Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Literary Vacuum: A Tremulous Light

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 history of our species is littered with instances of colonialism. One of the earliest inspirations for The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism was the computer game M.U.L.E. by Ozark Softscape, published in 1983 for the Atari 800 personal computer. While nearly perfect in execution and tone, it was M.U.L.E.'s archetypal background theme that bestowed the game's true power. Primarily an echo of "colonization sci-fi" such as Robert A. Heinlein's Time Enough for Love, and Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, the game casts you in the role of a lone colonist trying to survive the economic uncertainties of colonial existence. In a typical game of M.U.L.E., bad things happened to good colonists; good things happened to those who didn't deserve it; you might go hungry in the wake of a pest attack on your food supply, while rival colonists hoarded food and let it rot, rather than sell it to you, lest you get ahead. By the end of the game, however, players often pulled themselves together for the greater good of the colony. A strong colony became a destination for traders, where all the colonists did well (a victory); a failed colony became a lonely place, on few, if any, trade routes (a loss).

Having played M.U.L.E. countless times, colonialism often resonated in my thoughts as I grew older; it created a lens through which I looked at the world. It became a catalyst for thought and a microcosmic mirror.

On our planet, the dominant form of life is microscopic. Bacteria and viruses may not truly be aware of our civilization, but they do shape it. They have colonized our species like we might colonize a planet. They dominate our bodies. They intervene in our behaviors, just as dominant human cultures exert political, economic, and cultural control over weaker human cultures. Unlike viruses or bacteria, however, our species has mastered the art of influence, both in terms of military power and economics. Where those two forces meet, you find the choking bacteria-like bloom of religion, thriving, spreading.

In The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism, the world's most powerful governmental systems have aligned themselves into a single entity, known as the World Order. The narrative's speculative premise is that our planet will be faced with an overpopulation crisis, made worse by runaway environmental degradation. In the face of this global crisis, a new ideology emerges that legitimizes an overt form of population control; the promise is societal cohesion and protection, but the World Order is steeped in religiosity. It is essentially a values-based system, and while scientific discoveries ultimately allow humanity to colonize distant planets, the World Order's will to control remains ascendant. Humanity submits to it through a form of natural selection (i.e., dissent equals death); though the World Order's corporate spirituality is riddled with incorrect causal associations and invasive dehumanizing practices, submission becomes essential for humanity's continued existence. To do otherwise risks our end.

Shimmerism, the fictional religion, is born on the fringe of the World Order, where its ability to control begins to fray. Shimmerism renounces the patternicity of bureaucracy in favor of the noise and chaos of free thought. Shimmerism sits in diametric opposition to the World Order and its tenets, and so it isn't really a religion at all. It is only cast in such a light because of the World Order's dominance. Survival of the fittest comes to the forefront; The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism is about what happens when harboring irrational beliefs becomes a survival strategy. It paints a picture of what the world would be like if modern religions actually got what they wanted: a timid, quivering civilization steeped in weird beliefs; a societal dead-end, where cause and effect are merely opinions; essentially, a world where humanity's evolved necessity to believe nonweird things is viewed more as a religion than not.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Literary Vacuum: Jettison the Onion

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.

Problem: When attempting to think one's way out of the wet paper bag of religion, unless you're hopelessly devout (in which case you'll stay in the bag), any given exit will be seen as an attack on the bag itself, and thus, against anyone who is religious.

Thus, we glimpse the terrible beauty of religion. Unbelievers, surrounded by the thoughtless undead (the intellectually complacent, e.g., believers), come to realize that the very act of thinking critically about a particular religion is interpreted as a form of discrimination. Of course, this has everything to do with the weakness of religious thought, which appears to be devoid of logic and reason; its rhetorical power, however, lies in its delivery of a comforting disconnection from the true mystery of the universe. Believers subscribe to a convenient origin story that absolves them from learning; it shields them from the fear associated with an uncaring, disinterested universe. Religion nullifies the sublime fact that no one currently alive will ever have all the answers, and it tells them "You know enough. There is no need to learn anything more." And that is all religious folk really want: an answer to everything, gift-wrapped, with ribbons held aloft by soothing cherubim. And so the believer is caught in an unwavering dance, maintaining a position of diametric opposition from the unbeliever. It's an easy maneuver. Where religion is moral, critical thought is not. Where religion is divine, and thus, infallible, reason and logic are unimportant and ignored (in that order). No debate. No discussion. Religion simply doesn't handle criticism very well. It's a black and white system, with no tolerance for shades of gray.

So given this abrasive societal fabric (and minus the problematic debate on how to tell if someone can actually think critically or not, wherein unbelievers leverage something called evidence to make a point, and believers reject evidence altogether), how could anyone hope to write a science fiction novel that views religion with an adverse eye? At least not without instantly being dismissed as either pointless by those gifted with an ability to think critically (unbelievers), or condemned by those who lack such an ability (believers)?

That was the question that drove the construction of The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism. There are so many layers:
Onion Peelings

The Universe is the Practical Joke of the General at the Expense of the Particular, quoth FRATER PERDURABO, and laughed.
But those disciples nearest to him wept, seeing the Universal Sorrow.
Those next to them laughed, seeing the Universal Joke.
Below these certain disciples wept.
Then certain laughed.
Others next wept.
Others next laughed.
Next others wept.
Next others laughed.
Last came those that wept because they could not see the Joke, and those that laughed lest they should be thought not to see the Joke, and thought it safe to act like FRATER PERDURABO.
But though FRATER PERDURABO laughed openly, He also at the same time wept secretly; and in Himself He neither laughed nor wept. Nor did He mean what He said.

- The Book of Lies, Aleister Crowley
On, off. One, zero. Odd, even. Binary. And in the end, the idea that mystery trumps any expression of itself. Words are inadequate. So the problem of writing a science fiction novel that deals with the evolution of religion became even greater. Ultimately, the safety net of structure became my refuge; structure is one of the great conceits of religious thought: that all of this has happened before, and will happen again, like a vast machine, chained to repetition. We are born in one state of spiritual alignment, and must spend our lives attempting to alter it, to save or better ourselves in the hereafter.

On the largest scale, The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism has many machines - cranes, if you will - and on those cranes are hung gods, like lights in a tree. Modern readers, or perhaps literary critics who can't get enough Aristotle, view the use of a deus ex machina ("god from a machine") with suspicion, even derision. I can see why. Such a device - the sudden appearance of an unlikely character or event that resolves a bad situation - can instantly dissipate the nebulous contract between reader and author, rendering the author as unreliable or untrustworthy. I have to admit, however, that a deus ex machina is great fun. And at least when writing about the foibles of religious thought, perfectly necessary and indispensable. The most important aspect of it all, however, is the machine itself. The crane. Simon Shadow, the main protagonist, moves through his tale as if fated to do so, despite his freedom. The United Galactic Marines Corps, orbiting the planet Reetar, exerts power over those below it, including Simon, literally and indirectly, accidentally and with hidden purpose. On the far side of the planet, the Children of Chearkin (a group of pious refugees suffering from an anachronistic hangover caused by their long transit to Reetar in hibernation), wander the desert, desperately seeking a fabled city of scripture. That they triumphantly reach the colony the moment it's destroyed has everything to do with the tension between fate (theological determinism) and free will.

Ultimately, The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism is about three distinct story threads unknowingly colliding; miraculous resolutions come to pass, but even greater problems manifest with gods and machines. In the end, nothing changes; lives are nothing more than programmed outcomes, and that's just how a majority of religions want it to be. Believers know what's to come; disbelievers do not. Why can't the former accept the latter? That's the question at the very heart of The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism. As far as I can tell, there's no answer, at least as long as religion plays such a monumental role in the lives of organisms on this planet. There was hope that people could laugh openly at these characters and situations, but at the same time perceive the innate sadness of it all. But like Crowley's onion, each successive layer (e.g., viewpoint) counteracts the next. Belief. Disbelief. Belief. So what do we find when we reach the core? I'm still not sure there is one. In fact, finding the center isn't important at all. The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism suggests our best option is to simply jettison the onion. Dump it in the airlock and move on as a species. As George Carlin would say: "I can dream, can't I?" And if I have to use a couple dozen deus ex machina moments to do so, that's no more (and a lot less) than religion has done for the past two thousand years.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Forecast: 212F, continued incompetence.

Note: people and organizations have been rendered as anagrams.
PHOENIX - For-profit education provider Allpour Goop Inc. said Wednesday that President Bairn Mullere resigned and stepped down from the company's board, effective immediately.
Mullere, who has been with the company since 1987, was president of Allpour Goop, Inc. since early 2006. He was previously chief executive of the Phono Fixe University online campus. Allpour Goop did not disclose the reason for his departure.
I know the reason. Complete incompetence. Hopefully, a ripple effect will now wash away the rest of the greedy, talentless, overpaid egomaniacs who rose to power in Mullere's wake.

But where is Mullere going? Turns out it's Gonad Cranny University, with an aim to take them public. Perfect fit, too. Gonad Cranny University is one of the more notorious cesspits of nepotism and religious favoritism in Arizona. He'll fit right in.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Synesthetic Response 4

This is not review. This is response. Three on the list today.

Genghis Tron :: Board Up the House

(2008, Relapse)
Score: 9

Picture this, if you can. The frenetic drill-and-bass (keyboards, glitches and all) of Aphex Twin colliding head-on with Meshuggah's mathematics; sprinkle the wreckage with a (possibly) unconscious nod to Faith No More's textures (I hear it, at least), let the boys in Boards of Canada add some analog color to it all, and then market it to people who dig Dillinger Escape Plan. The result? Board Up the House. Remember, I said "picture this." Don't let the above comparisons linger in your head for long. Genghis Tron have delivered a sublime treatise, manufactured in filth on the surface of a neutron star, using a million pounds of noxious compounds, and several billion gallons of water to polish its aural surfaces to a toxic shine. Everyone should make music like this, but not all of us have access to a clean room. The chaos, the horror, the beauty, the relentless assault, and the wickedly soothing ambient lulls... truly original, and absolutely vital.

Opeth :: Watershed
(2008, Roadrunner Records)
Score: 10

Opeth's latest is a vast slab of conceptual density. So great is its weight that it's quite remarkable how high this material soars. This album is your destiny if dark rooms, trippy visuals, and quality headphones are the staples of your music consumption habits. There is so much going on here, it is difficult to know where to begin. Or end. It is sufficient to say that these aching and powerful compositions are supremely listenable. These songs are the darkness, and the light, caught in opposition. The songwriting is breathtaking. There is brutality in the mix, but it is all part of the plan. Watershed is perfect, from start to finish.

Meshuggah :: Obzen
(2008, Nuclear Blast)
Score: 11

Recall: the rating system goes from 1-10, with 11 reserved. Nothing ever gets lower than an 8, since material rated as such is not the focus of these digital droppings (remember: the system is arguably meaningless). Still, an 11 is important. Thus we have Obzen, the latest from Meshuggah. Perhaps it is an unhealthy bias (or an obsessive veneration), but the relentlessly addictive complexity of this music forces my hand: Obzen is Album of the Year, 2008. Nothing can touch it. After dozens of listens, one may finally grok its structures and intentions, but thereafter, this staggering work of genius takes on a life of its own. How can anything so heavy, so obfuscating, be so soothing? There are no answers. All we have is mystery. Luckily, Meshuggah made a stop in Tempe a few months back. Though their set was far too brief, it was a bit like popping by your buddy Erich Zann's place, finding the door ajar, and peeking your head in at just the right moment, when a stained glass window turns into a rift between disparate dimensions and something comes through. Unforgettable. The album's last track "Dancers To A Discordant System" is the skeleton key. It recalls "Straws Pulled at Random" (from their earlier album Nothing) but passes even closer to the center of a distant galaxy. To restate: Album of the Year, 2008.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Infested Hive

Note: people and organizations have been rendered as anagrams.

In my corporate experiences over the last decade, I've discerned two basic types of "work environment." While some might accuse me of taking metaphors a bit too far, the imagery I'm about to employ has come to me via the medium of my dreams and, of course, my nightmares. I have processed my experiences through symbols, and I know them to be true (or at least valid in their metaphorical intent). I am not disgruntled, but I am horrified. I am filled with remorse that this is what our society has created, and that once great places of work have been turned into wage slavery camps.

I will state that I have been working in the graphic- and Web design realm for the last decade, and this is important in only one regard: I have never held a position of rank or power in these environments (e.g., I never managed other people). My role has largely been that of the expert, perpetually honing a skill; for me, work has always been about doing work, about being creative, as opposed to getting paid well to do nothing (e.g., managing other people).

That said, I'll begin with a description of the more positive of the two work environments. First up...

The Hive

While for some people this might conjure images out of the Alien films, or killer bees, I'm thinking more along the lines of honey bees. You know, our little friends who are responsible for a majority of the fruits and vegetables we eat. In the Hive work environment, individuals exhibit largely autonomous behavior, which is informed by notions of success or failure for the larger business. In this work environment, experts are allowed to be experts. Control over individuals is not essential, since control destroys productivity and the creative impulse. A tolerance for a lack of cohesion is what is important in a Hive. A Hive's shape can stretch and skew, bend and warp, yet the whole remains intact, functional.

I've worked in the Hive model before, and it is generally rewarding; stress levels rise and fall. Pressures increase and dissipate. People laugh. People complain. People form loose meta-hives to focus their collective skills to solve problems. None of it is rooted in cut-throat strategies or the themes of survival and competition. Is the Hive perfect? Perhaps not. Whole areas of the Hive can often be so out of touch with the central authority that they risk being cut off from the main, their worth forgotten in the wake of efficiency; however, individuality is often rewarded. A good Hive lets the workers themselves elevate its members. It is less about some abstract layer of management deciding someone has done a good job, and more about one's peers honoring the fact that you make their jobs easier. Admittedly, this is an idealized view of the Hive, but for the most part, it can and does exist. It's out there. Yet, similar to the plight of the honey bees, the Hive work environment seems to be in danger. Which brings me to the Hive's antithesis...

The Infestation

In this work environment, workers are parasites, attached to a money-dispensing host. Daily routine is based solely on the necessities of the environment: dishonesty and greed are the order of the day. Loyalties are bought via unwarranted promotions or secret wage increases. Relationships between people do not actually exist.

Am I exaggerating?

I watched in horror, a few years ago, as an Infestation consumed the Hive I worked in. I have written about this elsewhere, so I won't go into details, but the reality is this: the Infestation does not care about the individuals that make up the whole. The Infestation does not care about the host that it infests. The host, in fact, does not even know it is infested. Perhaps it is something the Infestation injects into the bloodstream of the company? A foul toxin of anesthetizing promises? The Infestation values contractors over full-time employees. The Infestation rewards incompetence because it is, itself, founded on incompetence. The individuals that comprise it are overpaid and lack talent. The Infestation gets things done by brute force. Throw a pile of twitching greedy organisms at a problem, and it either goes away or it gets solved.

A Scene from an Infestation

Every few weeks, the "Master Recruiter" from an IT staffing agency would show up, two dozen bagels in hand. He'd place the bagels on a shelf in one of the hallways. He'd give the sign, and an administrative assistant would send out an alert email: "Tom has brought bagels and cream cheese. They're in the usual spot."

I often made sure I was there before the announcement was made, if only to ensure a good vantage point. It was like watching wildlife from behind a blind.

A flood of people would soon appear. The Mass, I called it. My co-workers, silent; fifty people, shuffling into view. The only sounds were those of bagel packages and cream cheese being opened; plastic forks and knives clacking. No one spoke. No one laughed. Bagel obtained, they'd return to their cubes to put their sucking mouths back onto the Money Teat. Most of the Mass left empty-handed. The symbolism was powerful: play the game. Compete and you eat. There were only twenty-four bagels, recall. Twenty-six if the baker was happy. Twenty-six bagels for a floor of at least two hundred workers?

I witnessed this event many times over the last year, and I was always astonished by the dire faces and total lack of social interaction within the Mass. It was like watching exotic foreign fish being fed, trapped behind glass. Joyless and starved. Owned and observed. The only thing of value to the people who willingly participate in the Infestation is the blood of the corporation - the money. And the upsetting part is that the people that perpetuate this kind of work environment can't see it for what it truly is.

The Origin?

It saddens me that a company like Allpour Goop, Inc. would be unaware that the IT shop affixed to its underbelly is nothing more than a seething mass of greedy parasites, contradicting the very mission the company was founded upon. Do the Phono Fixe University students currently enrolled in the Information Technology program know what lies ahead of them? Or, chillingly, is the Phono Fixe University itself the problem? Has the for-profit education system spawned the monstrous mass that destroyed its once great IT shop? Is the Phono Fixe University partly responsible for the Infestation?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Las Plagas and Allpour Goop, Inc.

Note: people and organizations have been rendered as anagrams.

Las Plagas
("The Plagues" in Spanish) are a breed of parasitic organisms from the Resident Evil 4 survival horror video game. They are currently masquerading as CEO, CIO, directors, managers, usability experts and web designers at Allpour Goop, Inc.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

As a shareholder (and as a former employee of more than six years), I find myself incapable of not commenting on the ripple effect of novice CEO Bairn Mullere's black/white “coaching style” of thought, and what it brought to those of us working down in the trenches (or, down on the hardwood, to use a metaphor he might understand).

I should clarify that there were once two distinct IT shops, each serving a different company. One served Allpour Goop, Inc. (the parent company of Phono Fixe University) and the other served the Phono Fixe University's spin-off Phono Fixe University Online (a separate company). It should also be noted that eventually PFU and PFU Online recombined and became the same company once more, which meant that the two IT shops were merged as well; the fact remained, however, that the division between these two IT shops was palpable. Their methods differed dramatically. In early 2006, the original Allpour IT shop was destroyed in a hostile takeover by the Online IT department, with the support of Bairn Mullere. Everyone in Allpour IT, from the CIO on down to the management layer, was removed and replaced; just prior to this reorganization, a barrage of promotions took place in Online IT. After the takeover, those of us who remained in the wreckage of Allpour IT were forced to align ourselves with new masters, many of whom had been our distant subordinates or peers only hours before.

The unethical specifics beyond this point are not truly important. What I would like to consider, therefore, is how the differences between these two IT groups first defined, and then redefined (for me, at least), the notion of "career" at Allpour Goop, Inc..

As a Web designer for Allpour Goop, Inc., I have two very distinct experiences of the management methods used in the two IT groups. I can summarize these experiences by using a single question, but rephrasing it to match the dominant outlook of each organization.

So imagine you're a dedicated employee; you've completed all manner of projects, received awards from various business units, and you're confident that there is room to grow within the company. Imagine that you actually care about your projects.

In the former Allpour IT (where I spent four years), the question asked of me during a performance evaluation was simple: "What have you done for us this past year?" And while it didn't always sound this way, or use these particular words, the question itself flows from the emphasis that Allpour IT placed on professional development for its employees. It placed the positive before the negative, and was aimed squarely at retention.

Post-takeover, in the new Allpour IT, the question became “What have you done for me lately?” This revised question flows from an emphasis on the negative, and is rooted in the concept of the performance-based work environment (e.g., a single negative trumps any and all positives). It's right off the sports page, and has nothing to do with careers or retention.

Notice how the language has changed, rooted in the carefree arrogance and self-obsession of the Incompetent ("what have you done for me"); this approach to the individual employee flows, to some degree, from Bairn Mullere's sports-centric view of the company as some sort of gigantic basketball game.

In my own experience, the “me” in the question was the inept manager or director (or in sporting terms, the team captain). In turn, managers and directors were asked the very same question by their superior, the puppet CIO (the assistant coach), who was then similarly queried by the CEO (the head coach).

Since I hate basketball, I'll use hockey (a far more interesting sport) to summarize what this means: as a player, I may have scored 2 goals and had three assists the game before last, but since I’m judged to only be as good as my last game, wherein I happened to have been held off the score sheet, the prior five point night counts for nothing; next game, I find myself at the end of the bench and given limited ice-time. When contract talks come around, I'm told I won't be getting a salary increase because of "gaps" in my on-ice performance.

Thus, in the new Allpour IT, full-time employees essentially became anathema to the system, since they can't be forced to work 70 hour weeks, and they are almost impossible to get rid of. They take vacations, they call in sick, and they have benefits! Each one of these is a negative. And all it takes, apparently, is a single negative, and your career is over.

The idea of having a “career” in the new Allpour IT is an impossibility. Which is why 98% of Allpour IT is now made up of contract employees. Contractors are easy to dump back to the minors (the staffing firms) when they don’t put in 16 hour days. Allpour IT, while coached by Bairn Mullere and his All-Star Team of Incompetents, has been transformed into a white-collar sweat-shop. For a company that often takes pride in affecting its customer's lives positively, the reality behind the key-carded doors of the company is in diametric opposition.

It's time to view the Incompetent at Allpour IT as what they truly are: parasites, destroying their host. The Las Plagas are among us. Bairn Mullere's coaching-oriented approach to management was dead on arrival in my view, and if you aspire to management, I hope you never resort to such a system. It shouldn't happen. Anywhere. Not even in Resident Evil.