Friday, January 02, 2009

Consciousness, Reading & Forgotten Plots

My reading has been somewhat disappointing this year. I don't know if I'm becoming more critical in my old age, or if my selections have been poor. I have even taken to re-reading some of my favorite titles, something I at one time could have sworn I would never do: There being "so many books and so little time." Then there is the book that I remember reviewing once for the library newsletter and was very moved by the story but, upon stumbling upon the book again, I can't seem to motivate myself to re-read it. The latter being a novel by Sandra Shea, Philadelphia journalist, The Realm of Secondhand Souls. Checking on Amazon, unfortunately, I found nothing else attributed to her. Too bad. Sometimes a body of work is necessary to get at the soul of the novelist.

This could be said of Caitlin R. Kiernan. I have enjoyed her novels over many years and feel as if I am a part of her maturing process. Her writing hasn't necessarily matured, it was and remains good, but her sense of "being in the world" or gestalt would seem to be struggling with more of the complexity of our humanity. Her works are less dependent on the clear demarcations between good and evil. The graying out of morality colors her newer stories. I enjoyed a feeding frenzy a few months ago and zipped through Low Red Moon and Daughter of Hounds. Her work has yet to offer the insightful kernels of philosophical self awareness that I crave in a novel, though there was a breath of it at the beginning of chapter eight, Intersections, in Daughter.
And from the starry place, all things are possible, and, perhaps, all things are also probable.
Possibility is infinite here, and possibility collides, in spiraling space-time fusillades, with probability
at every turn. The unlikely and the never-was become, for fleeting instants, the actual and the
inevitable and the black facts of a trillion competing histories, each entirely ignorant of all the
others, each confident that it's the only 'true' history.

Though I have enjoyed all Kiernan's novels. She's unlikely to be someone I would re-read, not to say she won't yet write something to relish more than once.

Not so with Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, I read it again and there may be a third read in its future. Stephenson's steamerpunk classic continues to compel evolutionary thought. His ideas, like the worlds he creates, are multi-dimensional and convoluted, woven with vibrant threads of one who sees between the cracks, reads between the lines, hears the pulsing of nature's heart. Stephenson, as Hackworth, describes Fiona, the daughter's curiousity: "The universe was a disorderly mess, the only interesting bits being the organized anomalies." Fiona, for whom the "young lady's illustrated primer" has been created by a father with the imagination and means to give his daughter ready access to wisdom beyond her years. The primer ends up in the hands of one who has the greater need for understanding in order to survive alone and after a interacting with the primer is asked by a friendly constable, "Which path do you intend to take, Nell?...Conformity or rebellion?" To which she astutely responds, "Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded--they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity."

And it is this very ability in Stephenson, which deepens the consciouness while reading so that "the story (is) anfractuous develop(ing) more ramifications the more closely" (we) read it. "

His latest novel, Anathem, is excellent, though not one of my favorites of his (favorites being Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon with Snow Crash in the running.) In Anathem he writes, "Consciousness applifies the weak signals that, like cobwebs spun between trees, web Narratives together. Moreover, it amplifies them selectively and in that way creates feedback loops that steer the Narratives." In this description, I see the key to his technique and genius, the patient weaving of word over word, under and over, repeating and repeating patterns and ideas in kaleidescopic ways to invest breath in his characters by virtue of their need to find meaning in their being, whether reality or fiction is called home.

Rudy Rucker, another cyberpunk master, has a similar ability to create worlds of fantasy filtered through his own refined consciousness of abstraction and mathematical theory. Unlike,Stephenson, however, Rucker doesn't seem to take himself or his insights seriously. Absurdity being his stock in trade, Rucker challenges the reader to drop all pretense of understanding in order to fall, like Alice, into a rabbit/worm hole of surreality. In his latest, Postsingularity, Rucker toys with a new medium, not unfamiliar to those who read the genre. Rather than describe it, instead I find his depiction of the authors of this new genre more suggestive, "(Metanovelists) were more like cartoonists or directors, assembling blocks of mental states, creating networks of glyphs. Their works were embedded as teep-tags within handicraft items: tie-dyed scarves, bead necklaces, carving bits of wood."

This short passage is a perfect example of the whacked out ideas making up Rucker's novels. I'm often left feeling like I'm either stupid, uninformed or out of the loop. His terminology, such as "teep-tags" may have some meaning discernible to academic mathmeticians or computer geeks, but to me seems like a nonsensical term in the tradition of the Jabberwocky. My mind gives meaning, correct or not, in order to make sense of the story, because the story is worth making sense of.

Story, narrative, consciousness--all only slightly more complex terminology for the same sense of mapping meaning. Such is the theme in Justina Robson's Mappa Mundi, in which she writes:
" Consciousness is the emergent product of a complex and discrete set of actions
in the brain. It is the narrative story that comes a fraction of a second after the
subconscious mind has already made its decisions and taken its actions. It is a
macro-level event. But the quantum manipulation...Fermions are the stuff of matte
and bosons the stuff of fields, together forming the fabric of the universe."

Like and yet unline Rucker's higher mathematics, as I'm totally science illiterate, fermions and bosons could be anything, but at least have a ring of familiarity. Robson's character's yoga teacher is closer to my preponderance for metaphysics: "The universe came and sat inside you, the ocean poured into the drop, the drop didn't dissolve in the ocean."

And, it is exactly this kind of insight that draws me into cyberpunk, which isn't science fiction though that's where it's shelved in bookstores and libraries. Cyberpunk fiction is a search for meaning in new medias, metaphorizing McLuhan's philosophy into art forms. Such as in Robson's: "...underneath the shell of your self, all your defining moments, there is another entity that isn't bound by your human lifetime, it's an eternal, immortal thing, and the maintain that by bringing the mind to stillness, while conscious, you can make contact with it.'s the resonance."
It's the "ghost in the machine" that seduces us in the genre, they mystery of consciousness that shapes the story. "...all understanding is a story and no more. ...a construct of reasons and connections and ideas tethered together by narrative links..."

These links, novels, give me more in the way of understanding than math or science teachers who insisted that they couldn't answer my questions because I had to learn the basics first. Looking back, I wonder how they would feel if they had been told that they wouldn't be able to read and appreciate a work of fiction unless they could first grasp the underpinnings of transformational grammar, phenomenology or synchronicity. Which leads me to the accidentally omitted of Caitlin R. Kiernan's Murder of Angels whose ideas fit here like the single letter inserted in a game of scrabble that giving triple points: "We call it syncretization, taking elements of older stories and putting them together in new ways, or combining them with other stories to make new and more useful myths."

But back to Robson who began her Mappa Mundi with Charles Darwin, "Free will is an illusion caused by our inability to analyze our own motives." The only way we can question ourselves is through fiction, when we question and find proof in the real world it's non-fiction. Memetic theory plays a large role in Robson's novel and inspired me to pursue the topic in Wikipedia:
Memes are copied by imitation, teaching and other methods, and they compete for space in our memories and for the chance to be copied again. Large groups of memes that are copied and passed on together are called co-adapted meme complexes, or memeplexes. In her definition, thus, the way that a meme replicates is through imitation. This requires brain capacity to generally imitate a model or selectively imitate the model. Since the process of social learning varies from one person to another, the imitation process cannot be said to be completely imitated. The sameness of an idea may be expressed with different memes supporting it. This is to say that the mutation rate in memetic evolution is extremely high, and mutations are even possible within each and every interaction of the imitation process. It becomes very interesting when we see that a social system composed of a complex network of microinteractions exists, but at the macro level an order emerges to create culture.
Fascinating in the implications for what we may be creating with social networking, this blog being an example of a social evolutionary contribution and not just another masturbatory undertaking. Robson makes Game Theory matter in the way that only information can matter in the web 2.0 world: "As the shadow is seen in the light so the emptiness of energy alone is animated by information, and all life is a supercollation of informative points... Because the spaces and the forms ar part of one thing. Like a jigsaw. There is no division between space and form, the void and the illusion of dense matter. Matter itself is an energy vibration. Reonance derives shape, property and gravity. Matter is information. Every one of us a unique product, constantly evolving along a narrative storyline that chooses us, as we once chose it, without knowing."

From what I can tell a first time author, Adam Felber, wins the NYMLibrary (not your mother's) prize for Schrodinger's Ball and his definition of humans as "spatiotemporal origami" and that yes we may be the "end product of history" but that we must "bear in mind that history is more or less a digestive tract." Puts me in mind of one of Marilyn Monroe's mentors whose advice when addressing her artistic aspirations was reputed to have been "Make good shit."

Schrodinger's Ball consists of string theory (or even suggests M-theory M might stand for maybe) with "the power of the observer" versus the "understanding of the observer" and reality being permeable from both sides but most importantly in pointing out that "what survives and propogates is the story itself, not what the story's about." And, that "to talk about a 'thought pattern' is redundant. Thoughts themselves are patterns--huge, multilayered patterns built on custom-tweaked operating systems, no two alike. The idea of a single, expressible 'thought' is a lie. But believing that lie is the only thing that makes communication possible."

Whoa, I've got to think about that in context of my upcoming book on bridging the communication gap between techies and non-techies.

So, I'll end on a now for something completely different note with Alain de Botton's Kiss & Tell. (See earlier reviews.) de Botton's prose is so seductive that if I weren't a confirmed spinster, I'd be tempted. He speaks the language of women without patronizing the gender. I learned much of myself reading his On Love (reviewed April 06) and again here: The process of intimacy therefore involved the opposite of seduction, for it meant revealing what risked rendering one most open to unfavourable judgement, or least worthy of love." And communication, expression of our thoughts verbally, is no less than a breakdown in communication and a reminder of our aloneness as a lover's fantasy is to "be understood without needing speak" but rather through an intimate level of intuition.

Though de Botton's biographical novel of his lover doesn't profess any cutting edge science, it is a still a part of the exploration of new uses of media in that the biography takes us into the life story of a woman remarkable only by virture of the fact that a biography is written about her, and yet, her story is one of meaning and an individual's evolutionary consciousness through the simplicity of being. In Kiss & Tell, the ocean comes to sit in Isabel Rogers.