Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Interview with Doctor N. about The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey

Hello Space Cadets,
Please listen to the in-depth RADIO INTERVIEW taped yesterday (September 16, 2014) on the Jefferson Exchange, Jefferson Public Radio, with me about the life and times of science fiction editor/paranormal impresario Ray Palmer. This 40-minute interview celebrates the paperback release of my book, The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey.  Thanks to interviewer Geoffrey Riley, for some great questions. 
Doctor N

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Today's Exhibit at Vanity Fair Online: "What Happens When Society Decides That Nerds Are Dangerous?"

In Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 movie Straw Dogs, Dustin Hoffman plays an ineffectual intellectual, a mathematician, indeed, a nerd, who moves with his alluring wife to her hometown, in England. Local rowdies continually harass them, until Hoffman’s character executes a violent revenge.

The words “nerd” and “violent” do not usually go hand in hand, but the harmlessness of nerds is hardly a settled formula. 

[To read full article please visit: Vanity Fair online.]

Friday, May 9, 2014

"Man from Mars" is 2014 Locus Award Finalist

I'm pleased to announce that my book, The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey (Tarcher/Penguin, 2013) has been named a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Award in nonfiction. You can find some great books on the list of finalists. My book on Ray Palmer, an overlooked editor from early SF who was at the helm of Amazing Stories from 1938 until 1949, gets to take a place close to books about Margaret Brundage (the Weird Tales cover artist who enjoyed envisioning damsels in peril) and another stellar SF&F artist Hannes Bok, one of Ray Palmer's pals. Thanks to all who participated in the voting! 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Good Cop, Bad Cop

I dislike the frequent ironic use of the word “porn” when referring to other mediums; for example “food porn” or “home toiletries porn.” And yet, I’m guilty, of late, of becoming addicted to “cop porn.” More specifically the Michael Connelly novels that feature LAPD detective, Harry Bosch, aka Hieronymous Bosch. I have a prejudice against paperbacks from the 1990s that come with shiny covers, and dismiss most popular police procedural books as likely the work of a hack. Connelly, however, who began writing the Bosch books in 1992, and has not yet ended the series, has won me over. I’ve been gobbling up his books, one after another, with titles such as The Drop, Trunk Music, The Concrete Blonde, The Closers, The Last Coyote and Black Ice. He’s the best L.A. crime novelist since Raymond Chandler. You’ll notice I’m avoiding the usual champion, James Ellroy, whose writing, however “gritty” and “incandescent” in its energy, is overwrought and self-congratulatory.  
Connelly’s books aren’t perfect. The prose is not particularly lyrical. (I suspect Connelly is not as popular in France as was David Goodis.) The plots are overly-dramatic, and Bosch, on occasion, losing his understated cool, revels in his own macho doings. Connelly offers up too many books that involve serial killers. And his hero, Bosch, also sometimes is unsympathetic. Yet he is just about perfect as the reincarnation of Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s private eye.  Like Marlowe he loves his sordid city, Los Angeles. He screws up and bends the rules. He nevertheless has a “code” and the respect of others. He does not “get the girl” or, at least, not for long. He is, as Pee Wee Herman once memorably said, “A loner, Dottie.” And while Chandler’s novels were full of racist and homophobic allusions, Bosch, as is appropriate to our times, is culturally aware, and somewhat politically correct. Bosch works with African-American partners, is not judgmental about homosexuality, and has sympathy for the poor and downtrodden. “Everyone counts, or no one counts,” is his repeated mantra. He, also, though, can be brutal. Willing to trick and coerce confessions, illegally break and enter, and so on. As the back covers say, Bosch walks a tightrope between heroism and villainy.
It is almost impossible to write a detective novel these days that involves a private investigator. That romance is over. Everyone knows private detectives don’t get the good cases or have the muscle to solve them. So, if you are not going to focus on the criminals, as did Elmore Leonard, then “embedding” your hero or antihero into a police force makes sense. I fear Bosch, after a long career, has no choice but to soon retire, and I only have fifteen more novels (so far Bosch has appeared in twenty-one) to plow through. I ran into the same wall when reading my other favorite police procedural series, Henning Mankell’s books about Kurt Wallander. Perhaps an even greater creation, Wallander is a sullen, forlorn antihero—overwrought in his angst, inner turmoil, and drunkenness, yet a good if plodding detective, capable of insight, and content working in a provincial town. The last of that (seven novel) series ended with Mankell coolly announcing Wallander’s retirement, slow plunge into the darkness of dementia, and death. I’ll be sad to see Bosch go. It’s hard to find a hero these days. 
I believe I’ve discovered a pun hidden in the Bosch series: the full name of his mother, a whore, was MARjorie PHILLIPs LOWE. Coincidence?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Big Hands

 I once saw a blurred black and white photograph of an Amerindian tribal dance, I believe of the Northwest—the dancers, depicting spirits, were dressed in masks and wore big hands, hands that reduced the dancers to puppet size. The big hands represent the enormous reach required to contact the spirits—or was it the great power of those spirits? I can’t say. It’s possible the caption writer made it all up. Maybe for that dance someone came by and said, “Try it with big hands.” “Why? Last week you wanted us to wear false eyelashes.” “I don’t know. Just try.”  It should be obvious—I have big hands on my mind. They have a nightmare aspect. An apocalyptic element. Like the Oscar Mayer weiner mobile, say.
Keep away from this truck, they're up to no good, believe me.

(Why am I always disturbed and disgusted by the Bread and Puppet Theater and their solemn promenades?  Is it their frozen display of virtue? Those puppets definitely have big hands.) Then consider, if you will, the guys on corners holding up foam hands, orange or green, to encourage us, usually, to look at real estate—a whole new subdivision or small crop of townhouses.  Are these guys, perhaps, agents of a hearth goddess? If I went into street advertising and had a choice, I’d prefer waving big hands to that other attention-getter, the gigantic foam sombrero. Imagine, if you will, this scenario: you are a young pop singer in search of a media moment – why not use a foam hand to make lewd gestures in a micro-outfit while singing on an awards show? That’ll grab ‘em. Said pop singer would be on to something. Thanks to their presence in the media’s illusion apparatus, celebrities are granted big hands, but they usually don’t have a clue how to use them.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Manifesto 117B, The Starmaker in Shmoo-ville

1. Seek out weird cosmologies, wherever they lurk: a treasured tome of natural philosophy, the small advertisements in comic books, or a worn blue velvet Cutty Sark sack.
2. Reread at least a few panels of 'Lil Abner the daily strip that  intrigued me most of my childhood--and which I far preferred to the overly-subtle Pogo. "He [Al Capp] was a very angry man" -- rough quote from a Capp biography. 

Too many subtexts, not enough time, just enjoy the cereal.
 3. Do something with the etched ribs I bought on a whim at a temple flea market in Kyoto. At least find out if they are genuine Edo-period erotica or just crass imitations of delicate yet crass originals. (I don’t currently have a den in which to bring my guests--male or cigar-smoking new women of the 1920s--pour tumblers of scotch, and say, ‘ah yes, something I picked up whilst in the Orient.’)
4. Uphold my vow never to learn a single magic trick, particularly one involving playing cards or small tongue depressors.
5. Continue to “enjoy my publishing journey” as one children's books agent suggested in a brush-off line.
6. Never purchase a shrunken head—even if Walmart starts to stock them at discount in its ‘weird yet lively accessories’ aisle.
7. Sign daily at least three on-line petitions that are at cross purposes. 
8. Never trouble over ways to conclude an essay involving a list as structuring device.   
9. Someday finish one of Ursula K. LeGuin’s novels (not the kids' books, I've read those), and, while I’m at it, one of Olaf Stapledon’s idea heavy yet narrative light essay-novels (I've made it at least halfway through one). It is about time we all learn who the Starmaker is. 

    Monday, August 26, 2013

    Brain Eating Zombies

    I recently read John Scalzi’s Ghost Brigades (2006) and Gene Wolfe’s Home Fires (2010) two works from science fiction wizards that feature a trendy science fiction premise: the uploaded mind. The futurist website “Lifeboat Foundation” explains, “Mind uploading, sometimes referred to as nonbiological intelligence, centers around the controversial proposition that cognitive processing can be implemented on substrates other than our current neurons.” The reward is immortality—as a digitized mind leapfrogs from form to accessorized form through the centuries. The concept traces back, in part, to roboticist Hans Moravec’s Mind Children (1988) and colleague Ray Kurzweil’s books The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990) and The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999). These books predict artificial intelligence far surpassing that of the human mind. The uploaded mind, just one element in the coming revolution, makes human participation possible in what these technologists foresee as a posthuman or at best cyborgian (i.e. “transhuman”) future. 
    My Mind Upload - (Before and After). Definite phrenological improvement!

    Science fiction provides a stable home for the uploaded mind premise. The concept of an immortalized mind has long been a part of the genre—with brains in boxes or consulting heads in jars popular—as in the Captain Future series of the 1940s and Orson Scott Card’s Wyrms (1987), while Victor Frankenstein and his assistant were plugging in brains and channeling animal magnetism in the early nineteenth century. Our more recent technologists, along with science fiction writers, have added digitization to Mary Shelley’s re-animation scenario.

    In Wolfe’s book, the mind scan of a dead woman—the protagonist’s mother-in-law—is downloaded into a live woman’s brain; the protagonist pays for this luxury service to please his fiancée at her homecoming from a deployment fighting aliens in the stars. In Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” trilogy—(the book I read was the second) soldiers are vat-grown and upgraded in various ways to form a deadly special forces shunned by the “realborn” as monstrous. The hero, a vat-grown soldier with the downloaded brain of a rogue scientist, struggles with a massive identity crisis.

    Many futurists believe the upload idea will soon escape from science fiction. Participants at the Global Futures 2045 International Congress this summer in New York gleefully discussed the day when silicon encoded mindware will replace the wetware of the central nervous system. Their optimism is based on impressive achievements in artificial intelligence and robotics. Even better, Big Science appears to be accommodating this radical vision. In February 2013, President Obama proposed a new initiative, akin to the cracking of the human genome—to map the entire neural network of an active human brain—that is, construct a “connectome.”

    Participants at the Global Futures Congress were also cheered to learn that researchers with the European Human Brain Project had just completed an atlas of a 65-year-old woman’s brain. Dubbed rather prosaically, BigBrain, the atlas offers a three-dimensional neural map fifty times more precise than its predecessors, based on thousands of microscopically thin slices of this woman’s (obviously no longer active) brain. The fine-grain “connectome” that uploaders seek, however, requires immense computing power not yet available.

    Most biologists and neuroscientists are not kind to the uploader dream. MIT neurobiologist Sebastian Seung, involved in connectome research, argues that the process of deconstructing the human brain does not automatically guarantee knowledge of how to construct an artificial brain. Other critics note that futurists might not only be confusing the map with the territory, but refusing to accept that aspects of the territory may always remain elusive. Roger Penrose rejected the possibility of machines ever harboring consciousness, simply because there must be some non-computable characteristics of mind that designers cannot encode as algorithms.

    True believers know better—and await the Singularity. Relying on Moore’s law of steadily increasing computing power, transhumanists project 2045 as the year when superintelligence emerges from its silicon matrix to transform all of Being. Bloggers describe the Singularity much as fundamentalist Christians might the Rapture, Norse pagans Ragnarok, or Cubs fans the World Series.  The approaching Singularity has its crass side. An internet search on the name Ray Kurzweil leads to an advertisement, “The Singularity is Near, stay healthy the Kurzweil way.” We are then treated to a host of products that Ray Kurweil and physician Terry Grossman assure will keep up in shape for the Singularity.

    Fast forward to 2045. You have been staying healthy. You know your vitamins and supplements. The Singularity has arrived. You’re ready for the upload, and a zombie-like machine is prepared to eat your brain. Will you become immortal? That depends. Will the marooned neural pattern feel like a self, and if a self, like “you”?  Will living as information result in a crushing existential crisis? Might thousands of copies of “you” invent infinite futures—each of them clearly no greater in significance than a performance of a flea circus? Or, having finally cheated death, are you feeling healthy enough to conquer a solar system?
       When perplexed about mad science, I turn to science fiction.  Reading the recent books by Wolfe and Scalzi finally clarified for me why the “zombie” idea has been so popular this past decade: artificial intelligence’s leading lights are guiding us directly to zombieland. Victor Frankenstein—who really didn’t pay enough attention to his fiancée—had an agenda. Moravec, Hayworth, and  Kurzweil have their own. Yes, immortality might have its positive side—like living forever—but it is as easy to imagine the many new hells that might ensue. Consider this: you are rude to a technician at the upload company. They inject your mind into a virtual environment with companions that include Dick Clark constantly celebrating the New Year; one former celebrity from Hollywood Squares (Zsa Zsa Gabor?); the reality TV star of the month, and one or two serial killers. Add eternity and no exit. The digital afterlife may not be an “upgrade.”  But what can zombies expect?