The Stars Come Closer: WorldCon 76

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[Not a real George R. R. Martin, but one of the four Martin impressionists at large]

As most of you know, I spent this last weekend in San Jose, at WorldCon 76. It’s why I overhauled the blog and restored the Books and Stories page. Right now, I’m gonna talk about why. Why I went to WorldCon, and why I want to bring the stars closer.

My wife used to work for Ten Speed Press. They are definitely not a science fiction and fantasy publisher; their forté is more cookbooks, self-help, and New Age. Our Matron-of-Honor, Abigail Simoun, is a writer in her own right, a seasoned editor, and runs Red Fox Literary, the prestigious children’s/YA agency. Melissa’s confidante, Danny, only has finer taste for hard bop jazz than he does for American literature, his walls lined with Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon and Haruki Murakami. When I first met Melissa, she thought I was an arrogant upstart writer and I thought she was a snobbish New York literati type. Turns out we were both right.

All these literati have been, for the last six months, looking up from my manuscripts with shocked and impressed eyes and telling me that it’s high time I got an agent and a publishing deal. Indie is all well and fine, and I intend to continue publishing that way, but even I have to admit that New York can distribute and sell books better than I can.

Even after clarifying that I am, in fact, a commercial writer, and not Haruki Murakami or something, they have stood behind their opinion that my writing is good and needs representation yesterday. And I have to admit, having so many capital-L Literary people who believe in me has been a shot in the arm.

That’s when I found out WorldCon would be in San Jose this year. My round-trip train ticket cost $70. Membership in WorldCon was $250. I phoned up my Aunt Nona in San Jose to have a place to stay. Yes, I said, I think I can do this.

WorldCon is the oldest, and most prestigious, continuously-running literary SF/F con in the world. It floats from continent to continent, city to city, year after year. At the first WorldCon, in New York City in 1939, Asimov, Clarke, and Bradbury all attended. As fans. While Comic-Con is larger, WorldCon is the industry event of the year if you’re involved in genre publishing.

WorldCon is also where the Hugos, “the Academy Awards of science fiction,” are awarded. Comparing them to the Oscars is a bit imprecise, though, as the Hugos are awarded by the collected membership/attendees of WorldCon, in other words, the fans. Fans assemble the nomination lists and fans vote for the winners. You may remember, a few years back, when the alt-right tried to stage a coup.

I printed business cards and polished my query letter (and stopped polishing when Abi told me what she’d do to me if she found out I accosted an agent at an industry event with unsolicited queries). I practiced my pitch. I annoyed the shit out of Aaron Ochs with publicity questions. I drove pretty much everyone around me up the wall. When a friend called with a job offer, I said “perfect timing – I’m so busy worrying about WorldCon I don’t have any nerves left over to worry about a job interview.”

And on August 16, 2018, Wednesday, I waved goodbye to Melissa as the train pulled out of Paso Robles. I was on my way to WorldCon.

The next four days are kind of a blur. I remember asking Mary Robinette Kowal to sign my notebook, furiously taking notes at N. K. Jemisin’s worldbuilding class, demanding to know how in the Hell Neil Clarke can have a response time of less than forty-eight hours with 1500 submissions a month, shooting the shit in Mandarin with the crew of SF WORLD, realizing with dawning horror as Caroline M. Yoachim talked that I wasn’t revising nearly enough, getting congratulations from Sheila Williams for a sale twenty years ago, making an ass of myself in French, and sitting in Callahan’s Bar with new friends as the world turned upside down.

 

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Neil Clarke, Liz Gorinsky, Emily Xueni Jin, Chen Qiufan, Regina Kanyu Wang on Chinese science fiction. Not pictured: invisible sixth member Ken Liu, ten feet tall and made of awesome.

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Me with Yang Guoliang, the editor of SCIENCE FICTION WORLD in Chengdu, where Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem was first published.

At the panel “selling strategies for short fiction,” I thought of my half-dozen stories out in the mail, each with at least a half-dozen rejections each, and I asked the panel: “When should I retire a story?”

Caroline Yoachim leaned forward and said: “When you stop believing in it. It doesn’t matter how many rejections it gets, if you look at it, revise it, and still believe in it, send it out again.”

It wasn’t the answer I was expecting. It was the one I needed.

(And on that note, I am retiring “Only the Good Die Young.” Completely. I’m removing it from Amazon and taking down the description from my bibliography. It’s a better idea than it ever was a story, and the moment when that story would have worked is past. I no longer believe in it. I’m retiring it. Thank you, Caroline!)

I must have passed out a few hundred cards to authors, editors, agents, reviewers, and general fans. I collected just about as many. I’ve filled in half my notebook and a ton of comments and marginalia in the program guide besides. I’ve learned a lot about writing and about being a writer, so much I’ll probably spend years processing it all.

But the biggest part of WorldCon 76 wasn’t about me.

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N. K. Jemisin

On my way out the door on Saturday night, I met a couple of Chuck Tingle buckaroos who know that love is real.

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Pictured: buckaroos.

We fell in together and went out to dinner, and agreed to meet up at Callahan’s for the Hugos the next evening. That evening, Sunday, we sat around our table with new friends and sipped beers, the liveliest table in the bar as the awards ceremony wore on. We were comparing notes on which story or novella we’d voted for and why, making bets on who’d win, cheering Rebecca Roanhorse and Lynne and Michael Thomas and others as they ascended the stage.

All through, one of my new friends kept nervously glancing at the end of the awards program, at Best Novel, muttering “God, I hope she makes it…” and “What if she really did?” I knew what she meant, of course. After the Sad Puppies’ attempt to hijack the Hugos, in 2015 and ‘16, the very Black, very female, very academic, very proud N. K. Jemisin won Best Novel for her amazing The Fifth Season – the antithesis of everything the Puppies had stood for. The next year, she won again, for the sequel The Obelisk Gate. Now, Jemisin’s third book in the Broken Earth trilogy, The Stone Sky, was on the shortlist.

And when Joe Pacacio announced that The Stone Sky had been voted Best Novel, Callahan’s went batshit. N. K. Jemisin had pulled off a threepeat, the hat-trick, the power trio, I’ve heard a dozen names for it. Here’s the truth: one trilogy, three years, three books, three Best Novels. It was something no one, no one, in the history of the award had ever done. Not Asimov, not Heinlein, not Gibson, not Stephenson, not Gaiman.

There was laughter and tears, screams of joy and stamping of feet and thunderous applause. Callahan’s shook.

And Jemisin strode up on that stage, resplendent in golden constellations, and she gave this speech.

That was an amazing moment in science fiction. The world turned upside down.

And I’d been there to see it.

I’m still processing a lot of what I saw, and did, and heard, and said. But the big thing is what Ms. Jemisin said: let 2018 be the year the stars come closer for all of us.

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New Story! “Hull Down” on Amazon

At last, “Hull Down” is available to read from Amazon!

“The room pulsed around him, its fetid breath almost palpable even through the helmet. The bodies of Commander Wu Suzhen and Major Sam Harris were woven into the wall, a superimposed lovers’ embrace developed in resin and red light. Their shapes were fuzzy; the inside of Matt’s helmet sticky with condensation like his hair was sticky with sweat. His inner ear couldn’t find north or down, his eyes stung and he could taste something salty, but whether blood, sweat or tears, he couldn’t tell.

Why did you live?”

Pvt. Matthew LeWald is surprised when a Navy officer leads his Marines on the Search and Rescue operation. He’s even more surprised to be the only survivor of a mission gone disastrously wrong, when better men than him died left and right. Why did he live? But there are stranger things afoot than war, things like love and things like enlightenment.

The reviewers are saying it’s “not your Dad’s military SF” and calling it “strange [and] haunting.”


2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson

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I really, really want to like Kim Stanley Robinson. I do. His ideas are beautiful. The Mars trilogy is the most in-depth analysis of Martian terraforming ever committed to print; Mark Watney couldn’t have planted potatoes without it. The Years of Rice and Salt combines a staggering scope (alternate world history, 1300-present) with a thoroughly original structure (following the reincarnations of a jati, a group of souls fated to meet again and again). In my middle-school years, he and Ursula LeGuin seemed to be the only voices for the earth and the wretched of the earth amidst a sea of gung-ho libertarians like Heinlein, Bradbury, and Frankowski.

But then you actually read the book, and your hopes are dashed. His characters are forgettable, his plots meandering, his prose wooden. I can’t remember which initial from Years of Rice and Salt is supposed to be the angry one, I or B. I recall a few passages of Red Mars, and one character because he was a sympathetic Frenchman at a time when we frogs were all “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and one because he up and disappeared halfway through the book and I kept wondering when he’d come back.

I started 2312 full of the apprehensive hope that the last twenty years have made a better storyteller of this brilliant, idiosyncratic Author. I’m afraid Anne Rice was correct: we don’t really change, we only become more fully what we are. Kim Stanley Robinson is the Arthur C. Clarke of the 21st century: a consummate idea man who isn’t about to let mere writing get in his way.

2312 is full of absolutely amazing ideas: the Mondragon that has superseded capitalism, leaving “capitalism [as] the residual on Mars, as feudalism [as] the residual on Earth,” the art-world of Mercury and its capitol at Terminator, mutually-hermaphroditic sex, and, of course, the terraria.

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“Terrarium” for this style of vessel/colony, hollowed out of an asteroid and filled with biosphere, seems destined to enter the SF lexicon alongside terms like “ansible,” “waldo,” “hyperspace,” and “robot.” And Robinson’s inventive new ideas don’t stop at content, he has some brilliant literary strokes as well: the interstitial lists, extracts, and quantum walks are not only elegantly-presented exposition, they further the feeling of balkanization that Robinson characterizes his future with. 2312 has one of the very, very few examples of future works of art that effectively influences the story without being the focus of it, both Swan’s art installations on Mercury and those of other artists through the Solar System. Speaking of art, he even inverts the Famous Famous Fictional Trek trio near the end and lists “I Met Her in a Phobos Restaurant,” “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid,” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard” as drinking songs in that order.

But his characters. His plotting. It opens with a funeral and closes with a wedding, in fitting comic theater fashion. There’s terrorist attacks, two survival trials as Swan and Wahram are marooned, a romance that takes you from behind, the possibility of emergent AI turning against their masters, and the secret machinations of various factions…but none of them seem to connect to anything. Indeed, it’s hard to connect much of anything to anywhere. As one not-a-reviewer noted, “Swan Er Hong and Wahram prefer to run away from problems they don’t understand,” and the whole book feels less like a book, less even than a patchwork story, than it does like a picaresque. Our Heroes finish up one adventure (or, more often than not, leave it dangling like the worst Stephenson novel, as they did in Africa) and are whisked off by terrarium to the next one. Which is great! I’ve enjoyed a great many novels exactly like this, and even written a couple myself. Except, Robinson wants us to see a bigger picture and a greater drama to this balkanized novel, and it just doesn’t seem to work.

Which brings me to Swan.

I will probably remember Swan Er Hong a long time, if only because she consistently aroused vague disgust, which is probably not what you want in a viewpoint character. She’s over a century old but behaves like a bratty teenager – a smart one, but still emotionally immature and bizarrely inexperienced. She’s apparently never seen poverty on Earth before, nor been in love (despite a medical history in the middle of the book describing past loves and children), nor even lost a parent. She imperiously declares what is best for whatever planet she’s standing on or in, endangers her friends at least twice, and is generally an unpleasant person to be around and to read about. Her companion, Wahram, by contrast, is merely boring. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s oeuvre of forgettable characters, Wahram’s phlegmatic plodding is something even Robinson specifically notes as boring. Maybe this is why their romance seems more formal than real: on the one hand, you have the man who’s never perturbed even by losing his own leg, and on the other, the woman who constantly reacts to whatever’s in front of her. What kind of spark could you have there?

Kim Stanley Robinson has never been easy reading. I got that all the way back in seventh grade. But getting through it has always been interesting, even if I argue with myself about whether it was worth it. The sheer scope of Years of Rice and Salt still dazzles me, the meditations on humanity as cultivator or humanity as witness (Green vs. Red) in the Mars trilogy is some of the best philosophy in commercial fiction. Despite the meandering plot and the forgettable characters, despite the mannered prose and the hollow dialogue, I think 2312 was worth it. In 2012, when the book came out, the vision of a future where hope could be found, a future where humanity increases in genetic, cultural, and artistic diversity while still being human, a future where even Earth could be terraformed, was as alien to the omnipresent Singularity or Apocalypse as the liberal-green philosophy of Red Mars had been at the tail end of cyberpunk. Other authors have since taken up the call, dusted off the terraria, grappled with the intersexed and transcender implications, and explored other ways to terraform Earth. We wouldn’t have Sunvault and Reckoning without 2312, we wouldn’t have Ecopunk! without 2312, we wouldn’t have solarpunk without 2312. For that alone, the book is worth it.

(edited versions of this review have been crossposted to Goodreads and to Amazon.com)


Doutor Compaixão

I’ve just (re-)discovered Twitter, and on about the second day, Cat Rambo posted a tweet from the Magical Realism Bot: “A Brazilian math teacher proposes marriage to compassion.” She challenged the world to write a story of it. I took up the challenge. This is the result.

Continue reading


Cowboy Bebop, 20 Years After – Session 02: Stray Dog Strut

Spike: “Well, the show’s finally underway!”
Jet: “What’s all this?”
S: “Next week, we’re totally changing gears. It’s gonna be anime for all ages.”
J: “What’s the story?”
S: “Housepets wreak havoc amongst the stars!”
J: “What?!”
S: “No, the guy who talks to animals will not make an appearance, but anyone who loves animals should gather ‘round and watch this show!”
J: “Hey, can we say stuff like that? I don’t wanna take responsibility for this!”
S: “Caution: Small children should sit far back from the TV.”
J: “C’mon, how far back?”
S: “About three-quarters of a mile.”
J: “That’s too far!”
S: “Heh, okay. Half a mile.”

– Preview for Stray Dog Strut

 

Kim Stanley Robinson calls it ‘the pseudo-iterative.’ In a previous post, I called it a ‘Bolero.’ But the word we’re looking for is variation. Improvising variations on a song everybody knows is as core to jazz as hyperspace is to space opera – the genre couldn’t exist without it. The song could be anything, as long as everyone in the room knows how it’s supposed to go: Embraceable You, On Green Dolphin Street, even The Star-Spangled Banner. Most jazz players go ahead and “state the theme” or play the original piece at the beginning of the performance, to get the audience in tune.

“Asteroid Blues” was Watanabe, Kanno, and crew stating the theme.

“Stray Dog Strut” is where they start performing.

As Spike said it, the show’s underway. We aren’t treated to pickup notes of cool-toned Prague this time, only thrown directly into the staccato hornfire of TANK! And when we emerge, what do we see?

A man sitting in a public toilet. His eyes. A nearby suitcase, rattling. The toilet paper shivering in the bowl. The dripping gives way to a solid, thundering flush. More amorphic storytelling to set  the scene. Men rush into the bathroom, cornering the man on the pot. He smiles.

It’s a variation on the scene between Spike and Asimov in the previous scene, with a few notes of Asimov’s speed-fight in the El Ray to give the tune some texture. The man Hakim kicks down the stall-door, and downs the three men in a flash of fists and feet, before calmly departing with his briefcase.

It’s a variation on the scene, but this time, the fight broke out, instead of ending in a tense man watching a cowboy stroll away, whistling. This bathroom is scrawled with graffiti and lined with narrow urinals like an urban American stall of a later decade, instead of the Spartan and dusty restroom of a dying Mexican town.

After the title card (silent but for Hakim’s retreating footsteps), we’re treated to another variation: The Martian approach, through the gates, but this time to the sound of rat-a-tat-tat drums and the hyperspace gate announcements in Mandarin. In Asteroid Blues, the clearest voice was in English, this time, it’s in Chinese.

That, more than anything else, sets the tone for the episode. More on that in a moment, let me let that note hang in the air.

Another variation on a theme: Spike and Jet in the ship’s living room, complaining about their poverty and swapping exposition on this week’s bounty. But this time, for tonal texture, Watanabe introduces a new motif, one that’ll be with us the rest of the show:

Big Shot!.

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The other day, I learned that, technically, Judy is wearing more clothes than Faye. Make of that what you will.

Shucks howdy, Big Shot!.

It takes the trappings of an older genre, the Western, from the costumes to the music to the literal Punch-and-Judy relations between high archetypes that transcend the Western genre and become something deeper, more universal, all in the service of science fiction. Now, am I talking about Big Shot, or am I talking about Bebop itself? Because Judy’s ridiculous outfit and Punch’s ridiculous accent are both, I feel, Watanabe commenting on Bebop, on its tropes and its trappings. It makes sense the first episode of Big Shot! comes in the second session of the show. There was no theme to noodle on until the first session laid the theme down.

Then we pan down to a Martian city, about as far from the Tijuana of Desperado as it is from the asteroid TJ. This is a city of narrow streets and fluttering laundry dizzying heights from those streets, of huge garish hanzi signs and sidewalk fortunetellers, of a peculiar golden afternoon light through the smog and sampan dipping next to hulking containers like the BeBop.

It’s a city I know well.

The name of this nameless city on Mars is Hong Kong, the Hong Kong of the 1970s, the fat years of Golden Harvest and being first of the Four Asian Tigers, as the Mansions became notorious and Victoria became Central.

That’s why the Gate announcement was in Mandarin. Because this session, and Bebop in general, is rooted deeply in China, specifically Hong Kong, and this session is a love letter and a leitmotif to one man, and what he meant to Watanabe and crew.

If Asteroid Blues was all about Rodriguez and Tarantino, then Stray Dog Strut is about and one man.

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And one film.

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Obviously, there are other connections between the one and the other…

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…but Stray Dog Strut is far more loyal to its source than Kill Bill ever was. There, I said it.

Dogs and spaceships aside, this is the theme. Like Charlie Parker’s Embraceable You never bothered stating the theme in the beginning, and why should Watanabe? Game of Death is a legend in East Asia, the Dragon’s image emblazoned from every corner, even the fast food joints.

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You thought I was joking. I wasn’t. There’s one of these on every corner. The chicken nuggets are pretty good!

Everyone in the room already knows the tune. It’s up to Watanabe, like Charlie Parker, to play the variations alone, without fear of risky things.

It’s why this episode is grounded in the streetside realities of 1970s Hong Kong the way that Asteroid Blues was grounded in the Tijuana of the fifties. It’s why Spike comments on the Way of the Dragon-style nunchaku hanging in the dealer’s alley. It’s why the bad guy looks and sounds and is even named like “Hakim.”

But Game of Death was supposed to be an exploration of the Dragon’s philosophy of fighting. The original script involved Bruce’s character ascending the tower and fighting each man, representing different fetters along the way to becoming a true master of combat. Seriously, look it up. Bruce Lee abandoned the fixed forms of Wing Chun and Western Boxing to develop his own style, an intuitive and adaptive, ever-changing improvisational art he called the Way of the Intercepting Fist, Jeet Kune Do. Game of Death was supposed to be a new Chinese fairy tale, an allegorical tale of his development as a fighter and as a philosopher.

At last they created a new genre itself. They are sick and tired of the conventional fixed style jazz. They’re eager to play jazz more freely as they wish then…

Charlie Parker and Bruce Lee: the improvisers who mastered the fixed forms, the “classical mess” as the Dragon called it, and used those fixed forms to transcend form.

But Watanabe and crew still pay respects to the remix artists who taught them their trade. After Hakim steps into a street apothecary where the Cantonese-voiced proprietor offers him a foul-tasting panacea for whatever ails him*and gets his briefcase stolen, we are treated to a note-perfect briefcase shot. For all we know, it’s got Marcellus Wallace’s soul in it.

You may recognize the briefcase shot as someone’s signature, the way all my SF has a spiritual guile-hero Sweet Polly Oliver tucked in somewhere.

Another variation, Spike turning the ignition on the Swordfish II and the strangely comforting clanks and clunks of the takeoff sequence. This time, he’s comfortable, bantering with Jet about Peking duck, and the incessant drums follow us. It’s  the same scene from “Asteroid Blues.” It’s a totally different scene from “Asteroid Blues.”

Spike heads out to get the skinny from a shady back-alley dealer behind the Chungking Mansions.

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The kid tells him “You can buy anything here on Mars, from information to human lives. But it’s gonna cost ya.” Spike, unruffled, looks approvingly on a piece of his merchandise. Nunchaku. “Nice – Way of  the Dragon model?” Instantly, the kid is bubbly and friendly, and tosses in the mere scrap of information Spike was after.

In sociology, there’s a pair of concepts from the German: gemeinschaft  and gesellschaft. Gemeinschaft roughly means a village relationship, limited in number and complex in nature, since the butcher is also your father-in-law is also your godfather is also the man you beat in high spirits the last time you all went out to play ball together. You have multiple, overlapping relationships with everyone you know. Gesellschaft, by contrast, is a city relationship, theoretically infinite in number and simple and straightforward. The butcher is just your butcher. You may not even know his name. Gesellschaft groups are rationalized, monetized, efficient, cold. Gemeinschaft groups are irrational, traditional, so warm it’s stifling.

The kid pitched Mars as the perfect gesellschaft. Spike ignored him, and appealed to him, not just as clerk and customer, but as shared disciples of the Dragon, fellow fans of Way of the Dragon. And it got him what he wanted. It’s masterful kung fu, and he didn’t even have to raise a fist.

My old man chisels retail prices exactly the same way.

Spike finds the luckless thief who made off with the briefcase as he tries to fence the goods, and we finally find out, along with Spike, what’s inside: a Welsh corgi. Spike walks away, passes Hakim unaware on the street, and gets drawn into a chase scene by Hakim’s gunshot. The backgrounds are drawn in a soft golden glow, sketched or almost painted, making every character stand out stark and straight in the foreground. It’s a subtle detail, but it’s emphasized in this session and in this sequence in particular: compare it with interior shots of the BeBop, where Spike and Jet clearly belong, to this, where Spike, Hakim, Ein, and the rest stand out in marked contrast.

Finally, Spike corners Hakim on a narrow bridge over a canal. And oooh yes…

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…except we don’t get it.

We get a few flashes of feet, Ein looking back and forth, and then it’s over the water.

It takes me by surprise every time. I mean, they’ve called out Bruce, his native Hong Kong, hell, even Way of the Dragon. The bad guy is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, fer Chrissake! How could it not lead up to that legendary battle?

Because this is jazz, man.

Because Watanabe is a disciple of Bruce Lee and of Charlie Parker. He’s playing variations without the theme, tired of the fixed-style classical mess, and playing without fear of risky things.

The Kareem fight is the note he didn’t play. And that silence is deafening and astounding.

This is why “Stray Dog Strut” is cooler and more loyal than Kill Bill. Tarantino can dress up Uma in all the yellow jumpsuits he wants, he can call out Golden Harvest in half the scenes, he can use the same shots and cuts, but ultimately all he produced was a pastiche. He copied what Game of Death did, and remixed it.

Watanabe, by contrasted, copied what Game of Death was trying to do, and honored the philosophy that inspired it. By not playing those notes, he makes everyone in the room, who already know the song, think of the notes. He wins the fight without throwing a punch…just like Bruce Lee  taught.

And while the unplayed notes are ringing in our braincases, he dropped in a little ditty that he’ll be playing later, with full band and all the trimmings. The chase.

Spike and Jet retreat where Spike lays down the first variation on one of his minor motifs: “I hate kids and pets!” We go from pets to kids fishing in the river, and they fish up Hakim. Hakim, meanwhile, phones up his contact, Snoop.

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Dawg?

Hakim’s meeting with these guys, but we never meet them. In a lot of cases, we never meet the authorities, the backers, the people behind Spike, Jet, and the bounties. They’re ronin, masterless men, old-fashioned cowboys, freelancers without faction. Malcolm Reynolds may have had his own ship, still flyin’, but he wore a brown coat, and it defined him. Shifting allegiances are the bread and butter aboard the Racinante. And faction defined each and every person on Battlestar Galactica,  made in the heady days when you were either With Us or Against Us.

Spike has no side. Jet was ISSP once, but that was a long time ago. Hakim stole a dog to sell, Asimov fled the syndicates. Of all the major characters in the series, there’s only two I can think of who have factions: Vicious and Twinkle Maria Murdoch. Everyone else has been atomized. Everyone else lives in a gemeinschaft, in worlds of relationships, where every relationship they do have is everything to them. Jet is Spike’s business partner, but also his mother, his voice of reason, his advisor. In an atomized universe, those old-fashioned relationships are all you have.

Hakim consults a fortune-teller (a very traditional, very village activity on urban, gesellschaft-ridden Hong Kong Mars) and Spike takes the dog for a walk. Thanks to the timely intervention of some sinister nerds…

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Sinister? Seems that way.

…we get to revisit that little ditty Watanabe dropped in like the Marseillaise in the 1812 Overture. And like the Marseillaise, he didn’t quite finish the phrase. This time, he does.

Starting on foot, Spike after Hakim after the Ein after the researchers’ van, going up-tempo when Hakim steals a car from a married couple.**

Spike alights the Swordfish II and gives chase, chasing Hakim through the narrow Kowloon-esque streets above the sinister nerds. We shift uptempo again as the three of them race out onto a causeway that presumably goes out to Martian Lamma Island…but there’s a deeper, and subtler variation playing here, one we might miss in all the horn-blasts and screeches of “Want it All Back”.

In “Asteroid Blues,” it was fundamentally Katerina’s story, through Spike’s mismatched eyes.

In “Stray Dog Strut,” it’s fundamentally Ein’s story. Ein saves himself from Hakim, and sends Hakim spiraling off the causeway and into police custody, along with the sinister nerds chasing him. Once again, Spike is there  to see, and to pitch in, but it’s not his story.

He pitches in by going after the falling dog instead of the bounty, slowing his jets so Ein would land with a bump, but safe and sound.

We switch to Big Shot!. Punch and Judy treat us to exposition, dishing out denoument on Hakim and explanation of Ein the data dog. But no one on BeBop is watching. The only one who sees, and almost draws a connection, is the crazy pet-store lady with her turtle hat. And she gives us the denouement for that poor thief who chose the wrong suitcase to steal.

Meanwhile, back aboard the BeBop, Ein wakes Spike up from his nap and they firmly establish their millieurs enemies relationship. Spike and Ein antagonize each other, but Spike saved Ein’s life, so we know he can’t hate the pooch too badly, and this new addition to the family firmly establishes his place, his complex relationships with both Spike and Jet. Spike isn’t the only one more comfortable in a gemeinschaft. And when he protests, Jet points out that it was Spike himself who brought Ein aboard. And he’s got no argument for that.

SEE YOU SPACE COWBOY.

Watanabe, Kanno, and crew wove variations and themes and ditties all through this session. Some were revisiting the themes they laid down in the first session. Some are initial statements of theme for later, fuller variations in other sessions. Some are peculiar to this session alone.

But the main riff that Watanabe is noodling on is the “Embracable You” escapades on the theme of Game of Death, that love letter and leitmotif to the Dragon. He honors Bruce Lee from every level, obliquely quoting him, namedropping his films, featuring one of the most iconic characters in the Dragon’s ouvre, down to embracing the Tao of Jeet Kune Do and taking away what is not necessary (the actual fight) for the true elegance of simplicity, casting off the fixed forms of the “classical mess” (as Tarantino failed to do), and sounding a note without playing, winning without fighting, making us see the fight between giant Hakim and our diminutive hero without having to show it.

And he made it look effortless. That’s the jazz.

Next week: A sultry-voiced woman muses on chance and trust, on being alone, “a stardust session played in an off-key melody.” The woman without a family, the pure mercenary of gesellchaft, takes her first steps toward a nakama…and her first steps out of it.

 ——-

*street apothecaries are real, and I know exactly what that laochu tastes like. It is godawful, even without the roach in it. The roaches are also authentic.

**This married couple look so Caucasian and so alien. What the hell is this art style? The Anglican minister and clear wealth and power help. This has got to be what Anglo-Hongkongers looked like to the rest of the island’s population before the Handover in 1997. It’s a wonderfully subtle touch that grounds us in a Chinese reality, even when our main character is an ethnically-Jewish Mandarin-speaking Martian.

 


July 20, Day of the Moon

Worlds grow old and suns grow cold
And death we never can doubt
Time’s cold wind, wailing down the past
Reminds us that all flesh is grass
And history’s lamps blow out

But the Eagle has landed; tell your children when
Time won’t drive us down to dust again

Cycles turn while the far stars burn
And people and planets age
Life’s crown passes to younger lands
Time sweeps dust of hope from his hands
And turns another page

But the Eagle has landed; tell your children when
Time won’t drive us down to dust again

But we who feel the weight of the wheel
When winter falls over our world
Can hope for tomorrow and raise our eyes
To a silver moon in the open skies
And a single flag unfurled

But the Eagle has landed; tell your children when
Time won’t drive us down to dust again

We know well what Life can tell:
“If you will not perish, then grow!”
And today our fragile flesh and steel
Have laid our hands on a vaster wheel
With all of the stars to know

That the Eagle has landed; tell your children when
Time won’t drive us down to dust again

From all who tried out of History’s tide
A salute for the team that won
And the old Earth smiles at her children’s reach
The wave that carried us up the beach
To reach for the shining Sun!

For the Eagle has landed; tell your children when
Time won’t drive us down to dust again

– Hope Eyrie, Leslie Fish

On July 20, 1969, at 20:17 UTC, the Eagle landed on the surface of the Moon.

Forty-nine years ago today, Neil Armstrong took his one small step.

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Forty-nine years ago today, they unfurled a flag and left a plaque inscribed with the following words: Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.

Today, July 20, is International Space Exploration Day, the Day of the Moon. Most holidays belong to some particular nation or other, some religion or other, some class or other. But the night sky, and the Moon, and all its astonishments, those belong to everyone with eyes to look up and see and hearts to wonder.

Tonight, Melissa and I are going out into nature. We’re packing some sandwiches, some cheese, and bread, and wine, and even a book of verse. We’re going to sing Hope Eyrie, the world’s first Moon day hymn. We are going to look up into the night sky and marvel. Won’t you join us?


Cowboy Bebop, 20 Years After – Session 01: Asteroid Blues

Session 01: Asteroid Blues
Song and Silence

What is Cowboy Bebop?

In the fall of 2004, as my fiancée’s mother lay dying during a long, long convalescence and I took six college courses at a community college that considers four to be a full load, I drove south. In my beat-up, robin’s-egg blue 1989 Cutlass, I drove south, past my classes at Cuesta College, past San Luis Obispo, past the Five Cities, all the way south over a dry gulch to Santa Maria, an ass-pimple on the rear end of California. I brought with me my grey-gilt Vaio laptop and a red-and-black-splashed DVD I’d bought from the city’s anime shop. I drove to the Santa Maria Mall and, as the stores were closing, I bought a Coke and chicken teriyaki from the Japanese noodle counter. I drove that Cutlass up to the roof and parked there, looking down on the stars winking on along the streets and the streelights switching on above in God’s sky. I turned on my laptop, and slid in the DVD.

As night fell over Santa Maria, at age 17, over chicken teriyaki and a Coke, I saw “Asteroid Blues” for the first time.

As I touched on in the introduction, looking at Cowboy Bebop as a post-Buffy, post-Sopranos show is an exercise in futility. The plot arc only comes into play in a handful of episodes, all the rest is filler. The two main characters neither grow nor develop. The show seems more obsessed with its style than its writing. Even thinking of it in terms of the television of the time is problematic: it still basically has to be aired in order, it’s not funny or disposable like TV should be, and, besides, it’s a cartoon for adults and what kind of unnatural abomination is that?

The more I watch, the more I’m convinced that the best way to think of Cowboy Bebop is as an audio-visual jazz album.

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Possibly this one.

And this is the first track. The first hint of Cowboy Bebop the world got. On October 24, 1998 in Japan and, later, on September 2, 2001* in America.

And what’s the first thing we see?

The music box motif (“Memory”) and stylish, stylized noir straight out of The Third Man. A dropped rose, firefight, a church, mid-century Prague, blood, a dozen cigarette butts, a smile, a man walking away.

We’ll be revisiting this tune, these moments, sometimes even these actual animations, as the show goes on. Usually, a show finishes off with this kind of intensity and intimacy, but Cowboy Bebop started both in the thick of the action and at a distant prologue. Because this is, basically, the opening riff on the main theme.

Speaking of the main theme, BAM MOTHERFUCKER.

Those opening credits are a work of genius. They’re a declaration of intent, a proud and arrogant horn-blast of slick bebop confidence, a sock full of Johnny Quest, over and above the Credo in the background. Those slashes of color illuminate the ships and people, in such a way that you get a pretty firm idea of what you’re in for the first time you see them, and yet, without changing, they acquire new and deeper meaning as you reach the end of the series. There will be action, there will be spaceships with old-fashioned headlights, there will be wiseguys and dames with legs for days, and all of it will be stylish as Hell.

This episode in particular, the series in general, owes a debt of gratitude to Quentin Tarantino. When Bebop was being conceived, Tarantino was king of Hollywood, with Reservoir Dogs and the seminal Pulp Fiction only a few years old. Tarantino pioneered that self-aware, music-infused, post-video, post-MTV style of cinema that Cowboy Bebop picks up and runs with. But where Tarantino’s sensibilities are rooted in rock’n’roll (Stuck in the Middle with You), Shinchiro Watanabe’s vision, like his countryman Haruki Murakami’s prose, is rooted in jazz and bebop. Both Japanese men had a black American’s album playing as the soundtrack to their writing sessions.

Back to this session.

We’ve come to the present. You can tell, there’s color. But Spike is still basked in shadow and blue, complementary colors to the prologue where he was so prominent, his (chroma)key shifted up a fifth but not fundamentally changed. It’s Jet who’s rooted in the present, in the full-color reality of the world, a different key entirely. Jet cooks, Spike does his forms. Both are participating in Chinese cultural practices that are at least a millennium old**, practiced every day by millions across the world. The focus on details, the punches in the air and the flames of the burner, is a manga and anime technique which have been called amorphic panels or amorphic frames, individual phrases used to build the soaring melodies of Spike and Jet.

And the soundtrack, the all-important musical scene setting? A leitmotif we’ll be returning to again and again: “Spokey Dokey.” It’s a spare tune, a little blues piece for harmonica and acoustic guitar. And that’s exactly what it should be. It’s the sound of flat-broke jazz legends noodling away a long afternoon with no work  to be had and empty bellies to fill.

Jet interrupts Spike’s past, his timeless form, and brings him into the present with a flick of a switch and an announcement of earthy, everyday reality: “Dinner’s ready.” Spike looks abashed to be interrupted in his memorializing, but he recovers. There is so much subtlety in this first meaty scene — the urban-flavored poverty of Spike and Jet’s existence, with its fan and its plastic-mold furniture and its enforced closeness, Spike’s fixation on food (a trait of trickster gods the world over), Jet’s mechanical arm (and, by implication, Spike’s mechanical eye), even down to the identification of ‘woolong’ as currency and the exposition of Asimov Solensan.

Most of all, there’s that archetypal standard and half-joke about jazz: Jazz is about all the notes you don’t play. We don’t focus on Spike’s eye, nor mention it, but watching it again, it’s impossible not to think of Spike’s eye when we see Jet’s arm. For both men, their mechanical parts are mementos from the past, a part of the past that they can’t let go of and won’t let go of them. We don’t see it now, but it’s impossible not to see on the rewatch, twenty years later.

The other part of jazz, the indelibly Japanese part, is the silence. Both Yoko Kanno and Shinchiro Watanabe make use of selective silences, Kanno in letting the harmonica lie quiet between long, strung-out, Gilmour-esque twangs of the guitar, and Watanabe in when and where different aspects of the soundscape go silent and give way. The silence behind in the prologue was almost deafening, the silence between the characters as they come out of the Mars gateway is more forgiving. All we hear are the multilingual, prosaic announcements of the gate, an unremarkable and unremarked part of everyday life in the Bebop ‘verse. While Spike and Jet don’t comment on it, Watanabe draws our attention to it with their silence. It is truly masterful.

And it is rare.

I enjoy both The Expanse and Firefly***. I parlay Belter and wear a brown coat. But I got a beef with both of them, in that they both have pretensions of being a multicultural and broad future, and yet, both feature white Anglophone men leading white Anglophone teams with a couple minorities in to keep the SJWs from complaining. Cowboy Bebop, with a single motion, clearly establishes that their future is multicultural, and vast, and discordant. This everyday announcement, safety precautions and payment methods for the gates, is in a dozen overlapping languages.

The languages fade out, another silence, as they pay 7500 woolong (establishing the value of a woolong in five frames or so), and we’re surrounded by the hisses and clicks and clunks of a spaceship taking off. Never mind that there’d be no sound in the hard, cold vacuum of space. We’re not here for realism. We’re here for aesthetics.

The Expanse, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica all belong to the general umbrella of what is called “naturalistic science fiction.” Naturalistic science fiction tries to merge hardest-of-the-hard science (especially practical, every applications of Newtonian physics) with Dostoevsky-approved psychological complexity of character. Firefly famously used its bluegrass guitar as “the voice of the ship” in space, since there would be no sound. The Expanse spares no expense portraying the pouring of a cup of water in 1/6 G. Neither would be caught dead sounding clinks and clunks and latches and hisses in hard vacuum.

Cowboy Bebop would. Because it’s cooler, because it establishes the themes, and because they’re not interested in realism. They’re interested in rt. In writing, we’re told to aim for verisimilitude, rather than realism. Shinchiro Watanabe and crew understand this implicitly.

Now we arrive on the colony of Tijuana, and a loving montage of its streets and scenes. And what is the first thing we hear? “THIEF!” Slowly, the action focuses on a bar called El Ray, shouting out to Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado, a major influence on this session’s story and style. That connection is well-discussed elsewhere. There, the show’s Greek chorus, Antonio, Carlos, and Jobin, establish setting background and their role in the show. The bounty, Asimov, and his girlfriend, Katerina, arrive, and broker a deal with the bartender.

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Katerina also has some beer.

This scene mixes incredibly detailed and realistic elements (the architecture, the props, the cat) with more stylized elements (the people). However, reversing the effect from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it’s the more stylized and stereotypical parts that are the most important and closest to the action. Asimov and Katerina are caricatures of Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek…

desperado

asimovkaterina.png

…and they are the most important characters in the scene. Asimov even, for no reason at all, wears space spurs. It’s the most stylish, least chromatic progressions that have the strongest effect.

Speaking of stylish, this is where we get the second solo of the session: Asimov’s fight against the syndicate goons. While Spike’s memory is drawn in blue and black with bursts of red, Asimov’s red-eye speed-battle is overwhelming red like the whole world is drowned in blood. It’s both visceral and superhuman, leaving us exhausted as if we ourselves had just gone through a speed junket.

…that resolves instantly into the quiet tranquility (and boredom) of Laughing Bull’s tent. Rumbling stomachs and irreverent questions ground us in the main groove after that red-hot solo, letting Laughing Bull unveil his exposition and his prophecy while Spike deflates it for us with gentle humor. Spike emerges from the tent into the real world with a prophecy of death upon him, unruffled. “A woman will hunt the Swimming Bird and then – death.” But what is it to Spike? He’s been there already. And we start to work out, deep in our reptilian brains where the jazz goes, that Spike was the man in the prologue…

After Jet walks meaner, even more quotidian, streets in search of answers, Spike is compelled to stop off at a gas station where he encounters Asimov in the bathroom, and Katerina by chance. He steals (and returns) her food, and leads into one of my favorite lines of the whole show:

Katerina: “It must be very happy on Mars.”

Spike: “Sure, if you’re rich.”

God alone knows how many times I’ve quoted that in China, in Boston, in Rajasthan, in jest. There’s a lot of places that are happy if you’re rich, and most of us ain’t.

Spike’s flirting gets cut short along with his windpipe, as he goes to light a cigarette. At Katerina’s pleading, Asimov drops Spike before he dies, but not before he blacks out…and not before he pickpockets Asimov on his way down and out. Because Spike is truly skilled at three things: sharpshooting, Jeet Kune Do, and piloting a spaceship. And he’s marginally skilled at two other things: flirting and playing in other people’s pockets. Those are about the only things Spike knows how to do. Odysseos Polyteknikos he ain’t.

That’s where Jet finds him, long after the cigarette’s burnt to a stub, two quick shots on either side establishing just how long it’s been. None of Jet’s information is news to Spike, but the import, the connections, are. And he knows just where to find Asimov next.

The scene opens, as the scene in the bar did, with Antonio, Carlos, and Jobim talking about nothing. The only difference is that now they sit outside. Asimov enters, sits next to a man with a sombrero and the Man With No Name’s poncho.

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They banter, and Spike grins, revealing the drop of red-eye that he nicked off Asimov. He tosses it in the air, and quickdraws it.

The resulting fight scene has been featured in every anime music video, every promotion, every fan retrospective the show has ever had. Spike leaps over tables, casually kicks the shit out guys, and lands a punch on the nose of a man who’d previously dodged a bullet. He dances on cars to the detriment of the mooks inside. He forces Katerina into the role of the Neutral Female, try as she might to pull a gun and protect her man.

“You rely on your eyes too much, Asimov, you’re not a chameleon you know!”

Pretty rich, given how total a motif eyes are going to be for Spike.

But the action inexorably shifts to the spacecraft, where the episode started. Katerina’s bulging pregnancy is revealed as a ruse: She’s the way Asimov has been smuggling red-eye. And when her dress is torn and their precious cargo spills out, Asimov berates her like he might lash out at her next. As her eyes twitch in fear, seeing what’s become of the man she’d loved, the music switches. Hell, the sound switches.

Because up until now, we’ve been enjoying hard, fast bebop mixed with foley artists and sound effects. Each punch lands with a meaty thud and a scream of horns. Now it’s a mournful saxophone tune, and all the other sounds are distant, echoing, out of focus. The focus is on the scant lines of voices, and on the music.

Selective silence in action.

Spike and Jet give chase, Jet giving way. Katerina looks up toward the heavens, and sees the massed cops at the one hole leading out of Tijuana, out of her little life. And she knows.

“We’ll never make it to Mars now.” She almost sounds regretful.

Spike closes, Asimov bulges, but it’s Katerina’s choice, and Katerina’s story. The saxophone ascends to the heavens, as neither Asimov nor Katerina ever will. Asimov’s surname is Solensen, and at first, I thought it was a mistransliteration of “Sorensen.” But now I know, Asimov is the son of the Sun who, like Icarus, flies too close. And it’s in that flight that he, and the woman who shares his name, are doomed.

A single gunshot shatters the music.

For the first time in the episode, we are treated to true silence.

Spike takes in the whole thing at a glance: the splotch of blood, the woman curled around the man, the regret in her eyes. Spike sees it all with his mechanical eye. Spike has seen all this before.

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Katerina took Asimov’s life, giving him a clean death and cradling his body. She has time for one last word.

“Adios.”

Then a hail of gunshot, the return of the sound effects and the foley artists, and Katerina tumbling through space, the red-eye spilling from her fake pregnancy like blood from her body.

There’s a moment’s pause, and the next strains we here are familiar now: “Spokey Dokey.”

There’s that harmonica again, and that guitar. There’s the fists in the darkness and the fire of the burner. Nothing has changed, for Spike and Jet, or for us.

In the entire run of the series, Spike collects exactly two bounties. Spike loses, and destroys, and fails, more often than he succeeds. In this, he joins an honored roster, headed by the patron saint of heroic failure, Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. As even The Big Bang Theory noted, Indy fails at everything he tries to do in Raiders of the Lost Ark except save the girl. Spike Spiegel, like Indiana Jones, is a beautiful loser. Yeah, he fails at his goals…but he does so damn good doing it, we don’t actually care. And we shouldn’t.

Because he made a difference to Katerina Solensen, in the end.

What does it matter that she shot Asimov, rather than the police? It matters to her. What does it matter that she died in a hail of gunfire before of seeing Mars? It matters to her. What does it matter that she lived, and loved, and suffered at all? It matters to her.

Katerina’s gunshot, the one she couldn’t make during the fight between Asimov and Spike and the one she could make in the spaceship during the escape, is the most important sound, the most important note, in the whole session. She chose to end his life herself, for reasons unto herself. And she wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t talked to Spike, if it hadn’t been Spike pursuing her. She accepted that Spike saw her in that last moment, that perfectly human and vulnerable moment.

And Spike accepted her, and her decision. One wonders if he didn’t wish Julia had decided to do the same, once upon a time.

But these are echoes of future tracks. Session 01, the first track on this jazz record, draws to a close, and we’re left with the last few long, plaintive notes of a harmonica and an acoustic guitar.

And then?

Warm silence.

What is Cowboy Bebop?

Cowboy Bebop is naturalistic science fiction – its science is hard as the titanium hull of the BeBop, its characterization as deep and rich as any Dostoevsky novel – mixed with jazz – for it is a freewheeling, impulsive thing that is almost alive, a blending of theme upon theme and an exploration of song and silence and the notes never played. Mixed together like gin and vermouth, Watanabe and his crew created something new and unique upon the face of the Earth. The work, which becomes a new genre in itself, will be called

COWBOY BEBOP

Next week: Session 02 – Stray Dog Strut.

* September of 2001. Keep that in mind. It will become very important later.

** Seriously, there’s a Chinese cookbook from Song-era Hangzhou. One of the many, many still-extant recipes in it is “bell peppers and beef.”

*** By the way, Firefly? Clearly happened after Joss Whedon saw Cowboy Bebop in 2001 and went “I want one of those!”