Today I was talking to my sister (Happy Birthday, Chi!) and we were chatting about the crazy speed of new technology. How strange it is to collapse our life experience into a series of new devices and how they affected us, and then try to imagine what it is like to be born digital, with all this shiny stuff that has no historical context. As Peter Goldman said: “Between the twitterverse and the 24-hour cable news cycle our history keeps disappearing.” Now, everything is instantaneous, all knowledge is free, one-to-one communication is a such a waste of time… “duh! old timer, how can you be so passé.” This got me thinking about the impact of earlier communication technologies and what they were like in the popular culture before they were taken for granted. What was it like 100 years ago, when the telephone was first established as a fixture of modern life? In 1880, there had only been 108,000 telephones in use, by 1890 there were 467,000 telephones installed. Think of the rapid change as this newfangled device penetrated American society. 1900 600,000 (for 76,000,000 people) reaching 0.79% of the population 1905 2,200,000 (for 83,000,000 people) reaching 2.6% of the population 1910 5,800,000 (for 92,000,000 people) reaching 6.3% of the population During the first 25 years of its existence the telephone was physically accessible to less than 1% of the population, but that number nearly tripled between 1900 and 1905, then doubled again, between 1905 and 1910. This exponential growth, and the exposure of greater and greater numbers of people to this technology — which could project their voice instantly to almost anywhere — must indeed have seemed like magic, like something from mythology come to life! So it was not surprising to find an advertisement in the 1914 Farm Journal in which the American Telephone and Telegraph Company actually portrayed their service in mythological terms. AT&T was established only nine years earlier, in 1885, and by 1914 they had been riding a totally unparalleled explosion of telephony…and yet, from their point of view, they had more than 90% of the population left to capture as customers! How to capture their imagination and then their money? That must have been the operating question for the AT&T publicity machine of the time. And here is what they came up with:
Just finished China Miéville’s _The City and the City_, a very satisfying, even inspiring, book, rich with metaphor and symbolism. It is like a film noir, set in a mythical Eastern European city — I’m convinced it is partly based on Prague — where populations living in mutually incompatible paradlgms “unsee“ each other. The beauty of this idea is that, (quite beyond the metaphor,) it could be almost any *real* city; with populations that are utterly invisible to one another. Old and young, rich and poor, leftist and fascist, black and white: there are, in fact, far too many axes of unseeing in our everyday lives…
Last year at Readercon, there was an emotional dust-up over a sordid harassment incident, in addition to a scary and unexpected medical emergency for one of our favorite editors. At this year’s Readercon, we were spared this additional drama, and found ourselves sailing through a very mellow and enjoyable con. Of course, it was great to catch up with other fans and pros, like Alan Hanscomb, who finished his novel _Sharon of Two Salems_, and Mark Borok, Dianne Weinstein, and the whole Readercon gang; and also great to make some new acquaintances, like some writer named Seamus who was wearing a little black straw fedora, and a couple of mathematics and linguistics-loving commedia dell’arte performers. Most surprising for me perhaps, was to hijack a moment of Name Your LinkJohn Shirley’s time, reminiscing about his gigs at CBGBs back in 1980, where I saw him stripped to the waist and flailing around like a maniac singing “_I am electricity!“ Now that was a memorable night. Probably Shirley will scratch his head and wonder just who the heck I am and how I knew him well enough to be on the guest list… but I was gracious enough not to mention in public some of the other crazy shit that we both witnessed in Greenwich Village back then. Like Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice, those were some nutty times… _ So where did we go from here? Yes, the panel sessions.
Харийс Брантс (Harris Brants) illustration for Picnic on Paradise in Издательский дом Дейч — Коллекция «Фантастика» Аркадий и Борис Стругацкие 2008 Reading “The Second Marxian Invasion“ about the Strugatski Brothers by Stephen W. Potts. Apparently this was Potts’ thesis at UC Berkeley and it is fascinating reading indeed. Tracing the utopian, socialist, and totalitarian themes in Russian fantastika literature from it’s earliest origins in the late 18th Century, the author describes how various Russian writers reacted to events such as the failed revolution in 1905, and the victory of the communists in 1917. For every utopian vision of the early Russian SF, there were dystopias, horrors, and complexities. Zamaytin’s _We_, published in 1921, is considered the classic tale of dystopia under totalitarianism, but according to Potts, it was not a counter-revolutionary work so much as a complaint that the Bolshevik utopia had not gone far enough towards the total liberation and union of personal and political interests. The modernist craze of the Leninist years eventually was constricted by Stalin’s paranoia, resulting in a number of science fiction authors vanishing to the gulags. Only writers like Belyaev, who could “reduce their technological miracles to the level of fairy tales, and inject their work with starkly ideological plots” were able to survive. When the “thaw” finally took place in 1956, the subsequent launch of Sputnik propelled Soviet SF into a new hard science phase that eventually was characterized as “cold stream” SF. This cold stream was one in which SF was narrowly conceived of as optimistic, science-oriented, and upbeat; similar to our sense-of-wonder space opera days, but one emerging from the constraints of Stalinist censorship and therefore self-consciously regulating itself and focused on a sort of vanguard of hard science futurism. The Strugatsky brothers, whose themes were more diffuse, more challenging, and informed by anthropology, psychology and the “soft” sciences, as well as the nascent New Wave, were seen as “warm stream” writers. In the 60s there was an ideological battle between the cold stream and warm stream, which was conceptually decided when the warm stream became more popular and when important critics advocated for science fiction with a purpose that transcended mere prediction and imagining of future technological advances. Here Potts quotes some criticism from 1968 about SF, but which raises some interesting thoughts about the purpose of writing in general: …we take as a criterion in assessing the value of a work everything that promotes the development of the human personality, extends its horizon, inspires it with lofty ideals, ennobles it morally and intellectually, improves its aesthetic preception [sic] of the environment, helps to gain an insight into the good and evil of this world, and to respond to them more keenly — in short, it is everything that promotes the truly human in man. ** (E. Brandis, V. Dmitrevsky, “In the Land of SF,” Soviet Literature (no. 5, 1968): 148) This strikes me as just a brilliant way to write anything!
Recently I heard a pernicious argument, namely that privacy does not exist and the notion of it should be abolished. The person who said this argued that hundreds of thousands of people are dying every year because of a false notion of privacy. To him, this conclusion is based on privacy concerns related to medical information, and that if there were no privacy, then everyone’s medical records would be open to scientists, thereby somehow leading to medical discoveries that would save lives. This is notion, that somehow anyone who expects privacy is indirectly responsible for people dying, is meant to make us feel guilty enough to agree that we should have no privacy at all. But I take issue with this! I proposed that “privacy itself is a good thing, which we all benefit from,” but this fellow refused to hear it, saying that privacy is just a form of belief, the same as Mormonism. “If privacy does not exist, would you want people to just walk into your back yard garden and set up tents for camping?” I asked.
Reading Jennifer Szalai’s article on Dwight MacDonald’s _Masscult and Midcult_ in this week’s Nation, gave me pause to reflect on that seemingly outmoded way of characterizing the tension between high culture (the art of museums and mid-town cinematheques) and the kibble for the rest of us low-lifes, otherwise known as kitsch. When I first encountered MacDonald’s book (in the mid-70s), there still seemed to be an impermeable wall of broadcast television and “mainstream” publishers between the zines of the samidzat press and the greater public. Although a visit to Silver Scarab Press seemed incredibly important to me, to the outside world it was just Harry O’s basement in Albuquerque, and didn’t mean a damn thing to the churning presses of Random House in New York City. From an objective point of view, midcult certainly seemed to be reigning triumphant! But from my point of view, it was the hard-scrabble avant-garde who were the only worthy contributors to and creators of culture. The clarity of my position was both reinforced and at the same time shattered when I moved to New York City on 1978, and found myself in a cultural battle zone — Sid Vicious would barely outlive the Sex Pistols, but the night scene was a mind-numbing cacophony of voices: the Plasmatics, the Talking Heads, the Ramones, the Specials, the Lounge Lizards, John Shirley’s Obsession. As fast as the record labels could buy and co-opt the rebellious new wave, another wave of furious, almost insanely self-destructive performers hurled themselves onto the ramparts. Following them were a new generation of fans, who transmitted streams of punk news through any and all channels. As much as I couldn’t actually stand listening to these punks and their continuous howl of mindless rage, they did validate my own state of war with the brainwashing of the establishment’s media.
Do not be like this. Spraying chemical agents into the faces of harmless people is the act of a sociopath. That way lies madness! Police Officers: all of you walking the beat in American cities from Galveston to Toledo, from Miami to Portland, I believe that the vast majority of you are working to protect your fellow citizens. But we have reached a moment of crisis in our society. The wealth of our nation has been robbed, the banks looted, the government bought by corporations, and our future sold down the river. Police of America, you have to ask yourselves, when you are told to violently attack unarmed protesters and to arrest those expressing their constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech: who is it you serve? Who is in danger and who is being protected? In fact, the majority of Americans have seen their real incomes shrink, or their jobs vanish, or their homes foreclosed, or their children impoverished. It is the majority of Americans, the 99%, who are in danger. Isn’t that obvious? And yet your orders are coming from the 1%, that is to say the rich and super-rich, who have reaped gigantic profits from the horrible suffering they have created. Their financial schemes, such as hedge funds and bundled real estate securities, are the ROOT CAUSE of the economic crisis we are now facing, and yet they are being protected? Protected from what? They are criminals.
Yet another great time at Readercon this year! The panel topics had their usual sweep of the field, from Mark Twain, to Mark Clifton, and most places interstitial…yet the mood of the conference was clearly influenced by the passing of two major figures in SF’s new wave: Joanna Russ and Tom Disch. In memorializing Disch, can you imagine a more appropriate set of panelists than Charles Platt, John Crowley, John Clute, Chip Delany, and Gregory Feeley? It is always interesting to be part of a living literary tradition — sf fandom — that celebrates itself, its heroes and villains, its friendships and bitter feuds, by directly mixing the authors, editors, fans and miscellaneous hangers on in a single venue.