Week 52, year of the meteor

The Letter

The Letter, Alexandre Lunois, 1894

Our ending begins with a ghost story.

It rained hard all day Wednesday. I sat in the media lab, applying wafer seals and shipping labels to the year’s final print zine. As with previous editions, I mailed out just over a thousand copies; labeling them takes several hours of peeling and sticking, peeling and sticking.

I had, at some point in the past, bookmarked a recording of an interview with Brian Eno on KPFA in 1980 and filed it under my “listen to this sometime” tag, so, on Wednesday, I opened that up.

I listened to the interview, conducted by the KPFA host (and composer in his own right) Charles Amirkhanian, and then it was over, and there were still more labels to stick—lots more—and I’d so enjoyed the program, which included a perfect potted history of 20th century music history, that I immediately scrounged on the Internet Archive for related material.

Lucky me: I found the recordings from KPFA’s “Brian Eno Day.”

This was a broadcast from 1988, part of the station’s annual fundraising drive, with Brian Eno in the studio with Charles Amirkhanian all day, telling stories, playing music, and answering calls from KPFA listeners.

I didn’t listen to all ten hours’ worth, of course, but I did play a couple of the archived blocks all the way through; each hour is helpfully described on the recording’s Internet Archive page.

The program was shot through with calls, ghosts of the Bay Area on the line: pedantic, appreciative, erudite, imperious. Whenever there was more information to be obtained, the resource was a phone number that one might dial or, in the case of Brian Eno’s newsletter, an address in England to which one might write.

So, there I sat in the cozy confines of the media lab, doing this repetitive, mildly hypnotic activity, as the rain came down outside and this broadcast from 1988 played, and might as well have been playing live on the radio.

It was a time machine, simple as that.

The day’s final hour, during which everyone in the KPFA studio was audibly tired and loopy, concluded with Brian Eno declaring that all remaining answers would be lies. The callers played along, and everything disintegrated into silliness. It was wonderful.

Three cheers for KPFA, the Internet Archive, and rainy days. Three cheers for Charles Amirkhanian, Brian Eno, and the callers from 1988 whose voices rang out in the lab on Wednesday.

Sometimes, when I do the zine mailings, I think: this is NOT the correct use of my time. Certainly, my nominal “hourly wage” is way too high. So (I think to myself) I should hire someone else to apply the labels, and then—well, I don’t know what, exactly. Sit and write a TV script instead? Make a lot of money!

But the first time I sat and prepared one of these mailings, I listened to that Timothy Morton lecture, which has stayed with me ever since. The archive! The hyperobject!

And now I’ve listened to Brian Eno Day, and traveled in time, and met some ghosts.

I’m currently in Michigan with my family, and for the second year running, my two young nephews and I have turned eagerly to this YouTube playlist of the original Ultraman show from the 60s, dubbed into English. It’s just the right amount of “scary” in addition to being totally earnest and innocent. I mean, the protagonists are all members of the Science Patrol.

One episode in particular, “The Monster Graveyard,” is the melancholic indie film of the Ultraman universe, featuring a kaiju antagonist who is not ravenous or vengeful but merely sad.

Sad monster

The episode’s style is so palpably different from the rest of the series, with such odd and interesting camera angles, that I was sure I would look up the director’s name and discover he went on to make award-winning arthouse films; that’s not QUITE the case, but I do feel like my instinct is vindicated.

It’s really a very good (weird) 26 minutes.

The Fancy Goods Store

The Fancy Goods Store, Alexandre Lunois, 1902

Pure delight: this Möbius strip photo book—meditate on that phrase for a moment—was inspired by the customs form on one of my zines! Talk about media invention; this is something truly new. Michael Goldrei writes:

It was quite a challenge to get printed as all of the companies I’ve previously used for photographic prints were unable to print on both sides, due to the quite reasonable fact that photographic paper can only be printed on one side.

This is a terrific, perceptive column by Navneet Alang, about the exquisitely 21st-century feeling of staring at the mosaic of viewing options on Netflix, just absolutely paralyzed.

I can’t decide if I like this reading format or not?? I have to say that I admire the ideas behind it SO much, but I believe the actual reading experience is simply not (yet) good enough. It’s slow and herky-jerky. (For example: here.) When the benchmark is the physical page, digital reading is not permitted to be slow or jerky-jerky.

Driving north from the Detroit airport, with Brian Eno still on my mind, I listened to his 2015 John Peel Lecture for BBC Radio 6 Music. It was pretty mediocre, but I followed it with Iggy Pop’s contribution to the same series, which was transcendent. A spooky moment: as Iggy Pop’s introducer explained to the BBC audience that the musician is originally from Ypsilanti, Michigan, I was cruising up I-75… not more than an hour from Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Iggy Pop’s lecture is loose and gnomic, but/and full of thoughts and lines so perfect—and so perfectly delivered, in his raspy growl—that they could stand on their own.

What WAS the Year of the Meteor?

It was a collection of newsletters, of course. Also:

I wanted very badly to finish my novel manuscript by December 31. I will not—but damn, I’m close! It will be complete in January.

Everything on the website will remain there for a while, but not indefinitely. The plan is this, and has been from the beginning: I’m going to collate and edit the material down into a single e-book, intended less as “a book to sit and read” and more as a stable, archivable, shareable, comprehensible record of this project.

I don’t like it when archives get unceremoniously zapped, but neither do I like the feeling or function of closed-down blogs, with their torrent of posts once so lively just getting deader and deader on forgotten domains. So, for me, “compress into e-book” feels like an interesting compromise.

If you wish to browse, browse while you can. Sometime in January, all that will remain on my workbook website is a single PDF. Maybe an EPUB, too.

News from the Republic

A reminder, again, that I am hardly leaving you bereft: there is a whole Republic of Newsletters steadily percolating. Go choose one that sounds fun, or even better, one that sounds challenging. Subscribe.

For all these other newsletters I enjoy so much, I’ve playfully rendered little houses and shops in this imaginary seaside town, but I’ve never done that for myself.

The truth is, it hardly matters; I’m always out walking.

You may recall my enthusiastic recommendation, earlier this year, of the novel Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. I’ve just received a copy of the sequel, Harrow the Ninth, which is set to be published by Tor·com in June 2020.

Harrow the Ninth

Look whose newsletter got transmogrified into a blurb ;)

Harrow the Ninth

This second book in the series is knottier than the first; I’m two-thirds of the way through and still hovering in deep epistemological suspense. “Unreliable narrator” doesn’t quite do it justice; I can tell this book is about to whirl around and reveal a hidden face.

It seems to me that both of these volumes owe a lot to (a) locked room mysteries, (b) Japanese dating simulators, and/or even (c) the very specific sub-genre that combines both, typified by the Danganropa series. I’m very curious to know if Tamsyn Muir is a fan of any of those things; I would bet money on the answer being “yes,” but, of course, “no” is just as interesting, because it means these aesthetics, these mechanisms, reached her some other way.

I resist the trope that goes “science fiction: useful way of thinking about the world!” because it feels too “eat your broccoli” and doesn’t connect to the value and pleasure I get from the genre. It just doesn’t feel TRUE to me. But sometimes I wonder if that’s only because the trope tends to be deployed around sci-fi that imagines different societies: The Surprising Effects of New Technology, And So Forth.

Tamsyn Muir’s books, which are as much space fantasy as science fiction, illuminate approximately nothing about society. What they DO tell their readers about is: the human body!

Several of the characters in this new book are very powerful, and in this book’s universe, power is all about bodies. There are many scenes in which these very powerful characters are grievously wounded; Tamsyn lovingly narrates the process by which they reach inside themselves with eldritch mastery to stitch flesh, tweak glands, grow bone. A less interesting writer would render this a blunt power fantasy, but she makes it feel totally real, even reasonable.

So, reading Harrow the Ninth has made me think a lot about my own body, all its spongy masses and hidden gurglings, to interesting and unsettling effect.


L'Illumination, Alexandre Lunois, 1893

Why did I call it Year of the Meteor?

In December 2018, on the night of my birthday, I went out for drinks with Kathryn and two friends at Prizefighter, our local bar, which happens to be perfect. Among its amenities is a small outdoor patio, so there we sat, sipping amiably, when suddenly the sky lit on fire.

To the west: a blazingly bright object, moving slow. I’ll confess, even though it’s a bit embarrassing, that my first thought was “…missile?” and for about two and a half seconds, I was full of dread, and aware simultaneously of the banality of seeing this cataclysmic event—I’m not sure which way I imagined the missile was going—from the patio of a bar, beer in hand.

We sat and stared. The object dimmed, leaving behind a trail of smoke, backlit by the sun that had just dipped below the horizon, that twisted and curled in the wind, absolutely unquestionably dragon-like.

A meteor.

Later, Kathryn and I sat at one of our favorite restaurants, where, midway through our meal, a merry round of “happy birthday” started up: not for me, but for the child at the table next to ours.

It felt like a birthday packed with omens, and I decided to accept them. I had been feeling… I’m not sure how to say it: too quiet? Tucked away? Absent from a world I once inhabited? Like I had tried something—many things—and abandoned them too quickly? All that and more.

The meteor demanded brightness. As soon as the next day, I was scheming, and soon, the schemes coalesced. I ordered pink paper, enough for a whole year, then made for myself a kind of workbook website—I love making websites—and launched the project in the third week of January with this first newsletter, its art and subject almost perfectly encapsulating the feeling I sought to shake off.

Now, the Year of the Meteor has concluded. On my birthday, just a few days ago, I invited some friends out for drinks at Prizefighter. No meteors this time.

For the next stretch, you won’t hear from me so frequently. My regular newsletter will continue at its established pace, which is roughly seasonal. I’ve taken the rather extreme liberty of signing you up, an action that will be very easy for you to undo. I’ll send a dispatch to that larger list in late January; there are three terrific books all coming out in a cluster around that time, and I’m excited to recommend them to you.

Sometime in the future, it’s likely I’ll do another newsletter like Year of the Meteor, or something that’s not a newsletter but still somehow like Year of the Meteor. I have a thousand ideas. I am never not thinking about this stuff.

A person can choose their omens, and choose what they mean.

Watch the sky!


December 2019, Oakland

This website uses the typeface Albertus Nova, an update by Toshi Omagari of Berthold Wolpe’s classic, and GT America, designed by Noël Leu with Seb McLauchlan.

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