CATSCAN by Bruce Sterling
Essays originally printed
in Steve Brown's _SF Eye_
Science Fiction Eye, a genre literary-critical magazine edited
and published by Stephen P. Brown, is available from PO Box
18539, Asheville NC 28814.
Subscription rates are $10 for 3 issues in the USA, $15
elsewhere. "Catscan" is a regular column appearing in SF Eye.
CATSCAN 1: "Midnight on the Rue Jules Verne"
CATSCAN 2: "The Spearhead of Cognition"
CATSCAN 3: "Updike's Version"
CATSCAN 4: "The Agberg Ideology"
CATSCAN 5: "Slipstream"
CATSCAN 6: "Shinkansen"
CATSCAN 7: "My Rihla"
CATSCAN 9: "Digital Dolphins in the Dance of Biz"
CATSCAN 10: "A Statement of Principle"
CATSCAN 11: "Sneaking for Jesus 2001"
CATSCAN 1 "Midnight on the Rue Jules Verne"
A kind of SF folk tradition surrounds the
founding figure of Jules Verne. Everyone knows he was
a big cheese back when the modern megalopolis of
SFville was a 19th-century village. There's a bronze
monument to him back in the old quarter of town, the
Vieux Carre. You know, the part the French built, back
before there were cars.
At midnight he stands there, somewhat the worse
for the acid rain and the pigeons, his blind bronze
eyes fixed on a future that has long since passed him
by. SFville's citizenry pass him every day without a
thought, their attention fixed on their daily grind in
vast American high-rises; if they look up, they are
intimidated by the beard, the grasped lapel, the
flaking reek of Victorian obsolescence.
Everyone here knows a little about old Jules.
The submarine, the moon cannon, the ridiculously
sluggish eighty days. When they strip up the tarmac,
you can still see the cobbles of the streets he laid.
It's all still there, really, the village grid of
SFville, where Verne lived and worked and argued
scientific romance with the whippersnapper H.G. Wells.
Those of us who walk these mean streets, and mutter of
wrecking balls and the New Jerusalem, should take the
time for a look back. Way back. Let's forget old Jules
for the moment. What about young Jules?
Young Jules Verne was trouble. His father, a
prosperous lawyer in the provincial city of Nantes,
was gifted with the sort of son that makes parents
despair. The elder Verne was a reactionary Catholic,
given to frequent solitary orgies with the penitential
scourge. He expected the same firm moral values in his
Young Jules wanted none of this. It's sometimes
mentioned in the SF folktale that Jules tried to run
away to sea as a lad. The story goes that he was
recaptured, punished, and contritely promised to
travel henceforth "only in his imagination." It sounds
cute. It was nothing of the kind. The truth of the
matter is that the eleven-year-old Jules resourcefully
bribed a cabin-boy of his own age, and impersonated
his way onto a French merchant cruiser bound for the
Indies. In those days of child labor, the crew
accepted Jules without hesitation. It was a mere fluke
that a neighbor happened to spot Jules during his
escape and informed against him. His father had to
chase him down in a fast chartered steam-launch.
This evidence of mulishness seems to have thrown
a scare into the Verne family, and in years to come
they would treat Jules with caution. Young Jules never
really broke with his parents, probably because they
were an unfailing source of funds. Young Jules didn't
much hold with wasting time on day-jobs. He was
convinced that he was possessed of genius, despite the
near-total lack of hard evidence.
During his teens and twenties, Jules fell for
unobtainable women with the regularity of clockwork.
Again and again he was turned down by middle-class
nymphs whose parents correctly assessed him as an art
nut and spoiled ne'er-do-well.
Under the flimsy pretext of studying law, Jules
managed to escape to Paris. He had seen the last of
stuffy provincial France, or so he assumed: "Well," he
wrote to a friend, "I'm leaving at last, as I wasn't
wanted here, but one day they'll see what stuff he was
made of, that poor young man they knew as Jules
The "poor young man" rented a Parisian garret
with his unfailing parental stipend. He soon fell in
with bad company -- namely, the pop-thriller writer
Alexandre Dumas Pere (author of _Count of Monte
Cristo_, _The Three Musketeers_. about a million
others). Jules took readily to the role of declasse'
intellectual and professional student. During the
Revolution of 1848 he passed out radical political
pamphlets on Paris streetcorners. At night, embittered
by female rejection, he wrote sarcastic sonnets on the
perfidy of womankind. Until, that is, he had his first
affair with an obliging housemaid, one of Dumas'
legion of literary groupies. After this, young Jules
loosened up to the point of moral collapse and was
soon, by his own admission, a familiar figure in all
the best whorehouses in Paris.
This went on for years. Young Jules busied
himself writing poetry and plays. He became a kind of
gofer for Dumas, devoting vast amounts of energy to a
Dumas playhouse that went broke. (Dumas had no head
for finance -- he kept his money in a baptismal font in
the entryway of his house and would stuff handfuls
into his pockets whenever going out.)
A few of Jules' briefer pieces -- a domestic
farce, an operetta -- were produced, to general critical
and popular disinterest. During these misspent years
Jules wrote dozens of full-length plays, most of them
never produced or even published, in much the vein of
would-be Hollywood scriptwriters today. Eventually,
having worked his way into the theatrical
infrastructure through dint of prolonged and
determined hanging-out, Jules got a production job in
another playhouse, for no salary to speak of. He
regarded this as his big break, and crowed vastly to
his family in cheerful letters that made fun of the
Jules moved in a fast circle. He started a
literary-artistic group of similar souls, a clique
appropriately known as the Eleven Without Women.
Eventually one of the Eleven succumbed, and invited
Jules to the wedding. Jules fell immediately for the
bride's sister, a widow with two small daughters. She
accepted his proposal. (Given Jules' record, it is to
be presumed that she took what she could get.)
Jules was now married, and his relentlessly
unimaginative wife did what she could to break him to
middle-class harness. Jules' new brother-ln-law was
doing okay in the stock market, so Jules figured he
would give it a try. He extorted a big loan from his
despairing father and bought a position on the Bourse.
He soon earned a reputation among his fellow brokers
as a cut-up and general weird duck. He didn't manage
to go broke, but a daguerreotype of the period shows
his mood. The extended Verne family sits stiffly
before the camera. Jules is the one in the back, his
face in a clown's grimace, his arm blurred as he waves
wildly in a brokerage floor "buy" signal.
Denied his longed-for position in the theater,
Jules groaningly decided that he might condescend to
try prose. He wrote a couple of stories heavily
influenced by Poe, a big period favorite of French
intellectuals. There was a cheapo publisher in town
who was starting a kid's pop-science magazine called
"Family Museum." Jules wrote a couple of pieces for
peanuts and got cover billing. The publisher decided
to try him out on books. Jules was willing. He signed
a contract to do two books a year, more or less
forever, in exchange for a monthly sum.
Jules, who liked hobnobbing with explorers and
scientists, happened to know a local deranged techie
called Nadar. Nadar's real name was Felix Tournachon,
but everybody called him Nadar, for he was one of
those period Gallic swashbucklers who passed through
life with great swirlings of scarlet and purple and
the scent of attar of roses. Nadar was involved in two
breaking high-tech developments of the period:
photography and ballooning. (Nadar is perhaps best
remembered today as the father of aerial photography.)
Nadar had Big Ideas. Jules' real forte was
geography -- a date-line or a geodesic sent him into
raptures -- but he liked Nadar's style and knew good
copy when he saw it. Jules helped out behind the
scenes when Nadar launched THE GIANT, the largest
balloon ever seen at the time, with a gondola the size
of a two-story house, lavishly supplied with
champagne. Jules never rode the thing -- he had a wife
and kids now -- but he retired into his study with the
plot-line of his first book, and drove his wife to
distraction. "There are manuscripts everywhere --
nothing but manuscripts," she said in a fine burst of
wifely confidence. "Let's hope they don't end up under
the cooking pot."
_Five Weeks In A Balloon_ was Jules' first hit.
The thing was a smash for his publisher, who sold it
all over the world in lavish foreign editions for
which Jules received pittances. But Jules wasn't
complaining -- probably because he wasn't paying
With a firm toehold in the public eye, Jules
soon hit his stride as a popular author. He announced
to the startled stockbrokers: "Mes enfants, I am
leaving you. I have had an idea, the sort of idea that
should make a man's fortune. I have just written a
novel in a new form, one that's entirely my own. If it
succeeds, I shall have stumbled upon a gold mine. In
that case, I shall go on writing and writing without
pause, while you others go on buying shares the day
before they drop and selling them the day before they
rise. I am leaving the Bourse. Good evening, mes
Jules Verne had invented hard science fiction.
He originated the hard SF metier of off-the-rack plots
and characters, combined with vast expository lumps of
pop science. His innovation came from literary
naivete; he never learned better or felt any reason
to. (This despite Apollinaire's sniping remark: "What
a style Jules Verne has, nothing but nouns.")
Verne's dialogue, considered quite snappy for
the period, was derived from the stage. His characters
constantly strike dramatic poses: Ned Land with
harpoon upraised, Phileas Fogg reappearing stage-right
in his London club at the last possible tick of the
clock. The minor characters -- comic Scots, Russians,
Jews -- are all stage dialect and glued-on beards,
instantly recognizable to period readers, yet fresh
because of cross-genre effects. They brought a proto-
cinematic flash to readers used to the gluey, soulful
character studies of, say, Stendhal.
The books we remember, the books determined
people still occasionally read, are products of Verne
in his thirties and forties. (His first novel was
written at thirty-five.) In these early books, flashes
of young Jules' student radicalism periodically
surface for air, much like the Nautilus. The character
of Captain Nemo, for instance, is often linked to
novelistic conventions of the Byronic hero. Nemo is,
in fact, a democratic terrorist of the period of '48,
the year when the working-class flung up Paris
barricades, and, during a few weeks of brief civil
war, managed to kill off more French army officers
than were lost in the entire Napoleonic campaigns. The
uprising was squelched, but Jules' generation of Paris
'48, like that of May '68, never truly forgot.
Jules did okay by his "new form of the novel."
He eventually became quite wealthy, though not through
publishing, but the theater. (Nowadays it would be
movie rights, but the principle still stands.) Jules,
incidently, did not write the stage versions of his
own books; they were done by professional theater
hacks. Jules knew the plays stank, and that they
travestied his books, but they made him a fortune. The
theatrical version of his mainstream smash, _Michael
Strogoff_, included such lavish special effects as a
live elephant on stage. It was so successful that the
term "Strogoff" became contemporary Paris slang for
anything wildly bravissimo.
Fortified with fame and money, Jules lunged
against the traces. He travelled to America and
Scandinavia, faithfully toting his notebooks. He
bought three increasingly lavish yachts, and took to
sea for days at a time, where he would lie on his
stomach scribbling _Twenty Thousand Leagues_ against
During the height of his popularity, he
collected his family and sailed his yacht to North
Africa, where he had a grand time and a thrilling
brush with guntoting Libyans. On the way back, he
toured Italy, where the populace turned out to greet
him with fireworks and speeches. In Rome, the Pope
received him and praised his books because they
weren't smutty. His wife, who was terrified of
drowning, refused to get on the boat again, and
eventually Verne sold it.
At his wife's insistence, Jules moved to the
provincial town of Amiens, where she had relatives.
Downstairs, Mme. Verne courted local society in
drawing rooms crammed with Second Empire bric-a-brac,
while Jules isolated himself upstairs in a spartan
study worthy of Nemo, its wall lined with wooden
cubbyholes full of carefully labeled index-cards. They
slept in separate bedrooms, and rumor says Jules had a
mistress in Paris, where he often vanished for weeks.
Jules' son Michel grew up to be a holy terror,
visiting upon Jules all the accumulated karma of his
own lack of filial piety. The teenage Michel was in
trouble with cops, was confined in an asylum, was even
banished onto a naval voyage. Michel ended up
producing silent films, not very successfully. Jules'
stepdaughters made middle-class marriages and vanished
into straitlaced Catholic domesticity, where they
cooked up family feuds against their scapegrace half-
Verne's work is marked by an obsession with
desert islands. Mysterious Isles, secret hollow
volcanoes in the mid-Atlantic, vast ice-floes that
crack off and head for the North Pole. Verne never
really made it into the bosom of society. He did his
best, and played the part whenever onstage, but one
senses that he knew somehow that he was Not Like The
Others and might be torn to pieces if his facade
cracked. One notes his longing for the freedom of
empty seas and skies, for a submarine full of books
that can sink below storm level into eternal calm, for
the hollow shell fired into the pristine unpeopled
emptiness of circumlunar space.
From within his index-card lighthouse, the
isolation began to tell on the aging Jules. He had now
streamlined the production of novels to industrial
assembly-work, so much so that lying gossip claimed he
used a troop of ghostwriters. He could field-strip a
Verne book blindfolded, with a greased slot for every
part -- the daffy scientist, the comic muscleman or
acrobat, the ordinary Joe who asks all the wide-eyed
questions, the woman who scarcely exists and is
rescued from suttee or sharks or red Indians.
Sometimes the machine is the hero -- the steam-driven
elephant, the flying war-machine, the gigantic raft --
sometimes the geography: caverns, coal-mines, ice-
floes, darkest Africa.
Bored, Jules entered politics, and joined the
Amiens City Council, where he was quickly shuffled
onto the cultural committee. It was a natural sinecure
and he did a fair job, getting electric lights
installed, widening a few streets, building a
municipal theater that everyone admired and no one
attended. His book sales slumped steadily. The woods
were full of guys writing scientific romances by now --
people who actually knew how to write novels, like
Herbert Wells. The folk-myth quotes Verne on Wells'
_First Men In The Moon_: "Where is this gravity-
repelling metal? Let him show it to me." If not the
earliest, it is certainly the most famous exemplar of
the hard-SF writer's eternal plaint against the
The last years were painful. A deranged nephew
shot Verne in the foot, crippling him; it was at this
time that he wrote one of his rare late poems, the
"Sonnet to Morphine." He was to have a more than
nodding acquaintance with this substance, though in
those days of children's teething-laudanum no one
thought much of it. He died at seventy-seven in the
bosom of his vigorously quarrelling family, shriven by
the Church. Everyone who had forgotten about him wrote
obits saying what a fine fellow he was. This is the
Verne everyone thinks that they remember: the
greybearded paterfamilias, the conservative Catholic
hardware-nut, the guy who made technical forecasts
that Really Came True if you squint real hard and
ignore most of his work.
Jules Verne never knew he was "inventing science
fiction," in the felicitous phrase of Peter Costello's
insightful 1978 biography. He knew he was on to
something hot, but he stepped onto a commercial
treadmill that he didn't understand, and the money and
the fame got to him. The early artistic failures, the
romantic rejections, had softened him up, and when the
public finally Recognized His Genius he was grateful,
and fell into line with their wishes.
Jules had rejected respectability early on, when
it was offered to him on a plate. But when he had
earned it on his own, everyone around him swore that
respectability was dandy, and he didn't dare face them
down. Wanting the moon, he ended up with a hatch-
battened one-man submarine in an upstairs room.
Somewhere along the line his goals were lost, and he
fell into a role his father might almost have picked
for him: a well-to-do provincial city councilman. The
garlands disguised the reins, and the streetcorner
radical with a headful of visions became a dusty
pillar of society.
This is not what the world calls a tragedy; nor
is it any small thing to have books in print after 125
years. But the path Young Jules blazed, and the path
Old Jules was gently led down, are still well-trampled
streets here in SFville. If you stand by his statue at
midnight, you can still see Old Jules limping home,
over the cobblestones. Or so they say.
CATSCAN 2 "The Spearhead of Cognition"
You're a kid from some podunk burg in Alabama.
From childhood you've been gnawed by vague
numinous sensations and a moody sense of your own
potential, but you've never pinned it down.
Then one joyful day you discover the work of a
couple of writers. They're pretty well-known (for
foreigners), so their books are available even in your
little town. Their names are "Tolstoy" and
"Dostoevsky." Reading them, you realize: This is it!
It's the sign you've been waiting for! This is your
destiny -- to become a *Russian Novelist*!
Fired with inspiration, you study the pair of
'em up and down, till you figure you've got a solid
grasp of what they're up to. You hear they're pretty
well-known back in Russia, but to your confident eye
they don't seem like so much. (Luckily, thanks to some
stunt of genetics, you happen to be a genius.) For
you, following their outline seems simple enough -- in a
more sophisticated vein, of course, and for a modern
audience. So you write a few such books, you publish
'em, and people adore them. The folks in 'Bama are fit
to bust with pride, and say you've got Tolstoy beat
Then, after years of steadily growing success,
strange mail arrives. It's from Russia! They've been
reading your stuff in translation, and you've been
chosen to join the Soviet Writers' Union! Swell! you
think. Of course, living in backwoods Alabama, it's
been a little tough finding editions of contemporary
Russian novelists. But heck, Tolstoy did his writing
years ago! By now those Russians must be writing like
Then a shipment of modern Russian novels
arrives, a scattering of various stuff that has
managed to elude the redtape. You open 'em up and --
ohmiGod! It's . . . it's COMMUNISM! All this stupid
stereotyped garbage! About Red heroes ten feet tall,
and sturdy peasants cheering about their tractors, and
mothers giving sons to the Fatherland, and fathers
giving sons to the Motherland . . . Swallowing bile,
you pore through a few more at random -- oh God, it's
Then the _Literary Gazette_ calls from Moscow,
and asks if you'd like to make a few comments about
the work of your new comrades. "Why sure!" you drawl
helpfully. "It's clear as beer-piss that y'all have
gotten onto the wrong track entirely! This isn't
literature -- this is just a lot of repetitive agitprop
crap, dictated by your stupid oppressive publishers!
If Tolstoy was alive today, he'd kick your numb
Marxist butts! All this lame bullshit about commie
heroes storming Berlin and workers breaking production
records -- those are stupid power-fantasies that
wouldn't fool a ten-year-old! You wanna know the true
modern potential of Russian novels? Read some of my
stuff, if you can do it without your lips moving! Then
call me back."
And sure enough, they do call you back. But
gosh -- some of the hardliners in the Writers' Union
have gone and drummed you out of the regiment. Called
you all kinds of names . . . said you're stuck-up, a
tool of capitalism, a no-talent running-dog egghead.
After that, you go right on writing, even criticism,
sometimes. Of course, after that you start to get
This really happened.
Except that it wasn't Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. It
was H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. It wasn't Russian
novels, it was science fiction, and the Writers' Union
was really the SFWA. And Alabama was Poland.
And you were Stanislaw Lem.
Lem was surgically excised from the bosom of
American SF back in 1976. Since then plenty of other
writers have quit SFWA, but those flung out for the
crime of being a commie rat-bastard have remained
remarkably few. Lem, of course, has continued to
garner widespread acclaim, much of it from hifalutin'
mainstream critics who would not be caught dead in a
bookstore's skiffy section. Recently a collection of
Lem's critical essays, _Macroworlds_, has appeared in
paperback. For those of us not privy to the squabble
these essays caused in the '70s, it makes some eye-
Lem compares himself to Crusoe, stating
(accurately) that he had to erect his entire structure
of "science fiction" essentially from scratch. He did
have the ancient shipwrecked hulls of Wells and
Stapledon at hand, but he raided them for tools years
ago. (We owe the collected essays to the beachcombing
of his Man Friday, Austrian critic Franz
These essays are the work of a lonely man. We
can judge the fervor of Lem's attempt to reach out by
a piece like "On the Structural Analysis of Science
Fiction:" a Pole, writing in German, to an Austrian,
about French semantic theory. The mind reels. After
this superhuman effort to communicate, you'd think the
folks would cut Lem some slack -- from pure human pity,
if nothing else.
But Lem's ideology -- both political and literary-
-is simply too threatening. The stuff Lem calls
science fiction looks a bit like American SF -- about
the way a dolphin looks like a mosasaur. A certain
amount of competitive gnawing and thrashing was
inevitable. The water roiled ten years ago, and the
judgement of evolution is still out. The smart money
might be on Lem. The smarter money yet, on some
judicious hybridization. In any case we would do well
to try to understand him.
Lem shows little interest in "fiction" per se.
He's interested in science: the structure of the
world. A brief autobiographical piece, "Reflections on
My Life," makes it clear that Lem has been this way
from the beginning. The sparkplug of his literary
career was not fiction, but his father's medical
texts: to little Stanislaw, a magic world of skeletons
and severed brains and colorful pickled guts. Lem's
earliest "writings," in high school, were not
"stories," but an elaborate series of imaginary forged
documents: "certificates, passports, diplomas . . .
coded proofs and cryptograms . . ."
For Lem, science fiction is a documented form of
thought-experiment: a spearhead of cognition.
All else is secondary, and it is this singleness
of aim that gives his work its driving power. This is
truly "a literature of ideas," dismissing the heart as
trivial, but piercing the skull like an ice-pick.
Given his predilections, Lem would probably
never have written "people stories." But his rationale
for avoiding this is astounding. The mass slaughters
during the Nazi occupation of Poland, Lem says, drove
him to the literary depiction of humanity as a
species. "Those days have pulverized and exploded all
narrative conventions that had previously been used in
literature. The unfathomable futility of human life
under the sway of mass murder cannot be conveyed by
literary techniques in which individuals or small
groups of persons form the core of the narrative."
A horrifying statement, and one that people in
happier countries would do well to ponder. The
implications of this literary conviction are, of
course, extreme. Lem's work is marked by unflinching
extremities. He fights through ideas with all the
convulsive drive of a drowning man fighting for air.
Story structure, plot, human values, characterization,
dramatic tension, all are ruthlessly trudgeon-kicked
In criticism, however, Lem has his breath, and
can examine the trampled flotsam with a cynical eye.
American SF, he says, is hopelessly compromised,
because its narrative structure is trash: detective
stories, pulp thrillers, fairy-tales, bastardized
myths. Such outworn and kitschy devices are totally
unsuited to the majestic scale of science fiction's
natural thematics, and reduce it to the cheap tricks
of a vaudeville conjurer.
Lem holds this in contempt, for he is not a man
to find entertainment in sideshow magic. Stanislaw Lem
is not a good-time guy. Oddly, for a science fiction
writer, he seems to have very little interest in the
intrinsically weird. He shows no natural appetite for
the arcane, the offbeat, the outre.. He is colorblind
to fantasy. This leads him to dismiss much of the work
of Borges, for example. Lem claims that "Borges' best
stories are constructed as tightly as mathematical
proofs." This is a tautology of taste, for, to Lem,
mathematical proofs are the conditions to which the
"best" stories must necessarily aspire.
In a footnote to the Borges essay Lem makes the
odd claim that "As soon as nobody assents to it, a
philosophy becomes automatically fantastic
literature." Lem's literature *is* philosophy; to veer
from the path of reason for the sake of mere sensation
American SF, therefore, is a tissue of frauds,
and its practicioners fools at best, but mostly snake-
oil salesmen. Lem's stern puritanism, however, leaves
him at sea when it comes to the work of Philip K.
Dick: "A Visionary Among the Charlatans." Lem's mind
was clearly blown by reading Dick, and he struggles to
find some underlying weltanschauung that would reduce
Dick's ontological raving to a coherent floor-plan.
It's a doomed effort, full of condescension and
confusion, like a ballet-master analyzing James Brown.
Fiction is written to charm, to entertain, to
enlighten, to convey cultural values, to analyze life
and manners and morals and the nature of the human
heart. The stuff Stanislaw Lem writes, however, is
created to burn mental holes with pitiless coherent
light. How can one do this and still produce a product
resembling "literature?" Lem tried novels. Novels,
alas, look odd without genuine characters in them.
Then he hit on it: a stroke of genius.
The collections _A Perfect Vacuum_ and
_Imaginary Magnitudes_ are Lem's masterworks. The
first contains book reviews, the second, introductions
to various learned tomes. The "books" discussed or
reviewed do not actually exist, and have archly
humorous titles, like "Necrobes" by "Cezary
Strzybisz." But here Lem has found literary
structures -- not "stories" -- but assemblages of prose,
familiar and comfortable to the reader.
Of course, it takes a certain aridity of taste
to read a book composed of "introductions,"
traditionally a kind of flaky appetizer before the
main course. But it's worth it for the author's sense
of freedom, his manifest delight in finally ridding
himself of that thorny fictive thicket that stands
between him and his Grail. These are charming pieces,
witty, ingenious, highly thought-provoking, utterly
devoid of human interest. People will be reading these
for decades to come. Not because they work as fiction,
but because their form follows function with the
sinister elegance of an automatic rifle.
Here Lem has finessed an irrevocable choice. It
is a choice every science fiction writer faces. Is
the writer to write Real Novels which "only happen to
be" science fiction -- or create knobby and irreducible
SF artifacts which are not true "stories," but
visionary texts? The argument in favor of the first
course is that Real Readers, i.e. mainstream ones,
refuse to notice the nakedly science-fictional. How
Lem must chuckle as he collects his lavish blurbs from
_Time_ and _Newsweek_ (not to mention an income
ranking as one of poor wretched Poland's best sources
of foreign exchange) . By disguising his work as the
haute-lit exudations of a critic, he has out-conjured
the Yankee conjurers, had his cake and eaten it
publicly, in the hallowed pages of the _NY Review of
It's a good trick, hard to pull off, requiring
ideas that burn so brilliantly that their glare is
overwhelming. That ability alone is worthy of a
certain writhing envy from the local Writers' Union.
But it's still a trick, and the central question is
still unresolved. What is "science fiction," anyway?
And what's it there for?
CATSCAN 3 "Updike's Version"
John Updike has got to be the epitome of
everything that SF readers love to hate. Those slim,
clever, etiolated mainstream novels about well-to-do
_New Yorker_ subscribers, who sip white wine and
contemplate adultery . . . Novels stuffed like
Christmas geese with hi-falutin' literary values . . .
Mention Updike at a SFWA gig, and you get yawns,
shudders, shakings of the head . . His work affects
science fiction writers like cayenne pepper affects a
pack of bloodhounds.
Why? Because John Updike has everything SF
writers don't. He is, in some very real sense,
everything SF writers aren't.
Certain qualities exist, that novelists are
popularly supposed to possess. Gifts, abilities, that
win An Author respect, that cause folks to back off
and gape just a bit if they find one in a grocery
line. Qualities like: insight into modern culture. A
broad sympathy for the manifold quirks of human
nature. A sharp eye for the defining detail. A quick
ear for language. A mastery of prose.
John Updike possesses these things. He is
erudite. He has, for instance, actually read Isak
Dinesen, Wallace Stevens, Ciline, Jean Rhys, Gunter
Grass, Nabokov and Bellow. Not only has he read these
obscure and intimidating people, but he has publicly
discussed the experience with every sign of genuine
Updike is also enormously clever, clever to a
point that approaches genius through the sheer
irrepressible business of its dexterity. Updike's
paragraphs are so brittle, so neatly nested in their
comma'ed clauses, that they seem to burst under the
impact of the reader's gaze, like hyper-flaky
Updike sees how things look, notices how people
dress, hears how people talk. His eye for the telling
detail can make even golf and birdwatching, the
ultimate yawnable whitebread Anglo pastimes, more or
less interesting. (Okay -- not very interesting,
granted. But interesting for the sheer grace of
Updike's narrative technique. Like watching Fred
Astaire take out the garbage.)
It would be enlightening to compare John Updike
to some paragon of science fiction writing.
Unfortunately no such paladin offers himself, so we'll
have to make do with a composite.
What qualities make a great science fiction
writer? Let's look at it objectively, putting aside
all that comfortable bullshit about the virtues
authors are supposed to have. Let's look at the
science fiction writer as he is.
Modern culture, for instance. Our SF paladin is
not even sure it exists, except as a vaguely
oppressive force he's evaded since childhood. He lives
in his own one-man splinter culture, and has ever
since that crucial time in childhood -- when he was sick
in bed for two years, or was held captive in the
Japanese prison camp, or lived in the Comoros Islands
with monstrous parents who were nuts on anthropology
or astronomy or Trotsky or religion.
He's pretty much okay now, though, our science
fiction author. He can feed himself and sign checks,
and he makes occasional supply trips into the cultural
anchorage of SF fandom, where he refreshes his soul by
looking at people far worse off than he is. But he
dresses funny, and mumbles to himself in the grocery
While standing there, he doesn't listen to the
other folks and make surreptitious authorly notes
about dialogue. Far from it: he's too full of unholy
fire to pay much attention to mere human beings. And
anyway, his characters generally talk about stuff like
neutrinos or Taoism.
His eyes are glazed, cut off at the optic nerve
while he watches brain-movies. Too many nights in too
many cheap con hotels have blunted his sense of
aesthetics; his characters live in geodomes or
efficiencies or yurts. They wear one-piece jumpsuits
because jumpsuits make people one monotonous color
from throat to foot, which allows our attention to
return to the neutrinos -- of which, incidentally,
ninety percent of the universe consists, so that the
entire visible world of matter is a mere *froth*, if
we only knew.
But he's learned his craft, our science fiction
paladin. The real nutcases don't have enough mental
horsepower to go where he's gone. He works hard and he
thinks hard and he knows what he's doing. He's read
Kuttner and Kornbluth and Blish and Knight, and he
knows how to Develop an Idea entertainingly and
rigorously, and how to keep pages turning meanwhile,
and by Christ those are no easy things. So there, Mr.
John Updike with your highflown talk of aht and
beautieh. That may be okay for you Ivy League pinky-
lifters with your sissy bemoaning about the Crisis of
Culture . . . As if there was going to be a culture
after the millennial advent of (Biotech) (Cybernetics)
(Space Travel) (Robots) (Atomic Energy) (General
Semantics) (Dean Drive) (Dianetics) . . .
So -- there's the difference. It exists, for
better or worse. None of this is lost on John Updike.
He knows about science fiction, not a hell of a lot,
but probably vastly more than most science fiction
writers know about John Updike. He recognizes that it
requires specialized expertise to write good SF, and
that there are vast rustling crowds of us on the other
side of the cultural spacewarp, writing for Ace Books
and _Amazing Stories_. Updike reads Vonnegut and Le
Guin and Calvino and Lem and Wells and Borges, and
would probably read anybody else whose prose didn't
cause him physical pain. And from this reading, he
knows that the worldview is different in SFville . . .
that writers think literature, and that SF writers
And he knows, too, that it's not T.S. Eliot's
world any more, if indeed it ever was T.S. Eliot's
world. He knows we live in a world that loves to think
SF, and has thought SF ever since Hiroshima, which was
the ne plus ultra of Millennial Technological Advents,
which really and truly did change the world forever.
So Updike has rolled up his pinstriped sleeves
and bent his formidable intelligence in our direction,
and lo we have a science fiction novel, _Roger's
Version_ by John Updike.
Of course it's not *called* a science fiction
novel. Updike has seen Le Guin and Lem and Vonnegut
crawl through the spacewarp into his world. He's seen
them wriggle out, somehow, barely, gasping and
stinking of rocket fuel. Updike has no reason to place
himself in a position they went to great pains to
escape. But _Roger's Version_ does feature a computer
on its cover, if not a rocketship or a babe in a
bubble helmet, and by heaven it is a science fiction
novel -- and a very good one.
_Roger's Version_ is Updike's version of what SF
should be on about. It deals with SF's native
conceptual underpinnings: the impact of technology on
society. The book is about technolatry, about
millennial visionary thinking. This is SF-think as
examined by a classic devotee of lit-think.
It's all there, quite upfront and nakedly
science fictional. It puzzles mainstream commentators.
"It's as though Updike had challenged himself to
convert into the flow of his novel the most resistant
stuff he could think of," marvels the _Christian
Science Monitor_, alarmed to find a Real Novel that
actually deals straightforwardly with real ideas. "The
aggressiveness of Updike's imagination is often a
marvel," says _People_, a mag whose utter lack of
imagination is probably its premier selling point.
And look at this list of author's credits: Fred
Hoyle, Martin Gardner, Gerald Feinberg, Robert
Jastrow. Don't tell me Updike's taken the *science*
seriously. But he has -- he's not the man to deny the
devil his due, especially after writing _Witches of
Eastwick_, which would have been called a fantasy
novel if it had been written badly by a nobody.
But enough of this high-flown abstraction -- let's
get to grips with the book. There's these two guys,
see. There's Roger Lambert, a middle-aged professor of
theology, a white-wine-sipping adultery-contemplating
intellectual New Englander who probably isn't eighty
light-years removed from John Updike. Roger's a nasty
piece of business, mostly, lecherous, dishonest and
petty-minded, and obsessed with a kind of free-
floating Hawthornian Protestant guilt that has been
passed down for twenty generations up Boston way and
hasn't gotten a bit more specific in the meantime.
And then there's Roger Lambert's antagonist,
Dale Kohler. Dale's a young computer hacker with
pimples and an obnoxious cocksure attitude. If Dale
were just a little more hip about it, he'd be a
cyberpunk, but for thematic reasons Updike chose to
make Dale a born-again Christian. We never really
believe this, though, because Dale almost never talks
Jesus. He talks AND-OR circuits, and megabytes, and
Mandelbrot sets, with all the techspeak fluency Updike
can manage, which is considerable. Dale talks God on a
microchip, technological transcendence, and he was
last seen in Greg Bear's _Blood Music_ where his name
was different but his motive and character were
identical. Dale is a type. Not just a science
fictional type, but the type that *creates* science
fiction, who talks God for the same reason Philip K.
Dick talked God. Because it comes with the territory.
Oh yeah, and then we've got some women. They
don't amount to much. They're not people, exactly.
They're temptresses and symbols.
There's Roger Lambert's wife, Esther, for
instance. Esther ends up teaching Dale Kohler the
nature of sin, which utterly destroys Dale's annoying
moral certitude, and high time, too. Esther does this
by the simple expedient of adulterously fucking Dale's
brains out, repeatedly and in meticulously related
detail, until Dale collapses from sheer weight of
A good trick. But Esther breezes through this
inferno of deviate carnality, none the worse for the
experience; invigorated, if anything. Updike tells us
an old tale in this: that women *are* sexuality, vast
unplumbed cisterns of it, creatures of mystery, vamps
of the carnal abyss. I just can't bring myself to go
for this notion, even if the Bible tells me so. I know
that women don't believe this stuff.
Then there's Roger Lambert's niece, Verna. I
suspect she represents the Future, or at least the
future of America. Verna's a sad case. She lives on
welfare with her illegitimate mulatto kid, a little
girl who is Futurity even more incarnate. Verna
listens to pop music, brain-damaging volumes of it.
She's cruel and stupid, and as corrupt as her limited
sophistication allows. She's careless of herself and
others, exults in her degradation, whores sometimes
when she needs the cocaine money. During the book's
crisis, she breaks her kid's leg in a reckless fit of
A woman reading this portrayal would be
naturally enraged, reacting under the assumption that
Updike intends us to believe in Verna as an actual
human being. But Verna, being a woman, isn't. Verna is
America, instead: dreadfully hurt and spiritually
degraded, cheapened, teasing, but full of vitality,
and not without some slim hope of redemption, if she
works hard and does what's best for her (as defined by
Roger Lambert). Also, Verna possesses the magic of
fertility, and nourishes the future, the little girl
Paula. Paula, interestingly, is every single thing
that Roger Lambert isn't, i.e. young, innocent,
trusting, beautiful, charming, lively, female and not
Roger sleeps with Verna. We've seen it coming
for some time. It is, of course, an act of adultery
and incest, compounded by Roger's complicity in child
abuse, quite a foul thing really, and narrated with a
certain gloating precision that fills one with real
unease. But it's Updike's symbolic gesture of cultural
rapprochement. "It's helped get me ready for death,"
Roger tells Verna afterward. Then: "Promise me you
won't sleep with Dale." And Verna laughs at the idea,
and tells him: "Dale's a non-turnon. He's not even
evil, like you." And gives Roger the kiss of peace.
So, Roger wins, sort of. He is, of course, aging
rapidly, and he knows his cultural values don't cut it
any more, that maybe they never cut it, and in any
case he is a civilized anachronism surrounded by a
popcultural conspiracy of vile and rising noise. But
at least *Dale* doesn't win. Dale, who lacks moral
complexity and a proper grasp of the true morbidity of
the human condition, thinks God can be found in a
computer, and is properly nemesized for his hubris.
The future may be fucked, but at least Dale won't be
So it goes, in _Roger's Version_. It's a good
book, a disturbing book. It makes you think. And it's
got an edge on it, a certain grimness and virulence of
tone that some idiot would probably call "cyberpunk"
if Updike were not writing about the midlife crisis of
a theology professor.
_Roger's Version_ is one long debate, between
Updike's Protestantism and the techno-zeitgeist of the
'80s. With great skill, Updike parallels the arcanity
of cyberdom and the equally arcane roots of Christian
theology. It's good; it's clever and funny; it verges
on the profound. The far reaches of modern computer
science -- chaos theory, fractals, simulationism,
statistical physics and so on -- are indeed theological
in their implications. Some of their spokesmen have a
certain evangelical righteousness of tone that could
only alarm a cultural arbiter like John Updike. There
are indeed heretic gospels inside that machine, just
like there were gospels in a tab of LSD, only more so.
And it's a legitimate writerly task to inquire about
those gospels and wonder if they're any better than
the old one.
So John Updike has listened, listened very
carefully and learned a great deal, which he parades
deftly for his readership, in neatly tended flashes of
hard-science exposition. And he says: I've heard it
before, and I may not exactly believe in that Old
Rugged Cross, but I'm damned if I'll believe these
crazy hacker twerps with their jogging shoes.
There's a lot to learn from this book. It deals
with the entirety of our zeitgeist with a broad-scale
vision that we SF types too often fail to achieve.
It's an interesting debate, though not exactly fair:
it's muddied with hatred and smoldering jealousy, and
a very real resentment, and a kind of self-loathing
that's painful to watch.
And it's a cheat, because Dale's "science" has
no real intellectual validity. When you strip away the
layers of Updike's cyber-jargon, Dale's efforts are
only numerology, the rankest kind of dumb
superstition. "Science" it's not. It's not even good
theology. It's heretic voodoo, and its pre-arranged
failure within this book proves nothing about
Updike is wrong. He clings to a rotting cultural
fabric that he knows is based on falsehoods, and
rejects challenges to that fabric by declaring "well
you're another." But science, true science, does learn
from mistakes; theologians like Roger Lambert merely
further complicate their own mistaken premises.
I remain unconvinced, though not unmoved, by
Updike's object lesson. His book has hit hard at my
own thinking, which, like that of most SF writers, is
overly enamored of the millennial and transcendent. I
know that the twentieth century's efforts to kick
Updike's Judaeo-Christian WestCiv values have been
grim: Stalin's industrial terror, Cambodia's sickening
Luddite madness, the convulsions today in Islam . . .
it was all "Year Zero" stuff, attempts to sweep the
board clean, that merely swept away human sanity,
instead. Nor do I claim that the squalid consumerism
of today's "secular-Humanist" welfare states is a
proper vision for society.
But I can't endure the sheer snobbish falseness
of Updike's New England Protestantism. Never mind that
it's the legacy of American letters, that it's the
grand tradition of Hawthorne and Melville, that it's
what made America great. It's a shuck, ladies and
gentlemen. It won't wash. It doesn't own the future;
it won't even kiss the future goodbye on its way to
the graveyard. It doesn't own our minds any more.
We don't live in an age of answers, but an age
of ferment. And today that ferment is reflected
faithfully in a literature called science fiction.
SF may be crazy, it may be dangerous, it may be
shallow and cocksure, and it should learn better. But
in some very real way it is truer to itself, truer to
the world, than is the writing of John Updike.
This is what has drawn Updike, almost despite
himself, into science fiction's cultural territory.
For SF writers, his novel is a lesson and a challenge.
A lesson that must be learned and a challenge that
must be met.
CATSCAN 4 "The Agberg Ideology"
To speak with precision about the fantastic is
like loading mercury with a pitchfork. Yet some are
driven to confront this challenge. On occasion, a
veteran SF writer will seriously and directly discuss
the craft of writing science fiction.
A few have risked doing this in cold print.
Damon Knight, for instance. James Blish (under a
pseudonym.) Now Robert Silverberg steps deliberately
into their shoes, with _Robert Silverberg's Worlds of
Wonder: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction_
(Warner Books, 1987, $17.95).
Here are thirteen classic SF stories by well-
known genre authors. Most first appeared in genre
magazines during the 1950s. These are stories which
impressed Silverberg mightily as he began his career.
They are stories whose values he tried hard to
understand and assimilate. Each story is followed by
Silverberg's careful, analytical notes.
And this stuff, ladies and gents, is the SF
McCoy. It's all shirtsleeve, street-level science
fiction; every story in here is thoroughly crash-
tested and cruises like a vintage Chevy.
_Worlds of Wonder_ is remarkable for its sober
lack of pretension. There's no high-tone guff here
about how SF should claim royal descent from Lucian,
or Cyrano de Bergerac, or Mary Shelley. Credit is
given where credit is due. The genre's real founders
were twentieth-century weirdos, whacking away at their
manual typewriters, with amazing persistence and
energy, for sweatshop pay.
They had a definite commonality of interest.
Something more than a mere professional fraternity.
Kind of like a disease.
In a long, revelatory introduction, Silverberg
describes his own first exposure to the vectors of the
cultural virus: SF books.
"I think I was eleven, maybe twelve . . . [The]
impact on me was overwhelming. I can still taste and
feel the extraordinary sensations they awakened in me:
it was a physiological thing, a distinct excitement, a
certain metabolic quickening at the mere thought of
handling them, let alone reading them. It must be like
that for every new reader -- apocalyptic thunderbolts
and eerie unfamiliar music accompany you as you lurch
and stagger, awed and shaken, into a bewildering new
world of ideas and images, which is exactly the place
you've been hoping to find all your life."
If this paragraph speaks to your very soul with
the tongue of angels, then you need this anthology.
Buy it immediately, read it carefully. It's full of
home truths you won't find anywhere else.
This book is Silverberg's vicarious gift to his
younger self, the teenager described in his
autobiographical introduction: an itchy, over-bright
kid, filled with the feverish conviction that to
become a Science Fiction Writer must surely be the
moral pinnacle of the human condition.
And Silverberg knows very well that the kids are
still out there, and that the virus still spreads. He
can feel their hot little hands reaching out
plaintively in the dark. And he's willing, with a very
genuine magnanimity, to help these sufferers out. Just
as he himself was helped by an earlier SF generation,
by Mr. Kornbluth, and Mr. Knight, and Mr. and Mrs.
Kuttner, and all those other rad folks with names full
Silverberg explains his motives clearly, early
on. Then he discusses his qualifications to teach the
SF craft. He mentions his many awards, his fine
reviews, his length of service in the SF field, and,
especially, his success at earning a living. It's a
very down-home, pragmatic argument, with an aw-shucks,
workin'-guy, just-folks attitude very typical of the
American SF milieu. Silverberg doesn't claim superior
knowledge of writerly principle (as he might well). He
doesn't openly pose as a theorist or ideologue, but as
a modest craftsman, offering rules of thumb.
I certainly don't scorn this offer, but I do
wonder at it. Such modesty may well seem laudable, but
its unspoken implications are unsettling. It seems to
show an unwillingness to tackle SF's basic roots, to
establish a solid conceptual grounding. SF remains
pitchforked mercury, jelly nailed to a tree; there are
ways to strain a living out of this ichor, but very
few solid islands of theory.
Silverberg's proffered definition of science
fiction shows the gooeyness immediately. The
definition is rather long, and comes in four points:
1. An underlying speculative concept,
systematically developed in a way that amounts to an
exploration of the consequences of allowing such a
departure from known reality to impinge on the
universe as we know it.
2. An awareness by the writer of the structural
underpinnings (the "body of scientific knowledge") of
our known reality, as it is currently understood, so
that the speculative aspects of the story are founded
on conscious and thoughtful departures from those
underpinnings rather than on blithe ignorance.
3. Imposition by the writer of a sense of
limitations somewhere in the assumptions of the story
. . .
4. A subliminal knowledge of the feel and
texture of true science fiction, as defined in a
circular and subjective way from long acquaintance
SF is notoriously hard to define, and this
attempt seems about as good as anyone else's, so far.
Hard thinking went into it, and it deserves attention.
Yet point four is pure tautology. It is the Damon
Knight dictum of "SF is what I point at when I say
`SF,'" which is very true indeed. But this can't
conceal deep conceptual difficulties.
Here is Silverberg defining a "Story." "A story
is a machine that enlightens: a little ticking
contrivance . . . It is a pocket universe . . . It is
an exercise in vicarious experience . . . It is a
ritual of exorcism and purgation. It is a set of
patterns and formulas. It is a verbal object, an
incantation made up of rhythms and sounds."
Very fluent, very nice. But: "A science fiction
story is all those things at once, and something
more." Oh? What is this "something more?" And why does
it take second billing to the standard functions of a
How can we be certain that "SF" is not, in fact,
something basically alien to "Story-telling?" "Science
fiction is a branch of fantasy," Silverberg asserts,
finding us a cozy spot under the sheltering tree of
Literature. Yet how do we really know that SF is a
"branch" at all?
The alternative would be to state that science
fiction is not a true kind of "fiction" at all, but
something genuinely monstrous. Something that limps
and heaves and convulses, without real antecedents, in
a conceptual no-man's land. Silverberg would not like
to think this; but he never genuinely refutes it.
Yet there is striking evidence of it, even in
_Worlds of Wonder_ itself. Silverberg refers to
"antediluvian SF magazines, such as _Science_ Wonder
Stories from 1929 and _Amazing Stories_ from 1932 . .
. The primitive technique of many of the authors
didn't include such frills as the ability to create
characters or write dialogue . . . [T]he editors of
the early science fiction magazines had found it
necessary to rely on hobbyists with humpty-dumpty
narrative skills; the true storytellers were off
writing for the other pulp magazines, knocking out
westerns or adventure tales with half the effort for
twice the pay."
A nicely dismissive turn of phrase. But notice
how we confront, even in very early genre history, two
distinct castes of writer. We have the "real
storytellers," pulling down heavy bread writing
westerns, and "humpty-dumpty hobbyists" writing this
weird-ass stuff that doesn't even have real dialogue
in it. A further impudent question suggests itself: if
these "storytellers" were so "real," how come they're
not still writing successfully today for _Argosy_ and
_Spicy Stories_ and _Aryan Atrocity Adventure_? How
come, among the former plethora of pulp fiction
magazines, the science fiction zines still survive?
Did the "storytellers" somehow ride in off the range
to rescue Humpty Dumpty? If so, why couldn't they
protect their own herd?
What does "science fiction" really owe to
"fiction," anyway? This conceptual difficulty will
simply not go away, ladies and gentlemen. It is a
cognitive dissonance at the heart of our genre. Here
is John Kessel, suffering the ideological itch,
Eighties version, in _SF Eye_ #1:
"Plot, character and style are not mere icing .
. . Any fiction that conceives of itself as a vehicle
for something called `ideas' that can be inserted into
and taken out of the story like a passenger in a
Toyota is doomed, in my perhaps staid and outmoded
opinion, to a very low level of achievement."
A "low level of achievement." Not even Humpty
Dumpty really wants this. But what is the "passenger,"
and what are the "frills?" Is it the "storytelling,"
or is it the "something more?" Kessel hits a nerve
when he demands, "What do you mean by an `idea'
anyway?" What a difficult question this is!
The craft of storytelling has been explored for
many centuries, in many cultures. Blish called it "a
huge body of available technique," and angrily
demanded its full use within SF. And in _Worlds of
Wonder_, Silverberg does his level best lo convey the
basic mechanics. Definitions fly, helpful hints
abound. A story is "the working out of a conflict." A
story "has to be built around a pattern of
oppositions." Storytelling can be summed up in a
three-word formula: "purpose, passion, perception."
And on and on.
But where are we to find the craft of the
"something more"? What in hell *is* the "something
more"? "Ideas" hardly begins to describe it. Is it
"wonder"? Is it "transcendence"? Is it "visionary
drive," or "conceptual novelty," or even "cosmic
fear"? Here is Silverberg, at the very end of his
"It was that exhilaration and excitement that
drew us to science fiction in the first place, almost
invariably when we were very young; it was for the
sake of that exhilaration and excitement that we took
up the writing of it, and it was to facilitate the
expression of our visions and fantasies that we
devoted ourselves with such zeal to the study of the
art and craft of writing."
Very well put, but the dichotomy lurches up
again. The art and craft of writing *what*, exactly?
In this paragraph, the "visions and fantasies" briefly
seize the driver's seat of the Kessel Toyota. But they
soon dissipate into phantoms again. Because they are
so ill-defined, so mercurial, so desperately lacking
in basic conceptual soundness. They are our stock in
trade, our raison d'etre, and we still don't know what
to make of them.
_Worlds of Wonder_ may well be the best book
ever published about the craft of science fiction.
Silverberg works nobly, and he deserves great credit.
The unspoken pain that lies beneath the surface of his
book is something with which the genre has never
successfully come to terms. The argument is as fresh
today as it was in the days of _Science Wonder
This conflict goes very deep indeed. It is not a
problem confined to the craft of writing SF. It seems
to me to be a schism of the modern Western mindset, a
basic lack of cultural integration between what we
feel, and what we know. It is an inability to speak
naturally, with conviction from the heart, of the
things that Western rationality has taught us. This is
a profound problem, and the fact that science fiction
deals with it so directly, is a sign of science
fiction's cultural importance.
We have no guarantee that this conflict will
*ever* be resolved. It may not be resolvable. SF
writers have begun careers, succeeded greatly, grown
old and honored, and died in the shadow of this
dissonance. We may forever have SF "stories" whose
narrative structure is buboed with expository lumps.
We may always have escapist pulp adventures that avoid
true imagination, substituting the bogus exoticism
that Blish defined as "calling a rabbit a `smeerp.'"
We may even have beautifully written, deeply
moving tales of classic human conflict -- with only a
reluctant dab of genre flavor. Or we may have the
opposite: the legacy of Stapledon, Gernsback, and Lem,
those non-stories bereft of emotional impact and human
interest, the constructions Silverberg rightly calls
"vignettes" and "reports."
I don't see any stories in _Worlds of Wonder_
that resolve this dichotomy. They're swell stories,
and they deliver the genre payoff in full. But many of
them contradict Silverberg's most basic assertions
about "storytelling." "Four in One" by Damon Knight is
a political parable whose hero is a rock-ribbed
Competent Man whose reactions are utterly nonhuman.
"Fondly Fahrenheit" by Alfred Bester is a one-shot
tour-de-force dependent on weird grammatical
manipulation. "Hothouse" by Brian Aldiss is a
visionary picaresque with almost no conventional
structure. "The New Prime" by Jack Vance is six
jampacked alien vignettes very loosely stitched
together. "Day Million" showcases Frederik Pohl
bluntly haranguing his readers. It's as if Silverberg
picked these stories deliberately to demonstrate a
deep distrust of his own advice.
But to learn to tell "good stories" is excellent
advice for any kind of writer, isn't it? Well-
constructed "stories" will certainly sell in science
fiction. They will win awards, and bring whatever fame
and wealth is locally available. Silverberg knows this
is true. His own career proves it. His work possesses
great technical facility. He writes stories with
compelling opening hooks, with no extraneous detail,
with paragraphs that mesh, with dialogue that advances
the plot, with neatly balanced beginnings, middles and
And yet, this ability has not been a total Royal
Road to success for him. Tactfully perhaps, but rather
surprisingly, _Worlds of Wonder_ does not mention
Silverberg's four-year "retirement" from SF during the
'70s. For those who missed it, there was a dust-up in
1976, when Silverberg publicly complained that his
work in SF was not garnering the critical acclaim that
its manifest virtues deserved. These were the days of
_Dying Inside_, _The Book of Skulls_, _Shadrach in the
Furnace_ -- sophisticated novels with deep, intense
character studies, of unimpeachable literary merit.
Silverberg was not alone in his conclusion that these
groundbreaking works were pearls cast before swine.
Those who shared Silverberg's literary convictions
could only regard the tepid response of the SF public
But was it really? Critics still complain at him
today; take Geoff Ryman's review of _The Conglomeroid
Cocktail Party_, a recent Silverberg collection, in
_Foundation_ 37. "He is determined to write
beautifully and does . . . He has most of the field
beaten by an Olympic mile." And yet: "As practiced by
Silverberg, SF is a minor art form, like some kinds of
verse, to be admired for its surface polish and
adherence to form."
This critical plaint is a symptom of hunger for
the "something more." But where are we to find its
mercurial secrets? Not in the storytelling alembics of
_Worlds of Wonder_.
Why, then, is Silverberg's book so very valuable
to the SF writer of ambition? There are many reasons.
Silverberg's candid reminiscences casts vital light
into the social history of the genre. The deep
structures of our subculture, of our traditions, must
be understood by anyone who wants to transcend them.
To have no "ideology," no theory of SF and its larger
purposes, is to be the unknowing puppet of its
unwritten rules. These invisible traditions are
actually only older theories, now disguised as common
The same goes for traditional story values.
Blatant solecisms are the Achilles heel of the wild-
eyed SF visionary. If this collection teaches
anything, it's that one can pull the weirdest,
wackiest, off-the-wall moves in SF, and still win big.
But one must do this deliberately, with a real
understanding of thee consequences. One must learn to
recognize, and avoid, the elementary blunders of bad
fiction: the saidbookisms, the point-of-view
violations, the careless lapses of logic, the
pointless digressions, the idiot plots, the insulting
cliches of character. _Worlds of Wonder_ is a handbook
for accomplishing that. It's kindly and avuncular and
accessible and fun to read.
And some readers are in special luck. You may be
one of them. You may be a young Robert Silverberg, a
mindblown, too-smart kid, dying to do to the innocent
what past SF writers have done to you. You may be
boiling over with the Holy Spirit, yet wondering how
you will ever find the knack, the discipline, to put
your thoughts into a form that compels attention from
an audience, a form that will break you into print. If
you are this person, _Worlds of Wonder_ is a precious
gift. It is your battle plan.
CATSCAN 5 "Slipstream"
In a recent remarkable interview in _New
Pathways_ #11, Carter Scholz alludes with pained
resignation to the ongoing brain-death of science
fiction. In the 60s and 70s, Scholz opines, SF had a
chance to become a worthy literature; now that chance
has passed. Why? Because other writers have now
learned to adapt SF's best techniques to their own
"And," says Scholz, "They make us look sick.
When I think of the best `speculative fiction' of the
past few years, I sure don't think of any Hugo or
Nebula winners. I think of Margaret Atwood's _The
Handmaid's Tale_, and of Don DeLillo's _White Noise_,
and of Batchelor's _The Birth of the People's Republic
of Antarctica_, and of Gaddis' _JR_ and _Carpenter's
Gothic_, and of Coetzee's _Life and Times of Michael
K_ . . . I have no hope at all that genre science
fiction can ever again have any literary significance.
But that's okay, because now there are other people
doing our job."
It's hard to stop quoting this interview. All
interviews should be this good. There's some great
campy guff about the agonizing pain it takes to write
short stories; and a lecture on the unspeakable horror
of writer's block; and some nifty fusillades of
forthright personal abuse; and a lot of other stuff
that is making _New Pathways_ one of the most
interesting zines of the Eighties. Scholz even reveals
his use of the Fibonacci Sequence in setting the
length and number of the chapters in his novel
_Palimpsests_, and wonders how come nobody caught on
to this groundbreaking technique of his.
Maybe some of this peripheral stuff kinda dulls
the lucid gleam of his argument. But you don't have to
be a medieval Italian mathematician to smell the reek
of decay in modern SF. Scholz is right. The job isn't
being done here.
"Science Fiction" today is a lot like the
contemporary Soviet Union; the sprawling possessor of
a dream that failed. Science fiction's official dogma,
which almost everybody ignores, is based on attitudes
toward science and technology which are bankrupt and
increasingly divorced from any kind of reality. "Hard-
SF," the genre's ideological core, is a joke today; in
terms of the social realities of high-tech post-
industrialism, it's about as relevant as hard-
Many of the best new SF writers seem openly
ashamed of their backward Skiffy nationality. "Ask not
what you can do for science fiction -- ask how you can
edge away from it and still get paid there."
A blithely stateless cosmopolitanism is the
order of the day, even for an accredited Clarion grad
like Pat Murphy: "I'm not going to bother what camp
things fall into," she declares in a recent _Locus_
interview. "I'm going to write the book I want and see
what happens . . . If the markets run together, I
leave it to the critics." For Murphy, genre is a dead
issue, and she serenely wills the trash-mountain to
come to Mohammed.
And one has to sympathize. At one time, in its
clumsy way, Science Fiction offered some kind of
coherent social vision. SF may have been gaudy and
naive, and possessed by half-baked fantasies of power
and wish-fulfillment, but at least SF spoke a
contemporary language. Science Fiction did the job of
describing, in some eldritch way, what was actually
*happening*, at least in the popular imagination.
Maybe it wasn't for everybody, but if you were a
bright, unfastidious sort, you could read SF and feel,
in some satisfying and deeply unconscious way, that
you'd been given a real grip on the chrome-plated
handles of the Atomic Age.
But *now* look at it. Consider the repulsive
ghastliness of the SF category's Lovecraftian
inbreeding. People retched in the 60s when De Camp and
Carter skinned the corpse of Robert E. Howard for its
hide and tallow, but nowadays necrophilia is run on an
industrial basis. Shared-world anthologies. Braided
meganovels. Role-playing tie-ins. Sharecropping books
written by pip-squeaks under the blazoned name of
established authors. Sequels of sequels, trilogy
sequels of yet-earlier trilogies, themselves cut-and-
pasted from yet-earlier trilogies. What's the common
thread here? The belittlement of individual
creativity, and the triumph of anonymous product. It's
like some Barthesian nightmare of the Death of the
Author and his replacement by "text."
Science Fiction -- much like that other former
Vanguard of Progressive Mankind, the Communist Party --
has lost touch with its cultural reasons for being.
Instead, SF has become a self-perpetuating commercial
power-structure, which happens to be in possession of
a traditional national territory: a portion of
Science fiction habitually ignores any challenge
from outside. It is protected by the Iron Curtain of
category marketing. It does not even have to improve
"on its own terms," because its own terms no longer
mean anything; they are rarely even seriously
discussed. It is enough merely to point at the
rackspace and say "SF."
Some people think it's great to have a genre
which has no inner identity, merely a locale where
it's sold. In theory, this grants vast authorial
freedom, but the longterm practical effect has been
heavily debilitating. When "anything is possible in
SF" then "anything" seems good enough to pass muster.
Why innovate? Innovate in what direction? Nothing is
moving, the compass is dead. Everything is becalmed;
toss a chip overboard to test the current, and it sits
there till it sinks without a trace.
It's time to clarify some terms in this essay,
terms which I owe to Carter Scholz. "Category" is a
marketing term, denoting rackspace. "Genre" is a
spectrum of work united by an inner identity, a
coherent esthetic, a set of conceptual guidelines, an
ideology if you will.
"Category" is commercially useful, but can be
ultimately deadening. "Genre," however, is powerful.
Having made this distinction, I want to describe
what seems to me to be a new, emergent "genre," which
has not yet become a "category."
This genre is not "category" SF; it is not even
"genre" SF. Instead, it is a contemporary kind of
writing which has set its face against consensus
reality. It is a fantastic, surreal sometimes,
speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It
does not aim to provoke a "sense of wonder" or to
systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic
Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply
makes you feel very strange; the way that living in
the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are
a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this
kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but
that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires
an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and
argument, we will call these books "slipstream."
"Slipstream" is not all that catchy a term, and
if this young genre ever becomes an actual category I
doubt it will use that name, which I just coined along
with my friend Richard Dorsett. "Slipstream" is a
parody of "mainstream," and nobody calls mainstream
"mainstream" except for us skiffy trolls.
Nor is it at all likely that slipstream will
actually become a full-fledged genre, much less a
commercially successful category. The odds against it
are stiff. Slipstream authors must work outside the
cozy infrastructure of genre magazines, specialized
genre criticism, and the authorial esprit-de-corps of
a common genre cause.
And vast dim marketing forces militate against
the commercial success of slipstream. It is very
difficult for these books to reach or build their own
native audience, because they are needles in a vast
moldering haystack. There is no convenient way for
would-be slipstream readers to move naturally from one
such work to another of its ilk. These books vanish
like drops of ink in a bucket of drool.
Occasional writers will triumph against all
these odds, but their success remains limited by the
present category structures. They may eke out a fringe
following, but they fall between two stools. Their
work is too weird for Joe and Jane Normal. And they
lose the SF readers, who avoid the mainstream racks
because the stuff there ain't half weird enough. (One
result of this is that many slipstream books are left-
handed works by authors safely established in other
And it may well be argued that slipstream has no
"real" genre identity at all. Slipstream might seem to
be an artificial construct, a mere grab-bag of
mainstream books that happen to hold some interest for
SF readers. I happen to believe that slipstream books
have at least as much genre identity as the variegated
stock that passes for "science fiction" these days,
but I admit the force of the argument. As an SF
critic, I may well be blindered by my parochial point-
of-view. But I'm far from alone in this situation.
Once the notion of slipstream is vaguely explained,
almost all SF readers can recite a quick list of books
that belong there by right.
These are books which SF readers recommend to
friends: "This isn't SF, but it sure ain't mainstream
and I think you might like it, okay?" It's every man
his own marketer, when it comes to slipstream.
In preparation for this essay, I began
collecting these private lists. My master-list soon
grew impressively large, and serves as the best
pragmatic evidence for the actual existence of
slipstream that I can offer at the moment.
I myself don't pretend to be an expert in this
kind of writing. I can try to define the zeitgeist of
slipstream in greater detail, but my efforts must be
It seems to me that the heart of slipstream is
an attitude of peculiar aggression against "reality."
These are fantasies of a kind, but not fantasies which
are "futuristic" or "beyond the fields we know." These
books tend to sarcastically tear at the structure of
Some such books, the most "mainstream" ones, are
non-realistic literary fictions which avoid or ignore
SF genre conventions. But hard-core slipstream has
unique darker elements. Quite commonly these works
don't make a lot of common sense, and what's more they
often somehow imply that *nothing we know makes* "a
lot of sense" and perhaps even that *nothing ever
It's very common for slipstream books to screw
around with the representational conventions of
fiction, pulling annoying little stunts that suggest
that the picture is leaking from the frame and may get
all over the reader's feet. A few such techniques are
infinite regress, trompe-l'oeil effects, metalepsis,
sharp violations of viewpoint limits, bizarrely blase'
reactions to horrifically unnatural events . . . all
the way out to concrete poetry and the deliberate use
of gibberish. Think M. C. Escher, and you have a
Slipstream is also marked by a cavalier attitude
toward "material" which is the polar opposite of the
hard-SF writer's "respect for scientific fact."
Frequently, historical figures are used in slipstream
fiction in ways which outrageously violate the
historical record. History, journalism, official
statements, advertising copy . . . all of these are
grist for the slipstream mill, and are disrespectfully
treated not as "real-life facts" but as "stuff," raw
material for collage work. Slipstream tends, not to
"create" new worlds, but to *quote* them, chop them up
out of context, and turn them against themselves.
Some slipstream books are quite conventional in
narrative structure, but nevertheless use their
fantastic elements in a way that suggests that they
are somehow *integral* to the author's worldview; not
neat-o ideas to kick around for fun's sake, but
something in the nature of an inherent dementia. These
are fantastic elements which are not clearcut
"departures from known reality" but ontologically
*part of the whole mess*; "`real' compared to what?"
This is an increasingly difficult question to answer
in the videocratic 80s-90s, and is perhaps the most
genuinely innovative aspect of slipstream (scary as
that might seem).
A "slipstream critic," should such a person ever
come to exist, would probably disagree with these
statements of mine, or consider them peripheral to
what his genre "really" does. I heartily encourage
would-be slipstream critics to involve themselves in
heady feuding about the "real nature" of their as-yet-
nonexistent genre. Bogus self-referentiality is a very
slipstreamish pursuit; much like this paragraph itself,
actually. See what I mean?
My list is fragmentary. What's worse, many of
the books that are present probably don't "belong"
there. (I also encourage slipstream critics to weed
these books out and give convincing reasons for it.)
Furthermore, many of these books are simply
unavailable, without hard work, lucky accidents,
massive libraries, or friendly bookstore clerks in a
major postindustrial city. In many unhappy cases, I
doubt that the authors themselves think that anyone is
interested in their work. Many slipstream books fell
through the yawning cracks between categories, and
were remaindered with frantic haste.
And I don't claim that all these books are
"good," or that you will enjoy reading them. Many
slipstream books are in fact dreadful, though they are
dreadful in a different way than dreadful science
fiction is. This list happens to be prejudiced toward
work of quality, because these are books which have
stuck in people's memory against all odds, and become
little tokens of possibility.
I offer this list as a public service to
slipstream's authors and readers. I don't count myself
in these ranks. I enjoy some slipstream, but much of
it is simply not to my taste. This doesn't mean that
it is "bad," merely that it is different. In my
opinion, this work is definitely not SF, and is
essentially alien to what I consider SF's intrinsic
Slipstream does however have its own virtues,
virtues which may be uniquely suited to the perverse,
convoluted, and skeptical tenor of the postmodern era.
Or then again, maybe not. But to judge this genre by
the standards of SF is unfair; I would like to see it
free to evolve its own standards.
Unlike the "speculative fiction" of the 60s,
slipstream is not an internal attempt to reform SF in
the direction of "literature." Many slipstream
authors, especially the most prominent ones, know or
care little or nothing about SF. Some few are "SF
authors" by default, and must struggle to survive in a
genre which militates against the peculiar virtues of
their own writing.
I wish slipstream well. I wish it was an
acknowledged genre and a workable category, because
then it could offer some helpful, brisk competition to
SF, and force "Science Fiction" to redefine and
revitalize its own principles.
But any true discussion of slipstream's genre
principles is moot, until it becomes a category as
well. For slipstream to develop and nourish, it must
become openly and easily available to its own
committed readership, in the same way that SF is
today. This problem I willingly leave to some
inventive bookseller, who is openminded enough to
restructure the rackspace and give these oppressed
books a breath of freedom.
THE SLIPSTREAM LIST
ACKER, KATHY - Empire of the Senseless
ACKROYD, PETER - Hawksmoor; Chatterton
ALDISS, BRIAN - Life in the West
ALLENDE, ISABEL - Of Love and Shadows; House of Spirits
AMIS, KINGSLEY - The Alienation; The Green Man
AMIS, MARTIN - Other People; Einstein's Monsters
APPLE, MAX - Zap; The Oranging of America
ATWOOD, MARGARET - The Handmaids Tale
AUSTER, PAUL - City of Glass; In the Country of Last Things
BALLARD, J. G. - Day of Creation; Empire of the Sun
BANKS, IAIN - The Wasp Factory; The Bridge
BANVILLE, JOHN - Kepler; Dr. Copernicus
BARNES, JULIAN - Staring at the Sun
BARTH, JOHN - Giles Goat-Boy; Chimera
BARTHELME, DONALD - The Dead Father
BATCHELOR, JOHN CALVIN - Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica
BELL, MADISON SMARTT - Waiting for the End of the World
BERGER, THOMAS - Arthur Rex
BONTLY, THOMAS - Celestial Chess
BOYLE, T. CORAGHESSAN - Worlds End; Water Music
BRANDAO, IGNACIO - And Still the Earth
BURROUGHS, WILLIAM - Place of Dead Roads; Naked Lunch; Soft Machine; etc.
CARROLL, JONATHAN - Bones of the Moon; Land of Laughs
CARTER, ANGELA - Nights at the Circus; Heroes and Villains
CARY, PETER - Illywhacker; Oscar and Lucinda
CHESBRO, GEORGE M. - An Affair of Sorcerers
COETZEE, J. M. - Life and rimes of Michael K.
COOVER, ROBERT - The Public Burning; Pricksongs & Descants
CRACE, JIM - Continent
CROWLEY, JOHN - Little Big; Aegypt
DAVENPORT, GUY - Da Vincis Bicycle; The Jules Verne Steam Balloon
DISCH, THOMAS M. - On Wings of Song
DODGE, JIM - Not Fade Away
DURRELL, LAWRENCE - Tunc; Nunquam
ELY, DAVID - Seconds
ERICKSON, STEVE - Days Between Stations; Rubicon Beach
FEDERMAN, RAYMOND - The Twofold Variations
FOWLES, JOHN - A Maggot
FRANZEN, JONATHAN - The Twenty-Seventh City
FRISCH, MAX - Homo Faber; Man in the Holocene
FUENTES, CARLOS - Terra Nostra
GADDIS, WILLIAM - JR; Carpenters Gothic
GARDNER, JOHN - Grendel; Freddy's Book
GEARY, PATRICIA - Strange Toys; Living in Ether
GOLDMAN, WILLIAM - The Princess Bride; The Color of Light
GRASS, GUNTER - The Tin Drum
GRAY, ALASDAIR - Lanark
GRIMWOOD, KEN - Replay
HARBINSON, W. A. - Genesis; Revelation; Otherworld
HILL, CAROLYN - The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer
HJVRTSBERG, WILLIAM - Gray Matters; Falling Angel
HOBAN, RUSSELL - Riddley Walker
HOYT, RICHARD - The Manna Enzyme
IRWIN, ROBERT - The Arabian Nightmares
ISKANDER, FAZIL - Sandro of Chegam; The Gospel According to Sandro
JOHNSON, DENIS - Fiskadoro
JONES, ROBERT F. - Blood Sport; The Diamond Bogo
KINSELLA, W. P. - Shoeless Joe
KOSTER, R. M. - The Dissertation; Mandragon
KOTZWINKLE, WILLIAM - Elephant Bangs Train; Doctor Rat, Fata Morgana
KRAMER, KATHRYN - A Handbook for Visitors From Outer Space
LANGE, OLIVER - Vandenberg
LEONARD, ELMORE - Touch
LESSING, DORIS - The Four-Gated City; The Fifth Child of Satan
LEVEN, JEREMY - Satan
MAILER, NORMAN - Ancient Evenings
MARINIS, RICK - A Lovely Monster
MARQUEZ, GABRIEL GARCIA - Autumn of the Patriarch; One Hundred
Years of Solitude
MATHEWS, HARRY - The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium
McEWAN, IAN - The Comfort of Strangers; The Child in Time
McMAHON, THOMAS - Loving Little Egypt
MILLAR, MARTIN - Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation
MOONEY, TED - Easy Travel to Other Planets
MOORCOCK, MICHAEL - Laughter of Carthage; Byzantium Endures; Mother London
MOORE, BRIAN - Cold Heaven
MORRELL, DAVID - The Totem
MORRISON, TONI - Beloved; The Song of Solomon
NUNN, KEN - Tapping the Source; Unassigned Territory
PERCY, WALKER - Love in the Ruins; The Thanatos Syndrome
PIERCY, MARGE - Woman on the Edge of Time
PORTIS, CHARLES - Masters of Atlantis
PRIEST, CHRISTOPHER - The Glamour; The Affirmation
PROSE, FRANCINE - Bigfoot Dreams, Marie Laveau
PYNCHON, THOMAS - Gravity's Rainbow; V; The Crying of Lot 49
REED, ISHMAEL - Mumbo Jumbo; The Terrible Twos
RICE, ANNE - The Vampire Lestat; Queen of the Damned
ROBBINS, TOM - Jitterbug Perfume; Another Roadside Attraction
ROTH, PHILIP - The Counterlife
RUSHDIE, SALMON - Midnight's Children; Grimus; The Satanic Verses
SAINT, H. F. - Memoirs of an Invisible Man
SCHOLZ, CARTER & HARCOURT GLENN - Palimpsests
SHEPARD, LUCIUS - Life During Wartime
SIDDONS, ANNE RIVERS - The House Next Door
SPARK, MURIEL - The Hothouse by the East River
SPENCER, SCOTT - Last Night at the Brain Thieves Ball
SUKENICK, RONALD - Up; Down; Out
SUSKIND, PATRICK - Perfume
THEROUX, PAUL - O-Zone
THOMAS, D. M. - The White Hotel
THOMPSON, JOYCE - The Blue Chair; Conscience Place
THOMSON, RUPERT - Dreams of Leaving
THORNBERG, NEWTON - Valhalla
THORNTON, LAWRENCE - Imagining Argentina
UPDIKE, JOHN - Witches of Eastwick; Rogers Version
VLIET, R. G. - Scorpio Rising
VOLLMAN, WILLIAM T. - You Bright and Risen Angels
VONNEGUT, KURT - Galapagos; Slaughterhouse-Five
WALLACE, DAVID FOSTER - The Broom of the System
WEBB, DON - Uncle Ovid's Exercise Book
WHITTEMORE, EDWARD - Nile Shadows; Jerusalem Poker; Sinai Tapestry
WILLARD, NANCY - Things Invisible to See
WOMACK, JACK - Ambient; Terraplane
WOOD, BARI - The Killing Gift
WRIGHT, STEPHEN - M31: A Family Romance
Literary Freeware: Not For Commercial Use
From SCIENCE FICTION EYE #6
CATSCAN 6 "Shinkansen"
Let me tell you what the 21st Century feels like.
Imagine yourself at an international conference of industrial designers in
Nagoya, Japan. You're not an industrial designer yourself, and you're not
quite sure what you're doing there, but presumably some wealthy civic-
minded group of Nagoyans thought you might have entertainment value, so
they flew you in. You're in a cavernous laser-lit auditorium with 3,000
assorted Japanese, Finns, Germans, Americans, Yugoslavs, Italians, et al., all
wearing identical ID badges, except for a trenchant minority, who have
scribbled "Allons Nagoya" on their badges so that everybody will know
There's a curved foam plug stuck in your ear with a thin gray cord
leading to a black plastic gadget the size of a deck of cards. This is an "ICR-
6000 Conference Receiver." It's a five-channel short-range radio, with a
blurry typed serial number stuck to it with a strip of Scotch Tape. You got
the receiver from a table manned by polite young hostesses, who were
passing out vast heaps of these items, like party favors. Of the five channels
offered, Number 1 is Japanese and Number 2 is, purportedly, English. You get
the strong impression that the French would have preferred Number 3 to be
French, but the Conference offers only two "official languages" and channels
3, 4 and 5 have static.
Muted festivities begin, in the best of taste. First a brief Kabuki skit is
offered, by two expatriate Canadians, dressed in traditional robes. Ardent
students of the Kabuki form, the two Canadians execute ritual moves of
exacting precision, accompanied by bizarre and highly stylized verbal
bellowing. They are, however, speaking not Japanese but English. After some
confusion you realize that this piece, "The Inherited Cramp," is meant to be a
comic performance. Weak culture-shocked chuckles arise here and there
from the more adventurous members of the audience. Toward the end you
feel that you might get used to this kind of thing if you saw enough of it.
The performance ends to the warm applause of general relief. Assorted
bigwigs take the stage: a master of ceremonies, the keynote speaker, the
Mayor of Nagoya, the Speaker of the City Council, the Governor of the
Prefecture. And then, accompanied by a silverhaired retainer of impressive
stolid dignity, comes the Crown Prince of Japan.
Opening ceremonies of this kind are among the many obligations of this
patient and graceful young aristocrat. The Crown Prince wears a truly
immaculate suit which, at an impolite guess, probably costs as much as a
small car. As a political entity, this symbolic personage is surrounded by
twin bureaucracies of publicity and security. The security is not immediately
evident. Only later will you discover that the entire building has been
carefully sealed by unobtrusive teams of police. On another day, you will
witness the passage of the Prince's motorcade, his spotless armored black
limousine sporting the national flag, accompanied by three other limos of
courtier-bodyguards, two large squads of motorcycle policemen, half-a-
dozen police black-and-whites, and a chuttering surveillance helicopter. As
you stand gawking on the sidewalk you will be questioned briefly, in a
friendly fashion, by a plainclothes policeman who eyes the suspicious bag
you carry with a professional interest.
At the moment, however, you are listening to the speeches of the Nagoya
politicians. The Prince, his posture impeccable, is also listening, or at
least pretending it with a perfect replica of attention. You listen to the
hesitant English on Channel Two with growing amazement. Never have you heard
political speeches of such utter and consummate vacuity. They consist
entirely of benevolent cliche'. Not a ripple of partisan fervor, not a hint of
ideological intent, colors the translated oratory. Even the most vapid
American, or even Russian, politician cannot resist a dig at a rival, or an in-
crowd reference to some partisan bit of political-correctness -- but this is a
ritual of a different order. It dawns on you that nothing will be said. These
political worthies, sponsors and financiers of the event, are there to color
the air with harmless verbal perfume. "You're here, we're here" -- everything
that actually needs to be said has already been communicated nonverbally.
The Prince rises to deliver a brief invocation of even more elevated and
poetic meaninglessness. As he steps to the podium, a torrent of flashbulbs
drenches the stage in stinging electrical white. The Prince, surely blinded,
studies a line of his text. He lifts his chin, recites it, and is blinded
again by the flashes. He looks back to the speech, recites a paragraph in a
firm voice with his head lowered, then looks up again, stoically. Again that
staccato blast of glare. It dawns on you that this is the daily nature of this
young gentleman's existence. He dwells within a triple bell-jar of
hypermediated publicity, aristocratic decorum, and paramilitary paranoia. You
reflect with a mingled respect and pity on the numerous rare personages
around the planet who share his unenviable predicament. Later you will be
offered a chance to meet the Prince in a formal reception line, and will go
out of your way to spare him the minor burden of your presence. It seems the
least you can do.
Back in your hotel room, the vapid and low-key Japanese TV is
interrupted by news of a severe California earthquake. By morning swarms
of well-equipped Japanese media journalists will be doing stand-ups before
cracked bridges in San Furansisko and Okran. Distressed Californian natives
are interviewed with an unmistakable human warmth and sympathy.
Japanese banks offer relief money. Medical supplies are flown in. No
particular big deal is made of these acts of charitable solidarity. It's an
earthquake; it's what one does.
You leave Nagoya and take the Shinkansen bullet-train back to Tokyo. It's
a very nice train, the Shinkansen, but it's not from Mars or anything. There's
been a lot of press about the Shinkansen, but it looks harmless enough,
rather quaint actually, somewhat Art Deco with lots of brushed aircraft
aluminum and stereo ads featuring American popstars. It's very clean, but
like all trains it gets too cold inside and then it gets too hot. You've heard
that bullet-trains can do 200 miles an hour but there's no way the thing tops
130 or so, while you're aboard it. You drink a ten percent carbonated peach
soda and listen to your Walkman. The people inside this purported technical
marvel demonstrate the absolute indifference of long habit.
A friend meets you in Tokyo. You board a commuter subway at rush-
hour. It is like an extremely crowded rolling elevator. Everyone hangs limply
from straps with inert expressions suggesting deep meditation or light
hypnosis. Impetus rolls through the tightly-packed bodies like currents
through a thick stand of kelp. It occurs to you that this is the first time
you have been in Japan without attracting vaguely curious glances as a
foreigner. Nobody is looking at anybody. Were any physical threat or commotion
offered on this subway, the situation would swiftly be nightmarish. But since
nobody stirs, the experience is actually oddly soothing.
You have a dinner appointment with a Japanese rock band. You meet in a
restaurant in a section of Tokyo somewhat akin to, say, Greenwich Village in
1955. Its narrow, crooked streets are full of students, courting couples,
coffee-shops. There's a bit of graffiti here and there -- not the lashing,
crazed graffiti of American urban areas, but enough to convey a certain
heightened sense of dissidence.
You and your friend meet the two rock stars, their A&R man, and their
manager. The manager drifts off when he realizes that there is no threat of
any actual business transpiring. You're just a fan. With some translation help
from your friend you eagerly question the musicians. You long to know
what's cooking in the Tokyo pop-music scene. It transpires that these
particular rockers listen mostly to electronic European dance music. Their
biggest Japanese hit was a song about Paris sung in English.
One of the rockers asks you if you have ever tried electronic brain
stimulation. No, you say -- have you? Yes, but it wasn't much good, really.
You recall that, except for occasional problems with junior yakuza bikers
high on cheap Korean speed, Japan hasn't much of a "drug-problem." Everyone
sighs wistfully and lights more cigarettes.
The restaurant you're in offers an indeterminate nonethnic globalized
cuisine whose remote ancestry may have been French. The table is laid like,
say, London in 1880, with butterballs in crystal glass dishes, filigreed forks
as heavy as lead, fish-knives, and arcanely folded cloth napkins. You ask the
musicians if this restaurant is one of their favorite dives. Actually, no.
It's 'way too expensive. Eating in posh restaurants is one of those things
that one just doesn't do much of in Japan, like buying gift melons or getting
one's suit pressed. A simple ham and egg breakfast can cost thirty bucks
easy -- thirty-five with orange juice. Sane people eat noodles for breakfast
for about a buck and a half.
Wanting to press this queer situation to the limit, you order the squid. It
arrives and it's pretty good. In fact, the squid is great. Munching a tentacle
in wine-sauce you suddenly realize that you are having a *really good time*.
Having dinner with a Japanese rock band in Tokyo is, by any objective
standard, just about the coolest thing you've ever done!
The 21st Century is here all around you, it's happening, and it's craziness,
but it's not bad craziness, it's an *adventure*. It's a total gas. You are
seized by a fierce sense of existential delight.
Everybody grins. And the A&R man picks up the tab.
Shinkansen Part Two:
The Increasingly Unstrange Case of Lafcadio Hearn and Rick Kennedy
I was in Japan twice in 1989 -- two weeks in all. Big deal. This jaunting
hardly makes me an "Old Japan Hand."
But I really wanted to mimic one in this installment of CATSCAN. So I
strongly considered beginning with the traditional Westerner's declaration
that I Understand Nothing About Japan or the Japanese: boy are they ever
mystical, spiritual and inscrutable; why I've been a-livin' here nigh twenty
year with my Japanese wife, Japanese job, Japanese kids and I'm just now a-
scratchin' the surface of the baffling Yamato kokutai . . .
These ritual declarations by career Nipponologists date 'way back to the
archetypal Old Japan Hand, Lafcadio Hearn (aka Yakumo Koizumi) 1850-
1904. Not coincidentally, this kind of rhetoric is very useful in making
*yourself* seem impressively mystic, spiritual and inscrutable. A facade of
inscrutable mysticism is especially handy if you're anxious to hide certain
truths about yourself. Lafcadio Hearn, for instance -- I love this guy Hearn,
I've been his devotee for years, and could go on about him all day -- Hearn
was your basic congenital SF saint-perv, but in a nineteenth century
environment. Hearn was, in brief, a rootless oddball with severe personality
problems and a pronounced gloating taste for the horrific and bizarre. Born
of a misalliance between a British officer and a young Greek girl, Hearn
passed a classically miserable childhood, until fleeing to America at
nineteen. As a free-lance journalist and part-time translator, penniless,
shabby, declasse' and half-blind, Hearn knocked around all over for years --
Cincinnati, New Orleans, the Caribbean -- until ending up in Japan in 1890.
There Hearn made the gratifying discovery that the Japanese could not
tell that he was a weirdo. At home Hearn was alien; in Japan, he was merely
foreign. The Meiji-era Japanese respectfully regarded the junketing Hearn as
an influential man of letters, an intellectual, a poet and philosopher, and
they gave him a University position teaching literature to the rising new
generation. Hearn (a man of very genuine talent, treated decently for
perhaps the first time in his life) responded by becoming one of Japan's first
and foremost Western popularizers, emitting reams about Shintoism and
ghosts and soul-transference and the ineffableness of everythinghood.
Hearn had always been pretty big on ineffableness, but Japan seemed to
fertilize the guy's eccentricities, and he became one of the truly great
fantasy writers of all time. If you don't know Hearn's work, you owe it to
yourself to discover it: _Kokoro_, _Gleanings in Buddha-Fields_, _Shadowings_,
_Kwaidan_, _Kotto_, all marvelous books (thoughtfully kept in print by
Tuttle Books, that paragon of crosscultural publishers). Hearn's dark
fantasies rival Dunsany and Lovecraft in their intense, brooding
idiosyncrasy; and as a bonus, his journalistic work contains long sustained
passages of close observation and penetrating insight, as well as charming
What did the Japanese make of all this? Well, after many years, the
authorities finally caught on and fired Hearn -- and they had one of the first
Tokyo University riots on their hands. Hearn was impossible to deal with, he
was a paranoiac with a mean streak a mile wide, but his students genuinely
loved the guy. Hearn really spoke to that generation -- the generation of
Japanese youth who found themselves in universities, with their minds
permanently and painfully expanded with queer foreign ideas. Here was one
sensei who truly knew their paradoxical sorrows, and shared them. Hearn's
appeal to the new Japan was powerful, for he was simultaneously
ultramodern and sentimentally antiquarian -- an exotic patriot -- a Western
Orientalist -- a scientific mystic.
Lafcadio Hearn loved Japan. He married a Japanese woman, had Japanese
children, took a Japanese name, and was one of the bare handful of
foreigners ever granted Japanese citizenship. And yet he was always a loner,
a congenital outsider, viewing everyone around him through ever-thickening
lenses of his peculiar personal philosophy. Paradoxically, I believe that
Lafcadio Hearn chose to stay in Japan because Japan was the place that
allowed him to become most himself. He reached some very personal
But now let's compare the nineteenth-century Hearn to a contemporary
"Old Japan Hand," Rick Kennedy, author of _Home, Sweet Tokyo_ (published,
rather tellingly, by Kodansha Books of Tokyo and New York). Rick Kennedy,
an employee of the globe-spanning Sony Corporation, writes a weekly
column for the English-language "Japan Times." _Home, Sweet Tokyo_ is a
collection of Kennedy's columns. The apt subtitle is "Life in a Weird and
Compared to Hearn, Kennedy has very little in the way of philosophical
spine. This is a magpie collection. Kennedy has an eye for the peculiar that
rivals Hearn's, but no taste at all for the dark and horrific. _Home, Sweet
Tokyo_ is in fact "sweet" and rather cute, with all the boisterous charm of
the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. There are satires, parodies, in-jokes,
vignettes of daily life in the great metropolis.
And there are interviews, profiles, of the people of Tokyo. Folks of all
sorts: professional pachinko-players, the white-gloved guys who scrub the
subway trains, the dignified chefs of top Tokyo restaurants, office-girls
gamely searching for a rung on a very male corporate ladder.
Hearn did a similar sort of exploratory prying in Japan's nooks and
byways, but the flavor of his reportage is entirely different. Hearn's
Japanese subjects tend to be elfin, evasive personages, alluding to grave
personal tragedies with a flicker of an eyelid and a few stoic verses. Hearn's
subjects are not fully individuated men and women, but incarnated
principles, abstractions, a source for social insights that can degenerate at
a careless touch into racist or jingoistic cliche'.
Kennedy, in stark contrast, treats people as people, hail fellows well met.
As a consequence, his Japan comes across rather like a very crowded but
well-heeled Kiwanis Club. He lacks a morbid interest in life's extremities;
but at least he never lashes his subjects to the Procrustean bed of stereotype.
He looks clear-eyed at postmodern Japan in all its individual variety:
eldritch rural grannies and megalopolitan two-year-olds, uptight accountants
and purple-haired metal kids, Shinto antiquarians and red-hot techno-
visionaries, rarefied literati and dumb-ass TV stars.
This is a Japan which can no longer be tidily filed away under "I" for
"Inscrutable" by a WestCiv Establishment with the self-appointed task of
ordering the world. Japan today is an intensely globalized society with sky-
high literacy, very low crime, excellent life-expectancy, tremendous fashion-
sense, and a staggering amount of the electronic substance we used to call
cash. After centuries of horrific vicissitudes and heartbreaking personal
sacrifice, the Japanese are fat, rich, turbo-charged, and ready to party down.
They are jazzing into the 21st-Century global limelight in their velcro'd
sneakers, their jeans stuffed with spare film-packs and gold-plated VISA
cards. Rick Kennedy's book makes it absolutely clear why the Japanese *fully
deserve* to do this, and why all those Japan-bashing sourpuss spoilsports
ought to lighten up and give 'em room to shine.
Like Hearn, Kennedy has a Japanese wife, Japanese children, an intense
commitment to his adopted home. What has happened in the meantime (i.e.,
during the 20th century) is a slow process of "un-strange-ing," of
deromanticism, de-exoticism, a change from watery dream-colors to the
sharp gleam of flashbulbs and neon. It is a process that science fiction
people, as romantics, are likely to regard with deep ambiguity. We are much
cozier with the Hearns of the world than the brisk and workaday Kennedys.
And yet I must return to Hearn's Paradox: that his attempt to "woo the
Muse of the Odd," as he put it, was not a true marriage, but a search for self-
realization. Kennedy, unlike Hearn, can embrace Otherness without seeking
moral lessons and mystic archetypes. Kennedy, unlike Hearn, can imagine
himself Japanese. He goes farther yet, for Kennedy knows that if he *were*
Japanese, he would not live in Tokyo. A Japanese Rick Kennedy, he says,
would head at once for Los Angeles, that weird and wonderful city, with its
exotic Yankee luxuries of crowd-free tennis courts and private swimming
And this, it seems to me, is a very worthy insight. This is a true,
postmodern, global cosmopolitanism, rather than Hearn's romantic quest for
Asian grails and unicorns. Cosmopolitanism offers little in the way of spine-
chilling visionary transcendence. Instead, the glamour of Otherness is
internalized, made part of the fabric of daily life. To the global
cosmopolite -- an eternal expatriate, no matter what his place of birth --
there are no certainties, no mystic revelations; there are only fluctuating
standards of comparison. The sense-of-wonder is not confined to some distant
realm of Zen or Faerie, safely idealized and outside oneself; instead,
*normality itself* seems more or less disjointed and disquieting, itchy with
a numinous glow of the surreal, "weird and wonderful," as Kennedy says --
with the advantage/drawback that this feeling *never goes away*.
I would urge on every science fiction person the rich experience of
reading Lafcadio Hearn. I share his fascination with thee culture of
historical Japan, the world before the black ships; like Hearn I can mourn its
loss. But it's dead, even if its relics are tended in museums with a nervous
care. SF people need to dote a little less on the long-ago and far-away, and
pay more robust attention to the living: to the elaborate weirdness at work
in our own time. Writers of serious science fiction need to plunge out there
into the bustle and do some basic legwork and come up with some futures people
can believe in. We need to address a new audience: not just the usual SF
faithful, but the real no-kidding folks out there, the global populace, who
can see an old world order disintegrating every time they turn on the TV, but
have no idea what to make of it, what to think about it, what to do. We need
to go beyond using exotic foreigners as templates for our own fantasies; we
need to find the common ground of common global issues. At the very first and
least, we need to demand more translation-work within our own genre. We
need to leap the Berlin Walls of national marketing and publishing. We need
to get in touch.
The walls are going down all over the world, and soon we'll all be in each
other's laps. Japan's just one country, it's not the be-all and end-all. But
Japan is very crowded, with strictly limited resources; because of that, Japan
today is a dry run under 21st-century conditions. It's not the only such
model; Lebanon and El Salvador are small and crowded too. These places
model possible futures; they are choices we can make. It's all the choice
between a sake bash in the Tokyo Disneyland and a hostage-seizure in a
bombed-out embassy. We must learn from these successes and mistakes;
learn about other people, learn from other people, learn to *be* other people.
We can do it. It's not all that hard. It's fun, even. Everybody can help. It
doesn't take transcendent effort or coaching by cultural pundits. Do one six-
billionth of the work of global understanding, and you have every right to
feel proud of yourself.
The subworld of SF has the advantage of (limited) international appeal,
and can do good work here. If we don't do something, some earnest attempt
to understand and explicate and shape the future -- the *real* future,
everybody's future, starting *now* -- then in all honesty we should abandon
"Science Fiction" as a genre. We shouldn't keep the rags and tatters of the
thing, while abandoning its birthright and its best native claim to
intellectual legitimacy. There are many worthy ways to write fiction, and
escapist genres aplenty for people who want to write amusing nonsense; but
this genre ought to stand for something.
SF can rise to this challenge. It ain't so tough. SF has risen from the
humblest of origins to beat worse odds in the past. We may be crazy but we
ain't stupid. It's a little-known fact (in which I take intense satisfaction)
that there are as many subscribers to *SF Eye* in Japan as there are in the US
and Canada. It's a step. I hope to see us take many more. Let's blunder on out
there, let's take big risks and make real mistakes, let's utter prophecies and
make public fools of ourselves; we're science fiction writers, that's our
goddamn job. At least we can plead the limpid purity of our intentions.
Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu.
CATSCAN 7 "My Rihla"
Abu 'Abdallah ibn Battuta, gentleman and
scholar, late of Tangier, Morocco, has been dead for
six hundred and thirty years. To be remembered under
such circumstances is a feat to compel respect.
Ibn Battuta is known today because he happened
to write a book -- or rather, he dictated one, in his
retirement, to a Granadian scribe -- called _A Gift to
the Observers, Concerning the Curiosities of Cities
and the Marvels Encountered in Travels_. It's more
often known as "The Rihla of Ibn Battuta," rihla being
an Arabic literary term denoting a pious work
concerned with holy pilgrimage and foreign travel.
Sometimes known as "the Marco Polo of Islam,"
Ibn Battuta claimed to have traveled some seventy
thousand miles during the years 1325-1354, visiting
China, Arabia, India, Ghana, Constantinople, the
Maldive Islands, Indonesia, Anatolia, Persia, Iraq,
Sicily, Zanzibar . . . on foot, mind you, or in camel
caravans, or in flimsy medieval Arab dhows, sailing
the monsoon trade winds.
Ibn Battuta travelled for the sake of knowledge
and spiritual advancement, to meet holy men, and to
listen to the wisdom of kings, emirs, and atabegs. On
occasion, he worked as a judge or a courtier, but
mostly he dealt in information -- the gossip of the
road, tales of his travels, second-hand homilies
garnered from famous Sufi mystics. He covered a great
deal of territory, but mere exploration was not the
source of his pride.
Mere distance mattered little to Ibn Battuta -- in
any case, he had a rather foggy notion of geography.
But his Moslem universe was cosmopolitan to an extent
unrivalled 'till the modern era. Every pious Moslem,
from China to Chad, was expected to make the holy
pilgrimage to Mecca -- and they did so, in vast hordes.
It was a world on the move. In his twenty-year
peregrinations. Ibn Battuta met the same people again
and again. An Arab merchant, for instance, selling
silk in Qanjanfu, China, whose brother sold tangerines
in Fez (or fezzes in Tangier, presumably, when he got
the chance). "How far apart they are," Ibn Battuta
commented mildly. It was not remarkable.
Travel was hazardous, and, of course, very slow.
But the trade routes were open, the caravanserais --
giant government-supported hotels, sometimes capable
of housing thousands -- were doing a brisk trade from
Cairo to Delhi to Samarkand. The locals were generally
friendly, and respectful of learned men -- sometimes, so
delighted to see foreigners that they fell upon them
with sobs of delight and fought for the prestige of
Professor Ross Dunn's narrative of _The
Adventures of Ibn Battuta_ made excellent, and perhaps
weirdly apt, reading last April, as I was traveling
some thirty thousand feet above the North Atlantic in
the boozy tin-can comfort of a KLM 747.
"God made the world, but the Dutch made
Holland." This gross impiety would have shocked the
sufi turban off the valorous Ibn Battuta, but we live
today, to paraphrase Greg Bear, in a world of things
so monstrous that they have gone past sin and become
necessity. Large and prosperous sections of the
Netherlands exist well below sea level. God forbid the
rest of us should have to learn to copy this trick,
but when I read the greenhouse-warming statistics I
get a shuddery precognitive notion of myself as an
elderly civil-defense draftee, heaving sandbags at the
angry rising foam . . .
That's not a problem for the Dutch at the
moment. They do, however, currently find themselves
confronting another rising tide. "The manure surplus."
The Dutch are setting up a large government agro-
bureaucracy to monitor, transport, and recycle, er,
well, cowshit. They're very big on cheese, the Dutch,
but every time you slice yourself a tasty yellow wedge
of Gouda, there is somewhere, by definition, a
steaming heap of manure. A completely natural
substance, manure; nitrogen, carbon and phosphorous,
the very stuff of life -- unless *there's too much of it
in one place at the same time*, when it becomes a
poisonous stinking burden. What goes around, comes
around -- an ecological truism as painful as
constipation. We can speculate today about our own six
hundred year legacy: not the airy palaces of the
Moorish Alhambra, I'm afraid, or the graceful spires
of the Taj Mahal, but billions of plastic-wrapped
disposable diapers, mashed into shallow graves . . .
So I'm practicing my Arab calligraphy in my
scholarly cell at the Austin madrassa, when a phone
call comes from The Hague. Over the stellar hiss of
satellite transmission, somebody wants me and my
collaborator to talk about cyberspace, artificial
reality, and fractals. Fair enough. A month later I'm
sipping Coke and puffing Dunhills in tourist class,
with a bag full of computer videotapes crammed in the
overhead bin, outdistancing Ibn Battuta with no effort
more strenuous than switching batteries in a Walkman.
Aboard the plane, I strike up a discussion with
a young Italian woman -- half-Italian, maybe, as her
father is an Iranian emigre'. She calls herself a
"Green," though her politics seem rather strange -- she
sympathizes openly with the persecuted and
misunderstood white Afrikaaners, for instance, and she
insists that the Ayatollah Khomeini was an agent of
British Intelligence. I have a hard time following
these arguments, but when it comes to the relations of
the US and Europe, her sentiments are clear enough.
"After '92, we're going to kick your ass!" she tells
Unheard of. Europeans used to marvel humbly over
our astonishing American highway system and the fact
that our phones work (or used to). That particular
load of manure is now history. The Europeans are
happening now, and they know it. 1989 was a pivotal
year for them, maybe the most momentous popular
upheaval since 1789.
This century has not been a good one for Europe.
Since 1914, the European body-politic has been
wheezing along on one lung, a mass of fresh scar
tissue when it wasn't hemorrhaging blood and bile. But
this century, "The American Century," as we used to
call it in 1920 when there was a lot of it still
before us, is almost gone now. A lot can happen in a
century. Dynasties rise and fall. Philosophies
flourish and crumble. Cities rise, thrive, and are
sacked by Mongols and turned to dust and ghosts.
But in Europe today, the caravanserais are open.
National borders in Europe, which provoked the brutal
slaughter of entire generations in '14 and '44, have
faded to mere tissues, vaporous films, riddled
through-and-through with sturdy money-lined conduits
of trade, tourism, telecommunications. Soon the twelve
nations of the European Community will have one
passport, perhaps one currency. They look to the
future today with an optimism they have not had since
"the lamps went out all over Europe" in World War One.
(Except perhaps for one country, which still remains
mired in the Cold War and a stubborn official
provincialism: Britain. The Dutch feel sorry for
Britain: declining, dirty, brutalized, violent and
full of homeless -- far too much, in short, like their
too-close friends, the Americans.)
My Italian acquaintance introduces me to her
mother, who is a passionate devotee of Shirley
MacLaine. Mom wears an Iranian gold bracelet the size
of rappers' jewelry, a diamond-studded knuckleduster.
Her husband, the Iranian emigre', is an architect. His
family was close to the Shah, and is now a scattered
Moslem hejira in a dozen Western capitals, plotting
vengeance in desultory fashion, like so many White
Russians in 1929. They may have a long wait. Father
looks rather tired.
Off the plane, jet-lagged to hell and gone, in
Amsterdam. A volunteer for the Image and Sound
Festival drives me to The Hague in a very small car on
a very large autobahn. Windmills here and there. Days
later I inspect a windmill closely, a multistory
preindustrial power-station of sailwork, levers, gears
and thatch. An incarnation of a late-medieval tech
that America simply never possessed. A somehow
monstrous presence fit to scare the hauberk off Don
The Hague is a nineteenth-century government
town of close-packed four-story townhouses. The
pavements, built on sand, ripple and warp like the
sagging crust of an old pie. Advertisements in the
bus-stops brutally abolish any air of the antique,
though: "Mag ik u iets persoonlijks faxen? De Personal
Fax van Canon. CANON -- Meeten al een Voorsprong!" Dutch
is close enough to English to nag at the ear, but it's
landmined with liquid vowels and odd gutturals. The
streets -- "straats" -- are awash with aging Euro baby-
boomers, leavened with a Dutch-born populace of
imperial emigres -- Dutch-Indonesian, Dutch-Surinamese,
On Wednesday, Moluccan separatists bombarded the
Indonesian embassy, near my hotel, with Molotov
cocktails. A dozen zealots were injured. Nobody
outside Holland and Indonesia know much about the
Moluccans, an Asian Moslem ethnic group with a
nationalistic grievance. They'd love to raise hell at
home in Indonesia, but when they do they're shot out
of hand by fascist police with teeth like Dobermans,
so they raise a stink in the old Mother Country
instead, despite the fact that Holland can do almost
nothing for them. Europe is full of exiles -- and full
of its own micro-nations: the Flemish, the Magyars,
Gypsies, Corsicans and Bretons, Irish who remember
Cromwell, Jews who remember Nebuchadnezzar, Basques
who remember Hannibal, all like yesterday.
Ibn Battuta's world was similarly polyglot, and
divided into "nations," too, run by mamelukes and
moghuls who doted on tossing dissidents to packs of
ravenous man-eating dogs. Muhammed Tughlug, the
radiant Sultan of Delhi, punished rebels (very loosely
defined) by having them cut in half, skinned alive,
and/or tossed aloft by trained elephants with swords
strapped to their tusks. It was bad news to cross
these worthies, and yet their borders meant little,
and ethnicity even less. A believer was a citizen
anywhere in Islam, his loyalties devoted to
Civilization -- the sacred law of the Prophet -- and then
to his native city. Ibn Battuta was not a "Moroccan"
countryman or a "Berber" ethnic, but first a learned
Islamic scholar, and second a man of Tangier.
It may soon be much the same in Europe -- a vague
attachment to "Western democratic ideals," while one's
sense of patriotism is devoted, not to one's so-called
country, but to Barcelona or Amsterdam, Marseille or
Berlin. (Cities, mind you, with populations every bit
as large as entire nations of the medieval world.) At
this period in history, the aging institution of the
nation-state is being torn from above and below -- below
by ethnic separatists, above by the insistent demands
of multinational commerce and the global environment.
Is there a solution for the micronations --
besides, that is, the dark horrific example of the
"Final Solution?" Maybe. Let the Lithuanians "go" --
give them "freedom" -- but with no local currency, no
local army, no border tariffs or traffic control, no
control over emigration, and with the phones and faxes
open 24 hours a day. What is left? City-level
government, in a loose ecumenicum.
A good trick, if anyone could pull it off. It's
contrary to our recent political traditions, so it
seems far-fetched and dangerous. But it's been done
before. Six hundred years ago, in another world . . .
The fourteenth century, what Barbara Tuchman called _A
In Alanya, a city of medieval Anatolia, Ibn
Battuta had his first introduction to the interesting
organization known as the fityan. He was invited to
dinner by a remarkably shabby man in an odd felt hat.
Ibn Battuta accepted politely, but doubted that the
young fellow had enough money to manage a proper
His interpreter laughed, for the shabby young
man was a powerful sheik of the fityan. "The fityans
were corporations of unmarried young men representing
generally the artisan classes of Anatolian towns . . .
The code of conduct and initiation ceremonies were
founded on a set of standards and values that went by
the name of futuwwa . . . referring in concept to the
Muslim ideal of the `youth' (fata) as the exemplary
expression of the qualities of nobility, honesty,
loyalty and courage. The brothers of the fityan were
expected to lead lives approaching these ideal
qualities, including demonstrations of generous
hospitality to visiting strangers . . . By the
thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, the fityan
associations existed in probably every Anatolian town
of any size. In an era of political upheaval and
fragmentation . . . the fityan were filling a crucial
civic function of helping to maintain urban
cohesiveness . . ."
Far from humble poverty, Ibn Battuta found his
medieval youth-culture hosts occupying a fine downtown
lodge crammed with pricey Byzantine rugs and Iraqi
glassware. The lads were dressed to the nines in long
cloaks, boots, knife-decked cummerbunds and snazzy
white bonnets with pointed white peaks two feet high.
"They brought in a great banquet, with fruits and
sweetmeats, after which they began their singing and
dancing." He was "greatly astonished at their
generosity and innate nobility."
No more so, perhaps, than myself and my Canadian
caravan companion when we found ourselves in a
retrofitted nineteenth-century stove factory downtown
in The Hague. Now a filmhouse, it was crammed with
young Dutch media-devotees in the current
multinational fityan get-up of black jeans and funny
haircuts. Their code of conduct was founded in a set
of standards and values that goes by the name of
"cool." Six hundred years from now, the names of Mark
Pauline, Laurie Anderson and Jean Baudrillard may mean
little, but at the moment they are the stuff of a
Sufi-like mystical bond.
We gave them a few names and second-hand
homilies: Mandelbrot, ART-MATRIX, _Amygdala_, Jaron
Lanier, Ryoichiro Debuchi -- with addresses and fax
numbers. We are pagans, of course, and we have video
screens; but basically little happened that would have
surprised the lads of the fityan -- except for the
shocking anomaly that many of us were women.
In his travels through Anatolia, Ibn Battuta
stayed with no less than 25 separate fityans. But
then, he was a professional.
In my time off, I tramped the streets seeking
the curiosities of cities and the marvels encountered
in travels. Would the hashish have surprised Ibn
Battuta? I rather doubt it. You can buy hashish in The
Hague in little plastic bags, for about six bucks a
pop, quite openly. A hole-in-the-wall place called The
Jukebox offers a varied menu: Senegalese marijuana,
Swazie, Columbian, Sensemilla . . . and various global
subspecies of hash: Chocolata, Ketama, Kabul, Sputnik,
Zero-Zero . . . It's a teenage thing, bubblegum.
They're not allowed in bars, Dutch teenagers. They
have to smoke this harmless hashish stuff instead.
They seem rather moody and somber about it, for they
don't kick up their heels, scream, giggle, or frighten
the horses. They just get red-eyed and a bit sluggish,
and listen to old Motown records while sipping orange
soda and playing of all things, backgammon. They huff
hash like monsters and nobody thinks a damn thing of
In the Maldive Islands, Ibn Battuta was
appointed a judge. The lax and easy life of the
tropical Indian seas offended his sense of propriety.
Once he sentenced a thief to have his right hand
severed, a standard punishment by the sacred law, and
several sissy Maldivans in the council hall fainted
dead away at the sight of it. The women were worse
yet. Most Maldivan women, he related, "wear only a
waist-wrapper which covers them from the waist to the
lowest part, but the remainder of their body remains
uncovered. Thus they walk about in the bazaars and
elsewhere. When I was appointed judge there, I strove
to put an end to this practice and commanded the women
to wear clothes; but I could not get it done. I would
not let a woman enter my court to make a plaint unless
her body were covered; beyond this, however, I was
unable to do anything."
Poor fellow. Later in his career Ibn Battuta had
the good luck to accompany a slave-train of six
hundred African women as they were force-marched
across the blistering Sahara. There was a great deal
of money in the slave-trade; its master-traders were
very well-respected. Ibn Battuta owned several slaves
in his career, but he was an unlucky master; they
could not keep up with his restless migrations, and
drowned, or froze, or fell ill, or were sold. He does
not keep count of the number of children he sired, but
there were many, mostly by slave-women.
What atrocities are we committing today, that we
too take in stride?
History lives in the Mauritshuis, shelter to a
horde of Rembrandts and Vermeers. Portraits -- with that
pre-photographic intensity that an image had when it
was one-of-a-kind, likely the only visual record of
the sitter that would ever be made. The portraits are
formalized, flattering, very studied, and they lie a
lot. The children of the rich pick garlands of flowers
in unlikely getups of velvet and chiffon, expensive
fabrics that a grass-stain would ruin forever. This
kind of portraiture is a dead visual language now, and
when the language no longer works, the lies become
evident, like someone else's old propaganda.
It was a rich and earthy life. Leather, wood,
wool, bloody still-life heaps of slaughtered game. A
woman in satin rides side-saddle with a boar-spear in
one dainty gauntlet. Huntsmen let fly with flintlock
muskets at a foam-snorting pig. The sky has never
known an airplane; these are clouds that have never
been seen from above, fleecy and untainted by smog.
But there is honesty, too. Vermeer's famous Girl
in a Blue Turban is not posed, but caught in an
instant in the mind's eye. She is plainly dressed, and
her sweet frail face strikes the viewer in a sudden
rush, the very opposite of all those formal images of
Dutch aristos with unearned power and too much
Here are Rembrandt's self-portraits -- a big-nosed
kid of twenty-two or so, striking a pose in fake-
looking armor, the detail excellent, but perhaps a bit
forced. Transmuted by time and experience, he becomes
a big-nosed saggy-eyed veteran, a gold pendant in one
earlobe. Less youth -- but more gold. And a lightening-
quick brushwork that catches the play of light with an
almost frightening ease.
Flattery was their stock in trade. They knew it
was a shuck, a stunt, a trick. Ever notice how good
artists can make each other look? With their palettes
hooked over their thumbs they resemble philosopher-
kings. The big money was in flattery, but they were
restless. Here and there real-life boils out in a
rush. J. V. D. Heyde (1637-1712) paints the Jesuit
Church of Dusseldorf. A couple of black-clad Jesuits
tramp the street talking, very likely up to no good. A
beggar-woman nurses a baby, with an older kid taking
alms in the gutter. Who is the father? Ibn Battuta?
Some working-stiff and his wife push a monster
wheelbarrow up the hill, putting their backs into it.
Dogs piss and tussle, and loungers bowl ninepins in
the public square.
F. van Mieris (1635-1681) clearly spent a lot of
time in bars. Here, taken from low-life, is a wasted
blonde barmaid in a white dress, pouring wine for a
redheaded captain-at-arms. In the doorway, a red dog
fucks a white bitch, a symbol as stone-obvious as
being hit in the head with a bung-starter.
A block away from the Mauritshuis is a shopping
district, the streets bent and skinny and pre-
automotive, an open-air mall. MEGA WORLD
COMPUTERWINKELS, reads the sign outside the software
shop. Soon all Europe will be mega world
computerwinkels, cool nets of data, a cybernetic
Mecca. Our Mecca will be electronic, and you'll be a
nobody 'till you've made that sacred pilgrimage.
We look to the future. Extrapolation is
powerful, but so is analogy, and history's lessons
must be repeated helplessly, until they are seen and
understood and deliberately broken. In 54 Javastraat,
the Ambassade van Iran has telecameras trained on its
entrances. A wounded Islam is alive and convulsing in
65 Zeestraat contains the Panorama Mesdag, the
nineteenth century's answer to cyberspace. Tricks of
light are harnessed to present a vast expanse of
intricately painted, cunningly curved canvas, 360
degrees in the round. It presents, to the stunned eye,
the seaside resort of Scheveningen, 1881 A.D. You
stand on the center on a round wooden platform, a kind
of faux-beachhouse, fenced in by railings; at your
feet stretches an expanse of 100% real sand, studded
with torn nets, rusting anchors, washed-up wooden
shoes, fading cunningly into the canvas. This must
surely be Reality -- there's trash in it, it has to be
real. The Panorama's false horizon will not sit still
for the eye, warping in and out like a mescaline trip.
Coal smoke hangs black and static from a dozen painted
stacks, the bold ancestry of our current crimes
against the atmosphere.
There used to be dozens of these monster
Panoramas, in Paris, Hamburg, London. The Panorama is
a dead medium, as dead as the stereograph, whose
ungainly eye-gripping tin hood is now reborn as the
head-wrapping Sony Watchmans of Jaron Lanier's Virtual
It all returns. The merchants and pilgrims of
Ibn Battuta's flourishing Islam push their trade-
routes farther, farther. Trade expands, populations
swarm, laws and libraries grow larger and more
refined. At length trade opens to an obscure corner of
Siberia, where a certain species of rodent harbors a
Ibn Battuta witnesses the result, without ever
understanding it. June, 1348: travellers tell him of a
virulent unknown disease raging in Gaza, a thousand
people dying every day. Swellings appear in groin and
neck and armpits, with nausea and delirium. If it
takes to the lungs, the victim spits blood and dies
within hours. In the town of Homs, in Syria, Ibn
Battuta is engulfed by the wave of Black Death. Three
hundred die on the day of his arrival there.
In Damascus, two thousand are dying each day and
the great polyglot metropolis has shuddered to a halt.
The amirs, the sharifs, the judges, and all the
classes of the Moslem people, have assembled in the
Great Mosque to supplicate God. After a night of
prayer, they march out at dawn, barefoot, the Holy
Koran in their hands. And then:
"The entire population of the city joined in the
exodus, male and female, small and large, the Jews
went out with their book of the law and the Christians
with their Gospel, their women and children with them;
the whole concourse of them in tears and humble
supplications, imploring the favor of God through His
Books and His Prophets."
As the pestilence lurches from city to city,
from mosque to caravanserai, the afflicted scatter in
terror, carrying their fleas like pearls throughout
the vast linked network of the civilized world. From
China to the Atlantic coast, Ibn Battuta's world is
one, and therefore terribly vulnerable. The Great Wall
of China is no defense; and Europe's foremost traders,
the cosmopolitan Genoans and Venetians, will ship a
cargo of death throughout the Mediterranean. Paris,
Barcelona, Valencia, Tunis, Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo
and Bordeaux will all suffer equal calamity in the
dreadful spring and summer of 1348. Their scientific
experts, those doctors who survive, will soberly
advise their patients to apply egg yolks to the
buboes, wear magical amulets, and have their sickbeds
strewn with fresh flowers.
Ibn Battuta is now forty-five. Perhaps unnerved
by the plague, he decides to return home to Tangier
after twenty-five years on the road. For a while, the
seasoned traveller outruns the horror, but it soon
catches up with him again. When he reaches Tangier at
last, the Death has come and gone. His father has been
dead for fifteen years. But the plague has killed his
aged mother. He misses her by mere months.
The havoc is unspeakable, beyond imagination.
The Plague will return again in the next generation,
and the next again, emptying cities and annihilating
dynasties. The very landscape will change: irrigation
canals will silt up, grass will grow over the trade-
roads, forests will grow in old villages. It is
Life will, nevertheless, go on. Civilization,
pruned back bloodily and scourged by God Himself,
refuses to collapse. History lurches under the blow,
changes course -- and moves on. A century of horror will
fade, and, unguessed by anyone, a Renaissance beckons. . .
Ibn Battuta will meet a young Muslim poet from
Spain, named Ibn Juzayy. Together they will compose a
formal rihla of his travels. He works from memory -- a
vivid and well-trained memory, for Ibn Battuta, as a
scholar of repute, can recite the entire Koran
unaided, as well as many canons of the sacred law.
Nevertheless, some poetic license will be taken, some
episodes distorted, mis-remembered, or confused, some
outright lies told. The great traveller will be
regarded by many as a charlatan, or as a mere
entertainer, a spinner of fantastic tales.
His Rihla will be little known until the
nineteenth century, when European scholars discover it
with astonishment and wonder.
CATSCAN #9 "Digital Dolphins in the Dance of Biz"
"It's the crystallization of a community!" the organizer exulted. He
was a skinny, manic, handwaving guy, with a glittering eye and a sly toothy
grin. He wore slacks, a zippered shirt of a color not found in nature, and a
two-foot-tall novelty cowboy-hat, of bright purple felt, with a polka-dot
The "community" in question were computer game designers,
swarming in a big roadside hotel in Silicon Valley, for four days in March
1991. There were close to four hundred of them. Time once again for
"Computer Game Developers' Conference." This was the Fifth Annual gig, and
the biggest one yet for "gaming professionals," and the best yet, maybe even
the richest yet -- but, according to what I heard over the wine and cheese, it
was somewhat less weird than the earlier ones. Almost dignified by
contrast, almost professional. Some side-effect of all that "crystallization,"
Five brief years ago, the very first such game-design conference had
been conjoined in Chris Crawford's living room, and with room to spare. Mr.
Crawford was the gentleman in the purple twenty-gallon hat.
I recognized the funny-hat syndrome. Made me feel right at home.
When I first met Damon Knight, at Clarion, this legendary SF critic, editor and
organizer had shown up with a big white bushel-basket beard, half-a-dozen
hollow plastic baseball bats, and great bounding bag full of rubber
superballs, which he proceeded to fling into the hallways and whack with
vim. Damon Knight, as a turbo-weirdo, a veritable ne plus ultra of cracked
genre loon, does not even have to try to pass for normal. And neither does
Chris Crawford. This is pretty much what genuine "power" and "influence"
look like, in a milieu of creative lunatics.
Chris Crawford is founder of the gaming conference, author of three
books and thirteen computer games, and the premier critic, theorist, and
analyst for THE JOURNAL OF COMPUTER GAME DESIGN: "The finest periodical
dedicated to computer game design -- the longest-running periodical
dedicated to computer game design -- the ONLY periodical dedicated to
computer game design!"
Computer gaming, like science fiction, has old roots; they even share a
common ancestor in H.G. Wells, a great player of simulation war-games.
But as a conscious profession, "computer game design" is only five years old.
Science fiction writing as a conscious profession dates back to Knight's
founding of the Milford Conference in 1956, followed, almost ten leisurely
years later, by his establishment of the SFWA. The metabolism of computer
gaming is very swift. Science fiction writers are to computer game
designers as mosasaurs are to dolphins.
So, I had arrived in San Jose at the functional equivalent of a SFWA
gig. A neatly desktop-published programme announced, on page one, "Our
Goals for the Conference: * to foster information exchange among
professionals in the computer game development industry, * to strengthen
the network of personal relationships in the computer game development
community, * to increase artistic and financial recognition for computer game
developers, and * to enhance the quality of entertainment software."
Instantly recognizable SFWA committeespeak -- people trying hard to
sound like serious professionals. Let's hear those goals again, in actual
English: * to hang out and gossip; * to meet old friends again; * to try to
figure out some way to make more money and fame from obstreperous
publishers, crooked distributors, and other powerful sons-of-bitches; and,
(last and conspicuously least) * to kind of try and do a better job artistically.
Pretty much the same priorities as any Nebula gig.
The attendees were younger, different demographics than the SFWA,
but then their pursuit is younger, too. They looked a little different: still
mostly white guys, still mostly male, still mostly myopic, but much more of
that weird computer-person vibe: the fuzzy Herman Melville beards, the
middle-aged desk-spread that comes from punching deck sixty hours a
week, whilst swilling endless Mountain Dews and Jolt Colas, in open console-
cowboy contempt of mere human flesh and its metabolic need for exercise
and nutrition... There were a few more bent engineers, more techies gone
seriously dingo, than you'd see at any SFWA gig. And a faint but definite
flavor of Hollywood: here and there, a few genuinely charismatic operators,
hustlers, guys in sharp designer suits, and career gals who jog, and send
faxes, and have carphones.
As a group, they're busily recapitulating arguments that SF had
decades ago. The number one ideological struggle of CGDC '91 -- an actual
panel debate, the best-attended and the liveliest -- concerned "depth of play
versus presentation." Which is more important -- the fun of a game, its
inherent qualities of play -- or, the grooviness of its graphics and sound, its
production values? This debate is the local evolutionary equivalent of
"Sense of Wonder" versus "Literary Excellence" and is just about as likely to
And then there's the ever-popular struggle over terminology and
definition. ("What Is Science Fiction?") What is a "computer-game?" Not
just "videogames" certainly -- that's kid stuff ("sci-fi"). Even "Computer
Games" is starting to sound rather musty and declasse', especially as the
scope of our artistic effort is widening, so that games look less and less like
"games," and more and more like rock videos or digitized short films.
Maybe the industry would be better off if we forgot all about "games," and
suavely referred to our efforts as "computer entertainment" ("speculative
And then there are the slogans and the artistic rules-of-thumb.
"Simple, Hot, and Deep." A game should be "simple": easy to learn, without
excess moving parts and irrelevant furbelows to burden the player's
comprehension. It should be "hot" -- things should happen, the pace should
not lag, it should avoid dead spots, and maintain interest of all players at all
times. And it should be "deep" -- it should be able to absorb as much
strategic ingenuity as the player is willing to invest; there should be layer
after layer of subtlety; it should repay serious adult attention. "An hour to
learn, a lifetime to master."
And: "Throw the first one away." Game design is an iterative process.
Games should be hammered into shape, tested, hammered again, tested
again. The final product may bear as little relation to the original "idea" as
the average Hollywood film does to the shooting script. Good game-testers
can be as vital and useful as good editors in fiction; probably more so.
There are other issues of artistic expression. There is, for instance,
censorship, both external, and self-imposed. Young kids like computer
games; even quite sophisticated games end up in the hands of little kids, and
are designed accordingly. The game "Maniac Mansion" was pulled from the
shelves of the Toys-R-Us chain because (horror) it had the word "lust" on the
"Hidden Agenda" is a very innovative and highly politicized
simulation game, in which the player must take the role of President of a
small and turbulent Central American country, menaced by internal violence
and Cold War geopolitics. "Hidden Agenda" is universally admired, but had
a hard time finding a publisher.
There was an earnest panel on ethics in graphic violence. When a
villain is shot in a game, should the designer incorporate digitized blood and
guts in the scene? Some game designers feel quite disturbed about "the
Nintendo War" in the Gulf, in much the way that some SF writers felt, some
years back, about the advent of Reagan's "Star Wars." "Space exploration"
had seemed a noble thing, until the prospective advent of orbital x-ray laser
fortresses. Was this what all our shiny rocket ships were supposed to be
about, in the end? Now game designers feel a similar sneaking guilt and a
similar sense of betrayal, suspecting that videogames have in fact cheapened
violence, and made inflicting death-by-computer seem a fine occupation for
American youth. It seems perfectly fine to kill "enemies" with cybernetic
air-strikes, as long as their blood doesn't actually splatter the VDT screen...
And then there's pornography, already present in the burgeoning CD-
ROM market. If you're playing strip-poker with a virtual digitized Playboy-
model, is that harmless fun-for-guys stuff, with nobody exploited, nobody
hurt? Or is it some kind of (gulp) hideously oppressive dehumanized
And then, of course, there's business. Biz. Brass tacks. Your
average game designer makes rather more than your average SFWA
member. It's still not a living wage. The gamers have to work harder, they
have more specialized skills, they have less creative control, and the pace is
murderous. Sixty-hour-weeks are standard in the industry, and there's no
such thing as a "no-layoffs" policy in the software biz. Everybody wants to
hire a hard-working, technically talented enthusiast; having found such a
person, it is standard to put him on the "burnout track" and work him to
collapse in five years flat, leaving the staggering husk to limp away from
"entertainment" to try and find a straight job someplace, maintaining C code.
As "professionalism" spreads its pinstriped tentacles, the pioneers and
the lone wolves are going to the wall. There is "consolidation" in the
industry, that same sinister development that has led written SF deeper and
deeper into the toils of gigantic multinational publishing cartels and
malignant bookstore chains. "Software chains" have sprung up: Babbage's,
Electronic Boutique, Walden Software, Soft Warehouse, Egghead. The big
game publishers are getting bigger, the modes of publishing and distribution
are calcifying and walling-out the individual entrepreneur.
"Sequelism" is incredibly common; computer gaming builds off
established hits even more shamelessly than SF's nine-part trilogy-trilogies.
And "games" in general are becoming more elaborate: larger teams of
specialized workers tackling pixel animation, soundtrack, box design; more
and more man-hours invested into the product, by companies that now look
less like young Walt Disney drawing in a tabletop in Kansas, and much more
like old Walt Disney smoking dollar cigars in Hollywood. It's harder and
harder for a single creative individual, coming from outside, to impose his
vision on the medium.
Some regard this development as a healthy step up the ladder to the
Real Money: Lucasfilm Games, for instance, naturally wants to be more like
its parent Lucasfilm, and the same goes for Walt Disney Computer.
But others suspect that computer-gaming may suffer artistically (and
eventually financially) by trying to do too much for too many. Betty Boop
cartoons were simple and cheap, but were tremendously popular at the time
of their creation, and are still cherished today. Fleischer Studios came a
cropper when they tried to go for full-animation feature films, releasing
bloated, overproduced bombs like GULLIVER that tried and failed to appeal
to a mass audience.
And then there is The Beast Men Call 'Prodigy.' Prodigy is a national
computer network that has already absorbed nine hundred million dollars of
start-up money from IBM and Sears. Prodigy is, in short, a Major Player. In
the world of computer gaming, $900,000,000 is the functional equivalent of
nuclear superpower status. And Prodigy is interested in serious big-time
"computer entertainment." Prodigy must win major big-time participation
by straight people, by computer illiterates. To survive, it must win an
entirely new and unprecedently large popular audience.
And Prodigy was at the gaming conference to get the word out.
Prodigy subscribers play twelve thousand games of "Chief Executive Officer"
every day! What Prodigy wants is, well, the patronage of Normal People.
Nothing offensive, nothing too wacky, nothing too weird. They want to be
the Disney Channel of Cyberspace. They want entirely new kinds of
computer games. Games that look and smell like primetime TV, basically. A
crisply dressed Prodigy representative strongly urged game-designers
present to "lose the Halloween costumes." Forget "the space stuff" and "the
knights in armor." Prodigy wants games normal folks will play, something
that reflects general American experience. Something like... hmmm... "a high
school popularity contest."
The audience seemed stunned. Scarcely a human being among them,
of either sex, could have ever won a high school popularity contest. If they'd
ever been "popular," they would never have spent so much time in front of
computers. They would have been out playing halfback, or getting laid, or
doing other cool high-school things -- doing anything but learning how to
program. Not only were they stunned, but they rather resented the
suggestion; the notion that, after years of trying to be Frank Frazetta, they
were suddenly to become Norman Rockwell. I heard sullen mutterings later
about "Ozzie and Harriet Prodigy droids."
And yet -- this may well be The Future for "computer
entertainment." Why the hell does prime-time TV look as bad and stupid as
it does? There are very good reasons for this; it's not any kind of accident.
And Prodigy understands those reasons as well or better than any wacko
gamedesigner in a big purple hat.
Bleak as this future prospect may seem, there was no lack of
optimism, the usual ecstatic vaporware common to any business
meeting of "computer people." Computer game designers have their
faces turned resolutely to the future; they have little in the
way of "classics." Their grails are all to come, on the vast
resistless wings of technological advance. At the moment,
"interactive characters" in games, characters that behave
realistically, without scripts, and challenge or befriend the
player, are primitive and scarcely workable constructs. But wait
till we get Artificial Intelligence! Then we'll build characters
who can carry out dramas all by themselves!!
And games are becoming fatter and more elaborate; so much so that
the standard money-making target machine, the cheap IBM-PC clone with
the 16-bit 8088 chip running at five megahertz, is almost unable to hold
them. Origin's state-of-the-art "Wing Commander" game can take up half a
hard disk. But bigger machines are coming soon. Faster, with much better
graphics. Digital sound as good as stereos, and screens better than TV!
And then there's CD-ROM. Software, recorded on a shiny compact
disk, instead of bloated floppies and clunking hard disks. You can put
fifteen hundred (1500!) Nintendo cartridge games onto one compact disk --
and it costs only a dollar to make! Holy Cow!
The industry is tough and hardened now. It survived the Great Crash
of 1984, which had once seemed the end of everything. It's crewed by
hardy veterans. And just look at that history! Why, twenty years ago there
was nothing here at all; now computer entertainment's worth millions! Kids
with computers don't do anything much with them at all, except play games
-- and their parents would admit the same thing, if they told the truth. And
in the future -- huge games, involving thousands of people, on vast modem-
linked networks! Of course, those networks may look much like, well,
But even without networks, the next generation of PCs will be a thing
of dazzlement. Of course, most everything written for the old PC's, and for
Macs and Amigas and such, will be unceremoniously junked, along with the
old PC's themselves. Thousands of games... thousands of man-hours of labor
and design... erased from human memory, a kind of cultural apocalypse...
Everything simply gone, flung out in huge beige plastic heaps like junked
cars. Dead tech.
But perhaps "cultural apocalypse" is overstating matters. Who cares if
people throw away a bunch of obsolete computers? After all, they're
obsolete. So what if you lose all the software, too? After all, it's just
outdated software. They're just games. It's not like they're real art.
And there's the sting.
A sting one should remember, and mull upon, when one hears of
proposals to digitize the novel. The Sony reader, for instance. A little hand-
held jobby, much like its kissing cousin the Nintendo Game Boy, but with a
Truck down to the local Walden Software, and you buy the local
sword-and-planet trilogy right on a disk! Probably has a game tie-in, too:
read the book; play the game!
And why stop there? After all, you've got all this digital processing-
power going to waste.... Have it be an illustrated book! Illustrated with
animated sequences! And wait -- this book has a soundtrack! What genius!
Now even the stupidest kid in the block is gonna want to learn to read. It's a
techical fix for the problem of withering literature!
And think -- you could put a hundred SF books on a compact disk
for a buck! If they're public domain books.... Still, if there's
enough money in it, you can probably change the old-fashioned
literary copyright laws in your favor. Failing that, do it in
Taiwan or Thailand or Hong Kong, where software piracy is
already deeply embedded in the structure of business. (Hong Kong
pirates can steal a computer game, crack the software
protection, and photocopy the rules and counters, and sell it
all back to the US in a ziplock baggie, in a week flat. Someday
soon books will be treated like this!)
Digital Books for the Information Age -- books that aspire to
the exalted condition of software! In the, well, "cultural logic
of postmodern capitalism," all our art wants to be digital now.
First, so you can have it. Replicate it. Reproduce it, without
loss of fidelity. And, second -- and this is the hidden agenda
-- so you can throw it away. And never have to look at it again.
How long will the first generation of "reading-machines" last? As long
as the now utterly moribund Atari 400 game machine? Possibly. Probably
not. If you write a "book" for any game machine -- if you write a book that
is software -- you had better be prepared to live as game software people
live, and think as game software people think, and survive as game
software people survive.
And they're pretty smart people really. Good fun to hang out with.
Those who work for companies are being pitilessly worked to death. Those
who work for themselves are working themselves to death, and, without
exception, they all have six or seven different ways of eking out a living in
the crannies of silicon culture. Those who own successful companies, and
those who write major hits, are millionaires. This doesn't slow down their
workaholic drive though; it only means they get bigger and nicer toys.
They're very bright, unbelievably hard-working, very put-upon; fast
on their feet, enamored of gambling... and with a sadly short artistic
lifespan. And they're different. Very different. Digital dolphins in their
dance of biz -- not like us print-era mosasaurs.
Want a look at what it would be like? Read THE JOURNAL OF
COMPUTER GAME DESIGN (5251 Sierra Road, San Jose, CA 95132 -- $30/six
issues per year). It's worth a good long look. It repays close attention.
And don't say I didn't warn you.
From SCIENCE FICTION EYE #10
Literary Freeware -- Not for Commercial Use
A STATEMENT OF PRINCIPLE
I just wrote my first nonfiction book. It's called THE HACKER
CRACKDOWN: LAW AND DISORDER ON THE ELECTRONIC FRONTIER. Writing
this book has required me to spend much of the past year and a
half in the company of hackers, cops, and civil libertarians.
I've spent much time listening to arguments over what's legal,
what's illegal, what's right and wrong, what's decent and what's
despicable, what's moral and immoral, in the world of computers
and civil liberties. My various informants were knowledgeable
people who cared passionately about these issues, and most of
them seemed well-intentioned. Considered as a whole, however,
their opinions were a baffling mess of contradictions.
When I started this project, my ignorance of the issues involved
was genuine and profound. I'd never knowingly met anyone from
the computer underground. I'd never logged-on to an underground
bulletin-board or read a semilegal hacker magazine. Although I
did care a great deal about the issue of freedom of expression,
I knew sadly little about the history of civil rights in America
or the legal doctrines that surround freedom of the press,
freedom of speech, and freedom of association. My relations with
the police were firmly based on the stratagem of avoiding
personal contact with police to the greatest extent possible.
I didn't go looking for this project. This project came looking
for me. I became inextricably involved when agents of the United
States Secret Service, acting under the guidance of federal
attorneys from Chicago, came to my home town of Austin on March
1, 1990, and confiscated the computers of a local science
fiction gaming publisher. Steve Jackson Games, Inc., of Austin,
was about to publish a gaming-book called GURPS Cyberpunk.
When the federal law-enforcement agents discovered the
electronic manuscript of CYBERPUNK on the computers they had
seized from Mr. Jackson's offices, they expressed grave shock
and alarm. They declared that CYBERPUNK was "a manual for
It's not my intention to reprise the story of the Jackson case
in this column. I've done that to the best of my ability in THE
HACKER CRACKDOWN; and in any case the ramifications of March 1
are far from over. Mr Jackson was never charged with any crime.
His civil suit against the raiders is still in federal court as
I write this.
I don't want to repeat here what some cops believe, what some
hackers believe, or what some civil libertarians believe.
Instead, I want to discuss my own moral beliefs as a science
fiction writer -- such as they are. As an SF writer, I want to
attempt a personal statement of principle.
It has not escaped my attention that there are many people who
believe that anyone called a "cyberpunk" must be, almost by
definition, entirely devoid of principle. I offer as evidence an
excerpt from Buck BloomBecker's 1990 book, SPECTACULAR COMPUTER
CRIMES. On page 53, in a chapter titled "Who Are The Computer
Criminals?", Mr. BloomBecker introduces the formal
classification of "cyberpunk" criminality.
"In the last few years, a new genre of science fiction has
arisen under the evocative name of 'cyberpunk.' Introduced in
the work of William Gibson, particularly in his prize-winning
novel NEUROMANCER, cyberpunk takes an apocalyptic view of the
technological future. In NEUROMANCER, the protagonist is a
futuristic hacker who must use the most sophisticated computer
strategies to commit crimes for people who offer him enough
money to buy the biological creations he needs to survive. His
life is one of cynical despair, fueled by the desire to avoid
death. Though none of the virus cases actually seen so far have
been so devastating, this book certainly represents an attitude
that should be watched for when we find new cases of computer
virus and try to understand the motivations behind them.
"The New York Times's John Markoff, one of the more perceptive
and accomplished writers in the field, has written than a number
of computer criminals demonstrate new levels of meanness. He
characterizes them, as do I, as cyberpunks."
Those of us who have read Gibson's NEUROMANCER closely will be
aware of certain factual inaccuracies in Mr. BloomBecker's brief
review. NEUROMANCER is not "apocalyptic." The chief conspirator
in NEUROMANCER forces Case's loyalty, not by buying his
services, but by planting poison-sacs in his brain. Case is
"fueled" not by his greed for money or "biological creations,"
or even by the cynical "desire to avoid death," but rather by
his burning desire to hack cyberspace. And so forth.
However, I don't think this misreading of NEUROMANCER is based
on carelessness or malice. The rest of Mr. BloomBecker's book
generally is informative, well-organized, and thoughtful.
Instead, I feel that Mr. BloomBecker manfully absorbed as much
of NEUROMANCER as he could without suffering a mental toxic
reaction. This report of his is what he actually *saw* when
reading the novel.
NEUROMANCER has won quite a following in the world of computer
crime investigation. A prominent law enforcement official once
told me that police unfailingly conclude the worst when they
find a teenager with a computer and a copy of NEUROMANCER. When
I declared that I too was a "cyberpunk" writer, she asked me if
I would print the recipe for a pipe-bomb in my works. I was
astonished by this question, which struck me as bizarre
rhetorical excess at the time. That was before I had actually
examined bulletin-boards in the computer underground, which I
found to be chock-a-block with recipes for pipe-bombs, and
worse. (I didn't have the heart to tell her that my friend and
colleague Walter Jon Williams had once written and published an
SF story closely describing explosives derived from simple
Cyberpunk SF (along with SF in general) has, in fact, permeated
the computer underground. I have met young underground hackers
who use the aliases "Neuromancer," "Wintermute" and "Count
Zero." The Legion of Doom, the absolute bete noire of computer
law-enforcement, used to congregate on a bulletin-board called
In the past, I didn't know much about anyone in the underground,
but they certainly knew about me. Since that time, I've had
people express sincere admiration for my novels, and then, in
almost the same breath, brag to me about breaking into hospital
computers to chortle over confidential medical reports about
The single most stinging example of this syndrome is "Pengo," a
member of the German hacker-group that broke into Internet
computers while in the pay of the KGB. He told German police,
and the judge at the trial of his co-conspirators, that he was
inspired by NEUROMANCER and John Brunner's SHOCKWAVE RIDER.
I didn't write NEUROMANCER. I did, however, read it in
manuscript and offered many purportedly helpful comments. I
praised the book publicly and repeatedly and at length. I've
done everything I can to get people to read this book.
I don't recall cautioning Gibson that his novel might lead to
anarchist hackers selling their expertise to the ferocious and
repulsive apparat that gave the world the Lubyanka and the Gulag
Archipelago. I don't think I could have issued any such caution,
even if I'd felt the danger of such a possibility, which I
didn't. I still don't know in what fashion Gibson might have
changed his book to avoid inciting evildoers, while still
retaining the integrity of his vision -- the very quality about
the book that makes it compelling and worthwhile.
This leads me to my first statements of moral principle.
As a "cyberpunk" SF writer, I am not responsible for every act
committed by a Bohemian with a computer. I don't own the word
"cyberpunk" and cannot help where it is bestowed, or who uses
it, or to what ends.
As a science fiction writer, it is not my business to make
people behave. It is my business to make people imagine. I
cannot control other people's imaginations -- any more than I
would allow them to control mine.
I am, however, morally obliged to speak out when acts of evil
are committed that use my ideas or my rhetoric, however
distantly, as a justification.
Pengo and his friends committed a grave crime that was worthy of
condemnation and punishment. They were clever, but treacherously
clever. They were imaginative, but it was imagination in a bad
cause. They were technically accomplished, but they abused their
expertise for illicit profit and to feed their egos. They may be
"cyberpunks" -- according to many, they may deserve that title
far more than I do -- but they're no friends of mine.
What is "crime"? What is a moral offense? What actions are evil
and dishonorable? I find these extraordinarily difficult
questions. I have no special status that should allow me to
speak with authority on such subjects. Quite the contrary. As a
writer in a scorned popular literature and a self-professed
eccentric Bohemian, I have next to no authority of any kind. I'm
not a moralist, philosopher, or prophet. I've always considered
my "moral role," such as it is, to be that of a court jester --
a person sometimes allowed to speak the unspeakable, to explore
ideas and issues in a format where they can be treated as games,
thought-experiments, or metaphors, not as prescriptions, laws,
I have no religion, no sacred scripture to guide my actions and
provide an infallible moral bedrock. I'm not seeking political
responsibilities or the power of public office. I habitually
question any pronouncement of authority, and entertain the
liveliest skepticism about the processes of law and justice. I
feel no urge to conform to the behavior of the majority of my
fellow citizens. I'm a pain in the neck.
My behavior is far from flawless. I lived and thrived in Austin,
Texas in the 1970s and 1980s, in a festering milieu of arty
crypto-intellectual hippies. I've committed countless "crimes,"
like millions of other people in my generation. These crimes
were of the glamorous "victimless" variety, but they would
surely have served to put me in prison had I done them, say, in
front of the State Legislature.
Had I lived a hundred years ago as I live today, I would
probably have been lynched by outraged fellow Texans as a moral
abomination. If I lived in Iran today and wrote and thought as I
do, I would probably be tried and executed.
As far as I can tell, moral relativism is a fact of life. I
think it might be possible to outwardly conform to every jot and
tittle of the taboos of one's society, while feeling no
emotional or intellectual commitment to them. I understand that
certain philosophers have argued that this is morally proper
behavior for a good citizen. But I can't live that life. I feel,
sincerely, that my society is engaged in many actions which are
foolish and shortsighted and likely to lead to our destruction.
I feel that our society must change, and change radically, in a
process that will cause great damage to our present system of
values. This doesn't excuse my own failings, which I regret, but
it does explain, I hope, why my lifestyle and my actions are not
likely to make authority feel entirely comfortable.
Knowledge is power. The rise of computer networking, of the
Information Society, is doing strange and disruptive things to
the processes by which power and knowledge are currently
distributed. Knowledge and information, supplied through these
new conduits, are highly corrosive to the status quo. People
living in the midst of technological revolution are living
outside the law: not necessarily because they mean to break
laws, but because the laws are vague, obsolete, overbroad,
draconian, or unenforceable. Hackers break laws as a matter of
course, and some have been punished unduly for relatively minor
infractions not motivated by malice. Even computer police,
seeking earnestly to apprehend and punish wrongdoers, have been
accused of abuse of their offices, and of violation of the
Constitution and the civil statutes. These police may indeed
have committed these "crimes." Some officials have already
suffered grave damage to their reputations and careers -- all
the time convinced that they were morally in the right; and,
like the hackers they pursued, never feeling any genuine sense
of shame, remorse, or guilt.
I have lived, and still live, in a counterculture, with its own
system of values. Counterculture -- Bohemia -- is never far from
criminality. "To live outside the law you must be honest" was
Bob Dylan's classic hippie motto. A Bohemian finds romance in
the notion that "his clothes are dirty but his hands are clean."
But there's danger in setting aside the strictures of the law to
linchpin one's honor on one's personal integrity. If you throw
away the rulebook to rely on your individual conscience you will
be put in the way of temptation.
And temptation is a burden. It hurts. It is grotesquely easy to
justify, to rationalize, an action of which one should properly
be ashamed. In investigating the milieu of computer-crime I have
come into contact with a world of temptation formerly closed to
me. Nowadays, it would take no great effort on my part to break
into computers, to steal long-distance telephone service, to
ingratiate myself with people who would merrily supply me with
huge amounts of illicitly copied software. I could even build
pipe-bombs. I haven't done these things, and disapprove of them;
in fact, having come to know these practices better than I cared
to, I feel sincere revulsion for them now. But this knowledge is
a kind of power, and power is tempting. Journalistic
objectivity, or the urge to play with ideas, cannot entirely
protect you. Temptation clings to the mind like a series of
small but nagging weights. Carrying these weights may make you
stronger. Or they may drag you down.
"His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean." It's a fine
ideal, when you can live up to it. Like a lot of Bohemians, I've
gazed with a fine disdain on certain people in power whose
clothes were clean but their hands conspicuously dirty. But I've
also met a few people eager to pat me on the back, whose clothes
were dirty and their hands as well. They're not pleasant
Somehow one must draw a line. I'm not very good at drawing
lines. When other people have drawn me a line, I've generally
been quite anxious to have a good long contemplative look at the
other side. I don't feel much confidence in my ability to draw
these lines. But I feel that I should. The world won't wait. It
only took a few guys with poolcues and switchblades to turn
Woodstock Nation into Altamont. Haight-Ashbury was once full of
people who could trust anyone they'd smoked grass with and love
anyone they'd dropped acid with -- for about six months. Soon
the place was aswarm with speed-freaks and junkies, and heaven
help us if they didn't look just like the love-bead dudes from
the League of Spiritual Discovery. Corruption exists, temptation
exists. Some people fall. And the temptation is there for all of
us, all the time.
I've come to draw a line at money. It's not a good line, but
it's something. There are certain activities that are
unorthodox, dubious, illegal or quasi-legal, but they might
perhaps be justified by an honest person with unconventional
standards. But in my opinion, when you're making a commercial
living from breaking the law, you're beyond the pale. I find it
hard to accept your countercultural sincerity when you're
grinning and pocketing the cash, compadre.
I can understand a kid swiping phone service when he's broke,
powerless, and dying to explore the new world of the networks. I
don't approve of this, but I can understand it. I scorn to do
this myself, and I never have; but I don't find it so heinous
that it deserves pitiless repression. But if you're stealing
phone service and selling it -- if you've made yourself a
miniature phone company and you're pimping off the energy of
others just to line your own pockets -- you're a thief. When the
heat comes to put you away, don't come crying "brother" to me.
If you're creating software and giving it away, you're a fine
human being. If you're writing software and letting other people
copy it and try it out as shareware, I appreciate your sense of
trust, and if I like your work, I'll pay you. If you're copying
other people's software and giving it away, you're damaging
other people's interests, and should be ashamed, even if you're
posing as a glamorous info-liberating subversive. But if you're
copying other people's software and selling it, you're a crook
and I despise you.
Writing and spreading viruses is a vile, hurtful, and shameful
activity that I unreservedly condemn.
There's something wrong with the Information Society. There's
something wrong with the idea that "information" is a commodity
like a desk or a chair. There's something wrong with patenting
software algorithms. There's something direly meanspirited and
ungenerous about inventing a language and then renting it out to
other people to speak. There's something unprecedented and
sinister in this process of creeping commodification of data and
knowledge. A computer is something too close to the human brain
for me to rest entirely content with someone patenting or
copyrighting the process of its thought. There's something sick
and unworkable about an economic system which has already spewed
forth such a vast black market. I don't think democracy will
thrive in a milieu where vast empires of data are encrypted,
restricted, proprietary, confidential, top secret, and
sensitive. I fear for the stability of a society that builds
sandcastles out of databits and tries to stop a real-world tide
with royal commands.
Whole societies can fall. In Eastern Europe we have seen whole
nations collapse in a slough of corruption. In pursuit of their
unworkable economic doctrine, the Marxists doubled and redoubled
their efforts at social control, while losing all sight of the
values that make life worth living. At last the entire power
structure was so discredited that the last remaining shred of
moral integrity could only be found in Bohemia: in dissidents
and dramatists and their illegal samizdat underground fanzines.
Their clothes were dirty but their hands were clean. The only
agitprop poster Vaclav Havel needed was a sign saying *Vaclav
Havel Guarantees Free Elections.* He'd never held power, but
people believed him, and they believed his Velvet Revolution
I wish there were people in the Computer Revolution who could
inspire, and deserved to inspire, that level of trust. I wish
there were people in the Electronic Frontier whose moral
integrity unquestionably matched the unleashed power of those
digital machines. A society is in dire straits when it puts its
Bohemia in power. I tremble for my country when I contemplate
this prospect. And yet it's possible. If dire straits come, it
can even be the last best hope.
The issues that enmeshed me in 1990 are not going to go away. I
became involved as a writer and journalist, because I felt it
was right. Having made that decision, I intend to stand by my
commitment. I expect to stay involved in these issues, in this
debate, for the rest of my life. These are timeless issues:
civil rights, knowledge, power, freedom and privacy, the
necessary steps that a civilized society must take to protect
itself from criminals. There is no finality in politics; it
creates itself anew, it must be dealt with every day.
The future is a dark road and our speed is headlong. I didn't
ask for power or responsibility. I'm a science fiction writer, I
only wanted to play with Big Ideas in my cheerfully lunatic
sandbox. What little benefit I myself can contribute to society
would likely be best employed in writing better SF novels. I
intend to write those better novels, if I can. But in the
meantime I seem to have accumulated a few odd shreds of
influence. It's a very minor kind of power, and doubtless more
than I deserve; but power without responsibility is a monstrous
In writing HACKER CRACKDOWN, I tried to describe the truth as
other people saw it. I see it too, with my own eyes, but I can't
yet pretend to understand what I'm seeing. The best I can do, it
seems to me, is to try to approach the situation as an
open-minded person of goodwill. I therefore offer the following
final set of principles, which I hope will guide me in the days
I'll listen to anybody, and I'll try to imagine myself in their
I'll assume goodwill on the part of others until they fully earn
I won't cherish grudges. I'll forgive those who change their
minds and actions, just as I reserve the right to change my own
mind and actions.
I'll look hard for the disadvantages to others, in the things
that give me advantage. I won't assume that the way I live today
is the natural order of the universe, just because I happen to
be benefiting from it at the moment.
And while I don't plan to give up making money from my ethically
dubious cyberpunk activities, I hope to temper my impropriety by
giving more work away for no money at all.
Literary Freeware -- Not for Commercial Use
From SF EYE #11 Dec 1992
Science Fiction Eye, P. O. Box 18539, Asheville NC 28814 (USA$10.yr $15 global)
SF EYE CATSCAN #11: "Sneaking For Jesus 2001"
Conspiracy fiction. I've come across a pair of especially
remarkable works in this odd subgenre lately.
Paul Di Filippo's treatment of the conspiracy subgenre, " My
Brain Feels Like A Bomb" in SF EYE 8, collected some fine,
colorful specimens. Di Filippo theorizes that the conspiracy
subgenre, anchored at its high end by GRAVITY'S RAINBOW and
FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM and at its low end by quite a lot of cheesy
sci-fi and gooofy spy thrillers, is unique to the
twentieth-century, and bred by our modern (postmodern?)
inability to make sense of an overwhelming flow of high-velocity
This may be true. I'm not inclined to challenge that
sociological assessment, and can even offer some backup
evidence. Where is that postmodern flow of information more
intense, and less basically comprehensible, than in the world of
computing? Thus is bred the interesting sub-subgenre of computer
paranoia fiction -- hacker conspiracy! I now propose to examine
two such works: the movie (and book) SNEAKERS, and the novel
(and prophesy?) THE ILLUMINATI.
Let's take the second item first, as it's much the more
remarkable of the two. The ILLUMINATI in question today has
nothing to do with the Robert Anton Wilson ILLUMINATI series; in
fact, its weltanschauung is utterly at odds with Wilson's books.
Wilson's paranoid yarn is basically a long, rambling,
crypto-erudite hipster rap-session, but Larry Burkett's
ILLUMINATI is a fictional work of evangelical Christian
exegesis, in which lesbians, leftists, dope addicts and other
tools of Satan establish a gigantic government computer network
in the year 2001, with which to exterminate all Southern
I recommend this novel highly. Larry Burkett's ILLUMINATI has
already sold some 100,000 copies through Christian bookstores,
and it seems to me to have tremendous crossover potential for
hundreds of chuckling cyberpunk cynics. To my eye it's a lot
more mind-blowing than any of Wilson's books.
The Robert Anton Wilson oeuvre is perenially in print in New Age
bookstores, and quite well known in the SF category racks.
Therefore the CATSCAN reader may already be aware that the
so-called "Illuminati" were a freethinking secret society
purportedly founded in the 1770s, who had something to do with
Freemasonry and were opposed to established Church authority in
So far, so good. It's not surprising that a with-it hipster dude
like R.A. Wilson would use the historical Illuminati as a
head-trip springboard to mock All Things Establishment. The far
more surprising matter is that some evangelical Christians, such
as the Reverend Pat Robertson, not only take the 217-year-old
and extremely dead Illuminati seriously, but are also currently
dominating the social agenda of the Republican Party. Reverend
Robertson's latest "non-fiction" tome, THE NEW WORLD ORDER, is
chock-a-block with straightfaced and utterly paranoiac
Illuminati-under-the-bed terrormongering. Robertson publicly
credits the "satanic" Illuminati conspiracy with direct
authorship of the French Revolution and the Bolshevik uprising,
as well as sponsorship of the Trilateral Commission and the
comsymp "Eastern Establishment" generally. The good Reverend
also expresses the gravest possible reservations about the
occult Masonic insignia on the back of the one-dollar bill.
George Bush himself, best-known public advocate of a "New World
Order," is cast under suspicion in Robertson's work as an
Illuminati tool, and yet Bush gave his accuser prime-time TV in
his party's National Convention. One can only marvel!
As a comparative reality-check, try and imagine Robert Anton
Wilson delivering his Hail Eris rap at a Democratic Party
Convention (while the audience, nodding on national television,
listens in sober respect and acts really glad to be clued-in).
Odd enough for you? Now imagine ontological anarchists
re-writing the Democratic Party platform on abortion, sexual
behavior, and federal sponsorship of the arts.
Larry Burkett has taken this way-out sectarian extremist
theo-gibberish and made it into a techno-thriller! The result is
a true mutant among novels. How many science fiction novels
begin with a disclaimer like this one?
"My biggest concern in writing a novel is that someone may read
too much into it. Obviously, I tried to use as realistic a
scenario as possible in the story. But it is purely fictional,
including the characters, events, and timing. It should not be
assumed that it is prophetic in any regard. As best I know, I
have a gift for teaching, a talent for writing, and no prophetic
abilities beyond that of any other Christian."
I was so impressed by this remarkable disclaimer of Mr Burkett's
that I tracked down his address (using the CompuServe computer
network) and I succeeded in interviewing him by phone for this
column. I learned that Mr Burkett has received some six thousand
letters about his novel ILLUMINATI from eager readers, many of
them previously aware of the Illuminati menace and eager to
learn yet more. And yes, many of those readers do believe that
the Mr. Burkett novel is an inspired prophecy, despite his
disclaimer, and they demand his advice on how to shelter
themselves from the secret masters of the coming Satanic
Even more remarkably, a dozen correspondents claimed to have
once been Illuminati themselves, and they congratulated Mr.
Burkett on his insights into their conspiracy! Mr. Burkett
described this last category as featuring "three or four letters
that were fairly lucid."
Mr. Burkett himself seems quite lucid. He was clearly "having
some fun" with notions he considers serious but not all *that*
serious, and in this he is not much different from many other SF
authors with active imaginations and vaguely politicized
concerns. Now a financial consultant, Mr. Burkett was once a
NASA project manager, and dealt with early mainframe systems for
the Gemini and Mercury missions. As a father, grandfather,
best-selling author and head of a successful
investment-counseling firm, Mr. Burkett seemed to me to have at
least as firm a grip on consensus reality as say, Ross Perot. In
talking to Mr Burkett I found him a calm, open and congenial
However, Mr. Burkett is also a committed "dispensational
Christian" and he believes sincerely that abortion is an act of
murder. He is therefore living in a basically nightmarish
society in which hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings
are gruesomely murdered through no fault of their own. I believe
that Mr. Burkett considers abortion so great an evil that it
could not possibly have been inflicted on our society by any
merely human agency. It can only be understood as part of an
ancient, multi-generational conspiracy, planned and carried out
by the immortal and evil Adversary of Mankind through his mortal
cats-paws on Earth.
From the pyramid-eye point of view of this belief-system, it
makes good tub-thumping common-sense to assume that "Secular
Humanism" is a single monolithic entity -- even if its own
useful-idiot liberal dupes seem more-or-less unaware of their
own true roles in Satan's master-plan.
All enemies are agents willy-nilly of The Enemy, and their plans
run toward a single end: the establishment of Satan's Kingdom on
Earth. In the words of Reverend Robertson (NEW WORLD ORDER p 6):
"A single thread runs form the White House to the State
Department to the Council on Foreign Relations to the Trilateral
Commission to secret societies to extreme New Agers. There must
be a new world order. It must eliminate national sovereignty.
There must be world government, a world police force, world
courts, world banking and currency, and a world elite in charge
of it all."
Of course, if you are going to string all important global
events onto "a single thread," you are going to end up with an
extremely variegated necklace. When you formally assemble the
whole farrago into the pages of a thriller-novel, as Mr. Burkett
does, the result is like Lovecraft on laughing-gas. Mr.
Burkett's fictional technique owes far more to his favorite
authors, Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton, than it does to any
genre SF writer. Mr Burkett is not himself an SF reader.
Nevertheless, his material itself is so inherently over-the-top
that his book resembles the Call of Cthulhu far more than a hunt
for Red October.
The pace is whiplash-fast and the set-up entirely mindboggling.
In the year 2001, the President, an Illuminati puppet "liberal,"
stages a coup against Congress in the midst of economic collapse
and massive urban riots. The Mossad are bugging the White House
and building a cobalt super-bomb with the Red Chinese. We learn
that the Illuminati began as Druids and transmuted into
Freemasons; the wily Jews, of course, have known all about the
Illuminati for centuries, though never bothering to inform us
goyim. The gay Governor of California is a feminist
church-taxing coke addict. The "liberal" President sells
"brain-dead" crack babies to fetal-tissue medical entrepreneurs.
Meanwhile, evil liberal civil-libertarians tattoo everyone's
right hand with the scanner-code of the Beast 666. It just goes
on and on!
The yummiest item in the whole stew, however, is the identity of
the book's hero, one Jeff Wells. Jeff's a computer hacker. A
genius hacker for Christ. Somewhat against his will and entirely
without any evil intent, Jeff was recruited to design and build
the gigantic Data-Net financial network, which the Illuminati
secular one-worlders then use to consolidate power, and to
pursue and harass innocent Christian activists. When Jeff
discovers that the feds are using his handiwork to round up
Baptists and ship them by the trainload to dismal gulags in
Arizona, he drops out of the system, goes deep underground, and
joins the Christian revolutionary right.
With the moral guidance of a saintly televangelist, Jeff, using
his powerful and extremely illegal computer-intrusion skills,
simply chops up Data-Net like a cook deboning a chicken. In
defence of his Savior, Jeff basically overthrows the US
Government by digital force and violence. He defrauds the
government of billions of dollars. He creates thousands of false
identities. He deliberately snarls train traffic and airport
traffic. He spies on high government officials, tracking their
every move. The Pentagon, the Secret Service and the FBI are all
rendered into helpless fools through Jeff's skillful tapping of
a keyboard. It's like a Smash-the-State Yippie phone-phreak's
wet-dream -- and yet it's all done in defense of family-values.
One shuts Mr. Burkett's book regretfully and with a
skull-tingling sensation of genuine mind-expansion.
But let's now leave ILLUMINATI for a look at somewhat more
actual and far more commercially successful Yippie phone-phreak
wet-dream, the film (and novel) SNEAKERS. As it happens, the
movie tie-in novel SNEAKERS (by one "Dewey Gram," a name that
sounds rather suspicious) is somewhat uninspired and pedestrian
(especially in comparison to ILLUMINATI). The book has a
slightly more graphic sexual-voyeur sequence than the movie
does, and some mildly interesting additional background about
the characters. The SNEAKERS novel seems to have been cooked-up
from an earlier screenplay than the shooting-script. You won't
miss much by skipping it entirely.
The sinister Liberal Cultural Elite (and their vile Illuminati
puppet-masters) must take great satisfaction in comparing the
audience for a Hollywood blockbuster like SNEAKERS with the
relatively tiny readership for the eager though amateurish
ILLUMINATI. ILLUMINATI was written in eight weeks flat, and will
have a devil of a time reaching anybody outside an evangelical
chain-store. SNEAKERS, by contrast, cost millions to make, and
has glossy posters, promo lapel buttons, pre-release screenings,
TV ads, and a video release on the way, not to mention its own
SNEAKERS will also be watched with a straight face and genuine
enjoyment by millions of Americans, despite its "radical"
attitude and its open sympathies with 60s New Leftist activism.
ILLUMINATI will have no such luck. Even after twelve solid years
of Reaganism, in which the federal government was essentially
run by panic-stricken astrologers and the Republican Party
kowtowed utterly to its fringe-nut element, it's still
unthinkable that a work like ILLUMINATI could become a mainline
Hollywood film. Even as a work of science fiction, ILLUMINATI
would simply be laughed off the screen by the public. Even R. A.
Wilson's ILLUMINATI would have a better chance at production.
Margaret Atwood's HANDMAID'S TALE, which promotes anti-network
paranoia from a decidedly leftist/feminist perspective, actually
made it to the screen! The Burkett ILLUMINATI's theocratic
nuttiness is simply too ludicrous.
SNEAKERS is a professional piece of Hollywood entertainment and
a pleasant movie to watch. I'm not one of those who feels that
Hollywood movies should be required to teach moral lessons, or
to heighten public taste, even to make basic sense. Hey, let
Hollywood be Hollywood: SNEAKERS has some nice production
values, a solid cast, some thrills and some laughs; money spent
seeing it is money well spent.
And yet there's a lot to dislike about SNEAKERS anyhow. The
entire effort has a depressing insincerity, and a profound sense
of desperation and defeat that it tries to offset with an
annoying nervous-tic mockery. The problem resides in the very
nature of the characters and their milieu. It's certainly an
above-average cast, with Sidney Poitier, Robert Redford, Dan
Aykroyd and River Phoenix, who are as professionally endearing
and charismatic as they can manage. Yet almost everything these
characters actually do is deceitful, repulsive, or basically
beside the point; they seem powerless, hopeless, and robbed of
their own identities, robbed of legitimacy, even robbed of their
SNEAKERS is remarkable for its fidelity to the ethos of the
computer underground. It's something of a love-note to the 2600
crowd (who seem properly appreciative). System-cracker practices
like trashing, canning, and social-engineering are faithfully
portrayed. And while SNEAKERS is remarkably paranoid, that too
rather suits its own milieu, because many underground hackers
are in fact remarkably paranoid, especially about the NSA, other
techie feds, and their fellow hackers.
Hacking complex computer systems from the outside -- maintaining
a toehold within machinery that doesn't belong to you and is not
obedient to your own purposes -- tends by its nature to lead to
a rather fragmentary understanding. This fragmentary knowledge,
combined with guilty fear, is a perfect psychological
breeding-ground for a deeply paranoid outlook. Knowledge
underground takes the form of a hipster's argot, rules of thumb,
and superstitious ritual, combined with large amounts of
practised deceit. And that's the way the SNEAKERS cast basically
spend their lives: in pretense and deception, profoundly
disenchanted and utterly disenfranchised. Basically, not one
person among them can be trusted with a burnt-out match. Even
their "robberies" are fakes; they lie even to one another, and
they risk their lives, and other people's, for peanuts.
SNEAKERS, in which anagrams play a large thematic role, is
itself an anagram for NSA REEKS. The National Security Agency is
the largest target for the vaguely-leftist, antiauthoritarian
paranoia expressed by the film. The film's sinister McGuffin is
an NSA-built super-decryptor device. (This super-decryptor is a
somewhat silly gimmick, but that shouldn't be allowed to spoil
the story. Real cryptography enthusiasts will probably be too
busy laughing at the decryptor's mad-genius inventor, a raunchy
parody of real-life cryptographer Whitfield Diffie.) The IRS,
though never mentioned overtly, also comes in for some
tangential attack, since the phone number of one of the IRS's
California offices is given out verbally during the film by an
attractive young woman, who claims that it's her home phone
number. This deliberate bit of mischief must have guaranteed the
IRS a lot of eager phone-phreak action.
Every conspiracy must have a Them. In the black-and-white world
of ILLUMINATI, all forms of opposition to Goodness must be cut
from the same Satanic cloth, so that Aleister Crowley, Vladimir
Lenin and David Rockefeller are all of one warp and woof.
SNEAKERS, by contrast, is slightly more advanced, and features
two distinct species of Them. The first Them is the
Hippie-Sold-Out Them, a goofy role gamely played by Ben Kingsley
as a Darkside Yuppie Hacker Mafioso, a kind of carnivorous
forty-something Bill Gates. The second species of Them is the
enonymously reeking NSA, the American shadow-spook elite,
surprisingly personified by a patriarchal James Earl Jones in an
oddly comic and comforting Wizard of Oz-like cameo.
Both these Thems are successfully fooled by the clever Sneakers
in bits of Hollywood business that basically wouldn't deceive a
bright five-year-old, much less the world's foremost technical
espionage agency and a security-mad criminal zillionaire.
But these plot flaws are no real objection. A more genuine
objection would be the entire tenor of the film. The film
basically accomplishes nothing. Nothing actually happens. No one
has to change their mind about anything. At the end, the Hacker
Mafioso is left at large, still in power, still psychotic, and
still in command of huge sums and vast archives of illicit
knowledge and skill. The NSA, distributing a few cheap bribes,
simply swears everybody to secrecy, and retreats safely back
into the utter undisturbed silence of its Cold War netherworld.
A few large issues are raised tangentially, but absolutely
nothing is done about them, and no moral judgements or decisions
are made. The frenetic plotting of the Sneaker team accomplishes
nothing whatsoever beyond a maintenance of the status quo and
the winning of a few toys for the personnel. Redford doesn't
even win the token girl. It seems much ado about desperately
Then, at the very end, our hero robs the Republican Party of all
its money through computer-fraud, and distributes it to worthy
left-wing causes. Here something has actually happened at last,
but it's a dismal and stupid thing. It's profoundly
undemocratic, elitist, and hateful act; only a political idiot
could imagine that a crime of this nature would do a minute's
worth of real good. And even this psychotic provocation has the
look of a last-minute tag-on to the movie; in the book, it
doesn't even occur.
The film makes two stabs at Big Message. There's a deliberate
and much-emphasized Lecture at the Foot of the Cray, where the
evil Darkside Hacker explains in slow and careful capital
letters that the world in the 90s has become an Information
Society and has thus become vulnerable to new and suspiciously
invisible forms of manipulation. Beyond a momentary spasm of
purely intellectual interest, though, our hero's basic response
is a simple "I know. And I don't care." This surprisingly
sensible remark much deflates the impact of the
The second Big Message occurs during a ridiculously convenient
escape-scene in which our hero defies the Darkside Hacker to
kill him face-to-face. The bad-guy, forced to look deep inside
his own tortured soul, can't endure the moral responsibility
involved in pulling a trigger personally. The clear implication
is that sooner or later somebody has to take a definite and
personal responsibility for all this abstract technologized
evil. Unfortunately this is sheer romantic hippie nonsense; even
Adolf Eichmann has it figured that it was all somebody else's
fault. The twentieth century's big-time evils consisted of
people pushing papers in a distant office causing other people
to die miles away at the hands of dazed functionaries.
Tomorrow's button-pushers are likely to be more remote and
insulated than ever; they're not going to be worrying much about
their cop-outs and their karma.
SNEAKERS plays paranoia for slapstick laughs in the character of
Dan Aykroyd, who utters a wide variety of the standard
Space-Brother nutty notions, none of them with any practical
implications whatsoever. This may be the worst and most
discouraging aspect of the conspiratorial mindset -- the way it
simultaneously flatters one's own importance and also makes one
willing to do nothing practical and tangible. The conspiracy
theorist has got it all figured, he's got the inside angles, and
yet he has the perfect excuse for utter cynical torpor.
Let's just consider the real-world implications of genuine
conspiratorial convictions for a moment. Let's assume, as many
people do, that John Kennedy really was shot dead in a 'silent
coup' by a US government cabal in 1963. If this is true, then we
Americans clearly haven't run our own national affairs for at
least thirty years. Our executive, our Congress, our police and
our bureaucracies have all been a fraud in the hands of elite
and murderous secret masters. But if we're not running our own
affairs today, and haven't for thirty years, then how the heck
are we supposed to start now? Why even try? If the world's fate
is ineluctably in the hands of Illuminati, then what real reason
do we have to meddle in public matters? Why make our thoughts
and ideas heard? Why organize, why discuss public policy, why
make budgets, why set priorities, why vote? We'll just get
gypped anyhow. We'd all be better off retired, in hiding,
underground, in monasteries, in purdah, or dead.
If the NSA's tapping every phone line and reading every
license-plate from orbit, then They are basically omniscient.
They're watching us every moment -- but why do they bother? What
quality, besides our own vanity, would make us important enough
to be constantly watched by Secret Masters? After all, it's not
like we're actually intending to *accomplish* anything.
Conspiracy is for losers. As conspiracy freaks, by our very
nature we'll always live on the outside of where it's Really
Happening. That's what justifies our existence and allows us to
tell Ourselves apart from Them. Unlike people in the former
Eastern Bloc, who actually were oppressed and monitored by a
sinister power-elite, we ourselves will never *become* what's
Really Happening, despite our enormous relative advantages.
Maybe we can speculate a little together, trade gossip, scare
each other silly and swap outlandish bullshit. We can gather up
our hacker scrapbooks from the office trash of the Important and
Powerful. We can press our noses to the big mirrorglass windows.
Maybe it we're especially daring, we can fling a brick through a
window late one night and run like hell. That'll prove that
we're brave and that we really don't like Them -- though we're
not brave enough to replace Them, and we're certainly not brave
enough to become Them.
And this would also prove that no sane person would ever trust
us with a scintilla of real responsibility or power anyway, over
ourselves or anyone else. Because we don't deserve any such
power, no matter from what angle of the political spectrum we
happen to emerge. Because we've allowed ourselves the ugly
luxury of wallowing in an enormous noisome heap of bullshit. And
for being so stupid, we deserve whatever we get.