Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel Annihilation is the story of a four-person expedition into a strange region known as Area X where the laws of physics and biology seem to be bent, maybe broken. Fine. You feel like you kinda know where this is going, right? Botched experiment… wormhole… alien alloy… something like that.
You don’t know where it’s going.
Most fiction is recombinatory. That’s not a bad thing! I mean, my novel is recombinatory. You can have a lot of fun with recombination. You deal yourself a hand from the deck of culture and try to make sense of the juxtapositions. I think I just described the process behind all comic books ever. The results can be rich and compelling—all the more so because they’re supported by ideas and images with deep roots.
But! We can’t only recombine. It can’t just be remakes and reboots and remixes forever. Every so often, we need new stuff, too.
Have you ever played one of those collectible card games? Bought a pack of cards, ripped it open, added them to your deck? Annihilation is a foil-wrapped booster pack for weird fiction, loaded with truly original images. Truly original entities.
It’s the first in a trilogy called The Southern Reach. I recently finished Authority, the second, and this is shaping up to be a singular sequence indeed. There’s a clear through-line—a big story unfolding—but Authority isn’t a book that just picks up where the last one left off. Instead, it’s packed full of new pleasures, not only new characters and settings but whole new kinds of writing. If Annihilation is an expedition novel painted with a thick coat of weird, then Authority is a spy novel given the same dark lacquer. And yet, they connect; are unquestionably part of a coherent whole. Which makes me desperate to know what the third book is going to be like–whether it will be some mixture of the two, Jurassic Park meets James Bond, or some third thing entirely.
That feeling—my anticipation—brings me to another thing.
Fiction is really feeling the heat from TV. The very best shows are doing exactly what (many of) the very best novels set out to do, and doing it for much larger audiences. There is a sense of encroachment, and also a sense of defection! Novelists are lining up to write for TV.
I think one of the things that makes TV so much fun at this moment is the release schedule, which is enjoying a kind of Cambrian explosion. A season of TV used to be a pretty standard thing, right? But consider the “seasons” of shows like
Whereas a book mainly just… arrives. Thud. If it’s part of a series, there’s another one in a year or two or six. Thud.
But here’s a sign that this Cambrian explosion may yet reach into print.
As I mentioned up above, Annihilation is the first book in a trilogy. The second, Authority, will be released… in a few months’ time. These are all full-length novels. The third, Acceptance, arrives this fall.
That’s crazy! When has a trilogy ever been released rapid-fire in the space of a single calendar year? It’s a schedule that feels, to me, more like TV than publishing. I hope it succeeds, because I’d love to see more innovation along these lines. These days, the rhythm of a story’s release is part of the package.
Anyway, I’m hugely excited about The Southern Reach, and I’m hungry for more like it: more publishing projects that innovate not just on the level of scenes and sentences, but also genre and packaging and timing, all of it, everything. We can’t only recombine. We need to shuffle new ideas into the deck, too. Annihilation, the booster pack, is out this week.
Image courtesy of Grant Hutchinson.
William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is likely a familiar novel to readers of Snarkmarket – if not in content, then in its tone and its concerns. It is a tale of Cayce Pollard, a strange marketing-savant with a literal sixth-sense for design, and her quest to solve the mystery of both “the footage” – a series of loosely connected video fragments released anonymously online – and her father’s disappearance on September 11, 2001.
Among the things that struck me about the text was the fuzziness of the real — the fact that the mysterious videos at the centre of the story hover in an odd liminal space of being both true and false, referring to “reality” and not. It’s an aspect of the text intimately tied to digital tech – to the novel’s sense of the “virtual” nature of a virtual world, an approach which can often produce a split between an assumed real thing and its digital corolloary (think, regardless of how you feel about the implied hierarchy, of the book vs. the ebook, the face-to-face interaction vs. the online one etc).
As a result, it felt like certain things in the novel that were solid, physical, heavy were almost like a relief – a kind of in-focus reprieve from a world otherwise viewed through a kaleidoscope. Protagonist Cayce is obsessed with signs, and systems of meaning – and remaining ambivalently illegible – but also takes comfort in the unambiguous weight of a locked door, her crisp, black Rickson’s jacket, the strain on her muscles during a morning’s workout.
And then there was the Liechtensteinian calculator – the Curta.
The Curta is a mechanical calculator, but to say that seems to do it injustice. It can perform addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and even square roots and more. Gibson describes it as “heavy, dense, knurled for gripping”, seemingly “executed by a small-arms manufacturer” while “the sensation of its operation is best likened to that of winding a fine thirty-five millimeter camera.” It also just looks really freaking cool. Like a hand grenade of math.
Watch this video relating its history and explaining how it works. Because, though I hesitate to use the phrase, it will blow your mind. And if that wasn’t enough, its inventor Curt Herzstark, perfected it while interned in a concentration camp during the Second World War. Yeah.
This came to mind because I was double-checking a reference today for a dissertation chapter which is partly about Pattern Recognition. While writing that torpid thing, I apparently thought that “as a calculator, [the Curta] is a thing bound up in ‘non-significatory’ actions, a material object meant to produce ‘immaterial answers'” – but that this “pre-digital device is meant to perform functions now hopelessly intertwined with electronic technology, and thus is itself a fetishistic sign of pre-internet technology and industrial manufacturing.”
Now I think that may be an uncharitable read.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between objects and activities. It’s something obviously affected by digitally-enabled multi-functionality. The digital object doesn’t so much have “a function” as a series of functions under an umbrella of one or two metafunctions – to wit, “this device is what I use to keep up to date” or “my tablet is what I use to read everything from the news to novels.” The association between object and function that was often one-to-one has become multiplied, perhaps receding into infinity (what, really, is the limit of what you can do with your iPhone?)
But more than that, though I know it sounds like mere tautology, the function of physical devices is related to their physicality. How they operate and what they do in 3D space is dependent on the manner in which they occupy that space. Maybe it’s my digitally-addled brain that needs reminding of that, but it somehow feels like a point worth repeating. And the Curta, in a world in which even the scientific calculator feels arcane, just seems so fascinatingly, resoundingly, undeniably physical. And perhaps it’s because of that physicality, but something about it thus seems so purposeful.
It is easy to get caught up in romanticizing the object we can touch, just as we here on Snarkmarket can occasionally get a bit too attached to pixels you can interact with and manipulate. But I’ve been wondering lately if, beyond the chatter about the attention economy or a supposed “inherent” nature to print or screens, there isn’t something pleasurable in the object that performs but one function. Physical or digital, it doesn’t matter. All I mean to ask is if there isn’t something to be enjoyed in a conscious minimalism of function rather than form – that one might find relief in the simplicity of a one-to-one relationship between an activity and a thing.
We seem to be living in a perpetual age of the death throes of The Book. 1 There are too many pieces to count that insist that the book is dead or (despite all odds) is thriving, that paper books are different/better/worse than electronic books, that game apps will save books, blah blah blah. We seem to rehash the same surface-level observations over and over again. As my friend Alan Jacobs wondered, “Why do people still write as though they’re the first ones to think about the difference between e-books and codices?” I’ll spare you my thoughts on the subject, since I’ll only gripe about how people misunderstand the complexities of books, whether on a print or a digital platform, and who wants to read more griping?
If you want to think about these questions through experiencing them, let’s look instead at some books that live on the boundary between print and electronic. The obvious starting place is Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen (Siglio Press, 2012): it exists in a codex form that can be held in your hand but to read it, you’ll need a computer. The pages of the book are black-and-white geometric shapes that are referred to as markers or hieroglyphs or sigils. The shapes aren’t legible as words to the human eye; hold them up to your webcam, however, and the book’s website will show back to you the poem floating above the page.
Is it still a book if you can only read it with a computer? That’s not a bad question, I suppose, and I find the concept of the work interesting. But the experience of using the book drives me crazy. When I first got it, my ancient laptop didn’t have a camera; the computers in the house that did either didn’t have Flash installed or had their cameras disabled. Now that I have a fancy laptop, I have the technological requirements, but it turns out I’m not so good at orienting the book to be read by my computer. First I held the book so that it was orientated to the computer’s perspective . . .
And then I realized (thanks to my 12-year-old) that I should hold the book so that it faced me correctly, not the lens. Perhaps I’m so wed to the notion of reading that I automatically assume that the computer “reads” books top-to-bottom, left-to-right as I do—that is, my problem might be a feature, not a bug. But if I’m really going to judge this book as something to be read, I have to say that the poetry in it dreadful. Apparently the book first existed in a limited-edition run of 12 letter-press books; perhaps the frisson between letter-press and Flash would have shifted some of the attention away from the words. I love the idea of visual poems that move through digital space, just as I have a fondness for codices that make themselves hard to read. 2 But I’d like to see the technologies harnessed to something with words to equal the beauty of the interface.
Perhaps the opposite of Between Page and Screen—and way more fun—is Richard Moore’s Paper Pong (2008). Paper Pong is, essentially, a Choose Your Own Adventure version of Pong, in which you start on page 1 and then need to choose whether you’re going to move your paddle up (go to page 114) or down (go to page 117).
I spent a lot of time as a kid playing Pong at home, so perhaps that’s why I enjoy this book so much. But I love it, too, for its ridiculousness. It’s a paper replication of a video game! Why would you do that? Why write lines of code to create a game of Pong that you then remediate in paper form? I don’t know that there’s a good reason to do that, other than you can. And, actually, that’s a decent reason, one that drives more than a few novels. Also, it turns out I’m still pretty bad at Pong and actually lost a couple of times before I got the hang of it. It’s a bit surprising the amount of tension generated by a paper version of a video game of a ball-and-paddle game. When you do lose, you end up with the wonderful message, “Game Over / To play again, go to page 1 / To quit, close this book.”
There are other books that take the graphic approach to the question of where the boundary is between print and electronic. Silvio Lorusso and Sebastian Schmieg’s 56 Broken Kindle Screens: Photographed E Ink, Collected Online, Printed On Demand (2012) consists of 56 images of broken Kindle screens found on Flickr and then reproduced in a print-on-demand paperback. The images can be gorgeous, and I love both the way it turns broken objects into art and the layers of mediation, moving from e-ink to pixel to paper, that goes into producing it. And my scholar’s heart loves that at the back of the book are credits for each image.
Fathom Information Design’s Frankenfont (2011) prints Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in fonts taken from a collection of pdfs gathered online; the book starts off with individual letters reproduced in the most common fonts (Arial, Helvetica, and Times New Roman, of course) and gradually shifts until the letters are in unusual ones (scripts, non-Roman fonts, pictograms). It, like 56 Broken Kindle Screens, is a good concept, but in practice I find it less engaging. Perhaps if the fonts were more interesting—rather than using unusualness as a marker of font, what about wholeness? Software degrades, fonts degrade. Perhaps if there was more willingness to play with ideas of beauty and completeness I would have liked it better.
There’s also the more straightforward projects of printing out the web. Rob Matthews, in 2012, printed out 0.01% of Wikipedia as a 5000-page, 1’7” tall book (XKCD, by the way, has worked out how many printers it would take to print out the entire English-language Wikipedia). There’s the ongoing Printing out the Internet (“A crowdsourced project to literally print out the entire internet.”), which doesn’t seem as clever to me as it does to its creators, although it’s apparently somehow intended to memorialize Aaron Swartz. If that’s not enough, the Library of the Printed Web displays the terrifying number of projects devoted to variations of this enterprise. It makes me weary just thinking about it. I do love The Art of Google Books, however, and if its creator, Krissy Wilson, does end up making a book from the Tumblr (as she suggests she’s interested in doing), I’d buy it in a heartbeat.
My favorite book for thinking about technologies and obsolescence is A Dodo at Oxford: The Unreliable Account of a Student and His Pet Dodo (Oxgarth Press, 2010). This book, edited by Philip Atkins and Michael Johnson, purports to be a facsimile edition of a 1695 printed diary of an student at Oxford who owned a dodo. Atkins and Johnson tell the story of finding the book in an Oxfam, searching for more information about it, and finally editing it for us today. The bulk of the volume is their facsimile replication of the diary with their annotations in the margin explaining various historical facts and oddities; there are also a series of appendices explaining early modern printing, including the use of the long-s, ligatures, and signature marks.
The story itself is charming—the narrator is bequeathed the Dodo by a dying Dutchman and then struggles to study and keep healthy the bird, all while enduring the usual poor-student travails—and the book is gorgeous. But what does this have to do with technology and obsolescence? I’m hesitant to give away too much of its wonder, but it’s no coincidence that Atkins and Johnson choose to tell the story of an extinct bird in a format that emphasizes its distance from our technologies today. It’s not only the replication of seventeenth-century print features, but instance after instance of subsequent histories, including some openings reproduced as blue-line corrections to the text, prophetic dreams about bicycles and other not-yet-inventions (you can read one of those dreams in the image above), a bookmark about the dangers of smoking, and inserts of photos of electricity pylons being built. The entire codex interweaves questions of technology, extinction, and discovery. Is the book a museum like the Ashmolean, an object to be studied like the Dodo, something that dreams the future? A Dodo at Oxford is smart and funny. Go read it the next time someone tells you that books are (omigod are not!) dying.
Perhaps the main thing to remember as the fruitless debate circles and circles is that any opposition between print and digital is, today, ridiculous. You might think you’re reading a paper book, but it was, I promise you, produced through digital means. The person who wrote it is overwhelmingly likely to have used a computer to do so, it was edited and typeset using software, its distribution is enabled and tracked with databases, and it is reviewed and discussed in both electronic and physical spaces that are enabled by technology. 3
It’s not a black-and-white world out there. Our methods of producing and consuming books will continue to be as multiply shaded as our reactions to them has always been. So here’s to reading instead of fretting!
One of the eternal refrains/laments/excuses thrown at most forms of social media, perhaps especially Twitter, is that “you can’t have a conversation.” Everyone has heard this and many of us have said this.
Whether it’s because of the character limit, the permeable membrane between public and private, the not-quite-real-time interaction, the fact that Twitter and Facebook are things usually at the edges and not the center of our attention, or any other reason — many, many people are unhappy with social networks as a medium of conversation.
Some of this a pushback against what frankly were and are exaggerated claims about what digital media could do to promote conversation. “Want to join the conversation? Add a comment below!” — as if it were just that easy. As if the fact that the group of people formerly known as the audience had and could immediately transform themselves into something else entirely, just by the sheer fact that they too could write for an audience.
Now, this is not true only of comments or Twitter or other social media, even if they get regularly hammered most as being “bad conversations.” Online forums, where people gang up on and ignore each other. Email, which is both now too formal and too cluttered. Texting runs into some of the same problems as Twitter and email. Skype and other video chats sometimes still seem a little weird, performative, almost uncanny, more like you’re acting in someone else’s home movie (and they in yours) than talking to them. Branch and other startups have tried to figure out a way to engineer a conversational structure, but I don’t think they’ve quite gotten a handle on it.
And obviously, you can take it to its limit: there are some conversations that people refuse to have over the telephone, and that it’s considered right and proper only to do in person.
But let’s stipulate that it is possible to have a technologically mediated conversation of high quality. Because it seems like with some things, we get there. The right Twitter or comment thread. A really good podcast, or TV/radio interview. (Although I think interviews are a little different.) A really good round of instant messaging.
And let’s stipulate that there are sometimes genuine hindrances to these being good media for conversation. Those hindrances may be technical, or conventional, or accidental, but I think they are real and not imaginary. Even if some of us have had and are having what we think of as good conversations in these places, not everyone always feels the same.
What makes these conversations work? I’m tired of people saying “you can’t have a conversation on Twitter” and other people replying “of course you can, dummy.” That pseudo-conversation has played itself out. I would rather try to figure out how, why, and under what conditions meaningful conversation happens.
I want to anatomize conversation. Or rather, I want to anatomize conversations, because they’re not all of one kind, and what counts as a good conversation in one kind of media is probably not a good conversation in a medium with different characteristics, strengths, or weaknesses.
Let’s make this even more ambitious. How can you make a conversation as a media object? I’m asking because I think the reason we circle around conversation is because we really do think that the interchange, exchange, and participation of ideas, the emergence of something new as part of a collaboration between two or more people, has inherent value.
Conversation is something we enjoy doing, we enjoy hearing, we enjoy seeing. And despite our misgivings about new media, conversation is not something old media did well, especially for public consumption.
The 20th century gave us the article, it gave us the debate, it gave us the interview. As McLuhan and Ong and Postman and everybody else told us, convincingly, it transformed oral culture into something new, that print culture and technical media could understand. It gave us the telephone and the radio, but neither of those get us all the way there.
We want something else. We’re dying for something else. It feels like with everything we’ve learned, with everything we now have, that something else is, or should be, within reach. What could get us there?
Five years ago, I wrote a blog post, inspired by a conversation with Robin Sloan, where I called for an “iMovie for conversations.” Now, five years later, inspired by a conversation with Jess Zimmerman, I’m asking again. How can we make this work?
From M. John Harrison:
A Happy Christmas to everyone else, the best possible Christmas to the fucked up and the nearly done, all the deadbeats and ne’er-do-wells, the metaphysicians, atheists and losers, all the so-called scroungers, all those not in receipt of a Royal pardon, all the thoughtful, intelligent and above all decent people who believe there is such a thing as a society, the readers and the writers, students and philosophers, and — especially — a big shout out to the 32,000 people in the UK who didn’t receive their benefits on Christmas Eve due to “administrative error”.
Over here, we have Calexico’s Green Grows the Holly on repeat. Merry Christmas!
Finally, an online advice column where all of your questions about life are answered by one of five cartoon columnists. I’m not a heavy tumblr user, but this is probably the best use of tumblr’s “Ask” Box I’ve seen.
Because, really, no one could answer a question about daydreaming better than Mulbert the cartoon moose. Fantasies are fascinating creatures, aren’t they?
This short post is about starting areas in MMOs. When you create a new character in, say, World of Warcraft, where do you begin? How much of the world is available to you, and how soon?
Here’s the author Keen’s ideal starting situation — one that apparently goes against the grain of modern MMO design:
Players start hours apart, and in areas of the world so different from each other that the social mechanisms are different. I remember seeing people say, “We do things differently in this part of the world.” Someone hunting in Crushbone might be used to players behaving differently than those in Blackburrow. Even the experiences are totally unique; players on one side of the world might have a dungeon crawl deep into the depths of a vast cavern network, and players on the other side fight camps of orcs in a forest. The unique experience matters because people can swap stories.
Because people can swap stories! That’s so great, and so important. I don’t know exactly how this applies to domains beyond MMOs, but I’m quite sure that it does.
In two weeks of blood and fire, one of the greatest intellectual and cultural legacies the world had ever seen came to an end. Crushed under the hooves of a mighty foe (in one case literally), a dynasty, an empire, a city, and a library all disappeared. It was perhaps the swiftest and most complete collapse of a civilization ever, still felt to this day. Now, how about for some context?
What an opening, right? That was the opening salvo of a Metafilter post 3 days ago. It feels like a sea creature from the deep – defiantly, resolutely Old-World-Internet, ignoring many of the unspoken rules that posts today follow. Large, well-spaced paragraphs? Nope. A gentle introduction, for those completely new to the subject? If you’re interested, you’ll figure it out. Careful sprinkling of links? Here’s a wall of them.
This is the web on hard mode. Tread slowly, watch your step, and pace yourself – it’s going to take you days, if not weeks, to get through all the gems. (Here’s some of the highlights.)