William Gibson and the Benefits of Agency

The internet says William Gibson writes speculative fiction and is widely credited with originating cyberpunk, a subgenre of science fiction. That means nothing to us. All we know is this. He excels at creating believable worlds/alternative universes that resemble ours but are different in fascinating and disconcerting ways. And as always, even if the story takes place in the future, it is really about us in our current times.

We picked up Agency, a follow up to The Peripheral (which is wonderful), at our favorite Roanoke bookstore, Book No Further (booknofurther.com). As is typical with Mr. Gibson, the reader is immediately thrust into a world that seems familiar but is different in many striking ways. The story takes place primarily in two timelines with a third one providing a supporting role (because why have only two timelines when you can have three?). So don’t get comfortable because you will be jumping between a London in 2136 and a California in 2017. The 2017 timeline is a “stub” that broke away in 2015. For good measure there are characters from the 2017 timeline that the “stub” broke away from, and they make hit and run (literally) appearances. Got it? Yes, of course I do – it’s all so obvious. Good. Now, let’s talk about AI.

In California, Verity Jane has been hired by a shadowy corporation (an agency?) to test a new form of artificial intelligence. The AI has a name, Eunice, and she is a brilliant composite of the best minds in espionage and military tactics. Though she is referred to as AI, she is more like a human-machine hybrid. Fortunately, her remarkable deductive reasoning skills come with an ethical core (that must be the machine part). Verity quickly determines that Eunice is way too intelligent and powerful to be left in the hands of her creepy employer. Eunice agrees. So they run. The employer, of course, chases them – because the story would suck if that didn’t happen. The folks in London decide to help Verity and Eunice, because not helping will result in nuclear holocaust. Yes, shit gets real, real fast.

Eunice (the name appropriately means “Joyous Victory”) is easily the best character in the book. She would be the best character in lots of books. She is snarky, intelligent, and not at all artificial. Though she is initially confused about her background, she is fully capable of responding to the threats swirling around Verity and her. And that’s the problem. Eunice is more than formidable. She is invincible – always two steps ahead of her foes. So it never seems that Verity and Eunice are in true danger.

Despite this, Agency is a fun ride right to the end – in part, because the characters are smart and engaging and, in part, because the worlds associated with each timeline are so interesting and convincingly depicted. But remember, the book is called Agency, meaning the capacity to act. It is not titled The Agency – a collection of shady former government employees willing to kill to get even richer. And in this story, Eunice has all the agency. Everyone else just reacts.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

Let the Poets Sleep Guilt Free

   Love takes nothing I don't freely give -
   so let the poets sleep guilt free.
   Though they tell shameless lies 
   and unwelcome truths,
   they can't grow roses on the moon.

   A poem won't cure cancer
   or stop a middle-aged man
   from being a bore.
   Poetry can't make me see 
   what I would rather ignore.
   And I choose to ignore a lot:
   how that look on your face is smug;
   or how you're the salt of the Earth
   and I'm the slug.

   Luvgood Carp, Editor-in-Chief and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

   First published in Scarlet Leaf Review

Tengo Leche

Titmouse Beak, here – CEO of Pungent Sound Technical College of Technology. One of the real treats of living in Roanoke is Breadcraft. http://breadcraftbakery.com. Every morning before work, I go there for a cup of freshly-brewed coffee and a delicious breakfast. Today it was mushroom and asiago cheese quiche. Wonderful! I am pecking at the crumbs now.

Then I go on Facebook and look up former girlfriends; check on former students – sometimes they are one and the same. Today I saw a post from Tengo Leche. No idea who he is – except he is a former student who has gone on to do great things. Just goes to show that a degree from Pungent Sound Technical College of Technology is well worth the mountain of debt you will have after you leave. Here’s Tengo’s post.

Neptune Returns Home

   Lord, could it be I'm not as great
   as they've been telling me?

   I was told at an early age
   that I'm better than the rest.
   I have the trophies that prove it true.
   But now in every single contest
   I'm beaten by more than a few.

   For years I splashed in a tub
   pretending to rule the wine-dark sea.
   But now when I go to Dad's club,
   no one confuses Neptune with me.

   So here I am back in my old room
   (having finished my education)
   with an hourly job and minimum pay
   and these trophies say "participation."

   Lord, club-footed Byron couldn't dance
   but You gave him eloquence and artistry,
   and now he's the avatar of romance.
   So, Lord, what will you do for me?

   Lord?

   Tengo Leche, Former Student of Pungent Sound Technical College of Technology
    

American Pastoral: Who are You?

Philip Roth was a very important American writer, and no one knew that better than Philip Roth. If you have read only one sentence of Mr. Roth’s, then you know he was born in Newark, New Jersey, where he appears to have spent much of his life wandering the streets making prescient observations about humanity. He wrote many books, but American Pastoral is the only one that has a legend attached to its creation.

The legend is this. One day, while Mr. Roth was roaming Newark, a vagrant challenged him. “I bet you could never write a short and sweet tale about this town.” So Mr. Roth wrote American Pastoral, and the vagrant won the bet. But be forewarned, despite what the title may suggest, the book has little to do with farming (the small amount of farming that does happen takes place in northern New Jersey – putting this book firmly in the Fantasy genre).

In American Pastoral Mr. Roth argues that we know very little about people beyond the superficial exterior they present of themselves – even the people we have known our entire lives. Now, you may be thinking this is patently false. Has Mr. Roth heard of the internet? Why, I can go to the internet or turn on talk radio or cable news and immediately learn how worthless and evil anyone is. If the person is noteworthy for anything (or nothing at all), there will be thousands of people (if not more) prepared to tell me how awful the person is, even if they have never met. And if the person is a nobody, there will still be a dozen people prepared to blithely inform me of the nobody’s moral and ethical failings. To which Mr. Roth would reply, “I have heard of the internet, you idiot. And everything you have said is entirely correct. And all of it proves my point. Now leave me alone, I am dead.”

Mr. Roth uses a lot of words in American Pastoral, and some of them he uses quite well. But a single paragraph will often trudge across several pages as he tracks and bludgeons his theme. This leaves the reader somewhat impressed but mostly exhausted. However, all those words culminate in a second curious thought. Perhaps the fact that we do not really know other people is not all that surprising considering how we actually know very little about ourselves beyond the superficial exterior we present to others.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

Talk Radio – What’s Not to Love?

We have been listening to a lot of talk radio lately AND WE LOVE IT! What a delightful and responsible way to educate people about America’s virtues! And it happens 24/7. And incredibly the hosts never run out of things to say – perhaps because they repeat themselves repetitively and then attack others for not repeating what they have said multiple times. No doubt – it is a winning formula and America is better for it. As Alexis de Tocqueville states in his semenal work Democracy in America: Love It or Leave It, “talk radio is why America kicks Europe’s flatulent ass every single day of the year.” (Can’t find the citation right now). He then notes how talk radio has enhanced the marketplace of ideas by teaching Americans (i) to be judgmental without using good judgment, (ii) to disagree disagreeably, (iii) to be knowledgeable without being factual, and (iv) to be immodest while pretending to be modest. (Citation to be provided at a later date).

Here are some other lessons from talk radio that de Tocqueville extols:

1.  don't piss of sponsors,
2.  don't whisper when you can shout,
3.  don't use 3 words when you can use 20,
4.  your opponents are never mistaken; they lie,
5.  the host is never mistaken; his comments are taken out of context,
6.  people who disagree with the host are evil,
7.  the host should never hesitate to promote himself, even if he doesn't like to do so (fortunately, he likes to do so),
8.  if the host has any flaws (and he doesn't), he should never admit them - or acknowledge any doubts (because he doesn't have any - duh), and
9. don't piss off sponsors (here at Pungent Sound, we don't have any sponsors - need to work on that).

Sorry - got to go.  The commercial just ended.

Luvgood Carp, Editor-in-Chief and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans.