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Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks

Issue 3

What I've Been Reading

The Ice Trilogy, by Vladimir Sorokin

The Ice trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin comprises the novels Bro, Ice, and 23,000. Coming off Malice and Roseneath I didn’t want to tackle anything long yet and figured I’d cut out after Bro. But I got into it, and I got hooked, and I kept going, and now I’m done, and in retrospect I wish I had put the brakes on after the first book? But also maybe it’s good I got it all done in one go. Either way, the whole thing bothered me.

The series establishes a mythology in which, billions of years ago, there were 23,000 beings made of light, and they were floating around the universe creating lifeless worlds that existed in perfect harmony with the cosmic order. Then they accidentally created a world that had water on it. Whoops! Water gave rise to life, and life was chaos and bad, and when the light looked into the water, they saw themselves reflected back at themselves, and they all immediately became trapped inside mortal, physical beings.

For all that, the story starts off small, as the bildungsroman of a young boy coming of age during the Russian Revolution who soon after joins a scientific expedition to locate the hypothetical meteor at the heart of the 1908 Tunguska event. Our narrator, who, as it so happens, was born at the exact moment of the Tunguska event, finds a mountain of magic space ice lodged in the permafrost; it awakens him to his true nature, and sets him on the path of locating his other 22,999 brothers and sisters of light, so that they can all join together and recite the 23 magic words that will return them to the cosmos and destroy the Earth.

Writing this reminds me why the first book hooked me. The rise of the Brotherhood of Light as a strata of the structures of early Communist Russia and Nazi Germany is compelling, and their misanthropist view of humanity is something to behold, in doses. I stayed with it into the second book, when the story jumps from the first’s sacred/religious tones into the more profane territory of the early 21st Century, describing the awakenings of three individuals via an extremist sect of the Brotherhood that acts like a crime syndicate. This is great fun, and I craved more of that contrasty tonal-shift energy going forward.

Instead, tiring repetitiveness sapped my enthusiasm. The stories felt interchangeable, the details felt aimless, and the ending felt unsatisfying, either because I’d lost my patience, or because there really wasn’t much there, there.

Yet I’m curious enough to want to read something else by Sorokin, in the hopes additional context might help. And while I’m not tempted to push this book at you, I wouldn’t knock it out of your hands if I saw you take it off the shelf at the bookstore. I’d like to have someone who loved these books clarify what I missed so I could appreciate them better.

Simulacron-3, by Daniel F. Galouye

A while back, E. and I fell deep into a Criterion Channel collection of ’70s science fiction movies, fun stuff like Rollerball and Logan’s Run and Demon Seed and No Blade of Grass. Turns out a lot of those movies were based on books that I did not know existed. Since then, I’ve thought it would be fun to do a whole movie-and-book club around that idea, comparing movies everyone knows about with their lesser-known source texts. But we’re adults, and it’s impossible to do things, so I’ve never done it.

Recently we watched World on a Wire, a four hour made-for-TV Rainer Werner Fassbinder movie from 1973. It’s about virtual reality. The sets are full of mirrors. I loved it. Afterward, paging through the trivia, I learned the movie was based on the book Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye, which was originally published in 1964, and is credited as “the birth of cyberpunk.”

Fastest. Bookshop order. Ever.

The movie is generally faithful to the book; they’re worth experiencing in tandem. The movie is a stylistic wonder with some unique, wild story beats. The book clarified a lot of second-tier plot that felt murky for me on screen, probably because I was too busy lusting over the set design.

We live in a post-rebooted-Matrix world, so it’s probably not much of a spoiler to say that Simulacron-3 is about people creating virtual realities who themselves maybe also exist in a simulated reality. Which is great and also, unexpectedly, not the thread of the book I fell in love with. What captured my attention was the motivation behind the creation of these simulated worlds: market research.

Wait, I promise, this is awesome.

Our main character, Douglas Hall, exists in a world where “reaction monitors” have a mandate to gather opinions from common people, who are required to provide their opinions about whatever and everything, lest they be forced to pay punitive fines. Hall works for an organization developing “simulectric” systems designed to replicate reality and cut out the middle-man, so to speak; by loading up a computer with fully realized AIs, they can model human behavior and gather that data without the need for reaction monitors, improving the efficiency of the consumer goods industry. Shadier figures, of course, want to use this technology to manipulate society so they can claim power by installing a fascist single-party system of domination.


Except…we’re the AIs.

Wait…did I say this was awesome? I meant terrifying.

I know, I know the history of literature is riddled with unheeded alarm calls and that “cyberpunk was a warning, not an aspiration.” But, like. Dude saw this coming in ’64.

Sixty. Four.


Anyways, great movie, great book.