Monthly Archives: January 2019

The safe bummer of legal marijuana

In the small clear-plastic cube on the counter were two shelves of smoking accessories. On the top shelf, clear glass pipes printed with silhouette men and women having sex; on the bottom shelf, blister packages of metal pipe and grinder combos, in Jamaican flag colors, with a Bob-Marley-ish face in the grinder. The gear was less surprising than the store selling it: a gas station in Merrifield, Virginia, where I had taken my father’s old truck for its state inspection.

Virginia is not a state with legal marijuana. It wasn’t long ago that the few record stores and novelty stores that also sold bongs and pipes had to sticker them with notices that they were intended for tobacco use. We Americans have all grown used to these fig-leafs being lifted, and to the eventual likelihood of its pan-state (if not national) legalization.

Still, it disappoints me. Not that I want it recriminalized. I just want it to be illicit.

The legalization of something already widely accessible is an end to hypocrisy, a chance to research and understand its real effects, and a huge boon to the poorest and least privileged among us, too many of whom still sit in jails for an ever-more legal act. Back when I was an illegal pot smoker — as all American pot smokers older than 30 once were — I certainly would not have wanted to go to jail.

But, it was thrilling to be illegal, for an hour here and there, and be unscathed. Thrilling, and maybe necessary.

Criminality is a form of puzzle-solving. You are not supposed to do something, but you find a way to do it, with no great consequence and possible great benefit. It uses the same skill-sets that get salespeople good commissions, that got my father through nine months in a Nazi POW camp.

I know, in head and heart, that no crime is victimless. Someone suffers. The Buddha reminds us we all suffer regardless.

So I will just say it aloud for once. I miss the risk and the seediness of being a pothead, the odd skill it took to know whether it was good or not, the randomness of the available product, the curious investigations tracking it down in new places. I miss making bongs out of foil ashtrays and Pringles cans. I miss not explaining that the good wood I sought in hardware store scrap piles was for whittling pipes. I miss scoring my weed instead of shopping for it.

Samuel R. Delany, a great writer and greatly carnal man, laments the transformation of his youth’s Times Square from dangerous and cheaply decadent to Disney-fied and casual-dining. Breaking Bad‘s murderous, enslaving white supremacists lament helmet laws. I lament legal pot.

I am grateful that my children, should they choose to use pot when they are adults, will never have to risk prison to get it. I alas feel this safety as a loss. Sometimes I wonder if our anxious populace clamors for CBD because we’ve taken away the risk of getting THC.

In the way of stopped clocks, do the desperate and the horrid have a valid point about the over-management of modern human life?

It’s an irresponsible question, but not an idle one. Even the optimists behind Star Trek had to admit, through the invention of Section 31, that society needs those willing to violate the Prime Directive on more than a captain’s whim, and with a very different sense of the greater good. The Devil’s Advocate was a real job in Vatican canonization trials. He kept the unworthy out of the ranks of the saints, and performed penance when he lost. Since John Paul II diminished the office, one could argue we’ve had saint inflation. (Someone should tell The Good Place.)

The CIA might want to leave the Ivy League to corporate recruiters. The children of today’s Dreamers may be America’s best future spies.

Science-fiction is neither cyberpunk nor broken

In his new Slate essay, Lee Konstantinou opines that Something is Broken in Our Science Fiction.
He isn’t really talking about science-fiction, so much as its subgenre of cyberpunk, which certainly still influences science-fiction subgenre naming, from steampunk to hopepunk. I’m not sure that cyberpunk has more influence than that these days – but let’s talk cyberpunk, for now.
Konstantinou calls cyberpunk a genre where the “hacker hero (or his magic-wielding counterpart) faces a huge system of power, overcomes long odds, and finally makes the world marginally better—but not so much better that the author can’t write a sequel.”
Never mind that this is the story of many novels in many genres. It’s a poor fit to cyberpunk, which usually sweeps its anti-heroes into situations where they are fitfully, perhaps only for a moment, masters of their fate. Usually, cyberpunk contents itself with not letting things get even worse. Its antecedent is the bitter Sisyphean resignation of Philip K. Dick. It’s telling that the book Konstantinou calls a parody of cyberpunk, Snow Crash, is one of the few that really embrace his straw-man of story concept in a funny and self-aware way — though, without a sequel.
According to Wikipedia, I am twelve years older than Konstantinou. I am fifty-three, so doing the math will show those were a significant twelve years. When he was a kid, he had the hammering-down of the Berlin Wall. When I was a kid, nuclear war, waged across that wall’s spiked concrete, was such a certainty that the network ABC made a prime-time movie about it.
In that light, cyberpunk was hopeful. Ecodeath and corporate control notwithstanding, we still had a world, and satellite casinos too. To state baldly, as Konstantinou does, that “cyberpunk is arguably a kind of fiction unable to imagine a future very different from its present” ignores that the present got more hopeful after the fiction. In its day it was a vast imagining, counter to both the militarized and the utopian strains of science-fiction, and more realistically human than either.
Konstantinou also dismisses style, which is a big part of cyberpunk. It’s like faulting Edgar Allan Poe for brooding. Even in our days of smartwatches, the scene in Neuromancer where the AI Wintermute chases after Case by ringing pay-phone after pay-phone is still powerful — BBC’s recent Sherlock steals it to introduce Watson to Mycroft Holmes.
Konstantinou’s biggest error, of course, is to conflate cyberpunk with the whole of science-fiction. In this century, most good and well-regarded science-fiction books are not cyberpunk, in either setting or style. Now that so much reality has come to resemble cyberpunk, in its technofetishism and anarchic capitalism, we do need new imaginings.
Thing is, we’re getting them. There’s lots of good sci-fi, and most of it owes its predecessors. No one would call N K Jemisin cyberpunk, nor Ann Leckie, nor Cixin Liu. All of them work in older traditions, and also do many things new.
So what does Konstantinou want? For his Twitter feed to be less full of optimism and fads, it seems.
Maybe the problem is less in science-fiction than on Twitter?