Armadillocon 2016

My schedule for Armadillocon, for those of you planning to attend in Austin this weekend:

Blurred Lines SF by Writers from the Mainstream
Fri 5:00 PM-6:00 PM Ballroom E
C. Brown, Catmull, W. Siros, Weisman*,
Panelists will discuss the phenomena of SF writing by mainstream writers. Does anything make it different? What can we learn from these writers?

Sat 1:00 PM-1:30 PM Southpark B
Christopher Brown

SF and the Environment
Sat 3:00 PM-4:00 PM Ballroom E
C. Brown*, Dimond, Latner, Reisman, Schwarz,
How is SFF affected the ways we define ourselves and our environment? How is SFF changing? How is our conversation about the environment changing? What books and movies on this topic are especially interesting?

Sat 9:00 PM-10:00 PM Ballroom F
C. Brown, McKay, Schwarz*, White, Young
Why do we love them? Which ones do we love, and which not so much?


Looking through holes in the border wall


[pic: The U.S. border where it walks into the Pacific, viewed from Tijuana.]

If I had never left Iowa, the state where I grew up, I might find all this talk of building border walls more persuasive.  Iowa is a long way from Mexico. But I’ve lived in the borderzone longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, and spent a good bit of time crossing over. Since 9/11, I’ve seen the U.S.-Mexico border become one of the most fortified places on Earth.  Six hundred miles of sophisticated new physical barriers have been constructed since 2006, in the places where the Border Patrol said they were needed, expanding on the barriers that have been going up since the Clinton years—like the fortification pictured above that comes up out of the Pacific between Tijuana and San Diego.  Other sections are fortified by the “virtual fence” of sensors, drones, blimps, surveillance towers and armed patrols—much of it using technologies and methods developed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s easy to talk about border walls.  I’ve written about them—here, here and here—arguing that their real purpose is not so much to actually keep people and contraband out as it is to persuade citizens far from the border that the legal fiction the wall renders tangible really exists.

It’s not as easy to look at border walls, especially if you don’t live within driving distance of one—or don’t want to confront the reality that diversity is the future no matter what barriers we may erect.  But there are other ways to experience the reality of U.S. border fortifications that already exist.

Last year, for a conference in Monterrey, I conducted an experiment in looking at the border wall without ever getting up from my chair.  Drawing inspiration from the work of the artist Jon Rafman and the Mexican photographer Alberto Rodríguez, I traversed the length of the border in Google Street View, on both sides, looking for holes in the wall.  Here is some of what I found.  Even better, try it yourself.  Open Google Maps, find a spot along the border, launch Street View, and look for a way to cross.  If you can find a hole, click on it, and see what happens.

brownsville gate rev

Border wall gate at Brownsville, Texas


muro minimal rev

21st century border wall as minimalist land art, looking at Arizona from Sonora



Hole in the border wall, Matamoros


mexicali stripes rev

View through the border wall, Mexicali


trampoline rev

Texas backyard: trampoline, border wall, nine eyes


brownsville fm 1419 rev

FM 1419, Texas


sections rev

Border wall gate, Arizona


basura matamoros rev

Forager in the shadows by a crack in the border wall at Matamoros, Gateway bridge span in the background


fin del mundo friendship park

DMZ of “Friendship Park,” San Diego Imperial Beach, looking at the border wall where it goes out into the Pacific


tecate perros espiritus rev

Spectral street dog in Tecate, “Pueblo Magico”


gate 212 az rev

Under construction, Arizona

parking wall nogales rev

Nogales, pedestrian crossing


lights camera action rev

Arc lights over the border zone, suburban San Diego


nogales long rev

Nogales, long view



Art museum with border wall, Texas


nogales crosses rev

Memorials to a few of those who didn’t make it alive


last stop boder patrol san luis az rev

Arizona DMZ, at the spot where this Border Patrol officer made the Google car turn around.



Sunday morning spelunking in the abandoned semiconductor fab


Not far from where I live, on a high point at the edge of town, hidden behind the woods along a generic frontage road, looms a gigantic ruin of a lost future. From the Ford Administration until the last gasp of the Long Boom, they made the brains of machines there, with acid and silicon.  The company that built the fab was old tech, guys with Florsheim shoes who made 1930s police cars and cabs into networked devices.  They had their own space program at the peak, launching private payloads to build a corporate orbital net twenty years before Bezos, Branson and Musk got in the game.   Capital moved on not long after, the company was broken into pieces, and most of the semiconductor business offshored.  The company no longer exists, but this remnant is still there, in the negative space of city.

The facility is likely get repurposed before too long, in line with a greener vision.   On a recent Sunday morning I had the opportunity to help document its current state—a million-square-foot concrete labyrinth finding its way back to wild.

From the outside, as you approach through the tall grass, it’s like stumbling upon a lost pyramid of the twentieth century, a sprawling complex of big box buildings and industrial infrastructure formerly occupied by white-smocked techno-monks, getting slowly overtaken by invasive foliage.  Through the door, on the upper levels, miles of abandoned cubicles, cavernous spaces for mass gatherings, conference rooms with enigmatic messages left on the whiteboards.  A piece of brutally awful corporate art still hangs on the stairwell up to the C-suite, a three-dimensional explosion of wood and acrylic designed to warn you off the den of corporate authority.  Past the trophy wall of MIMS chips is the old auditorium, littered with printed-out story problems from a logic test whose mass failure may have contributed to the demise of the facility.  Every drawer seems jammed with binders of bound manuals left behind, obsolete volumes of design documentation and safety procedures spilling out on the floor as if through some unexplained process of post-mortem seepage.  On one of the loading docks I found an old camcorder tape sitting next to a copy of Excel 98 for Mac for Dummies, perhaps containing a few minutes of footage that would reveal what really happened here, if only the playback device still existed.

Down inside the plant, where the light cannot reach, are the metal and concrete caverns of the old fab, looking every bit the marooned spaceship, seemingly endless rooms where you can’t really tell which side is ceiling and which side floor.  The warnings are still marked on the doors that lead to narrow anterooms lined with symmetrically arrayed chrome valves.  You need a respirator to enter, and a powerful flashlight, and a brief suspension of your sense of self-preservation.  When you shine your lamp you see a piece of paper taped to a column, an obsolete certificate from the Bureau of Radiation Control.

Back upstairs on the other side of the fab, on a chair in the abandoned library, there is an altered photograph.  A portrait, posed for a corporate ID badge, but smudged, and seemingly marked with pencil, like some naturally occurring Gerhardt Richter miniature.  But you are pretty sure the only curator of this site is entropy.

Below is an image of that photo, and other smartphone snaps from our excursion (click for larger versions).

(This place is also a secure site, and an unsafe one, so don’t get any goofy ideas.)


Corporate creek going back to wild.



Whiteboard cave painting in an abandoned conference room.



Command and control.



Inter-office escalator.



Bridge to the exhaust tower.



Server room.



A note from the Bureau of Radiation Control.



Employee cafeteria.



Clean room smocks.






Designated smoking area. “SQUIRRELS WILL BITE.”



Abandoned auditorium, after the last all-hands meeting.



Applied symbolic logic.



Feral skywalk.



Cubicles in the labyrinth.



Stairway to the acid pit.



Fab room floor, like an abandoned spaceship.



The number you are dialing has been disconnected.



Coded columns.



Wafers on a trophy wall.



Hold your breath.



Accidental abstract expressionist portrait, 3×5, in an abandoned corporate library.



Close up





The Senate Torture Report as Invisible Literature

When I posted on Facebook last month inviting my Austin friends to come out on a Sunday afternoon and hear me talk about the Senate Torture Report, my wife made fun of me for the singularly uninviting nature of the topic.  She was right.  We didn’t get much of a turn-out for the program that Joe Bratcher of Malvern Books bravely put together to observe International Day in Support of Victims of Torture—but we did get video, which the shop has now uploaded to YouTube.  Embedded above is my brief talk on the “Senate Intelligence Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program,” considered as both political document and literary text.  My talk followed the remarks of Celia VanDeGraaf of the Center for Survivors of Torture, which does amazing work right here in our community, and was followed by an improvised performance reading of excerpts of the report by Mathew Hodges & Taylor Jacob Pate.

I first read the Senate Torture Report as a PDF when it was originally released in December 2015, and then as a thick paperback from Melville House that I bought at Malvern, a shop that mainly sells poetry and small press literary. Maybe that’s why I read the report as government verse. Invisible literature of a corporatized state, a text that shares more with J.G. Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition than any documentary expose—549 pages of short numbered fragments composed in lawyerly cryptomes, powered by the narrative negative space of national security redactions, and by Talmudic annotation with 2,725 footnotes, each of which also works as a freestanding narrative fragment. An executive summary of an even-longer work we will likely never be permitted to see, the Torture Report is best read (or more easily endured) in fragments—bureaucratic cut-ups from the first-person point of view of a nation-state acting out its feelings in response to existential threats it cannot really understand.

Time and context did not really permit me to read directly from the report at the June event.  I posted a few excerpts on my Tumblr when the report was first released, but everyone really ought to do their own sampling, as a matter of citizen engagement.  Maybe you can even fill in the blanks.






Readercon 2016


I will be at Readercon this weekend—with a busy Friday since I have to leave early on Saturday.  Full schedule below—hope to see you there!

Friday July 08

11:00 AM    6    Cowboys of Space. Scott Andrews, Christopher Brown, Phenderson Clark, Molly Gloss (leader). Let’s discuss some of the ways in which SF and Fantasy perpetuate a cowboy mythology—a mythology of violent heroes, with a legacy of exploitation, vigilantism and brutality, imbued with fears, biases and insecurities about uppity women, swarthy foreigners, corrupt law enforcement, and government conspiracies. The true histories of cowboys in the American West are far more complex and colorful than many movies and paperback westerns would have us believe. How can we draw on real history to subvert and dismantle cowboy spaceman clichés?

4:00 PM    5    End of the World and After: from Mary Shelley to J.G. Ballard, Russell Hoban, and Beyond. Christopher Brown (leader), Elizabeth Hand, Jack Haringa, Faye Ringel, Henry Wessells, Gary K. Wolfe. Modern sf stories of the end of the world often mask romantic fantasies of abundance and dominion, usually to the benefit of one or a few privileged protagonists who survive the disaster—Brian Aldiss’s “cozy catastrophe.” Sometimes the vision is grounded in nihilistic misanthropy—like the scientist in Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, who initiates extraterrestrial first contact in an effort to lure aliens to exterminate what she considers an irredeemable human race. Other apocalypses, from early examples like Mary Shelley’s The Last Man to more recent work like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and even Mad Max Fury Road, explore even bleaker scenarios. Could a study of comparative apocalypses yield ideas for better utopias?

7:00 PM    A    Reading: Christopher Brown. Christopher Brown. Chris Brown reads from Tropic of Kansas, a novel forthcoming in 2017 from Harper Voyager.

8:00 PM    6    The Future of Government . Christopher Brown, Alex Jablokow, Paul Park (leader), Steven Popkes. We like to think that US democracy is the ultimate and best form of government, but it has its weaknesses as have all the types of government that came before and exist today. What forms of government are coming? What new technologies, economic ideas, or environmental changes might play important roles in these new types of governance? Was Marx ultimately right and we just haven’t gotten very far along his timeline yet? What forms of government have been proposed that haven’t existed in the real world?