Five-Sevenths A Saviour

Here in the World, however, silence was incorrectly parsed as null and would not do. — The Pains

The Pains, John Sundman’s third novel, continues an experimental jag started with Cheap Complex Devices. There is an experimentation with media – it’s illustrated by Cheeseburger Brown. There is an experimentation with setting – a monastic SF alternate history sequel to 1984 not being obvious to most. This is rarely a bad thing in SF, though, and a protaganist both electrical engineer and monk does seem a particularly Sundmanite choice. That given, the choice of a fairly straight narrative was probably wise; there is not so much of the stylistic trickiness of CCD here, at least on the surface. It’s a successful experiment, for the most part. Part of the excitement of experiments is their potential for failure (and contradicting a hypothesis is itself an important result), but this book is very much an “aha, neat” rather than “seemed like a good idea” or “where are my eyebrows”.

The Pains has a real Philip K. Dick-ian quality, an intoxicating blend of readability and the everyday weirdness of an unstable reality. It’s a short book, and to me it felt too short. It does feel short the way many good books feel too short – you wish you could spend more time with them. But it also feels amputated, specifically at the end. Abbreviated by force. Spoilers follow.

Sundman is not averse to formal structures even in seemingly digestible narratives. He’s commented in other forums that in Acts of the Apostles, on the surface a Tom Clancy-style thriller, a key scene between the Nick Aubrey and Monty Meekman quite strictly follows the form of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert. I wonder if there is another formal device being used in The Pains. Given the parallel Christian, indeed Catholic, elements, I was reminded of the Stations of the Cross. Consider, in part:

  • 1. Norman Lux first experiences the pains, and has a disturbing audience with the abbott. Jesus is condemned to death.
  • 2. Xristi is given her letter of reassignment. Jesus is given his cross.
  • 3. Norman first meets the Eagle. Jesus falls the first time.
  • 6. Xristi Friedman meets and helps Norman Lux. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.
  • 7. Norman’s second meeting with the Eagle. Jesus falls the second time.

The Pains has ten chapters. There are fourteen stations of the cross.

I know it’s easy to OD on analysis, the whole Baconian thing. Perhaps it wasn’t a deliberate strategy, or there was a different model, especially given screen time is mostly split between Norman and Xristi, rather than focused intently on one of them. Norman has time for redemption; the stations of the cross end in Jesus’ tomb.

On the other hand, the Christian mythos is potent stuff, with extensively documented and long lasting effects. Combining it with Dick Cheney’s frozen head should produce a highly reactive sublimate. These intertwinings might just be another side effect of Sundman’s experimental theology.

“I have made a machine for exploring chaos. An analogue computer. To study strange attractors and fractal geometries of the soul.”

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Captain Beefheart, John Sundman, and Richard Prince

John Sundman writes ripping fictional yarns free of the help and hindrance of the established publishing industry. He has an eye for the technoparanoid flavoured with notes from Christian mythos.  Others have raved about his thriller Acts of the Apostles which is indeed a fun book; personally I like the experimental loops and hilarity of Cheap Complex Devices. It also helps that the tech sounds right, and no doubt his background as a tech writer (as well as fireman and peace corps volunteer) enriches the work.

Like most writers who are not also eccentric industrialists or aristocrats, and especially those without a current advance, Sundman is looking at ways to get paid to write, and his latest project got enough backers at kickstarter to get the go-ahead.

Which brings us to Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet. Captain Beefheart created a series of critically acclaimed and cultishly adored art-rock-wtf records in the sixties and seventies. If you need a more recent reference point – I did – he is Matt Groening’s favourite musician. I have a copy of Trout Mask Replica only because of a review written by Groening. It is a corker of a record but it sounds like a blues band being mugged by schizoaffective rabbits on the first listen.

Don, unfortunately but perhaps not surprisingly, could not make a living out of being a brilliant avant-garde rock musician, but he does make a living as an avant-garde painter. How does this work economically? The number of people buying fine art is if anything far smaller than that buying music, even avant-garde rock music. I suspect it is because Beefheart was in a no-mans land of niche popularity in a mass medium. An LP, CD or MP3 is cheap, with high production costs and low marginal costs. Each copy is also effectively identical, so supply is pretty expandable on demand. The result is low unit costs but also the need either move a lot of units, or make money another way (like gigs).

So Captain Beefheart took a similar career trajectory to Richard Prince – he moved from easily reproducible art to painting, which is the complete opposite of the cost scale. In the fine art world each piece is unique or in a strictly limited set (eg prints). The marginal cost of producing another self-portrait by Rembrandt is effectively infinite. The fine art world is therefore dominated by firstly a certain amount of zero-sum status pissing contest, and secondly and most relevantly a culture of collecting and patronage. It was more financially viable to find a few wealthy patrons than tens of thousands of casual followers.

If you look at Creation Science on kickstarter, it’s an attempt to tap both types of market. Contributions can range from a busker tip to full blown patronage, and according to Sundman the patron-style packages were not just wishful thinking. Personally I stumped up for the paperback, and here’s a toast to the success of Captain Johnny and his Magic Price Point.