Friday, August 26, 2011

The Osprey Book of Secret Hideaways of Flamboyant International Dictators

Remember this picture? It appeared in November 2001, as the hunt for Osama Bin Laden built up its full Western movie denouement steam. The evil mastermind's secret hideout, invented by an excited Anglo-American press unknowingly unfurling pre-programmed narratives, resulting in a USA Today infographic that mixed equal parts threads of sourced urban legend and Silver Age Batcave cross-section. Edward Jay Epstein has a brilliant deconstruction of the whole thing at his Fictoid Series, explaining how the imaginative alignment of this image with our idea of how the story was supposed to go was so potent that Tim Russert and Donald Rumsfeld grimly discussed the drawing on Meet the Press.

I am still waiting for my 1/72 scale Airfix playset. In 2004, I got the next best thing—in the local hobby shop, a military modeler's guide to how to create your own: The Osprey book Afghanistan Cave Complexes 1979-2004: "Mountain strongholds of the Mujahideen, Taliban & Al Qaeda", part of the Fortress series.

And now I have Richard Fernandez's brilliant fresh Qaddafied analysis of the Secret Underground Fortress meme over at The Belmont Club.

Our media loves the Blofeld narrative. Because they think just like we do. The built architecture of contemporary geopolitics needs to conform to the narrative architecture of the library of movies playing out at all times on the back of our foreheads. The lone 007, or the elite MIF squad, needs to find the bad guy and his Easter eggs inside the secret fortress, to get to the next level. That was the really brilliant thing about Christopher Nolan's Inception: the way it tasked the secret mission force with actually assaulting the imaginary fortresses of our dreams.

But perhaps the most astounding thing is how much the pulp narratives pumped out by Hollywood et al into the global mediasphere come back at us through the actual behaviors of our 21st century evil dictators, who, while presumably acting out very different archetypal roles in the tradition of their own culture, always manage to throw us some very meaty semiotic bones that let us know they are also playing the same pantomime as the designers of the Bin Laden Playset.

With Saddam, we had the confounding discovery of Rowena Morrill chainmail cheesecake adorning the walls of his secret Baghdad bachelor pads. Perhaps it should not have been that surprising, when one is reminded that Saddam also wrote his own fantasy novels. Boggling the mind with ideas for potential psyops.

Bin Laden's special effects team was a bit more muted, setting him up in a WWII walled farmhouse diorama, sitting in front of the matte backdrop of the Pakistani Colorado Springs, watching himself play Osama Bin Laden on TV. And lots of porn, though maybe that was just another psyop by the Langley wiseguys who allegedly produced their own fake Osama pedo-porn. He gets it, and they get it: the movie version is as real as the reality version.

NB: There is a movie currently playing in theaters about the reality-altering life of one of Uday Hussein's body doubles. When will there be a convention of the body doubles of deposed international dictators? You know you could totally mint that in Vegas. Especially if you hired the CIA porn producers to orchestrate a Ziegfeld Follies of dancing with the impostors.

So now it's Muammar Q's turn (again—he's been stealing the scene and chewing the geopolitical scenery since the days of Reagan and the Libyan Hit Squad). Does he really have an elite team of lipsticked female bodyguards trained at his secret Tripoli facility?

Will they find him hiding out with them in his labyrinth of secret underground tunnels?

You already know the answer, because those tunnels lead into the Gygax catacombs of your head.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

LoneStarCon 3 wins 2013 Worldcon bid for San Antonio


RENO, Nev. – The World Science Fiction Convention will return to Texas for the first time since 1997 after voting results announced Aug. 20 at Renovation, the 2011 Worldcon, awarded the right to host the international conference to the Texas in 2013 bid.

LoneStarCon 3-–the 71st World Science Fiction Convention-–will be held Aug. 29-Sept. 2, 2013, at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas. The Mariott Rivercenter and Mariott Riverwalk will serve as the host hotels.

The guests of honor list for LoneStarCon 3 includes Ellen Datlow, James Gunn, Norman Spinrad, Darrel K. Sweet and Willie Siros, with Paul Cornell serving as toastmaster and featuring special guests Leslie Fish and Joe R. Lansdale.

Founded in 1939, the World Science Fiction Convention is one of the largest international gatherings of authors, artists, editors, publishers and fans of science fiction and fantasy entertainment. The annual Hugo Awards, the leading award for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy, are voted on by Worldcon membership and presented during the convention.

LoneStarCon 3 is sponsored by ALAMO, Inc., (Alamo Literary Arts Maintenance Organization), a 501(c)3 organization. Membership for LoneStarCon 3 may be purchased at In addition to individual memberships, LoneStarCon 3 will also offer a family rate. For more information about LoneStarCon 3, memberships or hotel information, visit

About the Guests of Honor

Paul Cornell is a writer of science fiction and fantasy in prose, television and comics, and is the only person to have been a Hugo Award nominee for all three media. He’s written Action Comics for DC Comics and Doctor Who for the BBC. His novels are Something More and British Summertime. His forthcoming novel, an urban fantasy, will be published by Tor in 2012.

Ellen Datlow has edited science fiction, fantasy and horror short fiction for three decades. She served as fiction editor of Omni magazine and SCI Fiction, and has edited many anthologies for adults, young adults and children. She has won multiple Locus, Hugo, Stoker, International Horror Guild, Shirley Jackson and World Fantasy Awards. She was the recipient of the 2007 Karl Edward Wagner Award for “outstanding contribution to the genre.”

Leslie Fish is one of the best-known authors of filk songs including “Banned from Argo,” a comic song parodying Star Trek which has spawned more than 80 variants since first performed.

James Gunn is a science fiction author, editor, scholar and anthologist. His most significant writings include fiction from the 1960s and 70s and his scholarly Road to Science Fiction collections. Gunn is a founding director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. He won a Hugo Award for non-fiction in 1983 and was honored in 2007 as a Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Joe R. Lansdale is the author of more than 30 books and is known to his fans as Champion Joe, Mojo Storyteller. His is known for his horror stories, the Hap and Leonard mystery/thriller series and the theatrical film Bubba Ho-Tep. Lansdale’s many awards include 16 Bram Stoker Aawards, the Grand Master Award from the World Horror Convention, a British Fantasy Award and the American Mystery Award.

Willie Siros was instrumental in starting the long-running Austin science fiction convention, Armadillocon, serving as chair of the first three editions. Siros also contributed to the founding of the Fandom Association of Central Texas, the original LoneStarCon (the 1985 North American Science Fiction Convention) and Adventures In Crime & Space Books. He is a former para-librarian at the University of Texas Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center where he developed its speculative fiction collection.

Norman Spinrad is the author of more than 20 novels, including Bug Jack Barron, The Iron Dream, Child of Fortune, Pictures at 11, Greenhouse Summer and The Druid King. He has also published approximately 60 short stories collected in a dozen volumes. Spinrad has written teleplays, including the classic Star Trek episode “The Doomsday Machine.” He is a long time literary critic, occasional film critic and songwriter, and perpetual political analyst.

Darrell K. Sweet is an artist most famous for providing the cover art for the fantasy epic saga The Wheel of Time. He is also the illustrator for the well-known Xanth series by Piers Anthony, the Saga of Recluce series by L.E. Modesitt, Jr., and the Runelords series by David Farland. He is also the original cover artist for Stephen R. Donaldson’s series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

Monday, August 15, 2011

In the Panopticon, no one can hear you reboot

As the streets of the UK erupted last week, I happened to be reading an old blue Penguin I picked up on a trip there earlier this summer, a history of another period of English tumult—the seventeenth century.

The 1600s were of course the period of English revolution. A couple of revolutions, actually, political revolutions fueled by broader cultural currents, especially the religious fervor of the Reformation and its idea that our relationship with our deity needn't be mediated by other men, and the new wealth and change represented by the discovery and colonization of the New World. The 17th century always seems to express some of the essential dichotomies of English political culture, incubating a class radicalism that actually achieves the killing of the King, only to put the monarchy back in a short generation later. And reading about political agitators being banned to the Tower has a particular resonance when Cameron seems to want to do the same with Twitter, right after he kills the BlackBerry messenger.

The dismal scientist of the Interregnum was Thomas Hobbes, the first articulator of social contract theory--considering government as the implementation of a social bargain among its citizens to maintain order. Hobbes arrived at his theory through the reverse extrapolation that led him to conceive of a root state of nature in which an essentially self-interested population of human selves ruthlessly competes for the available resources, resulting in a life that is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." The theory, as modified by Locke, strongly informs all contemporary constitutional conceptions of republican government. But you know all that from school.

What would Hobbes do with the revolutions of today's world against the order established by our twentieth century sovereigns? The events of this year thus far have me thinking a lot about whether the current moment of Network Culture represents the base state of a newer nature: the realm of our Network selves, the chaotic new frontier that has not yet been subjugated to the order and dominion of the State, whose initially unbounded freedom we love and seem to be actively (if not quite consciously) importing into the institutional and socio-political fabric of consensus reality. Bruce Sterling captured the emerging situation pretty well in his February 2010 talk on "Atemporality for the Creative Artist," grimly diagnosing the not-yet-evenly-distributed disharmony of a coming decade of Gothic High Tech as the old institutions collapse before their replacements have emerged:

History books are ink on paper. They are linear narratives with beginning and ends. They are stories created from archival documents and from other books. Network culture, not really into that. Network culture differs from literary culture in a great many ways. And step one is that the operating system is an unquestioned given. The first thing you do is go to the operating system, without even thinking of it as a conscious choice.

Then there is the colossally huge, searchable, public domain, which is now at your fingertips. There are methods to track where the eyeballs of the users are going. There are intellectual property problems in revenue, which interferes with scholarship as much as it aids it. There is a practice of ‘ragpicking’ with digital material - of loops, tracks, sampling. There are search engines, which are becoming major intellectual and public political actors. There is ‘collective intelligence’. Or, if you don’t want to dignify it with that term, you can just call it ‘internet meme ooze’. But it’s all over the place, just termite mounds of poorly organized and extremely potent knowledge, quantifiable, interchangeable data with newly networked relations. We cannot get rid of this stuff. It is our new burden, it is there as a fact on the ground, it is a fait accompli.

There are new asynchronous communication forms that are globalized and offshored, and there is the loss of a canon and a record. There is no single authoritative voice of history. Instead we get wildly empowered cranks, lunatics, and every kind of long-tail intellectual market appearing in network culture. Everything from brilliant insight to scurillous rumor.

This really changes the narrative, and the organized presentations of history in a way that history cannot recover from. This is the source of our gnawing discontent.

It means the end of post-modernism. It means the end of the New World Order, which is about civilizing the entire planet, stopping all the land wars, repressing the terrorism. It means the end of the Washington Consensus of the nineteen nineties. It means the end of the WTO. It means the end of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’; it ended. And it’s moving in a completely different and unexpected direction.

The idea that history ended, and that the market sorts that out, and that the Pentagon bombs it if that doesn’t work - it’s gone. The situation now is one of growing disorder. A failed state, a potentially failed globe, a collapsed WTO, a collapsed Copenhagen, financial collapses, lifeboat economics, transition to nowhere. Historical narrative, it is simply no longer mapped onto the objective facts of the decade. The maps in our hands don’t match the territory, and that’s why we are upset.

Now, a new master narrative could arise on paper. That would be easy. On paper, if it were just a matter of paper, we could do it. But to do that via the Internet is about as likely as the Internet becoming a single state-controlled television channel. Because a single historical narrative is a paper narrative.

I don’t think we are going to get one. We could conceivably get a new ideology or a new business model that is able to seize control of the course of events and reinstate some clear path to progress, that gets a democratic consensus behind it. I don’t think that’s likely. At least not for ten years. I could be wrong, but it’s not on the near-term radar.

What we are facing over a decade is a decade of emergency rescue, of resiliency, of attempts at sustainability, rather than some kind of clear march toward advanced heights of civilization. We are into an era of decay and repurposing of broken structures, of new social inventions within networks, a world of ‘Gothic High-Tech’ and ‘Favela Chic’ (as I’ve called it), a crooked networked bazaar of history and futurity, rather than a cathedral of history, and a utopia of futurity.

That’s just the situation on the ground. I don’t want to belabor this point. I don’t want to go on and on about the fact that this is a new historical situation. If you don’t get it by now, you will be forced to get it; you will have no other choice.

That kind of sounds a lot like 2011, to my ears.

Think about the Gothic High Tech through the prism of Abraham Bosse's frontispiece from Leviathan (the picture up at the top of this post), with Hobbes's idea of the 17th century sovereign comprised of the people. Now watch the headless Multitudes that represent the new popular movements of 2011, like the creatures from deep fathoms just beginning to swim around near the surface. Isn't the Network itself looking like the real 21st century sovereign? It's starting to feel like the indigenous peoples of Network Culture (we) are on the verge of a very rare opportunity and responsibility: to rewrite their own social contracts from scratch. Which sounds very cool, but also very scary and disruptive (like, there is no food in cyberspace, and the current products of the social contract do a pretty good job of keeping me from getting killed by people who would like to take my shit).

Sure, every one of these popular movements we are watching in 2011 is different, reflecting unique histories, social conditions, and tactical moments. But it can't be a coincidence that David Cameron, Bashar Al-Assad and Hu Jintao all share one executive tenet: that limiting access to the Network is an essential ingredient to their personal conceptions of law and order (i.e., maintaining the power of the establishments, and failing nation states, they represent). The Network increasingly embodies a school of awakening Leviathans around the world (and, as the Network slowly cracks away at language barriers, a global one). As the cyber-mediated mob develops its self-awareness, it starts to act more like a sentient, directed Multitude. The US wants to give would-be rebels in oppressive societies Network access in a briefcase—but may not have fully parsed what the consequences will be of ubiquitous open Network access at home. Zeus's next baby is coming straight out of his head, and this time it's a litter of infinite avatars.

We don't know what the terms of the new social contract that emerges from this chaos will be. But one can venture a few thoughts:

- The Network will be the more important polity than the nation state (another 17th century idea that emerged from the chaos of the Reformation). Network Culture thinks about borders like it thinks about firewalls.

- The social contract of Network Culture will look more like an operating system than a constitution.

- As a polity, Network Culture has an inherent preference for direct democracy. A society of ubiquitous networking, in which people vote for their favorite products and television contest winners quite effectively though naturally occurring systems, will rapidly challenge the republican filters of constitutional democracy, in which popular ideas about how the society should operate are mediated through sclerotic representatives from the power elite whose upgrade schedule is more horseback courier than iPhone. Is it heresy to suggest last week's debt ceiling "debate" and this week's Bachmann Perry Overdrive make the Federalist Papers look like the user's manual for a 1960s television?

- The most important right of Network Culture must be freedom of speech. Free and open self-expression is the best fertilizer and preservative of other freedoms and virtues in any human social network. Network access, I suppose, becomes a necessary predicate to freedom of speech, right after electricity and running water.

- Secrets—state, trade, personal—will be essentially non-existent, or the most precious things there are.

- Politics will operate much more like capitalism, the most effective socially evolved network on the planet, and the one that (together with the nation state's war machine) created the Network. But its currency will be something more like reputation than money. And in parallel, the institutional agglomerations of Capital will atomize, as the anachronism of the long-term employment contract is replaced by project-based collaboration and episodic generation of wealth, in a society where specialization is only helpful in groups of at least three.

- If you've ever been run down by an Internet mob, you know that protections for minority dissent will be the most important countermeasure, and the thing that will probably be the hardest to figure out. Mob rule in a world without privacy? We are going to end up with plenty of Network hermits, 21st century analogs to the Irish monks the Vikings found living in the caves of early medieval Iceland.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Lincoln Steffens Show

Over lunch the other day, as the latest manufactured crisis of our Coke v. Pepsi political culture reached its crescendo, a colleague and I got to talking about friends of ours who were in the business of developing new reality television programming. I wondered when the format might get used for more political material, citing the example of the BBC's recent exploration of author Terry Pratchett's advocacy for the elective suicide movement. For example, how about a reality show focused on what it is like to be poor in America? Follow our protagonist around as he desperately tries to get his power bill paid so he doesn't get disconnected…

Great idea, suggested my colleague, but serious political material would be tough to pull off when the key ingredient of a reality show is that it feature extreme examples of contemporary Narcissism. I was not persuaded that Narcissism and the political are mutually exclusive, but I did buy the idea that an earnest, 70s-style journalism-as-reform approach might have trouble permeating the genre.

mandy in 24

How about a reality show that features an underground revolutionary cell seeking to overthrow the government? The Fox television series 24 did a wonderful alternate reality version of that, with various plot threads about well-groomed twentysomething American terror cells living in nice oceanfront apartments, looking every bit like the neighbors of the kids on Friends until they got the call from the Network and retrieved the arsenal from their closet. I suppose one could follow an existing American terror cell, like some Animal Liberation Front folks or a loco Idaho Panhandle separatist outfit, but it would be even better—more in the spirit of reality television—if the revolutionary movement were actually created by the producers to make "reality" fit the pitch. It would be cast with cosmetically enhanced all-American Narcissi who espouse no ideology other than the idea of how much the status quo sucks, and how cool it is to be a revolutionary, like Robert DeNiro's plumber in Terry Gilliam's Brazil. They'd be like the Teen Titan versions of the Tea Party, hot left-wing analogues of Palin and Bachmann and Edwards and Barry O, American Ches with Connecticut-made AK-47s, exceptional dentistry, and social media as their Granma, living among us until they get the alert from their radical smart mob. After all, isn't that what CNN has become in 2011? A reality-based narrative in which we all vicariously experience the revolutions we wish we could have.

Of course, the perfect Narcissists to star in the next generation reality show are the ones who created their own illusory documentary narrative long before Survivor and The Bachelor: the American politicians who love nothing more than to engage in on-camera histrionics designed to manipulate the emotions of the general public around a largely illusory conflict between two political parties who represent a fiction of meaningful ideological difference. The drama of the debt ceiling debate really brought that home this week—the gravity of the revelation that the debate was occurring because the economy has *stopped growing*, and the sense that the national political dialogue was becoming more like American Idol than Meet the Press.

Is it possible that the way to make American politics more effective in navigating our way through the chaotic disruption of the early 21st century is to make it operate *more* like reality TV? Watching the blowhards of the 112th Congress play national leaders on the ever-scrolling news feed, products of what J.G. Ballard observed as "politics conducted as a branch of advertising," I feel like it is fair to question whether the basic operation of our Constitutional structure has started to jump the shark.

Why can't we vote like it's 1994? Perhaps I'm the only one who remembers all the utopian excitement at the birth of the Web about the Network's potential as an instrument to realize a more authentically participatory democracy that uses the Network as a means to connect government more directly to the immediate will of the People. The Ford Foundation once had a whole group dedicated to funding experiments in that direction. All of that thinking seems to have been discarded with the hanging chads of November 2000, and the ensuing conspiratorial Luddite freakouts about the idea of software-based election fraud. But you have to wonder, in the style of a Newt Gingrich alt history counterfactual: if the Founders had the Internet, do you think they might have empowered a more distributed, popular referendum-based polity? If that scares you in the way California Constitutional referenda scare us all, how much worse could it be than being governed by our current philosopher kings: Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi? I will check back with you after the carnival sideshow that the 2012 Republican primaries promise to be.

The 20th century revelation that probably had the most lasting cultural impact was Freud's—that people are governed by primitive animal natures and appetitive drives that are often more powerful than reason. Freud's insights were cynically employed on the this side of the Atlantic through his nephew Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations, who overthrew the 19th century convention of fact-based advertising in favor of subtextual appeals to the baser natures. Consider his invention of the focus group, in which psychoanalytic group therapy is applied to the experience of a product, which led to a stunt designed to reposition cigarettes as totems of female sexual empowerment (see the BBC/Adam Curtis documentary, The Century of the Self). Reality television is all about putting the forces on display as vividly as possible, in the context of a superimposed narrative.

Doesn't the public debate about something like the debt ceiling want to be conducted like an American Idol contest, in which the myriad different possible approaches to a pressing political issue are filtered through public votes in a Network-based communal medium—politics practiced as the ultimate Facebook wall, and the ultimate decision rendered by the big vote of the millions of viewer/voters? Fox and MSNBC are already becoming the real architects of our politics. I speculate that media will evolve in the age of Network Culture to more directly marry the will of the People to the actions of our political leaders, in a form that will be more like Simon Cowell's Citizen Kane than any of us can imagine. Just ask Ed Miliband, who is trying so hard not to be a contestant. Julian Assange is a better model for the 21st century Lincoln Steffens than Bob Woodward.

The idea seems objectively horrific, because we are so well conditioned to think any sort of rule by the masses is an opportunity for their Freudian manipulation by psychotic, juvenile Narcissists acting out their issues with armies and secret police. But I think we underestimate the power of the Network to also provide the tools that police that. The Network abhors monolithic movements and media, instead providing the deepest possible markets for every idea or thing. And the Network enables the People to conduct surveillance on power, as we have seen in 2011 with regime change enabled by Wikileaks and Arabic dating sites. The 20th Century was the Century of the Self, and we know what that looked like. The Century of the Network is already manifesting new mediated iterations of community that transcend geography and even language. Can't that lead to a better politics? Surely the answer is yes, though not without plenty of crises and failures along the way.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Two Moons

Nature News online and print and television media report a new theory that the early Earth had two moons, and the small one pancaked into Luna, accounting for the remarkably rough texture of the far side compared to the near side. My eye was caught by a riff at the end of the article in the Houston Chronicle (from Associated Press with the byline of Seth Borenstein): The moon plays a big role in literature and song. And poet Todd Davis, a professor of literature at Penn State University, said this idea of two moons – one essentially swallowing the other – will capture the literary imagination. It long since did that in science fiction and fantasy. How many short stories, novels and comic books have put a second small moon in the sky to show that a world is Earth-but-not, or Earthlike-with-differences, or Earth-of-prehistoric-humanity-and something-eventually-happened-to-the-little-moon?