Tag Archives: William Gibson

Top 10 — The Books That Stay With Me — Gabriel Valdez

One thing we noticed when putting together these lists is that Vanessa’s had seven women writers. Mine only has two. Cleopatra’s and Eden’s lists had three. Now, we’re working with a small sample size, but looking at the rough draft I did – where I listed about 20 books, I still only had three women (Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife just missing my top 10).

I didn’t actively avoid women writers. I just didn’t give it a second thought when I grew up reading so many books written by men. It’s worth considering how this trained me at a young age to look at art – even the best male writer will include different perspectives and prioritize different themes than women writers.

It’s very easy to limit our viewpoints without ever realizing it, especially when we’re young and haven’t even had our own viewpoint challenged. That’s one reason why, as readers and viewers, it’s crucial to always be expanding, challenging, and communicating about the way we look at art.

Here’s my top 10:

Books Watership Down

Watership Down
by Richard Adams

Even today, if I see the cover, I’ll feel chills up my spine, the urge to go hide under blankets. There’s nothing else like reading this so young as I did. The tale of a group of rabbits who set out to find a new home after their old one is destroyed, Watership Down joined White Fang and The Secret of NIMH as challenging works that introduced me to political and philosophical strife. Rabbits and wolves and mice taught me about conquest and military industrialism and social experimentation, that it wasn’t always us vs. them but that it was very often us vs. our government, and them vs. their government, and that we’re often thrust in the middle of false wars to keep administrations running.

Book Congo

Congo/Sphere/Eaters of the Dead
by Michael Crichton

All right, this is cheating, but everything I learned about pulp genre fiction came in a compilation my parents got me for Christmas one year. I didn’t really look at Eaters of the Dead, but Congo – about an adventurous archaeological expedition in Africa – was an action movie in a book. It even found an inexplicable reason to have a gorilla go along for the ride, though for the life of me I can’t remember why.

Sphere, on the other hand, regarding the exploration of a mysterious alien artifact under the ocean, was the most complex science-fiction novel I’d read up to that point. They were gateway novels – Congo led me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and other pulp writers, while Sphere led me to start reading Golden Age science-fiction – the big idea stuff from the 60s and 70s.

Books Chronicles of a Death Foretold

Chronicles of a Death Foretold
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

At a point, I realized I should read something written by the author I was named after. To fully define the effect Gabriel Garcia Marquez has had on my life, I’d need a full article. Luckily, I already wrote one.

Books The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass
by Philip Pullman

The entire His Dark Materials trilogy is stunning, but it was the first – The Golden Compass – that captured me so completely. Known as Northern Lights outside North America, it was the beauty of Pullman’s prose, describing in all of its detail a Victorianesque fantasy world, that made me change the way I wrote. I realized it wasn’t just the words themselves, but some magical atmosphere that resulted from their rhythm, from the intersection of their sounds, that made the kind of writer I wanted to be.

Books Edgar Allan Poe

The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

And so I sought out the master of that rhythm, the man who wrote about sacrificing accuracy in your description for the tone of the sentence as a whole, the one who came up with alliterative phrases that overpowered your senses. I read everything he wrote – his famous horror stories, his comedies, his detective stories, his poems, his essays on writing, and with this came an awareness of other writers of dark fantasy – Sharon Shinn, Clive Barker, Graham Joyce, Neil Gaiman – and how they’d used the lessons Poe taught in their own work.

Books Neuromancer

Neuromancer
by William Gibson

My introduction to cyberpunk, an 80s science-fiction genre that posed a world dominated by disturbing attachment to technology, racial divides, military-industrial oligarchies, and aristocratic corporation-states. The work of William Gibson has continued to pose an eerily accurate portrayal of the direction our world is taking, less in its action scenes but more in its mortifying concepts of corporate personhood and human inconsequence. Neuromancer is the definitive introduction to cyberpunk, an enigmatic head trip of mood, tone, and international corporate politics.

Books The Word for World is Forest

The Word for World is Forest
by Ursula K. Le Guin

The 1972 novel with which James Cameron’s Avatar holds a strange number of similarities. I’d read Le Guin before, but never had she written a tale so brutal, stark, and unforgiving. The tale of an indigenous race of aliens who are ghettoized and exterminated in order to retrieve a valuable resource, I would later find it was a direct response to America’s involvement in Vietnam. Even without that context, you could tell it was housed squarely in the United States’ historical genocide of indigenous Americans.

I hadn’t expected three of us this week to include an Ursula K. Le Guin novel on our lists, yet alone three different ones (Vanessa chose The Dispossessed, and Eden chose The Left Hand of Darkness). If you’re at all a fan of science-fiction, you owe it to yourself to pick up one of her novels and dive in.

Books Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert Heinlein

Heinlein wrote some good novels and Heinlein wrote some great novels. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is his best novel. The story of a penal colony on the moon that revolts against Earth and declares itself a nation, it forced me to look at how cultures develop alternative lifestyles to those typically found in Western nations, and why terrorism, revolution, and rebellion are sometimes interchangeable concepts.

Books Pedro Paramo

Pedro Paramo
by Juan Rulfo

During an independent study in college, I was directed toward Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. This was the novel that inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez toward magical realism. I started with one translation, not liking it much, before I switched to my girlfriend’s translation, which maintained a more Spanish attitude of thought. It was yet another novel that communicated its messages more in tone than in finite detail.

Books Shock Doctrine

The Shock Doctrine
by Naomi Klein

I’m a little surprised that all four of us chose a Naomi Klein book. We didn’t communicate about it beforehand, but while Vanessa, Cleopatra, and Eden all went with her seminal expose on manufactured identity and brand loyalty No Logo, it was her history of how administrations use disaster and war to overhaul governments that most haunted me.

She compares these restructurings to torture – the idea of torture is not so much to punish or to elicit information. It is instead to force a reset in perceived reality on the part of the victim. You don’t change the victim, you just retrain them to look at the world the way you want them to see it. From early American experiment in torture MK-Ultra, she follows a line of conservative academic thought that posed that torture and overhauling the reality of victims can actually be performed not just on individual victims, but on nations.

She follows the journalist thread from how the CIA practiced social experiments in third-world countries to small-scale implementations up to the seizure of African-American property and the overhaul of New Orleans’ school system after Hurricane Katrina. She finally introduces the ultimate experiment in disaster capitalism – the Bush-Cheney administration and its wholesale overhaul of American government and military structures after 9/11.

The Shock Doctrine is the most revealing look at 21st Century Western government you’ll ever find, and Noami Klein is the single most important non-fiction writer working today. If you take nothing else away from our book lists this week, please remember her name, and look up what she’s written.

– Gabriel Valdez

“Tropico” — Lana Del Rey’s Old Testament, part three

Tropico p2 alternate

A few days ago, three writers sat down on Skype and had a conversation about singer Lana Del Rey’s Tropico, a short film that riffs on the Bible. Watch Tropico here.

In Part One, we talked about Lana Del Rey’s “Body Electric” and our culture’s treatment of celebrity as religion. In Part Two, we talked about Walt Whitman, Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters,” and what might be our forms of worship and sin in such a religion.

We stopped at Lana Del Rey’s inclusion of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which takes place as she and several strippers arrive at a party for businessmen. As things get going, Shaun Ross bursts in with his gang, and robs them blind to “Howl.”

Vanessa: “Howl” is a call to throw out the old system. It’s a call for revolt. She knows what Shaun Ross is about to do. She’s not victimized here, she’s taking something back from that system. At the end of “Gods and Monsters,” he’s eating the apple like there’s no tomorrow. We cut to her during the robbery looking straight at us.

Gabe: So she’s in on it, that was my takeaway, too. She throws away one of the wallets during the John Wayne monologue later. It doesn’t make sense if she isn’t.

Vanessa: They don’t get to the rapture at the end without throwing out the old system. They have to take action against it.

Gabe: Cause the expected reading would be that the robbery is just a further descent into sin.

Cleopatra: That’s what I think.

Vanessa: Mary sings along to “Gods and Monsters.” John Wayne cocks his rifle right before.

Cleopatra: But Mary cries afterward.

Vanessa: At their sin or what they’re forced to do to overcome their punishment? It goes, “And so, from being created in his likeness to being banished for wanting to be too much like him, we were cast out, and the Garden of Eden transformed into the Garden of Evil.” It says the system’s got to be kicked over.

Gabe: Jesus doesn’t look too happy. You keep saying the system. What system?

Vanessa: Celebrity as religion. Everything’s celebritized now – your Izzy Black article – Wall Street bankers are the new gangster film, and The Godfather and Goodfellas are movies about worshiping the criminals who normalize it. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese doesn’t judge the piece of shit. He overwhelms you with him.

Cleopatra: So she’s saying reject criminals by being a criminal?

Vanessa: You don’t have to like it.

Cleopatra: People in those movies end up dead and arrested.

Gabe: Not all of them.

Vanessa: Yeah, but they’re gods until then. They’re treated as the ultimate realization of the American dream – people who start out small and buck the system to end up the new tyrants.

Gabe: Cycles of oligarchy. And a lot of times, it’s the peons who get killed and arrested, while the kingpins keep on rolling.

Cleopatra: But then it’s endorsing exactly what it’s criticizing.

Vanessa: Don’t take the mugging scene literally. It’s a call to change things. It’s not a call to go out and rob people.

Tropico lost faith

Gabe: Did you notice in that scene, in the hotel room where they give the party, that celebrities are looking down on the whole thing from the paintings on the walls?

Vanessa: No.

Gabe: It’s a constant throughline. You know, I’ve been raring to talk about William Gibson ever since we hit on the celebrity-as-religion idea. He’s the novelist who wrote Neuromancer and had a big hand in inventing cyberpunk as a genre. One of my big papers my last year of college was about what I called neo-feudalism, how corporation-states are making nations obsolete and essentially turning them into vassals. Point is, Gibson gave up writing cyberpunk because he said the dystopian future he had envisioned wasn’t nearly as bad as the real state of things. He had two novels post-cyberpunk that really struck my imagination. The first is Pattern Recognition. He envisions a film that gets released in clips randomly online. People can’t tell if the actors are real or CG. People can’t decide what it’s about. People can’t track down who made it. A trend analyst is hired to track its maker down, and there’s some action and espionage because it’s Gibson, but I swear to god, it plays as a brief history of the contemplation of God.

Cleopatra: I read it; I liked it.

Gabe: And then he wrote Spook Country, in which people start to create pieces of art – and some are subtle and great and some are looming and garish – but as long as you can log onto the server, you can put on glasses and see L.A. as re-imagined by, essentially, modders. You can hop onto one server and walk around the city, really physically walk around, and see great sculptures coming out of the water, or you can hop onto a different server and walk around the city and see celebrities in the exact spot in which they died – and it anticipated Oculus Rift and Google Glass and all these other innovations in how we’re about to start looking at the world, but it was also about this way in which we start to use celebrity in these artificial niche cultures to create alternate visual languages and knowledge bases to understand the world. It reminds me of a sort of return to our most basic Animist religions, where belief was based on a mountain having a certain meaning and a river having a certain spirit, and those meanings and spirits translated something important about a culture. And suddenly, we have these thousands of little niche languages, many of them becoming visually based so that we’re beginning to talk in themes and we give a movie a certain meaning or a piece of fashion a certain spirit – not literally, but effectually – and those meanings, well they translate something important onto the next collector, onto the next translator. You see it on Flickr and Tumblr and all these users who become popular cultural translators – and not just translators, I think as critics we can aspire to be those translators – but the meta-collectors of art who are creating those meanings. I posted an article on cyberpunk a few months ago that began to touch on that.

Vanessa: It sounds like Minecraft. People went through and just recreated all of Denmark on a set of servers, and anyone can log into it and make any changes they want, but it’s only up for so long.

Gabe: And then it’s gone?

Vanessa: And then it’s gone.

Gabe: Like a video game sand mandala.

Vanessa: It’s a crude version of what you’re talking about, but it lets people create landscapes, virtual landscapes that carry their own meaning. Right now, it’s for games, but….

Gabe: It’s creating a language, it’s creating a grammar that we’ll pull into tomorrow. The things they did in movies and TV for the first few decades created the same grammar we use today. And maybe visually it’s crude, and Gibson described his version as pretty crude, but conceptually, has anyone ever been able to do anything like that before? I mean, it’s funny, we have all this power taken away and taken away from us, and ideas banned, and people arrested, yet we keep on finding new ways to communicate and organize and translate ideas. And I don’t know, it may be really depressing to be just about anybody these days, but the tools we have to organize and effect change – we’ve never had anything like it before, we just need to figure out how to take those things and apply the history of art and resistance and governance to be able to take full advantage of them, to mature them into even greater usefulness and give them even more presence. And then you get the abolition of net neutrality trying to ruin it, but that’s a whole other tangent. What I’m saying about Lana Del Rey is that, what Spook Country posed as our attribution of cultural meaning onto celebrity as a tool of resistance and subtle change, as something that almost threatens to be the exact counter to neo-feudalism, a sort of visual language of ideas you have to develop fluency in to understand, is already there in Tropico.

Vanessa: Can you put a link in where people can contact their Congresspeople and tell them to keep net neutrality alive? Because everything you just described is gone if companies get to own the Internet.

Gabe: Yes. So I’m with Vanessa. I don’t think there’s a reason to include “Howl” there unless you’re saying things have to change, and we need to take charge, and that what gets us back to “America, Why I Love Her” and gets Lana Del Rey and Shaun Ross to the rapture at the end – they’ve clearly escaped that “Entrance to the Underworld,” that “Paradise lost” through their actions, she’s holding the gun and showing off the results of the money.

Vanessa: Mary’s not praying afterward for their sins, Mary’s praying for their salvation from John Wayne’s punishment, for extraction from a land of “Gods and Monsters” to someplace better.

Gabe: To the kinder God of the New Testament, perhaps?

Cleopatra: Maybe. But then is she saying to embrace celebrity and wealth as salvation? She becomes the new kingpin?

Gabe: But she uses it to extract herself, to change the equation, to leave that land and return to nature and to come closer to that ideal of herself she can never quite reach, to return to Whitman and that Mitchum poem, which was written for John Wayne – and I swear, I never thought I’d cry at a John Wayne monologue.

Tropico 5

Vanessa: It’s everyone’s way of returning to nature. To steal everything out from under the old system. Lana Del Rey gets a baptism back into it.

Cleopatra: So it’s Fight Club.

Gabe: It kind of is, isn’t it? It shares a lot of the same messages, although Fight Club takes on materialism where this, I think, is a much deeper contemplation on religion, celebrity, and resistance.

Cleopatra: Deeper than Fight Club?

Gabe: That would be an absolutely useless argument to have. I’d say they’re very complementary, and seeing one probably makes you understand the other better.

Vanessa: Yes, it’s deeper than Fight Club.

Gabe: The rapture scene takes place to “Bel Air,” which isn’t really about the place so much as Lana Del Rey’s character coming into her own. I think the “Bel Air” reference is something personal to the song.

Vanessa: It’s the last song on Paradise, isn’t it?

Gabe: It is the last song on the EP, yes.

Vanessa: I’ve been thinking about it as her double dissolving. It kind of wanders away into the sunset, you know.

Cleopatra: The film breaks down at the end. The skips and artifacts.

Gabe: Right, there are some skips in the visual and the audio develops background static. As they’re lifted up into the air, the entire video turns to black-and-white fuzz. Combined with Vanessa’s reading – her double dissolves, and the very method of communication that necessitates her double – the film itself – that dissolves, too. What do you think that signifies?

Vanessa: Celebrity is surpassed. If it’s something that’s really only visual.

Gabe: It’s the rapture for celebrity-as-religion?

Cleopatra: Maybe it says we’re all raised up in the end. If we all get 15 minutes, celebrity becomes obsolete.

Gabe: I handn’t thought of it that way.

Vanessa: It moves beyond the need for religion. I thought her throwing the pearls away looks a lot like throwing rosary beads away. Not like she’s throwing religion away, but that pearls are the rosary beads of celebrity, so she’s throwing that away.

Gabe: And then it all goes to fuzz, and the mode of communicating celebrity is done.

Cleopatra: Cue “Where Is My Mind?”

Vanessa: So our rapture is losing the double we create for ourselves.

Gabe: Or is it throwing out the system that idealizes the double? Gibson might say the meaning we assign to doubles is an evolution of language and religion itself.

Vanessa: Yeah, that’s why you’re on Facebook so much and I can’t stand it.

Gabe: They both have the same goals, the same message. She does use her double, as a stripper, to be able to revolt, and Shaun Ross uses a mask. They have to play the roles in order to take advantage of them.

Vanessa: Stop making points. We’re done.

Gabe: I think it’s too big a problem for Lana Del Rey or William Gibson or Fight Club to solve on their own. But all together-

Cleopatra: With our powers combined!

Gabe: That’s right, we’re going to end this with a Captain Planet reference.

Vanessa: If it works with the theme.

Tropico 6

A brief message from Gabe
Thank you so much for reading this series. It’s an experiment and we’re all glad it’s resonated with others so far.

We all agreed that Tropico has an incredible amount to say about celebrity-as-religion, about socio-economics, about the false exaggerations we create of ourselves in a world of social media, about activism, and about the role of artists in shoving culture forward when governments become too stagnant to do so. Some of the most peaceful and effective coups in history are the artistic ones. We may disagree on certain other messages, but we all left thinking Tropico packs more meaning into its 27 minutes than most movies can into two hours. It’s absolutely worth picking apart and analyzing, and carrying forward as a movie that’s symbolic of this very crucial moment in our history, that can both speak on it and react to it.

We never thought that was a possibility when we first sat down to watch it. We thought we’d be one-upping each other’s jokes about this crazy, ridiculous video Lana Del Rey did. But this film took us all apart, it made us each weep at different points, and it spoke to something incredibly complicated, so universal and so timely that it became deeply personal for each of us. This isn’t just a good film or a great one, it’s an important one that knows what it’s doing, what message it wants to send, and can resonate with you for weeks after if you give it a chance. Thank you for reading. This won’t be the last thing we have to say about music videos or about the work of Lana Del Rey.