July, 2010

Jul 10

A double handful of remarks and observations from John Shirley

//Every bad decision I ever made was as mindless as the jerk of a thumped knee. Nothing guided the decision but fear or animal wiring or trauma. It was as if my thumb was making a decision for my whole body (sometimes another familiar part made the decision). Some dusty, bloated little person in a tiny corner office of me made the decision; an incompetent bureaucrat who runs the government from a forgotten department.

//Some like to pit heart against mind, feeling versus rationality. I tend to the rational and trust it more on the whole but it seems to me that if a feeling, a reading on reality from “the heart center” consistently bears fruit, if a distinct feeling proves its rightness then it IS rational, it’s a higher reason manifesting in the heart. And if we understood the whole process we’d call that one for reason.

//Some scientists speculate the cosmos is a gigantic 3-D computer program–that “nature operates like a computer program.” This is a gigantic vanity. It’s not that nature is modeled by a programmer; it’s that programs are inspired by patterns seen in nature…and feebly imitated, in small measure. The vanity of the hyper-analytic mind has mistaken its own faint, surfacey modeling for the superstructure of reality. 3-D is not enough “D”.

//It’s fashionable to speak of “the present moment”–and that’s good. But there are levels of mindfulness most don’t experience. Even the first level of mindfulness, being in the present moment–self-remembering–can be startling. Suddenly you’re in the real world. Birdsongs, insects, car sounds, sounds of children, the 3-dimensionality of things–suddenly seem to ‘appear’. This was here, around me, all along?

//Libertarianism? Fine–when we can count on unregulated people not to pollute, not to endanger employees (eg, killing 11 of them at a time on oil rigs), not to make dangerous pharms, not to commit consumer fraud, not to wreck the economy, not to insanely drive up the cost of health care, not to need guidance while flying planes; not to need cops, fire dept or infrastructure. Arrange those changes & I’m all for it.

//Looking at trees with new apples strange to think that they apples are communicative, a call to other species, “Eat this and spread my seeds”. Flowers also are communicative between species. Plants calling silently to animals, to insects, “Let’s trade.”

//Does falling organize the world? Isn’t gravitation falling? It’s indicated by falling; by things pulled downward, toward a center of mass. Gravity, anyway, organizes the world; it gives us an up and down, a surface we can walk on, collects mass to offer resistance we use for propulsion; it makes it possible to drop trash in a trash can and have it stay there; to put forks in drawers; to remain seated at my desk.

//For unknown reasons, when consciousness is increased enough the possibilities for free will are mysteriously (not supernaturally–mysteriously) increased. I don’t quite understand why–or, I almost understand it, but I don’t think I can express the why and how of it.

//Old age is right and proper, however dismaying it may seem as we age. What use is a candle that is not lit? It merely takes up space. When it is lit, it gives light, but it also melts. A candle that gives light but does not also melt away is either an abomination of nature, or a miracle. If it’s a miracle then it is not in our province to construct it.

//Conditions have weight. Behavior has momentum.

//There’s a misunderstanding that the right-hand-path, to use a short hand term, is about abasing or losing yourself or demolishing yourself. Not true at all. It’s simply about being in right relationship to the divine source of consciousness, and the Bodhisatvas who try to mitigate, and eventually end, the world’s suffering. But it’s not self annihilation. It’s more like a reshuffling of the inner person so that the ego takes its rightful place, as just one more part of the inner machinery. It’s like taking the keys away from a drunk driver.

//Machines that pollute are only half invented.

//The word “God” has psychological weight that distorts our understanding in a way that’s analogous to a gravity well; to gravitation bending spacetime. We can’t hope to understand the external intelligence as long as we insist on calling it God.

//Music temporarily changes our relationship to time; it reconciles us with time’s disintegration of form.

//I think that the universe is front-loaded to create life just the way it’s front loaded to produce gravity or suns or atomic motion. But I don’t see a creator being necessary. It’s just that in this (one of many?) universe the probability of life is built into the structure of things just as the structure of things is built into the structure of things. How did the strong/weak forces come about? They’re in the nature of materials at hand at the big bang; the probability (not inevitability) of life is presumably in some wise also simply in the nature of matter. There is no need to assume that life requires a supernatural spark and therefore there’s no need to assume that it arises purely by chance as such–if things are innately organized to produce it, *just because they are*, that is no more supernatural than that things are innately organized to produce gravity. It’s not intelligent design–because it’s not design. Life is not designed in; it’s just likely due to some only barely (so far) intuited immanent structuring of matter and energy.

//My character is smarter than my calculator.

//Many scientists think there’s a black hole at the center of every galaxy, central to the formation of galaxies. What is a black hole but a void, an almost infinite gravitational compaction rendering space as a sucking vacuum. Nature it appears does not abhor a vacuum but relies on it. Many philosophers have noted the necessity of death and emptiness; the importance of unoccupied space to occupied form. It should be no surprise when that principle extends to a galactic scale. Principles are as macroscopic as they are microscopic. It is also noted, in the most recent research at this writing, that the massive black hole at the center of a galaxy spins off material which somehow revitalizes the galaxy’s capability of creating stars and planets. From death, life.

//Depression is a concession.

//Everyone shares the unfolding of the universe. We call it “time”.

//We feel insignificant in the vastness of the universe but one could probably travel halfway across the galaxy before coming across another truly intelligent lifeform. It takes an enormity of planetary resources to add up to the building blocks of life and a great many other factors must converge to make possible intelligent life and then civilization. We conclude, then, that while it’s out there somewhere, it is comparatively rare. Any intelligent being then in the vastness of the universe is a rarity. Hence we are no longer to be considered insignificant as individuals.

//People without regret are either fools, self deceiving, or psychopaths. Everyone’s done something wrong, and regret shows you know it and want to do better.

//Organized religion is like organized playtime—it’s for children. But children need reassurance; reassurance is a form of compassion.

//It may be that life at best is just a series of consolations for death. Still, if you identify with perception itself, and not with the memory/personality lost at death, then perhaps death is simply immersion of point of view into the great sea of consciousness. But for most people this is cold comfort. Who knows? I am merely convinced that the root of perception is an extension of a permanent part of the universe.

//Corporate interests rule and will continue to rule. Their alliance with the theocrats will mean only science that makes the rich richer and the environment poorer will be allowed
and hence, ignorance will thrive and when ignorance thrives, corporate interests rule and will continue…

//The stars are a contradiction. They are each one a gigantic sphere of nuclear energy burning furiously in the sky, large enough to consume a planet like ours many many times; they are so big they can be seen across countless light years of interstellar space. But we see them as glimmers, scarcely there, and there are so many that, in contrast to the vastness of the universe each one is indeed tiny. Looking at them dramatizes their vastness and tininess at one time. The scale of the universe is contained in the sight of a single star.

Jul 10

Through Black Glass: on Reanimating Lost Cyberpunk for the 21st Century

[I wrote this piece last year for H+ Magazine, re the background and origins of my novel Black Glass--and talking about a certain time with William Gibson in Los Angeles]

Early 1980s, I was sitting in my West Hollywood apartment with William Gibson and a certain movie director who had some buzz going. More than one kind of buzz. We were talking about adapting a story from Burning Chrome for this guy — a story that was as cyberpunk as anything is — and my defining recollection is how frequently the director excused himself to the bathroom only to come back sniffling, trembling and talking with even more rapidfire megalomania than before. Besides adapting the story, I pitched him a script, which was then rather blandly called Macrochip, based on some idea sessions Bill Gibson and I had, and that Peter Wagg (producer of “Max Headroom”) had optioned. And I remember that this director, who enjoyed macho posturing, said, “Just as long as it’s got big fucking balls!”

He didn’t use our script, nor get back to us about Macrochip, and Gibson’s career became stratospheric (Gibson earned it, by dint of talent and hard work). He was soon occupied, say, helping “Mick and Keith” with their stage design for a major tour, and didn’t have a lot of time and… we never did anything else with the story. In the late 1990s I made a feint at turning it into a novel, which I called Black Glass, but by then my writing had sidestepped into a kind of urban fantasy and I wasn’t thinking cyberpunk.

But last year, gazing about me at the great wide world, I remembered Black Glass and was inspired to finish it — because Black Glass dramatizes technology as metaphor, a phenomenon coming clearer every day.

Not that technology as metaphor is new. Going way back, there was the symbol of the steam train chugging across the plains, literally the embodiment of industrialization imposing its badass steel wheels on the natural world. In Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s Modern Times, machines were metaphors for the mechanisms of plutocratic repression. But sometimes we miss the corollary, that real-world technology itself is metaphor, quite outside of drama, as much as that steam train was. Technology is an innately dramatic expression of our condition.

Think back to when technologies were imposed on us that passed labor along to the consumer — when we all began doing unpaid work for corporations. Customer service personnel were replaced by programs that required us to press 1 if we wanted this, 2 if we wanted that, 7 if we wanted to scream. We now do the work of gas station employees, conducting the money transaction ourselves, filling our own tanks. Supermarkets started self-service lines where you and a laser scanner do the checkout person’s job, and airlines now make us check ourselves onto flights at a touch-screen station. It can seem like we’re serving the machines at least as much as they’re serving us.

But it’s the corporations we’re serving. All that technology is, itself, metaphor for our submissive relationship to the multinationals.

Recently a news story from Tokyo flickered through internet news pages: A 43-year-old Japanese piano teacher’s sudden divorce from her online husband in a virtual game world made her so angry that she logged on and killed his digital persona, police said Thursday. The woman has been jailed on suspicion of illegally accessing a computer…

The lady identified with the virtual world so thoroughly that her online reality had become more real to her than the “meat” reality. I know: happens every day. But how very metaphorical indeed…

Now, the underlying story and premise of Black Glass was conceived in an era when cyberpunk writing was more about the existential poetry of science-fiction, more about the sheer sociological drama of technological impact, than about the possibilities of technology or glorying in prediction. We took a step back from it all.

Late 1970s and well into the ’80s, Bill Gibson, Bruce Sterling and I used to correspond. (using physical “snailmail” letters, in those days.) Around the time Neuromancer was published, I wrote to Gibson speculating on how using a word processing program would affect prose writing. He wrote back to me, as always, on a manual typewriter:

“If someone’s going to have style at all, they’ll reach a point where the recording medium is ‘transparent’ anyway… My aversion to the thing is pretty mild… computers per se bore the shit out of me, all that techtalk and the furious enthusiasm of the hobbyist… I think I’ll probably get one before I need to have one…I think a processor might affect my style for a little while…”

Yet when he invented the word ‘cyberspace’ it was on a manual typewriter. We weren’t very deep into technology then — we were deeper into observation, and experience. Cyberpunk writers were influenced by James M. Cain as well as Alfred Bester, and Black Glass reflected that. Gibson was typically all about “the street’s uses for technology” and I was about two-fisted men and women struggling with repression in a near-future dystopia. But was that even relevant anymore, when I returned to Black Glass in the year 2007? My sensibility was more or less hard-nosed pulp, with surreally artistic overtones, the way that punk rock is largely structured noise elevated by the poetry of defiance. That’s not very Neal Stephenson or Cory Doctorow — guys who personified the 2007 paradigm to me.

Yet when I looked around at the great wide world of 2007, I found Black Glass in it. The novel is a futuristic cyberpunk tale about a man emerging from the four-year dormancy of a special prison where his mind was shut down and his body was ordered to work for the state. On release, this ex-cop, Candle, gets embroiled in a fight with one of the 33 corporations that control the world, ’til both he and the corporate overlords are blindsided by an unexpected nemesis: a ‘mindclone’. More properly: this is a ‘semblant’ program — a program that sends an indistinguishable realtime animation of you to virtual conferences, say, or takes webcam calls for you. It knows what you’d say and says it for you, and no one’s sure if it’s really you or not. But a new ‘multisemblant mindclone’ composed of certain powerful men and women, combined into one program, degrades into a psychopathic personality that takes on a life of its own… and in the background street rebels allied with Candle operate a Black Stock Market using cloud computing.

The consciousness-suspension prison is an obvious metaphor with perpetual relevance; the struggle with the big guns of the Fortune 33 is everyman’s struggle in the 21st century; and semblants are an extension of the mind-state that woman in Tokyo was in when she got arrested. We shift our center of identity into digital representations. We overlap with our technology. And sometimes that’s a useful enhancement — other times it only magnifies what’s wrong with us, as with hackable e-voting machines.

And then there’s that Black Stock Market—what’s more relevant in the age of bailouts? So Black Glass was relevant. I just had to update its tech, environmental and cultural references and recognize that my pulp-inflected metaphor may be at the pop end of art, but it’s vitalized by the pointed honesty of its symbols. In the updated Black Glass, Candle stalks through the mordantly named “Autopia,” where people live in improvised structures composed of abandoned gasoline-engine cars. He negotiates “Rooftown,” a towering shanty complex populated by refugees from the great swamp of global warming. The street has its own uses for things, and Candle uses technology exclusive to the rich and powerful, a flying self-driving car, to infiltrate his enemy’s restricted skyscraper compound.

It all came together — because technology itself is metaphor, and when I look around at it, I find that technology is speaking to us. Technology itself is telling us stories. Only, you’ve got to have the nerve to tell them. And there’s one thing Black Glass has for sure…

It’s a “pulp novel of ideas”—with big fucking balls.

Jul 10

Some Remarks From the Author About the Lost Cyberpunk Novel

[this is the introduction to the novel published by Elder Signs Press--]

Black Glass was conceived under a different name and as a different kind of project, in the early days of cyberpunk, by myself and William Gibson. That’s not William Gibson the playwright; I mean the author of Neuromancer and Spook Country and all his books in between. We had collaborated on a couple of projects before this one. I don’t remember who came up with the main idea or the general story of Black Glass. I know I wrote up an elaborate tale based on our discussion; I’m the one who fleshed it out and Bill approved it. But then the project got derailed, we both got diverted, and Bill was swept off to collect awards, count his royalties, chill with rock stars, and work on other projects. Subsequently, long subsequently, I remembered the book and inquired; Bill is a busy guy and turned the whole thing over to me.

So some years later I have written the novel, which I think of as the Lost Cyberpunk Novel; I have written it in its entirety. No one else should be held to blame.

Cyberpunk fiction, as written by Bruce Sterling, Lew Shiner, Pat Cadigan, Richard Kadrey, Rudy Rucker and William Gibson (oh—and me), has more roots than the obvious Samuel R. Delany novels (like Nova and Dhalgren), John Brunner novels (like Shockwave Rider and Stand on Zanzibar) and, well, writing by Philip Dick and Alfred Bester and JG Ballard and Michael Moorcock’s NewWave sf, generally. Its antecedents reach back into noir; into hardboiled crime fiction and certain kinds of detective novels. Agatha Christie? Hell no. But James M. Cain? Hell yes. Dashiell Hammett. John D. MacDonald—my memory is that Gibson and Sterling both mentioned, to me, having read most of John D. MacDonald. We all read Jim Thompson, too, probably. And certain very gritty, darkly urbane spy novels were important to cyberpunk: Len Deighton and especially early John LeCarre.

Many of William Gibson’s short stories and early novels share a tone and surface texture not dissimilar to LeCarre and, at times, to the hardboiled, hardnosed detective writers. Crime novel heroes are people on the edge; even when they are working for the law, they don’t mind breaking it along the way; they womanize, they slap gunsels around, they smoke, they drink. They’re moody sons of bitches who slouch down dirty sidewalks under flickering streetlights. Cyberpunk characters have that same grim, doomed, resigned, but simmeringly angry feel about them.

All of these ancestors flock from the past and come home to roost in Black Glass. This is, unabashedly, a crime novel set in the future; its hero, Richard Candle, while a nuanced guy into meditation, is descended from old-style pulp detective heroes. He’d have been perfectly comfortable in Black Mask magazine.

I haven’t tried to be as technologically updated as, no doubt, some of the new crop of cyberpunk writers are. Things happen so fast now I’d never be caught up and wouldn’t fit into the current mode of compacted, cryptographically intense expression. I have not culled a great many terms, memes or tropes from Wired Magazine or Jane’s, or the edgiest technoblogs, or 4chan. But the story has been updated, according to my lights, from the original project; it is both “classic” cyberpunk and a modern science-fiction novel. It is also a John Shirley cyberpunk novel; hence the recurrence of musical references, music as a kind of setting, lyrics, rock-inflected characters, and other idiosyncrasies that hopefully are more endearing than annoying. I didn’t try to write the book in a ‘postmodern’ style; it’s not post-Gibson, either. I wrote this book, in this era, more or less the way I wrote those books back then. That’s how I write the stuff.

The language of Richard Candle’s future society would probably be mostly understandable to us, but would have far more new slang and neologisms than I have provided it with. However, I have undertaken to provide a little, a taste, of the lingo of his time. I doubt if it is language that we will really see in the future but I feel it has the ring of real slang about it and, to my ear, it works. I have provided the Black Glossary to explicate certain terms. And I’d like to point out that, as now, people in the future will not use slang terms in every instance in which they might apply. Sometimes they use them, sometimes they use something else.

Black Glass, perhaps, brings cyberpunk full circle. In a way, it’s a “pulp novel of ideas”. But it is a work of cyberpunk science-fiction; it is woven with science fiction imagery and lit up by science-fiction ideas. It is a crime novel, a novel of the street, and it’s a novel of political attitude: most cyberpunk novels reflect a jaded reaction against authority; an assumption that a world dominated by corporations is a world that was stolen from you before you were born.

But my main hope for Black Glass is simply that readers will enjoy it as entertainment.

J.S., February 2008

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Jul 10

Thin Young Man With Sandy Hair and Blue Steel in his Hand

[The following was originally the prologue of my forthcoming novel WYATT IN WICHITA. I decided to cut it as leaning too far into fiction--I was trying to write a novel about the young Wyatt Earp with a reasonable amount of historical basis--and it's also a little too pulp-western in tone. Still, I like this vignette, and feel it's a pretty good short story in itself, so here it is, in its only publication]
U.S. Marshal Lars Van Galen knew he was dying as soon as he tried to sit up: his heart skipped a beat, and the dusty interior of the ghost-town shack seemed to recede into a shadowy distance. The coldness spreading in his hands and feet told him that the bullet-holes in his side and thigh had poured out an ounce too much blood. That’s what it came down to, an ounce difference, more or less, the docs said. The belt he’d tied around his thigh and the old gingham curtain he’d tried to plug his side with hadn’t availed of much. Strange, too, how cold it felt to him, in here—he knew it was the afternoon of a hot and humid day in the Kansas summer. He tried to get to his feet, but slumped back, shaking. Couldn’t even stand…

A hard place to die—in a town already dead itself. It had been a cattle trading terminus, once; then the railroad had chosen to go to Ellsworth and Wichita, taking the cattle trade with it, and all the water had dried up. Now it was abandoned, occupied only by crows, two murderous thieves and a dying lawman.

Hold on, you old fool, until the job’s done, he told himself, bracing his back against the wall. Those two hard-cases would come to him, momentarily. He might do for the sons of bitches yet.

If he could just finish the job–that much he could leave behind. He had no kin, his wife and son both having died on him. He had no money to leave anyone at all. His will left his saddle, his guns and his broken gold watch to Miss Jandia Coleman, a fancy girl at Windaman’s Fine Wines and Spirits, otherwise known as the only surviving saloon in Plain’s Edge. Jandia was the closest he had to a friend, any more, the others having died or moved on. Maybe she could sell his guns and the saddle for seventy dollars or thereabouts. She’d likely use the money for the laudanum she was becoming too fond of.

Apart from that, all he could leave behind was one more finished job—and the prairie of 1873 just a mite safer.
He tightened his hold on the blue-steel Army revolver till his knuckles went white. He had to get a good grip on it, if he hoped to use it, but he felt like he was wearing thick woolen gloves—and they were getting thicker. Still, he hoped to kill at least Angus O’Reilly, before O’Reilly and Tolliver finished their own job. Right now, their job, as they saw it, was to kill a U.S. Marshal.

Stupid to have gone after them himself. They had crossed territorial lines, after their crime, making them federal fugitives, but he could have sent word for the County Sheriff…Only, the Sheriff probably would have made excuses and not gone.

He strained to see his pistol clearly–he had lost the ability to see sharp up close when he’d past fifty-three years, and his present weakness made things even blurrier. He held the gun out at arm’s length, propped on a knee, and peered at it, fumbling with the loading gate. He got it open, spun the cylinder. Three rounds remained unfired in their chambers. That was the end of his ammunition…It might be enough, if he could point the gun straight.

But oh Lord, the weariness; that feeling in his middle parts, like someone clamping him hard with a blacksmith’s gripper; the cold burning in his leg. Maybe just lay back and go to sleep. Why die painful?
Come on, you son of a buck, rear up one last time and be of some goddamned use.
He closed the loading gate, turned the cylinder to put the first round in place. Working hard at it, he thumbed back the hammer spur, cocking the gun. Funny how something that had come effortlessly for so long, as natural as breathing, had gotten to be as hard as lifting a buckboard’s axle. But breathing itself was hard to do now…

The pain was almost gone, lost in a fog. He knew that wasn’t good. Pain meant you were alive…

He cocked his knee too, propped the gun butt on his kneecap—and just then the door opened and a man came in. Van Galen squeezed the trigger…

Nothing happened. The fall he’d taken in the dirt outside had jammed the firing mechanism; it would cock but the hammer wouldn’t fall. He sighed, and waited for the tall, thin silhouette in front of him to blow him to kingdom come.
Funny how you never thought about those words, though you used them a thousands times. “Kingdom Come.”
He was about to find out if there was a kingdom to come…

“If you’ll point that gun somewheres else,” said the figure in the doorway, “I’ll see if I can help you, Marshal.” Not Tolliver or O’Reilly, by the voice.

“Who…would you be?”

“I was riding by,” said the young man. He was still blurry to Van Galen, but his voice and his gait, coming closer, all said he was young. “I heard the shots. I rode up, and I saw a couple of fellows moving around back of this shack—maybe fifty feet back, by that old smoke house. Looked like they were concerned to get the drop on you. Coming real careful.” The stranger went down on one knee, lifted the Marshal’s shirt out of the way, and the improvised bandage. Shook his head. “Don’t look good.”

“It…it ain’t good boy. This here wreck of a shack is the last room I’ll see…If you’ll take my effects…to Plain’s Edge…Undertaker has my will there…My name’s…” He had to pause, try to get some spit in his mouth; it was most too leathery to talk with.

“Yes sir. I know you—you’re Marshal Van Galen. I saw you over to Ellsworth, more than once, when I was bringing in buffalo skins.”

“Listen boy–you shouldn’t be…” Van Galen had to swallow hard to finish the sentence. “…shouldn’t have your back to the door. They’ll kill you, them two, just…just in case, like.”
The young man nodded, half turning to face the door.

“Maybe I can get you some water, a smoke, anyways.”

“No, boy—oh there’s nothin’ I’d like more. But…no time.”

The young man shifted, hunkering back to think. He had sandy hair, a lean face, a pale mustache that was still more vanity than mustache, a sharply defined nose and jaw; grave gray-blue eyes. Sandy blond hair.

Not so different from what his own son would’ve looked like, as a young man, Van Galen thought, with a pang that hurt more than his wounds.

The slim stranger lifted his head, listening; Van Galen had seen a wolf do it that way, once. The young man’s eyes flicked to the walls, moving to follow a sound the Marshal couldn’t hear. His hearing was faded with age—and with dying.

“They’re coming,” the young man said. Van Galen thought that was what he said, anyway, judging by the movement of his lips. He’d spoken so softly it was barely audible.

The young man drew his own side-arm, a cap-and-ball pistol from the Civil War—probably a gift from an older relative. Van Galen saw the young man swallow, and there was just a little tremble in his gun hand. The boy was scared. Natural enough, but it wouldn’t help him.

“No use,” Van Galen rasped. He worked up some wetness in his mouth and went on, “No use asking them boys for quarter, they don’t give none. You give me your gun, I…” But he knew that was a mistake. “No. I’d miss. I’m too weak to squeeze a trigger. You got to do it…”

“Me?” The young man licked his lips. Slowly, so as not to make much noise, he stood, the gun dangling at his side. “I was a constable—over in Missouri–but I never had to shoot on the job. Never did much but wrestle down drunks and runaway pigs. Wounded a drunk brakeman one time in a fight in a…well, a bar… but I wasn’t trying to kill him. “That…” He shook his head.

Van Galen gathered what little strength he had. He had nothing left to leave the world—except advice. “You got to do it, if you want to live. Got to. Now, what you do is, when it’s time to shoot–don’t hurry. They’re going to be in a hurry. That’s bad for the aim. And they’re drunk—they always got a bottle with ‘em. That’ll maybe give you an edge. You take enough time to aim, and say to yourself it’s up to the Lord if you live. Got to accept you might not live—or you’ll be afeerd, and that, it’ll kill you right there.”

The young man nodded, his head cocked. There was a vibration in the floor—the gunmen had come around to the front of the shack. One of them had set his foot, probably, on the step.

“And boy…” Van Galen continued. “Boy, you…stretch out your arm, point your gun like pointing your finger. Squeeze the trigger. And…Turn sideways so you’ll make less a target…And if you…” He never got to say the rest.

The young man had heard him, and turned sideways, pointing the gun at the door—just as it burst inward, and O’Reilly, big and red-faced, teeth bared, hair all bloused out like a desert plant, came lurching in; behind him was the slick-haired, fox-faced Tolliver, the gambler. Both of them wanted for murdering a jeweler up in St. Louis; both with their pistols in hand. They stopped, startled by the boy—
“Who the hell!”

“Just kill him, you knothead!” Tolliver shouted, cocking his gun

But all this time the young man was taking aim, his gun-hand shaking a little but pointed straight enough. He fired, and the old revolver bucked back in his slender hand, recoiling so it pointed nearly at the ceiling; but he instantly lowered it back level to fire again as O’Reilly staggered back, his Dragoon firing wildly. A window shattered above Van Galen, and he felt bits of glass raining down on his bare head. Already the shack was filled with gun smoke; an instant, acrid blue fog.

Tolliver snarled and shoved O’Reilly aside, bringing his gun to bear but the young constable was firing, and firing again, and twice more, seeming to find a sort of calm inner rhythm, and Tolliver went spinning back to fall across O’Reilly, who was staring in amazement, mouth quivering, eyes glazing.

Tolliver’s gun rose up from the floor like a rattlesnake—wavering there—and the young man stepped to one side, and fired twice more. He took a step closer to the outlaws, the gun smoke billowing around him with his movement, and pulled the trigger again, but this time there was only a click. He had discharged every bullet.

The young man stared at the dead men for a long moment…and then took a deep breath. Coughing from the powder smoke, he returned to hunker, again, by Van Galen’s side.

I believe they are done for,” the young man said.

How very thick the gun smoke was, in the room, Van Galen thought. So thick and black, like soot from a locomotive. But maybe that wasn’t gun smoke. Maybe that was the final darkness coming. Peaceful and cool.

“Boy,” Van Galen heard himself say, his own voice echoing in his head. “Listen…some…last advice…don’t tell folks you done this. Nor say I done it—wouldn’t want you to lie. But see, boy…you don’t want to be known…as a gunman. Ain’t wise. Best they think…you’ve no wish to use a gun…Other…otherwise…”

“Why, I think I’d do it that way, anyhow,” said the young man. “Having no wish to use a gun, I mean, unless I must.” His voice sounded so far away now. “But I’ll take your advice—you sure know the job. I’d not have come out of here alive had I not heeded you, sir.”

“You done fine. You, so like…my Lou, he’d a-been…oh, I’m failing. Tell me this, boy…what’s your name? I would know it before I go…”

“Why sir, my name’s…”

But the darkness drew its own shroud over the Marshal, then. He did not hear the young man name himself.

“…Wyatt Earp.”

Jul 10

Writers and the Internet–Downhill Slide?

[this piece originally appeared in RU Sirius's online publication 10 Zen Monkeys]

The internet has some advantages for writers, which I gladly exploit; it offers some access to new audiences, it offers new venues… But it has even more disadvantages.

A recent study suggested that young people read approximately half as much as young people did before the advent of the internet and videogames. While there are enormous bookstores, teeming with books, chain stores and online book dealing now dominate the book trade and it may be that there are fewer booksellers overall. A lot of fine books are published but, on the whole, publishers push for the predictable profit far more than they used to, which means they prefer predictable books. Editors are no longer permitted to make decisions on their own. They must consult marketing departments before buying a book. Book production has become ever more like television production: subordinate to trendiness, and the anxiety of executives.

And in my opinion this is partly because a generation intellectually concussed by the impact of the internet and other hyperactive, attention-deficit media, is assumed, probably rightly, to want superficial reading.

I know people earnestly involved in producing dramas for iPod download and transmission to iPhones. Obviously, productions of that sort are oriented to small images in easy-to-absorb bites. Episodes are often only a few minutes long. Or even shorter. Broadband drama, produced to be seen on the internet, is also attention-deficit-oriented. I’ve written for episodic television and have known the frustration of writers told to cut their “one hour” episodes down to 42 minutes, so that more commercials can be crammed in. Losing ten minutes of drama takes a toll on the writing of a one hour show — just imagine the toll taken by being restricted to three-minute episodes. Story development becomes staccato, pointlessly violent (because that translates well to the form), childishly melodramatic, simple minded to the extreme.

All this may be an extension of the basic communication format forged by the internet: email, chatrooms, instant messages, board postings, blogs. Email is usually telegraphic in form, compact, and without the literary feel that letters once had; communication in chatrooms is reduced to soundbites that will fit into the little message window and people are impatient in chatrooms, unwilling to wait as a long sentence is formulated; instant messages are even more compressed, superficial, and not even in real English; board postings may be lengthier but if they are, no one reads them.

Same goes for blogs. They’d better be short thoughts or — for the most part — few will trouble to read them. The internet is always tugging at you to move on, surf on, check this and that, talk to three people at once. How do you maintain long thoughts, how do you stretch out intellectually, in those conditions? Sometimes at places like The Well, perhaps, people are more thoughtful. But in general, online readers are prone to be attention challenged.

Reading at one’s computer is, also, not as comfortable as reading a book in an armchair — so besides the distractions, it’s simply a drag to spend a lot of time reading a single document online. But people spend a great deal of time and energy online, time and energy which is then not available for that armchair book. Occasionally someone breaks the rules and puts long stories online, as Rudy Rucker has done, admirably well, posting new stories by various writers at flurb.net. But for the most part, the internet is inimical to stretching out, literarily.

The genie is out of the bottle, and we cannot go back. But it would be well if people did not misrepresent the literary value of writing for the internet.