2016-02-19 10:00 dark-curricula

Dark Curricula: Feb 2016

The 20th century is gone for good. Many of the things about it that I loved, music, books, film, are naturally succumbing to information loss -- what's left remembered is being recycled, rebooted and monetized until it makes your eyes bleed. Bowie passing away felt like that final road sign, "goodbye 20th century". And there, yet too, I felt the abridged David Bowie, the cliffsnotes David Bowie was apotheosized, regurgitated by some gigantic merciless cultural sandworm. It has taken until now for me to actually feel this century chugging along at full autotune. It's not a century of individuals, but of organizations and franchises, organic and corporate. And so, this is the color of this month's reading.

Humans have always been an organised species. We have always functioned as a group, as something larger than ourselves. But in the recent past, the scale of that organisation has grown so much, the pace of that growth is so fast, the connective tissue between us so dense, that there has been a shift of some kind. Namely, we have become so powerful that some scientists argue we have entered a new era, the Anthropocene, in which humans are a geological force. That feeling, that panic, comes from those moments when this fact is unavoidable. It comes from being unable to not see what we've become – a planet-changing superorganism. It is from the realisation that I am part of it. Dispatches from the ruins


You can still speak with liberty, but your authority depends a great deal on how well you game these systems. I'm old enough to remember the chaotic, scrappy internet of the mid-1990s, when it felt as if any voice could be equally heard. Those days are long gone. The stirring, prescient, amazingly naive Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, 20 years on


Underlying that hypothesis was his and Professor Papert's belief that there is no real difference between humans and machines. Humans, they maintained, are actually machines of a kind whose brains are made up of many semiautonomous but unintelligent "agents." And different tasks, they said, "require fundamentally different mechanisms." Marvin Minsky, Pioneer in Artificial Intelligence, Dies at 88

The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le Guin

Continuing, indefinitely, with Le Guin. This is what I'm talking about when I talk about good SciFi. It's substantial writing, it's substantial thinking, but it's not overwrought or dull. This is why I'm drawn to the 50s-70s for SciFi, it was an era when folks realized the genre was a real thing, an important thing, and the writers there started to stretch and flex. Le Guin's social take is sharp, examining two societies, one from a homeworld, one from its moon. She experiments but she doesn't rely on experimentation, it's critical but it doesn't fall down into criticism. And purely due to her strength as a writer.

He was not working. He was being worked.

Six Walks in the Fictional Woods

Umberto Eco

I saw him give one of these lectures back in the day. Six Walks are his lectures on narratives, literary techniques. It's approachable but in-depth. It reiterates his work in semiotics, but it relies more on his love of books.

Whenever I’m asked what book I would take with me to a desert island, I reply, “The phone book: with all those characters, I could invent an infinite number of stories.”

The Book of Disquiet

Fernando Pessoa

The title gives this away. Pessoa operated through a series of personas, he called heteronyms. This one under Bernardo Soares. It is fragmented, impressionistic, enlightened, doubting, and often self-indulgent and tedious. No surprise, he drank himself to death. But you can't question the authenticity. And if you're winding your way through modernist lit, this is important.

‘Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist.’ So claimed Álvaro de Campos, one of the characters invented by Pessoa to spare himself the trouble of living real life. And to spare himself the trouble of organizing and publishing the richest part of his prose, Pessoa invented The Book of Disquiet, which never existed, strictly speaking, and can never exist.

The Face Of Another

Kobo Abe

I've read most Abe, hadn't read this one. Was prompted after seeing the movie adaptation of the same name from 1966 by Hiroshi Teshigahara. What makes a person. The obvious Japanese answer is (I'm guessing) the face they present. As a 21st century American, I get to apply all my own things, so, like Pessoa, or Bowie, this is about the meaning of persona, mask, presentation. And I get to contrast it with the current methods of creating persona. Instead of the bio-mask Abe puts on the protagonist, I get to imagine how people create their face via a social graph. This reads more slowly than The Ruined Map, and much more slowly than The Ark Sakura, which is my favorite Abe novel.

Transreal Cyberpunk

Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling

This is fun. Rucker did a kickstarter to collect a bunch of short stuff they'd written together in the 80s-90s, plus a new story. It feels like they had a blast writing these. Light, trippy. I played "catch the timely tech ref" in a couple of these to guess when they were written.

BPRD: The Reign Of The Black Flame

Mike Mignola

The world is still fucked. This time most specifically NYC. Who doesn't love seeing this metropolis in absolute ruins? It's city apocalypse porn with giant monsters, and that's OK by me. Plus we get to see Liz Sherman try to be a "superhero", and fail. This is why I prefer Mignola. There are no superheroes. There's just chaotic power and evil things. It's more adult and dark than the current adoration and movie domination of supermyths. Chthulu wouldn't make a great movie because, like the actual real adult world, evil doesn't make any sense to rational people. The greek myths however, Olympus, makes a great movie because everyone's intentions are clear, it's predictable, even those darling "conflicted" characters like Batman are simplistic and antique.