I wish you could say “he wasn’t crazy, he just played one in his pictures”, but that would be a lie. Artaud was insane. Translator Clayton Eshleman describes his films, poetry, and prose as the partial salvation of a life broken beyond repair, and that cuts to the heart of Artaud: He was a cracked plate, glued together by golden strands of art.
Artaud’s life almost feels like a play. It’s full of narratory techniques: callbacks, references, echoes of past events. The amateur electroshock therapy administered by his father in childhood prefigures the far more brutal electroshock therapy he received decades later in a Rodez asylum. A damaging relationship with laudanum prefigures a lethal relationship with chloral hydrate. Artaud’s life has a diegetic quality, a “written” quality, and the sense that things are screeching off the rails into an inevitable tragedy.
“Watchfiends and Rack Screams” collects most of Artaud’s later writings. There’s not much theory, not much organisation, and most of it resembles an opium-deranged brain evacuating and ejaculating over a blank page.
“Artaud, The Mômo” is a typical display, with profane rants going back and forth with tracts of unintelligible gibberish, written in a language I cannot understand or identify.
“To Have Done with the Judgment of God” is a planned radio play that was cancelled the night before it was scheduled to air. It is a twisted, convoluted helix of words, delving into themes both personal and political. “Is God a being? If he is one, he is shit.” Artaud’s relationship with religion was as tumultuous as his relationship with everything else. At certain points, he was possessed with a foul-mouthed, blasphemous kind of heathenism – think the Marquis de Sade with Tourettes. At other points, he tried to become a priest, and compared the Tarahumaran peyote god Ciguri with Christ.
As with everything he does, “entertaining” isn’t the word for it. “Important” is close. “Strong” is closer still. Artaud wrote and did many things that were striking and difficult to ignore, and a decent number of them are collected here.
But was his work ever good? I don’t know. While his work has the impact of bloody viscera on the hood of a car, his contributions to film theory are gnomish and impenetrable, and so is much of his prose. He’s an important figure in surrealistic film and literature, but mostly because he broke things apart – I don’t think he was capable of building them back up again.
Un Chien Andalou is probably the best exposition of Artaudian ideas, and he didn’t make it. Luis Buñuel and Salvadore Dali did.
But here’s a better question: did he ever have the chance to be a great film-maker? No. He was broken, and he couldn’t do anything except document his brokenness. The rock band KISS once had a stage act where bassist Gene Simmons would “fly” around the stage by a crane-mounted hook on his back. One day, the crane broken down in the middle of a gig, and Simmons was left dangling helplessly in the air. He tried to continue his act, scowling and wagging his tongue and breathing fire, but it was soon obvious to everyone that he was a puppet on a string.
Antonin Artaud was like that. He went down into the darkest depths of the psyche without a net, a plunge he ultmately didn’t survive. Heroic? No. Heroism means you have a choice, and Antonin Artaud never had one.No Comments »
In the 80s, we thought we’d be bombarded by nuclear missiles. Instead, we were bombarded by films about nuclear missiles. The United States initiated this conflict in 1983, with WarGames and The Day After. The USSR retaliated in 1986 with Letters of a Dead Man. The United Kingdom wasn’t slow to unleash its own nuclear missile film arsenal, with Threads exiting the bomb bay doors in 1984 and the animated When the Wind Blows following in 1986. Fortunately, the average film has a very small radioactive footprint, or none of us would have survived.
“Threads” is probably the most memorable of these films. It traumatized children upon its release, and even now it’s a compelling watch.
The film opens like a sitcom, with a couple in Sheffield decorating their flat. Television broadcasts warn of impeding nuclear war. Usually, sitcoms have to deal with their cast quitting the show, aging out of their role, or getting caught snorting coke. Threads solves the problem by killing almost the entire cast, and a great many people besides.
Soon, the cold war becomes extremely hot, and the world is engulfed by a three gigaton nuclear firestorm. Regrettably, some people actually survive. The rest of the film documents their struggles in the desolate aftermath. Society collapses to subsistence level. Basic wants are in dire need. We start to wonder about genetic mutations and birth defects, and the final scene gives you a lot to think about.
There are a lot of unforgettable images in Threads. A woman cradling a charcoal-black baby. Glass milkbottles instantly flash-melting. A burning cat. After nuclear winter collapses the biosphere, we see a door to door salesman selling dead rats for meat.
The film is almost comically grim, and you start to wonder if it’s supposed to be a parody of nuke films. If it is, it fooled me. I can’t find a single moment where the cast (or director Mick Jackson) winks at the camera – everyone handles the material with dour seriousness.
The BBC’s small budget works well for the film, giving it a filthy, lived-in quality. Sometimes the cheapness adds a new dimension to the horror, as in the hospital scene where open wounds are being sterilized with supermarket containers of Saxa salt.
There’s something intrinsically frightening about nuclear weapons. Perhaps it’s their hopelessness, and the way they knock the traditional rules of war into a cocked hat. Once, better weapons meant you were in a favorable position. Bill has a stick, and uses it to guard his food. Bob has a bigger stick, and uses it to take Bill’s food. So far, so good. But now Bill has a B53, and Bob has a RS-28, and now when they go to war neither of them will win. There will be no Bill, no Bob, and no food to fight over. They’re the most ghastly “off switch” ever achieved. And the only way to prevent their use is to…make more of them?
This is the sort of movie that dirties your TV screen or monitor. You think, your finger will come away coated in dirt and soot. It is a fantastic film that I don’t plan on seeing again, which I think was the goal.No Comments »
Remember the Columbine school shootings? They were blamed on the 1993 videogame Doom. It was theorised that Eric “RebDoomer” Harris had played the game for so long that his CRT monitor had become reality (or reality had become his CRT monitor) and that he was as shocked as anyone that his victims in Jefferson County didn’t bleed red pixels.
But in reality, Eric Harris no longer played Doom – he had moved on to Quake. But nobody accused him of being inspired by Quake, because Quake was far less of a cultural sensation than Doom and fewer people had heard of it. Just as every random smart-sounding quote gets attributed to Einstein, truth was sacrificed here for maximal memetic transmission. The Quake-Columbine connection was never made, simply because fewer people had heard of Quake. There’s no outrage to be generated from a game nobody in Middle America has heard of.
Quake 2 was even less of a cultural phenomenon than Quake. Nobody has ever attributed any act of violence to it at all. I wonder if John Carmack feels any regret that this is the case, and if I ever plan a spree shooting, I intend to give Quake 2 a shout-out in my shaky-cam Youtube manifesto. You’re welcome, John. Please pay it forward.
Truthfully, Quake 2 deserves a bit more fame, because it’s actually a better game than Quake. It’s not a brilliant shooter. It just takes the strong points of Quake, sticks bandaids over the weak points of Quake, and hopes you don’t notice. Often, you don’t.
The story’s a paragraph in the manual, as usual. Aliens have invaded, ARE YOU A BAD ENOUGH DUDE TO RESCUE THE PRESIDENT, et cetera. But effort has been made to make the gameworld feel like a real place. Spaceships swoop overhead like steel-winged birds. You explore areas with a recognisable purpose (a factory, a mine, a waste processing facility). Environments are somewhat responsive to your actions (you can blow holes in walls and smash panes of glass). Little touches like how enemies duck your shots and switch weapons on the fly are nice. 3D graphics are useless if you still feel like a rat in a maze, and Quake 2 goes a long way towards immersing the player in a believable world.
The weapons and enemies are fun (although there’s nothing as visually striking as the Shambler or the Cyberdemon), and the graphics aren’t that far behind Unreal’s. The game flows well, eschewing obvious “level breaks” for a more unified feel (instead of finishing a level, you walk to a door, experience a brief load screen, and then pick up where you left off.) The soundtrack is excellent. Apparently Sonic Mayhem had no idea how to write metal while he was recording it, and this strangely works. He avoids most of metal’s cliches, just because he’s not aware of them.
The only bad thing you can say about Quake 2 is that it’s a koala bear.
Evolution proceeds stage by stage. If you want C, you first must have B, and if you want B, you first must have A. This approach means there’s not much scope for a wildly novel trait to emerge. You cannot go from A all the way to Z in a single step. If a mutant koala was born with wings, it would be maladapted. Its body shape is not designed for flying. It’s not energetic enough for the rigors of powered flight. Maybe in a few million years a nearly unrecognisable descendant of the koala bear would have wings, but nearly every single one of the animal’s traits would have to change before wings, as a design, makes sense. Which gets bad, considering that the world doesn’t always give you a few million years. Right now, we’re razing the bush. The koala bear’s habitat is disappearing. It’s in a place where it needs an A-Z change, it needs wings, and it needs to modify very quickly or else it will die. But it won’t, because it can’t. Such is the way of evolution. Every strata level of the fossil record is littered with the calcified bones of the ones who died.
Games don’t exactly “evolve” in the way animals do. It is, in principle, possible for a new game with wildly novel traits to emerge. But the majority of games made are basically designed along the principle of “something that sold last season – with a few small tweaks.” Quake 2 fits this description. No drastic steps or changes, just gentle refinement of ideas presented in Quake. And just like real life, sometimes this takes you to an evolutionary dead end. The videogame industry (famously) crashed in 1983, as gamers wearied of generic, low-quality, nearly identical games. They were getting wise to the fact that Ms Pacman was just Pacman with a ribbon and lipstick. Incremental changes don’t work if the entire phenotype can no longer survive.
Quake 2 did not crash the industry. But it’s now very dated, and represents a style of FPS gaming that is no longer in fashion. The commercially viable FPS games are big, cinematic experiences, with Hans Zimmer scores and 3 hours of cutscenes. Quake has a tiny amount of that, but it baby-steps where Half-Life and Deus Ex pole vault.
I’ve played Quake 2’s single player mode a few times, along with some custom levels (the game never inspired the same level of interest in the modding community that the original did, either). It has yielded up most of its secrets. It’s a good game. It’s also a time capsule, and a look into a fossilized past.No Comments »
Kerry Packer was Australia’s richest man, and he didn’t care who knew it. It was dangerous to mention your own wealth in his company. Once, at a baccarat table in Vegas, a Texas oilman bragged that he was worth sixty million. Kerry didn’t miss a beat. “Toss you for it.”
Metallica’s like that. It’s all or nothing. Once they decide on a direction, they take that direction to its full or logical conclusion. Sometimes that conclusion is “Ride the Lightning”. Sometimes it’s “Lulu.” And now we’re here, with an album that’s average, but strangely intense in its averageness, if that makes sense. Imagine pouring a mug of tapwater, that’s utterly uncompromising in its 50C-ness. The definitive mug of lukewarm water, that all mugs of lukewarm water aspire to be.
Hardwired tries to merge their 80s thrash metal sound with various hard rock influences, with somewhat good results. I was hoping for more, but it’s listenable and well put together. Greg Fiedelman’s earthy production job stops things from sounding too modern, but the album doesn’t have a sonic “center”. There’s not a single track you can point to as a summary of the album’s thesis. It jumps around in style a lot, and also in quality.
The performances shocked me. James’s voice sounds…good. No more “GIMME FUE GIMME FAI GIMME DABAJABAZA” enunciation. And he’s backing it up live, too. Lars’s drumming is basic but sounds pretty decent now that he’s mixed in a non-asinine fashion. The band probably pulls of its best rhythm tone to date, with the guitars like a scorching streak of red war paint against the dry skin of the bass and drums. Everything works, everything makes sense.
The weak performer on the album is obviously Kirk Hammett. His bad habits are now incredibly pronounced, turning songs like “Confusion” into your one stop shop for bad Jimi Hendrix imitations. Sloppily played pentatonic runs, drenched in masturbatory wah pedal noise, written with no thought, no technique, and no ability to “ride” the feel of the song. On 2008’s Death Magnetic, he didn’t stand out at all. Now, he’s actively making the band worse.
If you agree, take heart from my suspicion that he won’t be in Metallica much longer. Note that he has zero writing credits on the album, and my reading of Blabbermouth reveals a dog-ate-my-homework level excuse about losing the phone that had all his riff ideas (should have lost the phone that had his shitty guitar solos, instead). I don’t buy it. There’s kids on Youtube who can play every riff Metallica ever recorded, but Kirk Hammett needs a phone to remember his own material? His heart is obviously no longer in this band and I predict he will be the next member to leave.
But he keeps his noodling down to a few seconds per song, leaving us with Hetfield’s amazing left hand and surprisingly decent voice to carry the album, and they both do…to an extent. “Hardwired” doesn’t stand out to me as excellent material, but “Atlas, Rise!” and “Moth into Flame” are incredible, capturing everything that was good about the Black album and marrying with a greater sense of musical adventure. If the whole album had sounded like this, a renaissance would be underway.
“Now That We’re Dead” and “Confusion” sound like efforts at arena rock. I can tolerate them, if not love them. Much of the second album is skipworthy, with the big exception being “Spit Out the Bone”, which brings back the riffs and speed and evokes memories of “Damage Inc” and “Dyers Eve”.
The pace of the album is fairly staid: I could have used more speed and energy. And this is one of those single albums turned into a double disc for no reason at all: I suspect you can make a far superior version of Hardwired…to Self Destruct by deleting/rearranging some of the tracks. Nothing like having to perform emergency triage surgery on an album, but there’s enough good material here that it’s a worthwhile endeavor.
Being a Metallica fan is exhausting. Some think they should have retired in 1991. Some think they should have retired in 1988. Some think they should have retired in 1981. No matter where you stand, this might be the closest to a return to form we’ll ever get, and I know not to look a gift Horseman in the mouth. Metallica tossed for it, and I don’t know if they beat the house, but they’re still here doing what they do.No Comments »
Stockbrokers cheered as they watched Wolf of Wall Street. Thousands of girls have tried to redeem Draco Malfoy through fanfiction. It’s surprisingly hard to create a villain that people actually dislike.
Flashman take a bully from Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days and describes his later adventures in the British Raj (and beyond). He rides horses, plays cricket, embarrasses himself in battle, and has carnal knowledge of many famous historical women. He’s incredibly cowardly, but his attempts to desert, abandon, and betray his own side are always misunderstood as acts of heroism, and he emerges from each book with a lapel weighed down by still more (spectacularly unearned) medals and decorations.
Fraser seems to be taking shots at Victorian-era vainglory. Or maybe he’s not even being cynical: Flashman legitimately inspires people, even though his heroics are a sham. Shadow puppets are cool, and they don’t get less cool because it’s a wrinkled, liver-spotted hand making them.
The books are hilarious and action-packed. What’s often missed is how well researched they are. Fraser was a soldier, a journalist, and a historian, and the Flashman Papers are packed full of footnotes illuminating the time period, all written from the presumption that Flashman himself is a real historical figure. (“Flashman, like many other European writers, uses the word “Ghazi” as though it referred to a tribe, although he certainly knew better. In Arabic “ghazi” is literally a conqueror, but may be accurately translated as hero or champion…”)
The books contain walk-on appearances from legendary figures, both real and fictional (even Sherlock Holmes). Frasier takes glee in depicting beloved cultural icons as nasty, malevolent people, every bit as bad as Flashman himself. It’s like the monster movie cliche where you have to show Godzilla smashing Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower.
I hit the eject button on this series after about four or five books. They were blurring together, and the sheer number of Flashman’s improbable escapes was starting to bother me (as was his supernatural ability to learn every new language he encountered). But like many women I had a good time with Flashman, at least while he lasted.
Fantasy writer David Gemmell learned early on to never discover the truth about his heroes. As a boy, he read a history book about the Alamo, and was revolted that he’d ever admired Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. He took refuge in the books of Tolkien and Moorcock, where heroes’ names are written in permanent ink. Nobody can ever make Gandalf less than Gandalf. But some of us prefer heroes with feet of clay – or in Harry Paget Flashman’s case, an entire body made of the stuff.No Comments »
When I was born, Australia had lots of wilderness and very few computers. I didn’t like this arrangement. But now that we have less wilderness and more computers every day, I’m starting to relax. My side is winning the war.
The years keep coming, and we need all of the computers we can get. They’re under our control. Predictable. Every single one of them has a known state, known behavior, and a known purpose. No more of them exist than we desire to exist. Nobody ever woke up and had to weed unwanted computers from their front lawn.
The world’s getting too big, too complex, and too interconnected for unpredictability. I want every idea, thought, and entity to either submit itself to humanity’s control or die. The big killer in the modern world isn’t technology, it’s wildness – by which I mean chaos, and unpredictability.
Cars are big stupid blocks of metal, exerting only a few hundred thousand joules of kinetic energy on impact. Meanwhile, the United States has thousands of nuclear warheads, each of which would release dozens of petajoules of energy on detonation. Yet cars massacre hundreds of thousands annually, while nuclear explosions have killed nobody in years not ending with “4” and “5”. You know why? Because are nukes are domesticated and cars are wild.
You could invent a disease par excellence, such as an airborn variant of Ebola, and so long as it stayed in a test tube or petri dish it would infect nobody. Meanwhile, 36,000 die per year thanks to the flu. It’s like having a foolproof plan to beat Mike Tyson/Mr Dream and instead you get knocked out by Glass Joe.
There’s a prayer that goes “God, don’t give me a lighter load, give me a stronger back.” Safety follows a similar precept: we don’t need a less dangerous world, we need a better control on that danger. And anyway, the world will keep getting more dangerous anyway, so what choice do we have?
I like the idea of a more mechanized world. Roads with perfect right angle intersections. Hills graded flat, so nobody has to switch gears. Maybe there’s a point where someone recognises me as wildness, but so far the domestication of our autonomous bodies has produced good fruit (glasses, artificial limbs, “Vote for Pedro” shirts for the continuation of one’s virginity, etc) and I’m interested in what happens next..
But there’s a risk: what happens when computers start to become wild? In September 2016, a malware called Mirai spread across the internet, brute-forcing unsecured devices using a table of common default usernames and passwords. The resultant effect was very wild: a large botnet of thousands of devices, capable of crashing web servers with a massive 1Tb/s influx of traffic. At the moment, such chaotic effects are only possible through human mismanagement. At the interface of the computers themselves, a transistor can only be on or off. Not much room for stochasm between those two points.
Maybe one day, we’ll have quantum computers that are capable of spontaneous wildness. They’d be machines par excellence, the highest echelon of computerhood. I’ve always been impressed by how the education of computers the same as the education of humans, just with the direction arrow reverse. They start out sane, and have to learn to be mad.No Comments »
Quake isn’t a game. That’s the big misconception people have about it. It was an advanced 3D demo, intended to show off John Carmack’s latest tricks so he could sell his engine to licensees. It’s a product for modders and hackers and people who knew what “IPX tunneling” and “strafe jumping” meant. If you picked it up expecting to install it and have a good time, then the joke’s on you.
Gotta hand it to Carmack, this is one hell of an engine demo. For the first time, we were three fucking D. What does that mean? Better perception of height and depth. Variable camera angles. Light and shadow maps. More elaborate architecture (remember, in Doom you couldn’t even have a room on top of another room). Network architecture also got a shot in the arm, Quake ditches Doom’s clumsy ad hoc netplay for a contemporary server/client model, meaning you got to enjoy nice low latency while a 13 year old calls you a faggot.
But there’s no game, and that can’t be emphasised enough. The storyline could be written on a postcard (using a paintgun as a pen). The weapons are mostly copies of Doom’s. There is exactly one good monster in the game. The bosses are of the “push a button and watch it fall over dead” variety. There was more environmental interaction in Commander Keen.
Quake gets called a horror game, for some reason. Other than a Lovecraftian tilt to some of the artwork, most of the game’s ambience stems from technical limitations. Quake out of the box uses a range of 256 colors (well, 226, to be exact), meaning lightmaps utterly hog the palette (every single tone needs like 16 lighter/darker versions of itself). The verdict? You’re running around gray castles…but they’re very realistically lit gray castles! In movies, they say that it takes a lot money to make something look shitty. Quake was a game people bought 200Mhz Pentiums to play, but visually it looks like something you’d scrape off your shoes.
The single player mode is six hours of running around brown/grey castles, collecting keys. Multiplayer consists of trying to play the maps that came with the game, realising they suck, and downloading better ones from the internet.
Ditto for everything about Quake. It just feels unfinished. The weapons, the monsters…everything’s a placeholder reading [INSERT MORE COMPELLING CONTENT HERE]. This game begs you to mod it, and reskin it, and make it into something worth playing. You are the variable in Quake’s quality, not the developers. The power is in your hands!
Quake is the stone soup of PC gaming – a vaporous non-product that only becomes valuable when you put additional effort into it. It’s impressive as an engine demo, but those degrade at exactly the speed of Moore’s Law. The best FPS games lengthen their replay value with content, but that wasn’t the priority here. By the time you realised Quake was a lemon, you’d already bought it.
I still play Duke Nukem 3D and Blood. Though I don’t hate it, I cannot fathom a universe where I ever replay Quake. It’s a museum piece now, and you know what happens to those. They put them behind glass, and you’re not supposed to touch it.No Comments »
TV killed the radio star, but it created the radio star first. “Rock Around the Clock” was a megahit, the song that helped launch the rock and roll genre, but upon its initial release in 1954 it was a commercial failure. Only after it found its way into the credits of the Blackboard Jungle did it climb the charts. A lesson was learned: if you want a hit, get it in a movie.
Music benefits from a visual component, then, now, and always. Start pulling the threads that start with the ceremonial dancing of the Bhimbetka (documented thirty thousand years ago on a cave wall) and you can follow it through to the Greek tragedies, Japanese kabuki theater, the first “talkies”, Michael Jackson’s music videos, the tacky 8-bit LSD visualisations of mp3 players, and so forth. A photogenic element lets music work from another, more literal dimension – for example, taking the implied “scariness” of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor and making it explicit with horror visuals.
The visuals of a movie likewise benefit from sound, in a way that isn’t immediately obvious. We walk around with our experiences clouded by some emotional content, good or bad, and you never experience anything its own. When you eat a pastry you’re also eating the argument you had five minutes ago: you will enjoy the pastry less because you’re angry. When you spend money you’re only as happy or unhappy as the thought of how much is left in the balance. But most of this is gone in a movie – you’re watching a recorded slice of fake reality that you have no intrinsic attachment to. A soundtrack helps recolour all of the moments that have been bleached of their emotions by celluloid. The music acts as a little cue. “Feel sad here. Feel happy here.” That’s why scoring and foley is such an important part of film, even if it’s unmemorable on its own. Films are fake reality, and sound of all kinds is another graft of flesh over the mechanism.
But it must be depressing for a songwriter, knowing that your work will receive much of its impact from a visual component (which you had nothing to do with). It’s as bad works of literature getting culturally steamrolled by their film adaptations. Speaking of which I want to knock on Fitzgerald’s coffin and inform him that people will forevermore visualise Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay when they read The Great Gatsby. I am a bad man.
But that can’t be helped. Like Barthes said, authors are corpses who haven’t got the memo. Millions think “Born in the USA” is a patriotic anthem. That’s a valid reading, and there’s nothing the Boss or anyone else can do.
But I’ve never liked obvious soundtrack biscuits. If movies are cyborgs and music is artificial flesh, soundtrack songs are like plastic doll skin. You’re watching a movie, and then the narrative is interrupted by a cringingly obvious wannabe music video sequence. You can almost see the MTV logo appear.
In the 90s, there was a trend of songs from Disney movies becoming crossover mainstream hits. “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid won a Grammy. “A Whole New World” from Aladdin was a number one hit. From then on, every animated film needed that song. The worst was that shitty song Phil Collins put in Tarzan. You know the one. Where he doesn’t even reference the movie at all but just blandly rhapsodizes about finding yourself, et cetera.
Music and film have a troubled relationship, but they’re never far apart. Although it might seem like songs get swallowed whole by movies, subsumed until they’re just another part of the great machinery, they sometimes outlast the films they’re in. “Rock Around the Clock” achieved fame through the Blackboard Jungle, but who remembers that movie now? Bill Haley had the last laugh.
Sometimes the most insignificant things are the most enduring. Dwarves might stand on the shoulders of giants when walking through a field, but history isn’t a field, it’s quicksand. When the dwarf and the giant hit a but when the ensemble hits some soft quicksand, the giant sinks into obscurity first.No Comments »
The story could be reduced to a boring paragraph, and an (only vaguely) interesting sentence: Ralph (a brilliant inventor) must rescue a charming moll from the clutches of a Martian. The book sometimes has the subtitle “A Romance of the Year 2660”, which is more fitting, because the it’s actually the year 2660 that’s the star, not Ralph. We get taken from place to place, Gernsback showing us all sorts of fancy toys and tricks, while the plot dodders along behind like a guest that isn’t sure he’s wanted at a party.
Science fiction vide Jules Verne (and Mary Shelley) uses futuristic technology to reveal truths about the human condition. Science fiction vide HG Wells uses futuristic technology to reveal truths about society and its ordering. Science fiction vide Gernsback uses futuristic technology to reveal truths about…futuristic technology.
He shows us “telephots” (video phones), but the conversations held over them are all trivial. There’s entire newspapers held on a single sheet of paper (you view different “pages” by exposing the sheet to different lights), and tube tunnels that take you right through the center of the earth, and gyroscopes that take you to Mars, and many other things, all described with breathless, autistic zeal.
But there’s a old-fashioned quality to Gernsback’s futurism. One of the arguments brought up against alien abductions is that descriptions of alien spacecraft always seem to track mankind’s cultural aesthetics (fifty years ago the interiors were all paneled wood and bakelite, now they look like something from the X Files), and Ralph 124C 41+ is like that. A futuristic society where you still have a manservant to bring you breakfast.
Despite the clever and evocative title, (“One to forsee for many”), the prose is very bad. Dangling participles scream from the pages. Gernsback doesn’t use many commas, and untangling his clauses is a constant headacge. This aside, the book has a graceless way of just…telling you stuff. Blurting it out. Here’s where we meet Ralph:
“He yawned and stretched himself to his full height, revealing a physique much larger than that of the average man of his times and approaching that of the huge Martians. His physical superiority, however, was as nothing compared to his gigantic mind. He was Ralph 124C 41 +, one of the greatest living scientists and one of the ten men on the whole planet Earth permitted to use the Plus sign after his name.”
A modern writer would communicate this by indirect means (perhaps Ralph has to stoop to get through the doorway after coming home from an award ceremony). Gernsback just cuts right too it. “Meet Ralph, he’s big, he’s smart.” Gernsback was a man of technical inclination, a builder of wireless radios and many other thiings (Ralph 124C41+ was first serialised in an electronics magazine), and he might have not seen the point of “show, don’t tell”. An electrical manual must provide exact specifications of capacitance and resistance, not just a demonstration of the device in action, and he probably took the same lesson to his fiction. He didn’t realise that fiction doesn’t traffic in information, it traffics in experience, and it’s hard to get any experience from overly-literal descriptions beyond “online dating profile.”
I was bored, and didn’t finish it. I guess this is the closest you can get to being ripped off by Gernsback in 2016, so that’s something. It’s like a cultural experience where you visit a reconstructed medieval village and they put you in the stocks for a few seconds or something. The book tries to take you to the future, but the lanes are crossed, and you end up stuck in the past.No Comments »
I didn’t believe in evolution once. There were a few reasons why, but one of them was that there didn’t seem to be enough transitional fossils. I’d heard various biologists and paleontologists say the same thing: the chain had missing links.
Now I realise that evolution, on a long enough timescale, often stops looking like a gradual slope, and starts looking like a series of steps.
Evolution often work in fits and jerks. There’s periods of rapid change (when there’s strong selective pressure), coupled with long pit stops where not much happens (the pressure relaxes). This conceit is found in several theories. Ernst Mayr’s “genetic revolutions.” Stephen Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium”.
Sometimes, this is dictated by outside pressures – climate change, or the introduction of a new competitor. Sometimes it’s dictated by the form itself. As WD Hamilton pointed out, you’d expect a complete flying creature to be more successful than a semi-evolved creature with half-grown wings. Once selection starts working, the creature rapidly moves through morphological space until it reaches the new optimum.
The fossil record can be likened to a ship traversing an ocean, while a satellite in space takes a photograph of it every day. Imagine the voyage takes 10 days – would you expect the 10 photos of the ship to be at perfect 10% intervals along the journey? Not hardly. There might be doldrums. There might have a strong tailwind. It might have to carefully navigate around some rocks. But this isn’t disproof of the mechanism of sail, and it’s not proof that the ship is magically teleporting from place to place. Evolution isn’t just a question of “where are we going”, it’s a question of “how quickly will we get there?”
This sort of adaptationist thinking isn’t trendy, but even an evolution driven by drift isn’t going to operate at a constant rate throughout history. The generation of mutations is modulated by a host of environmental factors (radiation, UV light), and their spread is capped by social factors. Maybe all kinds of interesting mutations developed in the humans living the New World. So what? Until 1948, none of that affected the gene pool of the humans living in Europe at all. There was a big natural barrier in the way: the Atlantic ocean.
Another thing: does something looking superficially unchanged mean it’s not evolving? The horseshoe crabs are a famous example of “living fossils”, nearly unchanged after hundreds of millions of years. But it seems they did actually change a little bit – fossilized horseshoe crabs have legs that split into two ends, while the modern kind have no split. (Perhaps there’s better examples of living fossils. Cladoselache is a Devonian fish that looks very much like a modern shark. Trigonotarbida is 400mYa old yet easily recognisable as a spider – some fossils even have spinerettes.)
I guess you always want more fossils. But when I die, the fossil record will likely keep no record of me, so who am I do to deny transitional fossils a hypothetical existence?No Comments »