Friday, August 24, 2018

August's Book: Burning Chrome

Burning Chrome by William Gibson
Science Fiction (1986/2003* - 204 pp.)

Finally, some William Gibson on this blog!

Burning Chrome is, roughly speaking, his ten most famous short stories he published from 1981-1986, so around the time he released Neuromancer. He wasn't as well-known during this period as he would be later on, but he wrote some of his most iconic material. It's almost all the first wave of cyberpunk. Enough type has been shed on the fusion of cybernetics with humanity that I'll focus on the few of the more obscure aspects of Burning Chrome here: the way it rockets its characters into its settings, and its use of clipped style.

Gibson's love of Eastern Hemisphere settings comes through in stories like "Johnny Mnemonic", "Red Star, Winter Orbit" and "New Rose Hotel" . "Johnny Mnemonic"'s opening of Yakuza, "Squids", a.k.a. Superconducting Quantum Interference Detectors, (10) and Jones the drug-addled talking dolphin blends Japanese gangster movies with Blade Runner-esque cyberpunk. (In a bizarre way of Gibson predicting the future, though, Jones's talking is surprisingly realistic.)

"Red Star, Winter Orbit" deals with the disturbing USSR-era term "military custody", (94) is based on politically motivated psychiatric treatment. (Although scary Cold War-era institutionalization was available in other countries, including the US, as well.) From its beginning, Gibson makes the Western reader feel like a foreigner: "He'd never liked the boy's father, either - an easygoing party man, long ago settled into lecture tours, a dacha on the Black Sea, American liquor, French suits, Italian shoes..." (85) The geographical otherness the Western reader feels reinforces the strangeness of the stories' more overtly science fiction features.

Similarly, the titular hotel of "New Rose Hotel" is just outside Narita Airport in Tokyo, yet the characters try to transform away from Japanese-ness. The initial description of the person to whom the story is narrated is "Eurasian, half-gaijin... Dark European eyes, Asian cheekbones" (110), and then later, the same character says, "I'm Dutch now, you said. I'll want a new look." (117) A meeting between the narrator and a Welshman in Berlin is for the express purpose of "disappearing" one of the few still-totally-Japanese characters, Hiroshi, yet the narrator admits that "Europe is a dead museum." (116)**

Gibson's American settings are full of drug addicts. In "The Gernsback Continuum", the narrator suffers from amphetamine psychosis. (33) In "Fragments of a Hologram Rose", Parker wakes to find unexplained cocaine in his pocket. By the time "Burning Chrome" hits, the compilation has read like a story in which the characters are so fried they are no longer real; they are instead distinguishable from aspects of a computer program, "Chrome: her pretty childface smooth as steel..." while Rikki acts like a video game character. (180)

In "Dogfight", after Deke falls asleep while operating the flight simulator, his experience combines Parker's cocaine-planted awakening in "The Gernsback Continuum" with the programming cartridge as power model of "Burning Chrome": "He woke to the rancid smell of frying krillcakes and winced with hunger. No cash, either. Well, there were plenty of student types in the stack. Bound to be one who'd like to score a programming unit." (155)

Stylistically, a few key patterns emerge throughout Burning Chrome. One is the clipped, conversational, fragmentized nature of Gibson's writing. This ties into his often first-person narratives of people who think in short bursts. In "The Belonging Kind", when the protagonist Coretti's obsession with his unnamed, prospective love interest takes over his life: "He'd missed classes too many times. He'd taken to watching the hotel when he could, even in the daytime. He'd been seen in too many bars. He never seemed to change his clothes." (54) In "Hinterlands", when Toby discusses the space travel highway: "The promise of pain. It's there each time." (75) The block-quoted Rules 1-3 add to the staccato narration. In "The Winter Market", the album Kings of Sleep obsesses the characters.^ Our narrator describes part of it as "Amazing. Freedom and death, right there, right there, razor's edge, forever." (132)

If Burning Chrome has any weakness, it's not to do with Gibson's storytelling. Gibson could have used a better editor; sentences frequently start with coordinating conjunctions, which is one of the few writing rules I actually think shouldn't be broken. Secondly, the last five stories take up a combined 60% of the compilation, which makes it feel longer as it progresses. This is tough to avoid, as 8 of the 10 stories are within a page or two of 25 pages, but the two shorter stories (8 and 16 pages each) could have been split up rather than placed back to back. Again, no fault of Gibson's, as far as I know.

Burning Chrome is sophisticated enough for a cold night in with a snifter of cognac, but I read it on the balcony with a beer.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 2^^

*Burning Chrome was first released as a compilation in 1986. My edition has an additional preface Gibson wrote in 2003.

**Funnily, though, West Germany still exists in the future of "The Winter Market". (125)

^Perhaps a reference to another fictitious, never quoted, omnipresent King in Yellow?

^^I originally had this as a 1. Click the link above where I refer to Jones the dolphin's conversational skills.

Monday, August 20, 2018

How Was Your Day?

Don’t ever ask me, “How was your day?”

Every day is a chance for me to accomplish something great. In a day, I can run the fastest mile I’ve ever run. I can write the greatest fiction I’ve ever written. I can talk down a litigation client from a completely untenable position. I can show a friend around a surprisingly high number of cities in North America. There’s a lot I can do, and a lot of that only takes a few hours. More than likely, my day is still going.

This question is often asked as early as four or five in the afternoon. With any luck, it might be asked at seven or eight. Why ask it then, when there’s so much left of the day? Why not ask it at 11:59? One-third of anyone’s life happens between the hours of 4:00PM and midnight. One quarter of anyone’s life happens between 6:00PM and midnight. Why wish those hours away?

Using a standard Western life expectancy of 80, any given person lives 20 years of life between 6:00PM and midnight. So much can be done in an hour, or a minute, or a second. Why wish away two decades of someone’s life? Saying your day is over at some point in the late afternoon has a greater loss of average life expectancy than smoking.

Don’t ask me how my day was. It’s not over yet.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

July's Book: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Late again, but I'll be early soon!


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Literature (1962 - 272 pp.)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is my first exposure to the Beat Generation in years. During what mainstream society dubbed "the American High", Ken Kesey sets a chilling tale inside a psychiatric facility. Kesey's experiences working as a maintenance staffer in a psychiatric facility in Oregon were a direct inspiration for a story that, although set in one of the most optimistic societies in world history, presents few options for its characters other than complete bleakness. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's characters, especially Bromden, Randle Patrick McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, are examined 10 billion ways in numerous publications, so I'll stick to my views on the setting and plot.

As someone who can barely stand the sight of blood, Kesey's descriptions of contemporary 1950s psychiatric surgery made me lose sleep. Both forms of lobotomy once used in the United States (prefrontal and transorbital) are discussed at length, through the eyes of the narrator Bromden, who never sees a surgery being performed but sees the aftereffects. Ruckly, one of the less heralded characters, receives a transorbital lobotomy near the start of the book that leaves him with "black-and-blue eyes" and barely responsive. (20) Another transorbital lobotomy near the end of the book gives a character "a face milk-white, except for the heavy purple bruises around the eyes" that renders him "like one of those store dummies". (269) The patients also compare lobotomy to castration.* (165) These lobotomy horror stories remind me of Authorson v Canada.** a class action in which Canadian war veterans sued for the interest accrued on their pension funds; the representative plaintiff Joseph Authorson had received a prefrontal lobotomy while in a psychiatric institution in London, Ontario.

Electroshock therapy (EST) is not presented in a much better light. Bromden frequently wakes from bouts of EST, which leaves him in a mental fog so severe the reader is forced to question the veracity of many of the book's events. When the other patients explain EST to McMurphy, what results is possibly the scariest lines of the book:
McMurphy shakes his head. "Hoo-wee! Electricity through the head. Man, that's like electrocuting a guy for murder."
"The reasons for both activities are much more closely related than you might think; they are both cures." (164)
Patient death is common in the facility, whether by natural causes or unnatural causes such as drowning (151), none of which appears to concern Ratched or many of the other staff.

The level of cruelty the reader sees from Bromden's perspective is comparable to a kangaroo court: " might be beneficial that he receive some shock therapy - unless he realizes his mistakes." (235) This invites an immediate comparison to communism. (236) The patients' words and actions are written off as delusions of their compromised mental states, which has the horrifying side-effect of making everything the staff says right, and everything a patient says wrong. In this way, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest becomes a tale about scientific veracity, and even about morality as well; can a "wrong" philosophical, or even moral, belief be recast as mental illness in order to attack the believer?*** Back to the staff's self-proclaimed inherent rightness, what if the staff decide to perform EST or a lobotomy on someone who isn't insane? The Rosenhan experiment, conducted only a few short years after Kesey released One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, identifies the possibility of misdiagnosis or staff misconduct in psychiatric institutions.

The entire psychiatric facility is, in its own way, subject to lobotomy and EST. When Bromden briefly wanders the facility at night, after evading bedtime, his escape of sorts doesn't reveal some sort of Animal Farm-style elitism. Instead, he sees "dreamy doll faces of the workmen" and the furnace's fire "like a thundering pulse". (80) Even when there is no staffer to inflict the facility's violent treatments on Bromden, he sees them everywhere he goes.

The main events in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are thankfully unthinkable in 2018. However, it remains far scarier than most horror novels, and its themes of science and rightness remain relevant.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 5

NOTE: 31-year old Billy's mother describes him as "a middle-aged man" despite only being 31 years old. She also treats him like a child. (247) As a 31-year old, I can attest that I'm not yet middle-aged! Perhaps Billy's mother is the crazy one.

*For more literal castration, consider Kyu in "Awake to Emptiness".

**2003 SCC 39 at paras 21-24.

***For example, the psychological/philosophical/moral idea put forth in this study claiming that belief in meritocracy may have mental health consequences.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Spring-Summer Highlights

I don't usually post much about myself on social media, but in honour of my 31st birthday today, I will.

May, June, July and August (already) have been exciting months. I've:
  • seen Angel Witch live at Lee's Palace
  • gone to the Preakness
  • seen most of the National Mall in Washington DC
  • hiked Mount Nemo
  • made a root beer kit
  • made my own hot sauce for the first time in a while
  • had my dog's picture on the wall of my local pub
  • attended the Doug Ford inauguration party
  • gone to Ripley's Aquarium
  • gone to Niagara on the Lake
  • shown friends from across North America around my hometown Toronto
  • just today, walked from Roncesvalles to Etobicoke Point.
Pictures to follow ASAP. You won't miss these!

This is what I do when I'm not reading, whether law or literature, apparently.
(July's book coming soon as well.)