BOOK REVIEW: Technicolor Ultra Mall by Ryan Oakley

Paul Raven @ 07-10-2011

Technicolor Ultra Mall by Ryan OakleyTechnicolor Ultra Mall by Ryan Oakley

Edge SF&F (Canada), 2011; ~280pp; C$14.95 RRP – ISBN13: 978-1894063548

Budgie is a Vidicon, a member of one of the countless drug-fuelled gangs who fight to the death for territory and prestige in the red levels of the T-Dot ultramall. He sends the last of the Dog Goblins northwards in a gory streetfight, but not before his enemy dispatches his patrol partner Sputnik with a poisoned blade to the jaw. The glory of the kill accrues to Budgie, and Vidicons are no strangers to murder and its consequences, but emotion, sentiment or friendship aren’t covered by the rulebook; there’s no profit in regret or compassion. Gang stuff is just business.

Or so it’s supposed to go, anyway. But after hauling his partner’s dying body to a performance surgeon who fails to save him, Budgie has to face the consequences of the Vidicon lifestyle in something other than the abstract, starting a long painful chain of questions whose answers don’t get any easier to stomach. Meanwhile, the alpha and beta males of the Vidicon hierarchy have their fingers in more rarified pies, like running red-level raves that cater to the slummers who come down from the green levels for a forbidden taste of danger and dirty hedonism. Gammas like Budgie are just disposable tools in their projects, and even as Budgie starts trying to go straight and find a way out of the red levels, he gets entangled in machinations that will not only destroy everything he cares about, but the mall itself.

The consumerist mall-as-dystopia is not a wholly original idea, but I can’t remember ever encountering one so unflinchingly brutal as Technicolor Ultra Mall. From the opening blaze of profanity-peppered violence to the bleak cataclysm of its conclusion, Oakley never eases the pressure, tearing aside the glossy veils of commerce to reveal the cynical profiteering beneath. This book is yet another data point for the adage about science fiction novels being about the time in which they are written more than the time in which they are set, and as the global economy goes from bad to worse it’s only going to look more timely. We already live in Oakley’s mall, sealed off from the over-polluted outside world like the arcologies of the classic satirical RPG Paranoia, everything we see or hear or feel mediated by businesses interests, our politics a polarised red vs. blue puppet show that distracts us from the real game being played by the high rollers, our lingering primate instincts and tribal urges leveraged in order to maintain and prop up a profitable hierarchy.

Technicolor Ultra Mall is primarily about class. The metaphor is as unmissable as it is overamplified for effect: the underground red levels where the gangs roam free along streets full of bars, bordellos and shooting galleries (both kinds), and a crude code of honour is brutally enforced; the middle class green levels, where the warfare is more subtle and your good standing as a (seemingly) upright citizen is equivalent to the rep of a red level gangster; the rarified blue levels, which – fittingly, and true to life – we see very little of at first hand, and whose machinations manifest as turbulence in the layers below, like the vortices caused by a dragnet sweeping through a fishtank. But while class may be the bedrock theme, there’s plenty of other stuff salted away in the plot: radical transhuman technologies (for those who can afford to pay, natch) and their potentially dehumanising side-effects; the psychology of sales and persuasion, and the engineering of consent; satirical critiques of constructed and performative gender and class roles, and of psychiatry-as-character. A selection of vignette stories that feed into to the main narrative make a point of showing how easily manipulated all of us are, even those of us who think ourselves immune to the crude importunings of marketeers; Oakley has evidently studied the art of persuasion very closely, and it’s perhaps Technicolor Ultra Mall‘s greatest triumph that he manages to convincingly portray its insidious power while making it transparent enough that we can see the psychologist/wizard behind the curtain. As a debt-defaulting gambler discovers to his peril, the casino always wins; our statistical illiteracy and blindness to zero-sum games makes marks of us all.

While Budgie’s tragic Orpheus-esque arc is complete, there are a few dropped threads and unexplored alleyways; a late introduction of the possibility of transferring minds between bodies (a fine opportunity to extend the critique of both radical transhumanism and class, of the body as commodity) goes underdeveloped, for example. Some of the anarchist rhetoric comes across as a little crude, but that’s to be expected given the naïvete of the characters giving voice to it; likewise, the underlying metaphor comes on heavy-handed on more than a few occasions, and reading them is like being kicked around a gravel car park by a guy with a point to prove. Technicolor Ultra Mall is inescapably radical in its political outlook, and that alone will put off a certain section of the traditional science fiction market, even as it aligns Oakley along the same refusenik axis as sf authors as diverse as Ballard, Doctorow, Sterling and Dick. There will doubtless be accusations of hypocrisy – how can you critique extreme media sensationalism by using extraordinarily graphic violence? – but there is no glorification here. Quite to the contrary; the violence always serves to illustrate the moral bankruptcy or desperation of its perpetrators, and anyone who can read it as glorious is probably beyond help.

While reading Oakley’s savage prose is like riding the fight-or-flight limbic buzz of an amphetamine high, fans of redemption or happy endings should walk away now and never look back, because Technicolor Ultra Mall will break your bitter heart before hawking it to a black-market organ recycler. But as you do so, consider that your flinching from the cruelty of consumerism’s consequences is exactly what enables them to exist. We all know the mall is cruel, but we all know that it’s easier to play our roles than question the script. Oakley knows how the script ends, but so does anyone else who’s willing to think about it; trouble is, that knowledge comes freighted with an eschatological sense of futility. Technicolor Ultra Mall is a funhouse mirror, and the joke is that we all want to believe that the leering face that looks back at us is anyone else’s but our own. It’s also a rugged and angry début novel from a writer who isn’t afraid to turn the spotlight onto complicity – his own, and everyone else’s. To paraphrase one Michael Franti, “hypocrisy is our greatest luxury”; Oakley dangles the possibility of redemption, or at least individual escape from the system, only to snatch it away at the last.

The comparison isn’t exact, but Technicolor Ultra Mall belongs to the same dystopian school as 1984; Oakley may not yet have that Orwellian mastery of prose, but he has the required acuity of vision, and – most importantly of all – the willpower not to look away as a designer-label bought-on-credit boot stamps on a human face, forever.

[ In the interests of full disclosure: Ryan Oakley is an online buddy, courtesy an introduction from M1k3y of grinding.be, who said something along the lines of “you should really be following this guy, he’s sharp as hell”. It’s a fair description; Oakley’s as keen-eyed, angry and iconoclastic as his novel, and quite possibly the most distinctively-dressed anarchist one could ever hope to meet. ]


Generic brands and self-esteem

Paul Raven @ 11-01-2011

The anti-Apple snarker in me wants to claim this as some sort of victory (“See – this is why Macbook owners are so damn smug!”), but that’s just me airing my own (admittedly irrational) prejudices*. I think there may be something far more important to tease out from the discovery that generic non-brand products have a damaging effect on the self-esteem of those who buy them:

“Even incidentally used cheaper, generic products have the ironic consequence of harming one’s self-image via a sense of worthlessness,” Yin-Hsien Chao and Wen-Bin Chiou report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They found this dampening of self-esteem has potentially negative consequences in the realms of both money and romance.

Of course, all such statements must come with caveats:

… it’s worth noting that in these experiments, the use of a generic product was both involuntary and public. The results may or may not hold true for someone who makes the choice himself, and does so in a private setting.

Nevertheless, it’s striking that in these experiments, using a non-brand-name item for a just few minutes had a measurable negative impact. This suggests “we should not overlook the possible backlash of using generic products,” the researchers warn.

This says something pretty powerful about the effects of branding and media saturation, though we’d have to do a lot more work to find out how and why it happens. But the link between consumer choices and self-identity seems clear, and fits with a great deal of media theory from the last four decades or so; what I’d like to know is whether those effects are stronger in the infinite-duplex-channels landscape of the networked world than they were in the golden era of limited simplex broadcast media (TV and radio). How much influence does the opinion of our fellow consumers have? Are we more influenced by those closest to us, or by those more distant figures we aspire to be like?

[ * More seriously, I think the stark polarity between Apple fanpersons and Apple detractors is a really good illustration of the complexity I’m talking about, there: what is it about Apple products that causes some people to identify with them so strongly, and others to reject them equally forcefully? Branding must be a big part of it, but there are definitely more factors in play. ]


Unbranding and the hipster backlash

Paul Raven @ 26-08-2010

I have an awkward but passionate relationship with academic discussions of popular culture. Expansion: I’ve always found popular culture more interesting as an observer than as a participant, but I think the line between those two states is becoming thinner and fuzzier (if, indeed, it ever existed at all beyond my own desperate, continuous and largely futile attempts to see myself as separate from any form of cultural majority in my current social environment*).

You see, I had a minor revelation on the way to Tesco the other evening, in which I realised that part of the difficulty with, say, writing reviews of books or music in a networked world, is that you can’t isolate any one cultural artefact from the world in which it exists, or from its creator (not entirely), or from its consumers and detractors. To review effectively – to critique – is an act of comparative cultural anthropology, performed in a room lit only by a Maglite velcroed to one’s own forehead. Context is everything. The character and intellectual history of the critic is crucial to your understanding their understanding of the subject of their critique. The critic’s greatest insights (and, by the same token, greatest blindspots) are necessarily invisible to her. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, the critic can’t see her biases for the same reason that a tourist stood in Trafalgar Square can’t see England.

And so much for rambling pseudophilosophical cultural discourse. (Hey, it was a fun paragraph to write. I may even have meant most of it.) But back to the point: culture, fashion, trends, memes. Cyclic shifts. The mainstream’s need to reappropriate marginal culture (because, based as it is on a pattern of consumerism, it cannot create, only refine and reiterate); marginal culture’s parasitic defiance, goading and mockery/pastiche/satire of the mainstream’s current obsessions (because the urge to create is almost indistinguishable from the urge to destroy).

What am I going on about?

Like, hipsters, y’know? Right. Wired UK piece, academics and psychology types talking about the pivot point where a self-identified outsider culture reaches a critical mass and becomes a self-parody, attacks its own body-politic like cancer or some sort of immune system failure; Pop Will Eat Itself (dos dedos, mis amigos). Swarms of Johnny-come-latelys displace the boys and girls from back-in-the-day to the sound of chorused mutterings of “sell-outs and cash-ins”,  “we-were-here-first”, “the-early-albums-were-waaaaay-better”. In-group identifiers become terms of disparagement outside the group; inside the group, further divisions of nomenclature attempt to reposition the speaker in relation to the recent immigrant influx invading their cultural space (“he’s no hipster, he’s a scenester; sooooo bogus”). Meanwhile, businesses spring up and rot away in parallel with the swells and breakers of cultures rising and falling, happy remoras (remorae?) on the big dumb whale-shark of Youth. (RIP, American Apparel; couldn’t happen to a more horrifying homogeniser of urban try-hards.)

Whoa, check myself – still waffling b*llocks! Cut to the chase with academic concision:

In order to distance themselves from the hipster caricature, true indie consumers** use a number of techniques.

The first is “aesthetic discrimination”, whereby you tell those who accuse you of being hipsters as uninformed outsiders who don’t have sophisticated enough tastes to be able to discriminate between the hipster caricature and the authentic indie consumer.

The second technique is “symbolic demarcation”. Those indie consumers who engage in aesthetic discrimination tend to have an intellectual command of indie culture and are socially recognised as people who are in the know. Because of this status, they can afford to dismiss any resemblances to the hipster icon as irrelevant.

They might also rename the hipster caricature as something else, eg “scenester”, thus placing the worst traits associated with a “hipster” into a new, distinct definition. Creating a new category helps solidify the contrast between legitimate indie consumers and those who simply want to be part of a fashionable scene.

The third technique is “proclaiming (mythologised) consumer sovereignty”. This sees the person consciously reframe their interests in the indie field to show their autonomy from the dictates of fashion.

“Our findings suggest how backlash against identity categories such as hipster or metrosexual could generate complex and nuanced identity strategies that enable consumers to retain their tastes and interests while protecting these tastes from trivializing mythologies,” the authors conclude.

(Before you feel too smug, we all do this. Granted, most of us reading this site don’t do it while wearing ironic Rayban knockoffs or penny loafers under rolled-up drainpipe jeans, but we all do it. Genre fandom especially is full of this stuff, though it moves more slowly. Hell, even the transhumanists do it, though they use even bigger words than anyone else in the process. Othering is a hard-wired human thing, goes way back to pre-speech phases of socialisation. Them-and-us; hard habit to quit.)

But so what? Well, say you’re a marketer for fashion brands (or for a new author, or an advocate for a new school of transcendent philosophy). Making your own brand/author/philosophy look good is incredibly hard to achieve reliably… even more so nowadays, with the memetic flux swirling so fast. Yesterday’s viral sensation is today’s lingering and sniffly common cold. So what to do? Instead of giving your brand to cultural icons that reflect the aspirations of your target subculture, you give your rival brands to cultural icons who embody the opposite of those aspirations [via BoingBoing]. Couture-marketing psy-ops. Sounds ridiculous, a possible indicator of the end of civilisation (wring hands, mutter about the Romans, miss point entirely). But with clarity born of hindsight, this morning’s revelation, triggered by the two articles linked above and prompting the rapid-fire unedited writing of this little screed:

William Gibson’s been writing this stuff for years.

How does he keep doing that?

Related: Slate “interviews” Kanye West by slicing up his Twitter output. The Village Voice claims this as the chiselled headstone of the music magazine: who needs the middleman to broadcast their personal brand, if all they’ll do is distort it? The Village Voice fails to recognise that pop culture consumers are like fuzz-rock guitarists: distortion always sounds better than clean signal. Boutique stomp-boxes all round!

[ * So, yes, science fiction fandom was a pretty inevitable landing-spot, I suppose. But which came first, the estrangement or my enjoyment of the literature thereof?*** Answers on the back of an Urban Outfitters till receipt… ]

[ ** Not entirely sure about these notional “true indie consumers”. Neophiliacs would probably be a fairer word, albeit an arguably less flattering one. ]

[ *** And so much for pathos. ]


Living with less: digital lifestyles versus consumer materialism

Paul Raven @ 17-08-2010

Seems like you can’t have a good idea these days without it turning into some sort of cult or movement… maybe that’s always been the case, but 24/7 journalism and social media certainly speeds up the process. Aaaaaaanyways, here’s a BBC article on technohipster types who’re shedding the majority of their material possessions in favour of computer hardware and cloud-based communications and data storage.

It’s kind of romantic, in a somewhat smug and self-aware po-mo kind of way: the New Nomadism! A reaction to the consumerist lust-for-stuff that helped bring us to global financial collapse, etc etc. What it fails to take into account is that there are hundreds of thousands living just as nomadic a lifestyle, only without the luxuries of a fresh Macbook Air and a custom-built fixie; having too much stuff is very much a #firstworldproblem, and as much as it’s satisfying to see a turn away from that, it’s frustrating to see how, already, it’s destined to be repackaged and sold as a lifestyle trend.

If I was in the cloud computing business right now, I’d be thinking real hard about how to market (and mark up!) my tools and services to precisely these sorts of people: people who are financially and geographically fortunate enough to see sparse living as something worth paying for (as opposed to being the only game in town, as it is for most folks living out of a couple of bags).

That said, I can see the benefits… hell, I’ve even experienced some of them. My own recent relocation saw me sell off my entire music collection, for instance; I realised I never played my CDs in a player, so I just ripped them all to a hard drive and sold them off. There were nearly a thousand of them, and do you know what the biggest surprise was? How hard it was to get people to buy them, even priced at just £1 each. Another couple of years (or even less), and you’ll have to give physical music media away. Even now, as new promos keep pouring through my letterbox, I increasingly view them as an imposition on my space… like a meatspace version of bacn, I guess.

It would have been much more pragmatic of me to replace my books with an ereader, but there I drew the line; my library is my major fetish, the last real outlet for my deeply-ingrained middle-class collector’s impulse, and while I may have culled a lot of crap from it, there’s a lot of books that I simply can’t bear to part with. It’s irrational, but I don’t think a bit of irrationality is all that harmful to anything other than my own bank balance… though ask me again after the next time I have to move house. Close to a thousand books is a whole lot of heavy boxes to shift, and they take up a lot of space.

What the BBC piece (and the technomad quotes that prop it up) skips over is the infrastructre that makes such a nomadic lifestyle possible. Ubiquitous wireless broadband, for instance; I’m guessing these people wouldn’t be so keen on living the way they do if they couldn’t remain connected to the world from wherever they’re currently laying their hat. And there’s a whole bunch of unexamined Western privilege beneath the surface: safe places to crash or couch-surf, cheap places to rent over short periods, comparatively low incidences of property theft, kitchen utensils cheap enough to throw out or give away each time you move… these hidden costs are carried by the societies these people live in. Which isn’t to portray these people as parasites (far from it!), but it’s worth bearing in mind to counteract some of the digital_Beatnik utopian vibe of the thing.

Going back to my own downsizing, I found that necessity was the motivator… I inherited a real packrat mindset from my late father, and it dies hard. But now I’ve started, it’s easier to see other things that I know (rationally) I could (and indeed should) get rid of. But emotional attachments are very powerful things; whatever you might think of Buddhism as a religion, that’s one aspect of human psychology it really nails. It can be done, though; Futurismic‘s very own peripatetic columnist Sven Johnson tells me his possessions consist of a desk, a decent ergonomic chair, a computer and a duffle full of clothes. As a freelance industrial designer, he doesn’t really need much else – and it means moving to where the work is becomes a much less painful process.

What would it take to make you give up the majority of your physical possessions? And what’s the one thing you really couldn’t bear to part with, even though you know you don’t need it?


Roleplaying Games and the Cluttered Self

Jonathan McCalmont @ 21-07-2010

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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0: Hume

Have you ever looked at an old photograph of yourself or read one of your old letters or emails and marvelled at the differences between the person you are now and the person you were then?  Getting older means falling into the habit of shrieking “what was I thinking?” whenever you stumble across some fragment of a former life.  But let us take this idea a little further: are you actually the same person that you were when you wrote that letter?  When you had that photograph taken?  When you decided to start dating that person who was obviously so ill suited to you?  Are you the same person you were yesterday?  Or five minutes ago?  Or when you started reading this sentence?  The 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume suggested that you might very well not be. Continue reading “Roleplaying Games and the Cluttered Self”


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