Tag Archives: pop culture

How Sonny & Cher got their groove back

Sonny & Cher’s comeback: Sonny & Cher were world-famous and hugely successful in the 60s, but their career was on the skids in 1970. Despite their outrageous appearance, their lifestyle and music was squeaky-clean, and didn’t go over well with hippies. They resorted to playing lounge acts to hostile, middle-aged audiences, who heckled them. Cher started heckling back, Sonny scolded her, and she heckled him. The heckling became the best part of the act, and Hollywood noticed and gave them the “Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.” [Cintra Wilson/Salon]

James Gleick tells an exhilarating history of time travel

Gleick’s “Time Travel: A History,” tells the story of the idea of time travel in science fiction, pop culture, and science. Based on this review by Michael Saler in The Wall Street Journal, it sounds terrific.

Time travel emerged as a big idea at the turn of the 20th Century, as the human race’s idea of the nature of time was fundamentally changing, Saler says. Though most of history (and presumably prehistory), people viewed time as static, and the world as unchanging, Saler says.

That’s not entirely true. People of the past were certainly aware that great empires rose and fell. People were aware that great civilizations had come before them, and fallen before they were born. Even the ancient world had its ancient world; Cleopatra lived closer in time to the invention of the iPhone than the construction of the pyramids.

But as a general rule, your life was the same as your parents, and your children’s lives would be the same as yours.

That changed with the industrial revolution, and H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” captured the change in pop culture. Time travel stories continue to fascinate us, along with alternate histories — Saler cites Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” which I’ve read, and Kingsley Amis’s “The Alteration,” which I’d never heard of before.

In scientific circles, the nature of time underwent special scrutiny in the late 19th century. By then, findings in geology, evolutionary biology and archaeology had established that the Earth was far older than the long-accepted biblical time scale: Time was now deep. Also, idiosyncratic local time regimes were being replaced by standard time zones, necessitated by the new railways and made possible by telegraphic communications. Inspired by such temporal ferment, the young journalist H.G. Wells published his first novel, “The Time Machine,” in 1895. The book launched his career and made “time travel” a concept worth taking seriously….

Since this work, time travel has become a veritable theme park of playful attractions, which Mr. Gleick explores with infectious gusto. Time travel is a staple in multiple media, from the BBC series “Doctor Who” to the “Back to the Future” movies. Time capsules—an instance of “reverse archaeology”—became a growth industry after the 1939 World’s Fair, when this extreme form of hoarding was first given its name. Works of alternative history, including Kingsley Amis’s “The Alteration” (1976) and Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” (1964), re-imagine the world by changing a key event in the past, resulting in a startlingly different (yet often strangely familiar) milieu from our own. These two books even have nestled within them hints of alternative-alternative history, creating a recursive, funhouse-mirror effect, a ludic attitude to time also adopted by modernist authors.

Dick’s Man in the High Castle is an alternate history where the Nazis and Japanese won World War II and conquered the United States, and much of the novel revolves around the search for the reclusive author of an alternate history where the Allies won — although that work does not describe our own world.

The Alteration” is, according to Wikipedia, set in a dystopian alternate history where the Protestant Reformation and scientific and industrial revolutions never occurred and the Catholic Church dominates the West, which continues in a dark age. That novel features an alternate history novel called “The Man in the High Castle,” by one Philip K. Dick.

Not mentioned by Saler: “The Iron Dream,” by Norman Spinrad, set in an alternate history where Adolf Hitler briefly flirted with politics after World War I, but then emigrated to the United States, where he worked as an illustrator for science fiction and other pulp magazines, eventually publishing a novel that became a cult hit, called “The Lords of the Swastika,” about an empire of true humans that rise up after a nuclear holocaust to rid the Earth of filthy mutants. Most of “The Iron Dream” takes the form of “Hitler’s” novel, with an afterword by a literary professor explaining Hitler’s life story. The real-life book (I have it somewhere in the house) even has a page listing more books by the alternate Adolf Hitler, which include “The Master Race,” “The Thousand Year Rule,” and “Triumph of the Will,” as well as blurbs for “The Lords of the Swastika” contributed by real-life science fiction writers. Spinrad was making the point that much heroic science fiction and fantasy looks a lot like fascist propaganda.

I remember Hitler often featuring in alternate history stories that I read as a teen-ager. In Poul Anderson’s fantasy novel “Operation: Chaos,” where magic operates instead of science, Hitler is shown as the lord of Hell in the final, climactic battle, and in “Gloriana,” by Brian Aldiss, which takes place on an eldritch alternate British Empire, the Queen mentions the peculiar case of a madman named “Adolphus Hiddler” who claims to be the ruler of the world. In both the Anderson and Aldiss, the main characters have never heard of Hitler.

Similarly, Roger Zelazny’s “Roadmarks” is a fantastic short novel about characters traveling on a literal highway that connects the past, future, and alternate histories; Adolf Hitler is cruising the highway in a black Volkswagen, looking for the timeline where he won.

But back to time travel: Scientists are split on whether time travel would be feasible in real life. Stephen Hawking is one of the skeptics; he hosted a party for time travelers and advertised it widely. “I sat there a long time, but no one came,” Hawking said.

It’s Tough Being Over 40 in Silicon Valley

Older workers are finding it harder to get jobs in Silicon Valley, say Carol Hymowitz and Robert Burnson at Reuters. So they take steps to seem younger and fit in. They hang around the parking lots of companies to see how their prospective colleagues dress, They study Reddit and other social platforms to get up to date on the latest pop culture references. They hang up their business suits and bowties. And they even go in for plastic surgery and lawsuits.

I’m 55. I haven’t personally encountered age discrimination. I’m fortunate. Or oblivious.

“Dungeons & Dragons Saved My Life”

640px-D&D_Game_1

Jon Michaud in The New Yorker provides a brief history of the game Dungeons & Dragons, and his own history with it.

D&D changed the pop cultural landscape, and the way games were created and enjoyed.

Instead of pieces or figurines, there were characters—avatars—who the players inhabited; instead of a board or a terrain table, there was a fictional world that existed in the shared imaginations of those who were playing; and instead of winning and losing, there was, as in life, a sequence of events and adventures that lasted until your character died. These concepts are now commonplace in our online lives and our recreational activities, but four decades ago they were revolutionary, and a key part of D. & D.’s addictive quality. By 1981, more than three million people were playing Dungeons & Dragons. It soon joined “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” in a kind of high-nerd trinity—one that, with “The Matrix,” “Harry Potter,” and “The Hunger Games,” has long since entered the mainstream pantheon.

I am a fan of none of those things: D&D, LoTR, Harry Potter, or the Hunger Games. I liked “Star Wars” fine but it doesn’t occupy any kind of special place in my heart — it’s just a movie I enjoyed. I’m more of a “Star Trek: The Original Series” guy.

I also don’t read comics, beyond The Watchmen and a couple of others. I don’t play games. I don’t watch many sf/f movies.

I’m part of a relatively small group of people who read a lot of print sf books and not much fantasy or partake of those other things Michaud describes. I do love a couple of sf/f TV series — Doctor Who, Haven, and we’re now rewatching Stargate SG-1, for example. — but that’s about it.

My point is that even within geek culture, there are subcultures.

But this is Michaud’s story, and D&D’s, not mine.

Michaud talks about the history of D&D, and the backlash from misguided parents and authorities who thought it was some kind of cult. He references a New York Times article about how D&D influenced a generation of writers, including literary writers. Tech entrepreneur Paul Taylor says D&D prepared him for the world of business.

And Michaud also talks about how D&D saved his life:

In some regards, my childhood was nothing more than a rota of increasingly complex board games, from checkers to Stratego, Space Colony, Risk, and, finally, Diplomacy. Ours was the only house I knew where pads of hex paper (hexagon-patterned graph paper) were always within arm’s reach. Playing with my father usually meant losing; going easy on his kids was not something his competitive nature would permit. At a certain point, I gave up the war games and board games and retreated to the basement to co-habitate with the TV. A typical Saturday schedule for my twelve-year-old self looked like this: 8 to 11 A.M., cartoons; 11 A.M. to noon, Pro Bowler’s Association; noon to 3 P.M., Notre Dame football; 3 to 6 P.M., Movie of the Week; 6 to 8 P.M., Dinner, chores, family obligations, personal hygiene; 9 to 10 P.M., “The Love Boat”; 10 to 11 P.M. “Fantasy Island”; 11 P.M.: bed. It was not a glorious time in my life. I hated reading. My grades were mediocre, and my parents were worried about my prospects. I didn’t know it, but I was simply waiting for the right game to come along—a game in which there were no winners or losers. That day finally arrived in the spring of 1979. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Dungeons & Dragons saved my life.

I was introduced to the game by the three Nugent boys, who lived down the street from us. The brothers cut against the stereotype of role-playing gamers. All three were athletes. The oldest, Chris, was a runner who broke the middle-distance records at his high school. The younger brothers, Greg and Brian, were bodybuilders, baby Lou Ferrignos. For them, D. & D. was fun, but it was just one of many recreations. They could not have known how profound a change they brought to my life. In a matter of weeks, I was obsessed with the game. I spent all of my meagre earnings from a paper route on advanced D. & D. books, modules, dice, and figurines. I proselytized, converting my brothers and even my sister. (That, again, was atypical. It’s an undeniable fact that female D. & D. players are few and far between. As La Farge notes, “In one 1978 survey of fantasy role-playing gamers, only 2.3 percent of respondents were female; in another, only 0.4 percent.” Lamenting this is like lamenting the fact that there are no orange trees at the North Pole.) When my father was assigned to a post in Northern Ireland, the following year, I took my books with me, hoping to spread the gospel overseas. There was no need. In my first week of school in Belfast, I walked past a red-haired kid manipulating a set of polyhedral dice in his open palm. It was Paul Taylor, the future technology entrepreneur.

As many writers testified in the Times article, D. & D. is a textual, storytelling, world-creating experience, a great apprenticeship for a budding author. But, more fundamentally, you cannot play D. & D. without reading—a lot. Ed Park, in an essay on D. & D. (included in the anthology “Bound to Last”), celebrates the magnificent vocabulary of the game, which introduced young players to words such as “melee,” “portcullis,” “kobold,” “thaumaturge,” “paladin,” “charisma,” “halberd,” “wyvern,” “homunculus,” “scimitar,” “buckler,” “basilisk,” and “cockatrice.” Combined, the player’s manual, the Dungeon Master’s guide, and the monster manual (the core books of advanced D. & D.) add up to four hundred and sixty-eight pages of small-print, double-column text. I read them with studious devotion and headlong glee. Almost immediately, television all but disappeared from my life. When I wasn’t playing D. & D., I was reading about it or reading books set in worlds like the game’s. Crucial in this regard was “Deities and Demigods,” my favorite of all the advanced D. & D. books. Along with creatures from Norse, Sumerian, Greek, and Native-American mythologies, “Deities and Demigods” included characters from the novels of H. P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock. Moorcock, in particular, became a favorite of mine. I tore through the many volumes of his “Eternal Champion” cycle. From Moorcock, it was a short leap to Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Gabriel García Márquez, and, lo and behold, I was a reader. And then, a writer.

Dungeons & Dragons Saved My Life

Image: “D&D Game 1” by Philip Mitchellwww.dwarvenforge.com…. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Altered states: How reality caught up with paranoid delusions

“Schizophrenics used to see demons and spirits. Now they talk about actors and hidden cameras – and make a lot of sense.”

Clinical psychiatry papers rarely make much of a splash in the wider media, but it seems appropriate that a paper entitled ‘The Truman Show Delusion: Psychosis in the Global Village’, published in the May 2012 issue of Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, should have caused a global sensation. Its authors, the brothers Joel and Ian Gold, presented a striking series of cases in which individuals had become convinced that they were secretly being filmed for a reality TV show.

In one case, a delusional man traveled to New York, demanded to meet the director of his show, and wanted to know whether the 9/11 attacks were real or part of the premise of his story. In another instance, a deluded journalist was convinced she’d win a prize for getting to the bottom of the conspiracy around her.

In another example, a woman who actually worked on a reality show in real life became convinced that she was the star of the program and her colleagues were engaged in an elaborate conspiracy pretending to make a reality show about someone else while actually filming her.

A student of Sigmund Freud first described these kinds of delusions a century ago. In previous periods, paranoid schizophrenics were deluded about God, spirits, and djinni. Then science and technology took over the world, and people had delusions about being controlled by invisible magnetic rays and machines operated using the crude electronics of the day.

Beginning in the 50s, pop culture became fascinated by stories about mental illness, delusions, and mind control, including The Manchurian Candidate. Later, the novels of Philip K. Dick, and films like Bladerunner and Total Recall based on those novels, made those kinds of delusions blockbuster hits. The Matrix was a paranoid delusion in full bloom.

Reality has caught up with delusion. Paranoid schizophrenics used to be deluded about invisible rays saturating the environment and controlling fantastic machines. Now, those rays and machines exist. I’m typing on one such machine right now, and my words will be conveyed to you over invisible rays.

This is a terrific article, but as I was reading I was surprised to see one delusion-turned-reality missing. It’s a huge one, too; it’s saturated headlines and online discussion for almost a year. But the date of the article explained the hole. The article appeared in August 2013, and was probably completed months before that, before the Edward Snowden leaks. Paranoid schizophrenics used to believe government agents were wiretapping their phones, and now we know that’s right.

The reality show

Years ago I read an essay by a recovered paranoid schizophrenic who mourned her old life. As a mentally healthy person, if she had lunch with a friend in a cafe, she was just having lunch with a friend in a cafe. When she was delusional, she’d be desperately trying to keep up a pretense of normal behavior while constantly scanning the restaurant for enemy agents pursing her. Her deluded life was much more exciting than reality.