This Bright Flash: Chronicle and Source Code

For many of us, the way we see the world relies on a belief that all the mysteries are eventually knowable. Many of our ontologies hinge on the fact that all will one day be revealed, or that we’ll at least get a glimpse at what’s really going on as we move through this life, that it’s not all just some “lattice of coincidence,” as Miller explained it in Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984; scene embedded below). Our being is bound by time and space, and untethering it from its temporal and spatial planes requires knowledge from somewhere else.

Somewhere between the teen-angst-with-superpowers of Jumper (2008), the camera-as-character of Cloverfield (2008), and the amazing invention / discovery that drives a wedge between friends in Primer (2004), Chronicle tests the bounds of the human and the bonds between them. As a movie, it’s also not quite like any of these. “It’s the most human superhero movie you will ever see,” Dane DeHaan (who plays Chronicle‘s primary concern, Andrew Detmer) told Fox’s Film File, and that gets at one reason the movie is so compelling.

The Crush: Andrew Detmer

Set in my beloved Seattle (though obviously filmed elsewhere), Chronicle tells the tale of three high school friends of various social status who find something that gives them the mental abilities to move matter. It doesn’t take them long to realize how powerful this makes them and how much stronger they can get. This is all fine and fun until the downtrodden Andrew (e.g., abusive, alcoholic father, terminally ill mother, no friends, bullied at school, etc.) begins to exact revenge on his familiar foes and becomes punch-drunk with power, claiming to be an “apex predator.” His cousin Matt Garrety (second of the three, played by Alex Russell) attempts to mediate the madness, to no avail. Michael B. Jordan, who plays the gregarious Steve Montgomery and third of the affected, main characters, previously lit up the small screen on The Wire and Friday Night Lights. His megawatt on-screen presence alone powers much of the pace of this movie. By the time he is gone, Andrew has lost control and sent the plot over the edge.

For all the things that one could do with telekinesis, the film shows remarkable restraint. Sure, the boys go flying in the clouds and nearly get hit by an airplane, move cars around parking lots, give girls sensations heretofore unfelt, and totally own their school’s talent show, but when things get really bad, it’s restraint — theirs and the film’s writing/directing team, Max Landis and Josh Trank — that saves the day. The trailer probably gives away more than it needs to, but there’s plenty to discover in Chronicle, enough that I’m anxious for the DVD release and subsequent repeated viewings.

Send your dreams
Where nobody hides
Give your tears
To the tide
No time
No time  — M83. “Wait”

Duncan Jones‘ Source Code (2011) is another recent achievement. During the initial, getting-acquainted period, it feels like 12 Monkeys (1995), The Matrix (1999), and Memento (2000) all crammed together and compressed tight, but once it gets rolling, it’s on a track all its own. Writer Ben Ripley brings together some tightly written science fiction and raises some interesting questions. The film is not about time travel per se, but its causal questions are the same: What happens to one reality when we change another quantum reality’s outcome? Source Code, the system for which the movie is named, uses the last eight minutes of brain activity we all experience upon death to allow a person to experience a different timeline in another, compatible person (via quantum entanglement and “parabolic calculus”;  As William Gibson put it, “The people who complain about Source Code not getting quantum whatsit right probably thought Moon was about cloning.”). The idea of the system is to be able to find out what happened just before a catastrophic event (in this case a train bombing), in order to prevent further events from happening (e.g., a massive dirty bomb set for downtown Chicago). Somewhere between brain stimulation and computer simulation, Source Code does its work. But Captain Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) goes in for one last shot at getting everything just right (like Aaron’s repeated runs in Primer) and manages to manipulate more than the system is supposed to allow.

Jake on a Train: Duncan Jones directs the lovelies.

The film’s not flawless, but most of the causes for concern are cast-related. The “bad guy,” Derek Frost (Michael Arden), is barely believable, and Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) serviceably scrapes by, but Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the inventor of Source Code, is the standout bummer. As a serious scientist, as well as the movie’s real bad guy, he’s not only not believable, but his presence drags down an otherwise well-paced, well-performed movie. Gyllenhaal revisits and repeats a line from Donnie Darko (2001) — “Everything is going to be okay” — as well as some of the other themes from that movie.

There’s no end
There is no goodbye
Disappear
With the night
No time
No time — M83. “Wait”

These two movies rely on well-worn mythologies of mind power and its manipulation of time and space, and, like other narratives of this kind, their underlying conceits rely on glimpses behind the lattice of reality in order to move beyond. But more than that, they rely on the strength of the human spirit to overcome undue adversity. Whether it be bullying in the case of Chronicle or the horrors of war in Source Code, the real story is human.

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Plate of Shrimp: Miller from Repo Man explains it all [runtime: 2:44]:

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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.

Return to Cinder: Supergods and the Apocalypse

Grant Morrison describes his growing up through comics books as a Manichean affair: “It was an all-or-nothing choice between the A-Bomb and the Spaceship. I had already picked sides, but the Cold War tension between Apocalypse and Utopia was becoming almost unbearable” (p. xiv). Morrison’s first non-comic book, Supergods (Spiegel & Grau, 2011), is one-half personal statement, one-half art history. It’s an autobiography told through comic books and a history of superheroes disguised as a memoir. His early history of superhero comics is quite good, but it gets really, really good when Morrison enters the story full-bore — first as a struggling but successful freelancer and later as a chaos magician of the highest order, conjuring coincidence with superhero sigils.

As if to follow Kenneth Burke’s dictum that literature represents “equipment for living,” Morrison puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of the supergods. “We live in the stories we tell,” he writes, and he’s not just saying that. Morrison wrote himself into his hypersigil comic The Invisibles and watched as the story came to life and nearly killed him.

In Supergods Morrison tells the story in high relief and stresses the transubstantiation between words and images on a page and thoughts and actions in the real world. His works are largely made up of “reality-bending metafictional freakouts dressed up in action-adventure drag,” as Douglas Wolk (2007) describes them, “metaphors that make visible the process by which language creates an image that in turn becomes narrative” (p. 258). If you’re not one for the magical bent, think of it as a strong interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis with a Rortian addendum: If we assume that language creates reality, then we should use language to create the reality we want to live in. Morrison writes, “Superhero comics may yet find a purpose all along as the social realist fiction of tomorrow” (p. 116). He insists that whether we realize it or not, we are the superheroes of this world.

The mini-apocalypse of September 11th, 2001 presented an odd dilemma not only for us, but also for our masked and caped heroes and our relationships to them. On one side, the event questions the effectiveness of our superheroes if something like that can happen without their intervention. Our faith in them crumbled like so much steel and concrete. On the other, after witnessing that day, we were more ready to escape into their fantasy world than ever. The years after that event exemplified what Steve Aylett described as a time “when people would do almost anything to avoid thinking clearly about what is actually going on.”

9/11 is conspicuously missing from Peter Y. Paik’s From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), as is Morrison, but blurbed by our friends Steven Shaviro and Bruce Sterling, the book provides another look at the link between the printed page and the world stage. As a contemporary companion to Barry Brummett’s Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric, which came out in 1991, Paik’s book provides another peek at the larger picture beyond the page that Morrison alludes to. I do find it odd that there’s no discussion of 9/11, a date that also roughly marks an epochal shift between things that were once considered nerdy and now are not. Morrison rails against the word “geek” as applied to comic book fans saying, “They’re no different from most people who consume things and put them in the corner or put them in a drawer… Anyone who’s into anything could be called a geek, but they don’t call them a geek.”

As much of a nerd as I’ll admit I am, I’ve never really been much for comic books. With that said, I found Supergods enthralling, much in the same way I found the screen stories of Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives. Intergalactic narrative notwithstanding, Morrison’s prose seems both carefully constructed and completely natural. As my colleague Katie Arens would say, he writes to be read. My lack of comic-book knowledge sometimes made following the historical cycles of superheroes difficult, but Morrison’s presence in these pages and personal touch kept me reading hyper-attentively. Here’s hoping he writes at least half of the other books hinted at herein.

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My own introduction to Grant Morrison came via Disinformation‘s DisinfoCon in 2000 where he explains the basics of chaos magic in an excitedly drunken Scottish accent [runtime: 45:28]:

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References:

Brummett, Barry. (1991). Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Burke, Kenneth. (1974). The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Hiatt, Brian. (2011, August 22). Grant Morrison on the Death of Comics. Rolling Stone.

Morrison, Grant. (2011). Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Wolk, Douglas. (2007). Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo.

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.

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.