This 1821 book introduces one of the most famous and well-loved heroes in fiction. It stars in Junky by William Seward Burroughs, Trainspotting by Irving Welsh, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson, and Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby, and countless others besides.
You’ll find our book’s hero in a green pod behind the amaranthine petals of a Papaver somniferum poppy plant. The resin inside the pod is called opium, and it contains the analgesic alkaloid known as morphine. When this alkaloid is ingested, injected, or snorted, it attaches itself to receptors in nerve cells, inhibiting neurotransmitter release, and giving you a pretty good weekend in Vegas.
Opioids have uses – try facing a root-canal without one – but they’re also dangerous. Take enough, and you forget to feel pain. Take too much, and you literally forget to breath.
“Among the remedies which has pleased the Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium” – Physician Thomas Sydenham (1624-89)
Opium was the cat’s pajamas in Romance-Era Britain. Everyone from Byron to Keats composed under the magistration of a pipe or a glass of laudanum. It was one of the only drugs they had that worked, and additionally, and it was fashionable: opium was seen (particularly by Romantic writers) as a gateway to a mystical oriental experience that only a cultured and wordly mind could appreciate.
But many opium users were clearly addicts. Confessions of an English Opium Eater is a rare bird: a Romantic account written by an ex-addict with the self awareness to know it.
It’s not packed with outrageous sin and depravity. Nor is full of incoherent drooling about the divine fractal oneness of the cosmos (etc etc). It’s a conventional narrative, and some of the most fascinating parts don’t involve drugs at all. You’ll learn a lot about how things were in England at the time, or at least I did.
The beginning section describes the author’s early life and matriculation, followed by his descent into poverty and homelessness that’s basically self-inflicted (he picks a fight with a bishop who he believes has insulted him, and loses his lodgings). He subsists at the margins of society, eating berries and earning money by writing love letters for illiterate young people. Apparently you could make a living doing that at one point.
De Quincey writes affectingly of the conditions affecting London’s lower classes, particularly orphans and prostitutes. A lot of the book could be viewed as proto-Dickensian. There’s a terrifying sense of atomization to this dark gaslit world that has no modern parallel – once De Quincey loses track of a person, he can usually never find them again. Friends just disappear, like they were never there. These people have no fixed address, no way of receiving mail, and sometimes not even a surname. But they’re loyal to each other – often De Quincey gets out of trouble with the police because a helpful urchen or streetwalker vouches on his behalf.
His fortunes improve at the intercession of some moneylending Jews, and while trying to establish a trade, he winds up on Oxford Street, buying opium to help the pain of a toothache (ironically, he becomes an addict perfectly legally, and only after he escapes the underground). He describes his first dose like this:
I took it—and in an hour—oh, heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes: this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me—in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed.
“Abyss of divine enjoyment” is both paradoxical and religious in tone. But drugs are paradoxes, combining the holy and the foul. They midwife beautiful literature, midwife insanity and necrotizing fasciitis. And the religious suggestions aren’t strange: religious ecstasy and drug trips look very similar to the outsider (and maybe to the insider, too).
Across the Atlantic, the Civil War was brewing, where countless tons of opium would be used to treat battlefield injuries. It would be called “God’s Own Medicine”. Later doctors would refer to opium’s primary alkaloid as morphine, after Morpheus, Ovid’s God of sleep and dreams. The last and most devastating of opium’s children is heroin, derived from hero, who were traditionally men with divine ancestry. Drugs are debased spirituality inside a dirty needle.
De Quincey’s tail leads us on in familiar directions. Higher dosages. Higher thrills. He takes 1,000 drops of laudanum a day! He reads Kant, and actually understands him! There’s some great writing about his drug-created hallucinations. These have potential to drag, but they’re kept brief enough that they don’t. If the first section is proto-Dickens, the second is proto-Timothy Leary.
But things start going bad. The dreams become extremely disturbing nightmares.
The waters now changed their character—from translucent lakes shining like mirrors they now became seas and oceans. And now came a tremendous change, which, unfolding itself slowly like a scroll through many months, promised an abiding torment; and in fact it never left me until the winding up of my case. Hitherto the human face had mixed often in my dreams, but not despotically nor with any special power of tormenting. But now that which I have called the tyranny of the human face began to unfold itself. Perhaps some part of my London life might be answerable for this. Be that as it may, now it was that upon the rocking waters of the ocean the human face began to appear; the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces upturned to the heavens—faces imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries: my agitation was infinite; my mind tossed and surged with the ocean.
De Quincey might have actually killed a man in this period. While on an opium trip, a Malaysian gentleman knocks upon his door. Neither of them can talk to each other, but as a show of brotherhood, De Quincey hands him a large slab of opium.
I was struck with some little consternation when I saw him suddenly raise his hand to his mouth, and, to use the schoolboy phrase, bolt the whole, divided into three pieces, at one mouthful. The quantity was enough to kill three dragoons and their horses, and I felt some alarm for the poor creature; but what could be done? I had given him the opium in compassion for his solitary life, on recollecting that if he had travelled on foot from London it must be nearly three weeks since he could have exchanged a thought with any human being. I could not think of violating the laws of hospitality by having him seized and drenched with an emetic, and thus frightening him into a notion that we were going to sacrifice him to some English idol. No: there was clearly no help for it. He took his leave, and for some days I felt anxious, but as I never heard of any Malay being found dead, I became convinced that he was used to opium; and that I must have done him the service I designed by giving him one night of respite from the pains of wandering.
Was the Malaysian man really “used to opium”? Or was this a self-serving fiction to ease a guilty conscience? Whatever happened to the Malaysian man, he returns to haunt De Quincey’s nightmares, along with a host of other spectres.
The inevitable part where he hits rock-bottom is dealt with only briefly. That’s my main issue: the tale feels lopsided and front-heavy, giving too much weight to his lodging disputes while neglecting the story’s main thrust of addiction. In a later edition, he expands his experiences, but apparently the earlier version is the better one. More words doesn’t always equal more meaning, as any reader of Stephen King can tell you.
So, an interesting read, and an educational one, but perhaps not always a truthful one. I’ve always wondered how much of a drug experience comes from the user, instead of the drug. Thanks to the placebo effect, drugs can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Haven’t we all seen someone at a party drink one beer and suddenly start slurring his speech and groping girls’ asses? He’s not drunk. He just thinks he’s drunk. He’s granting himself permission to let go. The beer could have been tablewater – all it really did was act as an emotional go sign.
De Quincey didn’t know of the placebo effect, but he was aware that drug experiences are idiosyncratic toward the user.
If a man “whose talk is of oxen” should become an opium-eater, the probability is that (if he is not too dull to dream at all) he will dream about oxen; whereas, in the case before him, the reader will find that the Opium-eater boasteth himself to be a philosopher; and accordingly, that the phantasmagoria of his dreams (waking or sleeping, day-dreams or night-dreams) is suitable to one who in that character.
Roland Fisher famously described Aldous Huxley’s 1954 drug book The Doors of Perception as “99 percent Aldous Huxley and only one half gram mescaline”. The same might be true for De Quincey’s adventures, over a hundred years earlier. The fault, in the end, lies not in our doors, but in ourselves.
The God, uneasy ’till he slept again,
Resolv’d at once to rid himself of pain;
And, tho’ against his custom, call’d aloud,
Exciting Morpheus from the sleepy crowd:
Morpheus, of all his numerous train, express’d
The shape of man, and imitated best;
The walk, the words, the gesture could supply,
The habit mimick, and the mein bely;
Plays well, but all his action is confin’d,
Extending not beyond our human kind.
Another, birds, and beasts, and dragons apes,
And dreadful images, and monster shapes:
This demon, Icelos, in Heav’n’s high hall
The Gods have nam’d; but men Phobetor call.
A third is Phantasus, whose actions roul
On meaner thoughts, and things devoid of soul;
Earth, fruits, and flow’rs he represents in dreams,
And solid rocks unmov’d, and running streams.
These three to kings, and chiefs their scenes display,
The rest before th’ ignoble commons play.
Of these the chosen Morpheus is dispatch’d;
Which done, the lazy monarch, over-watch’d,
Down from his propping elbow drops his head,
Dissolv’d in sleep, and shrinks within his bed. The Metamorphosis, Book the Eleventh 11:891 Ovid
Apocalypse Culture is a 1987 survey of “fringe” culture. It’s not a book, it’s a pointing finger. “Hey, were you aware of this satanic cult? This serial killer? This illegal medical procedure?”
But we have the internet now, and the 2edgy4u info junkies in Parfrey’s target audience just answered “Yes, yes, and yes.” And even if you didn’t know these things, a print book isn’t a good way to learn about them. Books are good but also bad: you can’t drill deeper into an interesting topic by clicking a hyperlink, can’t look up the definition of an unfamiliar word, can’t view a comment challenging the author’s theory and positing a different one, etc. Dives into the tangled parts of the world are better done online, and publications like Apocalypse Culture (including Russ Kick’s Psychotropia, V Vale’s Re:Search, David Kerekes’ Killing for Culture, Jim Goad’s Gigantic Book of Sex, etc ad nauseam) are obsolete, no longer worth buying, reading, or writing.
Or, if you buy and read them, it won’t be for their original purpose. They’re interesting as historical documents: the late 80s and 90s are occupy a fuzzy position in society’s light cone: too recent to be historiographed like the 1960s, too old to be reliably archived by the internet. There’s a lot about the specific weltanschauung of 1995 (for example) that is largely forgotten except by the people who were there.
Millenium psychosis, for example. Kids often find it hard to believe that a lot of people thought the world was going to end in the year 2000.They were counting down the days until 1/1/2000, when computers would explode, the banking system would crash, and the human race would be dragged back to the Middle Ages. I had a friend ask me if I owned a pet, I said yes (a cat), and he advised me to emotionally prepare myself for the day I killed and cooked my pet for food. Twenty five winters ago.
A lot of this “not long…not long…” mentality is found in Apocalypse Culture, – more accurately, it saturates the text, like a layer of salt or spice. Every aberrant sex act and laceration is adduced to the fact that the end is coming, and we deserve it. JG Ballard describes the book as “terminal documents” for the 20th century. That sort of fits. The world didn’t end in 2000, but if it had, this book’s contents could be filed under Cause of Death.
In The Unrepentant Necrophile: we meet Karen Greenlee, “an American criminal who was convicted of stealing a hearse and having sex with the corpse it contained”. She explains the appeal of necrophilia (without success, it must be said), as well as the mechanics – for example, how does a woman perform a meaningful sex act with a corpse (answer: with a strong imagination). Necrophilia isn’t what it was in the 70s. Once, one of Karen’s signature moves was straddling a corpse and making it purge blood from its mouth into her own. In the age of HIV, it’s no longer safe to do this.
There’s a rare pre-arrest interview with Peter Sotos, who offers some typically sensitive thoughts on the gender issue (“Homos are a bit more attractive than women when they’re on top but disgusting when they’re on bottom. That sort of submissiveness stinks of femaleness.”)
Much of the book assumes you’re already ass-deep down one intellectual rabbit hole or another, and is inaccessible to newcomers. The Cosmic Pulse of Life is a discussion of psychoanalyst UFO researcher Wilhelm Reich’s work, and slings around terms like “orgone energy operation” and “kreiselwelle functions” without the slightest clue that the reader might need a guiding hand. The article gets silly at the end, with Reich zapping UFOs hovering over his lab with orgone-powered laser weapons. It might have been written as a joke.
There’s a bit of 1488, if you catch my meaning. Another reason books like Apocalypse Culture are out of vogue is that even fans of edgy media don’t really want to platform Nazis. Parfrey (who, under the Amok Press name, published a novel by Goebbels) didn’t give a fuck. One of the longest pieces in the book is his surprisingly well-read histography of eugenics, which he concludes is a good idea that should be practiced again. He paid the social price: a lot of contemporary discussion of (half-Jewish) Parfrey and his works consists of rebarbative arguments about whether he was a Nazi or not.
There are some unreadable things by Hakim Bey and Anton Szandor LaVey, who probably got in the book because of their names. Famous names are dangerous: they tend to open doors that should have stayed shut. The Invisible War ranks as the stupidest thing in the book. It reads like it was written by your 80 year old hippy aunt who just got into QAnon. I’m convinced Parfrey would have published the High Priest of Satan’s grocery list.
Maybe my favorite thing is Every Science is a Mutilated Octopus, by Charles Fort.
Every science is a mutilated octopus. If its tentacles were not clipped to stumps. it would feel its way into disturbing contacts. To a believer. the effect of the contemplation of a science is of being in the presence of the good, the true. and the beautiful. But what he is awed by is mutilation. To our crippled intellects. only the maimed is what we call understandable, because the unclipped ramifies into all other things. According to my aesthetics, what is meant by beautiful is symmetrical deformation.
This is bad writing but an interesting perspective, and one that’s withstood the years better than LaVey’s talk of subsonic earthquakes triggered by the government. Science is dangerous. Not as a side effect, but as a direct product. The more science we do, the more danger we expose ourselves to.
Think of the things we’ve gained since Fort died in 1932. Nuclear weapons, defoliants, Biopreparat. The future holds worse. A superintelligent AI with goals misaligned with humanity would conceivably eliminate us with the unthinking inevitability a land-grader crushing an anthill. Science must be mutilated if we’re to survive it. Science with its tentacles intact might be more than just an octopus. It might be Cthulhu.
Books take the wild flux of changing times and freeze a snapshot of it. A lot of the past looks strange now, but was compelling when you were in the midst of it, and Apocalypse Culture brings it all back. And perhaps tomorrow, these alien fears and obsessions might become relevant once again. The universe is the site of a neverending apocalypse, and we’re standing in the middle of it, wondering how everything can be exploding all the time without the sky ever going dark.
It’s one of the grim, high-concept films Don Bluth made after he left Disney due to concerns that they’d drifted from their mission of upsetting children. Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, and The Land Before Time are famed for their craftsmanship, but they’re tough sledding, darker than any Disney film except for The Black Cauldron. A lot of people remember these films as classics. A lot of them also remember being scared and covering their eyes.
Tail is a parable about antisemitism. Fievel Mousekewitz’s family lives in a mousehole underneath a shtel in 1880’s Russia, until Cossacks burn down the shtel, and a gang of cats destroy their home. The opening scene is kind of hilarious, with mice being chased around by fez wearing, black-mustached cats roughly the size of Shetland ponies. Their growls have been pitch-adjusted down into half-terrifying, half-comical gurgles. If the cats could breathe radioactive fire, this would be a kaiju film.
The displaced Mousekewitzes board a steamer bound for America, a place where (they have been told) there are no cats. Fievel unwisely ascends to the fore-deck during a storm, is blown overboard, and eventually washes ashore in a bottle. The rest of the film involves him looking for his family, along with some other complications.
Tail’s plotting is less surefooted than NIMH or Time. After the problem is established (“will Fievel be reunited with his family?”), a number of supporting characters are dumped into the story – a friendly pigeon, a streetwise Italian mouse, a sign-waving female mouse activist, a rich lady mouse, a back-slapping politician type, a helpful vegetarian cat, and so on – turning the film into an top-heavy mass of characters right when it needs to be sleek and streamlined. I remember being confused and uninvolved when I first saw it. It became a series of events. And the villain is so forgettable that I did exactly that – forgot the movie even had a villain.
And although the animation is clearly Bluth, the film looks dull next to his other films. Secret of NIMH sparkled and twinkled, as if the cel sheets were studded with jewels. The Land Before Time had the hot, ferocious glow of the old world. Tail is just plain colorless. Dark seas. Sewers. City streets blanketed in smog. Average out all the pixels in the film and you’d get a muddy green-gray.
But it’s heartfelt, for all that. And the final showdown is both exciting and clever in how it pays off IOUs incurred at the start of the movie.
Roger Ebert criticized the film for being about anti-Semitism, while not explaining this in a way that children can understanding.
One of the central curiosities of “An American Tail” is that it tells a specifically Jewish experience but does not attempt to inform its young viewers that the characters are Jewish or that the house burning was anti-Semitic. I suppose that would be a downer for the little tykes in the theater, but what do they think while watching the present version? That houses are likely to be burned down at random?
I understand his point, but children can hear the music without hearing the words. They might not know what a ghetto or a blood libel is, but they’ll have encountered playground bullies – people who pick on you because you look different, or talk weird – and can relate the plight of the Jews to that of the mice. We’re not meant to sense any difference between the cossacks and cats: they attack at the same time, like two heads of the same hydra. And the Mousekewitzes are clearly different in a way that transcends species. One of Fievel’s problems in America is that everyone think his name sounds silly, so he changes it to a more goyische Phil. This is matched by a shot of a human Jew likewise changing his name.
In short, a kind of messy but compelling picture. I’m not a believer that Don Bluth could do no wrong, but he was doing very little of it the 80s.
Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective came out the same year, with nearly the same concept (a society of mice running parallel to ours). An American Tail is a worthy example of an animated twin film, along with Aladdin and The Princess and the Cobbler in 1992-3, Antz and A Bug’s Life in 1998, The Road to El Dorado and The Emperor’s New Groove in 2000, Treasure Planet and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas in 2002/3, etc. How to explain this? Animated films typically take years to make, which prohibits quick imitations and knockoffs.
(I got Mandela effect’d. I distinctly remember that Fievel sees whales on the ship. On the rewatch I conducted for this review: nope, no whales. His father describes “fish as big as this boat”, and we hear mournful whalesong, and a later Don Bluth film (The Pebble and the Penguin) features whales, so maybe my brain made a lot of connections. Another example of how movies in memories are not real movies.)
Forums are an unkillable zombie from the old internet, on the edge of complete irrelevance for ten years and counting. Predict the demise of forums and they predict the demise of you; we might never be free from BBCode, and signature lines, and people raping the page’s margins with 20-megapixel photos directly off their cameras.
Webmasters hate forums. They require constant maintenance, weaken your site’s security, and break your heart. They’re notoriously unprofitable: users load and refresh countless pages (wasting bandwidth), but this isn’t considered traffic by Google and won’t help your search engine rankings. Additionally, science has yet to find one example of a forum user clicking a banner ad.
There’s no way to win with forums. A dead forum is an embarrassment to your site, like throwing a birthday party and having nobody come. A successful forum is even worse – an accretion of egomaniacs and Little Emperors, cults and factions and politics, with moderators shamelessly playing favorites. Eventually a gang of jaded, old-school users will buck the rules, get mass-banned, start their OWN forum without any FASCIST JACKBOOTED MODERATORS, and do everything in their power to burn your original forum to the ground.
Many forum users (and owners) manifestly hate the place. They can’t leave. They’re prisoners. They’ve shaped the forum, and it’s shaped them in return. They’ve turned into lifers, and they have no idea how to survive outside the Vbulletin bars, even when the forum has turned toxic.
Which brings me to the latest Thing(tm) to hit the science fiction publishing world: an expose by Jason Sanford of violent rhetoric in the forum known Baen’s Bar.
Baen Books is a science fiction publishing house founded in 1983 by publisher and editor Jim Baen, a man with a talent for developing franchises (and individual authors) into profitable properties. He was also technologically well ahead of the curve: Baen was publishing electronically five years before Stephen King wrote Riding the Bullet. Although not explicitly political, the house is generally seen as a bastion for “old school” Heinlein-style adventure SF, which has a more conservative readership than the fandom as a whole.
It also has (or had) a forum. I’ve never read or posted on it, nor did most of the other people holding opinions on the scandal. Straight away you can tell the dialog’s going to be an open running sewer, with people forming judgments based on out of context quotes and screencaptures, and analogizing the drama to GamerGate or Tiananmen Square or some shit. David Chapman’s essay on Geeks, MOPs, and Sociopaths may be relevant. While you should be aware of outsiders exploiting the controversy (and your ignorance) for their own gain, some facts can be ascertained.
[…] just under 1,100 users have made more than 100 comments on the Bar since December 2011 […] And only 8,000 users have made a single comment since December 2011.
This is interesting from a network theory perspective. Online communities typically follow Zipf’s law (Muchnik et al, 2013), with the top 20% of users contributing 80% of posts. Baen’s Bar appears to a skewed ratio of casuals to super-users, indicating a forum that engenders a lot of loyalty.
Baen’s Bar was a small forum, but an unusually “sticky” one. This is a marketer’s dream. You’ve got a warm-network brand! People who will never leave! But it also has a dark side: when users cross a line, it’s hard to rein them in.
After all, they’re your friends.
As far as I can tell, Baen’s Bar suffered the fate of every forum. It aged, and became a parody of itself. As the forum became more and more Baenish, with everyone who wasn’t a true believer slowly falling away, they lost track of how weird they looked to the outside world. Which was fine…until someone screencaptured their worst excesses and broadcasted it to the outside world.
Recent events have brought this to a head. In 2021, Trump got mad that he lost an election, and told people to march to Capitol Hill, whereupon they broke into congressional offices, and bumbled around smashing things. I won’t express an opinion except “it was funny”. Our elected leaders are too big for their britches, and it’d do them good to clean a homeless man’s shit off their desk every morning. You might disagree with the protestors’ methods, but at least they took a stand.
However, some people (pro and against) think it was more than an amusing and freakish event, and represents an act of cultural revanchism of some kind. Baen’s Bar became venue to some heated talk, and some members said things that could be interpreted as calls to violence. Then, suddenly, it all came spilling out. Baen’s insular forum culture was revealed.
I don’t like the exposé very much. It’s sloppy with facts (“5 people were killed”), misrepresents posts to claim that they’re racist (“all the angry and non angry white males should stop going to work for a month or so” is clearly referring to a NY Time piece describing white males as Trump’s army, and it’s hard to see how the second quote is racist), and generally elevates molehills into mountains. And the most important part of analyzing these screencaps – the context – is absent.
For example, a Baen’s Bar user from India was nicknamed “The Swarthy Menace” on the forum by author Tom Kratman
Was this a racial insult? A joke between friends?
“The militia – again, a _well_armed_ militia – is necessary to present a threat in being to the powers that be such that, should they use extra-, pseudo-, and quasi-legal means to try to suppress the party, the price presented will be far too high.”
This quote (again by Kratman) is too weaselly and unspecific to mean anything. Of course a militia should be capable of resisting tyranny. Otherwise it’s not a militia, it’s a gun club. Who’s threatened by this?
I concede, however, that there are quotes that sound scary. Talk of blowing up buildings, and such.
But part of assessing a threat is understanding the venue. Is Baen known for being used as a staging ground for terrorists? Or is it full exaggerated shit-talk and LARPing? “Does it matter?” Of course it matters, dumbass. Terrorists blow up buildings. Shit-talkers don’t blow up buildings. How could it not matter?
I wish people wouldn’t pretend there’s a difference between real threats and fake ones. On Reddit, it’s very easy to fall down a rabbit hole on that site and end up in a comment thread full of radical leftists/tankies/anarchists posting what most people would regard as murder fantasies. I should have saved some posts when /r/leftwithsharpedge was still on the site, it had some real gems. There’s still threads like this, with the title “[GUILLOTINE SHARPENING NOISES]”, and comments like:
Mao: Not the hero we deserve, but the hero we need.
Guillotine? How about just a bat with nails for this one?
rope is cheap and widely available. lampposts and trees are plentiful.
I disagree. I want a spectacle, let’s get them thrown into volcanoes.
All we need a truck and some strong rope.
Landlords aren’t people.
Are these comments a credit to the people making them? No. Are they credible threats? Probably not. They’re people letting off steam, in a venue where everyone’s trying to out-edge each other. Would Reddit be justified in removing them? Yes. Is it a human rights crisis that they haven’t? No.
This +3800 thread on /r/socialism advocates an armed revolution, but mysteriously hasn’t attracted widespread media attention, condemnation, calls for Reddit’s CEO to get disinvited from SXSW, etc. This isn’t a forgotten thread I’ve picked out of some tiny subreddit. +3800 upvotes means it was pretty close to appearing on the front page of the site.
But nobody cared. And they were right not to. These words were not serious. That’s the main issue under consideration: are these “threats” on Baen’s Bar any more substantial or interesting than symbolic posturing, like a Twitter leftist with a guillotine avatar saying “eat the rich”? I don’t think they are.
So the expose has problems, and avenues of counterattack. But the reaction from the forum’s defenders has largely been to shoot themselves in the foot.
Baen’s publisher Toni Weisskopf had a hard row to hoe. If she deletes the mentioned posts and bans the offenders, her users will perceive this as a craven surrender to a bully’s demands. But if she ignores the expose, it will be spun as a further endorsement of violence.
She tried to have it both ways, temporarily closing the forum pending an investigation while refusing to condemn the violent threats. “We take these allegations seriously, and consequently have put the Bar on hiatus while we investigate. But we will not commit censorship of lawful speech.” She might have hoped that the scandal would blow over in a week, and she could reopen the Bar without doing anything. This approach blew up in her face, and caused her to lose her Guest of Honor spot at the 2021 Worldcon.
As I’ve said, you can’t win with forums. In chess, zugzwang is when you’re forced to make a bad move, because there’s no other way. Jason Sanford put her in zugzwang on February 15. There was no way she could have responded without suffering reputational damage, either from the SF community at large or from her own fans.
The smart thing to do, of course, would have been to never allow posts like that on Baen’s Bar to begin with.
But moderation is tricky, particularly with regards to powerful, respected users who are also personal friends. Forums founded on an ethos of “everything goes!” are generally moderated as little as possible, and this establishes precedent that’s hard to break. Like a roof with a hole in it, “everything goes” only seems fine until it starts raining. Moderation is almost always necessary, regardless of your friends’ feelings.
I’ve seen some attempted defenses of Baen’s Bar, and they’re not impressive.
Eric Flint provides an inspired masterclass in missing the point and arguing about the wrong things. Nobody cares whether Sanford is unfairly characterizing Baen’s Bar as conservative. Nobody cares whether Baen’s Bar is conservative to begin with. The forum could be the online wing of the Neo-Maoist Coalition. The point is that it contains threats of violence.
Nor is it a good idea to dismiss threats just because they’re logistically difficult to carry out, as Flint does. This is like arguing “the plaintiff falsely claims I beat my child with a lead pipe, but actually my child-beating pipe is made of aluminium” – this is the worst ground possible to stake an argument on. Also, the discussion is about Baen’s Bar, the forum, not Baen Books, the publisher. Saying that Baen Books publishes socialist/left wing authors is neither here nor there.
Larry Correia’s response is buzzword-loaded but writes checks it can’t cash. “[…] complaints were filed with the various internet companies Baen uses for services to pressure them into kicking us off the internet.” Is this true? I don’t know. Is it proof of a co-ordinated conspiracy? Simpler explanations are at hand. “I’m not going to talk about the moronic loser or go through all the nonsense in his ridiculous hit piece.” That’s a shame. Why even write the post then? David Weber’s defense on Facebook (“there is no way in hell that the Barflies, as they are affectionately known, are advocating for political violence”) rings hollow in light of the quotes Sanford posted. They need to be specifically addressed. You can’t just pretend they’re not there.
One last note: I’m not a conspiratorial person. But my twin from another dimension is, and he just said “this is how you kill Baen’s Bar”.
Forums don’t always die on their own. Sometimes they’re poisoned by an outside source. Old newsgroupers still talk about Eternal September, when AOL began offering free Usenet access to its subscribers, causing an influx of annoying n00bs that overwhelmed existing newsgroup culture. In 2009, xkcd described how author Stephanie Meyer could nuke 4chan from the internet by mentioning it in her next Twilight book.
And now, the word on Baen’s Bar is that it’s full of right wing lunatics.
It’d be interesting to see Baen’s Bar post-expose. Barring a new moderation strategy, I don’t see it ever getting better. New registrants will be culture warriors and people with a grievance, they’ll drive moderates out, the rhetoric will become more extreme, and eventually they’ll get a person who isn’t a LARPer. Curtains for the forum.
Baen’s Bar might not even be worth bringing back. Even if it wasn’t the far-right rat trap Sanford describes, it will likely become one now.
[Q. Why do forums still exist, given the existence of splendid social media sites like Parler and Voat and Pewtube?
A. Because of gravitational forces. Forums are like planets, you can lightly skim the outer atmosphere and escape, but once you actually land on one it’s very difficult to leave. You make friends, build a “reputation” (a useless one), participate in shared events and collective history (“remember when us brave Tails-Slash-Fanfic.org forumers stood against the Sonic-Anal-Freaks.net invasion of 2003?”), and soon you’re kind of held there by inertia. And if this is how a user feels, think of how much more compelling it must be to be a forum owner.]
Mick Norman (the pen name of Laurence James) wrote four Angels from Hell novels in the 1970s, and this 1994 collection from Creation rescues them from out-of-printness.
The rescue effort was worth it: they’re fast, brutal, addictive novels about biker gangs, set in a dystopian 1990s Britain. Petrocarbons are burned, laws are broken, women are deflowered. The novels are short and were clearly quickly written (why didn’t Creation fix the copy errors?), but they’re loaded with energy, heart, and humor, and have hardly aged at all. There are read-in-one-go books; this is practically a read-in-one-go series.
Disillusioned vet Gerald Vinson becomes a patched-in member of the Last Heroes chapter of the Hells Angels, where his intelligence, training, and leadership abilities soon see him in command of the charter. But when you ride a tiger you can’t ever get off, and Gerry is enmeshed in wars against rival chapters, switchblade-wielding football hooligans, crooked journalists, and a neo-fascistic British government that seeks to destroy the Angels (given the hundreds of homicides the Angels are involved in over the course of the series, one doesn’t feel too outraged).
The main character, of course, is almost the bikes themselves. They serve the same function as horses do in Westerns – partly a method of transport (you can go almost anywhere on a bike, and very quickly), and partly a symbol of masculinity. One surefire way to know shit’s about to go down in the books is that a biker has his “hog” sabotaged or destroyed.
The political incorrectness is high. Mick Norman doesn’t seem to like homosexuals: his villains are flamboyantly gay far more frequently than chance would predict. I also don’t believe there’s one female character who isn’t killed, raped, threatened with rape, beaten to a pulp, or some combination of the previous, aside from the old lady at the start of Guardian Angels, who merely has a man’s severed head flung through her car’s front windshield. There’s one British-African character that I can recall. He provides help to Gerry, and he and his family get burned to death by Gerry’s enemies for their trouble.
If I had a complaint, the books get smaller in scope as they progress, instead of bigger. The first one (Angels from Hell) is Gerry vs the government. The second (Angel Challenge) is Gerry vs a rival chapter. The third (Guardian Angels) is Gerry vs a couple of hoodlums. The fourth (Angels on my Mind) is Gerry vs a single psychotic cop, who (in a scenario reminiscent of Stephen King’s Misery, which it precedes by fifteen years) has illegally detained him and chained him in his basement, where his even more batshit psychologist wife seeks to “study” him.
They’re fine tales, but the first has an exhilarating sense of “us against the world” that is never quite recaptured, replaced instead by weary Ballardian nihilism.
The bikers = cowboys metaphor I posited above breaks down quickly. Cowboys in the paperback Westerns always had pro-social goals – saving towns from bandits and cattle rustlers is a noble deed. But none of Gerry’s men and women are good people. Their world has no use for good people. Nice guys don’t just finish last, they finish in body bags. But they also don’t have any long-term goals; everyone seems to be staring into the same black pit. Their battles and rides lead to more battles and rides. What’s the point? But then, what’s the point of a biker gang in real life? To have brothers? A brother that’s going to squeal on you at the first scent of a plea bargain?
How do you write a novel about a bad person and persuade the reader to care? Typically, by making the other characters even worse – gangster films traditionally pit “good” criminals (honorable men, bound by loyalty and brotherhood) against “bad” criminals (unprincipled lunatics). It’s sort of like making your worst-smelling clothes smell good by rubbing your nose in shit. Norman’s approach is different: he makes the “straights” equally bad, just in a different way. One of the books ends with an open-ended question: who is to blame for the Angels? They didn’t fall out of the sky. Our society made them. Our society will make more of them.
The best book is Angel’s Challenge, which features an absurd premise that at least gives the story some anchoring: two biker gangs agree to a scavenger hunt across London, with the losers being forced to disband and burn their colors. But in the third book, an existential loneliness sets in. The fascistic government is out of power. There’s nothing left to do, and Gerry’s bikers end up working as roadies for rock bands (echoes of the legendary Altamont Free Concert in 1969, where a Hells Angels security detail ended up fracturing skulls and stabbing people). They are empty men inside. It’s a miracle that they don’t shatter like eggshells when they crash.
They have their freedom, at least. Freedom to do what?
1. The Beatles fandom is surprisingly forgiving toward its historic villains.
Yoko Ono was rehabilitated years ago. It’s difficult to believe that anyone ever resented Linda Eastman. Alexis Mardas is remembered as a lovable kook.
Allen Klein is a more difficult case: his current status is “slightly shady chap who nonetheless made lots of necessary decisions and helped save the Beatles from ruin.”
I wonder who will post the first unironic “You know, we’re really a bit hard on that Mark David Chapman bloke…”
2. Who broke up the Beatles?
The Beatles formed in 1960 and lasted until 1970, when they severed relations under a metaphorical cloud and probably also a literal one (Paul was known to quote partake endquote). Any chance of a reunion ended in 1980 with John’s death.
But that’s a mere ten years of breakup. It pales into insignificance when you consider all the years prior to 1970 in which the Beatles were de-facto broken up, because they hadn’t formed. And there’s a strong argument that they were more broken up in 1900 than in 1979. In 1979, they could’ve theoretically gotten in a room and played together. But in the year 1900 the Beatles were broken up so hard they hadn’t even been born. In 1700s their instruments didn’t exist. In 10,000 BC music didn’t exist. 1.4 x 10^10 years ago the carbon composing their bodies didn’t exist.
The further back you go, the more broken up the Beatles become. Ironically, the Beatles weren’t broken up at the beginning of the universe, when all matter was overlayed in a single point. The Beatles existed in that point, as did all of their music and all of their fans and the bullets killed one of them. But then the point released its energy, and the Beatles-less aeons began.
To answer the answer to the question: God broke up the Beatles. He caused the fourteen billion years of creation and ensured that the Fab Four only existed in ten of them.
3. What’s the greatest Beatles album?
It’s unthinkable in 2021 to say Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Maybe you actually like that one the best, but it’d be like picking Ziggy Stardust as the best Bowie album or Dark Side of the Moon as the best Pink Floyd album. You’d look like an inexpressibly bland moron, following the herd. The point of these “what’s your fav?” questions are to display the sophistication of your tastes.
Abbey Road or Revolver or Rubber Soul? Those are still too popular and well-loved. The WhiteAlbum? Let it Be? Then there’s the opposite problem: you’re obviously trolling, trying to get a reaction. One of the first five albums? And announce that you’re a lobotomy patient who only listens to pop songs and doesn’t appreciate psychedelic 9/8 sitar anthems about monkeys fucking etc?
So what’s left? We’re running out of albums. I’ve given this important matter several seconds of thought and reached a conclusion: the greatest Beatles album is The Rutles (1978) by The Rutles.
A 1993 platform game programmed for DOS by Apogee’s Jim Norwood, who went on to develop Shadow Warriors, Heroes of Might and Magic V, and that cherished classic Third Example Goes Here.
You play as a porn-mustachio’d spec forces operative called (I fear) Snake Logan, who has crash-landed in a mutant-infested city and has to etc.
Platform games usually belong to either the “jump around and collect stars” Mario school or the “shoot guns and blow shit up” Contra school. Bio Menace is unapologetically the latter: it’s among the most violent Apogee games, with monsters dying in explosions of blood and body parts. This clashes somewhat with the visual design of the monsters themselves, who look like Teletubbies.
Bio Menace feels older than it is. Slated for a 1991 release, it was delayed for two years due to engine modifications, and by 1993 it looked as dated as glam metal.
The graphics are 16-color EGA, and the backgrounds don’t parallax-scroll. At least it ran smoothly. I recall being able to play it on Windows XP, although I don’t think it works on any 64-bit operating system.
The game itself was a competent blend of “find the key to disable the laser forcefield” type puzzles, and hallways filled with angry monsters. It had a nice sense of place – the first level in particular is a realistic urban environment littered with bodies and wrecked cars. Completing levels means rescuing civilians. Reaching high places means finding a ladder or riding an elevator. Health powerups and keys are usually found in places that make logical sense, like lockers and cabinets.
In this sense, at least, Bio Menace anticipated the future. The arcades were going away. Gaming was ready to pupate into the next stage of its life: immersive experiences not unlike Hollywood movies. There’s even an effort made at storytelling. When you rescue a civilian, amazing dialog pops up on screen (“I’m gonna dust that little dweeb! He can’t do this and escape!”)…hey, at least it’s only the second worst-written videogame about a spec forces operative called Snake.
It exemplifies Apogee’s approach: funnel out cheap (and cheaply made) games under a “shareware” business model. You got to play the first 30% of the game for free, and since that 30% typically contained 80% of the game’s actual worthwhile content, this was a pretty good deal. But it did lend itself to disposable experiences, and games that were copy-pastes of some other popular title.
Bio Menace is a minor game, without the arthouse pretensions of Eric Chahi’s Out of this World or the rotoscoped professionalism of Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia. It probably made some money, and even if it didn’t, it surely wasn’t a big red stain on Apogee’s balance sheets. Bio Menace is like throwing ten cents down on a roulette spin. Is it worth playing now? No, unless you’re a fan of “ARE YOU A BAD ENOUGH DUDE TO RESCUE THE PRESIDENT?”-style vidya cringe.
“If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.”
If you undercrank stock footage of a city it looks frantic, and if you put peaceful music over a natural landscape it looks calm. That’s Koyaanisqatsi: an emotionally moving but intellectually casuistic tale of a supposed clash between modern man and nature.
Director Godfrey Reggio seeks to show the world we live in, but he relies heavily, too heavily, on audiovisual effect, and the film ends up feeling artificial and manipulated, more like a staged ballet than a piece of honest documentation. I’m reminded of Luis Buñuel’s 1933 “documentary” of Spain’s remote Las Hurdes mountains, Land Without Bread. The theme – this is a harsh land, where life is cheap – is sold by a powerful shot of a goat climbing a steep cliff and slipping and tumbling to its death. When you learn that the scene was staged (the goat was shot with a rifle) you feel a little cheated.
Godfrey Reggio’s film isn’t deceptive in the same way, but why contrast bustling cities with the Grand Canyon? Is this a logical or obvious comparison? Why not compare a city with a raging ocean? The Antarctic Circumpolar Current carries a million times as many tonnes of water through the Drake Passage than Times Square does cars. There is peacefulness in civilization, and instability in nature.
“Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi word, defined (according to Wikipedia) as “life of moral corruption and turmoil” or “life out of balance”. The film ends with Hopi prophecies portending our doom. The film’s reverence toward primitive man is of a piece with most environmentalist scare programming on TV: white people are bad, capitalism is bad, technology and industry are bad. Instead, we should take a moment to learn from beautiful primitive people, who have so much to teach us. It’s strange that most of the people promulgating this regressive message are politically left wing, – nostalgia for the 1950s makes you a conservative dinosaur, but nostalgia for 10000 BC makes you an enlightened child of the earth-spirit?
I don’t argue that modern society is perfect, just that our greedy hyper-capitalist “life out of balance” has brought us good things, too: medicine, global communications, global transport, and the ability to make and distribute a film such as Koyaanisqatsi. We’ve created problems (climate change), but we now also have the tools to fix them. By contrast, primitive people are largely helpless against desertification, disease, ecological collapse, and so on. Any romance one feels towards pre-technological civilization probably lasts until your first toothache.
While I dislike Koyaanisqatsi‘s theme, I like almost everything else about it. It’s an extremely clever folding of sound over image (and vice versa), demonstrating how one can enhance and illuminate the other.
The visuals are powerful. Clouds slide in reflection across glass skyscrapers, time-lapsed so that they ripple and pulsate like gaseous alien creatures. Endless streams of traffic flow down streets, accelerated into rivers of pure light. Koyaanisqatsi was a microbudget production and contains a lot of stock footage, but the way this footage is cut together is always clever and interesting.
Popular culture was influenced by Reggio’s style. The “sped-up urban footage” motif endemic to 90s music videos started here, for example. Near the end of the movie there’s an extended sequence where the camera tracks a person in the street…until they look up, notice they’re being filmed, and we cut to another person. To be honest, I’m not sure what the point is, but it’s a striking trick, and I’ve seen it imitated since.
Philip Glass’s music is the equivalent of a pointillistic painting, thousands of self-referential cycles of dying notes that seem to melt inside the ear like icicles. The soundtrack is complex yet paradoxically simple. Brian Eno’s pioneering ambient music in the 1970s attempted to reward any level of listener attention (whether you’re focusing intently or listening with half an ear, the music should be enjoyable), and Glass’s work achieves this with even more beauty and concision.
The film was released and the world kept turning. Reggio tried to reignite the fire of Koyaanisqatsi twice, with 1988’s Powaqqatsi (which was about third world exploitation), and Naqoyqatsi (which was about futurism and accelerationism).
The later films had bigger budgets but smaller impacts: they were like bombs landing on a target already blown to rubble. The trouble with making sequels to an experimental film is that, by definition, you’re no longer experimenting: you’re adding to a tradition. And even though Naqoyqatsi (in particular) tried to differentiate itself by amping up the digital editing to ridiculous and obnoxious levels, the Koyaanisqatsi approach had soaked into popular culture, and no longer seemed new or interesting. Hard to be impressed by time-lapse footage when you can change the channel and see the same stuff in Nike ads and Madonna music videos.
Koyaanisqatsi is an awkward beast. Its strongest element is its craft…the craft that subtly works against it at every turn, because it adds distance between the viewer and the reality it portrays. This is one of those films that might be better if it was less competently made, because then we might the truth, instead of an endless farrago of editing tricks.
In this 1933 novel, a young woman called Doris gets laid. Too bad that’s only half the sentence, and the second half is “off from work”.
Wearing a stolen fur coat, she journeys to Berlin, intending to make it big as a Glanz – a film star.
“I want to become a star. I want to be at the top. With a white car and bubble bath that smells of perfume, and everything just like in Paris. And people have a great deal of respect for me because I’m glamorous.”
Her plans fail, and she ends up increasingly far from the high life, working as a maid, a pickpocket, and eventually a “girlfriend experience” (to use a modern euphemism). She’s following her dreams, but they’re leading her backwards: like a riptide where swimming harder means drowning faster. All she has is the fur coat, reminding her of the possibility of dreams. But the coat doesn’t belong to her. It’s someone else’s.
Keun writes a character who is stupid and smart at the same time: given to psychological monologues worthy of a tenured psychiatrist while completely unaware of how and when she’s being manipulated by others – men, institutions, and society. Being an actor is hard. You need to be focused, hard-working, very, very lucky, and at the end of the day you either have “it” or you don’t. Before coronavirus hit, Hollywood and West LA were stacked tens of thousands deep with aspiring actors, bussing tables and mowing lawns and firing out headshots like despairing messages in bottles. They won’t all succeed. Supply outstrips demand a hundredfold. “Why does New York have lots of garbage and Los Angeles have lots of actors? Because New York got to pick first.”
The Artificial Silk Girl is a kind of Grecian tragedy – a narrative that moves on towards an inevitable unhappy conclusion, while having a bitchy, funny air that makes it readable ninety years later. It’s seldom depressing or sad: Doris has a bulldog’s tenacity, and never gets kicked down for long. This, ironically, makes her into her own worst enemy: a more realistic girl would have gone home long ago.
The period setting is as much a character in the book as any of the people. Germany’s Weimar years (1918 to 1933) are often viewed as a kind of modern-day Flood parable: an orgy of decadence preceding disaster. There’s hints of political events unfolding, but Doris is blind to them: she’s trying to hustle rich men and get film roles.
She herself is apolitical, but the author wasn’t. When the NSDAP came to power, books The Artificial Silk Girl became unacceptable, and were burned on massive bonfires. Irmgard Keun (living dangerously, one thinks) actually attempted to sue the Gestapo for loss of income.
But Das Kunstseidene Mädchen is most successful not as a political or feminist polemic, but a cautionary tale of the dangers of following a dream. Sometimes ideas are just bad, and it’s almost better for them to fail immediately than to continue on: just as it’s better for a jet plane engine to break down on the runway than at an altitude of 5,000 feet.
Doris’s momentary successes seem almost cruel, because they perpetuate a fantasy. Just when she’s at the end of everything, a ray of light appears…just enough so that she keeps chasing her dream, and remains impoverished, starving, and wearing stolen clothes.
And now we speak of a defining trend in 20th century literature, the Animal Book.
They’re earnest and naturalistic accounts of an animal’s life, usually set in rural England. You can’t push a pendulum without having it swing back the other way, and the industrial revolution (and World War I) provoked a renewed interest in pastoralism, naturalism, traditionalism, and so forth.
Animals were seen as the noblest savages: unspoiled by civilization. Books about them flooded the market, even as the animals inspiring them became fewer, and were driven to the edge of extinction. It’s as if the books were absorbing the souls of animals falling slain on fen and veldt and savannah. Was this the Victorian English version of mind uploading? “The African elephant is dead, but we have preserved its immortal essence in Babar.”
Nearly everyone tried their hand at at an Animal Book, but you couldn’t use the same animal as another famous author, and soon the good ones were taken. Wolves? White Fang. Horses? Black Beauty. Deer? Bambi. Dogs? The Call of the Wild. Tigers? The Jungle Book (not as a POV character). Sheep? Who wants to read a book about sheep? The Decennary Brits got greedy, burned through all the good animals in a few short years, Peak Animal occurred, and now authors are left with options like An Earwig’s Life and Odyssey of the Tardigrade. The future looks bleak.
Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson is in the middle of the pack of Animal Books. It’s not brilliant, but it’s readable, and frequently moving in its evocation of the English countryside. It’s probably the best book you can write about an otter.
The story is simple and not very consequential. Tarka is born in Devonshire, learns to swim, feed, and clean himself, makes some friends, goes on adventures, and battles repeatedly with the hound Deadlock, who has a Terminator-esque fixation upon him.
Tarka dies at the end. Don’t feel bad: he lived a very full life. Animal Book authors were never afraid of downer endings: it’s the circle of life, and so forth. Many of them were almost indecently eager for you to know that the animal dies: this novel’s full title is Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers.
What will stay with you is the descriptions, which immerse you in sights, scents, and sounds.
Time flowed with the sunlight of the still green place. The summer drakeflies, whose wings were as the most delicate transparent leaves, hatched from their cases on the water and danced over the shadowed surface. Scarlet and blue and emerald dragonflies caught them with rustle and click of bright whirring wings. It was peaceful for the otters in the back-water, ring-rippled with the rises of fish, a waving mirror of trees and the sky, of grey doves among green ash-sprays, of voles nibbling sweet roots on the banks. The moorhen paddling with her first brood croaked from under an arch of streamside hawthorn, where the sun-shafts slanting into the pool lit the old year’s leafdust drifting like smoke underwater. The otter heard every wild sound as she lay unsleeping, thinking of her lost one. The cubs breathed softly, but sometimes their nostrils worked and their legs moved, as though they were running.
The countryside is pretty, but also deadly. The giant otters of South America are apex predators, but European otters such as Tarka are not, and there are a lot of things in Devonshire trying to eat him.
I’ve often felt that the success of Animal Books rely on fear: convincing human readers to be scared of things an animal is scared of. A slithering movement at the water’s edge. An unexpected shadow darkening the sun. Tarka handles this better than most. There’s a vivid scene where otters have to cross a brightly-lit field like soldiers storming an enemy position, hugging shade, because the sunlight will catch on their glossy coats and turn them into a flashing light for predators. Richard Adams’ rabbits have a thousand enemies, but Henry Williamson’s otters have a couple hundred of their own.
By the way, “drakefly” is an archaic term for “mayfly”. The book is written using old and odd words, and my copy includes a dictionary. “Appledrane” is a wasp that has burrowed into an apple. “Oolypuggers” means bulrushes (I’m a bit skeptical that this is a real world – Google has no record of anyone using that word outside of Tarka).“Aerymouse” is a common British bat, and frankly, I rather like that word. Why did we stop calling bats aerymouses?
Also, why Animal Books? This reverence to nature has sinister undertones today, because it reminds of certain parts of fascism (organic state, blood and soil, etc). Tarka the Otter is one of many books that seems to be disappearing from public memory. After I read Henry Williamson’s Wikipedia page (“He had a ‘well-known belief that Hitler was essentially a good man who wanted only to build a new and better Germany.'”) it occurred to me that it’s deliberately being forgotten, and with a quickness.