Your Body Is Horrifying, pt. 1

Warning: rambling. -Ed.

It’s common, in trope-y writing, like horror or sci-fi, to intentionally make the reader feel a certain horror in or about their own body. This can also come up in authors who inhabit the ‘weird’ spectrum, like Borges or Murakami.

The thing about this is that it’s so easy. All I have to do is point out that you have a body.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as inhabiting a body. This comes in many flavors. Dualism is an extremely popular one. Your body is separate from your you. Your soul, your spirit, your whatever-you-want-to-call-it: your mind is not a part of your body, so your mind is not made of meat. Things made of meat are gross. We eat things made of meat. But your mind, which you’ve managed to separate from your body just by thinking about it (thinking is magical!), is still, you know, physically bound to your body. You can’t go anywhere that your meat doesn’t let you. You’re born meat, and you die meat.

Gross, right?

Now, there’s a second aspect to this. Bodies die. So we come up with elaborate mechanisms for which our bodies might die, but not us, not really. Dualism is a very strongly held belief in basically every school of thought, even atheism. So it’s not just that meat is gross–meat is mortal, too. Like I said, a lot of us eat it every day without really giving it a second thought. Any notion that your you-ness is all tied up in this meat nonsense is horrifying.

So how can I make sure you feel this? First, I can just tell you. You are mortal. You are made of meat. Like in this hypothetical children’s book from the inimitable Ryan North:

comic2-531
Or this gem, which Neal Stephenson sort of randomly plops down in the middle of a scene in Cryptonomicon:

The room contains a few dozen living human bodies, each one a big sack of guts and fluids so highly compressed that it will squirt for a few yards when pierced. Each one is built around an armature of 206 bones connected to each other by notoriously fault-prone joints that are given to obnoxious creaking, grinding, and popping noises when they are in other than pristine condition. This structure is draped with throbbing steak, inflated with clenching air sacks, and pierced by a Gordian sewer filled with burbling acid and compressed gas and asquirt with vile enzymes and solvents produced by many dark, gamy nuggets of genetically programmed meat strung along its length. Slugs of dissolving food are forced down this sloppy labyrinth by serialized convulsions, decaying into gas, liquid, and solid matter which must all be regularly vented to the outside world lest the owner go toxic and drop dead. Spherical, gel-packed cameras swivel in mucus greased ball joints. Infinite phalanxes of cilia beat back invading particles, encapsulate them in goo for later disposal. In each body a centrally located muscle flails away at an eternal, circulating torrent of pressurized gravy.

Isn’t that fun? In the first example, North just points out some meat and mortality; in the second, Stephenson makes it super gross. They’re not especially horrifying, I suppose, but they certainly make me nervous and a little squicked out, which is the point.

One thing that is horrifying, in its own special way, is a sci-fi short story (and a wonderful short film version) that does just this (linked above as well), in which the fact that we’re made out of meat is described from the point of view of somebody who is just now discovering that it’s even possible for something sentient to be made out of meat:

“They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“Meat. They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.”

“That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?”

“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”

“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”

They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”

“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they’re made out of meat.”
[…]

This upsets the aliens enough that they decide to declare the sector uninhabited, erase all records of humanity, and move on. Later, they muse about how lonely it must be, thinking you’re alone in the universe, except they’re talking about an intelligent crystal or something or other.

So, in order to make you feel weird about your body (which is of course all you are and ever will be), I can:

  • Remind you that you’re mortal
  • Describe your body in excruciating detail
  • Talk about your body as though I’d never seen a body before

And we haven’t even gotten to the part where I have you imagine anything even happening to your body. All of these examples so far are just descriptive.

In Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, one of the characters has a scar on her face and something wrong with her leg. He tends to mark his characters like this. In 1Q84 one of them has a weird ear. Body marking is also very important in the Germanic epics and sagas. This is the realm of injuries and minor mutilations. It sets people apart as different, or important, or both. That’s all another post though.

For now, man, how weird is it that you have a body?

The Reverse X-Files

In The X-Files,  and many other things as well, the writers have an irksome tendency to have the characters just define things to each other in front of the reader/viewer, who might not know what they’re talking about. It makes me think of The X-Files because in college we had a professor who was really into Darin Morgan, and we studied some of the episodes he’d written in class, as well as a couple he hadn’t.

Naturally this led to watching all the rest of The X-Files during downtime, since we had the DVD’s from the library anyway.

The show made a habit of this. The example I like to use is roughly this.

SCULLY: Do you think this could be an example of telekinesis, Mulder?

MULDER: Telekinesis? You mean the ability to manipulate objects with nothing but the power of one’s mind?

SCULLY: Yes, Mulder.

MULDER: No, Scully, I don’t think this is an example of telekinesis.

I forget if it was actually telekinesis or not in that episode. Anyway, that’s the general formula.

Recently enough somebody reminded me of this scene from Superman, which features a particularly egregious example.

LEX LUTHOR: The San Andreas fault, maybe you’ve heard of it?

SUPERMAN: Yes… it’s the joining together of two land masses. The fault line is unstable and shifting, which is why you get earthquakes in California from time to time.

LEX LUTHOR: Wonderful. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Not only do the authors know that they’re doing it, they’re trying to act cagey by making sure you know they know they’re doing it (“couldn’t have said it better myself!”). Now, there’s nothing wrong with this, necessarily. Tropes are tools, after all. But this particular execution just sucks.

(Going by the TVTropes nomenclature, when done well, this is more appropriately lampshade hanging, and when done especially poorly it’s an as you know, Bob…. My examples above are of the ‘reading the dictionary to the viewer’ variety, which makes me think of The X-Files.)

Anyway, I ran into a sort of reverse X-Files today at work. We’re setting up a new data pipeline using Google Cloud Pub/Sub, which uses a bleedingly obscure word in the documentation, and whoever wrote this is savvy enough to know that you probably don’t know the word, and actually goes out of his way to make sure you know he knows you don’t know the word by linking to the wikipedia article without comment.

For the most part Pub/Sub delivers each message once, and in the order in which it was published. However, once-only and in-order delivery are not guaranteed: it may happen that a message is delivered more than once, and out of order. Therefore, your subscriber should be idempotent when processing messages, and, if necessary, able to handle messages received out of order…

As if he couldn’t be bothered to do any explanation for the handful of idiots who don’t know what ‘idempotent’ means off the top of their heads. Bravo, sir or madame.

Document formatting in fiction

(cross-posted)

Formatting is fun.

Time was, when you were ready to have a book published, you sent off your typewritten manuscript to the publisher and they determined what sort of physical form this would take. Typeface, page size, font size, paper stock, often cover art, hardcover vs. trade paperback, all that stuff.

That’s still true, to a large degree, but all the advances in technology for dead-tree printing have really let us go to town with creative formatting. This can take a variety of forms. I’m going to lead, however, with a historical example.

William Faulkner wanted The Sound and The Fury to be published with more than just black ink on white paper. (Well, he didn’t have anything to say about the paper.) But I do know that he wanted multiple ink colors to indicate the various speakers and time periods and intersections thereof. My recollection from undergrad is that he wanted four colors (or perhaps five if you include black); the Times article above suggests fourteen. At any rate, the publisher said ‘no’, because that would have been super expensive in 1929. (The ultra-deluxe 14-color modern edition linked above sold for $345 at printing, though I doubt this was strictly necessary and is almost certainly a case of conspicuous consumption for lit nerds.)

There’s an interesting discussion of how the new coloration may actually make the book too non-difficult to read. I wouldn’t know, since I read the broke undergrad Penguin Classics version, but it’s an interesting thought. I have the impression that The Sound and The Fury is sort of a rite of passage, and that this makes accessibility a bad thing, to a certain type of person. That’s a topic for another time I suppose.

So that was then, and this is now. Custom formatting is cheaper and easier, yay! I’ll admit that I first started noticing it when I was reading Cell by Stephen King, which would have been, gosh, ten years ago. One of the recurring images is the main character being crushed by a piece of construction equipment. The equipment’s brand is Link-Belt. “Here comes Link-Belt!” is I believe the refrain. But it’s in sort of a font like “Here comes LINK-BELT!” And as it gets closer and closer to crushing his leg (debilitating leg injuries are something of a motif for Mr. King), it gets bigger.

“Here comes LINK-BELT!”

 

“Here comes LINK-BELT!”

 

“Here comes LINK-BELT!”

(To this day, when I pass a construction site on the highway and see a LINK-BELT piece of machinery, I think of that.)

That’s fun. And technology is letting us do more stuff like that in more things ‘cuz cheap production, which is good. It even lets us do some completely bugf— crazy things like this.

house-of-leaves-sample

House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski) is, uh, a thing that exists. (I did not take this picture.) It’s weird. Leaving aside the question of whether or not it pulls off what it’s trying to do, let nobody say that it doesn’t try to do it. And it just wouldn’t even exist if it we didn’t have the ability to do something like this for a few (seven) hundred pages relatively cheap. It costs about as much as any other roughly-letter-sized 700-page book. We aren’t talking about asking the publisher ‘can I use Helvetica instead of Times’? We aren’t talking about something like The Sound and The Fury here, where it’s maybe better/closer to the original intent if you have a few extra colors. Cheap formatting is an existential requirement for this book.

Yay cheap formatting! I’m generally in favor of books existing! Really going out on a limb there, I know!

Obviously this is even easier in digital formats. I’m going to go out on another limb and include web sites in that calculation. Philosophically they’re just books with javascript and a database, or perhaps more like the memex, but the relevant thing is, these were all conceived of as digital text, and in this sense ‘text’ means ‘a document’ and ‘a document’ means ‘a book’. (This is a lie, but a convenient one.)

Anywho, formatting is cool, and it lets you do things with a text that you couldn’t do before, and that’s good. Here’s something from the re-draft of (new working title) The World Beyond Eels:

formatting.png

Eel Pie Island Eel Pie Co.

First, a bit from draft 2:

James F.X. “Nuts” Adams sat on the pier waiting for the eel trawler to come in from the river. He drummed his fingers on the weather-worn wood. It hadn’t been varnished in a while. The splinter under his fingernail could attest to that. He’d just have to go ahead and add ‘re-varnish the pier’ to the chore list back at the eelhouse.

The eelhouse sat up on the hill behind him. EEL PIE ISLAND EEL PIE Co., read the old company sign. (Great granddad must have really strained himself, coming up with that name.) Like the pier, the sign was in dire need of re-varnishing. The whole building was. For that matter, so was everything else in London that had survived the Blitz. It wasn’t quite like that over on the Continent. Mom and dad liked to blame the weather for this, though what a bunch of clouds could have to do with it was beyond Nuts. He preferred to chalk it up to some sort of original sin unique to the English.

It smelled like woodsmoke and eels, inside the eelhouse. Frozen eel, dried eel, eel guts that could probably have been taken out back a little while ago. Empty fish tanks, about half of them shattered, adorned the walls. Eel pies baked in the wood-fired ovens. Nuts, Kate, and Blake sat by a hearth. They were wrapped in blankets and had their hands out to the glowing coals. Kate was still wringing out her hair and drinking brandy. Blake was coughing up river water and Nuts was shivering. Every so often, Kate would add a sentence or two to her story.

The front room of the eelhouse wasn’t a dining room, not quite. It had tables and chairs, yeah, but also a cash register and some supplies hidden poorly under sackcloth. The Co. wasn’t exactly a tourist attraction, but they got visitors from time to time, and it was nice to have a little place for them to sit. A small rack of pamphlets graced the wall by the door and a corkboard with assorted pictures hung from another.

Nuts and Cornelius and Kate sat at one of the tables. They had a little radio plugged in on the next table over. There was an eel pie, one of the big ones, steaming at the table with the radio, and Nuts and Cornelius had slices on plates in front of them. Kate said she wasn’t hungry.

Second, a friend of mine did some drawings!

Here they are, with and without some Instagram filters.

A Day Late and a World Short #3

#2: Skip Mobley & Inn Hiller

What does Skip Mobley do while he waits for the train? He wanders, he paces, he reads the ads, he wonders who the hell they’re supposed to inspire. He foots the stubbly yellow bumps that tell people they’re about to walk onto the tracks. He wonders who the hell they’re supposed to warn, since he’s never seen anybody jump. Never even seen anybody stumble. Do people even still do that? Seems like the cops here are more lethal than the trains.

He reads the train schedule, slides his finger along the dirty plastic until he reaches the 12:00 – 13:00 column for SUNDAY, and wouldn’t you know it, the train’s three minutes late already. If you were trying to jump in front of the damn train, you’d end up late for your own suicide.

Late for your own suicide. That’s a good one. Skip pulls a small notebook out of his pocket and scribbles it down, just below “Sociopaths Do It Intentionally.”

Seventy-eight seconds later, when the train finally comes, nobody jumps, of course; and then the doors open, some people leave, some people enter, and Skip manages to find a chair.

His knees, naked through the holes in his jeans, rub against the rough fabric of the seat in front of him. Really rather unsanitary—these fabric seats from the 70’s are supposed to be just riddled with staph—but, c’mon, it’s his knees. Nobody ever got knee staph.


Inn Hiller is soldering something while smoking a cigarette, which is really just a terrible idea for any number of reasons, but it does produce the interesting visual effect of two kinds of smoke with different densities intermingling, like vines growing on the naked air. So there’s that, at least.

He’s seated on an area of his porch that he’s built a retractable room around in case he ever needed an extra room on the porch. It’s delightful to sleep in during the rainy season. Rain can be soothing like that. Unless it gets windy and the walls start to flap. There’s a reason this part of the porch is an extra room.

Right now, he’s got three walls of the room down to afford him modest protection from the environment while he works on his project. Which, in this case, is a small circuit inside an Altoids tin that can turn off televisions from fifteen feet away, for when you find yourself in the sort of situation where you want to turn off a television for which you do not, for whatever reason, possess the remote.

Inn’s phone, sitting on the table nearby, chirps. “Doorbell!” it reads. Skip must be here. Inn cleans up the fragile parts and unplugs the hot parts and heads out of the extra room, onto the porch, through the studio, down the stairs, through the garden, and to the front gate, passing any number of housemates and cats along the way and saying hi when appropriate. Sure, he could have just buzzed Skip in, but that wouldn’t be very polite, now, would it?

He opens the various gates and lets Skip in. They say “Hey!” to each other in an exaggerated manner and hug. Inn inquires as to Skip’s general state of being, and Skip answers and reciprocates, and the small talk continues until they reach the studio.

The studio is a sprawling expanse of mismatched chairs, tables, and discarded industrial wire spools turned on their sides. Surfaces are variously scattered with oscilloscopes, circuitry, computers, film, and the like. In the corner sits a room with a door and a window. Its interior walls are completely covered in brass sheeting, the window a repurposed microwave door.

Inn leads Skip to an area that is mostly concerned with editing analog video footage. “I’ve got everything ready for editing,” he says. “I already took out all of the useless footage. It’s in the box—” he tilts his head towards a large filing cabinet—“if you decide you want hours of unchanging dark rooms or something. Anyway, here.” He hands Skip a thumb drive. “Shall we watch?”

Skip tosses the thumb drive in his hand a few times. Hard to believe that video storage was so light these days. Then again, the actual film this was developed from would have weighed several pounds, especially if you included the junk from the box. “Yeah, let’s go,” he says. They head into the room with the brass sheeting.

The shelves inside the room are stacked with storage devices, a number of laptops and CB radios, speakers and iPods and batteries, really everything a geek might need after the apocalypse happens. This is because the room is a faraday cage—a room that can neither accept nor emit electromagnetic radiation. Inn built it so that he would have a room where he could work with potentially dangerous data, in the event that somebody might be watching. A paranoid thought, yes, but it was a good precaution in case he ever got involved in something that you’d need a room like that for. Plus, it was a fun thing to build.

The items that stock the shelves, though, were placed there in a fit of rather intense paranoia by some of the other residents. These residents would be people who adhere to the theory that somebody, somewhere is planning to attack Silicon Valley with a massive electromagnetic pulse, which would effectively destroy around 50% of the American tech sector and kind of ruin things for a lot of people. So when they heard that Inn was building a large, electromagnetic pulse-proof room, they decided to fill it with computers, broadcasting radios, and party supplies.

It takes all kinds.

Seated inside the faraday cage, Skip watches Inn unroll a screen from a hook fastened to the ceiling, walk to the other end of the room, push some buttons and play with some cords attached to an LCD projector, smack the LCD projector, curse in several languages (French, English, Japanese, and at least two others that Skip can’t place), adjust the cords again, unplug everything and then plug it in again, and before he knows it, there’s a movie ready to be watched on the screen. Inn pushes a button somewhere that apparently means ‘play,’ and then he sits down, and now they’re both watching a rough cut of Skip’s footage.

A room with cluttered shelves lining the walls. A small table in the middle. Sometimes three chairs, sometimes four. Lights on. Lights off. Etc. People in janitors’ uniforms requiring things from the shelves. Suddenly, a meeting. Two bulky men in suits enter and stare at things, then sit down. A small woman enters. The door closes, the door opens. A man enters. He looks around the room, catches the eyes of the men in suits, and they all nod. He looks at the camera. His eyes are of two different colors.

He sits down across from the small woman and produces a laptop. It is black, with strange white markings. He opens it and pays attention to its screen for a moment; then he speaks.

The conversation…

“Where’s the audio?” Skip asks.

“There wasn’t any.”

“I’m quite certain there was. There should have been, at any rate.”

Inn looks around warily and bolts from the room. A few minutes later, he returns, a sheepish look on his face.

“Yeah yeah, I know how this goes. You say ‘Are you high?!’ and I do my best impression of the Duke, and you say ‘What do I even pay you for?’ and I say ‘You don’t pay me!’ and we have a good laugh. Come back tomorrow, OK?”

After a second, he says slyly, “While we’re here, wanna watch something else?”

“This didn’t work the last three times and it’s not going to work this time. We are not watching The Room.”

A Day Late and a World Short #2

CHAPTER 0

what everybody was up to last week

#1: Utah Houston

The first thing Utah Houston notices, as he tries to stand nonchalantly in the elevator, is that his pants are a little tight. True, he hasn’t worn this suit in ages, but that is unlikely to be the cause of his current discomfort, as Utah Houston represents the pinnacle of human fitness.

No, it’s most likely the result of the handgun he has tucked in at the small of his back. It hides conveniently under his beige suit coat, ready to be used at a moment’s notice, though hopefully he won’t have to, because sometimes when you get into a firefight wearing a light suit you end up staining the damn thing. He ordinarily would have worn the black suit for a job like this, but wearing a black suit in Las Vegas in September makes one stick out a bit too much.

Fortunately for Utah Houston, he is on retainer, and there is more than enough in the account to cover any dry cleaning expenses he might incur.

And so he stands in the elevator, wondering about the cost of a mid-range suit these days what with the price of wool being what it is, and tries to act casual. It seems to be working, as the smartly-dressed and extremely tall woman in front of him has barely even noticed his existence, save for a curt nod when she entered. The more normal-sized man standing next to her is also barely being acknowledged, and appears to be wilting a bit from the heat, probably due largely to his wool suit. He must not be used to the desert. At any rate, nobody is paying attention to anybody.

The elevator speakers play what seems to be a smooth jazz version of a Norwegian dirge-metal song. This has been one of Utah Houston’s stranger trips to Vegas.

The glass elevator glides effortlessly up the side of the Heppinn Resort & Casino.

Utah Houston exits the elevator on the 63rd floor, seven floors above where the wilted man exited, and one floor below what the tall woman selected, which is also the top floor accessible by this particular elevator. He exits casually, with a forward flip of the wrist on the hand he is using to hold his briefcase. This is a universally recognized symbol of nonchalance, approximately two steps below casual whistling and nowhere near as suspicious.

The hallway that he enters into is sparse and well-lit with doors on either side approximately every fifteen feet. They are numbered like street addresses, with even numbers on one side and odd numbers on the other. Utah recalls his instructions and heads down towards room number forty-three. When he arrives, he presses against the wall and breathes deeply. He can hear the sounds of a meeting taking place. He does not recognize the language.

Noting the emergency exit a short way down the hall, he kneels down and rapidly retrieves two cylindrical objects from the briefcase, closing it almost as soon as it is opened. He runs his fingers along their perforated surfaces and tests their weight. He nods as though he has made a difficult decision and places one of them in his front-right pocket. After carefully ensuring the hallway is empty, he opens the briefcase and positions it to the right of the door. He jiggles the doorknob very lightly. It is unlocked.

After taking another deep breath with his eyes closed, Utah Houston pulls the pin from the stun grenade, counts to two, and opens the door. He quickly identifies the large conference table and lobs the grenade onto it, and then retreats to the hallway, pulls the door shut, and covers his ears. A blinding white light seeps through the crack below the door, accompanied by the sound of an explosion that would be deafening to somebody who had not wisely positioned themselves outside of the room and covered their ears. And then he throws open the door.

Utah Houston scans the room, searching through the haze of fluttering papers and disoriented humans, and finds his goal. He dashes in, springs off the shoulder of a large man who appears to be recovering rather faster than normal, and moves to the end of the table. He kneels over the laptop he has been tasked to retrieve—some black metal job with strange white markings—and has just closed it when somebody grabs his ankle and gives it a sharp tug, making him crash down to the tabletop on his chest.

He rolls over and looks up to see a man flashing his teeth in an expression bordering on amusement. His eyes are two different colors. Utah kicks this man in the face. Once freed from his grip, he grabs the laptop, checks that the exit is clear, activates and drops the second grenade, bolts out of the room, and closes the door. Once again he covers his ears and waits for the bang, then he quickly puts the laptop in the waiting briefcase and runs down the hallway to the emergency exit.

Upon his opening the door, an alarm sounds.

Utah exits the Heppinn in the standard manner, by hurrying down the stairs until he ends up in a stream of evacuees, and then ducking out before the security response can really get started. He greets the afternoon sun with apprehension—they really do keep those casinos dark, don’t they? He reaches into his inner jacket pocket only to find the shattered remains of a pair of aviators. One more item for the expense report.

A Day Late and a World Short #1

I thiiiink this one is gonna be long. Here’s part 1, feedback encouraged. (Parts will be shortish and episodic–I have about 10,000 words written but it’s pretty scattershot.)


“A DAY LATE AND A WORLD SHORT”


Back cover blurb

San Francisco’s not normally the sort of place you’d look to for the start of the apocalypse. But that’s exactly where it happens when Skip Mobley, purveyor of hot and cold beverages and amateur filmmaker, falls in with the wrong crowd of Norwegian gangsters, veterinarians, bartenders, and Norse deities. In a frantic journey spanning the globe from Colorado to Keflavík, Skip & co. fight against the clock to prevent, well, the end of the world.



PROLOGUE

The screen flickers between different kinds of static and eventually it finds a test pattern.  5 bip, 4 bip, 3 bip, bip, black.  The scene that follows is filmed in a concrete room with shelves of supplies, canned food, ammunition, it’s obviously some sort of shelter, and there’s a chair.  The camera shakes and a man with singed black hair and torn clothes sits on the chair, leans in, and adjusts something behind the lens.


He clears his throat.  “Hi,” he says.  The voice comes out hoarse and he coughs.  “Um, first off, if there are any film buffs watching, I’d like to apologize for the quality of most of the footage.  I shot it mostly with cameras between iPhone video and VHS quality… not my preferred tools, of course.  There’s a good Hemingway quote about, um–“


A voice yells from across the room, weary yet thunderous.  “We don’t have time for this.”


“Right,” Skip says.  “Sorry.  So anyway, if you’d like to see some of my other films, well, if you manage to find a copy of Sir Why Are You Leaving or Sometimes Not Rarely in what’s left of the Cal Berkeley library–“


“Get to the point, Skip, we’re running out of time.”


Skip coughs a few times and looks to his right.  “OK, OK, relax.”  He looks back at the camera.  “Anyway, sorry for the quality of the footage, I did what I could.”  He leans forward into the camera, a new urgency playing on his face.  “My name is Skip Mobley, and what you’re watching is a documentary film, my last one and as I have said by no means my masterpiece.  It’s about, um, the end of the world. Here we go.”