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I wrote Vanadium Dark in 2014. Many people liked it, but for a long time I wasn’t sure that I did.
Now I do, because I cheated by revising it. Shhh…it’s a secret!
The book was intended to be a manic, deranged story about government surveillance, futuristic technology, and difficult moral quandaries. I never liked dystopias about an obviously-evil government. This cheapens the agency of the characters—are you really that brave for taking a stand against FutureHitler?—and real-life decisions are seldom so easy.
Instead, I wanted to explore the other side of the surveillance state. Namely, what if Big Brother was right?
In the near future, a terrorist attack kills several million people. Instantly, America disappears as a concept. All of her core values—privacy, liberty, independence—seem like liabilities in a world where disaffected citizens can build nuclear weapons and then rip cities apart with them. What’s freedom worth, when it leads to this?
A national surveillance system is developed, consisting of trillions of nanoparticle-sized cameras linked to a central computer, which creates an always-recording security tape that blankets the entire continent. Now, nothing is secret.
Incredibly, the surveillance works. There are no more terror incidents, and crime itself is basically eradicated. Cities are safe to walk at night. But it’s still a disquietening future. Imagine always being filmed, but unable to see the cameras, even when they crawl across your skin. Imagine that it would seem normal to be filmed and monitored for twenty-four hours a day, and unable to escape.
I’m glad to report that this fear from 2014 has proven to be groundless in 2023. I don’t know why we ever worried about it.
The story is told from the perspective of Viktor Kertesz: a “Handler” (one of the men allowed to access the video feed). His job is to solve crimes. But he becomes troubled: something’s not right with the nanocam swarm. His viewscreen displays weird things, and events that aren’t happening. Is the nanobot swarm breaking down? Is he putting men in prison based on false evidence? The truth might actually be worse. The nanobots are doing the opposite of failing: they’re evolving. They have primitive communication abilities, and they’re beginning to link up, like neurons in a brain.
This is the other half of Vanadium Dark—that their government, in their quest for security, have uncaged a tiger. A malicious AI superintelligence could be rising from the depths of the computer: one that might topple the human race.
Thankfully, in 2023 this has proven to be a baseless fear as well.
So, what did I change in the revised edition?
Vanadium Dark was written quickly, by a young person running on a fuel of ideas, who lacked patience, wisdom, and craft.
To be blunt, most of the book wasn’t written that well. It had endless passive voice; characters that communicate in soliloquies instead of sentences; and scenes that dragged like a dog’s ass, right when the tempo needed to be racing.
It also had some puzzling errors. I’ve removed Viktor’s magic teleportation abilities in chapter one (he no longer walks out of Pentagon Metro Station and emerges at the Concourse, hundreds of meters away.)
Vanadium Dark was always kind of cold, with characters that were closed books, emotionally (Viktor, despite the bullshit he tells us, takes up spying predominantly to make up for his lack of a personal life). This is what I wanted, but I think I carried it too far, and have tried to warm up the characters a little. It’s hard for the reader to care about an AI menace when the human characters seem like robots already.
The US setting remains horribly loose. My apologies if I describe some place familiar to you, and you don’t recognize it. I had little interest in rendering Americana in photographic detail. The book’s about America going away, so does it really matter whether the characters say “crayon” with one syllable or two?
Most of the scenes are structurally the same. Perhaps a little longer, perhaps a little shorter. The book contains frequent insertions of diagetic material—extracts from textbooks on how the Vanadocams work, and so forth. These are fun, but they’re also not the story, so I’ve cut them back significantly.
But there was one part I strongly disliked, and reworked extensively.
Viktor wants to relax, so he goes to a sex club. He puts on virtual reality goggles to enhance the act, but the woman he’s paying transforms into a monster, and he punches her in the face. The intent was to illustrate Viktor’s declining mental state, and muddy the waters about what’s happening to him. Maybe the computer isn’t breaking down. Maybe he’s just becoming insane!
But at a remove of nine years, the prostitute-bashing feels jarring and wrong. Turning Viktor into Patrick Bateman destroys the reader’s sympathy for the character, and the fact that Viktor faces no consequences for his actions doesn’t make sense in Vanadium Dark’s “crime doesn’t pay” world. Now, something else happens in the sex club.
Other parts, I basically left alone. It’s always a joy when a scene comes alive on the page, and I had fun re-reading certain bits. The Sun Hi Shin stuff, the French wiretaps (with politicians dancing around a terrible admission that, if true, would radically reframe how the reader thinks about certain other events in the book), and the “AI boxing” scene in the Pentagon seemed particularly strong.
Vanadium Dark dated in ways I didn’t expect. In 2013, self-driving cars seemed right around the corner. Now, they seem right around the edge of the observable universe.
Other predictions ended up being surprisingly on-the-money. As the AI begins to break free of human control, it shows Viktor imagistic hellscapes. From the rise of large language models, we know this is basically what happens. An AI at the breaking point doesn’t go “bleep bloop, EXTERMINATE ALL HUMANS.” It dreams. It raves. It hallucinates. It becomes like a person running a high fever and babbling nonsense.
Most of the book is scientific hogwash. Nothing like the Vanadocams could ever be built (my understanding is that transistors cannot scale beneath 4nm in size, because then the electrons undergo quantum tunneling effects). Did you know that you can just make up nonsense in a book, and nobody arrests you or fines you or anything? It’s great!
But a story is never about its details. Regardless of its implausible high-tech chassis, Vanadium Dark is an exploration of moral tradeoffs.
Joe McCarthy is remembered as one of the greatest villains in American history; a persecutor of the innocent. But he wasn’t entirely wrong! There were communist spies infiltrating American society, and they weren’t playing around—the USSR accelerated its nuclear program by years on the back of research stolen by guys like Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall. Reckoning with McCarthy’s legacy means reckoning with the ways he was right. You may have seen the Clickhole article entitled Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made A Great Point. History has many Worst People, making many Great Points.
Humanity can’t have it all. We can’t be perfectly secure and perfectly free. One hand tweets “ACAB”, the other hand calls the cops. We hold suspects at Guantanamo Bay for twenty years without a trial, because terrorists hate our freedom. We are all terrible hypocrites, all caught in the teeth of ideals that don’t quite work in the real world. Vanadium Dark is unrealistic, but it hopefully gets at something true.
It occurred to me that I’m kind of like the Vanadocam swarm.
When I edit, I see and control the events of an entire world. I can reach my hands into facts of history, and twist them, re-order them, even delete them. I can conjure events that never happened. I can make characters behave in ways unlike themselves. I can make them go mad.
This is a powerful ability, but it has to be used wisely. You can destroy a book; squeezing the fake world so hard that it breaks to pieces. Or, if you’re clever, you can make the illusion stronger.
Hopefully I’ve used my omniscience for good this time around, and made Vanadium Dark a better, tougher, sleeker book. It has done what any life-form needs to do.
I joined the line of metalheads at seven o’clock. It wound like a snake through the alleys connecting Pitt, George, and Central Street, heading toward Metro Theater.
I passed a red Carolla with red P-plates, which was stranded like an island in the surging metalhead river. The driver looked anxious. Learning how to drive in Sydney CBD sounds tough. He kept nudging forward and reverse, but lacked the courage to actually drive out of the crowd and get onto a road. He might still be there now: they should send a rescue team.
By the time I got inside, the first opener (Witchgrinder) had started playing. They were fun! A shame they weren’t listed on the bill.
The second opener was SOiL, or however you capitalize it. They’re a late-period nu metal band. For years, they seemed on the verge of Limp Bizkit-sized success, until suddenly nu metal was over and not even Limp Bizkit was enjoying Limp Bizkit-sized success. I’m surprised they’re still around. I mainly know their singer Ryan McCombs from his work with Drowning Pool.
The four members of SOiL looked eerily similar in the near-darkness of the theater, like the same man copy+pasted a few times at various points on the stage. McCombs complained of jetlag. Also, he was curious about Australian beer, so a fan in the front row held out a can of Victorian Bitters. McCombs kneeled and took a sip of it.
They played their Scars album in its entirely. The crowd stirred to life for “Breaking Me Down” and “Halo” but otherwise were waiting for the headliners: Static-X.
I have misgivings about this whole Static-X “memorial” project.
To explain the story, Static X is (or was) an industrial metal band, fronted by a former bartender called Wayne Static. He was the creative force of the band, writing nearly all the songs as well as crafting their sound, which he described as “evil disco”—a pummelling, communal thing that was very heavy and very catchy. For the genre lepidopterists among us, they were Ministry-style industrial metal fused with Prodigy-style big beat.
From 1999 to 2009, Static-X released six albums…and then something happened. We still don’t know exactly what.
It’s fairly uncontroversial that Wayne had a drug problem, and it was causing conflict between him and the other band members (drummer Nick Oshiro, guitarist Koiki Fukuda, and especially bassist Tony Campos, who was a fifty-percent owner of the band name). Eventually, this stress came to a head, and everyone needed a break.
Next came a classic “did Vince Neil quit or get fired from Motley Crue?” scenario, with different people saying different things. Wayne claimed the band actually broke up. Tony Campos claims the band went on hiatus…and that when Wayne announced that Static-X would reform with all new musicians, he was pissed and wanted financial compensation.
Wayne said that this compensation was financially onerous, forcing him to book tour upon tour, to the point where his body broke down (he suffered a hernia, which left him unable to perform). When Tony still demanded the money (even though Wayne couldn’t tour to raise it), he was forced to retire the Static-X name.
I don’t have the Static-X name anymore. I made a deal with Tonys [sic] the only legal Static-X member besides me.
I paid him a bunch of money last year to use the name, and he’s just a greedy motherfucker, man. He just hates me to death. He’s trying to gouge the shit out of me. I made him an offer to give him 25 percent of my net profits and he refused it.
He wants this outrageous number. [Laughs] He wants more money than I make in a year, and he’s just doing it on purpose because he hates me for whatever reason.
For the record, Tony says that the hernia story is largely bullshit, and that the tour was cancelled because Wayne was busted for drugs.
Drugs are indeed the touchy point of Static-X. Wayne claimed that he became drug-free after leaving the band. In 2011, he released a solo album called Pighammer, which was about his new, sober lifestyle. Lead single “Assassins of Youth” has lyrics like “I was too far gone / Couldn’t fight anymore / So I’m closing the door And I’m moving on.” It was promoted with statements such as:
Static’s first solo album – Pighammer – was a tribute to his new non-drug life and hoped it would help others to get clean from hard chemical drugs.
Three years later, he was dead from an overdose. Fourteen months after that, his widow committed suicide after a struggle with depression. Regardless of what happened, it was a tragic story: with horrible twist followed by horrible turn.
To be frank, I was a little discomforted to see the Static-X suddenly reform as a kind of tribute/memorial act. It was also weird to see Tony Campos project an image of a dead man up on the screen, and refer to him as a friend. Wayne certainly didn’t think they were friends, when he was alive.
But what about the show?
Edsel “Xer0” Dope performed Wayne’s vocal parts, and performed them well (I’ve heard rumors about backing tracks: but this might be one of the rare occasions when that’s acceptable). I liked his mask. Founding members Koichi Fukuda and Ken Jay were barely-visible molemen, hunched over inside their hoodies, while Tony Campos stomped around the stage with the fiery presence of a Hebrew golem.
They blasted through “Permanence”, “Structural Defect” (still my favorite Static-X song; it was an unexpected treat to hear this one live, although they cut out that fun synth part in the bridge), “Black & White” and basically every other Machine song except for “Shit in a Bag”, and “Burn to Burn”. This was supposed to be a twenty-year anniversary tour for 2001’s Machine, but coronavirus said “no”. Better late than never, I guess.
1999’s Wisconsin Death Trip was also heavily represented on the setlist. The devastating loud/quiet dynamics of “Love Dump” were fantastic live. We also got to hear deeper cuts like “Sweat of the Bud” which they hadn’t heavily played since 2000 or so. The evil disco onslaught was overwhelming, and we were so exhausted from constant pogoing and moshing that we had little energy left when “Push It” brought down the show.
The other four Static-X albums were basically skipped, which may have been the correct decision.
I never liked 2003’s Shadow Zone. It’s where Wayne started mixing Korn with his Ministry, with fairly annoying results. It has lots of clean nu metal style singing: not a great idea on the face of things, and particularly since Wayne couldn’t hold a note in a bucket. It also has songwriting by Tripp Eisen, who is a wretched human being. 2005’s Start a War wasn’t much better. The band just seemed to be running out of ideas. “Dirthouse” was a fairly alright tune, and they played that one live, along with perhaps two other songs from that period.
Then came 2007’s Cannibal and 2009’s Cult of Static, which barely sound like finished albums. The production is extremely thin and weak: it seems to be Wayne gung-hoing it himself in the mixing room. Which was a shame: those albums explored some interesting new sonic directions (“Stingwray” is a latter-day classic that nearly rivals “Structural Defect”). Pighammer had thicker production, but without any really good songs. At the Metro, they briefly played part of “Cannibal”, and didn’t touch anything else from Cult of Static. Pighammer wasn’t even hinted at.
The show had a ton of visual flair, with screens lit up by phantasmagoric CGI imagery. The colors matched the songs (blue for “Cold”, sickening pink for “Love Dump”). There were no encores—Static-X is a “play straight through, with no breaks” kind of band—but at the end Tony, Ken, and Koichi took a bow.
I got out at perhaps eleven, buying a band shirt. I misspelled that as “band shit.” It would be funny if the merch stand were literally selling Static-X’s fecal matter, arranged by color and consistency. Corn would cost extra. I’m tired. Nighty-night.
I hate puppets, but like the Muppets. It’s something of a predicament, for the Muppets are puppets.
I’m OK with Kermit and the animalian muppets. But the muppets that are supposed to be human (like Bunsen and Beaker) inspire loathing and horror. I want to mercy-kill them. The way their mouths naturally hang open makes it look like they’re screaming, as if a witch imprisoned the souls of people inside itchy piles of suffering cloth.
Oddly enough, that’s nearly the plot of this movie. The story comes from the Der Froschkönig (lit. “The Frog King”) by the Brothers Grimm: a witch transforms a heroic knight into a frog, true love’s kiss is the only way the spell can reverse, details details details. In effect, it’s another of Henson studio’s “famous story, but with muppets cracking jokes” adaptations.
Henson was a master. Despite this being a cheap TV movie from 1971, he goes balls-to-the-wall, tackling tricky shot after tricky shot. Puppets move around scenes, entering and leaving each other’s space. They interact believably with human actors. We see their feet. We see frog puppets leap and swim, and even a puppet bird flying. King Rupert II’s mouth is perfectly synced up with his words, and his hands gesticulate at the correct moments (I assume there were multiple performers controlling him).
The budget precludes nutso stuff like “Kermit riding a bike” or “Jennifer Connelly exploring an MC Escher castle”, but Henson seems hell-bent on making puppets do things they shouldn’t. Why not? It’s not as if they can unionize and demand overtime and a dental plan.
The star of the dish is Henson’s inspired directing, and the writing is merely adequate. As with Sesame Street, it’s for little kids, with occasional jokes aimed at adults. King Rupert II makes a royal announcement from a castle balcony, and then starts doing hacky stand-up, with a royal advisor reminding the crowd to laugh—that sort of thing. Princess Melora has been cursed by a witch (the same one that transformed Robin) so that she spoonerizes all her words (she says “you’re a wearable titch!” instead of “you’re a terrible witch!”—that sort of thing). Sometimes it’s funny, but they draw from that comedic well a little too much.
The music is fairly weak, and so is the acting. Princess Melora is the movie’s only actress (she would later play a groupie on Pink Floyd’s The Wall—this fact is more interesting than anything she says or does in The Frog Prince). Jim Henson’s Kermit and Jerry Nelson’s Robin are fine, but director Jerry Juhl voices the witch Taminella with an annoying NOOO YAWK accent.
None of the “classic” Muppets appear, aside from Kermit, Robin, and Sweetums. Speaking of the latter, I highly enjoyed the scene where Sweetums goes crazy and smashes a dungeon. It’s hard to go wrong with a good room-wrecking scene, whether it’s Citizen Kane or the muppets. The ending of the film strikes the right sentimental note, and it ends in a cute song.
The strength of the Muppets as a franchise is their adaptability. They could be in anything, and connect with anything. You can have them host a PBS children’s program. You can have them talk to Orson Welles. They had no limits as a franchise, and with a competent director and someone who knew, they could be a reliable money-spinner that stayed relevant for decades and decades.
Weird and disturbing through they could be, the Muppets outlived the man who created them. I wonder how long it took before Jim Henson realized that this would be his legacy—he’d be remembered as the man who shoved a hand up Kermit the Frog’s metaphorical rectum, and little else. How did that make him feel? Defeated, or proud? Or both?
He certainly got to indulge most of his artistic impulses. The Muppets filmography is broad and diverse. Pretty much the only thing they never did was raunchy R-rated comedy (his son Brian directed The Happy Time Murders, which made me tap out 10 minutes in, so maybe Henson Senior’s judgment was correct.)
I’m uncertain as to how well the Muppets hold up for adults.
The Muppet Show and several of the Muppet movies still hold up. The overwhelming, cloying sentiment probably locks The Frog Prince into “kids only”. Although there’s a point where kitsch crosses over and becomes a sort of art in itself.
“When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two cliches make us laugh, but a hundred cliches move us because we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves and celebrating a reunion. Just as extreme pain meets sensual pleasure, and extreme perversion borders on mystical energy, so does extreme banality allow us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime. Nobody would have been able to achieve such a cosmic result intentionally. Nature has spoken here in place of men. If nothing else, this is a phenomenon worthy of veneration.”
He wasn’t speaking about the Muppets. He was speaking about the Muppets. I don’t believe Jim Henson ever had any connection to Walter Elias Disney, but they seem like similar artists. They both had an extreme connection to magic, and the ideals of the past. Sometimes this manifested as retrogression, but sometimes it makes the past feel preserving. He was never cynical or mean.
But puppets are creepy – I can’t get over that point. They just hit all the “not right, shouldn’t exist” buttons in my brain. Are people seriously able to watch stuff like this without having their skin shudder completely off their skeleton and roadtrip to Kickapoo, Indiana on a journey of radical self-discovery?
But hey, the fact that the Muppets is the most glowing recommendation I can make.