The future business

Michael Hill settles into the Transit Lounge

Ashley Crawford and Ray Edgar have selected 51 essays, interviews and studies from their co-edited magazine 21.C and put them together as a book called Transit Lounge. It is hard to categorise Transit Lounge because it’s a book about everything, at least everything to do with the future, and so that means anything to do with the present and the past as well. William Gibson in his introduction indicates that the editors are willing to “fearlessly consider any futurological possibility whatever, to interrogate anything at all for its potential as fast feed into some possible future.”

So you will find essays on Sigmund Freud and Sandy Stone, William Burroughs and Marshall McLuhan, Terence McKenna and Noam Chomsky, and on subjects such as psychedelia’s influence on computer design, interactive art, stomach sculptures, and clowns in media. There comes a time when healthy pluralism can turn into a sloppy everything-is-everything melange, but ultimately this book (like the magazine) is saved by its own enthusiasm for all these weirdnesses and you kind of get swept along in the rush. It also helps that just about everything in Transit Lounge is well written.

As a collection of articles culled from a magazine, it serves primarily two functions. First, as a record of fin de millennium observations on life and the future from a range of writers and thinkers. Second, as a handy pop-future primer for those who might not have been paying attention when early issues of 21.C were available.

The editors have done a good job in compressing a mountain of words into a still hefty (and good value at $35 rrp) 192 big pages of stuff. Gone is the magazine style formatting and instead is a low-cost simplified design of black type on rough paper with silver titles and chapter graphics. Applause to art director Terence Hogan—never has the future business looked so unhyped and understated.

In 51 articles there is a range of quality, subjects and authors. Sometimes these axes align to produce gems: Mark Dery’s interview with Terence McKenna is a highlight. If you thought that Terence McKenna was just a lunatic nattering about Transcendental Objects at the End of Time, then you are only partly right. He and Dery have an energetic discussion about McKenna’s ideas, threaded through with an acknowledgment of the importance of contradiction (and the ability to hold in one’s head seemingly contradictory ideas) for the growth of the new paradigm of non-linear thinking. So you could say on one hand McKenna is intelligent and, on the other hand, mad as a meat-axe, and you would be totally right.

Dery makes another appearance (well, 7 actually—only matched by McKenzie Wark for output) with a lighter and darker think piece on the image of the clown in contemporary culture. Drawing on contemporary clowns such as Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Batman, John Wayne Gacy, Krusty the Clown and the slew of serial clowns in slasher movies, Dery follows the scary clown thread all the way back to medieval mystery plays where the Fool and Death were often interchangeable. Death makes a mockery of life’s joys, and life can thumb its nose at death. Either way, there is a hell of a lot of clown imagery out there—“encapsulating what Stephen King has identified as the Have-A-Nice-Day/Make-My-Day dualism that typifies contemporary culture.” Creepy.

Margaret Wertheim’s profile on Evelyn Fox Keller, “The XX Files”, provides a perfect introduction to Keller’s ideas and her increasingly shakeable faith in her ideas to effect real change. Keller has shown that prevailing masculine views clouded the judgement of those observing the role of the sperm and egg in reproduction—the idea was that all the work was done by the sperm and the egg just lay there—but now we know (or at least believe it when this generation of scientists tells us) that the egg is actively engaged in guiding the sperm by releasing chemicals. The roles ascribed to the nucleus and cytoplasm in the cell are also found to be influenced by gender-based assumptions. Keller wrote her book over 10 years ago, and this article is a re-examination of her ideas and an instructive overview of what little has changed since then.

These are just three of the better pieces in Transit Lounge. Bruce Sterling’s paean to dead media forms, Rudy Rucker’s ode to the BrainPlug, Anthony Haden-Guest’s hymn to Anime and Rosie Cross’s tribute to St Jude are some more. Every reader will have their own favourites.

Criticisms? Both profile authors and profile subjects will be familiar to many who might be considered the target market: James Joyce by Darren Tofts, William Burroughs by Kathy Acker, William Gibson by Phillip Adams, Ted Nelson by Rosie Cross, Noam Chomsky by Catharine Lumby, Stelarc by Nicholas Zurbrugg, Jean Baudrillard by Jean Baudrillard. Maybe it’s too familiar for some, and maybe the dynamic range of experiences offered in the magazine gets attenuated here by the editors’ preferences.

And then there are the quotes and counter quotes throughout: Darren Tofts in talking of Sigmund Freud quotes Greil Marcus, Greil Marcus in talking of Guy Debord quotes Sadie Plant, Rosie Cross in talking to Sadie Plant quotes Donna Haraway. Keen cultural studies students could probably play that 6 degrees of separation game—instead of Kevin Bacon you could find you are only ever 6 jumps away from McKenzie Wark.

Ultimately Transit Lounge has enough good points to overcome any objections from reviewers who think a well balanced review should have some negatives. It is a sprawling mass of ideas and opinions through which readers can pick their own path, and its darkly optimistic enthusiasm for the future is a refreshing change from overhyped commercial expectation or anti-tech hysteria.

Nothing ages slower than visions of the future. Buy a copy and bury it for future generations.

Ashley Crawford & Ray Edgar eds, Transit Lounge: Wake Up Calls and Travellers’ Tales From the Future, Craftsman House, 1998, $35 rrp

RealTime issue #25 June-July 1998 pg. 25

© Michael Hill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 1998