Social Criticism and Cultural Commentary

by Mac Tonnies


"Edison's Eve" is a luminous history of humanity's fascination with mechanical automata. Gaby Wood's prose is a delight; she diligently pursues our Promethean yearnings from the obscure clockwork intestines of defecating robot ducks to today's cinematic visions. Wood pursues her subject with wit and poignancy, reveling in technological myths.

Gaby Wood.

"Edison's Eve" is a literary nexus where the protagonists of Greek myth meet up with the genetically engineered replicants of "Blade Runner" and the notion of artificial intelligence joins forces with Thomas Edison's ill-fated talking phonographic dolls; Wood refracts the history of androids and simulacra through a unique narrative lens, unveiling fetishes and shattering philosophical tenets. The result is a transcendent cultural study that fuses the search for artificial life with our species' deepest hopes and fears. For readers drawn to the disturbing futures of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, "Edison's Eve" is both a revealing primer and an introduction to a frighteningly talented new writer.



Michael Shermer's "Why People Believe Weird Things" contains only one chapter on "aliens" and UFOs--which is fortunate, as he appears to know next to nothing about the subject. (He states that the "alien autopsy" film is the best evidence offered by proponents of the ET hypothesis and proceeds to dismiss the entire subject in a few pages.) Thankfully, Shermer moves on to areas where he is indeed an expert (i.e., "scientific creationism" and Holocaust denial), resulting in a lucid and highly readable volume that asks essential questions about the scientific process and people's ability to suspend common sense. Shermer's trenchant perspective on Ayn Rand's "cult of personality" is especially enjoyable, as are his insights into "witch-crazes" old and new. (Shermer argues that episodes of mass paranoia are based on social feedback loops that cause them to dissipate almost as quickly as they begin.) "Why People Belive Weird Things" is a heartfelt and disturbingly funny book that belongs on the shelf next to Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World" and Alex Heard's "Apocalypse Pretty Soon."



"The Hacker Crackdown," Sterling's first nonfiction effort, is an engrossing and thorough look at the subcultures and civil liberties issues spawned by computer crime. Written with a novelist's eye, "The Hacker Crackdown" is consummately Sterling, as informative as it is fun. This is an essential document of the PC era. (Appropriately, "The Hacker Crackdown" is available online in its entirety.)



"Strange Creations" is one of those rare books on fringe thought that disturbs as well as provokes laughter. Kossy's book is a knowledgeable and passionately researched examination of who we are according to various occultists, racists, Creationists and pseudoscientists. With an especially trenchant chapter on eugenics and "racial hygiene," "Strange Creations" could be Steven Jay Gould's "The Mismeasure of Man" as rewritten by Robert Anton Wilson. A must for any esoteric bookshelf.



Thomas Disch's "The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of" is a biting, probing and decidedly opinionated work of literary/cultural criticism. Subtitled "How Science Fiction Conquered the World," Disch's searching espose examines the science fiction genre from its roots to its implementation as political and military PR.

Unlike many books devoted to the science fiction genre, "The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of" doesn't dwell in the past. Disch doesn't wax nostalgiac; if anything, he's the field's toughest critic, spotlighting where authors (and readers) have gone wrong. Disch lobs a wickedly appropriate bomb at feminist Ursula K. Le Guin's personal agenda to rewrite the genre's past, dares to confront the legend that is Philip K. Dick, and reluctantly defends the Heaven's Gate suicides.

Some of the gems and controversies in store: the truthfulness of horror author Whitley Strieber's allegedly nonfiction "Communion," L. Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology, the extraterrestrial alien as metaphor, and the spectacle of genre "fandom" who insists that "reality is a crutch." Disch's candid, scholarly gaze into the 20th century's most remarkable literary phenomenon makes for an engaging, intellectually edifying read.


BOTS Andrew Leonard

Subtitled "The Origin of New Species," Andrew Leonard's history of the Internet documents the rise of the ubiquitous "bots" that assist us with mundane (and not so mundane) online tasks. "Bots" is as much about cyberculture as it is about software agents, and presents a wired society living in symbiosis with digital servents that reflect its deepist wishes and most frightening technological nightmares. Leanard's lucid expose is techno-journalism at its funniest.



Electronic rights advocate B.T. Slader (aka "Darc Fyber") tells all! "The Internet Hero" chronicles the creation and exploits of "Darc Fyber," a self-styled digital knight who takes on the malicious hackers of the world with the assistance of some techno-savvy friends, both real and virtual. Along the way, Fyber assists the Feds in the hacker crackdown, averts World War Three (?) and discovers a possibly extraterrestrial signal emanating from the electronic wildnerness of New Mexico. Slader's book is entertaining and accessible, rendering the online world in everyday terms for those who still think a "server" is someone you meet in a restaurant.



"Apocalypse Pretty Soon" is an extremely funny and informative tour through "end-time America," with a smart focus on flying saucer cults, religious fundamentalism, terrorist agendas and cyberculture. Heard's first-person exploits and interviews make for a wickedly hilarious experience. Multifaceted and witty, Heard's document of a world in the throes of perceived millennial destruction is one of the best studies of its kind. Must-reading for students of the new millennium.


DUMBING US DOWN John Taylor Gatto

In "Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsary Schooling," John Taylor Gatto presents us with a disturbing true story: compulsory "education" is a dangerous scam, and we are its victims. Thankfully, this isn't a vitriolic rant; Gatto's thesis is suffused with constructive alternatives and an optimism I found nothing less than stunning. This is one of those rare books that changes your outlook--permanently and meaningfully.



Dery's passionately researched expose takes the reader on a wholly unique adventure; this book is nothing less than the definitive countercultural study of the 90s. Dery probes diverse and fascinating topics: prosthesis-wielding performance artists, punk roboticists, transhuman activists, ravers, technopagans, and cyber-fetishists. "Escape Velocity" is an enthralling examination of postmodernism at the brink of the century, featuring Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Hans Moravec, J.G. Ballard, R.U. Sirius and other notables.


DESIGN FOR DYING Timothy Leary with R.U. Sirius

"Design for Dying" is both a giddy romp through cyberculture and a memorable exploration of the dying process, viewed by Leary as the "ultimate trip." Leary urges a grass-roots approach to death, free from the tyranny of hospitilization and religious solemnity. Leary also debates the merits of cryonic suspension, mind-uploading and infospheric immortality, revealing a mind perfectly at ease with posthumanist technology and more than a little happy to besiege his readership with its jargon. "Design for Dying" is nicely edited by Sirius, who includes an addendum featuring commentary and remembrances by David Byrne, Charles Platt, James Graurholz and many others.


THE FIRST MODERNS William Everdell

Everdell's "The First Moderns" is a rigorous look at the emergence of modernism. Ambitious and intellectually satisfying, "The First Moderns" examines the parallels between scientists, artists and writers as seemingly disparate as Einstein, Picasso and Joyce. Everdell studiously presents a new view of history defined by technical achievement and aesthetic breakthrough. Copious biographical detail and a firm grasp of history make "The First Moderns" a milestone synthesis of art, science and society.



Aldous Huxley's prescient examination of mind-control technology, drugs and other emerging tools of government oppression is a powerful companion volume to his better-known novel, "Brave Bew World." Informed and frightening, "Brave New World Revisited" is essential reading for any citizen of the 21st century.


FUTURE SHOCK Alvin Toffler

Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock" is a milestone book, as topical now as it was when it was published. Introducing the concept of transience as it applies to daily life, business, transportation and medicine, Toffler presents a dizzying yet level-headed view of a society forced to constantly reinvent its parameters to make room for an onrush of social and environmental change.

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