Iteration The First.

I hope my section summaries in the future are more thematically organized than this - or, I hope one issue strikes me so fiercely that I can't help but rant about it exclusively. This first section (officially an "iteration") threw a number of small curveballs at me, so apologies that this post is a bit scattered. But I'll try to do that "literary criticism" thing I like to pretend I'm good at.

For an introductory passage, it's quite good; I'm always a fan of unexpected death. Beyond that, it has all the other requisite elements - plenty of sex and a bit of romance, a fugitive, an assassin, and some stolen riches. Rather than some exotic object with mystical properties, sought after by good and bad alike, we've got a set of missing punch cards ostensibly mailed to Paris, to be collected by hands unknown. I like the transposition here of a wish-granting lamp or diamond of eternal life with a painstakingly constructed computer program. When magic becomes science, science becomes magic (or so those steampunk LARPers would have you believe) - and this is actually a sentiment I can get behind. I love the new "aura" of fresh and baffling technology, because it comes with the knowledge that it's really human-made, thus conquerable, even if you can't shake the wonder of it all.

I have a handful of notes regarding things I want to research further. We've already held our online discussion of the chapter (to be posted soon), in which we talked about how little we're both educated in terms of Victorian class arrangements and rules. The few times the book does undertake to lecture us about these things, it does it subtly enough: "No respectable woman rode the underground unescorted," etc. But I hate the feeling that I get all my knowledge in this area from period books and movies. Mostly I want to get a big map of Whitechapel (and the settings I'm sure are coming in future iterations) and colour in different neighbourhoods, push in pins whenever a specific place is mentioned.

Then there's this Keats fellow, who is so interested in the pictorial abilities of the kinotrope. I confess to being intolerant of poetry, so I couldn't tell you if any of the topics of his conversation with our protagonist are of special indication to the real Keats. But he does, indeed, cough like someone afflicted with tuberculosis, and the mention of him once being in medical school is also verified. Essentially the only thing to conclude from this reference is that people concerned with sensuality and creating poignant fantasy (as Keats's poetry is characterized) might very well have become obsessed with fancy visualization methods - though the technicalities don't seem like his thing.

Another point I find interesting happens on the 57th page, when our doomed dandy Mick gets up in arms about his precious kinotrope program being "borrowed" in order to make copies. "But that's theft!" our heroine shrieks. Certainly a hot-button topic for Sterling and other technologically-minded cultural theorists (Cory Doctorow, for example, does a bit of historical comparison and makes a not-very-compelling case for why creative works must be shared) - but I like the specific implications here of "borrowing" things to copy them, instead of just instantaneous electronic replication. This implies a more serious affair, where copying is actually a time-consuming and laborious process that must be carried out by a specialist with professional skills and tools. To think that a famous painting must be taken out of public eye for months while a painter copies it, all for the purpose of being able to expose "it" to more audiences around the world, not only gets people up in arms about auras and authenticity but even causes controversy about unregulated public access. (Whereas, on the upside, at least it would create employment for semi-skilled artisans and technicians, as middlemen of culture.) The fact that we let computers do all the work now implies that we as a population are quite content with inferior quality (pixellated, off-colour Mona Lisas are still Mona Lisas, right?) and a mode of consumption unintended by the artist (liner notes? Who needs liner notes?). It's analogous to trusting Wikipedia for facts - it's not really "trust," but laziness and disregard. It would have been disrespectful and downright shameful in the past, but it has a new connotation now. I think what's important inb contemporary times is that no one controls the culture: no one claims a position of authority and decides who gets to see or hear what and how (and for how much). But it would take me a long time to assemble my arguments and anecdotes as to why everyone should create and no one should profit from it, so let's leave that for now.

The last thing I want to mention is the "vignetting" that people warned of; those tableaus, loosely framed in terms of photographic equipment, that come at the beginning and end of every iteration. It's not much of a stylistic emblem, at least not yet - maybe later iterations use it to greater effect (or it becomes clear that the government is spying on people using super-sophisticated technology in 1851 - what, too much?). It forms a neat bookmark, if you're paying attention, but, as it stands, it seems hardly worth mentioning.

I can't let this section roll past without a mention of the cameo of our friend Bill on page 49:

A daring fellow whisked past her, taking full advantage of the gritty new surface. Nearly recumbent within the creaking frame of a four-wheel velocipede, his shoes were strapped to whirling cranks and his breath puffed explosively into the cold. He was bare-headed and goggled, in a thick striped jersey, a long knit scarf flapping out behind him as he sped away. Sybil supposed him an inventor.
I think it could fit, don't you?


  1. In my first instance of over-researching, I undertook to find out if there was ever a William Greenacre in London who would be between the ages of 4 and 16 in 1855. This is the boy in the audience during Houston's speech, the "wicked" "future British fighter." I was hoping for some sordid military deeds, but no hits. I'm going to have to start reminding myself that this is Fiction we're reading, historical though it may be.
    (Hey remember that time Walter Benjamin said he was going to write an essay entirely out of quotes from other people's work?)

  2. Ha! I was planning on looking him up as well. It's odd that they'd go to the trouble of having him say his whole name if it wasn't a nod to some real person. I'm willing to go on record now as betting that there is indeed some William Greenacre, and your inability to find him is more a symptom of holes in the online hive mind than it is of his non-existence.

  3. In response to your actual post - I enjoyed the cameo of John Keats as a kind of Kinotrope Auteur. I haven't given it enough through, but it feels right to me. As someone myself who has gone from an arts focused life to a technology career, I can see the trajectory that he might have followed.

    The borrowing/copying/stealing debate - in the book this struck me as just a clever aside, kind of commentary on the central debate of the current information age mapped onto the structure of this imaginary one. The key for me was Sybil's line, after Mick explains that Houston intends to give him back his cards after they've been copied, so he loses nothing, and she says:

    "But isn't that stealing, somehow?"

    The question, the "somehow", it came off like a knowing joke by the authors.

    Mick didn't make those presentation kinocards, he paid to have them made using Sam Houston's own money, as he explains right afterward.

    So, Mick has just essentially made himself a pure middleman. He didn't come up with the cash, Sam Houston did that. He didn't program the cards, he hired French Programmers to do that. Basically all he did was broker the exchange, and then claim physical ownership of the card deck he neither paid for not programmed.

    So, essentially, he put himself in the position of a record label or film studio - using investors to fund the work of artists, and somehow ending up controlling the physical distribution of the final product.

    Sam Houston then steals the deck to have it copied for his own use, after which he'll give the originals back to Mick. He's realized the key nature of digital information, perfect copyability, and invented file sharing!

    I think it's going a bit too far to find a substantial difference here because Sam Houston has to physically posess the cards while having them copied, or that the copying is a kind of skilled labor. I think that's all beside the point.

    The authors are just having a little fun sketching out a steam era analogue morality play on the theme of "Information wants to be free".

    I got into the vignetting a bit in my post, but I think there is information about the story, the character of Sybil, and the world that can be extracted from the choice of scenes, the nature of the image recordings and the decision to put them in reverse chronological order, that can be extracted from those vignettes. I think they are carefully encrypted illustrations that will prove to have revealed a lot of the plot once we know more.

    I think this book is holding up well to a much deeper reading than I expected it to.

    Also, I'm keeping my eye out now for your walk-on part in the book, now that you've spotted mine! You'll turn up in there somewhere, I'm sure of it...

  4. Mick is also the operator of the kinotrope, which makes him more akin to a DJ. And I think calling a DJ a middleman has some validity, but isn't entirely true. (We don't know if Mick did any artistic direction for the program, or if he just handed off a copy of the speech and said "Have fun!" Though he does claim "Exclusively to my design," earlier, in regards to the other mysterious program. If this were true for both, Mick would be more like the director of a film, and those are artists, aren't they?)

    But my interest didn't really lie in that direction. You're definitely right that Houston invents file sharing. I wanted to draw attention to this sort of lynchpoint in time - before this we had skilled artisans, and after we have machines, but in the middle there's this specialized technician - still doing mysterious work in the backroom, but doesn't necessarily need to know anything about what he's copying. The substance from which a creative work is formed has changed, and our society has changed with it. It was a clever aside on their part, sure, but it still struck a chord with me. The "somehow" seemed the opposite of knowing: it was more like a shrug, a "we're not really sure what's going on here, either."

  5. I agree with the shrug AND the knowing joke suppositions.
    Bruce Sterling said that in some passages (he mentioned two) the characters reflect the authors' own reactions while facing the then recent changes in technology, as they started writing the book in the 80's, using typewriters and having to exchange their ideas for the novel mostly by phone.
    Besides, the uncertainty as to whether some actions in digital life can be considered stealing or not remains a controversial matter today, which adds to the prescient aspect of the story (a "knowing joke" before they could really know it).