Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Second-Coolest Thing

The second-coolest thing I’ve encountered lately is

Type in a favorite song, or a favorite performer, and a little invisible machine will start chugging out music of a similar stripe. The engine is not perfect— it judges a song based on its instrumentation and style rather than its content, which means you can end up with Garbage and Shaun Cassidy on the same playlist.

Also, the engine didn’t know about Sam Mangwana and Maria Kalaniemi, though I imagine they will appear in time as new artists are added.

You won't need that radio anymore.


I would like to inaugurate this blog, and the New Year, with a cheerful little holiday essay entitled


As a science fiction writer, I like to create future worlds that are, for lack of a better word, gnarly. (It occurs to me that Rudy Rucker used the word in a somewhat different context in a recent Asimov’s essay, but surely the term is big enough for the two of us.)

Gnarly worlds are those that have the weird, sticky sorts of details that distinguish them from other fictional creations wherein everyone wears jumpsuits and marches purposefully down featureless metal hallways while delivering paragraphs of exposition about things that everyone already knows. I’m always happy to read about a world in which astrakhan-wearing priests bounce in worship on trampolines, or brilliant scientists devote thousands of man-hours to gene-hacking a squid in order to turn it into a kitchen can opener, or where birdlike aliens obsess about Jell-O (which is surely no stranger than Polynesians’ delight in the very existence of Spam, but again I digress).

I always try to make my worlds as gnarly as possible, which is why my readers learn perhaps a little too much about what’s happening in the future with fashion, or architecture, or food, or music. I try to invest any fictional creation with the same sort of odd, quirky details that we find in the real world. Hence the whirring, ozone-producing mechanical computers in Metropolitan, the use of mudras in Aristoi, or the abandoned UFO landing field in Days of Atonement.

I’ve just finished a trilogy, and having so many pages to play with, I was able to really stretch out and luxuriate in the gnarly details. The books are populated with eccentric factoids about the sort of marquetry to be found in the officers’ cabins of starships, the meaning of imperial allegorical statuary, and the proper sort of pompon to put on the floppy beret worn by commoners during their exams. (And, lest any potential reader be turned off by this sort of thing, let me point out that in these books many, many objects and living beings are Blowed Up Good.)

But now I’m in despair. Consider three perfectly true stories that came to my attention on the same day: the existence of the Iron Crotch Master who hauls large trucks around with his genitals, the odd tricks played by his memory on our very own governor, Bill Richardson, who had to research the question of whether he had ever been drafted by the Oakland As, and the fact that two zookeepers in California were fired for refusing to bare their breasts for a gorilla.

And all that in less than 24 hours. How can I, or any other author, possibly devise fictional gnarly detail that can compete with the curves thrown at us by our very own reality?

I’m in a sulk about the whole thing, quite frankly. Actuality is muscling in on my turf, and I’m not happy about it.

Some recent gnarly fiction: Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett, The Atrocity Archives and Accelerando by Charles Stross, and the forthcoming Mathematicians in Love by Rudy Rucker.