Tag Archives: fiction

Scrape to soothe the rasp, hiss to hide the hum

Emily had been dreaming again. No tears on her pillow this time but the sound of rocket engines still rushed in her ears for a few fleeting moments. Slowly she came into her body, felt it materialize. Slowly the concrete around her became, well, concrete again. The camping mattress underneath felt like it had become concrete during the night as well. Against all inertia and blanket warmth a slow familiar ache in her back convinced her it was time to get up.

She limped to the bathroom with the tenderness of intense sleep.

At least there’s still hot water, she thought. One of the few comforts of her building compared to others around the country. Others might have not had the entire rest of the staff abscond but damn it she could still take a civilized shower.

She turned the water on to let it warm up and took a few spare moments to look at herself in the mirror. Tired eyes framed by faded pink hair, roots showing through, undershave grown out. She had wanted to do something about her hair for months but she couldn’t risk the trip to town. Not any more. Maybe a care package would come soon. She had listed pink dye under essentials, only partly expecting to be taken seriously, but hoping someone would come through. Those packages, though. They had been coming less and less frequently. It contributed to her feeling that the whole clandestine enterprise was expiring with a whimper and it was probably time to wrap things up.

That line of thinking always felt like a mood trap but as she looked around she couldn’t deny the multivariate truth of it. Less external support, more equipment problems, hell even the bathroom needed a good cleaning. She slipped as she felt the place slip, somehow out of time and consequence into its own experimental bubble. She needed to clean the bathroom but she recognized for the hundredth time that she needed to pull the trigger on her data even more.

After the shower she sat down to check her email and found one precisely to that effect. Sergio pestering her for a final go-ahead despite being the original Principal Investigator at her site and also being the first to flee. The fucking audacity bothered her as much as the nagging concern that he’d make her effort as much his when the time came for credit. But the packages he sent helped, and the occassional pep talks. She archived the email rather than responding to it just to let him stew a little more. It took three tries while the network connection flickered. One more failing piece of shit equipment. Lovely.

The near-silence only served to let her brood more and to let her analytical side pick apart the hum from the next room. Always noisy, the combined thrum of computation and exhaust fans had developed a noticeable rasp recently. Probably not unfixable especially given her comp sci chops. But that depended on replacement parts and those were harder and harder to come by. They hadn’t planned for extended isolation. They had barely planned for anything. But that rasp increasingly felt like her throat and her mood, felt like the slightly threadbare clothes on her frame, felt like the discordant protests of undyed hairs and a body that hadn’t danced at a nightclub in eighteen months. She didn’t want to own the rasp yet.

So she put on music; the new Nine Inch Nails, the only good thing that had come out of 2016. The scrape to soothe the rasp, the hiss to quiet the hum. Code waited for her as it had every day for the past few years. Code sat coiled in its box at the propulsion lab, then the oceanographic fellowship, and finally the Midwest Computing Cluster. It sat coiled waiting to flex; waiting to be let out; waiting to strike. And it responded to the harmonics of her snake-charmer keytaps. Just not always in the way she expected. She dove into the code.

Numerical models lay in wait as she worked her magic, repeating her mantra at the beginning: I’ll show you snowballs in congress, you dumb motherfuckers. Cold fingers jumped across the keyboard arrhythmically. A flurry, a pause for thought, a blizzard. Then rumbling back through with a logical plowblade to clean up the mess. She banged away and hit her own runner’s high stopping only to think or sip rapidly cooling coffee. Work continued straight through lunch without a thought for it until the eventual trip to the bathroom (hello, caffeine) and only then she felt the rumble of hunger.

She set the data to run and wandered into the small, cluttered kitchen to make a sandwich. Made a mental note to do some of the dishes she often neflected as the only person there. And studiously ignored the aged refrigerator as its compressor labored. Only the coolant pump for the GPU cluster sounded worse.

Chewing unenthusiastically, she put a language lesson on speaker. German. Which she’d need assuming she made it out. French may have been smarter for general communication – it had encountered a renaissance of sorts across continents as English fell out of favor – but the Germans were doing more science, and science she was.

After the lesson she answered a few emails. One from her father that mentioned grandkids for the third time in a row. Reading the news soured quickly. She browsed old data. And got up the will to clean the bathroom, ignoring the fact that the model had probably finished.

Scrubbing the toilet she thought for maybe the thousandth time about the NOAA bureaucrat that saved her, saved them all. Cabinet pushed against the door, moving from server to server wiping their data, especially their facilities data, while federal agents pounded and demanded access. First the transition team request for the names of government climate scientists. Then the president’s demands. Then the agents. They would’ve had every observation and computation site in the world. So he exfiltrated as much data as he could and then rushed from cage to cage with a handful of thumb drives and instructions printed off the internet. DBAN became a tool of the resistance.

After that no one could quite piece together where all the sites were. They tried but legal documents had been, well, misplaced. Each site had a networked generator installed on a DHS grant but imagine how quickly computer science-savvy lab rats de-networked them. Then government threats, please, bribes. Some worked. Some didn’t. Some sites got raided and some sites remained to moulder along with their staff.

The cash rewards to the public for turning in climate labs changed things, of course. No more trips to town just in case the locals remembered who they were. And no more pay. And figuring out how to keep the power on in the labs.

And why.

She knew why. Earth was her favorite place and she wanted kids to have a better one, or at least know what a shitty hand their elders had dealt them. And she didn’t even like kids.

Emily scrubbed and imagined that middle manager and his USB drives, defying armed agents, a president, a cabinet worth more than the bottom third of American households. It would’ve been cold in the server room. The cabinet was wedged between the door and a pillar and the feds didn’t think to kill the power. And so there had been just enough time.

A brief flight of fancy had her thinking about one of the men behind it standing in an East German courtyard nearly thirty years previous. The young KGB officer had brandished a pistol to keep an angry crowd at bay so that Secret Police files could be destroyed before the crowd got their hands on them. Data then, data now. Angry crowds. A future in the balance.

Holding that crowd off had made the spy’s career. The NOAA guy, on the other hand, ended up in prison.

The final crash of the door coming down. The rush of thick bodies and the shout of indignant authority. The click of handcuffs chilled by the air of the server room.

And then, well, Emily Wong and her climate science team had been on their own.

It’ll be nice to dye my hair again, she thought. And buy some comics books.

She stopped ignoring the completed model run and looked it over. Waves of unreality washed over her as she reviewed data she already knew. She watched the room from outside herself, disconnected. The data was thorough. The model was groundbreaking. She could string it out a while longer. Surely a new package would come soon.

She sent the email that faceless internet people were waiting for. Not the data of course. That would go later and unintercepted if everything went to plan. Every border, even digital ones – especially digital ones – acted more as intelligent and sinister membranes now, analysing what lay at the surface and keeping most of it in or out.

The email was surely intercepted. Luckily it consisted of a donut order. The order was received. She wondered if a package would arrive soon. Then she started packing.

The courier arrived the next day in a car slightly more dated than her student loans. Older, she realized. No integrated GPS, no satellite radio, no smart system. He brought donuts which she scoffed at. He brought fresh coffee that she blessed him for.

“Don’t knock the donuts,” he said. “Know what we used to call those in the station? Power rings.”

She stiffened. A cop. He read her and raised his hands nonthreateningly.

“Sorry. Just trying to banter. Long gone from the force, but we aren’t all bad.” She nodded. It had gone too far now anyway. She traded the hard drive for the donut box.

“Where does it go from here? I guess I shouldn’t ask.”

“Nah, you can ask. I just can’t tell.” He smiled at her and raised the hard drive before slipping it into a black canvas messenger bag. “Thanks for this, doc.”

She wanted to tell him what was on it. She said nothing. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him what it suggested, what might be coming. Not with the rollbacks, the broken accords, the new government and its partnerships. She desperately needed someone to talk it over with that didn’t see it in numbers and code, but she said nothing.

The courier left. She enjoyed a donut – sweet and moist and perhaps indeed a power ring – before getting into her own aging car and heading north.

The data, she knew, would make its way north too. Through some complex chain of handoffs and pirate microwave transmissions from abandoned and decrepit offshore broadcasters. North to exile, refugee status like her. A country Americans had once fled to in order to avoid being drafted. And yet the data headed north to be drafted in its own kind of conflict, nearly of its own intention.

Emily thought about visiting her parents on the way. It wouldn’t be riskier than anything she had done already. She wiped powdered sugar on the steering wheel and queued up the CD changer to her road trip tunes. Her data would find its own way home.

Review: Normal, by Warren Ellis

Out of the twenty-four books I have read so far in 2016 Warren Ellis’ novel Normal is easily my favorite. This isn’t surprising given that I’m on record as a card-carrying member of the Cult of Ellis. He’s directly or tangentially referenced in more than a few posts here and I’m not exaggerating when I admit he’s been an intellectual model of mine for years, ever since Crooked Little Vein. What’s surprising is how fresh and new Normal is amidst both his previous body of work and fiction in general.

Normal follows foresight strategist Adam Dearden through his intake at Normal Head, a psychiatric facility that caters to a very specific clientele: those who have spent too long looking into the future. This includes both civil futurists and their shadow-siblings working for military or intelligence taskmasters. Referenced on the cover as well as throughout the book, one of the few pervasive ideas is abyss gaze: as a futurist you spend so long looking into the abyss that the abyss looks back into you. Every patient at Normal Head is brilliant, and every patient is broken.

Normal is a locked-room mystery. A patient goes missing on Dearden’s very first night. It’s also a psychological exploration not just about academia but ourselves – what the world does to those who gaze at it and how we cope. In the very first scene LOLcats are featured prominently and serve as an escapist technique. But the patient in that case has no internet access, and no cats – that absence forcing her to more directly confront what brought her to Normal. The novel’s rife with self-deception and false dichotomies, both of which are eventually called out. But there’s also a basic and unflinching recognition of the importance and necessity of the work that futurists do.

Ellis excels at weaponizing typical imagery – the specter-like figure lurking on the edge of the forest, the isolation of the setting – with advanced futurism the likes of JG Ballard (who himself wrote a missing-asylum-patient short story that casts Normal’s conclusion in an interesting light). Ellis also brings darkly intelligent humor such as the opening scene with the LOLcats, a wildly frenetic and joyful and chaotic asylum-wide reckoning, the overwhelming desire to be medicated and the ridiculous things done to cope with abyss gaze. He’s also got the balls to make an economist (Clough) a primary truth-teller in the story, though he acknowledges this irony later through the madly bright figure of Colegrave.

Normal pulls down a theme common in Ellis’s work that manifests in different ways: progress through transgression. It could be macro-scale societal progress through transgressing bodily norms. Or as in this case the micro-scale violation of crossing from the civil forecaster to mil/intel strategist side of the cafeteria pushing the story forward, letting the dog finally see the rabbit. It’s never a neat process and often results in whatever group is involved dissolving into a bunch of howling, shit-throwing monkeys but things do move forward.

Normal is at once a darkly amusing locked-room mystery and a deeper statement on the often destabilizing, quixotic nature of doing the right work and still getting blown over by it and having to catch your breath in whatever way you can. It draws on Ellis’ incredibly well-read and cross-disciplined nature. And both his instant, defensive pessimism and his beliefs and hopes about people.

I can’t recommend it any more highly. At 150 pages it’s a quick and well-paced story with a lot of technology and character fluidly unpacked and laid bare.

Pirate Utopia: A Quick Review

Just finished Bruce Sterling’s new novel Pirate Utopia and it ended up being more than expected. I went into it naively expecting a post-modern, pre-millennium cyberpunkish politics romp. I instead received an absurdist realism novel, an alternative history constantly balancing romantic ideals, their execution and its evolution. It’s a book rich with surreal exaggeration and fantasy but using that to explore the more realistic and bleak practicalities of anarchism, communism and fascism – and democracy.

Pirate Utopia drops us into the Regency of Carnaro, the spontaneous self-government of the state of Fiume after it rejected Italy’s delivery of Fiume to Yugoslavia after World War I. Largely featuring Pirate Engineer Lorenzo Secondari it also introduces a maniacal manufacturist in the personage of Frau Pfiffer, a combat ace turned second-in-command the Ace of Hearts, all operating under the leadership of poet-statesman Gabriele d’Annunzio – otherwise known as the Prophet.

Secondari’s a fascinating protagonist to be sure. He’s presented as previously dead but now alive and self-charged with the mission of moving ownership from those that possess to those that make. He’s a stubborn, spontaneous anarchist maker of a sort though distinctly different from the type you’d see today. There’s no mention of his distributing either model or means – he doesn’t seem the type to upload notes, designs, schematics etc for the world to create his designs for themselves. His utopia is necessarily personalized and he can’t seem to conceive of one outside himself.

Ideals and actions are presented alongside each other constantly and both shift across the course of the story in interesting ways, as a sad exposition on how these things typically progress when people act as they do. It’s not a gradually sliding progress bar so much as Sterling slipping the characters and their organizations along the slippery, evolving surface of a self-justifying Moebius strip of power and violence. It’s hard to tell how or where one side became the other. A seamless transition in which all eyes are still on dragging the future towards them by way of the gravity of their personalities, but they’ve had time to polish their boots now and they’re the ones in control of the artillery on the hill.

The exception to this is Maria Pfiffer, Frau Pfiffer’s daughter and a favorite of Secondari. She’s an unnatural, shining, extrasystemic object – beautiful and consumptive, unprepared for spectacle, an unconcerned alien amidst clandestine conversations despite her polyglot intelligence.

Sterling also manages to sideline two historical devils in amusing ways. But the Moebius strip politics continue according to the realistic streak in Pirate Utopia: absent those two devils, others rise accordingly.

Pirate Utopia’s a short, fun read that doesn’t alternate between stark and wacky but manages to hold their continuing tension in exquisite and exacting fashion. It also comes with a great and timely introduction by Warren Ellis that came out before the election but seems spot-on after, and some supplemental materials at the end that explored Sterling’s writing of the book. This latter appealed directly to the process voyeur in me and I’d love to see it in more works.

Pirate Utopia: Highly Recommended Reading.

That Old Haruspex

Time was, a man or woman of vision would kill an animal for this.

Back across the Atlantic Ocean and the desert of time gone past, a person of vision would kill an animal for this. Usually livestock; cows, sheep, goats. Sometimes another person. That practitioner would bleed the victim or gut them and seek futures in the way their biological constituents spread across the ground.

The lifeblood crawling over the ground, some soaking in as sacrifice, held in it secrets accessible only through arcanity. It told of the coming harvest, the seasons, politics. Childbirth. War. Coagulated into an abstract reification of what was in the offing. Translated, of course, by a mad person.

We’ve moved into a time when this method of hematomancy is no longer acceptable. For good or ill.

You’ve likely guessed from the dirt under my fingernails and glint in my eye that I gravitate more towards “ill.”

We’ve abandoned divination (in all but that darkest corners) and fly blind as events speed up. Confident in our computer projections and blissfully ignoring the blood seeping across the floor from every circuit board, we proceed. Every phone poll centered around biased wording, every focus group engineered to support a specific result casts a stone to shatter the atemporal mirror set up to guide us.

The universe, having put effort into these systems, is unhappy at our direction.

New methods come into being. Perhaps under a more opaque sky but novelty increases as we go along. Novel divination is no exception.

That old haruspex, you know. That ancient bleeding or gutting to find a glimpse of coming Troubles. It’s alive and well. Sure, psychotics still use the old way from time to time. But we’ve new animals to bleed. Millions of them. More slowly.

Go to any Walmart parking lot. The closer the parking space the more concentrated the magic. Look down and find the oil spots. The pools. The aggregated ghosts of local futures.

Realize the futures are told in the blood of our vehicles, pack animals limping along and lubricating the visual disparity between this world and what it may be.

Political and consumer confidence polls are answered by the antiquated percentage of us who still have home phones. What better predictor than the near-corpses of our most precious, utilitarian possessions and the blood and guts they spit painfully upon arrival at our biggest, most predatory temple of consumption?

Gaze down at the lot, at the spot. Internalize the shape and scope of a single oil stain. Find every edge and turn, every predictive edge manipulated by scarred asphalt or the bounds of days to come. Trace the slowly fading marker that tells of many things, including the possible impending death of that car. Realize just how many spots share the same parking space. How many overlap and perhaps influence each other. Do intersecting spots affect each other or has a darkly blooded future reached back into its own desert to intervene, to teach, to warn?

Shift your perspective wider by comparing one space to another. See the overwhelming plethora of internal offerings left to provide a momentary vision. Glimpses peter out only as the laziness of the driver determines that the distance from the store is more important than the time spent hunting for a place to leave a slick, sad offering.

Our population grows more sedentary and the distribution of cars condenses. Obesity rises; no one wants to walk too far from the car to the store. Terence McKenna often said the future was building up like a logjam in a river. The impending future condenses and so do our visions, our divinations. Our oilspots compounding in concert one over the next.

Each Walmart is covered in once-shining beacons for us to integrate in ritual. Fucking covered. We bleed everywhere and refuse to peer through the window it opens.

If a security guard shows up to ask why you’re wandering about the lot, muttering and looking down, just say you’ve lost your keys.

Or gut him for old time’s sake.