Hiatus

July 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

Due to a recent scathing review, The Unwritten Book Review is going on a temporary hiatus. Thanks to all of you for reading it. Come look at my new project, Reconstructed Conversations, where there will be posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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The Unwritten Book Review by Christopher Lambie-Hanson

July 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

It was with much fanfare that the first print volume from the popular blog The Unwritten Book Review was released today, and, just like the book itself, the fanfare was self-indulgent and superficially esoteric, consisting primarily of impenetrable twelve-tone rows into which the author’s initials, CBLH, were endlessly encoded. For the few readers unfamiliar with it, I should state that Mr. Lambie-Hanson’s work consists entirely of reviews of books that have never been written. And to the few readers who think that this sounds like a potentially delightful idea, I would say that you are correct but would do much better to seek out the masterful works of Jorge Luis Borges or the lesser-known Frederick Rolfe, whose blatantly and clumsily stolen ideas fill the pages of the volume currently under consideration.

The sins of The Unwritten Book Review are vast and varied, but the most damning is surely its utter emptiness. At times, the writing can be undeniably clever, and readers encountering the book for the first time will be dazzled. But by the time the smoke has cleared enough to reveal the surrounding intellectual rubble, they will realize that Mr. Lambie-Hanson has taken advantage of the confusion to rob them and abscond with all of their belongings.  They will be left with nothing to hold on to and, quickly tiring of the rampant self-reference and obscure “jokes” probably “understood” only by Mr. Lambie-Hanson himself, will leave carrying less than they entered with.  There is nothing to care about in these pages, nothing to make a lasting impression. There is nothing but a void, made all the more cavernously empty by the fact that it is obscured by the veil of a shiny, elaborate game.

A major contributor to the hollowness of The Unwritten Book Review is Mr. Lambie-Hanson’s unconcealed dilletantism. The range of genres (mystery thriller, mathematical monograph, reverse autobiography, holographic polemical chapbook) and subjects (violin manufacturing during the Russian Revolution, post-expressionist finger painting, the dreams of various wasp species) touched upon in these pages is initially quite impressive, but it becomes much less so when one realizes the actual extent of the author’s knowledge of and insight into the topics under discussion. And while one might convincingly argue that a literary critic is in fact nothing more than a professional dilettante, there is a crucial difference in this case. Whereas the reviewer of actual books can rely on the supposed expertise of the authors of said books to illuminate his writing, Mr. Lambie-Hanson does not have this luxury and instead seemingly relies on nothing but half-read Wikipedia articles and clichéd pop philosophy. Upon making her way through one or two of the reviews, the reader develops a powerful urge to tell him to stop writing and actually go learn something.

Another way in which The Unwritten Book Review comes across as sorely lacking in comparison with true literary criticism is that there is shockingly little actual criticism to be found on its pages. With very few exceptions, the reviews consist of line after line of unqualified and superficially motivated praise, amounting to little more than hagiographies of the works’ fictional authors. And the works themselves are such ludicrous creations that whatever enthusiasm the misguided reader may initially have had is quickly dispelled and replaced with something which can only be accurately described as embarrassment. Among the “books” receiving gushing reviews are:

  • 25 Voids, by George Pierce: a novel written using only the letter ‘e’ (reviewed in the English translation from the original French).
  • Tip (or Pit), by Rupa Kapur: a book which when read forwards and backwards yields precisely opposite stories.
  • It’s Alive (title subject to change), by Dr. Michael Mutatis: a constantly auto-rearranging book composed entirely of living organisms.
  • Dozing with the Stars, by Alaisdair Bergeron: a scholarly work exploring the deep connection between the sleeping habits of the koala and the distribution of matter and antimatter during the first microsecond of the universe.

If The Unwritten Book Review provides one service to the world, it is to make the reader feel better about the otherwise pitiful current state of the written word. Compared to the drivel that Mr. Lambie-Hanson (or his reviewer – it is unclear (and of no real interest) whether the two are one and the same) heaps praise upon in these pages, the worst trash sold in supermarket stationery aisles comes across as a timeless masterpiece. The Unwritten Book Review performs the admirable and unenviable task of pointing out just how much worse things could be.

My one piece of advice to you, then, dear reader, regarding The Unwritten Book Review, is this: Stay away. Resist its temptations. Like all too many cheap apartments, it may appear fantastic at first glance, but upon closer inspection, after looking past the hastily-constructed facade, one quickly becomes horrified by the emergence of roaches, water damage, and unsavory neighbors and wants to leave as soon as possible. Hopefully this disillusionment happens before a lease is signed, but one is not always so lucky. I had the misfortune of reading The Unwritten Book Review in its entirety, and I can say without hesitation that the world would be a better place if, like the volumes cataloged on its pages, this book had been left unwritten.

The Glen Wissock Anthology by Howard Patricianovich and Co.

July 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Why do we read fiction? Sometimes we pick up a book for the sheer sensual pleasure brought on by the carefully constructed sentences of a talented writer. Sometimes we read to better ourselves, perhaps through exposure to new philosophical viewpoints or an author’s expertise in a certain subject area of interest. Most often, though, we read to escape our lives and temporarily explore a new world, a world which we can leave or re-enter as we please. The history of literature is replete with writers going to great lengths to create rich landscapes in which their readers can become utterly lost. There is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, for example, or the world of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family, or Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River. These literary universes, though, as detailed, self-contained, and intricately constructed as they may be, all pale in comparison to the hamlet of Glen Wissock.

I should be more precise here, lest the reader get the wrong impression. As works of art, the creations of Tolkien, Salinger, and Masters tower above the books written by Patricianovich’s hired craftsmen, which do, as would be probabilistically predicted, show flashes of brilliance but are largely literarily unremarkable. The Glen Wissock Anthology will never be read in a high school English class and will not serve as a stylistic inspiration for young writers. This analysis somewhat misses the point, though. In fact, it seems probable that Howard Patricianovich never intended his creation to be seen as a work of literature. Rather, he took the practice of literary world-building to an extreme and recognized, as a diligent amateur scholar of Fichtean Dialectics, that a sufficiently large quantitative change (and Patricianovich’s project can certainly be described as ‘sufficiently large’) often leads to something qualitatively new.

Glen Wissock, as you may be wondering, is a fictional community on the Isle of Man, all craggy cliffs and supernaturally green grass. It is a medium-sized town by Manxian standards, with a population of around 1800. Not many people move to Glen Wissock, but not many people leave once they have arrived, either. Between the years 1900 and 1910, 150 people were born there. The Glen Wissock Anthology tells their stories. This by itself would make for an interesting work but nothing particularly original. What makes this anthology different is that, for better or for worse, in the written stories of these 150 lives, no single moment is left out. The books are carefully constructed so that reading about one hour of one person’s life will take the average reader exactly one hour. And all of the hours are there, accounted for, described in painstakingly precise detail. What this means is that these 150 people of Glen Wissock are as fully realized as you or I. Readers now, for the first time, have a world as rich as their own into which to step. And it is a world they will never exhaust, a world running parallel to our own, keeping completely in step. Indeed, the anthology even comes with a handy little electronic gadget which the reader starts upon beginning to read and which tells the reader what page of any given volume to read at any given time, assuming the reader wants the fictional characters to age at the same rate as her.

I have now described the work to you, reader, but I fear that you have not fully grasped its true scope. To remedy this, let’s do a few quick calculations. The average person reads 250 words per minute, which, conveniently, is the publishing industry’s standard for number of words per page. Taking leap years into account, there are an average of 525,949.2 minutes per year. The average lifespan of the 150 Glen Wissockians is 78 years, which is 41,024,037.6 minutes, so the average life takes the same number of pages to recount. The volumes of the anthology are uniformly 1,024 pages long, so the average person’s story fills about 40,062.5 books. Each book is 2 inches thick, which means each person requires 6678 feet, or 1.26 miles, of bookshelf space. There are 150 people, so the whole anthology will fit on 189 miles of shelving. This might be impractical for readers living in small apartments, so the publisher has thoughtfully offered the anthology as a collection of e-books. They are published using the EPUB file format, in which one 1,024-page volume fits in a file of roughly 2.72 megabytes. One 78-year life thus takes up about 108,970 megabytes, or 106.42 gigabytes, of space, and the whole collection can fit on a mere 15.59 terabytes.

In addition to their prohibitive physical or digital size, the books also carry a weighty price tag. One person’s story can be bought in print for $100,000 or on ebook for $70,000. The whole anthology costs 100 times this amount. Interested readers can also purchase smaller, themed subsets of the community: The String Quartet, for example, or, for those seeking a more worldly narrative, Those Who Left. And, strange as it may sound, I maintain that these books would be an excellent purchase for those with spare millions lying around. The books themselves are by necessity not great literary creations, but they offer an unparalleled parallel universe into which one can escape at will, a refreshingly low-tech and richly satisfying alternative to the myriad digital virtual worlds popping up with great frequency across the internet. The inhabitants of Glen Wissock will be friends who will never let you down, who will be there for you for all of your (and their) life, who will share all of their secrets and all of the juicy gossip they have heard about the neighbors with you. And even if you are firmly committed to living wholly in this world of ours, it is well worth the cost simply to own a piece of such an ambitious human undertaking. The volumes look great on a bookshelf, too.

You may now be wondering how a project of such mind-boggling proportions was ever completed, and this is a story worth telling in its own right (and a story which will be told in a number of books and documentaries about the endeavor to be released later this year). In short, the work is the brainchild of Howard Patricianovich, an art maven who sold a small museum’s worth of Modiglianis (and no doubt dipped into his personal cash reserves) to finance it. Patricianovich, whose personal written contribution to the project amounts merely to a few confusingly-worded press releases, hired a team of 200,000 struggling freelance writers and 100,000 editors in 1981 and set up a sort of factory town (called Glen Wissock, of course) on the Isle of Man, simultaneously creating a massive demand for writers and editors in the United States and more than quadrupling the island’s population. They worked there for 30 years, each writer responsible for exactly 30 books, or about 21.33 days, of a single person’s life. The editors’ job, even more demanding than that of the writers, was to make sure that there was absolute continuity throughout the works of all of the authors. To achieve this task, a complex editing hierarchy was developed, in which most of the editors lived for 30 years essentially as subroutines in a massive computer program. The books were completed in 2012, with no single person knowing more than a tiny fraction of the story.

The real-life community of Glen Wissock has now outlived its eponymous project and transformed itself into a hip, thriving city. Many of the project’s workers have married and started families. Some even have grandchildren. Businesses have flocked to the region, and, now that the town has been officially opened for tourism, visitors are streaming in. As one would expect, the city has also become a great artistic hub. Most of the writers have stayed on the Isle of Man and, freed from the obligation of producing 1000 pages of a life every year, have embarked upon a slew of new, innovative, collaborative literary endeavors which will surely grace the pages of this review for years to come.

Tendrils by The Poetic Triumvirate

April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Due to general busyness and the fact that the work under review lies far outside my areas of expertise, this week we feature the work of guest reviewer and acclaimed poet Meredith Plottington.

Poetry has never promised answers, and yet questions surround us. Questions of identity. Questions of authenticity. Poets are becoming less and less sure of who they are. Ambiguity reigns. Points of view are stretched and sometimes broken, shooting off suddenly in unintended directions, usually breaking ornate but not sentimentally-endowed vases. Writers are revealing more and more of themselves in their works while readers are becoming less and less sure that they’re getting the full story. The Poetic Triumvirate are fully conscious of this phenomenon. They delight in it and gleefully take it in new directions.

We know the names of the three young triumviri, and we are familiar with some of their earlier, “solo” work, which was for the most part promising but immature. Tendrils is something different. It is the product of a singular three-headed vision, sometimes wandering and sometimes inconsistent but always confident and usually interesting. It makes missteps but never apologizes for them. Readers should understand that the road on which they are traveling is bumpy and, if paved smooth, would suddenly lead nowhere.

Tendrils is a puzzle for the reader. It is a labyrinth with mirrored walls and only one path to its center. There is nothing at its center (do I mean that?), but the dedicated reader will never be disappointed with it. Tendrils rewards effort.

The book is a beautiful object. It is in the style of medieval Arabic poetry volumes (though, thankfully, lines are still read left to right). The text is in ornate, handwritten (probably not by one of the poets but perhaps by an uncle) script. The borders are intricately embroidered. There are three poems to a page, one written by each triumvir. Recto pages contain one in the center right written horizontally, one in the upper left written diagonally down, and one in the lower left written diagonally up. Verso pages are mirror images. We are not told which poet wrote which poem, and that is the heart of the puzzle.

The three poets are distinct people. They lead different lives and know different words and write with different pens. Given an example of pre-Tendrils poetry, I could confidently identify the author from among the three. But here they deliberately muddle their voices. They adopt unfamiliar styles. They imitate each other and themselves but never to the point of dilution. The reader must rely largely on non-stylistic clues, but the clues are there. When they have been pieced together, when a single-authored thread has been constructed through the book, a story emerges. Upon discovery, the verses written by each poet magically cohere, creating a grand narrative, a narrative which would disintegrate into nothing if missing even a single piece. It is a fragile and awe-inspiring structural achievement.

Tendrils is marked by recurring images, mirror images, images appearing right-side up and up-side down and wearing different hats. The most pervasive, fittingly, is thread, which makes an appearance on almost every page, including in the following two haiku-esque works, one of which stumbles with an unfortunate reference to 90s rock band Weezer but nonetheless stays on its feet:

Wearing two sweaters,

woven from the same blue thread of yarn,

they unravel.

 

Thread is made of filaments

which themselves resemble smaller bits of thread.

How long until we see something truly new?

The thread, in its physical and metaphysical instantiations, is almost infinitely versatile, and in the capable hands of the Triumvirate, it is put to a dizzying array of uses. This book, like our lives, is tied together with invisible strands.

We get lightbulbs, too:

Crumbs on white

the lighthouse bulb

the spiteless side of human nature shines

in magnesium strobes.

 

Swim, except in sleep, when

simple strokes shall turn and tumble

down the incandescent stairwell where

a child can be found.

They are an illuminating force whose meaning itself becomes illuminated when the reader solves the mystery. It is an infinite recursion, a steady brightening. And what are we to make of the word “strokes” here? Swimming is evoked by the oceanic rhythms of the verse, but clearly more sinister things lurk in the depths.

The Triumvirate wants you to slow down. It wants you to spend time with it. It wants you to economize your movements. It wants you to devote real time to figuring something out. It wants you to know that there might not be anything to figure out:

Do not whisper

when it’s enough to wink.

Do not pour the contents

of your laundry basket carelessly

beneath the trembling faucets of the sink.

Do not think.

It wants to be read out loud. It wants you sometimes to delight solely in its aural pleasures. This is poetry to be enjoyed in doctors’ waiting rooms and log cabins, while hanging upside down and drinking red rooibos tea. It is poetry to devote your life to and then throw away. It is poetry to throw away and then devote your life to recreating. It is poetry that will be read in the next five years but not the following twenty. It will never be taught in high school English classes – it is not good enough, but it is too good not to be read by every high school poet. It is knowingly pretentious and self-indulgent and mediocre, but it is too good not to be read by all graduate students in mathematics. It will be rediscovered in 2039 and enjoy a small but devoted following who will argue about which path is true and which is a misleading dead end. Perhaps the truth of the matter shall never emerge. Perhaps there is no truth of the matter. It doesn’t matter.

The Garden of Unfinished Works by Lewis Trafalgar Petersen

February 11, 2013 § 1 Comment

The unfinished work occupies a unique spot in the artistic world. Possessing neither the polished sheen of the completed product nor the sense of infinite possibility belonging to the conceived but unstarted project, the unfinished work is singularly unsatisfying. It exhibits more than enough of the characteristic brilliance of the creator to raise the pulse of even the mildly devoted fan, yet said fan is constantly met by gaping, unbridgeable chasms and must accept the sad truth that the one person who could satisfactorily fill in these holes will definitely not be doing so. A tragic quality thus pervades the unfinished work; even the most lighthearted comedy becomes tinged with a beautiful and unmistakable flavor of melancholy unachievable through other means. Readers of Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual (and if you haven’t read it, you should really be doing so right now) will recognize this melancholy from the story of the novel’s central figure, Bartlebooth (the named resemblance to Melville’s famous scrivener is certainly no coincidence, nor perhaps is the fact that both Perec and Melville have major unfinished works chronicled in this volume), whose failure to complete his life’s grand project (I will not spoil the pleasure of the uninitiated by revealing the wonderful elegance of this project) provides the most poignant and memorable moment of the book.

A result of Bartlebooth’s premature death is that he leaves behind physical traces of his work, traces which would have, upon his project’s completion, been destroyed. This is the other value of unfinished works: they offer a rare glimpse into the creative processes of the artist. The creator’s artistic scaffolding, often ugly and awkward but necessary for productive work, has not yet been torn down. The guts of the work have not yet been covered up by a pretty facade, and a fascinating web of wires and girders remains exposed. One gets a glimpse into the mind of a creative genius, and this glimpse is often simultaneously thrilling and disillusioning and encouraging, as one confirms that the completed masterpieces, worshipped as absolutely perfect creations, did not in most cases spring fully formed from the artist’s hand in a burst of inspiration, but rather only emerged after a great amount of hard, tedious work.

Lewis Trafalgar Petersen, a British zookeeper specializing in northern European rodents, particularly the Siberian flying squirrel and the Norway lemming, has made a valuable addition to the literature with his newly published book, The Garden of Unfinished Works. Well-researched, insightful, and delightfully varied, the volume is invaluable as an introduction and guide to the oft-unexplored world of incomplete creation.

The Garden… is a collection of 323 entries, each devoted to a different unfinished work and each consisting of a brief essay by Mr. Petersen, always fascinating and reflective of his years of research and thought but at the same time refreshingly casual and obviously not the work of an academic or literary professional, on the genesis, context, and importance of the work in question followed by an excerpt from the work itself. Many of the usual suspects are present: Kafka’s The Trial, Nabokov’s The Original of Laura (put forward by Mr. Petersen as both the most disappointing posthumous publication in history and possibly the best illustration of exactly how much work artists must do in between the first draft of a project and the final version), Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (Petersen, in his inclusion of the Tales, comes down definitively on one side of the debate on their unfinished status, making a strong case for this position in his introductory essay), Gogol’s brilliant Dead Souls, and Musil’s gargantuan The Man Without Qualities. Even the most experienced of readers will surely encounter something new, though, as Petersen includes more obscure gems, like Umberto Saba’s provocative semi-autobiographical work, Ernesto, and Perec’s mystery thriller 53 Days, whose incompleteness must be counted as one of the tragedies of contemporary literature.

Petersen doesn’t restrict himself to literature, either. There are a number of striking photos of the ominous pyramidal form of the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea (scheduled completion of the building in July 2013 could render its inclusion in this book somewhat premature). There are excerpts from the scores of Mozart’s Requieum and Percy Grainger’s “Train Music,” a piece which would inspire Honegger’s “Pacific 231,” written a quarter-century later. There are pieces from the more accessible bits of John von Neumann’s  ambitious program of research into operator algebras, a program which continues to yield deep results to this day, and from Alan Turing’s unfinished research, meant to oppose the so-called “argument from design,” into mathematical biology, which went largely unnoticed in its time but is now the foundation of much work in nonlinear dynamics. There is a joint entry on Orson Welles’ 1955 Moby Dick – Rehearsed (which has unfortunately been lost) and his 1971 Moby Dick, accompanied by film stills of Welles reading in front of a variety of nautical-themed optical illusions.

Lewis Trafalgar Petersen died of a heart attack on July 11, 2012, leaving over 100 of his planned entries for this book, including entries on such iconic and beloved works as Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pecuchet and Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, unwritten. Luckily, and rather unsurprisingly, considering he spent much of his life in contemplation of the fate of incomplete creation, Petersen left explicit instructions in his will regarding the publication of the book and provided the combination to a safe containing its last entry, whose subject is The Garden of Unfinished Works itself. The entry consists of a lyrical essay describing Petersen’s lifelong fascination with uncompleted projects and recounting a number of spellbinding stories from his journeys, both physical and intellectual, in pursuit of the essence of the unfinished work. The essay is printed twice, first as commentary on the book and then as an excerpt from it.

The Future by The Committee for Historical Adjustments

January 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

On the morning of October 16, 2012, physicist Saul Pentergras entered his office at The University of the Interior, sat down at his desk, and started replying to a flood of email from students who for very good reasons had failed to finish their homework assignments. As he was writing to one student that it would be perfectly acceptable for him to turn in his problem set after his pet kangaroo had recovered from typhoid fever, he says, he noticed something shimmering through the corner of his eye and turned just in time to see a heavy book materialize from the air and fall with a thud onto the hardwood floor of his office. The book bears the simple title of The Future and indicates that it was compiled by the Committee for Historical Adjustments in the year 3421 AD. Over the course of its roughly 1500 pages, the work purports to do no more and no less than provide a factual overview of the history of the human race from the present date until 3421. In a somewhat controversial move, it is being released to the public this month, via Veritable Press.

The contents of the book are wide-ranging, detailed, and frequently harrowing. It begins, no doubt to establish credibility, with five pages of winning lottery numbers for the year 2013 throughout the United States. The Committee then gets down to work, detailing the largely nightmarish course of the next 1300 years of human history. According to the book, over the next hundred years, climate change will intensify, claiming millions of lives through extreme weather phenomena and famine. In spite of this, the world’s population will continue to increase, reaching 12 billion by the year 2100. Oil reserves will dwindle, and no fully viable alternative energy plan will have been developed. Growing scarcity of resources will lead to an increase in armed conflicts (though, luckily, no nuclear weapons will be deployed). No immediate solutions to these problems will be forthcoming, and the continual progress our civilization has seen since the start of the Renaissance will come to a halt. By the year 3100, ravaged by war and natural disasters, the human population will have dwindled to 800 million.

But then, things will begin to change. A new age of unification will begin, as decimated nations will resolve at least some of their differences and come together to try to solve some of the immense problems facing the world. By 3250, much of Europe will officially be a single nation, China and Australia will have merged, and India and much of sub-Saharan Africa will fly the same gigantic flag as the world’s largest military and economic power. A period of peace will blossom, and progress will resume. We will learn to live in a warmer world. We will develop viable alternatives to oil.  Perhaps most importantly, we will resurrect our space program and begin to explore the universe again. In 3410, the unified African/Indian nation will land the first manned mission on Mars, establishing a permanent colony. Plans will begin to be made for larger, longer, more ambitious trips. In 3420, the mechanics of time travel will be discovered.

The appearance of The Future naturally prompted a great deal of both skepticism and excitement, especially in academic and literary circles, and has led to a flurry of speculation about the true origin and purpose of the book. Among the theories that have been put forward are the following:

  • The book has actually been sent back from the future and depicts the true future as experienced by the Committee for Historical Adjustments. They wrote the book and sent it back to this pivotal moment in history so that we can take a different path and avoid the millenium of suffering experienced by the ancestors of the Committee. There is some debate among philosophers regarding the metaphysical possibility of this. Many claim that, even if time travel is possible, it is impossible to “change the past.” For example, if we take a different path from that described in The FutureThe Future would never have been written and hence could not have been sent back in time to influence our decisions. This is paradoxical, they say. Others claim that we shouldn’t be so hasty in our analysis, arguing that the only constraint that has been placed on the future is that, at some point, a book identical to The Future, whether or not it portrays the true events of the past, must be sent back to Professor Pentergras’ office on October 16, 2012.
  • The book has actually been sent back from the future and depicts the true future as experienced by the Committee, but it is impossible for us to take a different path from the one depicted. The book is not a warning, but a guide and a promise, without which humanity would be unable to stay perched on the knife’s edge of existence for the next millenium. If the book did not exist, the human race would, in its blind ignorance, inevitably fall prey to any one of the dangers facing it or, lacking the knowledge of the imminent dawning of a new Golden Age, would simply give up and fade away.
  • The book has actually been sent back from the future but depicts a future much worse than reality. (This hypothesis is closely related to the first.) Somewhat perversely, the existence of this book, which will spur us to action, is the only way for humanity to avoid the misery depicted therein. A careful balancing act had to be achieved in the writing of the book, though – the somewhat hopeful ending is necessary to avoid sending humanity into total despair.
  • The book has actually been sent back from the future but depicts a future much better than reality. It was sent by a group of radical nihilists intent on the destruction of humanity and was designed to lull the human race into a false state of complacency in which impending doom will not be recognized until it is too late to prevent. Again, a delicate balancing act was necessary. An overly optimistic picture would have inspired enthusiastic action and averted disaster; it was instead necessary for us to think that we just have to wait out the next thousand years for good things to start happening.
  • The book has not been sent back from the future and is simply an elaborate hoax. This seems to be the most widely believed theory. If this is the case, then the book’s creators did some very impressive work. The materialization of the book in Dr. Pentergras’ office is documented on his security camera – if this is a fake, then it was very well done. Also, five of the dates about which The Future made lottery predictions have already passed, and it has been correct about every one.
  • The book has not been sent back from the future. It is an assault on the lottery, carried out by a group that has infiltrated lottery organizations and has the ability to rig the games. Once the book is published and some of its predictions have been seen to be true, the numbers it predicts will be bought en masse. The lottery will then not make any money, either for the states or for those buying winning tickets, and will collapse. The rest of the book is just filler.
  • The book has not been sent back from the future. It is propaganda by an environmental organization, designed to scare the world’s governments into finally taking meaningful action about climate change.
  • The book has not been sent back from the future. It was written by an anti-environmental organization, calculating that the book will be interpreted as environmental propaganda and that this will erode the credibility of the movement.
  • The book has not been sent back from the future. It is a sophisticated mathematical projection of current historical trends in the spirit of Hari Seldon’s psychohistory.
  • The book has not been sent back from the future. It is a sort of boast by a clandestine cadre of individuals with the power singlehandedly to bring about the events depicted in the book, despite any resistance which may be organized by the book’s publication, and the ability to profit immensely from the upheaval of the coming years.
  • The book has not been sent back from the future and is simply a work of science fiction. If this is the case, then this reviewer must admit that the work itself, aside from its technical achievements, is not terribly impressive. The prose lacks personality and the plot is derivative, covering ground that has been treated much more engagingly in countless other works.
  • The book is the result of a random quantum fluctuation and lacks any intrinsic meaning.

For now, speculation about the nature of The Future is more engaging than The Future itself. It is worth reading, though, if only for the fact that this speculation is enormous fun. The book could turn out to be a flash in the pan, a hoax quickly uncovered and tossed aside. On the other hand, regardless of its veracity, the book could conceivably come to play a crucial role in the history of our race, and you, Dear Reader, can claim to have been one of the first to take it seriously and recognize its true importance.

Creative Destruction: The Story of The Fancy Machines by Helen Hilda Popovich

December 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

You’ve probably never heard of the musical group The Fancy Machines, and with good reason: the band existed for less than a month, never ventured outside the city limits of Pittsburgh, and never released any recorded material (in fact, until recently, there were no known recordings, released or unreleased, from the group). But while the band itself has become invisible, its influence has been anything but. During its short life, The Fancy Machines electrified the nation’s underground music scene, inspiring a remarkable number of now-famous innovators in the next generation of American experimental pop music.

The Fancy Machines’ legacy in American music alone would be more than enough to fill a fascinating book, but the story became even more compelling two years ago, when original studio recordings of the band were unearthed during the renovation of a house in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (These tapes were from an album the band was planning, named Synesthesiac. The tapes have been remastered and are all available for streaming and free download here.) Upon this discovery, Helen Hilda Popovich, longtime Pittsburgh resident, musicologist, and leading expert on The Fancy Machines, began the painstaking task of researching and writing the definitive account of The Fancy Machines’ history and their long-lasting influence. The result, being released just in time for the band’s 30th anniversary, is the exhaustive and fascinating Creative Destruction: The Story of The Fancy Machines.

The four young men who would become The Fancy Machines met at a Pittsburgh house party on January 3, 1973. “Early on in the evening,” one of them recalls, “the speakers in the sound system started malfunctioning. Everyone else at the party was furious, but the four of us were really digging it. The sounds coming out of those broken speakers were way more interesting than whatever drivel had been playing before. They were eventually fixed, but we spent the rest of the night discreetly sabotaging the sound system. It was the best party I’ve ever been to.”

The next day, they formed The Fancy Machines. The day after that, they played their first show. “It was in a house basement, and the audience was entirely friends and family of the band,” Popovich writes, “but it was such an impressive debut, the music so compellingly futuristic and overwhelmingly primal, that word quickly spread, and demand for their live performances exploded.” The band would play increasingly packed basement shows every one of the next twenty-two nights, drawing crowds of music lovers and future stars from around the country.

“I was seventeen when The Fancy Machines happened,” says now-famous rocker Douglas “Dynomite” Fisherson. “My friend Curtis told us about them and said we had to go see them. So, without telling anyone, we took my parents’ van and drove the sixteen hours from Wichita to Pittsburgh. We were so blown away that we slept in the van, almost freezing to death, to stay for a second show. I think that’s when we really decided to become musicians. We were grounded for two months when we got home, but we didn’t care. It just gave us more time to write music.”

Part of the band’s appeal, and much of its legacy to this day, lay in its whole-hearted embrace of noise. Songs that would start out as catchy pop songs would almost invariably end up swallowed whole by mountains of feedback and distortion. This tendency is on full display in the opening and closing tracks of the new album, Grant’s Gazelle and Synesthesiac. In the former, a shimmering, futuristic electronic theme becomes submerged under layers of fuzz, shrieks, and clattering drums before making a triumphant return at the conclusion of the song. The title track, meanwhile, never manages to overcome its noisy demons. A remarkably straightforward and intriguing vocal pop song, it gets completely destroyed in the closing minute by an irresistible wave of feedback. (Note: People who attended the band’s shows say that, while these recordings give a good indication of the band’s aesthetic, they seem largely unfinished and do not even begin to approximate the sheer intensity of the live performances, where the noise was “louder, harsher, more integral to the music, and much, much more sublime.”)

While the band’s penchant for destruction made its music so compelling, it also extended beyond the sonic realm and doomed any hopes the band may have had for longevity. By January 27, the band had almost consumed its own members. “We hadn’t really slept in weeks,” one of them said. “We would pass out for maybe an hour or two every night, but the rest of the time was spent manically creating music. We drank a lot of coffee to stay awake. I think a lot of people assume we were taking all sorts of crazy drugs to stay awake and make this weird music, but that’s not the case at all. It was really just coffee, though the sheer volume we consumed was probably about as dangerous as the stuff people thought we were doing. I think we all knew on some level that this wouldn’t last and that we needed to pack as much into the band’s short life as we could.”

“We would get swept up in our performances,” another member said. “By the end, we had destroyed pretty much all of our equipment and completely run out of money. The basements where we performed were all in terrible condition. And we weren’t really friends any more. We liked the music more than we liked each other.”

On January 28, the band dissolved. Somewhat miraculously, the identities of the band’s members remain unknown, except to a select group of insiders, to this day. Popovich herself doesn’t even know who they are, though she presents some interesting theories in her book. And while the band’s members have faded into obscurity, its memory and its ideas have been carried forward and spread by those lucky few who saw them play or heard breathless accounts of them while standing at the back of more humdrum shows. From time to time, the band even briefly (but secretly) enters the cultural consciousness (for example, the moody, atmospheric piece “Find Me” was the unlikely inspiration for an anti-drug PSA).

With the release of Helen Popovich’s excellent book and the band’s newly found recordings, though, let us hope that the band’s years of invisibility will come to an end. It is time for The Fancy Machines finally to be recognized for their contributions and, thirty years after they originally did so, to inspire a new generation of musical innovators.

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