Alt Culture Antibodies


Photo by Hunter Freeman.

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I’ll try to keep this short; it’s late and there’s not much time left. Please forgive me if you’ve heard parts of this story before.

For me, it started with an old box of science fiction. I tore through Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, Gene Wolfe, and others, reliving stories old by the time I cracked the pages. I didn’t care.

To my mind, the New Wave had it: the future was something to play in. This status quo was the most transient of things, its passing viewed with a sense of infinite possibility. If there were other cultures out in space, forward in time, why not here? Why not now?


Photo by Mike Brodie.

I lived in one of those amazing, barely-clinging corners of the country too many ignore when they talk about culture of any variety. No metropoli there, just a scattering of people trying their desperate best. By the time I busted open the box full of old books, I had already faced a fair amount of poverty, hardship, and even death.


90s Cyberpunk portraiture by Steve Pyke.

But here, as the years wore on and I read my way through an uneasy adolescence, was something else: here was hope, in the most dangerous fashion. Somewhere out there, people changed their personalities, moved in unison, turned boundaries into blurs transitory as old blood on a highway.

By that point I did not care about ridicule, and laughed when someone threatened me, but this I was terrified of, sure that the half-described scenes — goths, ravers, activists, and more —  faced possibility with a courage I felt I’d never know.

"Hoping an inch of good is worth a pound of years" (RIP, Ray Bradbury)

It is late in the week, and by now most of our readers know that Ray Bradbury, one of the last of the Golden Age of Sci-Fi’s grand old men, died Wednesday morning at the age of 91. The tributes have come from everyone from the White House to his colleagues. There is little one can say here that hasn’t already been said. The man was acclaimed viagra england for a reason. Pick up The Illustrated Man, The Golden Apples of the Sun, Fahrenheit 451, or any of his other classics, and you’ll see why.

The outpouring of tributes are a testament to Bradbury’s amazing imagination and reach. But few sum up the sheer humanity of his outlook more than the one above, released by the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, of him reading “If only we had taller been” while Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke look on. The future had scientists; Bradbury knew it needed poets.

In stories of implacable void and burning books, Bradbury pioneered bleak dread in our ideas of what the future could be, but despite his own temperamental times, his sense of wonder remained invincible.

It powered his work until the end. “Take Me Home“ came out just before his death, in the current issue of The New Yorker. In it, a young boy readies for the future, devouring stories and launching fire balloons, watching as they float “across the night among the stars,” far beyond the horizon.


Photo via AP

Farewell, Ray Bradbury. (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012.)

The Mark of Princess Hijab

Editor’s note: today marks the birth date of one of our most tireless and incisive contributors, Mr. David Forbes. For his birthday, David gave us a present: an interview with elusive street artist Princess Hijab. Thanks, David – happy birthday!

A spectre is haunting Paris. For five years, Metro-goers have rounded corners to find heavy, black marker strokes obscuring the idealized arcadia depicted in subway advertisements, the airbrushed bodies of the inhabitants — men and women — disappeared behind a heavy veil. Princess Hijab has struck again.

When she started her “reign” in 2006, observers initially couldn’t decide if it was the work of a modernity-hating zealot or some sort of rabble-rousing commentary. The year before Paris had destructive rioting. France has its own serious racial and ethnic issues, and culture wars are never a place for nuance. The hijab is now, controversially, banned in public.

But from her work, there is no hiding, Parisians still pour out of trains to find the mark of Princess Hijab.

She hasn’t exactly hidden from the media, either. But strangely, in an era craving constant revelation, her identity remains a closely guarded secret. She claims to be around 22 years old, poor, from an immigrant background, and not a Muslim. Those who meet her aren’t even sure if she’s female.

Via e-mail, Princess Hijab, the alias chosen to represent “a mixture of precarity and aristocracy,” has chosen to draw back the veil, just a bit, and tell us about how — and why — she chose her domain.


Fear of an Androgynous Model: Andrej Pejic Brings Out the Hyenas


Andrej Pejic – photo by Sabine Villiard

Andrej Pejic, the beautiful, androgynous Australian model, has had an amazing degree of success for one so young (19). He’s graced the covers of Vogue‘s international editions and worked with such names as Marc Jacobs and Jean Paul-Gaultier.

However, FHM, when choosing to place the Bosnian-born stunner on their list of “100 sexiest women,” was apparently determined to show the world that whatever Pejic’s success, they were determined to keep him from blurring their neat boundaries.


With transphobia thrown in for good measure

While the magazine later yanked the text, it’s revealing. Macho as they try to be, it apparently only takes the slightest visceral proof that gender is a cultural aesthetic — and an enjoyably malleable one at that — for the lads of FHM to be beside themselves with, well, fear. Heaven forefend they might one day recline into their tangled sheets, reach for a copy of Victoria’s Secret, and realize the glamorous angel on the cover is (gasp), a man.

Sadly, FHM is hardly alone. While men appear shirtless on magazine covers all the time, Barnes and Noble saw fit to wrap an issue of Dossier featuring Pejic, on the grounds that “it could be deemed as a naked female.” And that would be terrible.


Pejic for Vanity Fair Italy

Fortunately, it’s doubtful either bit of phobic wibbling will stop Pejic’s rise. His very presence in so many high-profile fashion venues is hopefully evidence that some things are changing for the better. The delightful pictures above and below show that radiant style cuts across the sexes, and Pejic has it in spades, with confidence to match. After humorously rebuffing a reporter who asked if he’d “consider a complete sex change,” Pejic simply said “I’m comfortable with the way I am.” Amen, and yum.

Jodorowsky’s Dune Finally Revealed?


Some of Moebius’ concept sketches for Jodorowsky’s Dune

For decades it has remained one of sci-fi cinema’s greatest might-have-beens. In 1975, during that magical time when studio heads willingly gave nigh-unlimited piles of cash to visionary directors, Alejandro Jodorowsky signed on to film Frank Herbert’s Dune, with a who’s who crew of alt culture royalty then-famous (Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles) and up-and-coming (H.R. Giger, Dan O’Bannon, Moebius).


H.R. Giger concept design for Dune

The effort collapsed in pre-production amid bizarre rumors, massive budget overruns and plenty of mutual blame. Jodorowsky remained silent on the matter for years, and later penned a revealing account that told his side, but left a lot unsaid. The complete story of this tantalizing effort has remained a mystery, with the only the occasional glimpse to fuel our imaginations. That will soon change.

Now a new documentary by Frank Pavitch aims to finally reveal what really happened with Jodorowsky’s attempt to bring to life a work he believed divinely bestowed on humanity via Herbert.

Over at Blastr, they’re ecstatic, and with some cause (though Jodorowsky’s Dune, if made, could have ended up a fiasco as easily as a masterpiece). The glimpses that have for years sent Dune fans minds spinning are just the tip of the iceberg, and I can’t wait to see what else Pavitch has managed to uncover. The fact he’s wrangled interviews with many of the key participants is encouraging. We may finally know the full tale of this brilliant, doomed effort to fit galactic transcendence onto a movie screen. In the meantime, there’s always the activity books.

[via Brandon Shiflett]

John Murray Spear Builds a Machine God


A depiction of the New Motor. Artist unknown.

Ah, the 1800s were a simpler time. Before that whole Civil War mess, America was in the throes of the Second Great Awakening, with the Northeast so thoroughly scorched by religious fervor that a swath of New York was dubbed “the Burned-over district.”

Amidst this, Spiritualism was all the rage, too, so it didn’t initially attract much notice when John Murray Spear, a middle-aged Universalist pastor in Massachusetts, claimed to be receiving messages from dead men. Sure, it was somewhat strange that instead of talking to a deceased relative for comfort, he claimed that a “Band of Electricizers” made up of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others, had chosen him to bring a messiah into the world. But, in a twist fitting a new era, this savior was a machine, one that would, Spear relayed, “revolutionize the world and raise mankind to an exalted level of spiritual development.”

Those who already knew anything of the man might have figured he had simply snapped. Spear’s outspoken views on abolition and women’s rights, among other topics, led a number of churches to drive him out, and, in 1844, after a particularly vigorous denunciation of slavery, he was beaten and left for dead in Maine.


A picture of Spear, and the title page of a tome of the Electricizers’ revelations.

He recovered, and, in 1851, with the Electricizers’ plans dancing in his head, quit the ministry. Two years later, he began his work on the machine, with a result stranger than fiction.

Grandma Turns Superhero

A few years ago, the French photographer Sacha Goldberger faced a distressing problem. His 91-year-old Hungarian-born grandmother, Frederika, felt lonely and depressed.

His innovative solution was to turn “Mamika” into a larger-than-life superhero and photograph her. According to a post in My Modern Metropolis, “Grandma reluctantly agreed, but once they got rolling, she couldn’t stop smiling.”

The story went viral, even leading to talk of a movie deal. It’s easy to see why. Goldberger’s pictures convey the warmth and sense of wonder that made many of us love the superhero genre in the first place.

Additionally, the images are a reminder that for such a seemingly superficial thing, unique personal aesthetics can have a lot of power. It does everyone good to be a character, if just for a little while.

Of course, there’s also this:

Frederika was born in Budapest 20 years before World War II. During the war, at the peril of her own life, she courageously saved the lives of ten people. When asked how, Goldberger told us “she hid the Jewish people she knew, moving them around to different places every day.” As a survivor of Nazism and Communism, she then immigrated away from Hungary to France, forced by the Communist regime to leave her homeland illegally or face death.

Costume or no, heroes are in the most unexpected places. More photos, below the cut.

All Tomorrows: “Fear is the mind-killer”

After a brief hiatus, David Forbes’ All Tomorrows column, your informal classroom on the glories of sci-fi’s Deviant Age, returns to Coilhouse. Welcome back, David!

Paul took a deep breath to still his trembling. “If I call out there’ll be servants on you in seconds and you’ll die.”

“Servants will not pass your mother who stands guard outside that door. Depend on it. Your mother survived this test. Now it’s your turn. Be honored. We seldom administer this to men-children.”

Curiosity reduced Paul’s fear to a manageable level. He heard truth in the old woman’s voice, no denying it. If his mother stood guard outside… if this were truly a test… And whatever it was, he knew himself caught in it, trapped by that hand at his neck: the gom jabbar. He recalled the response from the Litany against Fear as his mother had taught him out of the Bene Gesserit rite.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Chilton published car manuals. So it must have come as some surprise, 45 years ago, when, out of nowhere, they released a lengthy, phenomenally strange science fiction novel by a nearly unknown journalist. The man’s agent wasn’t even enthusiastic about the manuscript and it had seen rejection from every reputable sci-fi publishing house before squeaking into the pages of Analog.

Dune, read the imposing cover, with its evocatively psychedelic sand swirls and tiny white figures straining against an implied storm. The John Schoenherr art revealed little about the plot or themes inside, other than to convey a sense of struggle and desolation in an otherworldly place.

Opening it up, the reader was plunged into a story of universe-shaking drugs, dynastic backstabbing and heterodox mysticism sprinkled with a tumble of words (Bene Gesserit, Kwisatz Haderach, Sardaukargom jabbar) so strange as to constitute a second language. Whatever the sci-fi readers of the day might have expected, this was doubtlessly not it. By all rights, this unexpected book should have sunk beneath the proverbial sands, awaiting rediscovery in a friendlier artistic age.

Instead, after a somewhat tepid start, it proved a runaway best-seller, sweeping every award sci-fi had to offer. Dune would go on to define the rest of Herbert’s life and ripple into the surrounding culture with an impact that no one, including its author, could have foreseen.

In many ways Dune was the epic Omega to the Alpha of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; released about a decade before. It was sci-fi’s answer to fantasy’s magnum opus, and its only book that can rival Tolkien’s in terms of cultural influence. Herbert’s masterpiece proved tenaciously infectious, its tendrils stretching into all sorts of unexpected corners of the culture, with even its mantras showing up as warning or inspiration.

What is it about this ornate myth that keeps fascinating new generations, why has Dune outlasted its era with such influence?

All Tomorrows: Sovereign Bleak

I always thought danger along the frontier was something that was a lot of fun; an exciting adventure, like in the three-D shows.” A wan smile touched her face for a moment. “Only it’s not, is it? It’s not the same at all, because when it’s real you can’t go home after the show is over.”

“No,” he said. “No, you can’t.”

Story goes like this: there’s an emergency ship en route to a plague-ridden planet, carrying essential medicine. The pilot finds a stowaway; a young girl, Marilyn, who just wants to see her brother.

The pilot now has a problem: he has enough fuel to get himself to the planet, but no one else. Interstellar law is clear: all stowaways are jettisoned immediately.

But space captains are heroic sorts. Whatever harsh decisions the author puts in their background to prove their grit, this is still a story. This time will be different. Marilyn is the perfect, plucky sidekick-in-training; surely the pilot can figure out some way to save both her and the planet’s populace.

No. There is no solution. She says her goodbyes and is ejected, with “a slight waver to the ship as the air gushed from the lock, a vibration to the wall as though something had bumped the outer door in passing, then there was nothing and the ship was dropping true and steady again.”

The above is from Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations. When it came out in Astonishing Science Fiction in August, 1954, it shocked the hell out of the magazine’s readership, used to the last-minute triumph of human ingenuity.

Godwin’s classic was only the beginning. The ensuing decades would see American sci-fi delve into realms unthinkable to its forebears. Desperate to shake off the genre “urinal,” as Kurt Vonnegut so succinctly termed it, writers first ditched one of the key assumptions: that the hero will always save the day. Maturity, in this view, meant uncomfortable truths. Often, it meant unhappy endings, not just for the protagonists, but frequently the entire world.

This is a scattershot story of how the bleak tomorrow came to reign, and how it changed our visions of the future.

Farewell to Howard Zinn, the People’s Historian

“If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive movements of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”

—Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States

The news came yesterday that Howard Zinn — historian, veteran, playwright and activist — had died of a heart attack at the age of 87.

Zinn was best known for his magnum opus, A People’s History of the United States, and for relentless activism against war and oppression in every form he saw. He kept up the fight until the end; giving his last interview just days before his death.

Born to poor immigrants in Brooklyn, Zinn’s family constantly moved during his childhood, staying “one step ahead of the landlord.” He later recalled the experience of “living in poor neighborhoods, seeing people evicted from their homes, their furniture put out onto the street—it seemed to have nothing to do with race or ethnicity, just poverty and helplessness.”

His childhood left him experienced in desperation, and he soon found out about war as well. Enthusiastically joining the Army Air Force in World War II, Zinn flew bombing runs over Berlin, Czechoslovakia and Hungary before participating in the first military use of napalm in 1945. The horrors he witnessed drove him to become a life-long opponent of militarism, convinced that “war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children.”

Upon his return, Zinn took up the career of an educator, but found his own experiences missing from the official histories of his country. He strove to change that, and, instead of standing back, leapt into the civil rights and anti-war movements, inspiring his pupils (including a young Alice Walker), securing the release of POWs from Hanoi and testifying about America’s role in Vietnam at the Pentagon Papers trial.

Through it all, he laid the groundwork for his masterpiece, a book that revealed an alternate universe of dissident uprisings and almost forgotten struggles, simmering just under the surface of the American Dream.

Portrait by Robert Shetterly