Summer Reading List, 2018

There has never been a better time to get off-line, soothe your spirit, and build your brain with a stack of books. We’re back again with reading recommendations for just that. This year, our 15th, we have ideas from newcomers Nisi Shawl, Veronica Fitzpatrick, and Penni Jones, as well as the return of Rick Moody, Douglas Rushkoff, Cynthia Connolly, André Carrington, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Zizi Papacharissi, Jussi Parikka, Peter Lunenfeld, Joseph Nechvatal, Lily Brewer, Dominic Pettman, Paul Levinson, Brian Tunney, Mike Daily, Paul D. Miller, Alex Burns, and myself. We know what you’ll read this summer!

As ever, the book links below lead to the title at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, the best bookstore on the planet. Read on!

Veronica Fitzpatrick

“Summer reading” will forever conjure the halcyon months after I graduated college. Condensed milk lattes and serial killers; my metabolism may have changed but my taste in therapeutic pleasure reading is evergreen.

I just reread The Likeness (Penguin, 2009), the second of Tana French’s Dublin murder squad novels. The series is literary catnip for international police procedural enthusiasts, but the real draw is French’s focus on the intimacy and perceptual acuity of detection. Her books are populated with eyebrow hitches and side-cut glances, all the little ways people read each other and give themselves away. This one is about a doomed undercover op set among reclusive The Secret History-style grad students—thus my favorite, and a fine place to start.

Before that was Sally Rooney’s  Conversations with Friends (Hogarth, 2017), the merits of which are hard to describe without sounding unduly condescending (“more than the sum of its parts!”). If the premise of an affair seems simple, and the prose style minimal (plus texting transcripts), Conversations is plenty complex and abundant in original insights re: interiority, hooking up, and radical politics, plus it’s a real, rare pleasure to read young women described and describable as wielding “a remorseless intelligence.”

I fell for Antonia Quirke via this essay on Antigua in CN Traveller and was floored to learn she’s primarily a film critic. Choking on Marlon Brando: A Film Critic’s Memoir About Love and the Movies (The Overlook Press, 2007) chronicles Quirke’s life through her near-spiritual devotion to specific actors; a terrific, weird example of writing about performance that celebrates the horniness at the heart of cinephilia.

Finally: the only book(s) adjacent to travel I want to read are L.S. Hilton’s Maestra series (so far Maestra [Putnam, 2016] and Domina [Putnam, 2017]), which follow a young female sociopath with an extensive art history education and impeccable style, sort of American Psycho on the Rome leg of Eat, Pray, Love with more niche sex clubs. And every coming-of-age novel I picked up in the last year, I read out of the pain of missing Elif Batuman’s romantic Ivy League epic The Idiot (Penguin, 2017).

Joseph Nechvatal

Bernard Stiegler The Neganthropocene (edited and translated by Daniel Ross; Open Humanities Press, 2018): In the essays and lectures here titled Neganthropocene, Stiegler opens an entirely new front moving beyond the dead-end “banality” of the Anthropocene. Stiegler stakes out a battleplan to proceed beyond, indeed shrugging off, the fulfillment of nihilism that the era of climate chaos ushers in.

Maria Stavrinaki Dada Presentism: An Essay on Art and History (Stanford University Press, 2016): Dada is often celebrated for its strategies of shock and opposition, but in Dada Presentism, Maria Stavrinaki provides a new picture of Dada art and writings as a lucid reflection on history and the role of art within it.

Jonathan Fineberg Modern Art at the Border of Mind (University of Nebraska Press, 2015): Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain is a broad investigation by one of the foremost scholars of modern art of the relationship between modern art and the structure of the mind and brain. Based on Fineberg’s Presidential Lectures at the University of Nebraska, this book examines the relationship between artistic production, neuroscience, and the way we make meaning in form.

André M. Carrington

I have such a delightful summer and fall lined up that I’m feeling a great deal of gratitude. I expect some of the things I’m going to read will reinforce that feeling. As usual, my habits are geared toward nonfiction:

Madison Moore Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric (Yale University Press, 2018): A stunner by a wonderful, brilliant friend & colleague.

Jenifer Lewis The Mother of Black Hollywood (Amistad, 2017): I bought this in audiobook format, because I love her voice. From interviews, I think this will be a truly humbling and inspiring read about her extraordinary career and the challenges she’s faced with bipolar disorder.

Riley Snorton Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (University of Minnesota Press, 2017): Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Nonfiction!

Mamadou Dia 3052: Persiguiendo un Sueño (Hahatay, 2017): The story of the author’s life from Senegal to Spain. Every couple years, I try my best to make it through a book in Spanish; this one, recommended by my esteemed colleague Dr. Jeffrey Coleman, is a little hard to find stateside, so I might have to take a field trip.

Douglas Rushkoff

James Bridle New Dark Age (Verso, 2018): Exposes the myth that quantifiable data can provide a coherent model of the world.

David Lynch Catching the Big Fish (TarcherPerigee, 2006): David Lynch (director of Twin Peaks and many great movies) shares why mediation is so important and how to access the unified field.

Jason Louv John Dee and the Empire of Angels (Inner Traditions, 2018): Jason Louv, world’s leading expert on Enochian magic, reveals the occult roots of the British Empire, and our own.

Nisi Shawl

Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow (Tor, 2017), is an audaciously optimistic near-future book about immortality and consensus. Also beer, massages, and anarchy.

The Dreamquest of Vellitt Boe (Tor, 2016) is arch-storyteller Kij Johnson’s feminist take on Lovecraftian fantasy, with bonus cat.

The Good House (Washington Square Press, 2004) is prime Tananarive Due. It’s horror, but of the redemptive sort, and deals with a particularly African American issue: the violent deaths of our young men.

Elysium, by Jennifer Marie Brisset (Aqueduct Press, 2014), is a gorgeously elegiac tale of love and planetary cleansing, told in cleverly overlapping narratives that gradually reveal what has been saved and lost over the numberless eons covered. It’s a swift read, but a deep one.

A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar (Small Beer Press, 2013), is a nearly perfect sojourn in an imaginary land. It reminds me very much of early Ursula K. Le Guin.

Rick Moody

I have been reading a lot of poetry recently, in part because I have been co-teaching a class at Brown called Writers on Writing that’s half prose and half poetry. I taught this course in the spring with the poet Sawako Nakayasu, whose book The Ants (Les Figues Press, 2014) would be on any list of contemporary collections I really love. (It’s about ants!) In the fall I’m teaching with the excellent Monica de la Torre, whose Public Domain (Roof Books, 2008) is likewise a contemporary poetry must-read.

Whereas, by Layli Long Soldier (Graywolf Press, 2017) was the last book we read for class in the spring, and I’m still thinking it through. It’s sort of half experimental poetry, half incredibly powerful and moving critique of official governmental responses to the treatment of indigenous peoples in the United States of America. The experimental part demonstrates the struggle of First Peoples to deal with the oppressor tongue of American culture in a way that seems unique to me. What a great and powerful book.

Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016) came to my attention through Monica, and it is in part about Don Mee Choi’s father’s photographs of wars and conflicts in Southeast Asia. (The author is Korean, but her father, as a photographer, ranged as far as Cambodia, as I understand the story so far.) Photos are included in the text. Again, there’s a mixture of poetical methods here, far more than in a conventionally “confessional” work. The poems are sly, funny, devastating. Don Mee Choi’s voice is a knowing, tragic, and comic thing that orbits around the work in ways that deepen and complexify the field of investigation.

David Grubbs is my friend and occasional collaborator (and I can’t overlook to mentioned his first book, a work of criticism called Records Ruin the Landscape [Duke University Press, 2014] that I admire a great deal), and an unparalleled musician, above all, but his first book of “poetry” is now out, a book-length prose poem called Now That the Audience is Assembled (Duke University Press, 2018), which is sort of a long meditation on experimental music making and the ekphrastic route through which one might describe such an endeavor. I have used quotation marks to describe the work as “poetry” simply because I think there’s such a great area of hybrid activity between prose and poetry these days that things that people are describing as poems to me are also very conventionally be understood as “prose” as well. Grubbs’s book might also be understood as music! It’s an incredibly promising and funny first imaginative work by an artist who seems able to produce in almost any medium.

Penni Jones

Mark Haskell Smith Blown (Grove Press, Black Cat, 2018): I’ve been a big fan of Mark Haskell Smith for about eleven years. His novels are clever and fun, with one-word titles packed with innuendo. His protagonists are often regular folks who find themselves plunged into worlds where they don’t belong. The stakes are high and the outcomes are hilariously subversive.

Ariel Gore We Were Witches (Amethyst Editions, 2017): Gore’s raw honesty while challenging the status quo is enlightening and inspirational. Her latest release is a “memoirist-novel” that draws on her experience as a struggling artist and single teenage mother in a time when the phrase “family values” was synonymous with women like her being demoralized and demonized.

Christopher Buckley No Way to Treat a First Lady (Random House, 2002): I read several of Buckley’s political satire novels in rapid succession of seeing the movie Thank You for Smoking which was based on his 1994 novel of the same title. Somehow I missed No Way to Treat a First Lady, which is about a United States first lady on trial for murdering her philandering husband. For some reason the plot is very attractive to me right now.

Alexandra Sokoloff Stealing Hollywood (Amazon Digital Services, 2015): This book is meant to arm authors with screenwriting tricks that will strengthen and simplify novel writing. Is it too good to be true? I’ll let you know.

Charles Salzberg Second Story Man (Down & Out Books, 2018): If Salzberg’s previous works are any indication, this novel won’t disappoint. Second Story Man is a crime caper with alternating points-of-view between two lawmen and a master burglar. The criminal taunts the men who are hunting him as the stakes grow higher. Sounds like the perfect beach read to me!

Paul Levinson

I’m writing at least half a dozen things right now, with no time for reading, but here are three recommendations, all fiction, of books I’ve recently finished and much enjoyed:

Peter Watts’ The Freeze-Frame Revolution (Tachyon) was [is due to be] officially published on June 12, but I was fortunate to get an advance copy. Watts is a gifted science fiction writer, with a knack for combining disparate threads of science rooted in hard-as-nails science, and he does this par excellence in his latest novel. This time it’s far-future humans far away from Earth, in a tense web woven of AI, biology, cyberpunk in the flesh and robots with music. Not only that, the novel is just 192 pages.

Heather, the Totality (Little, Brown, 2017) is also short – 134 pages – and is written by someone, Matthew Weiner, whose work you may well know in a very different medium, television. Weiner brings the same incisive understanding of the underside of human nature he brought to The Sopranos and Mad Men to this explosive little novel, which sports only one line of actual dialog. What’s it about it? Here’s what I’ll tell you: A few months ago, I noticed a guy eyeing a woman in a supermarket parking lot. It happened very quickly, and I stayed in my car until the woman got safely into hers and drove away. As I drove back on the highway, I realized there was something, I don’t know, really angry in his gaze, certainly more than just appreciation. That’s the ignition point for Heather, when her Manhattan father notices a construction worker ogling his 14-year old daughter.

And I’ll complete this triad by highly recommending for your summer reading pleasure Come Out Tonight by Bonnie Rozanksi (Amazon Digital Services, 2011; whose The Mind Traveler appeared on my list last year). This one’s not that short – more than 200 pages – and every page is worth reading. It’s mostly a police mystery, with a dash of science fiction, when a top-notch researcher working on a powerful new sleeping aid is savagely assaulted and left in a vegetative state. Her boyfriend, her father, and all manner of suspects abound, and Rozanski brings her unerring eye for New York detail to this story, noting how, after a subway car pulls out of Grand Central, it “futzes around” for a few minutes. Don’t futz around regarding this novel — snap it up!

Lily Brewer

Ordinarily, when invited to contribute to my husband’s famed Summer Reading List, I include more books, more force, more flourish; this summer, in between and during stops on my way to L.A. through Reno from Houston for my yearly research and exhibition road trip in preparation for my dissertation, my list becomes shorter and shorter. This is that short list.

This summer I have been and will continue to read Unthinking Mastery by Julietta Singh (Duke University Press, 2018) and Decolonizing Dialects by George Ciccariello-Maher (Duke University Press, 2017); Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis (Haymarket, 2016) and How We Get Free by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (Haymarket, 2017); Supercommunity: Diabolical Togetherness Beyond Contemporary Art edited by Lulieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, and Anton Vidokle (Verso, 2017). I also continue to wait as patiently as possible for Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin’s next couple books in their series Intercalations–Decapitated Economies and These Birds of Temptation–for K. Verlag at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Every day I still think, the word for world is still forest.

Matthew Kirschenbaum

My immediate reading right now is Johanna Drucker’s The General Theory of Social Relativity (The Elephants, 2018). Drucker will be known to some as a book artist, to others as a scholar of modernist art, to still others as a leading figure in the digital humanities community. Here, however, in this short chapbook, she is a diagnostician of the contemporary public sphere. Heady title notwithstanding, Drucker’s focus is squarely on the everyday of our collective media and discourse, both united under the rubric of what she terms aesthetics. Like other writers (Angela Nagle, #recentcontroversiesdulynoted) she seeks to dismantle the notion that there is anything inherently progressive in art or aesthetics, or that associated leftist tactics can in any simple, causal, or mechanistic way constitute a “resistance.” Instead, Drucker turns toward an account of cultural phenomena as “extrusions” or “manifestations” of our swirling, affective engagement with an all-consuming and resolutely non-partisan media spectrum. The key term to emerge here is the phantasmatic: no mere simulacrum, but the metastasizing of meme into reality fabric. In this there are also sympathies with the “eversion” hypothesis, a word William Gibson first introduced in Spook Country (Penguin/Viking, 2007) to describe the virtual’s quotidian intrusion into the real world, so-called. Likewise, Drucker offers a direct critique of digital dualism, the notion that what’s on our screens is somehow less real than our (somehow?) more authentic analog surroundings. By contrast, screen and the everyday now co-constitute the real, held together by the quantum gel of the social, presented here not as relation but as medium, a medium which one doesn’t have to be Einstein to see the Commander-in-Cheese has mastered. (Don’t like the thought of quantum gel? Call it covfefe instead.) This one is essential, folks.

Following the Drucker, my next project will likely be Justin Joque’s Deconstruction Machines: Writing in the Age of Cyberwar (University of Minnesota Press, 2018). I mean, come on, Justin, you had me at deconstruction, machines, writing, and cyberwar! Starting with the brute-simple observation that what contemporary militaries dub cyberwar or netwar is carried via malignant computer code—which is to say texts that literally take things apart (think Stuxnet)—Joque asks what it means to entertain the weaponization of a philosophy, namely the book’s titular deconstruction. Also on deck are a brace of books from the MIT Press’s Essential Knowledge series, Nick Montfort’s The Future (2017) and Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book (2018).These entries are intended to provide fast and accessible but critically engaged introductions to a topic; still, the secret (don’t tell) is that one reads such books at least as much for their author as for their individual subject matter, and such is the case here. Tar for Mortar (Punctum Books, 2018), meanwhile, is still another short chapbook, Jonathan Basile’s archaeology of Borges’s multitudinous Library of Babel (Basile having also programmed a computer simulation of same). Speaking of multitudes, Chicago’s Interacting with Print (2018) volume bills itself as a multigraph: a monograph-length book collectively authored by some two dozen leading scholars of nineteenth century print culture and book history, composed with a wiki so as to interleave their expert voices rather than produce the standard edited collection. Finally, my colleague Tita Chico’s monograph The Experimental Imagination just out from Stanford, offers a historicized account of the entanglement of literature and science during the Enlightenment, a period when (she argues) the language of the one co-created the discourse of the other—a story that is all the more relevant now that the science wars have been phantasmatically mobilized.

Dominic Pettman

I’m trying to catch up on some old school uncanny lit this Summer, so have cued up:

Robert Aickman The Late Breafkasters and Other Strange Stories (Valancourt Books, 2016): “Philip Larkin or Barbara Pym, gone eldritch,” according to the New Yorker.

Edith Wharton The Ghost-Feeler (Peter Owen Publishers, 2002)

Herbert Read The Green Child (New Directions, 2013)

Elizabeth Hand Wylding Hall (PS Publishing, 2015)

I’m also looking forward to:

Antonio Lobo Antunes The Land at the End of the World (W.W. Norton & Co., 2012)

Sylvia Wynter On Being Human As Praxis (Duke University Press, 2015)

Jeff Dolven Senses of Style: Poetry Before Interpretaion (University of Chicago Press, 2018)

Eugene Thacker Infinite Resignation: On Pessimism (Repeater Books, 2018)

Catherine Millot Life with Lacan (Polity, 2018)

Rhian Jones and Eli Davies, Editors Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them (Repeater Books, 2017)

Jussi Parikka

This summer I am returning to a book that has been reissued. Giuliana Bruno’s Atlas of Emotion came out in 2002 but was out of print for a long period, and Verso has now republished it. Bruno’s work is a great example of the methodological innovation that I also read as inspiring “media archaeological” work: moving across art history, architecture and built environments, gender, cinema and many other contexts. And it is beautifully written. This time round I am reading it in a specific context of (media) archaeologies of fashion, which relates to our AHRC-funded project on the fashion film.

Another inspiring scholar, Matthew Fuller, has a new book out on sleep (How to Sleep: The Art, Biology and Culture of Unconsciousness; Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 (Verso, 2014) came out some years ago, but Fuller’s book is clearly following the same footsteps and has opens up with this wonderful outline of the book’s aim: “Sleep is quite a popular activity, indeed most humans spend around a third of their lives asleep. However, cultural, political, or aesthetic thought tends to remain concerned with the interpretation and actions of those who are awake.”

David Parisi’s Archaeologies of Touch (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) is also on my reading list in the pile of books unofficially labelled “things media archaeological” – also Susan Murray’s new book on the history of the color television – Bright Signals (Duke University Press, 2018) — can be broadly said to belong to the same category of interesting takes that deal with media history, perception and technicity.

I am reading Joanna Zylinska’s Nonhuman Photography (MIT Press, 2017) too as I am in the midst of preparing a project proposal on Operative Images. Eric Alliez and Maurizio Lazzarato’s book War and Capital (Semiotext(e), 2018) arrived recently in the mail and is one of the books I aspire to read. In order to understand contemporary capitalism, one studies it as a military operation. Next one on my reading list is Janine Marchessault’s Ecstatic Worlds: Media, Utopias, Ecologies (MIT Press, 2017) that came out last year already but I am a bit late to reading it. Besides being interested in what it says about ecology and the Cold War, I think it might have good points useful for our Lab Book project, a book about humanities and media labs that in many ways go back to the Cold War (as a forthcoming book by Ryan Bishop and John Beck argues well). And today I learned that the English translation of Markus Krajewski’s The Server (Yale University Press, 2018) is out. Translated by Ilinca Iurascu, the book is one key reference point in the German cultural techniques literature and outlines a cultural history of servantry from the technological point of view too.

Zizi Papacharissi

This summer I have five books out. So, I will happily be spending time away from books, computers, and reading.

But, here’s what I read in the process, and highly recommend:

Rod Hart Civic Hope:How Ordinary Americans Keep Democracy Alive (Cambridge University Press, 2018): A prescient analysis of letters to the editor, dating back to the fifties. Reminds how much and how little, at the same time, things have changed in politics. Beautifully written; a love letter to democracy.

Svetlana Boym The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, 2002) Perhaps you read this when it first came out. Reread and realize how every idea of yours you thought original, she wrote about decades ago.

Jessa Lingel Digital Countercultures and the Struggle for Community (MIT Press, 2017): This is, above all, a modern book. If Dick Hebdige wrote Subculture: The Meaning of Style (Routledge, 1979) today, this is what it would read like.

Brian Tunney

Chris Nashawaty Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story (Flatiron Books, 2018): My father has this strange Rodney Dangerfield as cartoon character statue in his house that speaks some of his most infamous lines. Amid piles of CDs and videos, old assortments and antiques, this Rodney Dangerfield animated doll thing stands out as a reminder that my father kinda raised myself and my brothers on Rodney Dangerfield’s comedy and movies. From Easy Money to the long sought after record Rappin’ Rodney, Dangerfield’s character was used as a basis for my father to relate to his sons.

Granted, not the best role model, or traditional form or father-son relations, but it encapsulated something we’re still able to relate on all these years later. I believe that fascination with the comedian began with his appearance in Caddyshack, and to this day, whenever it’s on TV, I pretty much put everything aside and watch it.

Also to this day, it’s quite apparent that the movie makes little to no sense at all. As it would happen, that belief stretches far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. In April 2018, writer Chris Nashawaty released the book Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story, and I quickly read through it within a few days of buying it.

Beginning with the story of National Lampoon magazine, followed by the writing and creation of Animal House, the book tracks the story of the writers and director as they take life experience (and lack thereof), lighting in a bottle moments that featured young comedic legends in the making and all of the behind the scenes mayhem that formed the basis for the movie. I won’t divulge much here, except that I was correct in assuming that the movie makes little to no sense, and that the finished product was the result of editing down a rough four and a half hour cut into something that could be bought and sold in Hollywood.

With the addition of an animatronic gopher, large improvisational bits from Bill Murray and more than few drunken blowups from the cast and staff, the movie ultimately went from critical disaster to earning over $30 million at the box office.

It also pushed a 57-year-old Rodney Dangerfield out of Vegas and into the movie business. Though Dangerfield didn’t think he was funny during the filming of the movie (because the director’s staff couldn’t laugh at him while filming), he went on to foster an odd father-son relationship for myself, my dad and my brothers.

Peter Lunenfeld

Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster, 2011) is what my kids used to tease me about as a “big fattie” summer read. I’m long overdue to grapple with this book as part of understanding the links between neoliberalism and what I’m calling the California Design Ideology.

As for the rest of the summer, I want to catch up with the recent output of friends and colleagues who I can’t keep up with during the year.

I still need to read rather than browse Johanna Drucker’s Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production (Harvard University Press, 2014) which is just what it sounds like, an analysis of the ways in which how we see affects the ways that we come to know. Johanna came out with not one but two more books in the spring of 2018: Downdrift (Three Rooms Press, 2018) is an eco-fiction that begins with the voice of an Archaean, “the most ancient creature on earth”; The General Theory of Social Relativity (The Elephants, 2018) melds quantum physics with social analysis. Given that I can’t understand how quickly the global polity has deteriorated in the past one thousand days, I’m open to new paradigms.

Todd Presner, David Shepard and Yoh Kawano’s Hypercities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities (Harvard University Press, 2014) joins Jeffrey Schnapp and Matthew Battles’ The Library Beyond the Book (Harvard University Press, 2014) as titles in and around digital humanities that I want to follow as a reminder that ars longa, vita brevis, and that (I hope) certain political winds are briefer still.

Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter’s new book Organization after Social Media (Minor Compositions, 2018) wants us to construct “social technologies based on enduring time” and value action over weak ties. The .01% knows that likes and followers are nice, but what moves the world and the art world (at least right now) is cold, hard cash. Andrea Fraser’s bespoke big data project, 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics (MIT Press, 2018), is a brick of a book designed by the wonderful Geoff Kaplan. It organizes the deep research that Fraser put in to understand exactly how culture and power intersect by looking in detail at the political contributions by board members at more than 125 of the most important museums showing contemporary art in the United States.

Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia (Tachyon, 2016) also interrogates culture’s tortured relationship with power, but from a deiselpunk perspective, creating an alternative past in which the Futurists take over the Regency of Carnaro to wreck havoc on their enemies. It was a nominee for the 2016 Sidewise Award, Best Short-Form Alternate History. In my alternate history, it won.

Finally, there’s Made Up: Designs Fictions, edited by Tim Durfee and Mimi Zeiger (Actar, 2018), which I’d recommend even if I didn’t have a short piece in it. Caveat lector should be the motto for all summer reading lists, in any case.

Cynthia Connolly

Kevin Starr Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (Oxford University Press, 1985): Explains how the California I grew up into became what it is today.

Michael Fallon Creating the Future: Art and Los Angeles in the 1970s (Counterpoint, 2014): Explains the various art scenes in LA and how that scene always was considered the bastard child of contemporary art in the eyes of the NY art critiques and beyond. It explains how the landscape and place was a strong influence on the art and for my own life, having grown up in LA, I see how much this scene influenced me, even as a child. It has helped me inform my own artwork.

Spain & Portugal’s Best Trips (Lonely Planet, 2016): Going to Spain and Portugal for some Banned in DC (Sun Dog Propaganda, 1988) talks this fall. Reading this book.

Paul D. Miller

Hassan Blasim, Editor Iraq +100 (Tor, 2017)

Nathan Schneider Everything for Everyone (Nation Books, 2018)

Annalee Newitz Autonomous: A Novel (Tor, 2017)

Cixin Liu Ball Lightning (Head of Zeus, 2018)

Yasha Levine Surveillance Valley (PublicAffairs, 2018)

Michael Pollan How to Change Your Mind (Penguin, 2018)

Richard M. Stallman Free Software, Free Society (Free Software Foundation, 2002)

Mike Daily

Richard Brautigan The Beatles Lyrics Illustrated (Dell, 1975): I found a battered-but-intact reading copy of this paperback for $5.74, shipping included. Richard Brautigan wrote the Introduction, a short story-like piece of brilliancy not published anywhere else. I always knew that someday I’d get into The Beatles. “She Loves You” (B Side: “I’ll Get You”) mesmerized me at seven years old, much. Oh yeah.

Ronen Givony Jawbreaker’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy (or, The Strange Death of Selling Out) (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018): I can’t recall if it was Blockbuster, Best Buy, or The Wherehouse that had CD baristas in the mid-’90s. You’d bring shrink-wrapped compact discs to the circular bar/listening station, and they’d open ’em for you. How sophisticated! it felt. Elegant. ‘Twas at one of these retail stores that—while reading the lyrics, of course—I first heard 24 Hour Revenge Therapy (Tupelo Communion Conspiracy Theory, 1994) by Jawbreaker. I already knew I needed to own the album. Unfun (Shredder, 1990) and Bivouac (Tupelo, 1992) were often being spun at high volume in my affordable student housing at the time.

Sam Pink The Garbage Times/White Ibis (Soft Skull Press, 2018): I flipped through the pages of my Verified Amazon Purchase. “Wait. What? Soft Skull is European?” I wondered after noticing single quotation marks for the dialogue in both novellas. I checked one of the copyright pages. “New York, NY.” Phew. Binge-read alert x 2. New Sam Pink.

Rob Plath Swallowtude (Epic Rites Press, 2017): New York poet, novelist, photographer, illustrator, and painter Rob Plath knew Allen Ginsberg. Imagine one of your heroes handing you a bowl of beans and telling you simply to eat. Maybe it was soup. Vegan. Ginsberg passed away in ’97, right around the time I stopped following what was happening on the underground poetry scene. Today, university students in Wales are studying Rob Plath’s writing alongside the work of Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Dan Fante (Plath’s unpublished 2014 interview with Dan Fante will be in the September/October issue of UK ‘s esteemed print Magazine, Cold Lips). I’m excited to read his first novel. Signed copy purchased from the author.

Alex Burns

Jane Friedman The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press, 2018): A candid guide to career pathways for (academic) writers, how the publishing industry works, how to build an author platform, the role of entrepreneurship, and diverse money-making strategies. Part of the series Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing.

Annie McClanahan Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First Century Culture (Stanford University Press, 2017): McClanahan is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Irvine. Austerity and debt have defined the post-2008 socio-economic landscape. This book draws on behavioral economics, cultural analysis, and other disciplines to critically examine the economic, social, and historical transformations in the United States economy – and their impact on contemporary life. Credit, debt, and property speculation now reshape our individual subjectivity: McClanahan contends that these changes are likely to endure in the future.

Arne De Boever Finance Fictions: Realism and Psychosis in a Time of Economic Crisis (Fordham University Press, 2018): De Boever teaches American Studies at the California Institute of the Arts. This book examines how books, film, and other popular culture have communicated to a wider audience the economic realities of the post-2008 world. De Boever finds that black box algorithms have replaced commodities in popular imagination.

Lawrence Creatura Long and Short: Confessions of a Portfolio Manager: Stock Market Wisdom for Investors (Mill City Press, 2015): For fans of SHO’s Billions, Creatura’s book is a series of short, reflective, and practitioner-focused essays on how he achieved ‘alpha’ (excess returns above a benchmark) as a portfolio manager, and what you can learn from some of his mistakes.

David Graeber Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Simon & Schuster, 2018): Graeber is a Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics who was involved in Occupy Wall Street’s direct action protests. This book expands on Graeber’s 2013 essay “On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” (Strike Magazine) to examine why neoliberal capitalism creates a range of meaningless jobs that its employees know are pointless. Graeber also includes survey responses from international readers on the bullshit jobs they have had to endure, and the creative strategies developed to cope with them.

Roy Christopher

Suzanne Buffam A Pillow Book (Canarium Books, 2016): Full of anecdotes and lists related to pillows and sleep, Buffam’s book is the perfect before-bed meditation. I read this one at night before I sleep, my head appropriately on my pillow.

Hieu Minh Nguyen Not Here (Coffee House Press, 2018): Nguyen balances words on a page with such heart-pounding delicacy, I can only take a few at a time. These poems feel by turns like they will shatter apart or stab you to death. Either way, they’re honed to a deadly point and pointed right at you. It’s as beautiful as it is painful.

Amos Tutuola and Ben Okri: I was doing research on intertextuality, as you do, and I came across a book comparing the work of Nigerian novelist Ben Okri with those of his forebear Amos Tutuola (the auspiciously titled Intertextuality and the Novels of Amos Tutuola and Ben Okri by Durojaiye Owoeye). I decided to take a closer look. I immediately recognized that Brian Eno and David Byrne ganked the title of their 1982 record from Tutuola’s second novel (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts; faber & faber 1954), which I took as annoying but also as further endorsement. I’ve been reading Tutuola’s books as fast as I can find them, and I’m stacking up Okri’s for after (e.g., The Famished Road, Astonishing the Gods, etc.). Someone—not the authors, of course—called this stuff “magical realism,” and I guess that’ll have to do.

Tade Thompson Rosewater (Orbit Books, 2018): Though I’ve been reading a lot of Nigerian literature lately, I didn’t know Tade Thompson was originally from there (He is Yoruba) when I started reading this. The deft way that Rosewater jumps time periods and switches from the actual to the virtual and back is a sure sign that a steady hand is in control. The story is also mind-expanding. It’s cyberpunk, but it’s also so much more. This is the first book of his Wormwood Trilogy, so there’s thankfully more to come.

Susan Lepselter The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny (University of Michigan Press, 2016): I’ve been researching UFOs and alien abductions for the last several years for no reason other than curiosity, and Lepselter brings together nodes I haven’t seen connected in other books on these topics. Using the possible presence of aliens as an avatar for alienations of all kinds: persistent hauntings, captivity stories, conspiracy theories, uncanny memories. In the end, this is not a book about UFOs and things far away. It’s a book about the aliens at home. It’s a book about the United States.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Summer Reading List, 2016

If you’re like me, you haven’t even read all of last year’s recommendations, but here’s another great pile of pages to read! This year’s list boasts contributions from newcomers Rita Raley, Gerfried Ambrosch, Pat Cadigan, Emily Empel, Alexander Weheliye, André Carrington, Douglas Lain, Christina Henry, Alfie Bown, Charles Mudede, and Joseph Nechvatal, as well as veteran listers Janet Murray, Lance Strate, Peter Lunenfeld, Ashley Crawford, Lily Brewer, Dave Allen, Rick Moody, Alex Burns, Patrick Barber, Michael Schandorf, and myself.

Lily at Green Apple Books
Lily Brewer at Green Apple Books in San Francisco.

As always unless otherwise noted, titles and covers link to the book at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon: the best bookstore on the planet. Read on!

Powell's Books

Pat Cadigan

Roz Kaveney’s Rhapsody of Blood series hasn’t received half the attention it deserves. The first three books––Rituals (Plus One Press, 2012), Reflections (2013), and Resurrections (2014)––are available now and two more are coming. It’s the secret history of the world, told with so much wit and panache, that you’ll feel like your IQ went up a few points.

Occupy MeTricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me (Gollancz, 2016) is also not to be missed. It’s not a gentle ride, but you can handle it. This is a book for your wild side.

Paul McAuley has followed up Something Coming Through (Gollancz, 2015) with Into Everywhere (Gollancz, 2016). Trust me, you don’t want to miss out on what’s going on in the McAuley-verse.

Liz Williams is a writer who has been shamefully overlooked, even after she was nominated for an Arthur C. Clarke Award. There are plenty of great books to choose from but if you’re wondering where to start, go with Snake Agent (Open Road Media, 2013), the first book in her Detective Chen mysteries. After that, you won’t need any help from me.

Finally… I spent the first four months of last year having chemo for my incorrigible cancer. The shortlist for last year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award kept me entertained and thinking about things not related to carcinomas.

Those six books are:

Station Eleven took the prize but really, all six are winners. Trust me.

Rick Moody

Conjunctions 66: Affinity: Which I have a piece in, but that’s not why I want to read it. It’s a great issue, of one of the greatest literary magazines in the country, which is also now one of the longest-lived literary magazines.

Dana Spiotta, Innocents and Others (Scribner, 2016): She’s one of my favorite stylists operating these days.

A Collapse of HorsesBrian Evenson, A Collapse of Horses (Coffee House Press, 2016): Brian’s technicolor stories of the West and violence and human psychology are always excellent, and always underrated, or not as well known as they should be. I’m excited to catch up on the recent stuff, which I know less well than the early stuff.

Dorthe Nors, So Much for That Winter (Graywolf Press, 2016): One of the truly great writers of Western Europe, and just now acquiring a bit of a following in the US. She’s Danish, but sort of half Woolf, half Welty.

J. C. Hallman, Wm & H’ry: Literature, Love, and the Letters between Wiliam and Henry James (University of Iowa Press, 2013): Which is a book about the correspondence between the James brothers. I started it at the beginning of the semester, and really loved it. I want to finish.

Ben Ratliff, Every Song Ever (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016): I hate most music writing these days, except that I love Ben Ratliff. I am tempted to buy almost everything he recommends, even the extreme metal stuff…

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Harper Perennial, 2008): Well, you know, a lot of people already know about this book. I know about it chiefly from reading Derrida, and last year I decided I had put it off long enough. I dip in and read a few pages, and then go and read the commentators some more.

Ahmad Faris Al-Shidyaq, Leg Over Leg (New York University Press, 2015): The first great Arabic novel, or so they say. But most of them haven’t read it. A book I have long aspired to. Hoping to get to it this summer!

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 3 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015): Because I have now finished 1 and 2.

Rita Raley

I might be remiss if I began this list without mentioning the two new books in the Electronic Mediations series from the University of Minnesota Press, but I am genuinely excited about Yuk Hui’s On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016) and Jennifer Gabrys’ Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (2016). In the wake of recent translations of Gilbert Simondon’s work into English, “technical objects” (emerging in part from the Industrial Revolution) are increasingly central to critical conversations in media and science and technology studies. Hui builds on Simondon and Heidegger in his philosophical account of the “digital objects” that constitute our contemporary socio-technical milieu, posing timely questions about the individuation of both objects and humans in relation to technical systems. Equally timely is Program Earth, Gabrys’s cultural and theoretical analysis of environmental sensing, which should I think be required reading for anyone interested in issues of media and environment. Ranging from spillcams to smart cities and participatory urbanism, Gabrys demonstrates with sharp critical acumen the extent to which “the earth” is programmed, monitored, experienced, and, one hopes, engaged.

Track ChangesBut the big academic text for me this summer is of course Matt Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Harvard University Press, 2016). I’ve been following along, as one does with a Kirschenbaum project, and reading around the edges, as with the recent piece in the Paris Review, but I’m eager to sit down and work through the thing itself.

I’m also looking forward to making my way through the formidable collection, Global Activism: Art and Conflict in the 21st Century (MIT Press, 2015), which follows from a ZKM exhibit a couple of years ago, and David Jhave Johnston’s Aesthetic Animism: Digital Poetry’s Ontological Implications (MIT Press, 2016). I have been teaching and studying Jhave’s work for some time, and I can’t wait to see the book-length treatment of what he calls TAVITS (text audio-visual interactivity). And the MIT book I want to insist everyone should read is Gary Hall’s Pirate Philosophy: For a Digital Posthumanities (2016). As Hall persuasively argues, it is not enough to develop post-theoretical paradigms when our various circuits of scholarly communication are still embedded in humanist practices. With a thorough account of the recent transformations in academic publishing, Hall challenges both individuals and institutions to develop models of knowledge dissemination better suited to our technological and socio-economic landscape.

Summer is for me the time for essay and short story collections. Like many I imagine, I’ve been tracking the development of some of the entries for the “Digital Keywords” project at Culture Digitally, and now I am eager to dip into the whole collection, out soon from Princeton University Press. Absent a new Alice Munro compilation (sigh), I’ve lined up Etgar Keret’s Suddenly, A Knock on the Door (FSG Originals, 2012), Aleksander Hemon’s The Question of Bruno (Vintage, 2000), and Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House, 2015) for August. And Lauren Groff’s story in the New Yorker last summer (“Ghosts and Empties“) has led me to pick up her novel, The Monsters of Templeton (Hachette, 2008).

Summer is also the time for comics and graphic novels. I want to start with Jeff Smith’s RASL (Cartoon Books, 2013), which I’ve not yet read, but then I’m looking forward to Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm (HarperCollins India, 2010), Ozge Samanci’s Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), and Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Pantheon, 2016). Last summer’s reads in this category are also worth a mention: Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future (Metropolitan Books, 2015) and Sydney Padua’s marvelous The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon, 2015).

And speaking of image-word experiments, I keep recommending Mark Z. Danielewski’s serial novel, The Familiar (Pantheon, 2015-), to anyone who will listen but I have to say it’s Volume 3: Honeysuckle & Pain (Pantheon, 2016) that seals the deal.

Alexander Weheliye

Here are a few books I’m looking forward to reading this summer:

Lance Strate

Here in New York, the Broadway musical Hamilton has been all the rage for the past year, so I have decided to start my summer reading off with The Federalist Papers, authored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (Signet Classics, 2003, originally published 1787-1788 under the pseudonym of Publius). While we’re on the subject of authors with the initials A.H., my list also includes Ends and Means: An Inquiry Into the Nature of Ideals by Aldous Huxley (Transaction, 2012, originally published 1937).

I recently received a copy of The Book of Radical General Semantics by Gad Horowitz with Colin Campbell (Pencraft International, 2016), and I would want to read it under any circumstance, but all the more so because I recently became president of the New York Society for General Semantics. I also plan on rereading Lewis Mumford’s The Condition of Man (Harcourt, Brace, 1944). And I have heard great things about the recent book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Schocken Books, 2015), so that’s on my list as well.

StoneFor scholars in the field of communication and media studies, Arthur Asa Berger is a familiar name, having authored many books on media and popular culture, and I look forward to reading his newest, Writing Myself into Existence (NeoPoiesis Pres, 2016). Regarding communication, I also have on my list Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin, 2015) by Sherry Turkle, a scholar often included in media ecology circles. And on the related topic of the study of time, I am also including Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

Poetry books play a prominent and pleasant role regarding summertime reading (and the rest of the year as well), and this year my stack includes a collection by David Ossman of Firesign Theatre, Marshmallows and Despair (NeoPoiesis Pres, 2015), and Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey (Andrews McMeel, 2015).

My son has recommended the work of playwright Jenny Schwartz, so I’m also including two of her plays, God’s Ear (Samuel French, 2009), and Somewhere Fun (Oberon, 2013). Finally, there’s a mystery novel I just have to read, Death by Triangulation by John Oughton (NeoPoiesis Pres, 2015).

Gerfried Ambrosch

Being an information junkie, I mostly read non-fiction. The last two works of fiction I have read were Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins (Bantam, 1984), which I highly recommend (It’s a great summer read and a real page-turner), and, for research reasons, the Quran (not such a page-turner). The former tells the story of a chap called Alobar, an 8th-century Eurasian king, who, having escaped execution, is granted everlasting youth, finds a female companion with whom he shares this gift, and experiences many strange things over the course of several centuries. His extraordinary life story eventually intersects with that of a young waitress from Seattle and several other curious characters in this darkly humorous novel. (Come to think of it, the story told in the Quran is not dissimilar – minus the humor.)

The Righteous MindI don’t usually plan ahead in terms of a reading list (I studied English Literature and had to work through extensive reading lists for years…), but the two books that I’m currently reading are The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (Vintage, 2013) and The Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt by Richard Carrier (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014), whose expertise is in ancient history.

Human morality, says Haidt, is highly intuitive. But we use reason to justify our moral intuitions, many of which are based on disgust and communal concerns about ‘sanctity’ and reputation. Thus, argues Haidt, our morality has its roots in our evolution as a tribal, cooperating species. A fascinating read!

I’m about halfway through Richard Carrier’s highly scholarly, yet captivating, book on the historicity of Jesus. The prolific historian presents a mountain of evidence suggesting that there never was a historical Jesus. One by one, he debunks every existing argument in support of the widespread belief that the cult of Jesus had to have originated from an actual historical figure, a hypothesis for which there seems to exist no evidence whatsoever.

The third item on my summer reading list – Why the West Is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy by Ibn Warraq (Encounter Books, 2011) – should make for a superb read. The title says it all. Warraq, who is described as an ‘Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Koranic criticism,’ criticizes the ‘erosion of our civilizational self-confidence’ under the influence of such intellectual heavy weights as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. Controversial!

André Carrington

I’ll be talking about my own book on a few occasions this summer, so I’ll start there. My book is Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Speculative BlacknessI think people might be interested if they’re into African American/Black Studies, science fiction & fantasy, comics, representations of Black women, fan culture, or the politics of cultural production. Speculative Blackness analyzes gendered, sexual, generational, and global constructions of Blackness in speculative fiction—including science fiction, fantasy, and utopian works, along with their fan cultures—to illustrate the relationship between genre conventions in media and the meanings ascribed to race in the popular imagination.

Currently, I’m reading the graphic memoir Marbles by Ellen Forney (Avery, 2012) in order to supervise a student’s senior project in which it’s a primary text. I’ve had it for over a year, but I’m ready to read it now that it’s turned into a professional responsibility, too.

Next up will be the remainder of Christopher Priest’s Black Panther series. I’m on #46 now… I got Marvel Unlimited specifically to read this, and it’s been useful to catch up with other comics I’ve missed in the recent past. I’ll have more to say about this soon because I’m writing about it.

A couple novels I’ll be reading this summer are Minion (St. Martin’s, 2004) and Bad Blood (St. Martin’s, 2008), by the late L.A. Banks. They’re the respective first volumes of her vampire huntress legend and werewolf series. I’ve never had the constitution for horror before but I want to be able to handle it—I just read Daniel Jose Older’s novel Shadowshaper (Arthur A. Levine, 2015) and it was thrilling, but scary.

There’s some other horror/supernatural fiction I’m reading for research this summer, by Mervyn Peake, and a few stories that I’m hoping to teach in a Science Fiction course that are in my colleague Heather Masri’s expansive anthology. I’ve never been the best reader of short fiction, for some reason. But students do well with shorter texts, for obvious reasons.

I’m also really, really going to read this comics biography of Rosa Luxemburg (by Paul Frölich; Haymarket Books, 2010), really soon.

Emily Empel

As a professional futurist, I’m always astounded by the lack of female voices in future-orientated conversations, especially those highlighted in mainstream media. For the past few months, I’ve been obsessed with making a place for women to think and talk about the future. By some chance, I was asked to guest edit an upcoming summer issue of MISC (a journal of insight and foresight), focusing on women. I rallied a small group of women to join forces and we were able to explore what would happen if you sourced a future-view entirely from the perspectives of women. Our efforts resulted in the issue’s special feature, “The Future According to Women.”

This was all great, and for months, I enjoyed daily conversations with some pretty bad-ass women (over 40 of them). I didn’t realize how addicted I had become to these interactions until we finished compiling the piece—and I was left with the same feeling as after a breakup. Below are some books that I read immediately to mend my heart post-project. Naturally, they are all authored by women. Enjoy!

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-AbsorbedAlexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, Editors, The Feminist Utopia Project (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2015): With 57 views of a wildly different future, this book is a nightstand staple. You’ll not only want to read a chapter a night (each penned by a different author), but you’ll also want to send a copy to all your friends and suggest starting an impromptu bookclub to discuss every chapter in-depth. There’s some seriously groundbreaking futuring hidden in this book. If you read it, tweet me your favorite vision of utoptia (@localrat). I’m always so curious what other people choose.

Nancy Jo Sales, American Girls (Knopf, 2016): Lest we forget that the future currently belongs only to the few, Nancy Jo explores how a lack of consideration in creating technology and a predominantly bro culture in the Valley is driving a cultural shift that takes power away from girls and their futures. Fair warning: this book will make your stomach turn. We hear about how powerful social media has been for driving social change, while Nancy Jo covers the counterview—writing about the status quo with a vengeance.

Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies (Simon & Schuster, 2016): I had to pick this book up after hearing it touted countless times on my favorite podcast, Call Your Girlfriend. As more of my friends partner off and marry, it’s fascinating to learn about how the role of single women has evolved over time. I especially love the chapter that equates single-lady friendships to long-term partnerships.

Peggy Orenstein, Girls & Sex (Harper, 2016): A must-read for any parent, friend of a parent, or friend of a teacher. I heard Peggy’s interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air and was blown away. Peggy critiques sex-positive culture, arguing that girls don’t have access to these interactions until later in adulthood. Her idea of multiple virginities is one of the most beautiful concepts I’ve read about in ages.

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City (Picador, 2016): Ever since devouring Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (a must-read classic), I’ve been very curious about this concept of loneliness and how it might manifest in a more digital and urban world. Olivia’s writing is hauntingly beautiful, and made me rethink our modern notions of progress and development.

Meghan Daum, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (Picador, 2016): Motherhood is undervalued and important. So is the opposite: a woman’s choice to eschew parenthood. This collection of essays is honest, heartfelt, and not to mention, critical for understanding the future of women.

As I said, my breakup with “The Future According to Women” devastated me. If you have any other book recommendations, authored by bad-ass women, please don’t hold out. It will be a long summer otherwise.

Joseph Nechvatal

I suggest my sex farce poetry book Destroyer of Naivetés that was released last year on Punctum Books. Destroyer of Naivetés is an epic passion poem that takes up a position of excess from within a society that believes that the less you conceal, the stranger you become.

An audio recording of Destroyer of Naivetés will be released this year on the Entr’acte label out of Antwerp.

Christina Henry

I read two or three books a week – sometimes more if I’m not bumping up to the end of a writing deadline. I’ve got a stack of about 200 or so books that are waiting for me to read them, and yet I can’t stop buying new books to add to the pile.

What I read tends to depend on where I am in the writing process. I read a mix of fiction (all genres) and nonfiction, but I tend to read more fiction when I’m starting to write a book and more nonfiction when I’m finishing one – mostly because I don’t want another author’s fiction voice interfering with my own. I’m finishing up a manuscript now so there’s more nonfiction queued up than fiction at the moment.

Geek Feminist RevolutionKameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution (Tor, 2016) is an immediate reading priority. I love her writing voice, and she’s the kind of writer that talks about issues I care about – feminism, geek culture, women in science fiction and fantasy among other topics – in a way that always has me nodding along saying, “Yes, that is true. Yes, that is all true.” I’m looking forward to reading this collection and recommending it to everyone I know.

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II by Richard Reeves (Picador, 2016) was recently released in paperback. I’m very partial to history books that take a small slice of a historical event (like WWII) and put it under a microscope.

Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl (Knopf, 2016) is released the day after Labor Day (our unofficial end to summer), but it’s still one of my most anticipated new releases. Hiaasen’s sharp writing and dangerous wit make him one of my favorite writers. His books are full of insane, unpredictable characters that make me laugh out loud.

Alex Burns

This summer, I’m noting books on economic statecraft — the intersection of a state’s economic power, resources, and international financial markets — for possible future postdoctoral research. Robert D. Blackwell and Jennifer M. Harris’ War By Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft (Belknap Press, 2016) lays out a United States view of increasing liberal democracy in the world via investment and trade. Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell’s The Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power (Princeton University Press, 2016) advances the thesis that newly powerful authoritarian states challenge the United States and threaten its international alliance structure. William J. Norris’ Chinese Economic Statecraft: Commercial Actors, Grand Strategy, and State Control (Cornell University Press, 2016) explores China’s contrasting approach which is rooted in a deep understanding of grand strategy and effective use of sovereign wealth funds. For a theoretical understanding of these dynamics David A. Baldwin’s Power and International Relations: A Conceptual Approach (Princeton University Press, 2016) is helpful. For translating economic statecraft insights into actionable trade ideas, Richard L. Peterson’s Trading On Sentiment: The Power of Minds Over Markets (John Wiley & Sons, 2016) describes why hedge funds use behavioural finance and sentiment analysis to arbitrage Great Britain’s Brexit vote on the European Union and other political risks.

Janet Murray

The book I am most excited about this month, and setting aside time to read slowly and take in at many levels — intellectual and existential — is Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky’s Why Only Us: Language and Evolution (MIT Press, 2015). It is an attempt to answer the title question in the face of the challenge from animal cognition researchers to Chomsky’s claims for a unique, innate, universal syntax processor in the human brain. Berwick, one of the world’s leading natural language AI experts, and someone I worked with at MIT on educational applications and have enormous admiration and respect for, supplies the computational model to support Chomsky’s revised and streamlined linguistic model for a minimal shared processor.

Why Only UsThe idea is that a small but powerful module is unique to us, and that its key function is to support the medium of human abstract thought. But this is more than a technical explanation of an arcane controversy in cog sci — it is a profound exploration of what it means to be human, what sets us apart from whatever we think may be going on in the minds of our primate close cousins and the feathered, furred, and finned members of our large extended family of life forms. It is a short book, lucidly written despite the challenging complexity of the argument. The logic is clear, and every page connects to a large body of research pro- and con- and every chapter opens up a new set of both disturbing and thrilling questions about who we are and how we came to be us. In some ways this may be the light side of the force that counters the better known and to me very foolish worries about the “singularity.” Kurzweil’s schema erases the difference between human and robot brain (except as matter of processing power), Berwick & Chomsky would move us further from the animal brain. It is, in my view, one of the signal projects of the humanities in the 21st century to help us understand our place in this new chain of being in which instead of the dumb beasts and angels to define our place, we have smart ravens on one side and even smarter computers on the other. I’m devouring this book in the hope of coming out the other end, whether assenting to or resisting their theory, with a much sharper map of this new territory.

Charles Mudede

Alfie Bown

My wife and I launched the Hong Kong Review of Books this year and its meant a huge number of exciting new books have passed through our hands. Picking just a few was difficult, but these would be a few of the stand-out books of the year so far that I’d recommend making special time for this summer. I’ve stuck to 2016 to make my choices easier.

Create or DieStephen Lee Naish, Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press, 2016): Frank Booth: is there a more interesting Hollywood icon, especially from the perspective of psychoanalysis? Naish’s book explores Hopper’s powerful character in detail, but goes far further, analyzing Hopper as actor, director, advertiser, artist, political activist and more, delving into every corner of the career of this fascinating man. Blending critical distance with personal account of Hopper’s influence on him, Naish’s book is a page-turner printed by a university press, maybe the only one…

Laurent de Sutter, Théorie du Kamikaze (PUF, 2016): As yet only in French, this is one to hope comes out in translation soon. De Sutter’s powerful argument is that suicide bombing, or “kamikaze” cannot be simply seen, as it so often is, as a sacrifice of personal life to serve a greater cause (i.e religious fundamental ideology), making it a giving up of identity. Instead, du Sutter claims that the act of “kamikaze” in fact belongs in the world of images. The act of kamikaze, for de Sutter via Debord, is about creating a visual image of explosion and spectacle, giving it a new meaning in relation to postmodern image-obsessed society.

Grant Hamilton, The World of Failing Machines: Speculative Realism and Literature (Zero Books, 2016): This book I was lucky to get a sneak peak at, and is to be published this summer. It applies the philosophy of OOO (Object Oriented Ontology) to literature, asking new questions about what kind of object a book really is. How do we relate to the book object in the way we do, and why? A very original book that makes readers reflect on themselves.

Slavoj Žižek, Refugees, Terror and Other Trouble with the Neighbors: Against the Double Blackmail (Allen Lane, 2016): It may no longer be trendy to put Slavoj on your reading list, and there are those slamming Žižek’s comments on refugees today. But whatever your position, this book forces the important conversations about the current crisis that far too few people are having.

Coming just at the end of last year, I had to leave out two other texts that have been transformative for me: Steven Shaviro’s Discognition (Repeater Books, 2016) and Samo Tomšič’s The Capitalist Unconscious (Verso, 2015), both of which must be read.

Dave Allen

Where to begin? As always, I’ve left this to the last minute, so forgive me the short blurbs!

Sally Mann, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (Back Bay, 2016): What a riveting memoir; Mann describes her adolescent and adult life in excruciating detail. No stone is left unturned, including the hate mail she received after her photos of her children, undressed, were published in a New York Times article and review of her work. And then came the stalker. As Patti Smith wrote of this book, “Hold Still is a wild ride of a memoir. Visceral and visionary. Fiercely beautiful. My kind of true adventure.”

Jim Harrison, The Ancient Minstrel (Grove Press, 2016): When Jim Harrison passed away, we lost one of America’s foremost masters of the novella. The Ancient Minstrel consists of three such novellas. The opening story, from which the book takes its title, sees Harrison making fun of his own reputation, although some were not happy with his Author’s Note where he considers his own aging “…and feeling poignantly the threat of death I actually said to myself, “Time to write a memoir.” So I did.” The part that offended some readers was where he imagines dying after choking on a fishbone and sprawling in an alley — he is discovered by a female jogger who stands over him in shorts. I’ll not be the spoiler here, but suffice to say Harrison crosses the line in his own, inimitable style. He’ll be missed.

SPQRMary Beard, SPQR (Liveright, 2015): Growing up in northern England, I often visited a local ancient wall named after the Roman emperor, Hadrian. Hence its name — Hadrian’s Wall. Ever since I’ve been fascinated with Ancient Rome and the Romans. Mary Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge University, has delivered “a sweeping revisionist history” as the back cover blurb says. And it is true. As she herself writes – “Roman history is always being rewritten, and always has been; in some ways we know more about ancient Rome than the Romans themselves did.”

Willa Cather, The Professor’s House (Vintage, 1990; 1925): This year I started to collect and read books written in the early to middle years of the 20th Century. That is how I discovered Willa Cather, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, One of Ours, in 1923. (I’m amazed that I came so late to Cather’s work.)

The Professor’s House is a remarkable book. It follows a middle-aged professor whose life becomes disturbed when his wife takes on a new house for them to live in. The idea of moving unsettles him deeply, so deeply that he begins to assess his entire life from youth to adulthood. His realization that he must live alone comes to him quickly and disturbs him further — “…because there was Lillian, there must be marriage and a salary. Because there was marriage, there were children. Because there were children, and fervor in the blood and brain, books were born as well as daughters. His histories, he was convinced, had no more to do with his original ego than his daughters had; they were a result of the high pressure of young manhood.”

Two other early books that I highly recommend are by the author John Williams Stoner (NYRB Classics, 2006; 1965) and Butcher’s Crossing (NYRB Classics, 2007; 1960). Stoner follows a very similar curve to The Professor’s House. Another college professor who’s life is upended by his work, marriage and eventually trying to make sense of his own destiny. Butcher’s Crossing is a lightly-veiled allegory for the Vietnam War. Both are powerful novels.

Diane Williams, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (McSweeney’s, 2016): I’m sure there are quite a few readers of this list that know of Diane Williams. They may also understand when I write that pinning down Williams’ work is not easy. Her latest book consists of 40 short stories, and by short I mean very short. Others have described her stories as “folktales that hammer like a nail gun.”

In a recent interview she was asked how she came up with the title. She answered: “The book’s title is taken from the story “The Little Bottle of Tears,” from the line: “How did all this end? Oh, fine, fine, fine, fine, fine.” So then I must have thought, I am not sure — end, end — Why can’t it all begin with Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine as well?”

Why not, indeed.

And finally, these. All wonderful reads:

Lily Brewer

This May I started a road trip, alone, from Houston to Los Angeles. After three weeks on and around (the/I-)10 and while in LA, a friend and I ventured to one of the downtown coffee shops. Despite two counts of street harassment upon reaching the threshold, I noticed the space had all the accoutrement of Urban Coffeeshop (TM): an expensive espresso machine, an iPad checkout, prerequisitely uncomfortable, unpolished metal furniture with exposed soldering. But there was something unsettling about the place: The spaces in between the objects overtly reading “Coffeeshop” were too big, and the more I think of it, were growing. The A Field Guide to Getting Lostinfant succulent dryly planted in a lightbulb shell (clearly with no expectations of outgrowth) was an inch too far from the wall, not enough to be at risk of falling but still too close for comfort; two decoration cappuccino cups and saucers were slightly askance, off-center, and alone on an oversized; “reclaimed wood” shelf installed a half a foot too close to the ceiling to be useful but not so close as to keep up the illusion of its authenticity. I tried to attribute this spatial absurdity to the overarching, over-reaching psychology of the city, like it was a fake place, a coffee shop playing at being a coffee shop, a site of unsettled transience that will be gone within a year as construction drives up the surrounding property values while driving away the customers unwilling to pay the harassment tolls, the baristas, in between acting and writing gigs (why don’t they act for me a decent pour?) share the same transience as their market value shifts within the rifts in the walls.

Now unable to sleep knowing this spatial distortion exists and unable to blame it on the recently rediscovered gravitational waves rippling through contemporary science circles, this summer I try to work through this structural exaggeration through studies of space: in movement through it (Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost [Penguin, 2006] and Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life [University of California Press, 1984]); in geographical place (Maggie Nelson’s Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions [University of Iowa Press, 2011] and Alice Notley’s Culture of One [Penguin, 2011]); in the built environment (Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities [Vintage, 1992; 1961], Mike Davis’ City of Quartz [Verso, 2006], and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas [MIT Press, 1972]); and in material fragments (Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho [Vintage, 2003] and Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder [Soft Skull, 2005]). Perhaps I am road weary, but I’m unable to shake the effects of these uncanny, dimensional deviations and can read little else in what lies in my immediate vicinity.

Ashley Crawford

Don DeLillo Zero K (Scribner, 2016) and David Means Hystopia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016): It has been said by others, but I will join the chorus and state that Zero K  is DeLillo’s best book since 1997’s magnum opus Underworld. While there have been a handful of booklets in between (Falling Man, Point Omega), they were little more than rough sketches towards this cooly executed masterpiece. With its futuristic underground “hospital” and the cult-like, cryonics-obsessed believers of The Convergence it tackles, along with other massive subjects, notions of the Singularity. At times it has the feel of science fiction in its cold, austere settings, but at heart it is a brilliant meditation on mortality. DeLillo has returned to his throne.

HystopiaDavid Means’ Hystopia is a strange, schizophrenic work. It carries an extraordinary premise. JFK has survived a number of assassination attempts and is in his fifth term as President. The Vietnam War drags on and hordes of psychologically damaged Vets are returning to America where they are treated with hallucinogens to “enfold” their traumatic memories via Kennedy’s Psych Corps, a new X-Files-like national entity devoted to maintaining the nation’s mental hygiene. Many evade the system and run amok, burning the country and reenacting the worst horrors of the war upon unwitting civilians. It is a piece of metafiction with a novel within a novel, medical reports and other detritus. It begins with tonal streaks of J.G. Ballard and Don DeLillo and, others have suggested, David Foster Wallace. There are hints, in its metafictional readjustment of history, of Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In The High Castle (where America lost WW2) and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (where America won Vietnam, Woodward and Bernstein were murdered before revealing Watergate and Nixon is in his third term). There are powerful hints of the influence of other powerful Vietnam books such as Stephen Wright’s Meditations in Green, Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Even the strange word used for the title, “hystopia” suggests an abundance of weirdness; the melding of “historical” and “hysteria” linked with “dystopia.” Even just the “hyst,” which according to the urban dictionary suggests “concentration breaker,” “mind robbing” and “subliminal thievery” suggests the worst excesses of this alternate 1960s America.

Unfortunately, despite the looming presence of a mass-murdering psychotic Vet, strange hallucinations, conspiracy theories and an America in flames, there are moments when Hystopia descends into what Ben Marcus famously dubbed, in his 2005 Harper’s attack on Jonathan Franzen, as “kitchen fiction” (indeed, quite literally in the rural kitchen scenes) or what Robert Hughes once suggested in Culture of Complaint as “bugs fucking to Mozart” in the Arcadian forest scenes. Means finds ways in which to avoid his own dystopian hell-hole by setting at least a third of the book in an idyllic, forested rural outpost and describing, in saccharine tones, the development of not one, but two love stories (this is balanced to a degree by a deranged mother who falls into fits of demented glossolalia.)

Mixing the dark with the soft dilutes the impact of an otherwise startling novel. The mix of the surreal with the syrupy means that Hystopia lacks the final bite of Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet or McCarthy’s masterpiece The Road. David Means needed to decide whether to remain in the Kitchen or in Armageddon. Still, this is a stunning read, if for the well-crafted premise and language alone.

Patrick Barber

My hopes for an eloquent, expansive summer reading list have been unceremoniously girdled, chopped, topped and limbed by Annie Proulx’s remarkable Barkskins (Scribner, 2016), a 700-page epic novel that follows two families through the colonization of North America and, concomitantly, the systematic destruction of that continent’s forests. I laid hands on this brick of a book just before a three-day weekend camping on the coast, where I was pleased to find that the kids are adept enough in entertaining one another that I was allowed several hours of nothing but reading: reading on the beach, reading at the campsite, reading in the tent. BarkskinsA doorstop such as this is not something one generally recommends for “beach reading,” but aside from the intimidating bulk, the book is (pardon the pun) pitch-perfect for vacation days where you can actually schedule in a couple hours of reading time. The only problem, of course, is that it will be over too soon.

Proulx wastes no time diving into her tales, and fans of her earlier work will recognize the seeming effortlessness with which she unspools great lengths of story. I’ve already read a few sections of this novel, trimmed and edited to short-story length for the New Yorker, but the excerpts didn’t foretell the magnificence of the book as a whole. Proulx’s way of mapping out her novel is deliciously gratifying: time moves forward in echoing blocks, so that we may read about the same passage of decades from two or three different perspectives, and the overlappping of the generations adds to the sense of reverberation as the events and characters trickle down through the years.

Compared to many of her earlier works, Barkskins is distinguished by more complexly and sympathetically drawn characters, and less of her signature brutality and suddenness (though such bluntness is still very present). Some characters have wonderful, loving lives, despite the rugged times and desperate circumstances, and the book in general carries more joy than the average Proulx. I’m presently about halfway through, and am sensing a reconciliation coming as the various families attempt to rebuild their timber businesses amidst an imminent colonial revolt and the expansion of their empires ever deeper into the continent. Along with the sadnesses that accompany the death and destruction of the various humans in the book, the most heartbreaking aspect is the slow, sure, wholesale eradication of the old forests of our continent, and the similarly relentless erasing of the First People who made their lives in those forests. Proulx takes no delight in this gruesome arc, yet her story depends on it. Leaning on thorough descriptions and well-turned visits into the psyches of the various characters, the author deals the cards of fate with a careful, yet impassive hand. That such a wondrously extensive tale feels flowing and effortless is a testament to Annie Proulx’s astonishing abilities as a storyteller and writer.

Some other books you should read this summer:

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead, 2015) Brutal, fascinating, and a whirlwind of voice and cadence. I am still working my way through this book, but the first section of it remains one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever experienced as a reader.

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution (NYRB Classics, 2009): An explanation of natural farming from the Japanese contrarian who invented it. Fukuoka is mercurial and blunt, but his approach to plants and nature is open-hearted. After hearing about his techniques for so many years, I am enjoying reading about them in his own voice.

And three debut short story collections. All brilliant, yet flawed, and certainly worth your time:

Douglas Lain

The first thing to tackle on any summer reading list would be your guilt books. That is, not books that are guilty pleasures, but rather books whose presence on your book shelf makes you feel guilty because the title is so obviously worthy and yet it has gathered dust. For me the big guilt book would be Slavoj Zizek’s Less Than Nothing (Verso, 2013). This was Zizek’s much anticipated “big book on Hegel” from 2013. It’s 2016 now, the book is still sitting on my shelf in between The Parallax View (MIT Press, 2009) and Living in the End Times (Verso, 2011).  A few years back I finished reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford University Press, 1976), and this would’ve made a good follow-up if I’d read it promptly. Time to dust it off and tackle it now.

The Divine Madness of Philip K. DickAnother book that I’ll be reading this summer is Kyle Arnold’s The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick (Oxford University Press, 2016) a book I was assigned to read for the Hong Kong Review of Books. As a Philip K. Dick fanatic, and having read Lawerence Suttin’s fine biography Divine Invasions (Harmony, 1989) when that book came out 20 years ago, I’m very much looking forward to finding out what a clinical psychologist will make of the life and literature of Philip K Dick. The pull quote from the back of the jacket is fascinating, “Despite Dick’s paranoia, his divine madness was not a sign of mental illness, but a powerful spiritual experience conveyed in the images of science fiction.” I’m sure reading this will make me pine for my younger days when I was more prone to mysticism.

Jeff Bursey’s Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (2016) is a book I look forward to rereading as I try to promote it for Zero Books. Bursey is a Canadian novelist and literary critic and his book on outsider literature is due out from Zero on July 29th. I’ll be rereading this one because, of the titles due out in July, this one comes closest to sharing my own sensibilities. As a somewhat neglected novelist, I am glad to be publishing Bursey’s book on Matt Unt, Ornela Vorpsi, and Joseph McElroy.

On the political side of my summer, I’ve currently got Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom (Humanity Books, 2000) open on my nightstand. Dunayevskaya is a somewhat overlooked Marxist. She was Trotsky’s secretary for a time and then broke with him when Trotsky insisted that the Soviet Union was a “deformed worker’s state.” Dunayevskaya was sure that the Soviet Union was merely State Capitalist and her book on Marxism demonstrates that her insights were consistent.

When it comes to fiction I’ll be reading Geoff Nicholson’s 2014 novel The City Under the Skin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Nicholson is one of my favorite novelists. I recently interviewed him for Zero Book’s new line of books entitled “Advancing Conversations” and his first book Street Sleeper (Quartet, 1987) is a classic.

Michael Schandorf

When I was young, I read. All the time. But I didn’t really know how to read. Not really. My eyes scanned the lines. My mind made images. In middle school, in the 80s, I signed up for the Science Fiction Book Club. (I wish I still had all of those books. Even Anne McCaffrey’s dragons.) One of books that came from that association, and that left many images (but little solid) behind, was EonGreg Bear’s Eon (Tor Books, 2015; 1985). Those images lingered for decades. Earlier this year, I realized that the only non-academic (or at least not directly work related) reading I had done for what seemed like years was from the Finnegans Wake on my bedside table. So when I recently stumbled upon a rumpled paperback copy of Eon, I grabbed it. Then I found out it was part of a trilogy: Eternity, the sequel, and Legacy, the prequel. I slowly savored and digested all three over the next few weeks. Not only did the decades-old images from the first book match what I found when I returned to them, they were startlingly recognizable, tangy, and clear. Now, over the summer, I have a short stack of Greg Bear books to saunter through and linger over, including City at the End of Time, Slant, the novella Heads, and a collection of relatively early short stories, Tangents. I can’t claim to be a science fiction expert, but I’ve read a bit.

The most interesting thing, for me, about science fiction is how strongly it inevitably reflects the present. To get an idea of this, find yourself a copy of Tom Shippey’s Oxford Book of Science Fiction Short Stories (Oxford University Press, 2003) and read through history in the shape of the future. Feel the development of the collective imagination sculpted from the shifting present, from H. G. Wells’ hydraulic mechanics at the beginning of the 20th century, through the nuclear visions of mid-century, to the biological, neurological, psychological, and cyberpunk that tracked the changes, and the fears, of a century that hoped despite itself. Greg Bear’s work is largely part of the biological, neurological, and psychological exploration of the technological that came of the 1980s and 90s, a legacy of Cold War preoccupations that shifted into cyberpunk. And, having looked again, I can now recognize the influence it had on me. Bear is often fascinated not only by the evolutionary and technological extension of human neurobiology, but by the possibility of nonhuman psychologies, the intelligence of the viral or the plant-like. Slipping through such stories as a kid contributed significantly to my curiosity about differences in psychological perspective and the relations among perception, conception, and language. It’s a good time for such interests. Quite a lot of very interesting reading is surfacing about perception and conception beyond our traditional and convention blinders of visual bias, including Matthew Fulkerson’s The First Sense: A Philosophical Study of Human Touch (MIT Press, 2013), Gary Tomlinson’s, A Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity (Zone Books, 2015), and Phillip Vannini, Dennis Waskul, & Simon Gottschalk’s The Senses in Self, Society, and Culture (Routledge, 2013). These will also season my summer, but I’m looking forward to curling up in the sunshine with my new, old, Greg Bear books, and wading again through future histories past.

Peter Lunenfeld

I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last year as a fellow at the Huntington Library working on a book about the cultural histories of Los Angeles, so my list this summer focuses on Southern California. But, as former journalist turned studio hack Don Ryan wrote back in 1929, Los Angeles is the “city with the aspirations for the Los Angelicization of the world!”

To start, I’ll be reading (and in some cases rereading) the entirety of Kevin Starr’s multi-volume magnum opus, Americans and the California Dream. Starr is a national treasure, writing equally well on architecture as on literature, with an eye for detail, an ear for dialogue, and an open style that invites rather than repels lay readers. The series includes: Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915 (Oxford University Press, 1986), Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (1986), Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s (1991), Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California (1997), The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s (2002), Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (2003), Coast Of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2002 (2006), and Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963 (2011).

A Burglars Guide to the CityTo take a break from all this history, I’ll tackle Don Ryan’s Angel’s Flight (Boni & Liveright, 1927), the book from whence the quote above was pulled. It’s perhaps the first great novel from and of Los Angeles in the 20th century. Ryan presaged elements of Raymond Chandler’s noir on the one hand, and the dark satire of Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust on the other, telling tales of the city as its boosterish Babbitts intersected with the seediness of downtown Los Angeles, decades before it became hipsterized into today’s real-estate friendly acronym, DTLA.

On my shelf is Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson (Simon & Schuster, 2014), a new biography by Jeff Guinn. To complement this well-researched contemporary account, I’ll read Ed Sanders’ The Family, originally published in 1971, as a way to burrow further into the dark side of LA in the ‘60s. A member of a band called The Fugs as well as a poet, Sanders really catches the vibe of the era, and profoundly understands while remaining contemptuous of Manson’s descent into murder and madness. I’m looking forward to Emma Cline’s The Girls (Random House, 2016), a novelization from the other side of Manson’s pimpy grift. To round this out, I’ll take another look at Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (Ace, 1991), which Manson had fellow cons at McNeil Island Penitentiary explain to him (Manson was not exactly a big reader), and from which he drew some of the rituals to which he subjected the Family and its hangers-on. From grokking to orgiastic water ceremonies, there’s a weird throughline from ‘50s science fiction to the Spahn Ranch (with a stopover in Dianetics and Scientology, but you’ll have to wait for my book for that story).

On the non-SoCal beat, I’m looking forward to A Burglar’s Guide to the City (FSG Originals, 2016) by bldgblog.com’s Geoff Manaugh, an innovative rethinking of urbanism and architecture via true crime. Speaking of true crime, I’ll be reading the most recent book of another historian’s life work, Rick Perlstein’s third volume of the story of the American right since the 1960s. Both Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Nation Books, 2009) and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner, 2009) were rare books by a non-movement historian that conservatives were willing to acknowledge, and in some cases even admire, for their rigor and straightforward approach to the growth of the post-WWII right. Not so The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Simon & Schuster, 2015), which was insufficiently idolatrous towards the only elected president the Republican right likes to invoke from the last hundred years (TR was too anti-trusty, Coolidge and Hoover – well, they were Coolidge and Hoover, Ike kept taxes high and wasn’t enough of a war-monger, Tricky Dick was too crazy, Bush I wasn’t crazy enough, and Bush II while crazy, invaded Iraq instead of Grenada and tanked the economy to boot). Perlstein is a major guide to how we got to where we are now, with one of the two major parties of the 20th century having in the 21st nominated an ignoramus billionaire (millionaire more likely) reality television star, who is mentally unstable, racist, and misogynist, not to mention being a mutant orange rage machine. This is neither the Californian nor the American Dream, it is a nightmare which we must fight.

Roy Christopher

I’m anxiously awaiting the July release of Megan Abbott‘s next book, You Will Know Me (Little, Brown & Co., 2016). Her last three had me riveted all the way through. And too late for summer but eagerly anticipated is James Gleick‘s Time Travel: A History (Pantheon, 2016), which comes out in September (I got an advanced-reading copy, and it is awesome; more on that later). In the meantime, there are these:

discognitionSteven Shaviro, Discognition (Repeater, 2016): I do my best to read novels and biographies during the summer, but the research and the nonfiction creeps in anyway. In Discognition, Steven Shaviro parses the thick thicket of thinking using examples from science fictions of all kinds. Discognition explores the area between sentience and consciousness through computers, aliens, and slime molds, as well as several specific kinds of human—from philosophers to killers.

Doug Stanhope, Digging Up Mother: A Love Story (Da Capo, 2016): Stanhope’s new book, as it states right on the cover, is a love story and a memoir. If you want to know what he’s done since his last DVD or since the last time you saw him live, check Youtube. Most of this book happens before that was even possible. Many a buried back-story is unearthed here: Doug’s earliest days as a road comic, when he actually lived on the road – in his car; his stint as an innovative, master cold-calling telemarketer; one-nighters, hell gigs, middling, featuring, telling jokes to the elderly on a tour bus, and “making it” in all of its elusive meanings; many days and nights of performances, beverages, and substances. There’s quite a lot of the latter, and Mother is there for every phase, step, and bump along the way. [See my full review on Splitsider]

Rasheedah Phillips, Recurrence Plot (and Other Time Travel Tales) (AfroFuturist Affair, 2014): Afrofuturist Affair creative director Rasheedah Phillips’ debut, Recurrence Plot (and Other Time Travel Tales) finds her applying an African concept of time. Using quantum physics as her fictional playground, Phillips reprograms our ontology with interweaving tales of temporal trials and travel. Also check out her edited collections, Black Quantum Futurism: Space-Time Collapse I: From the Congo to the Carolinas (2016) and Black Quantum Futurism: Theory & Practice Vol. I (2015), featuring essays by Rasheedah Phillips, Moor Mother Goddess, Warren C. Longmire, Almah Lavon, Joy Kmt, Thomas Stanley, and Nikitah Okembe-RA Imani. I’m using these in research for my book Dead Precedents (Repeater, forthcoming) along with Jim Gleick’s new book and André Carrington’s Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction (University of Minnesota Press, 2016; see above), among others.

Since I spent the past several months finishing (read: “writing”) my dissertation, the following are all lying around my place in various states of unread:

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Peripheral-Vision Man: William Gibson

William Gibson’s first and most celebrated novel was published 30 years ago. I first read Neuromancer (Ace, 1984) in the fall of 1999, halfway between here and there. I had just dropped out of graduate studies at the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence program and was trying to figure out what to do next. In the meantime, I was running the interview website that would eventually become my first book. Since those inauspicious beginnings, William Gibson has always been at or near the top of my most-wanted interviews.

William Gibson

It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. — William Gibson

Conversations with William GibsonIn lieu of a face-to-face sit-down with The Man, Patrick A. Smith has compiled interviews with Gibson from most of his career. Thanks to interviewers asking many of the same questions over the years, these Conversations with William Gibson (University Press of Mississippi, 2014) run over and over the same ground, and many are interesting in spite of—and some because of—that. Twenty-three interviews being conducted by different people intermittently over about as many years often gives what would be the same question a new answer. Moreover, there are a few absolutely essential reads included: Andy Diggle and Iain Ball’s previously unpublished talk with Gibson from 1993, Edo van Belkom’s obscure 1997 interview, and Alex Dueboen’s interrogation of Gibson’s writing process from 2007. Also, the 30-page David Wallace-Wells interview originally published in The Paris Review #197 in 2011 is probably the best interview with Gibson anywhere—Kodwo Eshun’s unpublished 1996 interview notwithstanding.

Regardless, Gibson’s insights abound. Like his last book, Distrust That Particular Flavor (Putnam Adult, 2012), this one collects its pieces from across the web and print publications: websites, magazines, and zines, some out of print and a few never printed before. Both books are huge steps in revealing the many deep and relevant thoughts of a man mainly known for only a few big ones. Here are several from these conversations:

  • 1997: “To me, ambivalence seems the only sane response [to technology]. Technophobia doesn’t work, and neither does technophilia. So you don’t want to be a nerd, and you don’t want to be a Luddite, you have to try to straddle the fence and just make constant decisions” (p. 133).
  • 1999: “I think Brian Eno‘s right in defining culture as everything we do that we don’t absolutely need to do… I look at what people are doing—particularly if they’re doing it passionately—that they don’t need to do” (p. 149).
  • 1999: “To the extent that I can still believe in Bohemia, which I think is important to me in some way that I don’t yet really understand, to the extent that I still believe in that, I have to believe that there are viable degrees of freedom inherent if not realized in interstitial areas” (p. 154).
  • 1999: “Where is our new stuff going to come from? What we’re doing pop culturally is like burning the rain forest. The biodiversity of pop culture is really, really in danger. I didn’t see it coming until a few years ago, but looking back it’s very apparent” (p. 158).
  • 2007: “In those early days of broadcast television, you were a little kid walking around and holding these two realities at the same time in your head” (p. 185).
  • 2011: “Cities look to me to be our most characteristic technology. We didn’t really get interesting as a species until we became able to do cities—that’s when it all got really diverse, because you can’t do cities without a substrate of other technologies” (p. 222).

My to-read stack also grew a book or several after reading these interviews. Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets (FSG, 1981) and Manny Farber’s Negative Space (Studio Vista, 1971) are mentioned several times, along with Thomas Pynchon, Dashiell Hammett, Bruce Sterling, and J. G. Ballard.

William Gibson: The PeripheralSpeaking of Pynchon, Gibson has always cited him as an influence, rebutting claims of his following Philip K. Dick. Given Gibson’s recent flirtation with the recent past, Pynchon’s latest, Bleeding Edge (Penguin, 2013), reads more like it was influenced by Gibson’s last trilogy than the other way around. I loved the way Gibson was able to describe our present like it was/is science fictional (proving the point that he, Frederick Jameson, and others have made about “futuristic” science fiction actually being about the moment in which it was written), but it’s good to see him projecting again. I’ve read all of his books since taking the plunge 15 years ago, and I recently reread that first one. I am back in graduate school and glad to be able to read another.

The Peripheral (Putnam Adult, 2014) leaps ahead again, the 22nd century making up at least one of the worlds in its pages. So far it feels more light than dark, but that may just be his lulling me into it with his trademark descriptions with sparse details, gaping breadth with needle-focused minutiae. Without giving too much away, I will say that it reads more like Neuromancer than it does Spook Country (my favorite of all of his novels). It has the giddy unease of the former tempered by the veteran hand of the latter. It’s both energy and nuance. Parsing Gibson’s paragraphs is a challenge again—and that much more fun for it.

—————-

William Gibson white-out portrait by Roy Christopher. [01072014]

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Drugs of a Feather: Jeff Noon’s Vurt 20 Years On

A young boy puts a feather into his mouth… The Stash Riders: Scribble, Beetle, Bridget, Mandy, Tristan and Suze… The Thing from Outer Space, Game Cat, Dingo Tush, Bottletown, robodogs, droidlocks, and dreamsnakes… It’s about drugs and droogs. It’s about their misadventures in this and that Other world: Vurt. Scribble’s sister, his lover, Desdemona is lost, lost to the Vurt, that feathered, nethered world spinning somewhere inside of this one. If he is to get her back, if he is to grab her, he has to let go of something else.

Jeff Noon: Vurt

I’m not telling this very well. I’m asking for your trust on this one. Here I am, surrounded by wine bottles and mannequins, salt cellars and golf clubs, car engines and pub signs. There are a thousand things in this room, and I am just one of them. The light is shining through my windows, stuttered by bars of iron, and I’m trying to get this down with a cracked-up genuine antique word processor, the kind they just don’t make any more, trying to find the words.
Sometimes we get the words wrong.
Sometimes we get the words wrong!
Jeff Noon‘s Vurt, (p. 151)

In his introduction to Noon’s Cobralingus (Codex, 2001), Michael Bracewell writes, “Much of Noon’s best known imagery… derives its power from the literalizing of poetic language and the concretizing of images: the sudden opening up, within the landscape of the prose itself, of new routes to character and narrative, enabled by altering the meanings of words within the containers of their language” (p. 6). The Shining Girls author, Lauren Beukes says that Vurt blew her mind, “not just for the story and the characters which absolutely caught the mood of where we were, but pushed language in insanely playful ways and delivered a kicker of an ending.” In her introduction to the new edition, she cites Noon’s best known aphorism: “Form is the host; content is the virus.” To wit, Vurt‘s virus has infected everything from Beukes’ Moxyland (Angry Robot, 2008) to Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (Canongate, 2007).

According to Jeff Noon, Vurt started as half a play. “I’d spent a good number of years trying to make some money by writing plays, with no real success,” he writes, “So I took a job at Waterstone’s bookshop in Manchester. Someone else working there was a fringe theater director and was always asking me to write him a play.” Noon took Octave Mirbeau’s 1899 novel The Torture Garden and adapted it through the then new idea of virtual reality news of which was trickling over from America via magazines like Mondo 2000. When his director friend moved to Hong Kong, another co-worker started a small press and, being a fan of his plays, asked Noon to try writing a novel. He agreed. “And quite naturally,” he adds, “I took the basic plot I’d added to The Torture Garden as my starting point. It grew organically from that seed.”

Why? A voice told me to do it.
Which voice? The one that never stops.
— Jeff Noon’s Vurt, (p. 177)

VurtI found Vurt via the blurbs on the back of Doug Rushkoff‘s first novel, Ecstasy Club (1997), sometime during the wild-at-heart and weird-on-top 1990s. The music of that time is woven deep in the language of Vurt. Music is “without doubt my favourite art form,” says Noon, “and the one that saturates my waking life from morning till night. So, I always try to use techniques invented by musicians in my novels and stories, simply because musicians seem to get there first these days, in terms of an avant–pulp interface.” Among its pages you can hear the manic Madchester music of Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, The Charlatans, and Inspiral Carpets. Bracewell writes, “More than any other writer of his generation, Jeff Noon has assimilated the techniques developed in the recording of music and pioneered their literary equivalents” (p. 5), and Noon explains, “My main insight was to realize that words, whilst seemingly fixed in meaning, are in fact a liquid medium. They flow. The writer digs channels, steers the course.”

Through the looking-glass course of Vurt, one can see shades of Twin Peaks, A Clockwork Orange, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Star Wars, Donnie Darko, and Philip K. Dick, among other things. Vurt won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1994, and William Gibson called it “really fresh and peculiar at a time when we were constantly being told that lots of SF novels were really fresh and peculiar, but they often weren’t, particularly.” It is certainly fresh and peculiar — even now. The thing that makes it not only so poignant but also timeless is its passion. Under all of the made-up slang, vivid imagery, adjacent dimensions, drug talk, and other detritus of rave culture, there lies the urgency of a real human heart beating, the heart of a writer who cares about things.

Noon says of Vurt, “Like many a first novel it came out of a weird Venn diagram of influences: Gibson, Ballard, Borges, Lewis Carroll, techno music, dub culture, Mondo 2000, graphic novels, 1970s punk, and everyday life in the North of England in 1993. It’s amazing to think that Vurt is still on its journey, still travelling, and still finding new readers.” The newly released 20th Anniversary Edition boasts a new three-part introduction by the always stellar Lauren Beukes that makes me feel like I can’t write about anything, much less about a book as imaginative and innovative as this. It should also be noted that new new edition is set in a much more readable font than the original version and hosts three new short stories set in the wild, weird world of Vurt. So, if you’ve yet to take the trip, your yellow feather awaits.

GnOgjRaFd5U

We’re all out there, somewhere, waiting to happen.
— Jeff Noon’s Vurt, (p. 87)

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

The Written World: William Gibson’s Bohemia

I’ve been weathering the wilds of William Gibson quite a bit lately. I’ve been reading several books by and about him and his work for months now. Having just finished the Bigend trilogy —  Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010) — and finally chewing through Distrust That Particular Flavor (2012), I am engrossed in the greys of the Gibsonian. But, even if you’re not obsessed with his work, you’re immersed in his world. As novelist Luke Monroe put it to Gibson on Twitter recently, “of all the speculative fiction authors, why did you have to get it right? I love your work, but now we are living it.”

William Gibson at Powell's Books in Portland (photo by Dave Allen)

His pre-cog abilities, the ones he used to predict and project the personal computer’s connectivity and utter ubiquity, make the writing in his most recent, present-tense trilogy so completely dead-on. Why does the world now look more like a William Gibson novel than one by Arthur C. Clarke? Gibson’s friend and cyberpunk peer Bruce Sterling explains:

Because he was looking at things that Clarke wasn’t looking at. Clarke was spending all his time with Wernher von Braun, and Gibson was spending all his time listening to Velvet Underground albums and haunting junk stores in Vancouver. And, you know, it’s just a question of you are what you eat. And the guy had a different diet than science fiction writers that preceded him (quoted in Miller, 2007, p. 344).

Even as some wish he would return to the future and others marvel at his prescience in the present, Gibson’s journey to this particular now hasn’t been a direct path. Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture (University of Chicago Press, 2006) helps map the minutia.

Turner’s book traces the path of Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, Howard Rheingold, and the rest of the Whole Earth Network from the actual commune to the virtual community, showing how their offbeat past informed our online present. Turner writes that they “imagined themselves as part of a massive, geographically distributed, generational experiment. The world was their laboratory; in it they could play both scientist and subject, exploring their minds and their bodies, their relationships to one another, and the nature of politics, commerce, community, and the state. Small-scale technologies would serve them in this work. Stereo gear, slide projectors, strobe lights, and, of course, LSD all had the power to transform the mind-set of an individual and to link him or her through invisible ‘vibes’ to others” (p. 240). Gibson dropped out and tuned in as well, but once he and the other cyberpunks moved on to trying to envision the 21st century, many of their like-minded, counterculture contemporaries were trying to build it. As Gibson told Wired in 1995, “I think bohemians are the subconscious of industrial society. Bohemians are like industrial society, dreaming.”

Gibson continues:

Punk was the last viable bohemia that we’ve seen, perhaps the last bohemian movement of all time. I’m afraid that bohemians will eventually come to be seen as a byproduct of the industrial civilization; and if we’re in fact at the end of industrial civilization, there may be no more bohemians. That’s scary. It’s possible that commercialization has become so sophisticated that it’s no longer possible to do that bohemian thing.

I put this question to Malcolm Gladwell years ago, the question of youth culture’s commodification, and he responded, “Teens are so naturally and beautifully social and so curious and inventive and independent that I don’t think even the most pervasive marketing culture on earth could ever co-opt them.” Gibson is not so optimistic, or he wasn’t in 1995. Here he talks about the grunge thing, which by that time had had a very public and much-debated commercial co-opting:

Look what they did to those poor kids in Seattle! It took our culture literally three weeks to go from a bunch of kids playing in a basement club to the thing that’s on the Paris runways. At least, with punk, it took a year and a half. And I’m sad to see the phenomenon disappear.

Perhaps this says more about where Gibson’s head was at the time than it does about the creativity of the youth. After all, we’ve seen plenty of cool things happen in the last seventeen years, and Gibson was writing Idoru (1996), one of his darker visions of modern culture, saturated with multi-channel, tabloid television. His later work is beset by a blunter approach.

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself. — William Gibson, Spook Country.

Even at his darkest, Gibson is still cool. I have to say that Spook Country is my favorite of his novels. Where others are more action-packed or visionary, Spook Country is all subtlety and surface. He told Kodwo Eshun in 1996, “There’s a very peculiar world of literature that doesn’t exist which you can infer from criticism. Sometimes when I’ve read twenty reviews of a book I’ve written, there’ll be this kind of ghost book suggested…  And I wonder about that book, what is that book they would have wanted and it’s a book with no surfaces. It’s all essence.” Spook Country may be the closest anyone gets to writing that ghost book, and it’s just so… cool.

‘Twas not always the case. Gibson explains:

When I started to write science fiction, I knew I was working in a genre that was traditionally deeply deprived of hipness. I went looking for ways to import as much rock-and-roll aesthetic into science fiction as was possible. Going back and listening to Steely Dan’s lyrics, for instance, suggested a number of ways to do that. It seemed that there was a very hip, almost subversive science fiction aesthetic in Donald Fagen’s lyrics which not many people have picked up on. But there’s other stuff — David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album, which has this totally balls-out science fiction aesthetic going. The Velvet Underground, early Lou Reed — that was important. I thought, OK, that’s the hip science fiction of our age, and so I’m going to try to write up to that standard, rather than trying to write up to Asimov.

Keep that in mind: Every step is a step on a path. And every step is informed by the one before it. You are what you eat, so eat well, my friends.

References:

Eshun, Kodwo. (1996, November). William Gibson in Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. Unpublished Interview.

Gibson, William. (2007). Spook Country: A Novel. New York: Putnam, p. 171.

Miller, P. D. (2007). Bruce Sterling: Future Tense. In R. Christopher (ed.), Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes. Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear, pp. 329-346.

Turner, Fred. (2006). From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

van Bakel, Rogier. (1995, June). Remembering Johnny: William Gibson on the making of Johnny Mneumonic. Wired, 3.06.

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Apologies to Andy Feenberg for stealing his title for this piece, and to Dave Allen for stealing his picture of Bill.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Maps for a Few Territories: Guides to Gibson

Any web wanderer worth her bookmarks knows that William Gibson coined the term for the spaces and places that we all explore online. So strong was the word that one large software company attempted to trademark it for their own purposes (Woolley, 1992). So many such ideas have been co-opted by others that Gibson has jokingly referred to himself as “the unpaid Bill” (Henthorne, p. 39). We have recently been called “people of the screen” by some other big-name dude, but this idea was evident in Gibson’s early work some thirty years ago. He saw an early ad for Apple Computers, and the idea hit him: “Everyone is going to have one of these, I thought, and everyone is going to want to live inside them. And somehow I knew that the notional space behind all of the computer screens would be one single universe” (quoted in Jones, 2011).

“I needed to replace the ‘rocketship’ and the ‘holodeck’ with something else that would be a signifier of technological change,” he tells Mark Neale in No Maps for These Territories, “and that would provide me with a narrative engine, and a territory in which the narrative could take place… All I really knew about the word ‘cyberspace’ when I coined it was that it seemed like an effective buzzword. It was evocative and essentially meaningless. It was very suggestive of… it was suggestive of something, but it had… no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.”

FADE UP MUSIC. Slowly, images start to bleed through. Red swirls, white, black dots… As more and more of the image bleeds through the titles we begin to make out what we’re watching…
— Opening lines, William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic screenplay

In the preface to Burning Chrome (Ace, 1987), Bruce Sterling wrote that Gibson’s early stories had made apparent ”the hidden bulk of an iceberg of social change,” an iceberg that the web’s social warming has melted over the years since. In his later work, Gibson writes in a world informed by his previous prophecies. It is as if the present caught up with his projected future: “I suppose I’ve always wanted to have a hedge against the literal assumption that these stories are fictions about ‘the future’ rather than attempts to explore an increasingly science fictional present. I think we tend to live as though the world was the way it was a decade ago, and when we connect with the genuinely contemporary we experience a species of vertigo” (quoted in Eshun, 1996). His latest trilogy is intentionally set in that science fictional present. Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010) read like Gibson’s earlier science fiction, yet the weird gadgets and odd characters they’re riddled with are all readily available outside the book’s pages. He’s not making any of those things up. Anymore. In spite of its uneven distribution, the future is already here. The merging of cyberspace and the everyday as well as the techno-paranoia he projected in his early work is pervasive post-9/11.

As a guide to his many fictions cum realities, Tom Henthorne’s William Gibson: A Literary Companion (McFarland & Co., 2011) goes a long way to mapping his fiction to our reality. Arranged encyclopedia-style and covering the breadth of Gibson’s novels, the book provides handy crib notes to the concepts and connections of his work. It also includes a chronology of Gibson’s life and work, a glossary, a technological timeline, writing and research topics, a bibliography, and a full index, all of which make it an easy entry point into Gibson’s world of work.

I have often thought he’d get more credit for his ideas if the times he’s talked about them were in print somewhere (e.g., the many ideas he discusses in Mark Neale’s 2000 documentary, William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories). Enter Distrust The Particular Flavor (Putnam Adult, 2012): thirty years of Gibson’s collected nonfiction. Essays, talks, observations, articles, and other ephemera are all collected in one place for the first time, some in print for the first time ever — from WIRED, Rolling Stone, and New York Times Magazine to smaller publications no longer in production.

William Gibson is one of our brightest minds and these two books not only provide a solid introduction into his fiction and ideas but are also valuable texts on their own. Whether you’re fumbling through his fiction, wishing his tweets were longer, or just curious, I recommend checking them out.

References:

Eshun, Kodwo. (1996, November). William Gibson in Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. Unpublished outtake from Paul D. Miller (ed.), Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Arts and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gibson, William. (1995). Johnny Mnemonic [screenplay]. New York: Ace Books.

Gibson, William. (2012). Distrust That Particular Flavor. New York: Putnam Adult.

Henthorne, Tom (2011). William Gibson: A Literary Companion. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Jones, Thomas. (2011, September 22). William Gibson: Beyond Cyberspace. The Guardian.

Sterling, Bruce. (1987). Preface. In William Gibson, Burning Chrome. New York: Ace Books, pp. ix-xii.

Woolley, Benjamin. (1992). Virtual Worlds. New York: Penguin.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Cyberpunk’s Not Dead: Rucker’s Nested Scrolls

Like birthdays, the end of the year always brings about a recounting of the previous twelve months. We reassess our existence every year, every ten years, every one hundred… Human and technological movements are cyclical. Heraclitus once posited that generational cycles turn over every thirty years. By that metric, the personal computer revolution has run its course, and with it, the cyberpunk genre. Running its course doesn’t mean it’s over. It means it has been assimilated into the larger culture. What was once weird and wild is now a normal part of the world in which we live.

In his autobiography, Nested Scrolls (Tor, 2011), Rudy Rucker tells the story of catching the cyberpunk wave just as it was swelling toward the shore. Rucker already had two science fiction novels out, a third in the pipe, and was out to change the genre with a vengeance. He’d won the first Philip K. Dick Award in 1982 just after Dick died, and met up with the reigning crop of the new movement. “I started hearing about a new writer called William Gibson,” he writes. “I saw a copy of Omni with his story, ‘Johnny Mnemonic’. I was awed by the writing. Gibson, too, was out to change SF. And we weren’t the only ones.” Around the same time, Bruce Sterling was publishing an SF zine called “Cheap Truth.” Rucker continues, “Reading Bruce’s sporadic mailings of ‘Cheap Truth’, I learned there were a number of other disgruntled and radicalized new SF writers like me. At first Bruce Sterling’s zine didn’t have any particular name for the emerging new SF movement — it wouldn’t be until 1983 that the cyberpunk label would take hold.” It was in that year that Bruce Bethke inadvertently named the movement with the title of his short story “Cyberpunk.” In this revolution, the names Rucker, Gibson, and Sterling were loosely joined by John Shirley, Greg Bear, Pat Cadigan, and Lew Shiner.

Rudy Rucker: Nested Scrolls

While cyberpunk sometimes seems a definitively 1980s affair, it was often ardently so at the time. It was post-punk and pre-web, yet wildly informed by the onset of the personal computer and the promise of the internet, which marks the genre in sharp contrast to its galaxy-hopping, alien-invaded forebears. Rudy Rucker is the bridge from Dick-era, drug-induced paranoia to Gibson-era, network-minded paraspace. He was around early enough to be a Dick fan before Dick died, but noticeably older than the rest of the cyberpunk crew. Nested Scrolls secures his place joining the generations of the genre.

It’s not all computer-generated virtual worlds though, Rucker has had a storied career as both an author of science fiction and nonfiction, as a college professor, and as a software developer, all of which inform each other to varying degrees, and all of which inform Nested Scrolls, making it an engaging narrative of high-science, high-tech, and high times. Cyberpunk’s not dead, it’s just normal now.

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Illustrating the initial disjointedness of the genre, here’s the 1990 Cyberpunk documentary, directed by Marianne Trench:

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References:

Georgoulias, Tom. (2007). Rudy Rucker: Keeping it Transreal. In Roy Christopher (Ed.), Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes. Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear.

Heraclitus. (2001). Fragments. New York: Penguin Classics.

Rucker, Rudy. (2011). Nested Scrolls: The Autobiography of Rudolph von Bitter Rucker. New York: Tor.

Rucker, Rudy. (2011, December 6). The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk [Book excerpt]. io9.com.

Trench, Marianne (Director) & von Brandenburg, Peter (Producer). (1990). Cyberpunk. Mystic Fire Video.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

William Gibson and the City: A Glitch in Time

Though he’s better known as the paragon of paraspace, in the Sprawl of his numerous novels, William Gibson has explored the future of cities as much as any urban theorist, expanding upon the topography of late 20th-century exurban development with astute accuracy. “The record of futurism in science fiction is actually quite shabby,” Gibson says in an interview in the Paris Review. “Novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written. As soon as a work is complete, it will begin to acquire a patina of anachronism.” While this might seem so statistically, Gibson’s visions of cities’ possible futures have come closer to reality than most others, and he regularly cites Tokyo as the human-made stone for sharpening his edge: “It’s hard to beat, these nameless neon streets swarming with every known form of electronic advertising, under a misting rain that softens the commercials playing on façade screens of quite surreal width and clarity. The Japanese know this about television: Make it big enough and anything looks cool.” In No Maps for These Territories: Cities, Spaces, and Archeologies of the Future in William Gibson (Ropopi, 2011), Karin Hoepker attempts to canonize Gibson’s excursions into our future urbs.

The suburbs are much more dangerous because in the city someone might come up and take your money, but in the suburbs they’ll take your soul. — William Gibson

Hoepker’s book extracts Gibson’s urban theory from his many novels. First, she establishes what she calls an “Archeology of Future Spaces,” then contextualizes Gibson’s work within 1980s science fiction. Next, she explores the future urban landscapes of his books in turn, illustrating not only the impossibilities of mapping these spaces via traditional means, but the invisible politics thereof as well. The gerrymandering of space for political gain is as much a part of the postmodern condition as advertising on every available surface.

Gibson’s tendency toward Tokyo notwithstanding, Los Angeles is widely considered The City of the Future, “nearly unviewable save through the scrim of its mythologizers,” as Michael Sorkin put it. Its metro myth-makers include Gibson, Norman M. Klein, Mike Davis, James Howard Kunstler, Ridley Scott, and Philip K. Dick, among others. The built environment shapes our lives like the dreamscapes in Inception shaped its ontology, but unlike Nolan’s metropolitan mazes, Gibson’s city of bits is the one we have come to inhabit: cities that connect us and reflect us like the hives of insects. Sleepily stretching out in “a vast generic tumble,” our cities and their limbs divide us even as they bring us together (see Shepard, 2011). More and more, this paradox includes the expanding matrix of cyberspace, which didn’t yet exist when Gibson first wrote about it in the July, 1982 issue of Omni Magazine. “Gibson’s influence is evident in everything from the Matrix movies to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won this year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction,” writes Thomas Jones. Hoepker’s book exposes and explores Gibson’s continuing and consistent influence — on the blacktop rather than the laptop.

Exploring well beyond William Gibson, Miles Orvell and Jeffrey L. Meikle have put together a must-have compendium of of essays on urban spaces. Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture (Rodopi, 2009) is rife with observations and theories. The idea that public space in America is regarded as little more than a waste of resources resonates with the rejection of the commercialization of everything here, as well as with the projections of Gibson’s stories mentioned above. There is an entire piece on desire lines and public space in Chicago, a chapter on Starbucks’ shilling of so-called “public” space (i.e. the illusion thereof, a “Third Place” in Howard Schultz-speak), one on urban communities including a bit on bum-proof benches, and another on designed space vs. social space, among many other things.

Technologist David E. Nye chimes in on public space as transformed by New York blackouts, arguing that they’re not an instance of technological determinism, a topic Nye has explored in depth previously (See chapter 2 of his Technology Matters, 2006). His take seems to flip the script on one of William Gibson’s well-worn aphorisms: The street finds its own use for things. If the technological use is culturally determined, then the use finds its own street for things. The line between a glitch in the grid and a glitch in The Matrix is in your head. Nye writes,

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, blackouts were recognized as more than merely latent possibilities. They were unpredictable, but seemed certain to come. Breaks in the continuity of time and space, they opened up contradictory possibilities. From their shadows might emerge a unified communitas or a riot. The blackout shifted its meanings, and achieved new definitions with each repetition. For some, it remained a postmodern form of carnival, where they celebrated an enforced cessation of the city’s vast machinery (p. 382).

While architecture and urban planning are tangential to my usual topics of interest, smart and expansive writing like this, writing that uses the same strokes and colors as science fiction, reminds me why I find the cumulative concerns of the built environment so fascinating. I recommend seeking out these titles. Also, it would be remiss of me not to mention that these two books are entries in two series from Rodopi. No Maps for These Territories is #12 in one called “Spatial Practices: An Interdisciplinary Series in Cultural History, Geography, and Literature,” and Public Space… is #3 in the “Architecture, Technology, Culture” series. This small sampling bodes well for two rich veins of new spatial knowledge, speculative theory, and stimulating writing.

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Here’s a clip from Mark Neale’s William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories (2000) in which Gibson discusses our post-geographical, prosthetic nervous system [runtime: 2:02]:

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References:

Eshun, Kodwo. (1996, November). William Gibson in Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. Unpublished outtake from Paul D. Miller (ed.) Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Arts and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gibson, William. (1982, July). Burning Chrome. Omni Magazine.

Gibson, William. (2001, September). My Own Private Tokyo. WIRED Magazine, 9.09.

Hoepker, Karin. (2011). No Maps for These Territories. New York: Rodopi.

Jones, Thomas. (2011, September 22). William Gibson: Beyond Cyberspace. The Guardian.

Neale, Mark. (director). (2000). William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories [Motion picture]. London: Docurama.

Nye, David E. (2006). Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Orvell, Miles & Meikle, Jeffrey L., editors. (2009). Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture. New York: Rodopi.

Shepard, Mark, editor. (2011). Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Sorkin, Michael. (1992). Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. New York: Hill and Wang.

Wallace-Wells, David (2011, Summer). William Gibson Interview: The Art of Fiction No. 211. The Paris Review, No. 197.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Bringing the Attack to Your Network: Hacking 2.0

Hacking, as the term is generally (mis)understood, gets a bad rap. The longstanding attempts at distinguishing between hacking and cracking have yielded little results. If you self-identify as a hacker, most will still assume you illicitly break into computer systems to steal secret information or vast sums of money.

In Hacking (Polity, 2008), Tim Jordan puts great effort into developing a solid, working definition of the term. Not only is Jordan concerned with differentiating hacking from cracking, but also in not watering down the concept (as he claims McKenzie Wark, Pekka Himenan, and Sherry Turkle, among others, do). “A hack…” he writes, “is a material practice that produces differences in computer, network, and communication technologies” (p. 12). Grounding hacking as a material practice allows Jordan to explore what he considers the two major categories of hacking: information gathering (e.g., cracking) and creative hacks like the myriad tools and toys of the Linux operating system and the open source software movement, both of which push technology beyond its intended uses. Jordan’s book is a cogent, clear, and concise look at what is usually quite a muddy topic.*

Speaking of clear, if you know anything about computer books, you know that O’Reilly publishes the best of them. Hacking: The Next Generation (O’Reilly, 2009) by Nitesh Dhanjani, Billy Rios, and Brett Hardin (all of whom are security experts, engineers, or advisers at large companies with lots at stake) is about as good as these books get. Much like their sister imprint’s book by a similar name (Hacking: The Art of Exploitation on No Starch), this is a solid guide to how to break into things and how to keep someone from breaking into yours. Subtitled “Bringing the Attack to Your Network,” Hacking thoroughly covers everything from the usual corporate firewalls and email accounts to Facebook and Twitter with the hands-on depth you’ve come to expect from O’Reilly.

Bringing hacking to a much larger scale network, environmental futurist Jamais Cascio’s Hacking the Earth (Lulu, 2009) explores the consequences of geoengineering. If you can imagine the global climate as a system to be hacked, then Cascio is speaking your language. This collection of essays (culled from the past five years of his writings at World Changing and Open The Future) covers everything from techniques and terraforming to geoengineering and geoethics. It’s a lofty and enlightening look at hacking the very system of our planet.

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* Special thanks to John David Smith at Learning Alliances for recommending Tim Jordan’s book.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Guest Post: Ashley Crawford on Spook Country by William Gibson

William Gibson is justifiably renowned as one of the key founders of the now vast realm of cyberpunk. His 1984 novel Neuromancer was a foundation stone for a new style of futuristic fiction; high tech but gritty. The opening line of the novel said it all: “The sky above the port was the colour of television tuned to a dead channel.”

In Gibson’s world voodoo met with artificial intelligence. It was a dark realm of worrisome virtual realities. It was a soaring burst of imagination that, at the time, had no equivalent.

Spook CountrySince that time Gibson has gradually been re-inventing himself, coming closer to the present day with each book. His latest, Spook Country (Penguin/Viking), is very much placed in the here and now, resonant with references to 9/11, the Iraq war and corruption within the current American administration. At heart it is a thriller, without the flourishes of remarkable futurism that marked Gibson’s earlier works and as such it will be a disappointment to those hoping for the surreal leaps of vision in his earlier works. But Spook Country remains resolutely a Gibson book, replete with references to the gods and goddesses of voodoo belief. Here the iPod meets the goddess Ochun and a drug called RIZE clashes with the muscular, athletic god Oshosi.

The promotional blurb for Spook Country claims that the novel is “J.G. Ballard meets John Le Carré”, but the novel is far too American for it to fit into such a bizarre English context. One suspects that the Canadian-born Gibson is more influenced by the paranoiac sci-fi of Philip K. Dick and the stylistic tropes of Raymond Chandler, both denizens of Los Angeles where much of the novel is set.

Sense of place is a major aspect of Spook Country. Elements of LA and New York City are captured brilliantly. As one of the key protagonists, the youthful Cuban exile Tito, sprints through Canal Street in New York one can envisage the setting immediately. But although this is New York post-9/11 – a fact that is central to the story – Gibson fails to capture the sense of displacement many New Yorkers still feel, a sensation rendered palpable in Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Falling Man.

Like DeLillo, Gibson uses an artist as one of his triggers to get the action rolling, in this case an artist who uses a kind of virtual reality recreation of past events such as the death of River Pheonix. The artwork is the ostensible subject of a feature story for a not-yet existent magazine called Node to be written by a former indie-rock singer Hollis Henry. It rapidly becomes apparent that Node will probably never exist and its’ supposed publisher is seeking something else entirely. Running parallel to this story are the mysterious goings on of a group of Cubans, especially the athletic Tito who summons the aid of Ochun and Oshosi when necessary, a CIA-type thug and a drug addled character called Milgrim.

Central to the book is the “producer” Bobby Chombo, a paranoid and reclusive troubleshooter for manufacturers of military navigation equipment who refuses to sleep in the same place twice. Hollis Henry has been told by her editor to find him but not told why.

With his sprawling matrix of characters the narrative moves along at break-neck pace. Mis-information transfer run by the Cubans – often via iPod – constantly misleads shadow-agents of the government. Also central is the fortune of American cash set aside to help re-build Iraq that has been pirated away for other, unspecified, but clearly corrupt, uses.

At times Gibson’s narrative soars, at others it is dogged down by slightly lame character development. It is ideal Winter reading but fails to claim anything like the cultural potency of Neuromancer.

[Ashley Crawford is the editor of 21C Magazine and the compilation, Transit Lounge.]

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.