Stephen King: The Gunslinger – Review

My first experience reading King. After an interesting beginning culminating in the slaughter of a dreamlike desert town (where I could see elements of King’s horror writing that make him such a well known author) there really wasn’t too much to capture my attention. The majority of the middle was a fairly dull adventure story dotted with small glimpses of the protagonist’s backstory. There were definitely some good elements that help to build the slightly surreal, post-apocalyptic world King is trying to create, but they didn’t really do much to hold my interest. However the climax of the story and the inevitable encounter between the gunslinger and the man in black was fantastic. Suddenly we’re thrown into a metaphysical monologue with an extended dream sequence that reads like a mescaline trip and starts to show us the route King might be taking the rest of the series. Overall I think 3* is a fair rating. I’m not in a rush to read any more King books after this one but I’d quite like to come back to the Dark Tower series at some point in the future.

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Alejandro Jodorowsky & Mœbius: The Incal – Review

The Incal is possibly one of the most difficult books I’ve had to rate in recent times. The problem with rating comics is that I don’t know how to distinguish between the overall reading experience, the script, and the art itself. Jodorowsky and Moebius’ work really sums up this dilemma. On the one hand we have a comic script that is funny and clever in parts but often overly sporadic to the point of sometimes being incomprehensible (this shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone remotely familiar with Jodorowsky) and on the other we have a collection of technicolour sci-fi imagery that’s as inventive as it is beautiful, but is often coloured very confusingly (characters will literally change shape and colour depending on the tone of the page). I’ve found this problem again and again with rating supposedly influential comics (Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing comes to mind) but I think I’ve settled on 4* because the book undoubtedly has some elements of visionary genius tucked away in there amongst the madness. Overall The Incal took me on a journey. It creates a bizarre futuristic sci-fi world that comes across like the monograph of someone at the end of a two day acid trip – but maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Regardless of my thoughts it’s still a must read for Sci-fi fans in any medium.

Proletarianization in E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops

cannot you see […] that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. […] The Machine develops – but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds – but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries and if it could work without us, it would let us die.’

What a brilliant little novella, it’s importance should not be understated. Forsters premonition of a future society is perhaps one of the closest to our own modern interconnected internet culture that could have possibly been imagined in 1909, it seems to be a precursor for Huxley, Orwell, Vonnegut and many others. Rather than writing a normal review I want to briefly a compare section of this book to a small piece of work from the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler.

The story, like so many early SF books, is essentially concerned with the looming dangers of modern technology. Kuro, in the quote above, is expressing is his realisation that the Machine which controls all the aspects of their daily lives is no longer at the service of those who use it, it was created in order to help mankind, yet it has now imprisoned mankind within its own system; it relies on the power which mankind generates to carry on its own evolution. Man has become technologically sedated by being given anything it could possibly need at the touch of a button. Here the parallels with films such as The Matrix are undeniable, but there are also parallels with the more traditional philosophical thinking of Marx, Heidegger, and in particular of Bernard Stiegler. There is an almost direct comparison between Forster’s quote above to a quote from Stiegler’s For a New Critique of Political Economy, titled ‘Proletarianization as loss of knowledge’. Stiegler argues:

‘The proletarian […] is a disindividuated worker, a laborer whose knowledge has passed into the machine in such a way that it is no longer the worker who is individuated through bearing tools and putting them into practice. Rather, the laborer serves the machine-tool, and it is the latter that has become the technical individual – in the sense that it is within the machine-tool, and within the technical system to which it belongs, that an individuation is produced.’

For Stiegler, the proletarian, which was understood in a Marxist sense as being ‘a bearer of tools and a practitioner of instruments’ has lost his knowledge of how to properly ‘use’ or utilise these tools. Instead of being the one using the tool to manipulate the world, a la Heidegger’s Dasein, the proletarian has, himself, become a tool, ‘a tool and an instrument in the service of the tool bearing machine’. This role-reversal, Stiegler argues, is what is leading to the malaise that is affecting society today on a large scale and I believe this malaise was almost exactly predicted by Forster.

Vashti is essentially the prototypical disindividuated worker, and Kuro is the one who is trying to individuate himself through understanding his culture’s reliance on the Machine. His statement that ‘The Machine develops – but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds – but not to our goal’ is in essence a realisation of his own proletarianization at the hands of the Machine (or indeed the machine-tool Stiegler describes). Stiegler himself argues that ‘Proletarianization is that which excludes this participation of the producer from the evolution of the conditions of production’, in other words it is the machine that evolves, yet we are becoming more and more dissociated, unaware, and uncertain, of the direction in which it is evolving. The worker is no longer in control of technical evolution; he no longer decides how and why to use the Machine. Instead, it is the machine-tool that has become individuated; it is the Machine who has gained the ‘savoir-faire’ (knowledge of how to do’) which used to belong to the worker. The proletarian worker has, in turn, become merely a part of the ongoing technical evolutionary process.

As Stiegler states ‘In other words proletarianization is a process of losing knowledge’, and this is shown throughout the dialogue between Vashti and Kuro: Vashti has become scared of the knowledge that Kuro has discovered by putting himself outside of the reach of the Machine, the world outside the Machine is now a dangerous and fearful place, one that is becoming increasingly off limits to anyone under the Machines control. Yet again the parallels to modern society are evident, the more reliance we place on technology, the more we lose our knowledge, and thus lose our savoir-vivre, our way of living.

What is interesting about this comparison is that we can see that Forster has essentially predicted a lot of the societal changes that are fundamental to Stiegler’s reworking of proletarianization almost one hundred years earlier. Forster’s The Machine Stops is a small book but is so prophetic and so densely packed with ideas that I would argue it is definitely valuable reading for anyone living in our modern, internet reliant, era.

Philip K. Dick: A Scanner Darkly – Review

paranoia
/ˌparəˈnɔɪə/
noun

a mental condition characterized by delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance, typically worked into an organized system. It may be an aspect of chronic personality disorder, of drug abuse, or of a serious condition such as schizophrenia in which the person loses touch with reality.

This is the word that sums up A Scanner Darkly.

Dick’s hilarious, hopeless and harrowing depiction of a drug addled future society left a pretty strong impression on me.

On the surface the book is primarily concerned with the issues surrounding addiction, from it’s effects on individual users to the systems of control that allow it to become so widespread in society. As with all of PKD’s books there was a strong undercurrent of philosophical questioning. Although all of his books are essentially classic science fiction, oftentimes set in the future, what they really serve to do is provide a brutal analysis of the present. The worlds that Dick conjures up hit much closer to home than the epic of works Frank Herbert or Arthur C. Clark; they give us a commentary on a variety of social, psychological and philosophical issues that can affect us all at one time or another. I think this is why many of Dicks books, written in the 50s, 60s, and 70s still hold up as modern and contemporary even now.

The real genius of the book is how the lead character embodies both sides of the issue of paranoia and addiction. As the story progresses, Bob Arctor the lowlife junkie, and his scramble suit wearing pseudonym, Fred the undercover narcotics agent, start becoming more and more difficult to distinguish between. When Fred gets asked to place scanners into Bob Arctor’s home to constantly track his movements the split in the Arctor’s personality deepens. The reality of both sides of Arctor/Fred’s identity starts to blur to the point where it becomes difficult for him to identify himself with one or the other, a side effect of excessive consumption of the fictional drug ‘Substance D’. The effects of which are brutally described in a brilliantly surreal chapter towards the end of the book. Did ‘Fred’ only start on this paranoid, drug fueled mission as part of his undercover role? Or is Arctor the addict merely using his undercover pseudonym as the best way for him to obtain and sustain his substance D habit?

Although it actually took me a while to get through the book – a lot of the time because of the main characters’ random paranoid digressions in conversation – I think A Scanner Darkly stands up there with the best of Dick’s books. One particular thing that really stood out for me was the authors note at the end of the book. PKD describes how his own experience of casual drug use (and abuse) had ultimately left the lives of his friend group torn apart. The main characters in the book were almost all based on people he knew; friends, many of of whom are now suicidal, psychotic, or dead.

A Scanner Darkly is a book that is as funny as it is sad. It’s filled with as much prophetic genius as it is pointless nonsense (although this was undoubtedly intentional to put across Dick’s message). And overall I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to reading the Valis trilogy at some point to see how PKD’s sci-fi-chedelic visions play out. Solid 4*.