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October 27th, 2006

so kuku one

After teaching yesterday, I headed over to the Cameron Village Library to read for a while. I'd gotten sucked into Yevgeny Zamyatin's We the night before, and wanted a quiet place other than my empty apartment in which to read it. The library has several nice reading areas, and I picked the one near the front of the building on the first storey, next to the floor-to-ceiling windows. To my left, a middle-aged hard-looking man was reading a book in Cyrillic, and he periodically closed the book, walked around, then came back and opened it again. On the sofa next to him sat a young South Asian man reading a magazine. In front of me and to the right, a college guy was sitting on a stool at a raised table and making notes while bobbing his head to the tune in his earbuds. And next to him, at another raised table, was a young girl, maybe a freshman in high school, reading a hardback with a pink cover.

It was quiet for the most part (we were near the circulation desk, so there were always people coming and going), and I got a lot of reading done. But at one point, this young guy around the same age as the girl with a blond surfer mop walked over to her and started talking; they obviously knew each other. As she tried to read, he kept trying to grab her cell phone, or talk about people at their school, or tease her about what she was wearing (her hair was up in a bun, and she was actually dressed very professionally). I was hoping he'd get bored and move on, since he was causing a disturbance, but he clearly had a crush on the girl and was hoping she'd pay more attention to him. At one point, this future frat guy said, quite loudly, "So you like to read for fun? You're such a nerd."

Yes, he said this, unironically, in a library. I thought, you know, that's a bit like going to an Aerosmith concert, and then insulting a friend of yours there for liking Aerosmith (and I'm aware I just dated myself). You're in a library, dude, surrounded by people who like to read for fun. I actually looked up when he said that and locked eyes with the guy, and I think (though I could be wrong) at that point he realized the significance of what he'd said. After some more banter with the girl that didn't quite work, he wandered off, away to his future of keg parties and working at a fast food counter with pictures of the food on the register because he doesn't like to read, living alone because he never quite grasped the concept that insulting a girl you like doesn't do much in getting her to like you back.

I'm being pretty harsh on the guy, but it still bothers me to hear this type of sentiment. It bothers me that reading for fun is looked down upon by some. I know it's not for everyone, but why put someone else down for enjoying it? Why insult someone for seeking other experiences, learning about other cultures, having adventures, expanding their horizons, and learning something new? Why is this still considered nerdish behavior? (And why must I feel compelled to tell the guy that some of the richest people on the planet are nerds?) Is it anti-intellectualism? Or just pubescent awkwardness? Maybe I read too much into the situation, but I took it a bit personally, being a bookworm myself.


farrago glares at you

farragoblog has posted the following flyer to promote Farrago's Wainscot at World Fantasy Con, but feel free to print off copies and hand them to random stangers on the street corner:

Also, Farrago glares at you, daring you to read his forthcoming wainscot:

Grrr. Argh.

art links

I get a lot of inspiration from visual art (one of many reasons that I'm glad to be married to a visual artist) and so deadcities_icon pushes all my artsquee buttons by linking to sites such as..., a gallery and community for dark fantasy paintwork. It's rare that I come across a site such as this where I absolutely jive with a majority of the visual offerings, so this site is a feast for me eyes. I can feel the story ideas churning up from the depths as I write this. It's hard to pick out one or two or three favorites among these artists because so much of it rawks.

...Surreal Places, a gallery of 3D architectural marvels. Many renderings of big cities, which helps in the internal visualization of my own invented city-state where the tower novel takes place.

This image gets the wheels going for my next novel (already starting to germinate in my brain), which takes place in my same invented island nation, but fifty years in the future, after the ice caps have melted and drowned the old city-state.


bring on the funny

Tonight, Raleigh's Broadway Series South is presenting "An Evening with Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood." Mochrie and Sherwood are frequent contributors to Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and have sent me into convulsions of apoplectic tear-inducing laughter that the acronym ROFLMAO can only shallowly approximate. These guys are hilarious. It's a one-night improvisational show that is currently on a national tour.

And I'm going, baby! My parents snagged tickets, and so after getting some dinner tonight, we'll head over and bathe in the funny. W00t.

hempel at ncsu monday

Man, I'm posting a lot today.

If you live in the Raleigh area, Amy Hempel, author of many striking and incredible minimalist short stories (including "The Harvest" [ Read | Listen ], one of my all-time favorites), will be reading at NC State's Caldwell Hall Lounge on Monday night at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Owens-Walters Reading Series. Hempel's four thin collections are often hard to find, but Scribner recently put out her Collected Stories, which gathers up all her previously published fiction.

deadman's handle

Via Bruce Sterling, Gina M. Scott writes about a new technology appropriate for those of us who like to bring our laptops to the coffee shop, in "Sounds Spooky, but Just Might Save Your Data":

You sit down at your favorite coffee shop, take out the trusty laptop and start working. Your mocha is ready up front and you walk over to the counter to pick up your morning joe. When you turn around there is a big empty spot on the table where your laptop was.

Enter the DeadMan's Handle. Though this may sound like a spooky Halloween decoration made to frighten children, it just might save your identity from would-be thieves. A dead man's switch or handle is a failsafe designed for streetcars, trains and subways. In case the train operator becomes incapacitated the switch would cause the train to slow down or stop. Similar switches can be found on some lawnmowers, stopping the blade when let go by the operator. The British company DeadMan's Handle has designed such a failsafe for laptops.

According to John Brazier, director of DeadMan's Handle, more often the not, laptop thieves are after hardware and stumble upon information. DeadMan's Handle is designed to delete secure information in the event a laptop is stolen. If a stolen laptop has the failsafe program the thief will walk away with a working laptop but will have "no idea there was anything of value on it." DeadMan's Handle "not only deletes the data, but also stops the thief from looking for more information - the laptop looks boring, and gets sold," explains Brazier.

Kind of an extreme solution, but an interesting one if you happen to keep sensitive information on your laptop. Me, I just take the iBook up to the counter or into the bathroom with me, but I'm super-paranoid about this kind of stuff.


review: we

I'm not sure what it says about me that I'm attracted to dystopian science-fictional novels. Pretty sure that I don't enjoy reading about suffering, or the loss of freedoms, or complete assimilation into a monolithic homogeneous society anathema to my personal beliefs. Depressing soul-crushing narratives aren't really what push my buttons. So why? The best I can come up with is that they continue to remind me what can happen in the face of authoritarianism, they caution against that kind of future because here is what happens. They keep me on my toes, aware that we can all be transformed into Winstons and Julias if we're not vigilant to the destruction of personal and professional liberties.

And so it was with delight to hear of the reissue of Yevgeny Zamyatin's seminal proto-dystopia We, newly translated by Natasha Randall. It is the far future, where a small percentage of the world's population has survived cataclysmic wars and disasters, and is now ruled over by the mathematically perfect glass-walled One State. Told through the diary records of D-503, a mathematician and Builder of the Integral, a missionary spaceship that will travel to other worlds and bring the Truth of the One State to their inhabitants, by force if necessary. D-503's vision of the world is filtered through the lens of his profession; he sees physical objects, including people, as an accumulation of geometries, and labels all unknowns as X. The square root of -1 -- the letter i, the irrational number -- terrifies him with its illogic.

In this society, names only exist as alphanumeric digits, and tend to represent a person's physical shape. O-90, who is D-503's primary lover at the beginning of the novel, is "about ten centimeters below the Maternal Norm, which makes her lines all round, and a pink O -- her mouth -- is open to receive my every word. Also: there are round, chubby creases around her wrists -- such as you see on the wrists of children" (6). I-330, who intrudes into D-503's life and turns it upside down with her revolutionary leanings, is tall and thin, all lines and angles. S-4711, a Guardian of the One State, is hunched twice-over, and seems to slither rather than walk.

There is much comparison here to the story of Adam and Eve, with I-330 as D-503's temptation, leading him from the "paradise" of the One State. Knowledge of a different existence is felt to our narrator to be a sickness, the result of i, √-1, irrationality. Freedom itself is seen as unnecessary and dangerous, a destruction of the bliss of ignorance. There is even a quote from one of the characters comparing the triumph of the One State to Mephistopheles having his head crushed in -- a similar image to O'Brien telling Winston that the future of men is a boot stamping on a human face forever -- although for the life of me I can't find it now.

Zamyatin also presents creative endeavors in a quite different light than one is used to expecting, in which even trochees can be used in an execution:

I thought: how could it be that the utter silliness of their literature and poetry didn't fling itself into the eyes of the Ancients? The tremendous, splendid force of the artistic word was wasted absolutely in vain. It's pure comedy: anyone wrote about whatever he took it in his head to write. It's just as comic and ridiculous that the oceans of the Ancients beat stupidly against their shores, night and day, and that the millions of kilogram-meters contained in these waves were only expended as kindling for the feelings of lovers. We, from those amorous whispers of the waves, procured electricity. From the beast, gushing with rabid froth, we made a domestic animal. And that is exactly how we tamed and saddled the once-wild natural force of poetry. Now poetry is no longer a brazen nightingale call. Poetry is a state service; poetry is purpose. (60)

However, it is interesting to note that while this attitude is pervasive within the One State, D-503's diary records abound with nigh-hallucinogenic poesy. Zamyatin's clear and rapid image-heavy prose style propels the story along with mathematical metaphor. At only 200 pages, it's like a kick in the gut from a giant green cigar-smoking kangaroo.

Widely believed to have influenced George Orwell and Aldous Huxley in their own dystopic masterpieces, We is a powerful vision of a totalitarian future. Written in 1921, the novel was banned in Zamyatin's native Russia until 1988 for its satirical jabs at the Stalinist government. It was distributed via samizdat and smuggled into Czechoslovakia and then the English-speaking world. Zamyatin was imprisoned many times throughout his life, and eventually exiled to Paris; he died there in 1937.

If you're a fan of Nineteen Eighty-Four and/or Brave New World, you might enjoy We. Modern Library has done a beautiful job redesigning and packaging the book, and the foreword by Bruce Sterling and introduction by translator Natasha Randall provide even more context behind Zamyatin's incredible tour-de-force.

(N.B. This novel was my 100th book read in 2006, and I can't imagine a better choice for that significant number.)

Related: WNYC audio interview with Natasha Randall for The Leonard Lopate Show.

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