William Gibson’s Review of Pacific Rim

William Gibson posted this review of Guillermo del Toro’s film Pacific Rim today:

A ravishing display of intelligent, often wonderfully witty visual design, every frame alive with coherent language, in the service of what is at heart a children’s story. A children’s story for a very dark time, our own, about a very dark time as children understand such things: monsters, from beneath the bed — our own or the ocean’s! It restores heroism to the realm of the humanistic, an extraordinary accomplishment given so much of the film culture of our day. The protagonists know, and demonstrate that they know, that it isn’t about them. A sweetly simple fable, for all the titanic grandeur of its cosplay (which I took to be the message of the slowly pumping wooden bellows in the kaiju-drifting machine, which became for me the sly sweet heart of it all). A demonstration of the degree of heart *and* physicality that even very big-ticket FX can convey when there’s an honest will to avoid the opposite; mega-scale FX that don’t drain either away. A baroque that doesn’t curdle, that never fetishizes itself.

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I Review Neal Stephenson’s Zany, Prescient Novel Snow Crash (And Comment on the Impending Film Adaptation)

Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash opens with an extended scene in which the book’s protagonist races to deliver a pizza on time for the mafia. The scene is thrilling and ridiculous, establishing the book’s frenetic, ironic tone and painting a rough outline of Snow Crash’s milieu. Like  many sprawling works of speculative fiction, Snow Crash is more interested in rendering its milieu in vibrant, hyperkinetic color than it is concerned with delivering plot and character development. Snow Crash’s plot is the sort of joyfully convoluted careening mess that makes a reviewer (okay, this reviewer) shudder at the thought of having to successfully paraphrase, so I’m not even going to make an earnest effort. Let’s get to that milieu and the cartoon characters who inhabit it.

Snow Crash is set in the early 21st century, primarily in Los Angeles, which is no longer part of the United States. Actually, there isn’t much of a United States to speak of, really—and not even a municipal Los Angeles, per se. Instead, the terrain is totally privatized. Privatized roads, privatized spaces. People (who can afford to) live in franchised burbclaves protected by hired mercenaries or private militias or robots that keep out the undesirables. (The white folks who live in New South Africa want “racial purity,” while some franchise nations, like Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong are open to anyone who can trade information). Authority is for sale. Conditions are so laissez-faire that the Mafia is truly a Legitimate Business now (complete with their own CosaNostra Pizza University). In fact, all business is legitimate; several times in Snow Crash, a character will refer to “the old days when they had laws.” Without regulation, hyperinflation is the norm; the homeless use trillion-dollar bills to light their campfires.

There’s a hard-edged griminess to the world Stephenson conjures in Snow Crash, but the book is never grim or dour, and instead embraces the anarchic-capitalism it proposes. Perhaps this is because Stephenson’s heroes are such radically exceptional people. The book’s hero is named Hiro Protagonist, the kind of Pynchonian goof that characterizes Snow Crash’s zany tone. Hiro meets the book’s other protagonist, a fifteen year old blonde who goes by Y.T. (“Yours Truly,” although most of the folks tend to hear “whitey”). Y.T. is a Kourier, a skateboarding delivery person who harpoons vehicles to catch a free ride. She helps Hiro deliver that pizza in the opening scene and the two team up after Hiro gives her his business card. It reads: “Last of the Freelance Hackers  / Greatest swordfighter in the world  / Stringer, Central Intelligence Corporation. Specializing in Software related Intel. (Music, Movies & Microcode.)” Did I neglect to mention that Hiro carries two samurai swords with him wherever he goes?

Hiro’s pretty handy with those swords, but his real skill is hacking, and he spends a good deal of time in the Metaverse, a virtual reality-based internet space where avatars go to bars and chat and sell &c. It’s sort of like a mix between Facebook and World of War Craft. In 1992 (earlier, I suppose), Stephenson’s way ahead of the curve. Here, he describes avatars:

Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment.  If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful.  If you’ve just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup.  You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse.  Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these.

There are plenty of passages like this, where Stephenson pegs some aspect of internet culture ten years before it actually happens. (I couldn’t help but think about Wikipedia during Hiro’s conversations with a program called Librarian). It’s probably fair to say that the Wachowskis lifted as much from Snow Crash as they did from William Gibson’s cyberpunk trilogies.

While I’m there, I might as well lazily point out that Snow Crash would fit neatly at home on a shelf with Neuromancer or Mona Lisa Overdrive. There’s also a heavy dose of Philip K. Dick weirdness in Snow Crash, particularly when the book settles into its major metaphysical plot about ancient Sumerian gods and goddesses and linguistic viruses and the Tower of Babel. Stephenson’s Snow Crash is zanier than William Gibson’s dark depictions or Dick’s mindmelted milieux, and it would hardly do to call what he does here light—but there is something joyful, playful about his satire. I invoked Pynchon earlier and I’ll do it again; parts of Snow Crash also reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s opus Infinite Jest. Both IJ and SC obsess over the minutest details of speculative technologies and how people might react to such technologies. This is often what sets Snow Crash heads and shoulders above run of the mill cyberpunk. In just one instance, Stephenson parodies the language of bureaucratic speech at length; Y.T.’s mom, who works for what’s left of the Federal Government, is subjected to a memo about toilet paper usage that goes on for pages. The passage is hilarious, and adds absolutely nothing to the plot development—it simply helps to flesh out the contours of the world that Stephenson has imagined.

All of this detailed imagining unfortunately comes at the expense of a plot that only coheres through massive exposition dumps. About a third of the way into the novel, the major conflict is finally established, but only through a dialog between Hiro and the Librarian that reads almost like a catechism. As the book reaches its climax, Hiro actually explains what’s going on to a few of the other major characters—and the reader, of course. It’s a cringe-worthy moment, the sort of rhetorical weakness that smacks of genre fiction; even worse, the plot’s action ultimately hangs on some fairly basic hoary old tropes that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s ever played a video game. The book lags under a juvenile obsession with weapons and badassery in general. And the book’s resolution . . . well, let’s just say that Stephenson sticks the ending, but it all feels too pat and too slight after the dazzling weight of the world that he’s established. Still, at its finest, Stephenson’s prose is zippy, shining, hilarious stuff, and his employment of multiple character perspectives moves the book with an addictive energy. Snow Crash is beach reading for folks who like some humor with their dystopia.

A film adaptation of Snow Crash is supposedly going into production soon, with British director Joe Cornish taking charge. I liked Cornish’s last film Attack the Block, and Snow Crash clearly has a highly-imagistic, cinematic feel to it—but I think a film is not the way to go. Simply put, Snow Crash is too big, too larded with characters and details (so many that I failed to touch on in this review) to translate well onscreen. I think an eight part miniseries on HBO (or a similar network) would be perfect, even if it came at the expense of special effects—-a miniseries would give the filmmakers time to build Stephenson’s nuanced world. I’m afraid otherwise we’ll get a travesty like the adaptation of The Golden Compass, or something like The Hunger Games film, where all but the most basic plot points are elided. But I suppose a miniseries is not as lucrative as a blockbuster film. I hope the filmmakers at least split the book in two. In any case, I’ll be interested to check out the results.

Book Shelves #2, 1.08.2012

. . . it’s not too difficult, very obviously, to keep ten or twenty or let’s say even a hundred books; but once you start to have 361, or a thousand, or three thousand, and especially when the total starts to increase every day or thereabouts, the problem arises, first of all of arranging all these books somewhere and then of being able to lay your hand on them one day when, for whatever reason, you either  want or need to read them at last or even to reread them.

Thus the problem of a library is twofold: a problem of space, first of all, then a problem of order.

—Georges Perec, from “Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books” (1978)

Book shelves series #2, second Sunday of 2012. Master bedroom: Corner piece bookshelf in the southwest corner; two tiers + top shelf.

I didn’t take a picture of the entire bookshelf, a humble little two-tier piece that abuts the corner of any room with corners. Actually, I did take a picture—a few—but they just looked awful. Like I said in the first installment of this series, it’s not my goal to present aesthetically pleasing portraits of bookshelves.

This corner bookshelf was my grandmother’s and I’ve had it for at least 10 years. The top shelf holds five books that rest there for entirely aesthetic purposes; looking at them now I realize that, with the exception of the Audubon volume in the middle and the Lewis Carroll on the end, I’ve never even bothered to flick through them. They look strange photographed here without the framed photographs, plants, and tchotchkes that attend most shelves in the house:

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At one point, this entire piece of furniture was double shelved (is this a term? Do you know what I mean here?) with cheap mass market paperbacks, the kind of books that I bought and received for years. I rarely buy mass markets anymore; nor do I like hardbacks. I’m a trade paperback man. Still, some of the sci-fi/dystopian lit here was fundamental to my early reading habits, to the point where I even pick up newer volumes (like Philip Pullman’s books) in mass market paperback.

We also see here the first of many cameras scattered throughout the books in this house. This particular Polaroid is likely the least antiquated; I think it’s from 1999 or 2000. I took all these photos with an iPhone:

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The shot is blurry, so you might not make out the cracked spines, but there are many Huxley books there (although it occurs to me now how odd it is that only one Vonnegut volume is there, when I know that I have so many more somewhere). Two noteworthy Huxleys:

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We have children. There are children’s books everywhere in the house, organized in no particular fashion. The drawing and painting books belonged to my grandmother, who was an amateur painter. I am fairly familiar with these books.

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More kids books. They were probably stuffed here after piling up on the floor one night. The box is full of homemade dice and preserved insects:

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And more mass markets—sci-fi and fantasy. Many of these were, uh, “borrowed” and never returned, either from a school that I used to work for (The Left Hand of Darkness; Alas Babylon, the aforementioned Pullman volumes), or from dear friends (I’m looking at you, William Gibson books). There are probably 50 more books like this in a secret stash in the back of the house, out of sight:

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The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an early paperback edition, sporting Tolkien’s original illustrations. My aunt gave me these. I’ve probably read The Lord of the Rings more than any other book, and I’m almost certain that I’ve owned it in more editions than any other book:

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 A dear friend lent me Gibson’s Neuromancer years ago; I know Gibson’s other early books (the first two trilogies) must be somewhere around the house, unless I passed them on, but I’ve always been fond of this book, which taught me how to read in some ways:

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So we’ve made it out of my bedroom—I chose not to take a picture of my wife’s night stand, for her privacy, I suppose, although she might not have cared. (She doesn’t read this blog and is likely unaware of this weird project). There was a Hayao Miyazaki adaptation she was reading to our daughter there, and Hemingway’s novel The Garden of Eden, which I think she finished just the other night.

William Gibson: “Bleak House Is the Best Steampunk Landscape That Will Ever Be”

From The Paris Review interviewWilliam Gibson on on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House

INTERVIEWER

The Victorians invented science fiction.

GIBSON

I think the popular perception that we’re a lot like the Victorians is in large part correct. One way is that we’re all constantly in a state of ongoing t­echnoshock, without really being aware of it—it’s just become where we live. The Victorians were the first people to experience that, and I think it made them crazy in new ways. We’re still riding that wave of craziness. We’ve gotten so used to emergent technologies that we get anxious if we haven’t had one in a while.

But if you read the accounts of people who rode steam trains for the first time, for instance, they went a little crazy. They’d traveled fifteen miles an hour, and when they were writing the accounts afterward they struggled to describe that unthinkable speed and what this linear velocity does to a perspective as you’re looking forward. There was even a Victorian medical complaint called “railway spine.”

Emergent technologies were irreversibly altering their landscape. Bleak House is a quintessential Victorian text, but it is also probably the best steam­punk landscape that will ever be. Dickens really nailed it, especially in those proto-Ballardian passages in which everything in nature has been damaged by heavy industry. But there were relatively few voices like Dickens then. Most people thought the progress of industry was all very exciting. Only a few were saying, Hang on, we think the birds are dying.

 

William Gibson on Blood Meridian

At The GuardianWilliam Gibson says Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is his most memorable holiday read—

If that’s holiday as in “utterly removed from any sense of immediate surroundings”, my most memorable holiday reading is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I started in the cab on the way to Vancouver airport, headed for a first trip to Berlin where I was doing something, I wasn’t sure what, with Samuel Delany and Wim Wenders at the Kunsthalle. I am uncertain as to the year, likely it was 1991, before the publication of All the Pretty Horses. I had recently read McCarthy’s astonishing The Orchard Keeper, and on the urging of the friend who had recommended that, I began Blood Meridian. I remember nothing else, door to door, between my home in Vancouver and the hotel room in which I finished the book in Berlin. I awoke from it as from some terribly potent dream, and found myself, quite unexpectedly, in a strange city. Being Berlin, and particularly then, it was a very strange city. A few nights later, over in the east, I continued to experience intense overlays of Blood Meridian. Indeed, I think those overlays helped me better comprehend what I was seeing, and not to panic. The Judge, I knew, would understand all of this.

The AV Club Interviews William Gibson

The AV Club interviews cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson about his new novel, Zero History. From the interview–

AVC: You’ve talked elsewhere about the modern dilemma of separating the real from the virtual. How does something like Twitter confuse the issue?

WG: More and more, I think the thing our descendants will find most quaint and old-fashioned about us is the trouble we still take to make that distinction, between the virtual and the “real.” I think that will seem sort of Victorian to them, because I think we’re already losing the need to make the distinction, and I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing. That doesn’t fill me with the panic it fills some people with. The back-and-forth [of Twitter] is the same back-and-forth we’re having right now in a telephone conversation, and it’s very much like the back-and-forth that Victorian English people had with their three mail deliveries a day. Except that with a medium like Twitter, it’s simultaneously public, in large part. It becomes a communal activity. I don’t see it as a new activity, inherently. I think it’s something we’ve had equivalents of for forever, but the completely post-geographical way in which we’re able to do it is new. And it must be changing it somehow. I actually don’t think we can know what emergent technologies are doing to us while they’re doing it to us. In fact, I don’t think we know yet what broadcast television did to us, although it obviously did lots. I don’t think we’re far enough away from it yet to really get a handle on it. We get these things, I think they start changing us right away, we don’t notice we’re changing. Our perception of the whole thing shifts, and then we’re in the new way of doing things, and we take it for granted.

Back to School, Wm Gibson, Promises, Promises, and General Malaise

Bleh.

After three months of summer vacation, I had to go back to work on Monday. Yet even as I write this, the immortal classic Back to School airs on Comedy Central, reminding me of my commitment to education. Any moment now, Kurt Vonnegut will show up to help Thornton Melon pass Dr. Turner’s English class (weird convergence: ten years after Back to School, Keith Gordon–Jason Melon, the diver, Rodney’s kid–directed a version of Vonnegut’s Mother Night. My college roommate and I watched it when it came out, but I don’t really remember any of it).

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Anyway, I promise to recover and get back to the semi-daily blogging (any semi-day now): I’ve been reading Joyce’s Ulysses; I’ve also read a couple of graphic novels; I’m hoping to get around to watching Inland Empire and letting you know what I think. So there’s that.

For now, AV Club has a pretty good interview with ‘klept favorite William Gibson up today. We forgive him for All Tomorrow’s Parties. And Idoru. And even the Johnny Mnemonic movie. Who knows–maybe his upcoming novel Spook Country won’t be half bad.

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William Gibson

Just out of high school, I had a mild obsession with William Gibson’s so-called cyberpunk novels. The first and most famous of these is Neuromancer, an incredibly prescient book that the Wachowski Bros. shamelessly ripped off in The Matrix. Neuromancer is the first in “The Sprawl” trilogy; Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive followed. I borrowed and never returned Neuromancer from Tilford; a few years ago I lent it, along with Burning Chrome, Gibson’s collection of short stories, to a student who in turn never returned them. I read Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive at the same time as my college roommate Jordan. I don’t know who has these books now.

In 1990 Gibson co-authored a book called The Difference Engine with Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine posits a Victorian England where computers have already been created and are in use. The novel explores the consequences of a technological revolution coming a 100 years early. This book launched what is sometimes called the “steampunk” genre. After TDE, Gibson spent the 90s writing three novels often referred to as “The Bridge” trilogy: the first, Virtual Light, was pretty good (it had a really cool idea about “organic computers”); the second, Idoru, was pretty bad, really; the last, All Tomorrow’s Parties, was downright awful (I couldn’t finish it–I was embarrassed for one of my favorite authors!) At the beginning of the new millenium, technology had caught up to Gibson’s cyberpunk visions, making some of the details of his Bridge trilogy seem outdated or just plain hokey.

I knew our time together was up when I passed on a $4 copy of 2003’s Pattern Recognition at Barnes & Noble a few years ago. Despite his fiction taking a dip, Gibson’s blog, as well as his essays (often published in Wired magazine–check out what is probably his most famous piece, “Disneyland with the Death Penalty”) remain relevant and entertaining. Maybe his forthcoming novel, Spook Country, will prove more entertaining; until then, at least we have the Sprawl Trilogy.

(Check out more William Gibson covers at this gallery)