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The song blares from my car’s less-than-quality speakers. The lyrics are mostly in Korean, although every once in a while there’s a word or a phrase in English. It’s a song with a title I don’t recognize by a band with a cutesie name. I’m not really into it. But the lady is, and so it’s playing now.
We drive back from dinner out of town, returning to school. While eating, we had a terse not-quite-argument about something silly. Or something serious. In any case, we’re both a little stubborn and more than a little confrontation-averse, so the mood now is tense, but not in a way that means we’ll be screaming at each other. It’s just quiet. Uncomfortably so. And in this context, the K-Pop music is making me question things on a deeper level. I realize of course that that isn’t quite warranted, but I’m a worrier: things get lodged up in my head with striking ease, and they take a lot to get dislodged.
What do we even share, anyway? Do we have common ground anymore? We’ve been together longer than most couples our age. A lot has changed since the beginning. The K-Pop thing came along a couple years ago, late freshman year, and I’ve never really related to it. I’ve always liked songs with guitars. Hipster crap, or old rock music or really anything with a slightly sad edge to it. Oh, and preferably in English. That sort of taste isn’t unique to me by a long shot, but it’s pretty dang far from the highly-danceable number currently pouring from my sound system.
She usually runs the music in the car; I drive, she DJs. Given that that’s our format, the irrational part of my brain resents that she doesn’t pick something we’re both into. And that feeling of course leads me back to the big-picture worries: what are we both into? I know I struggle seeing the appeal of some of what she likes; does she even see the appeal of my interests?
The car ride ends, we part with a kiss and a hug. It’s all procedure now, I guess. Doubt keeps swirling, fueled by silence and isolation.
The next day, a message:
“Hey, we’re playing Overwatch in my room later. Want to come join?”
The gaming thing is new, but welcome. She only recently got past her discomfort with virtual violence. And boy has she gotten past it. Her roommates have helped move her to the realm of controllers and load screens with gusto. Frankly I’m envious of their success: I always had a private hope that she would someday sit with me as we pass controllers around, or as we both play our own games together. I guess it just took time. She got there, on her own terms, and it makes me happy.
I show up at her place and we start playing the game. It’s a lot of fun. Music plays and the beat goes along as we trade comments on playing styles, laugh over mistakes, celebrate victories. Dimly I come to realize that the song playing now is that same K-Pop tune from the car yesterday. I’ve been absent-mindedly tapping my foot to it until now. I smirk at myself, inwardly. I tend to make mountains out of molehills, like I said. I try to stay out of my head as the game keeps going. I succeed, mostly.
It takes so much work to keep the bond strong. It takes a lot of thought and consideration, and a lot of talking. Scheduling time together, eking out space in each of our lives to be with one another. These are the logistical issues that need solving, and we’ve gotten rather good at dealing with them. But for me at least the hardest challenges come from within myself. I let simple, small things – as small as a silly song playing in my car – devolve into full-blown signs of some inevitable end. And I try to wrestle them down alone, often without success. The solution to this issue, the resolution to these worries, is nearly always as simple and small as the things which bring them about. Hearing the same song in another context. Seeing her decisions or words in a different light. Being reminded that, hey, it turns out we really do share quite a lot after all. We love games. We love stories, and characters. We love writing. Books. Walks on a warm day. Cuddling up together. Making each other laugh. When things get tough, we need to return to the loves we share, and they are not quite so few as I have worried they might be. After all we love each other, K-Pop be damned.
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I’ve always had a big empty space in my heart for dystopian science fiction. I love the feel of paper between my fingers as grimdark worlds of rusted metal and greenhouse gases rush through my mind. Maybe it’s a sign of my times, but for some reason I’m drawn to those run down universes with narratives of uncertain morals and dubious characters. Worlds of futile struggles against powers that have long escaped the grasp of humanity, or of technology gone too far. And here are some of my favorites:
1992’s “Snow Crash,” an awesome, whimsical, demented novel about a wakizashi-wielding Hiro Protagonist – and yes that is his name, not his trope. Well, his name and his trope. Sometimes taken as a send-up of the cyber-punk genre, Neal Stephenson likely drew heavily on the works of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson when writing this book. It features a pre-Matrix virtual reality world, where the plot is set into motion by the introduction of a fatal cyber-virus, the titular Snow Crash. The story touches on themes of religious and ideological indoctrination and programming theory. Oh, and Sumerian mythology. Set in an anarcho-capitalist North America after the downfall of organized government, much of the story has to do with overcoming the hurdles of living in a world where there are no laws, only contracts. Also featured are a punk skateboarder courier, a bunch of cyborgs, and a gun called Reason. Stephenson’s style is fast, punchy and absurdist. If you like this book, check out Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon,” an elegant mash-up of a WWII historical fiction tale with a modern tech thriller.
William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” (1984) is in many ways similar to “Snow Crash,” with its depiction of virtual reality. But be advised, this is a much darker story than the last. It follows a strung-out hacker as he finds himself given a second chance at life by mysterious forces to partake in a complicated heist on a space station orbiting the Earth. Gibson’s version of dystopia is a definitive “cyberpunk” setting: the urban sprawl never ends, mega-corporations control every facet of life, and cybernetic modification is ubiquitous – one of the main characters possesses retractable claws in her fingers and enhanced optical lenses for eyes, for instance. Without revealing too much, I’ll say that the story deals heavily with issues related to artificial intelligence. This is a classic novel in the genre, and has become highly influential. “Neuromancer” is cited as the popular origin for such sci-fi terms as “the matrix,” “ICE,” and “cyberspace.”
Ian MacDonald’s 2004 novel “River of Gods” is another story about artificial intelligence, although in a completely different context than “Neuromancer.” Set in 2047 in an India which has fractured into numerous competing states, the novel takes on the perspectives of numerous characters throughout the disparate nation: a by-the-book AI-hunting cop; his wife; a surgically non-gendered soap opera producer; a prominent politician struggling to combat the worst drought in history; a pair of scientists working to simulate pre-historic Earth; a street thug with big dreams and Aj, a girl with mysterious powers over the world and the people around her. Also, there might be aliens and they also might have sent us a fun asteroid. It’s a winding, twisting and at times vexing yarn, but it pays off beautifully in a way you don’t quite expect until the very end.
Similarly set in a future Southeast Asia is “The Windup Girl” (2009) by Paulo Bacigalupi. The world has been beset by the ravages of unchecked genetic modification and the runaway greenhouse effect, with a small handful of biotech firms holding the keys to the food supply and health of the entire globe. Set in Bangkok, Thailand centuries hence, the city is threatened constantly with destruction as sea levels have risen nearly beyond the limits even of the enormous levies built around it. Meanwhile, a corporate agent searches for leverage over the city, and a “windup girl” – a genetically modified human analogue – struggles for freedom from captivity. This is perhaps the darkest world I’ve listed here: it touches on sex trafficking, slum living and the realities of a world choking on carbon and disturbing scenes of violence. Not a book for the faint of heart, but definitely a gripping and insightful look into what the world might become.
You may ask, “why read dark stuff? The world is already so dark!” And you have a point.
But I ask in return, why do we read horror novels? In many ways the answer to one is the same as to the other: because they touch on the things that we leave to the back of our minds, but refuse to tackle in the light of day. These books rip that scary science news headline you refuse to click on right from its page and go off running with it. And they take you places you didn’t expect to go, that were far brighter than you expected them to be. So I implore you to check these titles out. Call it an exercise in catharsis.