Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Welcome to the Arms Race

Justin Isis Welcome to the Arms Race (2015)
Justin Isis is an enigma, at least from where I'm perched in Texas with the rest of creation perceived only through my little social media portal. I first encountered him when he sent me a friend request on facebook, apparently having read something I'd written - which is noteworthy because that sort of thing doesn't happen too often. He seemed to be either an Englishmen or an American living in Tokyo, and his interests combined with a slightly airbrushed looking facebook photo led me to assume he was probably some kind of idoru. Westerners fixated on the more lurid expressions of Japanese culture have historically irritated the living shit out of me, and yet Justin Isis seemed cut from a very different cloth to your average weeaboo.

I'm familiar with the term weeaboo because I'm down with the kids on the streets.

Actually, I'm not. I wasn't even down with the kids on the streets back when I was a kid on the street, or at least adjacent to it. I'm somehow in my fifties without quite knowing why, and new for the sake of new gives me a headache. I feel as though I'm stood on a beach, with all the proper culture safely behind on dry land. Before me is the ocean of all the shite that probably doesn't matter - Imagine Dragons, autotune, Japanese animation, Minecraft, YouTube commentators, drippy nostalgia, MST3K, cosplay, Doctor fucking Who, what a twenty-four year old thinks about almost anything, Pok√©mon Go, Chvrches, adult fans of My Little Pony, iPhone, eBook, anything else named by means of a self-conscious lower case vowel preceding an upper case consonant, and all other hopelessly passive distractions which have helped create the developmental vacuum in which evil fucking shitehawks like Breitbart, Infowars, and more or less all of our current political pantheon have been able to flourish; or, it's simply that I don't understand this stuff because it is of greater complexity than I have patience to decode for what I intuitively suspect may be very little reward. Either way, I know what I like - as the saying goes - and I find myself with an uncomfortable insight into those generations preceding my own whining that the bass is too loud, and I can't hear the words, and why don't you just put VH1 on or something, watch the Beatles or one of the classics - bit of Spandau Ballet, that'll do…

Justin Isis fascinates me because, stood on a possibly similar beach he gazes out and is able to understand what he's looking at and is able to deal with it, to reweave it into something of worth which carries what I feel to be the same weight as culture with which I'm more familiar. He is able to translate ephemeral culture in a meaningful way, and most crucially of all, he writes novels which aren't trying to be fucking films! In fact there's a couple of these which are probably unfilmable.

The lesser lights leaned backward on their own transmission-sculptures, indifferent to the performance fluids and ritual songs drifting down from the deep intervals. An and Non took broadcast armour from the lesser lights, rotating the transmission-sculptures into their own speech orbitals and adjusting their size, shape and cardinality to suit the local reign.

Welcome to the Arms Race comprises short stories, or short fiction, or possibly simply short pieces of writing, depending on which term works best. Most of these tales have a flavour as traditional as any Graham Greene you might care to mention yet without really resembling anything I've read before, utilising bold splashes of modernism and not even the faintest suggestion of mere technique being its own ostentatious virtue. Isis identifies as a Neo-Decadent writer, which is a thing you can look up, in addition to being author of the Second Manifesto of Neo-Decadence, in which it is written:

No precedence is given to the Decadent writers of the 19th century, their modes or milieu. Neo-Decadence is more likely to cross 1990s video game dialogue with the structure of a 16th century picaresque to discuss a drug deal in present day Mongolia. Fealty and earnestness can only hold back progress. We do not have saints, and we consume our idols.

...and while we're here:

Writing can be neither sincere nor authentic; these are the cliches of the ranks of the dead. Style is a mute scream in symbols - that's all.

In practical terms, Arms Race adds up to what all those William Gibson novels promised but never delivered, with the rich, texture of maybe Clark Ashton Smith and the firework display innovation of Michael Moorcock at his most outrageous - which is my scrabbling around trying to describe something I didn't expect would be able to exist in this century, more than it is necessarily indicative of perceptible influences or even sources. As literature it reminds me of vapourwave - another new fangled phenomenon I would not have encountered were it not for Justin Isis - the repurposed or even stolen blended into something new and bright and fizzy. Most of these stories concern themselves with fictions of one form or another, people who are written, without quite going the full Borges and directly addressing the reader, although the mood is similar - playful and pretty much fearless, not too worried about pushing any of your usual buttons, not even during the unrelenting narrative barrage of M-FUNK VS THA FUTUREGIONS OF INVERSE FUNKATIVITY, science-fiction in a universe where all of those Sun Ra albums were documentaries - the sort of thing which logically should have fallen flat on its arse as a bad joke, but which takes flight with such jerky grace as to beg the question of why no-one tried it before.

It will sound like hyperbole, but I don't really care: unless I missed something - which is admittedly not beyond the realms of possibility - this collection does what literature hasn't done in a long time, and what I'd forgotten it can do, and should do; and even with the cheeky steals, homages and general thievery, it does it in a way which feels absolutely new without any of the usual ooh ooh look at me, you won't have heard of this, but I have bollocks. I'm still not entirely convinced that Justin Isis isn't an idoru of some description, but maybe it doesn't matter.

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