Thursday, December 29, 2016

Notes on the "Juno" EP by Distance to Jupiter

The new 4-track EP "Juno" by Distance to Jupiter was released on November 22nd, 2016. It was recorded May through October, 2016, with final processing of both audio and visual components throughout November.

Juno is a spacecraft that left the Earth in 2011. Launched by NASA/JPL, its primary purpose was to unlock the secrets of the solar system's largest planet: Jupiter. These are some background notes about the tracks.

Juno (Five-Year Journey): Track 1 represents the cruise phase, with the listener along for the ride. It took Juno five years to reach Jupiter after launch. The spacecraft existed in a state of hibernation for most of the trip, but at certain key junctures, Juno awakened to perform course corrections or other scientific activities. The metallic drones, chirps, and chaotic string sequences represent the deep space network NASA uses to communicate with its spacecraft; the day-to-day; the maintenance. Then Juno slept, to await arrival. When she next opened her eyes, Jupiter loomed ahead. Around the 3:30 mark of the track, epic swells engulf the listener as the spacecraft begins to pierce the solar system's strongest magnetic field and most lethal radiation belts.

Juno (Orbit Insertion): Track 2 represents Juno slowing down, and the beat gives us the reference. We’re about to go into orbit. Radiation is increasing. Each moment could bring disaster. Tension is mounting, not only on the spacecraft, but back in mission control in Pasadena, CA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But there is beauty here - staggering vistas of the solar system's largest planet. The plaintive melodic sets of tones that hover above the beat are the voice of Juno. The synthetic guitars herald the stresses of orbital insertion. Tempo doubles. The pace quickens. And a droning guitar greets us like a protesting howl, the voice of secretive Jupiter itself. A conversation ensues between Juno and her estranged husband. Juno is in orbit now.

Juno (Unlocking Secrets): Track 3 represents the regular communication between Juno and NASA via the deep space network. It is constant. The spacecraft is performing its science duties, pulling in data, probing the secrets which are locked away within Jupiter’s massive atmosphere. This track is all about discovery. Out of the data stream comes a clearer picture - one of beauty, chaos, and unimaginable forces. The background noise - an atmosphere - is a sea of data waiting to be explored. The unearthly swells are measured, relentless, beautiful, repeated. Understanding grows at 2:20; the picture becomes clear as an alien arpeggio fades in. Secrets are unlocked with a key of astonishing complexity - the Juno spacecraft itself. The track fades, and Juno’s time is up.

Juno (Deorbit): Track 4 represents the fact that all things must end. For Juno, the end will arrive during its 37th orbit of Jupiter. A deorbit burn will be executed, placing the spacecraft on a trajectory that will reset its point of closest approach to the planet to an altitude that is below the cloud tops at 34 degrees North Jupiter latitude. Juno is not designed to operate inside an atmosphere and will burn to ash. She will be studying her mate throughout this final plunge, sending data back to us for as long as she can. The haunting strings of a bandura mix solemnly with the sounds of impact, of thunder, and the sounds of distress. A strained arpeggio grows as the pressure and heat rise. Juno sends her final batch of data. We can’t follow and witness only a thunderous, fiery implosion in the fade.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

The Curious Proceedings of "Sentient Vortex"

Most Distance to Jupiter tracks begin in the unconscious. They begin as fragments, splinters, particles, sometimes with words or phrases attached. I've often called them proceedings, for lack of a better term. I find wisps of melodies or chord progressions in my head sometimes when I wake up in the morning. They are stuck, repeating, and they force me to stumble sleepily into the studio where I attempt to rescue them from the inexorable oblivion that consciousness brings. Months can then pass, as these proceedings pile up on the computer. Eventually, there comes a sudden urge to sift through them all, and work begins on a new collection of tracks.
Philip K. Dick was an American science fiction novelist (December 16, 1928 – March 2, 1982). I'm a huge fan, but that wasn't always the case. In high school, I found his prose to be an impenetrable wall. I didn't possess the elasticity of thought that was required to truly get into his work until much later in life. Today, I'm fascinated by Dick's life, and by what he put himself through to produce his work. Dick once wrote and published seven novels in a single year. He'd often produce work that required little to no revision. Finished prose simply flowed from his mind, through his hands, into his typewriter. His biographers have suggested he suffered from the best form of hypergraphia, a so-called uncontrollable "desire to write" brought on by issues with the temporal lobe of the brain, perhaps due to amphetamine abuse, or a bit of schizophrenia (if such a measurement applies). No matter the cause, the reality is this: he was a beast of a writer. He could finish an entire novel in a month, and these hallucinatory texts still reverberate today. Based on his visions, Dick once postulated that the universe was made from information, decades before this notion became a core tenet of the Holographic Principle (itself a property of cutting-edge string theories and a supposed property of quantum gravity theory). I'm still amazed by the volume of Philip K. Dick's output. After reading various Dick biographies, I realized my workflow for creating music wasn't dissimilar to his for writing novels, especially during the period 1999-2005 when I released eleven albums, five in the year 2000 alone. I don't know if there's even a term for an uncontrollable desire to make music. That said, some very curious things occurred in 2015 while working on Sentient Vortex, the latest Distance to Jupiter album. I spent the early parts of the year skimming or rereading some of Dick's novels, mostly in preparation for Amazon Prime's adaptation of Dick's Hugo award-winning novel The Man in the High Castle. At the same time, I started rummaging through the dream fragments of music I'd been collecting.
I worked on Sentient Vortex for seven months, from early May to mid-December, 2015. Ultimately, eleven tracks emerged. In the end, two never made it (they had "health problems"). A third was jettisoned quite late in the process, in mid-November. The eight tracks that remained all had strange words associated with them. These were part of the original dream fragments. I'd use the words to name the blocks of MIDI data in Logic Pro X (music production software). This allowed me to preserve these dream words along with the melodies, and ultimately, they became working titles for each track.
In mid-November, after binge-watching The Man in the High Castle series (fantastic!), I found myself digging through the Exegesis of Philip K. Dick looking for clues. I am unsure what I was looking for, but as I flipped around, opening the heavy tome at random day after day, I'd find sentences that contained the words I used in the temporary track titles. Statistically-speaking, this isn't exactly unexpected; these are all fairly common words. But the sentence fragments in the Exegesis made much better track titles and truly fit the moods of the music. My one regret is that I didn't make a note of the pages I found the sentences on (it didn't cross my mind; the published Exegesis is a gargantuan work, a mere chunk of the thousands of handwritten pages that constitute the original, and which even now hasn't been fully transcribed or published in any form). I found a searchable version of the Exegesis online and input the final track titles, but they can't be located. I can find the words, but they appear in different orders. This delighted me. It's the kind of thing PKD's otherworldly sources of enlightenment might have subjected him to as he struggled to come to grips with the life-altering events he experienced in March, 1974. In the case of these track titles, the fact that I now couldn't find the exact phrases within a searchable form of the Exegesis amused me greatly. It's as if the words I'd found had rearranged themselves, or been rearranged by one of PKD's otherworldly intelligences (or PKD himself?). Sentient Vortex was inspired in no small part by Dick's body of work. The mental imagery he conjures, especially in works like VALIS, Ubik, and A Scanner Darkly, is often difficult to shake off. Sentient Vortex is about disparate fragments of "dream melody" finding a form in reality. It's about barriers breaking down between worlds, mysterious places and things, and celebratory rhythms that evoke distant times, either in the past or the future. Here, then, is Sentient Vortex (note, if you're reading this before 12/21/2015, not all tracks will be available for streaming):

The next Sentient Vortex curiosity occurred during the creation of the album's cover art. The piece developed over a matter of a few hours. It consists of four layers: a symmetrical star field (background), a blue layer, a red layer, and the text/logo layer (foreground). No real revision was required except for some positioning of the text elements. The whole thing just sort of happened. And the eeriest element is the "sentient vortex" itself. The blue layer. The face.

Curiously, if you look closely at the center, a five-pointed star emerges (slightly blur your eyes, you'll see it). What's odd here is that my original idea for the cover was that it would be based on simple linear forms. The plan was to place a large, hollow circle on a black background, and within it, a smaller off-center hollow circle. I was going to map the position of the smaller circle to the exact position of the planet Jupiter's great red spot. The outer circle would represent Jupiter's atmospheric perimeter. I had an urge to drop a five-pointed star within the smaller circle, to form a pentagram (potentially inverted) or pentacle. I had collected a series of pentagram images for reference, as well as some high resolution images of Jupiter from JPL to use as a positional guide. The initial version of the cover amounted to nothing more than an uninteresting framework, so experimentation with fractally-generated vortexes ensued. I found a lovely construct almost immediately, and started playing around with it. I duplicated the layer and flipped the copy along the horizontal axis. Suddenly staring back at me was the "face in blue":

Not only did this eerie thing instantly satisfy the "sentient vortex" theme, it also met my desire to place a five-pointed star somewhere within the design (though not inverted, unfortunately). After a few color enhancement passes, the organic five-pointed ideogram became more apparent. The red layer was another simple randomized fractal rendering, horizontally duplicated to frame the blue face. The fact that the face emerged instantly, from the very first random mathematical seed I generated, is very "phildickian," and a testament, perhaps, to the power of the sentient vortex we all wander through as we sleep.

Sentient Vortex comes out on December 21st, 2015. Pre-orders are available now. The full 24bit/96kHz album comes with a thematic digital booklet and copies of the album's cover art - perfect for whichever era the listener/time traveler is computing in (aspect ratios include 4:3, 16:9, and 16:10, featuring resolutions as high as 5120x2880; yes, I'm looking out for you iMac 5K owners)! Note: more tracks will be revealed over the coming weeks as the release date gets closer.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Skeleton Key to Distance to Jupiter's "Long Shadows"

On July 31st, 2012, I walked from the backyard of my parent's house into their carport. I'd been in the small guest house outside for many hours, and the passage from this outer building to the carport is mostly covered, so I could not see the sky. As I walked to my car, which was parked next to my dad's SUV, something seemed very strange. It was a typical blazing hot Arizona day, and yet, all around, the landscape was in shadow. However, beyond that shadow, all was bright. Confused by what I saw, I walked into the light and looked up. In the sky, directly between the blazing star at the heart of our solar system and the house I grew up in, was a lone, ominously black cloud. It cast a column of shadow directly onto the property. The sky was a brilliant blue in every direction. There was not a single cloud in the sky - except for this one.

This photo has haunted me since the moment I took it. This was a mere three months before my father died of complications (read: gram-negative bacterial infection) from liver cancer. Throughout the year prior, I was at my parent's house daily, operating a business from the converted guest house out back. I'd been watching my dad purging his belongings for weeks. Each day, as I'd arrive, I'd see him in the carport, filling the back of his SUV with an endless stream of things from his life, which he'd then drop off at the local Good Will. I never let it get to me, because we all knew he was quite sick, but those moments were far more haunting than I realized, for they colored everything, coating each day with a form of dread I'd never experienced before. So when I saw the long shadow in the sky that day, I knew something was coming. My dad's "purging of his possessions" phase was over; it had ended that week, in fact, and he hadn't been as active around the property. This acre lot had been his long form project since the family moved in, back in July of 1977. Being a civil engineer, his will to shape the landscape ruled his existence. He'd always been outside, working, digging, crafting, shaping, and engineering. He'd entered a new phase, however, where his energy was low and he often remained couch-bound, trapped between his failing liver and the curse of my mother's addiction to the relentless mediocrity of daytime television - a blessed noise to her which seemed to act like a protective barrier between herself and reality. An infection seemed to take hold of my dad on October 26th, 2012. I was almost home (25 miles away) when I got the call from my mother that something was profoundly wrong, and I quickly turned around in rush hour traffic. Two days later, shortly after midnight on the 28th, he died.
In January of 2013, I began work on the sixteenth Distance to Jupiter album, code-named "October Mind." This title, I suspect, was a nod to my dad's death, since the words had manifested during one of my silent commutes after he died, and then bounced around in my head for months. The music that was emerging, however, was incredibly difficult to dissect or understand, and it wasn't until the first anniversary of my dad's passing that the tracks began to evolve at a panic-inducing pace. From October of 2013 to the last day of the year, these seven tracks took their final form (they are unrecognizable when compared to their earliest incarnations). Track names and order had been set, so the next step was to find the album title. "October Mind" now felt worn out to me, but as I listened to the final mix of track #6 ("Long Shadows"), an array of visuals filled my mind's eye. Columns of shadow bled from a darkening, innermost sky. It all became understandable:

I then turned my thoughts to the cover design. I had been experimenting with older artworks (based on custom filters using integer maths) from the late 1990s and early 2000s, trying to repurpose them into something that captured the moods of the music, but as I rummaged through my digital archives, I strayed upon that series of photos I had taken of the long shadow darkly cast upon my childhood home. I had never explored these images. I had taken them, and simply forgotten they existed, subtly frightened to look too closely. Would there be an obvious pattern? A leering gaze from a reaper in the sky? As I explored each photo, I couldn't help marveling at the occurrence itself. This bizarre, singular black cloud that had been so ominous and direct in appearance and meaning was truly stunning to behold. On that day, the temperature had eclipsed 100 degrees, and though the historical record shows scattered clouds in the region, at this moment, there was just the one.

The final image has been heavily processed. The orbs of light and the lens-like structure that surrounds the cloud is a nod to the camera itself (an iPhone 4S), which preserved this event. It also recalls the eye, perhaps both of the viewer and of this unknowable "thing" in the sky. The design is bisected on the horizontal by the logo and title. The DTJ logo has always been rendered in Arial Black Regular (a seemingly irrevocable design decision steeped in the long ago, circa 1996); the title was rendered using the font Eurostile. The image ultimately denotes light (top; above the cloud) and dark (bottom; below the cloud), and perfectly captures the mood of the seven tracks that make up the album. I still don't know if this finished piece honors the situation I found myself in at my dad's side in the hospital, just a few short months after the original photo was taken.
As I raised my camera towards the sky on that hot summer day, the cloud felt like a gentle but ominous warning, on a scale that dominated the firmament. The final image, I hope, captures some sense of that, but there is an echo of something else. Though my dad suffered from liver cancer and its complications, his official cause of death was listed as respiratory failure. The truth behind that failure, however, was the gram-negative bacteria that resisted everything the doctors threw at it, even experimental antibiotics. So the circular form you see in the image is also a bacterial cell, the perimeter a plasma membrane, the interior a frightening cytoplasmic mix. Making music is a form of escape, and while none of the tracks on the album are specifically keyed to this interpretation, the presence of gram-negative bacteria in our world is an idea I've been running away from since the day my father died.
The majority of Distance to Jupiter albums all represent a form of personal escape for me: not only of past events and present struggles, but of future potentialities. My father's end was something I knew was coming, and it had been inducing existential panic since 1999. Now that this overarching event has come to pass, it isn't clear where the Distance to Jupiter project will go next. New aural impulses are emerging, but everything feels different.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Internet-based Therapy for Math Haters

Never did well in math? Did the word problems generate feelings of anxiety? Here's a new way to look at these humorless little conundrums from your past. I recommend you don't immediately read the answers. Instead, let yourself wallow in that old familiar feeling of "word problem dread" and then read on, and enjoy the catharsis.

Now, picture your 10-year-old self at a school desk, #2 pencil in hand, staring at the clock. And remember, this is for your final grade. Begin.

1) Donald has a synthetic rope 26.3 meters in length. He wishes to cut the synthetic rope into 3 pieces of equal length. What will be the length of each piece?

Answer: Donald hangs himself.

Nancy plans a two-day hike from Blood Gulch to Donald's Demise by way of the Northern Trail. It is 7.9 miles from Blood Gulch to the Northern Trail and 9.8 miles from there to Donald's Demise. If she plans to travel half the total distance on each day, how far will she hike the first day?

Answer: Nancy dies of exposure.

Pencils down, everyone!

Who are Donald and Nancy? What is the nature of their relationship? I have no idea. These were written on June 18th, 1994, and let's be honest: who remembers anything from that long ago? If you're mathematically gifted and compelled to provide the real answers to these word problems, you may post them in comments, but no one's going to laugh.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Origin of "Hemegohm’s Tendril"

This article is part of an on-going series intended to clarify and expand upon elements of the dystopian novel The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism and its sequel Hemegohm’s Tendril.

The title Hemegohm’s Tendril is an anagram. I’ve debated for years whether or not to tell anyone this—but there it is. From the expression’s first appearance in chapter 67 of the novel The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism, to Horim Fildsbel’s final vision in the sky above Emcast in the story "The Gulf of the Architect," little is truly established about what it is, what it wants, or why it may—or may not—exist. That is the point, however. By design, there must be something very large and mysterious hanging above the heads of every character—in both the novel and the short fiction cycle.
The Shimmerism novel and short stories have all emerged from bouts of automatic writing, usually after story elements manifested in a state of half-sleep or within a dream. Though the term "automatic writing" itself seems a bit cringe-worthy, I can’t negate the fact that a lot of what has emerged has come from a wholly subconscious source.
Simon Shadow employs the use of an artificial intelligence program during the creation of his “sacred book” (as part of the process of creating and registering his new religion; see chapter 16 of the novel). He later employs an algorithm to extract the two most frequently used words within the body of every single religious work throughout the colonized worlds: golden and shimmering, and thus generates the title of his work: “The Golden Shimmer.” The title itself is a nod to the golden mean in philosophy (Simon exists in a dystopian realm, and his writings are aimed squarely at the World Order’s excesses), as well as the golden ratio in mathematics and even the concept of the golden age—or in this case, the lack thereof.
As previously noted, the novel was published in March, 2001, and the expression “Hemegohms Tendril” (lacking the apostrophe) manifested in October of 2004. I woke up with it stuck in my head, and I immediately knew it described the Tigris spider problem in the novel. When I had the chance to update the novel in November of 2004, I decided to add the expression to Ren Pello’s dialogue in chapter 67, primarily because the idea of the Hemegohm as a hyper-dimensional species parasitic to humans was already in play, though unnamed. The expression had also begun to influence the novel’s sequel, which I subsequently abandoned (for the better) after a strange event linked to a set of Scrabble tiles, wholly inspired by Rosemary's Baby.
I had collected the expression’s tiles from the bag—hemegohmstendtril—and then I stirred the tiles around on my desk. Almost immediately, I formed the word THE. The G tile was close by, and just adjacent was the O tile. It took only a matter of seconds for me to pull together GOLDEN. The other letters were in disarray, but the two M tiles stood out. I placed them together, and all that remained were the S, H, I, E, and R tiles. You can probably do the rest. Just as I did.

I now understood this would be the title of whatever followed The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism (it turned out to be an eBook). Admittedly, there are other anagrams within the novel, all meticulously and quite consciously crafted. Yet this anagram—Hemegohm’s Tendril—came from a very mysterious place—a realm which over the subsequent eight years bestowed a fully-formed trio of stories in much the same way.

Hemegohm’s Tendril - James Kracht

In the UK or Australia? Just click!

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Steve Jobs and the Restoration of Sanity

In the first half of 2002, I bought a Macintosh computer. A titanium PowerBook G4, to be specific. This is the story of how Steve Jobs and Apple restored my sanity.

For years I hated Macintosh computers.
I grew up on Atari hardware. I started with an Atari 800 (with a cassette drive), moved to the Atari 1200XL and then to the Atari 130XE; next came the Atari 520ST, a Mega ST4, and ultimately the Atari Falcon030.
I hated Macintosh computers because they were too expensive.
I could not afford a Macintosh.
I grew up hating anything I could not afford or which I could not coerce my parents into giving me for my birthday. Sad, but true, and probably prototypical of the middle class in the middle Eighties.
But it wasn't really hate.
Macintosh computers actually scared me. Everything I dreamed of doing with computers was sitting right there on screen. I was scared of where such a machine might take me, in much the same way as receiving a driver's license was scary. It bestowed the power to explore. It bestowed freedom. As Killing Joke's Jaz Coleman once sang: "Liberty in new dimensions, ruthless and spectacular."
After my Atari Days came to a close, I spent quite a few years in the PC wilderness. I had to let go of my Falcon 030 and buy a Pentium-based Dell PC. I loved that beige machine. I really did. But really, no, I hated it. I loathed Windows 3.1. That's when this hideous dance of self-deception truly began.
I spent years claiming PCs could do anything a Mac could do, whilst constantly trying to keep Apple's growing influence on society out of my conscious mind.
I was so happy when it looked like the Macintosh line would wither and vanish when Steve Jobs left Apple. It meant I could stop worrying about Macintosh computers.
So we all moved forward, didn't we? The Apple fanatics kept loving their machines, whilst the PC folks appeared to do the same, moving further ahead. But was it really moving ahead? A new version of Windows. Terrible and buggy, slow. Drivers missing. IRQs? Why is there no sound? How do I uninstall something? Registry? You want me to edit my registry? Books. Countless volumes of Windows Bibles. $69 because it has a CD-ROM with it? Wait, what? Each year? Updated! In step with each new version of Windows. Terrible and buggy, slow. Drivers missing. IRQs? Why is there no sound? How do I uninstall something? Registry? You want me to...
What a nightmare!
Which isn't to say I wasn't achieving things on my PC. I was. I created lots of great things, but it was a struggle, and I was doing it out of spite. I was fighting against the profoundly shitty experience of owning a Windows PC by dishonoring the creative urge. Rolling that boulder up, as far as it would go (Windows 3.1). Letting it roll back down (Windows for Workgroups). Pushing it up the other side (Windows ME). Yes, it sucked that the boulder kept rolling back, but at least I had control of it, right? Right?
Flash forward. College graduate. Couple of shitty jobs under my belt, a decent design portfolio the only thing to show for it, but it was enough to score the ubiquitous (and hideous) corporate job with a real salary. Thus, I settled in with my work PC (boulder == Windows NT).
Then the new boulder arrived on the horizon. It was a big one. They called it Windows XP. I purchased it on launch day, and my entire hard drive became corrupted when the install disc failed half-way through the installation. The distribution media itself was defective, or at least that's what the poorly worded Microsoft error message suggested. A damaged CD-ROM had scrambled my system, rendering it unbootable.
Still, I was hopeful. All that boulder rolling had to be good for something, right? Perhaps one of the new Windows XP Bibles could help? I rushed to the store (the internet was worthless at this point, at least as far as information from Microsoft was concerned). On the way there, however, my mind was coming to terms with everything that I had lost. Most of my work was backed up to ZIP discs (adored those; still do), but I had gone through so many careful pre-install checks. I had made sure my hardware could run Windows XP. I had read article after article about performing this upgrade. I was armed. With knowledge. All of it worthless in the face of a defective Windows XP CD-ROM.
Haunted by Sisyphean imagery, I realized I was basically suffering from a form of insanity, rolling a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down, and then doing it again. And again. These were the actions of a crazy person. So I went home. I ignored my dead computer. The next day at work, I found myself on Apple's web site. Something called OSX was in beta. It looked interesting. As I read about its Unix core, I finally realized the truth. It took a few months, but I decided to jettison my fear once and for all.
Eventually, bored at work, I configured a loaded titanium PowerBook G4 and placed the order.
I used the months of down time at home without a computer to purge my experiences with my PC and Windows. I boxed up Windows books. I piled all the PC games I thought were so great (they weren't) into the closet. And I waited, secretly wondering what I had gotten myself into (though I did play a lot of console games). I then received an email, which indicated that my recent order was being cancelled, because Apple had just upgraded the entire Powerbook line. Cancelled, of course, was the wrong word. It was actually a surprise upgrade. I was being given the same price on my computer, but it had a faster CPU (667 MHz G4 replaced with an 800 MHz G4), more RAM, a larger hard drive, and a better video chip. This was my first encounter (as a consumer) with Apple as a corporation. Shortly after I received this amazing new computer, I was invited to participate in a "switcher" survey that Apple had sent me. They wanted to know my story. They wanted to know why I left the PC world and chose a Macintosh computer. And I basically told them everything you just read. In some weird way, when I completed that survey, I felt like I was communicating directly with Steve Jobs. The bottom line was that it was incredibly cathartic to abandon the PC and Microsoft's poorly designed horror-spawn-of-an-OS.
My co-workers were shocked when I explained I'd just spent $2800 on a laptop. During a time when high-end PCs could be cobbled together at Fry's Electronics for $900. But here's the thing: I could afford it. I wasn't afraid any more. And fuck it if Raimi and his people didn't pre-steal the line that I can't avoid using here: "...with great power comes great responsibility." I was finally ready to accept that responsibility, since that's what a hideous corporate job enables: it allows you to buy stuff which other people are convinced you don't need.
Except in my case, I needed this thing more than food, water or even sex. I needed a computer in my life, one that wasn't going to require an endless education on how to get it to work right. I would waste no more money on tech bibles. I would no longer study for a certifications. I would no longer avoid my responsibility to the creative urge. I would equip myself with the best tools. From then on, I would only create.
This was a path I was placed on in 1983 when my dad bought me that Atari 800. I knew back then that a computer would always be sewn into the fabric of my life. The tyranny of the Windows PC was akin to an alien abduction, and that's the best I can say about it. The Windows PC represents missing time, lost years, and nothing more.
Though I can only claim the years 2002 to present as my Apple Years, I have never had one regret. The titanium PowerBook G4 I purchased in 2002 is still going strong. True, it's trapped in OSX Tiger (10.4), but it's the primary general purpose computer in my home. It holds a permanent spot on the kitchen counter. Email, web browsing, word processing, iTunes, and more. It's still doing it all. I know this fact would make Steve Jobs proud.
I just wish he was still around. We need people like him to protect our sanity, especially when technology is often at odds with the people who use it. Steve Jobs humanized computers, and in the process he kept a lot of creative people from losing their minds.
Rest in peace, Mr. Jobs. I will be forever grateful to you.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Literary Vacuum: 9/11 and Art

This article is part of an on-going series intended to clarify and expand upon elements of the dystopian novel The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism and its sequel Hemegohm’s Tendril.

The novel The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism was published on March 24th, 2001. Here's a small excerpt (from page 370):
Another cloud of fire erupted and seconds later the explosive sound reached them, thundering past. The ground trembled slightly and a secondary blast shook the city. Jakren’s mouth was hanging wide and Horim, crossing his arms, smiled thinly. Lorick became frantic, urging the Children to pray—to kneel and pray, kneel and pray.
The tallest spire, at the center of the City, collapsed spectacularly.
Wern, wiping his face, had moved next to Horim.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“Fucking great,” said Horim, disgusted, his head shaking. “Just fucking great.”
Jakren heard Horim’s words but he couldn’t react. His eyes were drawn to another fiery blast. The City’s center was in flames and smaller explosions were erupting outwards. He tried to rationalize why his faith would be tested in such a way; why the City of a Thousand Faiths—his goal, his mission, his object of faith—would be taken away the moment it was won. His thoughts brought him little and he recalled his vision—an angry Didrio, a disgusted Chearkin. He thought of consulting the Analecta, to dig his failure out of it, but his eyes now watched the destruction with a morbid fascination; he found he could not move.
The City was splintered by another blast, rife with finality; Jakren’s hopes—the few that remained—dissipated in unison with its cloud of fire.
I remember thinking that the Too Soon rule would apply to 9/11 for a long time. We wouldn't be able to crack jokes about it for years, if not decades. Not that anyone would want to. But jokes are inherently creative, aren't they? They're filters. Jokes generate new perspectives on ideas or events that otherwise wouldn't naturally arise in the populace, so they do have value.
Speaking of jokes, on 9/11/01, I was out of work. In April of that year, I'd been laid off during the crash, which had hit Austin, TX pretty hard. I had only just arrived there when less than a year later I was heading back to Phoenix. That was fine, however. A stroke of luck, in a way. Before my unceremonious removal, I had discovered that the CEO of the company I worked for was a truly delusional religious fanatic, who often diverted company funds to smuggle Bibles into China. He was very concerned when news of my novel's publication came to his attention. I was brought to his office for a one-on-one, which was odd to say the least, considering I was just the graphics/Web design guy. It became pretty obvious to me that he was nuts, so I let him have it (and by that I mean I was honest and pulled no punches when it came to my views on religion). The crash was likely the perfect cover for him to press the eject button on my cube (disclosure: no 9/11 post would be complete without a conspiracy theory).
So I parachuted back to Phoenix. I found a decent apartment and got on with my life. Each morning, throughout the summer, I'd wake up, listen to some NPR, and then scour the internet for a job. On 9/11, however, NPR had changed. The tone was new, chilling—quite unlike anything I'd ever heard on the radio in my lifetime.
I couldn't afford television. Not even basic cable. So all I had was the radio. I sat in my dim apartment and listened. And I noticed something strange going on in the corner, by the door. My novel had been published in March, 2001. The initial batch was over there, stacked against the wall, but in two piles of equal height. Two small towers of books, focused on religious fanaticism in the year 2167.
The passage at the top of this post—and so many others throughout the novel—haunted me. They made it difficult to market the work, since at its heart, the novel was a satire. It was just one big long joke. A monumental reductio ad absurdum. I had broken the Too Soon rule by way of a literary causality violation.
I've always been personally opposed to religion in all its forms, but I wondered where the idea of attacking the financial center of a city had come from in my novel. Had it been the WTC bombing in 1993 that had planted the seed? That was my first interpretation. Had an unconscious thought process deconstructed that event? Secretly wondered why it had failed, thus generating the aerial attack scenario? Or was such a scenario simply a natural outgrowth of an imagined future where military hardware was freely available to protagonists and antagonists alike?
The narrative in the novel had been impacted by real-world events before. In 1993, ironically, the original ending of the novel had to be thrown out—not because of the WTC attack—but because of what happened in Waco, TX with David Koresh and his followers. Reality had run away with that ending, more or less, and I had to jettison the last third of the book (Simon Shadow and his few remaining followers had barricaded themselves within the Shimmerite Temple, surrounded by UGMC forces; a sudden attack by the Unholy Mass complicated and confused the situation, resulting in a massive firestorm). So perhaps it was fitting that I beat 9/11's religious fanatics to the punch. More or less, again. And though it may seem like less, the build-up to that moment on page 370 had been in play since the first page of the novel.
The end result, however, was that the book just wasn't good enough to find its way in a post-9/11 world. It generated no new insights. Or if it did, they remained mostly invisible. The satire was diluted and destroyed by the true reality of our world, yet I'm not sure this kind of victimization has any right to be displayed. It's Too Soon, after all. But 9/11 affected Art, and I'm not sure we even know how deeply. Regardless, the only way to truly process 9/11 is through art, and it is happening all around us. The 9/11 Memorial is such an expression. But the processing has been happening all along, since the morning of 9/12/01, in fact.
Religious fanatics attacked the twin towers of the World Trade Center, but they hit us in so many other smaller ways, too. Those two stacks of books against my wall, for instance. That evening I slowly dismantled that scene and created a small wide square of books in the corner. My little cat Inchworm jumped within the space immediately, and she played in and around the structure for months to come, chasing toy mice, as I slowly gave away copies of the work; it had become an impossible sell: "A novel about religious fanatics? Already? As if I'm in the mood for that!"
Is there a point to all of this? Probably not. The trials and tribulations of a novel lost in a literary vacuum aren't very interesting. But 9/11 was an attack on human expression on multiple levels, so rather than let these memories fade and die, I figured I'd leave them here, probably Too Soon.
One decade down.
Many more to go.