Category Archives: Recurring

Our responsibility to the past, a war of words, and sex with machines

WARNING: This post contains vulgarity in quotes from the source material. Some of Spider’s more colorful metaphors have been omitted, but conventional swear words (S, F, etc.) are depicted as originally written. Also since this is a post about a comic that started in 1997, I’m not especially careful for the spoiler sensitive, as a discussion of the plot is necessary in many places.

When history looks down its weird evolved vestigial stump of a nose at us, it’ll have a lot of very shitty things to say. But it will eventually have to admit that the Reservations justify our existence.” ~Spider Jerusalem (Transmetropolitan Issue #9)

The world of Transmetropolitan has a tenuous relationship with the past. They preserve history but they also want the past to leave them alone. Issue #42 will later reveal that the people in this time don’t even know what year it is, instead noting the past in relative terms (5 years since that famous rocker died, 10 years since the big fire, etc.). This allows for a culture in which Nazi fetishism is just a fashion choice, with no greater context because nobody really remembers who Hitler is.

Our relationship to the past can be just as tenuous. Our nation has a document of founding principles written by white men who owned people hundreds of years ago. When it suits our political view we are strict constructionists or liberal with what the constitution actually means, and the intentions of these founders who somehow possessed greater wisdom than the sum total of humanity that followed. More recently we’ve created a view of Ronald Reagan that at times is the opposite of what the man actually thought and felt. We talk about the good old days when America was great without realizing that maybe it was only great for people who looked like us.

Transmet Volume 2 addresses the past at the individual and the cultural level. Issue #8 is told in form of one of Spider’s columns for The Word. Spider tells the story of Mary, a “revival,” a head in a jar thrown into the future through cryogenic suspension. Mary was a photographer in her previous life, chronicling wars and revolutions of the 20th century.

There was history in Mary’s head; hard history, hard-lived and loved. And all Mary wanted was to keep seeing history.” ~Spider Jerusalem (Transmetropolitan Issue #8)

Spider spends a third of the issue describing the stages of the revival process, from nano-machines repairing her frozen brain to retrieve her thoughts and memories, to her new body being grown in a vat, to waking up wet and alone “in a stiff body that felt like a glove too small.”

buildaneye

The people they’re growing all signed contracts. They get new bodies made to whatever ridiculous specifications they can think of. They get to live in a new and exciting future, and even get the money they paid back. Most of them step out the door, take one look at the world, and something breaks inside them. Culture shock of a kind we can only imagine, being thrown into a future you no longer recognize. And this world does not want the revivals. They’ll fulfill the contract, then stick you in a hostel or out on the streets with donated clothes and a hundred year lifespan.

Though the exact year for Transmet is never stated, the rough estimate is sometime in the 23rd century, so 300 years in the future. A lot of sci-fi (even sci-fi comedies like Futurama) like to think about what would happen if we took someone from 300 years ago and plopped them into today. Besides Transmet, I don’t know if I’ve seen a version of this story where the person suffers irreparable psychological damage from the experience but I wonder if that’s a little closer to what it would actually be like. And the pace of acceleration is only increasing. I suspect you could take someone from 300 years ago and the world would look more familiar to them than it would if we went 300 years forward. Hell, I’m not sure if I wouldn’t get a bit of a shock going from floppies to smartphones and that’s only about 20 years.

The sad part of this particular tale is that Mary is an extraordinary person. She has a lot of things she could tell the future, from first hand experience. And no one’s interested in listening, except for Spider.

The next issue deals with history on a macro scale, in the form of the “reservations.” The reservations are compounds in which current humans are stripped of their memories and genetic traits to live out a culture of the past, from Mayan cities, to ancient Japan or Islam. The past is preserved “as-is” with all of the horrible cultural practices from beheadings to FGM preserved without judgment. In the case of the Tikal (Mayan) reservation, this has meant having to create a new reservation five times because each civilization dies out from drinking from the same water where they toss the heads.

Again the future’s only true relationship to these reservations is to watch “Republican Party Compound” on TV. The rest are like national parks on an island nobody ever visits. The most interesting of these is the “Farsight” compound, dedicated to letting technology evolve faster than societal norms would be able to keep up. A glimpse of a possible human future preserved in a biodome.

It can seem grotesque to have to relearn the lessons of history by letting them play out in all over again, but I wonder if this is something we do anyway, making the same mistakes again and again. They say the mark of insanity is to try the same thing over and over again and expect a different result, but this often feels like what we’re being offered by both parties. But it’s something we do on a smaller scale as well. Taco Bell doesn’t agree with me, but every 6 months to a year I need to remind myself of that fact. It’s not human nature to try something once then go, *whew* never again.

Issues 10-12 cover an attempt on Spider’s life by people he pissed off with his columns, ranging from genetic trait farms, to former assistants, to the French. This last stems from Spider’s coverage of “The War of Verbals” five years prior which involved the French fighting to preserve their national language only to have speaking French rendered illegal. The main takeaways from this passage (other than a headless exploding Enfant Terrible sent to assassinate Spider) are these two little gems:

The paying masses never gave a shit about ‘The Miserables’ until it became an anglophone musical.

I can assure I don’t give a crap either way. I find ‘The Miserables’ to be my least favorite musical. I mean, it tries to warn you with its title! 🙂

English is an ugly, lurching fool of a language.

But it communicates hate well.

We’re certainly seeing examples of that every day lately.

I’ll end today’s post with beginning of Volume 2, Issue 7, which finds Spider’s assistant, Channon Yarrow, mourning the scheduled death of her boyfriend Xiang. Or rather, the uploading of his consciousness into a cloud of nano-machines. This story takes the idea of transferring our consciousness into an immortal vessel a step further into something that doesn’t even retain the human form. It’s the technological equivalent of being transformed into pure energy.

The “Foglets” as they are called, live as dispersed clouds of millions of tiny machines, unless they pull themselves in tight enough to be seen as a pink cloud with a false face. The issue deals pretty rawly with the emotions involved in someone making this choice, whether it’s death or rebirth. The process has a certain beauty, the chemical energy of the body being used to start up the machines. And it is clear from the presence of Tico, a Foglet friend of Spider’s, that these Foglet humans maintain aspects of their previous personality; they can be just as arrogant and self-centered as the rest of us.

faceicouldhit

Overall this volume covers ground that are staples of cyperpunk and science-fiction, but does so with a unique bent that at times feels more plausible than the clean future of Star Trek (or the idealized democracy of The West Wing which kicked off this whole marathon diary in the first place). The next volume, Year of the Bastard, dives straight into the middle of a political convention and a contest between two candidates that nobody really likes. And prepare yourself for those last pages, because you’re in for quite a shock.

Next post on Friday, probably.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Recurring

Transmet Volume 1 gives us its mission statement at the point of a gun

WARNING: This post contains vulgarity in quotes from the source material. Some of Spider’s more colorful metaphors have been omitted, but conventional swear words (S, F, etc.) are depicted as originally written. Also since this is a post about a comic that started in 1997, I’m not especially careful for the spoiler sensitive, as a discussion of the plot is necessary in many places.

Journalism is just a gun. It’s only got one bullet in it, but if you aim right, that’s all you need. Aim it right and you can blow a kneecap off the world.” ~ Spider Jerusalem (Transmetropolitan Issue #3)

I got into this marathon diary of Transmetropolitan (Transmet) because somehow binging The West Wing didn’t seem to be the appropriate tone for our current election season. But in truth Transmet bumps up against another Sorkin property, The Newsroom. The first half of volume 1 is focused on outlaw journalist Spider Jerusalem’s version of Will McAvoy’s “What Makes America Great” rant from the first episode of The Newsroom:

To back up, for the last five years Spider has been “up the mountain” after fame has made it impossible for him to write in the city. Spider is content to spend the rest of his days isolated from the rest of the world, but for a nagging editor who demands he write the final two books of a five book contract he signed years ago, or face being sued into destitution. The first issue is largely spent showing the contrast between these worlds, and these two Spiders. Spider begins as an isolationist, army jacket wearing, hair down past his butt, hillbilly, but by the end of the issue has assumed his city persona (in part due to an accident with the shower singeing off all his hair):

Spider up the mountain

Spider up the mountain

Spider fully formed

Spider fully formed

Spider takes a job at The Word, the city’s most prominent newspaper, under the direction of his old friend and editor Mitchell Royce. His first column focuses on the transients, a group of humans who have chosen to change their DNA with that of an alien species (who look like the typical “grays” we see in sci-fi). They are no longer content in their human bodies, and wish instead to become their true identity, in this case an alien species. The transients have specific needs that the Civic Center is unwilling to provide, and so the transients (under the direction of a former band manager, Fred Christ), congregate in the Angels 8 district and declare their desire to secede from the city. The non-violent movement is quickly marred when someone pays off a few transients to start a riot, which gives the Civic Center the excuse they need to respond with deadly force, with Spider caught in the middle beaming the story out to the public from the roof of a strip club.

This situation has parallels with trans-gendered rights. The transients want equal treatment by the Civic Center, opportunities to get jobs, accommodation for changing dietary needs, basic “human” rights and equal treatment. Trans-gendered Americans have faced discrimination in the workplace, in the military, from businesses, and even from using the bathroom of their gender. But in the case of the transients, it’s the case of a civil rights battle gone wrong, escalating tensions between protesters and police.

Admittedly, Transmet is written from a strongly anti-authority viewpoint, as we see both in Spider’s behavior toward people in authority, and the cop’s eager enthusiasm to use violence. The acts of violence that happen in the police shootings of today and in the riot response of Transmet may both come from a place of fear for a cop’s safety. But in Transmet there is an enjoyment of violent behavior by the cops, an animistic jungle mentality, as if they were looking for an excuse rather than acting for their own protection. But given the number and character of police involved shootings in the world today, it is important to consider if implicit bias, or even an inclination toward violent behavior is involved.

Spider’s McAvoy moment is in his account of the violence below. Unbeknown to Spider, his editor has sold the live feed of his column (equivalent to a live tweet session being re-tweeted today), putting Spider’s words on screens around the city. While Spider recounts the violence and how it came to be, he turns the situation back on the reader and raises the issue of their accountability in the situation:

Enjoying this? You like the way I describe disgusting shit happening to people you probably walked past in the street last week? Good. You earned it. With your silence.”

I’m sorry. Is that too harsh an observation for you? Does that sound too much like the Truth? Fuck you. If anyone in this shithole city gave [a damn, though stated far more colorfully] about Truth, this wouldn’t be happening.” ~ Spider Jerusalem (Transmetropolitan Issue #3)

Spider’s live feed actually affects the real world, forcing the Civic Center to recall the cops. This is the thesis of Transmet, that someone getting the truth out there can change the world. And that our own desire not to listen to the truth is what is responsible for a lot of the awful things that happen in the world.

Personally, I find myself more in the camp of not listening to the truth, not out of a desire to live in my own reality, but more born of the need to live my life on a day-to-day basis at all. The majority of the time spent not with wife or work is spent on writing my next non-fiction book, which requires a lot of heavy math research and programming time. I don’t make a lot of room in my head for the terrible things happening in the world, and I certainly don’t do a lot to go out into the world and try to change them. Individually this isn’t necessarily a bad choice, but when all of us do it then the world becomes a darker place. It’s the old saw of “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Spider’s no saint, and he certainly isn’t politically correct. He doesn’t see the transient movement so much as a matter of identity, but more as fashion choice. He uses violence when he feels it appropriate to get to the heart of a story, beating his way past barricades. But the motive for much of his seemingly abhorrent actions seems to be to get this movement to take what they’re doing seriously, to warn them of the consequences of their actions and how others will perceive them. If the Trump campaign has taught us nothing it has taught us that we are not as tolerant as we think we are. People are still scared and are looking for someone to blame, and in this story the transient movement just made themselves easy targets for that blame.

The rest of the volume centers around stories designed to introduce us to the world of the city, something that will continue into volume 2. In a moment mirroring Hunter Thompson’s (on whom Spider is partly based) encounter with George McGovern in a bathroom, Spider finds the President (who he refers to as “the beast”) in a bathroom as well.

thebeastandspider

“The Beast” is clearly patterned after Richard Nixon, an enemy of Thompson, and Spider has a rather unique way of speaking truth to power during the encounter (through the use of a bowel disrupter, a favored weapon of Spider’s).   We’ll get into “The Beast’s” philosophy of governance when we cover volume 4, but this little tidbit from earlier in the story caught my eye on a second read:

payoffdebts

Candidate Trump has been similarly accused of using funds from the Trump Foundation to buy paintings of himself and to settle legal disputes to the point that the New York attorney general ordered the foundation to cease soliciting funds. Trump is hardly alone in this, and one does wonder if at some point the distinction between money for the campaign and money for the candidate will be as finely drawn as it is now. Trump’s a little more despicable in that these were charitable donations, but the song’s basically the same, just the lyrics are different.

Issue 5 finds Spider spending the day watching TV, buying “Air Jesus” sneakers, calling into talk shows, and being hit with a subliminal “ad bomb.” Commercials in our dreams is a truly frightening notion. Issue 6 is the weakest of the volume in my opinion, as Spider has his own “Jesus in the temple” moment at a convention for new religions. Transmet doesn’t have much to offer on religion other than seeing it as another area to distrust authority, but thankfully it isn’t really the focus of many issues.

To be honest, the Spider of early Transmet is more cartoon than person. There are glimpses of the Spider who we come to know and love by Volume 3, the moment on the roof is a defining one for the rest of the series. But I found myself having a difficult time deciding whether or not I should go forward after this point. I read the first volume, put it down for about six months, read it again, then devoured the rest of the series in short order. It has a lot of things running against in content and violence at first, but as Warren Ellis (the author) got a better handle on Spider’s character rather than caricature, we begin to see a driven man willing to do whatever it takes to get the truth out to people. And we see the best of what sci-fi has to offer in dealing with the issues of today in a future setting. That’s why this series is one of my favorites, but not one I keep on my shelves instead living only in the digital recesses of my Kindle.

Hell, Patrick Stewart liked it so much he wanted to play Spider in a TV/Film adaptation (sadly never to be), and he wrote the intro to Volume 5. If it’s good enough for Picard, it’s good enough for me.

We’ll continue with the marathon probably Tuesday with Volume 2, Lust For Life.

Leave a comment

Filed under Recurring

Down from the mountain

I was annoyed with John Oliver in late August when he said he’d be taking a month off. Watching him on Monday after work has quickly become one of the ways I can handle all of the nonsense going on in the world. And here I’ve been gone for nearly two months. Hope you guys didn’t miss me too much.

Short version of what’s been going on is this:

  • I got a new job in mid-August. Closer to home, interesting work, nice environment. Overall a big improvement. Still with the same company, just changed divisions, so a nice mix of old and new. I am even dressing nicer on a day-to-day basis.
  • Time that I am not spending with my wife or my work has been spent largely on writing the new fractal book. I am excited to share this with you as soon as possible. I am even considering new platforms for fractal art (I might venture out of the safe pastures of Twitter/Facebook/Wordpress).
  • I am handling this election about as well as the rest of you.
Photo of author taken mid-September

Photo of author taken mid-September

It’s this last point I want to talk about just a bit. Over at Previously.tv they’ve been doing a marathon diary of The West Wing, watching the entire series prior to election day. If you want to feel depressed about the election, I couldn’t think of a better way to do it than to watch what a fantasy American democracy looks like. My instincts are to watch or read something that bears more of a resemblance to reality, or even something far worse, so I can comfort myself in the knowledge that at least things aren’t that bad.

And so I’ve found myself immersed once again in a contemporary of The West Wing: the cyberpunk, post-human, political drama, comic book series Transmetropolitan. “Transmet” follows outlaw journalist Spider Jerusalem as he takes on corruption wherever he sees it, and pursues truth in relentless and foul-mouthed fashion. Much of the series’ narrative takes place during the administrations of two Presidents: “The Beast” and “The Smiler.” Sound familiar?

Admittedly, Transmet is as much a fantasy as The West Wing. It assumes journalism and truth can bring down Presidents. This certainly has been true, but in the fractured cable TV and social media news landscape of today it’s hard to say. But like all great science-fiction the series still has a lot to tell us about the moment in which it was written (1997-2002) and the moment in which we now live.

So I’m running a mini-marathon of my own, from now until election day. Twice a week (hopefully), I’ll be posting my thoughts on a volume of Transmetropolitan, both its place in the overall arc of the story, and what it has to say about our present moment. Already in rereading the comic I’ve seen it touch on themes of police brutality, transhumanism, racial profiling, political scandal, right-wing extremism, rampant consumerism, historical preservation, child prostitution, poverty and more.

If you want to read along I’ll post Volume 1 “Back on the Street” on Thursday (I’m using the new printing numbering, so this covers issues 1-6). Fair warning, the content is rough both in terms of subject matter and especially in the early issues, vulgarity. Also, as a dog owner I want to state clearly I do not agree with Spider Jerusalem’s attitudes/actions toward dogs. But if you can get past the rough trappings, you’ll find a gripping narrative with plenty of twists and turns, and even some genuine human feeling.

In the meantime I will try to write something that isn’t about comic books or fractals, but I’m not promising anything.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Recurring