Category Archives: connections

Hush! Caution! Echoland!

It’s a cliché to speak of Ulysses as an endpoint, the culmination of the nineteenth century novel, finally bled dry of plot and incident and to a certain extent character (we only feel that we know Stephen and Bloom so well because we spend so much time with them) and erupting into a monstrous growth of period detail and stylistic parody. It’s not the last station on the line, but at least, unlike with Finnegans Wake, one can still pretend it’s something like a readable work of fiction.

But Ulysses was my gateway into mainstream literature: before that, excepting what I was forced to read for educational purposes, I’d only read science fiction and fantasy. Literature was too boring, just a bunch of normal people doing grown up stuff. Ulysses was different: the first handful of chapters were pretty slow and contained a great deal of matter relating to Thomas Aquinas which I let slide by in peaceful incomprehension. But once the newspaper headlines started in the seventh chapter it started to get fun, if not easier to understand.

So for me, it’s always felt like a starting point, not a conclusion. It’s not exactly a friendly introduction to the Western canon, but there’s a lot of writers I first heard of, or was exposed to parodies of, under its influence. And its attitude of “hey, keep up with this if you can”, the sense you get of being complicit with someone taking everything they knew about every book they’d ever read for a dance, is exhilarating.

This post started out as another very short science fiction story, which is what I usually post here on Bloomsday, but it felt like it was getting into territory I’ve covered too often: a sort of dystopian scenario where after the Singularity, or some parody thereof, the AIs really do reconstruct Dublin from Ulysses, and put a bunch of human consciousnesses in it, and it’s terrible, like being trapped in a Bloomsday costume party for all eternity. I gave it up because, for one thing, I was unconsciously plagiarising part of a short story by Ian Watson from the 80s called, I think, “The Bloomsday Revolutions”. (I thought of Ian Watson for the first time in years the other day. He’s a good writer, look him up if you get the chance.)

The other reason I stopped was that I’m weary of science fiction being about computers and AI. I think that the real event underlying the Singularity is the collapse of the sf imagination into the computational. Too many of my own attempts to write longer pieces of fiction have gotten stuck or faltered for the same reasons.

I was remembering Jorn Barger, the guy who coined the word ‘blog’ and had a kind of internet celebrity which then dissolved into anti-Semitism and silence. Barger was an autodidact Joyce fan and had a site called “IQ Infinity”, the central thesis of which was that in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Joyce had solved AI, that through sheer brainpower he’d comprehended how the human mind worked. I don’t remember, if I ever really understood, exactly in what sense Barger thought that the works themselves constituted artificial intelligence: could one create the personality of “Leopold Bloom” from the text if it were somehow transformed into software? As another Joyce fanboy I can understand Barger’s reverent awe — without sharing it to that extent. And looked at dispassionately, it’s a ridiculous and self-infatuated idea: if only everyone else loved my favourite author as much as I do, they’d understand how consciousness works, too.

I was also thinking of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project, the origin of the term ‘hypertext’: I’d known about it for decades, and based on what I’d read of his writing at various times, I thought of him as a crank, embittered by the success of the web. Xanadu proposes a much more complex way of linking and embedding documents within one another, with links that go both ways, and an elaborate system of building a top-level document from a variety of sources. Having come across this summary by a recent participant made me sense, in an obscure way, the allure of this vision of a global network of interpenetrating words. But in another way, it feels nightmarish.

In my mind, Xanadu’s “transclusion” is a codified and rigid version of the sort of association of ideas which the reading mind does in a flexible way all by itself. All writing depends on this, but it’s essential to a text like Ulysses, and even more so Finnegans Wake. Rather than narrating, “Stephen thought about Aquinas’ doctrines of sense perception as he walked along Sandymount”, Joyce interpolates “the ineluctable modality of the visible” and so on, all those weird terms I didn’t understand the first time, leaving it to the reader to either follow the echoes, if they are aware of the reference, or, if not, to fold the unusual texts into their own memory, to be echoed later or in other texts.

I love this process: to some extent, what I’ve just described is what being literate means to me. But I enjoy doing it with my own mind, or letting my own mind do it for me, and the thought of it being made explicit, with coloured markers joining the texts in different columns, makes me queasy, as do the very few working xanalogical demos.

I should add that sometimes just reading Joyce gives me the same feeling of vertigo. There’s a central image, or nightmare, behind these different incarnations, a cousin of Borges’ total library, the idea of mind as a sort of infinite glossary. It makes sense that my imagination, in trying to come up with a response to Ulysses as Bloomsday comes around each year, would return to the machines with which I work, and the fantasy that one day they’ll be able to read our favourite books so well that they’ll bring them to life.

I often get the same feeling reading blogs from the rationalist and AI risk communities. I suspect that these are not so much a school of philosophy as a literary genre, in which people with a very particular form of intelligence — discursive, articulate, fond of numerical arguments, insistent that any discipline can either be reduced to economics or physics, or is empty or misleading — imagine, with the same kind of self-infatuation, that magnified forms of this form of intelligence will either save or wreck the world. Earlier this year, I got so compulsive about reading this kind of thing that I had to use a site-blocking extension to stop myself.

I console myself with the idea that Joyce, had he lived in our era, would have been very bad (one imagines with glee his towering contempt and exasperation) at using computers.

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New Wave Music

A month or so ago I started making playlists based on tracks that reminded me of some of my favourite fantasy authors: here are versions of them (minus a couple of obscure 80s Australian indie tracks which aren’t on GrooveShark)

Grey-Green Music: Philip K Dick

The Voices of Time: J G Ballard

The Lathe of Heaven: Ursula K Le Guin

The Autumnal City: Samuel R Delany

Semi-carnally

Those who first heard the name of Proust in Monty Python’s fish licence sketch will be pleased to know that the lyrics to “Eric the Half-a-Bee” contain what appears to be a nod to an absurd phrase in the Moncrieff translation of La fugitive:

I remember that it was in my room because at that moment I found a pleasure in having semi-carnal relations with her, because of the collective form originally assumed and now being resumed by my love for the girls of the little band, a love that had long been undivided among them […]

Cyril Connolly?

Finnegans Jake

adventurrun, by Ooo and Atom’s, from swerve of sword to BMO bay, brings us by a bombastic canine of transmogrification back to Her Candy Empirium.

Sir Iceking, viola d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had hardly gunter Kingdom Come to processcute his Mushroom War: nor had A Lumpy Princess spacedout when they went doublin their drama all the time: nor avoice from afire kingdom bellowsed tree trunks thuartbonkers: not yet, though venisoon after, had Hunson Abadeer ateup fries of Marceline.

The fall (algebrawesomeprankinwrongteousgrossgrobgobglobgrodancient-
psychictandemwarelephantjackedupmathematical!) of a braverd venturer is retaled early in bed and late on life down through all cults and references. The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finn, erse radical boy, that the doggydumhead of his Jakes prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their treehillfortandplace is at the point in the spark where boom boom was laid to rust upon the green since lichen first loved Lich.

What clashes here of wills gens wonts, Rainicorns gaggin Visidogs! Jekkek kekkek kekkek kekkek! Cosmicowl!

A Messier Sydney

M2: a globular motorway in the Hills District 37,500 light years from Earth.

M4: a toll-free cluster with the apparent diameter of the full Moon.

M5: located in the Serpent, one of the oldest motorways associated with the Milky Way galaxy.

M7: also known as the Ptolemy Cluster, this open group of more than 80 stars has gateless tolling and connects with the M4 at the Light Horse stack interchange.

The Game Players of Dublin

He waits for the next player. Not another scholar or student, he hopes, but someone who comes for challenge of the game itself.

It has not been a while between players, for there is no time here, but if a state is embedded in another state in a certain relationship that can from at least one perspective be projected into what would be a series of interruptions in a timelike continuum, then we can say, all provisos accepted, that it’s been a while. And it usually is.

He always tries to guess where they will leave. He doesn’t like to think of it as giving up: it seems unfair. The game makes its player, he likes to tell himself. They leave where it is right for them to do so.

Will they be defeated by the arbitrary first level, its sheer surfaces affording none of the usual purchase expected of a traditional game mechanic? Grow as restive as the schoolchildren in the uneventful second? Or will they shy at the irruptions of Aquinas and the unexpected apparition of Blake’s buttocks on the beach in the second? (They will, he knows, very many of them, unless they take it for weird texture and aim for the true targets.)

Once past this introduction, the next three levels are relatively easy going, and he will have the pleasure of feeling the player settle into the familiar primary character, dumpy in his toothbrush moustache, warming up for the day’s obstacles.

Level seven is always a pleasure – the episodic nature, he supposes, gives a sense of reassuring form to the players, and is also a relatively safe arena where they can fool around with some advanced rhetorical weaponry. The practice will come in handy in nine – eight, admittedly, being something of a palate cleanser – when the first really powerful set of antagonists must be dealt with. There is no boss at this stage, but an elaborate melee which can weed out many casual players.

Usually this is when he can spot the remaining students. They panic, turn on the noclip cheat and start whizzing through the walls. (He’s seen it happen too many times to be disappointed.) And the players who remain with him are a joy to watch in the next few levels: the friendly primary is back, hopping between the floating islands of level ten, unlocking the hidden jam session in level eleven, and rounding on the first big boss in twelve.

The shifts of scale in this level are dizzying, and the tone of the game starts to darken, creating a sense of expectation which is deliciously wrong-footed by the sudden shift to the cloyingly moe atmosphere of level thirteen – assuming, of course, that the player hasn’t read any of the controversy about this level on the ‘net. He’s seen all the ways successful players negotiate the stickiness of this level. Most of them make it through by accepting the game logic on its own terms, although it can be played satisfactorily enough in irony mode, or even casting the character as the villain.

The fourteenth level takes 8-bit homage to a new level, beginning by appearing to drop the player out to a character terminal announcing “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” Those patient enough to persist after are treated to a recapitulation of the entire history of adventure gaming, in which interface design and play mechanics vary from minute to minute. Many players will give up in dismay or resort to cheats or walkthroughs, but those who do not can be lost for days as they hunt down allusions and easter eggs, a process which he never finds boring.

The level ends in a simulation of a chaotic MMPORG battle which leaves the player, once again in control of the primary, in the nightmarish, constantly shifting environment of the fifteenth level. The most dedicated players can find this level dull, confronting and repellent by turns, as the character is mocked, distorted, humiliated and degraded, and the use of multiplayer chat can give the level the feel of an unmoderated web forum from Hell.

Those who don’t make it to level sixteen have his sympathies, but he is always engrossed by how the survivors negotiate its elementary but interminable mazes, full of seemingly useless weapons and broken equipment. There are keys and treasures here, he is sure, that will keep the players busy for many years.

In the following level, he is allowed, with joy, to participate, almost to become a character himself, engaged in a grave and courteous duel with the primary and secondary character. This was the designer’s favourite – that other self of his, lost, long sleeping in Zurich.

And he? He is the mechanism of the game itself, an aspect of the designer, but also of all his collaborators, the players: he is the plotfarmer, the voyce. He has watched the primary, moustache abristle, vaulting rolling barrels of porter, countless times, as he and the player ascend the heights of the last chapter, up to the final boss, the great mamamonster, as much a libel of woman as Kong is of ape, to grapple with her great sentences, once more to rescue the princess of her from herself.

Local automotive businesses as correlated with certain pessimistic authors

New Canterbury Road, Dulwich Hill. “For sale” sign on exterior, filthy windows through which one can just make out a cluttered interior wherein two old men hold colloquy. Correlate: Samuel Beckett

Princes Highway, Tempe. Enormous wall of decorative wheels and rims which rotate constantly. Correlate: David Simon, creator of The Wire.

New Canterbury Road, Dulwich Hill. Dulwich Hill Auto Restoration’s [sic.] Correlate: David Foster Wallace