“I don’t remember giving a moment’s thought to the fact that we had just sketched out a plan to kill millions of people.”
Ken Alibek – born Kanatzhan “Kanat” Alibekov – was a Soviet microbiologist. Prior to his defection to the United States in 1992, Alibek was First Deputy Director of Biopreparat, the USSR’s secret biowarfare project.
In other news, I might be dying right now. Something might be in my body, invisibly small, eluding my T-cells and my MHC and murdering me. Like a citizen in Kabul being targeted by a reaper drone, I’ll never see my killer’s face. My loved ones won’t be able to curse it or shake their hands at it. My body will go into a plague bag and then into a cremation oven, perhaps after infecting others.
Disease is everywhere. “You Want It, You Got It,” sang the Detroit Emeralds in the 70s. Disease is You Don’t Want It, You Got It. I live in a first world country with plumbing and sewage, yet I’ve had the flu, chicken-pox, and at least forty colds. It’s inescapable. Having a phobia of viruses would be like having a phobia of air – and to an approximation, air is viruses. 800 million viruses drift to earth every day per square meter, a steady rain, as deadly as a storm of steel. These viruses clash and recombine, peeling off strips of recombinant DNA and RNA like Formula One cars swapping paint, sometimes making themselves stronger in the process. The end result might be a deadly new superplague entering my lungs with the breath I just took. This is unlikely to happen to me, but that’s cold comfort. Someone else is going to be the first.
And these are only natural plagues. Engineered ones are far worse. Nature can create shapes that float on water, such as curved leaves, but they’ll never be as strong and buoyant as a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Unconstrained by evolutionary pressure, a laboratory can theoretically create a disease far worse than any seen in nature. The biohazards Alibek worked on were synthetic tularemia, anthrax, glanders, haemorraghic fever, and anthrax. But the true biohazard was Abelikov himself. He was a sorcerer of the spirochete, driving nature far beyond its natural constraints and then straight over a cliff.
“We saw ourselves as custodians of a mystery that no one else understood, warriors or high priests of a secret cult whose rituals could not be revealed.”
The thing about viruses is that they can’t be too deadly, or they’ll kill their carrier organisms before they get a chance to reproduce. A man-made plague distributed from airborne canisters is under no such obligations to play nice. Alibek wasn’t the first to see the potential for disease as a weapon: it’s been used in this way since antiquity. It’s impersonal, creating a layer of obfuscation between the attacker and victim. And it’s easy for a state actor to work on bioweapon projects, telling outside inspectors that they’re merely conducting defensive research.
But diseases have one big problem: they can’t tell friend from foe. Alibek has many close calls while working at Biopreparat, such as a terrifying incident in 1983 where a faulty safety valve causes a liquified super-strain of tularemia to flow upwards through an air vent.
“I opened the door and took a few steps inside. It was pitch black. I reached back, groping in the darkness for the light switch. When I finally hit the switch and looked down, I found I was standing in a puddle of liquid tularemia. It was milky brown–the highest possible concentration. The puddle at my feet was only a few centimeters deep, but there was enough tularemia on the floor to infect the entire population of the Soviet Union.”
Alibek frantically washes himself with hydrogen peroxide. It isn’t enough. One day later, he begins to sicken.
Toward the end of Klyucherov’s visit, my body started to shake. Chills, and a sudden wave of nausea, overcame me so quickly I wanted to bury my head in my arms. It’s a cold, I thought. I’ve been working too hard.
But it felt worse than any cold I’d ever had. I could feel my face burning with fever.
“What’s happened to you?” Klyucherov asked in a tone that was now much friendlier. “You look like you’re about to die.”
I smiled weakly. “It’s just a cold,” I said. “I had a long night. I could do with some tea.”
Alibek isn’t just afraid of the disease, he’s afraid of discovery: people disappear because of these sorts of fuck-ups. Luckily, he’s able to antidote himself with black market tetracycline, and his superiors never suspect he had anything except a cold.
This was one of the most fascinating parts of the book: the discussion of Soviet culture and how one interacts with it.
Russia had several Chernobyl-like events. On March 1979, a technician at a chemical drying plant in Sverdlovsk removed a clogged filter and didn’t replace it. Soon, aerosolized spores were pouring from the plant’s exhaust pipes, where the wind blew them into Sverdlovsk’s factory district. What kind of spores? Bacillus anthracis, better known as anthrax.
With workers dying by the score, several contradictory coverup stories went into effect at once. The KGB informed locals that the deaths were caused by a truckload of contaminated meat. Innocent meat vendors were arrested, and the victims’ families received visits from “doctors” armed with falsified death certificates. Meanwhile, members of the local Communist Party were put to work scrubbing “hazardous material” from roads and rooftiles.
…which caused a second wave of deaths, when brooms and brushes swept anthrax spores back into the air, spreading them a second time throughout the city. Multiple layers of incompetence, executed with maximal efficiency.
I don’t think any kid dreams of working at a place like Biopreparat. Alibek originally wanted to become a military psychiatrist, but he was drawn sideways into studying epidemiology and biology. He had an obvious flair for such work, but he also possessed a single large weakness: he noticed things he wasn’t supposed to. His professor, a retired colonel called Aksyonenko, assigned him the task of writing about the outbreak of tularemia that crippled a German offensive in 1942. After a few nights studying the case, Alibek came to conclusions that might have landed him in big trouble.
When I walked into my professor’s office with a draft of my paper, I thought I had solved the puzzle. He was concentrating on the latest edition of Krasnaya Zvezda, the official army newspaper.
“So, what have you discovered?” Aksyonenko asked, smiling up at me before returning to his paper.
“I’ve studied the records, Colonel,” I said cautiously. “The pattern of the disease doesn’t suggest a natural outbreak.”
He looked up sharply. “What does it suggest?”
“It suggests that this epidemic was caused intentionally.”
He cut me off before I could continue.
“Please,” he said softly. “I want you to do me a favor and forget you ever said what you just did.”
It’s impossible silence and secrecy.
Whether or not you think Reagan was correct in describing the USSR as an “evil empire” (I think he was), it was certainly an unsafe empire. When disasters like Chernobyl (or Sverdlovsk) occur, they need to occur in a spiritual daylight, so that the correct action can be taken with expediency. Not beneath the shade of coverups and lies. Most importantly, you need to give your inferiors permission to make mistakes – otherwise you’ll never know when they do.
Obviously, Biopreparat’s work killed a good number of Russians. Was it ever used on non-Russians?
Not in war, as far as I can tell. That’s the dark irony: biowarfare tends to get used in ways that specifically aren’t sanctioned warfare; such as against civilians and political opponents. Alibek had numerous encounters with KGB operatives, who praised him, threatened him, and attempted to recruit him as an informant. He believes that his work was used to commit assassinations on behalf of an even more secret entity known as Project Flute.
In the spring of 1990, Butuzov walked into my office and sank into the big armchair across from my desk. He stared for a while at the
portraits of scientists hanging on the wall.
“I need your advice on something, Kan,” he said casually.
“Sure,” I said. “Professional or personal?”
I waited until he spoke again.
“I’m looking for something that will work with a gadget I’ve designed. It’s a small battery, the kind you use for watches, connected to a vibrating plate and an electric element.”
“Go on,” I said. He spoke in the same casual tone in which we discussed a soccer match. I was fascinated.
“Well, when you charge this element up, the plate will start vibrating
at a high frequency, right?”
“So, if you had a speck of dried powder on that plate, it will start to form an aerosol when it vibrates.”
He looked at me for encouragement, and I motioned for him to continue.
“Let’s say we put this assembly into a tiny box, maybe an empty pack of Marlboro cigarettes, and then find a way to put the pack under someone’s desk, or in his trash basket. If we were then to set it in motion, the aerosol would do the job right away, wouldn’t it?”
“It depends on the agent,” I said.”Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about. What’s the best agent to use in such a situation if the objective is death?”
I’m not sure why I went along with him, but I did.
“You could use minimal amounts of tularemia,” I said, “but it wouldn’t necessarily kill.”
“I know,” said Butuzov. “We were thinking of something like Ebola.”
“That would work. But you’d have a high probability of killing not just this person, but everyone around him.”
“That wouldn’t matter.”
Alibek continues probing, and learns that Flute’s target is Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the newly elected president of Georgia. The “flamboyantly mustachio’d” Gamsakhurdia had been an enemy of Moscow ever since leading a campaign against the Soviet army in 1989, and it was suddenly very attractive that he no longer remain in power.
Zviad Gamsakhurdia died in 1993, under circumstances that remain unclear. Maybe it was a suicide. Or maybe a small, vibrating battery was involved.
How did Alibek morally rationalise his work? Using the standard line: Biopreparat was only doing the same thing the Americans were doing. It was the USSR’s version of the missile gap: if we don’t develop bioweapons, they will first.
Was this ever true? Maybe at one stage. Research efforts between the US and the USSR dovetail perfectly between 1945 and 1969: the same agents, the same aerosols, and the same processes were used on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This likely wasn’t an accident. Classified US research papers on bacteriological weapons had a curious way of ending up in Moscow.
But by 1969, the US was losing interest in the field. Public discontent with the Vietnam war soon expanded to encompass chemical and biological warfare, and facilities throughout the country were picketed. Nixon was soon convinced by his advisors that disease-based weapons lacked tactical value, and later that year, he appointed a panel that killed America’s biowarfare program.
…The Soviets, of course, regarded all of this as theater.
“We didn’t believe a word of Nixon’s announcement. Even though the massive U.S. biological munitions stockpile was ordered to be destroyed, and some twenty-two hundred researchers and technicians lost their jobs, we thought the Americans were only wrapping a thicker cloak around their activities.”
But in 1991, as the old regime ended, Alibek was chosen to be part of a group of Soviet scientists to tour biological research facilities in the United States. He was shocked at what he didn’t find: Biopreparat had two thousand specialists in anthrax. The Americans had two. The research papers he saw were all decades old. Supposedly top-secret installations like Fort Detrick seemed to be either defunct or converted to hum-drum civilian medical research. He turned over every stone he could, but there was nothing incriminating to be seen.
But his superiors weren’t interested in hearing that America had abandoned biowarfare, and didn’t like the implication that they themselves might soon be out of a job. Obvious parallels to the Iraq war come to mind. From Bush’s perspective, Iraq had to be guilty of something. After all, he’d already gone to the trouble of invading them.
The one-sidedness of Russia’s research projects became another thing Alibek wasn’t supposed to talk about. It’s around this point that thoughts of defection entered his head. Spurring him on was the new wave of racial tension that followed the collapse of the USSR – another thing that interested me. Alibek is ethnically a Kazakh, and although his face doesn’t exactly look Asiatic, it looks just as Asiatic as it does Caucasian. Until this point, he’d been a citizen of the Soviet Union. Now, he was a foreigner with strange features. This was interesting to me: maybe the union of satellite states across Russia effectively erased a number of racial barriers? Either way, Alibek couldn’t rely on Soviet national unity to protect himself any longer. So he fled.
Alibek escaped his former country, but he can’t escape his place in history: one that’s already pockmarked with smallpox scars, lacerated with varicella-zoster rashes. If a few metaphorical butterfly wingflaps had occurred, a massive breakthrough might have occurred at Biopreparat that greatly altered the balance of power between the USSR and the USA. Or perhaps the breakthrough would have insured that the balance of power became irrelevant, welding mankind into one: carriers for a deadly superplague.
Archimedes spoke about how a perfectly positioned lever could move the world. Disease is a perfectly positioned lever that could end the world. Alibek’s work might have value, if it helps us understand and prepare against the next time Pandora’s box is opened. That’s the only certainty: there will be a next time.
In 1982, Viking Press published four novellas by Stephen King, themed loosely (and probably ex-post-facto) after the four seasons. Someone else did it first, of course, and King seems to be referencing Vivaldi’s sonatas (even presenting the seasons in the order of Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter). This kind of performative literary touch might indicate an attempt to step outside the horror genre, and the novellas back this up. They’re not King’s usual work.
The first novella, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, impresses the heck out of me, every time I read it. I think it’s one of the best things he ever wrote.
It contains the famous line “prison is no fairytale world”. But King’s Shawshank is a fairytale world: and the character of Andy Dufresne is as much a folk figure as Robin Hood or Paul Bunyan. The plot is very famous thanks to a Frank Darabont movie: it’s about a wrongfully convicted man (but everyone behind bars is wrongfully convicted, the worldly narrator explains), and the ingenious use he finds for a poster of a Golden Age Hollywood actress.
But a straight telling of the plot doesn’t do justice to how rich an experience “Rita Hayworth” is. Its pages seem to bleed colour and sound. Literally everything about it is fascinating, from the desperate thrust of the main story to the little asides and sketches about incarcerated life. King always shines when writing about guys in prison, probably because they “contain” the action and actors in one place (subverting the questions about “why doesn’t [insert bozo] run away?”), as well as allowing time to move as fast or as slow as he chooses.
The ending is genuinely moving, even if you know what’s going to happen. Early in the story we get a vignette about a con who owned a pet pigeon. The day after he gets paroled, the pigeon is found “dead as a turd”. That’s life. The pigeon dies. “Rita Hayworth” is a legend where the pigeon gets to live, winging away into the blue silent sky.
“Apt Pupil” is a portrait of a young sociopath. Thirteen-year-old Todd Bowden accosts an elderly German immigrant and threatens to expose his secret: he’s a former Nazi commandant called Kurt Dussander, who ran an extermination camp. Bowden doesn’t want money, he wants knowledge. He’s is obsessed with the Holocaust. Obsessed with mass graves and incinerators. He wants to hear about the Holocaust from someone who actually perpetuated it. He wants to become Dussander’s pupil.
This character is totally believable – thanks to the internet, you can encounter Todd Bowden online any time you want to. The world is full of Holocaust fetishists – let’s face it, there’s something chic and sexy about the Final Solution that other historical tragedies lack: it’s the Rolls Royce of genocides. The Bowdens of the world aren’t overtly pro-Nazi – far from it, in fact. Even notorious Nazisploitation flick Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS dutifully informs the viewer that it’s only staging depictions of the Holocaust “with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again”. Whether or not you believe these cover stories, the disconcerting reality is that people still pay money to watch Judenfleisch get brutalized.
The story takes unpredictable turns, and avoids several obvious cliches. Although the relationship between Bowden and Dussander is initially one of extortion, soon they’re both in over their heads and reliant on the other to survive. Dussander doesn’t want his identity revealed. Bowden doesn’t want his all-American parents to discover his Nazi fetish. A game theoretician could teach a class based on “Apt Pupil”: Dussander and Bowden each have the ability to destroy each other, and this gives them perfect trust, as any betrayal will be punished by the other. In real life the strongest teams aren’t the Justice League, they’re La Cosa Nostra: bad guys with guns held to each other’s heads. Nevertheless, the mental (and soon physical) violence soon increases, to the point where the story explodes. A nice little tale about rattling skeletons and having them rattle you back.
“The Body” sees King going for an easy score. Plucky children, 1950s Maine, dark secret: how can you go wrong? It has plenty of connective tissue to other King stories (the character of Ace Merrill appears in a few other tales, and even Joe Camber’s mad dog Cujo gets a shout-out), but the strongest link might be to King’s own childhood.
The actual plot (four young boys go into the woods because they’ve heard there’s a dead body) is slender and almost irrelevant. The focus is on their characters, and the idealism of childhood interacting with the complexities of a world where trains and dogs and guns can kill you. It shouldn’t be news to anyone that the white picket fences of the 1950s often concealed scenes of unpleasantness, even horror, and a lot of King’s work consists of vivisecting America’s Leave It To Beaver era for the modern reader’s education. I like “The Body”, but compared to “Rita Hayworth” and “Apt Pupil” it seems conservative and safe: King colouring well between the lines.
The final novella is the least like the others. “The Breathing Method” is quite brief, almost a short story, contains overt supernatural and horror elements, and is detached from its central character in a way the others aren’t. It still has a stately literary air that separates it from his “I Was a Teenage Grave-Robber” stuff, but next to the first three it’s as insubstantial as breath on a winter’s day.
It’s about a woman way up shit creek. She’s pregnant, and the father has booked it out of town. She approaches a doctor, although not for the reasons you might expect. She wants to keep the baby, and she needs the doctor’s help.
King has made no bones about his difficulties in writing female characters, and here he avoids that difficulty by telling the story from the perspective of the male doctor. This is probably for the best, but it creates a lot of distance between us and the main character. It’s like trying to feel empathy for a person you can only glimpse through a periscope. But, importantly, it also casts the tale’s supernatural (or magical realist) elements under a shadow. Is this the truth? Or only what the narrator believes or wishes was the truth?
Hard though it might be to believe, in the 1980s the question existed as to whether King could escape the horror ghetto. These days the question is settled, and the new one is should he write outside that ghetto. Whatever you might think his neverending quest to write the Great American novel, this was an early, profitable attempt at broadening his portfolio. I just wish the final story was longer. If these are seasons, Stephen King Metro is built on the Equatorial line, where winter only lasts for a few days.
The Portuguese were probably more technologically advanced than China by the mid 16th century. They had arquebuses, matchlock muskets, and breech loaded cannons. We know this stuff was better than the Chinese equivalents, because the Chinese copied them. After the battle of Shancaowan, the Ming captured some Portuguese swivel guns and produced their own imitations, which they called “Folangji”. When a Ming prince received a shipment of Folangji to deal with a seditious local lord, he literally wept for joy.
It’s surprising, considering that China had the first guns, rockets, and cannons. It’s like if Apple’s next iPhone was a reverse-engineered Huawei.
How did Europe leapfrog over China’s early technological advantage? One explanation I’ve heard is that early Chinese cannons were never as useful against Chinese walls as early European cannons were against European walls.
European fortifications were made of solid courses of stone blocks mortared in place. They were rigid, hard, and inelastic. Fire a cannon at stone, and it cracks.
Chinese fortifications tended to be two relatively thin layers of brick, with a large interior cavity (several meters thick) filled with packed dirt. This is a very strong design against sharp, sudden force, as the dirt absorbs the impact. Another difference was that Chinese walls tended to be sloped, which better deflected projectiles than the vertical surfaces of European castles.
So where the Europeans were firing early cannons at castles and seeing encouraging results, the Chinese were taking an opposite lesson: that cannonry were toys with largely just a ceremonial purpose.
Ironically, their advanced walls caused their artillery to stagnate.
Technology is a evolutionary process. You build a thing, then build a better thing, then build a better thing. Crude early artillery in the 13th century soon evolved into the powerful bombards that felled Constantinople. But the danger of evolutionary processes is that you can get stuck in a local maximum – where no further adaptation is worthwhile because you’ve hit some barrier or another. Your stepwise process becomes thing -> better thing -> better thing -> same thing -> same thing -> same thing -> (…) -> amazing thing. The Europeans had a logical hill-climbing path that the Chinese didn’t, and the early Chinese advantage was wasted because they got stuck.
Similar to the argument that the wheel never took off among the Incas because, without gearing, wheels are of limited use in the mountainous Andes. But of course, unless you use wheels a lot, you’ll never think about gears.
You’ve heard your friends talking about this Netflix documentary, and I suggest you see it right now, before it saturates the water cooler ecoystem and it loses its shock value. It’s sad that nobody can watch The Sixth Sense in 2020 without knowing that Bruce Willis is a ghost. I’d hurry up and watch Tiger King before it gets spoiled for you.
It’s one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen. The people in it hardly seem real. I was constantly veering between shock and laughter. “…he’d come and rub them balls in my face” gets spoken at an eulogy. A man shoots himself in the head barely off camera, and it’s not even the fifth craziest thing to happen in that episode. There’s a straightfaced discussion about whether a human body can be put through an industrial mincer.
Basically, it’s about a war between owners of big cats, which culminates in a tangle of attempted (and perhaps successful?) murders. Joe Exotic owns a zoo. Carole Baskin owns an “animal rescue” that is indistinguishable from a zoo. Both of these people have a lot of shady history: we get the sense that they’re both dangerous, as well as incapable of walking away from any situation where they see themselves as the loser.
Owning a big cat is legal in most US states: but not in a same way that owning a head of lettuce is legal. The animals are as dangerous as their owners (one of Joe Exotic’s weirdly devoted employees loses an arm in a tiger cage) and there are laws against breeding them. Joe is clearly on the wrong side of these laws, but he needs to breed them, because it’s the only way his zoo can remain profitable.
The documentary educates you on the brutal economics of the tiger business: an adult tiger costs several thousand dollars per month to feed, and you can’t really do anything with them except exhibit them. The real money is in tiger cubs, which are small enough to be cuddled and petted. Joe Exotic claims he can make a hundred thousand dollars from a newborn cub.
However, profitable cubs quickly age into unprofitable tigers. Joe’s zoo in Wynnewood Oklahoma (aka Backup Florida) had a total 176 tigers, saddling him with staggering food bills and forcing him to breed still more cubs. The Chinese saying “he who rides on the back of a tiger can never get off” describes Joe’s basic dilemma: he’s running a tiger-based Ponzi scheme that will basically never be profitable (except in the short term). Unless he euthanizes grown tigers, which he’s pretty clearly doing.
He might have escaped notice for this, but he also starts targeting human prey. Supposed animal rights activist Carole Baskin may have fired the first shot in their war (she objects on moral grounds to the breeding of tiger cubs), but he escalates their feud to ridiculous, Wile E Coyote levels, piling up incriminating evidence against himself. The series straight away spoils the ending – Joe Exotic makes a call from his Fort Worth prison cell – but there’s no way it could have ended any other way. It’s a testament to the man’s unnatural charisma that he got away with so much for so long.
It’s hard to describe how fun and exhilerating Tiger King is. Even thinking about a few of my favorite moments overwhelms me with options. It’s like digging a hole to find gold, but the dirt you’re casting aside is also gold, and your pickaxe is made of gold too.
It’ll give you a lot to think about, too. Joe Exotic would probably still be a free man if he hadn’t effectively lynched himself via social media. But his self-exhibiting impulses were the only reason he was ever successful: albeit in a quasi-legal fashion. And in this sense, is he any different from the tigers he kept?
About ten years ago, there was a “furry” called Stalking Cat who took his feline obsession to ghastly extremes, undergoing over fourteen body modifications to become a tigress before committing suicide. Joe Exotic succeeded where Stalking Cat failed. Spiritually, he became a tiger.
The main role of tigers, in our culture, is to stand out and attract attention. If they were boring, they’d already be extinct. They survive because people love them. Joe Exotic was the ultimate charismatic megafauna. We adulated him, we feared him, and eventually, we put him in a cage.
Look up “unique” in the dictionary and you’ll see Cosmology of Kyoto. Only if you use a special dictionary, though. One that has “unique” defined as Cosmology of Kyoto.
Released in 1993, it was sold as a game and is probably more accurately considered a work of interactive art. It’s moody, confusing, dark, and stylized. You could put it in a class with Dark Seed, Bad Mojo, and Haruhiko Shono’s collective work; games that aren’t remembered with much love, but are absolutely remembered.
How did it achieve such rapid (if fleeting) fame? Via a technique I call “through the Mac-door”.
The Macintosh was losing favour as a game development platform by 1993. Due to a dwindling market share and Apple’s apathy towards gaming, it had essentially become a dumping ground for “edutainment” dribble and ports of obsolete PC titles. The occasional original Mac game (even if was a “””game””” wrapped in numerous air quotes) would generate buzz because of sheer novelty, and without fail some marketing genius would conclude that the hype meant the game was amazing and needed to be rushed to DOS, Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Amiga, and your kitchen toaster right goddamn now, usually with tragic results. If shitty games were AIDS, the Macintosh was a HIV infected needle in DOS’s perineum. But odd games entered the DOS ecosystem through the Mac, too. Games seemingly made in a fever dream or on drugs.
Cosmology of Kyoto takes you on a morbid journey through the Japanese middle ages. Heian-era Japan is now mostly associated with court writers like Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon, but Cosmology is set in the streets and gutters, with supernatural monsters posing an omnipresent threat.
Before you can play, you create a character. You can choose between “Single” or “Married” and between “Male” or “Female” (you can already tell it’s not modern Japan because there’s no “Trap” or “Catgirl”). Then you also change your facial features, although I didn’t have much luck in making myself not look like a dyspeptic Vladimir Putin. You’re also naked, but fear not: there’s a dead corpse whose clothes you can rob. Improvise, adapt, overcome.
You wander around the land, interacting with stuff using a classic “hotspot” based point-and-click interface. You talk to Buddhist monks, samurai, common folk, children, and demons. I died pretty fast: a pissed-off samurai cut off my head, and my soul went to hell.
Another aside: adventure games at this time were split between the Sierra style (the wrong option means death, encouraging the player to plan their actions carefully) and the LucasArts style (you can’t die, encouraging the player to experiment and do as many things as possible).
Cosmology charts a third path: you can die, but if you play your cards right you can escape hell and be reincarnated back into the main game. Which you’ll want to, because hell’s no joke. The game goes full ero-guro on the player here as only the Japanese can: the guy who was eating handfuls of his own brains through a hole in his head stuck with me.
By now, Cosmology’s true purpose is clear: shilling for Buddhism. I’ve seen people claim online that the game has no point, or cannot be finished. Neither is true. You win Cosmology of Kyoto by discovering the source of the demon infestation (I think at the Imperial Palace), and gaining enough karma that you break the cycle of death and rebirth. Kind acts like donating money to beggars increase your karma. Swordfighting and stealing things decreases it. If you have too much negative karma, when you escape hell, you’re reincarnated as a dog. This simple emulation of Buddhist spirituality makes it comparable with western RPGs such as Ultima IV.
There’s a wealth of historical depth to Cosmology. The game comes with a full encyclopedia of Japanese history and folklore, and the map is a grid-perfect recreation of Heian-kyo. I guess Cosmology is a kind of backdoor “edutainment” title, fulfilling the Macware stereotype. Maybe this is another reason for its surprising (if short lived) popularity: it’s a cultural experience. A tech support experience, too. As with many classic adventure games, the hardest puzzle in 2020 is getting it to install and run.
Is it worth playing? I don’t know. I think these sorts of weird-ass games are more fun to be aware of than to actually dive into. You don’t need to go to hell: just knowing that it exists is enough.
Imagine there’s a wall, right in front of you. It has always been there. You can’t walk or see through it. Other people pass through easily. The wall only exists for you.
My wall is hip hop. The condition amusia stops people from enjoying music. I may have selective amusia for hip hop. It’s not that I dislike it or find it annoying; my brain doesn’t recognise it as music. Listening to Lil Uzi Vert’s much-hyped Eternal Atake felt like reading Egyptian hieroglyphics and seeing birds and snakes and ears of grain: I have understanding, but it’s of the wrong sort and won’t let me decode the language. I have ample exposure to hip-hop: I’ve been listening to it unwillingly through car windows and gym PAs and TV shows for nearly thirty years. I should get it by now, and the fact that I still don’t makes me feel disabled.
I don’t have opinions on this album, I have questions, many of them stupid.
1) What’s the appeal of listening to someone else brag about owning things? Rap aficionados always defend this as rags-to-riches storytelling, but most rap isn’t about striving to be rich, it’s about simply being rich. The first song (and the second, and the third) reduces to”I drive a cool car”. So what? Where’s the struggle? Uzi could have gotten that Mercedes-Benz from his dad, for all I know.
2) Why do all rappers now have “Lil” in their name? My understanding is that the ubiquitous rap cognomen was once “Big” (Big Daddy Kane, the Notorious BIG, Big Boi) and now it’s “Little” (Lil Yachty, Lil Peep, Lil Peep). When did this shift occur? Is Biggie Smalls the transitional fossil?
3) Why are so many of these “Lil” rappers actually…not Lil? Lil Yachty is 1.8m tall. Lil Peep was 1.85 m tall. Lil Uzi Vert is just 1.63m, but he’s built like an NPC bodybuilder. Are they “Lil” in the sense of being young and hungry? What will they do when they turn 40 or 50? Don’t they think they’ll live that long?
4) Should these albums come with a glossary for idiot white people? At one point Uzi says “Man, she asked for some racks” and I thought his girlfriend was asking for breast implants in the weirdest way possible. Actually, a rack is a thousand dollars.
5) Why are the most memorable parts of rap always borrowed from things that aren’t rap? The “hit” of Eternal Atake is “That Way”, which samples the vocal hook of “I Want it That Way”. I won’t say Uzi just steals the chorus of a Backstreet Boys song – he interpolates it in a fairly creative way – but it’s still not exactly is. Samples can enhance a song, but when the only interesting thing about a song is its samples, shouldn’t you just listen to the original track?
6) Is this what growing old feels like? The years becoming a slow-acting acid that melts away my eyes and ears and nose, gradually destroying any connection to current culture? Locking me inside my head, until all I can do is look inwards? The older I become, the more I remember the past. And the more time I spend in the present, the less time it spends in me.
Like many classic metal albums, Bonded by Blood‘s legend is bigger than the album itself. The shadow of Exodus’s debut looms massively down the years, and the modern listener might be surprised – even disappointed – by the smallness of the album that cast it.
Exodus (along with Overkill) is often cited as “true” thrash metal, back from the days when men were men and FUCKIN’ POSERS MAAAAN hadn’t invaded the scene with their mainstream influences and melodies and coherent songwriting et cetera. Thrash metal can be awesome, but it can also be snobbish and insular, and strangely proud of its own smallness. In 1990 Exodus released a cassette entitled “Four Albums And Still No Ballad”. Is that a thing worth bragging about? Particularly when you couldn’t write an interesting ballad if your life depended on it?
Released in 1985, Bonded by Blood was actually recorded in August 1984 under the title A Lesson in Violence. The album was famously delayed for nearly a year through circumstances such as label shenanigans and a totally inappropriate cover designed by a hippie friend of guitarist Gary Holt (although that same guy also designed the Exodus logo, so maybe hippies are more brutal than is commonly believed). While the album languished, the Bay Area was flooded by bootleg recordings of the album. One wonders if Holt ever bragged to Lars Ulrich that he was fighting music piracy before it was cool.
Bonded by Blood is about riffs. It has no time for anything that’s not a riff. It demonstrated Gary Holt’s prowess as a rhythm guitarist, almost to the expense of the rest of the music. It’s the canonical example of thrash metal songwriting, where you get your best guitarist to improvise riffs for an hour, takes the five best ones, and presto, that’s a song. There’s just not a lot of thought given to anything that doesn’t have six strings.
The title track features a bruising yet intricate main riff, reminiscent of THAT part in “Fight Fire with Fire”, where even when you think you understand what’s happening on the fretboard you probably don’t. But chorus is boring and shapeless, with the guitars and drums and vocals all doing three different things. The band themselves seem to think “Bonded by Blood”‘s chorus is underwhelming: when they re-recorded the song with Rob Dukes in 2012 they added a bunch of extra drum fills to try and make it more interesting. The exact same problem occurs over and over.
The band doesn’t really “get” songwriting. They repeat vocal patterns from song to song (“Bonded by Blood” has the same verse as “Exodus”), Tom Hunting ride the same punk rock d-beat for half the album, and when they hit paydirt with a certified classic like “Strike of the Beast” and “A Lesson in Violence”, it seems almost accidental. The riffs are amazing, but they need to be. They’ll all the album has.
Paul Baloff sings on this album. It was the only studio LP he recorded in his life, and it made him a legend. I wish he lived up to the hype.
He sings like a drunk man pisses, squealing and yelping and cackling and generally flinging his voice all around the place. Maybe he’s not Darkwing Duck, but his voice has a definite cartoon character quality. You know when the villain sings his “I am evil” song? That’s Baloff. He’s hilarious and sounds like he’s having the time of his life, but the album would be much better with an actual performance on it.
So the vocals aren’t so hot, and the recorded-in-the-toilet quality vocals do Baloff no favors. Even the album’s best cuts rely on speed and power to overwhelm their shortcomings, and the bad songs could literally be modern pizza thrash shit if they were 10-15% stupider.
Forget 1985, what was happening in 1984?
Slayer’s transcendental heaviness on “Chemical Warfare”. Metal Church and Metallica’s sophistication. Bathory and Celtic Frost stepping outside the confines of thrash entirely and forging a new, blackened path. Next to those bands and albums and moments, Bonded by Blood is well-executed but a little stunted: a 40 minute exposition of Gary Holt’s right hand. The Bay Area sound was already burning itself out, and incorporating new sonic influences out of sheer necessity. Baloff was wrong, and the posers were right: thrash metal ultimately had to evolve or die.
I enjoy many parts of Bonded by Blood, but the popular perception of it as a paragon of metalness that we’ve all strayed from seems a little wrong. This is a powerful but limited album in a powerful but limited style. Where do you go from here, now that you’ve stretched Bay Area thrash to its limits? What does Bonded by Blood 2, 3, 4 etc sound like? How many times can you bang your head against the stage?
One sign you that you had overbearing egotist parents is that you have “Junior” after your name. Maybe a similar rule applies to rock bands that are titled “[Frontman’s Name] Group”.
Michael Schenker is known for his guitar skills, as well as his turbulent personality. He’s fortunate that he had most of his crack-ups in the days before social media: otherwise he’d be the heavy metal Kanye West: 30% musician, 70% source of amusement.
We’re talking stints in rehab, near homelessness, hunger strikes, feuds with with singers and producers and journalists and his own brother, cancelled tours, and a long list of other bizarre behavior.
Wikipedia advises me that forty-one musicians have played in Michael Schenker Group and have since quit or been fired. Schenker would probably fire himself from his own solo project, were such a thing were possible.
But he’s definitely brilliant. I listened to power metal for years, and one thing I’d always heard was that the style’s guitar playing owes a lot to Schenker. This is correct. There’s a straight line between most of what Schenker plays on this album and Helloween, and in the case of “On and On” – with its harmonized bends and cod-Bach synthesizer lines – it’s not even a line, it’s a dot.
This is one of the best-produced 80s albums I’ve heard, particularly the deep, thudding character of the drums. MSG has a real sense of precision and space in its mix, with everything built on top of each other like layers on a cake. It’s like you can throw a fishing line into the album and find where the vox are, where the guitars are, where the drums are, etc. Listening to MSG is a seriously good time before you even appreciate the notes.
“Ready to Rock” is an okay-ish cock rock anthem. “Attack of the Mad Axeman” seems like more of the same…but then Schenker pulls a drag-chute on the song and turns it into something adventurous and fascinating. His shredding over the final 32 or so bars…you are listening to power metal, at least five years before. Seriously revolutionary stuff.
“On and On” continues down this path, trading ethereal keys for smoldering wah pedal soloing. I’m struggling to think of more hard rock/heavy metal from 1981 that sounds like this. The Michael Schenker Group was an odd band: they didn’t sound out of place on MTV, but on a compositional level they had a quality that nobody else really possessed. Some quality of uncaring naffness and unfocused coolness.
“Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” and “I Want More” are forgettable. “Never Trust a Stranger” is the power ballad, and sounds like Elton John covered by Aerosmith. “Looking for Love” is a burning and agitated uptempo track with some great hooks and guitar moments. The final track is pretty good too, except for when the music drops away and they let Gary Bardem sing unaccompanied. He’s one of those guys who sounds great, but only if he’s located somewhere in a pile of 200 watt Marshall stacks.
Here’s a question: how many people live in Australia? About twenty-five million?
That’s right, but also wrong. Twenty-five million people don’t live in Australia; they live in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Darwin, Adelaide, and Perth.
Leave the coastal enclaves and Australia quickly becomes indistinguishable from Mordor: arid bush, thinly grassed plains, and wastelands of sand and dirt. We have ten deserts in total – two hundred years after white settlers made landfall they were still discovering new ones – and they’re every colour you can name. The Simpson Desert is blood-red. The Tanami Desert is orange. The Painted Desert (which contains mica) is white streaked through brown. I am comforted by the fact that although Australians might run out of water, oil, coal, and food, we will never run out of deserts.
Only fourteen percent of Australians live in remote areas…but these remote areas are virtually the entire country. This has engendered a decades-long cultural dialog about who’s the “real” Australians – the masses packed into coastal sanctuaries engineered to look like their European countries of origin, or the minority who actually live in Australia.
Wake in Fright is a particularly nightmarish depiction of life in the Australian outback. The main character is a schoolteacher, posted out to some flyspeck town, who has just received his Christmas pay packet. He obviously intends to return to Sydney, citydwellers view the outback like astronauts view the vacuum of space – fun to visit, but you don’t stay past the airlock a second longer than you have to.
En-route, he stops for the night at the slightly larger flyspeck town of Bundanyabba (modelled after the real town of Broken Hill). Everyone – police, bartenders, miners – is superficially friendly in a way that’s scary, as though they’re all wearing masks. The town has secrets hidden in plain sight: moral depravity, suicide, and sexual corruption. Past nightfall the schoolteacher decides to go gambling, and loses all of his money. He is now dependent on the town’s generosity to survive…and the masks start to slip.
Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright it was written in the 1960s, and achieved international fame through a movie. There the similarities stop. Picnic was oneiric and hallucinatory, Wake is blunt and stark. Hanging thrusts you maddeningly far away from itself, In draws you close. Rock is dainty and ladylike, Fright is like watching a blood and shit covered tapeworm being drawn from a cat’s asshole.
It’s a really vile book. There’s a scene in the middle as unpleasant as anything I can recall reading, and unlike something like American Psycho it achieves this feat while remaining believable. Even descriptions of harmless events seem coated in filth and poison. Riding a train and eating breakfast at a hotel are seen through an authorial lens that captures the dust-cauled sunlight and focuses it on filth, dirt, and unpleasantness. There’s exactly one moment where Kenneth Cook blurs the camera and stops us from seeing the action on the page (perhaps out of fear of censorship). But even here, he leaves enough clues that the reader understands what’s going on.
Alcohol is the grease of the story, allowing the action to move. Everyone drinks all the time in Bundanyabba, and refusing to drink is an insult. Several times the protagonist tries to plead off the beers forced on him, and the nice bloke offering them turns into a spitting viper. You have to be an alcoholic in the ‘Yabba. To be otherwise is to violate a sacred pact.
This “get drunk or else” attitude is an authentic one. My father used to listen to Australian country musician Slim Dusty, who wrote dozens if not hundreds of songs about drinking, such as “You’ve Gotta Drink the Froth to Get the Beer”, “Love to Have a Beer With Duncan”, “My Pal Alcohol,” and (most famously) “A Pub With No Beer”. “The maid’s gone all cranky, and the cook’s acting queer / What a terrible place, is a pub with no beer.” Karl Marx famously described religion as “the opiate of the masses”. In rural Australia, the opiate of the masses is an actual opiate.
The outback doesn’t come off looking very good in Wake in Fright. It would be considered racist if the characters were brown or black people (as happened with Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali, and Billy Hayes’ Midnight Express). To what extent it’s modeled on reality isn’t for me to say – I’m not sure that Broken Hill was ever the antipodean Gomorrah that Bundanyabba is. But there’s romantic depictions of outback life (“Waltzing Matilda”) that seem equally alien to me, based on my brief exposure to outback towns. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between. And it may be my privilege as a citydweller that I never have to learn it.
“Hey, it’s ya boiiiiii. Thanks for the 200 bits, cancerfart420. Holy shit, these queue times are seriously pepega. I just wanna frag out, man. Okay, my team’s here. PogU. Ready to get carried, boys? Here we go.
“Oh my God. That guy was trash. Trash. Terrible. Complete dogshit. The only reason he killed me was because I missed my shots and he hit his shots. Literally, that’s the only reason he beat me. If I hit my shots and he missed his, he’d be dead. That’s how trash he is.
“Holy shit, that gun keeps melting me. Nerf that shit already. I asked a dev about adding some extra bloom to the recoil pattern, and he said they’d consider it. That’s right. I talk to game devs on Twitter. No kappa. You won’t hear me mention it, though, I keep that fact on the down-low.
“This kid’s aim is feelsweirdman. I don’t want to be that guy, but could he be…hacking? Okay. That does it. I’m spectating this little shit. Oh, look, he has “TTV” in his name. I’m not telling you to go to his Twitch stream and bully him. I’d get banned if I did that. All I’ll do is insinuate that he’s hacking and then loudly read his Twitch handle to my viewers.
“Goddamn, I’m actually whiffing everything. Okay, I’m changing my mouse sens again. Please watch me for 5 minutes while I do this. This is now a tech support stream. Wait, why does my mouse have “CPI”? Is that the same thing as “DPI”? Can someone tell me? Also, why aren’t my stream alerts working? I need my chat to diagnose and fix everything wrong in my entire life.
“This is gonna be a huge nade. Huge. Kobe. Do you know that ‘kobe’ means a grenade thrown with accuracy and precision while ‘yeet’ means a grenade thrown with raw power ? I’m sure this is the first streamer you’ve ever seen explain this. Glad to help educate y’all.
“Okay, I see some little kids causing trouble in chat. Where are my mods? For the last time, I’m not a racist. All I did was call a black teammate a monkey and tell him to get back to Africa. How’s that racist? Technically we’re ALL monkeys and we ALL come from Africa. Try reading a book sometime, 4head. Anyway, that incident happened fifteen whole days ago, and I apologised for it. Yes, you heard me. Even though I did nothing wrong and was 100% in the right, I still apologized. That’s the kind of guy I am.
“Just drop it. I’m not here for drama. I just come on here to chill with you guys and to spread positive vibes. Yo, thanks for the 500 bits. My boy cancerfart420 going crazy today.”