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The Singularity is the new MacGuffin of sci-fi.

The vast majority of Singularity-centric SF stories from Vernor Vinge onwards to Charles Stross have been focused on the Singularity’s effect on those who can be called the instigators of it. Young turks, in their prime, already tech-savvy and hungry for post-humanity in their sheltered urban centers and creches of circuit-board and copper conductor.

The protagonist and other characters in Air are from a village in a fictional third-world country that seems to be in what was formerly the westernmost reaches of the P.R.C. (Xinjiang Autonomous Region?). At the beginning of the story, they hardly even know what the Internet is, much less a technological Singularity. The protagonist is illiterate.

The prose is written in the way one would expect a villager to compose it. The paragraphs are brief and sporadic, the sentences are to the point with scarcely any use of floral post-cyberpunk adjectives or flashy verbs. Later, as more and more change trickles into the village from different channels, the chapters grow more complex: the paragraphs grow denser, the sentences more esoteric, formatting transforms. The theme of transformation is thus absolute.

The mundane nature of everything in this insignificant country allows for a narrative leagues different from any other in the post-cyberpunk pantheon right now. Realistically, a huge investment is placed in interpersonal and social relations. Characters are the most realistic i’ve ever read in SF and the true center of the book– how the technology affects them, how it would affect their real world analogs. It’s a stiff cold shower after the stories of Stross and Niven, where more often than not characters are the means to an end, a concession given to the reader’s sense of structure in order to get to the Meat of expounding on the writer’s ideas and theories.

It’s a stiff cold shower like a trip out of the crux of the Post-Industrial creche to the Third World today.

Most of the time, early on, the story reads like an asian social drama TV series with the vaguest notions of SF. The closest analog I think of right now is the gossip-talk of Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin. Ryman is a genuine enough writer of human beings to make it believeable, as guiltily infectious as those asian dramas with all the petty scandal and family pitter-patter, even as much of the later story is concerned with not dissolving those ties, but a desperate attempt to show the villagers that they have ceased to mean anything.

Like a reviewer on Amazon said, this book is highly political. The simple writing style belies an incredible amount of nuance that can easily be missed. Massive, real issues faced on the global stage at this very moment can be covered in the clipped clause of an idle line of dialogue by someone who never appears in the story again.

I read this book in three days. It’s a much-needed shift in SF perspective that sticks in the mind long after the last sentence of the eerie and uplifting ending is finished.

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“Architecture is frozen music.” – Random anonymous reviewer on a random pop music review website

The Temple of Heaven is a quintessential Beijing Landmark-site. A squarely symmetrical, sprawling construct of wood, stone and marble all painted, carved and hewn into a man-made landscape that outlives the empires that built and maintained them.

Vivid restored dragons of hundred-year-old lumber gaze glassily out from their secure wall mounts at the crowds of wheezing foreigners crowding the pavilion. They are parsed out along vague lines linguistic and ethnic demarcations. It makes it much easier for the chartered tour guides to know which language to dictate through their headsets and belt-mounted amplifiers. So dehydrated Westerners slouch in place in the Beijing sun in pursuit of the slim red nylon battle standards that guide them across a couple hundred years of vacuum-sealed history.

Between the broad figures of the Minnesotan family, I spy two sweat-streaked Vietnamese kids in tiny soccer jerseys staring at our overweight, out-of-shape procession from across the impossible distance of the pavilion.

Gary, our masterful tour-guide, a graduate and repository of Middle Kingdom history and survivor of the tail-end of the Cultural Revolution, informs us through his mic that the Temple was constructed without a single metal nail in its foundations.

Streetside outside a new commercial concession mall (with magnificent air conditioning). Despite the pounding afternoon heat, four old grandpas squat on vulcanized rubber stools and play xiangqi. It’s a game designed almost specifically for streetside or park-front game sessions. They are quick round– the leapfrog whirlwind moves of the cannons and the paranoid right-angled hurtling back-and-forth of the rooks see to that.

They, the players, hurtle to and through from quiet intensity of purpose in ignorance of the roaring street traffic and guttural cicadas only to burst into explosive combustion of pressure relieved as the big wood block pieces are shuffled by gnarled long-fingered hands to start anew. Places on the rubber benches are switched and swigs are taken from transparent bottles foggy with condensation and ages of teabags. The game starts anew with new players.

They’re as thin as Olympic swimmers under the damp white undershirts they reach underneath to scratch.

– California 2007

Bembeya Jazz National are fantastic.  It’s a grave disservice to label them as “World Music”, not only for the inherent patronizing tone and Western/Anglo-centric connotations of the term, but for the variety of sound the group manages to pour into its compositions.

There is a vast amount of different instruments all doing different things in each of their songs, but not one ever feels overstuffed or exhibitionist.  I’ve heard snatches of psychedelic rock, tropicalia, funk, electronic, doo-wop, R&B, Tuareg folk and yes, even Jazz (!) in the tracks i’ve heard.  It wouldn’t be too far off-base to compare them to S. America’s near-mythic Os Mutantes.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

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Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

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Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Six out of 700 and only half a year late. A decisive victory for our Visuals department.

I was also imposing upon myself to write a lengthy, self-absorbed diatribe on the P.R.C. and the joys of chartered tours through it, right? Well truth be told I put that idea out of sight, out of mind with the photos for the past six months until now. Catch being I plan to reverse engineer the loose format into something more cohesive and– news-y in a bid to get it published here and henceforth to braver horizons yet unknown (travel mags?).

A related story: a longtime friend of mine is now living and studying

in the Middle Kingdom near the same area I resided in for five days in posh colonialist digs. He’s thrice the photographer I am and actually speaks the Northman language. I’m looking forward to what meditations he’ll be publishing next, as this is a man who can write a messy second base runaround with a ditzy Hongkong co-ed on a recycled dormitory couch drunken on magnesium-enfused Yanjing Beer and have it read like the prosal equivalent of Asian Tsunami footage running at 0.5x backwards to Carmina Burana.