You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2008.
28. Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984) 261 p.
Neuromancer was the book that spawned cyberpunk. It predicted the Internet, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and more, on a grand and relatively accurate scale, despite being written in 1984 on a typewriter. So excellent and influential is this book that it won the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards, and (I think) remains the only novel to have taken all three in a single year.
Set amidst the grimy, dystopian cityscapes of Tokyo, Istanbul and the “Sprawl” of the American north-east, Neuromancer tells the story of a washed-up computer hacker named Case who is hired by a mysterious ex-serviceman to work on the ultimate hack. But the story takes a backseat to the atmosphere and tone of the novel; Neuromancer is more about style than substance. Set in a world that seems so outlandishly fantastic in its technology, and yet believably real in its circumstances – uncontrolled consumerism, utopian space stations the domain of plutocrats, soldiers betrayed by upper levels of government – it’s one of the most well-realised fictional worlds I’ve ever read.
This is mostly due to Gibson’s masterful command of language. There are certain authors who have an ability to weave words into a beautifully visual description: Philip Reeve was the first one I noticed, but Michael Chabon and Cormac McCarthy have it too, and now I’m adding William Gibson to my private list.
The Marcus Garvey had been thrown together around an enormous old Russian air scrubber, a rectangular thing daubed with Rastafarian symbols, Lions of Zion and Black Star Liners, the reds and greens and yellows overlaying wordy decals in Cyrillic script. Someone had sprayed Maelcum’s pilot gear a hot tropical pink, scraping most of the overspray off the screens and readouts with a razor blade. The gaskets around the airlock in the bow were festooned with semirigid globs and streamers of translucent caulk, like clumsy strands of imitation seaweed.
Another great touch was that Gibson never explicitly details the world of Neuromancer, but rather throws in tiny bits here and there to fill in the background:
“Saw a horse in Maryland once,” the Finn said, “and that was a good three years after the pandemic. There’s Arabs still trying to code ’em up from the DNA, but they always croak.”
Much like Watchmen, this ultimately creates a very realistic world while also forcing the reader to use their imagination.
There are times in Neuromancer when the fictional techno-jargon can get confusing, where you’re not exactly sure what’s going on or where the characters are, but these minor issues would probably go away after a few re-reads. There are also a few moments where the 80’s seeps through in a manner reminiscent of Back to the Future 2: the “internet” of Case’s world, for example, is a virtual cyberspace of neon gridworks. I haven’t even seen Tron, but that is just so Tronnish that it hurts. On the whole, however, Gibson did a pretty good job of preventing this novel from dating – which can be an incredibly hard thing to do, as I’ve learned with my own ventures into science fiction. I’ll definitely be picking up some more of his works.
Our friend Michael Hill recently left Australia for a ten-month working holiday in the USA and Canada. He’s spending a few months as a waterskiing instructor at a summer camp in New York, then going to British Columbia to be a snowboarding instructor. He’s been over there for a week or two now, exploring California and New York, and has sent us back one photo of his adventures.
Of all the incredible monuments, diverse culture and amazing landscapes California and New York have to offer, he sent us this.
Thanks, Mike. That’s… that’s great.
Water crept in through my nostrils. It trickled down my sinuses. I choked and spluttered. Panic flooded my mind, and I yanked my reg out and bolted for the surface.
As I was rising, my adrenaline-soaked mind seized onto a simple fact, a memory of colourful textbook illustrations of a balloon bursting. I realised I was doing the worst thing possible, but it was too late to stop it even if I wanted to. My body was in control, and it wanted to escape. My eyes were open and I could see nothing but blurry white bubbles. My mouth was agape – was I trying to breathe in? – and I felt what seemed like a burp as expanding air was dragged out of my chest.
I burst into the air coughing for breath, the water around me reeking of chlorine, my nose and eyes tingling. Okay. Still alive. My lungs hadn’t burst into a ragged, wet mess. Dave, our divemaster, broke the surface of the pool a few seconds later.
“That wasn’t good,” I gasped.
“No, it wasn’t,” he agreed.
“It’s okay. But you can never, ever do that.”
* * *
Water weighs more than air. The deeper you go, the more pressure there is. If you take an upturned jar below the surface, after a few metres you’ll see the air slowly compress. A bottle full of air at the surface will be only half full of air ten metres down.
The same principle applies to your lungs. Skindiving is fine – you take a breath and descend, and the air compresses. When you swim back up, it expands to its original size. No problem. But if you’re scuba diving, and you take a full breath of air when you’re deep down in the water, and then try to ascend… I’m sure you can imagine what happens. Our dive textbook used a euphemistic diagram of a balloon expanding, and then bursting when it reached the surface.
You can overexpand your lungs in only a metre of water. We were three metres below, at the bottom of the training pool. If I hadn’t exhaled during my hysterical rush for the surface (and even now I’m not sure if I actually was, or if I just had my mouth open and the air forced its way out by itself) then I would have been badly injured. There are a myriad of dangers associated with diving, and lung overexpansion is one of the nastier ones.
The reason I’d bolted was that I fucked up one of the exercises we needed to master. While diving, there’s a slim chance that your mask can get knocked off (the book said this usually happened from swimming too close to your buddy’s fins, which was why I always kept a wary eye on Chris). So you need to be able to replace it, and clear it, by exhaling through your nostrils and purging the water out. We’d done it in the shallow end, where I had my first introduction to the delightful combination of blindness and suffocation. I had trouble not freaking out when water crept up my nostrils, and found it much easier to do if I kept one hand over them. Dave said this would probably be okay.
So we moved on to doing it in the deep end, three metres under. Chris and I were the only two students in the course – it drops in popularity during winter, can’t imagine why – and so it was just us, Dave, and a trainee instructor called Carla. We kneeled on the bottom and I watched as Dave made Chris take his mask off, led him around the pool, and then made him put it back on. He did fine, and Dave moved on to me.
Okay. I took my mask off, immediately clamped my fingers over my nose, and shut my eyes tightly as Dave held my arm and led me swimming around Chris and Carla. We returned to where we’d started, and he tapped me on the arm. Time to put the mask back on. It was still in my left hand, so I brought it up to my face and tried to make it fit. The snorkel was caught in the strap. I was holding it upside down. Doing it with one hand was hard, and I was starting to get increasingly uncomfortable with my face exposed.
Something went wrong. I don’t remember what. I think water came in through my nostrils during the split second when my hand was off them, as I put the mask back on. When I tried to snort it out, it trickled in through my reg as well. The low-key anxiety that had always been with me while breathing underwater burst from its cocoon and swelled into full-blown, out-of-control, girlish, shrieking terror. I made one of the worst mistakes of my life and rushed for the surface, where my old friend oxygen was waiting for me. It was also waiting in my reg, of course, but that’s adrenaline-marinated hysteria for you.
* * *
I’m not a physically fit person. I only weigh about sixty kilos and I don’t have a lot of stamina. Passing the course required a swim test, which involved two hundred metres of whatever stroke we chose (breast, of course), immediately followed by ten minutes of treading water, all of it in a very chilly pool. I barely made it, and stood in a hot shower for twenty minutes afterwards with white toes and a heavy urge to vomit from exhaustion.
But I passed. Above the water, I do okay.
Under the water is a different story. I don’t feel comfortable there, especially if my eyes and nose are exposed to it. Living in a coastal city with a Mediterranean climate, this has had a pretty big impact on my life. I made some good progress against it during my teenage years, and nowadays I love snorkelling, but the old fear is still lurking in the dark corners of my psyche. Later that night, while huddling by a heater set to high in spite of the state’s supposed gas crisis, I explained this to Chris.
“So why are you doing a diving course?” he asked.
“To face my fears,” I replied, as though it was obvious.
“Yeah. Diving’s not the place to start,” he pointed out.
* * *
Thursday was our day off. I spent Wednesday night standing over the laundry basin, dunking my face into it with a snorkel, trying to grow accustomed to breathing through my mouth and forgetting about my nose.
I gradually got a little better at it. Of course, it’s one thing to do it by putting my face into warm, calm water, with the rest of my body upright, still able to hear, and still able to jerk my face up the instant something goes wrong. It’s an entirely different thing to do it in freezing seawater, deaf, with regulator bubbles running up my face and the surface eighteen metres away.
I needed a swimming pool to practice in. That afternoon we drove to the Hills’ and borrowed a mask and snorkel set. Their pool was freezing, and Lindsay Hill is not a man who will idly stand by and watch somebody learn to do something on their own. He’s really more of a hands-on type person, and therefore he dug up a 70’s-era regulator set and an air compressor from the junk in his garage and started setting it up by the side of the pool.
Chris and I glanced at each other. I was already waist-deep, shivering my ass off in inexplicably Antarctic water and full of anxiety about sticking my face in. Spectator meddling was not what I needed. “Linds, you know, we were specifically told to never breath air from rickety equipment in somebody’s…”
“Naaah!” he said cheerfully over the jackhammer buzz of the compressor. “It’s fine!” He dragged the regulator set past a rosebush, which shrivelled and died (okay, not really). I took one breath and decided not to use it again. Chris tried it a little more, and later came down with a headache and nosebleed.
I spent some time there, flooding the mask, clearing the mask, trying not to breath in through my nose. Trying to ignore the cold, and Lindsay’s blathering examples about blowing up a balloon.
But I knew then that even if I did manage to master it, I wasn’t ready to dive. I wouldn’t be ready until I was completely comfortable in the water, and could guarantee that I wouldn’t panic and ascend when something went wrong. And that might be a very long time.
* * *
Dave was generous. Even though I couldn’t take off and replace my mask properly, and therefore couldn’t even get a scuba certification (let alone an open water certification), he still let me come on the first proper dive. We drove down to the Fremantle Diving Academy, where a sunken barge lies in about six or seven metres of water, only twice the depth of the training pool. It was the main centre for commercial dive training, so we found ourselves setting up our gear in the carpark under the gaze of about twenty men in blue jumpsuits eating their lunch, all of whom were either Filipino or Indonesian for some reason. “Why are they staring at us?” Chris muttered. “Would they just stop staring at us?”
We got all our crap on, strode out to the edge of the jetty, and jumped in. It was cold, but not as bad as the Hills’ pool, which had sufficiently prepared me for a lap of the Bering Strait. Dave told us to stay by the anchor line, made sure I was okay, and then we submerged.
Bad visibility, since we were at the mouth of the river. That was okay. In and out through the regulator. Deep breaths. Uncomfortable, anxious, and worried, but if I could just get through this I would have at least gone for a proper scuba dive.
The rusty, weed-covered wreck slowly emerged out of the murk as we descended. That was cool.
We swam around a bit. Dave gave me the “OK?” sign regularly. Dave ran Chris through some exercises, which I didn’t have to do, and then we went a little further and explored around the barge. I had trouble equalizing, since we’d only had to do it once in the pool, and my lung capacity is so miniscule that I’ve never had to do it while snorkelling, because by the time I get down two metres or so I have to go back up anyway. But I managed.
I found myself pretty exerted. It was a combination of the anxiety, the cold and the fact that I kick too hard. Either way, I was breathing heavily, and it wasn’t getting any easier. It had been less than fifteen minutes, maybe ten, and I was already down to 150 bar. Eventually I had to ascend, and Carla led me back to the docks while Dave stayed with Chris. I showered, rinsed my gear and waited for the others to finish, watching the commercial divers yell instructions to each other in Asian languages as they prepared for their next dive.
* * *
Dave is insistent that I return and practice breathing in the pool. I don’t think he realises just how deep this problem is. Even if I can breath fine with my nose and eyes exposed, I still don’t feel comfortable underwater, even with mask and reg firmly in place. I know that if something goes wrong, there is a chance that I will either head straight for the surface, or drown. As long as there is that chance, I shouldn’t be diving.
I certainly don’t want to suggest that this was the fault of our instructors. Dave and Carla were both great, and did everything they could to help me. It’s my own personal problem. I have a lifetime of bad conditioning, childhood phobias and irrational fear to overcome. I can certainly do it, but it won’t happen overnight, and as Chris said: diving isn’t the place to start.
I do feel kind of bummed that I spent $700 and got no certification, which is why I’m sitting here crying and eating a tub of icecream but there are certainly worse things to spend money on than a venture into an activity which most people never even try. Even if I never dive again (which is not the case), I’ve gone further than a lot of people, and feel privileged to have had the chance to do so.
I mean, OH GOD I’M A PATHETIC FAILURE
…with another 80 pages to study in my PADI dive manual, with the course in 20 hours’ time and rain drumming down on the roof.
Fun isn’t supposed to be hard!
27. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (1949) 256 p.
This one took me a while to get through, largely because it was the final week of semester last week. I had a hell of a lot of assignments due, resulting in stress and tension. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like this book too much. Or maybe it’s just not good.
The Sheltering Sky is the story of three friends who go on an extended period of travelling through French Africa in the post-war period. Port Moresby, his wife Kit Moresby, and their friend Tunner are not particularly likeable characters (Kit and Port are both unfaithful to each other within the first few chapters), but neither are they unlikeable enough to be particularly interesting. They are also prone to periods of intense introspection, and thought patterns extensively explained via metaphor. This is unappealing enough to me already without Bowles’ habit of zealously rationing his paragraph breaks to about one per page.
In any case, the overall story is one of travel without appropriately assessing the dangers of the region; arrogant Americans blundering off into the desert without a second thought and badly hurting themselves as a result. The final fifty pages of the book were somewhat more interesting than the rest, since they deal with imprisonment, a favoured theme of mine – alas, not interesting enough to salvage the other two hundred pages of meandering philosophical passages.
I always feel frustrated whenever I read a classic of literature and fail to enjoy it. Am I somehow missing something? Am I not intelligent enough to appreciate it? Should I skulk off back to my Playstation and Doritos like the wretched teenage product of the public school system that I am?
…no. No, it’s the literary critics who are wrong.
The Sheltering Sky at The Book Depository
It’s 4:06 AM and I just finished my final essay for the semester, a 3000 word leviathan. The title of this article is a short sample of the delightful, interesting and highly relevant theory I had to stretch out to fit the word limit.
I’m fucking tired of this. I’m tired of philosophy or sociology or cultural theory or whatever you want to call it. I’m tired of sweeping, abstract concepts like “post-modernity” and “cultural conditioning” and “the avant-garde.” I’m tired of Foucault and Baudrillard and Lyotard. I’m tired of intellectual elites who make a career out of spinning simple observations and pointless theories into long, tedious, unnecessarily verbose papers. I’m tired of doing a new unit of this every semester without absorbing a fucking thing. I’m tired of a subject with no real-life application, of a field of study which advances no apparent benefits to the human race other than sneering at each other’s equally useless theories and earning comfortable paychecks from various universities. I’m tired of having this one stupid unit taint an otherwise enjoyable and useful degree.
It’s a core unit, of course. Nobody would take it if it wasn’t, and it would quickly shrivel up and die. The logical conclusion to draw is that it deserves to die.
The Onion ran an article poking fun at this kind of frustrating, pseudo-intellectual gibberish which is inflicted on arts students across the globe. Read it, and understand that they are not exaggerating. This is the weekly bullshit I have had to put up with for two and a half years. Weep for me, and for all who suffer with me.
The first part was pretty boring, mostly just shifting people into place, setting them up for the big finale. I was hoping the second part would be better, and it sure fucking was.
The twist at the end wasn’t quite as good as season three’s ending – nothing ever could be – but overall it was a far greater episode than “Through The Looking Glass.” Which, frankly, was pretty dull with nothing much happening except the awesome final scene.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
1. I was right about the Others and the survivors teaming up to take down the mercenaries. I was also right about it being pretty easy, so I don’t know why they made so much of a fuss about it, although the takedown scenes were admittedly cool. It had echoes of the early supernatural menace lingering about the Others, which I dearly wish would return to them. Unfortunately, after that we don’t see much of them again.
2. I was wrong about Sayid being the one to kill motherfucking Keamy, but he came pretty close, in what was probably one of the best choreographed fight scenes I’ve ever seen on TV – and I’ve watched all six seasons of 24.
3. So I guess Jin and Michael are dead. Meh.
4. During the scramble to escape the freighter, it was kinda funny that they were screaming for Jin but not really caring about the rest of the people on the boat. Which happened to include some of their fellow survivors.
5. Incidentally, the freighter exploding looked adorably low budget.
6. Charlotte supposedly having been to the island in the past, and Miles knowing about it, should be suspenseful but I really don’t know care enough about her to give a shit. Miles could be a pretty good character, though, if he got some more screentime.
7. The airborne shots with the helicopter were cool… except that the jungle below them clearly had roads running through it. Also there’s no way you could get that far out to sea before noticing the hole in the fuel tank. Also, nice to see that you didn’t bother to stop off at the beach camp before heading to the boat, guys.
8. I’m pretty sure the writers don’t know what to do with Juliet now that Season 3’s over.
9. Sayid as an assassin in the future remains awesome. Leather jacket now, huh?
10. I like the way time/space travel has been gradually introduced on the show, and the fact that it tied in with “The Shape of Things To Come.” Note that Tunisia is on the exact opposite side of the world to the South Pacific.
11. I also like the way we keep seeing ancient places the Dharma Initiative apparently built right over the top of, just like the monster-summoning-room in “The Shape of Things To Come.”
12. Okay, HOW THE FUCK does a two-month old baby survive a helicopter crash into the ocean?
13. I was worried that Desmond, and to a lesser extent Frank, would be killed to fit in line with the Oceanic 6 cover story. But all is well. (The Indonesian island conspiracy is still stupid though).
14. Penny sure made it from London to the South Pacific in a hurry.
15. Having the flashforwards pick up directly from “Through The Looking Glass” was awesome because it reminded me of how awesome that twist was. I also love drug-addicted Jack, with his ugly beard and shiny Jeep and surly disregard for the law. Next season is gonna kick ass.
16. Fitting Older Walt into the flashforward scenes was a brilliant way of turning the disadvantage of an actor aging faster than his character into an actual benefit.
And then there’s final scene at the funeral parlour. Since “Through The Looking Glass” I’d had three main candidates as to the occupant of the coffin: Ben, Michael and Locke. There weren’t really any other major characters that both Jack and Kate would dislike. Michael and Ben were ruled out prior to the revelation, but during the conversation they had just before the reveal, I wildly thought for a moment it would be Christian. Not sure why.
Anyway it was Locke. wowwwwwwwww.
My personal vibe about the leadership struggle so far is that Jack, while he has some personality problems, is a pretty good guy and a decent leader trying to save a bunch of innocent people. On the other hand, Locke is a well-meaning but misguided (and potentially dangerous) buffoon on a personal spirit quest. Basically Jack=right and Locke=wrong. Unfortunately the show is making it pretty clear that the ultimate message will be that Locke was the one who was right all along, the star of the show, while Jack ends up as a miserable drug-addicted alcoholic. Or, even worse, Jack will return to the island and somehow live in peace and harmony finally accepting Locke’s message about blah blah blah. I don’t care what the show says, Locke is a fucking idiot.
Still, this is one of the best TV shows the medium has ever seen and I can’t wait till next season. In February, apparently. Super.
Hey look! That thing that we have all known would happen for more than two fucking months now finally happened!
Nonetheless, Clinton still hasn’t conceded, and I expect that even as I write these words she is lurking in her dank lair, scuttling up and down the walls and hatching diabolical plans to run as an independent candidate.
Keep dreaming, you crazy bitch. The rest of us will live it up here in the real world, the world of cold hard facts, where we will in no way stretch our perception of the proud Democratic candidate to fit into any kind of perfect, charming, previously established persona.
Epic storm yesterday. I was late for work because I was tomfooling around gathering larger and larger hailstones and putting them in the freezer for posterity. Also because I have bald tyres and the roads were covered in like half a foot of water.
You see how deprived I am of exciting weather? I wish it snowed in this wretched city.