Some thoughts on modern-day literature

There will come a time
This life you live
Will catch up with you
And no one will be left
When honesty is blind
In ignorance exist the fallen.
We’re begging for the truth

I just returned from a trip to Chicago to visit dayo. The flight’s a little over two hours, plus ancillary waiting-about at the airport after passing through the absurd farce we laughingly call “security,” so I brought a book along with me.

I had quite a lot to choose from. I’ve recently received rather a large pile of books from Amazon, as a result of the not inconsiderable credit I’d built up with them over the past year.

The book I chose is one of the best pieces of literature I’ve read in a very long time. It follows, in a non-linear fashion, the story of a man–a soldier, and a veteran of several wars–who is running from something in his past. The narrative peels back the story of his life, through flashbacks and memories told so deftly that they make Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury seem positively clumsy and hamfisted by comparison; the main character is illuminated in stages, bit by bit, with a sympathy and a narrative skill that makes every part of the book a delight to read.

The book is Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks, and there’s a reason it has not won a Pulitzer Prize. At the very least.

It’s not a very good reason, mind. But there is a reason, and that reason is quite simple: The story is science fiction.

Had it been set in any other genre, in any other setting, the book would be taught in college literature classes all over the country. Oprah would be discussing it on TV, and comparative lit classes would probably be putting the story alongside Tales of the South Pacific and March.

Had it been set in any other genre.

Night comes and the shadows fall
The lights appear
Across the city
I wonder where you are
The words you say are false
There is no compromise
No absolution.

The main character travels in a spaceship instead of a steamship; the battles in which he engages take place on distant planets, not distant continents. Because of that, the story is relatively unknown. And frankly, I think that’s a damn shame. It’s rare that so dark a journey into a character’s mind can be pulled off with such a light touch, and the author’s treatment of the main character is simultaneously sympathetic and unflinching–a neat trick, considering the book’s subject and the character’s history.

I think it’s interesting that even in this day and age we still make broad assumptions about classes of literary works. “This is Serious Literature; that over there is Science Fiction. Serious Literature is real literature; Science Fiction is mindless fluff for overgrown geeks who still play Dungeons & Dragons in their mothers’ basements.

It’s quite rare that a contemporary book can bridge the divide. William Gibson’s Neuromancer is one of the relatively few works of science fiction to be treated as Serious Literature; older works, like those of Jules Verne, occasionally get a nodding respect out of deference to their age, though rarely the respect they deserve. Spaceships and planets, it seems, aren’t thought of as appropriate settings for serious explorations of the human condition.

Which is odd, given that science fiction is arguably the most forward-looking exploration of a species that has over the past hundred thousand years carved its place in the universe by virtue of its ceaseless forward progression in its understanding of the physical universe.

To some extent, I suppose, it’s inevitable–much of science fiction tends to obsess over the nuts and bolts of technological ideas that don’t exist yet. Popular science fiction gives us the sterile banality of Star Trek, or the facile, juvenile universe of Star Wars, without depth or any apparent understanding of what it means to be human.

But pop literature of any sort can be argued to have that same flaw. It’s not like The Da Vinci Code exactly shines a spotlight on the nature of man, or The Bourne Identity plumbs the furthest recesses of the human spirit. Yet nobody would automatically place these works into a mental bin marked “Serious Literature Not Found Here.”

And that’s rather annoying, y’know?

Anyway, it’s a damn fine book, and one I recommend without reservation. Even to folks who think they prefer Serious Literature to Science Fiction.

Some thoughts on Shakespeare

So a couple of days ago my roommate David and I were talking about Shakespeare, who really is very good in spite of all the people who say he really is very good (as opposed to, for example, William Faulkner, who really is pretty dreadful in spite of all the people who say he really is very good).

Now, I started reading Shakespeare on my own in middle school; during recess, I’d sit in a corner of the playground with Macbeth, which probably explains a great deal abou why I m the way I am today. Though that’s a whole ‘nother subject altogether.

Anyway, the part the folks don’t seem to get about William Shakespeare is that the man was the Quentin Tarantino of his time. The way we teach Shakespeare in high school literature class is absolutely awful; we suck the joy and fun and off-color humor right out of him.

I have visions of lit classes 300 years hence subjecting Quentin Tarantino to the same sort of academic savaging:

“Now, class, today we’re going to be discussing the symbolism of the wallet owned by the hit-man Jules. His wallet had ‘Bad Mother Fucker’ written on it. As we discussed yesterday, the word ‘bad’ in the English of the time meant something that was of inferior quality, but it also had a vernacular meaning of something that was especially good, or dangerous. Today, I’d like us to turn our attention to this dual meaning, and how Mr. Tarantino played on the juxtaposition of the two meanings of the word ‘bad’ in the slogan written on the wallet.

“Tonight, when you go home, I want you to write a 600-word essay about the meaning of the two hit-men’s conversation about foot rubs in the beginning of the movie. Pay particular attention to what their conversation says about gender roles and assumptions during the late 20th century. Compare and contrast the view of gender and gender roles in the line where Jules says ‘Now look, maybe your method of massage differs from mine, but, you know, touchin’ his wife’s feet, and stickin’ your tongue in her Holiest of Holies, ain’t the same fuckin’ ballpark, it ain’t the same league, it ain’t even the same fuckin’ sport’ to the ideas about gender and gender roles later when the character Jody tells the hit-man Vincent that her tongue ring is ‘a sex thing. It helps fellatio.'”

How to Tell We’re In a Recession

All the old cockroaches are crawling out of the woodwork to feed.

Incredibly, unbelievably, I’m actually starting to see spam from two of the Web’s former most notorious spammers, and again. Old-school spam fighters will doubtless recognize these names–porn sites notorious for their spamvertising back in the day, who’ve kept a (relatively) low profile for years. I can remember being flooded under an avalanche of spam from these guys like five or six years ago.

Well, they’re back. Just a trickle now–an email advertising live sexy Webcams here, a set of cloaked redirectors that hop from server to server to server before ending up on Webpower there–and it makes me wonder if times are getting tough in the porn spam business. Maybe there’s some belt-tightening happening, folks aren’t buying as many subscriptions to pay-for-play Webcam sites these days, the owners of the sites are wondering how they’re going to make the payments on their Ferraris…who knows.

Webpower is a particularly interesting case, in that kind of yucky “I study cockroaches for a living because I’m fascinated by insects that eat their own young” kind of way. They started out making a gadget to allow remote control of sex toys over the Internet–a program you’d run and a little box you’d plug your vibrator into. The box had a suction cup that would attach to your computer monitor, and the program would flash a colored square on the monitor to send commands to the vibrator.

They got out of that business pretty quick–I don’t think anyone’s really made a profit on Internet controlled sex toys yet–and started doing porn Webcams instead. Their Web front page doesn’t suggest anything about them–just says “WebPower is an internet services and infrastructure company with offices located on both the West Coast (San Francisco bay area) and East Coast (South Florida)” with links to a “web services division” and a “web conferencing division”–but their bread and butter is live cam sex, and they’ve been in the spam business for almost as long as spam has been around.

It’s amazing to see this particular blast from the past. I haven’t been spammed by these guys since about the time I started dating Shelly.

…as requested…

…just in time for the end-run up to the American Presidential election.

Several folks have asked me if I’d be willing to make a bumper sticker version of the “I love sex and I vote” userpic I made a while ago, and since I happened to have a bit of spare time this afternoon, I thought, why not?

So, here it is. Clicky on the pic if you’d like one!

Things and Stuff: The Weekend

Saturday brought with it a very interesting reinforcement of what is arguably the overriding, and most important, lesson of living in a post-industrial society:

In a world spanned by an instantaneous communication network of global scope, in a nation whose most powerful and most influential sectors are not involved with the digging of ditches or the making of things but rather with the moving of information, it doesn’t matter what you know. What matters most is how you can find what you need to know. The ability to memorize skills or information matters less than the ability to find the skills or information you need, when you need it.

Seriously. On Friday, I did not know how to set up a database, how to add or retrieve information from a database, or how to pass information from a Web browser to a database. Today, I do. Just like that.

We take for granted many things that for 99.9% of human history would seem strange and unfathomable, and I’m not just talking about heavier-than-air powered flight and iPods. I’m talking about the way we learn, catalog, disseminate, and transmit information and knowledge. Google became a billion-dollar company on the basis of a single insight: when the sum total of readily available human knowledge reaches a certain point, the index into that knowledge is worth more than the knowledge itself. If you can’t find it, you might as well not have it, as any good librarian knows.

Sunday was a bird of a whole different feather. The entire day, beginning to end, was spent playing World of Warcraft (which is, really, nothing but a gigantic database of immense proportions that’s accessed through a very specific type of real-time graphical interface). Ran Hyjal Summit, ended up with a new ring and new wrist piece (which are, for some strange reason, still not showing up on Wowarmory…hmm). Finally replaced the Horseman’s Signet Ring I got off the Headless Horseman event last year, which means that I wore that ring for exactly a year and a day.


Now if we could get our collective asses in gear and kill Kael and Lady Vashj, I could complete the quest for Keepers of Time and get another new ring. Plus Kael drops the Tier 6 chest piece, and that’d be pretty sweet.

I got my Onyxia key just three days before they removed the attunement requirement for Onyxia. Dammit.

It’s growing cold. joreth is coming up this evening; she’ll be here for the rest of the week, and on Saturday i fly to Chicago to see dayo. I’ll be in Chicago until Tuesday, if any of the Chitown peeps want to get together. We’re probably going to be at GD on Saturday, at least. cunningminx? scathedobsidian? Anyone?

Got some wood for the fireplace yesterday, then realized that I have no poker, or little shovel thingie, or any of the other accoutrements one normally associates with fires and fireplaces. Got to remember to go shopping for those things tonight before joreth arrives; I hope to do a photo shoot with her and the fireplace at some point this week.

Mmm, fire. I live in a place that has a fireplace!

Link O’ The Day…

peristaltor points out that if John McCain insists on calling himself a “maverick,” he (and his handlers) might want to learn a little bit about the word’s origin. I had no idea myself where the word came from, and now that I know, I gotta say: McCain keeps using that word. I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

Interesting to folks who care about politics and folks who find language fascinating. I know I have a few of both on my flist.

ZOMG! ZOMG! I’ve created a meme!

And it’s taken me all day, too.

At the beginning of this day, when I woke up, everything I knew about PHP programming with MySQL would fit in the white space of a postage stamp. (Okay, so that’s not entirely true, but I’d never written database code from scratch before. Everything I’ve ever done up ’til now is modifying someone else’s code, which is a whole ‘nother ballgame.)

So twelve hours, a thousand Google searches, and a lot of head-scratching later, I’ve actually taken the map of human sexuality I created, and made it interactive! You can click on the map in a Web browser to place pins showing where you’ve been and where you want to go, and then save your map to a database so you can show other people!

Okay, so it’s still really, really crude. Scrolling around is a pain, there’s no way to remove a pin once you place it (you gotta erase the whole map and start again), and there’s no way to go back to a map and continue to edit it once it’s saved.

But still…it works! Words can not express how pleased with myself I am right now. It’s been tested in Explorer 7 and Firefox for Windows, and in Safari and Firefox on Mac. Should work in other browsers too, I reckon. And it even generates code to put into your blog automatically.

Give it a try!

Find out where I’ve journeyed
on the Map of Human Sexuality!
Or get your own here!

And now, I am going to bed. My brain is tired.