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Strandbeest

Strandbeest

I have to thank Sean Williams for alerting me to this video about the astonishingly beautiful work of Dutch sculptor, Theo Jansen. Called Strandbeest (Stranbeests? Strandbeesten?) they are crafted from plastic piping and walk and move using systems of sails to harness the wind.

Even on video they’re extraordinary things: marvellously intricate, improbable, strangely weightless, but what really fascinates me about them is the quality Jansen himself is alert to, which is the way their motion and delicate skeletal structures seem to elide the boundary between the biological and the mechanical. Nor is this just a matter of appearance: Jansen designs them using  a computer program that utilises genetic algorithms to improve their design and selectively “breeds” them to improve their performance. Little wonder that as they shimmer along the beach it’s so easy to believe you’re seeing some form of alien life possessed of its own presence and purpose.

This quality is also present in many of the creations of roboticists at places like M.I.T. (or this robotic pack mule designed for use in Afghanistan and other mountainous areas (and indeed drones like the ones featured in the final moments of the same video)), and, in rather different form in the work of artists such as Patricia Piccinini (whose bizarre Skywhale has been hovering over Canberra for the past week or so) and Miyo Ando’s beautiful work with bioluminescence, all of which seek to grapple with the way the once clear divisions between life and non-life, biological and artificial are breaking down (interestingly Jansen’s creatures are created from plastic tubing, itself, and artificial substance made from organic compounds). These are questions I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, partly because the novel I’m working on is set across the next century, and is very much concerned with many of these questions and the intersecting notion of the Anthropocene (as was my Aurealis Award-shortlisted story, ‘Visitors’), partly because I’m hoping to write something rather longer on the subject later in the year. But in the meantime you should take the time to watch the videos below, and to visit Jansen’s website, which has more information about him and the project.

Angelmaker

I’ve got reviews of Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker and John Lanchester’s Capital in this morning’s papers. You can read the Lanchester piece unpaywalled at The Weekend Australian, but because the Harkaway isn’t on the Sydney Morning Herald site I’ve posted it over on my Writing Page.

If you’re interested you can also read my review of Harkaway’s first book, The Gone-Away World, but in the meantime I thought I might post the first couple of paragraphs, which touch on some ideas about the way changing cultures of reading are transforming literary culture I’ll be exploring further in the not too distant future:

“I sometimes wonder whether the real transformative force in contemporary writing isn’t digitization but fandom, and more particularly the technologies that underpin it. For while digitization is transforming the publishing landscape, the internet is breeding not just a new breed of highly engaged readers deeply invested in their particular area of interest, but also a new hierarchy of taste, founded not in traditional literary verities but in ideas of delight and generic awareness.

“Fandom’s rising power is visible in phenomena as seemingly unconnected as the hegemony of the superhero movie and the influence writers such as Neil Gaiman wield on Twitter. Yet it’s also visible in the rise of a new kind of fiction, one whose playfulness and generic promiscuity might once have seen it labelled post-modern, yet which more effectively elides the boundaries between high and low culture and art and entertainment than the writers of the 1980s could ever have dreamed of doing.” Read more …

Morris Lessmore and the cult of literary nostalgia

Some of you may have seen The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, which yesterday won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, or if you haven’t you may have encountered the iPad app based on the film.

With its nods to The Wizard of Oz and other works it’s pleasingly smart and literate, and while the iPad app is a bit cutesy for my taste, it’s a nice example of the things the medium can achieve (and my five year-old daughter loves it, so what do I know).

More interesting to me is the way the film embodies the growing vogue for literary nostalgia. Like the endless films featuring dancing books and films such as Martin Scorcese’s Hugo (which is interestingly engaged with the ways in which technology affects the imagination), it’s part of a growing tendency to sentimentalise and fetishise the physical book and the material culture surrounding it.

I don’t think the reasons for this sort of nostalgia are particularly difficult to discern. Literary culture in all its forms is in the midst of a series of changes that are fundamentally altering what we read, how we read it and the ways we access and trade in words and ideas. Unsurprisingly this process generates intense cultural anxiety, at least some of which is expressed in a desire for the certainties of the past.

It’s possible to see these effusions as harmless. Certainly the idea of an iPad app celebrating the magic and mystery of the physical book in the way Morris Lessmore does is so absurd it’s almost funny. But it’s difficult not to wonder whether this nostalgia is at least a little unhealthy.

Part of this stems from the way this culture of nostalgia focusses on celebrating books from the past. Its makers might be reading Franzen and Egan and Bolano but the books they namecheck are Dickens and Melville and Poe. Obviously I’m not averse to people celebrating the classics (hell, I think half our problem is we don’t celebrate them enough) but as the choice of them indicates (A Tale of Two Cities over Copperfield? ‘The Raven’ over Emily Dickinson?) they’re mostly celebrating books people (or at least Americans) are likely to have read at High School and College.

Again this wouldn’t be a problem if what was being celebrated was the books themselves, but I suspect what’s actually being celebrated is the idea of the books themselves. Nobody’s suggesting we actually engage with Poe or Dickens or Melville, they’re just suggesting we feel a quick inner glow at the thought of them.

Coupled with the fetishisation of the technology of the physical book and the library it’s a strangely pernicious brew. Because if we want books and reading to survive and continue to thrive the single worst thing we can do is turn them into Hallmark card symbols of past certainty. What we need to be doing is emphasising the energy and ambition of contemporary writers, and developing new cultures of reading. And call me cranky, but I find it difficult to see how sentimentalising the past does that.

Are books dead?

Many of you will have already read the condensed version of Ewan Morrison’s talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival, which was published in The Guardian on Monday. If you haven’t, you should: it provides a bracingly unsentimental account of the difficulties facing publishing in general and authors in particular as the print economy transitions to digital. Central to Morrison’s argument is an assumption the transition to ebooks will be rapid, that the same pressures from piracy and consumer behaviour that have reshaped the economics of other industries will drive book prices down to levels which are incapable of supporting authors, and that this in turn will lead to the fairly rapid collapse of the economy of advances and royalties that has sustained professional writers.

It’s unlikely to come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog that I largely agree with Morrison’s arguments. One of the odder aspects of the discussion of the challenges facing the publishing industry over the past few years is the collective delusion that somehow publishing will be shielded from the disruption experienced by industries such as the music industry. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard people say things like “people will always want books”, “there’s something special about browsing in a bookshop” or “my seven year-old loves reading, therefore there’s no crisis”. All those things might well be true, but it’s not going to hold back a tide of change driven by a fundamental shift in the economics of the industry.

All that said, I think Morrison’s article should be read as much as provocation as thesis. There’s little doubt it’s framed within a well-founded unease about the increasing cultural power of behemoths such as Amazon, Google and Apple, or that it wants individuals and governments to at least question our assumption that we have no capacity to manage this transition (Robert Darnton has been making  similar argument in his campaign against the Google Book Settlement).

I’m with Morrison on this. Governments need to understand the interests of citizens and corporations are not the same thing, especially when it comes to the control of culture. But I also think Morrison’s provocations cause him to if not overreach, then certainly to assume the future will be neater than I think it probably will be.

The first thing that’s worth saying is that while I think Morrison is right in arguing that the attachment of older readers to the codex book is unlikely to be replicated in younger readers, I think he’s wrong in assuming this will mean an end of the book altogether. Certainly it’s worth noting that parallel to the rise in digital formats has been a rise in print-on-demand and bespoke publishing. How big the market for these will be is unclear, but I suspect what we’re really looking at is a generational change in the material economy of the book, which will see it move from being a low-cost (or relatively low-cost) consumer good to being a more exclusive, prestige object.

Of course even if I’m right about this, that’s unlikely to make a big difference to either the large-scale economics of publishing or the bottom lines of authors. That difference has to be found in the digital economy, which will, as Morrison suggests, probably supplant the current print economy within a decade.

Morrison’s argument is that piracy will dramatically undercut the economics of publishing in the same way it did in the music industry, and that in the process it will drive a change in consumer attitudes. I suspect he’s part-right on both scores: piracy is an issue, and will become a bigger one in years to come. And the demand for lower and lower prices is real and increasing, as the spats around authors and publishers stressing the fixed costs of book production show.

But Morrison neglects what seems to me the other big lesson of the music industry, which is that as the success of the iTunes Store demonstrates consumers are prepared to pay for content if it’s easily available and priced competitively.

The next question is, of course, whether consumers are prepared to pay enough to support something that looks like the publishing industry as it currently exists. I’m not going to pretend I have an answer to this, but my feeling is the answer is yes and no. The past couple of years have been pretty ugly for a lot of publishers, with a bad Christmas last year and rapidly declining sales in the first half of this year. The figures are complicated by the rise in digital sales, but in Australia while the volume of physical book sales has held up because of the sell-offs of stock by Redgroup, value has fallen, fiction is down 10% and sales of the top 10 books are down by as much as 50% (some publishers speak privately of declines in sales of 25 and 30% across the board). Although at least some of this decline can be attributed to the exceptional circumstances such as the recession and the collapse of Redgroup in Australia and Borders in the US, they’re not the whole story, and if profits keep falling it won’t be long before publishers start having to restructure their operations.

That bland term, “restructuring” is really code for layoffs, reduced commissioning and cancellation of projects. And as such it can’t help but hurt both the people who work in the industry and writers. Morrison correctly asserts the “advance economy” is under siege (“10k is the new 50k”), arguing this economy has enabled a generation of writers to develop their craft. I think he’s attributing too much importance to advances, and that it’s actually the system of royalties underpinned by copyright that enable writers to work, but he’s not entirely wrong, and as advances disappear it will be increasingly difficult for many authors, especially literary authors, to make a living wage.

Obviously this is bad news for many writers and publishers. But again I’d argue the real lesson of the music industry is that as the initial disruption passed other business models began to appear, from Spotify to Bandcamp, as creators and publishers found new ways of reaching audiences. Some involve disintermediating the music labels and selling direct, others use quite different business models. But what they do demonstrate is that in the right circumstances consumers will pay for content, and that there are alternative distribution mechanisms to the Amazon/Apple/Google monopolies.

I’m not going to pretend I know what these mechanisms will be. I have some ideas, but I think one thing we can safely assume is that there will be many more of them than we’re currently used to, and each will serve different markets in different ways. Whether these new models will be capable of sustaining writers in the way the old system did seems to me to be an open question. I suspect the truth will be, as it’s always been, that not many writers will make a lot from their work, but I also suspect it’s going to get a lot harder quite quickly, especially for writers such as myself. But writers and publishers who are prepared to adapt and experiment will succeed.

Which brings me to the last two things I want to say. The first is that I think one counterweight to the general bleakness of Morrison’s argument is that the experience of the music industry has been that the decline of the traditional models has allowed much greater diversity to emerge, alongside a boom in things like music festivals, and my guess is the breakdown in traditional models is already engendering something similar in publishing. The hegemony of the poem/short story/novel division is already under siege, with publishers launching projects such as Pan Macmillan’s digital-only Momentum imprint, which will publish novellas and works not suited to print, and it’s quite clear there’s a hugely energetic community of writers and artists creating works which don’t fit into traditional categories all around us.

The other is that I think Morrison is right, and it is vital we stop assuming we are unable to use these processes to benefit the public as well as corporations. It is possible to find ways of supporting creators, whether that’s through traditional mechanisms such as direct grants or less traditional systems of licensing such as that administered in Australia by the Copyright Agency. And that governments need to be very wary of the agglomerating strategies of Google and others. Once again there’s unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution, but I’m not sure there ever has been, either in business or for writers.

Totally Hip Book Reviews

I’m a little muzzy this morning from last night’s Sydney Writers’ Festival Opening Party (oh yes, the writer’s life is a fabulous one) but one thing I definitely remember from last night was a conversation in which I was recommending Ron Charles’ hilarious video reviews to somebody. Since that person’s identity has now fled my mind, I thought I might use that conversation as an excuse to post his rather fabulous review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Unfortunately Ron’s taking a breather from producing them for a while, but if you’d like to see more you can visit The Washington Post’s Totally Hip Book Review page or Ron’s Youtube Channel. In the meantime, enjoy!

The Uncanny X-book: ebooks, design and digital possibility

Think for a moment about the silly page-turning animations ereaders insist on inserting: aren’t they really the textual equivalent of curtains on a television? Indeed why do we need to retain the notion of the “page” at all? Why can’t text just continue down as we read, like a scroll? And if it did, what would this do to the metaphors and devices we use to shape and organise information, the chapters and sections of the analog world?

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Goodbye New Matilda

Given the turmoil of the last 36 hours, I’m guessing more than a few of you will have missed the fact that today marks the passing of one of Australia’s pioneering new media ventures, New Matilda.

Six years ago, when it began, I was pretty dismissive of New Matilda. It wasn’t that I didn’t think there was a place for a left-of-centre online magazine, but the early issues always seemed depressingly worthy to me. Whether I’d make the same judgement now I don’t know; what I do know is that over the last couple of years the magazine has really come into its own. Certainly if one wanted a demonstration of the way in which new media now consistently outclasses the old in terms of analysis and commentary, you couldn’t find a better example than Ben Eltham, a writer whose pieces have been distinguished by their clarity, intelligence and grasp of detail for some time. I’d say something similar about Jason Wilson, whose astringent commentary on media and politics has grown steadily sharper over the last couple of years.

That’s not to say I think the magazine was perfect. Charles Firth’s epitaph, ‘Why I Never Liked New Matilda’, overplays its hand, but he’s right to home in on how old-fashioned its model seems in 2010. It’s simply not possible for a website focussed on news and commentary to be as static as New Matilda. The continuing success of Crikey! demonstrates that it’s still possible to make the idea of discrete issues work, but Crikey! comes out daily, not weekly, and in the last couple of years their site has become a highly effective aggregator of other people’s content.

The problem is money. As Margaret Simons pointed out in a sobering piece on Crikey!, when it comes to converting eyes into dollars and cents new media suffers from precisely the same problems as old media. New media’s advocates tend to sneer derisively about the business model of the newspapers being broke, but the fact is we don’t have one to replace it.

That’s not to say there aren’t models out there. In the US several independent news outlets have developed viable businesses, some through mixtures of subscription and advertising, others by employing more innovative schemes (you’ll find a good precis of the situation in the US in Michael Massing’s pieces ‘The News About the Internet’ and ‘A New Horizon for the News’, both of which appeared in The New York Review of Books last year). And locally Crikey! seems to go from strength to strength. But the brutal reality is that we still don’t know how to make online media pay well enough to underwrite either quality or quantity.

It’s a problem that’s exacerbated by Australia’s relatively small population. Independent media outfits in the US have access to a market of close to 300 million people, to say nothing of the many in other countries who take interest in American affairs. Independent media in Australia has access to less than 10% of that number. That means that while costs are likely to be similar, potential revenue from advertising and other sources is only ever going to be a fraction of that available to similar operations overseas.

One solution might be to give away the notion that writers and commentators should be paid. Obviously I have a vested interest in this question, but I think there are good reasons not to give away the notion that writers should be paid for their work. That’s not to say the traditional nexus between word count and fee needs to be maintained. Indeed I’d suggest that by its nature a lot of what goes on in new media is better suited to payment on retainer.

The question then is one of revenue, or more accurately, funding. Like literary magazines, independent media, both online and in print, is usually at least partly underwritten by institutional and private benefactors. But that sort of money only goes so far, and beyond that the same old questions begin to intrude.

New Matilda’s editor, Marni Cordell, is making brave noises about rebuilding the magazine’s financial model from the ground up. I hope she succeeds. In the meantime I’d just like to salute her and her team for their work over the past few years, and say they’ll be missed.


Sydney Writers’ Festival

Just a quick note to let you know that if you’re heading down to Sydney Writers’ Festival next weekend I’ll be appearing with Overland Editor and author Jeff Sparrow, Meanjin Editor and author Sophie Cunningham and the ABC Bookshow’s Sarah L’Estrange as part of a panel about eReaders and the future of publishing. Rather mysteriously entitled ‘Let the Games Begin’, the session is on in the Sydney Philharmonia Choir Studio at 1:00pm on Friday 21 May, and should, I think, be an interesting session.

And while I’m not the focus of the event, I’ll also be speaking at the launch of Rodney Hall’s memoir, Popeye Never Told You: Childhood Memories of the War, in the Bangarra Mezzanine on Saturday 22 May at 5:30pm.

Hopefully I’ll see some of you down there. And whether I do or not, I’ll be back here soon.

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A couple of reviews and some links worth a few minutes of your valuable time

Apologies again for my somewhat sporadic posting: I’ve been in a bit of a work-hole for the last little bit. I think – I hope – I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but in the meantime I thought I’d link to a couple of reviews I’ve had in the papers recently (there have actually been a number more but exactly what gets posted online seems to be a bit arbitrary these days).

The first is my review of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, which was published in The Australian a few weeks back. I may have some more things to say about Rachman’s book in the not-too-distant future, but for now the review will have to do.

The second is also from The Australian, and is of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s follow-up to the truly unsettling Let The Right One In, Handling the Undead, a book which despite its subject matter (zombies in Sweden) and Lindqvist’s bizarrely unmodulated prose, is both oddly beautiful and more than a little upsetting.

(If you feel like hunting out the print versions I’ve also had pieces on Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, Richard Powers’ entirely wonderful “enhancement” Generosity (one of the most exciting books I’ve read in ages), and Jim Crace’s All That Follows).

I’d also like to suggest three (or four, to be precise) things from elsewhere which are very definitely worth reading (assuming you haven’t already). The first is Anthony Lane’s breezy and entirely entertaining tour of the history of 3D (in the context of which I’d refer you to my post on Avatar a few weeks back). If you’re not completely over Avatar by now Daniel Mendelsohn’s piece on the film is also worth a look (though I have to confess I think anything by Mendelsohn is worth reading).

Also worth a look is Jason Epstein’s piece in The New York Review of Books on the future of publishing: I suspect I feel less wedded to the past than he does but it’s a pretty good summary of the situation at present.

And last (but very definitely not least) Jonah Lehrer’s fascinating piece from The New York Times Magazine about the controversial but tantalising studies suggesting depression may confer evolutionary advantage, a piece which is distinguished not just by being the only place I’ve ever seen the word “heterogeneity” used in a newspaper article, but by meshing suggestively with the desire of a wide range of writers (including myself) to try and understand depression in terms beyond the simplistically pathological.

Enjoy – I’ll be back online later this week.

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Some thoughts about Avatar Part 1: 3D and reality

Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and Sully (Sam Worthington)

Given the sheer volume of discussion of Avatar online, and the fact that it’s now a month since the film was released, I’ve been a little reluctant to chip in with my two cents worth. But while the time for anything like a straight review is long past, I feel like there are some things worth saying about it that don’t seem to have been said to date.

Because what I want to say is reasonably extended, I’ve decided to break it up into two (or just possibly three) posts. The first – this one – is about the 3D technology of the film; later in the week I want to say a few things about the film’s broader message, and perhaps about what it is that seems to work (and not work) in it.

To begin with, I think it’s worth observing just how overwhelming the response to the film has been. I can’t think of another film in recent years which has generated anything like as much commentary as Avatar, or (perhaps more interestingly) which has managed to chew up so much bandwidth across so many channels. You’d expect a genre film, especially a genre film as expensive and technically striking as Avatar to be generating a lot of commentary on sites which cater to fanboys, but it’s a lot less usual for a genre film (or indeed any film) to be generating continuing commentary on the opinion pages of the major international broadsheets.

At least part of this can be attributed to the film’s politics, which have enraged right-wing commentators around the world (or at least inspired the sorts of absurd posturing that passes for outrage in right-wing circles). I’m not going to rehash their arguments here, which mostly turn on the mawkishness of the film’s ecological and political subtexts, but I would observe that there’s something telling about the sheer ferocity of the Right’s hostility to messages which are, at one level, so unexceptional (after all, as Elvis Costello almost asked, what’s so threatening about peace, love and understanding?).

But I’m not sure the somewhat confected political debate about the film’s politics really explains its transformation into a full-blown cultural phenomenon. Certainly it’s difficult to imagine the armies of people who’ve trooped off to see the film having a Road to Damascus moment as they head home to their houses filled with the sort of consumer technologies that made the film possible and deciding to give it all away for a simpler life (nor, I suspect, would the many corporations with a stake in its success be impressed if they thought its anti-consumerist message was actually hitting home).

Instead the film’s impact seems to be a result of the technologies that make it so striking, in particular Cameron’s extremely sophisticated fusion of 3D and digital special effects.

In itself this is hardly a remarkable observation, but stay with me for a moment. 3D isn’t new, but after the success of Avatar I think we can assume it’s here to stay. There have already been announcements that films ranging from the new Bond film to 2012’s Star Trek 2 and the now-Sam Raimi-less Spiderman 4 will be shot in 3D, and while the technology will presumably take a while to trickle down into smaller, less spectacle-driven productions, I think there’s little doubt it will.

To my mind the interesting question isn’t whether 3D will gradually displace older, 2D technologies, but what that will mean for the way we see and experience film (or indeed whether it is fair to continue to describe the future of visual storytelling as “film”). As anyone who’s seen it knows, what’s really exciting about Avatar isn’t the story (though to tell the truth, I found it completely absorbing, all my caveats about the woodenness of its storytelling notwithstanding) or even the effects (which are, quite simply, extraordinary) but the sense of immersion. As many before me have observed, the film largely declines to employ the sort of cheesy things-shooting-out-of-the-screen-at-you gimmicks 3D films have usually confined themselves to, and instead concentrates on creating a world you enter as if it were real.

Interestingly, I think the sheer novelty of the experience rather overwhelms the fact that as a simulation of real space the film is actually rather crude. There’s depth, but objects and figures often seem more like planes moving in space than actual three-dimensional things (rather like a $300 million Captain Pugwash cartoon, I suppose). That’s not to say it isn’t amazing, and – as the film’s publicity reminds us – unlike anything we’ve seen before, but it is to be reminded that for all its wonder to an audience in 2010, within a decade Avatar is likely to look as crude as the original Star Wars does now. Likewise I suspect it’s fair to assume that 3D film and television are probably only transitional technologies, and that the future lies in holographic projection or some similar technology.

But crude or not, I think there’s little doubt Avatar is the embodiment of Cameron’s recognition that cultural forms are, in a very deep sense, artefacts of the technology that create them. Novels take the form they do because of the codex book, movies the cinema (and increasingly, television) screen, video games the computer screen. So moving from 2D to 3D isn’t just about adding depth to films, it’s about creating something new, something unlike anything we’ve had before.

In a minor way this is visible in the textures of the film itself. Despite the immersiveness of the 3D Avatar often seems curiously flat texturally. Given the riot of colour that is Pandorum, it would be impossible to describe it as washed-out, but more than once I found myself nostalgic for the vivid density of colour digital images and digital film have made us familiar with. There are a few moments that have it – most memorably the early scenes in space, which draw upon NASA’s photographs of the ISS and shuttle missions – but for the most part Pandorum (and by extension the film itself) doesn’t look dense or vivid enough to be “real”.

Arrival at Pandorum

But this density of colour is itself new, a consequence of the shift to digital imaging, and the increasingly blurry line between reality and representations of reality, a line films like Avatar are making even blurrier. What looked “real” to an audience familiar with Technicolor looks strange to us, just as the more liquid surfaces of analog photography seem increasingly other-worldly to a culture more accustomed to digital reproduction.

This is doubly true of Avatar’s use of 3D, which breaks the fourth wall in a truly revolutionary manner. Instead of watching the film, the audience are in the film. I’ve not read everything that’s been written about the film, but it seems odd to me that people haven’t made more of the fact that Cameron quite deliberately situates a second, imaginary immersive technology at the centre of the film, as if to suggest the film is, in some small way, a very crude version of what Sully and the others experience “dreamwalking” in the avatars themselves.

Sully (Sam Worthington) and his avatar

But the avatar technology also – and importantly to my mind – invokes the computer game. I don’t mean by this that the film is intended to celebrate gaming or leverage a computer game (though it’s certainly not too cynical to suggest there’s nothing accidental about the very obvious continuity between the textures of the film and the textures of Avatar: The Game). Instead I think Cameron invokes gaming because he understands – whether consciously or not – the synergies between the immersiveness of 3D moviemaking and the computer game.

In a very crude sense, computer games and film have been converging for some time. In the gaming world it’s long since ceased to be surprising for a game to be “cinematic”, and, conversely, I think it’s fair to say the largely digital textures of a lot of action and science fiction films often seem to resemble those of the more sophisticated games.

Critics of games and gaming usually point to the crudeness of the interactions, or the lack of interiority in games as a sign of their inferiority to older forms such as fiction and film. But that seems to me to miss the point. Games aren’t about interiority, they’re about agency, and often, the creativity of the player. They are an experience, a means of entering another world.

Of course this is precisely what Sully does in the film when he steps into his avatar’s body (and again when he leaves the control of the mission and becomes one of the Na’vi), and what, in a cruder sense, the film allows the viewer to do. And while the agency enjoyed by a player is absent, the sense of immersion moves the experience beyond that of passive consumption, suggesting something more like possibility, or even escape. Indeed the film very deliberately suggests this longing for freedom, and for escape through its early concentration on Sully and his ruined body, and the sense he only becomes fully alive, and fully real in the moment he steps into the avatar.

Which brings us back, I think, to the question of what 3D will do to film, and perhaps more profoundly, film’s storytelling. All forms of fictional narrative – novels, films, television series, even fairy tales and folk stories – create worlds. But the shift to 3D makes this process central, emphasising the viewer’s immersion in the world of the film, just as computer games emphasise the player’s immersion in the world of the game. It also, in the longer term, suggests new forms of interactivity, and, I suspect, narrative possibilities (at the very least POV pornography is unlikely to ever be quite the same). And, more deeply, it hastens our transition into a world where the virtual and the real are essentially indistinguishable, and where our sense of what is real is hopelessly enmeshed in the technologies we use to reproduce it. As filmmakers like Cocteau understood long ago, 2D film has always, at some deep level, been about a kind of dreaming, a way of projecting our fantasies onto the screen (it’s not accidental we watch movies in the dark, or that film is essentially insubstantial, a play of light upon a screen); with 3D those dreams cease to be insubstantial, and begin to populate the world around us.

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This one’s for you, John, or “I built a sex robot in your memory”

I’m sure more than a few of you will have seen the story out of this week’s Adult Entertainment Expo about the launch of TrueCompanion’s “anatomically consistent” artificial intelligence-driven sex robot, Roxxxy.

I’m reasonably unmoved by the story itself: sex robots aren’t new, and I think it’s safe to assume they’ll grow more sophisticated and lifelike in years to come (if you’d like to know more you might want to check out Shouting to hear the echoes as an introduction to the wild and wonderful world of Synthetiks).

But there’s a detail buried in The Sydney Morning Herald’s coverage of the launch which had me choking on my muesli. Apparently:

“Inspiration for the sex robot sprang from the September 11, 2001 attacks. ‘I had a friend who passed away in 9/11,’ [Roxxxy's creator, Douglas Hines] said. ‘I promised myself I would create a program to store his personality, and that became the foundation for Roxxxy True Companion’.”

Now, quite aside from the fact this is pretty much the plot of Caprica (which I’ll be reviewing in the next couple of weeks), am I wrong in thinking there’s something splendidly weird about the idea of creating a sex robot to commemorate a friend’s passing? And, if we wanted to get all psychological for a moment, that there’s something about the way the idea mixes up subject and object (literally and metaphorically) which goes to the heart of pornography and the sex industries more generally? Or is it just that Marx was right all along, and all history, no matter how dreadful, is eventually and inevitably reborn as farce?

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Sunday ephemera

"my nipples smell like sauerkraut"

After a very rewarding morning washing a tub of Vaseline out of my three year-old’s hair (in case you’re interested shampoo is useless but talcum powder and then shampoo seems to have helped) I thought I’d chuck up a few links to liven up your Sunday.

The first is a delicious new site called Autocomplete Me, which I found via Spike (who found it via The Millions), which uses the Google’s autocomplete function as a device to peer into the murky depths of the collective subconscious. Having confessed before to the voyeuristic pleasures of eavesdropping on other people’s search terms it’s the sort of site I can’t help but enjoy, but I challenge anybody not to be both fascinated and bemused by the fragmentary glimpses of people’s private worlds the site throws up. Some are cute (“What do you feed a Yeti anyway?”), a lot are weird (“Cheese is the devil’s plaything”) and  some are just plain worrying (“I’ve just had a conversation with my cat in the shower about pancakes. We both like them a lot”).

I also thought in the light of my post a few weeks back about the death of the letter it might be worth pointing to Stacy Schiff’s wonderful review of Thomas Mallon’s equally wonderful-sounding Yours Ever: People and their Letters, a book written in the shadow of the disappearance of the form to which it is devoted. Schiff reads Mallon’s book as an elegy for a dying art, suggesting in closing:

“It is next to impossible to read these pages without mourning the whole apparatus of distance, without experiencing a deep and plangent longing for the airmail envelope, the sweetest shade of blue this side of a Tiffany box. Is it possible to sound crusty or confessional electronically? It is as if text and e-mail messages are of this world, a letter an attempt, however illusory, to transcend it. All of which adds tension and resonance to Mallon’s pages, already crackling with hesitations and vulnerabilities, obsessions and aspirations, with reminders of the lost art of literary telepathy, of the aching, attenuated rhythm of a written correspondence.”

To which, my suggestion that blogs and Twitter might, in a very small way, be replacing the letter notwithstanding, I can only say, ‘Amen’.

And finally, a little Sunday song. I know this video’s done the rounds a lot of times already, I know it’s just marketing, but it’s a wonderful thing all the same. Enjoy.

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23 years after Chernobyl (or the nuclear fool cycle)

Chernobyl-Today-A-Creepy-Story-told-in-Pictures-funfair

Pripyat Funfair, © Ben Fairless

One of the more bizarre side-effects of the climate change debate is the fact that it’s given new life to the nuclear power lobby. Indeed it sometimes seems that every time I turn on the ABC or open a newspaper there’s some talking head doing his utmost to convince us that not only is nuclear power now safe, it’s also the only technology capable of offering emission-free alternative to fossil fuels. Never mind that we still have no way of dealing with the waste (at least until Generation IV technology becomes a reality), never mind that the emissions generated by extracting and processing uranium far outstrip the emissions generated by coal-fired stations, never mind the possibility of accidents or sabotage, nuclear power is the way to go. (I suppose the one point in their favour is that nuclear technology actually exists, unlike the ludicrous fantasy of “clean” coal).

Of course nuclear power is precisely the sort of boysy technology that appeals to a particular kind of smart man, not least because it allows them to do their “I’m the sort of man who’s prepared to take hard decisions without being fazed by silly, sentimental anxieties about the environment,” routine, but you’d think even they’d be able to hear themselves when they declare that the technology is now foolproof (like that unsinkable ship, the Titanic, I suppose).

Anyway – I thought in the context of that debate it might be worth linking to this remarkable series of photographs of Chernobyl. Gathering together work by a number of photographers, some born in the area, others not, they speak not just to the destructive force of the accident, and the scars it left on the place and its inhabitants, but in their haunting reminder of the way the forest is reclaiming the Exclusion Zone, to the hubris of presuming human society and its creations are anything more than a hiccough in the larger cycle of life and time.

(via io9).

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The perils of ubiquity

FT004BpreviewThe 10 August issue of The New Yorker has a piece by Alex Ross about the growing number of online retailers offering high-definition music downloads. It’s worth checking out, not least because he mentions David Lang’s hauntingly beautiful Little Match Girl Passion, and Stile Antico’s equally magnificent recording of Palestrina, Gombert, Lassus and others, Song of Songs (I have to confess the harpsichord pieces by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck he mentions all sound a bit hard to me, but I’m very interested to hear Ann Southam’s “immense, glacial, hypnotic piano work”, Simple Lines Of Enquiry).

Although much of the piece is occupied with the manner in which recording technology is altering what we hear when we listen to music, Ross is also worrying away at another, deeper question, about how we as a culture and as individuals accommodate a situation where the availability of music radically outstrips our capacity to absorb and understand it. As he puts it:

“For a century or so, the life of a home listener was simple: you had your disks, whether in the form of cylinders, 78s, LPs, or CDs, and, no matter how many of them piled up, there was a clear demarcation between the music that you had and the music that you didn’t. The Internet has removed that distinction. Near-infinity awaits on the other side of the magic rectangle. Video and audio stream in from around the world. The other day, I watched Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger, in an interestingly horrible new production from the Paris Opéra (courtesy of the European arts channel Arte); took in Mahler’s Ninth at the Proms (courtesy of BBC 3); and then bought a virtual seat in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, which had an HD video of Simon Rattle conducting Robert Schumann and Bernd Alois Zimmermann, the agility of the camerawork outdoing the robotic Great Performances standard. (Berlin’s harp-cam is especially cool.)

“But these meandering journeys across the Internet soundscape can be taxing. The medium too easily generates anxiety in place of fulfillment, an addictive cycle of craving and malaise. No sooner has one experience begun than the thought of what else is out there intrudes.”

It’s an interesting question (and one I’ve asked myself before). What does the sheer ubiquity of music and content do to our capacity to engage meaningfully with individual works? Nor is it a concern confined to music: only a few weeks ago Jeff Sparrow was asking, not entirely facetiously, whether the internet was destroying his capacity to read books.

As I remarked when I posted on this subject last time, I’m painfully aware these words are inescapably the articulation of a very particular sort of cultural anxiety, and that it’s difficult to ask these sorts of questions without sounding as if you’re engaged in a lament for what we’re losing. But I do think it’s a serious question. Isn’t the intensity of our reaction to a piece of music or writing a function of a deep and powerful engagement with that piece of music or writing? I know the pieces of music that have mattered to me over the years (Glass’ Metamorphoses, Bach’s Mass in B Minor and St John and St Matthew Passions, Brahms’ German Requiem, Strauss’ Last Songs for instance) are all pieces I’ve listened to repeatedly and often obsessively, sometimes over the space of months or years, and that my relationship to them is inextricably wound up in that process of listening and relistening.

But I also know exactly the feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction Ross describes. usually it’s worst in the car, where I’ll find myself flicking songs over and over again, often before the last one has finished, looking for the next song I want, the song that will be just right. Like being jacked up on caffeine or speed, it’s a state of nervous dissatisfaction which by it very nature denies you the ability to engage with what’s you’re listening to.

Ross suggests, not implausibly, that the resurgence in interest in vinyl over the last decade might be a reaction against the sheer ubiquity of music in the modern world, a way of controlling its impossible profusion and universal availability. I suspect we all have techniques of our own as well, personal systems and listening habits designed to control our burgeoning digital music collections. Nor is it difficult to see something of the same impulse in the creation of systems like iTunes’ Genius function, or music communities such as Mog, both of which are, in very different ways, technologies designed to filter and control what we listen to by offering recommendations. But these systems are also, inescapably, expressions of a need to preserve our ability to engage with music in a meaningful way, and of the cultural equivalent of the oldest rule of economics, that scarcity and value are inextricably connected.

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Ever worried you’re trapped inside a simulation of reality?

Maybe you are.

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