Dot what?

or The vicarious thrill of a dystopia avoided

(This is inspired by a post somewhere in the bowels of the Netslaves archive. The writer claimed, with some justification, he could have changed Internet history by attending a sneak preview of "Bladerunner" in Dallas in March, 1982, and filling in a comment card. I LOVE historical might-have-beens, so here's a combo alternate world Philip K. Dick rant and review (too bad there's not a movie version of "The Man in the High Castle").)

The other week I finally found a collection of the "Wild Palms" comics strips written by Hollywood author Bruce Wagner for Details Magazine around 1990-92, thus finally satisfying my ongoing WP obsession. I read most of the strips when they first appeared and really loved the story, though I didn't, and still don't, get all of the Hollywood gossip that formed a large part of it. And what was with the Carrie Fisher obsession?

The strip version of the story is that Harry Wyckoff, an entertainment lawyer, sitting in a posh Hollywood eatery, sees a fellow patron dragged outside and beaten up, ignored by everyone else. He learns of and then goes to work for the mysterious talent agency Wild Palms, which turns out to be the public face of a conspiracy called The Fathers, whose aims are never really clear. Their leader is Senator Anton Kreutzer, who had founded the popular religion Synthiotics. He had also killed Harry's father in the late 1960s, the real inventor of virtual reality. In the present, 2008, Kreuzer and friends control Church Windows, a VR television network that immerses viewers who buy the home projector and take a drug called Mimezine, in their favorite programs. In due course, Harry penetrates the mysteries of Wild Palms, and saves the day and himself, more or less. Wagner had said he was inspired by "The Swimmer," John Cheever's haunting short story about a man who one day decides to swim back to his house via his neighbors' backyard pools, and loses his way. In 1969 it was made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster. The strips make explicit use of its imagery; for example, Wyckoff enters the hideout of a resistance group called the Friends, through the bottom of his drained backyard pool.

For all its hints of a (quiet) global apocalypse, Wild Palms is a parochial story. The action centers on Harry's past and present and immediate family. The opposing conspiracies of Fathers and Friends are likewise close. Senator Kreuzer seeks apotheosis which, for him, is godhead, but it's not made clear what this means for everyone else. For everyone touched by Wild Palms, it means decay and death.

The movie version is 4 1/2-hour ABC-TV miniseries that Oliver Stone directed in 1993. It starred Jim Belushi (Wyckoff), Robert Loggia (Kreutzer), and Angie Dickinson (Josie). The future of Mondo2000 was still dominant and virtual reality was getting a lot of press. Wired Magazine had been around for a year, but it looked like a magazine for business-oriented cypherpunks. The miniseries looked like a good way to cash in on this virtual-reality thing the young kids were into these days. The series flopped. Most people didn't really know what VR was or that it was supposed to be REALLY IMPORTANT. There were a lot of good ideas and great Grand-Guignol scenes of torture and revenge, but they didn't gell. I saw parts of the series (so maybe I wasn't THAT obsessed) but I liked what I saw even if it was sort of a mess. It was great and the series expanded some of the strip's themes while dumping some of the others. No Carrie Fisher, unfortunately.

The importance of VR and a drug called Mimezine were spelled out. It's 2007, and, as I mentioned above VR in combination with Mimezine, promised to let you live your favorite TV shows. The downside was that it also installed Kreutzer in your world as a permanent resident god. It was a direct steal from "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch," in which a billionaire gave away a drug called Can-D that granted shared hallucinations in a universe owned by Eldritch. (It wasn't so bad a deal compared to the everyday misery of the target market: colonists on Mars.)

Since this was a lot to digest, ABC-TV published a sourcebook, a collection of bits of future history and pop culture as backstory. From the book you learn that Kreutzer is completely insane and indeed wants to be our savage god. His Synthiotics is Scientology as invented by Philip K. Dick in the throes of amphetamine psychosis (Scientology is the bit of H'wood gossip I DID get). The religious parts are written by Genesis POrridge, an English former industrial and rave musician and founder (and then dismantler) of the Temple of Psychic Youth (a man who knows his cults). It's a really great book, and constructs a truly scary future in a way the miniseries could not.


So for entertainment I imagined that Wild Palms was the dystopia we thankfully avoided. Aspects of it certainly tapped into the aspirations of various internet and entertainment moguls. Gates and Eisner aspire to nothing if not ubiquity. Erstwhile Fox TV chief Barry Diller spoke glowingly of a future of "video dial tones" that enabled us lucky consumers to slurp down 500 channels of video (on demand!). Ken Auletta's hagiography "The Digital Highwayman" (1996?) extolled these and other stunted dreams. As of late 2001, Diller was still peddling this dream, pending general deployment of last-mile high bandwidth Real Soon Now.

The original edition of "The Road Ahead" completely missed the point of the internet. Gates' idea was of a central education. entertainment, and cultural library available to all users for a nominal fee per download. This was the reasoning behind his purchase of the Bettman archive of historically important (to the U.S.) photographs as part of his Corbis database. Of course a one-to-many consumption network is a more obvious profit model than the many-to-many chatfest, swap meet and assertion of individual identity that really constitutes the Net. Then again, the science fiction of Gates' geek salad days, when it addressed network computing at all, assumed philosopher-kings would run it all for the passive masses. Well, he's sort of right, but the masses aren't grateful enough to pay for it.

In any event, the technology never arrived to support TV-quality VR, much less the projected, moving holograms of the movie version. Even today's bandwidth and gigahertz PCs may not support it. W4R3Z and five-minute songs (compressed), yes, but not full-length movies. Cable and ADSL access are far from widespread in the U.S. or Europe, let alone the rest of the world. By reading Wild Palms and mentally squinting, you can imagine what the Internet might have been if Tim Berners-Lee hadn't invented the relatively simple and low-tech html standard. Whereas anybody with a few hours tutoring, an old PC and modem can make a web page, only network executives could afford to produce and distribute VR (or VRML). And I gather only geeks at work would have the bandwidth to download it.

However much the Web sucks, the alternative could have been much worse. I seriously doubt that by 2008 Time-Warner-AOL will be promoting neural combs (tested on prisoners!) for direct-to-brain transmission of bad movies and pro-war anti-drug propaganda, but the Internet could have been strictly Web TV with a little email and usenet news to keep us happy. There are portals, of course, but there's a whole lot more. At least the rest of us can afford to own some of the means of production. It's debatable whether the rush to perpetual copyright is the equivalent of Kreuzer's schemes--colonizing mindshare as opposed to colonizing minds themselves.

The aborted VR future gave us RU Sirius and Billy Idol as a cyberpunk. Mondo2000 (and FringeWare Review and bOING bOING!) brightened up an otherwise dreary period that, oddly enough, coincided with the Bush years (Sr. not Jr.). After the hackers went corporate and the smart drugs wore off, life was not quite the same. Still, that didn't stop Feral House from buying up warehouse copies of the Wild Palms book and reselling them.

Frankenstein Junior

The director's cut of Blade Runner was the immediate inspiration for this rant, being another movie made from a PKD story or concept. It's surprising how much of Dick's moral issues survived the filming. He wrote a lot about counterfeit people, in stories like The Father-Thing, Simulacrum, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Total Recall (also made from a Dick story), for all its faults, actually went PKD one better. It's told from the point of view of the fake person, a personality construct consisting of an ego and a set of memories designed as cover for an interplanetary spy, the true inhabitant of the body who now existed only as a recording. Pathos arose from the construct's being a better person than the spy. In Blade Runner, the androids are an improvement over their makers, in every sense, yet are property. There's no other real connection between Wild Palms and Blade Runner. Certainly the issues are different.

By the way, it's worth tracking down "The Alteration," by late British satirist Kingsley Amis. It's his answer to "The Man in the High Castle," and features a world in which the Protestant Reformation never happened. All Europe including Britain, is Catholic and involved in a centuries-long cold war with the Ottoman Empire. Martin Luther became a pope and the current one is a Yorkshireman. science is disreputable, but science fiction of a sort survives, including a "counterfeit worlds romance" called The Man in the High Castle, set in a world in which Henry the Abomination became Henry VIII instead of King Arthur, son of Ann of Cleves, and the Protestant Reformation actually did occur. It's probably Kingsley's way of showing how easy he thought it was to write sci-fi after dissecting it so ably in "New Maps of Hell." Anyway, it's a really good book.

In the words of Ian Shoales, I gotta go.

I can't believe someone actually read this (March 2002)

At least I *think* it was this piece. Someone politely objected to my considering Bladerunner the ur-cyberpunk movie, which I did at least by implication. He considered Tron to be a better candidate, whereas Blade Runner is just a futuristic Raymond Chandler story. He's got a point, at least where cyberspace and hacking are concerned. Tron came out the same year as Blade Runner (1982) and, unlike the latter, actually featured a hacker and a visual realization of cyberspace similar to William Gibson's. I don't think any other movie did this until Hackers (1995).

But a lot of movies featured one Gibsonesque cyberpunk theme or another. Rollerball (1975) features a world run by corporations, though it doesn't really do anything with the idea. Wild Palms treats VR as entertainment served up as (and with) a drug. Blade Runner and Max Headroom (1985) at least qualify for their shared assumption that the technology of the future won't make the world any better but will instead open new avenues for corporate misdeeds: slavery in Blade Runner and toxic television in Max Headroom. Bladerunner also qualifies for (Gibsonian) cyberpunkitude for its machines that aspire to humanity or better.

Blade Runner does indeed rack up Chandler points in its depiction of a lonely detective wandering through a gritty L.A. (especially the Bradbury Towers), and for the detective's existence as a detached observer. On the other hand, there's no corruption (The Big Sleep), madness (ditto) or sociopathology (The Long Goodbye) as such. Nobody in Chandler's stories seems to be impelled by anything other than the usual crminal motives, such as lust or greed. This is also true in Blade Runner, except for the androids and Deckard at the end. The androids cling to childhood memories they know are false, because it's something they know humans have. One of them kills his creator, which (in my opinion) is necessary for full humanity. Gods reduce humans to the condition of livestock or, at best, one-night stands. Deckard finally comes alive after witnessing the androids' desire for life outstripping simple self-preservation, and it prompts him to make a run for it.


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