Pluralistic: 20 Mar 2022

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The cover for Kathe Koja's 'Dark Factory.'

Kathe Koja's Dark Factory (permalink)

In "Dark Factory," Kathe Koja – an incredible, versatile writer who has pioneered multiple genres of fiction – presents an "immersive novel," about a high-stakes Bohemian party scene of mixed-reality artists, wealthy dilettantes, weird theorists and the very serious business of fun.

The titular Dark Factory is a hot mixed-reality club, where dancers, DJs, bartenders and artists combine music, neural interface signals, intoxicants and physical movement to create transformative, all-night parties without rival.

Though Dark Factory is raking in cash, it's also hemorrhaging it, thanks to a feckless owner; sinister financial backers, petty rivalries, and the restless, precarious tastes of the scenesters, which Dark Factory both leads and responds to.

The story revolves around two poles: first, there's Ari, a rock-star scenemaker and producer who is worshipped by art-school kids, importuned by would-be DJs and artists, envied by his rivals and resented by his boss.

Then there's Max, a preternaturally gifted theorist of immersive experiences, who can see and understand the way that scenes come together, nail down the instinctive genius of someone like Ari and explain why it works. Max's brilliance should guarantee him a place in the pantheon of the immersive scene, but he's so gnomic, driven and antisocial that he's a laughingstock to most, and a burden to the few who see his genius.

The novel sees Max and Ari (along with a massive cast of lovers, collaborators, wannabes, trustafarian hangers-on, driven artists, scrappy journalists, promoters, money-people, and scenesters) chasing a numinous, indefinable thrill, as eternal and gigantic as the galaxy. The drugs, neural interfaces, beats, sculpture and movement have captured and united them, even as they jostle and squabble amongst each other.

Koja has an incredible gift for writing about Bohemian scenes, about the urgency and drive it takes to devote your life to evoking emotions that can't be captured with mere narrative and reason. Her early existential horror novels – The Cipher, Bad Brains, Skin – were tales of blood and glamour, of willing self-immolation in service to art.

After a half-dozen absolutely remarkable YA novels, Koja returned to the vicious poetry of making art in difficult times. Christopher Wild, her fictionalized tale of Christopher Marlowe, is an historical novel of fearless queerness, ferocious love, and the blazing need to make art.

Then there's my favorite, Under the Poppy, a dieselpunkish, dreamlike novel of the last days of an erotic marionette show that plays on the stage of an interwar lowlands brothel that is about to be swept away by war:

With Dark Factory – as with every one of her novels – Koja breaks new ground. While her earlier books have primarily focused on the relationships between artists – audiences, investors and critics stayed in the background, Dark Factory captures the sense of a scene, fully populated and realized.

The people of Dark Factory drift (or race) from place to place, moving and working by night, in a world apart from the rest of us, a world that is flaring bright and urgent with a flame that can't burn forever. All scenes come with expiry dates.

Reading Dark Factory, I kept thinking of Emile De Antonio's savage and brilliant 1972 documentary Painters Painting, about the relationships of the abstract expressionists and pop artists to their patrons and critics and the gallery owners who claimed to have discovered them:

De Antonio's movie cuts between interviews with critics, patrons and galleristas talking about the important role they played in shaping these painters' careers, then to the painters, who dismiss these self-described kingmakers as meddlers who only ever got in the way and would have been beneath their contempt save for their vast fortunes.

And yet, even as this dynamic is playing out, De Antonio shows you the money people and the kingmakers again, and reveals how well they understood this secret contempt, and how the handsome profits they reaped from the artists more than paid for the indignity of their disdain.

This same relationship is beautifully played out in Koja's storytelling, where brilliant kids make the scene with their art and music, even though they couldn't actually afford to be there otherwise.

Sf is a genre that takes Bohemia seriously – takes seriously the business of finding your people and building a demimonde of different rules and conventions, where all social mores can be renegotiated around a whirl of parties and sex and altered states.

It's a staple of cyberpunk, of course. William Gibson's a master of it, and all of his scenes are zones of atemporal collage-aethetic, where the new and the old are put together – vintage samples layered on cutting-edge beats, say, or sculptures pieced together by the actuators of orbital AIs that juxtapose fragments from many ages and lands.

It's also a staple of urban fantasy, where, again, collage and atemporality are the order of the day. Think of Terry Windling's superb Borderlands shared universe, where technology, magic, and the counterculture fashions and music of faerie and every Earthly land mix together:

By contrast, Koja's Bohemia burns through an eternal now: no one acknowledges their elders, or talks wistfully of the scenes they were born too late to be a part of. There's no throwback music or fashion, not even a sense of tomorrow. Just the obsession with constructing and maintaining a consensus hallucination in which our reality disappears into something more carnal, more urgent, more atavistic.

Koja has conceived of this book as an "immersive novel." The storyline is interleaved with all manner of "bonus content" hinting at a potential sprawl of fanfic, ships, and fan media – material that might conjure the scene she imagined into the real world, or suck the real world into its pages. The book's site includes blog posts penned by its characters, videos and other mixed media.

Koja's books demand your attention. Her dense, poetic prose and deftly turned details require close reading. But Koja's books also reward your attention. Reading a Koja novel is always a profound experience: disorienting and inspiring by turns.

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Teenagers have assimilated 9-11 and given us a rich, bountiful harvest of insensitive slang to thrill to

#15yrsago FBI: terrorists might drive school-buses, but they probably won’t (but they might)

#15yrsago P2P is killing DVD piracy

#10yrsago Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day team up for Tabletop, a show about tabletop games

#10yrsago 3D-printed adapter bricks allow interconnection between ten kids’ construction toys

#10yrsago TSA searches body-casted three-year-old in a wheelchair

#5yrsago Bernie Sanders is (by far!) the most popular politician in America

#1yrago Announcing "The Shakedown": Rebecca Giblin and I wrote a book about creative worker exploitation!

#1yrago Chickenized reverse-centaurs

#1yrago Chevron bought the US justice system: It was cheaper than paying its $9.8b fine for ecocide

Colophon (permalink)

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  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

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