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Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks

Issue 16

The exclamation points will continue until morale improves!

Hi, it’s me, I’m the problem, hi: I really was planning to keep the whole writing-about-every-book thing going, but then my seasonal affective disorder invited itself in for coffee. Which it then promptly knocked off the table and on to the floor. And then it kind of just sat there at the table for about two months, staring deep into the wet ceramic chunks. It was weird! But then last week we had like two straight days of sunshine here in northeast Ohio and now everything is okay again! Hooray?

Anyways, I’ve still been reading like there’s no tomorrow. Here’s some words about some of that.

Are you having active nightmares about AI? I sure am! The thought that I could probably chatbot this entire newsletter for the rest of my life while my two children go to school so they might someday have a chance at getting one of the three remaining jobs in the world makes me feel awesome.

Which all makes it hilarious that the most fun I’ve had reading so far this year has been with William Gibson, whose The Peripheral I went back and re-read, both because I wanted a refresh before finally reading its follow-up, Agency, and because I’m curious about the Amazon Prime show, if for no other reason than it features Chloë Grace Moretz, star of Shadow in the Cloud, a criminally underrated cinematic masterpiece and no I will not be taking questions at this time, just know this: I would follow anybody involved in the making of that movie into literal, actual, physical Hell if it meant having the opportunity on the way down to casually thank them for making that movie, which is a perfect movie. Perfect!

Anyways, Gibson, for whatever reason, typically, I really enjoy his books while I am reading them, and then almost immediately forget everything about them three days later. It’s silly. I think I’ve read Pattern Recognition three times at least and all I can tell you about it is that the heroine wears an incredibly cool jacket that triggers my weirdest, worst consumer desires.

So while I knew the premise of The Peripheral, reading it with fresh eyes was a lot of fun because oh yeah it’s about the end of the known world which apparently begins happening in 2023, or thereabouts, the year when something happens in the middle of everything else happening, which represents a tipping point in the confluence of general 21st century man-made apocalypses that collectively come to be known as “The Jackpot,” which kills off about 80 percent of the world’s population while also advancing science and technology to goofball levels, leaving the world with a handful of bored rich people with little else to do with their time but toy with the residents of alternate historical timelines.

Note to self: teach the kids about the ethics of screwing around with alternate timelines.

Also note to self: check self’s definition of the word “fun.”

I think it’s probably fair and hardly novel to say Gibson doesn’t write characters with rich interior lives so much as well-crafted chess-pieces that help him play out the ramifications of the techno-perverse scenes he drapes around them. That’s not a criticism—my winter-addled mind vibed hard with that. He’s good enough that he even circumvented my soft-blocks against reading climate change fiction, which is too depressing to read and should be too depressing for you monsters to write, what is wrong with you. Here, though, Gibson has the decency to expand his apocalypse umbrella to welcome pandemics to the party, too, which we all now know are no big deal, right? And then of course because of his peculiar time travel mechanic, he both gets to write the ripped-from-the-future’s-headlines take on how miserable everything’s going to be while also layering in a thread of hope that we could still avert disaster. If we, like. I don’t know. Tried.

Historically, I’ve failed to read Gibson for his social commentary, but here I am, older, wiser, desperately looking for semi-intelligent things to say in this newsletter, and so the whole haves-vs-have-nots power struggle of The Peripheral came screaming through loudly and clearly this time. The have-nots will always be a bit unreal to the haves, won’t they?

And then of course when I finally dived into Agency, which I think I now realize was one of the last books I bought in a bookstore before the pandemic, I found out that one of its main characters is a rogue AI, which made it a perfect book to read right as Microsoft launched Sydney—sorry, I mean, the new Bing chat bot—and we all just collectively laid down and let the AI take over because that is of course always want the AI wants to do. (Hey, side note, AI makers, you absolute mega-ding-dongs, here’s a little basic human insight for you: when your AIs take all the jobs away, nobody’s going to have any money to buy the products your AIs are so efficiently creating and marketing to us via Instagram ads. C’mon, guys. Think.)

Still, Agency was fine, though it lacked the same propulsive orchestral-swell the-race-is-on build The Peripheral rocked. It did both take the concept and world-building in some interesting new directions while also maybe spending a bit too much of its run time literally just moving bodies through space (albeit in variously interesting ways). It also spun out a surprisingly optimistic scenario about something that, right now, I feel no obligation to feel optimistic about.

Either way, it made for a fine techno-time-travel-thriller chaser; I slammed it down and now I’m here, demanding my ’nother, though I’m also mostly imagining Gibson trying to write the third book over the last three years, draft after draft piling atop each other in the trash as history outraced his ability to imagine anything more screwed up than, well, this.

I’m not going to tell you you should have a historian crush but I am going to say I’ve zero regrets about developing one for Jill Lepore, whose These Truths I read a couple years ago and whose The Last Archive podcast’s third and final season I’m working up the guts to listen to. (It’s the season about hope for the future and I’m scared it’s going to be like 10 episodes of her saying “Gang, I’m a historian! Of course I have no hope to offer you!”) She has a remarkable ability to probe the complexities of how terrible everything is with warmth and life and energy. If nothing else, she’s making sure the next round of cave people to take up the mantle of civilization once we’ve all blown ourselves up has a great set of warning manuals.

As someone who, if nothing else, knows how to steer into an emotional skid, right after I finished Agency, I started reading If Then: How Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. Never heard of Simulmatics? Neither had I. They’re lots of fun, though: think Cambridge Analytica, but in the friggin’ 50s and 60s. Like, these dudes, these duuuudes, came up with goo-gobs of the hot garbage we’re dealing with today, all the data science concepts about voter types and computer-aided elections and all of it. If they’d had the actual technology they needed in place to match their visions, and also if they weren’t, you know, a bunch of lightly incompetent jagoffs, we’d be at least 30 years closer to the end of all things, already, by now.

History is so fun!

Lepore weaves the story of these proto-tech-bros into the living history of the 50s and 60s, taking the time to show how integral they desperately wanted to be in the era, in the nation’s turn toward ugly political conservatism, in the study of racial tensions and the Vietnam War, in the manipulation of the masses. As she puts it, studying Simulmatics is to study a shadow history of the mid-twentieth century and everything that came out of it. It’s all illuminating and a healthy reminder that behind everyone with a big idea there’s someone who came just before them who also sucked but was actually kind of novel about it, from whose trials and tribulations we could probably learn a thing or two.

She also makes sure her book includes what earlier sorts of histories might have neglected, stories about the wives and children in the direct circles of those quote-unquote visionaries. It’s not just window dressing but critical context that sheds essential light on the cultural blindnesses of the Simulmatics guys.

While I said I hadn’t heard of Simulmatics before, it turns out I sort of actually had. The book Simulacron-3, by Daniel F. Galouye, which I read for the first time last year, probably takes large portions of its inspiration from Simulmatics. I mean, I probably should have known, should have guessed, that there was some truth behind the fiction, but. Lepore’s also got me curious about The 480 by Eugene Burdick, another novel of the era that deals with computer simulation in the context of JFK. Lepore spends a while with Burdick, who himself sounds like a fascinating character. on the grid sucks. Good thing I read Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge, by Ted Conover, next, which politely reminded me that, in fact, no, I’m not actually interested in packing up the family and moving into a trailer in the middle of nowhere. Turns out that, while the future kind of blows, getting bitten by a rattlesnake while my neighbors shoot guns around me as I freeze to death in a sleeping bag doesn’t sound like much fun, either.

Okay, that’s a bit dramatic—it would really be only one of those three things that would kill me immediately.

I hadn’t read Conover before but he’s got a bit of a William Vollmann “I’m going to do this crazy stuff so you don’t have to” vibe, which is fun, which means the book is less a dry history, more the narrative of the experience and observations of a guy from New York who got interested in the folks drawn to off-grid life, to the point where he not only volunteered with an outreach organization intended to help folks in the area, to help embed himself in the culture of the region, but also decided to live there at least part time to get a better feel for what that life physically entailed, up to and including ultimately buying his own plot of land where he could come and go as he pleased. He’s got a plain-spoken writing style—unlike Vollmann, Conover is interested in writing prose normal people might want to read—and his openness and sincerity in his dealings with the people he interacts with is clear. He’s genuinely interested in the life, and he reveals the life to be genuinely interesting.

Which is not to say it’s not mildly predictable, in some respects. If you have certain presuppositions about the the kind of person drawn to living in trailers in the middle of nowhere, you’ll find ample evidence to confirm them, here. Drugs, outlaws, conspiracy theorists: check, check, check. But while this isn’t a complete “everything you think you know about X is wrong” kind of book, there’s definitely more to it than a simplistic take would have it. There’s lots of reasons folks go there to do what they do, and Conover’s openness to sussing out those reasons is engaging.

And, I mean, stepping out your front door in the morning and seeing nothing between you and some mountains way over there does have an appeal. A highly abstract appeal, sure. But.