captain asked suspiciously.

“After a fashion, Captain...?” Malinche answered absently.

“Pacal. Captain Pacal,” he answered uneasily, unaccustomed to imperial attention. “If Your Imperial Majesty will allow, these two men will escort you to safety.”

The Empress considered the suggestion. “No, I prefer to stay and watch.”

“You Imp--” Captain Pacal began, but a sharp look from Empress Malinche silenced him.

“Now, as this diversion has continued far too long, you and your men will bind and escort the lesser sentient to the Imperial wing under guard. I expect he’ll resist, but I don’t want him injured.”

“Uninjured? But... he’s got a sword, Your Imperial Majesty.”

“You may bludgeon him then, if you must. But no open flame,” Empress Malinche allowed. “Feel free to bludgeon the Sajal, too, while you’re at it.”

The braided cages at the end of the militiamen’s cuayabs flared with a menacing green glow. Two men took up guard positions on either side of the Empress as Captain Pacal and three other men spread out, shoulder-to-shoulder in the narrow apartment, warily stalking toward Flavius. As soon as there was room, four more entered to form a second rank.

Flavius backed away from Papantzin, who’d recovered enough to drag herself toward the Empress. Acaona slipped close behind Flavius, clutching his pack tightly.

“What are we going to do, Flavius?”

“Exit through the window there, lass, that’s what we’re going to do.” Flavius swung Memory, a sudden powerful blow that rattled the window.
The glass remained intact.

“This is the secure wing. The walls and windows are blast resistant,” Acaona said. “Didn’t you know?”

Flavius mouthed a silent curse, then lowered his head to hers. “Look to yerself, lass. It’s likely to get a mite rough.” Before Acaona could question him, Flavius hoisted Memory and charged the militia with a full-blown highlander scream.

Flavius swung Memory at Captain Pacal. The captain blocked with his cuayab. Memory bit into the cuayab with a metallic snap. Emerald sparks flared from the cage. Flavius swung Memory back to the right, parrying a blow from another militiaman.

“Mind your weapons! He’s got some sort of enchantment on his blade!” shouted Pacal, jabbing his cuayab at Flavius. Tiny wisps of flame escaped from the gouge in the braided body.

One was a split second too slow bringing his cuayab up. Memory split his chest open. In that instant, another militiaman saw his opening and jabbed his cuayab into Flavius’ back. Flavius cried out as the cage burned through his shirt and into flesh. Instinctively he lashed out, Memory severing the legs of his attacker below the knees.

“Get him surrounded! Press him! Press him!” Urgency drove Pacal’s orders now as the remainder of the squad pressed into the room. A dozen men total, the narrowness of the room that hampered Flavius’ full use of the long claymore also served to keep the militia’s superior numbers bottled up near the door.

As more sparks and flame shot from his damaged cuayab, Pacal adjusted his grip so the gouge faced away from him. As he did so, he pressed the side of his helmet. “Request immediate reinforcements, secure wing. Everything you’ve got. What? I don’t give a damn about any emergency you’ve got! Her Imperial Majesty is here! Reinforcements. Now!

“Look lively, lass,” Flavius said, kicking a dead militiaman’s cuayab to Acaona.

As Acaona reached for it, another strong tremor shook the palace. A sudden, loud pop followed. She looked up. Several large fissures radiated out from the center of the window.


“Cannae it wait?” Flavius shouted back, blood and sweat streaking his face. “I’m a wee bit busy.”

“The window!”

Flavius sliced open the chest of another militiaman, then hazarded a quick glance. “Oh!”

More fissures appeared, spreading like spiderweb across the window. Acaona grabbed up the cuayab with both hands, swinging it into the window. The window shattered. A million shards of glass skittered across the floor.

Brilliant!” Flavius shouted, a broad grin on his face. Glass crunched under his boots. “Now, if ya’d got yerself dressed when I told ya, I wouldnae have to do this.” He grabbed Acaona with his free arm, heaving her nude body over his shoulder. He bare feet kicked in the air. “Got a strong grip on my pack there?”

“I’ve got it. Ow! I’ve got it already!”

“I just dinnae want ya to drop it when we jump.” Flavius took two quick steps to the shattered window, and with a great lunge, threw himself and Acaona through.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"We are apes with weapons of mass destruction"

[Pic: left to right Christopher Priest, Chris Nakashima-Brown, and M. John Harrison.]

That's the outstanding Mark Dery soundbite chosen by the Mexico City newspaper El Universal to capture the public discussion Mark and I had yesterday to open this week's symposium "Parallel Worlds: Perspectives and Prospectives of Science Fiction," as part of the Festival de Mexico en el Centro Historico. Organized by the Mexican author Mauricio Montiel Figueiras and festival director Jose Wolffer, the symposium brings together five English-language sf authors (Christopher Priest, M. John Harrison, Bruce Sterling, Linda Nagata, and me) and Mark, the bard of extreme 21st century culture and undisputed master of Ballardian cultural criticism, to discuss science fiction and society in the new millennium. Mexico City, where the 21st century visibly collides with ancient tendrils of the colonial European and indigenous past on every block, is an ideal venue for such a program, a city in love with ideas at the cutting edge, and an atmospheric feast for thinking about the polyglot human future. The broader festival is filled with other arts and letters pushing the envelope of the new, as with the free jazz geniuses Zu and Han Bennink.

The program continues through tomorrow, with noontime panels moderated by leading Mexican sf figures and evening presentations by the participants. Yesterday's discussion was moderated by Bernardo Fernandez (BEF), and Mark was really on his game with provocative insights to share on the subject, as documented by El Universal:

21st century human beings are "apes with weapons of mass destruction, which is the worst combination possible," said the American critic and essayist Mark Dery, during his participation in the symposium "Parallel Worlds: Perspectives and Prospectives of Science Fiction," organized as part of the Festival de Mexico in the Historic Downtown.

The specialist in alternative culture, digital media and cyberculture, indicated that he doesn't believe in human nature, because "there's nothing less natural than the human," and pronounced that in these times human beings "are not very far from the apes flinging bones in 2001."

The author of Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, said that science fiction writers have much to learn from the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, because human beings "are apes and cyborgs, robots and automatons at the same time; we are more animals than we realize."

Several other papers covered the talk, including Excelsior, which opened with the oddest flattering lead I have ever read: "Mark Dery looks like one of the marionettes from the television series 'Thunderbirds,' set in the year 2026, when the world is dominated by huge projects of engineering and innovative technology."

[Pic: Mark Dery enjoying "Las Manitas" in the style of Nuevo Leon — not actual "little hands," which is what I was hoping for, but pig's feet.]

In the evening, Linda Nagata and Christopher Priest gave talks about their own experiences and perspectives of science fiction, culminating in a powerful manifesto by Priest, which I endorse:

"When ideas are suppressed, the tyrants move in to manipulate ordinary people. When expression is made less free, then ideas start to suffer. I hold as axiomatic the belief the fiction should express ideas, should defy tyrants and governments, that it should speak directly to the reader, and provide entertainment and provocation in equal measure. This is the cause for which I stand."

Monday, March 16, 2009

Signs of revolution?

On the streets of Mexico City, incitements to evict the foreign bankers.

In Cincinnatti, cranky middle-class mobs gather to throw tea parties and complain about paying other people's mortgages.

And at Comics.com, the brilliant Matt Bors envisions the near future.

In case you think Matt is making that stuff up about Chuck Norris, here's his column on the persistently creepy World Net Daily. (Thanks to James Trimarco for the tip!)

I may run for president of Texas
Posted: March 09, 2009

...Anyone who has been around Texas for any length of time knows exactly what we'd do if the going got rough in America. Let there be no doubt about that. As Sam Houston once said, "Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may."

Just last Friday, the Alamo celebrated its 173rd commemoration, when on March 6, 1836, Texans under Col. William B. Travis were overcome by the Mexican army after a two-week siege at the Alamo in San Antonio. But they didn't go down without a hell-of-a-fight, as those roughly 145 Texans fought to their dying breaths against more than 2,000 Mexican forces under Gen. Santa Anna. (Casualties in the battle were 189 Texans vs. about 1,600 Mexicans.) They lost that battle, but would provide the inspiration to win the war. Their fighting spirit rallied the new-found republic, and still does to this day. So when you think all is lost in America, remember the Alamo!

For those losing hope, and others wanting to rekindle the patriotic fires of early America, I encourage you to join Fox News' Glenn Beck, me and millions of people across the country in the live telecast, "We Surround Them," on Friday afternoon (March 13 at 5 p.m. ET, 4 p.m. CT and 2 p.m. PST). Thousands of cell groups will be united around the country in solidarity over the concerns for our nation. You can host or attend a viewing party by going to Glenn's website. My wife Gena and I will be hosting one from our Texas ranch, in which we've invited many family members, friends and law enforcement to join us. It's our way of saying "We're united, we're tired of the corruption, and we're not going to take it anymore!"

Again, Sam Houston put it well when he gave the marching orders, "We view ourselves on the eve of battle. We are nerved for the contest, and must conquer or perish. It is vain to look for present aid: None is at hand. We must now act or abandon all hope! Rally to the standard, and be no longer the scoff of mercenary tongues! Be men, be free men, that your children may bless their father's name."

(Note: Speaking of showdowns, Chuck is also inviting anyone near the Houston area this weekend to see a good example of the raw Texas fighting spirit by joining him and others for the national martial arts event, "Showdown in H-Town.")

In the showdown between Chuck Norris and Kinky Friedman, my money's on Chuck.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Abercrombie R.A.F.?

This Sunday's NYT men's fashion magazine supplement featured, between the retro glossies of retarded television stars with manicured stubble and the oiled hairless (and often headless) torsos selling bottled artificial pheromones, the above still from what looks to be the WB version of the coming revolution, and the following textual answer to Gil-Scott Heron that invites the reader to look to German revolutionaries of the 1970s as the perfect fashion inspirations for the new American meltdown:

The Revolution Will Be Televised

Depending on your point of view, Bernd Eichinger’s film ‘‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’’ is either a biopic about domestic terrorism in the early ’70s or a cautionary tale about sartorial decision making. In Germany, the movie has prompted a sober review of the Baader-Meinhof group, which is still cloaked in romantic notions of left-wing radicalism despite the narcissistic dedication to violence, hashish and LSD-laced hedonism displayed by its founder, Andreas Baader, and his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin. What began with plans to throw pudding at the American vice president Hubert Humphrey culminated in bombings and hijackings. Eichinger, who also produced the historical films ‘‘We Children From Bahnhof Zoo’’ and ‘‘Downfall,’’ summarizes the era thus: ‘‘It was fun. Then it turned into a nightmare.’’

Even Ulrike Meinhof, the newspaper columnist turned commando, found it increasingly difficult to present any political justification for the group’s slide into mayhem. Still, Baader-Meinhof and its successor, the Red Army Faction, had its fashionable devotees: the group was an unnamed inspiration for Marianne Faithfull’s 1979 hit ‘‘Broken English,’’ and Joe Strummer took to wearing R.A.F. T-shirts. Vanity — and the need for new disguises — contributed to the ringleaders’ undoing: Ensslin was arrested while shopping for clothes after a shop assistant felt a pistol in her blue-gray leather jacket. Baader, always in Ray-Bans, was an uncooperative student of the Palestinian fedayeen, once insisting that his velvet trousers, not green battle dress, were the correct choice for live-ammunition training. Finally, a tip-off about young people cruising in ostentatious cars led police to a garage near Frankfurt in 1972. And what do you know? Baader and two associates showed up driving a purple Porsche. (EDWARD HELMORE)

The movie appears to include a bunch of popular contemporary German Brat Packers as the R.A.F. members. Causing one to wonder, why can't we have a movie about contemporary American revolutionaries played by the faces from the covers of our glossy magazines? You know, a cross between Kiefer Sutherland's 24 and the Symbionese Liberation Army? For that matter, how long before the current crisis produces *actual* American revolutionaries? I bet you they will have white teeth, American Apparel, and cleverly encrypted iPhones, and the first thing they will do is rob the mall at which they can no longer afford to shop. You know, before the mall closes entirely.

Milton Babbitt, with avant-go-go dancers

Video: The Bad Plus, performing Milton Babbitt's "Semi-Simple Variations," with choreography and dance performance by Julie Worden of Mark Morris Group. From the band's new album, For All I Care, which, in addition to freshly intense performances of 20th century minimalism like this, incorporates voice for the first time and discovers new depths in FM rock like Nirvana's Lithium, Yes' Runaround, and, yes, Barracuda. I saw these guys perform in Houston last month and I they are really at the top of their game.

Mandatory listening here: free MP3 of Lithium.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How to Get Out of the Rat Race and Live on $10 a Month

The aforementioned volume, self-published by George Leonard Herter in 1965, with third edition in 1969, made its way to me earlier this week via the amazing Bibliobarn in South Kortright, New York, one of the most wonderful country used book stores you will ever find. My good friends the archivist and Pataphysician Michael Carter and the conservator Heidi Nakashima (my sister out-law), knowing of my predilection for forgotten guides to the secrets of nature, wrapped it in marbled paper and sent it home. We will see how quickly I am able to implement its instructions for a simpler life. The opening para:

There are a great many people who are fed up with life in the crowded areas of the world. Living with people under crowded conditions and realizing how selfish and worthless most of them are, can drive one to most anything. Putting up with traffic, dull uninteresting jobs, relatives, living in citiesthat would be sure atom bomb targets, can bring you to the breaking point. At times, it fills you right up to the brim and you want to get away from the nothingness of the rat race. You want to get back to plain living in the wilderness where $1.00 can be made to do the work of a thousand. You want to try to find real happiness. To do this, you must get back to nature. You must get to a place where you can honestly find God and worship Him.

The lavishly illustrated, eclectically organized book provides a bizarro manual for escape from civilization, the outsider art of the nature survivalist genre, like Tom Brown as reinvented by David Lynch. Unexpected tips like how to get free land in Alaska, how to use fluorescent yarn for trapping, how to make a dugout baby cradle, how to supplement your income with photographs of birds being fed from the mouth of a person, and how to use a house cat to trap a coyote:

A sure and quick way to catch coyotes and wolves is as follows: Nail a small platform on top of a fence post or about a four-foot-high stump. Put a collar on the house cat. Attach a short piece of rope to the collar and then to the top of the platform. Have your traps soaked in cow or horse manure for a day or two. Set four of them around the fence post and two on the peak of the highest ground near the post. Cover the traps well. The coyotes will go for the highest spotto look over the situation before coming in. If you miss them on the high spot, you will get them for sure when they go to the base of the post. You can catch even the smartest old coyote or wolf. The cat will not get hurt. They really enjoy seeing one of their archenemy caught in a trap.

Another trap you may want to try at home is the above-illustrated method of getting a bear to shoot itself with a rifle.

Highly recommended. As is the idea of breaking free of the rat race yourself, and inventing your own new techniques of survival in our pre-apocalyptic world. Maybe we need to start a new group blog on the subject, with supplemental unwired versions distributed by mimeograph.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Adidas RPG

One of the cooler of many cool props in William Gibson's most recent novel, Spook Country, was a pair of Teutonic combat sneakers:

Wired: One of the details that leaped out at me was the Adidas GSG9, named for the German counterterrorism squad. I felt certain you'd invented the shoe, but then I Googled it.

Gibson: The Adidas GSG9s were the obvious choice for the thinking man's ninja. Nothing I could make up could resonate in the same way. There's code in name-checking the GSG9 history — esoteric meaning. Something that started with Pattern Recognition was that I†discovered I could Google the world of the novel. I began to regard it as a sort of extended text — hypertext pages hovering just outside the printed page. There have been threads on my Web site — readers Googling and finding my footprints. I still get people asking me about "the possibilities of interactive fiction," and they seem to have no clue how we're already so there.

There's a whole thread of German-branded cool running through Gibson's fiction, back to the light aircraft liaising corporate headhunting in the Sprawl and the drone from Mona Lisa Overdrive — conjuring up layers of alt-Luftwaffe potency by the simple use of the word "Dornier." Semiotically, there's an interesting effect to this appropriation and repurposing of that secret American fascination with the products of WWII German engineering (think Cold War American kid loading up his model Schwimmwagen with Luger-toting ski troopers), the latent power behind that sort of 80s-style "West Germany" techno branding, as if Kraftwerk codes a domesticated Peenemünde posse. Gibson has plenty of company in this particular eyeball kicking strategy, but he pulls it off with so much more natural cool.

Courtesy of Spiegel Online, I now have a better idea of the deeper roots of the meme — the secret prehistory of Adidas, Puma, Hugo Boss, et al, as military equipment suppliers. Not only is there an Adidas combat boot, there is (or at least was) an Adidas RPG. Given Gibson's talent for inventing products that later become real, we are counting on him to bring it back better than before, the perfect next-generation AK-47 for the rogue wildness of the 21st century.

The Prehistory of Adidas and Puma

...Herzogenaurach, the Dasslers' home town in Bavaria, has a long tradition as a center for shoemaking. In 1922, for example, it boasted 112 shoemakers drawn from a population of 3,500. It was here, in 1924, that Adolf and Rudolf Dassler founded the "Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory" to specialize in athletic shoes. During the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, a German sprinter wearing Dassler spikes took the bronze medal. But it was the legendary shoes of Owens that established the Dasslers' worldwide reputation and laid the foundation for two exceptional careers. After the war, Adi and Rudolf went their separate ways. Each would build up one of West Germany's showpiece sports companies -- one Adidas, the other Puma.

But the history of the Dasslers -- who both joined the Nazi Party in 1933 -- wouldn't be complete without one chapter from World War II: In 1944, there was suddenly a spike in the number of Allied tanks being blown apart by German fire. The culprit was the latest anti-tank rocket launcher, nicknamed the "Panzerschreck" ("Tank Terror"). This extremely effective weapon petrified Allied tank crews -- and it was manufactured in the same factory that had developed Owens' shoes only eight years earlier....

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

McSweeney's $1 Stimulus Sale

From the fabulous, and sometimes fabulist, folks at McSweeney's:

If this [message] finds you somewhere on the populated Earth, you may have heard a lot of talk of doom and gloom recently. We here at McSweeney's object. Look, we like Paul Krugman as much as anyone, and who doesn't love a good stimulus package, but all this focus on the negative can be a little counterproductive. Look around you! This is still a world full of wonders, and among these wonders are fine printed books, some of which are created by us here at McSweeney's.

We want to help you remember these wonders within easy reach. And so: This week, every book on our site is $15. Wait, not every -- some are $5. Not cheap enough? Okay, a few are $1. Go to it! Fill up a bag and help us spread the joy. Help us save America!

This is a hell of a deal, and you should take advantage of it and help promote America's most extravagant publisher of next generation literary fiction. A few recommendations from my personal library:

McSweeney's Issue 18, a manageable little volume with completed maze on the cover, and the brilliant story "Somoza's Dream" by Daniel Orozco inside.

Maps and Legends, by Michael Chabon. Essays full of wonder by this frequent slummer in the ghetto of the fantastic, including pieces on D'Aulaire's Norse Myths, Silver Age Marvel, and Howard Chaykin, wrapped in a crazy cool three-layer cartographic cover by .

All Known Metal Bands, by Dan Nelson, which is nothing less than a finely bound list of the names of all known metal bands past and present.

McSweeney's Issue 24, half-Barthelme, half hard-boiled lit fic including Christopher Howard's "How to Make Millions in the Oil Market" and Philippe Soupault's Death of Nick Carter, with a super cool embossed landscape cover.

Everything That Rises, by Lawrence Wechsler, an amazing compilation of disparate images recording strange mirroring compositions across time and space.

Here They Come, Yannick Murphy's amazing story of a girl's crazy life in 1970s New York City.

The Children's Hospital, Chris Adrian's dense novel about a hospital preserved afloat on a submerged Earth.

McSweeney's Issue 17, perhaps the most awesome of McSweeney's experiments in publishing form: a literary magazine in the form of a packet of junk mail, including Peter Ferry's beautiful story "The Accident" (in the form of a typewritten letter inside its own envelope) and a rare issue of Yeti Researcher: The Magazine of the Society for Cryptic Hominid Investigation.

Any issue of Wholphin, McSweeney's amazing DVD magazine of short films involving things like leaping ants, God looking down through his gun scope, considering of the lobster, and singing Led Zeppelin songs backwards.

The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, by Harry Steven Keeler, the most insanely absurd vintage pulp you will ever read, rendered technicolor cool by this beautiful republished edition.

Monday, March 9, 2009

NYRB on Daugherty on Barthelme (and Barthelme on Capitalism, Balzac, and Laredo)

The new issue of The New York Review of Books has a nice review of Tracy Daugherty's new biography of Donald Barthelme, "Hiding Man." It sounds like a worthy read, a literary bio that achieves suspense in the life story you already know of 20th century Houston's most unlikely product, the man who blew the doors open on the opportunities of the short story for postmodern expression. From the review, which appears in full text at NYRB online:

In a way, Barthelme's work was all inner life, partially concealed, partially displayed. His stories are a registration of a certain kind of churning mind, cerebral fragments stitched together in the bricolage fashion of beatnik poetry. The muzzled cool, the giddy play, the tossed salad of high and low: everything from cartoon characters to opera gets referenced in a graffitti-like chain of sentences. Conventional narrative ideas of motivation and characterization generally are dispensed with. Language is seen as having its own random and self-generating vital life, a subject he takes on explicitly in the story "Sentence," which is one long never-ending sentence, full of self-interruptions and searching detours and not quite dead ends (like human DNA itself, with its inert, junk viruses), concluding with the words "a structure to be treasured for its weakness as opposed to the strength of stones."

The story "For I'm the Boy Whose Only Joy Is Loving You"—whose lilting title refers not to the Irish ballad "Bold O'Donahue," as Daugherty insists, but to an old Bing Crosby song called "Remember Me"—ends with a character's memory of Tuesday Weld turning from the screen to tell him that he was a good man. "He had immediately gotten up and walked out of the theater, gratification singing in his heart." When he is then physically assaulted, salt emerges from his eyes and "black blood from his ears, and from his mouth, all sorts of words." A belief in language and culture persists indomitably in Barthelme's sad, hip world and makes life worthwhile and deserving of what Thomas Pynchon has called "the radiant quality" of Barthelme's attention.

If you have never read any Barthelme, track down a copy of one of his collections — Sixty Stories is my favorite. Required reading for any contemporary fabulist, but somehow generationally neglected, notwithstanding the persistent adoration from the McSweeney's crowd.

Over at "barthelismo," they have a bunch of full texts of Barthelme's stories (with permission), full of amazing stuff — a voice simultaneously peculiar to its time (at least in terms of many of the referents -- see, e.g., the Vietnam War references in "The Indian Uprising") while resonating fresh power on every reading, eyeball kicking semiotic cryptomes loaded with potent feeling. For example, see "The Rise of Capitalism," excerpted below:

Honoré de Balzac went to the movies. He was watching his favorite flick, The Rise of Capitalism, with Simone Simon and Raymond Radiguet. When he had finished viewing the film, he went out and bought a printing plant, for fifty thousand francs. "Henceforth," he said, "I will publish myself, in handsome expensive de-luxe editions, cheap editions, and foreign editions, duodecimo, sexdecimo, octodecimo. I will also publish atlases, stamp albums, collected sermons, volumes of sex education, remarks, memoirs, diaries, railroad timetables, daily newspapers, telephone books, racing forms, manifestos, libretti, abecedaries, works on acupuncture, and cookbooks." And then Honoré went out and got drunk, and visited his girlfriend's house, and, roaring and stomping on the stairs, frightened her husband to death. And the husband was buried, and everyone stood silently around the grave, thinking of where they had been and where they were going, and the last handfuls of wet earth were cast upon the grave, and Honoré was sorry.


The Achievements of Capitalism:

The curtain wall
Artificial rain
Rockefeller Center


"Capitalism sure is sunny!" cried the unemployed Laredo toolmaker, as I was out walking, in the streets of Laredo. "None of that noxious Central European miserabilism for us!" And indeed, everything I see about me seems to support his position. Laredo is doing very well now, thanks to application of the brilliant principles of the "new capitalism." Its Gross Laredo Product is up, and its internal contradictions are down. Catfish-farming, a new initiative in the agribusiness sector, has worked wonders. The dram-house and the card-house are each nineteen stories high. "No matter," Azalea says. "You are still a damn dawg, even if you have 'unveiled existence.'" At the Laredo Country Club, men and women are discussing the cathedrals of France, where all of them have just been. Some liked Tours, some Lyon, some Clermont. "A pious fear of God makes itself felt in this spot."


Capitalism arose and took off its pajamas. Another day, another dollar. Each man is valued at what he will bring in the marketplace. Meaning has been drained from work and assigned instead to remuneration. Unemployment obliterates the world of the unemployed individual. Cultural underdevelopment of the worker, as a technique of domination, is found everywhere under late capitalism. Authentic self-domination by individuals is thwarted. The false consciousness created and catered to by mass culture perpetuates ignorance and powerlessness. Strands of raven hair floating on the surface of the Ganges…Why can't they clean up the Ganges? If the wealthy capitalists who operate the Ganges wig factories could be forced to install sieves, at the mouths of their plants… And now the sacred Ganges is choked with hair, and the river no longer knows where to put its flow, and the moonlight on the Ganges is swallowed by the hair, and the water darkens. By Vishnu! This is an intolerable situation! Shouldn't something be done about it?

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Dream of Rorschach


With all the hoopla surrounding the premier of the new Watchmen film (which I haven't seen yet but will, and am getting conflicting reports on) I thought I'd get in on the excitement myself. Not with a review of the film, a mildly thoughtful essay or even my anecdote about how at Wizard World Texas I had the misfortune of encountering a fanboy who didn't think Watchmen was all that great, who then dismissed super-heroes and science fiction as "All the same thing."

No, I've written up a discussion of the one and only official Watchmen crossover published by DC Comics back in the day. What's that, you say? There was no such animal? Hurm. You must not have been reading Denny O'Neal's awesomely philosophical (and spectacularly violent) The Quesion back in 1988 then. Ponder this: Steve Ditko's The Question and Alan Moore's Rorschach sharing the pages of the same funnybook. Hilarity ensues. Check it out over at RevolutionSF.

Or, you can head over to PvPOnline, where Scott Kurtz's Ombudsmen satire is just about 57 kinds of brilliant.

Upside of the Zeitgeist

Over at Comics.com, the brilliant editorial cartoonist Andy Singer (who tends to comment more on culture than politics) manages to capture better than anyone I've seen the upside hidden within the spirit of the now, and the imminent future. An excellent visual recommendation for how to approach your weekend. And maybe next week...

Check out more Andy Singer here.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Chitlin Circuits

So, in looking at some material on Central Texas and the Brazos River bottomland area, I've been running across references to the Texas version of the chitlin circuit. If you've heard of the Orpheum circuit---the vaudeville-era system that parceled show business talent throughout the country from Broadway all the way down to the backwater 150 seat theatre--the chitlin version served (natch) as the African-American parallel. 

There seems to have been a triangle between Austin, Houston, and the Killeen area with its military bases. Once an act entered the triangle, it would get its money's worth by stringing through the towns that drift along the Brazos, tiny burgs like Rockdale, Thorndale, Gause. And while most of the acts were never heard of outside the state, others who came in--Ike and Tina Turner, B.B. King, Bobby Womack, Lightning Hopkins, were certainly well known. The interesting thing to me is that the towns themselves were irrevelant; it was the population out in the farmland surrounding them that made up the audience. The Brazos river and the rich cotton producing soil around it, served as the western end of the cotton belt that began back in Southern Georgia. In the sharecropping era, you had farmers who would come in to the county seat on the weekend. And an act from the circuit would be there to take their money. 

In Austin, the city had built the Doris Miller Auditorium in 1942, ostensibly to honor the memory of the sailor who'd shot down Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor, more specifically to provide a location on the east side for black servicemen to avoid racial intermingling. The little auditorium is still there today, along with the Victory Grill, which was another key spot in the circuit. In its way, the chitlin circuit still exists--only now it's used by rap groups coming out of Houston and gospel troupes and traveling stage plays and musicals.  

Besides the music and entertainment, in the absence of a media targeted to sharecroppers and other men and women in rural areas, with no equivalent to the Grand Old Opry or Pappy O'Daniel's Lightcrust Doughboys on the radio, the old circuit also must have acted as a mode of communication, of passing information within the triangle.  (One would think that the internet now would be the primary method to get the word out over the modern day chitlin circuit, but they still use old, old media--flyers, posters on light posts all over east Austin, late night interviews over low-watt community radio stations. Not sophisticated but the message hits its target better than throwing a pebble in the internet sea.) I'm sort of interested in that idea of messages being passed around in plain sight, in seemingly unsophisticated ways. 

Diamonds in the Sky

Now available on the Web is a new anthology of astronomy-based science fiction funded by the National Science Foundation and edited by astronomer and science fiction writer Mike Brotherton. Here's how Mike describes the Diamonds in the Sky project:

"If you’re looking for free science fiction stories featuring a range of astronomical facts and mind-blowing concepts, you’ve found the right place. This collection was pitched to the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a way of doing some public outreach and as a potential resource for astronomy teachers. Thanks to NSF funding and our contributors, editors, and web designer you can now read Diamonds in the Sky. Enjoy!"

My contribution, first published in Analog Science Fiction Magazine in the 1990's and re-edited for Diamonds in the Sky, explores radio astronomy. In "The Listening-Glass" I move the Arecibo Observatory's big dish to the Moon, but the test run of the Lunar radio telescope does not go as planned!


Happy Texas Independence Day. When you live in Texas, the only state that has its own revolutionary creation myth (as well as its own music, cuisine, attire, and even vehicle), you can't help but get the sense that, 175-plus years later, the descendants would do it all over again. The mythology is deeply internalized in a state where all schoolchildren get a full year of Texas history every other year from grade school through middle school. Believe me, they have the guns and the off-road vehicles and the fuel and the attitude all covered.

And when you follow the events just across the Rio Grande, you can't help but wonder if some other Mexican states aren't about to devolve into their own quasi-independence, if more along the lines of 21st-century rogue states than a 19th-century exercise in imperial adverse possession. Chihuahua, Coahuila and Sinaloa all sound like they are on the brink, while on the gringo side the economic downturn takes anti-immigration hysteria to new heights (though not so much in Texas). Just take the microcosm of El Paso-Ciudad Juárez, where you have the imminent narco-city state on one side of the river and one of the largest collections of U.S. military installations on the other side, from Ft. Bliss north to White Sands and Alamogordo. It doesn't take much of a science fictional imagination to envision degeneration over the next decade into warlord mayhem with competing factions of Federales. Ejercito Mexicano, Cartel paramilitaries, West Texas sheriffs, U.S. Army, and citizen militia from both sides fighting it out for territory and order.

In otherwords, imagine some mutant melange of Black Hawk Down, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, El Mariachi, and RoboCop. I would totally shell out eight bucks to watch that. Even more exciting, I may get to live it.


NYT: March 1, 2009
With Force, Mexican Drug Cartels Get Their Way
By Marc Lacey

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — Mayor José Reyes Ferriz is supposed to be the one to hire and fire the police chief in this gritty border city that is at the center of Mexico’s drug war. It turns out, though, that real life in Ciudad Juárez does not follow the municipal code.

It was drug traffickers who decided that Chief Roberto Orduña Cruz, a retired army major who had been on the job since May, should go. To make clear their insistence, they vowed to kill a police officer every 48 hours until he resigned.

They first killed Mr. Orduña’s deputy, Operations Director Sacramento Pérez Serrano, together with three of his men. Then another police officer and a prison guard turned up dead. As the body count grew, Mr. Orduña eventually did as the traffickers had demanded, resigning his post on Feb. 20 and fleeing the city.

Replacing Mr. Orduña will also fall outside the mayor’s purview, although this time the criminals will not have a say. With Ciudad Juárez and the surrounding state of Chihuahua under siege by heavily armed drug lords, the federal government last week ordered the deployment of 5,000 soldiers to take over the Juárez Police Department. With the embattled mayor’s full support, the country’s defense secretary will pick the next chief.

Chihuahua, which already has about 2,500 soldiers and federal police on patrol, had almost half the 6,000 drug-related killings in all of Mexico in 2008 and is on pace for an even bloodier 2009. Juárez’s strategic location at the busy El Paso border crossing and its large population of local drug users have prompted a fierce battle among rival cartels for control of the city.

“Day after day, there are so many horrible things taking place there,” said Howard Campbell, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso who studies Mexico’s drug war. “The cartels are trying to control everything.”

Nothing is surprising in Chihuahua anymore. Gunmen recently shot at one of three cars in Gov. José Reyes Baeza’s motorcade, killing a bodyguard and wounding two agents. The drug cartels routinely collect taxes from business owners, shooting those who refuse to pay up. As for the Juárez mayor, who has made cleaning up the notoriously corrupt police department his focal point, the cartel recently threatened to decapitate him and his family unless he backed off.

The handwritten threat that it issued went further than that. Like many people in Juárez, Mayor Reyes has homes on both sides of the border, splitting his time between El Paso and Juárez. The note threatening him made it clear that the assassins going after him would have no qualms about crossing into the United States to finish off the mayor and his family.

“We took the threat seriously,” said Chris Mears, a spokesman for the El Paso Police Department. “I’m not going to tell you what actions were taken, but we’ve taken actions.”

In an interview in his wood-paneled office overlooking the United States, Mr. Reyes, 46, whose father was mayor in the early 1980s, said he was not going to allow criminals to run the city, despite the inroads they are making. He said he initially opposed his police chief’s decision to resign because he did not want the outlaws to feel empowered. He acceded only as a life-saving gesture, he said.

“I’m not going to give in,” he vowed in an interview, welcoming the arrival of soldiers so that the traffickers will feel the heat even more.

Right now, the Juárez police are no match for the outlaws. Last year, the senior uniformed officer was killed, one of 45 local police officers killed since January 2007, and a former police chief pleaded guilty to charges of smuggling a ton of marijuana from Juárez to El Paso. Mr. Orduña, who lived at the police station to avoid being killed, had replaced another chief who fled to El Paso after receiving threats last year. If the army had not come in, the mayor would no doubt have had a difficult time finding somebody to head the department.

Introducing a nationwide police recruitment campaign, the mayor has raised salaries and benefits enough that he is attracting new recruits to replace the many officers being fired for their links to organized crime.

“I know the dangers and I accept them,” said José Martín Jáuregui López, one of the 289 cadets now being trained at Juárez’s police academy. “There are a lot of people afraid for me: my mom, my relatives. But this is what I want to do.”

As a sign to the traffickers that he was not running from them, Mr. Reyes appeared Friday to be like any other mayor, giving a speech at the opening of a shopping center, signing a memorandum of understanding with a developer, reassuring residents that he would keep loiterers from gathering in front of their homes.

But the bodyguards holding assault rifles who clung close to him made it clear that Juárez remained a city under siege.

“There’s no square inch of the city that has been untouched by the violence,” said Lucinda Vargas, an economist who works by day to remake the city as executive director of Juárez Strategic Plan, but retreats to El Paso at night. “There’s a lot of evidence that Juárez, in a micro sense, is becoming a failed state. But I still think we haven’t failed yet and that we could still rescue ourselves.”

Sunday, March 1, 2009

This has been a test

For a period in the mid-90s, my principal means of transportation was a 1977 Chevy Nova that had previously belonged to my late grandmother. I called it the car that escaped probate. It was silver baked to the color of primer, with a maroon vinyl interior and a cardboard sleeve over the passenger-side sun visor featuring a drawing of a dude in a leisure suit demonstrating how to properly use the innovative shoulder restraint. With addition of a Bukowski bumper sticker, it was a perfect ride.

For in-flight entertainment, it had the basic Delco AM/FM radio, with the mondo tuner knobs and the mechanical preset buttons. And for some reason, it could only tune in three categories of transmissions: Zeppelin, Muzak, and Paul Harvey.

I have loved Paul Harvey ever since. Because I never kept much of a routine, I never managed to figure out exactly when or on what frequency he could be found. Rather, he would randomly insert himself into the ethereal fabric of my day, usually while I was out trolling the sludgy streets of a Midwestern suburb looking for a lunch counter that would serve a pretty good grilled cheese sandwich.

Paul Harvey evoked an unexpected weird sense of wonder in the most mundane everyday. He came from a slightly mutated variation on Middle America, his fifteen-minute daily broadcasts like David Lynch channeling Reader's Digest. Aqua Velva accidental performance art that elicited sense memories of forgotten great uncles with double-knit Navy suits and big-fisted magic tricks, with weird dissonant inflections and syntactical rhythms that held your attention like some bop variation on a Presbyterian minister.

I will heretically suggest that he also had a subtly science fictional sensibility, stringing together the headlines of the day in a formula that piled up little nuggets of wonder until the penultimate few seconds, when he would drop a Ray Bradbury-style surprise ending designed to turn your perception of the world upside down. Plus, his very existence, broadcasting daily news commentary well into the twenty-first century in the style of the 1940s was a daily dose of time travel and alternate history and slightly mutated perceptions.

So now it feels like radio has finally really died, gone the way of locally produced television shows and test patterns and thoughts for the day and the comics page of the local newspaper (DailyInk and Comics.com notwithstanding). Nostalgia is for chumps, but I will miss listening to Paul Harvey, who could kick the ass of Anderson Cooper and Matt Lauer and Wolf Blitzer all at the same time.

NYT: "Paul Harvey, Talk-radio Pioneer, is Dead at 90."

NYT (1988): "Paul Harvey's Sopabox of the Air."