Sunday, May 11, 2003

Why you should continue reading Salam Pax

He is great at describing little details of places and situations.

The streets markets look like something out of a William Gibson novel. Heaps of cheap RAM (stolen of course) is being sold beside broken monitors beside falafel stands and weapons are all available. Fights break out justlikethat and knives come out from nowhere, knives just bought 5 minutes ago. There are army sighting thingys, Weird looking things with lenses. And people selling you computer cases who tell you these are electric warmers, never having seen a computer case before. Really truly surreal. Software CDs, Movie CDs and cheap porn. And a set of 5 CDs called [the crimes of saddam] it has things from halabja, the footage they have taped during 91 while squishing the uprising after the war and other stuff about Uday, there is one whole CD about Uday. Have not seen any of them yet. They say there is some gruesome footage on them but the Uday CD is not as juicy as you’d think.

Interestingly enough, William Gibson himself, who is a fiction writer who is great at describing little details of places and situations and knows that this is one of the best ways of capturing the mood of a place, has been much taken by the Salam Pax's writings over the last couple of months. It is clear that this is the type of situation that he finds interesting, and the type of situation that thus finds its way into his books. (See Gibson's blog here, here, and here).

Of course, when Salam Pax himself observed that it was like something out of a Gibson novel, it then got a little weirder. Gibson described this as a "peculiar frisson for yours truly". Gibson himself is in a way drawn in, and having visualised a world somewhat like the present in 1983, Gibson is drawn in to its actual making, almost like the way in which Coppola and De Niro were drawn in when real life gangsters supposedly started aping those of the characters in The Godfather in the early 1970s.

Gibson goes on to praise Pax's writing ability, and discusses how the reconstruction is likely to give Salam Pax much better material to write with than did the actual war. He goes on to talk about logistics.

If WIRED was really on their game, they'd parachute Mr. Pax a solar-powered laptop and whatever satellite-cellular rig he'd need to blog daily, *right now*. Then leave him the hell alone, except, possibly, for a simple banner proclaiming "SALAM PAX'S BLOGGING-TACKLE PROVIDED GRATIS BY WIRED MAGAZINE AND [NAMES OF MANUFACTURERS]".

This is genuinely a good idea, and of course if someone at Wired Magazine (or somewhere else) was to read Gibson's blog and actually do this as a consequence, then the feedback would get even more complex. This was sort of on my mind when I wrote the other day that the Guardian needs to pay Salam Pax for publishing two pages worth of his blog. Legally (and morally) there is no issue here. Salam Pax is clearly entitled to be paid, and as I suspect the Guardian is not the only newspaper in the world which has published his writings, the amount of money he is entitled to be paid would be at least a few thousand dollars by now. His various complaints about the cost of internet time would be alleviated quickly by the simple payment of the money which he is already owed. Salam Pax is famous in the outside world, and at some point the world is going to find out who he is and this is going to intrude on his life. There might be free computer gear, but there are also going to be things like interviews and book contracts - even if the book is simply a book of the blog. As to whether this will destroy the innocence of the blog, I don't know.

Gibson's writing started out being about artificial intelligences attempting to use rogue computer hackers to not so much take over the world as to earn their own identity within it. The focus was initially about technology obsessed people. As time has gone on, his books have become more and more about media obsessed people. This pattern has followed the modern economy: the last ten years have to some extent been about the media and the technology Gibson was originally talking about meeting one another. (Gibson always knew this, and even his earliest fiction - for instance the short story The Winter Market in Burning Chrome is at least partly about this, but it has become more overt in his later writings). The fact that Salam Pax, and I suppose Iraq in general is making the same journey, only much faster, is what makes Salam Pax such a Gibsonian figure. The fact that he seems actually aware of this makes him even more Gibsonian.

(Just one final observation. In Neuromancer, published in 1983, Case, the main character, towards tthe start of the novel is attempting to fence the "three megabytes of hot RAM" in his computer. At the time, Gibson was more interested in the relationships people had with technology than the technology itself, and although his descriptions of technology come across as plausible and cool most of the time, this was something of a clanger. Three megabytes of RAM was not that much even at the time, and RAM was a boring commodity even then. Nobody would have expected it to be the sort of thing that high tech thieves would be after (and, three megabytes was obviously woefully inadequate for the technology of the world Gibson was describing). Therefore, "three megabytes of hot RAM" is something of an in joke amongst people who know Gibson's novels well. Salam Pax hasn't just made a reference to Gibson, he has made a little bit of a joke indicating that he knows his novels well, and has at least suggested that there is a subculture of Gibson fans in Iraq).

Such is the weirdness of the modern world.

Update: Nick Denton has now said some of the same things, and Glenn Reynolds has linked to him. If the technical issues at Samizdata were resolved and my posting privileges were sorted out, I would have posted it there rather than here, and Glenn Reynolds would have seen it, and he may have linked to me instead. Of course, that site has enough readers already, so in that case I wouldn't have needed the link.

Such is the unfairness of the modern world.

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