Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On Shivering Sands, Etc.

I started reading Warren Ellis's Shivering Sands this morning. Between a couple bus rides and a lunch break I'm a little more than a quarter of the way through it (that's 50 pages or so). I had every intention of reading the whole thing and then writing a proper review (you know, wherein someone actually reads something front to back before passing judgements).

But then I found myself thinking Thoughts a couple chapters (essays? braindumps? thingums?) ago, and so I wanted to get them out there, in case I accidentally start thinking different Things fifty pages from now and forget what I cooked up the first go round.

Shivering Sands is interesting for a couple reasons. One is the use of Print On Demand (namely, but I'll have more on that further down the hole. The other is what is being accomplished (so far, anyway) with the choice of articles. The various pieces (I guess I'll call them pieces) are theoretically utterly disconnected; they were written at different times, for different outlets, and none but the Afterword were spawned with any notion that they'd all be bound in one volume, or indeed even printed to page at all. Shivering Sands is a greatest hits package of Uncle Warren's online output over the last seven years (may have just made that number up, but it sounds right to my brain-box).

I just (meaning yesterday) finished reading Eating The Dinosaur, the newest book by Chuck Klosterman. Eating The Dinosaur is similar to Shivering Sands in that it is a set of short (though not as short) essays on a wide range of topics, and different in that they were (as far as I know) written for the book, and as such, and more relevantly, for each other.

The irony here is that Ellis, with his editor/publisher/creator-of-things-what-work-and-such Ariana Osborne, is more thoroughly achieving by vague accident what Klosterman was attempting deliberately: to build an at least partially coherent point from fabric woven of fundamentally disparate rambles.

"Accident" is probably the wrong word here. I'm sure there was plenty of thought put into choosing pieces that made sense together, rather than random disparate essays on purely individual merits. It seems like the kind of thing they do. But on some level my point still stands.

As best I can tell, this works because on some level Ellis is always making the same point, or at least acting within the same parameters. He says as much, in ratStar (p. 42, 2004):
For as long as I can remember, the primary goal of my work has been to force outbreaks of the future.
So far this book has described a city better designed for machines than man (modern Los Angeles); publishers who were ahead of their time in a time before now (Savoy); an unwillingness to let failure of progress stand in the way of attempts at progress; parallel worlds an infinity away where progress is more satisfactory; two-way collapse of the fictional fourth wall; the beginning of the end of Big Media as we know it; and now, in ratStar, the deliberate action of inventing the future in fiction.

Different pieces. Different topics. But they all strike the same chord, at least in me. It's the same chord struck by the chatter surrounding the publication of the book itself: the desire to Get Excited And Make Things. To invent the future by living in the increasingly astonishing present we spend so much time ignoring. Shivering Sands was published largely because Ellis and Osborne got tired of watching something happen and talking about something happening and decided to make it happen a little for themselves.

Ellis has been writing about POD, reading about POD, pushing his friends' POD, encouraging people to try their own POD, for as long as I've been following him in bloggery and message boarditude (admittedly only about a year). And the end result of this was inevitably creation. He says as much in the introduction (of sorts), titled How It Works:
Here's the deal. I flood my poor ageing head with information. Any information. Lots of it. And I let it all slosh around in the back of my brain, in the part normal people use for remembering bills, thinking about sex and making appointments to wash the dishes.

Eventually, you get a critical mass of information. Datum 1 plugs into Datum 2 which connects to Datum 3 and Data 4 and 5 stick to it and you've got a chain reaction. A bunch of stuff knits together and lights up and you've got what's called "an idea".
With enough of the same stuff rattling around, something's going to come out of it. In this case it was a book, and since he has a genuine creator-of-things-what-work-and-such close at hand it's a pretty and well-constructed and sensible book. It's fun to read because Warren Ellis is the sort of guy who thinks smart thoughts and writes well about them. But largely it's about building the future he lives in. Being a part of the evolution of his own medium in a very real and tangible way. And the content echoes this throughout, whether that's intentional, or colored by form of publication, or just because it's what he's doing every single time he sits down to write.

I'm banking on reason three, which is why I feel like I can write this now. Because I could be way off base. I could get a few pages deeper and find a piece with no connection to anything at all. I could get to the bit with the recipes (I hear it has recipes) and realize I was full of crap from word one. But I doubt it.

I may or may not have a point in all this, but if I do, it's probably something like: help Warren Ellis. Help Ariana Osborne. Help build some future. That doesn't just mean Give Them Money Buy This Book And Read It Yes (although that, too). It means make stuff. Cause objects to be. Take advantage of these spikes in technology that take away the barriers between you and what you want to do, that shred your excuses and give you an outlet for every ridiculous new idea and urge.

You might not make lots of money at it, whether because you're Not Warren Ellis or because that's not what you're going for or any number of reasons. But you'll be living your own present, and building tomorrow's framework yourself, which beats the living hell out of sitting around staring at the less-interesting parts of the past.

I'm still fighting my own excuses, my own apathy. But I'm getting there.