Sunday, April 26, 2009


I can't remember who (Asimov?), but some esteemed sci fi author once wrote that a good book reviewer keeps focused on the book, rather than promoting himself, his perspective, or his own perceived wit. Fortunately, I never claimed to be a book reviewer, especially not a good one. Blogs are canvasses for artists great and small eager to bask without the light of substantive peer review. Blogs are Echoes for Narcissus, symphonies of solipsism, metaphors mellifluous to mediocre to meandering to marmotpoo.

I just finished Feed by MT Anderson. It did lag in the middle, but picked up and ended quite well. Anderson and many others in this cyberpunk genre wield what I dub "punctuated shallowness." You almost put the book down because the characters and plot have less depth than the pages they crowd. You are then taken aback by lines like, "You're the only one of them that uses metaphor." Violet was responding to the simile, "It's like a squid in love with the sky," which is also evocative only in context. The speaker grew up with and is totally dependent on an invasive BCI, and is describing dead vines seen from a hospital on the moon. Moreover, they're painting a flat world, James' "buzzing, booming confusion" where depth, dissent, novelty, and individuality are rare and punished exceptions amidst the languid bci fi future that some authors deem an inevitable result of consumerism and technology. Unfortunately, we scientists are inevitably portrayed as naively unconcerned with, or cacklingly delighted about, our contribution to this phlegmatic Orwellian dystopia. That is fiction. We BCI researchers discuss ethical issues all the time, and cyberpunk never mentions BCIs to help severely disabled people communicate. Mr. Hoban, I am not Mr. Clever.

Anderson's modern allegories are painfully prescient. Check out this website:

"Emily" asks if someone can summarize Feed. She says that she "knows Violet died at the end." It is ironic that "Emily" will never read the book and realize how ironic her post is.
The best answer, chosen by voters, is: "I think it ends badly, or so I've heard."

Put down the fucking Playstation and READ!!! Emily obviously is trying to skate through her English class, and I hope she flunks. Then she'll m-chat her friends that School (TM) is sooooo meg weak. Cyberpunk does this well: cutting off word halves because they waste precious deciseconds. Also a lot of f-bombs, sometimes a hallmark of ineloquent writing, but also a great way to portray characters who can't think of anything else to say.

"You pompous, stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant, twerp, scumbag, fuck-face, dickhead, asshole!"
"How very interesting. You are a true vulgarian, aren't you?
"You're the vulgarian, you fuck!!!"

John Cleese and Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda

Gender stereotyping is also quite rampant in Feed, a common vexor in cyberpunk, blamable largely on Gibson and perpetrated by Effinger and others. Men are generally the ones most ensnared by technology, the perpetrators and (at least financial) beneficiaries of the spiralling, consuming misery society becomes. Women are either sex workers or snuffed Athenas, crucified Cassandras, prophetic Pandoras whose message of not just hope but reason, objectivity, and depth cannot compete with the latest trends and products screaming through some lunk's thalamus. But this can also be blamed on the source. Cyberpunk authors tend to be male, and probably didn't tend to get out quite as much during their formative years. Write what you know.

On that note, we just submitted my new BCI paper. This is my first paper from my new lab here in Graz, and we are all quite proud of it. It was a team effort, only possible from the symphony of signal processing, psychology, engineering, cognitive neuroscience, and English scientific writing that TU Graz now possesses. It fate now rests with faceless journal editors and reviewers. This is the upside of peer review. Anyone can toot his own horn, and further abuse musical metaphors, but convincing often crabby, overburdened, and biased reviewers is tough. One of my professors at UCSD, Ed Hutchins, once told me "there's a lot of noise in the grading process," and this is also true of the reviewing process. It's true of reviewing papers, grants, and presumably science fiction.

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