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Christopher Brown THE TROPIC OF KANSAS. Radical SF.

July 29th, 2017

I’ll start with my latest painting, “Bugs and Stars.”

“Bugs and Stars” acrylic, July, 2017, 24” x 18”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

I did this one pretty quickly. I used the background color from my recent “Monkeybrains ISP,” wrapping the pale blue-green around some purplish blobs. I added some strands of grass, and a bunch of bugs. The dots further back, they could either be bugs or they could be stars. How it is. More info at my paintings page.

…music that channeled the sounds of the cold midcontinental cities where it was born, cities of forgotten American diasporas hidden in the old roads and abandoned train stations. Chicago, Detroit, here in the Twin Cities.

Today’s post is, as with Walkaway last week, based on a new political SF book that I just read. This time it’s Christopher Brown, Tropic of Kansas. Filled with the music of Pynchon, Burroughs, and Ballard. And something of a dystopia. Chris has written an essay pointing out that, if you’re paying attention, the dystopia is already here.

I’m setting off quotes from Tropic of Kansas as blockquotes with a bar on the left side. And, as is my custom, the illos are whatever random-ass unused images I have kicking around. The older ones are smaller.


[Rudy and Chris at Borderlands 2017. Photo by G.I.L.L.Y.]

Sylvia and I went up to Borderlands Books in SF and saw Chris talking about his novel, and today I just finished reading it on my Kindle, it’s very political, a real rabble-rousing action tale. It’s been getting into my head, affecting the way I hear and see.

Chris is a charming guy from Austin, TX, maybe 50 years old, a lawyer, author of numerous fantasy stories, and this is his first novel. We had dinner with him after his Borderlands reading, and Michael Blumlein, and Joseph & Rina of Tachyon Books, and, out of the blue, my Night Shade editor Jeremy Lassen, who was at Borderlands too.

I saw the chemical silos where the yields of fouled fields are turned into food for machines.

Quick flash of pushing the gasohol thing to it’s logical conclusion. Corn you can’t actually eat. But it makes sick juice for running machines. Military agribiz eats the heart of America, the Tropic of Kansas.

The copter did not look like a helicopter. It looked like a flying ball made out of toothpicks. It was smaller than a basketball but bigger than a baseball. The balsa wood lattice was dotted with little fiber eyes all attached to a controller the size of a pack of gum. It had six small rotors inside the superstructure. It made no more noise than a fan. Like the plane, it did not look like it could fly. And it didn’t. More like it floated.

Nice futuristic eyeball kicks throughout the book. Almost like a videogame or a graphic novel at times. Most of the machines are evil. And the drones…they’re like a plague. Just like in Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway.

The screen was filled with a test pattern, made from a cartoon of a robot armadillo, its plates painted in the colors of the rainbow, standing on a logo. “Channel Zero Please Stand By”
From the outside, the place looked like a concrete bunker, marked with a painting by the door of a cheesecake Aztec princess remotely piloting a giant flying snake with a fleshy joystick.

Ah, the armadillos of Austin. There’s a nice cross-border and interracial feel to Tropic of Kansas. At the reading, Michael Blumlein kind of jokingly asked Chris if the book had any relation to sex in Paris, as in Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Chris was like, huh? The name has been repo-ed, refurbished, and reified.

…the modern highways tracked the old unpaved routes. The pioneers got the trails from Indians, who got them from the animals. Up north, some of the trails were so old they were said to have been the trackways of mastodons, the hippie-haired giant elephants that the first peoples followed over here from Siberia.

Love this rap. Our highways as mastodon trails. Yeah Deep time. Shit happens, and the wind blows it all away. Can we relax? Even while the pigs are trampling our constitution and civil rights with their filthy trotters? Gotta relax if you get a minute to yourself. Otherwise they’ve won all the way down to the bare metal. Shall we laugh or shall we cry? Utopia or dystopia or stone-cold all around freak show. Am I woke yet?

“The rising race is all rhizomatic,” crackled the voice inside the machine. “Grown strong from underground roots that connect us with each other, across socially constructed divisions, in ways our oppressors cannot see.”

Rhizome is a Bruce Sterling word. It’s that rootlike thing that a creeping plant can grow from. Like bamboo has rhizomes. Chris and Bruce are pretty tight, being Austinites. There’s even an old guy in Tropic who reminds me of Bruce, a wheeler-dealer called Walker, who runs a pirate TV station. (Although Chris says he didn’t necessarily intend a similarity.)

Sig drank his fourth can of beer. It tasted like cold white bread. He could feel the chill wash over the folds of his brain.

English guy at a hacker convention once says to me: “Why is making love in a canoe like Bud Light?” Answer: “They’re both f*cking close to water.” A brain made of folded Wonder bread. With mold in it, man. And the mold is the postsingular mind. Rhizomatic.

Time got slippery. It was like the moon slowed down and watched.

Some nice touches of that in here, but never overdone. I think Chris thought about this book for a long time. A lifetime’s brain dump. Can you see Australia in the sky in that picture? The blue part. Figure / ground. Yin / yang. Dystopia / Eutopia. Clouds before sun.

Ground crew were loading shrink-wrapped white metal boxes the size of refrigerators into the back bay of the jet. “What are those things?” asked Dallas. “Beats me,” said Clint. “Maybe some kind of office computers?” “They’re voting machines,” said Xelina. “Offshore-modified, special order. Bringing them in for the midterms. Time to elect a new Congress.”

Later they refer to these rigged voting machines as “Freedom Machines.” So very close to where we’re at right now.

Reading Tropic of Kansas and then turning to the daily report on what our self-styled President has recently tweeted, I feel so very amped up for protest. Bursting. I think would feel good to write a hard-core rabble-rousing political novel. This seems to be a good time for that, historically speaking. But, um, I’m writing a historical SF novel called Return to the Hollow Earth. I want to be inside. “I want to look like Mr. Bulber,” as the shapeshifting alien says in Secret of Life. Barely subhuman.

On the one hand, current-events novels don’t age well. On the other hand, sometimes it doesn’t matter how a novel “ages.” Sometimes it matters what the novel does right now.

And political novels can in fact last. Look at 1984 and Clockwork Orange and Man in the High Castle and The Trial. The SF move let’s you scootch it back from too close a connection to the fleeting details of the current tussle. Gets you some distance, SF does, as Gibson likes to say.

My Mathematicians in Love had a political flavor, written in G.W.Bush years, and so did my Postsingular diptych. Not that anyone seemed to pick up on it. But, who knows, maybe some seeds were sown. Hard to assess the effect of things that SF writers say.

Later into the Bush-Cheney years, I got to a rage-point of writing the most radical story I could think of, called “The Third Bomb.” Pretty much needed to self-pub that bad boy, and it was in my zine Flurb. Tropic of Kansas is at about that same intensity level, and maybe “they” wouldn’t have published it a few years ago. But with our government collapsing—like, why even pretend to be normal? Say anything. And thanks for saying it, Chris.


[Rudy and Rudy Jr seeing Mystery Science Theater 3000 live at the Warfield.]

[Watching analog Channel 0.] After the last lingering shot of blood on the dock, the screen went to a test pattern and then to a primitive animation. A robot armadillo waddled into view, stood up, and peeled back an armored hatch in his belly, revealing a television screen. Rabbit ear antennae came out from behind his ears. “Change the channel!” he said in a cartoon voice.

Something I really really dig about Tropic is how Chris plays with alternate forms of an undernet or dark net…instead of being digital, it’s at least party analog, using the now-banned old analog UHF TVs and old analog phones, He uses the trope of having secret signal data inside the dark bar that you used to see at the top of a TV image when it lost its “vertical hold” and started rolling.

I remember a story where there was a brief beep at the start of space-radio-transmissions, and the beep held the data of all time yet to come. James Blish story, maybe it was called Beep. But back to Tropic, it’s refreshing to have all this sprawling cruddy hacker equipment cobbled together instead of that James Bond microdot stuff.

[“Skunk” mercenaries in Louisiana.] One dude was sitting up on the cab in ballistic overalls, smoking a cigarette. He wore a necklace of animal tails and strips of hairy leather. An assault rifle half-covered in duct tape hung down along his thigh on a low-slung shoulder strap. He caught Sig looking at him and pointed at Sig with a finger gun and a fucked-up smile.

Love seeing guys like this in a story. So cyberpunk.

Normally I like sunny and sense-of-wonder. I’m looking for escape a lot of the time. I’ve always wanted to see politics wither away, rather than becoming even more central. But there is the temptation to write a story where some aethereal beings that simply executes every single Republican oppressor. Of course the French-revolution-type “off with their heads” strategy never ends well. It runs wild, turns against the splinter groups within the revolutionary party, and provokes Draconian retaliation from the enemies.

Could revolutionaries do something other than killing the pigs? Dial up their empathy? Allay their fears? Give them prophetic dreams? Group hugs instead of the guillotine? That’s something Cory Doctorow is reaching for in Walkaway. And it’s cool to layer Walkaway and Tropic of Kansas. Great to have these two books coming out in this same fiftieth Summer of Love 2017. Compare and contrast. Blow your mind. Sf lives.

Sig watched the shadow of the antennae slowly work its way across the street. The container smelled like the sea. He drifted into a dream of water. The big cold lake of the north, surface like glass, as still in the morning as a block of ice about to form.

Love that closely observed nature writing. The divinity of the physical world. Cranking at an inconceivably maxxed out flop. Flip. The spirit is in the woods. I went and got lost in the woods the other days. Wondering if I’d fall and break my leg. Worth it to be out there. Being lost in the woods is my victory condition.

“Is that your victory condition, honey?” said Walker. “Restore the Tchoupitoulas Autonomous Zone? Those nutjobs fucked things up so bad, people couldn’t even get a roll of toilet paper at the corner store, to say nothing of a decent steak.” “A new political system based on self-determination and real democracy doesn’t happen overnight,” said Xelina. “And a correction of predatory mercantilist monopolies takes even longer. The people are ready for free networks without bosses and rulers and the men with guns who serve them. The TAZ isn’t dead. It just went underground. And viral.”

Walker is the Sterlingesque guy I mentioned before. Bruce says “victory condition” a lot. And TAZ, that’s the “Temporary Autonomous Zone” concept from Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey, you can find the book free on an anarchist site.

I love the name Xelina. Maybe it sounds like Helena? Rewrite Poe’s “To Helen” as “To Xelina”?

The Monsters Parade was the last volume in the series. A book so important to some that it caused sectarian arguments over whether the author meant for it to have an apostrophe in the title, and if so, where exactly it was supposed to go.

A nice thing in Tropic is that the prophet behind the movement is spacy woman sci-fi author, Maxine Price. Visionary sci-fi. Kind of a mix between P.K.Dick and Alice “James Tiptree” Sheldon.

Sig drew lines on his face with one of the cool charcoals from the edge of his fire. He had that feeling of machine surveillance, and a long open field to cross. The pattern was equal parts digital raccoon and pixel-hacking war paint. Xelina told him you could frustrate the facial recognition that way, a temporary version of the tattoos some guys got. “Neoprimitive augment,” she called it. “Improvise. Keep it irregular.”

Dig the real-punk hackeresque occupy type details. Are we going to need to go this far? Like these days, with Trump, for awhile I kept thinking, “This is going to do it. He’s out.” But nothing ever happens. We moan and rend our garments and the “rulers” keep on rooting. And each new outrage serves to distract everyone from the previous outrage. While freedom leaks away. And at this point we aren’t even a full year into the four. Our only hope is the 2018 elections. If we’re allowed to vote. If the vote counts aren’t hacked. Yaaaaaaaugh.


[Rudy, Richard Kadrey, and Michael Blumlein at Borderlands in 2004]

Looking back, he could see how the vegetation thickened in lush green clumps where the water and light came down. And the idea grabbed him that this is what the future looks like. All the wild green things that survive our big binge will move in to tear down what we leave behind after we’re gone, and in a generation the concrete and steel will be covered in new life.

Love the Ballardian victory of the plants. Very Richard Kadrey too, back in his early Kamikaze L’Amour vein. And Bill Burroughs in the Amazon, looking to score some yage. Nature always gets the last word. Such a relief to know that deep down. As Chris indeed does…he actually lives on a renaturalized brownfield. As he in effect says in Tropic, “You just have to leave it alone. It’ll come back.”

“The people are crazy,” said Tania. “Manipulated by political marketers into a rabid toddler mob that feeds the President and his oligarchs.” “That’s true, too,” said Claude. “But what if we implanted our own virus? Watch and see.”

The artists’ dream: we can counterprogram the media. Jam it. It has been done. It’s never at all clear what’s gonna work. But we have to try. The guy in this picture, Eric Lyons, was my boss when I was a programmer at Autodesk in the 1990s. Working on Cellular Automata, Chaos, and Artificial Life. Getting out the word. Bringing Cyberpunk to Silicon Valley. Eric was the most admirable boss I ever had. A pal. And you wanted to do what he said. A regular-guy engineer Viking freak. And our big boss was…Walker. John Walker, king of the computer hackers. Walker just released a new runs-in-any-browser-on-any-machine version of our old CA Lab / Cellab / WebCA program. Dig it here. Beyond wow.

They followed an imaginary line through American mapspace they appropriated from the old fictions of Maxine Price. The original Tropic of Kansas. Walker said it was the line in our heads “where ingenuity runs into loco.” To Tania, it was about riding on the cresting wave of the revolutionary impetus—the same energy that fuels a rock band, or a start-up, or a new religion, or a new American idea—before it gets co-opted by peddlers and power trippers.

The evanescent magic. Tropic of Kansas is, in a way, like a tale about a rock band getting big. Sig and Tania can’t fail. A power fantasy. A rush to read. Dying and being reborn over and over. Our time will come.

It didn’t take much to light the fire in people covered in petrochemicals by the kleptocracy and told it was actually freedom.

Funny how even the New York Times calls our President a kleptocrat by now. It’s not a catchphrase. It’s a fact.

It’s good to see fellow SF writers step forward to help raise the nation’s consciousness lest Trump be reelected in 2020. It’s our civic duty, you could say. But, of course, I rebel at any concept of “civic duty.” In a way, it’s equally important to create transcendent liberating escape literature. Well, really it comes down to whatever I’m actually able to write at any given time…


[Paul Mavrides with his black velvet painting of the Challenger disaster.]

[The attack machine was a] primitive robotic simulation of the musculoskeletal locomotion of a four-legged mammal. Its head came up on a strange coiled stalk, electronic eyes wrapped in a lidless white helm of bulletproof metal. It looked blind by the standards of nature, but you could see it was watching everything, assembling a complex model of the immediate tactical situation in the silicon brain that rode on top of its atomic heart. The beast had a patchwork exoskeleton of polished metal plate, mostly white but with a few off-color panels of red and black. Its call sign was a machine code laser-etched on its left rear haunch. It had a black box where the flag should have been.

I remember Robert Sheckley writing about machines like this. Chris likes to keep doing that trick of putting his characters into impossible situations…and then getting them out of it. At one point he even uses the Sheckley trick of going into the robot’s cuts via an access panel on it’s bottom. If you’re a writer, there’s always a way out.

And in conversation, Chris even speaks of his characters Sig and Tania as being superheroes. It is in some sense impossible to kill them. It helps that Chris Brown is the divine creator of the universe that Sig and Tania live in. In another of his essays, Chris makes the point that our novelistic characters are often in fact avatars of folktale heroes.

When they flipped the switch, it popped a flash against the back of everyone’s eyeballs. All the lights went out from Fort Meade halfway to Richmond, and drones fell from the sky like big metal doves.

The trope of the humble superweapon made in a garage. This one’s called the “Flashlight.” And yea, verily, the evil drones drop from the heavens.

And a new flag fluttered from the roof, the one that was made of a million stars to represent the idea of the Crowdrule.

Happy ending? Well, for about a minute. As Chris wrote to me in an email, “Imagining revolution is fun, and an easy place to find good story, but imagining what comes after is a lot harder.”

In Tropic of Kansas, after the new American revolution, the foreign countries come pushing in to “help” us. Naomi Klein The Shock Doctrine anyone? But, gosh, I never thought it’d happen to us! Oh, well. There’s still time, sister and brother. Maybe.

The dance continues. Dys / Eu. I like to focus on the funky interstitial slash. S/F knows all. With books like Walkaway and Tropic of Kansas out in the mindscape, we can still win this thing.

Cory Doctorow’s WALKAWAY

July 19th, 2017

I really enjoyed Cory Doctorow’s new Walkaway. I think it goes a step beyond any of his previous books. It’s up there with, say, Stross’s Accelerando, Sterling’s Holy Fire, Gibson’s Neuromancer, and my Software. In the cyberpunk pantheon.

I read Walkaway on my Kindle, and I happened to highlight passages that struck me as memorable, and the Kindle has an “Export Notes” feature, so I emailed my highlights to myself, and I’m using them for this instant blog post, adding my annotations, and the usual surrealist potpourri of more or less completely unrelated photos. I’m leaving the highlighted passages in the order in which they appeared in the book, so I’ll be dipping in and out of certain topics several times.

jesus microbes that could turn water into beer

Walkaway starts out with kids at a jokingly named “Communist party,” in an abandoned Muji factory, drinking biotech beer, fabbing free furniture from the machines that Muji happened to have abandoned there. We’re in a post-scarcity future, the three-D-printer-aficionado’s fantasy world where you can “print” or “fab” pretty much anything, even food, supplying your device with low-cost “feedstock.” And you can print out the parts to make new fabbers. Cory explored this idea in his novel Makers. But now it’s just part of the landscape. And we’ve got biotech added in. It’s all quite seamless—people used to praise Heinlein for having his future worlds feel quotidian and everyday…like, people aren’t exclaiming over the goodies, they’re just using them. And that always a thing with Gibson’s books too.

He dewormed his inboxes, flushing the junk and spum. He snooze-barred messages to bug him again later

Cory’s got good future slang here, too, with really a lot of great computer stuff. Like “spum” instead of “spam”. Why? It sounds good.

Asking the zottarich to redeem themselves by giving money away acknowledges that they deserve it all, should be in charge of deciding where it goes.

We’re in a future where, pretty much off camera, a lot of the world is kind of poisoned and trashed due to the irrational exuberance of the Pig. Cory refers to them as the “zottarich.” Meaning “zotta” like a high-number prefix along the lines of giga, tera, peta, exa. Strictly speaking the official International Systems of Units prefixes after exa are zetta, and yotta — but zotta sounds better.

Cory scores point after point against the zottarich. His characters have lots of discussions, and in many books this would kind of kill the rock of the roll, but in Walkaway it feels okay. It’s fun. The conversations are interesting. And I love the points being made. Things that are not being said in public these days.

It was like this the day after a lot of Meta, an over-emotional hangover that made her into a larger-than-life character from a soap.

His walkaway characters are young and rebellious—that classic bohemian, beatnik, hippie, punk, hipster strand of society—and at times they have fun drinking and getting high. And this creates the opportunity for new SF drugs that may or may not be stand-ins for actual drugs. Meta is a nice one, it lets you view everything with a certain irony. (I ricochet to the the Beatles line, “And though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway.”)

put ten and ten together and got one hundred.

Some nice nerd humor now and then. The joke that dare not speak it’s name. The wheeze here is that they’re referring to binary numbers…

I’m groundhog daying again, aren’t I?

Who’s saying this? It’s the character Dis. Her body is dead, but before she died, they managed (thanks to Dis’s work) to copy or transfer the brain processes into the cloud, that is, into a network of computers. And she can run as a sim in there. And she’s having trouble getting her sim to stabilize. It keeps freaking out and crashing. And each time she restarts the character Iceweasel sits there talking to the computer sim, trying to mellow it out, and Dis will realize she’s been rebooted, or restarted like Bill Murray in that towering cinematic SF masterpiece Groundhog Day. And Cory has the antic wit to make that verb.

The first half of the book is kind of a standard good young people against evil corporate rich people thing. But then, when Dis is talking about groundhog dayhing, it kicks into another gear. Cory pulls out a different stop on the mighty SF Wurlitzer organ: the software immortality trope. As I’m fond of saying, in my 1980 novel Software, I became one of the very first authors to write about the by-now-familiar notion of the mind as software. That is, your mind is in some sense like software running on your physical body. If we could create a sufficiently rich and flexible computer, the computer might be able to emulate a person.

There’s been a zillion movies, TV shows, SF stories and novels using this idea since then. What I liked so much about Walkaway is that Cory finds a way to make this (still fairly fantastic and unlikely) idea seem real and new.

you and I are the only people in this place who are cognitively equipped to debullshitify their dumb-ass consensus that the thing that happens to be most convenient is also the most moral.

Now back to the one-percenter zottarich issues. Cory keeps putting his finger on the total bullshit of the power elite. Like if they want to do something it’s automatically moral.

they’d herd-mentality into some fad but pretend it was a newly discovered, ageless universal truth—not product cooked up by one of their own to sell to the rest.

And if they make up some horseshit label for something, it’s supposed to be real and important. Fake news, anyone?

Anything invented before you were eighteen was there all along. Anything invented before you’re thirty is exciting and will change the world forever. Anything invented after that is an abomination and should be banned.

Another rich thing about Walkaway is that it has characters of different ages, and they inform each other very frankly about where it’s at.

You don’t remember what life was like twenty years ago, before walkaways. You don’t understand how different things are, so you think things don’t change that much.

And it’s worth saying over and over that things were not always exactly like the present…and they won’t be at all like this in a hundred or fifty or even ten years. People are so blind! Listen to the SF writers!

convert pigopolist despoilers to post-scarcity Utopians,

Love that glib Sixties-style anti-Pig babble. Reminds me of a Black Panther paper I saw where the metaphor was maintained in extenso, with the “pig” walking on “trotters” and living in a “pen” or a “sty” and so on.

you have to be a mathematician to appreciate how full of shit economists are,

As a math major, I hated economics more than any course I took in college, in fact they almost wouldn’t let me graduate because I stopped going to econ class. And seeing this line in Walkaway, I feel vindicated at last. By the way, Walkaway has a great older woman mathematician character, the lover and then wife of Iceweasel. All kinds of people, and the full spectrum of genders, but done is such a relaxed and non-preachy way.

They have a science-y vocabulary conceived of solely to praise people like your father. Like job creator. As though we need jobs! I mean, if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that I never want to have a job again … A ‘job creator’ is someone who figures out how to threaten you with starvation unless you do something you don’t want to do.

Another heavy hit against the Pig. Such a great takedown of the phrase “job creator.”

The moose regarded them for a moment. It had threadbare upholstery spots over its knees. Its shaggy fur glittered with ice crystals. Steam poured out of its nostrils in plumes that swirled in the breeze. Its jaw was ajar, making it look comically stunned, but when she looked into its huge eyes, she saw an unmistakable keenness. This moose wasn’t anyone’s fool. The moose shifted and a large turd plopped into the snow, melting and disappearing, leaving behind a steaming hole. They snickered at the unexpected earthiness. It gave them a look Limpopo read as “Oh do grow up,” though that was anthropomorphizing. It shuffled around in a broad circle, ungainly legs swinging in all directions but somehow not stepping in its own turd crater, turned its broad backside to them and walked—no, sauntered—away with a sway-hipped gait that was pure fucks-given-none.

And amid it all, there’s some really fine and closely observed nature writing. Cory understands that the physical world is beautiful and that it deeply matters.

We’d have a world that belonged to animals, and we’d experience it through sensors that perfectly simulated our wet stuff, but without crushing all those precious roots.

At some point, in the SFnal mania of it all, some of the Walkaway characters start floating the idea that it might be best if all humans uploaded themselves into the cloud as sims—and then politely removed their physical body from the physical earth.

At first when I read this passage, I misunderstood, and thought Cory was saying the sims would live in VR. But no, Rude dawg, Cory is not saying the sims will live in VR, which is the move I’ve seen in some prior tales by others, like sending the disembodied sims of to some bogus pseudo-Valhalla.

Cory gets it about Earth being where it’s at, and the sims will still “be” on earth, but “experience it through sensors that perfectly simulated our wet stuff.” Kind of voyeur relationship. Wearing a cloud condom to protect Earth. Or you can “occupy” devices like machines and e a poltergeist. Or (a move Cory doesn’t choose to make) you could grow yourself a cloned meat body like I was doing in Wetware. And of course that meat body would be “crushing those precious roots” while tromping around. Zottarich postomortem accessory?

Going off an a slight tangent, the reason it’s important not to go for a fake VR land for the sims is that, for basic physics reasons, any conventional computer-based kind of VR is likely to fall yotta short of physical reality. Why? Computers are small and shortlived. The planet is big and old. Probs because scaling. This said, it’s conceivable that a quantum computing matter-computer could make a satisfyingly funky and orgasmatronistic VR. But, uh, physical reality already is in fact a quantum computing matter-computer. So why emulate? Don’t try to fool Mother Nature…make love to her instead. That is, Cory is suggesting you become a happy ghost, slobbering over wet physical quantum computer mother Earth’s heaves and big doings. Maybe there are already ghosts doing this…who the eff knows.

(For background on these issues, see my essay, “The Great Awakening.” And for discussion, see my 2008 blog post, “Limits to Virtual Reality, 2: Answers to Comments”)

This is such a rich vein to mine, and I’m really glad Cory is opening it up a little more. Lots more goodies in there, oh my sistern and brethren.

It was lit with constellations of throwie lights, scattered in smears across the ceiling and walls, and there was a spacie-style adaptive sleep-surface, millions of sensor-embedded foam cells, like a living thing that cuddled and supported you according to an algorithm that second-guessed your circulation, writhing in a way that was disturbing and wonderful.

A wonderful closely-imagined physical SF scene.

Reality had a well-known pessimistic bias,

Great one-liner.

throw up a git to track what’s done and what needs doing

By “git” he means something like the free software sharing platform GitHub. The awareness of actual computing practices is really high in Walkaway.

Software immortality is nice, but if you can save your fleshy bodies, you should.

I agree! There’s so many issues with software immortality. What makes Walkaway so cool is that we get into some of the details of these issues. Like how does it feel to be running in a sim that you know is about to turn off, or…die?

Right at the end, as she was about to go, she let go of all the paramaterizations on her simulation, took the brakes off her emotions, lived the full spectrum of everything she could feel. Should feel. I should feel. Feeling it through her, feeling what she felt at that moment—like the best drugs you’ve ever taken times a thousand. I don’t get to have sex anymore, but this is like the best sex you’ve ever had, times a million. When I turn off my safety bumpers, it’s like I’m tearing through reality, riding a bicycle down a hill, there are trees and rocks and shit, if I hit any one of them, even brush against them, it’s over. For so long as I can steer between them, give my concentration to the problem, I’m going mach five and screaming so loud for joy it’s shattering windows. … So long as I email my diffs before I take off the brakes, it won’t be dying.”

Far out. Kind of an extreme sports death-wish fantasia here. Maybe actual physical death is this exciting? Letting go of all of our mental “bumpers”? And the last line is again a case of Cory being knowledgeable about the computeresque. Your “diffs” are the changes you made in your sim while you were running, and if someone somewhere boots up a new sim of you, then if they can merge in those diffs, the new you you be NuYu.

”Good thinking,” Iceweasel said. “Boys, you want to ride in a zeppelin?” Both boys babbled and shouted. Then Jacob got so excited he punched Stan, because reasons. They tumbled on the floor, punching and shouting.

I like the 21c grammar that Cory uses. That new usage: because [noun].

Everything was intertwingled tensegrity meshes that cross-braced themselves when stressed, combining strength and suppleness.

In one sentence we’ve got a tip of the hat to Ted Computer Lib Nelson (“Everything is deeply intertwingled) and to Bucky Fuller (“tensegrity sphere”). The idea being described here is a bicycle that only weighs a few ounces.

The network interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.

Long live the Web! So what we’ve got here is cool SF and some really harsh and relevant social commentary—highly needed in these darkening days as the pigopolists seek to steamroller our dear Amerika.

Exploding Head

July 15th, 2017

I’ve been in high gear this month. Here’s a picture of me with my head exploding. Or the man standing next to me, as in Dylan’s “Day of the Locusts.” Or something. More details toward the end of this post.

Let’s start with my latest painting.

“MonkeyBrains ISP” acrylic, July, 2017, 40” x 30”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

These days I often start a painting by making spontaneous squiggles, using the paint left over from the previous painting. My initial goals are (a) to cover every bit of the canvas with paint, including the edges of the canvas, (b) to craft an engaging dance of stroke and hue, and (c) stop daubing before the patterns get overly smooth—it takes some restraint to quit in time.

And then I paint something on top of the background. And then it reminds me of something, and I tweak the painting to make it look like whatever I have in mind. For “MonkeyBrains ISP” I was thinking of my son Rudy Jr. and his Internet Service Provider company, Monkeybrains.net, run by Rudy and his business partner Alex. They have a logo that looks like a monkey. And they have about 5,000 wireless dish antennas scattered around multi-culti San Francisco. And from the window of my son’s house, I can see some Wayne-Thiebaud-style loops and ramps of the freeways 280 and 101.

So I made a big, reddish, living, walking building like a giant King Kong ape—with dish antennas, and with the two boss monkeys inside it, and with the diverse heads of their customers outside, and a freeway arcing upwards in back.

What else have I been doing?

Well, I’m all signed on with Skyhorse Publications / Night Shade Books. I sold them nine of my backlist novels plus the legendary and fabled Million Mile Road Trip . Their plan is to release a backlist title in fall 2018, then do one every two to four months and to publish Million Mile Road Trip after about three of the backlist titles, hopefully having stirred up a some interest on the part of new readers with the initial backlist publications.

So we’re looking at my novel coming out in summer or fall of 2019, that is, two years from now. Long wait. But, what the hey, it’s been two and a half years since I started work on MMRT in January, 2015, and now it’s done and it’ll be another two years till it comes out. At least Night Shade has a master plan! And my novel will quietly age for two more years. A fragrant cask of Amontillado.

I spent the whole of June, 2017, and the first part of July, doing final revisions on Million Mile Road Trip before sending it to Cory Allyn and Jeremy Lassen at Night Shade. To start with, I read it, and marked it up, and typed in the changes—to the tune of about fifteen changes per page. And then I worked my way through my accumulated To Do list for the novel, doing global fixes on various plot points. I was working very intensely, like ten hours a day for thirty days in a row.

It always surprises me how few actual deletions and new sentences or phrases it can take to finish off a To Do. It’s like finding pressure points. You find them and do few a light touches, and the problem is healed. Like acupressure. Acuedits. But it takes a while to figure them out. Takes more time than the actual typing involved.

During the week or two while I was doing my acuedit fixes of the To Dos, I felt more intelligent than usual. For that period of time, I had the whole entire 117,000 word novel simultaneously imaged in my brain—and that’s a much larger mental pattern than I can normally keep active at once. Like balancing a tower of plates on sticks on plates, or juggling a whole lot of things at once. Mental exercise at a very high level.

That’s the novel on the left, and me on the high balcony on the right. And I’m the only one who sees that the finished temple is there.

At one point during this process, Sylvia and I were bumming around San Francisco, spending the nights in Rudy Jr.’s temporarily unoccupied house. And we took two free San Francisco City Guides tours, one of Chinatown and one of lower Market Street.

Our guide was a nice woman with a slight New York accent, very hip, but I forget her name, maybe it started with an E. Here she’s showing us a Chinatown alley where the tongs had a brothel and an early 1900s lady called Donaldina Cameron helped the indentured women escape down the fire escape.

At a cafe or on a bench, if there was a lull, I’d get out my traditional pocket-folded scrap of paper and be marking down some ideas about the To Dos and the fixes. At one point Sylvia looks over at me at says, “I can never believe how you can instantly start working at any time.” And it’s because that stuff is flowing along like an underground river in my head the whole time.

I sort of worry about something that can happen with older writers is that, in their later works, they get into what you might perhaps call a Mannerist phase where they are aping and replaying their best bits, riffs they love to do, themes they can’t let go of, reworking them into scenes of unnatural elegance and intellectual sophistication. And wonder if I’m in that mode in my recent books like The Big Aha and now Million Mile Road Trip. I’m working with a high-craft Salvador Dali type polish. Although perhaps Mannerist and even decadent—in the literal sense of being the products of a dying or decaying organism (me)—my current novels seem to me to be of value. Like the fragrant ambergris drawn from a diseased whale.

Well, going a little overboard there. I’m still making great efforts to have my characters be rounded, human, quirky, and empathetic. So maybe I’m beyond Mannerist. I’m Baroque. A.k.a. gnarly.

In the full Salvador Dali Mannerist-Baroque-gnarly mode, I kicked in some new four-dimensional twists for Million Mile Road Trip, and spent a couple of days drawing intricate illos. Like there’s a wormhole or so-called Einstein-Rosen bridge, or “unny tunnel” that connects our normal universe to the alternate universe where most of the book is set. And in this illo shown above you can see heroine Zoe with her trumpet, sliding up from our world to the other one, and a possibly evil saucer and a friendly alien named Yampa sliding down.

Eventually an evil alien bagpipe named Groon wants to slide through the wormhole between worlds. Groon, by the way, is the creature shown further up this page, he’s a giant bagpipe who blats flying saucers from his horn. What, I ask you, can be more evil than a bagpipe?

And this illo shows geeky Scud’s plan for his brother Villy to trap and kill Groon while he’s midway in that tunnel. Villy will be in 4D space with something like a pair of lassos. Zoe will, unfortunately, be trapped in Groon’s stomach at this time.

Explanation by Scud:
“We’ve got Groon embedded in the surface of the tunnel. So the first step is when Groon slides in there and Villy lassoes the two ends. Second step is when Villy tightens up the two ends of the tunnel. And then Groon is—trapped on the hypersurface of a pocket universe. And, ta da, for step three, the pocket universe shrinks on its own. No more Groon!”

My character Zoe is worried about the pictures:
“What’s that woman doing in there?” asks Zoe, an edge in her voice. “Trapped inside Groon’s stomach. Is that supposed to be me? Do you think that’s funny?”

“Well, I mean, these pictures are hypothetical,” says Scud. “The sequence I drew is strictly a worst-case analysis. Consider the pictures a cautionary warning.”


Very meta: A plastic model of a taxidermist in the Qunicy Museum. Taxidermist taxidermy.

Sylvia and I were up Quincy, CA, near the Feather River canyon last weekend for a wedding, a big event, lots of fun, Our humble $90-a-night motel literally had a babbling brook outside the window, We went swimming at a deserted swimming hole under a country bridge, along with our friend Jon Pearce and his wife Debra, it was quite awesome, Birds flying, ripples, marshy plant stalks, lion scat, currents. This is how things should be, is what I think at my rare moments fully in nature like this.

It reminded me an experience I had standing chest deep in the Big Sur river a few years ago, when I was working on my tome, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul and writing the final ““The Answers” section, which you can click here to read online.

I’d been arguing that “everything is a computation.” And, standing in the river, I realized I was wrong. This voice in my head was saying: “This is WATER, Rudy. WATER.” Which is what the blind and deaf Helen Keller’s teacher signed onto her palm while holding Helen’s arm in the rushing gush from a pump. Not a computation. WATER.

Speaking of water, on the last day in Quincy, after the wedding, Sylvia and I stayed on for an empty day, and ended up driving to the nearby Bucks Lake—we were searching for cool weather there at 5,000 feet, but even so it was 90 degrees. Anyway, we rented a little motorboat and putted over to some empty shore and went swimming, which was great.

And then we drove around the lake and, at the base of the Bucks Lake dam, I came across a drain at the base of the dam, with water shooting out in a staggeringly intense jet. I love it when I see such incredibly rich and gnarly examples of physical computation. Note that I’m not saying the water is, in its deepest essence, a computation. I’m saying it can be viewed as encoding or carrying out a computation–it it stimulates you to look at the world that way. But, again, mainly it’s being water. Presented by the mysterious Lady S.

With the sweetest little pool of mountain irises next to the jet, such clear water, such green leaves. Life is beautiful.

Hooray!

June 26th, 2017

Today I signed a contract selling the print rights for ten of my novels to Skyhorse Publishing, the books to appear under the Night Shade Books imprint, edited by Jeremy Lassen, with the deal negotiated by my agent John Silbersack.

I have some other things to be glad about this week, and I just finished a painting that sums up my feelings. The painting is called Hooray!

“Hooray!” acrylic, June, 2017, Each canvas 40” x 30”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

I’ll say more in a minute about my painting process for Hooray! . But let me tell you about the book deal first. It’s for my new novel Million Mile Road Trip, which I finished a year ago but hadn’t sold yet. At the Locus Christmas party at Ysabeau Wilce’s house in December, 2016, I ran into my old pal Jeremy Lassen, who’d published my novel Jim and the Flims as a hardback at Night Shade Books back in 2011. Since then Night Shade went through reorganization, being bought out by Skyhorse Publishing, and Jeremy is still working there. During the transition I’d reverted Jim and the Flims and published it in paperback and ebooks via my own Transreal Books.


[“Saucer Bagpipe,” the chief villain of “Million Mile Road Trip.”]

Anyway, when I talked to Jeremy in December he liked the sound of Million Mile Road Trip, and he then came up with the audacious plan to publish that novel and, while he was at it, “Get Skyhorse on the Rucker train,” and publish nine of my backlist books (including Jim and the Flims)—the idea being to publish some of the old ones to create a little interest, then come out with Million Mile Road Trip, and then do the rest of those nine back list books. This is to happen during the time frame 2018-2020, roughly speaking.

l

As I mentioned in a recent post, the backlist books are novels that I’ve been publishing via Transreal Books. The Night Shade editions will have new designs and new covers. I’ll no longer be distributing the Transreal editions in print although—and this is a nice thing about the new Night Shade deal—I still own the ebook rights to these books and will continue publishing them in Kindle, EPUB, and other ebook formats.


[Detail of a painting by Chuck Close at SFMOMA.]

Another piece of good news is that a production or metaproduction outfit called GoodWizard has paid me handsomely to renew their option my Ware Tetralogy until December, 2018. I don’t quite get what GoodWizard’s plan is, but if the Wares end up as a movie or a long-form video series, so much the better. My agent for this deal is Marty Shapiro.

More good news is that my wife Sylvia and I just celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. Incredible how the time has accumulated. We’re still having fun. I’m glad we’re together.

We went and spent a couple of nights at the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz. They’ve really fixed the place up since the last time I stayed there, which was some 25 years ago. Very surfistic.


[The new SFMOMA]

Anyway, in case you’re interested, I’ll get back to how I painted Hooray! I started it a couple of weeks ago by laying a big canvas on the ground, and covering it with whitish paint, and then glopping on some big gouts of various shades of cadmium yellow with a lot of liquid medium and gel medium (liquid for smoothness and gel for an impasto look in the strokes), and then I leaned over it and did full-arm swirls and scribbles with a fat brush until I had a nice complicated knot of yellow lines. Put a little blue in there for some green threads too.

When I do this kind of “finger painting” type thing I need to make myself stop sooner rather than later. It’s fun to do it, so I don’t want to stop, but if I do it for too long, the brush strokes get too smeared out and the colors get too homogeneous.

I let the painting dry for half an hour, and then I put in white patches at the more off-road parts of the scribble…the spots that weren’t directly painted over with a big stroke. And I felt it needed a focus so I put a big white patch in the middle. I was thinking at first that I might paint an image of a person or a monster into each oval. Maybe all the faces would be aspects me, or images of the voices in my head. I was in fact feeling kind of down two weeks ago, and I was thinking of the umpteen faces of Rudy as selfish and unpleasant.


[Speaking of unhappy artists, we saw the recent Edvard Munch show at the SFMOMA the other day. This one is called “Ashes.” The artist and his lover.]

Back to Hooray!, three of my grandchildren came over to spend two nights, and I gave each of them a small canvas and I let them use the acrylics off my palette to make pictures of their own. I’d thought I’d work on my painting while doing this, but I couldn’t focus on it, and I ended up offhandedly drawing a kind of big crooked smiley face, but maybe not an entirely happy face. A troubled happy face. I put two expressions onto the mouth.


[First draft of “Hooray!”]

And I didn’t know what to put in the other white patches. But then, as I say, I started getting good news about my publishing, and I got into a good place with Sylvia, what with the anniversary coming, and our daughter Isabel visited. And our daughter Georgia and her family are about to move back to the US after two years in Budapest.


[Isabel and Rudy Jr. at the 5th floor cafe as SFMOMA.]

So by then I was like, yeah, make this a happy painting, with, like, party balloons and confetti and lots of bright yellow.

So that’s what I did…it turned into an abstract art color balancing exercise, juggling the colors of the disks, and layering on more and more and more coats of different shades of yellow for a rich background. The paint store was out of titanium white, and I got an off-white called titan buff instead, and that was a good thing.

One last hooray-type thing to throw in is that I saw our dear friend Michael Blumlein the other day with his wife Hilary, and they’re in a good place. Happy about their grand daughter. Somebody, I don’t remember who, said, “My grandchildren are the one part of the 21st century that I thoroughly approve of.” Life rolls on.


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