One of surrealism’s last masterpieces, The Hearing Trumpet anchors its story in confinement—an old woman is sent away to an institution—and then sets her free in a metaphorical and literal apocalypse of pagan-inspired imagery. It’s a stealth-story about witchcraft; so stealthy that not even the witch knows she’s inside one.
The beginning’s great fun. 92-year-old Marian Leatherby is gifted a hearing trumpet by her friend Carmella. The first thing she hears through it is her family, plotting against her in the next room.
“The government provides institutions for the aged and infirm,” snapped Muriel. ” She ought to have been put away long ago.”
“We are not in England,” said Galahad. “Institutions here are not fit for human beings.”
“Grandmother, ” said Robert, “can hardly be classified as a human being. She’s a drooling sack of decomposing flesh.”
“Robert,” said Galahad without conviction, “really, Robert.”
“Well I’ve had enough,” said Robert. ” Inviting people here for a normal chat and a drink and in walks the monster of Glamis, gibbering at us in broad daylight until I have to throw her out. Gently of course.”
“Remember Galahad,” added Muriel, “these old people do not have feelings like you or I.”
Marian ends up shunted away to an institution called Lightsome Hall (“very efficiently organized and reasonably inexpensive”), run by the publicity-obsessed Dr Gambit. It’s a queer place, full of nonsensical rules and idiotic people. The food portions are very small. The staff are fond of saying things like “Humility is the fountain of light. Pride is a disease of the soul.”
Clearly, Marian’s family expects her to die there, and to be relieved when it happens.
But Marian has quite a lot of spirit for a “drooling sack of decomposing flesh”. On a wall, she notices a portrait of an 18th century abbess, Dona Rosalinda, Abbess of the Convent of Saint Barbara of Tartarus—an abbess who, long ago, was on a quest to recover the Holy Grail and return it to its proper owner, the goddess Venus. Dona Rosalinda never succeeded, but with the help of some octogenarian inmates, Marian might have better luck.
The book’s halves play with and against each other. Contrasts are set up and explored: Christianity vs Paganism, imprisonment vs liberty, masculinity vs feminity, technology vs primitivism. The book spans a Apollonian/Nietszchiean divide: stultifying rules and de-facto imprisonment, so that Marian’s final transformation (she gets a cauldron, but doesn’t do the expected thing with it!) hits you all the harder.
While reading about neuroscience, I learned about lateral inhibition. It’s where a neuron undergoing an activation spike will inhibit the action potentials of neighbouring neurons. This is perceived as contrast, which makes it easier to notice things. I’d already known from mixing music that the best way to emphasise a given frequency isn’t to make it louder (which creates a “loudness war” scenario where everything is fighting everything for volume) but to cut the frequencies on either side. Waves seem bigger when the sea is flat. The Hearing Trumpet works in the same way.
The book has a lot of depth, if you’re prepared to read between the lines (and above and below and beside them, too). Lightsome House is a parody, not of organized religion, but of mysticism, and Dr Gambit is a pastiche of notorious mystic George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (Gambit’s portentious references to some ill-explained thing called “the Work” give the game away). If you gave me a blind test between Gambit and Gurdjieff quotes I’m not sure I could reliably tell you which was which.
Everything in the book has an absurdist edge. The bizarre design of the institution (buildings are shaped like birthday cakes, shoes, and igloos) could be out of a Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton book. The fact that the Institute is owned by a cereal company, and that people have names like “Galahad” in Mexico, hints that it’s a book with a complicated relationship with reality. The closest comparison to The Hearing Trumpet isn’t surrealist touchstones like Breton or Kafka, but childrens’ literature.
A battle surrealist literature faces is to stop the reader from analyzing every detail as having encoded meaning. This battle is usually a lost one, but in Carrington’s case, the small details really do seem to mean a lot.
Like the hearing trumpet. It “announces” a kind of apocalypse for Marian, just as a trumpet does when blown in the book of Revelation. And the bees (which exist everywhere at the Institution) are an obvious pagan symbol, but they also provide some psychological depth into Gambit (meaning, Gurdjieff). Bees are females, you see. Ones incapable of breeding, ones that he can possess and control, just like the women at the Institute. To be sure, Gurdjieff had a slightly sinister amount of control over his female acolytes. His relationship with them would have produced closer scrutiny had he lived today.
“Gambit is a kind of Sanctified Psychologist,” said Georgina. “The result is Holy Reason, like Freudian table turning . Quite frightful and as phoney as Hell. If one could only get out of this dump he would cease to be important, being the only male around, you know. It is really too crashingly awful all these women. The place creeps with ovaries until one wants to scream. We might as well be living in a bee hive.”
…but that gets twisted, when a colossal queen bee arrives, wearing “a tall iron crown studded with rock crystals, the stars of the underworld.” A symbol of female power.
Despite its lunacy, the story’s a fairly personal one. Carrington’s childhood was marked by rebellion, and institutions of various forms. The staff of a Spanish sanitorium had to repeatedly stop her from climbing onto the roof, to be nearer to the stars. So you see a lot of that coming through in the book. A desire for freedom. The idea that escaping your circumstances might be as simple as locating the right painting on a wall.
Needless to say, Carrington was raised Catholic. I’ve heard it said that if you want your daughter to become a whore, name her “Chastity”, and maybe a strict Catholic upbringing is the perfect one for a nascent surrealist, too. Anais Nin was raised Catholic too, come to think of it…
Like Nin’s Delta of Venus, the world The Hearing Trumpet was written for wasn’t the same one that actually read it. Finished in 1950, it remained unpublished until 1977. It does feel adrift in time. Everything is a little bit quaint and stuffy and old-fashioned. The motif of a hearing trumpet—instead of, say, a cochlear implant—marks it as a book out of its time. And all kinds of little details are “off”, not because of any surrealist intent, but simply because the world had moved on.
Some fifty or sixty years ago I bought a practical tin trunk in the Jewish quarter in New York.
“Fifty or sixty years” before 1950 was the late 19th century. Only a few tens of thousands of Jews lived in New York back then, mostly in the Lower East Side. Obviously, the timeline doesn’t make sense when moved to 1974. There wasn’t a “Jewish quarter” in 1920s New York: well over a million Jews lived there by that point and it was one of the city’s biggest demographics by that time.
Marian Leatherby had to wait nearly a century before her moment came, and I suppose we’re lucky that The Hearing Trumpet only had to wait 25 years. Fascinating, unique book. It established a weird, ossified world of ritual and control, so that the final rapturous explosion has way more effect than it otherwise would. The chains are strong but can still be broken, but that makes it even more impactful when they explode into a thousand shards. Carrington’s book is a restatement of the fundamental point of surrealism. The world is confinement, so find the edge and fall off.
Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad (published in Polish in 1965, and in English in 1974) is about two robots, Trurl and Klapaucius, and their various misadventures.
A particularly prescient story involves Trurl building an “Elektrybałt” (English: Electronic Bard) that can generate poetry on demand. Klapaucius doesn’t believe Trurl’s silly contraption can work, and sets the Electronic Bard an impossible challenge to embarrass it.
“Have it compose a poem—a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter s!!” “And why not throw in a full exposition of the general theory of nonlinear automata while you’re at it?” growled Trurl. “You can’t give it such idiotic—” But he didn’t finish. A melodious voice filled the hall with the following: Seduced, shaggy Samson snored. She scissored short. Sorely shorn, Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed, Silently scheming, Sightlessly seeking Some savage, spectacular suicide.
Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad
Good poem, no? Except Lem didn’t write it. Credit here goes to his English translator, Michael Kandel.
In the original Polish, the passage runs:
– Niech ułoży wiersz o cyberotyce! – rzekł nagle, rozjaśniony. – Żeby tam było najwyżej sześć linijek, a w nich o miłości i o zdradzie, o muzyce, o Murzynach, o wyższych sferach, o nieszczęściu, o kazirodztwie, do rymu i żeby wszystkie słowa były tylko na literę c!! – A całego wykładu ogólnej teorii nieskończonych automatów nie ma tam czasem być? – wrzasnął rozwścieczony do żywego Trurl. – Nie można stawiać tak kretyńskich warun… Ale nie dokończył, ponieważ słodki baryton, wypełniając całą halę, odezwał się właśnie:
“– Let him compose a poem about cyberotics! – he suddenly exclaimed, brightened. – Make it no more than six lines, and within them include love and betrayal, music, Africans, the higher spheres, misery, incest, all in rhyme and with all the words starting with the letter C! – And is there supposed to be a whole lecture on the general theory of infinite automata as well? – Trurl roared, exasperated. – You can’t set such cretinous conditions… But he didn’t finish, because a sweet baritone, filling the whole hall, just then began:
Cyprian, cyberoticomaniac, cynic, cherishing tenderly The wonder of the dark body of the emperor’s black daughter, Continually charmed with a cithara. She blushed all over, Quiet, everyday she waited, suffered, kept watch… …Cyprian kisses his aunt, having thrown away the black girl!!”
It’s interesting to note how many words still start with C, despite the translation—interesting, but not surprising, since English and Polish are sister languages. It’s that freaked-out feeling you get when you see a whale skeleton and realize its flippers are structurally similar to your own hand.
So we see the translator’s struggle here. Do you translate the text literally, even if the prose ends up dead? Or do you make creative choices that aren’t in the original story yet hopefully preserve its spirit? Something to think about when you read a manga that’s still half in Japanese, because “there are no honorifics in English, bro.”
Today, we’ve actually built something like the Electronic Bard. Here’s GPT 3.5’s attempt at writing a poem for Klapaucius:
Eh. Could be better. I captured every part of Klapaucius’s challenge, except for the “full of love” requirement. But they’re samurai. They love fighting.
I think I could perform as Trurl’s electronic bard in a pinch. I’m not sure I could handle the lifestyle, though.
Trurl himself had no little trouble in connection with his invention. The classicists, generally elderly, were fairly harmless; they confined themselves to throwing stones through his windows and smearing the sides of his house with an unmentionable substance.
TekWar is the first in a series of cyberpunk novels “written” by William Shatner. If you read sci fi books around 1990, you’ll vaguely remember TekWar. You’ll vaguely remember the shit out of it.
According to popular legend, Shatner wrote the book during a strike on the set of Star Trek V. According to unpopular legend, it was actually ghostwritten by Ron Goulart. According to a bullshit lie I just made up, it was written by popular entertainer Herbert “Tiny Tim” Khaury while his ukelele was in the shop for repairs. As the truth invariably lies in the middle, we can confidently say TekWar was written by Shatner, Goulart, and Tiny Tim working together and no I will not take further questions.
The book is about future-cop Jake Cardigan (far less cool than his brother, Jim Pullover), who is framed for dealing a illicit mind-altering drug known as “Tek”. To clear his name, he must infiltrate and crack the cartels of the “TekLords” at the behest of a shadowy PI agency. In short, he’s a deTektive.
Today, “cyberpunk” is a fluffy visual aesthetic. In the 90s, it was a literary movement: Ballardian/Ellisonian “new wave” sci-fi with an emphasis on the sordid side of life, particularly drug use, crime, and urban blight.
Cyberpunk was raised around the principle that it’s not beauty that defines an age, it’s ugliness. The true face of the Middle Ages isn’t the Chartres Cathedral but the bubonic sores on a peasant girl’s neck. The 21st century will be remembered for World War II and the Holocaust, not the Green Revolution or the Moon Landing. As Hitler’s chief architect Albert Speer realized, ruin and death have a fetishistic compulsion that draws us in and forces us to stare. What will the future of decay look like? The verdigris yet to flower, the crack yet to appear? How can we depict that?
In practice, most writers aren’t very imaginative, and 90s cyberpunk stories were typically a future setting awkwardly bolted to a bog-standard 1950s crime/western novel (Gibson’s “console cowboy” trope is an unsubtle nod to this). But they were quick to write, and cheap to adapt to film (places like Hong Kong’s Walled City and New York’s East 14th Street looked fairly cyberpunkish already, without a dollar spent on set dressing), and this led to a glut of substandard work that crashed the market.
Next to the genre’s more interesting works, such as Vurt and Snow Crash, TekWar stands out as particularly disposable. ”I wrote them as the sort of books you could read on airplanes and throw away afterwards,” Shatner once said. With that kind of sales job, I bet you’re itching to read TekWar already. But I am not here to talk about the book, or the TV show, or the other TV show, or the movie, or the comic book, or the marital aid.
I am here to discuss the PC game, by Capstone Interactive.
Tekwar was a first-person shooter that came out in 1995 and left no trace on popular culture. That’s typical: games have the lifespan of mayflies. They are released, played by however many people play them, and then fall into the same abyss, goodnight. Where they fall to, we cannot say. There is no thud when they hit the bottom.
I remember countless PC games that once dominated the market like titans…and now they’re gone. Forgotten. They’re not even obsolete, it’s like they don’t exist. Nobody talks about them, few even remember them, and even if you think you do, it’s actually your childhood your remembering, not the game. Think I’m kidding? Try playing your favorite childhood game now. It will feel strange and awkward and totally unlike your memories: you’d swear the game has been permanently sucked out of the timeline and switched with an inferior off-brand copy. You have to face facts: your childhood is gone. The door into adulthood swings one way.
Music is a different story. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is from 1968, and sounds like it was recorded this morning. The #1 song on the UK pop charts in January 1991 had Gregorian chanting. Occasionally a random song from decades ago will go viral, racking up tens of millions of listens for no other reason than it’s good and people like it.
Music lives forever: the same is not true for videogames. The most they can hope for is that an embarrassing Youtuber called “PixelNostalgia” or “8BitMemories” will waddle through it in DOSBox to the adulation of two hundred viewers. I remember this game! It was so great! I played it when I was six! Again, it’s not about the game, it’s about their childhood. Old games have past tense constructions (was, did, had) hanging around them like flies around carrion. Their moment is short, and they never get a second one. There is no revival scheduled for The Fortress of Dr Radiaki.
1995 was an awkward year for first-person shooters. The “pseudo-3D” technology that had railgunned 1993’s Doom into the stratosphere was beginning to age, but the 3D revolution of 1996’s Quake hadn’t arrived yet. The industry settled into a holding pattern: we got iterations on the Doom formula (Heretic/Hexen/Star Wars: Dark Forces), as well as noble experiments (Magic Carpet 2/Descent) that never really felt like finished games. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath.
Then came Ken Silverman’s Build engine.
Silverman was a child prodigy from Rhode Island with a savantlike grasp of graphics programming and assembly code. Around 1992, he saw his brother playing a new game called Wolfenstein 3D, thought “I could make that” and…uh, he did. He reverse-engineered John Carmack’s cutting-edge “3D” engine from scratch, without a peek at the source code. He was sixteen years old.
Doom caused a spike of interest in shooting games. Licensed engines became a hot commodity, and so did the programmers who could work with them. In 1993-4, Scott Miller of Apogee wanted to develop a 3D shooter, but id Software wouldn’t sell him the Doom engine, so he hired Silverman to write a copy of it.
What followed was a long, messy process (Silverman had just enrolled at Brown University, and was soon failing entry-level courses because he spent all his time programming!) that culminated in Build, an quirk-filled oddball engine that powered some of the most memorable games of the 90s.
Build wasn’t a visual feast. Essentially a 2.5D engine with a lot of fancy tricks, it looked good by 1994 standards, passable by 1995 standards, and was severely manhandled by Quake. It was clunky and awkward. Everything cool it could do—such as rooms on top of rooms and mouselook—was achieved through an ugly hack. Silverman was a self-taught programmer, with all that implies, and his code was notoriously abstruse and buggy. This caused frustration for the programmers who had to work in it. I watched someone “speedrun” Duke Nukem 3D: it was actually kind of funny. He barely played the game, he simply exploited one glitch after another, clipping his way through whole levels.
So where did the Build engine shine? Dynamism. It did stuff. Unlike Doom‘s idTech 1 engine, which relied on pre-rendered BSP trees, Build generated level architecture on the fly, meaning walls and floors could move, rotate, and shift. Build took those little moments of environmental interaction in Doom (such as crushing a Spider Mastermind beneath a descending ceiling) and amplified them by a factor of ten. 1996’s Duke Nukem 3D let the player launch nuclear missiles and blow entire landscapes to pieces. 1997’s Blood had a level set on a moving train. 1997’s Shadow Warrior had driveable vehicles years before Halo. Few engines have been so exhuberantly designer-focused as Build.
The earliest Build game to exist (for a relaxed definition of “exist”) was 1994’s Rock’n Shaolin: Legend of the Seven Paladins 3D. It was the illegal afterbirth of a failed deal between Apogee/3D Realms and a Taiwanese/HK studio called Accend. For years, it was believed that the game was never finished (although Accend did leak an unauthorized demo on the internet), until someone found and photographed a game box at a flea market. So apparently Accend actually finished the game? And then released it, in complete defiance of the law? But didn’t advertise or promote it at all? I don’t know. There’s a lot of weird rumors surrounding that game. It’s cursed, and we’ll talk no more of it.
The first legal Build engine game was 1995’s Witchaven, a graphically ugly and technologically primitive Heretic-clone that I will probably never play again. I have made peace with that fact.
Witchaven was the most drab and depressing-looking game I’ve ever seen. The enemies look like claymation trolls melted with a hair-dryer. The controls suck. Combat consists of lining yourself up with enemies and swinging a melee weapon at them—which is frustrating, because there’s a delay of about a second before damage registers, and the first-person perspective meansyou can’t see where your feet are. Your melee weapons break after a few swings. At times Witchaven seems hell-bent on denying the player any sort of fun. The designers exploit virtually none of the Build engine’s possibilities. If the story of Build had ended with Witchaven, the engine would be forgotten today.
But then Duke Nukem 3D came out: and it was a wonderful romp, gleefully overstuffed with attitude, style, and humor. If Quake was a leap forward for 3D technology, Duke was an equally large leap forward for game design. It’s packed with cosmetic touches—you can flush toilets, and roll balls around on a billiards table—that individually seem pointless, but when you have a thousand of them the game just comes alive, and seems to sparkle. When you played Duke, you felt the winds of change blow. The “boomer shooter” era of space marines shooting aliens in gray metal techbases was drawing to a close, and Blood and Shadow Warriors further sealed the deal. Gamers now expected a living, breathing world.
But between Witchaven and Duke Nukem 3D, we got TekWar.
It was also developed by Capstone. I don’t know if it was made by the same people behind Witchaven. Given the differences in art and style, I would guess it was a different team.
It uses an early version of Build that’s scarcely more advanced than the one seen in Legend of the Seven Paladins. There are no sloped surfaces or rooms-on-top-of-rooms, and certainly no voxels. It does have reflective surfaces, but as soon as you see yourself in a mirror, you’ll wish it didn’t. Your character has no animation, and slides as if on roller-skates.
Tekwar loosely adapts the book’s story. The detective elements are gone. Now Jake Cardigan is a wet-worker, hired by Walter Bascom (voiced by William Shatner in cutscenes) to murder Tek dealers without a trial. Essentially, it’s Rodrigo Duterte Simulator.
You walk around, with your gun awkwardly jutting out into the field of view like you’re a flasher and it’s your dick clenched in your hand. In fairness, the actual game isn’t bereft of ideas. It’s an early “open world” FPS game. Instead of loading episodes through a menu, you step on a train, which takes you to the lair of one of the seven “TekLords”. The train station is a central hub that locks you inside the experience, adding to the game’s sense of immersion. This kind of trick is standard now, but was cool back in 1995. After all, why shouldn’t you take the train to go places in a videogame?
Tekwar has some early sparks of the “tactical shooter” genre. The game is populated by NPCs who bumble around and get in the way. If you hurt them, police will attack you. This (in theory) forces you to be smart: rather than killing everything in sight, you have to eliminate Tek dealers while leaving civilians unharmed. Doom is “you against the world”. TekWar is “you against team 1, while trying to pacify team 2 by not hurting team 3”. This idea, if it had been done well, would have added a tactical, cerebral edge to Tekwar unlike any FPS game yet on the market. It would have been a revolution.
It’s not done well. The AI is Daikatana-level terrible. Cops ignore Tek dealers who are firing guns at you, but the moment you unholster a gun to defend yourself, they start blasting away at you too. It sucks.
Everyone in this game is absurdly sensitive to sound, making it pointless to be cautious. You can unholster a gun in an empty room and hear cops reacting to it in the street outside. Often it’s quicker to just massacre everyone you see, cops and civvies and bad guys alike, and deal with William Shatner’s bitching afterward. Better to be tried by twelve than carried by six, and all that.
Even if you’re a boy scout who’s dedicated to minimizing casualties, it’s easy to shoot civilians by mistake, because they look like enemies, particularly at a distance. The enemies all very similar-looking in general. I accidentally killed a TekLord (!) and didn’t even realize it until Shatner started congratulating me. I assumed he was just a regular enemy who was soaking up a lot of my shots for some reason, possibly because the game’s hit registration is terrible.
Tekwar has severe Teknical difficulties. Bugs I’ve seen or heard of include:
You sometimes lose all your weapons when starting a new level.
If you get pinched between two sliding doors, it kicks you back to DOS with an “INVALID SECTOR FOR PLAYER” message.
Like Doom, enemies can be “gibbed” by explosions. However, enemies don’t drop vital keys when gibbed, and levels become impassable if this happens.
Binding movement keys to your mouse allows for super fast movement for some reason
Some of the game’s bugs are honestly adorable. In the Carlyle Rossi section of a game, there’s a ceiling-mounted turret that…isn’t a turret. It moves around the ceiling, chasing you like a lost dog. (An explanation for this I found on a forum: the turrets are considered regular enemies in the game code, just with their movement speed set to “zero”. But this parameter had to be set by hand, and the developers evidently forgot in the case of this one turret. So it moves.)
The game has FMV videos, depicting your boss, Walter Bascom (played by William Shatner) talking to you. He’ll say stuff like “Quick! I’m uptown, and I just saw Marty Dollar! Get down here and help me bring him in!”, giving the impression that the game’s is co-op and you’ll be fighting side by side with Captain Kirk. Hopefully you’re not stupid enough to fall for that. Shatner never once appears in the game.
I should mention that 1995 was also the peak of the “interactive movie” fad, when people thought the future of gaming would be clicking buttons and then watching 320×240 Smacker files of actors reacting to what you just did. If you eliminate a TekLord without harming civilians, Shatner praises you. If you fail in either of these tasks, he yells at you (although I’ve found that he sometimes compliments you on a bloodless victory when you did, in fact, kill a civilian).
I like Shatner as an actor, but I don’t need to: nobody likes him as much as he likes himself. His every line is delivered with consummate smugness. “I’m not gonna waste your time…or, more importantly, my time.” And then he pauses for an uncomfortable amount of time so you can chuckle.
Also, the videos look like this. It’s great for those who are allergic to pixels, because these videos have hardly any of them.
The game is more colorful than Witchaven, but not in a good way. It is garish and kitsch. The in-game sprites are rotoscoped from real-life actors (probably from the TV show), which sounds great in theory, but creates a persistant sense of unreality. They clearly do not belong in the world of the game.
Do you see what I mean? The actress is being lit from her right (camera’s left), but inside the game, there’s nothing that could be casting that light. She’s standing next to a building, and should be in shadow. It sends a white-hot signal to your brain that something’s not right. It’s an illusion. Every character model has the same problem: they are illuminated and highlighted in all the wrong places, and it breaks the illusion.
Other Build engine games averted the problem by rendering sprites in very soft light (Blood), or by being so cartoony that nobody noticed (the rest of them, basically). Tekwar, with its Promethean striving for realism, actually looks the fakest of all. It doesn’t help that the sprites often have really shitty roto, with bits of the backdrop visible on their models.
Everywhere you look, the reality of the game world is broken by sloppy and bizarre touches. The textures don’t match up. There’s water, but you can’t swim: you just instantly fall to the bottom and then start walking again (amidst reeds that don’t seem to connect with the floor). Climbing ladders is absurdly slow. This is the only game I’ve played where it takes longer to climb a ladder than it would have taken me in real life.
Then there’s the infamous “matrix” levels, which are totally confusing, ripped off from System Shock, and just look like complete ass. Nothing makes visual sense. If anything, it looks like one of those “filler” games from Action 52, where it’s just a jumble of random sprites they had lying around. And that’s basically the climactic ending point of the game.
So, some ambitious ideas, along with execution so botched that not even the combined powers Capstone, Will Shatner, and Ken Silverman could save it. I wish I liked it more, but Tekwar badly needs teknical support.