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Archive for June, 2010

Not An Anonymous Monkey

I’m not a big fan of the “cloud” concept that is all the rage in commentaries on the Internet these days. The idea is that when millions of people pursue their individual passions using the modern tools of authorship, some brilliant bits of art are bound to emerge, often without attribution, and to spread virally through a Darwinian process of selection by the crowd that spawned them.

To my eyes and ears, this is just a modernized version of the old “a million monkeys pounding randomly on typewriters will eventually replicate Shakespeare” adage. It might be updated to say “a million monkeys with keyboards and webcams will every so often produce something worthwhile that we can link to.”

I don’t doubt that, from the perspective of statistics, this claim is true to a degree. What concerns me is that this emphasis upon the cloud reduces the status of the individuals within it and treats the fruits of their labor as almost incidental by-products of a collective system.

This not only treats individuals as monkeys, it treats us as anonymous monkeys and encourages us to think of each other in that fashion. Authorship devolves to the mob.

When a majority of people online accept this perspective, we end up with people creating simply for the purpose of being noticed and perhaps rewarded with the momentary attention of the crowd, rather than creating because they care about what they are doing. This leads to people treating their own work, and that of others, as a disposable curiosity.

What interests me about the Internet as a medium of expression is not the plethora of Twitter posts, pointless personal updates, inane web-cam clips, rehashed jokes, recycled rants, or sites that do little more than aggregate links to content created by other people. In other words, not the cloud.

What is compelling about the Internet are the little corners where obsessive amateurs and professionals pursue their eccentric interests with devotion and passion. Where people express ideas that took significantly longer to craft and create than they take to consume. Behind every successful forum on any topic are a small cadre of men and women who do the bulk of the work to keep it interesting and meaningful to those who look at it.

In other words, the value of the Internet lies in its ability to expose us to the quirks and gifts of individuals, odd signals that refuse to blend into the background noise. We conceal those individuals behind catchy labels and urls.

Whether any of us can be mathematically represented as particles in the cloud is beside the point. If we think of ourselves or each other in that way, we devalue what we create. Moreover, we do so in a fundamentally dishonest way, privileging a faceless concept without looking behind the curtain at the living hearts and minds that truly sustain this web that now connects so many of us.

I write because there are simply times when I have to write, have to think through ideas and play with their expression, to feel alive. And I am not an anonymous monkey even if no one else knows my name.

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The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, is a first novel full of promise and brimming with storytelling talent. It also ends abruptly, with many loose ends dangling, and there remains no sign of a desperately needed sequel. As written, the story feels as though it needs several more lengthy novels to complete just the story arcs that are introduced here.

The novel is a fantasy, the story of the young man Kvothe (pronounced Quothe), as related by the (indeterminately) older Kvothe to a traveling Chronicler who has sought him out. Kvothe is a very deep, very rich character who is, it turns out, extraordinarily good at just about everything he puts his mind to, except for being humble, curbing his curiosity, or accepting insults. He’s a brilliant musician, a talented poet, a magical prodigy, an astonishing memorist, and later a fearsome swordsman. Moreover, everything he gets he has to earn through the sheer force of his will or the display of his unquestionable gifts. He by turns a traveling performer, a vagabond, a homeless orphan, a student at a magical university, a gifted musician, a criminal of sorts, and a hero at times.

It’s a testimony to Rothfuss’s clear compassion for his protagonist that in spite of his seemingly unending span of talents, Kvothe manages not to be annoying. In part his constant struggles against poverty and authority make him more sympathetic, while his haplessness in love makes him vulnerable. In addition, the commentary of the older Kvothe makes it clear that he holds himself accountable for having made terrible mistakes, even while he seems to have become but a pale reflection of the fiery youth whose story he is telling.

The quality of the writing is consistently high, balancing clever dialogue with some beautiful external descriptions and many well-worded insights into the heart and soul of things as far-ranging as silence and an artist’s devotion to his or her art. Though most of the characters other than Kvothe are sketched more than fully drawn, they are sketched cleanly and sharply enough to feel as though they could bear up to further scrutiny by the reader. I must confess that I am tired, tired, tired of literal colleges of magic in fantasy stories. I enjoyed the Arcanum in spite of the setting because the writing was good.

Most of all, the story is full of a love of storytelling itself. As you read, it is easy to imagine yourself sitting in the inn where the tale is being told by Kvothe, the hours drifting away unnoticed from afternoon to dusk to the dead of night as you follow along.

But, just as many nights of tale-swapping seem to drift to an uncertain conclusion, simply ending when the storytellers have become too tired to continue, so The Name of the Wind ends at a stopping point that is itself not particularly memorable or satisfying. It’s not even really a cliffhanger. Almost no problem or riddle of significance to Kvothe’s story is resolved when the last page is turned. It’s as though Mr. Rothfuss realized that he did not have a firmer ending in mind and so simply stopped. The evening has come to an end, everyone is tired and/or slightly drunk, the lights have been dimmed.

This would not have been quite so frustrating if the book hadn’t come out in 2007, with no sequel as of this posting.

So, The Name of the Wind feels incomplete as a book and that sensation of incompleteness cannot be assuaged by moving on to the next book in the series, for there is none at hand.  Yet I found the process of reading the novel a true pleasure.

It’s up to you to assess whether the promise of journeying on a winding road, with marvelous company, toward an eventual ending that may not or may not be somewhere around the corner, is worth the time and energy that this large novel will consume. Somewhat to my surprise, I found that it was. I will simply await what pages the wind blows to my door.

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Library Quest

As a boy growing up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, one of my greatest pleasures was my regular walk to Thomas Branigan Memorial Library. The library opened its new building in 1979, when I was ten years old. It was a major event for a kid who lived in his head and on the pages of books as much as in the real world.

The library’s architecture had an exotic appeal to me, with its rounded edges and swooping curves, which to an impressionable kid resembled the matte paintings used as city backdrops to science fiction series like Buck Rogers or the original Star Trek.

Though the library was a moderate distance from my elementary school and an even shorter stroll from my junior high, I rarely went during the school week, due to the constraints of bus schedules, parental pickups, and car pools, followed in later years by the requirements of basketball practice.

Instead, my trips to the library took the form of weekend and summertime excursions, invariably on foot, from my home outside the city limits deep into town. In all the trip to the library took me roughly an hour each way, depending upon my sense of urgency and whether a rare burst of rain had turned the dirt fields into mud.

This walk gave me plenty of time to think, which in those days meant daydreaming about adventures in faraway places. There weren’t many other pedestrians around for most of the walk, and I stayed as far from the county road as possible to avoid being choked by dust or hit by stray bits of gravel kicked up by cars rubbing the shoulder.

Looking back, I think this physical journey prepared me admirably for the mental journeys I would undertake once I was within the Branigan’s walls. I had plenty of time to contemplate as well as the opportunity to exhaust my stores of hyperactive energy. More importantly, the effort and independence of my travels reassured me that I was embarking on an important quest. I sacrificed something to get there, and that sacrifice made the goal valuable.

No wonder then that once I arrived at the Branigan, I typically  stayed for several hours. No quick trips to pick up a book. No concept of putting something on hold. The library was a destination, a place that held not only intellectual delights, but served as an oasis of creature comforts, particularly after walking an hour in southern New Mexico’s blazing summer heat. In the Branigan I found air-conditioning, cool, sweet water fountains, and clean restrooms. Even the 70s style modular furniture, all molded plastic and brightly carpeted cubes, felt comfortable when I was so tired.

I read entire books in the library without ever checking them out, sometimes over the course of several visits. In part this was due to practical concerns; anything I checked out I had to haul all the way back home. But there was also a real pleasure to be had in reading books in some quiet corner of the library, away from the children’s section. It made me feel like an adult, taking part in thoughtful, adult pasttimes.

There was also the fact that I could read books at the library whose content might not always have been . . . deemed appropriate by my parents. Paradoxically, the library, with its rules against making noise or having food or even kicking off my shoes, provided a relaxed freedom that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Nobody ever bothered the quiet kid hunched in a chair or sprawled out in a corner.

I credit the Branigan for fostering my lifelong love affair with the mental and physical space provided by libraries.

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Counting Heads by David Marusek received many rave reviews when it came out in 2005. I suspect these accolades are largely due to the easy, clever manner in which Marusek shows off a setting that dazzles with its speculative imagination.

There are clones, artificial intelligences, moderate transhumanism, and advanced biotech and nanotech on every page and lurking around every twist and turn in the plot. Marusek does a confident job of showing these elements integrated into daily life rather than lecturing about them, as many science fiction novels are prone to do. Even his coined terms, like seared and iterant, are evocative. Not everything Marusek presents hangs together in a convincing portrait of a functioning future society in my view, but that’s largely a matter of taste and I suspect few readers will be troubled.

However, the novel has more fundamental flaws that lessened my enjoyment. Marusek creates some interesting characters, but there are too many of them stuffed into the narrative for its length, leading to the story jumping from person to person so often that it becomes harder to connect with them as individuals or care about their fates.

Then there’s the plot. It is essentially very simple, but layered with digressions and surprises, hidden conspiracies and literal dei ex machina that serve as futuristic sound and fury. I would have nodded through this happily enough had there been a satisfying flow and pacing to the madcap rush of events. This was sorely lacking. Moreover, most of the twists that get introduced are left dangling with no resolution. The ending that emerges is the one that was predictable from the start, and the careening narrative sort of staggers to the finish.

So, as a piece of speculative writing, a collection of individually intriguing set pieces, and a gallery of odd characters, Counting Heads is in many ways a tour de force. As a coherent, strongly plotted piece of storytelling with compelling characters, it is on shakier ground.

Link to Counting Heads on Amazon

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If you find this, Ronnie Easton has the gold from the Beech Hill robbery and he left me to die in the dark. Ronnie, you bastard, if you find this may you rot in hell.

*

I forgot to say my name is Charlie Stark. Ronnie cut the rope and I can’t find a way out of this little cave. The glow sticks are dead and eventually the flashlight batteries will die.

Everything dies eventually. I just don’t want to do it alone and in the dark.

*

It went down like this.

It’s been 20 years since the Beech Hill gang got caught, but no one ever found the gold coins and cash from the job. Sam Kirkland’s old man did time upstate with one of the Beech Hill crew, a hard case named Reilly. Guy used to draw these sick little pictures of human sacrifices and stuff like you’d see on those old jungle temples in National Geographic. Said the money might as well be in Hell.

One day after I introduced them, Sam is telling this story to Ronnie for the first time when Ronnie gets excited. Starts asking about the pictures and talking about “the Hole.”

Ronnie is into all this weird shit he calls the secret history of the city. He says the Hole has been around since before the city was built, but that it gets lost. Ronnie swears he saw the Hole when he was a kid. A jock friend got some rope and climbed partway down with a flashlight. Came back shaking.

Sam asks why and Ronnie says, “The pictures drawn on the walls freaked him out.” He smiles and waits for us to catch on. So after a few beers we go looking for the Hole and damned if it wasn’t sitting in the basement of an old abandoned house, just like Ronnie said.

My lucky day.

*

It wasn’t until I was actually climbing down the Hole that I started to believe it was all real.

The Hole is crazy deep and has cold stone walls as smooth as skin. The paintings start out as stick people up top and get more lifelike as you go deeper. The people are doing terrible things to each other in the dark. Some are screaming, some are laughing. Some you can’t tell.

After a while the jellyfish creatures start to appear in the pictures. Mostly they seem to watch, but sometimes they join in.

Eventually I stopped looking at the walls. I stared down into the blackness and thought about how I would get rid of Sam and Ronnie if we found anything.

When I looked back at the pictures, the people seemed to nod at me.

*

Sam had the same idea.

We found this little cave at the bottom, with more pictures on the walls and ceiling. Along with a rusty locker that we busted open. It was like a pirate chest inside: gold coins, jewelry, and wads of cash.

Sam and I made one trip up with the heaviest stuff. I saw the look in Ronnie’s eyes and knew he would wait for the rest. He helped us back down, reeling out the rope.

I drew my knife while Sam stared at the drawings. Maybe he was working up his nerve. I never saw the gun until he turned around. By then it was too late.

For both of us.

Sam’s stray gunshot echoed so long and loud that I couldn’t hear what he said to me as he bled out.

The rope came hissing down a moment later. I backed up and watched it falling, coiling on Sam’s body like a snake. It took a long time.

But Ronnie will be back. I have the rest of the money.

*

When I ran out of food and water, the monsters came for Sam. They’re dog-sized and look like a hairy spider crossed with an octopus. And they glow pale blue. I watched them drag his body until one of them noticed me and charged. I shot the thing but it wasn’t until I turned on the light that the others shrieked and ran away.

Now the light is flickering while the dead spider-thing still glows.

*

I feel better.

I thought about what the pictures were telling me. Then I crawled to the dead spider-thing and I tasted it.

It was rubbery and juicy and sweet. I ate it all and I feel stronger. I smeared the glowing blood on the paper so I can see well to write.

I even found out where the spider-things came from. There’s a small tunnel that was blocked by rocks. They pushed a few aside. I don’t know what lured them out. Probably Sam’s smell.

The tunnel is small and I can’t see more than a few feet into it. I might be able to crawl  through but I wouldn’t be able to turn around.

*

I fell asleep and dreamed of a place where no one tells you what you can’t do. Anything goes. It’s just living and dying however you choose.

I woke up and heard this wailing sound from the tunnel. I think it’s the people in the paintings singing.

It’s beautiful.

*

I was in the tunnel when Ronnie came back. He was so busy grabbing the money that he never saw me slip up behind him.

I wonder what happens to your soul when you die here.

I left the rope hanging in the middle of the cave and went back to the tunnel. I’m going to the other side to find the people who are singing. I think they’ll understand the things that I’ve done. The things I’d like to do.

Being understood is worth more than money.

Besides, I think they’ve been lost for a long time. They might want to find the way back home.

Then we can get out of the Hole together.

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The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming is a historical novel set in a turn-of-the-century America that is not quite our own. Edison, Tesla, and J.P. Morgan all make appearances, as does the fledgling New York City subway system, but the real stars of the story are a mechanic from Idaho and a princess/mathematical prodigy from the Kingdom of Toledo, which may or may not have ever existed.

The novel is interspersed with  footnoted historical narratives tracing the emergence of the titular kingdom, said narratives liberally blending fact and fiction in a strangely compelling fashion. The bulk of the story deals with the events set in motion when our young protagonist helps a dazed young woman in the street.

The scientific explanations for what has befallen the lady–which involves travel through time, between parallel worlds, and through space–are incoherent as anything other than fantasy cloaked as weird science, creating an odd juxtaposition with the more sober details offered up concerning the frontier, the subway, and even the pursuits of men such as Edison and Tesla. The romance at the center of the story feels implausible yet real, much like royal Toledo itself.

The Kingdom of Ohio is thus filled with odd narrative choices and odd characters that are all presented with sharp clarity (aside from the deus ex machina that triggers the novel). As for the conclusion, I can only say that if you liked the ending of Kubrick’s 2001, this will be equally satisfying. The result is as hard to classify as a platypus, but just as intriguing, and if you are in the mood for something unusual, an interesting read.

Link to The Kingdom of Ohio on Amazon

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The riding mowers in the park cut in circular patterns around the trees, leaving behind concentric rings in the grass. The trees are poised like brown stones dropped into a sea of green, ripples spreading out from their gnarled trunks, as though the image was frozen a moment after impact.

The longer I look at this scene, the more time seems to slow, an optical illusion creating a temporal illusion producing a moment of stillness in a hectic day.

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