Friday, November 20, 2009

Guy de Bord's Wild Kingdom

For some reason, whenever I walk in the woods, I find stuff like this. Which I am guessing is probably a 1967 Chevy Impala. Discovered as I emerged from tall marsh grass, flushing out a big heron who was rather annoyed I had interrupted his perch.

It was found in the floodplain of the Lower Colorado River, about halfway between downtown Austin and the airport. When the water is low, acres of land that don't exist on any map appear, filled with unexpected psychogeographical Easter eggs like this. All the flotsam of a city like Austin that gets carried out of yards and construction sites and streets and empty lots during big rains and the occasional flood, deposited downriver in the deep woods and marshes over the banks, back off the trail near the secret transient camps.

I have written here before about the sublime wonders of exploring the pockets of wild nature secreted within the interstices of the city. My latest walks and canoe trips through the strange territory of far East Austin have revealed more of the weird wonder that comes from penetrating these unexpected habitats of urban ospreys and coyotes, only to discover freshly decontextualized relics of civilization: abandoned Impalas, overgrown civil engineering bunkers, ruined bridges, empty pipelines, grounded buoys, technicolor Flash Gordon guns stowed in the tall grass in case of egret attack. This ancient river, running through a booming metropolis that still harbors its zones of urban negative space, relics of the phantom overlays of other, more mysterious land uses: military space (the former SAC base that was turned into the airport just 10 years ago), civil engineering space (the River Authority's concrete and steel nature controls), segregation space (the lasting impact of zoning-based race controls), migrant space (Austin's favelas-in-progress), industrial space. The perfect venue to really experience the Uncanny, as a perceptive architect friend suggested. An opportunity for a special type of dérive, one that requires snake boots.

What's more wondrous on a Sunday afternoon in autumn, the colors illuminated from within by the crisp filter of an incipient cold front: to discover a rare colony of road-building harvester ants in the right of way behind a dairy plant, or to discover an abandoned 1960s pickup embedded in the ground and aimed at the moon?

Last year I had a dream about a garden of Rebar. Who knew a year later I would be moving there?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Genesis by Crumb

The following appeared, with no article or additional background information, in the Belief/Religion section of the Houston Chronicle:

"I used a lot of white-out, a lot of corrections when I tried to draw God."
-Illustrator Robert Crumb, describing his four years of work on The Book of Genesis, quoted by USA Today

Who what? Could Illustrator Robert Crumb be the famed underground comix artist who drew Fritz the Cat, which was adapted into an X-rated movie?

Yes, the very same Robert Crumb. He has just completed The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb.

Religious eyebrows are being raised, but some religious spokespeople have voiced refreshingly nuanced opinions. A United Kingdom Website called The Register gives this quote from the Bible Society: "It may surprise people but the Bible does contain nudity, sex and violence. That's because it contains real stories about real people. If by reading the book people are encouraged to re-engage with the Bible then that can only be a good thing." A bishop in the Church of England is quoted saying, "He set out to say 'this is important, fundamental myth', and it seems to me he's done a good job."

The artist's own Website features a book review that states, "…Crumb has returned to the sacred text at the heart of Western civilization, but the result is a comic as unsettlingly drenched in sexualized violence as Tales from the Crypt and as subversively disrespectful to cultural icons as Mad (Magazine.)"

Feeling very estranged

To my immense delight, the new issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction features my essay "Feeling Very Estranged: Science Fiction and Society in the Aftermath of the Twentieth Century." An earlier version of of the essay was presented as part of the symposium on "Mundos Paralelos" at the 2009 Festival de Mexico in el Centro Historico put together by author and critic Mauricio Montiel Figueiras and Festival director Jose Wolffer. The essay is my effort to synthesize much of my accumulated thinking on sf as the most highly evolved branch of the twentieth century project to produce a literature of alienation. It covers some pretty disparate ground, considering post-apocalyptic dystopias as works of emotional realism, the fantastic media multiverse as the enabler of our alienation, and the portents to be gleaned from the merging post-cyberpunk literature of things.

Here's an excerpt from the opening:

I. The ruins of Des Moines

“It is much easier for us to imagine the end of the world than a small change in the political system.” — Slavoj Žižek

In the spring of 2005, eleven men were arrested while re-enacting scenes from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior on a highway north of San Antonio, Texas. Saturday shoppers headed to the mall were alarmed to be passed by a heavily armored Mack truck pulling a tanker trailer and being chased a black 1974 Ford Falcon GT pursuit special (complete with big chrome blower sticking through the hood — “last of the V-8 interceptors”), a green pickup with a roof-mounted four-gun swivel, a red pickup with a snake painted on the side and a gun-wielding maniac riding shotgun, and several dune buggies driven by men with shoulder pads, mohawks, aggressive body art, and not much else.

The police learned that the guns were fake — these men were members of Roadwar USA, a Mad Max re-enactment society that stages events all over the country. If you’ve ever tried to navigate your way out of the parking lot after a midnight screening of The Road Warrior, you can understand the kinetic jolt that animates these fellows. The idea of mass disaster contains within it the possibility of one’s own society becoming liberated territory, an idea that wants to escape the confines of the screen. In this world’s 1984, I had such an experience, which led directly to an all-night donut shop plan with a high school buddy to go to Mexico, acquire an old jeep, and tour the war zones of Central America in search of an authentic feeling of post-apocalyptic liberation. (Think post-ideological Motorcycle Diaries for the VHS generation.)

To our surprise, we actually found it: at the end of our road in the real-world disaster area of Sandinista-era Managua. Twelve years after the earthquake whose relief funds Tachito Somoza absconded, the downtown of el Centro was a Mad Max setpiece. At dusk, squatters huddled around oil drum fires in the shells of colonial-era office buildings. Bleached prairie grass obscured the tracks of burned-out Sherman tanks on the losing side of the last war, tagged with FSLN graffiti. The only intact edifice was the glass-and-steel high-rise of the Bank of America, rising out of the ruins like some science fictional sanctuary in a 1970s teledrama. In interstitial post-colonial burrows near the skeleton of the old cathedral, revolutionary cadres hosted experimental kindergartens while North Korean soldiers on parade stomped out the weeds growing up between the cracks of the plaza.

The unexpected discovery of an actual abandoned capital city, accessed through the original silver screen portal of a science fiction B-movie, certified completion of my all-American adolescent project to reimagine my world as a post-apocalyptic ruin. It was a postmodern tribal initiation ceremony, largely of my own design — a cathode ray vision quest designed to provide me with the semiotic tools to navigate the psychic landscape of my burgeoning middle-class alienation.

If you read this blog and do not have a subscription to NYRSF, you really should. It's really the only remaining journal of sf criticism by people in the field. Subscribe today—and consider submitting something (hey, they'll even let take payment in subscription copies).

Thanks to David Hartwell, Kevin Maroney and the rest of the editorial team at NYRSF for the opportunity.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

When Radagast attacks

This vignette in yesterday's NYT backgrounder on the Fort Hood shooter really packed it in for me, describing Dr. Hasan as:

"...a gentle, quiet, deeply sensitive man who once owned a bird that he fed by placing it in his mouth and allowing it to eat masticated food."


It's like that 70s Bruce Dern loco Vietnam Vet meme never died, and has now branched out into weird new 21st century variations.

Okay, time to turn on the tube and follow the latest lockdown from the Live at 5 choppercam.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Election results

Normally I don't radiate patriotic fervor - though I'm more inclined that way than I was a year ago last Tuesday. This year's election day was very special for me too. Because I recently relocated out of one of the small cities inside of Houston (it's kind of like an amoeba that has ingested small surrounding communities), I was able to vote in the Houston city elections. This came just in time for me to cast my vote for Annise Parker for Mayor of Houston.

A few days having passed, there were thoughtful reflections in the Sunday newspaper. The newspaper, by the way, had endorsed both Annise Parker and Gene Locke in the mayoral race, and these are the two who will face each other in a December runoff. These were not the two with the most money. But there's new aphorism much in evidence in the local media - and Annise said it on TV on election night: Money doesn't elect people. People do. Of all the candidates, she had, not the most money in contributions, but the most individuals contributing. Each contributor was somebody who really wants to see her as Mayor, either because of her track record as a Councilwoman and City Controller, because she's a Rice University graduate, because she's a fine capable woman politician, or because she's long been one of few openly gay people elected to office in Texas, and her becoming Mayor of Houston would be a victory for GLBT people everywhere.

The individuals most unhappy about the election results (apart from the losing candidates who ran long, hard, expensive, and generally fair races), are the die-hard social conservatives. Some of these folks will not vote for a gay woman no matter how good her track record is. These voters, however, will be faced with the choice between a gay woman who started out as a campus and community activist and a black man who started out as a civil rights activist! It's going to be an interesting few weeks until the December 12th election. Then, oh joy, I'll get to go out and cast my Houston vote again.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Courtesy of the awesome team at Strange Horizons, I have a new story up today about hand-knit his and hers sensory deprivation hoods, golf course detention camps, strip small suicide bombers, improvised homeless shelters, and other flotsam of the Zeitgeist bobbing around in our collective consciousness. "Nomadology" — check it out:

What a fucking awesome party. Talk about "obscene enjoyment." Who knew the mujahideen assassins would have even better reefer than those Scythian priests camped out on top of the parking garage doing their blood bowls? The whole thing was like a post-apocalyptic Cheech and Chong flick.

Osama opened up his Blofeldian mountain hideout for a house party. The place was shaking with woofed-up synthesized Fezcore running through the rebar. You were kind of spaced out, writing rhymeless poems in your bad calligraphy on the fuselages of the anti-aircraft missiles arrayed for launch. I got lost in the rave Abu Ghraib downstairs, with all the Dionysian Abercrombie POWs acting out their skankiest warporn fantasies. "Frat boys are so much better when they are on leashes," you said. I came looking for the tough-loving Lynndie England of my private midnights, and instead I found you. Who knew a latex Barbara Bush mask could be so fucking hot?

Liberian teenagers toting AK-47s haul ass down the David Addington Allée in an overloaded Lincoln Navigator with the top sawed off, dragging the bodies of a well-regarded architect and your vice president of marketing behind the car. You tell me to throw something at them, but come on, you know what a chickenshit I really am. I could lose my job.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Day of the Dead

This year had exceptionally fine Halloween decorations. In my part of town I was particularly taken by a black bat with a six-foot wingspan and glowing red eyes; several yards transformed into nicely creepy graveyards - one of which was crowned by a glittery banner hung from the second floor of the house that announced FANGTASIA! - and a new house by Braes Bayou that had two big furry spiders stalking up the front steps. As to the last, the spiders, plus some skeletons and cobwebs, amounted to a nice scare, but the really scary thing is the adjacent bayou. The house has such a high and handsome set of front steps because it was built to stay dry the next time the bayou floods.

To me, this year's Halloween seemed cleaner than Halloweens over the last six or seven years. As well it might be. The United States, in the form of its government, was visiting death and hell on the Middle East and actively promoting the destabilization of climate and the extinction of species, not to mention Wall Street having its unchecked, obscene orgy of greed. In 2009, there's at least as much scary stuff in the world as there was in, say, 2005, but we're not the most scary, out-of-control, hell-bent monster in the world. That's a good change - and worth a Peace prize. It makes our Halloween decor relatively innocent fun again. (Somewhere in some yard I'm sure somebody put up a dollar sign and a stock market ticker... scares that keep on scaring.)

Better our Halloween should be clean and fun. Halloween is the day before the Day of the Dead, or All Saints in the traditional Christian calendar. In Mexico and Mexican-American parts of the US, it's an important holiday with the sense that dead family and friends return to visit. People who celebrate the Day of the Dead by putting up ofrendas, the altars, clean the house beforehand in honor of the occasion. This time around, the United States managed to clean its house somewhat before the Day of the Dead. And how appropriate that earlier this week President Obama took a midnight helicopter trip to Dover Air Force Base to meet the returning bodies of 18 service members killed in Afghanistan. Today, November 1, we put away the plastic skeletons and pack up the yard spooks and the dead come to help us understand life.