Friday, June 28, 2013

The Sci-Fi Bike Commute: Part II

"When I bought my bike last August and committed myself to riding to work, I added the following spontaneous and bizarre stipulation: I would listen exclusively to science fiction audiobooks."

Phase 5: Okay, We're All Just Going to Have to Adjust to the Way I Smell at Work

The Book: Hard science fiction. I always assumed that by "hard" they meant that the science in the book was extra sciencey. Something beyond, "Use the force, Luke." I assumed it meant that a story in this sub-genre would contain detailed descriptions of technical or theoretical concepts extrapolated from the forefront of modern scientific thought. Which is fine. I'm game. But I didn't realize that the "hard" just meant hard. As in, you will have a hard time understanding this. Not the science, but everything else. The deliberate obfuscations, the ridiculous character names, the repeated references to alien cultures not yet introduced. Give reader John Lee a thick Russian accent, juggle three intricate narratives all at once, and you have one bike commuter who is barely hanging on. But I do hang on, not because I'm in love with the story, but because I know a good challenging text usually has a nice payoff. In the case of Revelation Space, I figure things out just in time to appreciate the climax. But fuck off if you think I'm rereading this to pick up all the pieces I dropped. A nice book, but I'm not diving into the next one just yet.

The Ride: The population of homeless people seems to triple when you move through the city on a bike. You see what's happening in the little corners, behind the trees, down in the hidden gulches. Bike paths often take you through less crowded spaces that can abut against actual nature. One morning I ride past a man and woman camping out behind a dense pinion scrub along a marina access road. She is getting dressed. I see her in all her glory, her big pale breasts and lady parts. I'm not peeping. I'm just riding along trying to figure out who the hell the Pattern Jugglers are, and then, Wham! I'm not going to get all self-righteous about cycling vs. driving, but I do know you don't get boobies on the 405. I love this about riding, the discovery of new subcultures, like these campers living off the grid. You feel like you're focusing in. Starting to appreciate the layers of complexity. Not discovering new worlds, but seeing the ones that have been there all along.

The Confluence: The honeymoon is over. There's a natural recalibration. Enthusiasm for my sci-fi audiobook requirement wanes, along with my enthusiasm for pedaling to work in the dark and pedaling home into a headwind that seems to get gnarlier by the day. I break a spoke, which warps my wheel, which messes up my brakes. Trying to make sense of Revelation Space is registering as real world stress. I push my bike through the door at work and I feel the crush of responsibility. And I'm dripping wet and I stink, and running my hair under a faucet and slathering on some Old Spice isn't fooling anyone. I'm uncomfortable and self-conscious. And this new job, the real impetus for the biking project, is starting to unexpectedly suck ass. I'm overwhelmed. I need a book the drives itself, not one that I have to pedal.

Phase 6: Pigeons, I Swear to God. I Will Run You the Fuck Over!

The book: I'm looking at the cover art and reading the title and I'm just not thinking science fiction. And after Revelation Space I'm craving something light and breezy. Am I headed instead for something dense and Catholic and austere? I'm I stumbling towards an early round TKO? Will it be back to Adam Carolla, Bill Simmons, and Howard Stern? Back to the Toyota? I don't know. I'm going all in with A Canticle for Leibowitz. Catholics in Space. Whatever. I just know it's highly regarded, a classic among classics to restore faith in my project. Amen. And...I love this book. I realize I love any book with a Devil character. He really is the ultimate antagonist. I'm also a fan of the Alyosha archetype, the simple honest aesthete who cannot understand the motivations of evil people because he cannot comprehend what evil even is. Throw these two guys in the ring together and you get some brilliant debate. The book is also surprisingly funny as it mocks the pettiness that not even nuclear annihilation can stamp out of us.

The Ride: Much of the difference between riding a bike and driving a car is the speed at which the world passes beneath you. And in general I'd say it's good to slow down, even to walking speed if you have the time, if you really want to see everything. Unless we're talking about road kill. Road kill is best observed at supersonic speeds. Driving past a squashed raccoon is grim enough, but cycling past one that's still warm is a genuine horror. I've seen pigeons, seagulls, ravens, bunnies, ducks, possums, and raccoons. Some pancaked flat, some with their insides sprayed out their own mouths. You can't just look away on a bike the way you can in a car. It takes too long to move past the scene. You see entrails and eyeballs and pools of dark blood. Even the next day when the corpse is gone, either scavenged by animals or picked up by someone very very low on the municipal employee ladder, there's still that stain. That stain never goes away. I know exactly where each one is on the route. I anticipate the discoloration on the concrete, to rekindle the image in my mind. Worst of all are my own close calls with pigeons and bunnies, and the inevitability they suggest. Some day I will run something over. And it's not going to die quickly or painlessly. And I'll probably go ass over elbow myself in the process. I picture myself with two skinned knees and a bloody ear crawling over to some terminally wounded mallard and wringing its neck while its mate panic-quacks nearby. And then I have to throw the corpse into the river and show up at work and have people tell me I look like shit.

The Confluence: Nuclear Panic. Cold War paranoia. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a story of its time. Not exactly a cautionary tale, but a tale that says get ready because it's going to happen, and it might even have happened before. And here I am right next to major ports and airports. We live in a dangerous world that may be on the brink of some bad things happening. Riding my bike along the beach I am close enough to the city's infrastructure, but I'm also out in the open, with a long wide stretch of sand, a vast ocean, and a near-complete hemisphere of sky above. I can't tell if I'm free or not, implicated or not, separate-from, or connected-to. So much for getting a little exercise to clear your head.

Phase 7: I've Been Wearing My Helmet Backwards This Whole Time

The Book: Another scaled-down sci-fi tale. No epic struggles for the fate of mankind or big-picture perspectives. Really just a straight-forward Blade Runner-style detective noire, set in a world where consciousness can be uploaded and downloaded and bodies are just "sleeves". Good book, but problematic for the audio narration. The main character is a laid-back, done-it-all, seen-it-all, badass. He's cold-blooded and emotionally detached. And because the story's told in the first person, the reader has to mimic this stoic delivery. It makes for some dry narration. This is the first time I've really felt the audio version might have let the source material down. And here's another stray observation: this is the second sci-fi book I've "read" as part of this project that deals with the future of incarceration. Apparently, if you kill a bunch of people in the future you get put in biological stasis for a really long time. But you're asleep and you don't age. Then they wake you up and set you free. This not only sounds way better than our current model, where we lock you up and steal the hours of your life, it actually sounds like a cool form of time travel.

The Ride:  There are a lot of people in this city who fish for their meals. They fish from piers, from the beach, and from one particular pedestrian bridge that's along my route. This bridge spans an urban river whose journey from the rim of the basin to the ocean takes it through a comprehensive gauntlet of awfulness. It's primary source is the snowfall that drifts down through a haze of smog. The snow melt then travels the slopes of perpetually burned out and eroding foothills, through rock quarries, landfills, and industrial manufacturing non-residential zones. Then it passes a handful of freeways, weaves its way through some dense clusters of public housing and transportation/shipping hubs, to finally emerge in a "protected" wetland. The water flow is managed by the city, and when they let it drop you can see the grim sludge cake the boulders along its banks. When it rains and the water level rises, the ever present Cheetos bags bob on the surface like the salmon used to. And people pull fish out of this water and feed their families. They drink beer while they're doing this, and smoke cigars. They sit on buckets and eat sandwiches. They laugh a lot, men and women and sometimes their kids. I don't know what to make of it. I don't know if it's a beautiful thing or a disgusting thing. I don't know. I just know it doesn't matter what I think.

The Confluence: Most of the time, finding the intersection of the sci-fi audiobook experience and the bike commute experience requires me to get a little up in my head. It takes some amateur philosophizing (for which I apologize). But I insist on documenting this confluence because the sensations and observations are sincere, even if there is no literal connection. I'm not listening to books about Lance Armstrong, urban development, or Kitty Hawk. I'm listening to books about spaceships, transferable consciousness, alien civilizations, and overly willful A.I.'s. Any connection I make between the world-of-the-future in my headphones and my wheeled analogue transport frame must, by nature, be figurative. Right? Right? I mean, it's not like I'm going to stumble into the Matrix, or get swallowed by a wormhole, or look up at the sky and...see overhead. Wait, what is that? I'm not even kidding. Flashing in and out of the clouds. IT'S AN ACTUAL FUCKING SPACESHIP! Like an earthquake during an earthquake drill. The Space Shuttle Discovery strapped to the back of plane, circling the city at low elevation. The confluence is real.

Click here to read Part III

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