Gleanings: from recent reading on music, social media, VR games, and feminist SF

In the ars gratia artis view, works of art are their own end and shouldn’t serve any external purpose, but most of us use art all the time. J. S. Bach composed a piece of music, now known as the Goldberg Variations, that was reportedly meant to occupy the restless mind of a patron while he tried to get to sleep. More recently, composer Max Richter (whom I wrote about here) crafted an eight-hour-long project called Sleep, which is meant to be heard while sleeping. Part of his rationale, from an interview conducted by Sophie Gilbert:

Our psychological space is being increasingly populated by data. And we expend an enormous amount of energy curating data. That’s kind of a significant psychological load, and Sleep is an opportunity or a suggestion that we take a holiday from that and reflect on what’s actually going on. If you’re a busy person living in the West, it’s easy to end up in a data hamster wheel. The idea of Sleep is that it’s an antidote.

Gilbert’s interview, for The Atlantic online, is here.


We commonly speak of what we do online as one thing and what we do “in real life” as another. The intent may be to distinguish between in-person, face-to-face interactions and anything’s that mediated—by Facebook, for instance—but we don’t talk as if telephone calls or letters or videoconferences weren’t real. Discussing a recent study that used these terms, Nathan Jurgenson comments:

The point of social science research on social media shouldn’t be to continuously rediscover the fact that communicating through a new medium still takes place in reality. What is important is that social relations transpire through many flavors of information (text, voice) and these all have varying impacts, based on, among other things, the presence of screens and the affordances of different apps for different people in different times and places.

Jurgenson’s post, in a recently founded online publication called Real Life, is here.


Writing about a noise-rock concert in the opening paragraph of a review of new virtual-reality games (one of which was created by a member of that band), Simon Parkin offers this vivid description:

The performance was disorienting, both intimate and savage, like the first moments after an accident, before time resumes its normal speed and the damage can be measured.

Parkin’s evocative review, which suggests that VR may serve the fantastical just as well as the realistic, appears in the Elements section of The New Yorker’s website, here.


Laurie Penny, writing about futuristic fiction and present-day politics under the headline “Fear of a Feminist Future,” has this to say:

Right now, innovative, exciting stories by and about women, queers, and people of color are having a moment in science fiction. From Hollywood to the Hugos, the genre’s most prestigious awards, a new kind of narrative is gaining in popularity, one where they get to be more than just side-notes in the Hero’s Journey.…

A great deal of post-apocalyptic fiction written by women imagines society in a way that is so radically different from the patriarchal literary imagination that it would read as science fiction even without the nuclear fallout.…

One reason it seems easier for women, queers, and people of color to come up with nuanced and diverse futures is that, in many ways, the future is where we’ve always already lived. Women’s liberation today is an artifact of technology as well as culture: contraceptive and medical technology mean that, for the first time in the history of the species, women are able to control their reproductive destiny, to decide when and if they want children, and to take as much control of their sexual experience as society will allow. (Society has been slow to allow it: this is not the sort of progress futurists get excited about.)

These are among the more positive notes in Penny’s essay; a good deal of it consists of vigorous criticism, not praise. She’s a stirring writer, out to do battle with the forces of reaction and retrenchment, which she’s relentless in ferreting out (although she doesn’t always have to seek it—she’s often attacked online). In the piece I’m quoting from, she goes a little further than I would, discovering and ridiculing an otherwise fairly obscure 1971 SF novel about a future world in which women have enslaved men. But it all serves her purpose, and there’s no denying the strength of her rhetoric; she tosses off coinages such as “brotopia” (that must be what she intended, despite the spelling), “gynopocalypse,” and “literary disasterpiece.” Readers with a taste for the kind of future vision Penny praises here should be glad to hear, if they don’t already know, that Penny has written such a work herself, a recently published novella called Everything Belongs to the Future, about which I hope to have more to say later.

Her piece appears in The Baffler online, here.


Finally, two days ago, film writer Stephanie Zacharek posted this tweet, on a subject left unnamed:

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