(Probably) No More Crossposting to LJ from gordsellar.com

Apr. 14th, 2014 | 03:37 pm

UPDATE (later that same day):

For those who still want to track my blog via LJ: you can do that over at the LJ syndication of my blog that was kindly set up by asakiyume: it's at http://gordsellar.livejournal.com/.

Note, however, that I won't be likely to see comments on these posts: if you want to comment, it's best to do so over at my blog!

ORIGINAL POST:
I may be discontinuing post mirroring over here soon. All the plugins available for WordPress are old and I'm trying to get rid of plugins that haven't been updated in years, since I'm having problems with my site.

However, I can try to find a solution, if there's anyone still following my site here who doesn't have some other means of following websites. (Someone who only reads at LJ and doesn't use a feedreader.) If that describes you, please leave a comment, and it'll given me incentive to try follow up. Otherwise, I think I'll just leave the journal up, at least till I can import the comments to my blog, and then maybe clear out the archive. I won't be deleting the account--there are a few LJs I still follow, occasionally--but I figure it's easier to let people follow someplace where they're assured access to my updates!

For those who want to follow my blog by RSS, this is the main RSS feed. The main site is of course at http://gordsellar.com.

I hope to see you there! And, like I said, if you really, really prefer to continue to follow at LJ, leave a comment. I may or may not be able to make it happen, but at least I'll be aware of the preference.

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Heathern and Terraplane, by Jack Womack

Apr. 7th, 2014 | 08:32 am

I’ve just read Jack Womack’s second and third novels (both of books set in his “Dryco” series) back-to-back. Longtime readers will note that I lauded the first novel in the series (in terms of series timeline) with lavish praise back in 2012. I also read the Womack’s first novel, Ambient, and it made a strong impression on me at the time, but that was years and years ago, and I’m due for a reread since I’m apparently trying to read all the Dryco books this year.


(Actually, when I read Ambient, I wanted nothing more than to read everything else in print, but timing foiled me: I left for Korea a month or so later, where it was very hard to get books ordered at the time, and I never got back around to Womack’s work even though I managed to accumulate a lot of it over the years.)


Anyway, I’ve finally given both Heathern and Terraplane a read, and here are my thoughts. Oh, and given the age of these books, I shouldn’t have to say this, but, er, yes, I do discuss the plot to some degree. So don’t cry spoilers!!! in the comments. If you haven’t read them, go do that, though. This post will still be here.


Womack HeathernWomack Heathern


Heathern


The Dryco world is brutal, horrendous, but not exactly alien to us: it’s sort of like America, but America reduced to a state somewhat like how Americans think Colombia must be like. Going in, you need to know that, and have your stomach ready for some nasty sights.


Heathern is pretty clearly an earlier work. You can feel Womack hitting his stride in the much later novel Random Acts of Senseless Violence, about which I posted almost two years ago. (Note: Random Acts is later in terms of when it was written, not in terms of series order.)


But it must be frustrating when people compare everything you’ve ever written to that one book that blew their minds, so I’ll focus on what I thought about Heathern itself.


I actually picked this book soon after finishing Random Acts of Senseless Violence. I think I ended up putting it down simply because of the sheer crush of work. I put it into a trunk to bring to Saigon when we moved here in 2013, but that was the trunk that got left behind. (Well, repacked into boxes and left behind.) So it’s taken me till now to have a copy on hand to read.


I am kicking myself for delaying it this long. Sure, there’s all kinds of books I want to read, that I ought to read: The Iliad, Ulysses is another, the second half of Don Quixote (I finished the first half in India almost exactly a decade ago). But Womack’s books are short, they’re punchy, and they’re always fascinating, so I don’t know what took me so long.


It’s funny how a character like Dryden seems science-fictional to us, given the fact that people like Lee Christmas have walked the earth… and pretty much done in places like Honduras what Womack depicts happening in America. When I was a student, I saw the President of a very small Caribbean Island speak at my university: he’d participated in an infamous student protest there decades before. A few weeks after we saw him speak, he “died of a heart attack,” which I took at face value, but a friend of mine who’d spent a lot of time in East Africa laughed and said, “It’s always a heart attack.” She had heard the line so many times, she knew better than to take it for granted. That’s what Dryco is: it’s developing-world politics and brutality, except in America.


Womack has said he wasn’t cyberpunk, and there’s certainly not much cyber in his books, but it’s understandable why people would lump him in with the cyberpunks. There was always an element of that in cyberpunk, at least in the examples of the subgenre set in our world. (Some of Bruce Sterling’s early stuff–like Involution Ocean and The Artificial Kid–was set on distant worlds, and Schismatrix isn’t really set on Earth either.) The burnt-out, rusted-through urban hell of tomorrow was kind of part of cyberpunk all the way back to Neuromancer and Blade Runner,or even the proto-cyberpunk of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, where the cities are crammed and people (called “muckers,” because they run amok) explode into violence on a regular basis just from the stress.


While I came to cyberpunk years after its founders declared the movement dead, writers like Gibson (centrist as he maintained he was, in 2004, while arguing against the overt politicization of fiction). Gibson, at the link I  just included, claims he’s made an effort to be non-propagandistic writer:


In [E.M.] Forster’s sense of things, I have always tried very hard to not be a “political” novelist. I do not come to the page as a propagandist for my own beliefs. This has been made rather more easy for me, I suspect, by the fact that I am, as far as I can tell, more or less a centrist, equally repelled by either extreme of the political spectrum. Indeed, I believe that the spectrum forms a full circle, with right and left merging, as they meet at their respective extremes, into luminous batshit evil.


But the thing is, that centrism always seemed to me to include a faint awe at scope and size of megacorporations, some deep understanding that as much as cyberpunk was about AIs, it was also about corporations, and that in some sense both AIs and megacorps are a kind of artificial intelligence, coldly mechanical, ruthlessly inhuman, marvelous in the intricacy but always potentially fatal creations of humanity. There was always something both repellent and cool–a sort of sublimity that mirrored the technological sublime–about those rapacious Japanese zaibatsu and American multinationals that brought the world of the future to its knees. This seemed particularly on display in Gibson’s work: Rucker and especially Sterling tended to be more likely to give their characters families of a sort.


Still, Womack’s future feels different, and not just for the lack of the cyber: he’ll build a decayed, rusted, burnt-out tomorrow for you, and he’ll depict it with wonderfully-crafted prose, with great characters, with an imagination that is hard to beat… but the price of admission is that he won’t let you off the hook and turn it into a funhouse.


You want a world that’s rotting and falling apart? You want the end of American democracy and the collapse of American civilization? Fine: but Womack insists on showing you what it’d be like to be human in such a world: what it’s like to have aging parents there, to have and maybe lose a baby there, to be stuck in a job you hate, doing evil things, because if you don’t, you might end up sleeping somewhere a tank will roll over you, or might end up having to off yourself with rat poison to avoid being sucked into the black, greasy underworld that forms.


Which I suppose explains Womack’s abiding interest in Russia. Plenty of the stories my Russian exchange students in Korean told about what’s happened in Russian society the last twenty years sounds so much like Dryco that it’s not even funny. As far as I’ve read, nobody really bothered to do much about presenting the heartbreak of living in such a world, not at least to my knowledge… not until Jack Womack. In Random Acts of Senseless Violence, that heartbreak is at center stage–and that’s one of many reasons the book gets so much attention–but the narrator of Heathern, despite  being young, beautiful, enmeshed in a romance with Dryden himself, and well-employed by him to boot, has her moments, too, especially when talking about her parents’ death:


“I guess they were old…”


“They were young,” I said. “They moved to a retirement community. In Florida. After the revaluation they lost their savings. They couldn’t afford the maintenance on their co-op and they got an eviction notice. I didn’t know until later. They must not have wanted me to worry, and I never thought–”


“Joanna, it’s alright…”


“Let’s go upstairs,” I said. He preceded me on the ascent. The second floor’s vacuums were broken, and dust settled over us as might sea-mist at the shore. “they didn’t tell me. It was such a–”


“Joanna?”


“Such a–” I began again, unable to think of a suitable conclusion.


“Are you alright?”


“Fine,” I said. “I’m fine. They were fine. Their lives went so smoothly. Too smoothly. I’d learned not to worry about them.”


“Joanna, it wasn’t your fault, whatever happened–”


“I should have been there,” I said, stopping, leaning against the wall; I’d not let myself think about it since it happened. They’d decided upon their course of action with the logic they brought to all situations; decided to kill themselves, and so obtained poison from a reliable source. “Why didn’t they tell me?”


“Joanna, it’s all right,” he said, holding me as if to keep me from shaking. Every Saturday night they fixed a candlelight dinner for themselves, once I was old enough that I  might make my own arrangements. I remembered so often leaving the house, seeing them sitting there, staring into each others’ eyes as if they’d been married the day before. Perhaps, that night, they’d hoped to draw such romance as they could from their final tableau; more likely the electricity had been cut off, and they needed candlielight in order to measure out their doses. A candle caught the bedroom drapes on fire, the fire department said; they’d passed out before blowing out the lights.


“I didn’t know,” I said. Mom could have slept through it. Dad got halfway across the living room. “The fire department sent me a bill for their services the next day on the fax. That’s how I found out–”


“It’s all right,” Lester repeated, not letting me go. “It’s all right. Go ahead and cry–”


“I can’t,” I said. “I haven’t been able to in years. Not really.”


Note that Joanna barely tells her interlocutor anything, even here: she tells us, but unless he’s a mind-reader (and he may just be), all he knows is that they died in a fire, and that she doesn’t want to explain more, probably because she is to some degree culpable. That’s one species of subterranean telling, but there’s others: the man she’s talking to has secrets of his own, important ones that he doesn’t reveal in this conversation,though they’re hinted at.


And then there’s the power of not telling, only a few pages later:


“Was it his baby you had?” Lester asked. I couldn’t see his face from where I lay. He stood near my dresser, and I knew he was examining the pair of booties I had hanging on the knob of the mirror’s frame. “These weren’t yours, were they? You’d have had them bronzed–”


“I knitted them,” I said.


“You had a baby?”


“Once.”


“Recently?” he asked, walking over and sitting next to me, gazing down as if he might peer directly  into my mind.


“January,” I said. “Things happen.” As I shut my eyes he leaned closer, whispering.


“Where’s your baby?”


“Where’s your parents?”


The effect was as desired; he said nothing else.


This should bring to mind that “shortest story ever written,” popularly attributed to Hemingway:


For sale: baby shoes, never worn


… but it should also bring to mind the passage that opens the book, which I quoted on this site years ago, where a madwoman drops a baby from her window up above, and the protagonist only luckily survives.


A baby almost killed me as I walked to work one morning. By passing beneath a bus shelter’s roof at the ordained moment I lived to tell my tale. With strangers surrounding me I looked at what remained. Laughter from heaven made us lift our eyes skyward. The baby’s mother lowered her arms and leaned out her window. Without applause her audience drifted off, seeking crumbs in the gutters of this city of God. Xerox shingles covered the shelter’s remaining glass pane, and the largest read:


Want to be crucified. Have own nails.

Leave message on machine.


The fringe of numbers along the ad’s hem had been stripped away. My shoes crunched glass underfoot; my skirt clung to my legs as I continued down the street. November dawn’s seventy-degree bath made my hair lose its set. Mother above appeared ready to take her own bow; I too, as ever, flew on alone.


Theseare two side of a single coin, when you live in a world like Dryco’s. There’s a kind of brilliant bait-and-switch going on here, at about a third of the way through the novel: Joanna is opening up to the Lester, and all that hardboiled, tough-as-nails posturing–which was really epidemic in cyberpunk at the time–splits open to reveal the soft, vulnerable human flesh, riddled with wounds, beneath. The horrible secrets do out, of course, by the end–or enough of them do–but they come out of the shadows of human lives, and are more powerful and heartbreaking for it.


And here I am, a couple of thousand words later, and I’ve said nothing about the plot of the book. About how this could be read as (even if it wasn’t written as) a riff on Jung’s response to a question put to him by a ladies’ magazine, about what would happen if Jesus were to appear in the world today. (I can’t find the quote online, but Jung quipped that Jesus would be destroyed by his own success, and rapidly.) Or about how interesting it is to see Thatcher Dryden at a moment when his mind is spinning out of his own control, where his deep-seated anxiety about Japan–another cyberpunk cliché–has led him to try and use Jesus to sink Japan. (Yet another old SF riff, though a Japanese one.) About the idea of marketing meeting an actual messiah (not messianic religion, which even in the 1980s was already a thing in America, but an honest-to-goodness messiah). And then there’s the


A lot of people seem to have found Heathern the least engaging of the Dryco books–it’s the only novel in the series without a Wikipedia page, for one thing–and going by how long it took me to finish it (some parts are a bit slow, I’ll admit) I can see why, but as far as I’m concerned, as a novel it succeeded on its own terms. It’s just that its terms are so weird and disconnected from what the genre was doing at the time, that people maybe didn’t recognize it as such. But it’s worth looking at, especially if you’re interested in the Dryco books more generally.


Terraplane


TerraplaneTerraplaneAnother deeply weird book from Womack, Terraplane is set after Ambient chronologically speaking, though it was his second novel. Terraplane is definitely the least brutal of the Dryco books I’ve read so far, at least in terms of the ultraviolence of Ambient, Random Acts, and Heathern. And, unlike a lot of writers, Womack managed in 1988 to predict that Soviet Russia would become a kleptocratic-capitalist society… sure, he kept it Soviet, but the capitalism he got right, and Putin’s regime is starting to look more and more like “Big Boy’s” with each passing year… and Russia is, according to many Russians I’ve known, not so much unlike the Dryco-world Russia (or Dryco’s America, for that matter) for anyone without the ability to rake in cash within that system.


This book is less about the horror of the Dryco future, and more about how it’s not the worst of all possible worlds. Basically, an African-American general and his white bodyguard are sent on an exfil to Russia: their target is a Russian scientist. But things go bananas pretty much right away, and what looks like time travel at first, is something much, much weirder. This novel seems a kind of meditation on James Baldwin’s comment in “Stranger in the Village”:


Joyce is right about history being a nightmare-but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.


… and for “trapped” there are several different possible meanings. There’s the way people are “trapped” in their own history; there’s the SF trope of being trapped in another’s history, and wanting to return to one’s own; there’s the price that living history exacts from a person; and there’s the horror of the idea that certain individuals could actually escape from history, given the right tools.


But for all that, the novel mostly is about power, and race, and oppression in the old days, or, rather, a sort of distorted, more-conservative-than-it-actually-was version of them. Many of the protagonists are African-Americans, and though there are a few wobbles (I have trouble imagining a black American in the early 21st century who has as little awareness of what life was like in the 1930s in the USA as Luther seems to have), overall the depiction is honest, blunt, and intelligent. It’s also pretty brutal, but the brutality is of a sort that seems more familiar. That is to say, in some ways, the horrors of the Dryco world aren’t really so different from the horrors of any other oppressive regime, including a conservative wet dream set late in the Depression in 1939 in New York/New Jersey.


This is part of the brilliance of the title: unless you know what a Terraplane is, the word sounds very SFnal, very futuristic. I had no idea what it actually referred to until it came up in the story… in context, it’s obvious what it is, a model of car.


Image from Wikimedia Commons.Image from Wikimedia Commons. Image from Wikimedia Commons.


In a way, this presages an insight that Bruce Sterling included in his essay, “The User’s Guide to Steampunk”:


The past is a kind of future that has already happened.


That’s pretty much exactly what Womack seems to be saying: looked at correctly, the past–ours, or someone else’s–can be mined for useful insight into the present. In interviews, Womack makes it pretty clear the earlier Dryco books were a response to New York in the 1970s, and to the rise of conservative politics in America–especially the horror of having Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office. That is a past for us now, but one with clear links to America’s present, and future… and the other world in Terraplane is, in a sense, mostly the kind of world that the American conservative right in the 1980s would have longed for, or indeed did long for–that is, the kind of history they longed for, where maybe blacks were freed from slavery, but still “knew their place” and failed to offer significant resistance to oppression, failed to make such inroads into popular culture, failed to unthrone the obvious sense of white superiority that so many white folks in the past felt. It’s very reminiscent of the “men’s rights” groups that crop up in backwards places today–groups we see not only in America, but even in places like South Korea, which is according to plenty of measures the worst place in the developed world to be a woman. Womack, here, seems to enact the wet dream of the American right so that he can expose the horror lurking within, and for doing that as effectively as he did in Terraplane,  I think he deserves a standing ovation from SF fandom.


Of course, there’s also the weird, which ranges from odd details (gnostic Christianity survived into the modern day) to massive differences, such as the presence of a horrifying mutation of the flu virus, or the fact that in this America,  slavery wasn’t abolished until 1907 (to alleviate the negative pressure of European countries on J.P. Morgan). One of the characters has a Coca-Cola brand on his body, because, after all, when people stopped owning slaves, companies took over and kept right on going with it. Robert Johnson’s still alive (and in fact, has a cameo in the novel). But the dystopianism in the novel, as far as the present-day action, is actually not fantastical: it’s just good old-fashioned 1930s racism.


The horror we see is the cheapness of human life, heightened by racism. One character from that other world is disgusted when she sees the people from the Dryco world kill off their enemies with little emotional response, but the brutality of her own world in some ways horrifies them more than she can imagine. There’s a discussion of how people acclimate to history, how they take for granted what they know: a woman whose husband was castrated by his corporate owner (yes, Coca-Cola), who lived as a slave, is horrified by the Dryco world, but the people of the Dryco world are flabbergasted by the constant, blatant, violent racism of that woman’s world. We’re all used to some horrible things: yes, even me and you. (Think about who probably made the clothing you’re wearing right now, if you’d like to meditate on that: unless you’re as rich as Thatcher Dryden, the thought is likely to discomfit you…)


If there’s one thing that rubbed me the wrong way in this book, it’s the futurespeak of the Dryco world… I’m not sure why, since it didn’t bug me in Heathern, and since it’s such an important part of the other Dryco books I’ve read. It’s not that it’s awfully done, but there’s something about it that feels like futurespeak made up by an SF writer living in the 20th century. However, Womack seems to be aware of it: a lot of the characters in the other world, where people speak our more familar form of English, are baffled by the Dryco worlders’ English, and keep commenting that they can’t speak the language properly at all. Of course, I suspect that the futurespeak, the argot of the Dryco world, is supposed to rub us the wrong way: it’s the language of a world that’s essentially broken in ways our little, local worlds mostly aren’t, yet, if we’re lucky. (So, maybe, reminiscent of the pain of reading Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker for the first time, with all that incomprehensible dialect of the future, English as broken as the world after a nuclear war.) So maybe this is a feature, rather than a flaw? It certainly doesn’t dissuade me from the enthusiasm I feel for reading the rest of the series! (As well as his non-Dryco book, Let’s Put the Future Behind Us, which is set in a SFnalized Russia which is basically like the real Russia, but slightly weirder, and his short stories, which would probably take some effort to track down.)


(Also, I realize, the futurespeak isn’t all so completely off as I’d like to think. One example that sticks out in memory is the tendency to turn a noun into a verb: “‘Hospital us,’ I said…” is one example from the end of Chapter 11. I actually know people who talk like this: “Rice me,” they say, meaning, “Give me some rice.” Or, “Plate me,” or, “Book me.” I think I’ve even seen people talk this way on TV. So maybe some of the aggravation boils down to familiarity with annoying people who talk this way, more than anything Womack himself wrote. Hm.)


All in all, I found Terraplane more enjoyable, but Heathern is a very good novel too. It’s a shame that Womack’s novels haven’t sold as well as they should have… and by shame, I mean that it’s shameful, really. This is one of the writers SF fandom ought to be celebrating: he does characters and language really well, he has a great imagination, and he has a way of making you look at the real world differently after you’ve read one of his books. Here’s hoping the better cover art on the reprints of his work have helped a little…


newwomackcoversnewwomackcovers


… and that his most recent project (mentioned in this excellent interview from 2011, a Southern Gothic history of his family titled Ashland), comes out soon.


(And in more recent news, Charles Stross’s recent post about rhetoric regarding “full employment” in Britain made me think of Dryco, too.)

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Finished! Trine 2

Apr. 6th, 2014 | 10:25 am

I normally don’t post about computer games, and think of the “Gaming” section of my blog as being about tabletop RPGs. However, both Mrs. Jiwaku and I have enjoyed Frozenbyte‘s Trine 2 quite a bit, so I’m going to make an exception:


Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 10.29.26 PM


By “quite a bit,” I mean the degree of enjoyment, not the amount of play: it’s taken us  ages (and I mean, months on end) to finish the game, but that’s because we’ve rationed it to sessions of about an hour at a time, of only occasional frequency.


Still, it’s been great fun playing together, and working out how to cooperatively beat all the puzzles along the way. As far as games that require teamwork, it’s an excellent example: you can switch between all three of the characters : the wizard (who’s good at magical conjurings and levitating things), the thief (who is skilled at missile attacks and platforming), and the warrior (who mainly excels in combat).


Trine-2-characters


If you set the game up properly in the settings, you can both play any of the roles, even the same character simultaneously. (In fact, it’s a game that accommodates up to three players, but we never had a third play with us.) The thing is that you can solve a lot of the game’s puzzles in multiple ways: throwing a hammer to hit a distant trigger for a machine is one way to set the thing going, but you can also shoot an arrow at it, or hit it with a magically conjured, levitating box. That’s the beauty of the game: there’s multiple solutions to the problems inherent in it. Another lovely thing is that character death isn’t such a big deal: characters get resurrected with each checkpoint you arrive at, and if all the players’ characters get killed, play recommences at one of the frequent checkpoints: this means you rarely have to replay any scene you’ve mastered for very long.


The best thing about Trine 2, aside from all the wonderful things I could say about the gameplay, is the fact that the game is twice as long as we expected. We completed the main quest, thinking that we’d beaten the game, but there was a whole surprise secondary quest at the end… which we expected to be one more battle, but which turned out to be much longer than that, and indeed some of the weirdest and most unusual parts of the game. (This is what I think is titled “The Goblin Menace” on Frozenbyte’s website.)



As far as story goes, the whole thing is fairly simple, very fairy-tale-esque, but that’s all it really needs–anything more complicated would probably get in the way, and the simplicity here is actually a positive. The visuals and the play mechanics were excellent enough to keep us hooked till the end. There’s a definite strand of steampunk mixed in, but also of pulp adventure: the goblin ruins seemed to be a mix of stereotypical Egyptian ruins and steampunk-magical mystery. There are a variety of settings, from desert to icy mountaintops… but those terrains aren’t just backdrop: in the mountaintop setting, an icy wind actually complicates character manoeuvres!


In any case, we really enjoyed Trine 2, and felt like we’d accomplished something once we finished the game. I have at least a couple of friends who’ve played it an enjoyed as much as we did. I got it as part of the Humble Indie Bundle 9, which is long over now, but if you’d like to try it, it’s still in the Humble Bundle Store (as well as on Steam). There’s also a version for the Wii.

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One More Composition: "When She Dreams of Moonlight" (1994)

Apr. 3rd, 2014 | 10:37 pm

I’ve added another composition to my Music page: it’s an underwhelming score, in fact a royal mess, but I figured it was worth notating in Musescore for the practice, as well as to capture the way I thought about music and composing in 1994, about halfway through my formal music studies. I suppose you could call it my attempt to compose “Third Stream” music: that is, music that combined jazz and classical approaches to create something new and alien to both sides of the divide.


Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 4.55.35 AM


Here’s a copy of the score, though it’s pretty useless without the tape (and still somewhat useless with the tape):



The score is an absolute mess. The piano notation sucks–I tried to clean it up but, not being a pianist, I don’t even know how to situate the pedal and dynamics markings in relation to one another, and frankly, this is good enough given the quality of the piece. Were I interested in actually having this piece looked at or performed today, I’d take a very different approach to the notation, but I don’t see the point now: I’m only trying to preserve this piece in a more readable format than the one it’s been in, being carried around in boxes and plastic bags for decades. Therefore, with very few exceptions, I’ve simply gone with what I had on the page, as best I could input it using Musescore.


Here are some comments on the piece, for those interested…



I composed this piece probably inspired by three different influences:



  1. Hearing John Sampen play as a visiting performer at my university: he played a fair bit of music for tape and alto saxophone when he visited, and some of it was really beautiful or impressive.

  2. Taking a course in electro-acoustic music with Canadian composer David R. Scott, who approached the course with the philosophy that hands-on experimentation was important: I not only heard a lot of electro-acoustic music by many great composers, but was given a chance to try work with the same techniques and materials myself.

  3. Listening to The Orb, a popular ambient group who used spoken word (interview materials) as samples in their music.


The thing is: this was 1994. I had my first computer–a desktop Mac–but I couldn’t use it for anything as complex as a live music performance. (I paid a lot of money for it believing I could, on the say-so of the drummer who ran the computer shop on campus, but my computer was somewhat underpowered for the purpose, I couldn’t afford any music-related software, and anyway it was impractical to carry it around, as it was a massive modular collection of hardware. It was, as I’ve observed before, my first and last desktop computer.)


Were I to write something like this piece today, I’d likely use Ableton Live, and would be able to achieve all kinds of effects that I wanted in 1994, but couldn’t achieve. I’d probably do away with the live piano, and use a foot pedal to trigger events, to control feedback loops, to control effects applied to the live saxophone audio, and so on. It would be kind of cool to compose something like that today, I think, if I were still in the composing game.


But in 1994, I ended up going with reel-to-reel tape manipulation and with reel-to-reel tape as my final performance output device for the electroacoustic portion of the performance. The piece was performed sometime in 1994, I think probably in March or April. Darryl Webb was tape operator, Jamie Shupena played piano, and I played the soprano saxophone part myself.


The score betrays an impatience with the idea that a composer should have to notate every musical phrase to be played: my exposure to jazz was such that I couldn’t fathom how a “musician” (so-called) could be unable to take a mode or scale and improvise freely on it. (Indeed, I remember trying to arrange an improvisation workshop and being baffled at just how frightened of improvisation some of the most musical and gifted classical player sI knew turned out to be. The workshop was a failure, though I think if I led it today, with the teaching experience I have now, it would be much more productive.)


At the same time, I personally was struggling to understand just what kind of techniques and structures could be used to give form to a spontaneous improvisation fit into a single mode, as one sees in Indian music but also sees John Coltrane experimenting with later in his career.


Anyway, there are extensive notes on the composition. The only thing I haven’t discussed is the fact it was dedicated to the woman who was, at the time, my girlfriend. (In the notes, it says wife, but we were only engaged then, I realize now.) In any case, we have nothing to do with one another now, and that is for the good, but it was dedicated to her at one point… and I think the tape even featured a few words in her voice, somewhere along the way. We’ll see: I remember the tape one way, but it probably sounds far different. In any case, the tape may no longer exist. If not, I won’t be recreating it: it’s not worth the trouble.)

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Musical Sketches

Mar. 30th, 2014 | 03:14 pm

So, I’ve just posted some sketches for the soundtrack I was working on in early March for my wife’s film project–that is, 대리전/”The Proxy War”. I won’t be doing any more work on the sketches till we have a rough cut, but I figured it might interest some people. This film is SF, comedic but also action, and yet in a lot of ways it’s conceived as being in the mode of Chris Marker’s La Jetée, which means that narration is a huge part of how the story gets across.


Daerijeon1


By the way, the soundtrack material has taken up so much room over at my own Soundcloud, that I figured it was maybe time to make a Soundcloud profile just for Brutal Rice Productions.


There are two sets up right now: one with the complete soundtrack for <<자연선택설>> (“Environmental Selection and Species Adaptation”), and one with concept sketches for the soundtrack for 대리전/”The Proxy War”. The latter are really rough, just designed to give Mrs. Jiwaku some sound ideas and some sense of things I’m playing with, something to respond to in terms of her own wishes. (Sometimes it’s easier to give her something to springboard off, in terms of music.)


I’ll also be uploading the recorded score for “The Music of Jo Hyeja” soon. It’s apparently in the archives somewhere, at the studio where the audio was mastered, so it’s just a case of digging it out and cutting the non-music tracks. I hope to upload that sometime in April.


In the meantime, here are the sets that are up right now:



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When It Rains

Mar. 24th, 2014 | 06:17 am

One thing that happens when you get busy trying to write a novel or two is that short story publications slow down, so I haven’t had a lot of publication announcements to make recently, but when it rains, it pours. (As I’m about to rediscover when the rainy season strikes us again here in Saigon.)


In any case, I finally do have some publication news, all of which struck basically at once a month or so ago. (I waited till the ink was dry on all the contracts before announcing anything, though.)


Firstly, I have a novella forthcoming soon in Asimov’s SF. It’s another jazz-related novella: I figure, three more of these and I could do a collection of jazz SF stories. This one features a cast of characters from 1920s America–a long-lived refugee jazzman with a secret, a low-ranking mobster, a runaway mob kingpin’s mistress, a hardworking Pullman porter, a physicist, and a lonely old lady… on a train from St. Louis to Chicago. Oh… and there’s this alien artifact on board, too…


Next, two reprints: Sean Wallace will be including “The Clockworks of Hanyang” in The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures (to be released in the fall of 2014). The story looks to be in excellent company, according to the table of contents posted at the link above! Very flattering, and I look forward to the story getting a wider reading. (Incidentally, I’ve got a new story set in that same steampunk-apocalypse world, which I’ll be flogging around soon… and which I’m considering expanding into a novel at some point, too.)


Also, the new Far-Fetched Fables podcast (part of the District of Wonders) will be podcasting “Of Melei, of Ulthar” sometime after their launch this April, which is also cool: I have a soft spot for the story, for a variety of reasons. It’ll be fun to hear what another reader makes of the world.

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Alain de Botton is a...

Mar. 23rd, 2014 | 06:34 pm

Well, I haven’t actually read him, so I don’t know, but Fisun Güner makes a pretty good argument that at least when it comes to art and art appreciation, he’s “a moron.”


Güner’s harsh, but understandably so: there’s always someone out there who’s ready to explain to people who do get art, and celebrate it, why they’re doing it all wrong because people who don’t get art aren’t getting art. It reminds me of a drummer I knew in music school, who scolded me and a few of my friends for not seeing in our heads the same picture he saw in his head while listening to Bedřich Smetana’s “Vltava” (from Mà vlast, better know to a lot of Anglophones as “Die Moldau”):


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTKsHwqaIr4


Of course, the picture this drummer saw in his head involved himself flying over some river in a folksy European countryside in a black cloak, swooping down and thrilling villagers. (Coppolla’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula had come out not long before, and his vision seemed inspired by that as much as anything.) We were much less thrilled, because each of us heard other things–or, apparently, saw other things, and the prescription made by this drummer did not add to our enjoyment of the piece… far less, when he insisted we try and see it his way. The drummer interpreted “Vltava” as a kind of fantastique adventure experience; for Smetana, it seems to have been intended as more of an expression of Czech nationalism and of his love for, and appreciation of, the marvelous city of Prague, through which the Vltava (a river) flows.


Of course, there is such a thing as programmatic music. Jean Sibelius’s amazing “The Swan of Tuonela” (Tuonelan joutsen) is written with an English horn solo that’s supposed to evoke the sound of a swan’s voice, from a section of the Finnish epic The Kalevala where the swan circles the island of the dead. That comes across nicely in the music… if you know the story:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtNWUw0afqI


… but even if you don’t, it’s a haunting, wonderful piece of music. Hell, most of the people who’ve heard it didn’t know the story, but recognized its musical value. And for those out for a laugh, there’s always Mendelsohn’s invocation of the donkey-head that Puck bestows on Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in his overture for the play, starting around 8:30 in this recording:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUDvZaMl4RU


But music mostly isn’t programmatic, even when it is presented as if it were. If you listen to those pieces above, their sonic evocations are minor facets of what they represent, and what the represent is the performance of particular sounds, in a highly specific sequence devised by a composer. They don’t “represent” something extramusical any more than a delicious meal represents one’s homesick joy at travel, or the reminder that one ought to be careful in life. Meals and music are both pleasures-in-themselves, and this, I’d argue, is the same of all great art.


de_botton_2--300x300de_botton_2--300x300Of course, if de Botton is as bad as Fisun Güner makes him out to be, there’s no way in hell that he’s going to push that: he’d be implicitly calling for better literacy education, too… and more well-read people would not bother with an author as trite and lazy as the one Güner describes. After all, I personally trace the popularity of drecksters like Dan Brown to the poverty of literary education in schools. I’m not saying we ought to be reading more Shakespeare, of course: the Shakespeare lectures I got in high school were all woefully inadequate to the man’s work, and I never really got a good handle on Shakespeare till I read him as an adult. But then, the literary education I did get in secondary school could have ruined anything… and to my horror, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game went onto the curriculum a few years after I graduated from high school. (Anyone who reads this blog knows that it’s not because Card writes SF that I’m horrified, but because Ender’s Game is such a horrible book in so many ways.)


We read nothing I’d say was of value besides a few short stories, most of them “prairie lit” or American southern gothics, and spent plenty of time scrambling our way through Shakespeare and even modernized verse versions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, another text I did not appreciate till later… and did not really enjoy till I read it in the original Middle English. The thing is, appreciating great art takes work. Most people who’d rather be watching America’s Next Top Model–or the local equivalent–aren’t likely to get more out of it if we talk down to them in the way de Botton suggests, anymore than the finest works of literature will gain an audience if we can only rewrite them using monosyllabic words, or, as Reader’s Digest tried, to abridge the longest of them into shorter form. The truth is, if you want people to come to the museum and have a fulfilling experience, you need to get the education programs going: art appreciation, art techniques, how to read a painting, how to read a sculpture, maybe some instruction on why people hold Rodin or Pollock in such high esteem.


Which takes work, and which most people will never do. That’s fine. It’s better than trying to popularize Chaucer by making a sexy cable TV show starring David Duchovy as a bawdy young Chaucer “researching” the vulgar pleasures which will turn up later in his poems, or something like that.


That, to me, is what it sounds like de Botton would pitch. Let’s make art relatable!  Relatable? To whom? To people who aren’t willing to try? You can sell caviar at a loss on the street, but I guarantee you most people will look at it–and at you–funny as they walk away. Putting ketchup on the caviar may help move product, but it won’t “help” the caviar, to be certain. Perhaps it’s just easier to resign oneself to the limitedness of serious audiences for serious art in this world. That, at least, is nothing new.


 

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Sopranoed! WX5ed! Fluted! But... Argh!

Mar. 23rd, 2014 | 04:32 pm

Okay, I officially have enough music gear to keep me busy for years to come… but I can’t use all of it.


I managed to pick up my Selmer soprano saxophone, my Yamaha flute, and the Yamaha WX5 wind controller my friend Mark received for me in Seoul… and I also have on hand a bunch of tenor and soprano sax reeds my friend Joe picked up for me in the States, so I’m pretty much set in terms of new challenges.


Camera Roll-396


Or so I thought. But there are a couple of hitches…


The soprano sax was my most exciting retrieval. It’s a Paris Super Action 80 from ’83 or ’84, which I received as a high school graduation present. The two mouthpieces that came with it are underwhelming, though I like the hard metal Selmer C** better than the hard rubber Selmer C*. Both play alright, though, and I’ve switched between the two over the years… though I think once I’ve practiced a bit more, I’d like to try find a mouthpiece for the soprano that gives it more of the sound I want.


I thought the soprano was in surprisingly decent shape, considering it sat unplayed for years on end. (Almost a decade, but not quite.) It definitely needed a tune-up, and probably a repad, though I was able to play sort-of-not-badly on it, so I was excited. But when I finished playing on it, I decided to try swab it out… only to discover that my really smallish tenor neck swab got stuck in the soprano neck. By stuck, I mean jammed in good and tight. All the stupid fiddling and struggling I did thereafter just made it more necessary that the horn see an expert for proper extraction… and while I was fiddling, one of the lower pads just went ahead fell out. (Not because of the fiddling, just because it was dry as a bone and ready to fall out.) So the soprano is out of commission for now… I daren’t fiddle more, for fear of damaging the octave pip on which the swab is caught; I figure I’ll just go someplace where I can get it repadded (and have the swab removed) on my next visa run.


From now on, it’s pad-savers only for the soprano, I swear! It’s a bit heartbreaking to have the horn unusable for a few months, but then, given the way a pad fell out, and the fact that I haven’t managed to find a sax repairman in Saigon, it was likely to be that way anyhow. I will ask around, though: there’s at least a couple of orchestras in town, so there has to be someone who repairs woodwinds. Maybe the soprano will make a comeback sooner than I thought… but probably, I’ll be taking it to Tom’s Woodwind Repair Shop in Kuala Lumpur, or a repair place in Bangkok, in a few months. I only hope it’s possible to do a complete repad (or overhaul) within the timeframe of my trip… or, rather, I suppose I’ll need to decide the length of my trip based on the time needed for an overhaul.


Next, there’s the WX5, which is a great wind controller. I can see why people were so divided when it came to preferring this versus the Akai EWI 4000s: both of them are outstanding instruments, each with its own virtues. I think the Akai is slightly more responsive, but whether that’s a reasonable price to pay for the learning curve–in terms of the octave rollers, and in terms of the fingering–I’m not sure. For me, the ultimate wind controller would be a hybrid of the two: the note- and octave-keys of the WX5 (with a bit more springiness) and the mouthpiece and built-in synth of the EWI 4000s. I rather prefer the WX5′s slender body to the heftier EWI 4000s, and using the proprietary WX cable to connect it to the VL70-m unit I’ve had since last year, I finally got why some people swear by the combination.


The only problem is that, being that the electricity in our apartment building isn’t properly grounded, there’s a background hum that accompanies the audio when I plug the VL70-m into my computer. I can still use the WX5 to sequence MIDI, of course, and I will be using it for that purpose. But it’s a bit frustrating to have a killer wind controller setup, that isn’t easily usable because of the electrical setup.


The good news is that my flute seems to be in pretty good shape. Not perfect–the lowest couple of pads seem to have dried out and lost their crease, so they’re not sealing quite right, but in general, pretty good. I’ve never been all that good at flute, so I’m not sure how much of the problem is me, of course, but I suppose I’ll have to get it looked at. I also need to give it a good cleaning with a flute-polishing cloth, if I can find one–the special ones designed to remove tarnish, I mean–as it’s silver-plated, but I foolishly left it out for a couple of weeks back during a Bucheon summer a few years ago, and it’s tarnished as hell. A little tarnish is normal and common, but this flute is pretty dark! Still, that doesn’t affect the sound, so I guess the flute is good to go.


I was debating earlier today whether to focus on soprano or flute for a while, but the decision seems to have been made for me: the soprano isn’t in any condition to play, not even if I could get the stuck swab out right now, which I really, really can’t at the moment. I fear in the long run it’s going to require the swab being mangled into shreds so that it’s easily removed. Sigh. But in any case, I figure for the time being I can focus on building my flute skills, making it my primary instrument for the next six months or year, since I’m at a point now on tenor where I can maintain by picking it up a few times a week. By the time I’m solid enough on flute to be ready for something new, I should be in a position to get the soprano overhauled, I hope.


Incidentally, since I couldn’t get the needed supplies for recorking the neck of my tenor, I picked up some plumber’s tape, which is a passable substitute, albeit a temporary one. It’ll do for now, until we’ve moved someplace where I can get the thing recorked properly. I also grabbed one of my sax stands–the one that is heavier, but also more easily portable (because it folds up). The other, lighter-but-more-unweildy stand is in storage in Seoul; I plan to hang onto both, in the vain, faint hope that I’ll have an alto sax (or a second, better, tenor sax) in hand within a few years. That should do me for now, I suppose: it’s plenty of gear, and it’s all new-to-me, even if in reality some of it badly needs repairs. Even my tenor could use a little work–the overhaul it got was a quick job, and some of the repairs done have come undone in the year since it was performed–but it’s hanging in there for now, and so am I.


That’s the state of musical everything in Gord-land. Well, sort of. I haven’t talked about my musical projects, which, mainly, consist of trying to record a decent solo on “Stolen Moments”:



… which is hard not because it’s a minor blues, but because, well, if you’re listening to the embedded video above, the solos are just so perfect. So absolutely nailed-down. And, I mean… listen to that flute solo… because I play flute, badly, I know: that’s some serious flute playing. But all the solos are incredible, and my own are so… well, rudimentary, I suppose. It’s hard getting past that. I’m also working on a recording of a good ol’ Duke Ellington tune, but that’s less high-pressure and more about trying to get the tenor to sing with a little of that Johnny Hodges vocalizing musicality:



My other ongoing project is getting some music made for Mrs. Jiwaku’s ongoing film project. I have a couple of rough sketches up at Soundcloud:



… but those tracks are kind of “busy” and I’m working on more atmospheric stuff that can be used behind the voiceover/narration stuff. We’ll see what Mrs. Jiwaku says: she’s the director, after all…

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The Genocides by Thomas M. Disch

Mar. 22nd, 2014 | 03:54 pm

When I read Thomas M. Disch’s 334 back in grad school, I found it didn’t make much of an impression on me, beyond its unremitting and overwhelming grimness. Perhaps the bleak grimness of graduate school distracted me from its finer points? I’m not sure, but I can say that the cruelty and bleakness of The Genocides has definitely made an impression on me: I have essentially devoured it over the last day-and-a-half.  


Disch - The Genocides (cover)It is, of course, a novel of apocalypse, and the first thing that comes to mind in terms of devastation and hopelessness is Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, but the comparison is not sensible: Hoban’s book features human beings who, despite awful circumstances, rise to the occasion of being human. Disch’s humans, the last few who survive just before human extinction is complete, are mostly horrible people. If you really want to be forewarned, there’s a detailed plot summary at Wikipedia. The thing is, the plot isn’t the point.


Or, rather, they are horrible by our standards. Which is an interesting thing: how much the standards and values of our own present-day civilization–or, rather, of American society in the 1970s, in which this 1965 novel is set–might or might not matter to a group of people who’ve lived through the genocide of their whole species, of practically all Earth life, is an interesting question. Any number of things might be off-putting about them. Does one feel more disturbed by the urban pedophile, or the incest-driven maniac who fights to keep his barely-teenaged sister for himself? Does it matter than the teenaged girl, for some weird reason, wants to be with the old man and hates her brother? (Her consciousness is the least convincing in the book, for me, because of this: it’s just a little too bizarre and difficult to believe, for me.)


There’s also the sense I have that some of this comes down to social norms of the 1960s that are creeping me out: one male character slaps a women across the face when she propositions him, and then muses to himself that they might get together again at some point in the future, but not now. He’s meant to be a prick, but I feel like we wouldn’t be seeing the scene through his eyes if the book had been written today.


There are all kinds of ambiguities like these all over the place in the book. Does one hate or admire the bigoted religious leader who really was integral to keeping the villagers alive… but wanted to marry his teenaged daughter to a middle-aged man? Does one feel disgust, or outrage, or merely sympathy–or all three, and in what proportions?–when the villagers kill a group of men who endangered them and turn them to sausage to be served on Thanksgiving… at a time when, after all, the village is starving to death? This book may well be many things, but a “comfortable catastrophe” it isn’t.


The only thing truly admirable in the world of The Genocides is also horrifying to the degree we sympathize with any of its human characters: that is, the brilliantly designed, devastating alien Plants that have transformed the earth as part of an alien agricultural program. But Disch insists that the plants, despite the unspeakable elegance of their design and the horrifying gifts they give those whom they drive into extinction, are “evil.” But then, in this book, everything is:


Just as a worm passing through an apple may suppose that the apple, its substance and quality, consists of merely those few elements which have passed through his own meager body, while in fact his whole being is enveloped in the fruit and his passage has scarcely diminished it, so Buddy and Maryann and their child, Blossom and Orville, emerging from the earth after a long passage through the labyrinthine windings of their own, purely human evils, were not aware of the all-pervading presence of the later evil that lies without, which we call reality. There is evil everywhere, but we can only see what is in front of our noses, only remember what has passed through our bellies.


The metaphor of humans being worms in fruit farmed by some other species recurs throughout the novel, and the aliens–unseen except through the agricultural implements of their will–are impersonal as the wind, as merciless as earthquakes or CO2. What they want, who they are: they are farmers of a sort–of an industrial sort–but beyond that, it doesn’t matter, any more than it ought to matter to the worms or slugs in our gardens who we are, and what we want.


A very dark book–so dark that I am unsurprised that it did not win the Nebula for which it was nominated in 1965–and it has dated somewhat, but it’s still very much worth a read, if you’re willing to be very uncomfortable. Which, when we’re talking about the end of the world, is how you’re supposed to be. If only we were, when it comes to real-life apocalypse. And if only Disch were still among us… it feels like only yesterday that I read of his death.

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Asia's First Steampunk Art Exhibition

Mar. 21st, 2014 | 04:01 pm

Well, we’re back from our trip to Korea. Many missions were accomplished, though the visit was too short to see everyone I would have liked to. I focused on seeing the people who probably won’t be in Korea next time I’m there, as those folks are always harder to see again later.


While I was in Korea, I was lucky enough to have a chance to see what apparently is the first steampunk art exhibition in Asia.  It’s currently showing at the Seoul Arts Center (서울 예술의전당). (And it runs till the 18th of May, for those of you too bogged down with the start of the semester to make it in March!)


SteampunkPosters-Korea1


The show was put together by Art Donovan (there’s a profile of his work on the exihibit here, and here’s his website with lots of details) and it was an evening well spent with my friend Sanko Lewis, who took almost all the pictures in this post. I’ll share a few highlights–though what I post only scratches the surface–and then add my thoughts after. 


Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism


There were a fairly large number of artists and designers whose work was shown at this exhibit. I can’t post examples of everyone’s work, and really wouldn’t want to: you should try check out the exhibit if you can, instead. Still, for me, there were a few highlights, one of which was featured on the second poster above: the work of Shovel Head, a Japanese artist/designer, who seems to take great pleasure in fusing the natural and the mechanical:


Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism


Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism


There were wonderful posters available detailing Shovel Head’s designs, but they were too pricey for me to be able to afford: this one, for example, ran almost fifty bucks:


Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism


There were also a couple of really cool creations made from Lego (and maybe other odds & ends?), by Jason Allemann, including this Daliesque mecha-elephant:


Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism


There was also a lot of what one might consider traditional “museum” art using more modern media, such as graphic sampling and remixing. Among those, I was rather taken with this clockwork tiger, I believe created by Sam van Olffen:


Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism


Van Olffen’s sampled/remixed urban scapes, often depicted in motion, were also fascinating:


Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism


I particularly enjoyed the paintings by James Ng, which should be familiar to anyone who picks up Jeff Vandermeer’s The Steampunk Bible: the inside cover features this painting by Ng:


Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism


There was also more conceptual gadgetry all over the place, like this mad scientist weapon-ish thing by Park Jong Deok:


Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism


… and this remixed astrolabe titled “Shiva Mandala,” by which my friend Sanko was very taken, which IIRC was made by the curator himself, Art Donovan:


Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism


But even with gestures towards the literary origins of Steampunk–there was a nice display featuring covers of books by K.W. Jeter, Lavie Tidhar, and others–the show drove home that Steampunk is about a fashion, about a particular kind of aesthetic. What that aesthetic is about, it didn’t approach: presumably, bringing up nostalgia and a feeling of being overwhelmed by more recent technological developments, as well as what Sanko and I finally decided boils down to a manifest lack of sartorial “classiness” in our own era, might not be what people were interested in paying $12 a head to experience.


Still, fashion was a huge part of the show, from the conceptual, as with this pressure-driven armored prosthetic by Tom Willeford:


Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism


… and this forearm “computer,” also by Willeford:


Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism


… to the outlandish, like the leather wings (I’m not sure who did them):


Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism


… and these oddly fascinating gas/dust/fashion masks below, by Tom Banwell and Bob Bassett:


 


 


Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism


And of course, I cannot neglect to mention the most surprising parts of the exhibit: Cris Cofitis’ Steampunkified motorcycles and scooters:


Steampunk Art Unfurled: Art of Victorian Futurism


I could post tons more images, but I’ll just link the photoset at the end of this, so I have a bit of space for posting my impressions.


In the end, what seemed apparent is that Steampunk really is more of a social and artistic movement than anything specifically literary. It obviously has a literary component, but the movement seems very much driven by things like fashion, alternative design, the arts, and so on. In other words, “steampunk” is more like a cultural octopus than a literary movement. That said, the display itself clearly credits Jules Verne and K.W. Jeter for  the genesis of steampunk.


In some ways, the movement has been more successful culturally than certain other branches of the spec-fic world, like, say, hard SF, and the question of why is both interesting and, to some degree, uncomfortable. Lots of steampunk fiction is (either critically, or uncritically) nostalgic for the Victorian era, in ways that probably say a lot about our contemporary anxieties.


We also don’t have such a hard-and-fast sense of social class, or of the privileging of the “rich”… which it’s possible for us to be nostalgic about now, because we’re so removed from it temporally that the worst of English class structure is more remote to us–even to the English–and because we are able to imagine, however unrealistically, that we would be among the élite gallivanting about and adventuring, and not among the masses who had to slave and toil to keep the damned system going.


(Hence all the young adventuresses; we reinvent the Victorian past because we grew up, in part, with Victorian stories about boy adventurers. Why not inject some girl adventurers into the mix, we ask ourselves, and as incongruous as it would have been to many in those days, to us it makes perfect sense.)


That said, what’s also interesting is the transcultural mobility of steampunk. It’s not like the concept is totally mainstream in Korea, but several of the pieces on display were made by Korean and Japanese artists, and didn’t necessarily stand out as particularly Japanese or Korean.  While steampunk might, in an American or British context, function as an expression of some kind of historical/cultural yearning for the past, it’s something that has mutated as it as crossed cultural lines. I’m not sure what Steampunk means in Korea, or Japan–though elements of it seem to have been evident in Japanese manga and anime, and Korean manga as well, for quite some time now. Steampunk certainly means something to Northeast Asians, I’m just not sure what.


It’s sort of funny,  but also unsurprising, that it’s a historical-fantastical aesthetic that translates so well here: a futuristic one, not so much. And given that, it’s worth thinking about whether Steampunk is a kind of historical reimagining for the history of the industrialized world, like the historical reimagining more familiar in non-Western societies about their pre-contact past. (That is, that steampunk features some of the same kinds of fantasizing moves that other historically-fantasizing imaginaries do, especially postcolonial ones.) Maybe it’s just that we feel so disconnected from the wellspring from which our modern, technological world sprang that we have to reimagine it as more fantastical just to get a handle on the fact that we did come from this awkward, barely-functional machine made of tyranny, chrome, and meat-in-motion.


Anyway, the end-of-show bookstore has all kinds of fun stuff for you to buy: everything from keychains to very expensive prints of the gorgeous schematic diagrams for various creations by Shovelhead. There’s also an abundance of books by a number of authors, including Jeff Vandermeer’s The Steampunk Bible and a number of different books by Shaun Tan. (Had I not already ordered Vandermeer’s book, I’d have been tempted to get myself a copy. I love Tan’s work, and was tempted, though the prices and my travel budget restricted me to picking up a small Mecha-Octopus keychain for Mrs. Jiwaku, who couldn’t make it to the exhibition.)


Anyway, I hope the above sells you on the exhibition. It’s worth the price of admission, if you’re at all interested in steampunk, geek culture, or just very odd things. If I haven’t sold you, you might want to take a look at Sam Van Olffen’s post on the exhibit, which was gorgeous pictures, or watch this Arirang TV segment on the exhibit.


Oh, and here’s that photoset. As I said, nearly all of the photos are by my friend Sanko Lewis. (I did scan and upload the pamphet and my ticket myself, though!)

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