Origins of Garden—*

(I know that it’s so cliche to talk about a -punk literary movement, but I think that’s a good thing – it prevents me from getting too serious about it. This is just how I think about my aesthetic at this point in my writing career.)

When I was 13 or 14, I discovered Vernor Vinge’s “True Names”, and it got me hooked on a new brand of science fiction. I was always a scifi reader, ever since I discovered my dad’s basement stash of science fiction novels in the 2nd grade, but while I’d previously been into the more far-future books about robots and space ships and distant worlds, “True Names” was about right here at home. I’d just discovered the Internet and was incredibly taken by the fact that all I had to do was use proper grammar and say thoughtful things, and people would treat me as if I were about ten years older than I really was. In those awkward years, the sense that a virtual world of pure data, image and text was superimposed upon a rather dreary, vaguely dystopian material world described my perception of reality far better than any supposedly “realist” fiction.

That was my first introduction to cyberpunk. While science fiction had previously seemed like a realm of cool things and neat concepts into which I could escape from banal family/social gatherings, in “True Names” I’d discovered the incredible truth that somehow a made-up world could describe reality better than reality itself. As my high school years progressed, I got my hands on every cyberpunk-ish scifi book I could find. Voraciously read Vinge, Gibson, Stephenson, some of their inspirations like Niven and Philip K. Dick, and watched films like Blade Runner, Akira and Ghost in the Shell.

As I was getting into cyberpunk, 9/11 happened, and that was so insane that I instantly became interested in global politics to try and make some sense of that plane and that building and the insanity that rippled through our country in the aftermath. After realizing in about two days of intense research that the U.S. foreign policy was not without blame for the event,  my cyberpunk aesthetic obsession deepened. I soon got the sense that when writers were talking about these near-futures ruled by amoral corporate technocrats and puppet governments and an apathetic, easily-manipulated populace, they weren’t just making it up. This was about the present-day, just seen through imaginative eyes.

* * *

Flash forward to 12 years later, there’s the sense that cyberpunk is passe, not because its ideas are any less relevant, but because they’re almost too relevant. I read a great Facebook comment to the tune of, “these dystopian sf writers just need to stop writing, they’re inspiring the powers that be!” We look at modern cityscapes, this mixture of billboards, poverty, profusion of surveillance and ubiquitous Internet, and wonder how that came about. If that dystopian cyberpunk totally-connected world of mass income inequality was only an aesthetic glimmer in the 90s and early 00s, today it’s just realism, and tired realism at that. It’s like the tech guys read it, loved it and decided they wanted to make it and be on top. I still love the gritty, moody, surface-detailed aesthetic, but I have to acknowledge that people are tired of it. I was rereading Snow Crash the other day, it was talking about weird people called “gargoyles,” who walked around always jacked into the Internet with Google Glass-like goggles and I was like, damn, today that’s just called being polite on the bus. What kind of world do we live in?

I think, by now, everyone knows the U.S. government did and does lots of bad things around the world. I think, by now, everyone is resigned to it. Instead of trying so hard to virulently defending our Constitution and our patriotism and our exceptionalism, the tide is changing so that the standard independent view is one of vague distrust for our government and apathetic snarkiness, underlying which is this deeply sad, hurt confusion about where do we go from here.

* * *

I got into gardening as a de-radicalized version of becoming a hermit and living off the land. Once upon a time I thought that if I just had control over my surroundings, it would be a solution to my problems int he world. It was sort of a dream that I realized would stay as a dream, but it didn’t go away, so I wanted to make some part of it real. Grow some of my own food. So I found a group of young people gardening in Philadelphia. They were vaguely anarchic but more with the Do It ethos – that is, just make a garden if you want a garden, doesn’t matter why. We took over about eight contiguous vacant lots, cleared them out, made paths and planted in beds. The discourse was of food sovereignty and providing free nourishment to ourselves and the  neighborhood, to prove a point that anything is possible.

Two years later, it’s just me and my fiance in that garden. The dreams and discourse that started it moved on, and we’re figuring out how to make the garden last. That’s the definition of a garden – how that green lasts. It’s messy and not dreamy, but it’s romantic, idealistic and also punkish with that Do It freedom-fighting ethos. It’s escapist, but not really because it’s not always that fun or exciting. It’s a lot of hands in the dirt blindly feeling for bricks. Because you believe in the possibility of asparagus growing there for twenty years. And occasionally brushing aside a giant rhubarb leaf and finding a clutch of turnips you didn’t notice all season.

* * *

As science fiction develops, our goal is to discern the leading edge of the future. In cyberpunk, “where it’s at” was where all the connections were going up. Every city space was paved over, made into anarcho-capitalist paradises with gleaming apartments or storefronts. The gritty collapse and hyperinflated future happens later. I can see something like that happening in a San Francisco, a Tokyo, a Dubai, a Hong Kong of the future, but what about the rest of the world? All the cool kids ran off to pat each other on the back in their cyberpunk city vistas, and gentrification pushed everyone else to the cold and dirty cities falling apart with pockets of wilderness creeping into vacant lots untouched for 20 years. The money’s gonna run out faster than the cyber edge can get to every pocket of the world (though it’ll try), so we’re punking our way through garden tech, where nature’s primal hacking is princess trees effortlessly busting up your sidewalk over decades, and you think, “maybe I could be like that too.” “Maybe that could be my strength.”

Why the earth and not anything else? Why gardens? “Reality is what remains even when you don’t notice or believe in it.”  The protagonists are less concerned with unraveling the root of things and more interested in building what lasts. We’ve got decades of seeking behind us, and we’re done. Rather than film noir, gardenpunk is romance.

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Short Review of Blues & Haikus #3

I attended a poetry reading Saturday at the Random Tea Room near eastern Spring Garden here in Philly.

The first thing that landed was the space. Like walking into a Parisian salon, there were benches and pillows in a circle by the windows where I perched with friends discussing the state of our gardens. The smell of incense and chai filled the space ringed by walls cluttered with curiosities. We were sitting by a little plate with a golden bull – a Taurus Plaque.

In one corner was a peg board with hundreds of pieces of antique jewelry. Victorian Cufflinks with gray gemstones in ornate metal – $25.

A little wooden cart with veggies and rice, wine and shot glasses stood in front of a shelf with teas and crystal decanters. One barkeep in a galley kitchen and a tiny sink served tea to 30+ poetry enthusiasts throughout the night.

It was cute and hipster-y, but of the sort that felt like the 1920s. Not really ironic, more — Victorian steampunk, that sincere, all-in, slightly awkward-for-it pleasure, but the technology was tea tins and poetry books instead of gears and monocles.

The night began with a reading of Kerouac haiku-bits punctuated by some blues riffs on guitar. There is nothing more to say except that it was a perfect opening. Moody and fun at the same time.

We moved into another pair of sound-poem readers, Jeffrey Joe Nelson and Jed Shahar. The poems that stood out were:

Jed’s reading of a poem about the earth, punctuated by a recorded track of someone discussing minerals and gemstones using a very industrial, clinical voice with words like uranium, igneous and seams of almandine garnet. I forget all the words, but the rhythmic use of the recording interspersed with the poetry evoked shifting tectonic plates, slow lava flowing underground, really transported me to a cthonic place, somehow.

Another poem was a collaborative performance between the two. Nelson read a powerful and intense tribute to recently passed Amiri Baraka. Like little needles, and hat re-setting of moral compass, or at least reminding. Something that I wasn’t sure about was the saxophone accompaniment. The intent was to be discordant and painful as the text’s reminders of joint culpability and the horrors of war and the hypocrisies of the rich and powerful, but the sax play actually caused headaches, which may have pulled us too far out of the piece itself.

Following the pair was Lillian Dunn, who graced the room with hilarious sexual fantasies about escaped tigers and chimps in Cincinnatti (among others) and short crystallizations of people on Broad Street to which I could have listened all day.  They were poems about cities, yet somehow they felt infused with a tree-like energy, like they were the musings of some watchful oak with beehives and squirrels and the memories of seasons. Cities are just so funny, I thought as I listened, transported to some ancient heartwood consciousness tuned to the daily animal bustle.

Following her was Stephanie B., performance poet, good friend of mine and first-reader of my book. She began with her poem about Noah’s wife and the rainbow, which I’ve heard several times before. This time she told it infused a bit with the space, this literary salon, and it was read partially as if just relating a story to friends and partially with dramatic, choked emotion, as if that sharing space with friends was, and should be, made an occasion for performance. She followed with singing an old bluesy song, “oh what, are they doon, right now?” was the refrain to friends long passed, and the transportation that occurred was to a ramshackle little church by the side of a river, the Bible half-drowned, half-illegible, yet the people coming together anyway to sing together. At her urging, we all sang along, and the room was like that church. To what did we pray? We don’t know, the ineffable, remember when that was the point of church, that we don’t know?

Many other poets read, new and familiar. I read a passage from my book and added a few new people to my mailing list. The world of those who have heard my name and heard my language grows, which is nice from a marketing standpoint. But more to the point, sometimes you just need to get some wild language to break into the cages and corrals your mind has made to create something new. New connections, new thoughts, new perspectives, new rhythms, this is why I believe all novelists should hear poetry, the word spoken. Editing is also writing, but it’s always best if there’s something magical in the initial pen-to-paper.

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It’s not a new idea that writers can be social critics and even possible change-makers, but the exact mechanics of the process interest me.

These days, in first-world countries the looming social problems of racism, sexism, coercion, oppression and all the rest tend to be invisible to most privileged people. There’s this belief that somehow just because Obama’s president or there are women CEOs, things are equal and just for all. Or at the very least, the excuse comes that things are “on the right track” and therefore we can emotionally check out from the oppression still extant in the world.

This is because most people don’t try to see past their own eyes.

Unless, of course, they’re reading fiction. Scifi (or “speculative fiction” for the precision geeks) is ideal for this purpose, because it speculates on futures that could be. My favorites always showcase how these “could-be” futures are really not so different from the present or from some subset of the present. They create distance so we can enter into what feels like a completely new world, then create emotional resonance to inspire understanding (as distinct from “knowing”) of how the world being discussed is actually the reader’s own, which the reader then sees, but from outside their own eyes. Maybe they recognize themselves.

The social justice theory is that the rousing story of the characters’ struggle, paired with the complex emotional resonance described above, could inspire moments of bravery in readers when the time is right.

* * *

I think the world changes in an amalgamation of individual pivotal moments. Major rulings and changes in politics and business just chase (loudly) the shape of the world. The choices people make in their pivotal moments determine not only the shape of their lives but the shape of the world as a whole. Like when I made the decision to stop pursuing work in the retail world and work full-time as a freelance writer/aspiring novelist. It determined the shape of my life but also put a “working for myself” energy into the world, a “follow your dreams, no matter the cost” energy added to the swirl of my family and extended community.

Or when people decide to devote their lives to raising awareness of the sorts of things that most people don’t want to see. Lose friends, strain family relationships and feel isolated, all because awareness is the right thing that’s needed in this moment.

Or when people take a job in an unethical industry because they’re terrified of not having a job and being poverty-stricken.

Or perhaps more to the point, with MLK Day so close, it makes me think of all the people who decided, despite the risks of losing jobs, physical torment, jail records, professional blacklisting and even death, to go and march for the sake of the civil rights struggle. Pivotal moments for so many lives; history for the rest of us.

* * *

What’s behind moments like those? People wake up one morning and know what they have to do, but how do they know that? What makes some people stand up and others not?

I believe it’s the stories they hold in their memories and the myths they hold in their hearts. People get these from so many sources: upbringing, schooling, leaders, television, books, commercials. Incidentally, these days commercials are the greatest myth makers in this country, telling us we can be happy, rich, successful and beautiful if only we buy in.

These and other such social messages not only keep us from seeing the oppression that so many including ourselves face (because we’re always seeking the my stuff, the today, the good feeling), but it’s a sort of empty soul calorie content that may cause us, in those pivotal moments that define us and the world, to default to cowardice, security and generally unprincipled actions taken out of fear. We’ve all done it; we all know how it feels. Sometimes to me, it feels like I’ve let the entire world down for the sake of a $20 payday or box of Oreo cookies. Other times, it’s all I can do to pay the rent, and that fills me with sadness and anger at a world that once again outmaneuvered me and what I want to stand for.

While there’s always the next moment, they’re fewer and farther between than we might think. Many people only experience a few dozen of them in their lifetimes. The rest is just traveling down the paths and being the people we’ve chosen to be.

* * *

As a writer, my first loyalty is to the characters I’ve created and the story they want told. This is a whole separate topic about how fiction writers are like spiritual mediums for the spirits of their art. Not important. The sneaky second role is as a myth warrior. A sort of medicine person. It doesn’t feel like a conscious intention, more like the previously mentioned art spirits reaching out to touch the world.

My theory is that a great story can inspire the reader so that when the pivotal moments come, they may notice where they stand, recognize the emotional resonance, be aware of their options, resist the Meld and stand up for the Struggle. The Struggle crosses all races, genders and classes. When deciding who you want to be, there’s always a right decision no matter where you are, no matter what your means or position, and you probably know what it is, even if it excites or scares you so much you can only think on it for a few seconds. The lasting impression from the best stories is that while the heroes may end up broken, scarred and tattered from their fight, they also become the sun.

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Can gaming provide tools for mind control?

“There were also meta-design games like coalescing doctors’ reports into scores for game designers to determine effectiveness. The meta-design field was the largest gaming industry in the city, and countless workers designed and played games to gather data from the population and translate it into forms that could be easily analyzed and manipulated by other social management games. They then devised methods for implementing the outcomes of those games to affect the population as a whole. According to the history blogs, the concept and expansion of meta-gaming as social management is largely credited to the postdoctoral research of Dr. Sommer so many years ago and is considered among the core founding tenets of Meld society.” – Garden Enclave, Bk. II, ch. 3

 

reality is brokenI am ambivalent about and fascinated by the book Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal, who writes on the nascent work of game designers to create games that could be forces for social and technological impact and change. According to her theory, many social and scientific tasks can be analyzed using the theory that they are games to be won or lost. The most fleshed out examples that she cites are games that allow players to design new antibiotics and find solutions for questions about the human genome, but there are many more currently being designed.

The theory behind social management gaming is that in addition to technological or scientific problems, any social problem can be considered in terms of a game. If this seems too out-on-a-limb for you, I’d refer you to the work and writings of the late Aaron Swartz, one of the tech pioneers behind much of the roiling Internet sea of commercial and social intent as we know it today.

His later work focused on social activism, but he approached it as a techie with a game – how do I stop this bill from being passed? How do I get this law repealed? His ideas (scroll down for a taste) for grassroots organizing are the gold standard used today by internet activists. The conspiracy theorist in me believes that’s why the U.S. government went after him so hard, leading to his suicide.

Of course, I’m a science fiction writer, and I’m interested in the flip side – the next iterations of burgeoning technology. What happens when the techie kids aren’t the ones agitating to fight the power but are the ones who are actually in power, trying to manage the world? My theory is that technologies to game the system will shift seamlessly into technologies to game the populace – technologies of game meta-design. In order to get anything done in a democracy, you need to mobilize the people, and meta-design consists of figuring out how to lay the framework for games to do so. Then population management (mind control) is just prolonged, conservative mobilization.

The conspiracy theory with a grain of truth is that mind control through media is just another game going on from the ad agencies, music producers, news organizations, and political consultants. My books extend that theory into a dystopian future. The point of mind control is to give everyone what they think they need with the least expenditure possible.

The growing trend toward massively-data-driven everything – scientific research, marketing, entertainment, politics, urban planning, business production, investment, etc. – is just another way of saying that we’re treating more and more aspects of life as games to play and win.

This is one of the main themes of Garden Enclave, which casts a wary critique on the consequences of such a mindset. This critique is key to understanding the twist at the end – namely that if your ultimate goal is to fix the planet’s ecology and myriad social problems, “winning” may not be everything.

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Eschatology in Pop Culture

Since living in Philadelphia, I’ve taken to watching the VH1 top music videos show. Apart from being Saturday morning fluff TV for watching in bed, it’s interesting to see the strains of what’s popular both visually and lyrically. In many cases themes are predictable – love, sex, celebration, heartbreak, doing what you believe in, etc. – but occasionally they surprise me.

Today there were two videos in a row that had a very similar end-of-the-world feeling: Bastille’s Pompeii and Lorde’s Team. Post-apocalyptic themes have been somewhat consistent as a minor strand through pop/rock music for the past couple decades, but these were interesting to me in the qualities they evoked. They were quiet, inevitable, hopeless and hopeful at the same time. There is the sense that the present is so suffused with the post-Collapse future that it has already happened in every meaningful sense.

The stream of thoughts reminds me of William Gibson’s famous line, “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

bastille-pompeiiThe host’s opening comments to Bastille’s Pompeii were that the band wrote the song inspired by the notion of lovers communicating across a distance as Mt. Vesuvius erupted, covering the city of Pompeii in lava and ash. It’s a beautiful idea and a beautifully sad song about the end of one’s entire world, which of course can be extended to a mentality regarding social Collapse. The echoed, chanted choral lyric, “but if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?” gives the song a dreamy, passive sense – it’s already happened, it’s already here, the event itself is just an echo. The video itself was very dreamlike, running through a frightening world, run-down and abandoned, with the few people run into sporting sunken-in eyes and blank faces. It ends with the character approaching a line of wind power turbines at a gorge, mountains in the distance, nobody and nothing around.

lorde-teamMeanwhile, Lorde’s Team is more of a standard popular depiction of a post-apocalyptic world surrounded by abandoned beaches, tunnels, junkyards, motorcycles and empty shipping containers. The quality that makes it different is that nobody is trying to do anything in particular. It’s a group of liberal-looking unemployed twenty-somethings passing a jug in a circle, dressed in salvaged clothes, just hanging out. In other words, this is not the future: this is the present. The lyrics are more about the present as well, “we live in cities you’ll never see on screen,” but they indicate that the present is indistinguishable from the future, and the future consists of the “ruins of the palace within my dreams.” The palace is already ruined, and we’re just waiting for the physical world to catch up to what’s so painfully obvious.

Artists have always had a unique ability to feel the future, and when business interests acknowledge a particular aesthetic regarding the future (because music videos on a pop platform like VH1 don’t get there without being vetted for their cultural land-ability), especially when that aesthetic is among those that tend to inspire me and my writing, it’s an interesting sea change to me.

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Ancillary Justice, Ann LeckieI just finished Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, a recently published space opera, and I find it to be a great example of how science fiction and genre fiction in general can perform a dual role: providing a quality story with a satisfying narrative arc; and engaging with complex social issues in a thoughtful way that doesn’t sugar-coat any particular perspective.

The story’s setting is peppered with vast artificial starship intelligences roaming the galaxy. It reminded me of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, but unlike Banks’s wise-cracking A.I’s that maintain a loose hand on the affairs of a far-future human civilization, Leckie’s starships utilize ancillaries, or captive prisoners whose memories are erased and sliced with computer hardware, to share the ship’s identity, to ensure that their civilization’s will is maintained directly. Where Banks’ Culture feels like a hedonistic, liberal anarchist free-for-all, Leckie’s Imperial Radch is decidedly more paranoid.

We begin the story knowing that the starship Justice of Toren was destroyed and that only a single ancillary named Breq remains with a single purpose in mind: to put an end to the long-standing ruler of the empire, a person with multiple bodies and near limitless resources. Alternating chapters reveal the ancillary’s backstory, eventually culminating to reveal the circumstances of the starship intelligence’s destruction, and the reader is strung along as more and more of the mystery unfolds.

From a pure genre-thriller standpoint, the book does a good job in this respect, though the action moves a bit slowly, somewhat reminiscent of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Not too slowly, but enough to be around 1/3 through and wondering, “gosh, what is happening exactly?” After about halfway through, the action picks up pace and takes on the sense of a political thriller, with multiple parties attempting to undercut one another without knowing where the others stand.

The part of the book that kept me reading through the slower spells was the constant, subsumed questioning of what it means to identify with something larger than yourself. How can you know if what you are doing is right? Remarkably, nearly every character in the story is presented as painfully, powerfully human, with identifying beliefs extending about as far they can extend before getting muddied by confusion and contradiction. All the characters are very goal-oriented and given to pursuing their beliefs, but while some run into that eventual contradiction and become wracked by doubt, others falter into extremism, careerism or outright addictive tendencies.

The character drama that kept me going through the first half of the book was that of Breq’s officer Captain Awn, a sincere agent of the empire trying to uncover the truth behind a plot steeped in corruption. At what point is she morally obligated to take a stand against said corruption, even knowing that it would mean her death, even knowing that it might not make a bit of difference in the end?

There are shells within shells of questioning here to engage on multiple levels. How much is Breq an individual and how much is she a carbon copy of the Justice of Toren? With what does a subservient-programmed artificial intelligence identify, when the empire itself appears to be fracturing and unsure of its core values? These questions seem to be posed through character, plot and setting simultaneously, which make this book a definite candidate for a reread sometime in the future.

For instance, in the imperial core, everyone utilizes the feminine gender pronoun and androgyny is the norm, and individuals from the imperial core have a very hard time identifying gender on the outskirts. This is referenced so often that it seems vital to the overall experience of the book, though there are no definitive value-judgments made by the book about the nature of gender as a whole or who is “right” about gender. The sense I got from it, having explored gender performativity myself on a theoretical and personal level, is that the realm of queer/trans* theory is philosophically fertile ground for deepening a relationship with identity.  This philosophical fertility may have been what Leckie was trying to attain for her book.

I may not be reading deeply enough to understand how the deeper political questions relate to the gender themes beyond a loose sense of “the personal is political,” but engaging with gender questioning throughout the novel was fun, at any rate.

In any case, I look forward to reading the sequel to Ancillary Justice. As a novelist, I want to produce works that subtly combine themes in the broader study of social justice with a rousing good genre tale, and Leckie’s book provided fruitful inspiration on that level. Go read it!

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Step Two

I finished writing a book, so step two means that it’s time to begin my web presence.

The book is called Garden Enclave after an organization that features prominently in the story. It is Book One of a series I’m titling Meld Resistance.

As a writer, I’m interested in ecology, futurism, gardening and social justice with a focus on the internal. The notion of soft mind control plays a huge role in the Meld Resistance series. The Meld is a worldwide system of soft mind control that utilizes sensory and psychological techniques to keep people docile, implemented as a co-opted backlash against / escalation of the present growing global corporate capitalist system. It is designed to keep people working, controlled and unlikely to generate the sort of demand that would push the world’s ecological situation over the edge. Various global processes to reverse climate change occur behind the scenes at critical pace, and there’s a sense of urgency behind everything the system’s higher-ups do. People in the Meld don’t eat very much, don’t live very long, don’t own cars and look like anorexic zombies, but it’s always easy to be happy.

Outside of the Meld, the old technological grids are barely usable, and people have reverted to a Mad Max-esque way of life. They are far tougher than the Meldies, but their resistance against the robotized technology is not an easy one. They fight for the human spirit. Add that to the fact that the Meld is very seductive — just walk in and never worry about the struggle again, you can even tell yourself that you’re doing the right thing for the planet — and you have a setting fraught with psychological, moral and physical challenges.

I look forward to communicating more with my readers as I begin this next step toward the goal of publishing this book and ultimately becoming a professional, paid novelist!

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