Typogram II.III - You Surely Can Unweave Rainbows

Allana: Well, at least we've pinned down our respective characters.

Bill: Yes, it helps me greatly to understand your approach to the book. Most of the experience of fiction, to me, takes place below the level of style -- mostly I react to it like I'm getting a glimpse into the way the author thinks: do they have clever, surprising thoughts? Do they think about things in ways I haven't? I tend to like authors that do that, authors with whom I feel like I'm in a surprising conversation, as I work my way through their books.

Allana: See? This is what I was talking about in one of my first Known Issues, about criticizing music -- you have to figure out whether you identify with the writer, and if you don't, then just know to do the opposite of what they recommend. Now our readers can just pick whichever one of us they agree with more. Simple!

Bill: Yes, we'll need to design warning icons to signal to casual readers which approach each of us are taking. Sort of like those triangular caution signs Warren Ellis has been playing with in Doktor Sleepless.

Allana: There's nothing so different between us as far as "think[ing] about things in ways I haven't." But what I get off on is having people describe things I've never thought to describe, in words I wish I would've used had I done so. I like being blown away by the mundanity of human experience, but also the beauty that can be created in acknowledging it. That sounds pretentious, doesn't it?

Bill: Any talk about the experience of art sounds pretentious. I think you just have to dive in and sound pretentious, and not care. Pretentiousness is more a problem of the listener/reader who doesn't want to understand what you mean than it is yours.

Allana: This is true, but I have the critic's naive hope of being universally understood.

Bill: It doesn't hurt to strive for clarity, but I don't think you should tread too cautiously in doing that. And I get what you mean about being blown away by minutiae, and creating beauty in the description of that experience. That's exactly the beauty of "Unweaving the Rainbow" that Richard Dawkins was getting at, in answering the romantic charge that science reduces mysteries to the mundane. It doesn't -- it elevates the mundane into the mysterious. You surely can unweave rainbows, but the structure underneath is more astonishing than the colors. FOR SCIENCE!

Allana: Oh right -- art link.

They're all from the same blog - here's one related to your last sentence:

Bill: Those covers are brilliant!

Allana: And another that made me think "Why didn't I think of that? Why can't I do that?" -- without wasting too much time looking for perfect examples.

Allana: They're geometrical, biological -- that stuff's easy! It's in my brain all the time! Why can't I just see the stuff in front of me in the way that would make beautiful art, think about it in words that would make beautiful writing?

Bill: I know exactly that feeling. Have you been watching the remake/remodel threads on Whitechapel? Lately they've got into a lot of art-design styling, and I'm constantly floored, wishing I could intuitively arrange shapes in that way.

Allana: Oh, yeah. Don't even get me started on Lance Sells's sketches in the Dr Sketchy thread. He seems clinically insane, which means I have to meet him.

Bill: I know exactly the sketches you're talking about. Yes, my jaw drops every time he posts one.

Allana: Artists! Guh!

Bill: The thing is, I do enough writing and drawing to at least get where the ability to observe in that way comes from, and to think that maybe, if I could just concentrate on one pursuit long enough, I could approach a similar unique creativity... but still...

Allana: Yeah, precisely. It's the development of one trademark stylistic move that baffles me. I still find the temptation to write in multiple styles, and I just can't outweigh the benefits of being multiversed and adaptable to having that one really finely honed skill.

Bill: And in the realm of music I'm just lost. I can be transported -- I've had what I'd define as out-of-body experiences listening to music, triggered by a certin sound happening at a certain time, and am left in awe, you know? How do they know to put the sounds together that way? How can they feel it? That's a realm of art I stand in abject terror of!

Allana: It's still nice, in the midst of this whole exclusive-subjective-experiences thing the western world is going through, to think that people are so easily united by one powerful artistic experience. Even if we get sick of it a week later. I want to get over that weakness, the art-unites-us-all ideal. But it's hard.

Bill: It's probably fundamentally true. It's coming out of the under-conscious, from weird brainmeat we probably all share.

Allana: So when do we start telling people this is a philosophy blog instead of a literary criticism blog? I guess when we start saying new and controversial things.

Bill: Ha! Yes. If we keep trying, we might get there. Next chat we'll have to start off on non-fiction reading experiences, and see where that takes us.

Allana: That one'll be rough, for me. But I'm willing to give it a shot.

Typogram II Transmission Finis

Typogram II.II - I Can Like Mediocre Music if the Lyrics Are Good

Bill: I actually have a question for you.

Allana: Hit me.

Bill: You mentioned before we started this that you generally like to read fiction as a self-contained experience, without external research, etc. But clearly this book requires quite a bit of knowledge about the actual period to fully grasp what is going on, and this information is not all contained in the text. What is your take on the experience?

Allana: That I'm at a clear disadvantage. And that having someone around to keep me on my toes (that's you!) is essential to the book ever being read at all. It's completely changed the reason for the behaviour. It's entirely the game of hunting down obscure references, the excuse to wander aimlessly through Wikipedia links, the feeling of needing to be prepared for our chats.

To be honest, this iteration left me cold, stylistically. I feel like the story is empty in and of itself -- if this is really just a detective caper with some slick characters and a few sporting events, I would never have wasted my time. And I don't enjoy the dialogue, and I really would've given the book back to the library by now, after the overuse of the word "utter." I'm not joking; it really turned me off. So, I don't know.

It's important to note that if I had zipped through this book without pacing myself, I might've at least shrugged and said, "It's okay." If you wanted me to review it as a casual reader, I don't know what I would've said.

Bill: When I was reading science fiction after I moved to California -- really just diving into it, one book after another -- even then it was partly as springboards to discovering other avenues of knowledge. The books were never a self-contained experience for me -- and part of what I loved about them was the outside things they pointed me to. So I think I've always used books in this genre to generate ideas and find interesting things to follow outside their pages. Books about colonizing Mars led me to learn a lot about actual Mars. Heinleinian superpeople led me to read up on lots of areas of human mental and physical enhancement. Asimov's Foundation books led me to learn a bit about statistical analysis, oddly. Fantasy books used to be more or less self-contained experiences to me, though even those got me interested in sort of comparative mythology, and I had to stop reading them after it became clear how shallowly many of them were built on the same few mythological tropes.

Bill: All of this is not to say that the self-contained experience route is not legitimate; I just want to find out if this is nudging you at all into the camp of enjoying fiction as a springboard, more than as a microcosm. Does that make sense?

Allana: It does, and it isn't. Fiction is never really that interesting to me past the style in which it's written, the subjects it treats or mistreats. Sure, I reference stories in conversations -- but only if I'm already having a conversation about gender-switching, or artificial humans, or alternative planets, or whatever. Most of the time, whether it's visual art or music or film, I treat the medium within its own borders, you know? When I see amazing art (and I'll get you a link in a minute) I think about how much I wish I could replicate it, or get jealous about not thinking of it first.

I have been thinking, since I started reading Don DeLillo, about how often he includes subjects I'm already familiar with - cultural studies departments, video art, body performance. I'm having the biggest difficulty reading Underworld, which uses a certain baseball as the same sort of plot-driver as the punch cards in The Difference Engine. And it's not that I don't like baseball, but I've not yet found a writer that can make sports exciting in fiction. But describing how people respond to art installations? Always compelling.

Anyway, this brings us back to our chicken-and-egg conversation from last time.

Bill: How so? You mean, do transgressive people seek transgressive fiction, or does transgressive fiction make people transgress? That chicken and egg?

Allana: Yes, those precise creatures. Do I find myself looking kindly upon DeLillo's style because he treats topics I enjoy, or is his style already appealing in its own right?

Bill: Oh, okay, I see what you mean. I don't know -- style, to me, is like music. The content is like lyrics. When I like a song, it's usually for the lyrics. Great music enhances the experience, but I can like mediocre music if the lyrics are good. But bad lyrics spoil a song for me, even if the music is wonderful. And terrible music can spoil even a well-written song. I know people who are the opposite, who listen to songs for the musical experience, and hardly even think about the lyrics.

Allana: An excellent analogy, because I'm the exact reverse.

Bill: Ha!

Allana: The majority of the time, I like my music without lyrics, but even the worst lyrics are tolerable if the music is good enough. I just had a fit because I generally dislike female vocals, but the new Four Tet album seems designed to make me eat my words. Even with simple samples.

Typogram II.I - I Often Mistake "Power" and "Money" and "Knowledge" for Separate Goals

Bill: At this juncture, I am prepared for typogram transmission.

Allana: Kick it.

Bill: Have you thumbed ahead and seen the size of Iteration 3? It's half the book at once!

Allana: I had no idea. Sounds like fun, though. I still feel like this iteration wasn't much to chew on, so maybe we can make this chat a bit shorter than the last one, and save up our speculation for the next typogram. I dunno, I'm not used to having so many questions, yet denying my own abilities to answer them.

Bill: Let's list questions. You start!

Allana: Are you sure the punch cards are two different sets?

Bill: Not anymore.

Allana: Mick mentions the Napoleon in the first iteration, and in this one they are apparently of French design. Same box, same "tiny brass hooks," same milky substance. Same mauve ink.

Bill: I think there are two sets, as Mick clearly had the originals copied, but I don't think Mallory has the originals. He either has yet another copy, or somehow the copy put into the post for France by Sybil has been snatched from the postal system. Sybil does mail them. But Ada Byron seems to have the same box afterward.

Allana: Can you give me a page reference for where Mick says these have been copied? I couldn't find anything in the passage where he shows them to Sybil; is it earlier, when he's under the stage in the theatre?

Bill: Page 29, near the top.

Allana: Ahh. He says "the original." Gotcha. So we maybe haven't seen the originals in action yet. Although, living in the times we do, there's no reason to think that the clackers themselves wouldn't have kept copies as well.

This image of punch cards from Marcin Wichary's photostream.

Bill: You are right in noticing the description of the box: it's the same box as Mick Radley had, so the cards Edward Mallory took from Ada are the same cards we saw earlier. I guess we have still to learn how Rudwick was done in, so maybe we also have to learn how they got that box out of the post.

Allana: Yeah. Obviously Rudwick knew and mistrusted this Collins guy.

I really like your inference of "Oil!" in your comments on my section summary. I keep thinking "Science, science!" -- that these people are paleontologists first and money-grubbers second. They're still in a very dictatorial society, one where most funding comes from the government and most results of that funding gets put back in governmental hands. It's a lot different from the R&D departments of major private companies that make all the advancements today.

Your point in your summary, about the technology jumping farther forward than anyone could anticipate -- it's hard to figure how that knowledge will disseminate to smaller, more daily use if the government controls all its secrets. Information certainly can't move past international borders in this scenario. But that oil thing makes me wonder, if maybe steam technology is already on its way out, that it would have proven to be just a stepping stone to a petroleum-based society, earlier on -- and more devastating in its effects, if society is already used to machines everywhere.

Bill: Also, I think the British government is playing something like the "Great Game" in the Americas in this book. In real history, the Empire alternately supported and funded attacks on various kingdoms and powers in the Middle East, in order to keep anyone with ambition both beholden to Britain and unable to rise above a certain level. In this book they're doing that with the USA, CSA, and the Texian and Californian Republics. I think this was mentioned in the First Iteration. From page 32: "- they all take a turn in British favor, until they get to bold, and then they get taken down a peg." So those Government Exploration and Scientific Societies are likely involved in power politics on the American continent as well.

Allana: Yeah, I often mistake "power" and "money" and "knowledge" for separate goals, when they're really all just variations on the same theme. But you do have to wonder whether these early North American settlements are still very imperial in their respective societies, or if they've already taken a turn towards a more free-market system. It doesn't seem so, from what evidence we've gotten.

Bill: I don't think there's been any real detail on the politics or economy of the Americas, other than Sam Houston's desire to reinstate himself as President of Texas. I think we can assume that things are pretty much what they were in America at the point just following the Civil War, with the exception being that the Conferderacy succeeded in secceding, and is an agrarian, slave owning democracy. It's an assumption, though.

A Very Elegant Lesson

The sky had become a bowl of smoke, roiling and thickening. The untoward sight seemed to panic the London starlings, for a great flock of the little birds had risen over the park. Mallory watched in admiration as he walked. Flocking activity was a very elegant lesson in dynamical physics. Quite extraordinary how the systematic interaction of so many little birds could form vast elegant shapes in the air: a trapezoid, then a lopped-off pyramid, becoming a flattened crescent, then bowing up in the center like the movement of a tidal surge. There was likely a good paper in the phenomenon.

This was of course the insight that gave birth to the contemporary field of Artificial Life and has influenced thinking in Artificial Intelligence. It is famously the inspiration of Craig Reynolds' simulation: boids.

The boids essentially follow three simple rules:

1) Move toward the perceived center of the flock.

2) Match speed with the closest boids.

3) Avoid collisions.

The simulated flocking behavior observed was so similar to actual observed flocking in real birds that it has since become a matter of general understanding that real birds flock under evolved instincts that approximate rules like these.

This discovery, in our world, occured in the early 1980s as the computer graphics field advanced to the point of being able to code such a visual simulation. In the world of The Difference Engine, we've already seen Kinotrope shows that are probably complex enough to do this. We've also seen that Mallory has used Engine analysis to simulate the stress-bearing properties of the Brontosaurus skeleton, saving him from the error of assumption that was made in our actual history, in which that animal was misconstructed as an amphibious pond-grazer. It seems like they are just a small step away from running a starling simulation, and discovering the basis of artificial life.

Half the fun of reading this book for me is seeing contemporary computer science backdated onto Victorian models. It really drives home how much of this knowledge is simply physically manifested mathematics, and that the physical medium (in our case silicon and electricity, in their case brass gears and steamcranks) is beside the point, mostly.

The tools were never the revolution, however much we've fetishized them.

(Also, and I know this observation is trite, but how amazing is online video? Instead of struggling to describe something as strange as a murmuration of starlings, I can just show it to you. If you've never seen it before, now you have. Visual sensation has been utterly* democratized.)

*This is Allana's favorite word.

Sensorium Vitae - Some Fierce Deep-Buried Chemistry

Tube Mosaic at Maida Vale
This picture of the Tube Mosaic at Maida Vale linked to from Oxyman's Wikimedia Commons donated photo; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

There are passages in this book that are compelling simply for a skillfully evoked imagery or physical sensation. I'm going to bring some of those up in posts titled Sensorium Vitae.

In this one, Edward Mallory is on foot in London, headed to the Museum of Practical Geology:

He strode up Regent Street to the Circus, where the crowd poured endlessly forth from the underground's sooty marble exits. He allowed himself to be swept into swift currents of humanity.

There was a potent stench here, a cloacal reek, like burning vinegar, and for a moment Mallory imagined that this miasma emanated from the crowd itself, from the flapping crannies of their coats and shoes. It had a subterranean intensity, some fierce deep-buried chemistry of hot cinders and septic drippings, and now he realized that it must be pistoned out somehow, forced from the hot bowels of London by the charging trains below.

This played in my head like a moment of film, soundtrack ominous, Mallory walking the city amid the noise of traffic and people when suddenly all sound cuts, except the minimal looming music, as a crowd of long coated Victorians ascend from the underground stairs, a milky, vile mist billowing out from under their coattails and around their ankles. It crawls down there on the cobbles as though it might entangle their steps and drag them back down. Mallory's head turns with a growing morbid curiosity as he passes them, and all is in overcranked slow motion. With a slam, the full sound returns and the film speeds back up to the pace of life. The howl of an underground train coincides with a blast of air which disperses the mist at their feet. No one seems to feel the oddness except Mallory, who shakes his head to clear it and moves on.

Though a commonplace moment in passing, this passage is science fiction as we're in the year 1855, and in reality the London Underground hasn't been built yet. So, apparently the early revolution in Information Technology has accelerated the development of urban mass transit as well.