Scanning the Brain Box: Transverse and Axial Cross-Sections
by Richard Kadrey
A doctor told me about an incident in medical school where his teacher held up a model of a brain and said, "This is the human brain. We don't know shit about it." While that's a bit hyperbolic, you get the point. Compared to other organs of the body, we don't know much about the brain because the only time we can get really up close and personal with it is when its user is dead, and then the brain isn't doing anything very interesting.
On a related front, English Lit types at various unnamed west coast universities occasionally ask me to talk to their classes about what it is to be a science fiction writer, and could I please explain what cyberpunk is. I always refuse the latter, pointing both teacher and class to Bruce Sterling's introduction to the Mirrorshades Anthology and explaining that I have nothing to add. I do, however, talk about how I write. And for this I use the Brain Box.
The BB is a personal external manifestation of what that anatomy teacher wanted--a wide-screen, all color, all singing, 3D look inside a live person's skull. In this case, mine. It's really just a box of research of materials--books, magazines, catalogs-- but all of them are important to me. They represent a set of personal and professional obsessions, and as such are a pretty good indicator of my state of mind at any given moment. When I wrote my first book, Metrophage, the BB contained arcane medical texts, military hardware catalogs, anarchist tracts and collections of Buddhist Sutras.
As I've worked on my new novel, the Brain Box has pulled new texts and ideas into its orbit, like some chaotic attractor: the history of European exploration in the Amazon, psychoacoustics, South American Indian mythology, music and chaos theory. . .
What follows are a few highlights from the Brain Box, Release 2.0. These texts were not selected because they help me understand the world better, but because they confirm my belief that EVERYTHING is infinitely weirder than we give it credit for, all we have to do is see it properly. The Brain Box is my anti-manifesto-- a Surrealist Starter Kit. Just add your own obsessions and stir.
Have fun and remember the advice given by the trumpet Magus, Louie Armstrong : "You gotta forget about the wrong notes and the right notes and just play it the way it wants to be played. If I had a minute for every wrong note I've turned into a tune, I'd be around here until the great trumpet blows the last lick."
(For the sake of space, I'm not going to mention obvious stuff like New Scientist, RE/Search or Loompanics, since these are reviewed elsewhere.)
Technical and trade magazines are great for learning how different people and professionals view themselves and others. Virtually every profession has a trade journal; check with the general reference desk of your local library. Ask your friends. Look in the Encyclopedia of Associations. Be on your toes. Doctors offices and industrial shops are great places to steal magazines. Some of my favorites are Diagnostic Imaging, a radiological journal, and Cardio, for heart specialists. Check the ads and return the Reader Reply cards. You will be inundated with ads from companies that make the kind of hardware doctors, fabrication firms, nuclear power plants, etc., use everyday. One company sent me a sample of their new gamma ray shielding, which now adorns a wall of my office.
The Merck Manual
Sometimes known as the Hypochondriacs' Wish List. This is a standard medical item--a list of every medical condition, disease and syndrome currently understood. With symptoms and suggested treatments. Pick one up cheap at any used book store near a university.
(Stratagene Cloning Systems, 11099 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, CA 92037) Where do genetic research firms get DNA samples and the equipment to play with it? Right here. Tell them you're a doctor or researcher (don't be too specific) and write on letterhead.
Industrial Safety and Security Co.
(Prices change quickly; call or write for current catalog price: 1390 Neubrecht Rd., Lima, OH 45801; 800/537-9721) Respirators, biohazard warnings, toxic waste environment suits. . . all brought to you by a company run by born again-types who sell this stuff to buy bibles for the third world!
Covert Action Information Bulletin
($15/year [3 issues] from: Covert Action Information Bulletin, Box 50272, Washington, D.C. 20004) Intelligence community watchdog magazine put together by actual ex-spooks. You'll never read any of this in the mainstream press (at least, not until it's all over with).
Military Hardware Catalogs
Not easy to get. Use procedures outlined in the previous technical publications section. Letterhead is important, as is a title for yourself. And it's best if you can come up with some military contact. For instance, a software firm I worked for ALMOST did an online inventory system for the Navy. We didn't, but that was close enough. But don't be too specific in your request letter. I've received bomb shelter catalogs from the Swiss company that made Saddam Hussein's, body bag samples, as well as technical reports and safety catalogs for nuclear, biological and chemical warfare hardware. I never did get that fissionable materials catalog, though. . .
($18.95 [$21.95] postpaid from: Stoeger Publishing Co., 55 Ruta Court, S. Hackensack, NJ 07606; 800/631-0722) A layman's guide and catalog detailing just about every civilian firearm currently available. Updated annually.
The Condition of Postmodernity
(David Harvey, 1989; 378 pp.; $18.95 postpaid from: American International Distribution Corp., 64 Depot Rd, Colchester, VT 05446;800/445-6638) The best single introduction to post-modernism to date. David Harvey explains the ideas that define postmodernism in a straightforward and understandable way that the most famous postmodern thinkers seem unable or unwilling to pull off.
(edited by by Arthur & Marilouise Kroker, 1987; 275 pp.; $16.45 postpaid from: St. Martins Press/Attn.: Cash Sales, 4th Floor, 175 5th Avenue, NY, NY 10010; 800/221-7945) The body as Object. As commodity. As icon. Cut free from any social, religious or personal context, the human body exists in a kind of post-cultural limbo, another artifact of the consumer age, as valued and valueless as a Stealth bomber, a crack pipe or an Armani suit.
Semiotext(e) Foreign Agent Series
(Pure War by Sylvere Lotringer and Paul Virilio, Simulations by Jean Baudrillard, Looking Back on the End of the World edited by Dietmar Kamper and Christoph Wulf, $8 each from: Autonomedia, P.O. Box 568, Williamsburgh Station, Brooklyn, NY 11211-0568; 718/387-6471)
In Pure War, architect- cum- military theorist Paul Virilio expounds on the cultural impact of technology, which has resulted in our current obsession with speed.Speed is, Virilio believes, the logical end of modern technology, and the thing which destroys us. By removing long-standing concepts of time and space, placing the world at our doorstep, Virilio believes we cheapen all experience.
Simulations is the infamous book in which Baudrillard details our current and future obsession with hyperreality -- counterfeit versions of experience, time, life and goods. Not an easy work, but probably his most important.
The essays in Looking Back on the End of the World take for granted that the world as we know it is going to destroy itself. Not the physical world, but the world that was "never more than an image, a regulative idea, a normative concept for planning..." These eight essays look back at the end of our world from somewhere beyond the cultural apocalypse. This isn't as depressing and hopeless as it might first sound. The authors' outrage at institutional abuses of power and the replacement of images for human interaction is genuine and profound.
(Jean Baudrillard, 1988; 129 pp.; $15.70 postpaid from: Verso, Customer Service, 29 West 35th Street, NYC, NY 10001-2291; 212/244-3336) Reads like the great novel Ballard never wrote. America as the desert of the imagination, an empty landscape waiting to be filled by the fantasies and dreams of a still young nation and an adolescent culture. Baudrillard's prose gleams like a piece of surgical equipment, or the chrome headlight mounts on a new Jaguar.
(Ed Hardy, Editor; Issues 1 & 2 $12 [postpaid]; Issues 3 & 4 $17 [postpaid]; Issue 5 $20 [postpaid] from: RE/Search Publications,20 Romolo Street, Suite B, San Francisco, CA 94133; 415/362-1465) Ed Hardy is arguably the most famous tattooist in the world today. His Tattootime is billed as a magazine, but the issues are more like mini-encyclopedias of tattooing featuring excellent articles on the history of the art, plus dozens of amazing (and inspiring) photos of some of the best work by contemporary and historical tattoo artists.
(Shotsie Gorman, Editor; $15/year [2 issues; foreign $18.50] from, Tattoo Advocate, P.O. Box 8390, Haledon, NJ 07538-0390) Sort of the continuing house organ of the tattoo biz, and as such sometimes has the feel of a slick fanzine, with all the sloppiness and passion of the best zines. They sometimes break out a bit and throw in some fiction and interviews with tattoo enthusiasts like Kathy Acker. As with Tattootime, the photos are exceptional.
(Jim Ward, Editor; $40/year [4 issues] from: PFIQ, 8720 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., CA 90069; 213/657-6677)
(issues #2 - 4 $16.50; #5 - 11 $19.45; #12 - 13 $21.45 postpaid from: Last Gasp Distributors, P.O. Box 410067, San Francisco, CA 94141; 415/824-6636)
Tattooing is only one type of body modification. Two magazines, Britain's body art and the U.S.'s PFIQ, while featuring lots of beautiful tattoos, also cover other forms of body manipulations-- mostly piercing. The main differences between the piercing and tattoo scenes is that over the last decade tattooing has moved into a more above-ground, almost mainstream context, while the piercing arts, with their close ties to fetishism and the S&M world, remain more overtly sexual.
PFIQ (Piercing Fans International Quarterly) is devoted specifically to piercing, although many of their subjects also sport beautiful tattoos. body art takes a more general approach to body modification, covering tattoos, piercing, fetish clothing and make up. What makes these magazines compelling is that they prove that imagination is virtually the only limit to how you can redesign and enhance your body.
(by Fakir Musafar; $12 postpaid from: from: RE/Search Publications, 20 Romolo Street, Suite B, San Francisco, CA 94133; 415/362-1465) In Body Play, Fakir Musafar has documented 30 years of his personal experiments in body modification and manipulation using objects as banal as wooden clothes pins and sinisterly beautiful as the Indian "kavandi," a fan-shaped framework of sharpened rods that constantly pierce the skin. A personal photo catalog of obsessions.
Frighten the Horses
($16/year [4 issues] from, Heat Seeking Publishing, 41 Sutter Street, #1108, San Francisco, CA 94104) Mark Pritchard's excellent quarterly is subtitled "a document of the sexual revolution," and it easily lives up to that claim combining equal doses of intelligence and heat. FTH features well-written fiction and nonfiction (often addressing issues of censorship and activism) for men and women of all sexual preferences.
On Our Backs
($34.95/year [6 issues] from: 526 Castro Street, San Francisco, CA 94114) Subtitled "Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian," it's a direct reply to many dour anti-sex "womyn's" magazines. The editors are relentless in their pursuit of the politically incorrect -- ex-editor Susie Bright even used one of her columns to recount having and enjoying sex with a man in order to get pregnant. Excellent non fiction and art guaranteed to delight/piss off just about everyone.
The Sandmutopia Guardian
($24 [6 issues]; $6.95 sample issue, from: Desmodus, Inc., P.O. Box 410390, San Francisco, CA 94141; 415/252-1195) The Whole Earth Review of outre sex magazines. A hardcore S&M magazine with all the usual stuff you find in hardcore, and, as a bonus you also get carpentry lessons with little diagrams for building projects like they have in the back of Popular Mechanics. Only here you're building restraints and various torture implements.
Taste of Latex
($15/year [4 issues] from: P.O. Box 460122, San Francisco, CA 94146-0122) TOL is the mutant offspring of Bay area editor/lust maven, Lily Braindrop. Sprung from the same restless post-punk energy that's inspired a thousand lesser zines, TOL is dedicated to gender-bending, -slicing and -dicing, and plain gender-fucking. The graphics range from Michael Rosen's stunning "Sexual Portrait" photography, to politically incorrect drawings, to reader-provided shots of stunning drag queens. Taste of Latex is erotica with a rock & roll attitude.
($27 postpaid [CA residents add $1.75 tax]; illustrated brochure, $1; both from: Shaynew Press, P.O. Box 11719, San Francisco, CA 94101) Sympathetic photography and interviews with people who live outside of the sexual mainstream. Frank and revealing without being exploitive. Books like this are dangerous because they can make you reconsider your own life. . .
(Sexuality Library and Good Vibrations; catalogs $2 each from: 1210 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94110; 415/ 550-7399) Your one-stop sex info shop. Their new catalog features books, videos and magazines on virtually any aspect of sexuality that might interest you--female, male, children's and adolescents' sexuality, sex info for older people, erotic literature, humor, sexual politics and "sex for one."
For an extra $2, you can get the catalog from their sister enterprise--Good Vibrations-- featuring high quality sex toys. The catalog even has a whole section of safe sex paraphernalia and information.
Elsevier Science Publishing
(Forensic & Police Science catalog free from: Elsevier Science Publishing, Box 882, Madison Square Station, NY, NY 10159; 212/633-3650) A textbook publisher with an extensive law enforcement imprint. Their books aren't cheap, but they are the real thing, used by cops and detective candidates in school. A few of the best are Practical Homicide Investigation, The Counter-Terrorism Handbook, and Practical Fire & Arson Investigation.
CCS Communication Control, Inc.
(comprehensive catalog $50 from: CCS Communication Control, Inc., 9465 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212; 213/274-6256) Surveillance and counter- surveillance equipment catalog, essential for the Lifestyles of the Rich and Paranoid. If you're in the market for a terrorist-proof limo, tear gas pen, telephone voice scrambler, or night vision goggles, look no further.
(Fourth Dispatch; $9.95 [postpaid; $11.95 overseas] from: Amok, P.O. Box 861867, Terminal Annex, LA, CA 90086-1867; 213/665-0956) Question: Why would any sane person drop ten bucks on a book catalog? Answer: When the catalog is a mind-altering book all on its own.
The Amok catalog is required reading for all information-junkies, mutants, lunatics, and anybody else interested in experiencing worlds and thoughts you've probably never seen before (and in Amok, there is always something you haven't seen before).
There is an obsessive quality about this 351 page catalog, an almost puritanical drive to present every subject imaginable. The catalog is a kind of hymn to obsessiveness, covering every topic from forensic medicine to fundamentalist Christian rants to death camp revisionism to modern lit to experimental psychology to pop culture criticism to porn to military theory to cyberpunk to drugs to UFOs. . . and on and on.
A side-effect of reading the Amok catalog is that it could just make you reconsider the very nature of imagination, freedom and possibility. In a world where works like Facial Rejuvenative Surgery, the CIA entrance examination, An Album of Mayan Architecture, Girls Who Do Stag Movies, and the complete works of Nabokov and Flannery O'Connor can exist side by side, anything is possible.
(information from: Critique, Box 11368, Santa Rosa, CA 95406) A combination of Time magazine and the Whole Earth Review for Muslim fundamentalists.
The Black Box
Transcripts of actual black box recordings from crashing airliners. Currently out of print in the U.S., but disturbing enough that many copies went right to the used book stores.