Introducing Literate Machine

From 2005-2015 (an age in Internet years), Wet Asphalt was as a literary blog (and originally magazine) run by Eric Rosenfield and JF Quackenbush. It had some high points (including being quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education and having posts reprinting in iOS and covered by BoingBoing among many others).

I'm not sure if anyone's tuned to this channel anymore, so to speak, but if you're out there I (Eric) have started a new project.

It's called Literate Machine and it's a blog, newsletter, podcast, and YouTube channel that explores media through the lens of culture, history an politics, examining the ways capitalism, power, and ideology shape and are shaped by the stories we love. (Some of you longtimers may remember about 10 years ago I was part of an ebook distribution start-up with the same name. I still had the URL and decided to repurpose it.)

There are two episodes out so far:

  • Vintage Season, in which I use SF writer Catherine Moore as a lens with which to examine the history of the Golden Age of science fiction and what it tells us about gig work.
  • A Mind Forever Voyaging into Neoliberalism, in which is talk about a 1980s video game and the once heralded medium of text adventure games it was part of, and how it explored where Reagan-era policies were taking us with uncanny accuracy.

I hope you enjoy them.



The Spine of Worlds is Here

My story "The Spine of Worlds" is now up over at Kaleidotrope! Go read! Here's a taste:
The Clockwork Gallery, as Hal called it, had walls of gears, pistons, springs and boilers, all hot steam pipes and cool iron. At the far end, a bewilderingly complex series of dials and knobs, when set precisely, would cause a portion of the wall to roll away, to reveal the shimmering door. The Gallery had exactly one permanent occupant, a mangy cat with a single glowing blue eye, which had escaped from the realm of the Gnome King long ago. The Gallery was littered with abandoned camp sites from adventurers who’d spent days or weeks there, trying to solve the puzzle and get through the door to the land of gnomes and their fabled wealth.

Introducing Philip Sandifer: TARDIS Eruditorum vol. 5 Launch Party

Next Saturday, I'll be introducing Philip Sandifer at the launch party for his new book, TARDIS Eruditorum Vol 5: Tom Baker and the Williams Years:

Philip Sandifer will perform a Kabbalistic Choose Your Own Adventure essay around the Doctor Who serial "Logopolis" followed by a Q&A in this launch party for his new collection.

When: Saturday, October 25th, 3:30pm
Where: The Way Station, 683 Washington Ave, Brooklyn, New York 11238

Facebook Invite:

In this fifth volume of essays adapted from the acclaimed blog TARDIS Eruditorum you’ll find a critical history of Tom Baker’s final four seasons of Doctor Who. TARDIS Eruditorum tells the ongoing story of Doctor Who from its beginnings in the 1960s to the present day, pushing beyond received wisdom and fan dogma to understand the story not just as the story of a geeky sci-fi show but as the story of an entire tradition of mystical, avant-garde, and politically radical British culture. It treats Doctor Who as a show that really is about everything that ever happened, and everything that ever will.

This volume focuses on the madcap final years of Tom Baker, looking at its connections with punk, British comic books, the Kabbalah, and more. Every blog post from Tom Baker’s final four seasons has been revised and updated from its original form, along with eight brand new essays exclusive to this collected edition, including a look at how the Guardians can be reconciled with the rest of Doctor Who, an analysis of the many different versions of Shada, and an exclusive interview with Gareth Roberts about his many stories set during the Graham Williams era of Doctor Who. Plus, you’ll learn:

- How Robert Holmes deconstructed the Key to Time arc in its first story.

- Whatever happened to Philip Hinchcliffe.

- What Alan Moore and 2000 AD have to do with the history of Doctor Who.

Book Launch Blog Post:
About TARDIS Eruditorum:
Buy the book:

Thoughts on Ed Champion and his Detractors

So, one of the three heads--along with tumblr and of the cerberus guarding the left wing of the outrage porn industrial complex, has published a hit piece on Ed Champion over some nonsense flame war crap between him and some people who dont like him. Im not going to link to it, because linking to outrage pornographers only encourages them, but you can probably find it if you want to read it. I suggest you pass, you wont be missing anything.

I honestly dont know whats going on with Ed or what the whole mess is really all about. I dont really much care about any of that. Near as i can gather, the current mess is a rolling boil that got started when Ed pointed out in a detailed essay this summer (of 2014) that author and editor Emily Gould sucks. That this was news to anybody, or that any one would be shocked to discover someone holds such an opinion of Emily Gould, is moderately surprising. I was previously under the impression that the conclusion that "Gould sucks" was the inevitable result encounter with her media output. See, for example, this video of Gould being insipid across the table from Jimmy Kimmel doing a Larry King impression on CNN 7 years ago: I also understand shes engaged to the guy from n+1. And i mean, what more do you need.

ETA 8:12 PM PDT: iI mention this because I see an element of hypocrisy in a group of insiders rallying to the defense of a person who has grown her own career through the exploitation and criticism of celebrities. Why is it okay for Gawker to post whatever it hears about celebrities and post libelous pictures of them but it isnt okay to excoriate the author of a book who works hard building her own celebrity based on such yellow journalism? I would suggest, strongly, that it isn't; the people engaged in it, particularly the ones at significant publications, should be ashamed of themselves

On "Robot of Sherwood" or What It Means to Be from the Land of Fiction

(spoilers ahead)

In the new Doctor Who episode, the Doctor meets Robin Hood, and it's very clearly Robin Hood as he is known in modern media, specifically an Errol Flynn/Douglas Fairbanks-style Robin Hood. (Errol Flynn even gets name-checked, and there's a fun part where the Doctor is reviewing stories about Robin Hood and we see the actor who played the second Doctor, Patrick Traughton, from the 1950's TV show "The Adventures of Robin Hood".) Which is exactly why the Doctor doesn't believe he's really Robin Hood for most of the episode and thinks he must be an impostor.

When it turns out he IS Robin Hood, it's not actually the show saying that this is who the historical Robin Hood was, because that's clearly malarky. The Robin Hood of the original ballads was not this person, and even those were from long after Robin was supposed to have lived and grew out of a very particular folk hero tradition. No, what Doctor Who is saying is that the television show Doctor Who doesn't actually travel to the past at all, but travels to popular impressions of the past, the past as it is imagined. The past as a genre, as a narrative trope that Doctor Who can then crash into, interrogate and subvert. Which is why Robin Hood tells the Doctor "Remember, I'm just as real as you are."

Which is essentially a call-back to a second Doctor adventure called the "The Mind Robber" (1968), where the Doctor and his companions get lost in the Land of Fiction, a world populated by fictional characters. And one of the storybook characters tells the Doctor that he's a "traitor" to the Land of Fiction. As if he was a part of it that rebelled. (See also Philip Sandifer's brilliant analysis of "The Mind Robber".) At the end, it's not even clear that they ever really escaped the Land of Fiction.

Thus Doctor Who becomes a show aware of it's status as a work of fiction. Doctor Who always gave us the Doctor crashing into one or more other genres, but "The Mind Robber" gave that fact context. And so, much as Tarantino makes a WWII movie that's less about WWII and more about how WWII has been portrayed in popular culture, Doctor Who makes an episode about Robin Hood that doesn't pretend to be about the historical Robin Hood but instead is about interrogating what Robin Hood means to us and about rescuing us from our cynicism towards heroes. Because for someone from the Land of Fiction, believing in Robin Hood has nothing to do with history and everything to do with what Robin Hood means to us.

This isn't to say this is the greatest episode of Doctor Who, but it's one I enjoyed a lot. And anyone complaining that this isn't historically accurate doesn't understand this show.

PS. Yes, the shooting the golden arrow into the literal bulls-eye on the ship is silly. It's a silly show. The Doctor fights Robin Hood with a spoon. Get over it.

Star Trek is Not Progressive

Star Trek (the Original Series) has been mythologized as being about a hopeful, positive, Utopian future in which class differences have evaporated, war between peoples of the Federation is unknown, racism and sexism extinguished and money is a curiosity of the past, thus showing a way forward for humanity. However, actually looking at the content of the Original Series quickly belies these ideas.

Sexism is rampant on the show, perhaps nowhere worse than in “The Enemy Within” when it’s suggested that Yeoman Rand enjoyed nearly being sexually assaulted by evil Captain Kirk. (Grace Lee Whitney, the actress who played Rand, specifically called this out in her memoir as being truly horrible, so let’s be clear that any claim that this is “of its time” is actually saying “of the sexist men running Star Trek of its time”.) As for racism, yes, Uhura is on the bridge (albeit as a glorified switchboard operator) and Sulu is at the helm, but as almost every story revolves around the 3 white men of Kirk, Spock and Bones, and as these other characters tend to get less than a handful of lines between them, it seems less progressive than tokenism. (And one version of the creation of Star Trek indicates that it was DesiLu Studios that dictated the multiracial crew, not Gene Roddenberry, who would have been happy with the far whiter crew from the original pilot “The Cage”.)

But most importantly, far from showing a path to a better future, again and again Star Trek ridicules and skewers progressive ideals or the idea that people could reach a place of material social progress without it becoming a dystopian nightmare or autocratic dictatorship. The numerous examples include “The Return of the Archons”, “This Side of Paradise” and “Space Seed”.

Nowhere is this point clearer, though, than in the episode most often lauded as the “best” episode in all of the the original series, “The City on the Edge of Forever”. The climax revolves around the idea that Kirk must let Edith Keeler die because if she doesn’t she’ll start a pacifism movement that will lead to America not entering World War II and Hitler conquering the world.

Let’s think for a second about this. This episode aired in 1967, while protesters were out on the White House lawn chanting “Hey Hey LBJ how many kids you kill today”. In other words, the subtext here is expressly against the anti-war movements of the 1960s and in favor of those who felt that we had to fight in Vietnam to contain the Soviet Union. Pacifism, Star Trek is telling us in the midst of Vietnam, is an idea whose time has not come and is in fact dangerous in the present. Far from being a show in touch with the youth and representing the unbridled optimism of the 60s, this is a show that’s actively telling the youth to shut up and let the old hawks run things.

And yes, by the time we get to the movies and the Next Generation the mythologized version of Star Trek’s ethos was in ingrained in the fabric of the Star Trek Universe, to the point where we get Star Trek IV where the crew are basically idealistic hippies wandering around Reagan’s America and pointing out how horrible all the crass commercialism and commodification is and how they’re destroying the environment. This doesn’t change the fact that Star Trek: The Original Series is a fundamentally reactionary mess.

On Vocabulary and Fiction

There is a faction in the world of writing that would advise you to avoid words that would be unfamiliar to most readers— that is, big vocabulary words. The argument usually goes something like this: when a reader encounters a word they are not familiar with it makes them stop and realize they are reading something, taking them out of the story. That is, you want the reader to be completely absorbed, forget their reading at all, and not break the “vivid and continuous dream” (John Gardner’s phrase) of the narrative.

There are a few problems with this notion. The first is that particular words carry particular meanings that often simplifying them just won’t accomplish. If I call someone “indolent” that’s different than if I just called them “lazy”. Secondly, often a word will have a meaning that isn’t covered by any other. When I say the sun’s rays were “crepuscular", I would have to get a lot more verbose to describe that effect any other way.

More importantly, big words might be entirely appropriate for a particular character or style. For a character, using erudite words might be a way for her to show off her erudition. For a story written about the upper class in the late 19th century, for example, using words common to that class and time are a way to convey the setting besides mere description. Words are the tools with which prose narrative is created, and certain tools have certain functions. This is where I think most writers should come down on the subject: you use the vocabulary appropriate for what you’re writing.

But finally and most decisively for me, I actually don’t give a fuck about disrupting some reader’s precious “vivid and continuous dream”. For me, part of the joy of reading is the awareness of the prose, awareness of the techniques and tools and conventions being used to convey a particular kind of story, and I don’t mind it—in fact really enjoy it—when, as in many post-modernist works, you have an architecture with the ducts exposed and blueprints laid bare, as it were. I like books that are fully aware of and in possession of the fact that they are book, and not some suppositional “movie” going on in your head. (If I wanted to make movies, I’d be making movies.) Far from taking me out of a story, a well chosen unfamiliar word makes me more absorbed, more aware—by forcing me to think about a word, to look it up or intuit its meaning—of the kind of effect the writer is trying to create by using it.

You might not feel this way, you may prefer your vivid and continuous dream metaphor. That’s fine. There isn’t only one way to enjoy fiction, and there’s definitely more than one way to make it.

Revision as archeology

Archeologists often intentionally leave parts of sites unexcavated. They leave them for future archeologists, knowing they will have better tools, be able to uncover more, damage less.

Often, when I'm revising, especially something I wrote a long time ago, I feel like a future archeologist. This scene, this character, this dialog was pulled from the ground of my consciousness with poor tools, dragged from the tar and cleared off with eyebrow-scorching boiling vinegar. Now I have better tools. Now patiently, deliberately, I can uncover the monster. Clean it from the muck.

And in the future, I'll have better tools. My faith as sure as that of the archeologists, pining for unimagined machinery.

San Francisco is a science fantasy city

On roller coaster streets that dive into mist shrouded hills crusted with candy colored houses, a one armed guitarist distorts rivers of sound that paints the walls of the old poet’s shop, made weird and etherial it bleeds across the boundary between worlds and above helicopters watch drones play in the park. A wrong turn takes you to an arterial hub of vegetable delivery trucks in insectile ranks, dress white and at attention flanked by forgotten industrial machinery. In the valley the code of pimply faced boys mutates through the real estate like an entitled virus and climate-controlled garages keep self-driving cars waiting for their oncoming disruption. San Francisco is a science fantasy city.

See also: Barcelona is a fantasy city

A Request for Clarification

Eric Rosenfield, I just got an email that you had rated James S.A. Corey's space opera novel Leviathan Wakes at 5 stars on

I need to know if this is hyperbole. As you are no doubt aware, the only truly perfect space opera ever to appear in literature are the Culture novels by the lamented and late Iain Banks. Perfect space opera in other media are certainly almost as rare. Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, Firefly and Serenity, Farscape minus a handful of clunky episodes, 70% of the first season of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, Ice Pirates, The middle 60 minutes ofTitan AE... There may be others, but they are few and far between and as far as the printed word is concerned, very little comes close. Peter Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy possibly approaches that quality, but tends to collapse under its own weight and bizarre theological weirdness.

By rating Corey 5 stars, you have signaled to me and to every other right thinking person that Corey is in the same rank as Banks, and that is high praise to the point of stretching its credibility.

Please explain yourself.