Saturday, September 07, 2002

I am a little ambivalent about all the media coverage of the anniversary of September 11. We all have our memories of what happened and our reactions to what happened, and to be honest a lot of us have been thinking of little else for the last year. What is not needed is lots of mawkish and puerile platitudes in the form of television specials. My compliments to the New York Times magazine's effort, however. (Free registration required, yada yada yada). Promotin a bold, interested proposal as to what should be rebuilt in lower Manhattan is a fine, positive way to mark the anniversary. (I wish the article was more detailed, however. Perhaps I am being unfair, as I haven't seen the print version).

Thursday, September 05, 2002

I'm in the process of redesigning the site. Therefore, things will look different from time to time, and occasionally things will look funny when I screw up. However, I'm working on it.

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

The Cyberpunk movement, 15 years later

Last month, I caught to Eurostar train through the channel tunnel to Brussels and then had a couple of days in Brussels and a couple in Amsterdam. Besides drinking a fair bit of the world's best beer and seeing a large police presence outside a building called the World Trade Center, I had a wander around Brussels, a city of fine restaurants, expensive boutique hotels and unelectred bureacrats and lobbyists who really run the world (or, at least, Europe). I had an odd memory of reading William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy, the quintessential cyberpunk novels, about ten years ago. In Count Zero , the second of these novels, an art dealer named Marly Krushkova is summoned from Paris to Brussels to be interviewed for a job by an ultra rich corporate mogul named Joseph Virek. He is not actually there, but has some nasty disease and is thus living in a vat full of yeast in a bleak industrial park outside Stockholm, and the interview therefore takes place in a virtual reality version of Guel Park in Barcelona.

And yes, upon visiting Brussels did strike me as the sort of place where one goes to have virtual reality interviews with creepy businessmen like this. The country of Belgium has an impressive lack of any federal oversight of anything, and it seems to be the place for people who are upstanding in the sense that they will always obey actual laws and will be mortally offended if you suggest they wouldn't, but who none the less sometimes need laws with fewer scruples than are found in the United States of America. ( Singapore is a bit like this, too, although with an entirely different feel to Belgium). If you are instead making a show of being law abiding but you don't mean it and nobody believes you mean it, you go to Vienna. If you are not even making a show of it, you go to Cyprus, possibly Northern Cyprus.

Anyway, I think Gibson got Brussels about right. And after having this thought, an odd thing occurred to me. The Gibson novels are striking in that they are so global. The characters are in Tokyo. Then they run an errand in New York. Then there is another rush of airports and they are in Istanbul. There is a certain feeling of lightheadedness, of crampedness, and of prefabricated food that you get when you travel long distances by air, as if the actual time in transit isn't real. Suddenly you are in Istanbul. (Gibson of course extends this by adding the JAL shuttle to orbit to the experience).

I first read the Gibson novels about ten years ago, and at the time I had been to very few of the places where the books were set. In the ten years since, I have been to almost all the places in question. Not just Tokyo, but Chiba itself, a somewhat bleak, industrial place on the edge Tokyo bay out in the same direction from the city as (a) Disneyland and (b) Narita Airpot. (In this I was actually influenced by the Gibson novels - I was in Tokyo with a railpass a year or two after reading Neuromancer, a train line went to Chiba, and I thought what the heck, let's go). However, I have now been to Istanbul. I have now been to the Arizona desert. I have now been to Malibu, I have now been to various parts of the Sprawl (In the Books, there is a single giant city called the Boston Atlanta Metropolitan Axis, which may or may not have become an independent state). I have been to Paris, Barcelona, and of course London (where I am now).

Since going to Brussels last month, I have reread the three novels, and yes, my sense of the blur of all these places is very well captured by the books. Plus the global technological sense of the books is right. The mass of Cell phones, Blackberries, PDAs and laptops carried by people on planes and in hotels now wasn't right in the details, but it feels right in terms of the mood. (Of course, Gibson notoriously is something of a non-techie himself. He says he wrote the books about the enthusiam for technology he saw in other people rather than the technology itself, so details not right but the feel correct is perhaps what we should expect).

I have at times thought that Gibson is in some sense a disappointment in terms of his later career. He wrote a series of dazzlingly brilliant short stories in the early 1980s. (They are still in my opinion his best work - they are collected in Burning Chrome). Then he wrote Neuromancer, which was and is a great sf novel, but which was not as original as some would claim, because it basically reapeats what is in the short stories, then he wrote the two sequels, which really are just him repeating himself again, although they are full of wonderful new images and situations.

Then he wrote the Bridge trilogy, Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow's Parties, which while again full of wonderful images and situations, are less ambitious than the books that came before them. They are less global, about smaller scale characters, and less obviously concerned with the fate of humanity. (They actually are about the fate of humanity, but you only realise this somehow in passing at the end of the third book. I am not sure if this happening only in passing is clever or just cute).

It has been my impression that Gibson's sense of "with it" has been fading. He still writes excellent books, and I have been looking forward to his new novel Pattern Recognition eagerly. But, somehow, my feeling was that he was past it. But now I am not so sure. What I have been rereading recently still feels really vital. Neal Stephenson somehow now seems much more dated, although Cryptonomicon for instance was written much more recently. I now need to read the Bridge trilogy again and see how vital this feels.

Anyway, enough of this for now. I will talk about Neal Stepehenson and Bruce Sterling in future postings.
I so love The Onion . This photo

accompanies a story entitled US Fast-Food Chains Agree To Voluntary Cheese Limits and supposedly illustrates what burgers were like before the limits were imposed. I can just imagine them laughing themselves sick as they made the burger.

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