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Mark Dery brings readers up to speed on the future



Escape Velocity
By Mark Dery
Grove Press, 376 pp, $23 cloth

Reviewed by Richard von Busack

I have a feeling that if Wile E. Coyote were around to introduce himself in 1996, he'd describe his occupation as a futurist instead of a supergenius. Certainly the Coyote, with his unshakable faith in technology, would have plenty of disciples on the Internet.

In Mark Dery's admirably skeptical account of intellectual vaporware (n.: software that exists on paper but nowhere else), the author writes of how technology has become "a wish-fulfillment fantasy of the end of limits situated (at least for now) in a world of limits."

The title -- Escape Velocity -- sums up a number of speculations in art, music, fiction and sociology -- all mulling over the point at which our chum the computer will change us from homo sapiens to homo superior, and will speed us off this planet we've been so busily befouling.

In America, the new technology is used for an old purpose -- to reimagine ideas of purification and transcendentalism -- that has as much to do with the dreams of a graying counterculture (evidence of "cyberpunk's 40something inner circle," as Dery puts it) as it does with the next generation of movers and shakers.

Dery quotes one writer on the subject, Hugh Ruppersberg, who describes the commonly held belief that "technology breeds not only miraculous wonders but moral redemption as well."

It's the old Cartesian reverie of the body and soul divided, handed down from Rousseau to the New England transcendentalists to colleges all over the nation. In the past, it was God and not the computer who came to the rescue.

Incidentally, René Descartes, in a philosophical maneuver that historian Will Durant compared to throwing someone out the window and then letting them in the door, ultimately felt that this knowledge of self (the "I think, therefore I am" conclusion Descartes is famed for) could have only been installed by God. If we perceive God, it's because the belief proves that God himself, who must be as honest as he is perfect, programmed us.

Now (to return to the present), how to save that software so that we can be rebooted if our operating system gets corrupted by, say, cancer or the bumper of a truck? Dery's subjects have given this matter some thought. To author Thomas Hines, "The computer is the lifeboat of our minds." But with our present computers, this would be like using a thimble for a lifeboat; nobody knows where or when you'll get a computer with enough RAM to download a brain.

Others imagine remaking the body with cybernetic accessories, to make it more durable -- a subject forecast in popular music and film. Dery discusses performers ranging in styles from Trent "Nine Inch Nails" Reznor to Gary Numan -- or, in words interpretable by people who can't stand that kind of noise, from music that celebrates sexually fetishized violence to music that evokes the contented murmuring of a brain in a jar.

In fiction, William Gibson, the literary father of cyberpunk, describes Internet frontiers on which the minds of physically altered cowboys will roam. Emphasizing the monstrosity of such alteration are assorted artists like Switzerland's Giger, the master of pyrotechnics Mark Pauline and filmmaker David Cronenberg.

It's an artist's job to speculate without considering consequences, but more serious thinkers who theorize the body electric often don't consider practical matters. Does grandpa's hip-replacement joint mean he's part of the next step of human evolution?

Santa Cruz's own Vivian Sobchack, quoted by Dery, provides a more feminist view of these cyborg fantasies. As Sobchack puts it, what's being discussed is not just the modification of that philosophical construct "the body" but "your body": your skin, your eyes, your genitals, your immune system messily rejecting artificial parts.

Dery's balanced and thoughtful citation of people with names like R. U. Sirius and Queen Mu goes too far sometimes. Escape Velocity contains, for example, a nearly three-page-long description of a Trent Reznor video that, in my opinion, deserved no more than a few desultory words from Beavis and Butthead. An aesthetic based on rock music, whether it's the numerous rock quotes in Gibson's novels or the popularization of piercing, is bound to be as shallow as it is broad.

RoboCopulation

The chapter titled "RoboCopulation" is perhaps the most vivid part of Escape Velocity, not just from the point of interesting subject (I'm only human, at least for the time being). The chapter is a quick but very thorough history of cybersex, including 1985's Lulu, best described as a virtual slut working Finland's Kaypro system.

Lulu was an early step to today's AOL ("assholes on line") cybermeat market -- all, perhaps a stepping stone to since-demised Future Sex magazine speculations on virtual nookie. Dery quotes one Mike Saenz: "When you're getting a virtual blowjob, by a virtual Madonna, did they take some sensor-clad dildo and fuck a goat? Whose data is this?"

Whose, indeed? The problem of writers mistaking whimsy for satire is bad enough, a reader might say, upon seeing what passes for parody. Worst still is the plight of thinkers, mistaking whimsy for a vision of mankind's future.

The hypothesizing of what computers might be able to do for a crowded, starving human race may turn out to be as misleading as the information left out of the product descriptions in the ACME catalog that always promise the Coyote more than they can deliver. Dery, sorting through pronouncements (and commendably giving ideas on the WELL equal weight to published manifestos) has a frame of reference that ranges from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to Sigue Sigue Sputnik, and his book is written with a cool intelligence many of his interviewees could have used.

Dery analyzes matters with an evenhandedness that must have been stretched on occasion. Escape Velocity sorts out some terribly inchoate and disordered ideas. Thus, it is a rare exception to the old programmer's law: garbage in, garbage out.

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From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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