Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cities & Memory

From Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities:

In Maurilia, the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine some old post cards that show it as it used to be: the same identical square with a hen in the place of the bus station, a bandstand in the place of the overpass, two young ladies with white parasols in the place of the munitions factory.

Photo courtesy of the Friends of the Eastern Promenade

If the traveler does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret at the changes within definite limits: admitting that the magnificence and prosperity of the metropolis Maurilia, when compared to the old, provincial Maurilia, cannot compensate for a certain lost grace,

Photo by Corey Templeton

which, however, can be appreciated only now in the old post cards, whereas before, when that provincial Maurilia was before one's eyes, one saw absolutely nothing graceful and would see it even less today, if Maurilia had remained unchanged; and in any case the metropolis has the added attraction that, through what it has become, one can look back with nostalgia at what it was.

Beware of saying to them that sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves. At times even the names of the inhabitants remain the same, and their voices' accent, and also the features of the faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place.

It is pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or worse than the old, since there is no connection between them, just as the old post cards do not depict Maurilia as it was, but a different city which, by chance, was called Maurilia, like this one.

Photo credits:
Historic postcards from MaineMemory.net.

Present-day photos courtesy of (from top to bottom): Friends of the Eastern Promenade, Corey Templeton via the archboston.org forums, Corey Templeton via the Portland Maine Daily Photo blog, and Panaramio user sacoo.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Must-Have Christmas Toy of 2012: The Tickle-Me Bionic Cockroach

A pair of grad students in Michigan has started a line of educational toys designed to teach kids the basics of neuroscience by letting them hack roaches and rewire their nervous systems. These 21st-century Lincoln Logs are going by the trade name Backyard Brains.

Their first kit, the SpikerBox, encourages kids to cut off a roach's leg ("don't worry, they can grow back," the instructions reassure us) and hook up each end to electrodes in order to listen to the neurons fire, or "spike," in response to stimulus. A more advanced experiment with the same kit encourages kids to feed similar electrical impulses back into another roach leg to reanimate it post-amputation.

These guys should look into product tie-ins for the new "Frankenweenie" movie.

But their most ambitious kit (currently in beta) is the "RoboRoach," pictured above. With this toy, kids are encouraged to glue fine electrodes into a roach's amputated antennae, pierce its carapace with a ground wire, and glue a circuitboard onto its back. Apparently all of this can be accomplished with your typical 8th-grade level neurosurgery skills. Here's the instruction video:

Once the wiring is complete, you'll have hours of fun sending artificial antennae stimuli into the roach's nervous system, forcing it to turn left or right by remote control.

The Backyard Brains kits are more humane than your typical bio lab dissection — so why they feel so creepy to me? Maybe I'm just feeling the cultural warnings of Mary Shelley's famous nightmare. These toys anticipate a future in which the kids who play with them will hack into human nervous systems. But they're also one more sign that "nature" is completely bound up with — and increasingly subject to — the progress of our technology.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Science Fiction is the New Realism

Earlier this summer, the New Yorker published its first-ever "Sci-Fi" special issue, with a cover image of a spaceman, a robot, and an alien crashing through the wall of a stodgy literary party.

Inside, there were non-fiction essays by people like Ray Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin. But my favorite parts were the sci-fi stories by putatively "non-genre" writers like Jonathan Lethem, Jennifer Egan, and Junot Diaz. Diaz's story, "Monstro," was my favorite — set in a near-future, globally-heated, income-stratified Dominican Republic, where a creepy zombie infection across the border in Haiti is just getting started (apparently Diaz is working on extending the story into a novel).

But the thing that struck me most about the "sci-fi" stories was how grounded and plausible they seemed — in spite of their use of sci-fi tropes like cyborgs and zombie infections. Another story by Jennifer Egan tells of a beautiful woman spy with cybernetic implants that relay her senses to the CIA (in a demonstration of "the medium is the message," the story was published in 144-character segments on Twitter). Though it was set in the near future, and in spite of the Twitter gimmick, the story seemed completely plausible — we already have robot agents fighting overseas, while Google is building cyborg prototypes for networked, computer-enhanced vision.

And my favorite thing about "Monstro" were the details — not quite apocalyptic, but getting there — that made it feel like our everyday discomfort amidst income stratification and constant disaster. The story's horror builds in the background noise of a world in crisis with heat waves and third-world epidemics. Problems whose distance and relentlessness just don't merit that much attention (at first) from the protagonist narrator — not while he's chasing girls in the air-conditioned neighborhoods where the upper class lives.

All of which — the background static of freakish disasters on the 24-hour news cycle, combined with first-world indifference — feels a bit too familiar to call it "sci-fi," doesn't it?

I've also recently started reading the novels and essays of William Gibson, who's also has an essay in this same issue of the New Yorker. His books get shelved in the sci-fi section, even though most of them are pretty solidly rooted in contemporary Internet culture. It's not that Gibson is writing in a fantasy genre; the problem is that most contemporary literature feels like a genre that's stuck in the past, in a world without internet forums or cellphones. As critic Choire Sicha bitingly observes in Slate:
"The literary novel is, make no mistake, as much a pileup of inherited conventions as the worst werewolf cash-in. There are now thousands of young, MFA-toting writers, so many of them aping the weak generation of literary male novelists now in their 50s: pallid and insufferable teachers and idols, in light of the strong and inventive generation before them."
– from Choire Sicha's review of The Unreal and the Real, a new two-volume collection of stories by Ursula Le Guin
Gibson's on Twitter as @greatdismal, which is where I first learned of him over a year ago. Appropriately enough, he's inspired at least one fake imitator account — a fictional cyberpunk  version of the cyberpunk fiction author. I mention it here because that fake account recently summed up (admittedly with some out-of-character exaggeration) how science-fictional the reality of the last few days have been:

The world we live in — with rich-world obesity epidemics, prefabricated cities rising in Asia, global heating, social media and its attendant transformation of our identities, financial crises, and everything else — has turned out to be far stranger than the old sci-fi stories of white Texan mavericks who landed rockets on Mars.

The weirdness of the future isn't a genre anymore: it's real life.

Recommendations from authors mentioned in this post:
Distrust That Particular Flavor, essays by William Gibson (2012)

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)

The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories Volume One: Where on Earth by Ursula Le Guin (2012).