April 11, 2006

My Love Is A Liquid

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There is a third K. W. Jeter sequel to the movie Blade Runner. BR 4: Eye and Talon came out in 2001, but for some strange reason the book has, as yet, only been distributed in the UK. You have to work a little to scrounge a copy here in the States. Jeter and his friends were lucky enough to have hung out with Phil Dick during his VALIS / Exegesis period when he was really giving up on the distinction between fact and fiction, and started to inhabit his books as a character. The same went for many of the folks that just happened to be around him. Jeter was the inspiration for the Kevin character. Not surprisingly, Dick’s Kevin is every bit as morbid and saturnine, possessing the same black sense of humor, as the real Kevin. For Dick’s Kevin, God is “evil, dumb, and weak,” the universe created by it consisting of nothing but “misery and hostility.” Jeter had already written his first novel while at Cal State, Fullerton: Dr. Adder. The older writer championed the book as best he could, but they wouldn’t even publish it in France where, according to Dick, they published just about anything. It’s not clear why it wasn’t printed sooner. Dick predictably blamed the prudishness of US censors. In the not so distant future Los Angeles and Orange County are pitched for battle. The city is a cemetery of the living, a freak show of drug dealers, pimps and amputee hookers. Orange County is a repressive middle class world where everyone has air conditioning. They are lorded over by an evangelical-style figure that wants to destroy his northern neighbor at any cost, and wipe the blight of Rattown from the face of the planet once and for all time. It’s easy to read Jeter. The books are never didactic. He isn’t much of an explainer. Jeter is more of a describer. It’s the freaks against the pervs. He’s all about constructing a dynamic action-filled world that positively drips and oozes mood, usually menacing, desperate, and pregnant with danger. Dr. Adder had the added benefit of also taking on the subject of middle class taste. It seems the evangelical salvation peddlers from Orange County cannot satisfy their lust for amputee sex. At one point they show the protagonist, who has unwittingly been sucked into the whole mess, their great vision for the future of the southland. Jeter can’t help but take a playful swipe at Disneyland. Once L.A. has been raised to the ground, the New Agers plan to open a theme park of their own, their brainchild: Fuckland! Equipped with what else but the latest in robot amputee sex. Jeter even has a character based on Dick. KCID delivers his morose radio sermons to his fellow Rattowners between playing sentimental German ditties. Dick is not famous for promoting other writers. In the “Afterward” he wrote for Dr. Adder, finally published over a dozen years after it was written, Dick only mentioned three other contemporary books he could stomach: Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration; Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream; and Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. Being the anointed son has not always served Jeter well, especially considering how different the two are as writers. Since Dr. Adder came out in 1984, Jeter’s books have been a mixed bag, a work in progress. His hyper-detail oriented style and predilection for gothic imagery doesn’t lend itself equally well to every subject the way Dick’s brand of satire can skewer emblems of authority and power equally well no matter the period setting or anything else for that matter. It would be another dozen years after the Ridley Scott movie until the first two Blade Runner sequels came out. Whatever you think about the books, they clearly gave Jeter license to go back to his favorite stomping ground, post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. He hit a bit of a stride. The excellent, if badly titled Noir, which came out a couple of years later, in 1998, is similarly set in the Deco necropolis suspended like a spidery memory in the black amber of Film Noir movies that ranks high as one of Jeter’s greatest inventions. Jeter is pretty prolific. Besides his own books he has also written a number of Star Wars paperbacks and he has even done a Star Trek adventure. It’s just that he never seems more turned on, more in his element, than when the capital of the known universe is LA. Jeter is at his best when the LAPD are inter-galactic cops, shooting first and asking questions later all across the Milky Way. One of the things about the Blade Runner sequels you notice right away is that they are definitely not the continuation of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. They follow up the Scott movie starting exactly where the film ends. In the first one, The Edge of Human, Jeter seems committed to trying to tie up some of the loose ends between the book and the film, but it is hopeless. The important task is to re-animate the corpse of the original movie. There are some expected awkward twitches and spasms. But, all in all, Jeter manages to rev up the old story and get a little more mileage out of it. The main plot device is that the replicants are based on human originals. It’s an easy way to bring dead and dying characters back to life and confuse the difference between real and artificial even more so than it already is. The main legacy of the Scott movie is that it is all about confusing the issue. In Dick there is no mistaken identification. Robots are robots and people are people. They may look the same but they are not. Dick is an old-school humanist. There is right and wrong; and there is a genuine person trying to get out from under all that cultural coding. One of the most profound understandings of his generation is that our great intellectual and mechanical discoveries have driven men crazy. The unavoidable conclusion that the Nazi Death Factory was the result of a mental sickness produced by the advent of the Industrial Revolution is never too far from the kinds of thoughts Dick liked to entertain. And in that sense, at least, he is a pretty died-in-the-wool lefty. Scott and Jeter definitely are not, at least not by the same yardstick. They revel in the sick uncertainty of it all. I wonder what Jeter made of the story that Dave Hansen lost his Phil Dick robot? The bulletin appeared on the AFP newswire last February. It doesn’t sound like it’s going to be easy to track the writer’s double down either. According to the robot’s makers, lifelike skin material makes the cyborg look real, the machine is programmed to mimic the author’s surly personality and everything he ever wrote was downloaded to his memory drive. So, to make matters more complicated -- not unlike your run of the mill, aging writer -- the Dick robot apparently loves to quote itself. One can only imagine the robot wandering around loose somewhere out there boring the shit out of some poor person at a bus stop or a park bench with never-ending, untiring references to itself. What makes the anecdote so good is that Dick could have written it himself. Scott and Jeter lack exactly the necessary sense of humor about the human condition to poke fun at themselves like that. For them the full irony of their deadly seriousness is that it ends up painting the hero and all the other characters in a dark comic style. The difference between Dick and Scott’s outlook could not be more clearly spelled out than in the Tyrell Corporation’s slogan. Their replicants, they advertise, are: “More human than human.” In Dick’s story what Rick Deckard is told by the Christlike Mercer in his religious epiphany is: “You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity.” For Jeter there is no personal identity worthy of desecration. We are nothing but disappointing copies of our prefered version of ourselves. The time has passed when we thought that progress was more than just illusion. Jeter’s point makes for its own brand of optimism. His Blade Runner sequels are all about the idea that we are no longer the basis of our own ideals. It is a little scary to consider that we are freed from the demands of past history. One is required to come to terms with the meaninglessness of it all and simply go on with life. Dick is curious about the bare minimum we need to feel human. In Jeter, feeling human is no longer what's important.

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April 05, 2006

Wargasm of Death

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The science fiction version of the future has already come to pass. We are living its aftermath. Judge for yourself whether or not it was utopian. Whatever you decide, one thing we can probably all agree on is that the future did not grow old gracefully. Neither did Harrison Ford for that matter. His trademark pose, that all-purpose squint-eyed, tortured WASP-wince of his, got tired looking real fast. Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner, on the other hand, is just as gorgeous as ever! To his credit Scott did not, strictly speaking, stick to Phil Dick’s 1968 story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. In fact, Dick went on the record to point out that, as much as he liked the movie, it didn’t really have a whole lot to do with his story. There were some little discrepancies that needed to get pointed out. For starters, key terms like “Replicant” and “Blade Runner” never appeared in the novel once. Scott has gone so far as to say that he never even read Dick’s book, the title came from a story by Alan E. Nourse. William Burroughs liked the Nourse story so much he, in turn, had used it for a screenplay of his own. It’s not clear which Scott discovered first. Both are listed in the credits. “Replicant” was a term coined by the screenwriters to replace “android.” There are other littler things, like the fact that Dick’s story takes place in San Francisco, while the movie is set in Los Angeles; the androids are manufactured by the Tyrell Corporation not the Rosen Association; etc. Whether or not it is true that the director couldn’t have been bothered to read the book, there’s no question the movie is based on Dick’s novel. The major differences between the two have to do more with the basic messages they send than anything else. One way to look at Dick’s book, for example, is as a wry assessment of the challenges of being human in our modern times. What separates Dick’s worldview from Scott’s is that it is largely informed by the inhumanity of post-WWII industrial idealism. Mostly Dick is considering the paradox of a middle class value system that has traded its humanity in for the empty promises of consumer society. It isn’t the post-hippy agenda of blurring the lines between all things in the way Scott’s and K.W. Jeter’s later versions pick up on the story. What Dick zeros in on is the willingness of an entire culture to aspire to the anti-consciousness of household appliances. By extension one could make the argument that the androids in the book are those folks Rick Deckard must “retire” because they have internalized the system just a bit too well. Dick’s characters are not cartoon heroes. His protagonist’s credentials are dubious at best. Deckard is a somewhat hapless wage-slave struggling to maintain domestic harmony with his emotional livewire of a wife, Iran; in a post-apocalyptic world where social status depends on the kind of animal one owns, the bounty hunter is obsessed with replacing his mechanical goat with a real, organic pet; he is a man who is hoping to find his true self through the thinly disguised Christianity of Mercerism; and being a killer weighs on his conscience all the time, yet how else is he supposed to pay the mortgage? He doesn’t even really dislike the androids he has to kill. Taken at face value, his main point of contention with the artificial organism would seem utterly trivial. Nevertheless it is key to decoding the story. What Deckard dislikes most about the androids is their “resignation”, their “mechanical, intellectual acceptance” of their fate. One of the only times, if not the only time, he really loses his temper is when he screams at Rachel, “I can’t stand the way you androids give up!” The only thing about the artificial people that really seems to bother him is how much they remind him of how close he is himself to throwing in the towel and losing his sense of self. Intellectuals have wasted a lot of time arguing which was better, the individual or the social group. It is one of those stupid ideological questions that manage to divide up folks who would otherwise agree on most everything else. A ridiculously long time has had to pass for former opponents to finally agree that, taken in part, there actually is merit to both sides. Science fiction is always a good barometer of what popular attitudes are to abstract, intellectual thought. It might seem like cliché, but among the most persistent symbol of repression in the highly industrialized world is the criminalization of emotion. The 2002 movie Equilibrium is a perfect example of the cliché of the middle class abreaction to totalitarian macro-think. Christian Bale plays special officer John Preston whose martial-arts mastery over the laws of probability makes him an impervious killing machine. His job is to wipe out the sentimental, nostalgic, rebel art-lovers, and for a while at least he carries out his orders with an unparalleled, state-approved homicidal thoroughness and zeal. Until, of course, he realizes the error of his ways. In the end, he turns all that killing power against the police state that trained him. Empathy, after all, is a cornerstone of middle class values and must at all cost remain protected. For the last one hundred years, at least, art has dealt with similar phantoms: is it supposed to make you think, or feel? Dick is particularly interested in the illusions we need to keep us going. In his short story “Precious Artifact”, his main character is a human slave sent to Mars to build a new world by a conquering race of aliens called the Proxmen. To flag the increasing hopelessness among the human engineers the protagonist is invited back to Earth to see for himself that the aliens have not totally destroyed his home planet. It is a question of the rock bottom measure a person needs to feel human. The bare minimum Milt Biskle needs is a kitten. In the end it is revealed that all that the aliens have shown Biskle is false. The ruins he has seen of his former capitol were illusion. The cat they gave him to take back to Mars with him was artificial. It is all lies. Dick is curious about the very least we can accept. Is a lie enough? Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? ends with a similar scenario. Deckard discovers that a toad he has taken home with him from the wilderness is not real. Is that the kind of fact he will, for the sake of his own sanity, allow himself to overlook? Scott and Jeter are both similarly attracted to the extent to which we ultimately need to believe in our illusions, no matter how poisonous to us they are.

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