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Lit Crawl: Dark Lords of Cyberpunk—Recap & Podcasts

Friday, October 17th, 2014
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I organized a reading as part of Lit Crawl in San Francisco on Saturday, October 18, 2014, from 8:30 to 9:30 at Haus Coffee, on 24th Street near Folsom. Many thanks to Erica of Haus Coffee who helped us settle in.

Our session was called FLURB: Dark Lords of Cyberpunk, and was also listed as session #97: FLURB: Astonishing Misfits. Here’s the official Lit Crawl schedule and map.

The readers were me, Richard Kadrey, and John Shirley. We’re all cyberpunks, and we all published stories in the Flurb webzine that I edited and published through 14 issues a few years back. Samples of our work in Flurb are my “Tangier Routines,”, Kadrey’s “Trembling Blue Stars,” and Shirley’s “Bitters.”


[Photo by Wongoon Cha, whose story “Procrastination” was in Flurb as well.]

I read a San Francisco B-movie-type story called “The Attack of the Giant Ants.”

Richard read “Surfing the Khumbu,” about a cyberpunk woman who brings down satellites with her mind…and gets high off this. You can find this story online in Infinite Matrix.

John read the Flurb story “Bitters” mentioned above—it’s about a guy who eats brains to get high.

Here are podcasts of our three readings, each about fifteen minutes long.

(Note that Feedburner only shows my most recent podcasts. For older audio files, see my archive on Gigadial, which runs back to 2005.)

“The Attack of the Giant Ants” is scheduled to appear in print on the webzine Motherboard this month. It was inspired the Blondie song of the same name, and by the vintage movie, Them. Thanks, by the way, to editor Claire Evans for help in bringing the story to a level of full gloss.

Richard Kadrey read a second story as well, a horror tale about a serial killer who’s propitiating an Egyptian god.

John Shirley’s bravura reading / performance was ill, sick, and wondrous.

Many thanks to the enthusiastic listeners who turned out and tuned in. After the readings, they could only formulate one question: “What were you guys like as kids?”

And a closing thanks to the cute and very California-girl Laurie from Lit Crawl who helped coordinate the event.

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At Loose Ends

Sunday, October 5th, 2014
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I’m kind of at loose ends these days. I have some ideas for a novel with the working title Wacker World, and I’ve been moving those around in my head. And I’ve written a lot of notes. But somehow I’m not quite ready to start the actual book. It’s like staring into the sun, and I keep flinching away.

I’ve been working in parallel on my giant 400,000 word Journals 1990-2015, hoping to get that finished and published early next summer.

I watched a graffiti artist at a big art festival in San Jose a few weeks back, it was called “Anne and Marc’s Art Party.” It was nice to see how this young man worked.

It’s nice when you get into a work of art, or a work of literature, and you forget your self. The muse gets into your head. In a lesser way, when you’re holding a camera, sometimes you see what you think are pictures amid the clutter around you.

I was part of a reading at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park about a month ago, we were promoting an anthology called Hieroglyph. The best-selling author Neal Stephenson was part of the project, and there was a huge crowd at Kepler’s. This photo is of two of my fellow lesser-known authors, Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders. They have pieces in that antho and were on the panel as well.

Kepler didn’t have a single book of mine for sale, which kind of made me wonder why I keep bothering to write them.

Somehow I picked up a cold virus around the time of that reading, and it stayed with me for a month. By the end, I had what you might call postviral depression—it’s when, like, you’re feverish and coughing and in a bubble week after week, and you feel like you’ll never be well. The photo above is one I took just the other day, when I started feeling reasonably cheerful again, it’s of my writer friend Michael Blumlein in San Francisco.

Not that Blumlein looks especially cheerful here himself. What is he thinking? Hard to tell. Being a writer is hard.

On the art front, the other day my daughter Georgia sent me a jpg of this “cornball fall painting” by former Los Gatos artist titan Thomas Kinkade, and she suggested that I liven it up. So I Photoshopped an alien “gub” from my novel The Big Aha, plus the rather dangerous hyperdimensional creature Babs, from my novel The Sex Sphere. Always fun to be busy doing nothing.

Another fun thing this month was going down to Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur with Sylvia. There’s this wonderful big rock there with what I call the Magic Door, a square hole where the surf surges through. The Magic Door plays a big role in my old novel Mathematicians in Love (which is now out of print—but I’ll be reissuing it via Transreal Books this fall.)

There’s as second, less clearly-cut magic door in that rock, over near the left end, and some guys were standing inside it, like on the threshold. I like the weird plants that grow in there as well. Truly science-fictional.

And what else? Sylvia and I went to see the latest ballet by Mark Morris and his company, at Zellerbach Hall in Berzerkistan. I like the side wall of the theater, it’s like abstract art. Telegraph Avenue seems ever shabbier. When you lose a big bookstore like Cody’s you lose a lot. But I suppose Berkeley students aren’t buying books like they used to.

Just this week I was up at Castle Rock Park. I like to walk through the park to a ridge that overlooks a big basin of trees, with the Pacific visible in the distance. Interestingly pocked rocks called tafoni in the park. Some of them with loud people climbing on them—they weren’t there twenty years ago. Nature still doing her thing anyhow anywhen anywhere. This photo of some red bark on a manzanita tree.

A stone whale or turtle surfaces, astounded. A-stone-aged.

And I’m happy by a sun-outlined bundle of laurel branches.

So, like I said, I had some good ideas for Wacker World, but today I was working on Journals 1990-2015. Fun / nostalgic / wrenching going down those mazes of memory lanes. I see publishing it one large volume—as well as, of course, the tractable ebook format.

One last image, it’s a detail of Alma Baptizes in the Waters of Mormon, by Arnold Friberg. For whatever reason, my friend and fellow-writer Thom Metzger became obsessed with this painting while writing his highly entertaining journal/memoir/report Undercover Mormon: A Spy in the House of the Gods which I’ve been reading this week. The best book I’ve read this year.

I was Thom Metzger’s math / philosophy teacher, back at Geneseo State College in upstate New York in 1977. Tick, tick! The two clocks are in synch.

Or maybe not. Blumlein asks: “What time am I? Is it 9:00, or quarter to midnight? Early or late? The beginning, or the end?”

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“Endless Road Trip.” “4th D.” Author’s POV.

Friday, September 5th, 2014
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So I finished that painting I was talking about in my last blog post. Before getting into the details, I want to mention that I just started a big sale on my paintings, with the sale lasting till October 15, 2014. If you’re curious about that, check my online Paintings page.

Anyway, here’s that new painting. I did quite a few revisions on it. As I’ve said before, the way to tell when your painting is done is when it stops bothering you. I like how it ended up. The paint is nice and thick, with a rich glow of colors.

“Endless Road Trip” oil on canvas, Sept, 2014, 30” x 24”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

Endless Road Trip shows my alien characters Flook and Yampa, driving their hover car across the unending plains of the unfurled “Wacker World” Earth that I’m hoping to write a novel about. Admiring a capybara and some squirrel monkeys. My heroes Willy and Alma are along for the ride, but you don’t see them in the picture, partly because I didn’t feel like struggling with the human form—I just went for some expressionist zigzag aliens.

This place where they’ve stopped—way, way west of California—was going to be called the Land of the Ants, but then I got into a capybara-and-squirrel-monkey routine, so that’s what’s in the painting.

I like how the guy Flook on the left looks, he’s like a cartoon-character tough guy with a whiskery jaw, and the round thing on top of his head might be a derby. And Yampa on his right, she’s looking at the squirrel monkeys and the capybara and saying, in a screechy discordant voice, “Aww, aren’t they cute!” Maybe her voice is so horrible that one or more of the animals dies in some weird way. Turns into dark energy or some such.

There’s a nice new reprint of my nonfiction book The Fourth Dimension, from Dover Books. The subtitle is “Toward a Geometry of Higher Reality. There was also an edition where I used a different subtitle, “And How To Get There” — but these are the same books. The Fourth Dimension is probably my all-time best-seller, maybe a quarter million of them out there. Over the years, scores of people have written me to tell me that this book changed their lives. It’s one of my main works.

I’m happy to see it reissued by Dover, as I got my start studying Dover’s inexpensive reprints back in Louisville, Kentucky, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Fourth Dimension in Kindle and paperback on Amazon..

Go git it.

Back to the new novel I’m trying to start. Wacker World. Today I’ll share some semi-technical thoughts on writing. When starting a novel I always have to decide about what point of view or POV to use. I always use either first-person (1POV) or third person (3POV).

Writing first person or 1POV is probably the easiest style. I used it in Jim and the Flims, and in The Big Aha. A no-brainer, like falling off a log. If you get the right narrator voice going, it works very well.

This said, the first-person point of view carries some risks.

(Risk 1) In that 1POV filters everything through narrator’s attitudes and language skills—and this can be an irritating feature if it’s done wrong. I don’t to see page upon page of gushing, slobbering, emoting—what I call repetitious wheenk. The first-person narrator can suck all the air out of the room.

(Risk 2) When using 1POV, there’s a sense that you need to impose the narrator’s linguistic limitations and quirks on the text. This can be okay if the author makes the viewpoint character fairly interesting, rounded, and non-generic. But it’s very risky to try and narrate a 1POV story in dialect. Unless you’re Mark Twain writing Huckleberry Finn. Although, come to think of it, I did something like this in my shot at a great American SF novel, The Hollow Earth, which is 1POV from a boy from Killeville, Virginia.

(Risk 3) Another issue with 1POV, is that the author may feel it necessary to have a frame-tale explanation of how and why and when the character is telling us about his or her adventures. You say that the narrator is reminiscing about the events afterwards, or documenting them for the record, or narrating them to a rapt audience, like that. But you don’t have to do the frame-tale, and, if done wrong, it can be of corny and obtrusive. Sometimes it’s better to just have the reader be in the narrator’s head with no explanation.

A final point to make about 1POV is that, if you want a reportage feel, you can have several characters telling the story from their points of view, or even interrupting each other, as if doing a joint interview. This could be fun. (Cat calls, loud farting sounds, sarcastic laughter.)

Regarding third person point of view or 3POV, here’s a link to a nice little essay by a writer called Michael Neff, he talks about the levels of 3POV, distinguishing 1POV, far 3POV, and close 3POV, which we can abbreviate as C3POV.

I like the C3POV, where my viewpoint is closely focused on one single character at a time. I’m following one character and seeing his or her thoughts. The C3POV is also called “third person limited point of view” or “deep” third-person. It’s like following a movie actor with a camera.

If you do C3POV instead of 1POV, you’re free to use a more literate style than the character would—I think of John Updike’s magisterial Rabbit tetralogy, of the tints and shades of feeling that are assigned to the everyman-type Rabbit Angstrom.

Note also that you’re free to adjust the “closeness” of the C3POV over the course of a scene, at times getting in so close that it’s as intimate and telepathic as 1POV.

Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy using what I might call rotating close third person point of view, or RC3POV. The idea is that I shift the close third person POV from character to character. I don’t do the shifts within a scene, I cycle from one character to another from chapter to by chapter. I did that in Realware, Postsingular, and Hylozoic. I plan to use RC3POV in my upcoming Wacker World, that is, I’ll have close third-person C3POV on my character Willy in some chapters, and have the camera on my co-starring character Alma in other chaps.

Thinking back to Postsingular, I rotated the C3POV focus from section to section within the chapters, using seven different points of view in all. And in one single section I went kaleidoscopic on the reader’s ass, hopping one head to the next without even signalling the changes with section breaks.

It’s risky to do head-hoppping, or “wandering POV,” although Thomas Pynchon and Phil Dick often do. Pynchon can do it because he’s a supreme and god-like master, and Phil, well, you never know. Phil wrote really fast and he might not even have noticed he was doing it. But getting Phil’s reckless downhill-racer thing going is a skill in itself.

Through the dancing sunlight, and into oblivion.

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Entering Wacker World

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014
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Recently I retweeted a photo of a capybara being groomed by some squirrel monkeys. It was just something that I’d seen retweeted by someone else.

This became my most widely circulated tweet ever, with maybe a hundred thousand views. Part of the appeal must be that the scale is so odd—you think of those primates as being fairly tall, but you think of furry, lumpy animals as being small. Turns out capybaras are the largest rodents in the world, running up to four feet tall. And squirrel monkeys are tiny. The amphibious capybaras live in the mouths of Brazilian rivers. The Brazilians eat them, and they refer to them as “fish,” which makes it okay to eat capybaras on Friday.

There’s something Boschian about the image too, those odd little “men” like clerics attending to the massive furry creature. And the capybara looks so relaxed, so at ease.

These days I’m working on an outline for a fresh SF novel with the working title Wacker World. I always like to have at least two odd features of the world being presented in an SF novel—which was a practice advocated by the ascended master Phil Dick. In Wacker World one odd thing is that our Earth has somehow been transformed into an endless flat world that you can drive along on forever. For millions and billions of miles. Encountering, as you go further and further, ever-new alien civilizations. I call these flat worlds Wacker worlds. There’s a number of them in our universe.

By way of jogging my imagination, now I’m working on a painting that shows couple of aliens on a very long roadtrip, and they’re looking at the creatures from that capybara tweet photo. That’s not my new painting above, of course. I’ll be posting the painting in a week or so when it’s done.

The aliens in my painting—I see them riding in a purple hover car that can hit speeds of up to, say, a million miles per hour, which is no sweat, given that limitative speed of light is well over six hundred million miles per hour.

Anyway, these aliens are cruising along in their car, and they’ve got a teen boy and a girl with them, my book’s young heroes, currently named Willy and Alma. This first place where they’re stopping—way west of California—was going to be called the Land of the Ants, but then I got into capybara-and-squirrel monkey thing, so that’s what’s going to be in the painting and probably in that first-stop world in my novel…not that my novels always stick to the things I paint for them in advance. The painting is more of a way of stirring the pot than being a way of making any kind of precise outline.

Speaking of ants, we had an entomologist named Phil over at our house this weekend, and he was telling us about Central American big-eyed Acacia ants. These guys live inside the bulbous thorns of the bull’s-horn acacia, in a mutualistic relationship with the plant. The plant gives nectar, housing, and food particles to the ants, and the ants sting the crap out of any herbivorous mammal that dares to try and graze on the bull’s-horn acacia.

Anyway, I’m having fun starting work on a novel. Joyous. Working out things like the illumination and the weather. Making little sketches and searching the web. To speed things up, I’m plugging my brain directly into my computer.

There’s a Rancid song, “Radio,” from Let’s Go, with the line: “When I got the music, I got a place to go.” Or, as NOFX says it in their reggae cover of the same song, “When I got the music in me, I got a place I can go.”

I pray to the Muse that I can really get it rolling. I was wondering what kind of magical alien-type wand was going to transform our little round planet Earth into this infinite roadtrippable plain. These plains are, like I say, called Wacker worlds because they’re named after the astronomer Ed Wacker who first spotted one in distant space.

I knew that I needed some gimcrack that can unfurl our world. Initially I visualized a whirring gizmo with higher-dimensional parts that wobble in and out of visibility. But it’s hipper and gnarlier to have the rattle made of natural materials, as opposed to being made of machined metal. It’s made of something like alien plants or like scraps of hide from alien animals. But it’s still five-dimensional.

So the Muse checked in and led me to got this doohickey of a cool rattle from Ghana from a defunct curio shop called Gina’s on Main Street of Los Gatos. The world-unfurling Ghana rattle has disks of gourd skin, like washers, and they’re mounted on a stick with regular bumps in it. The washers are slightly concave, and they’re in pairs, with the hollow sides facing each other, and with symbols branded onto the convex sides. When I tilt the rattle, they march down along the axis, orderly but jostling, tripping over the gentle bumps on the axis rod, moving in a rolling, plausible gait. Like the legs of a centipede.

I also got a rattle like a giant scrotum, wonderfully wrinkly and gnarled, with a dick-like stalk protruding and drooping towards the base of the sac. A little wood plug closes off an irregular hole in the side scrotum, a hole, through which the rattle-seeds were inserted. The surface is hard and shiny, with patches of gourd-pith that haven’t been fully scraped off. Maybe this rattle does something different from turning Earth into a Wacker world.

And I got giant gourd wrapped in a fishnet with cowrie shells at the knots. I’m loaded, dude. I’m equipped.

How big is a Wacker world, by the way? Well, they have to reach out to the limits of visible space, which is about seventeen billion light years away. Call it an octillion meters. Now, space might go on endlessly after that. Forever. We don’t know. The Big Bang might not have been a point-like event. It might have been more like a flash filling an infinite plane and lighting up infinitely many stars. Zzzzap!

People sometines rush to the conclusion that if you drove, like, a puny trillion miles on a Wacker world, you’d be bound to find a virtually identical copy of Earth.

But the odds are much, much longer than that, as Max Tegmark explained in his 2003 article, “Parallel Universes.” (You can find it here as a PDF. And a shorter version appeared in Scientific American.) Your odds of finding a copy of planet just like Earth within the confines of visible space are considerably less than googol to one. (A googol is a written as a numeral 1 with a hundred 0’s after it. Quite a big number.)

Call the “Hubble length” the diameter of our visible universe. You’d in fact have to cover the ground of perhaps three to the googol power Hubble lengths to be confident of finding another “Earth.”

Re. big flattish worlds you can tool around on, Larry Niven’s Ringworld depicts an incredibly large place. One of the joys of this series. Lebensraum!

And in Charles Stross’s wondrous, epochal story “Missile Gap,” a copy of Earth has been peeled like a grape, with the surface/skin pasted onto a disk that’s millions and millions of miles across, with a zillion oceans and other continents, many of them inhabited by alien species. Supremely great story, with a lot to think about. But there’s continents with oceans in between them, so you can’t just drive—instead Stross uses a cool Soviet-era-dream nuclear powered giant airplane. The story appears in Stross’s anthology Wireless, and can also be found free online.

Even though the diameter of the Stross disk is probably bigger than you can drive in a lifetime, the disk is finite and it has an edge. I don’t like edges. If you have an edge, you can do a number where we reach the “edge” of the world and it’s like the edge in C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian, with a frozen wave. Or the classic cartoon thing of ships sailing off the edge. Stale. But I don’t want an edge. I want an endless roadtrip. Especially after driving to Vancouver and back.

With an endless roadtrip, you’re, like, forever on the golden plain leading to Mount Shasta. Never frikkin’ having to be back home to your workaday world.

Speaking of that workadaddy world, I’ll close with a commercial message: my new three-novels-in-one ebook Transreal Trilogy is on sale for $1.99, and my 1980s memoir ebook All the Visions is on sale for $0.99. Go git ‘em. And puh-lease, if you buy one of my books from Amazon and you like it, post a comment!

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Roadtrip #5. Vancouver, Coupland, Back Home.

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014
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After Ottawa, we went back and spent two nights in Vancouver. We stayed at a century-old, not-too-expensive place called the Sylvia Hotel, next to the water at English Bay Beach.

I’d been planning to meet up with my writer friend Bill Gibson, but as it happened, the page proofs for his next novel arrived at the same day we did, and he only had about three days to fix them, so we couldn’t connect. His two recommendations: Japadogs and the Douglas Coupland show at the VAG (Vancouver Art Gallery).

I had some doubts, but I did get a Japadog on the street—these are gourmet Japanese sausages, many levels above what you expect from street food. Bill loves Japanese things anyway, you might say it’s a cyberpunk country, with the Uniqlo clothes and the Muji housewares. While in Vancouver, Sylvia and I went to one of the best sushi restaurants ever, a place called Tojo’s.

The VAG museum is really a nice place, so European-feeling and civilized. A huge gray stone Victorian pile with a lovely patio cafe, no dirt, no Muzak, pleasant staffers, good food. Sometimes in Canada I’d get the feeling that in the US we’re living like wild animals.

Douglas Coupland lives in Vancouver, the author of Generation X and numerous other novels. One of an aging author’s last resorts is to become a visual artist—like Henry Miller or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for that matter, me. (Yesterday I revamped my paintings site, making it mobile friendly! Coupland is taking this route with characteristic éclat and élan. I’d had some doubts about his very large show—as well as about the Japadogs—but it’s great. It consists of various rooms filled with riffs he’d done on one art historical theme or another. The one shown above it kind of a masterpiece, a Cubist composition including Twitter icons and such.

Coupland also had a couple of rooms of Lego constructions. This one kind of nails the uniformity of life in a suburban development. Sure this is a stale, whipping-a-dead-horse kind of theme, but the realization of it as identical Lego houses with identical Lego cars is kind of perfect.

And there’s a very funny room of repurposed objects expressing “Canadianness.” Like a locked freezer with a pool of blood on the floor under it, or couches with Hudson’s Bay plaid coverings.

And a really wonderful display, right in the first room, the walls lined with thin gray shelves, and lined up on the shelves are a zillion little bright bits of … plastic crap … that Coupland’s amassed, like parts of toys, or packaging, or game pieces, or wrappers, each of them just so, just sitting there, not attached, they drifted in and landed here, like debris on a beach by the ocean of the Real, and who’s to stop the work’s owner from nudging them or rearranging them, the road goes on forever and the party never ends. (I’m only showing a detail of the work here.)

And a room of Mondrian-like works with those 2D postal barcode thingies in the corners, I think they’re called QR codes. Not all of Coupland’s pastiches work—for instance, his two or three attempts to mimic Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben Day dot mirrors are weak. At times you get a sense that he just put in every single thing he’s ever done into the show. (Clearly any snarkiness on my part is authorial envy.) The overall impact of the show is massive, and I think it’ll get big play when it travels from Vancouver down into the US.

Coupland included a large outdoor sculpture of his head, called “Gumhead,” and people were encouraged to stick wads of chewed gum onto it. Kind of great. So interactive. Andy Warhol would have liked the show, and in fact Coupland speaks of himself as a Pop artist, and he even had a piece consisting of abbot a dozen of blond wigs sandwiched between two sheets of glass—wigs like our man Andy wore. I can’t resist mentioning that Marc Laidlaw and I wrote a story about Andy online, it’s called “The Andy Warhol Sand Candle.”

Wandering around Vancouver we came across what you might call a “floatplane airport” in the harbor, with planes buzzing off every few minutes. Fun to watch from the grassy, civilized waterfront park nearby.

We also hit a tourist-attraction spot called Granville Island, really not that great, and without many locals around, but I got a few photos, like these vines dangling from the roaring overhead Granville bridge. And there was a great food market.

Mysterious art project seen through a window of the Emily Carr University of Art at one end of the island.

And a big buoy or float hauled up from the sea to be an art object.

Heading south from Vancouver on I-5, pounding the Red Bull, we nearly got killed in the insane rainy-day traffic in unbelievably congested Seattle. Switched over to a mellower back road Route 9, leading to a little town called Sandy. I had this moment of Coupland-initiated Pop Art ecstasy walking around the mall parking lot at sunset by our motel. Seen through art-eyes, there’s great beauty and semiotic fun in the so-familiar iconography of the North American sprawl. A motor boat on a trailer with the low golden clouds! Photo taken with an iPhone, yes! Thank you, Doug, for opening my eyes, to this flash of ecstasy.

Then on to Bend, Oregon, which has become something of an outdoor mall, and down into the sparsely populated Klamath Falls, , one of those lifeless, emptied out country towns. This is a Klamath Falls alley. My Louisville high-school pal, Mike Dorris, who later became a famous author, had some Native American ancestors that hailed from the Klamath area. Modocs. There’s even a town called Dorris nearby I’m always a little mournful when I think of Dorris, as he’s not alive anymore. I wish he was still here. By now he’s missed out on a lot.

The streets of Klamath Falls were empty, with some cool old Art Deco buildings, like this one, the Wilson Building, with pine cones and cow skulls. I always tell Sylvia I want to resettle into a town like this, and she shudders, and I think of Wm. Burroughs’s phrase about his travels through South America in Yage Letters, “nightmare fear of stasis.”

And then we got into a lovely drive across high desert fruited plains towards Mt. Shasta in the golden late afternoon light, staring at that mountain for 60 miles driving towards it, feeling like Neal Cassady and Luanne Henderson, bombing along the two-laner, road trip paradise, what a thing to see a mountain from 60 miles away. I’m so happy/lucky to still be around, running one more trip like this. At the end of the day we reached for good old Weed, California, home of the vintage Hi-Lo Motel and Diner. Fabulous Weed. I always try to stay there, the town name tickles my fancy, and it’s right near the base of sacred Shasta.

And now back to the Los Gatos library. Home, sweet home.

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Roadtrip #4. Totem Poles.

Friday, August 15th, 2014
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I’m still mentally processing our roadtrip/plane-trip in Canada last month. And generating a few more posts. Today’s post is about the totem poles we saw in Canada.


“Beak Totem,” oil on canvas, August, 2014, 16” x 20”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

Dig the beak on this totem god. I’m not sure what kind of bird he is. Eagle? I just finished painting him today. The background is drawn from a sunset view over Lac Desert, the place that I talked about in the previous post. If you want to buy “Beak Totem,” check out the price-list on my Paintings page.

While in Ottawa, we went to the Canadian Museum of History, all kinds of stuff in there. The place was formerly called the Museum of Civilization. We focused on the First Nations art, like masks and totem poles, some of them antique, some of them newer pieces made by Native Americans, mostly on the west coast of Canada.

I really liked this sculpture of a sinister beaver god, made by the Haida artist Jim Hart in 1993. The object is meant to be a stand on which to place a chief’s coffin.

A side note, we saw the first-ever Canadian stamp, and it has a beaver on it. The Algonquin man, Don, who was our fishing guide told up in Lac Desert, told us a funny beaver story. At certain times of the year, beavers travel, going across the land looking for a new pond or creek to make their own. Don saw a beaver in his backyard, looking over his spring for possible colonization. Don chased the beaver off by brandishing his Whipper Snipper weed cutter. The beaver slapped his tail (their method, in the water, of alerting fellow beavers to danger) and then banged his nose on the ground—in a frustrated attempt to dive. And then the beaver moved on.

I’m very big on crow masks. Those giant beaks! I love fairy tales about crows and ravens as well. If I was ever reincarnated my three top choices are: crow, brown pelican, and a Big Sur cow.

Carving of a fish.

The Canadian Museum of History has a really large hall on one side, with ceiling that’s several stories high. About thirty totem poles are on display here, most of them dating from the late 1800s, which was the heyday of totem-building in the Pacific Northwest. The heyday only lasted a for a few decades.

Before the traders arrived, the west coast Native Americans were carving stone or wooden figurines with primitive knives. But then – then the sailing ships came, and the strangers brought steel axes. And—wow! Huge totem poles, from Oregon to Alaska!

But the traders brought syphilis and smallpox. And the missionaries banned the natives’ religion. The world they knew by heart become someone else’s “New World.” And the white man carried the totem poles off to museums.

I’ve always wanted to write an SF story based on this scenario, and these days I’m working on such a story with Bruce Sterling—the quote above is taken from a draft. In the story, some aliens bring humanity some incredibly powerful tools, and we create amazing stuff, and then it ends with unexpected outcomes.

A view of that pole I painted. One of the totem poles in the museum had a note saying that they’d helpfully repaired the pole, moved it to the museum, and given the Native American village a reproduction of the pole—cast from plastic, I think.

I saw a giant salmon on one totem pole. You see beavers, frogs, wolves, crows, eagles and bears as well. Plus the legendary bird they call a thunderbird—the thunderbird is a little like Jove or Thor, he beats up storms with his wings and sends out lightning bolts.

As a side note, my brother’s wife Joanie has a few nice pieces of Inuit art in her cabin. Like this seal. I remember carving a wooden seal in shop in the eighth grade. I didn’t make mine curvy enough. I liked holding this stone Inuit seal. A power object. A little sculpture like this is in some sense like a phrase or an image or a paradoxical bit of logic—a tradition-polished thought that you can caress and ponder.

A nice curved ramp in some dusty recess of the Canadian Historical Museum.

And a great mural, Morning Star, on the ceiling of the big totem-pole hall, by native artist Alex Janvier. Here’s a video clip of the unveiling in 1993.


Kitwancool by Emily Carr. 1928. Oil on Canvas. About 32″ x 40″. At Vancouver Art Gallery.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the artist Emily Carr, working around Victoria in British Columbia, did some really wonderful paintings that included totem poles and First Nations art. On our way back home, we saw several of Emily Carr’s paintings in Vancouver Art Gallery, and in the past (on an earlier trip to the Northwest) we saw a bunch of them at the art museum on the island of Victoria.

Here’s the photo that I used as a model for my totem pole painting—I didn’t want to post this image right next to my painting, as the full-blown funky original blows me out of the water. This said, I’m happy with the way mine came out. I think I’ll do a bigger totem pole painting next week, drawing extra inspiration from Emily Carr on this next one.

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Roadtrip #3. Canadian Lake.

Sunday, August 3rd, 2014
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We drove up to Vancouver and flew to Ottawa. Met my brother there and went up to a cottage on a lake called Lac Desert. Deserted, but no desert!

Nice to be so totally off the grid.

I played with the dogs and they got hyper. Love that crazed, rolling eye.

The only way to get to the cottages was by boat, and they had a generator for power—it went off around 9:30 at night.

“Dog UFO Gub” acrylic and oil on canvas, July, 2014, 40” x 30”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

Getting totally out of sequence for just a minute, here’s a painting that I almost finished in July, right before our trip, and which I just finalized today. I used a new technique for it—I made a squiggly abstract underpainting with quick-drying acrylic paint, then I covered that with a white haze/glaze of acryulic paint, and then put some free drawings on top with thick oil paint. The underlying subdimensional reality in the background. And in the embossed oily top world we see my dog Arf, a UFO, and the spotted gub who stars in my novel The Big Aha. Also an infinity sign in the sky. I find it pleasing to look at. More info on my Paintings page.

We saw a beetle with really long antennae. My brother’s new wife Joanie said these beetles bite, and they like to eat wood. I didn’t touch him with my bare fingers, instead used the ever-present all-purpose cloth hankie I carry in my pocket.

The cabin we were in belongs to Joanie’s family, she’s been coming there for seventy years. Love the slanting afternoon sun on the red doors under the bar.

She had three cool decoys, I think the local Algonquin Indians made them.

My brother Embry and I did a little fishing—this one went back in the water. On two days we went out with an Algonquin guide, a man whom Joanie had known for about fifty years.

I almost caught a pike, a really nice kind of big Canadian lake fish. The epic had four acts: (1) I hook him, about two feet long, get him close to the boat, he’s fighting and thrashing and twists free of the hook. Should have used a net, but we didn’t have one.

(2) Boat back to Embry and Joanie’s cottage, have lunch, rest, and return to this same beautiful little inlet off the intricate fractal river/lake waterways with a net. Our guide Don hooks a pike, maybe the very same one. I get the net, Don reels him in—after letting him run out the line three or four times, tiring him—I get the net half around the pike, the lure snags on the net, the pike twists free.

(3) The next morning Embry and the guide go out without me and return with… “A perch,” Sylvia tells me. “I think it was a big perch.” But, no, it’s a pike! Don cooks him for our dinner, breading him and frying him in chunks in bacon grease, it’s good to eat him.

(4) That evening I motor back to the special inlet with Embry and Don, and I use the same lure that Don used, but the original Magic Pike isn’t there.

The lake water wasn’t all that cold at Joanie’s, and the water had that limp, kind of jelly-like smoothness of fresh water. I went swimming every morning.

They had one antenna with a wireless connection, and we’d walk over to the little log building where it lived, the “temple of the internet” and get our fix. They had cool old junk hanging on the walls in there, just like at Dick Scheinman’s house on the Lost Coast.

Not that anything important was coming in. But at this point we’re so much in the habit of checking email, Twitter, Facebook, etc., that it feels like basic life support.


[This is a cast aluminum house-shaped sculpture we saw in Vancover in the harbor. More about Vancouver in a later post.]

While I was in Vancouver and on the plane to Ottawa, and at the lake, I read Roadside Picnic, the late 1970s Russian SF novel by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky—I’ve heard about it for years, but hadn’t read it, and now I’d picked up a new edition at Powell’s Books in Portland.

A really admirable book, starting with the great premise that some aliens stopped on Earth, as if for a roadside picnic, and left all sorts of debris in a “Zone” they polluted. And the stuff is, for us, incredibly useful and terminally incomprehensible. The Strugatsky boys (and their English translator) made up lots of cute names for the debris. Happy ghosts, empties, golden sphere, grinder, bug traps.

The book has an exhilirating, heart-breaking ending. It’s a masterpiece.

In my current lost-in-the-woods state regarding my next novel, I naturally start thinking that I might learn some lessons from Roadside Picnic.

The miracles in the book are intriguing and staggering, but they’re kind of peripheral. The very fact that the miraculous alien tech isn’t spelled out makes it that much more alluring. The Strugatsky boys leave you the room in which to dream. Borges’s Tlön, Uqbar, Orbum Tertius was similarly sketchy and suggestive.

The emphasis is always on character—with a lot of repeating inner monologues. What I call wheenk. The wheenk is really the core of the book. I typically have a higher action/wheenk ratio than in Roadside Picnic. But perhaps readers like a lower ratio than the one I’m typically using.

And then I read a travel book in the cottage, Evelyn Waugh, A Bachelor Abroad: A Mediterranean Journal. Written in 1929, after Waugh’s novels Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies. Great fun. Love his style, his dry wit, his snobbery.

This is a classic found-in-a-summer-cabin book, a nice clean hardback first edition, inscribed by the original owner on December 25, 1933. Great to spend a week outside of time.

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