The Augmented World

The Augmented World – And He Weeps

There’s a house. It faintly glows with a warm, golden light, the bright stones that make up its walls storing the translucent light of day and amping it through the air. Like a monitor for phosphorescence. It’s large and opulent but somehow humble, cleverly built to blend in with the other buildings which surround it. It has a small yard, no more than a stone’s throw in size, where a wizened tree bends around air. It has a sturdy door, almost never open, a fixture that somehow invites while being forbearing at the same time. It has porches and silken curtains covering wide windows, wooden shutters fending off winds and rain when the mild winter comes, a fence covered with vegetation and a gate. Not the stuff of myths of castles, a wide gate made of sturdy oak with a menacing moat, but a fair affair which radiates the feeling that it doesn’t want to be opened. That it wants to be left alone.

And yet, despite the fair amount of coldness and rejection that might be gleaned from its external nooks and crannies, it seems inviting. Perhaps in an old way? Like a man who, no matter how rough and ragged looking, has stood at the crossroads for so long that you have grown as used to him as the posts which mark the meaning of the roads, the non-terminal destination to which they lead, just nodes which in turn branch off into more crossroads? Perhaps like that. Regardless, the house stands on the outskirts of a square named after a forgotten king who had visited the city years ago, softly humming with the early morning wind as it stirs the leaves of the massive trees which dominate the square. Other buildings face it, some grand and some not so much, but they are all slightly less than that house. Perhaps it is because they are inhabited; more of a function, of a protocol, these buildings serve transient purposes. But the house, the blended house, is filled with presence. Even though the curtains stay drawn and the shutters shut, and the door closed and the gate barred, everyone knows that someone lives here.

In fact, it would be impossible to imagine the house without imagining its denizen. When he exits the house, once or twice a year for festivals or crucial supplies (crucial only to him, vague and seemingly unrelated items purchased at the local market for outrageous prices), he always wears blue. Funnily enough, or perhaps not, the blue faintly radiates warmth, just like the house. It is not a blue of somber skies, or of stormy horizons or even of clear, crisp, cold-day skies, though it hints subtly that it might have been one of those or all of those at some point in the past. No, it is a blue of a bright morning, before the sun has quite established itself, when the color of the day is deep, primary, initial. It is the blue of a soft breeze blowing across the back of your neck as you walk between buildings, bringing sorrow tinged with wonder, bringing stories to your fingers. The man often smiles; his smile reaches his eyes, engulfing them with momentary mirth. His fingers are dexterous as they are lanky, efficient, long wires that are attached to a supple yet thin arm. The man is old but the weight of his memories seems to be borne not lightly, but perhaps with a resignation, an acceptance which lends their wearer strength, like a good cloak. When the people see him and he is gone, what is left behind is a hint of laughter, a faint touch of those gentle fingers and the smell of a field under bright skies. They sigh then, the people of that city, thinking of places they had been, places they now miss, thinking of that house and its balconies, and its silken curtains and its fullness. Not knowing why or how it is full and why they feel so empty but somehow refreshed, empty in the sense of readiness to be filled, empty in the sense of a sweet goodbye, of a faintly morose embrace, of a greeting that falls slightly short from expressing exactly how happy you are to see your friend.

The nights are warm. They are not so much filled with stars as they are at peace with stars, complacent towards the place starlight plays in the shadow-act that creates and un-creates the supposedly, and foolishly, fixed locations that are called “streets”. The house is still bright but in an unassuming way, almost as if it doesn’t want to draw attention itself but still would like to light its surroundings, perhaps in order to better accentuate the fair qualities of the buildings around it and, through them, to draw attention to its own beauty and grace. Silently, with a fluid hint of light the house says with fingers made of minarets, “have you seen how pretty the leaves on the trees are today? Have you lingered a while in their shade and looked at the way the spaces between them cast cross-stitches on the buildings besides them? Have you stopped and thought to yourself in your heart today ‘oh god, I live in the absolute nexus between what was and what shall be and the beauty is constantly beating upon me and my heart is a strained muscle and the blood is soaring within it until suddenly I must rupture and what better place to rupture than here?’? Because if you haven’t, there really is no place better to rupture than here as evidenced by the million million tears that have made up the spaces of the cobblestones in the square”.

As the light says all that and a heart softly beats in the square below, decoding the message the building is broadcasting, the man in blue gazes behind the silken curtains. The people of the city do not know what he thinks or how the world looks to his eyes but they believe, in that quiet place where believing emerges, that through the faint trails he leaves with his fingers in the spice stalls in the market, and through the leaves and the way they hiss softly in the wind, and by marking the paths that he takes through the fluid streets, shying away from this corner or that, that they can decipher what the world must be to him. And each one imagines something slightly different, a story that differs by a word or maybe two, variations on a theme that nonetheless manage to sync up in some fashion, creating the man in blue, casting him over and over again into the communal tableau, tenderly hammering his place in their stories into shape, make him communal, making him mean something to them. Even though, and perhaps especially because, he rarely leaves the house. Through all their stories, the different landscape renditions of what must mean a man’s mind and gestalt and tale, runs a single thin thread, a single idea etched over and over again like love upon encountering the new day. The man must be sad. Something inside must have broken, something unleashed an inky vial of fluid that has washed over his heart and blotched all his margins, something that makes him bleed a bit too much, makes him cry a bit too often, makes him shun the world and its ways almost every day of the year, makes him be gentle and curious and crucial and deft, adept, dextrous, present but gone, a faint efficiency, a slight beacon in a shifting world, a strangely anchored presence, chained to the places he knows and nothing more.

And they are right. To an extent. The man in the house is sad but the vial hasn’t broken. No margins are blotched at the center of his Heart, no words have been crossed out with red lines, no phrases forgotten, breaking the rhythm, no notes misplaced, breaking the key. On the contrary, his cup overfloweth and in overflowing it blazons, it bedazzles, it brings into sharp contrast the edges around him and the edges in himself and the trees in the square and the way the shade plays in the leaves and the wind softly dictates a verse on the lore of sitting. He cuts himself. He cuts himself on the ever changing streets, he cuts himself on the love he feels for the impossible infinity of places that a city can be, on the never-ending song that strangers can sing, he cuts himself on the life he feels when they look at him, on the notes he hears on the sweet wind when the morning is bright, he cuts himself on the moments before the sun has quite established itself, when the color of the day is deep, primary, initial. He is lacerated by the blue of a soft breeze blowing across the back of his neck as he walks between buildings, bringing sorrow tinged with wonder, bringing stories to his fingers, stories which ultimately bring him back to the surging start, the tidal wave of beginnings, the floodplains of love.

But, most of all, he cuts himself on the stars. He walks the halls of that house, peering between the silken curtains, across the wooden shutters. He runs his hand across that door and hums a song to make it humble. He fixes the gate when it needs the fixing, deploying the art that is never quite forgotten, of mending and making until the thing is itself. And he looks at the stars. Wherever he is, whether on the threshold of his home and the square, whether on the threshold of the window and the night air, whether on the threshold of himself and the world, he looks at the stars. He smiles at the leaves that softly beckon to sleep, as he names the ever changing streets, he looks to the stars. And he weeps.

Standard
Ex Nihilo, Short Stories, The Augmented World

Ex Nihilo – Through And By The Words

There is a faint wind blowing through the bright orange square. It might be the trees that faintly sway with or the sound of the nearby water source, but it feels to Bright like home. Which is funny and weird and fitting since he is, indeed, home. As home as one can be in the Heart, as home as one can be in a place where Language flows and there is only power. Perhaps it is the rhythms of the wind that make it so, the familiar ways in which it curls around the soft buildings, echoes in the empty-yet-comforting corridors. After all, this is where he has lived most of his life and when he hadn’t, he had lived near. This was his, like our footfall is ours, like our shadows is ours. Which is to say, far less than we would like to believe.

Speaking of footfall, the sound of it began to fill the square, softly inter-playing with half-words, silken grunts and other voices coming from the students. His students, to an extent, but Bright knew that, like all of them, they were only leased to him, temporary droplets struck from flowing source that was the Heart itself. He smiled, to himself and to whoever was watching, and slowly rose from his perch. He wasn’t an old man, not in the ways which mattered here, in this seat of unbridled yet constantly restrained power, but he still enjoyed the luxury of rest. He had been in motion for such a long portion of his life that now, when he has briefly (relatively) stopped here, he enjoys doing nothing. Alas, the time for action has come since the student is like the arrow. “Please stop” he says quietly, his voice nonetheless seeming to bind his students as it of course actually does. Hand still raised in a two-fingered gesture, he walks closer.

The eyes of the students are not those of the hare in the shadow of an eagle but rather of the cub as he observes the elder hunting. Hunger; they hunger for his power. In this place of never-ending conduits, channels, ferry-women, passageways, openings, wellsprings. junctures, nodes, nadirs, whirlpools, openings onto the direct, swift flow of bright light, he is an offshoot, a branch, a sapling and they are a mouth hungry for the water which flows from him. He smiles. Finally completing his adhesive-slow approach, he gently points towards the nearby student. “Look up” he commands but pointedly leaves the words absent of Language, absent of true intent. But the student still complies, a much stronger force than Language compelling her, the desire which takes root in our hearts and turns us into the most subservient pupils possible. The force of curiosity, the force of hope for more. So she looks up and in doing so is disappointed, seeing nothing but the bright blue canopy which covers this place.

Like many before her however, she of course cannot follow a Speaker’s mind but soon, she will be instructed. Now, in fact: “You look around you and you see death. You see a sharp dichotomy: you and your compatriots, who are alive, and the world around you which is dead. You are, of course, correct. But your veracity is boring; you are simply relying on instincts, knowledges that your own body has forced on you”. He draws closer now, standing at the shoulder of the student, his back turned to the rest of the class. Somehow, however, his voice reaches them from every direction, crystal clear and perfect as if he was standing at their shoulder instead. “There is a much more interesting divide between you and it. You speak. It listens. You think. It reacts. You intend. It…well, it is intended. Intended to lie there, in the case of the rock, intended to blow in the case of the wind”. He smiles now, again, more deeply, more ferociously  and turns to face the class once again. “Who intended it to is the pointless question you are all now asking in your heads. Who cares? The question you should be asking is…”.

He pauses, savoring their frames and their sudden forward momentum. “The question you should be asking is ‘how did they communicate their intention?'”. If you’d like, picture some sort of god, an omnipotent, shining, golden being who made everything spin. How did they make it spin? Through what medium does it spin? How does it know where to spin? These are the questions you have been brought here to answer; no one can teach you to answer them yourselves”. Bright turns again, this time walking away from his class. It is over. Only one lesson remains and it is one they will have to learn for themselves, over many lifetimes. “The answer is not simple and yet I can tell it you now. It won’t spoil your classes; you won’t be able to grasp it anyway”. The wind blows again, or still, coaxing Bright’s hair from out of his collar. He savors the moment by looking up, through the canopy, through the distance, through the light years and seconds, through the diffused light of a billion stars, through the ether, through space itself, to a planet where black winds blow, where spires reach for the sky, where one man kills his wife and then himself, where the unraveling of beings, has begun, is coming closer, where finally Bright will rest.

“The answer is you. It used you to make those stars spin. The medium through which they spin is, once again, you. They know where to spin because you tell them. And you can change your mind: you can stop telling them and start saying them. When you do that, we’ll give you your ships. You’ll be your ships. Until then, there is only death for you and for most of you, there will only be death. Unless you say it otherwise; unless you convince me with your story that you live”. Sensing that he is done, the footfalls return to the square, as do the soft grunts. But now, at least in one, Bright can detect an edge; a stony, ice-cold fever that burns through and by the words.

Standard
Poems

rushingdownwind

we no longer wear swords(elegant fingers that send imaginable pain)but the spaces between us
still resound with
the chilling clattering of steel.

what birth begot this gestalt of noisesmilesleisurepain,
what chain(forged from the melted gold of antecedent dreams)snakes from the inky dark
of faint time to bind us to this argent course?

we no longer wear swords
since we imagine ourselves free(given the range of possibilities before us)in our impossible pride.
But, ask Icarus(that ever child of all)how sweet
the rushingdownwind.

Standard
Articles, Ex Nihilo, The Augmented World

Ex Nihilo – Influences

This is a short list of texts that have influenced, directly or indirectly, what Ex Nihilo is slowly becoming. It’s by no means extensive but serves as a good starting point to where I drew a lot of the images, ideas and characters. Titles in bold are central to understanding the piece. If I’m being honest, the first book is all you need to read. Enjoy.

The Instrumentality of Man – Cordwainer Smith

The Centauri Device – M. John Harrison

Gateway – Frederik Pohl

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

City of Illusion – Ursula K. Le Guin

The Telling – Ursula K. Le Guin

The Hyperion Cantos – Dan Simmons

Illium & Olympus – Dan Simmons

Worlds Enough and Time – Dan Simmons

Grass – Sherri S. Tepper

City – Clifford Simak

The Book of the New Earth – Gene Woolfe

Eon – Greg Bear

Dune – Frank Herbert

 

 

Standard
Articles

Deconstructing the Light – The Work and Expertise of M. John Harrison

I’m starting to get exactly what M. John Harrison is trying to do with his books. He basically picks a genre, or even a sub-genre, and then proceeds to deconstruct not the entirety of it but a certain assumption or set of assumptions. Unlike most deconstructions, he doesn’t have hubris; he doesn’t attempt to deconstruct the whole genre or setting but just an interesting, or especially irritating, aspect of it.

This has two consequences: one, his narrative gets very repetitive. Since he is a wordsmith of the highest degree this isn’t that bad, though it can be tiring at times. Word choices are varied but the overall theme and feel of a story is often iterated upon without any real need. Most of all, thematic motifs are constantly utilized, sometimes with the exact same wording. A turn of phrase, an aesthetic detail or even a dialogue can appear numerous times, without any respite.  By focusing on a specific set of features, he grinds away at their descriptors and place within the bigger picture. That can get very tiring, especially across several books.

The other consequence however is well worth his sometimes repetitiveness: by focusing on just one set of aspects, he gains a potency which is often lacking in deconstructions. That is, he goes beyond simple dismantling and into a complete assault on the epistemological presuppositions needed for the genre to work, for that integral set of attributes to exist.

Take for example his Nova Swing. It takes place within his space opera universe but targets noir cop/criminal/detective stories. It has a sweaty city on the shore, murder mystery, smuggling, bars, 20’s culture and all the rest of the tropes of noir. However, this is a deconstruction: we expect a chipping away at these elements and we are, initially, served what we expected. The tone is exaggerated, giving us an exact idea of how seriously, or not seriously at all, the author takes the genre and its pretense.

However, instead of attacking the tropes themselves, by placing a different character as the detective let’s say or omitting an integral character all together, Harrison attacks the supposition at the base of all such plots: that the data is given to the detective, that it is possible to know the facts pertaining to the case. It’s simply a matter of digging them out and then applying the detective’s extraordinary/quirky intelligence to them. It’s a puzzle, but all the pieces are on the board and they follow the physical sense you’d expect them to.

Harrison attacks this by denying his police the ability to actually know what is happening. Their surveillance equipment always fails when they need it. Their suspects are intransient in reality (still sci-fi, remember). The very physics of the city they operate in changes. They themselves are broken, not simply corrupt or weak or morally reprehensible as is the habit in the genre. They are unable to know: they are too focused, not focused enough, insane, psychotic or ostracized. Their basic tools for figuring out their problems do not function.

This leads to a completely different challenge for his characters and thus, to a wholly different narrative structure. Instead of a search for knowledge, a careful unearthing of data and the piecing of those data together, his characters are gripped in the search for a way to know. Knowledge itself is almost useless to them; they don’t have the tools to understand it themselves and even if they do, they don’t have the ability to articulate it to others or to themselves.

This, understandably, leads to introspection. This is indicative of much of Harrison’s writing, which is a good thing; his powers of insight and inner articulation are well suited to the task. In an interesting loop, this focus on introspection is very much in keeping with the general attack on noir. The introspection usually featured in the genre can be very superficial: the hero struggles with his dark side and his past. The criminal/victim rails against society. The innocent tries to understand what has befallen him (usually her). But, much like the rest of his work, Harrison’s introspection is completely different: it is an introspection whose goal is to understand a fundamental part of life and an attempt to cope with the ruin one finds there instead of the order one might have expected.

And ruin it is. Wherever you go in Harrison’s worlds, whatever attempt at an episteme we or his characters try to cling to, no order is forthcoming. Indeed, order seems to be anathema in his worlds; when it is encountered it is quickly defaced.  In Viriconium, his sci-fantasy series, he does it to space. The maps of his world are nothing like Tolkien‘s or Jordan‘s: well lit, well formed spaces where you always know where you’re going. Evil is that way, good is that way and in between is the shadow lands where we must fight. In this sense, perhaps Harrison draws on Zelazny‘s Amber with its complete assault on that pattern. Heh, see what I did there? His maps shift the more you look at them; they don’t fit at the edges and where they do, those edges change. Nothing is clear and everything and everywhere is not just confusing, it’s confused. As a result, his characters themselves are confusing and confused: they refuse to stay put, they exchange roles constantly, often in the same story arc. Outside the arc, chaos rules and the space of the literary work itself is ill defined and perhaps non existent. Chronology, linear narrative space and the maps to a character’s personality, all fade away.

In Light, his space opera, he does it with motivation, free will and space travel. His characters aren’t even pawns pushed against their will; they’re not even on the same board where the real game is being played. They have no way of navigating the events which take place around them, buoyed along in a universe that shouldn’t even exist. Their tools to fight these events don’t exist themselves; imagined lives, physical principles that contradict each other and ships created by precursor races operating on the cosmic scale. All that’s left to these characters are the lies they tell themselves, the cheap, OCD-like tricks that they us to try and make the universe make some sense. These tools of course, as in real life, completely fail and only lead the characters quicker to their doom.

In Nova Swing, as we’ve said, he does it with knowing. The gaze he turns to these subcategories of his worlds (in a literal sense, the categories beneath his worlds) is acrid: it corrodes and erodes these sub-categories and depicts the characters that have to live with such an erosion. The characters are of course, if you will allow me the cliche, us. To tie the knot on this short article, Nova Swing perhaps gives us the strongest use of this technique, the strongest look into what happens if and when our categories for operating are taken away. It also displays to us several examples of how to cope: the detective-poet and his mind games, the self destructive criminal and his day to day insanity, the blind has-been with her dreams of escape. All of these are models of futility, are ways in which we ourselves try and be in our daily lives. They are models of how we cope with the collapse of knowledge in our own lives. Ways in which we fail to do so.

By doing this, by painting these stark models, Harrison exercises the power of all deconstruction: to shine a light on the construction and make us consider it. The genius of his work becomes apparent then: his deconstruction calls us to look not at the structures of the literature but at the structures that enable those structures. That term should tell you sharp eyed Foucault students out there something. While the subversive aspects of his work have yet to reveal themselves to me, I feel that they are there. Perhaps the gaze turned towards the underlying structures of our lives is subversive in itself, but I’d like to think there’s a more positive message that lies somewhere in his work ((in the sense of a call to action, not any uplifting morals). I’ll keep searching and hope that, unlike his characters, some possibility of response and reaction is still available to me.

Standard
Poems

Unnecessary Semicolon

When we are born they make such an effort to draw;
the outlines that surround us must be well defined. They say:
you are you and they are them, no matter how it feels.
A bright scalpel is lowered expertly on a tandem cord between
hearts that bleed just the same across capillary bridges.

I think they must have overlooked however a simple process;
scars will grow under the ocher rain and spawn pathways. Still they say:
you are you and they are them, no matter how it seems.
A dull blanket is lowered expertly on the space between
eyes that gleam just the same across rainbow bridges.

She dies; he dies; I die; they die; it dies. I can no longer tell;
the syntax apart lies, dismantled on the editing floor. Again they say:
you are you and they are them, no matter how you sing.
An endless cacophony is lowered brutally on the space between
hands that reach just the same across emotional spaces.

Standard
Poems

Mask the Light

Mask the light. This is a manifesto. I am calling out to all the poets,
the singers of the day. There, there on the storm of dawn
I can see your words take shape.

A thousand candles burn and yet each flame is distinguished.
What has happened to us? Mask the light. This is a manifesto.
Dim the aura and you will see, what has been hidden
beyond the faint border between illumination and the rest of the world;
Beacons blare brightly from the center but they bear not words but chains,
chains made of words.

Mask the light. This is a manifesto. I am calling on all the heralds,
the lamented drum roll of the day. I feel you, scribes,
I hear your pain as you toil and speak and write for our parents.

Voices raised in song to beats dictated, phrases uttered
under the yoke of age. Leather bands chafe against communal backs,
stifling the yearning, the intention towards the other. Mask the light.
This is a manifesto. I call you not to pierce a veil but to gently move it;
see not beyond but aside a presupposed plan, a dictionary of what can be said
and must not, what can be meant but never is, what can be thought but
must die in the craniums of youth.

Mask the light. This is a manifesto. I am calling on all the standard-bearers,
the paths through the vale. Shivering on street corners the worthwhile hearts
of our day do nothing but decay.

Standard