See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Spook Country

I let this one sneak on me. Ever since I discovered William Gibson in the mid-eighties, I've scooped up each of his books as soon as it hit the shelves; I knew this book, occuring in the world of Pattern Recognition (his last novel, which came out in 2002!) was coming out, but by the time it jumped out at me on, it I'd become so busy I hadn't even begun to think about reading a novel in weeks, months... but then I saw it, ordered it, counted the days til it came, and when it arrived last weekend, immediately devoured it. I spent last weekend in a fictional world created by the greatest living American writer, and I want to go back.

Gibson's main body of work today consists of two, what he calls "non-trilogies." The first, beginning with Neuromancer (1984), wherein he introduced the world to what he named "cyberspace" was set in the future, filled with technology unthought-of in the eighties. In fact, most of what he wrote has come to pass, and it's a tough call whether he foresaw the future or created it; the early pioneers of the modern internet all admit that it was his vision that inspired him to make cyberspace a reality. The second trilogy, beginning with Virtual Light (1993) was set in a much-nearer future, in which his pop icons and street people begin to realize those we see in our own lives. Pattern Recognition and Spook Country are set in today's world. When Gibson introduces technology we haven't heard of, we realize that not a bit of it is not doable with the tools we have right now, and we have to wonder if it's just that we haven't heard of it. It's not that Gibson has stopped creating his own world; it's just that we've finally come to live in the world he's been creating all along.

Gibson has transcended his genre in a way few writers have or ever will. In fact, I can't think of many science fiction writers whose work qualifies as great literature in every way, as Gibson's does. If you're truly a Gibson fan, find and rent the movie William Gibson: No Maps for these Territories, Mark Neale's documentary/interview with Gibson, in which Gibson admits that his characters in the first trilogy were a wooden, and that a lot of the phasing between the real world and cyberspace in the novels came from his inability as a fledgling writer to move his characters from place to place, physically. Those characters certainly don't have the depth of the ones in the second trilogy, yet they are immortal in the pantheons of science fiction; Molly the razorgirl was the model for the hard-edged heroines of modern sci-fi, and Case gave birth to most of its modern antiheroes.

Gibson, when asked by fans, in what order to read his fiction, basically says start with Burning Chrome) (1996), the compilation of earlier work which introduced cyberspace, the world of Neuromancer, and gave birth to "Johnny Mnemonic." But if you're just a fan of great writing, I'd say start with Pattern Recognition, then this book, then go back and enjoy the prior series as classics. Although technology is always a character in Gibson's work - he makes you want to go out and find new uses for your computer - the real characters here are real, beautifully drawn, and live in your fascination as do any great characters. Gibson's trilogies are non-trilogies are that they are the stories of different characters set in the same world, with some characters re-occuring to your delight; in this one, look for the reappearance of Humbertus Bigend and his Blue Ant company. But I think what brings me back to Gibson's latest fictional world, apparent even more upon re-reading when the plot is secondary, is the texture of his world, the way in which even the fictional becomes enlarged and textured in a new and fascination way; he reminds us that to truly appreciate the world we live in, we need to look at the details. I can't recreate the fabric of his fiction, but I can tell you that if you haven't, you need to go experience it for yourself. If you're already a Gibson fan, and haven't read this book, don' worry about being disappointed, go get it now. It's worth the wait.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Slighty Different Weekend at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center

I stole this photo from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; I'm using it because it's a good picture and because I was too lazy to take pictures of my own this weekend in Atlanta (despite having a pretty good camera on my new PDA), and the guy who was supposed to take pictures somehow didn't get it done. But it's going to mislead some people about Zen. It kind of looks like Michael Elliston, the newly (or newly-officially) transmitted Abbot of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, is praying. Odds are he's either chanting, or just being posed by the photographer, who probably just thought it looked priestlike. You should read the AJC article that goes with the picture.

Of course everything about Zen that you hear or see is going to be somewhat misleading, other than the actual practice itself. So every time I find myself trying to talk about it, I kick myself. I can however tell you about my weekend.

Usually when I head off to Atlanta for a weekend zazenkai or sesshin, I'm in the mood. This time I wasn't particulary, partly because of the Buddhist burnout I've been getting from the Nashville Buddhist Festival, and because I've been experiencing a low level of non-specific tension which probably comes from a whole list of minor annoyances; but I was determined to go because Shohaku Okumura Roshi, founder of the Sanshin Zen Community of Bloomington, Indiana, was in town to conduct Sensei Elliston's transmission, as was Barbara Kohn, head priest of the Austin Zen Center. I've sort of met Sensei Kohn before; she was present the first time I visited the ASZC in April, 2006, but I've never had the opportunity to speak to her. I still haven't, but I do someday want to tell her I feel a link to her Austin Center because I started sitting at the San Francisco Zen Center in 1981, where she was later Abbot before going to Austin. And although the transmission ceremonies for Elliston, which occurred over six days, were secret, I wanted to see what was going on

Another difference was this time was that normally I stay in the ASZC from the time I arrive til I leave on Sunday; this trip, because of overcrowding at the center from the out-of-town teachers, their entourages, and senior ASZC disciples returning from afar to see the show (which, since the transmission ceremonies were secret, basically consisted of others there for the same reason), I was lucky enough to be put up by a couple who attend the ASZC and live in the nearby Virginia Highlands area of northeast Atlanta. Whereas normally when I attend a weekend session, I would be doing zazen/kinhin for about 7 1/2 - 8 hours a day, this time I figured out that I sat for 4 1/2 hours on Friday, 3 hours on Saturday, and 1 1/2 on Sunday, plus hearing one of Okumura Roshi's four lectures on the Shobogenzo (or a very small part thereof), and of course attending Sunday's ceremonies.

It was hot in the zendo, which along with the strange atmosphere created by the secretive scurrying about between the altars set up all over the Center for the secret transmission ceremonies, and by a few humorless senior disciples who don't share their Abbot's capacity for not losing his perception of absurdity (and that of my friends there), gave me an excuse to skip some cushion time and go exploring in the 100-degree Atlanta heat.

I need to go back to Virginia Highlands when I'm not going to the ASZC. There are some really interesting-looking bars and stores there; and no I didn't hit the bars, that would be an altogether different story. I did have some good noodles. And I did find the main building for the Center for Disease Control, a monster of a lab building which gave me thoughts about the Umbrella Corporation.

Anyway. In some ways I think I enjoyed the sitting I did and the ceremonies more because I wasn't exhausted from more sitting, and because I wasn't trapped in the center. By the time I got there, the sesshin had been going on for several days and I never really felt a part of it, and for the first time I behaved like a guest, coming and going and taking my meals outside. It gave me a whole new perspective, not necessarily a better one, but it's nice being able to move between perspectives, which is important for Zen, or at least for my Zen.

And I will say that it reaffimed my faith in Soto Zen, in the ASZC, in Taiun Micheal Elliston and in my own involvement with all of the above. By the end of Sunday, if I had it to do all over again, I would've come down Tuesday night for the entire sesshin, if work had permitted. And I am going to visit the Austin Zen Center someday, but I'm also going back to Atlanta on a different mission.